First Impressions

I really didn’t know much about art.

Growing up it wasn’t part of our household, that is until my French teacher, Ms. Stein introduced me to the impressionists.  Something about that style of art really spoke to me.  The colors, the stroke patterns, the movement in the painting that made it seem to come alive.  My favorite by far was Monet.  I am always in awe of things that are clever with multiple dimensions and in every painting he did, you could almost see the people moving through the city or feel the steam of the train in the station or watch the ripples in the water.  But what really got me – what impressed me the most – was the way he constructed each picture.  Each brush stroke was carefully and meticulously placed, one after another.  Up close, the colors sort of melded together and you’d have greens and pinks and blues all mixed in so tightly that it didn’t look like much of anything. 

The image from a greater distance – one of Monet’s famous haystacks

But when you pulled away from the painting, each element became more and more clear.  The people, the city, the water, the sun…all of it was brought together into one beautiful image.  And as Ms. Stein was telling me about Monet, I could picture him sitting in front of a canvas delicately and intricately placing each brush stroke, each one having a purpose in creating this larger picture.  She told me that was the gift of the impressionists and particularly Monet. They were able to keep in mind the finished product while concentrating on each detailed stroke of the brush so that it turned out exactly the way they wanted it.  To me, that is downright miraculous and so when I look at a Monet, I imagine this is what it must be like for God when he looks at our lives – a symphony of color that individually night seem out of place or without meaning, but when you look at the whole picture becomes alive and beautiful.   If you have a Bible, would you please turn to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, beginning with verse 14.  If you have a Bible app on your cell phone, feel free to pull it out and go that same place: Mark 9:14.  In a minute we’ll be reading from this passage.

For us, I think we’re too close to the canvas to see the whole picture.

We are not the artist and so for us, sometimes life doesn’t make sense.  We see glimpses… streaks… instead of the whole thing.  And at times that can make it difficult for us to have the kind of faith that the writer in Hebrews 11:1 referred to when he wrote about a “faith in what we hope for and certainty in what we cannot see.”  There are times we cannot see the forest for the trees.  And especially in difficult, troubling, or trying times in our lives it can make us feel distant from God.  Most of us have felt that at one point in our lives or another.  It’s like being at a party or going out with friends, and still feeling like the loneliest person in the world.  You’re so isolated that you begin to wonder where God is in all of this.  It’s those times, and those times especially when we need to turn toward God. 

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

19 “O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” 20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 ” ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:14-24

It is hard to put our faith in things unseen.

We have a hard enough time trusting in the things that we CAN see let alone in those things we cannot.  And our culture reinforces our sense of distrust.  So having faith is at times hard, especially when it comes to the health and well-being of loved ones.  This dad in our reading is a great example of that.  We’ve probably all had moments of doubt like he had.  He wasn’t completely without faith.  He had enough faith to bring his son this far, but he has doubts, too.  He wonders if Jesus can really do this thing.  He has a seed of doubt that tingles in his mind.  “…[I]f you can do anything…” he says.  And I imagine Jesus gives him both a penetrating and a loving look at the same time.  He looks at him and says, “IF you can? …Everything is possible for him who believes.”  And instead of denying his feelings, instead of trying to convince Jesus that he really does believe, he does what we all should do in times of doubt.  He turns to Jesus and he admits, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  I do believe.  BUT help me overcome my unbelief. 

I have struggled with this in my own life.

I am not afraid to admit it.  We are human after all and we have been trained so well in the ways of the world that we believe we can do anything!  But as it says in Phillipians 4:13, “I can do all this through HIM who gives me strength.  It is through the grace of God that we are able to achieve anything.  Whether by divine intervention or by the gracing of our gifts or by the support of family and friends, it is because of God that all things are possible.  I take that with me wherever I go and it helps me to have faith when it seems like every road is blocked and I have not been disappointed.  I may not always understand at first where the road is going, but I have faith that God can see the bigger picture, even when I can only see the brush strokes.  For me, that describes my journey in ministry.  Every time I felt a bump in the road, it was God who led me out of it.  Even in the difficult parts, I look back and feel that God not only helped me through it but nurtured me to grow and learn in ways I never thought possible. 

Candler School of Theology as it is today – they constructed new buildings AFTER I graduated

Once I heard my call, I immediately began having doubts.

Was this the right move?  Did I really hear God correctly?  Because in order for me to pursue this calling, I’d have to give up my career in marketing – and I was making good money.  It also meant going back to school. And the only approved Methodist seminary near us was at Emory University. I had been out of school for nearly a decade and wondered if I could even get in.  There were other schools around the country, but with Cassie being the only one employed while I was in school, I couldn’t ask my family to move. So I applied to this one school and prayed, “Okay, God. If this is REALLY the path you put me on, I’ll get accepted.”  And I did.  I was so happy!  That lasted for about one week when I received the letter telling me how much it would cost.  Cassie told me not to worry and that somehow we would find the money, but I didn’t want my family to suffer or struggle for something I was still trying to work out so again, I prayed to God.  I didn’t tell Cassie this, but I told God that this was my path and I didn’t want them to struggle because of it.  If this was really what he wanted me to do, somehow I’d get a scholarship.  And again, I did.  Not only did I get a scholarship, but I ended up with a full ride plus money for books. When I got the scholarship letter, I looked up to God and said, “I guess this is a ‘yes’.”

The churches I’ve served before EVUMC – (L to R) UJCC, Little River Charge, Roswell UMC, Palm UMC, Berkeley Methodist United Church

My whole journey in ministry has been that way.

From the time I served three wonderful rural churches in Georgia to today with all of you at EVUMC, my whole journey has been one of God’s continuing grace and revelation.  Every time I ran into bumps or obstacles, doubts or concerns, EVENTUALLY I would surrender my pride and go to God in prayer.  I’d place my faith in him.  And when I did, my prayers were answered although almost never in the way I thought it would.  It was always better.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His vision is much bigger than ours.  And I’m sure that is the case with us going on this journey together.  Because I know God brought us here in this place and in this time for a reason.  I don’t know what that reason is like I didn’t know why God brought me to any of the other churches when it happened.  But I have faith that God’s vision is far better than my own.  I can say one thing.  I am grateful for this opportunity.  I am grateful to God for being here with all of you.  I hope you will allow me to journey with you, to get to know you, and to find out more about God through you.  I think God will take us on an amazing journey together.

God works in our lives in different ways.

And it’s not always obvious to us how our struggles, our pains, and our triumphs enter into this greater tapestry. But even when we can’t fathom how these things fit into the world, we can trust that God does.  So when we have questions and when we have doubts, I urge you to turn to God and ask him to help you in your unbelief.  There is no sin in admitting that there are things we don’t understand.  There is no sin in hoping for more faith, to trust more fully in our Lord.  I urge you to move toward that place where you are able to proclaim as the psalmist did, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.” May we all continually move toward Christian perfection, knowing that we have a God who loves us more completely than we can ever know.  And even if we can only see the brushstrokes of our lives, we can trust that God has the vision to see the whole painting. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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