Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Grateful For It All

(Read Job 42:10-17)

It all becomes so clear when we look back on our lives. How this turns into that. How that turns into this. And we can be grateful for it all.

Hindsight is always 20/20 or so the saying goes. When we reflect upon the twists and turns, it’s much easier to see how God was working to orchestrate our futures looking back than while we were actually going through our ordeals.

For example, Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Computers, dropped out of college after six months, which was very scary for him considering he had been told from birth that he must go to college. He dropped out because Reed College, where he was attending, was incredibly expensive. Jobs parents’ were working class and all of their savings were being eaten up by his college tuition. Since Jobs had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and didn’t think the required classes that he was taking were leading him down any definitive road to happiness, he dropped out. But in doing so, he started dropping in on other classes that did interest him.

One such class was a calligraphy course. Jobs was fascinated by serif and san serif typefaces, about the amount of space that went between different letters and about the art of typography in general. At the time, the course didn’t have any practical application to his life, but 10 years later, when Jobs was designing the first Macintosh computer, this information had a tremendous impact. Jobs said this in his Stanford commencement address:

“[The Macintosh] was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.”

I like this idea about connecting the dots as we look back at our lives.

Think about your life. Perhaps that bully from school who tormented you is the reason you are so courageous and successful today. Or perhaps your mother who never gave you adequate attention and affection is why you married the loving woman sitting next to you. Or perhaps the school who rejected you or the employee who sent you away is why you are now on a chartered course more in line with your gifts and passions than if you had just followed some generic path you thought you should be taking. Or perhaps surviving cancer is the reason you no longer take life for granted, and the reason you have so much compassion for the suffering of others.

Connecting the dots is something that we do looking backwards, and it is affirms who God is in our lives as the great orchestrator, the One who transforms even the most difficult times and circumstances into our growth and maturation as the children of God. Romans 8: 28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
This philosophy about connecting the dots can positively impact how we live today because we now know that the present moment creates a better future. Everything may not be perfect in your current situation, that’s pretty much a guarantee, but everything now is leading to something orchestrated by God and the outcome is secure. That’s a reason to give thanks at all times, no matter if it’s a good or bad period of life.

Rascal Flatt’s wrote a song called “Bless the Broken Road,” and he picked up on this idea in the song. Some of the lyrics are:

"Bless The Broken Road"
I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
But I got lost a time or two
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you

Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you

That’s connecting the dots.

Take Job for example. He was a man who was afflicted in many ways. To use the language we applied to ourselves, everything was not perfect in his life. Far from it. His donkeys, oxen and livestock were stolen, his children were killed and he had boils from his head to his toes.

At one point, Job cursed the day he was born, but at another point, he refused to curse God and give up his faith. I think Job knew that even his suffering and loss were not reasons to given up on being thankful because healing would be on its way.

That takes us to the text we heard this morning when Jobs fortunes are restored. Scripture says, “The Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42: 10).

The scripture doesn’t tell us Job’s response, but I bet he was giving God thanks and praise for a myriad of things. Yes, that his fortunes had been restored, but also thanks that God had saw him though the period of trial, thanks that he had the courage and fortitude to endure, thanks that his outcome was secure in the hands of the Lord.

Looking back, Job could see the dots connecting. He could see how his relationships with his siblings had improved Scripture says that they came to him and ate bread with him, that they had sympathy for him and comforted him because of all the evil that had been inflicted upon him.

I bet that first meal Job had with his family after his fortunes were restored was the best meal of his life. I bet the hugs he received were cherished unlike any embrace he had formerly known. When he had more children, I bet a day didn’t go by that he didn’t appreciate them. Scripture says he even gave the daughters an inheritance along with the brothers, which was not the practice in those days. There was no amount of generosity too great because Job now knew after all that he had been through the superior value of having people in his life whom he loved.

Every person has a default position. Some people that you know are happy and optimistic, while other people that you know are depressed and fatalistic. Some smile while some are sarcastic. Some want more while some give as much as they can away.

Giving thanks can be our default mindset. By default mindset I mean it can be the attitude we revert to in any given moment no matter what the circumstances are.

Many people make thanksgiving about the blessings we have, and that’s not wrong, it’s just not the full picture. When we give thanks, we are thankful for the good things. We say, I am thankful for my loving family. I am thankful for my good health. I am thankful for my material wealth and the security it affords me.

But what if we gave thanks for all things, whether it feels like a blessing or a curse at the time, knowing that God is plotting a course, and that we will be able to go back and connect the dots later. As crazy as it sounds, the biopsy can be a reason to give thanks. The divorce can be a reason to give thanks. The bankruptcy can be a reason to give thanks.

It can all becomes so clear when we look at our lives. How this is turning into that. How that is turning into this. And we can be grateful for it all.

And that is because 1. We are alive to experience all of these things. 2. Because we never know what blessing God will bring out of them. And 3. Because God has placed in each of us the intrinsic ability to take even the most difficult worldly circumstance and turn them into rich and meaningful experiences though God’s Spirit who dwells in us. Steve Jobs was able to do this. Job was able to do this. And all of us are also able to do this.

Giving thanks can be analogous to our breathing. It’s our default position. When things are good, we give thanks, and when things are bad, we still give thanks.

Our faith is that we believe in a God of redemption, a God of salvation. We believe that weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. We believe in a new heaven and a new earth where crying and pain and death will be no more. We believe that all things work for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

There’s always something to be thankful for. We can look at our past, connect the dots and be grateful. We can look at our present situation, count our blessings and be grateful. We can see in our minds eye a future that we know is secure because it is in the hands of God and be grateful.

Those of us who have this default, perpetual attitude of gratitude (and with some spiritual growth, it can be all of us), last longer, recover quicker and become more.

We last longer in the face of adversity. We don’t let hardship beat us down, but we endure knowing God give us the strength and will see us through.

We recover quicker when life doesn’t seem to be going our way or when we are mistreated. We have resilience because God’s Spirit dwells in us and Jesus walks along side of us.

And we become more. We don’t settle for mediocrity because we know God has plans for our future, plans for our good and not for our harm.

So connect the dots and let them give you hope for your future.

It all becomes so clear when we start looking ahead to our lives that are being created. How this will turn into that. How that will turn into this. And we can be grateful for it all.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Say “Yes” to God

(Read Jonah 1)

One of my favorite scenes in the Academy Award winning film, American Beauty, is this wonder-filled moment when the camera follows a plastic bag being blown by the wind. As the wind whips and stirs, the bag rises in a spiral like motion up into the air, and as the wind calms, the bag drops down to the ground. It dances along in the street for a moment, before it is again taken up by the wind. It is as though the bag has a life, not of its own, but because of the wind. The interaction between the bag and the wind reminds me of the dance between the creature and the Creator.

God is like the wind, bringing forth life and movement. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, God is the wind in my sails. Imagine that you are a sailboat, propelled forward by God’s strength and energy, by God’s breath and Spirit. When our sails are in line with the wind, we move forward swiftly on the course chartered by God. But when our sails don’t align with the wind, we can find ourselves barley moving or at a rocky standstill. Our lives are more dynamic and flow easier when our sails are filled with God’s Spirit.

God is always trying to do something in our lives. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that God is always trying to get us to do something with our lives. After all, our God is the God of direction. There is always some path we are supposed to be following and some decisions we need to be making. When we resist God, when we effectively say “no,” it is as though our sails are not aligned with the wind. Our boat doesn’t follow God’s trajectory. But when we are willing, when we effectively say “yes” to God, our sails are filled with wind, and we move forward as God intends.

Take the story of Jonah for example. God wants Jonah to do something, to go to Nineveh and cry out against the city because of their wicked ways, but Jonah refuses. He makes his refusal known by fleeing to a different city called Tarshish; this is a place that Scripture says is “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1: 3). And that’s when things really start to go wrong for Jonah. While on the ship, God raises up a storm, perhaps in his anger, which causes all the men on the ship to quake with fear. When the sailors realize that Jonah is the reason for the storm, they throw him overboard. Jonah brought calamity to himself and others because he said “no” to God.

Throughout my life, this has happened to me in subtle ways, but one time, just like with my friend Jonah, God was very direct. It was in 2002 when I was working in Los Angeles as an assistant to a film producer. I felt God calling me into the ministry, and I even applied to two seminaries in an attempt to follow the calling, but when I got accepted, I decided to turn the offers down so I could stay in Hollywood. In my heart of hearts, I knew the film industry wasn’t for me. I knew because I was actually quite unhappy working there, but I had hopes that things would get better.

One day, I told my boss, Keri, that I had been accepted to seminary, but that as long as I had a job with her, I was going to pass on the option. She assured me that my job was safe and that things were going well. Only a few days later, I left for a week to attend my sister’s wedding in Hawaii. While there, I heard God speaking to me, telling me that he had plans for my life. In my mind I heard a very clear statement that I wrote in my journal. It was: “I am going to give you your land.” I didn’t know it at the time, but God meant that he was sending me to seminary.

When I returned to California, I found out a little bit more about the way God works when we say “no” to his plan. You see, the night I returned, I opened up my mailbox to find a letter from Keri, my boss. I wish I could say it was a letter of thanks for what a great employee I was, but I cannot. It read, “Mandy, I hate to do this to you because you are a very nice person, but you are fired. I think you belong in seminary.” Talk about taking the wind out of my sails! In a matter of second, I had been brought to a dead halt. God was intervening. I had said “no,” but God was saying “yes.”

After crying all night, I called Harvard, the school I really wanted to go to, but they said my position had already been filled. Now, I was really panicking. I called Princeton next, my back up school. They said “yes” I could still attend. I was relieved and overjoyed. I boarded a plane a few days later, and as I was driving through the lush green town of Princeton, I heard the words again, “I am going to give you your land.”

God did what he had to do to get Jonah to go to Nineveh. God did what he had to do to get me to go to seminary. And I imagine, God does what he has to do to get all people following in the direction he wants them to go, for our God is a God of direction. In what direction has God urged you? Or in what direction is God urging you?

Maybe you’re estranged from a loved one. Perhaps God is urging you to reconnect with a family member or distant friend. Maybe you have been working 70 hours a week and are completely stressed out. Perhaps God is urging you to take a vacation or even just a walk in Central Park. Maybe you have been lonely and without the support you need in your life. Perhaps God is urging you to meet new people, to develop relationships. Maybe you feel unfulfilled in your current work. Perhaps God is urging you to take a class or switch fields.

I have learned that saying “yes” to God is the best response because it will make our lives easier and lead us towards our highest callings. Saying “no” can lead us to estrangement, fatigue, loneliness and unfulfillment. Saying “No” is frustrating, moreso for us than for God, because let’s face it, God always gets his way in the end.

Here I am in the ministry, and trust me, getting fired from that Hollywood job was not the route I wanted to take. And I’m sure Jonah didn’t want to get hated by people, thrown from a boat, and swallowed by a fish. But that fish actually saved Jonah’s life, and after three days in its belly, Jonah had a change of heart. When he returns to dry land and God asks him a second time to go to Nineveh, this time you best believe he goes. Saying “yes” is like aligning your sails with the wind. You get to your destination more quickly and with less turmoil.

Remember that bag and how it danced in the wind. This is the dance that happens when we say “yes.” Yes to changing, yes to growing, yes to challenges, yes to the journey, and ultimately, yes to God.

Instead of ending this sermon by saying the traditional, “Amen.” I’ll simply end it by raising my hands to heaven and saying “Yes!”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Think Different; Be Different

American media and advertisers want us to feel needy. They want us to feel needy so that we will buy their products, use their services and run to them, instead of God, whenever we have a problem.

If we are not feeling beautiful enough, there is some makeup or hair dye that can solve our problem. If we are not feeling powerful enough, there is some car or mutual fund that can solve our problem. If we are not feeling healthy enough, there is some pill or program that can solve our problem.

Whenever “the world,” in the negative sense of the word, tries to make us feel not something enough, not good enough, not successful enough, not skinny enough, not smart enough, not athletic enough, not happy enough, a red flag should go off in our minds because what “the world” is trying to do is make us feel needy, insecure, lacking and dissatisfied. The word “enough” means “sufficient to meet a need or satisfy a desire; adequate,” but used in conjunction with the word “not,” it starts referring to things not being adequate or unable to satisfy us. This is pretty much the opposite of how God wants us to feel and think.

Tanya is a pretty, educated, and successful woman, but she still doesn’t think she is “good enough.” She wants her apartment to be cleaner and her clothes to be nicer and her waist to be thinner. When she talks like this, she is focusing on the negative, on what’s not “good enough” in her life. This is no way to live, especially because God has blessed her in hundreds of ways, and she should be focusing on what is good and right in her life, and not on what “the world” is telling her she still needs.

Errors in the way we think are stumbling blocks to the spiritual life. How can we praise and give thanks to God if we are continually dissatisfied with what we have? How can we present ourselves as living sacrifices to God if we are continually dissatisfied with who we are?

Today’s scripture from Romans says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Or the New Living Translation says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

If we simply stop using the words “not enough” in reference to ourselves and what we have, we will be making a big step in renewing our minds and transforming our lives.

Two very simple ways we can do this are by being grateful for what we have and by being happy with ourselves.

First, gratitude. Gratitude is an attitude. “Have an attitude of gratitude,” my father always says. We have so many things to be thankful for in life. Our bodies for example. The fact that we have eyes to see, ears to hear and legs to walk. Forget that we are not perfect. We don’t need to be perfect because we have been blessed with health in so many ways.

Our relationships are another thing to be grateful for. We have friends, family, church family, good co-workers, all sorts of people who make our lives more interesting and offer us support. Instead of dwelling on the one relationship that we don’t have or isn’t going well, we can be thankful for the many people in our lives who bring us joy and comfort.

We have many possessions as well that we can be grateful for. We have homes to live in, beds to sleep in, clothes to wear, and food to eat.

It’s easy to take these things for granted, to want more, to say we don’t have enough, but that’s worldly thinking. We do have enough. And to know this is to have the mind of Christ in us.

William Ward once said, “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say "thank you?"

A second way we can refuse to conform to “the world,” renew our minds and transform our lives is by being happy with ourselves. God created each one of us carefully and with a plan in mind. And when we constantly berate ourselves because we aren’t this and we aren’t that, we are insulting God. No one is perfect, but each of us is blessed, and until we own that, until we know that, we will squander our gifts because we may not realize that we have something very special to offer this hurting world.

I like this quote by Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” In God’s eyes, you are a gift and an opportunity. You can create beauty and heal the world by being alive as yourself.

There’s a story called Jonathan Livingston Seagull that exemplifies this quote, and in this story, Jonathon, who is in fact a seagull, is frustrated with the meaningless materialism and conformity and limitation of seagull life. All the other gulls do is eat and balk, which is really boring to Jonathan.

Jonathan realizes that he was meant to fly. And so he spreads his wings and spends hours learning to fly higher and faster, to do rolls and turns in the sky. It is through his pursuit of being fully himself and following his heart that Jonathon is taken to a new level of being. Eventually, he is befriended by other gulls, gulls he didn’t even know were out there when he began his journey, and they guide him into an existence that brings him as close to God as one can get.

Today, I want to invite everyone to be true to yourselves, even if that means leaving the old flock behind and venturing out on your own. We can start by not conforming to this world who tells us that we do not have enough, and we are not enough. Instead, we can be grateful for what we have and who we are, and then continue to move forward by opening up our hearts and living life to the fullest. Remember, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wrestling With God

(Read Genesis 32: 22-31)

Submission to God’s will is one of the great spiritual disciplines of our tradition. In the classic book, Celebration of Discipline, the profound teacher, Richard Foster writes, “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 submission. The foremost symbol of this radical servanthood is the cross” (Foster, pg. 115). The book of Philippians sums it up when the writer says, “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). According to Christian teaching, it is through this humbling, obedience and death that Jesus and we ourselves find glory, power and life.

“Every discipline has its corresponding freedom” (Foster,Richard. Celebration of Discipline. pg. 110). And the freedom associated with submission is “the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.” Richard Foster goes on to say, “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, pg. 111).

And let’s face it, people that insist on their own way all the time drive us crazy. The boss that micromanages and demands that things be just so, the parent that gives their child no freedom and insists that their way is the right way, the friend who always has a plan and gets irritable when that plan is deviated from…these people are missing out on the dynamic movement that is supposed to be a part of a healthy relationship. It’s in the back and forth, the conversation, the compromise that we are most creative with each other and find a way to make whatever the situation is mutually beneficial.

I have a friend who has a very definitive idea of the way she likes things, and sometimes, being around her is like walking on eggshells. I have to watch what I say because I don’t want to offend her sensibilities. Honestly, it’s tiring and not that much fun to be around her when she’s like this.

So, submission is something that we do in order to get along well with others and make the relationship rewarding for all parties. As well, submission is something that we do to imitate Jesus, and through it, we find the life that God wants for us, instead of the life that we want for ourselves. However, there is a season for everything. As Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time to be born, and a time to die. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to seek, and a time to lose.” We can’t always submit. So may I add, there is “a time to submit, and a time to wrestle.” A wise person knows what is called for when.

And that brings us to today’s Scripture lesson of Jacob wrestling with God. Jacob is in the process of taking his family on a journey. They have left their home, but have not arrived yet at their destination when he comes across a man, who turns out to be God. Jacob wrestles with him all night long, and as day is breaking, God says, “Let me go.” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32: 26).

This brings me to my first point: when we decide it’s time to wrestle, to strive with God or with a fellow human being, we must have a purpose in mind. In other words, choose your battles according to what you want most in life. If you really want to be a published writer, then you will send out proposal after proposal because you have a goal, and you will let nothing deter you from that goal of being published. But we have to know what we want in life. Do you know what’s really important to you right now? What’s worth wrestling and striving for?

Choosing your battles based on your overall goals and desires is especially important when you are wrestling with human beings. You don’t want to fight with your mother or mother-in-law about everything, so pick the things that really matter to you and let the rest go.

A second point about this passage: the wrestling goes on all night long and into the morning. When we decide it’s time to go for something, we can’t be faint of heart. We must be ready for a challenge and ready to endure. This can be difficult because many of us get about halfway to where we want to be and settle. “Oh, this is good enough” we say. Jacob doesn’t quit even after his hip is struck out of joint. He perseveres. He keeps wrestling until he gets what he wants.

A third point: God rewards, not punishes, but rewards Jacob for wrestling with him. I know that submission to God’s will is a pillar of our spirituality, but don’t you ever get tired praying, “Thy will be done.” I know for many years I would say the Lord’s Prayer, including the part that God’s will be done, but then would say in my personal prayer time, “God, why can’t it be my way? I know what I want. I know what I need. Why can’t you make happen what I want to have happen?”

The thing is, if we are going to wrestle God for what we want, then we have to take responsibility for making that thing come to fruition. Yes, I believe the Holy Spirit will help us in our weakness, but God does not just present our greatest desires on a silver platter. As the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves.

There is a poem called “Striving” by Robert William Service, and I particularly like these three lines:

I am myself - yet when I strive
I build a self that's truer, higher;
I keep my bit of God alive

I don’t know exactly what you are feeling like right now, but my friends, let’s have some fire in our bellies! Let’s strive, let’s wrestle so that we can be our best selves, so that we can see our dreams fulfilled, so that the part inside of us that is divine can really shine forth.

Today is no day to roll over and play dead. Today is the day to wrestle with God and be blessed. Amen.

No One Can Keep You Down When God is Raising You Up

(Read Genesis 45: 1-15)

The story of Joseph and his 11 brothers is a long saga, one that begins in jealousy and brokenness and ends in reconciliation and love. There is much we can learn about our own lives and relationships from Joseph’s story.

In Genesis, chapter 37, we learn that Joseph is the youngest of Jacob or Israel’s children, and he is also Jacob’s favorite. This made Joseph the object of his brothers’ contempt. Scripture says, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37: 4).

As long as Joseph was not a threat to his brothers, they tolerated his existence, but then, to make matters worse, Joseph has a dream that causes his brothers to hate him even more. In innocent exuberance, Joseph says to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

What was to Joseph a fantastic dream was to his brothers a threatening premonition. They feared that he would rise above them somehow. So perhaps with trembling, perhaps in anger, Joseph’s brothers say to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” (Genesis 37: 6-8).

Suspicion and fear of Joseph multiplies until the day comes that Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him, the young dreamer. But discussing it among themselves, they quickly decide that they cannot kill their youngest brother outright, and opt instead to strip Joseph of his clothing and throw him into an empty pit with no water in it, knowing that death would inevitably be his fate.

However, when a group of Ishmaelites comes by, the brothers again redevise their plan. Instead of leaving him to die in the pit, they decide to sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. And thus, Joseph is taken to Egypt as a slave.

But the story continues that Joseph finds favor with Pharaoh, and so, he becomes a ruler of Egypt. Many years after selling their brother into slavery, Jacob’s sons are forced to go to Egypt to buy grain for there was famine in Canaan where they lived. And who was it that was selling the grain to them? None other than Joseph, although they did not recognize him. So it comes to pass that the one who was betrayed, Joseph the dreamer, now has his brothers’ fate in his hands.
What will he do?

None of us here have been sold into slavery by our families, yet, many of us have been betrayed by our families in some way. Children who have been molested or beaten have been betrayed by their families. Children who have been neglected or abandoned have been betrayed by their families. More subtly, children are often the recipients of their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins’ dysfunction. These people don’t intentionally try to hurt us, but because they are broken and needy themselves, they help to form in us brokenness and need. For example, I know a woman who was not happy with the way that she looked. She was insecure. Then, when she had a son, she used to cover his mouth when he laughed because she didn’t like the way his teeth and gums looked. What was happening was her own insecurity and shame was being acted out on her son, who then in turn felt embarrassed and ashamed about himself. I think this is why the bible says that a family’s sins are passed down from generation to generation. In this case, the boy inherited the shame of his mother. But there are a myriad of dysfunctions and unhealthy thinking and behaviors that can be passed among family. Feelings of worthlessness, extreme guilt, fear, indifference, anger, addiction…the list goes on.

Oftentimes, we aren’t even aware of the cycles that our families are caught up in, and thus it is nearly impossible for us to break them. But if we do become aware through self-reflection, observation, and the insight that comes from God, we have the opportunity to be healed. Nobody can keep us down if God is working to raise us up.

As God, as Jesus, as the Holy Spirit works in our lives to mend our brokenness, there comes a time when we must face the people who have hurt us. In the beginning, anger and resentment are natural and a healthy part of the process, but in time, an understanding needs to set in that stops casting blame. If we are ever to truly heal, we must be able to forgive.

That is why the story of Joseph gives me pause to think. There he is with his brothers before him, their lives now in his hands. Does he take an eye for an eye? Does he seek retribution? No. He has mercy and compassion for his brothers and their families.

In today’s text, Joseph says to his brothers, “Come closer to me. I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45: 4-5). Rather than yell at them and accuse them and blame them, he forgives them and tells them to come live with him, and he kisses them and weeps on their necks. And they kiss him back and weep on his neck because the guilt and burden they felt for all those years is finally being released.

I think about my brokenness and the ways that I’ve been hurt, and when I am in a healthy, evolved state of mind, these things don’t make me bitter, they make me feel compassion for myself and for the world. Like Joseph, you and I, can take what we’ve been through and use it to bring healing and life to others.

One small way I do this in my own life is that I often felt left out as a kid because I was the youngest. Nobody intentionally left me out, but that’s how I felt nonetheless. Now, I have a nephew who is the only young boy in our family. His girl cousins play together, and oftentimes, he sits there by himself playing his DS. He’s lost in his own world, but because of my experience, I always go over to him and say “hi” and see if he wants to play catch or talk or whatever. We can use what brought us down in life to raise others up.

God doesn’t want us to stay down forever. God wants to raise us up. God wants us to be well and happy and whole.

There’s this empowering poem by Maya Angelou called “Still I Rise.” In it, Maya, who is an African American woman and knows what it is to be marginalized and betrayed, refuses to stay down because of what has happened to her. She writes:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya rose.

Joseph rose. He came out of the pit he was thrown in. He came up to help others who tried to put him down.

Jesus rose. He came out of the grave he was buried in. He came up to save everyone so that we wouldn’t have to stay put down.

You can rise. I can rise. We don’t have to let anything that happened before keep us down. We can rise ourselves, and we can help others to rise as well.

Thanks be to God who gives us the strength, the courage and the fortitude to rise.

Monday, July 25, 2011

All Things Work for Good

(Read Romans 8:26-39)

Adversity is all around us. There’s the homeless man on the street struggling with mental illness and addiction, and then there’s the person near you in the pews struggling with the same disease, but fortunately, they have a place to call home.

There’s the famous actress battling cancer, your cousin battling cancer, and then there’s the person near you in the pew also battling cancer.

Disease, divorce, drugs. Depression, anxiety, loneliness. Adversity is all around us.

And when it happens to any of us, we often feel compelled to ask the question, why? Why, oh Lord, is this happening to me or to someone I care about?

Several years ago, my sister in law, Alex, and my brother, Jason, ran into one of the greatest adversities of their lives. After four years of marriage, they could not conceive a child. It came to the point where the doctor recommended invetro fertilization, and fast! Alex was already 41 years old so their clock was ticking.

Alex and Jason did everything the doctors recommended because they desperately wanted to have a child together, but after two round of IVF, they still were not pregnant. In sadness, confusion and frustration, Alex came to me and asked me if I’d pray with her.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. Alex and I sat on the floor of her and my brother’s living room. We lit a candle. We held hands, and we prayed, “God, please may it be your will that Alex and Jason conceive and bare a healthy child. They want this more than anything. Will you please bless them?”

It was a sacred moment that Alex and I shared, but at the time, I couldn’t assure her that all things would be well.

In the past, I not only asked God “why?” when it came to the matter of suffering, but I also struggled with being angry with God in my suffering. I would challenge God, saying, “If you are an all-loving God, how could you let this happen? If you are an all-powerful God, why won’t you do something?” In my greatest times of anger, I would stop praying altogether.

But then, one day I heard a quote from a friend that helped to reframe my thinking. He said, “God doesn’t promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, or sun without rain, but God does promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way. If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it.”

It sets us up for failure if we think that if God really exists, if Jesus really loves us, that bad things won’t happen to us. As scripture says, “God makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike.” Mature faith requires us to go through some times of trial and tribulation believing that God will see us through.

In today’s passage from Romans, we hear Paul say, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

And this is a very important message for all of us to know and to believe, that God does make all things work together for the good, hopefully in this life, and definitely in the next. God is in the redeeming business. God brings transformation out of suffering and life out of death. We experience hardship, adversity, challenge, and somehow, out of those things, God can bring our most beautiful blessings. It’s not that God wills our suffering so that we will grow and learn, but once suffering comes into our lives as it surely will, God knows how to use our experience to bring him glory. God makes us stronger, more courageous, more grateful, more compassionate people. God uses what you and I have gone through to make this world a better place, or in Christian language, to make heaven come to earth.

Marilyn is a former parishioner I know who had breast cancer some six years ago. She is a source of inspiration to everyone who knows her because, not only did she survive breast cancer, she now works with other women struggling with breast cancer. She is one of the most grateful people I have ever met, never taking a moment of life for granted. And she is a witness to the very idea I am speaking about today because she said to me, “Mandy, I don’t know why I had to get breast cancer, but I do know that God brought me through it. And now, I am going to use the strength and hope I’ve learned to help other people go through what I went through.” God is using Marilyn to help others not only survive, but to thrive. God wants all of us to thrive, not merely to get by.

Now, I was telling my friend all of this the other day, and she said, “Yeah, but what if the cancer doesn’t go away. What if the baby is never conceived, or even worse, what if the baby dies when he or she is only a few days old? How is God making that work for the good?”

No one can justify babies dying, but I’m not trying to justify suffering and the evil that exists in this world. I’m trying to tell you a spiritual wisdom that I have learned to be true and many others know to be true. What we are talking about today is a way of seeing the world that will decrease our anger, increase our faith, and all in all, grant us a better experience of life.

Can you relate to what I’m talking about? Have you ever had a really difficult time in life, but after it was over, in hindsight, you could see that some grace, some blessing came out of it? I don’t tell people that “everything happens for a reason” because sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a reason. It’s just plain, old suffering and misery. But what I can witness to, what Marilyn and Jason and Alex and countless others can witness to is that somehow, God transforms our suffering to create blessing. God works all things for the good.

This Romans passage goes on to say that God is for us, so who or what can really be against us? No one and nothing can win over God’s love, mercy and goodness.

Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

He is saying that nothing can separate us from love. Cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s can’t separate us from the love of God. Whether or not you can have a child, whether or not your children are healthy or have serious problems in their life, nothing can separate you from the love of God. Whether you are sinful, greedy, gluttonous, envious, nothing can separate you from the love of God.

You know what? Cancer has returned to Marilyn’s life. She is fighting the battle once again. But if you call her up and listen to her voice message, she continues to say, “It’s Sunday. And I’m still grateful.” She is not letting this separate her from the love of God.

And I am so filled with joy to tell you that on December 20, 2006, Samantha Carolina Iahn came into the world. She is Alex and Jason’s beautiful, baby girl. She is the good that God brought out of that whole terrible episode that they went through.

Brothers and sisters, adversity is all around us, but nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. May you know this and find peace in your soul.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You Can Walk on Water

Read Matthew 14:22-33

What do you think sounds worse: seeing a ghost or drowning? Because both almost happen to Peter this week.

I have to go with drowning even though I’ve never experienced it myself. Well that’s not true totally. I have experienced a sort of drowning in my life. It was more of a feeling though than an actual experience of being submerged underwater.

Depression feels like you’re drowning or struggling to keep your head above water. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression knows how hard it is to do even the smallest, most basic tasks like getting out of bed, taking a shower and doing your laundry. Depression chokes the joy from life like drowning chokes the air from your lungs.

I picked this scripture this week because I can relate to Peter at this point in my life, and perhaps you can too. Peter is in the boat with some other disciples, and when he realizes it is Jesus walking towards him out on the water, he wants to walk on the water too. “Lord,” he says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14: 28).

Jesus invites Peter, saying, “Come.” I can imagine Peter joyfully jumping out of the boat, excited because he is a part of a miracle.

This is kind of how I felt when I received the call to come to Park Avenue UMC. Oh, how exciting, I thought. I get to go to the big city and work at a beautiful church. I took a leap of faith and jumped out of the boat I was in.

But very quickly after arriving here, I became afraid. Of what, you may be wondering. It was the simple things like figuring out how to ride my bike to work or take the subway from the upper west side to the lower east side. And I can’t even tell you how much stress I felt initially over who was going to take care of my dog while I was at work. The first Sunday before church I woke up with my heart beating in my throat, and I wasn’t even preaching. Transitions are hard, but I’m glad to say that only one week later, my fear is starting to diminish.

Peter also became afraid very quickly. He jumped out of the boat all excited, but scripture says that when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink.

This image of the wind blowing, and Peter noticing the wind blowing, getting afraid and starting to sink is a powerful image. I imagine the waves on the water, and Peter’s hair whipping all around. And then there is that loud noise that wind makes… There is chaos on the sea in that moment that Peter starts to sink.

For Peter, the wind is what made him afraid, and so I can’t help but to think about, what is the wind in my life? And what is the wind in your life? What is it that is blowing through your world hard and strong, perhaps making you doubt, making you afraid, making you sink? The wind can be an obstacle in your path. The wind can be a situation that you can’t quite get a handle on. The wind can be a person who puts you on edge. The wind can be anything that makes you doubt yourself or God.

Adjusting to living in New York City is my wind right now. But I can’t let this awesome place overwhelm me anymore than Jesus would have let Peter sink right before his eyes. God wants us to walk on water with him. God wants us to be successful and confident even in the face of fear and danger because God has plans for our good and not for our harm.

When Peter began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Why do we doubt? Why do we fear?

I’ll tell you a story. My friend Lisa worked very hard to get her PhD, and then got a job as a professor at a Catholic university. She was one of the youngest people on staff and the only Protestant. Her first year teaching she was filled with fear about what other members of the staff thought of her and what her students thought of her. After one student came into her office and criticized her because of the grade she had given him, she really began to doubt herself. She began to wonder if she was doing a good job teaching… She wondered if she was she being too hard on her students…

Much of the fear and doubt Lisa was experiencing, and much of the fear and doubt all of us experience, is a product of our own minds and our own insecurities. The threats are more mental than physical. The storms swirl up in our thoughts and rock the boat that is our lives.

But trust in God, trust that Christ will save us, can prevent the storms from getting too big and too debilitating. Often, we just have to give it time. Even in your darkest moments, use your faith to keep you going. God will help us. God is helping us. You will not sink even if the wind is whipping about you.

After about a year at the university, Lisa started to feel more confident in herself. She received positive feedback from students and other professors, and this helped her to believe that being a professor was truly the task God had called her too. But it took time.

“Patient Trust” by Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages,
We are impatient of being on the way to do something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

My friends, let us not be afraid because of the wind. Let us trust in God to hold us up. There is a song called, “Be Still, My Soul” that says: Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in every change God faithful will remain…Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know the Christ who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jesus Ascends, But We Are Not Alone

(Read Acts 1:1-11 and John 14:15-21)

We live in the digital era. A time when you have access to all the information you could possibly need or want, and then some. A time when you can be connected to people around the globe via email, text, phone, even video chat.

I once wrote a poem that said, “Heaven is instantaneous travel in space; I want to be with you and here you are.” Well, we are not so far away from that reality of being together even across the miles. Because of video chat, I can be here in New York and you can be there in San Francisco, but somehow we can see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. The only thing we are missing is touch. But oh, how important touch is.

While the digital era connects us in a way like never before, it does have its minuses. On the negative side, we are never alone, and being alone is necessary for the human spirit. It gives us time with ourselves and time with God, time to reflect and plan. But we are never alone now. Sure, we might be without people around, but our phones and computers make it so that we are always being bombarded, always having to respond to something or someone. I know for myself, it’s hard to turn off my devices and just be. The phone sits there waiting to ring. The computer sits there waiting to deliver. In this day and age, we must be intentional about creating quiet time for ourselves.

While it’s important to be alone at times throughout our week, no one likes to feel lonely. There’s a great difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone has the potential to be nourishing and calming, a time of respite and renewal, a time to collect our thoughts. But being lonely just feels plain old bad. When we are lonely, we actually want to be with people; we need them to nourish us and comfort us. Because let’s face it, the best thing about life is being surrounded by people that we love.

We need people surrounding us, and we need God surrounding us in order not to feel lonely and in order to be truly happy in life. And the one certainty, the one guarantee is that we are always surrounded by God. While Jesus was still on this earth, he told his followers that once he left this world, we would not be alone. He said, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). This Advocate is also called the Helper or the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that he will not leave us orphaned as children without our parents. We will have this Advocate who will abide in us and be with us always.

To me, the Holy Spirit might be one of the most beautiful aspects to Christianity. God did amazing and miraculous things in and through Jesus Christ, but the Holy Spirit is the way that we connect to Jesus after all these years. The Holy Spirit is both in you and around you. The Spirit is the one who helps to transform our lives and guide our paths.

I want to read you a poem about destiny. It is thought-provoking, and while you hear it, keep in the back of your mind the thought that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us into our destinies.

Read “Follow Your Destiny, Wherever It Leads You” by Vicki Silvers

There are three lines of the poem that really stick out to me:

First, “The pattern of life does not necessarily go as you plan. Beyond any understanding, you may at times be led in different directions that you ever imagined, dreamed, or designed.” This is the primary work of the Spirit. The Spirit is wiser than our understanding, and that’s because the Spirit is God’s understanding. And so, in a continuous motion, the Spirit plans our lives for us and leads us into directions with God’s intention for our lives in mind.

The second line of the poem that I want us to reflect upon is: “Rather than wondering about or question the direction your life has taken, accept the fact that there is a path before you now.” We all have ideas and dreams and hopes for our lives, and that is a good thing, but we must ultimately hand over our lives to God’s will. The Advocate’s primary work is to give us a path and to encourage us forward on that path. And in fact, we are on that path right now! No matter what your life has been or will be, right now is the most imporatnat moment for you to sink in and get in line with what God is doing in your life.

The third line: “Keep your belief in yourself and walk into your new journey.” I would also add, “Keep your belief in God and walk into your new journey.” Even if you feel stagnant right now, you are not. You are on a journey and God is leading you forward into your destiny. Change is always happening in big ways and small ways. People of great faith know that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey we are on now.

Through all of this, I have found a name for God that rings true to me. God is the Great Orchestrator. God is the true designer of our lives, and he always has a symphony in mind when it comes to our destinies.

I say all of this with hopeful, but bittersweet news. The Bishop has asked me to leave Trinity and move to Manhattan to serve Park Avenue UMC as their associate pastor. It’s a great opportunity for me to be in the city, but it will be hard for me to leave the life I have come to know here, most importantly the people I know here.

This is such a beautiful church filled with beautiful souls, I will miss you dearly. I will miss the green grass and the big blue sky as well. But back to what I was saying early, it has been lonely for me here in many ways. I have had plenty of constructive alone time, but it’s been hard to meet people. I’m hoping New York City, surrounded by millions of others, will not be so lonely.

My friends, Jesus has ascended to heaven, but we are not alone. We are surrounded by and filled with the Holy Spirit, who is orchestrating all of our lives in ways unknown. Do not be afraid. Be filled with joy and confidence. The journey that you are on is not a dead end road, it is a mystical path fulfilling your destiny.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

You Are the Mountain

Perhaps there is nothing sadder to witness than a sad child.

Childhood should be a time of happiness, of laughter and play and wonder, a time when you rejoice in discovery and exploration. Childhood is a hopeful time when you imagine dreams coming true.

But some children don’t have that experience. Many children in fact see the realities of life all too early. They hear parents arguing over money. They are abused by relatives. They have classmates bully them at school. Many children are consumed by worry and fear just like an adult might be.

I recently watched a news program on TV that talked about the number of homeless children in America. The program focused on those kids living in motels surrounding Orlando, FLA, the home of Disney World.

These kids don’t get to go the Magic Kingdom to explore their fantasies of being princesses and knights. Instead, they live in one cramped room with their parents who are out of work and their siblings. During an interview on the show, one young girl said that she worried about what the other kids thought of her and her family. She was ashamed to be living in a motel. But you see, the problem has become so prevalent in Orlando that this girl isn’t alone in her struggle. The school buses now pick up handfuls of children who live in the motels surrounding Disney World.

These children, and others like them, those who lose their innocence too early, become wise souls at a young age. They are wise because they come to know and accept the full spectrum of what life is, that life is not just some fairytale, something many of us don’t realize until much later when we are hit hard by reality. I have two friends, Mark and Veronica, who both had very difficult childhoods. Mark, his sister and mother were abandoned by their father at a young age, and this caused a great deal of anger and sadness in their family, plus economic struggles. Veronica’s mother commit suicide, and this also caused a great deal of anger and sadness, as well as shame in her family. But now that they are in their 30’s, both Mark and Veronica feel more prepared to deal with the world because of the hardships that they went through as children. While I would never want a child to lose their innocence early, perhaps there is some advantage to learning at a young age that sometimes life is fair and sometimes it is not, that sometimes life is good and sometimes it is not, that sometimes your life feels blessed and sometimes it does not.

A wise person understands that life is a mixed bag. There are days of sunshine and laughter, and there are days of rain and tears. There are moments when you feel a sense of belonging and cared for, and there are moments when you feel alone and neglected. You can’t have the good without the bad. In fact, without the bad, the good is not even possible. You wouldn’t even know it.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that if we follow him we will have abundant life, or another way of saying that is that we will have life in all its fullness.

When I was naïve, I thought this meant that life would just be good. That there would be no bad. Life in God’s kingdom was the stuff of Disney World and Christmas mornings.

But the truth is, abundant life means experiencing the vast range of human emotions, both positive and negative. Abundant life means experiencing the sin and the goodness that people are capable of doing to one another. Abundant life is not a promise that life will be easy; it is the promise that life will be complete in its fullness. This means living in the peaks and the valleys; it means experiencing the ups and the downs. It means doing right and wrong.

What Jesus promises us is a life that is dynamic and complex, and the assurance that God the Shepherd will be with us through it all, calling us by name and leading us to safe pasture.

Part of what we must do on our spiritual journeys is learn to embrace that which plagues us. By embrace I don’t mean that we have to like our trials and tribulations, but that we must let them be a part of our life, that we must go through them just like we go through the celebratory times and the blessings.

Part of the reason that embracing is so important is because what you resist persists. If you resist the ongoing argument you are having with a member of your family, the argument persists. In fact, resistance fuels the flame. If you resist and deny your declining health, it won’t go away, it will persist. The best way to help yourself is to embrace yourself and what you are going through.

There is something called a mountain meditation. And in this meditation you are the mountain, and no matter what happens on the mountain, you stand firm. Imagine yourself as a mountain now.

Some days, the sun shines brightly overhead, and you feel its warmth and bask in its light. Other days, the sun is too hot, and it scorches the earth and rock.

Some days, the sun is hidden from the mountain by the clouds, and it feels so cold that you shiver. On these days, the wind is like a whip against your skin, and the storm tares up the trees that rest in your soil. Debris blows across the mountain.

Other days, the heavens open up and rain falls gently to the earth providing it with much needed water. Or snow falls from heaven and covers you in a gentle blanket of white, that though it is cold, there is no harm to you for you are covered as if by a down comforter.

This meditation is to help you understand that you are the mountain, firm and resilient. You are not the elements, which change beyond your control. The elements swirl around you and sometimes they make life pleasant and good, but at other times, they make life miserable and bad. Through all of this, you, the mountain, stand honorable and true.

The elements are like the changing circumstances of our lives, but we, in our souls, are steadfast and firm like the mountain.

Life is not just falling in love. It is also falling out of love. Life is not just landing a job. It is also leaving a job. Life is not just rejoicing in your child’s achievements. It is also staying up at night worrying about their wellbeing. But this is what Jesus offers to us as the full path to life. It is the noble path.

Don’t be afraid to walk it. Do not resist it. Simply stand firm and remember, you are the mountain.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Stone to the Tomb Has Been Rolled Back; The Gates of Heaven Are Open

Humanity is capable of heinous crimes, breaking laws set by both man and God. History is filled with tales of entire people being enslaved, oppressed and slain, the Israelites, the Incas, the Mayans, Native Americans, the Jews.

In more recent history, we have seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears how in Rwanda more than 1 million people were killed, and on this very day, Kaddafi is still using the Libyan army to kill its own citizens.

In light of all this, it is hardly notable that one, simple man was killed by the Roman authorities some 2,000 years ago. One more crucifixion in Rome was not history in the making, and Jesus of Nazareth surely wasn’t the only innocent man who hung on a cross.

And yet, we know his story better than we know almost any other. How the crowds shouted, “Crucify him.” How the sun refused to shine on that fateful day, how the curtain of the temple was torn in two after he uttered his last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

What makes Jesus story so exceptional is not his death wrought by human hands. We have come to expect such foolishness from ourselves and our peers. What makes Jesus story so exceptional is that he was resurrected from the dead because God’s power is greater than any horrible act man can commit.

Now some of you may be filled with doubt about God’s power in your life because of the suffering and limitations you have known. All of us have had our hopes disappointed over and over again. All of us have been sick and in despair in our hearts, in our minds and in our bodies, and have wondered, “How long, o Lord, must I wait for you to rescue me?” All of us have been hurt or betrayed by those around us, and because evil looks like its winning, we have doubted the power and benevolence of God.

Even Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest companions, had no idea what God was capable of doing. She witnessed Jesus hanging on the cross; she cried as they laid him in the tomb, and when she went to sit with Jesus’ body in the early hours of the morning, when it was still dark, her eyes were not the eyes of faith.

Jesus’ body was missing. Because she knew the realities of the world so well, she did not hope for resurrection, she immediately assumed more evil on the part of humanity. She thought Jesus’ body had been stolen.

It wasn’t until Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves that it was empty did another reality come into the picture. It was John who first believed as he put two and two together. He remembered everything Jesus had said, and what the scriptures said, “that he must rise from the dead,” and as he figured it out, the power of God, which seemed like a distant reality before, became very real.

You see, Good Friday is about what people are capable of. Easter Sunday is about what God is capable of.

And God is capable of taking a person’s worst fate, suffering, pain and death, and bringing forth from it a person’s greatest blessing, joy, love and life.

There’s a song that very popular on the radio right now by Nicki Minaj called, “Moment For Life.” And in that song she says, “I believe that life is a prize, but to live doesn’t mean you’re alive.” I like this lyric because I can relate to it. We all know what it means to have blood pumping through our veins but to feel dead inside.

Death is not only physical; it is spiritual and emotional. When we suffer from depression, fear, anxiety, boredom, anger, guilt, addiction, we are experiencing a limited form of life.

But God has other plans for us. God wants to move us from these deadly states to lively states, such as happiness, confidence, contentment, inspiration, understanding, goodness, freedom.

Today is the day when we celebrate life. Death does not have the final say, God has the final say, and God has firmly declared in the resurrection of Jesus that life triumphs over the evils of humanity and death in whatever forms they present themselves.

Scripture says, because Jesus lives, we too shall live.

What this means is that in any way that you experience the limitations of this world, in any way you are chained down, beaten down, let down, God is proclaiming to you that this is not your destiny, this is not the end state of your life. You too will experience resurrection.

In life, we need each other to keep one another believing. I need you to testify to me about the goodness of God. I need to hear your stories of how the Living God has been merciful to you, how God has been gracious to you, how God has blessed you. And you need the same from me. One person’s faith helps to light up another person’s faith.

Mary Magdalene was struggling with her faith until Jesus called her by name in the garden. But once her eyes were opened to God’s power in this world, what did she go and do? She went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and it was through her testimony that others first believed.

It is through our experiences of the Risen Lord and by living together enlightened by God’s power in our lives that we become fully alive.

My sisters and brothers, the stone to the tomb has been rolled back, the gates of heaven have been open to all of us.

Heaven is not simply some reality we are waiting for later, after we die. Heaven is also the possibility for us to have abundant life now.

Where are the pearly gates? They are your mind and heart, which this day have been opened through your faith in God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead.

Today, we live in heaven, together.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I Used Everything You Gave Me

(Read Matthew 25:14-30)

Serena Williams is arguably the best women’s tennis player of all time with over 27 Grand Slam titles. She started playing as a youth with her father, who coached her and her older sister, Venus. I heard a story that very early on, the Williams sisters' father entered Venus in a tournament but not Serena. So you know what Serena did? She entered the tournament on her own. From the beginning, Serena had a great competitive spirit. She was both gifted and driven.

Imagine if Serena had not pursued playing tennis. She could have come up with plenty of excuses not to. She was just a poor girl from a poor neighborhood. African Americans were not widely seen on the tennis circuit. She had dreams of being an actress instead. If Serena had given up on tennis, generations of people would have lost out on seeing this sport taken to a higher level, and especially, minority women would have lost one of the greatest role models of our day.

It is not that Serena hasn’t had her challenges. She has been plagued by injuries of worn out tendons and has had two surgeries on her right foot alone. Also, in 2003, one of Serena’s older sisters, Yetunde Price, was murdered, and of course, this devastated the young star.

On February 18th, Serena suffered another setback, and she almost died from it. While on a routine airplane ride, Serena noticed that her left foot was tremendously swollen. In a recent article in People magazine, she said, “My foot was huge. Imagine the size of my thigh, just above my knee; that’s how big my foot was.” Thinking this was weird, but nothing of significance, Serena decided that she would ice her foot when she got home. But then, as she walked through the airport, she found herself inexplicably struggling to breathe. Again, not thinking there was anything seriously wrong, she made a mental note to herself that it was time to get back to the gym and really get in shape.

It wasn’t until she called her big sister, Venus, who was working out with her trainer, that Serena got it through her head that something must be wrong. “You have a blood clot, Venus told her. “You have to go to the doctor!”

As it turned out, the cause of Serena’s symptoms was a pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blood clot that had traveled to her lungs. Pulmonary embolism is diagnosed in approximately 600,000 Americans each year, and it is fatal in some 10%.
Serena was successfully treated for the problem and now proclaims, “I’m lucky to be alive.” While she is in recovery, she will remain on blood thinners for many months. One doctor recommended to her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t play tennis again.”

And so here we have it, a monumental decision for Serena Williams: will she ever play professional tennis again?

Serena’s story is more dramatic than most of ours, but each day, we are all faced with the decision of if and how we will use the gifts, the talents that God has given us.

Many of us our afraid to use our talents. We fear failure and rejection. We fear the pain and discomfort of stretching ourselves to grow and doing something that’s challenging. We procrastinate instead of digging in and working hard.

And if our fear doesn’t stop us, some time plain old indecision does. We know deep down that we are gifted, that we have something to offer the world, but we aren’t sure in what way we can use our talents for the good, and so we do nothing at all.

Not all talents are as obvious as Serena’s, but in God’s eyes they all have equal value. Perhaps you have been born with the talent of caring for small children or developing trust with teenagers. Perhaps you have been born with the gift of mending broken ties or the ability to bring laughter to a hurting world. The point is, there are millions of talents, and its important for you to know what yours are and use them.

This idea relates to the parable of the talents that we heard this morning. In the parable, a man is going on a journey, and he leaves his property to his slaves. He gives one servant 5 talents (which is a form of money), another 2 talents and another 1 talent, each according to his ability, and then the man goes away. None of the men squander the money for their own purposes, but the difference is this: the men who received 5 talents and 2 talents put the money to work and doubled it. While the man with one talent buried it in a whole so it would be safe.

We can interpret this story in this way: the man who leaves on the journey is Jesus leaving the earth, and we are the servants he leaves his property to. God gives to each of us some talent in the literal sense of the word and wants us to use our talent to grow the kingdom of heaven on earth. Two of the servants are obedient, courageous and wise and do just that, but the other servant plays it safe. Instead of using his talent and making it work for the kingdom, he buries it deep inside himself. You know the song, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” Well, two servants let their lights shine while the other hides his light under a bushel.

When the Master returns, he is deeply appreciative to the servants who have doubled his money. He says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servants; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

When we use our talents, God is also deeply appreciative and greatly pleased. And the more we use our gifts, the more opportunities we have to use them. In this way, our lives grow more meaningful and we have more abundance.

However, the opposite is also true. The Master is deeply displeased with the servant who buried his talent in a hole. The Master takes the talent away because it is being wasted and gives it to one who is more trustworthy. The Master also sentences this servant to the outer darkness.

When we do not use our talents, when we bury our gifts out of fear, insecurity or laziness, we upset God. He gave us these gifts so that they would be used. And in this way, the one who does not believe in him or herself, the one who does not use what they have been given for the kingdom’s growth experiences a life that is dark and covered in shadows. In essence, this person really misses out.

God gives us skills and talents so that we can use them. As we discover how we are gifted, we must begin the task of utilizing our strengths in a fashion that achieves God’s goals. Otherwise, we will never truly be happy. We won’t be expressing ourselves fully, and we will feel incomplete and unsatisfied.

I know that all of us have legitimate fears and insecurities that hold us back. We also get lazy and procrastinate because we don’t want the hard work. But, when we do this, we are not being faithful disciples. We are doubting God’s plan and purpose for our lives, and not only does God feel frustrated, but we feel frustrated with ourselves.

I told you in the beginning of 2010 that I was going to write a book, and I didn’t do it. I had legitimate reasons, like I was putting my energy elsewhere, and I wasn’t even really sure what to write. But I was frustrated as a person, and I think the forward movement, the growth in my life was halted or at least slowed because I refused to use my talent in a way that I believe God is calling me to use then.

Finally, I have reached a place where there are no more excuses. I’m doing it. I am in the process of writing my first book, which for now, I am calling, A Father Talks to His Daughter: The Story of Two Lifetimes and One Bloodline. I really believe that my life will remain stuck until I do this thing for God, for my father and for myself. I’m still scared. I don’t know if it will be any good, but I have to do it. Just like the servant with 1 talent had to put himself out there, had to take a risk, in order to please his Master. The other servants had success, why would he not? Other people write books all the time, why can’t I ?

God spoke to me in prayer the other night and said, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to think. Do not be afraid to write. Do not be afraid to say what you know. Believe in yourself. Believe also in me.” And since I gave up doubt for Lent, I have no choice but to heed these words and move forward with courage and faith.

Benjamin Mays said, “…the tragedy in life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” Well, I think we should all have goals and dreams. I think we should go after them, which requires hard work and for us to use the very best of what we have been given. And the result, we can’t worry so much about the result that it stops us from beginning the task. We can’t measure results in terms of worldly success. We can only measure results in terms of having been true to our talent. God will decide the success of our efforts.

Is there something that you are not doing, something deep inside of you that has been given to you from God that you are hiding or wasting? Today, is a day of reckoning for all of us as individuals and as a community.

After we sing and pray, Frazer Pehmoeller is going to act as a spokesperson for our church, and he is going to call us to think about new and creative ways we can use our talents to build up God’s kingdom and make our church a self-sustaining, vital force for many years to come. I hope you will listen to his message with the parable of the talents in mind. And I hope you will listen as people of faith and believe that what God has given us, God will bless as we use it according to his will and for his purposes.

Erma Bombeck wrote more than 4,000 hilarious newspaper columns chronicling the everyday life of a suburban housewife and her kids. Erma said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say,‘I used everything you gave me.’”

May we all be able to stand before God and say the same thing, “I used everything you gave me.”

As for Serena Williams, I know she’s using all the talent she has been given, and I know she will keep on using it for as long as she can. In response to that doctor who told her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t play again,” Serena said, “You’re not me….I like having a challenge, and this will be my biggest challenge yet.” She hopes to be competing in women’s professional tennis by this summer.

I believe God is pleased with Serena’s intention and will one day say to her, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Mattew 25:21).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Freedom of Saying “No”

(Read Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus said “no” to the devil, and it set him free. The story goes something like this: Jesus has been out fasting in the wilderness for forty days and nights. When he reaches a point of being famished and weak, the tempter or the devil comes to him and asks him three different questions, all as tests that could lead Jesus to abandon his mission and calling. First, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is tempting Jesus to provide for his own needs. “No,” Jesus says. “I don’t live by bread. I live by the word of God.” Second, the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let God rescue you.” He is tempting Jesus to challenge God, to test God’s power and faithfulness. “No,” Jesus says. “I’m not putting God up to some test. I know who I am, and I know who God is in relation to me.” Third, the tempter says, “I’ll give you whatever you want in all the world, if only you will worship me instead of God.” He is tempting Jesus to put power and wealth above his relationship to God. “No,” Jesus says. “What I want most in all the world is to worship God and serve only him.”

And because of these three wise responses, the devil must depart from Jesus. He has no hold over him, no control over him. Jesus is free. And suddenly, angels come and wait on him.

Most of the time when we think of freedom, we think of the freedom to be able to do things, the freedom to be able to say “yes.” When you are 16, freedom is getting to take the car and go out with your friends. “Yes,” we think, “I can do that now.”

At 21, freedom is going out to a bar and having an alcoholic beverage. “Yes,” we think, “I can do that now.” But anyone whose ever had a hangover knows that sometimes the real freedom is in saying “no.”

I spent Friday night celebrating the 40th birthday of a dear friend, Jeff Scholes. I know Jeff from Seminary, and he’s a fun and interesting person, as are many of the people that I went to Seminary with. One of Jeff’s distinguishing characteristics is that he went gray in his 20’s. So the joke on the eve of his 40th birthday was that he was finally growing into his hair.

Another thing about Jeff is that he is an avid smoker, a pack a day of American Spirits. While we were visiting, I was standing outside with Jeff and his girlfriend while he had a cigarette, and he was telling us how sick of smoking he is. He lamented that no one smokes anymore and about how expensive cigarettes had become. “But,” he said, “what really bothers me is that I’m a slave to these things. I can’t go anywhere without them. They drive me from my bed. They drive me from my office. I have to leave the restaurant in the middle of dinner to smoke. I’m a prisoner.”

My response to Jeff was something that my father had said to me many years ago. “Jeff,” I said, “I think it’s time you learned that there is freedom in saying ‘no.’”

I told my parents I was preaching on the freedom of saying “no” today, and my mother, who is by far the most caring, giving woman I have ever known, jumped right on the idea. She said, “Sometimes in life, people ask too much of you, and you cannot do what they want you to do. You have to say “no” for your own well-being. It can be really hard,” she went on “because sometimes people won’t like you for saying “no.” But I’m at a point in my life [She’s 66, a wife, a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 3] where I have to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re mad at me or not, the answer is “no.” If you always have to do something for someone else, it robs your soul of yourself.”

Pretty powerful words, and I understand exactly what she means. We all want to be liked and do our best for people, but at what cost? Quite often, we end up depleted, resentful and unhappy. Instead, we must be wise, and when we are teetering on the line, it’s most important for us to be genuine and truthful with each other about what we can give in a truly healthy way. Sometimes, that means saying “no.”

The quest for freedom, which leads to happiness and health, can be personal or it can be communal. So far I’ve been talking about personal freedom, but look what’s happening in the Middle East right now.

Five nations are in revolt: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia. Tunisia was the first, and within two weeks of the people revolting and essentially saying “no” to their government, the leader had stepped down. He listening to his people, and he respected the freedom of saying “no.”

However, Kaddafi, the leader of Libya, refuses to listen to his people and is killing them with bombs. What he is saying is: “You don’t have a right to say “no.” In fact, if you say “no,” you don’t have a right to live.” And anybody in the whole earth can see that what Kadafi is doing is evil.

So I just ask you, as you are walking your road to redemption this Lent, to ponder some things. Consider whether some of the freedom that you seek can be yours by the power of one word, “no.”

I believe my friend, Jeff, will quit smoking because there is no worse pain than being a prisoner. And it’s even more awful because he is imprisoning himself. I also believe all of us here are capable, by the grace of God, to be freed from our own prisons, whatever they may be. Liberation doesn’t always mean doing whatever we want. Very often, liberation comes from the power of saying “no.”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Reborn Every Moment

(Read Romans 8:9-17 using The Message)

In The United Methodist Church, the Baptismal Covenant begins, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvations and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price” (UM Hymnal, pg. 33).

I have often pondered the significance of baptism. How does the Church understand it? What does baptism mean for us years after we’ve experienced it? It is one of our two Sacraments so it must be very important, and it only happens once. John the Baptizer performed baptisms of repentance to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus himself was baptized by John, even though he was greater than John, and as “Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters,” God’s Spirit, which looked like a dove, descended and landed upon him. “And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life’” (Mt. 3:.16-17). Or in the words of the translation we are more accustomed to, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Baptism was also practiced among the earliest of believers as recorded in Acts as the initiating right into Christianity, and it continues as the initiating right of a Christian.

The central idea is that through baptism, a person is brought into Christ’s church, receives the promises of forgiveness of sins and resurrection to eternal life, and is cleansed and reborn by the water that is put on his or her head, and transformed by the Spirit who comes into his or her life from there on out.

This new birth is what fascinates me and has captured my attention. I want the new life that comes with the new birth that we are given in baptism. In fact, at times, I believe I am already living it, but at other times, the life that I live seems more like the old life.

To me, the old life is a life that is stuck. Nothing ever changes for the good; we are doomed to repeat the same old mistakes, misfortunes and sins over and over and suffer from the same types of negative and fearful emotions over and over. The old life is filled with effort and striving only to learn nothing new and gain nothing of value. The old life is marked by scarcity, in contrast to the new life, which is marked by abundance. That means no matter how hard you work, there is never enough. The things of God, like love, peace and joy are scarce in the old life. And that is why it is so important to be born again of water and the Spirit; because it is the kind of life our souls long for, life in relationship with God where all things are possible, and we are free to truly live, in the greatest sense of the word.

Listen to what Romans, chapter 6 says, according to the Message translation: With baptism we enter into a new life, a new country of grace.
“That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus, when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light filled world by our Father so that we can [live] in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ…What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection.” (Romans 6: 3-9ish, from the Message translation).

The resurrected life is the life we hope for and know in our hearts is possible because of God’s abundant love. Jesus Christ defeated sin and death for eternity on the Cross, and that means his disciples enter into a new kind of living. The new life is assured in the grand scheme of things, as is God’s victory over death, but one of the struggles we still must face in our day to day experience of realty, is that both death and the old life continue to hold sway. They are still being worked out as God’s kingdom is being worked in.

That’s why we sometimes feel like we are in the new life, and other times, in the old life. Because we are continually moving from one to the other, growing and changing, becoming more and more alive.

Jesus had to die before he rose, and that pattern continues for us. We enter into our new ways of living by going through the cycles of death and birth, birth and death. This is how we are reborn. This is why we continue to suffer even with all of God’s promises. The important thing to remember is that every time the old life knocks our legs out from under us, the Spirit is there waiting to pick us up and set us back on the path to glory.

Eckhart Tolle talks about this reality in his book, Practicing the Power of Now, (although he uses a different sort of language). (By the way, the concept of now is important to the discussion of rebirth because now, the present moment, is the realm of God. God exists, God lives, God works in the now, in the present moment.)

Eckhart Tolle says:

The down cycle is absolutely essential for spiritual realization. You must have failed deeply on some level or experienced some deep loss or pain to be drawn to the spiritual dimension. Or perhaps your very success became empty and meaningless and so turned out to be failure

There are cycles of success, when things come to you and thrive, and cycles of failure, when they wither or disintegrate, and you have to let them go in order to make room for new things to arise, or for transformation to happen.

If you cling and resist at that point, it means you are refusing to go with the flow of life, and you will suffer. [Parts of our lives must disintegrate or decompose into fragments] for new growth to happen. One Cycle cannot exist without the other, [like the cycles of birth and death] (pg. 103-4).

Baptism is no quick fix, but it does lead us down the worthy path, and it gives meaning to the ebb and flow of life. Our lives repeatedly fall apart, and God puts them back together for us in God’s own, superior way.

Even though change is good for us, and these processes we are talking about are the path to our enlightenment, they can be very painful and difficult to deal with especially if we don’t realize that God is present and working in every circumstance that we face.

The cycle of birth and death and the process of transformation demand that we let go of that which we have come to know and rely on. Our attachments to the things of this world often make us resistant to what God is doing. We hold on to what we know instead of making what God is doing most important. (It’s my house, my job, my dog, my love, my dream, my addiction, my pain, etc)

Again Eckhart Tolle writes,

As long as a [persons judges a condition as “good”], whether it be a relationship, a possession, a social role, a place or your physical body, [then you become] attaché[d] to it and identify[y] with it. It makes you happy, it makes you feel good about yourself, and it may become part of who you are or think you are.

But nothing lasts in this dimension where moth and rust consume. Either it ends or it changes, or it may undergo a polarity shift: The same condition that was good yesterday or last year has suddenly or gradually turned into bad. The same condition that made you happy then makes you unhappy. The prosperity of today becomes the empty[ness] of tomorrow. The happy wedding and honeymoon become the unhappy divorce or the unhappy coexistence.

[Another possibility is that] a condition disappears, so its absence makes you unhappy. When a condition or situation that [you have] attached [yourself] to and identified with changes or disappears, [its terribly difficult to deal with and accept]. [We] cling to the disappearing condition and resist the change. It is almost as if a limb were being torn off your body (pg. 104-5).

Our happiness plummets in the cycle of death mainly. The process of birth is more exciting and hopeful as the Spirit works to build us up; the painful part is creating space for that building to occur-- the letting go, the death cycle.

For example, when I was fired from my job working in film production in West Hollywood, I thought the world would come to an end. One minute, I was among the rich and famous, pursuing a career in the movie industry. The next, I was rejected and jobless. I was terrified; I was confused. What was I going to do now?

Well, God knew. Once I was fired from that mundane, task-oriented job, I entered seminary and eventually became a minister, the most fulfilling work I’ve ever known. I moved from a land of superficial beauty to a place of depth, where purpose and love awaited me. But letting go and allowing for that change to occur was grueling because I was so resistant and afraid of what was happening.

People who develop illnesses, even life-threatening ones, have told me that what was once the worst news they have ever received, the diagnosis, somehow, eventually became a gift. The illness helped them to appreciate life in a way they never had, and to live and love more fully than ever before.

What we must remember is that God is present in every circumstance of our lives. None of this happens without God being there. And so, instead of resisting what has come to be our life, we must surrender to it. By surrender, I don’t mean something negative, as though to imply “defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic and so on. True surrender is something entirely different. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it” (Tolle. Practicing the Power of Now. Pg. ), but to find where God is in that situation, to yield, and to align yourself with the Spirit’s work.

“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is Now, [in your present circumstance], so to surrender is to accept the present moment…without reservations. [Surrender] is to relinquish inner resistance to what is” (Tolle. Practicing the Power of Now. Pg. ), and to follow the Spirit of God as it moves through your life, helping you to be born again from above.

Listen to what Paul says in Galatians:

“How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God's Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up! Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous striving or because you trust him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3: 2-5).

Trust. Trust leads to grace and grace comes in many forms, and many of them we are just beginning to recognize. The alive and present God who raised Jesus from the dead is moving in your lives, doing the same thing in you that he did in Jesus Christ, bringing you fully and freely alive. You don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. And the best way to get on with your new life is to surrender right here and now to where it is you find yourself. Yield. Go with the flow, and trust that God is doing something beautiful in the space he has created.

We are the children of God. The hurt can be healed; the dead-end can become the open road; the bad situation can transform into what you were hoping and praying for. But stop holding on so tight and trying to control things. Let the Spirit take the wheel. As you experience God’s unfathomable, mind blowing, awesome grace, pretty soon you too will be expectantly greeting God with a childlike, “What’s next Papa?” (Romans 8:15)