Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

IMG_7704

Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

A New Way

For the past 6 weeks, we have sat at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus.  We’ve learned he calls everyone who is willing to follow.  We have found freedom in the words from Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV), 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  We have walked with our Rabbi Jesus and have gotten his resurrection dust all over us.  We heard a tremendous sermon basically flipping the script of life as we know it.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Then when the disciples began peppering him with questions we learned about loving our enemies, keeping our promises, and storing up not treasures on earth that moth and rust destroy, but instead storing up treasures in heaven.  These are all powerful lessons that it would take several lifetimes to learn and perfect, but we know we have hope in Christ alone to take our place, to teach us the way, the truth, and the life, to teach us how to do life together in community.

For the next 4 weeks up until Palm Sunday, we’re going to be studying Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules:  A Wesleyan Way of Living.  It’s based upon John Wesley’s General Rules which are in our Book of Discipline.  The rules are do no harm, do good, and keep the ordinances of God or as Job says, “stay in love with God.”  “These simple rules then and now applied to everyone,” Job said. “No one was left out. No one was too good, too mean, too rich or too poor, too educated, too illiterate.”

Drawing parallels between Wesley’s time and the world today, Job says the feelings of disenfranchisement, doubt and fear are much the same.

“Our world is deeply divided, highly cynical about its leadership, greatly disappointed in its structures and systems that seem so flawed, broken and corrupt, broadly conflicted and gravely afraid of tomorrow.”

With so many hurting, frightened people Job says a radical change must take place. “There are two enormously encouraging truths for us to remember,” Job said. “One, God is with us. God continues to woo us, seek us out, love us, speak to us, enable us and lead us into the future. Second, it has been done before.”

Wesley’s three simple rules transformed women and men and started a movement that became a denomination and transformed a forming nation in North America.

“Today we also need a message that can be clearly understood by persons of every age, every educational and economic level, every condition and circumstance of life,” he said. “And today these three simple rules provide that message.”

Rewind back two thousand years ago to the two great commandments that our Rabbi gave us.

Mark 12:29-31

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

From day one, Scripture tells us that God is the God of community. First, God is Trinity, this mysterious fellowship of three-persons-in-one. Second, as we hear in the opening pages of Genesis, God describes how we as human beings inherit that communal nature, saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen 1:26). No wonder when Adam finds himself without companionship in the garden, God recognizes “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Last, the entire history of God’s devoted followers, from the very first days until today, is one of covenant-making where the people are united together in intimate relationship with one another and with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Moses’ day, that meant a Law that largely focused on how to live in right relationship, and also how to mend those relationships when broken. The Law (and circumcision as a physical sign of initiation) meant that, for the first time, a “people of God” was born – not only of the chosen Hebrews but also of those along the way like Rahab and Ruth and so many others who chose God wholeheartedly. This continued through the centuries, despite periods of rebellion and exile on the part of God’s people, until Jesus’ day. That’s when Emmanuel showed us once again how personal and near God meant to be with us. He spent his entire precious life living among, eating with, and serving whomever he met, whether in crowds or in smaller intimate circles. He called us not just to believe in the idea of him that he would set the captives free and bring liberation to his people, but to follow him in close contact, as a Rabbi, to join the throngs of those following him. The result was a new covenant and a new understanding of “God’s people” as all those who put their faith in the Messiah. In the early church, this meant a powerful focus on living in koinonia or living in sacred community like family (Acts 2:43-47).

These first Christians were bound together not only by their faith but by its consequences. In the Empire of their day, whether one was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Roman citizen or slave, making a Christian profession of faith became a grave risk. The earliest confessions that they made were statements as simple as, “Jesus is Lord.” But to say such a thing was tantamount to treason since the Emperor intended to be the ultimate ruler, savior, and object of worship throughout the world. Those three little words, if found out, could mean a total loss of one’s legal rights, loss of citizenship, forfeiture of property and assets, beating, torture, being sold into slavery, and even death. If one member of a household was identified as a Christian, then every member of the household could be liable to the same punishments. After all, in the Roman world the family unit was a single, legal unit, united together under the head of the household. If one person in the home was a practicing Christian it was assumed that the head of household was as well, and if the head of household was a practicing Christian then that would be true for all. In other words, early Christians had a deep understanding of shared fate, shared victory as well as shared suffering. But this underground movement saw massive growth because a person only joined it if they had a sincere desire, if they were ready to sacrifice all for Christ’s sake, and if they were ready to truly share life together.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and this same level of community was scarcely found in the Church. Over time, the Roman Catholic church eventually reached a pinnacle of corruption, so much so that the Reformation was sparked to revive the authentic Christian faith. It took on a unique form in England in particular, thanks to Henry VIII’s scandalous life (if you’ve seen any of pop culture’s recent depictions of the story, like The Tudors, then you know we won’t go into detail here). To summarize, King Henry continually wanted to marry a new woman, but the Roman Catholic leadership continually refused him an annulment or divorce. So what did he do? Henry declared himself King of the church in his own country, seized the Church’s property, and renamed it the “Church of England” or Anglican Church. So what? Well, what do you think are the drawbacks to having a single, nationalized church ruled by the King? Right. All those good “separation of church and state” things go out the window. The church becomes so embedded in school and politics and the economy that Christianity suddenly becomes a pretty mandatory part of society. There are benefits to that, sure. Kind of like growing up in the American South, there’s something to be said for a culture that revolves around church and raises its children in that environment. But there are serious downsides, too. Like having people filling the pews who have little or no conscious faith, who only participate because their parents make them or because everybody else is doing it or because they want to be a part of an exclusive club, and who are familiar enough with the Gospel that it’s lost its fresh appeal and who may have never stopped to wonder whether or not they actually believe in Jesus. They’ve been inoculated against catching a real case of faith, and they don’t even know it. That was the state of the Church of England.

By the 18th-century in England, it had become a place reserved for the affluent and well-to-do in society, who were expected to be present every Sunday and support the Anglican institution, but oftentimes with little or no personal Christian devotion. People were “in church” for a thousand reasons – to network for their businesses, to meet their future spouses or arrange advantageous marriages, to have a hearty covered-dish meal, to reserve their future plot in the cemetery – but few were necessarily “being church” as disciples of Christ. It makes perfect sense, then, that when two young brothers who had been raised in Anglicanism came of age, they decided it was time for some massive changes. John and Charles Wesley recognized that, starting on a personal level, it was time to reclaim “Scriptural holiness” that included the two key ingredients that the English were missing: first, the spiritual devotion of someone who believes fully in Jesus and, second, the kind of Christian service that would actually lift up the lives of those in need. While still ultimately college students, they started a group that became known mockingly as “Methodists” because they seemed too serious, too methodical, about their faith. They were disciplined to daily practices like journaling, fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. They dove into Scripture as a living, authoritative text. They went into the dark bowels of society, like debtors’ prison, not just to speak to the people but to know them and later to help remedy their real-world issues. Then, John Wesley began to preach.

By this time he was an officially-ordained Anglican priest but did what few other dared to do: he took to field-preaching. It meant going in person to the places where the poor, unchurched masses were found – literally in fields, at the shipyards, outside coal mines. Suddenly, the “least of these” heard the Gospel, and heard their own stories in it, and they repented by the hundreds then thousands. They came forward to be saved, and the response was overwhelming. Based on his own experience, John grouped the new converts into small groups, classes and bands, so that salvation wouldn’t be a simple one-time rebirth but rather the beginning to Christian sanctification; and the movement ballooned. Christians were tasting real community for the first time in ages, and it was lighting the spiritual landscape on fire. But that’s not all.

Wesley realized quickly that the people needed to learn how to properly be community together. His journals reveal that, early in the movement, everyone started to notice a problem. His small group leaders would visit the homes of their class members in order to take up the weekly collection, and find their fellow disciples in all manner of spiritual disarray. One man would come to the door stone-cold drunk before 9:00 in the morning. Another woman was found with an “overnight guest” who was a man other than her husband. Another home was torn by domestic violence. In another, the children weren’t being properly fed. In other words, although the masses were converting and joining Methodist groups, the members of the groups weren’t actually sharing life together. They were entertaining one another with superficiality; they were wearing spiritual masks while darker realities lurked behind closed doors. They weren’t confessing to one another, or holding each other accountable. In the end, the Wesleys reshaped the “rules” for their groups. They refocused their efforts on deep relationship and vulnerability. The new question that became the focal point for Methodists, and it was designed to be answered in total honesty every single meeting, was this: How is it with your soul? And if anyone tried to respond with anything like “Pretty good” or “Just fine,” it wasn’t going to fly.  He set up these societies to truly share life together.

Every year at Annual Conference individuals who have felt the call of God to ordained ministry whether that call is to be a deacon or an elder in the United Methodist Church and wishes to be in full membership in the Annual Conference stands up before the Executive Session of the Annual Conference, all the ordained clergy, and has these questions asked of him or her by the Bishop. 1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8. Have you studied the doctrines o the United Methodist Church? 9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? 10. Will you preach and maintain them? 11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? 12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? 13. Will you support and maintain them? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit from house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions: a. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. B. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

Do you know the General Rules of our church and will you keep them? Just three simple rules. It’s Wesley’s way of expressing the first and second commandment that are in Mark’s text for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is contained in these two. Rueben Job says that these rules have the power to change the world. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God” are ancient simple words seldom put to the test, but words when lived out in this life, could transform the whole earth. We really do live in a world of divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete.

Can you imagine the outcomes of our communities if every United Methodist worldwide would live into these 3 simple rules? If young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak and those of every theological persuasion in the church would live out these words, we would have a transformed culture, we would together, change the world. Wesley believed this in his day so much that he took this as the blueprint of his societies, fleshed it out, taught it, and expected every Methodist to practice it. I’ve been told that it was the Methodism influence of living out these simple rules that kept England from breaking out in civil war against each other in those turbulent times of the industrial revolution.

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”

Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Even our witness to the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus loses its authenticity and its power in the wake of so much division and hatred. Those who follow Jesus are asking, “is there not a better way to live with each other?” “Is there not a better way to practice our faith?” a way so simple that none are turned away because of its complexity, and all can practice it because of its simplicity.   These three simple rules are one of the ways we tap into that.  Are you willing to go on this journey of discovery of actually practicing what our Rabbi taught us in a framework that is easy to understand but we will spend a lifetime perfecting?

Love, Heal Me

Mike and I got turned on to the band The City Harmonic because they had their song “Mountaintop” on one of the CD’s that he gets in Worship Leader Magazine.  We immediately were fans.  I don’t know if you know this about me yet, but if I’m blasting my iTunes on the computer in my office, I’m being productive.  I’m in the groove.  I love music.   Music is one of the ways I tap into God’s voice.  Music has a way of moving you out of your own way so that you can see the kernel of truth.  We hear music.  We sing along.  We think about the words.  It taps into the deep well of our souls in a way nothing can and it can come to us in our times of need.  I remember bits of hymns or praise songs or scriptures when I’m at my most vulnerable and raw.

This morning a song from The City Harmonic came on my iTunes.  It’s called “Love, Heal Me” and it has a powerful story behind it.  One that I knew about, but I didn’t discover the youtube video until today.  As a congregation, many have been battling cancer and everyone has been touched in some way by cancer.  I know this for sure and for certain that God doesn’t cause cancer or any other disease.  God doesn’t want any of God’s children to suffer.  “Everything happens for a reason” is no where in scripture, but God working all things for good (Romans 8:28) is definitely there.  The Psalms are full of people crying out to God in grief, in anger, in desperation….and God was with each of them then and God is with each of us now, no matter what battle we face.

Eric describes his bandmates, their families and the fans coming alongside him as he journeyed through cancer.  He says, “I kept saying I can’t write this right now. I can’t say these things right now.  I believe them, but I can’t say them right now. He said (talking about lead singer Elias) I think you need to write it.  I think we just need to do it.  And in that, in and of itself, him as a brother forcing me to deal with what I was processing at the time. That’s what we’re hoping to do with our music to the larger body because the truth is, I was in a really vulnerable and raw place and it really helped to get the songs out and to state what I knew I believed and what I knew to be true even if I couldn’t feel it at the time.”

My desire is that for the Church to come alongside people, to not give cliched answers, but instead to listen, embodying love and grace for all.  I want the church to be vulnerable and raw and for that to be okay.  Jesus doesn’t call the perfect.  He calls the messy people that don’t have it all together.  Don’t worry….that’s each and every of us.  As Roberta Porter writes in her poem Transforming Love, “God wants our lives — not Sunday morning shiny, but all the fragments of our failures, shards of struggle and sin we’ve gathered, hidden, on our way.  And in Jesus’ transforming love, his willing brokenness, sacrifice, rising, our sorrow and pain become gifts to be used for others, our weakness the dwelling place for the Spirit’s strength, our broken-open lives bearers of God’s grace.”  Even those who have been turned off by the church.  Even those who are angry at God.  Even those that feel like God has forgotten them and is not listening.  The world doesn’t need all of the “right” answers, the world needs a Church that is authentically caring about each of us, loving each of us exactly where we are, taking the time to build relationships with each of us.  As we sit at the feet of the Rabbi, as we learn to be true disciples that walk the way that leads to life, may we take off our masks.  May we let the scales of stress and expectation fall away.

Most of all, let us never forget GOD IS WITH US.  Every step of the way.  Through good times and bad.  Sometimes we need our Christian community to remind us of who we are and Whose we are, for them to help us sing when we can’t make a sound, for them to lift us up when we fall.  There’s an old Irish proverb that I think exemplifies what I believe the image of Christian community to be. “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.”  It is in the shelter of each other that people live.  My prayer is that as we continue to battle whatever adversity life throws at us, we draw closer to one another and to the One whose mercies are new every day, even when it’s hard for us to believe that.

“Love, Heal Me”

I’m broken down
I’m on my knees
I’m crying out in my disease
I’m so worn down
So won’t You speak
and tell me how
You care for me?
’cause You are God
You heal all things
Your name is Love
So Love, heal me
I’m broken now
Won’t always be
Yes, I’ve seen pain
I’ve seen grief
But how it fades
When I sing
These songs of love:
They help me see that
You are God
You heal all things
Your name is Love
So Love heal me
And I’ll hold on
‘Cause You heal all things
Your name is Love
So Love, heal me
I’m falling down
I’m on my knees
I’m singin’ out: You’re what I need
I’m singin’ out: You’re what I need
I’m seeing now You’re here with me

“Praise The Lord”

Praise the Lord when it comes out easy
Praise the Lord on top of the world
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the joys of life
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
Praise the Lord with the world on your shoulders
Praise the Lord when it seems too hard
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the long, dark night
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
Praise the Lord if you can sing it at the top of your lungs
Praise the Lord like every moment is a song to be sung
Praise the Lord: though it might take blood, sweat and tears in your eyes
There is grace for today so praise the Lord
There is grace for today so praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
There is grace for today so praise the Lord

What are you looking for?

John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

What Are You Looking For?

Why are you sitting here in church this morning?
What possibly possessed you to climb out of your warm bed on a quiet Sunday morning and come to church?  And it’s turning into  beautiful day outside?  And you’re here, again?!?

Christmas is over, remember? The tree is down, the ornaments put away, even the pine needles have pretty much worked themselves out of the carpet by now. There is no big liturgical holiday scheduled for this Sunday. And yet there you sit.  I see you.

Why? What are you looking for?

We are a destination-obsessed culture. When was the last time you slid behind the wheel of your car without the least idea of where you were going to go? The old tradition of taking a “Sunday drive” has gone by the wayside. We are busy people with crammed, jam-packed schedules. Just look at our business cards: name, address, cell phone number, work phone number, e-mail address, web site, Instagram, facebook, Google plus, snapchat, twitter or our linked in profiles.

Instead of meandering about, we have morning news and radio traffic reports for the commute to downtown, to North Charleston, to Summerville, telling us where the accidents are and we have GPS’s or Google maps on our phones to give us the latest on how to adjust our driving routes around congested intersections and clogged arteries. We have so many places to go and appointments to keep that we keep our phones in our hand so that we’re constantly connected and we miss the world going on all around us in “real life.”  We don’t have time to wander around, to walk about and explore.  Much less have time to even ask the question, “Now what was I looking for?”  As I open the pantry, I’m overwhelmed by the options, and immediately think now, what was I looking for?  It’s not just our pantries.  It’s our jobs, our kid’s activity schedules, or the like.  We have all these things vying for our attention and some of them are great and worthwhile things, but we’re so over programmed that we’re not fully present anywhere or we’re half-way present everywhere.

This culture is looking for something – desperately. There is a quest for some sort of awakening, a deep hunger for spiritual renewal, lurking behind all the scheduled chaos that fills postmodern life. Not all recognize they are even searching for something MORE to add to their lives. Something significant.  Something filling for this gnawing emptiness deep inside the soul.  We are each after something that awakens our hearts, souls AND minds.

I posted a blog yesterday, when we were taking a break on the job site, written by Gina Butz and in it she talks about being busy to the max.  She was in a new country, six months pregnant, doing ministry with her husband, meeting with small groups, burning the candle at both ends.  When her baby was 6 months old, she talks about cleaning up a blow out in his diaper, while she meets with her language coach.  She writes, “In my desperation, I cried out to God, and He led me to Jeremiah 6:16. It reads, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  When I read that, my soul ached. I longed for that rest.”

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Do you long for that rest?  Boy, I do!

We try to squeeze all the time out of our schedule to the very last drop as with the coffee commercial many years ago.  Perhaps it is our continuing commitment to a “filling” schedule that has made a boom market for spiritual “quick fixes” in the last ten years.  The amount of blogs, podcasts, online devotionals has increased dramatically. In the marketplace of this new era, when we’re always connected, spirituality, a quick and easy spirituality especially, has become a major consumer item. You can get a smorgasbord of Bible apps, devotional apps, and even get the Common Prayer app.  Whenever a spiritual ache twinges or an empty soul growls, all we have to do is look to a phone or a computer or we can run to the store and pick up the newest hot-seller on the spiritual-fulfillment list. You’ll notice the pile of books in my office or the apps on my phone or the amount of blogs I post, I’m just as guilty.  Note that I said I found that blog on a break when we were on the Sellers Work Blitz yesterday as I was cleaning layers of grime in this man’s kitchen.  Hammers and saws were in the background but I was left alone for a few minutes with the Rabbi.  I often relate to the story of Mary and Martha.  I’m more often than not, a Martha, busy making preparations and checking things off the list and missing out on the opportunity to sit at the feet of the Messiah and simply be.  I long for more time to sit at his feet, listen, rest in and acknowledge he’s the Great I Am, the Lamb of God, the One who was born to set the captives free.

When Jesus turned and confronted John the Baptist’s two disciples as they began following him, they were startled by his question and its directness. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asked. More John Wayne or Clint Eastwood than anything mamby pamby. No pithy parable, no gentle discipling. More a sharp question than anything else. During the course of Jesus’ ministry, it would become blatantly evident just what some of his so-called “followers” were looking for.

– As his reputation spread, there were the throngs that crowded around him with various diseases and ailments. They were looking for healing.

– As his popularity spread, there were the religious authorities who began to question his theology and orthodoxy. They were looking for a fight.

– As his miracles increased, there were the crowds of hangers-on or groupies, just there for the show. They were looking for entertainment.

– As his wisdom spread, there were seekers like the rich young ruler who tried to second-guess his meanings. They were looking for an easy way into heaven.

– As his fame circulated, and his famine-quenching powers became the talk of the town, there were lots of people with needs and wants who followed in his wake. They were looking for the loaves and fishes.

When Jesus went off by himself to the mountains and was lost in prayer, his own disciples came and interrupted him, declaring, “Everyone is looking for you!”

The disciples were right. Everyone is looking for Jesus, for the living spirit of God in their lives – and no imitations will fill their needs.  Not fancy cars, lavish houses, high-powered jobs, designer clothes… The answer to Jesus’ soul-searching question, “What are you looking for?”, can’t be brought home from the shopping mall or a car dealership.  It comes from a seeking heart ready to sit at the feet of Jesus acknowledging him as Lord of our lives.  Saint Augustine writes, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in YOU.

When Jesus confronted these two would-be disciples with his haunting question, “What are you looking for?”, the answer he received may sound strange to us, but it was actually a pretty good start.

“Rabbi,” they replied, “where are you staying?” “Teacher,” they were saying, “let us join with you and be your students.” Let us pick up whatever we can from you as we learn at your feet.  When Jesus responds to this address and request, his answer is an invitation, “Come and see.”  It’s always an invitation with Jesus.  Discovering the spirit of God, the presence of Christ, in your life is rarely experienced as a blinding light or a burning bush ie. Paul or Moses.  It takes gradual morsels, ingested, digested and lived out in our lives.  Growing your soul, filling your spirit with the right nutrients and nourishment, is a lifelong process.

Do you choose to call Jesus, Lamb of God, as John the Baptist did?  The Mighty Atoner for all our sins.  Jesus who made the great sacrifice and washed away all our sins.  Do you choose to call him Rabbi or Teacher?  The One who walks in the way that leads to life?  Do you choose to sit at the feet of this Rabbi your whole life long?  You can always learn something if you truly follow Jesus.  Or do you call him Messiah, like Andrew said to his brother Simon Peter?  The One who is we have been waiting for.  The One whom the prophets foretold.  The One who proclaims release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, the Light of the World.  Jesus can be anything you need, if you look for him, Healer, Savior, Justice-Seeker.  If you seek Jesus with all your heart than you will find him.  If you invite him into your lives, he’ll be there. Rev, Canon Manoj Mathew Zacharia, Sub-Dean at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinatti, writes, “What are we looking for?  The answer to this question depends on our basic orientation towards and understanding of Truth. If our orientation is rooted in self-centeredness and the accumulation of wealth and power for its own sake, then we are looking for truth in the idols that society has given us in the form of individualistic materialism and consumerism. If we are looking for an authentic experience rooted in the vision of a new heaven and earth bridged by the reconciling work of God manifest in the redemptive work of Christ, we are looking for a relationship centered on Jesus, who proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life.”

Is that, perhaps, the reason you came to church today? To continue your spiritual search or get sustenance for the journey? To attend your life long journey to grow more and more like Jesus?  To find fellowship and support from your fellow believers?  In Matthew 22 he had just silenced the Sadducees, when the Pharisees sought to trick him and they asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  In verse 37 he says to them, “37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  What are you looking for?  A church who follows Jesus’s commands?  To Love God and Love neighbor in word, prayer, and deed? I know for me, I want to sit at the feet of the One who calls me by name and asks, “What are you looking for?” and I answer and he says, “Come and See.”  In a world where spirituality has become a consumer item, we must consciously, intentionally choose to sit at the feet of Jesus and invite others to do the same, so we can ALL come see and know that our God reigns.  I know what I’m looking for.  I want to see a great awakening in our hearts, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in all the lands praising and following the Christ who was and is and is to come. Letting Jesus transform our lives from the inside out individually and communities of faith so we can grow as disciples and we can live it out by being the hands and feet of Jesus, shining and sharing our lights for the world.  Amen.

Abide With Me

I heard the song “Abide With Me” by Matt Maher on my iTunes yesterday afternoon while I was trying to complete charge conference forms.  It came at just the right time and it reminded me that all ever have to do is be faithful.  Faithful to be abide in the true vine as it says in John 15 and faithful and obedient to God’s will for my life.  Even if I’m connected to the vine, even when I’m doing all the seemingly “right” things, junk still happens.  The messiness of life still happens.  Sin still happens.  The Enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy and he sows discord, drama, misunderstanding, hurt, and confusion.  As Romans 8 explains nothing can separate us from the love of God.  We are more than conquerors through Jesus who loved us.  In the song it uses the word “with” not “in.”  Abide with us.  We have that hope and expectation with our God, the one, true God.  Emmanuel, God with us, came down to be with us.  The Triune God is present with us in our joys, like Melia ringing the bell that signified her radiation treatments were over, our hopes, as sweet Lillian’s prayer said, even when we’re tired and frustrated in this political season or in general.  It’s easy to get so busy, we’re just checking off the boxes off a “to do” list and going through the motions.  Or maybe you’re feeling like you’re far from God and God’s being silent right now.  No matter where you are on your faith journey, I pray that God gives you the encouragement you need to keep stepping out in faith.  Some of us may be running.  Some of us may be barely putting one foot in front of the other.  Wherever you are, know and trust in God’s abundant love for you and that Point Hope will welcome you with open arms as you are, a child of God.

“Abide With Me”

I have a home, eternal home
But for now I walk this broken world
You walked it first, You know our pain
But You show hope can rise again up from the grave

Abide with me, abide with me
Don’t let me fall, and don’t let go
Walk with me and never leave
Ever close, God abide with me

There in the night, Gethsemane
Before the cross, before the nails
Overwhelmed, alone You prayed
You met us in our suffering and bore our shame

Abide with me, abide with me
Don’t let me fall, and don’t let go
Walk with me and never leave
Ever close, God abide with me

Oh love that will not ever let me go
Love that will not ever let me go
You never let me go
Love that will not ever let me go
Oh You never let us go

And up ahead, eternity
We’ll weep no more, we’ll sing for joy, abide with me

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John 15

15‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become* my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

18 ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.19If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law, “They hated me without a cause.”

26 ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Romans 8:35-39

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Helping Each Other Finish the Race

I don’t know if you’ve seen this story or not, but it’s a beautiful reminder of the Olympic spirit.  That though these athletes are from other countries, they’ve trained for this, they’ve endured various challenges for this moment, and they persevered over injuries, early morning wake ups, weather, and apathy to routine.  Sometimes we need a little bit of help to finish the race.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/sports/olympics/nikki-hamblin-abbey-dagostino-womens-5000.html?_r=0

“Get up.  We have to finish this.”

Sometimes we need a little help and encouragement to finish the race.

It reminds me of the Mark 2 passage.  The one where a paralytic man’s friends help him by lowering him from the roof to be healed by Jesus.  This passage has always been a favorite of mine because they go the extra mile for their friend which illustrates perfectly Christian community – not just talking the talk but walking the walk.  Action, not merely words.  You see Jesus had already started healing people and when he came to Capernaum there was standing room only inside the house. There were four friends and a man on a stretcher that were trying to get in to see Jesus because they had faith that if Jesus saw their friend, he could be made well.

It was so crowded,that they literally had to tear up the roof to lower him down.  To me, there’s something really powerful about them having to actually dig through and get dirty to help make this miracle happen.  According to some scholars, the roof was usually made of beams about 3 feet apart.  These beams would be filled with twigs, then packed with clay and covered with dirt.

If you have ever worked with drywall or insulation, particularly taking it down, you know that there’s small particles and dust everywhere.  A big mess.  So as you can probably imagine, as these four are pulling away chunks of clay, bits of dirt, and dried leaves are falling all over those below.

And the people who stood in the room, who most likely had some small rubble or debris dropped on their heads were doubtfully very thrilled and the men had to know this when they concocted their plan.  They risked a lot because they had faith in who Jesus is and what a tremendous impact he could have on the life of their friend.

Sometimes we need people to come alongside us to bring about God’s healing.  Sometimes we need conversation partners as God speaks through another, sometimes we need others to recognize the God spark in us, when we can’t imagine it’s anything but extinguished, sometimes we need a push or someone to reach down and help us up.  And that’s okay.  We’re supposed to be community to and with one another.  We’re here to support and be the hands and feet of Christ as the Holy Spirit leads us in the words to speak that all people are created in the image of God and God has called us all GOOD.

We need to be the ones that receive the help and then give the help.  Everyone is on a journey, with twists and turns, highs and lows.  We are not any of us invincible.  We all need help sometimes.  But we also need to give that same help to others.  I think that God allows some things to happen, hard roads to walk, to give us empathy with one another.  God works all things for good, after all.  I’ll invite you to insert your name for love as I write the Message version of 1 Corinthians 13.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

So when you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  If you see someone down and out, don’t be afraid to step out in faith and let the miracle happen.  We are all on this blessed journey together.  Every one of us. We can’t do this life alone.  We all need to lean on each other.

Our Stories

I preached this at Point Hope UMC this morning.  They were very gracious to me and we had a delicious lunch after church that Mike and the kids have raved about all afternoon.  Thanks for being with me on this crazy journey called life.  I want you to share your stories  with me too!  ‘Cause we’re not meant to do this life alone.  Amen?

Psalm 77

1I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.

2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.

3I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah

4You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

5I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.

6I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:

7“Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?

8Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?

9Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

10And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old.

12I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

13Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?

14You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.

15With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

16When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.

17The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.

18The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.

19Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.

20You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Some of you may be wondering what on earth is this preacher doing using a Psalm as her text on her first Sunday.  The Psalms get to the heart speak.  They get down deep, to the nitty gritty.  They’re full of real people celebrating their Good Shepherd and crying out desperately to God.  Both the mountaintops and valleys, the fullness of the human experience, is captured in the Psalms.

Let me tell you a story.  In my previous appointment I went to Costa Rica for a Spring Break mission trip in 2013 with Pura Vida Ministries.  Listen to their mission statement: “We exist to transform lives by providing Christ-centered, life-changing mission adventures.  We believe that following Jesus is Not an Event, but a Life!”  Not an event, but a life.  Not an event, but a life.  I believe that.  You will hear in my messages and hopefully see in my life a fervent desire to live our faith out loud, no matter the storms or challenges.  They had different merchandise you could buy with “Not an event, but a life” so I brought back a mousepad for my office, not knowing then that I would have my second brain surgery later that May.

At a conference in Winchester, VA I had my first seizure.  It was 2010 and I was 30 at the time.  I was diagnosed with a brain tumor that they removed most of two weeks later.  My tumor has a Harry Potter spell-like pronunciation to it – an oligodendroglioma. I had no complications or deficits after surgery.  I mean I had a tube coming out of my head with a blood bulb that I would put in the pocket of my hospital gown when I went to the bathroom but you go through what you have to.  I had the surgery on Friday and I was out on Sunday.  My son Enoch had just turned 3 and Evy was 1;58969_656598733737_2486331_n

so I recuperated at my brother Josh’s house.  I was back home and at work the next Thursday, less than a week later, easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.

I remember writing on the prayer request card from Pura Vida at the end of the trip that I would have an MRI the following Monday.  The MRI unfortunately showed the tumor had grown and so I began sharing with people that I would have a second surgery.  I thought it would be like the first surgery, so I agreed to do a wedding 3 weeks later and was set to do a workshop in Chicago that June and set to preach at camp for a week in July.  Unlike the first surgery where I had no complications, when I woke up I could understand everything the nurses, doctors, and my family were saying but I had lost my ability to speak.  The doctors and speech therapists call it apraxia.  Apraxia is the inability to execute learned purposeful movements, despite having the desire and the physical capacity to perform the movements. Oh, I had the desire in spades.  In other words, the words were still there but the ability to form sentences was broken, non-existent.

The tumor is on the motor cortex, that’s why they didn’t get it all the first time, so I had no feeling in my right arm or hand, and I’m right-handed.  I texted these words to my husband, Mike, with my left hand over two weeks later, “The quickness with which I speak comes back?”  It took me 45 minutes to text that.  I did 30 radiation treatments, 6 months of chemo, physical, occupational, and speech therapy over that year and then I went to the Ukraine to speak at a conference, but that is another sermon.

I’ve learned to rely on God because I HAVE to.  I am an independent, non-conformist person mixed with a perfectionistic people pleaser and I ALWAYS relied heavily on my communication skills.  I didn’t know how much until I couldn’t rattle off a prayer or answer a theological question or explain simple things to my kids or preach without a manuscript, or even the little things.  I used to carry around a small calendar in my purse to jot stuff down in, I used to type x number of words a minute, I used to love to send handwritten notes to people.  The ease and what came naturally to me before was lost and I still sometimes grieve that loss.  It’s okay to grieve.  God is with us when we mourn.  God promises to bring joy in the morning, so I went back to preaching in June.  I could read things and I reused every sermon that I had full manuscripts for that summer.  My oncologist, who I met with more frequently that first year and now at least every 3-4 months, was an older man who was all business and had a wry sense of humor.  Dr. Stahl always asked me if I was still preaching every week and I would always say yes.  He doesn’t know, by him asking me that question every time that I’m just stubborn, bull-headed and tenacious enough to see that as a challenge and with God’s strength, to make it happen!  He wrote this to me when he found out as I was moving, “It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have you as a patient-You have remarkable courage and determination-both of which have you served you well.”

We at the time had services every Sunday at 11 and every Wednesday night at 8:30 and shared in communion each time and it was a challenge to say the least.  A number of things helped me get through that time great students and other church members, Gator Wesley had been a local church and our older members sent me cards of encouragement almost every day, my speech therapist being patient and pushing me and saying your brain will rewire itself, songs like “Lord I Need You,” movies like “Rise of the Guardians” talking about what is your center and having faith even when you cannot see and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” talking about each of us has one, true, authentic swing, when I didn’t feel confident in my own voice, and y’all’s prayers, cards, and prayer shawls from around the United Methodist connection.  When I didn’t have the strength or the words or even the desire, on the dark nights of the soul, God was faithful.  When my primary care doctor said to me that September, I don’t think this brain tumor’s going to kill you, let’s get you healthy and strong, God was working through her to give me the hope that I needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  God can and does use us to be lights in a world full of darkness.  I knew then and I know now that God is with me every step of the way, continuing to strengthen me for the journey.  How do I know?  God gives us proof.   The little reassurances along the way – the person that says something and God’s speaking to me through their voice, the song that happens to come on the radio or the itunes shuffle at just the right time, the passage of scripture I happen to read that morning…it doesn’t just “happen.”  It’s a God thing.  Claim it.  Know it.  Trust it.  Be the person that Mother Teresa emulated as she said, “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

God is ever present reminding me I am enough even when I don’t have the words.  I am worthy even when I don’t have the answers.  I can claim my inheritance by simply resting in the surety that I am a child of God.  We all can.  We are all worthy and enough.  If I have learned anything over the past 6 years is it’s not enough to just merely have these quick fix Jesus highs, these Psalms of praise alone – no matter how great they are – because they won’t sustain you when the ship hits the sand or when the rubber hits the road and you’re left bereft.  Developing a real, in depth relationship with Jesus will.  Developing a faith that lasts and is rooted and grounded in scripture will.  A verse, a song lyric, a prayer….When the storms of life are raging, I know where my hope is and that is in Christ alone.  We sang the hymn, “In Christ Alone” at Annual Conference in 2011, one year after the first surgery, and we sang it just now before the sermon.  It’s a song that means very much to me, especially the last verse.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

At a retreat a year after the second surgery, the facilitator asked us to write questions on 3 cards.  They were to be questions where we needed the Holy Spirit to intercede, questions that were rolling around our heads but we had never articulated.  Then we were to paint and cut out pictures from magazines for each card without seeing what questions were on the back.  So I went to a place by myself and I invited the Holy Spirit to come by lighting a candle and I wrote these questions:

1.  What do I need more of in my life?
What do I need to embrace? 
Question 1

2.  What obstacles of the joy God wants for me do I consciously or subconsciously allow to hinder me from experiencing that joy? Question 2

3.  What do I need to let go?  Why am I so afraid to share my story?  Question 3

I went through the cards and picked colors and themes as I felt the Spirit leading me to.  Despite my skepticism, this activity ended being one of the most powerful practices that I have ever experienced.  I had gotten so caught up in my designs and cutting anything out that struck me that I had completely forgotten the original questions.

The answer to the first question was this: written in pencil “In Christ Alone, cancer, and colors.   I needed to embrace my cancer.  I was a cancer survivor.  And I need to place my trust “in Christ alone.”  Even the part about the skin was pointing to me embracing myself.  I had the dot tattoo so they could line me up to do my radiation and I had the scars from both the surgeries, but in the back of my mind I was still hiding.Image 1

We had been singing “In Christ Alone” during this retreat and when I shared that piece of my story later when all of us were sharing, we sang that as a closing song, which brought me to healing, relieving tears, like I let go of a burden.  The second question was this picture.  I look at this picture, I feel peace and beauty, and I needed more of that in my life after the year I had so I made a commitment to make room for beauty and positive and calming messages, so that’s why my office and home are decorated in such ways.Image 2

The last question of “What do I need to let go?” was the safe question.  God was leading me to ask what I really needed.  And the Holy Spirit was so loud in me, that I scribbled down the last question. It was surprising to me because I try to be real and authentic in all aspects of my life.  That’s why I created the blog in 2010. I didn’t want to actually talk about my blog or anything that I wrote.  And it was self-preservation and a bit of laziness to be sure because it was a  way to share with my family, friends, students and the communities that raised me and fed me and are praying with me something I couldn’t say out loud.  It was to share authentically with the world what was going on with me.  It was a way to update everyone at once with what was going on inside my head.  I rarely re-read and edit.  So this question was surprising to me.  But Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  It struck me as I was writing this sermon that I use “afraid.”  And I think that is telling.  I admit now I was afraid and I am afraid of being misunderstood, of losing my words, of not being in control…but as 1 Timothy 1:7 says God does not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and love.  God doesn’t call us to be silent, God calls to be bold and step out in faith and God will give us the words to speak. Image 3

Everything.  I needed to let go of everything.  And I felt safe in the arms of Mike in it all, but more than that I felt like God had and is protecting me from the storm.  God was creating the perfect shelter, an eye in the hurricane.  God was also giving me a clear message with these cards.  I needed to share my story, integrating the cancer, no matter how hard, personal, and vulnerable.

 I’ve claimed the words of Isaiah 41:8-10 (NRSV) But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

Bob Goff in his book Love Does says, “I once heard somebody say that God had closed a door on an opportunity that they hoped for.  But I’ve always wondered if, when we want to do something that we know is right and good, God places that desire deep in our hearts because He wants it for us and it honors Him.  Maybe there are times when we think a door has been closed and, instead of misinterpreting the circumstances, God wants us to kick it down.  Or perhaps just sit outside of it long enough until somebody tells us we can come in.”

God wants us to dream large God-sized dreams.  God wants us to sometimes kick doors down.  God wants to give us a future with hope.  As Jeremiah 29:11-14 says, “11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”  Or as it is in 1 Corinthians 2:9, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  Or as it is in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

We’re not meant to walk this road alone.  I want to walk with you and hear your stories so that in the mountain tops and the valleys, we can share with one another, come alongside one another, praying for each other, being church with one another.  It’s a crazy cool relay race in the United Methodist Church’s system of itineracy.  Joe passed Walter the torch. Walter passed me the torch and I am ever grateful for that torch and the care in which he handed it off.  In 1 Corinthians 3:6, “Paul wrote, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”   The earth is fertile here at Point Hope and God is indeed in your midst making things grow and making all things new.  I trust God to rock our socks off!  That’s the beautiful and crazy gift of having life in Christ.  You follow where God has called you, no matter that you’re too old to have kids, like Abraham, no matter if you’re a prostitute, like Rahab, no matter the speech impediment like Moses, no matter if you don’t want to, like Jonah, no matter if you’re left in a foreign land with your mother in law, like Ruth…and that’s just the Old Testament.  The Bible is chock full of stories about God doing extraordinary things with ordinary people.  God didn’t stop writing stories two thousand years ago.  I’m reminded of the Big Daddy Weave song that weaves in the hymn “This is my story, this is my song.”  The lines are

 If I told you my story
You would hear hope that wouldn’t let go
If I told you my story
You would hear love that never gave up
If I told you my story
You would hear life but it wasn’t mine

If I should speak then let it be

Of the grace that is greater than all my sin
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in
To tell you my story is to tell of Him

We all have a story and when we take a moment in our busy lives to catch our breath and let the God that came and dwelt among us have room in our lives, we create room for God to share with us.  If you’re thinking you don’t have a story, ask God and God will reveal your story.  Or if the problem is not you not knowing, but getting it out or just not telling it, than Marianne Williamson says it this way, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be.  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Let your light shine that the world may see and know.  If we all share our lights together – we will – with God’s strength – rock their socks off!

I had no idea before the age of 30 that my story would include a brain tumor, but I know I have life, indeed abundant life in Christ.  Not just surviving but thriving. Too often I hear that we’ve just got to get through high school or college or grad school or we have to get our first job or get married or have children or retire to figure out what in the heck to do with our lives, but God doesn’t want us to let life pass us by so that we’re only barely surviving. God wants us to thrive.  Jesus didn’t come so we could have a complacent life.  He came for us to have abundant life.

I want each of us to be a part of God’s larger. Broader story, in our own particular way, with our own spiritual gifts, strengths or weaknesses that God works for good.  Look under your chair, some of you might have peeked already, and that’s perfectly okay.  This is to basically sum up my sermon and it was made by one of my favorite artists Suzanne Vinson.  Here’s the full quote from Frederich Buechner.

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

I would like you to take this with you.  Keep it in your wallet or in your dashboard or on your bathroom mirror.  Let it be a reminder that nothing can separate you from the love of God and God’s abundant grace, and though beautiful and terrible things will inevitably happen, we are not to fear, because we know the One who spoke things into existence, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Amen.  Let us pray.

*  Music that I was listening to while I wrote this sermon.  TobyMac “Move” Hawk Nelson  “Drops in the Ocean” “Lord I Need You”  Lauren Daigle “Trust In You” Sidewalk Prophets “Prodigal” Ryan Stevenson “The Eye of the Storm” Aaron Shust“Ever Be” Hollyn “Alone”