Thursday, December 11, 2008

Preparing for Christmas

(Read Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8)

The Christmas season requires a great deal of preparation. I’m sure most of you have already begun preparing for Christmas in some ways. Have you bought your tree? Decorated your house and yard? Do you have plans on your calendar for dinners and parties and church services? Have you started buying and wrapping Christmas presents?

Americans spend an immense amount of resources- time, energy, thought and money- on getting ready for this most sacred and precious time of the year. We devote so much of ourselves to this season because it means so much to us. Even for Christians who don’t go to church, Christmas represents a time of love and giving, a time of peace and togetherness. Christmas has a magical feel to it; it is a time when love and laughter, family and friendship are the priority. Christmas is a time of hope and celebration.

While preparing our homes is a very important part of Christmas, it is sad that many people spend more time preparing their homes than their hearts. External Christmas decorations are not a substitute for interior Christmas preparations.

Because what we are actually preparing for this Advent season is not the parties and presents. What we are actually meant to be preparing for is the coming of our Savior into the world. Jesus. Emmanuel. God coming to be with us. Now that is something to get ready for!

Today’s Scriptures call out to us to “Prepare for God’s arrival!” God deserves roads that are straight and smooth so that there is a highway fit for God’s travel as he comes towards us. The valleys must be filled and the hills leveled off; the rocks need to be cleared out of the way so that when God comes among us his “bright glory will shine and everyone will see it.”

John the Baptist called us to repent of our sins to prepare the way of the Lord. Today, I just want to talk about one sin that we need to turn away from so that we can be ready, so that are hearts will be prepared for the miracle of Jesus when he is born.

The sin we most need to repent of at this time of the year is our doubt, our despair, our hopelessness. I know that life is hard. These are difficult times for you, for me, and for people around the world. Life as we know it on earth is not what God intends for his creation. People are sick and suffering, hungry and oppressed, worried and depressed.

But every Christmas, we celebrate that God is doing something about all the problems. God is taking action by sending us his son.

You may be disillusioned, and perhaps you have given up dreaming of the life that God wants for his people, but its time to turn your minds around and hope once again. Now is the time for hope.

Isaiah prophisized that God is coming. Isaiah says, “God, the Master, comes in power, ready to go into action. He is going to pay back his enemies and reward those who have loved him. Like a Shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering [you,] his lambs in his arms” (Isaiah 40: 10-11). God is coming to help us, to heal our suffering and change the way the world is. John the Baptist says about Jesus, “The star in this drama will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life (meaning a life in committed to God and one lived in God’s eternal realm). [Jesus’] baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out.” That means a new way of life for you is on its way.

And not just for you. The Savior is coming to restore the fortunes of all people. God is coming to forgive, transform and bring peace.

You know, I had temporarily forgotten the importance of forgiveness until I read this book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a book about the Iranian revolution, which happened in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Before the revolution, women did not have to wear veils. They could associate with men other than men in their family. They could dance and listen to music. But after the revolution, all those freedoms were taken away. Morality squads walked about the streets, making sure that no piece of hair was seen on a woman’s head, making sure that women were escorted around town, making sure that they did not laugh too loudly. Not only were many freedoms taken away from the people of Iran, but punishment was very severe. You could easily be killed just for saying something against the government. Or teaching a book that was banned. The morality squads would literally come into their houses and go through their personal belongings, making sure they did not have the wrong books or the wrong music or the wrong videos, and if they did, they would confiscate them, and maybe also imprison them. When members of the revolution were asked to defend the executions taking place, they said that people deserved to be punished for their sins.

It’s easy to take forgiveness for granted when you live amongst people who are forgiving. But when your every move is watched and judged and there is no forgiveness – you can literally be killed in Iran for actions we wouldn't think twice about doing in the US -- than you remember just how important forgiveness is.

When Emmanuel comes, he promises to forgive us. He promises to rid the world of oppression and slavery. He promises to rid the world of hate and war. As psalm 85 says, when God comes to the earth, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (v.10)

Hope

This Christmas season, we are waiting for the change that only God can bring.

Times have been difficult lately for so many people throughout the world, but we cannot grow skeptical. Especially not now at Christmas time. The sin that we must give up so that we can be ready for Jesus when he is born is the sin of doubt.

Believe. Believe like you have never been disappointed. Believe like a child who has not lost his/her innocence. In belief there is power. In Jesus Christ, there is power - the power of God to transform your life and the life of all people. This world will be different when God is done working here.

How can you prepare this Advent?

Spend time with God. Relax in God’s presence, and know the peace he brings.

Get in touch with your spirit, which is God’s Spirit in you. And set your mind on hoping for a new reality, for the end of suffering and the continuation of dreams being fulfilled.

In addition to making a Christmas list of material possessions, make a Christmas list of what you hope Emmanuel will come into the world and do.

Remember, the Triune God is a God of action. While we enjoy our parties and presents, God will be very busy loving, healing, comforting, listening, speaking, orchestrating, providing, responding, growing, restoring, and coming to the rescue of us, God’s children. God is not static and remote; God is dynamic and moving among us, tirelessly working to transform our lives and redeem the world.

So make a list of what you hope Emmanuel will do when he comes.

Include the world in your list. Whatever issues are important to you, put them on your hope list. I have included the end of oppression for the women of Iran.

Include your family and neighbors in your list. I have included the health and vitality of this congregation and the wellbeing of my family.

Include yourself in your list. I hope to live out my calling, and I trust God to lead me to fulfillment.

What will you put on your list of hope as Jesus comes into the world to save it?

All the preparations that we do this Christmas season, while done with goodwill and love in our hearts, are small in comparison to what God is preparing to do for us this Christmas. God is sending us our Savior, the only one who can set things right; the only one who can heal us and transform us from the inside out.

We all spend a great deal of effort preparing for Christmas on a worldly level, but what we also really need to do is prepare for Christmas on a spiritual level. And we can do so by renewing our hope in what God will do.

What we are preparing ourselves for this Advent season is God’s miracles because they are coming!

The Spiritual Practice of Submission

(Read Ephesians 5:21-25,28 and 6:1-9 and Mark 8:31-38)

The purpose of the spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices, as I prefer to call them, is freedom, our spirit's liberation. The purpose of confession is freedom. The purpose of worship is freedom. And today, we will talk about the spiritual practice of submission or surrender (I will use the two words interchangeably), the purpose of which is freedom.

For clarity's sake, it's most helpful to think of submission in two different ways, although these two ways often interconnect. First, there is submission to God, and second, there is submission to other people.

Surrendering to God

On Friday night, I was priviledged to host about 20 teenage girls in a sleepover at the church in Esopus. Each young woman present was a dynamic person with her own ways of being and a unique spirit. Each girl ranged in her confidence level, but one topic surfaced as universal to all of their experiences. They all had a lot of worry and felt a great deal of pressure.

It was interesting and a bit sad to see how much the girls worried about life. They were concerned about their peers' opinions of them. They were stressed out trying to live up to their parents expectations of them. They were concerned about their futures. It seemed like they each felt that their happiness, wellbeing and future success was completely up to them.

Teenage girls are not the only people who feel immense pressure and responsibility. Children can feel it too. Adults certainly feel it.

I know that I have struggled with similar issues, not only in my adolescence, but even now. I had a very powerful experience last Tuesday during a Taize service. Actually, it began before that. As you may have noticed, today's prayer of confession is the same as last week's. That is because I was so impacted by this simple prayer that I felt compelelled for us all to pray it again. The words that popped out at me and spoke to me were: that God does not judge us by the perfection of our actions but by our willingness to live by faith.

Praying those words, I was struck by how unwilling I had become to live by faith. How I no longer trusted in God's plan, and how resonsiible I felt for the outcome of so many situation in my life and even in other people's lives. During the time of silence in the Taize service, I pondered these things. It all started because I was worrying about the turnout at the service, how many people showed up. Then, I started to worry about the kind of experience those present would have at the service. God cut into my thinking right then and there, reminding me that I was not able to make anyone have a spiritual experience. That is the Spirit's job.

Instead of thinking of ways I could have done more or acted more perfectly in order to make the service a "success," I surrendered the results to God. I couldn't worry if only 1/2 the people as expected had shown up. Or if the people there were going to have a meaningful worship experience. I had to surrender the worry, the pressure and the feelings of responsibility to God.

Most of us feel responsible for making the outcome of something a success. We feel responsible for our families' security. We feel responsibile for individual members' of our families' happiness. We feel responsible for the direction of our careers. We feel responsible for various things that go on at our church. To some degree this is normal and necessary because in many ways we are responsible.

But all we can do in any of these situations is our best. The results are up to God. How many of us are suffering because we are carrying God's job on our shoulders?

The spiritual practice of submission to God requires us to loosen our grip, to stop being so controling, to give up our agenda. We have to let life unfold naturally, organically, instead of trying to force it.

Submission to God is an act of faith. We have to trust that if we do what we can and if we follow our hearts, God will make everything as it should be.

The freedom that we find when we submit to God is freedom from having such heavy burdens of responsibility and worry.

Know this: this is God's world. God has a plan. Just be yourself. Remain loving and grateful and humble, and the Spirit will take care of the rest.

Surrendering to one another

Have you ever been out on a double date or spending time with another couple, and they get into a big fight right in front of you? It's awkward. It's also painful to witness because you see the two people attacking each other and blaming each other when you know deep down that what they should be doing is loving each other.

All unnecessary arguing and fighting stems from an inability of us to surrender to one another. We push each other around trying to get our own ways or prove our own points, and all this does is damage relationships and damage hearts. Why is it that so many people insist on doing it their way, when their way is hurtful and causing other people to feel alienated?

"The most radical social teaching of Jesus was his total reversal of the contemporary notion of greatness. Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all. Power is discovered in sumbission. The foremost symbol of this radical servanthood is the cross. 'He [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross' (Phil 2:8)" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 115). Christ taught the importance of submitting to one another in how he lived and died. He said that it is better to give in to another for the sake of love than to strike out against another to get your own way.

Submission to one another is an act of self-denial. When we practice self-denial, we quickly realize that our happiness is not dependent on getting our own way. We also quickly realize how much peace and harmony we contribute to the world when we honor other people by letting them make decisions, by letting them do it how they want to do it.

Jesus said, "If any want to beocme my followers, let them deny theselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:34-5). These are hard words for many of us to hear. We would rather be self-fulfilled than self-denying, and we falsely believe that to deny the self is a rejection of our individuality and personhood. But it's not. When we give our lives up for Christ and for the way of love, when we lose what we think we are all about, that is when God gives us a new life that is so much more alive and real and deep and free. You might look the same on the outside, but on the inside, you are a whole different person, and therefore, you act differently.

The freedom that we find in sumbitting to one another "is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 111).

It's not worth it. People that hang on to such anger die young and don't live fully while they are alive. And most of the things we fight about are not nearly as important issues as we make them out to be. It becomes a matter of ego and pride. Friendships break apart, lovers break apart, families break apart, churches break apart. All "because people do not have the freedom to give in to each other" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 111).

Limits

"The limits of the Discipline of submission are.. the points at which it becomes destructive. It then becomes a denial of the law of love as taught by Jesus and is an affront to genuine biblical sumbission" (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. pg. 120). Unfortunately, many lives have been destroyed or harmed in the name of submission. Some people read Ephesians 5, and use that text to rationalize the subordination of women, children and slaves. But if one reads that text correctly, it is calling for mutual relationships of self-giving between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between masters and slaves. Each half is called to surrender to the other half.

In the days of the Bible, women, children and slaves were dirt; they barely had any rights or respect. If anything, what Ephesians 5 does is give women, children and slaves a place in society where they are to be respected, honored, treated with dignity, listened to.

Whenever submission is used in an abusive manner, it's no longer a Christian spiritual practice. No one is being asked or told to surrender to abuse.

Conclusion

That's because this practice, like all spiritual practices, is designed to set us free and bring us to a place of unity and harmony.

When we surrender to God, we free ourselves from the burdens of worry and responsibility. We rely on our faith to give us direction, and we rely on God to give us victory.

When we surrender to one another, we free ourselves from arguing and always having to get our own way. We hand our very lives over to Jesus, and in doing so, we receive true, eternal and abundant life.

So don't be afraid to let go and let God. Give it up. Surrender control. This is God's desire. It's for our own good- both yours and mine.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Spiritual Practice of Confession

(Read 1 John 1:5-2:2)

Denial is the opposite of confession. Human beings use denial as a defense mechanism against trauma, pain and vulnerability. In the worst of circumstances, denial is necessary for survival. By denying horrific realities, people are able to endure situations which otherwise might destroy them mentally, emotionally, spiritually or physically. An example of denial used for survival could be a person who is living in a war zone. By denying the danger that continually exists around them, these people are able to continue on with daily life in a somewhat normal manner. Another example of denial used for survival could be a child who is abused from a young age. By disassociating themselves from the abuse they are suffering, they too are able to continue on with daily life in a somewhat normal manner, even though in both cases, reality is anything but normal or safe.

Denial in traumatic situations may be a survival tool to keep on living, but for many of us who are not in such dire circumstances, denial becomes a distorted way of perceiving reality that ultimately inhibits our ability to live full and rich lives with one another and God. At every age, people find themselves unwilling to admit certain realities in their lives. Instead of admitting our problems, we deny, refuse or hide what is actually going on in our lives. We mistakenly think we are protecting ourselves and those around us, but the truth is, all we are doing is bringing darkness and deception into our lives. Some examples of denial that are unhealthy are: pretending a relationship is fine, when in truth, something is wrong; pretending we are happy and satisfied, when in truth, we are unhappy and unsatisfied; pretending we are in control, when in truth, we are enslaved to something that is hurting us.

It is difficult to admit when we are weak or suffering or acting destructively; it is also difficult to admit when someone we know and love is weak or suffering or acting destructively. We are all terrified to reveal our failures, shortcomings, sins. In essence, we are terrified of being vulnerable when being vulnerable means that we are not perfect. But remember, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. When we try to pretend that we are perfect, that we are fine, that there is no sin in us, we lie. As the Scripture says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1: 10).

To lie and deny is to walk in the darkness, and walking in the darkness leads to death. As children of God, we are not meant to walk in darkness, but we are called to walk in the light, to live in the light. This is where confession can help us. Confession brings us into the light.

In Christianity, there are 12 spiritual disciplines, which are extensively written on, that are practices we can do to get closer to God and to one another. These disciplines or practices help us to become children of light. They help to make us holy and perfect us in love. The inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting and study. The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission and service. The corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Each Sunday in November, we will examine a different discipline. Today, we will look at the practice of confession.

One reason for this is that confession is always recommended before taking Holy Communion. In Communion, we are united with God, and it is only fitting that before we come to that beautiful place of communing, we open ourselves-the good and the bad-to God. When we offer ourselves to God by confessing our sins, Jesus who is faithful and just, and who gave his life for us to save us from sin, forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. And then when we meet God in the Lord’s Supper, there is nothing that stands between us. Only mercy and grace and love surround us.

So, what is confession? Very simply put, confession is being honest about who you are, about what you think, say and do. The most basic prayer of confession says, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Confession requires self-examination so that we may acknowledge the truth about our selves, our lives, and our relationships.

St. Alphonsus Liguori writes, “For a good confession three things are necessary, an examination of conscience, sorrow and a determination to avoid sin” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. Pg. 151.)

By an examination of conscience, Saint Alphonsus means that we should search ourselves to find those things and places that are out of touch with the ways of God, that disobey God’s commands to be loving and show mercy. To acknowledge when we are slaves to sins such as greed, pride, wrath, sloth, gluttony, etc. To admit when we have hurt ourselves or someone else by what we have thought, said or done.

By sorrow, Saint Alphonsus means that we should feel some regret, some sadness for the trespasses that have transpired.

By determination to avoid sin, Saint Alphonsus means that we should want to stop, that we should really try to avoid thinking or saying or doing it again.

Confession can happen in at least 3 different ways:

First, there is the corporate act of confessing in Christian community. This is what we do most Sunday mornings when we say a somewhat general prayer of confession together. The prayer is intentionally general so that we can all relate to it in some way, but the important thing is that we come together as one body of Christ, admitting that collectively we have all gone astray.

Second, there is the private act of confessing to God alone. This happens in our moment of silence after the corporate prayer of confession, and also, this is probably what you most often do in your personal prayer time. You come before God in all honesty, and specifically admit your sins and weaknesses.

A third type of confession is an inter-relational act of confessing to a trusted friend. Of all the types of confession, I believe this is the most powerful. For one, it’s specific. One confesses what is truly one’s very own sin. And second, we bring to the light and to true flesh and blood what is weighing us down. This is not easy. Often, we feel so ashamed of ourselves, and we fear others will judge us. But this is also why it is so freeing. Once you confess, and the person you confess to does not reject you, but forgives and embraces you in the name of God, it is like a great weight being lifted off of your shoulders.

All three types of confession are good and necessary, especially the third kind, which many of us are hesitant to do because it makes us so vulnerable and brings your once dark secrets into the light of day.

Listen to this testimony by Richard Foster, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. He writes about an experience he had when pastoring his first church:

“I longed for more power to do the work of God. I felt inadequate to deal with many of the desperate needs that confronted me. There had to be more spiritual resources than I was experiencing. ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘is there more you want to bring into my life? I want to be conquered and ruled by you. If there is anything blocking the flow of your power, reveal it to me.’ He did. Not by an audible voice or even through any human voice, but simply by a growing impression that perhaps something in my past was impeding the flow of his life. So I devised a plan. I divided my life into three periods: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. On the first day I came before God in prayer and meditation, pencil and paper in hand. Inviting him to reveal to me anything during my childhood that needed either forgiveness or healing or both, I waiting in absolute silence for some ten minutes. Anything about my childhood that surfaced to my conscious mind, I wrote down. I made no attempt to analyze the items or put any value judgment on them. My assurance was that God would reveal anything that needed his healing touch. Having finished, I put the pencil and paper down for the day. The next day I went through the same exercise for my adolescent years, and the third day for my adult years.

Paper in hand, I then went to a dear brother in Christ. I had made arrangements with him a week ahead so he understood the purpose of our meeting. Slowly, sometimes painfully, I read my sheet, adding only those comments necessary to make my sin clear. When I had finished, I began to return the paper to my briefcase. Wisely, my counselor/confessor gently stopped my hand and took the sheet of paper. Without a word he took a wastebasket, and, as I watched, he tore the paper into hundreds of tiny pieces and dropped them into it. That powerful, nonverbal expression of forgiveness was followed by a simple absolution. My sins, I knew, were as far away as the east is from the west.

Next, my friend, with the laying on of hands, prayed a prayer of healing for all he sorrows and hurts of the past. The power of that prayer lives with me today” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. Pg. 149-50).

There is so much truth and beauty to this testimony that Foster gives us. First of all, choosing a worthy person to confess to is important. I highly recommend confessing to an actual person about your specific sins and brokenness, and if you do, pick someone capable and worthy of the task. That person should also be convicted of their own sins and brokenness, and understand that it is in Jesus’ name that they are offering forgiveness to you.

Which brings us to the second important lesson we can learn from Foster’s witness. Confession is always followed by forgiveness. Confession is the first act of a two-step process. We confess, and then, we receive forgiveness, always and only because of Jesus. Jesus gave up his glory in heaven to walk as a person upon this earth. He gave his whole life for us so that we would understand just how much God loves us. We are redeemed, no matter how great our sin, because of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us.

The truly transformative part of confession is not our confession at all. Yes, self-examination and admitting our mistakes is important for our self-awareness, so that we will not make those same mistakes again. “Self-examination allows us to become people who are at peace with ourselves, and who can therefore make peace with others” (Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast. Pg. 99), but the true power that we receive in confession comes not from our understanding, but from God’s forgiveness.

“Confession might begin in sorrow, but it ends in joy. There is celebration in the forgiveness of sins because it results in a genuinely changed life” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. Pg. 153).

We grow more truthful, more compassionate, and are freed from the very sins that have been holding us in their grip for so long.

The third and last lesson for today that we can learn from Foster’s testimony is that confession does not end even with forgiveness, but comes full circle in our healing. They prayed for healing at the end of Foster’s confession, and Foster felt power from that prayer that set him free from his past sins.

We exist in the valley of darkness until we confess. Upon airing our dirty laundry and opening up honestly to God and neighbor alike, we find ourselves once again in the light. Light pours into our souls when we stop hiding. And in the light, God is free to forgive us and heal us so that we might become changed people, better people, new people.

Thanks be to God who listens to us, forgives us, and heals us because of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

God Will Be the Judge

(Read Romans 3: 9-18, 21-26 and John 3: 14-21)

Apart from Jesus Christ, not one of us is righteous. We do the best we can, and sometimes, we succeed in abiding by God’s commands; other times, we fail. More than anything, God wants us to receive his love and spread that love to our brothers and sisters in the world. When we live and act in love, the world becomes a more beautiful place, resembling the kingdom of heaven. When we live and act in fear and judgment, we contribute to the suffering of the world.

From a human perspective, we consider some people to be more righteous than others. If we were the judge, most of us would agree that Mother Teresa is more righteous than Charles Manson. Nelson Mandela is more righteous than Saddam Hussein. And Paul Newman is more righteous than OJ Simpson.

In Romans 3, we hear what the unrighteous are like: They are not wise, and they do not worship God whole-heartedly. The unrighteous have turned away from God, serving self and mammon, slaves to pride and power. The unrighteous speak words of deceit against the children of God. They lie; they threaten, and they curse and accuse anyone who is in the way of their distorted, self-serving agendas. “They are quick to hurt and kill, [leaving] ruin and destruction wherever they go” (Romans 3: 15-16). They do not know the path of peace or have reverence for our loving God.

Perhaps you have been the victim of an unrighteous person, someone who did you wrong or violated you because of their own sickness and selfishness. Have you been able to forgive? Do you want justice? What would justice look like to you?

In one of the more bazaar and interesting stories of our time, a woman took justice into her own hands. I’m speaking of the sensational news story of Lorena Bobbit.

“On the night of June 23, 1993, John Bobbitt arrived at [his and his wife, Lorena’s] apartment intoxicated after a night of partying and, according to testimony by Lorena in a 1994 court hearing, raped his wife. Afterwards, Lorena got out of bed and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. According to an article in the National Women's Studies Association Journal, in the kitchen she noticed a carving knife on the counter and "memories of past domestic abuses raced through her head." Grabbing the knife, Lorena entered the bedroom where John was asleep; and she proceeded to cut off more than half of his penis.

After assaulting her husband, Lorena left the apartment, with the severed penis. After driving a short while, she rolled down the car window and threw the penis into a field. Realizing the severity of the incident, she stopped and called 911. After an exhaustive search, the penis was located, packed in ice, and brought to the hospital where John was located. The penis was re-attached…and Lorena was taken into custody.

During the trial, the couple revealed details of their volatile relationship and the events leading up to the assault. Lorena stated that John sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her during their marriage. She also stated that John flaunted his infidelities, and forced her to have an abortion. Several witnesses provided testimony supporting Lorena's claims.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorena_Bobbit).

Many people who heard of Lorena’s story empathized with her. After hearing about John’s abuse and rape of his wife, they understood why she did what she did. In fact, after only 7 hours of deliberation, the jury in the case found Lorena “not guilty” due to temporary insanity. She spent just 45 days in a mental health facility, and then was released.

In this world, we want the unrighteous (John Bobbit) to be held accountable for their actions, for their sins. And why shouldn’t they be? Justice must be served. Murders, rapists, child molesters deserve some sort of punished for the crimes they have committed.

Not all of the unrighteous are so blatantly violent. Many simply poison God’s kingdom with their prejudice and hate, their lies and their betrayal. Many unrighteous don’t break the laws of our society so much as they break the laws of love.

Everyday, in houses that look just like ours, in places of employment just like ours, in schools just like the ones we have attended, even in churches just like this one, God’s command for us to live in righteousness is being broken.

What’s really infuriating is when the perpetrator is not held accountable, receives no punishment, or is set free.

In the bestselling book titled, The Shack, Mack, who is the main character, cannot get over his daughter’s tragic death, nor his fixation with the man who killed her. He exists in what he calls The Great Sadness. He is consumed with both guilt and anger at what happened.

The story goes that Mack had taken his youngest 3 children camping for the weekend. Josh and Kate were adolescents, but Missy was still a child. They had a great weekend of fun until the last morning.

Josh and Kate went out onto the lake to canoe before leaving, while Mack and Missy stayed back at the campsite. Once out on the water, Kate joyously reached up her paddle to wave to Mack, but this simple, innocent action caused the canoe to roll over. Mack ran to the shore to see if his kids were okay. Kate popped up, but Josh didn’t. And then, only his legs did. Mack knew something was wrong, so he did what any father would do, he plunged into the cold water.

Mack quickly found Josh, whose life vest strap had gotten caught in the canoe’s webbing. Josh was panicking and it was impossible for Mack to get near him enough to release him, so he did the only other thing he could think of, he flipped the canoe back over, an accomplishment propelled by pure adrenaline. When he did that, Josh came to the surface, upheld by his life vest. And his life was saved.

Mack breathed a sigh of relief. Disaster had been averted, that is until he and Josh and Kate got back to the campsite to find little Missy missing.

Details ensue (and it’s a good book so I would recommend that you read it), but the result is this: Missy had been abducted. An all out search lead only to a shack in some remote woods, and the only thing of notice in that shack was a stain of blood on the floor. Three years later, Mack is sitting in his living room cloaked in The Great Sadness, thinking of his little girl who was never found.

And thinking of the monster who killed his little girl and altered his family’s life forever.

As you might imagine, Mack is tormented by guilt for not taking proper watch over his youngest daughter, and he is seething with anger at the man who did this to his family. Mack wants Missy’s murderer to be caught, tried and imprisoned. And when his earthly life is over, Mack wants him to receive divine punishment for what he’s done and rot in hell.

The story unfolds in a mystical way as the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, come to meet Mack and heal him. There are many very interesting conversations that take place, but what I want to tell you about is a conversation that Mack has with the Holy Spirit, who in this book, takes the form of a woman named Sarayu

Understandingly, Mack blames God for what happened to his daughter. He is angry at God for letting the murderer get away. He questions God’s love and goodness and power. So Sarayu offers Mack the opportunity to be the judge.

She says, “If you are able to judge God so easily, then you certainly can judge the world.”

Now if Sarayu had offered Mack his daughter’s abductor to judge, the choice would have been easy. Mack would have sentenced him to a life of misery and damnation.

But Sarayu puts Mack to the test. She says, “You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heavens and new earth, but only two.”

Mack has 5 children so he stares at Sarayu in disbelief.

She says to him, “You must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell.”

Mack can’t believe what he is hearing, so Sarayu explains, “I am only asking you to do something you believe God does. [God] knows every person ever conceived, and he knows them so much deeper and clearer than you will ever know your own children. [God] loves each one according to his knowledge of the being of that son or daughter. You believe [God] will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from His presence and apart from His love. Is that not true?”

Mack responds, “I suppose I do. I’ve just never thought about it like this. I just assumed that somehow God could do that. Talking about hell was always sort of an abstract conversation, not about anyone that I truly cared about.”

“So you suppose, then, that God does this easily, but you cannot? Come now, Mackenzie. Which three of your five children will you sentence to hell? You are the judge, Mackenzie, and you must choose.”

“I don’t want to be the judge.” There was no way that Mack could sentence any of his children to an eternity in hell for any reason, no matter what they had done. They were his kids; he would always love them no matter what.

“I can’t do this,” Mack said softly.

“You must,” Sarayu replied.

“I can’t do this,” he said louder and more vehemently.

“You must,” Sarayu said again.

“I…will…not…do…this!” Mack yelled, his blood boiled hot inside him.

“You must,” she whispered.

“I can’t. I can’t. I won’t!” he screamed. Pleading, he said, “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that?” Mack fell at Sarayu’s feet, crying and begging. “Please, let me go for my children, please, I would be happy to…Please, I am begging you. Please…Please…”

“Mackenzie. Mackenzie,” she whispered, and her words came like a splash of cold water on a brutally hot day. Her hands gently touched his cheeks as she lifted him to his feet. Looking at her though blurring tears, he could see that her smile was radiant. “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well.”

“But I haven’t judged anything,” Mack offered in confusion.

“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. That is how Jesus loves…And now you know [God’s] heart, who loves all his children perfectly.”

(Above is recorded dialogue from William Paul Young. The Shack. Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media, 2007. Pg. 161-163).

Mack had never thought of Missy’s murderer as being a child of God, but his experience with Sarayu helped him and us to see what God’ perspective is like. God loves us all so much that he would do anything for us. In fact, “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… God did not send [Jesus] into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17).

God doesn’t need or want to torture anyone for eternity, even those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. It is difficult for us to understand this because we don’t see the unrighteous of this world as our very own children. But God does.

We want the unrighteous, those awful people who destroy others lives and our lives, to be held accountable and for justice to be served. We expect them to pay for their sins.

But God wants salvation for all people. Salvation begins in this life and comes to completion in the next. As we sang in the hymn, “To God Be the Glory” this morning, “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

The Gospel truth is that when a murderer or rapist or child molester stands before God and asks for forgiveness in Christ’s name, God will offer that person perfect justice. And perfect justice to God is mercy. God will forgive. God does the same for any believer who has sinned, violated, or betrayed us in any number of ways.

You see, when God judges us, he sees Jesus. As I said in the beginning, apart from Jesus Christ, not one of us is righteous. But in Jesus Christ, we all are.

One day, all of us will go before the judgment seat. With Christ in our hearts, God will look at us and proclaim his judgment with a kiss. And as the gavel falls, God will announce his sentence for us: we will be granted eternal life.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Triune God is a God of action.

The three persons of the Trinity are named the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are also often referred to as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. As persons, they are not inanimate objects, but they are beings of action. Their names identify the actions in which they are involved. The Father/Creator creates. The Son/Redeemer redeems. The Holy Spirit/Sustainer sustains, but that’s not all they do.

What I’m trying to say is that our God does not sit around on a throne in a place called heaven, although when we think of God, this is what many of us imagine. Or perhaps we imagine the physical person of Jesus like we’ve seen him in various paintings and pictures. But when we conceive of God, our first thoughts need not be what God looks like. Our first thoughts should be about what God is doing. For our God is a God of action.

God is very busy loving, healing, comforting, listening, speaking, orchestrating, providing, responding, growing, restoring, and coming to the rescue of us, God’s children. God is not static, but is tirelessly working to transform our lives and redeem the world.

It is strange then that Christians have such a hard time with change since God is in the changing business. God is into movement, forward motion. God wants humanity to grow and evolve, which means that when we resist change, we resist God.

We are all most comfortable when we are around that which is familiar. God knows that and since God loves us, God will never change too much too fast for us to handle. But God will change our lives, and God will do it by taking away and giving anew. Embrace it. The in, the out. The ebb, the flow. The new, the old. That’s how God works. That’s how God perfects our hearts in love and renews the creation.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Darkness Will Not Overcome Us

(Read Psalm 88:1-9a, 13-18 and John 1:1-5)

In an article found on the Mental Health Ministries website, I found the question raised: How many families in your church have a loved one who struggles with mental health problems?

If our congregation is representative of the U.S. population (and it probably is), one in four households will struggle with someone’s mental health problems over their lifetime. That includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and various anxiety disorders. (By Carlene Hill Byron. “1 in 4 households in your church is afraid to tell you this secret.” http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/links_resources/articles/carkene.pdf).

No one is immune to the dark cloud that is mental illness. The individual suffers; family and friends suffer; work suffers. Life itself becomes suffering. For the people who actually have mental health problems, darkness is the perfect word to describe the place where their minds exist. You feel lost, alone, confused, blind. You feel unlike yourself, like you don’t even know who you are anymore, like no one understands you. You feel anxious, hopeless, impatient. You dwell in a place that is cut off from the light of God, and all the good things that God has given to you are unappreciated by your mind.

Psalm 88 sounds like a man or woman who is suffering from mental illness: “God, you’re my last chance. I spend the night on my knees before you. I’m written off as a lost cause, a hopeless case. Abandoned. I’m a black hole in oblivion. I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out, blinded by tears of pain and frustration. Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting. You have made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness.”

That’s what it feels like. Terrible, hopeless. Consumed by darkness.

Some other facts for you about mental health disorders:

One in seventeen Americans lives with a serious mental illness, and about one in ten children have a serious mental or emotional disorder.

About 2.4 million Americans, or 1.1 percent of the adult population, live with schizophrenia.

Bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million American adults, approximately 2.6 percent of the adult population per year.

Major depressive disorder affects 6.7 percent of adults, or about 14.8 million American adults. And According to the 2004 World Health Report, this is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada in ages between 15 to 44.

Anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, obsessive‐compulsive disorder (OCD), post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias, affect about 18.1 percent of adults, an estimated 40 million individuals. Anxiety disorders frequently co‐occur with depression or addiction disorders.

An estimated 5.2 million adults have co‐occurring mental health and addiction disorders.

Of adults using homeless services, thirty‐one percent reported having a combination of mental health and addiction conditions.

These statistics come to you from the National Alliance on Mental Health. http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Mental_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=53155

Mental illness is a gospel concern because social ills like homelessness, unemployment, addiction and imprisonment, often result from mental illness. Christians are called to care for the poor and visit the imprisoned. We are called to help our brothers and sisters who are unemployed or suffering from addiction. Rather than just treat their symptoms, we can work to alleviate the cause of many of their problems when we treat mental illness.

If you look at the faces of your friends and brothers and sisters in the Lord seated around you this Sunday, it is certain that some of them are hurting from problems that arise because of mental health disorders or mental illness.

It’s sad to think about their struggles or your struggles, but what compounds the problem is that no one is talking. We are afraid to tell each other about our mental health problems, and we are afraid to get help. It’s not only the person with mental illness who suffers; it’s everyone they are close to.

A study where people ranked disabilities by their “acceptability” returned these results, in order—most acceptable was: obvious physical disabilities, then blindness, deafness, a jail record, learning disabilities, and alcoholism. The least acceptable of all disabilities: mental illness. (By Carlene Hill Byron. “1 in 4 households in your church is afraid to tell you this secret.” http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/links_resources/articles/carkene.pdf).

Why? I’m not sure. I grew up in a household where mental health and illness was talked about without any stigmas attached. As many of you know, my father is a psychiatrist. He often talked to us about the nature of his work, and also, patients called our home day and night. I would talk to them sometimes. They had problems that my dad, the doctor, was trying to treat. I knew sickness happened to the body. I also knew it happened to the mind. The brain is a sensitive organ, and when its normal function is disrupted, the effects can be life-altering for the people involved.

But most people do not grow up so accustomed to the pervasive problem of mental illness, and most people do not understand its causes.

That’s why I am talking about this today. I believe that everyone here is affected by problems that occur in the brain. Everyone. There is nothing shameful about it. It’s not to be hidden. It’s a fact of life like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, like heart attacks and strokes, like diabetes and cancer.

The problem is that the negative stigma around mental illness remains. Many people still believe that mental illness is their fault. Many people still believe that mental health problems only happen to people who are weak or unfaithful, to people of poor character or low intelligence.

Such ideas are completely false. Mental illness is a bio-chemical brain disorder that can happen to anyone, any race, class, gender, age, nationality, etc. Whether wealthy or poor, intelligent or dumb, motivated or lazy, faithful or not, no one is immune. Mental illness can also be exacerbated by unfortunate or stressful life circumstances.

If you don't suffer from mental illness and are not close with anyone who does, you should fall on your knees in gratitude and thank God.

The truth is, all of our minds are on a continuum of healthy to unhealthy. Sometimes, we can live normally with the way our brains work; othertimes, we can’t. Mental health and illness exists on a continuum of severity. There’s not that great of a distance between feeling really nervous and having your first panic attack. There's not that great of a distance between feeling down and unmotivated to being diagnosed with clinical depression. There's not that great of a distance between being neat, orderly, controlling and being obsessive.

But there is good news! Great news in fact! As Michael Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness states, “Simply put, treatment works, if you can get it.” (Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of NAMI National,Grading the States, 2006 12 Nami Fact Sheet
http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Mental_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=53155

With proper treatment, including therapy and taking the right medications, most people who live with mental illness can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and lead a healthy, happy, and productive life, surrounded by loved ones who are also healthy, happy and satisfied.

I recently read two quotes of a similar nature. One is: “We are as sick as our secrets.” The other is: “We are as lonely as our secrets.” Both are true. Secrets dwell in the darkness, and the darkness gives them their power over us. The darkness makes us sick, and the darkness makes us lonely.

All secrets, especially those concerning our mental wellness or lack thereof, need to be exposed to the light. The light brings healing to our sickness and love to our loneliness.

It’s a scary thing to do. It feels incredibly vulnerable, but when you suffer with mental illness, and you make the choice to confide in family, friends, your pastor, and mental health professionals, the light begins to break through the darkness, and change begins to happen. As the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

On several occassions, Jesus responded to the mentally ill. Lacking medical knowledge, he explained it as casting out demons, but their healing was no different than making the blind to see or the criple walk.

Darkness is no match for Christ’s light.

So now , let us offer to Christ our darkness so that he might bring his light into our midst and heal us.

But prayer is not the end of all this; it is only the beginning.

Today, I invite you to give up any negative stigmas or judgments you have held about mental illness. I invite you to talk to family, friends, professionals, and pastors. Let the secrets out of the darkness because the darkness only gives them more power. It is the light that saves us all.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Our God is Faithful No Matter What We Think or Feel

(Read Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 139:1-18)

Human emotion is not an adequate indicator of truth.

Or said in another way: Just because you feel something does not mean that something is true.

For example, one day you might feel fat. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are fat. The next day you might feel like you look good, thin even. On both days, your weight might be exactly the same. How you feel does not always match up with reality.

Another example. One day, you might feel like you don’t have enough money. There’s the house payment, the car insurance, the oil prices are up, groceries, Christmas is coming... And its getting to you, and you’re feeling like you don’t have enough money to pay for it all.

But a day or two later, without anything changing, you might feel like: I can handle this. First, I’ll pay the mortgage, then the car insurance, then fill the oil tank….We’re going to have enough! You might say to yourself. These are two totally different ways of perceiving life, even though the circumstance remains the same. It's important to know that the head and the heart can be deceiving.

Too often, we react to everything we think and feel like they are definitive statements from God. We often draw conclusions from our thoughts and feelings that are not true!

We might not say these things aloud, but this is what goes on in our inner dialogue:

I feel unlovable; therefore, no one must love me.
I feel hurt; therefore, someone must have done something wrong to hurt me.
I feel alone, therefore, I must not have any friends.

While the feelings may be real in the above statements and need to be acknowledged, the conclusions are not always true. You can feel fat and be thin. You can feel poor and be rich. You can feel unlovable and be loved. You can feel hurt and no one is trying to hurt you. You can feel alone and there might be many people who are there for you.

Our emotions and thoughts are not always adequate indicators of the truth.

Look at the Israelites. Here they are again, in the desert doubting the existence of God. No, not the existence of God, but whether God existed with and for them. The Israelites are hungry; they are thirsty, and because of this suffering, they feel abandoned; they feel like God is not with them. Because of how they feel about being in the desert, they question God’s faithfulness. “Is God among us or not?" They ask.

But just because they feel abandoned does not mean they are. In fact, God is there for them, providing. In today’s text, the Israelite’s are thirsty, and God gives them water to drink (and in a miraculous way!!). Not long ago, they were hungry, and God rained down manna from heaven. And before that, they were slaves in Egypt, and God found them a leader to take them out of that horrible situation and opened up the Red Sea so they could escape. God has proved God’s faithfulness time and time again to Israel.

And so I’ll say it again, emotion and thought can be deceptive. Not always, but can be. The Israelites are doubting God’s faithfulness because of how they feel, when really it is their faithfulness that is in question.

True faithfulness does not waver. Not in good times or in bad. All relationships go through ups and downs, feeling closer-feeling distant, good phases and not so good phases and downright bad phases. Feeling like God is answering your prayers or not answering your prayers. Feelings waver, but faithfulness does not have to.

God is truly faithful, so God never wavers in being among us. There is never a time that God says, “Forget these people.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, God made a covenant through Abraham, and has never wavered from that covenant. In the New Testament, God made a new covenant to the Gentiles through water and the Spirit, through Jesus Christ, and has never wavered from that covenant.

When we read the Bible, we see that God has repeatedly come to the rescue of God's people. Today, the Israelites received water in the desert, yesterday they received manna, and before that God helped them to escape from slavery.

Even moreso, we know that God is faithful by coming to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ. To show us just how invested God was, Jesus came to earth as merely a man, emptying himself of his glory, to be with us in our suffering and to suffer for our salvation.

After Jesus was crucified, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, he knew that we would miss him and feel alone again, so he promised us he would not abandon us. He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14). Jesus said he would be with us each moment and forever as the Holy Spirit, and his parting words in the gospel of Matthew are: “And be assured I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”

God is always among us. God is faithful and steadfast, even if we feel or think otherwise.

Just because something has gone bad or wrong in our lives, does not mean God has left us. God is with us when times are bad, and God is with us when times are good. I guess it’s easier to feel God’s presence and believe God is with us when life is easy and enjoyable, but the point is: God never leaves us, even when we try to say that he has.

Actually, we can’t make God go away no matter how hard we try.

There is a Psalm titled the inescapable God (Psalm 139). It says:

If we ascend to heaven, God is there.
If we plumit to the pit, God is there.
If we fly off to the farthest reaches of the sea, God is there.
The truth of the matter is, no matter where you are, God is with you there.

No matter what you are going through in life, whether you feel God or not, the truth is this: Our God is faithful, steadfast and true, always has been and always will be.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Kingdom of God: Certified Organic

(Read Mark 4: 26-29)

Today’s Gospel Scripture was given to me in Taize, France. They sell several types of necklace charms there, each comes with a Scripture as to its meaning. As soon as I read the text from Mark 4, I knew which one I had to buy as a symbol of my life and the spiritual journey.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like this: a person scatters seed on the land. Night and day the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps the harvest!”

I can say that about this misson trip I just took. The kingdom of God grows, "She knows not how." It was a mystery to me. I did not seek it out as much as I felt like I was sought out. I did not till endlessly in the garden to make something happen. And yet, grass, buds and grains keep emerging.

The kingdom of God is certified organic. It grows naturally out of the stuff of life. Especially when we surrender, and when we follow the Spirit and the teachings of Christ do are lives grow beyond our own efforts.

The kingdom of God is not something that we plan. It is something the
Spirit of life orchestrates based on a wisdom and foresight unknown to us. Living in the kingdom of God on earth is all of our destinies, and it is a mystery to the human mind, only as it is growing do we recognize it springing up all around us.

Let me begin at the beginning.

Jen Lalor, a teenager from the Reformed Church of Port Ewen, called me two years ago and asked me to apply as a leader for Project Timothy. PT is a mission trip for youth sponsored by the Reformed Chruch of America. Two years ago, I said no. This was not my denomination, not my church kids, not something I felt called to do. But when she called me a year later, this past spring, with the same invitation, I had a different response. I said I would consider it. Maybe, just maybe, the Spirit of God was calling me through the invitation of a girl from down the street.

So, I put myself out there. If one was trying to apply the metaphor of today’s Gospel parable, I was scattering seed. I tossed bits of who I am into the application process, and I did it quickly one evening. Then, I let Project Timothy go.

Two months went by. I did nothing pertaining to PT but went about my life and routine. Until one evening, a blade of grass appeared. I received an email that I had been chosen to lead Team France to Taize. I had been curious about Taize for several years since I had heard about it in seminary. Not only is Taize in the beautiful French countryside, but it sounded like a Christian Woodstock, a festival of the Spirit minus drugs, sex and rock-n-roll. Thousands of kids, aged 17-29, flocked there each summer to pray, eat, work and find centering amidst the band of brothers who had committed their lives to Christ and lived in this profoundly alternative community. What makes Taize different from the average monestary is that it opens its doors and shares its life with so many who search, believer or not.

I am a seeker by nature so I was attracted to the prospect of life at Taize.

But the minute I found out I had been asked to go and lead 6 young people in the process, fear and doubt crept into my mind. Worldly concerns bombarded me. How would I afford it? What about the churches I serve? How could I leave? Would I be putting in all this time and effort just to wind up out of my comfort zone and miserable?

Beyond the doubts that barked in my head, I felt a pull in my heart to say “yes.” I took the events that I’ve just described to you as a sign. Plus several people in my family and church life encouraged me to go for it. (Thank you). So I turned off my brain and mailed in my $100 deposit with a short note saying how excited I was.

That doesn’t mean my fears and doubts entirely left me. My first journal entry upon arriving to California, which is where I met all the 30 participants of PT , and where we did our team building and orientation, I wrote: "What am I doing here? I feel totally out of control. Because I am. I’m in new surroundings, with new people and on someone else’s schedule. I need to surrender control. Is God with me?"

This entry announces a way of thinking completely in opposition to the trust I now feel for God's plan, and which helped me to write this sermon. The kingdom of God is organic. It grows naturally by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. My thinking was very worldly. It was filled with doubt and control issues. If you want to enter into the kingdom of God on earth, you must take a chance, go with your gut, do something new and unknown. Because it is when we surrender our way and our ideas that God gets some room to play out God’s way and God’s ideas. The kingdom of God is not forced. It grows naturally by the wisdom of the Creator who makes the crops to grow in their season and cultivates our lives just the same in their season. We just have to be willing to grow.

My friends, I am telling you, if I could have planned this trip, if I could have picked the people who went, my best friends in the world, and decided how we would spend every day, this trip would not have been the profound experience it was. God grew this experience and that’s why it was wonderful.

I read two books on this trip, and believe it or not, they both had the exact same quote in them. That doesn’t happen very often. Two totally different books by different authors with the same quote!? "I did not ask for success, I asked for wonder” (said by Rabbi Abraham Hershel).

So wonder it was. Wonder became the theme of this trip. I am in wonder at how God works.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like this: a person scatters seed on the land. Night and day the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps the harvest!”

When we seek out opportunities that seem random, that is us scattering seed. Or when we make efforts or choices or follow our hearts, that is us taking seed and scattering it into the ground.

God grows and cultivates that seed in ways we do not fully understand, but we see the blades of grass emerging. We see the crop coming to harvest. And that is the work of the Spirit, that is the blessing of grace.

Some of the things God taught me:

The wonder of teenagers/young adults: I love you all! Serena, Anthony, Ryan, Lauren, Pinto and Elizabeth. Laughter. Searching. Trust. We became a family
in the name of Christ.

The importance of surrender, waiting, patience—let life unfold organically.

The importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone- I love to travel! While I have it all set up at home, it’s hard to let the crops grow without tinkering.

How much I love and trust God—God is wonderful! Trust in your Maker.

What will this all amount to?

It is a mystery of how this all came to be and continues to unfold. I believe in a great ending.

God poured grace upon me and every person on this mission trip. Now, it’s a matter of seeing how that grace will take root and grow. I know not how it will happen, but I am confident in an abundant harvest.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Back to Basics

(Read Mark 12: 28-34)

One of the most haunting images in the Bible is after Jesus has been arrested, and Peter is sitting out in the courtyard of the high priest’s house where Jesus is being held captive. Then, Peter denies Jesus 3 times, saying “I do not know him.” Then, the cock crows announcing Peter’s betrayal as Jesus had predicted. And then, the Lord turns and looks at Peter (Luke 22:61).

When I imagine Jesus turning and looking at Peter, their eyes meeting, I am filled with the sense of what it means to be a sinner, of having failed God, of having gotten swept up in the world, and thus, rejecting God.

Not that I think Jesus’ look towards Peter was one of condemnation. When I see Jesus’ eyes, he’s saying, “I told you so,” but without malice. More with a look of deep sadness and acceptance and forgiveness.

Peter, on the other hand, when he saw Jesus’ eyes and remembered his prediction, his own eyes must have registered pure horror. He had done it. He had done what he promised he would not do! The shame and the guilt were so great that Scripture says Peter ran from the courtyard and wept bitterly.

I hate to think of any of us denying Jesus. But we live in a complex world, and oftentimes, the answer don’t seem so clear. We do harm, and we don’t even realize it. We pass up opportunities to help others because of our own selfishness and insecurity. If Peter could deny Jesus while he was standing only 30 feet away, how much easier is it for us deny Jesus when we aren’t even sure where he is?

The closest you and I ever get to looking into Jesus’ eyes is when we look into each other’s eyes. In fact, whenever we are interacting with one another or watching one another from afar, we should remember that Jesus said, “Just as you do it to one of them, you do it to me” (Mt 25:40). Jesus is here in the world in the faces of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and even ourselves.

Today, I thought we’d go back to the basics. A life pleasing and acceptable to God is one in which we love God, we love ourselves, and we love our neighbors. I like the way the Message translation phrases it. Jesus says, “that God is one and there is no other. And loving him with all passion and prayer and intelligence and energy, and loving others as well as you love yourself” (Mark 12: 32-33)... Why, that’s the way to live a good life!

In the mid-18th century, around 1750, John Wesley thought up some simple instructions to give to the early Methodists so they would know how to fulfill Christ’s command to love.

They were called the General Rules, and there were 3 of them:
Do no harm.
Do good.
Stay in love with God. (Not Wesley's original wording, more on that later).

“The rules are simple and they are easily understood,” but they have far reach. If everyone followed them the world would literally be a different and a new place, a more loving place. But just because the rules are simple and easy to understand does not make them easy to practice. (Job, Rueben. Three Simple Rules. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. pg. 41).

First, do no harm. For most of us, this seems like a pretty obvious way to live. We don’t go about intending to hurt or harm people or things. We don’t intentionally beat people up or set forest fires or run over animals. But we need to go beyond the obvious and beyond the intentional to better understand this first rule because it is in the nuances, and in our indifferences, and in our ignorance where we really become offenders of this rule.

We don’t intentionally hurt the environment, but we often do damage to it inadvertently. We don’t mean to, but the cars that we drive and the aerosol cans that we spray and the garbage we throw away are putting holes in the ozone layer and filling up our land fills. For many years, we just claimed ignorance. We didn’t know what we were doing. But as stewards of God’s earth, and God did set us as stewards in Genesis when God said that we should “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28). God gave us everything God made, and I’m sure God hopes we will take care of it. So when we think of the first rule, do no harm, let us think of God’s earth, Mother earth, nature, the environment.

Let us also think of one another. Rueben Job recently wrote a little book on the General Rules, and he says, “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions [and words and opinions and decisions] and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation” (Ibid. pg. 31).

When it comes to not harming our brothers and sisters, we have to be aware and sensitive to other people’s feelings. Just like with the environment, we don’t want to hurt each other, but a casual, off-the cuff remark can cut a deep wound. When “I” decide to defend my position, another person can feel very attacked and hurt.

Thomas a Kempis wrote, “We cannot trust ourselves too much, because we often lack grace and understanding. The light within us is small, and we soon let even this burn out for lack of care. Moreover, we often fail to notice how inwardly blind we are; for example, we frequently do wrong, and to make matters worse, we make excuses about it! Sometimes we are moved by passion [reckless emotion] and think it zeal [inspiration]. We condemn small things in others and pass over serious things in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us—and we even harbor those feelings—but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly” (Ibid. pg. 30).

I really was touched by the line, “We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us, but we do not notice how much we hurt others.”

Next time your about to make what you think is a witty comment, consider if really it’s a sarcastic remark, a cut. Next time your about to interrupt someone with your opinion, stop and think. Do I really need to add my two cents here? And next time you go to accuse someone of something, consider if perhaps you are being defensive or you are taking your anger out on the wrong person.

Do no harm requires awareness, intentionality, sensitivity and education so that we do not remain ignorant of the things that we are doing that go on hurting people and the creation.

Second, do good.

Wesley said something to the effect of, “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the places you can.”

This morning, let us focus on the part of that statement which says, for all the people you can.

Last night, I watched a movie titled, Music Within. It is a wonderful, true story based on the life of Richard Pimentel. Richard went to serve in Vietnam with the intention of coming back to the States and going to college on the government’s dime. While he is fighting in Vietnam, an incoming mortar round blows up right by his head so that he develops tendonitis, a ringing in the ears, and essentially goes deaf.

When he gets back to the States, the government doesn’t want to let him go to college because they say he’s deaf. They assume he’ll fail all his classes, and even if he did succeed in college, no employer would want to hire him. In 1974, there was still a great stigma around all disabilities.

Richard’s a man of perserverence so he finds a way into college, learns to read lips so that no one will ever have to know he’s deaf, and becomes a successful man working in an insurance company. In a interesting twist of fate, while still at college, Richard realizes that the only person whom he can hear is this guy named Art, and Art has Cerebral Palsy.

The film uses touching humor to develop the friendship between the deaf guy and the guy in the wheel chair. Through the discrimination that Richard faces because of his disability, and seeing the even greater injustices done to his friend Art, and also the terrible treatment his buddies from Vietnam get, some of whom are missing legs or eyes or arms, Richard develops a career fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.

There’s this unbelievable scene when its Art's birthday, and what he wants most is to go out for pancakes. So Richard pulls Art’s wheelchair up 10 steps to get him into this pancake house, and they head to a table, (and remember this is in the 70’s), and all the people in the restaurant are staring at Art because he’s moving around all jerky and his mouth is hanging open, and the waitress comes over and demands that Richard and Art leave. She says she’ll call the cops if they don’t.

And do you know what? Richard and Art get arrested because in those days their was such a thing as ugly laws, where if you were diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be unsightly or disgusting, you weren’t allowed in public if it offended someone else.

After this and other incidents, Richard goes on to become the most prominent person in getting employers and the public in general to understand that people with disabilities are people too. People in wheelchairs, people missing limbs, people who are blind, deaf, each and every one deserves to be treated with equality, fairness and compassion.

You’ve heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act? It’s the reason we have handicap access ramps and lifts and handicap accessible bathrooms, and so much more. Richard Pimentel is largely given credit for getting the American with Disabilities Act passed. (FYI: Ugly laws were repealed in the 70’s).

My real point in telling you about this film is that one of the statements it makes is that people are often afraid to look at and see people who appear to be unlike them. Whether it’s a little person and you don’t want to stare or whatever the excuse may be, the bottom line is we often ignore people who don’t look like us, act like us, dress like us. But the truth is, while people might look different, act different, dress different, our hearts are the same. We are all God’s beloved children.

Don’t let the differences in the way people look and act stop you from doing all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the places you can.

Do not be afraid of people who appear different. I often think we are afraid to reach out and help others because we don’t know if they will let us, if they will yell at us, what exactly we should do to help them. All we really have to do is speak to the person we see whom we perceive needs help, and politely ask: Is there anything I can do to help you? There’s nothing to be afraid of.

The movie has a happy ending because 20 years after getting arrested at the pancake house, Richard and Art go back. Richard doesn’t have to drag Art up the steps this time though because now, there's a ramp there – thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act- and Art has a motorized wheelchair. And the waitress at the restaurant is very nice to them.

The third rule is, stay in love with God.

In Wesley’s original language, the third rule was, “Attend upon the ordinances of God.” Ordinance is a word we don’t use much these days, and when we do hear it, it’s usually in relation to an order or statute or regulation enacted by a city government, such as a noise ordinance. But the word also means a custom or practice established by long usage or a Christian rite. “To Wesley, it was a word that described the practices that kept the relationship between God and humans vital, alive, and growing. He names public worship of God, the Lord’s Supper, private and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, Bible study and fasting as essential to a faithful life” (Ibid, pg. 53).

Each of you might have additional spiritual practices that you consider valuable, such as nature walks, meditation, dancing, singing, arts, crafts, fishing, golfing. These can all be ways to connect with the divine. As long as your practices, or disciplines, or ordinances cultivate the life of faith, give strength and guidance to your life, and draw you in closer relationship with the Living God, that is what matters most. Ultimately, any practice that we do is meant to help us stay in love with God. They are our nourishment, our communion with the Source who makes all things possible.

“The first two rules are important and bring immediate results, but without the third rule, the first two become increasingly impossible. Staying in love with God is the foundation of all of life. It is in a vital relationship with God that we are enlivened, sustained, guided, called, sent, formed, and transformed. The writer of Psalm 127 [v.1a] declares, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.’ We practice the rules, but God sends the power than enables us to keep them” (Ibid, pg. 48).

In order for us to continue doing good and doing no harm, it is essential for us to stay in love with God. That’s what the Sabbath is for, to help us stay in love with God.

There is a powerful parallel that happens in the Bible. First, Peter denies Jesus three times right before Jesus is crucified. Then, after Jesus has been resurrected, he appears to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee and asks Peter 3 times, “Do you love me?” And 3 times Peter says, “Lord, you know that I love you.”

It’s like the three “I love you’s” Peter says are to make up for or replace the three denials Peter had made.

In addition to that, Jesus knew that his disciples would have to love him, to really love him, to go and do the work, the preaching, the teaching, the baptizing, the caring, the healing that would be required of them as disciples. The first time Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.” The second time Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.” And the third time Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

When we love the Shepherd, we love the Shepherd’s sheep, and we will take care of them.

So the basics are: Do no harm-not to yourself, not to any person, and not to the earth or any living creature on the earth. Do good- in any way you can, big or small, to all the people you can – paying special attention to help those who appear different from you, in all the places you can.

But so you don’t burn out, take time to stay in love with God.

These are the basics.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ask the Holy Spirit

When I was a young child, around age 5, I remember going up to my mother and asking her, “Who am I?” She replied, “You’re Mandy.” A straight forward answer for a straight forward question, but it wasn’t the illuminating answer I was hoping for. There wasn’t enough information. So, I pushed further. “But who am I?” I asked again. With additional emphasis, my mother lovingly repeated, “You’re Mandy.”

I walked away feeling confused. This was one question that even my mom couldn’t help me with. I was trying to wrap my head around the concept of identity. My identity. I asked God: What does it mean for me to be Mandy? Little did I know that I would spend the rest of my life trying to answer this exact question.

In different ways, we all ponder the question: Who am I? Our very lives are an attempt to provide an answer. How did you get to be the person you are sitting here today? How is this your life? There is no one answer to this question because each of us is unique, and we have each traveled very different paths even to get ourselves to the same place. And yet, each of us is created by God of the same basic matter, molecules and cells which make up skin and bones, and God breathed God’s very Spirit into each one of us. This means that each life here is a combination of a universal, God-given identity and an original self-invented identity. What does it mean for me to be me and you to be you? The answer was partially determined in the mind of God before the beginning of time, and the answer continually evolves throughout one’s lifetime as a person makes choices and grows.

In Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, it says, “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.” Our Judeo-Christian heritage tells us that we are created in the image of God. The Latin term is imago dei (image of God). Each of us is a reflection of our Creator God. The problem is God’s reflection in us has been distorted by sin. The divine nature in each of us has been corrupted; we are fallen, broken, sinful. The recovery of this image is our life’s work, and not just ours, but God’s as well.

The process is called sanctification. Sanctification is “a real change in which the [Holy] Spirit renews our fallen nature” (Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. pg. 170), transforming our sin-distorted selves back into the likeness of God, the imago dei. Christian theology explains it like this: God offers us forgiveness for our sins and redemption from our corruption through Jesus Christ, and when we accept this forgiveness, we receive a “New Birth.” “The New Birth brings a new vitality and responsiveness to God” in our lives, which sets into motions an active, healing, redeeming relationship between God and ourselves. Sanctification is “the entire therapeutic transformation of our lives following the New Birth” (Ibid. pg. 176-77). This means that from the time we decide to follow Jesus until the day we die, we are being sanctified. God reaches out to us via the Holy Spirit, and as we respond to the Spirit, transformation occurs, restoring us in the imago dei. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are being made holy as God is holy. So, sanctification is a gradual recovery of the likeness of God following New Birth, a gradual, grace-empowered formation of Christ-like character.

I believe that the doctrine of sanctification directly relates to the human quest to answer the question: Who Am I? There is no static answer for who I am or who you are. We are all in the process of becoming. Whether you are 5, 25, 45, 65, or even 85, the answers are still unfolding and your identity is continuing to be molded. For us as Christians, the important thing is that we are becoming more like our Creator, our Source, our Perfect Beginning. The goal of sanctification is not to become God, but to become more fully human in the way that God creating humanity to be, which means that the goal is to reflect the divine image. When we are loving as God is loving, we are living up to our potential as God’s children. When we are wise as God is wise, we are living up to our potential as God’s children. When we are good, when we are kind, when we are creative, expressive and inspired, we are living up to our potential as God’s children because we are reflecting what we know to be true about God.

This might be hard for some of us to believe, but God created humanity with the intention that we would be in close, personal relationship with God. God is our partner and has offered to share the divine life with us. The Scripture says, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God [enslaved being a good thing], the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. [That means the life of the Eternal One alive in us]. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord“ (Romans 5: 22-23).

Psychology Magazine discusses humanity's quest for identity in terms of the search for an “authentic self.” The definition of authenticity is, “The unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise” (Wright, Karen. Psychology Today. June 2008. pg. 72).
When we are actively participating in the process of sanctification, we are also searching to live in accordance with our best possible, truest self, the child of God we are created to be. Journalist Karen Wright says, “American’s remain deeply invested in the notion of the authentic self. It’s part of the national consciousness.” “A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play and prayer. Teens and twentysomethings try out friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements to see what fits and what’s ‘Just not me.' Midlifers deepen commitments to career, community, faith and family that match their self-images, or feel trapped in existences that seem not their own. Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were ‘true’ to themselves” (Ibid. pg. 72).

One of the reasons this quest is so important to people is because when we feel like we are living inauthentically, we experience a “vague dissatisfaction [with life], a sense of emptiness, or the sting of self-betrayal” (Ibid. pg. 76). Whereas those who feel like they are living authentically experience greater satisfaction with life, a sense of purpose, and the joy of being one’s self.

As Christians, we can merge the doctrine of sanctification with becoming our authentic self since we believe God’s Spirit is continually working in our lives to help us become our truest possible selves, selves that both reflect the divine image that is our core being and also, actualized selves that express our unique potential as individual children of God.

It’s like a dance between us and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit graciously reaches out to us through feelings, through people, through life circumstances, through dreams, through calling, and our response to the Spirit’s initiative determines if and how we grow closer to God. The Spirit’s main work is to help us come alive, to help us mature as spiritual beings who reflect the divine in the world.

Psychology Today discusses the importance of self awareness as key to determining if one is living as one’s authentic self, which is important for us too, but for Christians, there is an additional component: God awareness, or more accurately, Holy Spirit awareness. We need to be aware of the Spirit when the Spirit comes to us and open our lives to the Spirit’s movement.

According to the article in Psychology Today, “Spiritual and religious traditions similarly equated authenticity and morality. In the wisdom traditions of Judaism, people do the right thing because they see it as an expression of their authentic selfhood. In Christianity, the eternal soul is who you really, truly are; sinners are simply out of touch with their core selves. ‘The authentic human self is called to be much nobler than [how you see people acting in everyday encounters]’" (Ibid. pg. 75).

The Christian faith does not begin with morality. It begins with the heart. Our hearts are meant to reflect God’s love, wisdom, goodness and creativity, and our actions follow from there. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, emphasized the “inward” dimension of sanctification. He talked about it in terms of “the life of God in the human soul, a participation of the divine nature, the mind that was in Christ, or the renewal of our heart after the image of God who created us” (Maddox. pg. 178). When these things happen, it leads to external acts of obedience. But it is because God’s life is in us, because we are participating in the divine nature, because Christ’s mind has become our mind and because our hearts have been renewed in the imago dei that we act so graciously in the world. Not simply because we are told to, but because that is “who we are.”

Today, Pentecost, let us rejoice in the presence and activity of God through God’s wonderful Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to become our authentic selves as we are created to be in the image of God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our brokenness so that we are holy as God is holy, turning our hate to love, our anger to joy, our fear to courage, our hardened-hearts to open, accepting hearts, our “to-do” existences to creative existences, our death to life. Praise be to the Spirit now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Paul: From Murderer to Martyr

(read Acts 7:54-60 and 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8a)

The earliest Christians suffered great adversity as they tried to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Much of the established Jewish tradition rejected such outlandish claims that Jesus had died and been raised by God from the dead. They not only rejected such claims, they vehemently abhorred them. It was nonsense, blasphemy even. For some of the Jewish leaders, I’m sure their violent objections to Jesus as Christ were the result of a creeping suspicion and vulnerable fear that the message of the disciples might actually be the truth.

Stephen was one such disciple who was determined to proclaim the Gospel message, even to the Jewish authorities who were outraged by such proclamations. Stephen was both a powerful preacher and the one who administered the “food-pantry” for the church in Jerusalem.

One day not long after the resurrection, Stephen went before the Sanhedrin, or the Jewish Council consisting of 23 high priests, and explained to them the history of Israel and how Jesus was the continuation and fulfillment of the prophecy. Just like they had rejected this claim before, they rejected it on that day. Stephen grew angry, insistent. He called the high priests “stiff-necked people,” or bull-headed. He told them they were “uncircumcised in heart and ear,” which is to say their hearts were hardened and their ears were deaf to God’s ongoing revelation. Stephen also said, “You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7: 51). Such accusations were a piercing criticism, and they infuriated the members of the Council.

Stephen made a great argument for Jesus as the continuation of God’s promise to Israel, but the Sanhedrin refused to hear it, and the insults that Stephen threw out just enraged them further. They grit their teeth and covered their ears, and then they formed a mob and physically attacked Stephen. They took him out into the streets and kicked him and beat him and threw insults back at him. And besides throwing insults, they also threw stones. In fact, they threw rock after rock at him until he was dead.

But before Stephen died, he uttered words reminiscent of Jesus’ last words from the cross. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7: 59-60).

Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr, the first person whose life was taken in violence because of his faith in Jesus Christ. Ironically, Saul, the very person who approved of the Sanhedrin killing Stephen for his faith in Jesus, a man who participated in the whole event, would also later become a martyr for his faith in Jesus.

How is it that Saul, better known to us as Paul (his Christian name), goes from being a murderer of a Christian to a martyr in Christianity?

For those of you who are unfamiliar: Saul was a Pharisee, a 4.0 Jew and follower of the law. He was enraged by the claims of the disciples (of Jesus) and persecuted the early Church. But a series of events happened to Saul, which forever transformed his life. Saul became a Christian, a follower of the Way, and was renamed Paul. The same Saul who cheered at the death of Stephen becomes Paul, the author of Corinthians 13, who writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13: 1). What a great difference that is! In addition to Corinthians, Paul also wrote Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians Colossians, Thessalonians, some of the greatest treatises found in the Bible. He traveled all over Asian Minor and founded many churches. His responsibility was to convert gentiles to Christians. And it is thought that after doing all this amazing work for God, Paul also became a martyr, killed by the Romans because of his Christian beliefs around 60 C.E.

How did he go from a murderer to a martyr? It must have been nothing less than the power of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world. I would like to suggest a Trinitarian explanation for Saul/Paul’s transformation: First, Saul received forgiveness of sins from God the Father/Creator. Second, Saul had a life-transforming vision of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, a vision that made him able to see the truth of God. And third, Paul was empowered by the Holy Spirit to live his life according to the Way and to help others along the Way.

It should be glaringly obvious why Saul was in need of forgiveness after hearing this morning’s text. He was a persecutor of the early church and participated in the murder of Stephen. Yet, God must have forgiven Saul. This is not written in the Scriptures directly, but is inherent based on the fact that God called Saul to be one of the apostles and gave his life a renewed purpose in the world. Without forgiveness, Saul was irredeemable. He was a sinner; one who had broken God’s commandments. He certainly had no place in the Christian Church or as a saint, and yet pages of our Bibles are filled with his spiritual theology and poetic letters.

How did Saul go from being a murderer to a martyr? God forgave him. With forgiveness comes another chance, new opportunities, new life. Can you imagine if we had to work off our debt everyday before we were able to move forward in life? We would all be in such deep pits we would not even have a dream of rising out. But God’s forgiveness makes our transformation possible.

It is important to note however that human beings need to receive God’s forgiveness if we are truly going to gain the fruits of this gift. To live forgiven and not know it is still to be in a pit. But, Paul knew that God had forgiven him and that is why he is able to live a new life, a life guided by love instead of judgment. That is why he is able to write, “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13: 5-8). God’s love never ends, and Paul knew that because he was a recipient of such everlasting, steadfast love.

The Gospel message is that we are all forgiven. Saul is forgiven, and so are you. We are all redeemable. God is able to take the mess that is our lives and the brokenness that is our selves and love us until our chaos turns to order and our brokenness to healing. There is not anything that you cannot come back from. Or to put it in a positive statement, you can come back from anything, any sin, any failure, any weakness, through the One who created you. Over and over and over again we are forgiven, loved no matter our failings because God sees us as we really are: perfect in God’s sight, beautiful, wise, loving and strong. As we embrace God’s forgiveness, we become the people God intends us to be.

The second explanation for how Saul went from murderer to martyr is because Jesus Christ revealed himself to him. Paul had a Revelation (capital R). He saw Jesus Christ and that forever changed him.

When Saul was charging along breathing threats against the Church, he was confused and his perspective was distorted. He was not seeing clearly, but Jesus came to help him see clearly, to help him see as God sees.

The Revelation happened like this: Acts 9 says, “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9: 3-5).

There is no denying the power of this experience. Saul went blind from it. Jesus can do that to us. He can come to us with his truth and make us go blind, but when he does that, he always gives our sight back to us. Except when he gives it back, we are no longer confused and operating from a distorted perspective. Now, we see how he wants us to see: clearly, and through the lens of wisdom and love.

I believe that Jesus has revealed himself to every single person in this room. He has revealed himself more fully to some of us, while others of us have only had glimpses. But oh, how grand even a glimpse of God’s eternal Word is! It’s all most of us can take at any one time. And Jesus will continue to reveal himself to us as long as we are seekers on the Way.

Just as we benefit and grow more when we acknowledge and receive forgiveness, so to do we see more clearly when we acknowledge and receive Jesus in whatever form he presents himself to us. Do not limit the way Jesus might teach you. Visions, miracles, Scripture, worship, prayer, a sunset, a child, a headache, a divorce, cancer. He can be in any of it. He is in all of it. While we cannot make Revelation happen, we can be ready when it does.

The third way Paul went from being a murderer to a martyr was by the empowering power of the Holy Spirit.

After Saul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus, he went blind and was taken into the village to get rest. Jesus then spoke to Ananias and told him to go to Saul and explain to him what was happening. Ananias said, “’Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored” (Acts 9: 17-18).

When Jesus removed the scales from his eyes and the Holy Spirit filled him, that is the moment that Saul became a new man, that is the moment Saul became Paul. From then on, it was game on. It was the Spirit who empowered Paul to travel, teach, preach, establish, convert, baptize, write 1 Corinthians and so on.

The roles of the Holy Spirit are numerous. The Holy Spirit comforts, guides, gives discernment, etc, but today, I want to focus on the empowering aspect of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is in us, we are more than ourselves. We can do things that we normally are not brave enough, smart enough or strong enough to accomplish. The Spirit is like wind in a sail, it powers the boat onward.

That does not mean you will not have to try. That does not mean you will not have to work hard. That does not mean you will not be fearful at times. What it means is that you can do it because God is in you helping you to do it.

How did Saul become Paul? How did he go from being a murderer to a martyr? By the forgiving, revealing, empowering love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Creator forgave him. The Savior made sure he had another chance and opened his eyes to the Way, and the Spirit empowered him to do whatever it is they all asked as One God now and forever.

I just described how the Triune God transformed the life of a sinner who became a saint. What about you? How has God saved your life? What has Jesus revealed to you? And what is the Spirit offering to you, as a gift, so that you may live the eternal life for which you are destined?

To be able to articulate what God is doing in your life is what being a disciple is all about. To be able to follow through with what God is doing in your life, that is the crucial next step.