You Are Here

I flew from the Charleston airport this week for an Imagine What’s NEXT Design Team meeting.  I flew into Charlotte and then onto Atlanta as well as on the way back.  The Charlotte and Atlanta airports somehow illicit a fog on me because you see they were our “home” airports.  We lived in Atlanta for four years and we lived near the Charlotte airport 11 years counting when I was in high school and college.  So although I think I know where I’m going, I need the “You are Here” maps.  I don’t need to assume or attempt to go on autopilot. That was particularly helpful in Charleston as I had never been there before but it was just as true in Atlanta and Charlotte trying to find my gate.  I would look at the monitors and find my flight and then a moving side walk or a tram later the info would drop out of my head.   I constantly looked at “You are Here” maps and the monitors to give me direction.  That’s the position Esther was in.  She knew where she was, in King Xerses’ Court, but she needed God to give her direction on what she should do, and God’s Spirit to lead her steps and guard her mouth.

The story takes place in the 5th-century B.C. somewhere in the 470’s or so. Xerxes I (519-465) is the king in Persia. You might call him “king of the world.” He is known as Xerxes the Great. He invades Greece in 480 and is a monarch with absolute power and authority. Even today his legend is immortalized in Hollywood in movies such as 300. Xerxes knew how to throw a party.  The party lasted seven days and in Esther chapter 1: 8-9 it reads, “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.” Can you imagine a party lasting for seven days? It would be like Mardi Gras or Carnival to the extreme. The party never ends. On the seventh day, the King, who was in “high spirits” from wine orders Queen Vashti to make an appearance so they can behold her beauty, she’s his centerpiece after all. But Queen Vashti refuses to come. The text doesn’t say why she didn’t come. Maybe she didn’t feel like it, maybe she was sleeping and she didn’t want to be rudely woken up by a summons from the king, it doesn’t say.  As the eunuchs give the Queen’s response to the King, he is furious.  No surprise, Queen Vashti got deposed at the end of chapter 1.

How did Esther get there?  While the king was having second thoughts for having Vashti banned, his servants encouraged him to gather beautiful young women from every province in the kingdom, let cosmetic treatments be given to them and let the girl who pleases the king be queen. The king thought this was a very good idea.  Of course he did. He had his own version of The Bachelor.

I feel like at some points I’m telling a fairy tale. Esther was the most beautiful woman, the fairest in the land. There was a wise old Jewish man named Mordecai, and he had brought up Esther as his own daughter because she was an orphan.  And so of course, she ends up with a fairy tale ending and marries the king.  I’m skipping several plot points here – the twelve month beautification in the king’s harem and that the king chooses her and gives her a banquet to celebrate. And they lived happily ever after. What happens after happily after? Things get real and challenging and tricky negotiating because he is this all powerful king and she can’t go and see him anytime she wants to.  He has to summon her.  Talk about a complicated marriage.

Meanwhile, Mordecai is sitting at the king’s gates and he overheard two of the king’s officers plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai lets Esther know, and she warns the king about it. Mordecai was given credit for unfurling the plot and the two treasonous guards were hung on the gallows.

Now you should be hearing villainous music and lots of bass and minor notes because I’m about to introduce the character of Haman. It says the king “advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down.” But Mordecai refused, because he was a Jew, who would bow to no one except God. This made Haman very angry and he along with his wife and his advisors plotted against the Jews making a plan to get rid of them. Haman uses his influence on the king and makes the king a pawn in his chess game against Mordecai, saying the Jews don’t keep the same laws. So the king agrees. Esther 3:13, “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.”

When Mordecai learns this he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth. When Esther finds out about this she is obviously distressed because she is a Jew and from the beginning Mordecai told her to be silent about her heritage in the palace. Mordecai sends this reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

For such a time as this.

She sees the “You are Here” sign but she wonders why?  Why was she placed here?  Why was she called to this place?  What gifts did she have to offer?  Her faith in God?  Her fervent desire to go where God leads even though it may cost her?

Perhaps you’re here in this world at this particular time in this particular place for such a time as this, to step out and risk everything….

We’re back in Persia with some palace intrigue. Remember when I said Esther was not allowed to see the king unless he had asked for her?  She could be put to death for this and she had not been called in to see the king in 30 days.  So she, her maid-servants, and all of the Jews of Persia fasted earnestly for three days before she built up enough courage to enter the king’s presence. When the king saw Esther, he was pleased and held out his scepter to her. He then asked Esther what she wished of him, promising to grant even up to half his kingdom should she ask. Esther requested a banquet with the king and Haman. During the banquet, she requested another banquet with the king and Haman the following day.

Cue villainous laughter, Haman was already ordering gallows to be constructed to hang Mordecai. At the same time, Esther 6:1 says, “On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king” and he remembers that Mordecai had saved him from the previous assassination attempt and the king realizes he had not rewarded Mordecai.

Early the next morning, Haman came to the king to ask permission to hang Mordecai, but before he could, the king asked him “What should be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?” Haman assumed the king meant him, so he said that the man should wear a royal robe and be led on one of the king’s horses through the city streets proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The king thought this was appropriate, and asked Haman to lead Mordecai through the streets in this way. After doing this, Haman rushed home, full of grief. His wife said to him, “You will surely come to ruin!”

Esther 7:1-10 (NRSV)
“1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”

And you can guess what happened to Haman. He was hung on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

How do we relate to the story of Esther?  Haman reaped what he had sown? Is the moral of the story that we should speak up even when it’s hard?  Why did God place us exactly where we are now, in this time, and in this place “for such a time as this?” How can we stand up on behalf of the poor, hurting and marginalized in our own lives by speaking truth to power?  Who are the poor and hurting in our lives?  Do we see them?  They may be us.  How have the disappointments in life and the valleys shaped us for such a time as this?  In what ways are we challenged by the story? How does Esther’s story intersect with your life and where God is calling you?

Bluetree “God of this City” Story

I love that story. I love that the band took a step out in faith to play at the bar. I love that even out of a horrific situation, we can call on the name of Jesus or cry out to God, and God immediately is there as the Holy Spirit turns our mere utterances into prayers. I love the specificity that the guy from Bluetree gives us the name of the city, Pattaya, Thailand because we can name this specific city of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina or Charleston or Bangladesh or London in our prayers. We can name the city of Rio de Janeiro in our prayers.  I love that God put that song in his heart and it came out in the notes he played and his words for God is not defeated even in the darkest places.

I visited L’viv, Ukraine during the protests in January 2013.  I arrived on the day the first protester was shot and he happened to be from where I was speaking at this conference.  I immediately changed much of what I would share in the 4 talks I would give there.  I saw great faith in the Ukranian people.  Though I’ve never been that cold in my life, their fire and passion and trust in the will of God for their lives and their country was awe-inspiring.  I preached that God can work and move in seemingly impossible situations and God can make a way when we see no hope of there being a way forward, but they lived it. I bore witness to the intentional prayer times and fasting for the future of their country.  I bore witness to the fervor to seek the will of God.  When we hung up posters for the NEXT event in one of the universities, it showed a picture of the protester who was killed, holding a sign that said, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Their country was in a civil war, and me an American that had only been there 48 hours, was supposed to speak into that turmoil.  They were watching on big screens set up in the town square 24 a day the news coverage coming out of their capital city.  I don’t actually know what they got out of it, but I know what I did.  I saw faith and fervor in the face of death that I had only read about.  I saw and heard through their prayers, their heart’s desires.

What did Esther have?  She had an attitude of openness to God’s leading.  She was willing to take risks, gathering her lady’s maids and praying and fasting as Mordecai gathered all the Jews together to pray and fast right along with her.  She knew what the cost was, “And if I perish, I perish.”  Sometimes what God calls us to, is to be faithful to the opportunities God puts before you.  Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War 2. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, describes what transpired.  She knew what she was talking about when she said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”  Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God. James 1:2-4 says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  God wants us to be change agents in the world.  God doesn’t want us to give only lip service, but God seeks disciples that will walk in the way that leads to life.

There is an old legend that tells how Jesus, after his ascension, was asked by the angels how he planned to complete his mission.  The angels were incredulous.  “Them?” they exclaimed pointing to the fearful, unlearned disciples who stood lost and confused on the earth below, “You are going to depend on them to complete your mission?”

“That’s correct,” Jesus answers.

“And should they fail??” the angels counter, “If they are not capable of carrying on your work, do you have a back-up plan?”

“They are my only plan,” Jesus says.

We don’t have to do it on our own.  In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and transformed them.  We may fall or fail, but we don’t lose heart. As it says in 2 Corinthians 4:1 “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” It’s not by our own strength, it’s God’s.

The guy from Bluetree asks the question in the youtube video, “What does the global church do to actually combat things that actually exist on our planet that are completely wrong whether it’s child soldiers, prostitution within your own city, homeless within your own city, anything that’s going on, what does the church do? We should be the pioneers. We need to understand that we have an authority that comes from Christ…that we need an attitude to serve the world with love and actually living out the great commission.”

And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love. We will walk with each other, we walk side by side. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our Love.  Henri Nouwen says, “Our little lives become great – part of the mysterious work of God’s salvation.  Once that happens, nothing is accidental, casual or futile any more.  Even the most insignificant event speaks the language of faith, hope and, above all love.”

We have to show a hurting, hopeless world that God loves them, in the US and in Thailand, in the Ukraine and Rio, in all of the world.  That’s why I love the Olympics. The stories of endurance and overcoming adversity inspires me to ponder what’s holding me back.  The ways I have put up a “closed” sign or the large words UNAVAILABLE or a “for sale” sign in the window of my soul.  We all need to make ourselves available.  As Corrie ten Boom put it, “Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.” Yes, you are here.  We are here.  We may not know all the who’s or why’s.  But God does.  And God can guide and lead us to help shave or sand off our growing edges, the things that hold us back from being fully present to go or to step out.

Isaiah 43:1-6

43:1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
43:3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
43:4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
43:5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
43:6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–

For such a time as this.

We are Chosen FOR Something

(Hold on to your hats ladies and gents!  This is a long scripture.  I know you can handle it!)

Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Talents

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This is one of those head scratching texts because it seems like such a harsh ending.  You have to remember Jesus is telling a parable.  He’s alluding to some deep truth or lesson while telling a story that conveys meaning.  It’s sometimes a comparison or analogy, and even the disciples couldn’t figure some of them out.  A common theme throughout our “Chosen Series” is that fear limits us from doing what we can with the talents God has given us.   And that’s the difference in the third slave in our scripture, he was afraid…so he buried his talent…He let fear of the Master cripple him.  God does not call us to have a spirit of fear but of boldness.  The audacity of the first and second slave to double their money.  If he was indeed a harsh Master than that was truly audacious.  Clearly the text is talking about an ancient style of money, but in the Middle Ages talents started meaning something else, like Jack’s awesome guitar skills or Derek’s voice or Joanne’s encouragement or Deanne’s teaching.

Queen Elizabeth II says this about talent.  “I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”  So she says it’s all about working together.  Bringing all of our talents to the table.  Larry Bird, basketball player says this about talent, “A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.”  Larry Bird knows what it is to work hard.  He says you can’t merely rely on talent alone, but you have to work hard to develop that talent.  Soledad O’Brian, broadcaster, says this, “I’ve learned that fear limits you and your vision. It serves as blinders to what may be just a few steps down the road for you. The journey is valuable, but believing in your talents, your abilities, and your self-worth can empower you to walk down an even brighter path. Transforming fear into freedom – how great is that?”  There’s that “fear” word again.

2 Timothy 1:6-7, 14, “ For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.  14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.  God gives us this treasure that God’s entrusted to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Do you hear that?  We’ve been given this jewel and if we hide it, just like in the parable of the talents, we will not be rewarded.  God wants us to share it with others.  God doesn’t choose us simply for the sake of choosing; being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re better than others.  When God chooses us, we’re chosen FOR something.

I read an article from Relevant a few years ago called “So You Have No Idea What Your ‘Calling’ Is.”  “Words like “calling” and “vocation” sound great until you realize you don’t know yours.  We have to consider our talents and passions and seek out wisdom. And when we do start to figure it out, we may have to come to terms with the fact that our place in the process might look a little bit more like making someone’s day by brewing an incredible cup of coffee rather than revolutionizing the whole industry through fair-trade initiatives.”  Have you ever felt like that?  Or do you see your children or grandchildren stuck in that uncertain, stuck place discerning their gifts or callings?  Or are you in your retirement, thinking some of those same thoughts?  Where are the gifts and talents God gave me, leading me?  It’s okay to not have all the answers, just don’t shut the door on an opportunity God may have for you.  To any age group, God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine if we trust and believe.  You may not have any idea what your actual gifts are.  Have different people encouraged you along the way and pointed out the things that you are good at?  Have they affirmed your talent?  Their collective voices may be God’s way of showing and telling you what your gifts are.  We definitely serve a show and tell God.  God has a way of using multiple mediums to get God’s point across loud and clear.  It may be a still small voice or it may be a resounding gong, but God will make a way.

You see the God that knit you together in your mother’s womb is calling you forth to share YOUR particular gift, your unique talents with the world.  Whether big or small, no act of love, no sharing of your gifts, is insignificant.   We’re called to only be faithful and obedient.  Not to be perfect or have it all together and most of us are not called to be famous, to have a million followers on Twitter or have a clothing line.  Good for the people that do.  We get into this comparison cycle where we feel like God is Santa Claus and we’ve got no gift.  Or not the one we want.  It’s always greener in someone’s field.  Don’t compare yourself to others because that only sets you up for dissatisfaction, envy, failure, and not to mention, it’s unhealthy.  Trust me, we are each given our part to play in the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-11 (NRSV) says, 1 “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

Everyone has been given gifts spiritual and otherwise.  Ask God to help you see and know your specific gifts, those that you bring light to a world full of darkness.  There’s a great explanation and test on The United Methodist Church’s website – http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/spiritual-gifts.  The website shares, “The Spiritual Gifts Assessment helps individuals identify their God-given gifts for living faithfully as Christian disciples day by day and find meaningful ways to use their gifts in connection with others through the community of faith.”  Everyone has been given gifts, it just may be you’ve never unlocked or activated yours or that you’ve forgotten.

I have loved the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance” ever since I saw it in 2000.  I watched over and over again after a second brain surgery left me without the ability to speak in 2013.  I remember practicing at the pulpit, a friend helping me, as I struggled that summer and fall. “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is about a war veteran, Captain Rannulph Junah played by Matt Damon, who was a talented golfer before he went to war and some things went down and he now refuses to play the game.  He ends up in this tournament and his caddy, Bagger, played by Will Smith, and Harley the young local boy that is serving as the assistant caddy.  When he first tries to swing his clubs, you can tell he’s getting frustrated and angry because it’s not coming back so easy.  He’s forgotten how to do it, to let it flow. and Bagger says to Harley.  “Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing. Something that we were born with. Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be taught to you or learned. Something that got to be remembered. Over time the world can rob us of that swing. It can be buried inside us in the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s.  Some people forget what their swing was like.”

Our arrogance gets us into trouble.  So does when we don’t try our best or we give up.  This clip is when Junah is 12 strokes back, he’s already let the self-defeating prophesy set in.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60PQRpo9T-Q

You see when we humble ourselves and listen to God and God’s leading, we’re able to be who God created us to be.  If we rest, in the resting state, in the love of God for each of us we can truly use our gifts for God’s glory.

Some of us have forgotten our authentic swing.  Life happened.  Jobs happened.  Babies happened.  All the things that demand our time happened.  The callous, apathetic, nature of our world happened.  We are numb to the attacks in the world and we’re numb to the terror, heartache, and politics in our own country, some of us thinking that is our only means of survival to remain wrapped up in our apathy so we don’t have to feel the wounds of those around us.  First of all, God doesn’t cause the atrocities in the world.  God grieves and mourns right alongside us.  Second of all, God is a just God and anyone who shoots the innocent is going to answer to God for it.  I cling to and believe whole-heartedly in times like these, as Romans 8 says,  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

We forget that sometimes.  Sometimes the stuff of the world, our baggage as we’ve spoken of gets in the way.  We get in our own heads too much and overthink things.  That basically boils down to FEAR. This is later in the movie.  Junah’s gotten into his head and he’s experiencing PTSD.  He’s about to give up the tournament….

“Now play the game.  Your game.  The game that only you was meant to play.  The one was given to you when you come into this world.”

God is going to be with you every step of the way.  Even when God doesn’t seem like it, even if you’re hoarse from crying out, God is there.

Naomi Faw writes, “In the dark night of my soul I long for someone’s comfort and no one comes.  There is no one to call.  I imagine Jesus in the Garden praying until sweat became blood and even the disciples would not wake.  This night is my garden.  When will help come?  Where is grace?  Will I be able to take one more step?  The dark night passes and no one came.  Or, perhaps Christ was here all along leading me into the dawn.”

Christ was here all along leading me into the dawn.  God never leaves us or forsakes us.  Amen?

 

I promise you that if you ask God, seek God with all of your heart, God will answer you.  Seek and ye shall find.  Knock and the door will be opened for you.  The place God leads you is the place you come alive.  It’s where your passions lie and it is where your deepest desires are going to be met, the cry of your heart that you’ve not even dared to speak aloud.  It’s a journey of self-discovery and discovering God’s purpose for your life.  Not just one purpose, it’s a myriad of instances, ways to share small things with great love.  The world will see it.  The world will see people who are truly authentic and it will be shining from our faces.  Our one true authentic swings.  God is faithful and true and the Holy Spirit can guide and lead us in our gifts and graces as the Spirit moves us to claim our gifts.  God doesn’t call us to hoard our gifts or leave them unused because we are afraid.  God gives us these talents to share with the world.

Why did God place you on this earth in this particular time, in this particular place?  Not in a braggy, self-centered kind of way.  Too much self-love is a detriment and can lead you on the path of destruction. We don’t need “our giftedness” to go to our heads.  Sometimes we want to take the credit ourselves.  It’s my talent.  I’ve gotten myself to this point.  I’m brilliant.  I’ve gotten this promotion, house, new job, etc. all on my own.

I’m reminded of Ellie Holcomb’s song “Only Hope I’ve Got.”

I take all the gifts that You have given and I stake my claim like they’re my own,
Will You help me when I forget to remember, the good I’ve got is yours alone.
Oh ’cause I don’t wanna tell some arrogant story
Or let myself believe I’m you!
I don’t wanna be a thief who’s stealing Your glory…
Will You help remind me of what is true? The ONLY hope I’ve got, it’s You.
It’s You.

We need to remember that all good gifts come from above. We need to be humble and not squander the great gifts God has given.  According to Marianne Williamson, “Success means we go to sleep at night knowing that our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others.”  As Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I’d like to be your conversation partner in this.  If you get the results of a spiritual gift inventory and you’d like to talk to someone, I’m available.  If you’d like to share with a trusted friend, family member, or small group what you think your gifts are and where you think they’re leading you then do it.  We have to have these times of deep soul work or we grow stale.

Earlier this morning I placed stars under your chairs and I prayed over them for God to help you see what gifts and graces that God has given you.  Help you see that you’re enough.  Help you see you’re worthy to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  You see these stars symbolize our lights shining collectively in the world.  When you claim your gifts for God, it makes the light brighter, stronger, more full.  Notice I gave you two stars and don’t worry, I won’t give you homework every week.  Part of our calling as Christians is to not just use our gifts for Christ for the world  but to see the gifts of others in the world, the light shining brightly out of them, or dimly as it was for Captain Junah.  I want you to give someone your other star this week as a sign that maybe you see something that they don’t recognize in themselves, or if someone does something kind for you, like carries your groceries, or let’s you get in front of them in line at the gas station, or a mother that you see at Target harried by her children as a sign of encouragement.  God doesn’t just want us to accept and use our gifts, God wants us to shine our lights so that the world knows God’s love and grace and that God has given them gifts as well.

I will close with this poem called “More Than Enough.”

“Something is better than nothing,” I say to myself.

Still another voice persists:

“Will my gift, which appears so meager, count amidst this sea of other offerings?” I ache with doubt.  And yet I saw how my leaking faucet filled a bucket last night.  One drop at a time.  More isn’t always the most, and less isn’t always the least.  Approachability.  Availability.  Dependability. Listening ears, understanding heart.  Words of encouragement, being present when it matters most.  Selflessness and the gift of self.  If the smallest act to even one life becomes significant enough, it might just make a world of difference.  The endless possibilities lie with the One who can use the whole of what we think is merely a mite, a part.  Here and now, if we simply present whatever we are, whatever we can, and whatever we have, somehow it would be more than enough, more than worthwhile.”

Let us pray.

 

God Created YOU

We are launching into a trilogy series called “Chosen.”

Part One: Running to You

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July 8th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God Created You.

July 17th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us just as we are.

July 24th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us FOR something.

Part Two: Choosing You

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July 31st – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to follow Jesus.

August 7th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to step out.

August 14th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to be restored.

Part Three: Chosen to Act

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August 21st – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to share the Good News.

August 28th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to bring light.

September 4th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to love the world.

Psalm 139

The Inescapable God

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

This passage is titled “The Inescapable God.”

inəˈskāpəb(ə)l/

adjective

adjective: inescapable

  1. unable to be avoided or denied.
synonyms: unavoidable, inevitable, unpreventable, ineluctable, inexorable;

assured,sure, certain, guaranteed;

necessary, required, compulsory, mandatory;

rareineludible

“meeting the future in-laws is inescapable”

Meeting the future in-laws is definitely inescapable and I’m glad that I have good ones.  God’s love is unavoidable, compulsory, unpreventable….Do you find comfort in this or discomfort?  It sort of depends on how you see God or the nature of God.  If you see God as an all loving, omnipresent (all present), and omnipotent (all knowing) that’s our strength and our shield and a very present help in times of trouble, you are comforted by this Psalm.  You realize that even though God knows all you’ve done and said and the things you’ve hidden away and the deepest recesses of your heart, God loves you anyway.  Jesus scatters your sins from the east to the west and they’re not held against you anymore by grace alone.  Christ is the victor over all evil and injustice in this world and we work with the Holy Spirit to bring God’s kingdom to earth.  If your view of God is a task-master, one that checks off like Santa if you do this naughty thing, or that, or if you simply don’t trust God because what you see God doing in the world seems so unfair, unjust, and unfathomable, then you have an entirely different picture of who God is.  Scriptures abound painting with  all kinds of different strokes about the nature of God, but if you take the full picture, the full painting, you begin to see that God is longing for us to return home.  Just like the father in the familiar prodigal sermon.  God’s longing for us to come home so that God can throw a party just as the father did in the story.

This points to what United Methodists call prevenient grace.  God woos us to God’s self, even before we knew, even before we are aware of it.  God seeks each of us out to have a relationship with God.  God calls us where we are, in all of the mire and muck of sin, and as Jeremiah 18:1-4 says, “18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”  God, as the potter, has the power to make all things new.  As Isaiah 64:8 says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  God creates each of us and calls us each by name.  God cares about each of us.  God seeks the heart of each of us.  To give us hope and a future.

8th grade was a very difficult year for me.  My dad was a United Methodist pastor so we moved the summer before my eighth grade year.  The exact wrong time to move if you’re a 5 foot 11 ½ inch girl and none of the guys at your school had hit their growth spurt yet.  I grew to this height in seventh grade, but we had been in the Hartsville schools for 7 years, but when we moved to Cheraw I was fresh meat.  My nicknames abounded that year:  giraffe, Olive Oil, stick.  They made fun of me for my long fingers and after a dance where some people had gone through my purse, I went home crying and being oh so dramatic and yelling at the top of my lungs to my parents, “I hate this town and everyone in it!”  I wanted to go “home” to Hartsville.  I felt out of place and wanted my old friends, old church and the familiar status quo.  Have you ever felt like an outsider?  That you didn’t belong?  Like Dorothy did you realize there’s no place like home.  It’s easy for adolescents to feel that way.  To hope that some day they will find a place where they fit.  As a teenager I always searched for this mythical home.  Even writing about it when I was 17 in a poem titled “My “Ganny’s.”

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This place has been my haven, through life’s many storms

A constant place of refuge, where things are close and warm

It’s seen my tears, it’s seen my smiles, and it’s picked me up each time

The one place that has never changed in the journey of my life

When I have felt lost – no real “home” – and confused

Or when I thought my heart was broken and my soul had been stripped bare

I go through life as a little child trying to keep on her disguise

But in these walls my face lights up for this is where my strength and hope lies

Things are brighter, life more precious, feelings really matter

Here I find my true self, amidst the family’s chatter

This place is not a castle, a mansion, or a dream

What makes it great is not itself but the things that are unseen

The simple words full of wisdom, lack of pretense, and genuine love for people and each other

Are the things I admire and respect about my grandfather and grandmother

Although I can’t say I have the pleasure of living here from day to day

This place is my strength and my rock and in my heart it will stay

A place given from God to me, to help me light my way

A place where I can dance and sing, a secret hiding place

Everyone needs a refuge, a place to feel free and loved

There’s always a light, open door, some chocolate cake and a hug

People need a “Ganny’s” to escape our stress-filled world

A home that shows the love and grace of Jesus Christ our Lord

Everyone should have a safe space, where they can simply be.  Simply relax.  Simply to take off the armor we sometimes carry around in our day to day lives.  Whether it is a societal shield or a learned behavior, to protect us from further wounding or to hide our hurt.  Why do we remember only the negative things years later, but we forget the praises in a heartbeat?  Why do we carry around our wounds?  When the great God of the Universe created us and calls us for a purpose.  God created YOU.  God created Me.  With all of our persnicketies and peculiarities.

We have to LET IT GO, as Elsa sings, or as Taylor Swift sings, SHAKE IT OFF.  We have to stop all of the negative tapes in our heads that we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy, we’re not strong enough, we’re not….enough.  Because that’s just Satan trying to keep us silent and feeling bad about ourselves.  Our baggage is the stuff we carry; the stuff we can’t shake.  At times, we carry it so long it becomes a part of us.  We begin repeating it in our heads in our litany of why we can’t do something.  It holds us back.  It holds us down.  It enslaves us, keep us in bondage, preventing us from being who God truly wants us to be.  Who God truly created us to be.  It can either be mistakes we’ve made or things that we’ve been subjected to be others.  Nevertheless, it’s a pain festering inside of us, an open festering wound. It’s time to let go and let God.  That’s where the healing begins.

It’s time to lay them all down at the feet of Jesus and he can play new words on the tape players of our hearts.

You are chosen.

You are beloved.

You are my beautiful creation.

You don’t have to DO anything to have my love.  You don’t have to BE anything to have my love.  I’m your home.  The place you belong is is resting in my love and grace.  You can hang out there forever.

If you’ve been carrying around these wounds, this baggage inside – take a moment and consider freedom from those things.  If you know someone carrying around this baggage, pray for them and that God will give you the courage and the words to ask them to lay their fears, worries, tapes, baggage at the feet of Jesus.

I’m reminded of the words from Paul encouraging Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-10.  “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear.  God wants to take away our burdens.  God wants to be our refuge.  A very present help in times of trouble.  Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.  Tell them Whose you are and rest in that.  I know what I’m saying is easier said than done.  Some of us hold tight to our woundings like familiar, old security blankets.  Ask God to work on that with you.  God created your inmost thoughts, God knows everything about you, and God desires to give you abundant life in Christ.  Not a half life.

We cannot love our neighbors with God’s agape love until we first love ourselves with God’s agape love.  That sacrificial love that is exemplified as Christ dying for our sins.  So whatever your burdens are….Whatever separates you from feeling the love of God….ask God to reveal it to you….whatever baggage you carry with you….ask God to free you from it in Jesus’ name.  As Mother Teresa says, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can live your life radiating that love.”  I want us all to radiate the love of God.  I’m praying as it says in Micah that we all seek to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Aberjhani, in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow says, “Love is our most unifying and empowering common spiritual denominator. The more we ignore its potential to bring greater balance and deeper meaning to human existence, the more likely we are to continue to define history as one long inglorious record of man’s inhumanity to man.”

I will tell you if you let go and let God in, God doesn’t promise to take the pain away, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, God doesn’t promise you will not be challenged and face all that the world throws at you, but God promises to be with you.  In Psalm 139:18, “I come to the end – I am still with you.”  These are the words of David, but they could express the emotion and commitment of Martin Luther King Jr. as well. The “end” nearly came sooner than later.

The year was 1968. The place: Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley is living at Graceland with his wife Priscilla and newborn daughter Lisa Marie, and is enjoying the Grammy he has just won for his second gospel album, “How Great Thou Art.” In the minds of many, he is “The King.”

Another King comes to town on April 3, 1968. Several death threats have been directed at King, and tension is high, but he feels that it is important to press ahead and speak at a rally on behalf of the sanitation workers. In the course of this address, he tells the story of an earlier attempt on his life, one that brought him perilously close to death. According to Ralph Abernathy, his friend and successor, Martin Luther King stood up that night and just “preached out” his fear.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood, that’s the end of you.

It came out in The New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. [Some time] after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade taken out, they allowed me to move around … and to read the mail that had come in from all over the states and the world. Kind letters had come in. I read a few, but one I will never forget. I had received telegrams from the president and vice president, but I have forgotten what those messages said. I received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I forgot what was said.

But there was another letter that came from a young girl at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I will never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I [too] am happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

In his autobiography he wrote, “If I demonstrated unusual calm during the attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace.”

He died the next day after giving that speech in Memphis.  In the course of his life, Martin Luther King walked through many dangers, toils and snares, but through it all he knew that God was walking with him. He had the very same faith as the writer of Psalm 139, the ancient poet who said to the Lord, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

After this week of unspeakable tragedy in our nation, “sides” being picked in our offices, homes and especially on social media, and children being afraid to go outside and play in their yards, we can draw comfort from the knowledge that God made each and every one of us, God is with each and every one of us, and God works all things together for God for those who love God.  God was with those who were shot, God was with the people at the rally in Dallas, God is with the ones that are recovering, God is with their families, God is with each of us as we grapple with the who’s, why’s, and how’s, as we explain such events to our children. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

I will close with this prayer that Beth A. Richardson wrote after the awful tragedy and deadly violence in Orlando.

The news is bad.
We are outraged and horrified.
We are shocked and afraid.
We are overwhelmed and numb.
How many more times will we awake to such news?

Some of us sit in front of the television,
Search the internet for stories,
Watch, listen for something
That will help make sense,
That will soothe or comfort,
That will bring order back again.

Some of us can’t bear the words, the images.
The press conferences and scrolling news feeds
Freeze our brains, our hearts, our guts.

Some of us pray.
Some of us escape.
Some of us rage.
Some of us cry.

God, have mercy on our world.
Have mercy on the powerless and the powerful.
Have mercy on the first responders and those in ministry to the brokenhearted.
Have mercy on the victims, their families, their friends.

Sit with us in our terror, our sadness, our hopelessness.
And let us hold the space for others as we
Sit or cry, light candles or pray,
In solidarity, in hope, in love.
Amen.

You are chosen.  God created you in God’s image.  God created all of us in the image of God and freely forgives us no matter the baggage, no matter the doubt, no matter what.  You are loved.  Don’t let anyone or anything wrestle that fact away from you.  You are a beloved child of God, a fearfully and wonderfully made creation.  May we all feel , after this particularly hard week, God’s tangible love for each of us that calls us to a new, higher way, when we will all journey home.

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”

 

 

 

 

 

Greater Things Are Yet to Come

Preached at talk 1 of 3 at the Greater Things Conference for students in L’viv, Ukraine.

We’ve been digging into stories at Gator Wesley, the United Methodist campus ministry where I serve, this past year, and I would like to share with you the story of Esther. It begins with a party lasting for seven days. In Esther chapter 1: 8-9 it reads, “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.” Can you imagine a party lasting for seven days? It would be like Mardi Gras or Carnival to the extreme. The party never ends. On the seventh day, the King, who was in “high spirits” from wine orders Queen Vashti to make an appearance so they can behold her beauty, she’s his centerpiece after all. But Queen Vashti refuses to come. The text doesn’t say why she didn’t come. Maybe she didn’t feel like it, maybe she was sleeping and she didn’t want to be rudely woken up by a summons from the king, maybe she thought ‘I’m the Queen,’ how dare the King request me. We’re not sure. As the eunuchs give the Queen’s response to the King, he was furious. Queen Vashti got deposed at the end of chapter 1.

Okay so how did Esther arrive on the scene? While the king was having second thoughts for having Vashti banned, his servants encouraged him to gather beautiful young women from every province in the kingdom and let “cosmetic treatments be given them. And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” The king thought this was a very good idea.

I feel like at some points I’m telling a fairy tale. Esther was the most beautiful, fairest in the land. There was a Jewish man named Mordecai, and he had brought up Esther as his own daughter because she was an orphan. And so of course, she ended up with the king. I’m skipping several plot points here – the twelve month beautification in the king’s harem Esther underwent and the king actually choosing her. The king made her queen instead of Vashti and gave a banquet in Esther’s honor.

And they lived happily ever after? What happens after happily after? Things get real.

Shortly thereafter, when Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gates, he overheard two of the king’s officers plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai let Esther know, and she warned the king about it. Mordecai was given credit for unfurling the plot and the two treasonous guards were hung on the gallows.

Now you should be hearing villainous music and lots of bass and minor notes because I’m about to introduce the character of Haman. It says the king “advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down.” But Mordecai refused, because he was a Jew, who would bow to no one except God. This made Haman very angry and he along with his wife and his advisors plotted against the Jews making a plan to get rid of them. Haman uses his influence on the king and makes the king a pawn in his chess game against Mordecai, saying the Jews don’t keep the same laws. So the king agrees. Esther 3:13, “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.”

When Mordecai learns this he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth. When Esther finds out about this she is obviously distressed because she is a Jew and from the beginning Mordecai told her to be silent about her heritage in the palace. Mordecai sends this reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

For such a time as this.

Perhaps you’re here in this world at this particular time in this particular place for such a time as this.
What ensues is some palace intrigue.

Esther was not permitted to see the king unless he had asked for her otherwise she could be put to death. And she had not been called in to see the king in 30 days, so she, her maid-servants, and all of the Jews of Persia fasted earnestly for three days before she built up enough courage to enter the king’s presence. When the king saw Esther, he was pleased and held out his scepter to her. He then asked Esther what she wished of him, promising to grant even up to half his kingdom should she ask. Esther requested a banquet with the king and Haman. During the banquet, she requested another banquet with the king and Haman the following day.

Cue villainous laughter, Haman was already ordering gallows to be constructed to hang Mordecai. At the same time, Esther 6:1 says, “On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king” and he remembers that Mordecai had saved him from the previous assassination attempt and the king realizes he had not rewarded Mordecai.

Early the next morning, Haman came to the king to ask permission to hang Mordecai, but before he could, the king asked him “What should be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?” Haman assumed the king meant him, so he said that the man should wear a royal robe and be led on one of the king’s horses through the city streets proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The king thought this was appropriate, and asked Haman to lead Mordecai through the streets in this way. After doing this, Haman rushed home, full of grief. His wife said to him, “You will surely come to ruin!”

Esther 7:1-10
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
7 1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”
And you can guess what happened to Haman. He was hung on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai. How do we relate to the story of Esther? Did God place us exactly where we are now, in this time, and in this place “for such a time as this?” How can we stand up on behalf of the poor, hurting and marginalized in our own lives by speaking truth to power? In what ways are we challenged by the story? How does Esther’s story intersect with your life and where God is calling you?

Think about these questions and chew on them a bit, while I show you this video.

Bluetree “God of this City” Story

I love that story. I love that the band took a step out in faith to play at The Climax bar. I love that even out of a horrific situation, we can call on the name of Jesus or cry out to God, and God immediately is there as the Holy Spirit turns our mere utterances into prayers. I love the specificity that the guy from Bluetree gives us the name of the city, Pattaya, Thailand because we can name this specific city of L’viv, Ukraine in our prayers. We can name Gainesville, my home in Florida, in our prayers. We can name the city of Kiev in our fervent prayers. This may be naïve for me to say as an uninformed and ignorant American who’s been here for less than 48 hours, but God can work and move in seemingly impossible situations and God can make a way when we see no hope of there being a way forward. I know y’all know that because I can bear witness to intentional prayer times for the future of this country, I can bear witness to the fasting for the future of this country, I can bear witness to the fervor I’ve seen since arriving here to seek the will of God. I know you all believe that God can move mountains, because as Michael and I hung up posters in one of the universities, it showed a picture of a protester that was killed this past week holding a sign that said, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

protestor killed

We don’t lose heart. As it says in 2 Corinthians 4:1 “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

The guy from Bluetree asks the question in the youtube video, “What does the global church do to actually combat things that actually exist on our planet that are completely wrong whether it’s child soldiers, prostitution within your own city, homeless within your own city, anything that’s going on, what does the church do? We should be the pioneers. We need to understand that we have an authority that comes from Christ…that we need an attitude to serve the world with love and actually living out the great commission.”

And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love. We will walk with each other, we walk side by side. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our Love.

John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” 1 John 4:8 says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” We have to show a hurting, hopeless world that God loves them, in the US and in the Ukraine, in all of the world. 1 John 3:17-18, “If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s live? It disappears. And you made it disappear. My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.”

This is all about our Christian witness to be in this world, but not of it, and that sometimes means being a prophetic voice in the wilderness. The Old Testament has a long history of prophets speaking truth to power and the prophets suffering for it. And what about Peter and Paul in the New Testament. They couldn’t stay out of trouble with the authorities, but Paul wrote some of the most powerful scriptures while in prison. The American missionary Jim Elliott wrote this quote in his journal before he was killed by the native people who he was serving in Ecuador, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.

For such a time as this.

Matthew 5:13-16 says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all of the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

For such a time as this…..Holy God, may we have the courage to shine your light in all the world and may you guide and lead us in all that we do now and in the coming days. Amen.

The Invisible 12th

We’ve reached the end of our sermon series on Len Sweet’s 11 indispensable relationships that you can’t be without and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.  It’s certainly challenged me as I’ve prepared these sermons.  My prayer is that you can realize the profound impact your web of community has on your past, present and future and you can search out those relationships that will help you to grow stronger, speak truth over your life, or give you a good kick in the pants.  Nathan – your editor, Jonathan – your true friend, Jethro – your butt kicker, Barnabas – your encourager, and Deborah – your back coverer.  These relationships come in many different forms and it’s not supposed to be a checklist where you say, “Oh, I have a one of those – a Nathan, someone who both comforts and convicts me, so I don’t need another one.”  Although, I’m not sure you would want another Nathan.  Likewise, some of us seriously don’t have that many close friendships.  Introverts breathe a sigh of relief.  There’s nothing wrong with friends or colleagues or mentors playing multiple roles.  I’ve agreed with Sweet’s basic premise but I have to admit to taking some poetic license every once and a while.

So this chapter is called “The Invisible 12th:  You Need the Paraclete.”  Josh mentioned the paraclete in his sermon on Barnabas because part of its definition is encourager.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary simply defines paraclete as Holy Spirit.  Helpful, I know.  Paraclete comes from the Greek word that can signify “one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts and/or who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court.”  In the Greek New Testament the word appears most prominently in the Gospel of John where it’s used as counselor, helper, encourager, advocate or comforter.  There are two examples I’ll use here, both in John 14.

JOHN 14:15-17 –

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be inyou.”

What words jump out at you?  Advocate, forever, Spirit of truth, abide, and the claim that the Holy Spirit is in us.

JOHN 14:25-27 –

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate,the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Sweet begins this chapter with these words, “Sometimes – Jethros fail.  Sometimes – Yodas are no-shows.  Sometimes – Jonathans turn into Judases.  Sometimes – Deborahs fall asleep.  Your VIP’s turn into duds.”  That’s when we have another promise, “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” [Ps 121:4]  God works the late shift.  God always has your back.  And every other part of your being as well.

Las Vegas statisticians set the spread of points between the winners and losers in football.  And all sports.  And they even had a bet when the royal baby would be due.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that big money flows in and out of Vegas for college football games.  This may be something you didn’t know, but they always give the home team a three point advantage just because they’re playing at home.  There’s nothing like the energy of the home crowd.  I had written this sermon prior to the game and what struck me was how many fans sat through to the bitter end.  “In all kinds of weather, we all stick together.”

Texas A&M might have first come up with the 12th man concept, but every team has EMBRACED it.  So I triple-checked with Mike before explaining this because I wanted to make sure I got it right.  The 12th man or 12th player is a term for the fans within a stadium during football games. As most football leagues allow a maximum of eleven players per team on the playing field at a time, referring to a team’s fans as the 12th man implies that they have a potentially helpful role in the game. The presence of fans can have a profound impact on how the teams perform and an element in the home advantage. Namely, the home team fans often create loud sounds or chants in hopes of distracting, demoralizing and confusing the opposing team while they have possession of the ball; or to persuade a referee to make a favorable decision. It’s like the commercial that says we’ll never know if somehow in some way we can affect the outcome of the game

 

or the Duke speedo guy that made North Carolina’s Jackie Manuel miss two free throws back in 2003

And little known fact, the speedo guy became a pastor.  We never know the affect the crowd, that 12th man on the field, will have.  That mysterious, invisible 12th is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit never fails to appear.

The Holy Spirit is more than a voice from the great beyond a la Obi Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker to trust in the force.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t get much fanfare or a theme song, unless you count the cacophony of voices that day on Pentecost.  “The Holy Spirit is our garment of protection, our armor of light, our spiritual bodyguard and our battle companion.”

My dad is bald.  There’s no other way to say it.  I have very few memories of him with hair.  He jokes, “They don’t put marble tops on cheap furniture,” but I’ve heard that joke tens of thousands of times.  So our family has an assortment of throw blankets or afgans or comforters, all throughout the house because my mom is hot-natured and my dad will be wrapped up in a blanket with a ski cap on top of his head and thick socks on his feet year round.  It’s ridiculous.  But now I do it too.  You’ll find me in the evenings with a blanket on year round.  I don’t know why I do it.  Maybe it’s the fact that I married someone warm blooded as well.  But there’s something comforting about it.

Do any of your churches back home knit prayer shawls?  I’ve gotten my fair share of them with both of my surgeries.  This is what Indian River City United Methodist Church in Titusville, Florida sent me.  With it was a card, and the card reads.  “Dear Lord, please bless this prayer shawl.  Please comfort the recipient and hold her close.  Let her know that the stitches of this shawl were made with loving hands to reach to her heart and bring her peace.  As this shawl lies close to her, let her feel the prayers and love that have been knit into it.  Let her know that, even in the middle of the darkest night, she is not alone.  Let her feel Your constant promise that, no matter what travail she must face, You are beside her.  Lord, may Your grace be upon this shawl, warming, comforting, enfolding, and embracing.  May this mantle be a safe haven…a sacred place of security and well-being, sustaining and embracing in good times, as well as difficult ones.  May the one receiving this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in Your love always.  In Jesus precious name, Amen.”

I think of the Holy Spirit in that way.  Wrapped around us tight, going with us into life’s conflicts protecting not only our backs, but also our sides, our fronts, our insides, our whole being!  Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”  And these words from Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”  People on the front lines of battle, when you’re feeling attacked from all sides, and you’re fighting with your roommates, struggling in your classes, and don’t know what way is up or down – you need the Holy Spirit to intervene on your behalf.  In Romans 8:26-28 it says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”

The Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead.  God is 3 in 1 – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  God is our chief advocate, who makes a way when there’s none, who braces us for impact, who goes with us.  A group traveled to Anna’s dad’s and Kelly and Kenneth’s uncle’s funeral this past week.  His name was Scott Swygert and he lived life to the fullest, squeezing out every moment.  Countless stories were told by friends and family about his tremendous impact, so much so, it was clear that he exemplified all that it means to be a Christian.  Rev. David McEntire concluded the service by reading this passage of scripture.  Also from Romans, chapter 8:31-39, where it starts off with the question, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.”

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Not changes of majors, not knowing what we want to do when we grow up, not parent’s expectations, not a broken relationship, not a complete failure, not asking for a do over, not even Gator Wesley “drama.”  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  So if we truly believe that, how would we live our lives differently?   If we truly believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and in this ministry blowing where it will, igniting and enlivening, fanning the flame and equally putting out fires, how would we live our lives differently both as a community and individually?

We would take GRACE seriously.  Such a good Methodist answer.  And not just grace for ourselves, but for others.  In God’s prevenient grace, God draws us to God’s self.  God’s prevenient grace is available to all. And all means all.  In God’s justifying grace, we realize that this gift of Jesus sacrifice on the cross was for each of us.  It’s nothing we earned for good behavior.  It’s only through the grace of God.  In sanctifying grace, God does not leave us where we are, it’s a lifelong journey of growing and stretching and seeking to be more and more like Christ.  You may have noticed that I also mentioned grace for others.  Ie.  Matthew 7:3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”  If we always see ourselves as the exception to the rule or think that we have it all figured out, while we judge others’ commitments, looking down our noses at them in judgment – we DON’T take God’s grace seriously.  That’s not very grace-filled.  As Macklemore says, “Those words aren’t anointed.”

That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit, you can’t control, you can’t contain – because the Holy Spirit won’t be boxed in.  The Holy Spirit has the dual roles of being great sustainer and comforter, working to guide and lead us, as well as convicting us when we need it and often don’t want to hear it.

May the Spirit

Bless you with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and

Superficial relationships so that

You will live deep in your heart.

May the Spirit

Bless you with anger

At injustice and oppression,

And exploitation of people and the earth

So that you will work for Justice, equity and peace.

May the Spirit

Bless you with tears to shed

For those who suffer

So that you will

Reach out your hand

To comfort them.

And may the Spirit

Bless you with the foolishness

To think you can make a difference

In the world,

So you will do the things

Which others say cannot be done.

Amen.

Holy Spirit, please comfort us now, with your healing and perfect peace that transcends all understanding.  Holy Spirit, please work within our lives, giving us the tenacity to discern in our personal relationship with you.  Holy Spirit, we ask that you guide and lead us in all that we do, as individuals and as a community.  And you spread forth your love and grace, that all may see and know your truth, your power, your redeeming love.  We boldly pray all these things in your name and we join Christians all over the world with the prayer you taught us to pray saying,

Marked with the Holy Spirit

Yesterday the online Upper Room’s focus verse was Ephesians 1:13, “When you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in [Christ, you] were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” What an appropriate text the day after Ash Wednesday as we boldly navigate this Lenten journey.

I love how the Holy Spirit shows up in the unexpected. Actually, sometimes I’m most surprised when the Holy Spirit shows up in the obvious places. Like a worship service. Dinner. Even a board meeting. Tonight we had our Wesley Board Meeting and our fellowship dinner and program night, followed by a joint prayer/worship service with BCM (Baptist Collegiate Ministry) and CRU (Campus Crusade).

I admit that I started off the day pretty well. One of the students even said I looked more rested and alive today. (Pretty good praise for a Thursday.) But by the afternoon as the students went to enjoy a game of sand volleyball by Winthrop Lake, my sinus infection had turned into a monster of a headache and I was just D for Done.

I can’t say that the headache went away or that everything went exactly smoothly and perfectly but I could definitely feel the presence of God as Jon talked about his calling into ministry and we as a board got to send him with our approval to the District Committee on Ministry to be a certified candidate. I could tangibly hear and see the wonder of this special community as students shared over dinner, relaxed, hung out and chatted everywhere, and generally looked like they were right at home. And then as we began to make our way to the Winthrop Amphitheater for a joint prayer service with BCM and CRU – none of us knowing exactly what this would be like – but coming along anyway – I was struck in wonder by the beautiful night sky, a chance to worship with fellow believers on campus, and an opportunity to not be the one in charge, but a participant.

You see we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. Even with our sinus headaches, our thank God it’s Thursdays, and our exhaustion, God still shows up, guiding and leading us in the midst. It’s not just something that’s a maybe – it’s a promise.

Where did God show up for you today? Was it when things were going super smooth or a little rocky?