Jay Simmons

Reflection on Evil

In the aftermath of Billy Graham’s death recently, I ran across a TED talk he gave back in 1998 in which he challenged the tech-savvy audience to come up with a reason for human evil in the world.  “Where does it come from?” He asked. “How do we solve it?…I’d like to see Oracle (referring to the technology company of late 90’s fame) or some other technological genius work in this. How do we change man?”  I’ve been thinking about that a lot in these days full of bombs here in Austin. We are one of the most tech-savvy, ingenious cities in the world, but we have found ourselves in the midst of the evil feeling completely incapable of doing anything about it. And that has left us feeling anxious and afraid.  Out of our control evil violates us and makes us feel profoundly vulnerable in a world we like to think we can manage.

Thankfully, albeit tragically, it seems as of this morning that the specific perpetrator of this evil rampage has been stopped with death at his own hand.  If you were like me, you probably let out a big sigh of relief when you heard the news. No more poking my packages with the end of a broomstick. Sanity restored in the Capital of technology.  Whew.

But in reflecting on my own heart throughout these days, I wanted to pass along a few thoughts, especially in light of the Holy Week ahead of us.

  1. God is not the author of evil.  When life is out of our control, it’s very easy to throw a God who claims to be in control under the bus.  While there is - as Billy Graham pointed out - much mystery in evil and why God would allow it, we do know that his face is against evildoers (Ps 34:16) and that central to his mission in this world is to eradicate evil once and for all.  As Tim Keller said after 9/11: "How can you trust God after an event like this? The Christian answer to issues of suffering and tragedy always has to do with the Cross. Imagine you are an admirer and companion of Jesus Christ during his ministry. He is such a powerful worker of miracles that disease and hunger are almost banished from the countryside when he is present. He is such a powerful teacher and spiritual guide that thousands of people hear him gladly and get hope. Then suddenly this man who is the one to help the whole country is cruelly, unjustly cut off in the very midst of his life--at only age 33.  What if you stood at the foot of the cross in front of this apparently senseless act of violence and tragic waste of life, and you said, "I can never, ever trust God again after an event like this!" And what if you went home and completely renounced all belief in God saying, "This proves that God is either a monster or indifferent or he doesn't exist"?  If you did that, you would have been missing the greatest act of God's love and redemption in history.”     

  2. God is not rejoicing in the death of the perpetrator.   Yes, it is absolutely right to be grateful that the evil at his hand is over and that justice seems to have been served, but he is also made in the image of God and therefore has inherent, created dignity.  At the heart of God’s mission to eradicate evil is the depth of his grief over it.  So much so that he would send his son to die a violent death for the thieves on the cross next to him.  God hates sin and death. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be and not the way it will be when Christ returns.  In the meantime, we need to respond with righteous grief to this situation. A friend of mine just texted me as I am writing this.  His response is right on: "Glad they got him, sad he blew himself up. What a mad world.”

  3. Be careful where you find your security.  It’s not wrong to be a technology wiz or marvel in the glories of our city’s ingenuity and progress.  Those are very good things. But it is misguided and dangerous to find our ultimate security in any human achievement or security systems.  This week has reminded us that our only true security lies in the God who rose from the grave on Easter. There he shows us that he is ultimately the only one really in control and the only one we can ultimately trust.  Billy Graham’s point to the TED audience was simple. You think you’ve got the cat by the tail, but you don’t. Your achievements are wonderful, but they won’t save you. You need Jesus and his death and resurrection.

So as the Gospel-formed family we are, please join me during the last weeks of this Lenten season in prayer.  While we are grateful that justice seems to have been served here, the effects of the evil will linger on. For the victims and their families, it will never be forgotten.  Please pray for them. Please pray for our city. For its healing and wisdom in the midst of this senseless suffering. Give thanks for the good men and women who helped bring justice.  Please pray for faith for all of us who struggle with doubt and cynicism over God’s goodness in the face of suffering and evil like this. Pray that the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter will give assurance of his power and steadfast love and his mission to eradicate this evil.  And finally please pray for your own heart as I will for mine. That it will find security in Christ’s finished work much more than the man-made security systems of our own good but broken ingenuity.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Jay

Election Reflection

This morning brought a new chapter into our American political life. For some of you it seems a wonderful moment and opportunity for our country. For others it seems like the beginning of the end. For some, it’s just really confusing. For others, scary. For still others…not worth your time. Regardless of whether the outcome was what you wanted, this election has exposed deep mistrust and cynicism in our country. It has threatened many of our idols which has resulted in vast divisiveness. It has exposed our self-righteousness and our pride –  our racism, bigotry, greed and materialism.

Brothers and sisters, now is the time this country needs the church. It needs us. First, we need to pray.  Pray for our new President and his choices for a new cabinet to come.  We need to pray for all our elected officials from top to bottom – may God use them to be agents of goodness in this city, state, country and world. In addition, he has called us – the church – to be the moral voice and example in our homes, our workplaces, and in the public square. Never once did we have the opportunity to abdicate that responsibility to anyone else, including our elected officials. As Russell Moore wrote late last night, “We should be ready to pray and preach, to promote the common good and to resist injustice.”  We are to be agents of redemptive truth and love. Armed as we are with the Gospel of Reconciliation, we have an opportunity now to show uncommon love, grace and humility that God will use to heal and redeem. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that Christ came to break the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Greek. That goes for Democrats and Republicans, blue collar and white collar, rich and poor, old and young, African American, Caucasian, Latino, and Asian too. Our instinct is to either boast or to blame. There is no room for either of those in the shadow of our Savior’s cross or in the glory of His empty tomb.

So together, as this little “Gospel-formed family for the city”, let’s seize this opportunity to be a redemptive people. There is another opportunity this Saturday to feed the homeless with Mobile Loaves and Fishes. You’ll be home in time for the 2nd half. Men, there is an opportunity that same morning to gather at our home to make new friends and to hear the Gospel again as it spurs us on to lead our friendships, families, workplaces, and the church with love and good, redemptive deeds. Ladies, on Tuesday night there is another opportunity to gather in fellowship at Vino Vino – a time to care for one another and some much needed laughter. Third through Fifth graders, Saturday afternoon there is another chance to dive into the amazing book, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at our Raisins Reading Club to learn about how Jesus gives us every reason to hope in Him. There are opportunities, brothers and sisters, to come clean with our addictions. To support foster care families. To pray for and with college students. To volunteer at Young Life. To gather in our Parish Groups for Bible Study and prayer. To love our kids. To love our neighbors. To repent. To give. To cherish.  And yes, to worship the God of resurrection and redemption “who was and is and is to come”!

Last night a group of us gathered for prayer – not to pray for a specific outcome for the election, but instead to commit ourselves and our church family to the will of God for us during this chaotic time. We were reminded of Psalm 33, and so I share its final verses with the rest of you as well. May God continue to use us as agents of his very good redemption in the city we love. Now is the time.

Psalm 33:18-22

18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Much love to you all, in Christ,

Pastor Jay

Denominational Racism, Repentance, and Reconciliation

My family has deep roots in East Texas.  Kilgore to be exact — home of the Rangerettes and oil derricks.  I have so many fond memories of visiting my grandparents there and hearing about the good old days when the oil flowed like crazy.  But, one of my starkest Kilgore memories was a more painful one.  You see, my grandparents were racists.  Oh, not self-proclaimed to be sure, and if asked, they would have denied it.  But, I do remember my grandma dropping the “N” word a time or two, and I definitely remember the tension when the black guy moved into her spare bedroom.

My grandfather had died, and grandma needed a little extra income.  So, she put up an ad at the local junior college to rent out her spare bedroom.  She had one applicant — a black 6’ 7” power forward for the Kilgore Rangers basketball team.  Reluctantly, she took him in.

That summer we happened to visit grandma at the same time the mini-series called “Roots” came on TV (yes, this was pre-cable TV!), which told the violent and terrible true story of our American heritage of slavery.  All of us – new black roommate included – watched it in complete, awkward silence.  We didn’t talk about the elephant in the room then, and I don’t remember it ever being discussed afterwards either.  It was better to just go on like it wasn’t relevant to us.  Like that was ancient history.  Like the injustice of slavery and deep racism wasn’t our problem and didn’t touch our own hearts.

For decades now, our denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) has been equally silent, despite the fact that we are,as a denomination, deeply implicated in the sins of racism in this country.   Both by sins of “omission” and “commission,” we have both contributed to the problem with our own blatant racist words and actions as well as silently standing on the redemptive sidelines as if it weren’t our problem.  That is, until now.

Last week, our denomination voted overwhelmingly to finally speak up.  To finally own our sin.  To finally repent.  HERE is the exact overture that was adopted.  

As Dan Allendar says, “The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.” This is a giant leap in that direction.  May the Lord use this first step to break down the “walls of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and begin realizing his reconciling mission to unite all God people in Christ.

Particularization and Leadership

Several times during this first year together I’ve mentioned that our church plant is hoping to become “particularized” in the near future.  What this means is that we become a fully independent congregation in our denomination (fully separate from our “mother church” – All Saints Presbyterian – out in southwest Austin).  In order to do this, we need two things:  1. Our own trained officers (elders, deacons and deaconess’) and, 2. to be fully self supported financially (not dependent upon outside sources of income to pay our bills).

We need these trained officers to help with the day to day operation of the church, but mostly to come alongside our staff to help care for the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of our church family and the people whom we are called to serve in Austin. The Lord has blessed us with so many new, wonderful people in this first year and so we were hoping to have these officers in place as soon as possible so no one “falls through the cracks”.  But obviously, taking on the responsibilities of these offices is no small matter and needs to be done very carefully.  And so we find ourselves at this unique time in the life of our new church between the tension of pressing congregational needs and the need to move with slow wisdom and prudence in discerning the Lord’s calling on those who will stand for these offices.

And so we’ve decided to form a temporary “vestry” to address this tension.  In short, we have invited the nominated candidates to our offices to begin doing the work of elder, deacon and deaconess in an unofficial capacity for a 7-month trial period prior to particularization next spring.  This will not only address the need for better care of our church family and better service to Austin, but it will also provide an “on the ground” time of additional training and discernment to see whether each of these candidates is really called to the offices they’ve been asked to consider.  This “vestry” will commence in August and run through March with the hopes of particularization in April of 2017. With regards to the financial piece of the particularization puzzle, we still need increased giving in order to be fully self-supporting, so please prayerfully consider regularly giving to the mission of our church family.

If you have any additional questions about the vestry and/or the budget, please don’t hesitate to ask.  We are excited for what the Lord has done and looking forward with great anticipation of our life together as we live more fully into our vision to be “a Gospel-formed family for the city.”

Pastor Jay