Still Small Voice

My mom once said I had the best hearing in the world.

What she actually said was I had the best “selective” hearing in the world.  If my parents were talking about something that interested me –movies, going out to dinner, Disneyland – I could hear them from behind the closed door of my room while they were on the other side of the house.  Their voices came through as clear as day and I’d come bounding out of my room all ready to go.  But when my mom asked me to come and help clean the table or take out the trash or vacuum the living room, amazingly, even though the discussion was much louder, I couldn’t hear that AT ALL.  She might even say it two or three times and I would be totally oblivious to it.  Has that ever happened to you?  Or maybe with your kids?  It’s pretty astounding what we can and can’t pick up with our ears.  I was reading an article by Seth Horowitz from the New York Times about the difference between hearing and listening and it was pretty fascinating.[1]  Did you know that we can “hear” at least 10 times faster than we can “see?”  Our ears pick up and respond to things much faster than even our eyes.  And it’s because our hearing is one of the alarm systems for the body.  It’s designed to pick up a vast volume of surrounding sounds and over the years, our brains become trained which sounds are important to pick up on and which ones are not.  So we can actually “hear” much more than we realize.  Horowitz pointed out though there is a vast difference between “hearing” and “listening.”  We “hear” a LOT, but we pay attention to comparatively very little. Again, we train ourselves to hear what we think is important and what is not.  He said, “listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second.”[2]  It’s up to us to train our ears to listen to the things that are important.

Copy of still small voice

Too often we “hear” what we want and tune out what we don’t.

Think about our political climate today.  It’s astounding how people can completely ignore little things like facts and instead focus on fiction.  And how both sides of an argument would agree with that statement.  We truly do live in an era of “alternative facts.” If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone please go to Matthew 13 beginning with verse 10.  Matthew 13:10. It might seem worse today given our hyperaware social media cycle, but this kind of closed-minded thinking is not new. Jesus had the same thing happen to him.  Now right before this passage we are about to read, Jesus shares with the crowd some parables.  Matthew writes that such a large crowd gathered while Jesus was by the lake he actually had to go out in a boat so people could hear him.  Jesus tells the parable of the sower where he talks about how sharing the Gospel is like spreading seeds on the ground and how those seeds can fall into different types of soil.  At the end of this parable he closes with the phrase, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”  Of course, Jesus means something much deeper than the literal meaning of this phrase.  If you’ll please rise and join me for the reading of the Gospel of Matthew, we’ll be sharing from Matthew 13:10-17.  Matthew 13:10-17.  Hear now the Word of God.

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

Do you have ears to hear? 

Jesus points to the crowds, to the thousands of people who followed him just to listen to his teaching, and said even these people did not have “ears to hear.”  He told the disciples even prophets and righteous people, people we would normally associate with people who “get it,” even THESE people could not understand what Jesus was saying. It wasn’t simply a matter of following Jesus that opens up our mind to God’s Word or all of these thousands of people would have understood.  It had to be more than that.  We not only had to hear, but to truly listen.  We had to be fully present and to be willing to listen to what Jesus was saying to understand God’s work in our lives.

01 listening
From the comic strip Zits

Perhaps a better interpretation of Jesus’ words would be “Whoever has ears to listen, let them listen.” 

Because there is a big difference between hearing and listening.  Hearing is simply an auditory ability.  Listening is active engagement.  You can hear without ever listening.  Isn’t that true?  Most of us can probably remember at least one moment where we felt “unheard.”  Sometimes we do it to the people we even love the most. Just ask Cassie. I have to admit there are times I’m “hearing” her, but my mind is drifting somewhere else and I’m not really listening like I should.  I don’t mean to, but my mind is distracted with something else and I’m not focusing on what she has to say. If Cassie asked me to take out the trash…that might not register.  If Cassie asked me if I’d like to go to Disneyland, I’d remember that forever.  We listen to what is important to us, but not always what is important.   And that’s what Jesus is referring to in this passage.  Even among all the people gathered, many of them heard Jesus’ words but lacked understanding.  Not that Jesus was trying to trick them, but he was trying to convey deep truths that only those with an open heart for God could understand.  Often what Jesus was teaching was radically different than what the priests and the church leaders were teaching and on some gut level this appealed to the crowds.  But to fully understand what Christ was sharing meant we had to be actively listening, to process what Jesus was saying, and to take a step back to understand it.  When Christ says, “Whoever has will be given more…” he isn’t referring to material possessions but instead to understanding, truth, and peace.  It might be better to read it as “Whoever has ears to hear” or “Whoever has an open heart for God will be given more wisdom, peace, and understanding. Whoever does not have an open heart, even what peace and knowledge they do have will be taken from them.”

Copy of still small voice(2)

The art of listening is truly a gift from God. 

And it’s a gift that is available to us all.  What it takes is a still mind, an active presence, and a willingness to hold back from responding immediately.  Stephen Covey, the famous author, once wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  This is true not just with one another but with God.  How often is it that our prayers are filled with requests or pleas to God about what WE want and what WE need?  And how much of our prayer time is filled with us listening instead?  We spend so much time talking AT God and so little time actually listening TO God.  You might think, “Yeah, but God never talks back to me anyway.”  But I wonder if that’s really true or if we haven’t developed ears to hear or maybe we haven’t given God a chance to speak.  Now, I’m not saying God will respond the way you and I respond to each other, but haven’t you at times heard that still small voice in your head?  Haven’t you ever felt nudged to do something or say something and wonder where that came from?  When that still small voice gives us instruction that is aligned with God’s will how can we say that isn’t God?  And God can speak to us through his Word.  Have you ever been reading the Bible and found that even though you read the same passage three times already, you suddenly came away with a different understanding?  Couldn’t that be God?  And when you needed a word of encouragement or comfort and suddenly a friend calls up out of nowhere couldn’t that be God?  Perhaps it’s just that we haven’t developed ears to hear.  This week, practice the art of listening. Spend time in quiet prayer.  Start your prayers by simply being open to God’s presence instead of going down your laundry list of wants and needs.  Pray for God’s leading in your life.  And then take those listening skills out into the world and really listen to one another.  Imagine what might happen if we had the intent to really understand one another, even and maybe especially people who don’t think like we do.  Maybe we could better understand how to talk WITH one another instead of AT one another.  And maybe the world would be a place where we work together despite our differences to make things better.  Don’t listen with the intent to reply, listen with the intent to understand.  Someone once said, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.”  Perhaps we should listen twice as hard as we like to speak.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/why-listening-is-so-much-more-than-hearing.html?_r=0  Seth S Horowitz, “The Science and Art of Listening,” Nov 9, 2012, The New York Times.

[2] Ibid.

No Room

Scotty didn’t get enough credit.

There would be no Captain Kirk or Mister Spock or Bones if not for the man we know as “the miracle worker” – Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott.  One of the few “red shirts” who never died.  If you were ever a fan of the original Star Trek, you know Scotty saved the ship over and over again despite the seemingly near impossible tasks he seemed to be given.  “I cannot change the laws of physics,” he once said.  But then he did.  Even though he would protest or say why he couldn’t do it, he always found a way. It remained a mystery how he was able to do the impossible…until he revealed his secret in the movie The Search for Spock.  Kirk asks how long it’ll be before repairs are finished on the Enterprise and Scotty tells him, “It’ll take at least eight weeks sir…” and Kirk is about to respond when Scotty finishes, “but you don’t have eight weeks so I’ll do it for you in two.”  And Kirk replies, “Mr. Scott, do you always multiply your repair estimates by a factor of four?”  And Scotty says, “Of course, sir.  How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?”  Mystery solved.

Scotty gives himself a “buffer.” 

He creates space to allocate for the unknown.  And that way, he’s prepared for the unexpected.  Because life can throw you curve balls, he found that this strategy worked for him.  It gave him a chance to expect the unexpected.  I found out that Disney does that in their theme parks.  No matter how short the line is on a ride, the sign outside will always say “5-minute wait.”  Even if you can walk right on!  That way, if you get through the line early, you’ll be happy and if you don’t, you’ll still think you got through the line early and be happy.  They give themselves a buffer zone to be prepared for the unexpected.

2012-06-16 - Radiator Springs Racers Sign
No exaggeration this time. The ride wait time really was about 130 minutes! And that was a short line when this ride first opened.

Do you give yourself a buffer in life?

Not necessarily a time buffer, but space in your life for the unknown.  Our lives are often full of rigidity.  We become rigid in our schedules, rigid in our viewpoints, rigid in our expectations, and we can’t handle when things come up that upset that balance we’ve created.  We get mad or angry or disappointed in the unexpected.  BUT!  BUT!!!  It’s in the unexpected that the most amazing opportunities can occur. It’s in the unexpected that the most amazing opportunities can occur.  And if we aren’t ready for it, we’ll miss those opportunities.  In our reading, Jesus has been speaking to the crowds after his encounter with the woman who committed adultery.  The crowd wanted to stone this woman for breaking the commandments, and instead of telling them “no” or speaking against them, Jesus simply said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  And…they walked away.  Not long after this, Jesus is again talking to a group of Jewish people.  He is able to convince some of them he truly is the Son of God and he shares with them some wisdom they may not have been ready to hear.

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.

The truth will set you free.

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  We often equate freedom with independence, but that’s not what Jesus is saying here.  Knowing the truth won’t make you more independent.  In fact, in some ways it’ll make you more DEPENDENT as we realize how much we need Christ in our lives.  But it will also give you a sense of inner peace and that’s the freedom Jesus is referring to – freedom from worry and anxiety because you have faith and trust in Christ.  It is in Jesus that we gain our true freedom and it is in Jesus that we learn the truth.  Having that freedom is what allows us to move forward in life – to grow and learn and fulfill our purpose.  But like the group Jesus is talking to, many of us don’t even know we need this “freedom.”  We walk around with all of this potential but are so rigid in our thinking and our perceptions we can’t see we are not as free as we think we are.  We don’t leave room in our hearts and minds for new possibilities or new ways of looking at the world and so we become slaves to our own selves.

01 shackles(1)
When we don’t let Christ into our lives, these things take over and make us slaves to sin

It’s interesting how this group of Jewish people talk to Jesus. 

Jesus isn’t speaking to Gentiles.  He’s speaking to his own people.  And even more surprising, John tells us, is this group of people actually thinks he is the Messiah.  John tells us in his Gospel, he’s speaking to believers.  And yet, they argue with him. They cast doubt on him.  They challenge him and this is why Jesus says they don’t have room in their hearts for his message.  Instead they say to him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?”  They don’t focus on Jesus’ main point – which is that in Christ they can have freedom in a way they haven’t experienced before.  Instead they nitpick on his words and are offended by his statement.  What’s more astounding is that they deny the reality of their own history.  Could they really have forgotten so quickly when the Hebrew nation was a slave to Pharoah in Egypt or to the Assyrians or to the Babylonaians or to the Persians?  Of all the peoples in the world, it seems as if the Jewish people would remember they have often been slaves of others.  Yet in their rigidity, they tell Jesus they have never been slaves of anyone.  They didn’t even take a moment to ponder what Jesus was trying to share with them which had nothing to do with physical freedom, but spiritual.  Their own pride and rigid view of the world got in the way of seeing the truth.  Jesus tries to steer them toward the truth by clarifying his point.  He says, “Very truly I tell you, EVERYONE who sins is a slave to sin.”  EVERYONE who sins is a slave to sin.  He’s telling them, you might be “technically” free.  You might not be in shackles or collared like an animal.  You might not live in a cage or a cell.  But you are NOT free.  Because as long as there is sin within you, you are a slave to whatever that sin is.  Anger.  Hate.  Jealousy.  Rage.  Pride.  WHATEVER it is, it has a hold on you.  But when you allow for the unexpected, when you give room in your heart for the Holy Spirit, when you give space for the possibility of new ideas and new ways of thinking, you just might find something remarkable.  But even these “believers” can’t open their hearts to Christ.

2009 - Our second house in Alpharetta from the outside
Our home in Atlanta before the big move to California

Are you like that at times?

Are there times you feel yourself resistant to new ideas and new ways of thinking, even if your old ways are not producing the results you were hoping for?  Christ is asking us to be open to the possibilities, to give room in our hearts to where God might be leading you, to allow for the movement of the Spirit in your life.  God wants you to leave a buffer for the Spirit to work within you and around you.  Because it’s in those gaps that amazing things can happen.  It’s a lesson it’s taken me a while to learn, but that has become easier over time.  It wasn’t always easy for me to listen to where God was leading me.  I often thought that my plans were his plans and that made me unwilling to open up to where else God might want me to go.  That was the case when I found out I wasn’t going to be coming back to Roswell UMC.  My District Superintendent, my boss in the Methodist system, told me it was likely I was going to a small rural town outside of Atlanta.  It was a town that was racially divided.  It was a town that didn’t have a good school system.  It was a town where Cassie would have to commute three hours everyday for work on a good day and it was rarely a good day for traffic in Atlanta.  And it was a place that didn’t fit any of my gifts and graces.  How in the world could this be where God was sending me?  We tried everything to forge our own path, to go the route WE wanted to go, but every time we tried, we kept hitting roadblocks.  Finally, I gave up.  Normally, I’d say that was horrible, but in this case it was the best thing I could have done.  I literally went into my closet, laid down on the floor in the pitch blackness of the room, and prayed.  And I just said to God, “I can’t believe this is the path you want me to follow, but if it is, I’ll do it.  But if it isn’t, if this is not where I’m supposed to be, would you please open a door for me?  No matter what door is opened, I’ll walk through it.”  That honest prayer, where I finally created room in my life for God to work, helped me to let go and trust in God like I should have all along.  It only took an hour to get a response.  After that prayer, I went back to my desk and started going through my emails and found one from a friend of mine out in California who just became a DS herself.  She asked how things were going and I opened up to her about our situation.  About an hour later, I got a phone call that changed the course of my life.  I ended up coming back home to California to serve in our conference.  And it has just been one God-led moment after another.  It hasn’t always been smooth and rarely the way I expected it to turn out, but I have felt so blessed how things have turned out.  All because I was finally willing to open myself up to where God was leading me.

01 Map
Who knows where God may lead YOU?

Are you open to where God is leading you?

Do you pray regularly?  Not for what you want or what you need, but do you ever pray for what God needs from you?  Are you open to new ideas and new ways of doing things?  Or have you become so rigid in your life that there isn’t room for where God might be leading you next?  In any situation where you find difficulty, do what Scotty did and give yourself a buffer.  Allow room for the unexpected and the unknown.  Give different ideas a chance and you might be wildly surprised at where God is taking you.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus Is A Fluffy Bunny

Unconditional surrender.

Two words you don’t want to hear if you are on the losing end of a battle.  Unconditional surrender means you will give up without any guarantee of safety.  You are completely at the mercy of whoever you’re surrendering to.  And that is scary.  Not knowing what they will do; if they’ll be merciful or vengeful, kind or cruel can overwhelm us with fear.  Some people would rather die than surrender unconditionally. They would rather go out on their own terms than give in to someone else’s – even if it means death. So what do we do when the God we believe in asks exactly that of us?  God wants us to surrender to him unconditionally.

01 White Flag(1)
How willing are you to surrender yourself unconditionally to God?

But we are so unwilling to give up control that we can’t even put our trust in God!

We call upon God when WE want to.  We pray when it’s convenient for us.  We worship when it fits into our schedule.  We put Christ on call as if Jesus were checking his text messages for some kind of signal from us.  There was a short-lived show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and in the first episode two of the characters, Jeannie and Harriet, are talking to each other about the uncertainty of the future so Jeannie asks Harriet, “Do we just let Jesus be our co-pilot?”  And Jeannie replies, “No. My mom used to say if Jesus is your co-pilot, you should trade seats.”[1]  But how often do we do that?  How often do we relinquish control and let Jesus guide our life?  We want Jesus to be where we want, when we want, and how we want him to be.  And when he’s not we conveniently tune him out.  Even in church.

2007-09-23 - Stained glass window in the chapel at RUMC
Why do we struggle with surrender, even with God?

A friend of mine was criticized for preaching the Gospel.

We were both starting out in ministry and she was an associate pastor at a fairly big church.  They had two services and she would lead one while the senior pastor would lead the other.  After a while, one of the church members who attended her service came in to complain to the senior pastor about her preaching.  The senior pastor sat the woman down and asked what seemed to be the problem.  Was she not preaching from the Bible?  No, that wasn’t it.  Was she sharing a message not in line with the Gospel?  No, that wasn’t it either.  So what seemed to be the problem?  She told the senior pastor that she wasn’t hearing the message she wanted to hear.  She complained, “She’s always challenging us to improve and be better than we are.  How about once in a while we hear sermons about how Jesus is like a fluffy bunny?  You know?  I’d like for once to hear about how following Jesus is like a beach ball floating in the wind.  Just floating up in the air.  How come it always has to be so serious?” Those were her exact words, “Jesus is like a fluffy bunny.”  There are just some things you never expect to hear and “Jesus is like a fluffy bunny” is one for the ages.  As outlandish as that might seem to some of you, it is more common than you might think.  I’ve had my own “fluffy bunny” moments. Not quite as extreme, but pretty close.  Some people are uncomfortable when they are challenged to change, to accept different ideas, to do something different or to think in a different way.  But Jesus always challenged us to grow deeper in faith, to expand our understanding of God, and to stretch ourselves in directions we may not have thought of on our own.  He wants us to put our trust in him, to surrender to his will.

Paul reminds us our relationship with Jesus is one of mutual submission.

Our relationship with Jesus is supposed to be one of mutual submission.  Many of Jesus’ followers talk about this concept of mutual submission.  Jesus comes to serve all of humanity.  Jesus surrenders his life for ours on the cross.  Jesus humbles himself by washing the feet of his disciples.  Jesus modeled for us the kind of servant’s heart he wants to see in us all.  Paul tells us we are supposed to submit to one another also.  Husbands should submit to their wives as wives should submit to their husbands.  Parents should honor their children as their children should honor them.  The ideal relationship as described to us by Jesus and his followers is about mutual submission.  It’s the only way it works right.  And in our passage this morning, Paul talks about his own submission to Christ.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” – Galatians 2:19-21

01 Cross(1)

In this passage, Paul isn’t telling us what to do.

He’s telling us about his own experience with Christ and how it changed his life.  Paul was probably thought of by many people as a zealot and maybe in some ways he was, but if so it was only because he was zealous for the kind of life we could all lead under Christ.  Some of what he says might seem confusing because he uses a lot of contradictory statements.  He says he died to the law so he might live in Christ.  He says he no longer lives but Christ lives in him.  But all he means is he finally surrendered to the fact he would never fulfill the law and so he devoted his life to the only one who could fulfill it – Jesus.  And by so doing he gave up his own way of life to become an ambassador for Christ. And then he closes with this powerful statement, “I do not set aside the grace of God…” meaning he doesn’t ignore, he doesn’t belittle, he doesn’t discount God’s grace in all of this, “for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”  If all we had to do was follow some rules to have our sins wiped away, if all we had to do was fulfill a certain number of requirements to get into Heaven, then Jesus’ sacrifice was pointless.  We wouldn’t need his sacrifice.  We could do it on our own.  But we can’t.  As good as we can be, we cannot be perfect.  We cannot be sinless.  It’s not a matter of willpower.  It’s not a matter of being strong enough.  We just can’t do it.  The only way to overcome this mountain is to submit to it, to admit it cannot be overcome.  Only then can we change for the better.

Surrendering Your Life

Rick Warren wrote a devotional around this concept.

He wrote, “Surrendering your life means:  Following God’s lead without knowing where he’s sending you.  Waiting for God’s timing without knowing when it will come.  Expecting a miracle without knowing how God will provide.  And trusting God’s purpose without understanding the circumstances.”[2]  Following God’s lead.  Waiting for God’s timing.  Expecting a miracle.  Trusting God’s purpose.  This is what it means to surrender to God.  Have you?  Have you truly surrendered to God?  We all fall short and will at times assert our own will, but have you made that commitment to follow Christ by fully surrendering to his will?  Or are you still putting Jesus as your co-pilot?  You are the pilot of your own life.  You are the captain of your own football team.  You are the chef of your own kitchen.  But you are not the best one there.  You are not the most well equipped person to be leading your own life.  Are you too proud to admit that?  Or are you willing to step aside and let God lead and guide you?  When I worked at Disneyland, I was the captain our volleyball team – meaning I was the one who signed people up, gathered the money, and turned in the paperwork.  As the captain, I was responsible for making the assignments of who would play where.  My favorite position is at the net.  That’s where all the action is.  Heroes are made at the net.  But look at me.  Even then I was 5’ 10” at best.  My jumping ability was about the same as that of a turtle.  But I was really good at digging for the ball.  I did a great job of saving the point.  And I was very accurate at serving.  I had to admit that I wasn’t the best person for the front line so I put myself in the back row.  And even though I had the right to do it, I chose to do what was best.  That’s all God wants for our lives.  He wants us to choose what’s best.  That’s why he doesn’t force us because then not only do we not learn, but the decision is never really ours to begin with.  We have to choose to surrender to God.

Let us recommit our lives to Christ.

Let us remind ourselves that when we chose to be Christian, we chose to surrender our lives to him.  We didn’t choose to surrender our lives on condition.  We didn’t surrender our lives because it was convenient.  We chose to surrender unconditionally to God.  Let us honor that commit today as we lift up our commitment in prayer.

God Almighty,

I surrender my control to you.  I surrender my control to you.  I surrender my control to you.  I am not the best guide of my own life.  You are.  And when I surrender myself to you, my life becomes a whole lot better.  But it is hard for me to do.  The truth is I cannot do it alone.  I cannot earn my way to Heaven.  I cannot forgive my own sins.  So I put myself at your mercy.  And surrender to your grace.  Today, I give myself to you unconditionally.  And my life is the better for it.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

[1] http://studio-60.hypnoweb.net/episodes-/saison-1/episode-102/script-vo-102.96.254/

[2] http://rickwarren.org/devotional/english/surrender-let-go-and-let-god-work_993

Milk…It Does A Body Good

Milk…It does a body good.

I have believed that phrase whole-heartedly my entire life.  But I learned that as you get older, the benefits of milk aren’t so obvious.  The New York Times posted an article asking the question, “does milk do a body good?” And it turns out…it doesn’t seem so. I long prided myself on my milk drinking.  I may not always eat properly, but I would easily drink a glass of milk (and often more) once a day.  Then Cassie came up to me one day and said drinking milk might actually be CAUSING me some problems.  I have to admit, as smart as Cassie is, I thought she got this one all wrong. My entire life, doctors have been telling me to drink milk.  Even as an adult.  But in 2011, the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research did a study of over 200,000 women and could find no correlation between milk drinking and lower rates of bone fracture.[1]  Another study of over 100,000 men and women could find no correlation between drinking milk as a teenager and incidents of bone fractures.  And one study published in the British Medical Journal showed men and women who drank high quantities of milk had a higher death rate and women actually had MORE bone fractures than those who didn’t drink as much milk.[2]  While they couldn’t prove milk actually caused those deaths, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t seem to be doing much for us.

Me holding Emma on her literal birth day, wrapped like a baby burrito

The story, of course, is different for infants and children.

Especially for babies.  Babies need milk – specifically mother’s milk. It strengthens the immune system, decreases disease, and helps to protect children from developing allergies.[3]  Later in life, these babies have fewer cavities, are less likely to be obese, tend to have fewer problems related to blood pressure, and tend to be more mature and assertive.[4]  The evidence is so strong for all the different benefits of baby milk that there are even milk banks where mothers can donate so other mothers who have problems making their own still have a source for their babies.  Virtually everyone agrees that milk is essential for young developing infants.

And just as we need milk to grow physically, we need spiritual milk to grow spiritually.

Milk in the Old Testament largely referred to God’s promise of a land overflowing in abundance, but in the New Testament, milk is seen as spiritual sustenance.  It’s the building block for a strong spiritual life.  Just like milk is a necessity for babies who grow up to be adults, spiritual milk is needed to help our faith life develop into something strong and robust.  Our passage this morning is just one that refers to spiritual milk but one that sheds light on what this “milk” will do for us.

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. – 1 Peter 1:13-16 and 2:1-2

Crave pure spiritual milk.

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Spiritual milk is essential for our faith and Peter writes here that we should crave it!  We should crave those things that feed our faith and help to keep away all of those things that would rob us of salvation – malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander.  Peter hopes that because we have tasted this spiritual milk that it will be enough to keep us craving more.  What he means by having “tasted” spiritual milk is that there was something in us that turned us toward Christ and away from all the other temptations of the world.  There was some part of our life that Jesus’ message of hope and salvation connected with, and Peter hoped that was enough to fuel us wanting more to keep craving that spiritual milk that is so essential to grounding us.

Works of Piety
Just a few examples of Wesley’s “works of piety”

And this is where John Wesley’s ideas about the means of grace come in.

Wesley believed that God provided us with many ways to find this spiritual milk and to keep connected to Christ.  He believed even when we felt distant from God, the means of grace would help bring us back. He called these “works of piety.”  Works of piety are those personal practices that help us grow closer to God.  Things like prayer, reading the Bible, going to worship, taking communion, taking part in Bible study, sharing our faith and fasting; these are the practices that Wesley felt would help connect us to our faith.    Regularly doing these things, regularly praying or reading the Bible or fasting or going to worship creates in us a foundation for a life grounded on faith.  It’s like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.  You don’t even think about these things any more as part of a list of things you need to do.  You’ve been doing them for so long that they are simply a part of what you do every day.  But doing them makes you a healthier person and much more enjoyable to be around.  And not doing it makes us feel off the entire day.  The truth is, doing these works of piety will have the same effect.

In our seemingly time-crunched world, it doesn’t feel like we have time for it.

We don’t have time for Bible study.  We don’t have time for worship.  We don’t have time for prayer.  But is it we don’t HAVE time or we don’t MAKE time?  Like with taking a shower and brushing your teeth, you could skip these things if you were seriously short on time.  In the long run, we’d be able to do more if we stopped wasting time on hygiene.  Think about it.  The average shower lasts 8.2 minutes.[5]  Assuming you take one every day, you could save yourself nearly 3,000 minutes a year.  That’s more than 2 full days of time!  But we would never do that, right?  We feel taking a shower is important.  Or at least keeps us from getting a divorce.  So apply that logic to what Wesley calls works of piety.  Almost all of these things – prayer, worship, Bible study, communion, sharing your faith – take less than or about the same amount of time as taking a shower every day.  If we value our relationship with God, then why wouldn’t we schedule that into our day?

Stephen Covey had some great advice about this.

As you know, he’s the author of the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and he writes, “The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  You’ve probably heard that before.  The key is to keep the main thing the main thing.  We know this intellectually, but we don’t always do a great job of executing it.  He says, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” We’re so busy with whatever is in front of us that we don’t look at things long term.  So how do we get around that?  Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  The key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.  If you believe God is important then carve out time for God.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s just a matter of priorities.

This is the spiritual milk that will help us grow in our faith.

The common, ordinary, everyday types of things that take very little time or money to do – prayer, Bible study, worship, communion.  At times they might seem boring.  At times they might even seem meaningless.  At times we may not feel the working of the Holy Spirit within us.  But it is.  The Spirit is at work even if we don’t “feel” it all the time.  But it is important to keep doing these ordinary means of grace so that our faith will continue to grow even if we don’t “feel” it.  When babies drink milk, they don’t say to themselves, “Hey look! My leg just grew a quarter of an inch!” But slowly, over time, as they keep taking the nourishment they need they grow.  Sure and steady they grow.  And the same is true of our faith.  So take time out to drink your spiritual milk.  It does a body good.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/18/upshot/got-milk-might-not-be-doing-you-much-good.html

[2] https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g6015?etoc=

[3] http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/benefits.asp

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.home-water-works.org/indoor-use/showers

The Spectre of Lost Potential

God doesn’t have a plan for your life.

Give that a moment to sink in because I’m guessing more than one of you wants to push back on that notion right away.  It probably runs counter to some of the very ideas you hold to be true.  But God doesn’t have a plan for your life.  At least not in the way we traditionally think of it.  When bad things happen to us, in a very well-meaning way, Christians try to offer support by telling each other, “God has a plan.” But when you take that thread and follow it to its end, you come out with a very mean God.  Because that means all the bad, horrible, nauseating things that happen to you are CAUSED by God.  That somehow his PLAN includes treating you in an abusive and harsh way.  With that kind of thinking we limit God and imagine our great God almighty wasn’t smart enough to think of a better way to teach you or equip you for life.  But that’s not our God.  Whenever I think about this idea that God has a plan that somehow includes pain and suffering, I think back to my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. McNally.  Mr. McNally was one of the nicest teachers we had. Everyone loved him.  He was well respected by both staff and students alike.  So it came as a shock to find out he was killed by a drunk driver late one night while he was in the car with his son.  They were coming home from a game or something when a guy broadsided his car, killing Mr. McNally.  The drunk driver?  He lived and walked away from the accident.  But Mr. McNally was dead.  Was that really God’s plan, to take him away from his family, his loved ones, and his students?  Or did Mr. McNally have to die tragically just so this drunk driver could learn some kind of life-changing lesson?  Or maybe this guy was just irresponsible, had too much to drink, and killed my high school chemistry teacher because he didn’t have enough sense not to drive.  I think the last one is the most likely.

PicMonkey Collage
Our lives may not be a Hollywood script but some of Deacon Mike’s creations have made their way into some pretty famous ones.

Our lives do not follow some script like a Hollywood movie.

There isn’t some plot twist that justifies the harmful things that happen to us.  Our lives are not meant to go down a specific path that’s been charted out for us.  God DOES have a plan for your life, but it’s the one that he shares with the prophet Jeremiah and through Jeremiah to all of us. God said in Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  So God does have a plan, but just not in the way we often think about it.  God’s plan for us isn’t a map to follow but a hope for a brighter future.  Your life is not pre-determined.  You have free will.  You have choices to make.  And those choices can lead you down a path that brings you closer to God and makes this world more like the Kingdom that he imagines it could be, or we can choose to drift away from God and get swallowed up by what the world thinks is important.

2011-05-15 - Amazing the colors in God's paletteLife is a journey. 

This idea of life and faith being a journey is one that is stuck in my mind, because I believe God is working in us and through us to help us grow closer to God. None of us are born fully complete.  None of us wake up one day with all the answers we need to live a perfect life or to have perfect faith.  It’s like John Wesley said, we are moving toward perfection.  But we aren’t there yet.  At least not the vast majority of us.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please find 1 Corinthians 12 beginning with verse 1.  God tells us he has a plan to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future.  But we still have to choose to go down that path.  We still have to choose to take that journey.  Some of us willingly take that path, but others of us are more like Jonah, resisting the entire way.  If you remember his story, when God asked him to go to Tarshish, he ran in the opposite direction until he got eaten by a fish. And even then he only went reluctantly.  And when his mission to the people of Tarshish ended up a glorious success, Jonah got mad and moped about it.  Sometimes that’s what we are like, resistant to God’s will.  But if we ARE open to it, if we ARE willing, this journey is not one we have to make alone.  I believe with all my heart that God places people in our lives to help us along this path.  That if we are open to it, God will guide us and draw us closer to him.  God will not only place people in our path but will equip us for the journey. He gives to each of us gifts for us to use and the beauty of it is that each of us are given different gifts so that we can contribute uniquely to the journey.  As it says in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth this is what he writes.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Have you ever really thought about what your gifts are?

Sometimes they are obvious, but sometimes we need people in our lives to help point them out to us.  You may think you know what your gifts are, but maybe you have even more gifts than you realize or you have talents that you never thought you could use in service to God.  It’s as Paul writes to us, “I do not want you to be uniformed” but YOU have a gift.  Some of us have many gifts.  Some have more obvious gifts and some more subtle gifts, but whatever gift or gifts you have they all come from the same place, from God.  And he has given you these gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.  And if God has that much faith in you and God has that much faith in me, then I know we can do great things if we have even a mustard seed size amount of faith in God and in the gifts he has given us.

01 Mikes
Mike in his career today (left) and in his comic book days (right)

Everyone thinks of Rev. Mike Friedrich as “Deacon Mike.” 

And even though he has been with us for many years before he became a deacon, how many of you really know who he is?  I thought I knew who he was until I began preparing for this message.  Turns out there is even more to Deacon Mike than he humbly lets on.  My first encounter with Mike was at Annual Conference at the NJAUMC luncheon.  He came representing our church and I was at the time serving in Dinuba.  We got to talking and he told me that prior to serving the church he had worked in the comic book field.  That interested me as I am a lifelong comic book nerd.  He only hinted at the number of works he did, never mentioned the people he worked with, or what kind of contributions he made to the field.  Only later did I find out that many of the stories I grew up with, many of the films I’ve seen in the theater, have been influenced either directly or indirectly by his work.  You may have heard of a few of them.  He worked on such titles as Iron Man, Batman, Justice League of America, and one of my personal favorites, The Flash.  He created or influenced the character history significantly of characters like Thanos (the big bad guy from Avengers: Endgame), Drax (of Guardians of the Galaxy fame), Ant-Man and Adam Warlock who I’m sure we’ll see more of in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3. But as impressive as that is, Mike is known for more than that.  You may have heard of a little gathering of comic book fans called San Diego Comic Con.  Over the years, they grew further and further away from being a comic book convention and became a multi-media convention.  So Mike and some of his companions decided to create a convention that went back to its roots called WonderCon.  Based up in the Bay Area, that convention grew and grew and grew until it caught the notice of an organization – Comic-Con International.  ComicCon bought out WonderCon and now runs it as its second biggest gathering of the year.  What I didn’t know was that Mike was also responsible for one of the first successful forays into independent publishing.  Before there was a thing such as Image Comics, there was Star*Reach.  Star*Reach was the flagship title as well as the company name and they published a number of different titles featuring such noted authors and artists as Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Lee Marrs.  For his work, he is being recognized this year at Comic-Con with the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.  I love the way Mike conceptualized his career.  He said, he started out writing stories about men who put on costumes to bring justice into the world, now he puts on his own (religious) costume to bring justice into the world.[1] But what I think is one of Mike’s great gifts is not that he was a comic book writer, not that he was a publisher, not that he was a union rep for research scientists and technicians at Cal, and not that he founded his own successful comic con.  All of those are pretty amazing, but at least two of the gifts Mike brings to God’s table is a spirit of innovation and perseverance.  He is willing to try new things and comes up with unique ideas.  He’s the first to admit they don’t always work, but he doesn’t let that deter him from trying different ideas to achieve his goal.  For most of us, that kind of commitment to change and challenge is troublesome, but for Deacon Mike he embraces it.  And now that he is working directly for the church he is using those talents in new ways for Christ.

You don’t have to become a deacon or a minister to serve God.

You can serve God in so many different capacities.  The best way you can serve God is naturally.  Finding a way to use your own unique gifts and talents in a way that helps to show the love of Christ to a world that needs it.  To be bold for God in proclaiming his love through the ways you feel God is calling upon you.  I know for Deacon Mike social justice is high on his list and he is gifted in that.  I imagine he will do some wonderful things for God’s kingdom by being an advocate for those who don’t have a voice and I believe he will use his gifts of innovation and perseverance to serve God in a way that will make a difference in a field he is passionate about.  What are you passionate about?  How does your passion fit into God’s kingdom?  How can you use your gifts, your talents, and your passion to challenge yourself to grow in faith, to move closer to Christ, and to serve his kingdom?

01 what if
What If? comic books delve into alternate timelines for our heroes

Growing up one of my favorite comic books was called “What if?”

And they explored alternate timelines where our heroes made different choices that would lead to different outcomes and I was always fascinated by what I would find inside. Sometimes those choices would lead to a vision for a bright future and sometimes it would lead toward the spectre of lost potential.  But it was always up to the author to decide what road to follow.  You have a choice as you always have.  Will you use the gifts God has given you to lead you to the life he has planned for you?  Or will your life be one of lost potential?  Pray this week for the Holy Spirit to open you up to his movement in your life.  Pray about being open to where God is leading.  And be ready to step through the doors God opens up for you, because if you’re willing God is waiting to give you the life he has promised.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.comic-con.org/awards/bill-finger-award-node

Love Without End, Amen

Imagine a world where everyone knew they were loved unconditionally.

In that kind of a world, many of the problems we have today would probably disappear.  Not all of them to be sure, but many of the demons that plague us would vanish.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to 1 John chapter 4 and we’ll begin reading from verse 7. 1 John 4:7. Unconditional love is the greatest gift in the world.  It gives you a sense of self-worth, confidence, and assurance that nothing else can give you. People spend their whole lives looking for it.  By its very definition, you can’t buy it, you can’t earn it, you can’t do anything to get it.  It’s the one great equalizer in society because everyone wants it and whether you get it has nothing to do with wealth, fame, or power.  In fact, it’s probably the one thing that’s harder to get the more successful you become because you can’t help but wonder if people love you because of who you are or for what you have.  But God loves us unconditionally, no matter how much we have or don’t have, no matter how much we do or don’t do – God loves us anyway.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

2004-04-07 - Already looking up at Daddy
First day of being a daddy to my little Emma

We love because he first loved us.

As parents, we experience the kind of love God has for us most strongly with our children.  We feel it right from the moment of their birth. Or even before then.  When Cassie was pregnant with Emma, I used to talk to Emma everyday.  Before bed each night, I’d put my head next to Cassie’s stomach and talk to my little unborn baby girl, telling her about my day, about how I can’t wait for her to come out, and saying “good night.”  Sometimes I’d randomly just go up to Cassie’s stomach and just for fun say “Helloooooo in there.”  It was probably a bit embarrassing for Cassie, because I’d do it whenever the mood struck – at home, at the mall, in the car – just whenever.  One night, Cassie started getting some unusual pains and we rushed to the hospital, worried that something had gone wrong.  We sat in this cold, sterile intake room waiting for Cassie to get some kind of medical scan done, and I remember holding her hand and just feeling completely helpless.  The worst part was when they wheeled Cassie away.  They wouldn’t even let me go with her and I sat in this little, tiny waiting room all by myself with Law & Order on the television above me.  I remember thinking about how much I loved my little girl who I hadn’t even seen yet except on some fuzzy sonogram, and praying everything would be alright.  I hadn’t ever felt that anxious before.  Thankfully, it was just a scare and about seven months later, Emma would come out just fine, but I felt like just for a moment I had a glimpse of God’s unconditional love for us – that deep love of God that reaches out to us even before we realize we need it.

2017-03-25 - Daddy daughter night at the theater
Still love our Daddy / Daughter Days – I’ll never get tired of them

It’s that kind of love that John is talking about in this letter. 

It’s the love that comes before we even realize we ARE loved.  In Methodism we call this prevenient grace – the unmerited, undeserved, unasked-for love of God that comes before we even know there IS a God.  And it’s this unconditional love that motivates God to send Jesus on our behalf.  Not because we behaved particularly well.  Not because we did some great deed for God.  But because he knew it was what we needed.  It’s what we do for those we love.  That’s why John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  When John tells us that we need to love one another in the same way that God loves us, this is the kind of love he’s talking about – the unconditional, self-sacrificing, put-yourself-out-there kind of love.  We don’t do this because we need to “pay God back” or to balance some kind of cosmic debt.  It isn’t love if it requires payment.  We don’t do it to store up God’s good will.  Again, that isn’t love.  Look at what it says in the Gospel of Luke.  In Luke 6, Jesus tells the crowd to love their enemies.  He says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.”  It doesn’t take any effort to love those who already love you because you expect love in return.  Real love is being able to offer it without any expectation, to love the way God loves us.  When we are able to love like that, we have a deeper understanding of God’s love for us.

2011-12-09 - Riverview Ram Dad
Volunteering for Ram Dad Day

Love is essential.  When we are loved, we do better in life.

As a father, there is a unique role we play in the lives of our children and a reason God created us to be fathers in the first place.  It’s not only a duty, but an honor to be a father.  As more research is done, it becomes clearer and clearer that fathers are an important part of a child’s development not just because they are a “second parent” but men specifically interact and behave in ways that help their children become more well-rounded, well-developed people.[1]  Studies have shown that having a loving, involved father increases a child’s chance of getting A’s in school by 43% and children are 33% less likely to repeat a grade.[2]  43% more likely to get A’s.  Children with fathers who play with them on average have higher IQs “as well as better linguistic and cognitive capabilities,” meaning they tend to be more sophisticated in both speech and thinking.[3]   Children with involved fathers tend to be more sociable, exhibit better self-control, and tend to be more popular.  They were less likely to lie, experience depression, and more likely to engage in pro-social behavior.  The more we learn about fathers, the more we realize how important they are.  Not that mothers are any less important, but too often in society the job of raising children has fallen on mothers.  The well-being and welfare of a child rests solely on her shoulders when it should be shared by both parents.  Fathers have a deeper responsibility than society gives them credit for or often expects of them, but not less than what God expects.  In Ephesians we hear from Paul that fathers are responsible for bringing up their children in the “training and instruction of the Lord” and are called not to exasperate them.  In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes that fathers should not embitter their children, or they will become discouraged.  God places upon fathers an expectation of love and encouragement that is important in how they grow up.

Love is a choice.

Love isn’t just a feeling.  Love is a choice.  We shouldn’t love our children just when we feel like loving them.  We shouldn’t love them when they deserve it.  We shouldn’t make them earn our love.  We should love them simply because they are our children.  But what we SHOULD do and what we DO do are not always the same.  Ultimately, love is still a choice as evidenced by the unfortunate number of fathers out there who are not involved in their children’s lives.  One in three children live in a fatherless household.[4]  48% of those see their children less than once a month.  31% say they don’t even call or email once a month.[5]  We choose what’s important in our lives.  We choose who to love and how to love even if it’s only ourselves.  It is a choice we make moment by moment just as God constantly chooses to love us despite our rebelliousness.  And just as we are loved by God, we must also choose to love our children so that when they explore faith for themselves, they have an idea of what it means to have a loving God in Heaven.  It’s hard to imagine a loving Father above when right here ours is absent.  Love is a choice.  And God chooses to love us everyday.   We must choose to love also.

2009-11-07 - Emma, Me and Ariel
One of my favorite Daddy / Daughter Days together

We don’t always realize the importance of the role we play in the lives of our children.

Academically, socially, and spiritually, too.  How involved a father is in the faith life of their children influences greatly the future faith of their children as well.  Fathers who go to church regularly have a greater impact on the future of their children being in church than their mothers.  In fact, if a father goes to church regularly with their mother, 75% of their children will still be in church either regularly or irregularly as adults.  If a father doesn’t go to church but the mother does only 39% of their children will go to church at all, with only 2% being regular attenders.[6]  As a father, we have a greater responsibility to our children’s well-being than we often think.  We influence not just their life here, but their eternal life as well.  On this Father’s Day, I want to encourage you to show your unconditional love to the people important in your life.  Encourage, embolden, and love your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren so that they may know not only your love but the model of love God has for them.

One of my favorite songs in the world is by George Strait.

And it speaks directly to this idea of unconditional love that fathers should have for their children.  It’s called “Love Without End, Amen” and in it, he begins by singing about his own rebellious childhood and how he would get into trouble at school.  He prepares this whole speech for his father while he is waiting for his dad to come home and after giving it, he waits for his punishment.  But instead, his father tells him, “Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love.  A secret that my daddy said was just between us.  You see daddies don’t just love their children every now and then.  It’s a love without end, amen.”  When his own child gets in trouble, he decides to share the same words with his own son and passes down to another generation this idea of unconditional love between parent and child.   He says to his son, “Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love.  A secret that my daddy said was just between us.  You see daddies don’t just love their children every now and then.  It’s a love without end, amen.”  And in the middle of the night, he dreams that he’s died and realizes that he has lived a far from perfect life.  He says, “if they know half the things I’ve done they’ll never let me in.  Then somewhere from the other side, I heard these words again, ‘Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love.  A secret that my daddy said was just between us.  You see daddies don’t just love their children every now and then.  It’s a love without end, amen.’”  The unconditional love that we have for our children comes from the unconditional love God has for us.  We must as fathers and grandfathers and parents in general, offer this unconditional love to our kids.  All children deserve to know the love of their father – both here and in Heaven.

[1] http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/parenting_roles/the_involved_father.aspx

[2] http://www.thefatherhoodproject.org/10-facts-about-father-engagement/#_edn7

[3] https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanuals/fatherhood/

[4] http://www.fatherhood.org/media/consequences-of-father-absence-statistics

[5] http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/06/15/a-tale-of-two-fathers/

[6] http://www.christianpost.com/news/fathers-key-to-their-childrens-faith-51331/

The Lasting Power of Casserole

What do you think of when you hear the word “church?”

If you’re like most of us, you probably think of a white building with a steeple on top with a cross towering high overhead.  You might think about stained glass windows or pews or a preacher.  You probably think of pulpits and potluck dinners.  A lot of things with the letter “p.”  But none of those things are “church.” The church is really about a people instead of a place.  The word “church” comes from the Greek ekklesia or “assembly.”  It doesn’t by itself have any special definition beyond that.  But when Jesus asked Simon who he was and Simon said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded, “…I tell you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia… my church…”  In that moment, the word ekklesia gathered a new meaning, because Jesus wasn’t talking about any old assembly of people.  He was talking about HIS assembly – the children of God.

2007-09-23 - Near the entrance to my office
One of the church buildings on the Roswell UMC campus had the classic church “look”

But don’t let that go to your heads.

Being the children of God and acting like it are two totally different things.  It goes back to what we’ve shared before, “Being in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.”[1]  So what does it actually mean to be the church?  When we recite the Apostles’ Creed we say we believe in the “holy catholic church” and the “communion of saints” but to the outsider, it must seem like we’re kind of self-righteous.  I mean we call ourselves “holy” and “saints.” It doesn’t take a long, meaningful look into church history to realize there were plenty of times we didn’t act very holy or saint-like. But like most ideas, our concept of “holy” and “saint” has changed over time and we’ve added tons of meaning behind it that wasn’t there to begin with.  “Holy” simply means “sacred to” or “set apart for” and in our case holy means we are people who recognize we are set apart for God. That doesn’t mean we’re super-special or that God has a gold star next to our name. Being holy is our recognition that our lives are devoted to God and not the other way around. As Adam Hamilton wrote in his book, Creed, the church is holy “when those who consider the church home don’t ask ‘What do we want our church to do for us?’ but rather ‘What does God want his church to do for him?’”[2] The same thing is true for the word “saint.”  “Saint” is derived from the Greek hagios which is often translated as “holy.”  It simply refers to a person who acts as if their life belongs to God.

2018-10-31 - Halloween Giveaway
I love this pic of our church getting ready to serve the community on Halloween!

That is the work God calls on us to do as his people.

We are supposed to be the people of God in the world, but even our perception of “church” has evolved over the years. Today it’s more about a place than a people.  But that’s not at all the way God meant for it to be.  Back in the days of the disciples, they didn’t have a place of worship unless it was the temple.  By the way, that’s how much they loved God. Today a “regular church-goer” is someone who attends more than once a month but back then they would go twice in one day! First to the temple and then to the gathering of God’s people, usually in someone’s home.  God’s idea of church was something inside of us.  It wasn’t based on a location but anywhere the people of God showed up as Peter wrote in his letter to the church.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

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Our church family (and friends) at Easter worship here at BMUC

YOU are the church!

Like the words to that classic hymn, “I am the church, YOU are the church, WE are the church together.”  And that’s what Peter was trying to make clear to the Christ followers of his time.  He told them God was building them up not from the outside but from the inside.  He was telling them, yes, God is building his church, but it isn’t a place but a people.  The spiritual house God is building starts with Jesus as the cornerstone and each one of us are the brick and mortar of this never-ending structure known as the people of God. In my head, I picture a sort of Winchester House for Jesus, a building always under construction, shaped by the people who comprise it.  If you’ve ever been to the Winchester House, you know that Sarah Winchester had the superstitious belief that construction on the house must be never-ending to appease the spirits of those killed from the rifles made by her husband’s rifle company.  Legend has it that Mrs. Winchester never stopped adding to her house, constantly adding new features, rooms, and adornments throughout her life.  That sense of never-ending construction of God’s house is how I picture each of us being worked on all throughout our lives; to become better disciples of Christ and to add to the beauty of the spiritual house we call the church.

2018-10-07 - Greg cleaning the stained glass window
It is a blessing to have a worship space as beautiful as ours is at BMUC, but it’s the people inside that make it our church

Too often church becomes simplified to a building.

Or worse, the people of God forget they are the people of God and place so much importance on the forms and functions of “church” that they forget that “church” is just the people inside the building. And when the people inside the building act in ugly and unforgiving ways, when the people inside the building are unloving, unchanging, and unwilling, then the church begins to crumble no matter how beautiful the outside is.  When I was in seminary, one of my fellow pastors told us about a congregation he knew of that had split over a couch.  By all measure, it was an ugly couch.  It was lopsided.  It had lumps.  It was an eyesore to most.  But it was donated by a beloved member who had a lot of family attending that place.  For years, no one said anything but finally someone suggested they replace it with a new couch and almost immediately people took sides – those who wanted to keep it and those who wanted to get rid of it.  In the end, they couldn’t resolve their differences and they split the church in two.  Over an ugly couch.  It’s one of the reasons why I am opposed to putting plaques on anything.  I don’t know why we feel the need to memorialize someone by putting a metal plaque on some object.  It just makes it harder to get rid of when it’s time.  You know the old saying about not naming your food?  It’s doubly true for the church.  It makes it that much harder for us to let go of the trappings of church, even when we know we should.

2014-03-11 - First cooked meal since we are back - tuna casserole
Who would guess you could find the love of Christ in a casserole?

For me, church became real in the power of a casserole.

Or many.  For all of the knowledge I had gained about what it meant to be a follower of Christ, it took on new life in a casserole dish.  When Cassie gave birth to Emma, the families belonging to our Sunday School group all took turns and brought food to us for the entire week.  THE ENTIRE WEEK!  And there was always enough for leftovers so I pretty much didn’t have to cook or make anything at all.  And they didn’t just bring casserole, but chicken and spaghetti and lasagna and other dishes so we had a variety every single day.  And it wasn’t just the main course either.  They brought salads, veggies, and even dessert.  Pretty much all I supplied was the milk.  We hadn’t asked for the help, but that made it all the more meaningful.  They anticipated our need before we even expressed it.  It gave me more time to just dote on Cassie and our new baby girl.  It gave me time to make sure Eve was doing okay and to spend time with her, too.  It was just a tremendous blessing to our family.  These people not only WENT to church, but they WERE the church.  And that’s what I believe God calls on all of us to do – to be the church in the world today.

That doesn’t mean what we do here isn’t important. 

Worship is the heartbeat of all we do.  I know if it wasn’t for a worship service that touched my heart, I don’t think I would have stayed around long enough to know that God wanted me, too.  Good sermons not only teased my brain about who God was, but gave me the confidence to keep asking questions.  Incredible music uplifted my spirit and revealed God to me in a new and different way.  Missions work is important.  If it wasn’t for the opportunity to connect to our community and our world, I don’t know if I would have had a broader view of what it meant to be a follower of Christ.  Volunteer opportunities were important to help me test my own gifts and see where I could contribute.  And obviously, small groups were important for me.  It was where I was best able to see how what we learned in worship lived itself out in life.  So what we do as a church is important.  But never forget this.  Jesus didn’t give his life for us just so we could GO to church.  He wanted us to BE the church, too.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] I wish I could claim credit for that snappy line, but I heard it from someone else and if I ever figure out who, I will give them full credit!

[2] Adam Hamilton, Creed, p. 108.