God chooses us just as we are.

Matthew 4:18-22

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Have you ever heard of “call stories?”  They are the stories of ordinary people that are used by God for a purpose.  The first scripture is one of the most famous call stories because Jesus took uneducated fishermen and called them to fish for people.   God chooses us as we are and as we lean into that we are called to be disciples who draw others to Jesus.

The fisherman left everything, nets and all.  They left family and friends.  They left everything that was familiar to them:  from their day to day routines to their favorite corner store or coffee shop.

How many of you were born before 1992?  Mike had the kids and I watch Sneakers this week and it was made in 1992.  He said he and his brothers watched it over and over again.  Have any of you heard Steven Curtis Chapman song For the Sake of the Call?  It came out in 1992 and my brothers and I knew as United Methodist preacher’s kids, when my mom played it, we were about to move!  That and Michael W. Smith’s song, Friends are Friends Forever.

scc_forthesake
(Don’t you love the mullet!)
Nobody stood and applauded them
So they knew from the start
This road would not lead to fame
All they really knew for sure
Was Jesus had called to them
He said “come follow Me” and they came
With reckless abandon, they came

Empty nets lying there at the water’s edge
Told a story that few could believe
And none could explain
How some crazy fishermen agreed to go where Jesus led
With no thought to what they would gain
For Jesus had called them by name
And they answered…

We will abandon it all for the sake of the call
No other reason at all but the sake of the call
Wholly devoted to live and to die

We knew what my mom was getting at.  If God called our family to another church, we had to obey.  If you obey Jesus when he calls, life is going to be an adventure.  Has anyone ever seen Running Wild with Bear Grylls?*  I love that show.  The concept came after he first had Will Farrell join him in his first survival show.  In it, celebrities go on adventures with him and he teaches them survival lessons along the way.  It’s always a journey from point A to point B.  The celebrity doesn’t know the path and they balk when there’s heights or they have to eat something to survive like grubs or crickets or a squirrel or there’s only a small space between rocks and they’re claustrophobic.  He leads and they follow.  Sure they pitch fits along the way, sure they threaten to not go on…but in their fears is where I most see their humanity.  They’re real people at those moments and they obviously don’t care about what the camera is making them look like.  We’ve seen insights into some of the why’s and how’s of their fears and when they conquer them, it is a beautiful thing.   I used to think of the disciples much like Bear Grylls, rugged, with an adventurous, live on the edge spirit.  But they weren’t like that at the beginning of their trek with Jesus.  They were probably very much like these celebrities, albeit the celebrities have the right kind of gear.  Does God equip us with the right kind of gear for the road, no matter what road?

Did the four fishermen that Jesus called take their fishing nets with them?  Nope!  They didn’t know where the journey would take them.  They couldn’t carry luggage loaded onto a baggage cart.  As we talked about last week, we each have figurative baggage.  Most of us carry “stuff” and sometimes it’s like a security blanket.  That we hold onto.  We carry it with us wherever we go and we’re afraid to lay it down because it’s ours – the familiar and the comfortable.  Some of us like the prodigal have gotten so used to the pigs and the mud that we are stuck there and even those that are closest to us don’t know the full extent of our hurts.  The words that were used against us when we were younger that we’ve never told anyone.  The awkwardness of not feeling comfortable even in your own skin.  The voices in our heads of who society or our “friends” or what social media tells us we should be.  I dislike the way trolls can hide behind screens and say you’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you’re not smart/pretty/kind…..enough.  Jesus doesn’t want us drinking the haterade.  Jesus is asking you to go on a great adventure and you have to lay down your baggage, sometimes daily.  Guilt. Shame. Pride. Doubt. Fear. Self-Loathing.  Superhuman expectations.  The pressure we put on ourselves to measure up to this person or that person.  Lay it all down.  Take it off your shoulders.  Stop rolling that luggage around and repent.  Ask for forgiveness.  Let it all go.  If you pick it back up, repeat and ask the Holy Spirit to block you or your behavior from picking it back up.  Use a breath prayer.  Every time something comes into your mind or you revert into old familiar patterns of behavior, say “Lord Jesus take this from me” or “Lord in your mercy” or “My help is in You alone Lord” or “Not my will, but Yours.”

My son Enoch when he was in kindergarten got a color for every day for his behavior.  The colors were blue for an exceptional day, green for a good day, yellow for a one warning day, orange for a two warning day, and red if he had to go to the principal’s office.  He would stress out and worry over his color every day knowing that we expected mostly green days, but Enoch was a rambunctious and inquisitive child, so inevitably we were happy with the yellow days.  He would always get stressed out and upset if the teacher moved his color and that would affect his behavior as well.  He was in this cycle because he didn’t want to disappoint us.  I would explain to him that every day is a brand new day.  I would often quote the line in Anne of Green Gables, “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”  Leave the mistakes of today and don’t carry them with you to tomorrow.  I will go farther still.  Leave the mistakes of all the yesterdays in the past.  Ask for forgiveness and then do 180 degree turn.  That’s what repentance is.  I saw a bumper sticker a long time ago that said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Let there be no doubt in your mind that Jesus scatters your sins and my sins from the east to the west and we are free.  Romans 8:14-16 says, “14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Let the mean thing that someone said about you go.  Let all of the expectations that the world has placed on you go.  Let all of the hatred and demonizing the other go.  You don’t have time for that.  You have a world to love.  If you let it, hate will blacken your heart.  As Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”  I love this quote from Marianne Williamson about fear.  “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.”

Our second scripture for today, John 15, is all about abiding in Christ and loving one another as we abide in Christ. Abide or meno in Greek means to stay, remain, accept, obey and heed.  Have you heard of the resting state on an MRI?  Resting state is a method of functional brain imaging that can be used to evaluate regional interactions that occur when a subject is not performing an explicit task.  In other words resting in the love and grace of God should be how we go through life.  If we rest in God’s love, it’s easier to show others God’s love.  John 15:16-18 says, “16 You 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. 17 I 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.” 

We did not choose God, but God chose us that we may bear fruit in the world.  God seeks to be in right relationship with all of God’s children.  God’s prevenient grace, that grace that goes before we even realize it, is offered to everyone.  If we abide in God’s mercy in our resting state then it will be that much simpler to live into the full matrix of human life.  God says it won’t be easy, the world will hate us, just like it did him, but that’s all right.  If you speak the truth in love, some people won’t like that.  A word of caution here, if you are a truth teller, make sure you’re abiding in Christ, make sure you’re resting in the love of God, because you don’t want to do harm for harm’s sake.  You see the enemy wants to only steal, kill, and destroy, and he will use you to attack.  He doesn’t like when we tune into the Shepherd’s voice, when we listen to the voice of truth, our Savior’s voice.  That voice that tells us we’re somebody.

Remember my earlier rhetorical question about God equipping us for the road ahead?  God does and God will.  If you abide in the true vine and live to follow God’s heart and leading, God will give you everything you need.  You may be thinking that’s impossible.  Muhammad Ali said, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” With God all things are possible.  With God all things ARE possible.  Amen?

“A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. One morning they were eating breakfast in a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn’t come over here.”

But sure enough, the man came over to their table.  “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “Oklahoma,” they answered. “Great to have you here in Tennessee,” the stranger said. “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I’ve got a really good story for you.” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down. The professor groaned and thought to himself, “Great. Just what I need — another preacher story!”

The man started, “See that mountain over there?” He pointed out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up because every place he went, he was always asked the same question: “Who’s your father?’ The whole town looked for a family resemblance, whether the boy was at school, in the grocery store or the drug store, people would ask the same question: “Who do you belong to?”  He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going into stores because that question hurt him too much. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. He would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the dreaded question. But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast, he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, ‘Son, who’s your dad?’ The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church looking at him. Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question of who his father was.  The new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to the scared and nervous boy: ‘Wait a minute! I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’ With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance — go and claim it.’ With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him who his father was, he’d just tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’

The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn’t that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story. As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably would never have amounted to anything!” And he walked away.

The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked, “Do you know that man who was just sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That’s Ben Hooper. He’s the former governor of Tennessee!”

ben-hooper

Lo and behold, on one of our trips to Nashville, right across from a Cracker Barrel in Tennessee was a marker to Ben Hooper.  God actively pursues us.  God reaches for us.  God chooses us.  All we have to do is lay down our fears, baggage, and mistakes and trust in God’s abundant grace.  All we have to is follow where Jesus leads like the disciples that we are and abide in the true vine, that’s what the world is crying out for.  Something that’s real, and solid as a rock.  Something that could make fishermen leave their nets and go fish for people.  Something that neither moth nor rust will destroy.  “38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor 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.” 

(There’s a lot of calling out to God and bleeps but it’s funny.)

The Last Word

Winthrop Wesley celebrated Advent early this year fitting in with the college calendar and so my sense of which Sunday we’re on in Advent is all out of whack.  I had never done this before but a campus ministry friend told me about it and I thought we could give it a shot.  It amaze me how much it fit to talk about Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love around exam season with lots of papers, projects, and tests looming, some people ready to be home while others dread it, and all of the highs and lows of community – those ready to hurl their roommate and that want to squeeze out every drop of time with their friends before leaving for the break.

On our last night together, we looked at the candle of LOVE and talked about the last word.  We may pile up all sorts of opinions and points in our argument or debate, but in the end, with Jesus, love is the last word of all – God’s love for us, for all the world, and all of creation.  During this season talking about the last word has a lot of connotations for me.  For some, we wonder if we’ll ever get the last word on anything.  Things seem a bit out of control with questions about work or family or bills or the future or health.  It often doesn’t feel like we get a say in anything and we’re merely reacting to what happens, instead of setting the course. 

For others, we think of some of our friends or family or co-workers or maybe even ourselves as ones who thrive with having that last word and can’t imagine life without getting it.  I think of the television show Modern Family and the hilarity that ensued during the holiday episode this year between the “Realists” and the “Dreamers.”  But as the episode pointed out, you need a little bit of both.  We need each other – both realists and dreamers.  We have ones who are ready to concede the argument and ones that will fight to the bitter end trying to get the last word – but we all need to be somewhere in the middle.  We shouldn’t bowl over just because we’re “Christians” and let people walk and talk all over us, but we also shouldn’t be the ones that are raising to the loudest voice so that our point can be heard over all the masses not caring about the casualties that may surround us.

As some of you know, my brother Josh, is the rebel in our family.  I don’t think he has a corner deal on this and we’re all the rebel at times over such things, but in the delicious rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson, he’s the lone Clemson tiger.  Y’all know things have gotten a little tricky these past weeks with that rivalry and I’m not going to even begin to talk about the game, the history, the record, who said what, or who’s got the better mascot, because it sure as heck is not worth all of the angst and passion and pride that we all put into it.  Josh is not the most die-hard and orange Clemson  fan and I’m not the most die-hard and garnet Gamecock fan, so we can probably have this conversation easier than some of the hot heads, but let’s just say there’s been some thought-provoking discussion over football and faith and where in the world pastors and people of faith should fall on these topics and how they should present themselves not just in “real life” but on facebook and twitter as well.  You can go round and round and as people start trying to throw grenades at each other trying to get the last word, it feels like nobody wins.  That’s what I like and am challenged by in debating with Josh.  Neither one of us wants to give in and both of us have the natural tendency to want to get that last word in, but we also take our faith seriously and we don’t want to unduly hurt the other person or slam the other “side.”  Does that mean that there’s no time that we don’t get angry or want to rail at the other person?  No.  But it does mean that we hold each other accountable not just to our conversation and “the facts” as we think we see them, but also to the core values that we share.  It drives me crazy but it’s also something that I rely on and am challenged by as we can call each other out!

In this Advent season, it’s important to realize that the One who holds the real last word  – not just to some football rivalry or presidential debate or late night talk show snaffoo, but to all things – is the One who’s coming that we celebrate and await for the second time during this Advent season.  In the fourth Sunday of Advent I really love all the texts.  I know I’m biased – I love Advent in general, but I really like that all the texts are talking about God being with us and the impossible happening and Holy mysteries and saying yes even when things look far-fetched and unlikely.  Love it! (Oh I should probably tell you what they are – 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46b-55, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38)

You may be wondering where in the heck did I get the last word from that?  I didn’t mention any revelation passages.  A couple of things.  The first in verse 33 talking about Jesus, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  The second in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  There is no end to his kingdom.  He will have the last word, not in a Jesus juke kind of way, but in a beautiful, Christ-like, kingdom of God, eternal life kind of way….it really does mean eternal after all.  I love verse 37 too because it’s not saying nothing is impossible for God or in God even though those can be true as well, but nothing is impossible with God.  If we go to God with these things that trouble us, these things that we wrestle with, these things that drive us crazy or make us beyond impassioned, than with God we can find a way to be those Christ-like people in the world.  With God we can be the Jesus that the world sees and knows.  With God we don’t have to worry about the last word or who holds the speaking stick, because it’s not us and it’s not them, it’s the one who created us and who is creating all things new.

I fight for the last word more often than you probably know and some of you know me well.  It gets on my nerves when people talk down to people or about a book or a movie or a cause act like know it all’s.  And there’s a part of me that than wants to say – well more figuratively – I want to blow them out of the water.  Now again, I don’t believe that “Christians” just sit back on their hands and close their mouths and just let the world keep spinning, quite the contrary.  However, I do know that often what I’m reacting to is my own pride or my own issues.  Hello intramural basketball!  That’s the other thing that’s critical in this with God idea.  If we’re speaking with God, if we’re living our lives with God, if we’re juggling all of our demands with God, than for some reason I think that we’ll live our lives differently than if we just go it alone with our own sense of righteousness and justice.  Because I don’t know about you, but for me, there are times I can look back in conversations or experiences and I know it wasn’t God – it was me, going it alone, and spinning out.  But if we are with God, then nothing is impossible.  Not worries about family or friends or work or what we’re going to do with our lives or how we should spend our money or who we need to seek forgiveness or how we’re going to let our lights shine. 

So as I think about the holidays and all of the parties and the family and times of conversation and fun that are coming and I know, knowing our family and friends that things will be said with humor and love but always a little controversy and fun with so many folks and different ideas, may we realize and know that there are promises and mysteries during this Advent and that God’s kingdom will reign forever and we can be apart of that knowing that nothing is impossible with God and that we don’t have to carry all of the world’s burdens on our shoulders, but as we do the work of God, we can feel sure and certain that the last word comes from God – a God of grace and joy and hope and peace and great, great love!

A little too much…

I don’t know why but it’s been a hard couple of days in thinking about brain tumor land. Don’t worry nothing new – no change. This sounds so morbid, but on Saturday night I dreamed that I died – literally – and then went to heaven. Let’s just say in my dream, heaven was not what I expected. The pros – my three cats greeted me at the entrance. Who knows what that means…could be because two weeks ago I found out that the oldest cat Pug is in the beginning stages of kidney and renal failure or then again it could be because they greet me at the door all the time and any time they have thrown up a hair ball somewhere or made another mess Mike likes to threaten them. =0)

I don’t remember a ton about the dream or how things were laid out or anything and I am not at all saying that this is what it’s like or any sort of premonition at all (is that enough disclaimers there?), but I spent the dream waiting for people to get there. Now I know that heaven is heaven and duh we’re not going to be miserable sitting around swinging our legs back and forth waiting for the rest of our family to get there, but that was the dream. It sucked. Royally.

I didn’t really tell anyone about it until yesterday primarily because I had been thinking about it a lot and I know that if I say something out loud or if I write about it, in some crazy way, that helps me to process and make sense of things.

And then brain tumor stuff has just been popping up everywhere – wonderful friends checking in, a minister on the conference prayer list that we should be praying for, on everyone’s cancer statuses yesterday which was great, me still trying to get hair gel to smooth down the little hairs from the scar that are now long enough to look a little ridiculous, and the sometimes headaches and tingling that I often ignore but sometimes in one of these moods, wonder about. It is so stinking frustrating sometimes. On Sunday at the South Carolina delegation meeting we listened to a presentation on Benefits and Pension for close to two hours hearing about possible changes at the upcoming General Conference. When talking about life insurance and death benefits and spouses and pensions and insurance and disability for that long there is a large part of me that wants to just think of this as a tiny bump in the road and things are going to be fine and I’ll make it to the mandatory retirement age of 70. It could happen. I know that it could. And there’s another part of me that wants to figure out ways to provide and care for my family no matter what will happen and looking at all scenarios have as much of a plan as I can.

For the most part, I don’t even like bringing it up because I know if I talk to Josh about it while playing basketball or Mike about it when we get home from Wesley or to whoever in some ways, especially for my family, it stresses them out too. They don’t know what’s going to happen any more than I do.

It’s scary. And there’s still a part of me that is angry and frustrated that this is even part of our lives. There’s enough to worry about with kids and bills and living out one’s calling and vocational discernment to actually deal with all of this.

So that’s where I am. Saying to God it may just be a little too much and that I’m a little tired of battling in so many areas.

Are pastors “supposed” to say that? Who knows. But if I don’t keep it real and have my integrity than to me I’m nothing but a hypocrite and someone in denial.

The irony of this is that last night I preached during our sermon series on the book of Romans about God making impossible things possible. We were specifically looking at Romans 4 where it talks about Abraham and his faith. We then had some time of silence at the end where we could have a chance to think about some things that we would see or do or figure out or try or find if only we didn’t have doubts or fears or even sometimes “reality” holding us back. What would you do with your life if you could do absolutely anything and money nor education nor baggage nor what people would think were obstacles for you? What are some of your hopes and dreams for your family, your friends, your community, your church, your work? If we threw all of the “buts” out the window what would we grasp hold of and pursue?

What are the things that get in the way of that? What are some things we need to let go of in order to move forward and try to make our dreams into a reality?

These aren’t questions that you wrestle with for five minutes and than you’re good to go. Or maybe that works for you. I find that I have to intentionally pray and meditate and think and actually force myself to look and open my eyes and heart to the possibilities while telling my fears and frustration and failures to “shut it” for a few minutes so that I can see the light.

Because sometimes it feels like it’s a little too much. Actually sometimes it feels like it’s a lot too much. As excited as I was to move from 3 months to 6 months in the amount of MRI checks, there is a scared part of me that is nervous about that. What if that’s 3 months of something growing and us not doing something about it? I know that my doctors would never have let me go longer if I wasn’t ready to, but that’s what fears do…they somehow make it where even the things you want, you’re nervous about because you’re still feeling a way into a “new normal” or any kind of normal for that matter.

Then you go down the list of all of the people that have it so much worse than you and that things could be a million times more terrible….but that’s not comforting. I don’t want anyone to be going through anything like tumors or cancer or sickness and uncertainty of any kind. Does it mean that you’re thankful for all that God has done, is doing and will do? Sure. I have no idea what I would do without that. I need those times between me and God where I can say what I need to say and cry out and wrestle and not be censored by anyone.

We need time to sit and rest and be with God. We need time to let our fears and frustrations and disillusionment and grief go so that we can let new life spring forth not just in the midst of the weeds randomly despite everything, but in ways that we nurture and water and grow.

So I guess in this rambling post that may not be for anyone except for me writing and figuring this out – I need to find and make time to discern and be open to what God would have me do in this time and place, what God is calling my family to do, our community to do, Wesley to do. I need to trust that it’s okay that sometimes it’s a little too much and it can be heartbreaking and angering and discouraging and annoying. I need to realize that God is bigger than all of this – crazy dreams, long talks on benefits and pensions, things in my life playing up to my fears – and that God is with me and walking with me and comforting me each step of the way even when I want to bless the world and God out sometimes.