Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ad Astra Per Aspera: To the Stars Through Difficulties!

When was the last time your heart burned within you? Now, I’m not talking about heartburn. Not talking about how your throat feels after your third cup of coffee or how when you lay in bed at night that steak you just ate feels like its stuck in your esophagus.

I’m talking about the kind of burning in your heart that means you are inspired, that means you are passionate about something or someone. That feeling of enthusiasm that means you are truly alive, that you are willing to take a risk. I’m talking about the kind of burning the disciples felt in their hearts when they were walking with the Living God. When was the last time you felt like that?

Perhaps its been awhile. The ins and outs of daily life are hardly inspiring most days and the routine becomes something that we just do. At times you may feel bored with life, uninspired, and even complacent. You aren’t producing great ideas and aren’t willing to take risks.

The spiritual journey is not an easy one for any of us, although all of us have the opportunity to live happy lives even amidst adversity. This is where the title of the sermon comes from. Ad astra per aspera, or to the stars through difficulties. My father taught me this Latin phrase in high school, and it has been a constant reminder since that it is through our pain, our suffering, our challenges and our difficulties that we do great things, that we reach the stars.

I’d like to use a man named Stan Curtis as an example. Stan Curtis was a man who knew difficulties. He was born to parents who didn’t or couldn’t care for him, so he was abandoned by them and raised in an orphanage. He often felt alone and sad; he often doubted his self-worth and wondered why he was unlovable. But he didn’t let the hardship reduce him as a person. Instead, he worked harder and put himself through college. He took risks and became a successful stockbroker. At first, I’m sure he strived for success for himself so he would never be vulnerable and dependent again, but through his difficulties he developed compassion for others, and then made it his mission to give and serve those who were in need.

I’ll tell you the most note-worthy thing Stan has accomplished in a minute, but he isn’t that different from most of us. We all have our stories about how life has challenged us. The abusive home, the absentee parent, that first person who broke our heart, the trials and tribulations of growing up, the need for money, the divorce, the illness, the loneliness, the depression. None of us is a stranger to heartache.

But the message of today is ad astra per aspera! To the stars through difficulties. Difficulties and risks.

Jesus knew the pain and struggle and the risk. The great teachings and loving ways that he put out there were ultimately rejected by his society. Then there’s the disciples, who had to leave their nets, their families, everything they had known to follow Jesus, and boy is that a risk! They also knew the pain of loss. First, they lost the one person who meant so much to them. Then, their whole philosophy on life was called into question when Jesus was brutally murdered.

But then, the resurrection happened.

In the days and weeks after the resurrection, a change happened in the disciples. They discovered their power; they were anointed with new life. This new life made them enthusiastic; it stirred them up. We have heard the stories of how they were afraid at first, but imagine the joy around the table the night that Jesus walked with them to Emmaus and broke bread with them at the table. They were sitting around eating and talking. Scripture doesn’t record the conversation, but Jesus must have said something to inspire the disciples to act because in the book of Acts, we hear of the disciples doing mighty deeds in Jesus’ name. They were empowered to preach, to teach and even to heal.

After one such healing, the religious authorities were upset by what was taking place. They questioned the disciples as though what they were doing was improper or wrong, but the disciples didn’t get intimidated and back down. Instead, Scripture says they became filled with the Holy Spirit and said to those questioning them, “let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” While in front of those who doubted and questioned them, the disciples didn’t apologize or run away. Why? Because they had developed character and strength through their difficulties and were on their way to accomplishing the goals of heaven (to the stars through difficulty). Empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, the disciples brought healing to the world in the mighty name of Christ.

Which gets me thinking about us, the present day disciples of Jesus. Resurrection hope leads to new life, and new life is active and brave. The activity and bravery comes forth when one is willing to take a risk of some kind. Risk combined with talent is the creative force of God in this world empowering us to bring forth/birth new life. Instead of letting the difficulties shut us down, let them open us up and make us brave and bold.

What about you? What challenge in your life has sparked passion and eventually propelled you onward and upward? I think this is how God works sometimes. Ad astra per aspera: to the stars through difficulties. Because even though we have challenges before us, we also have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Even though we are troubled each in our own way, we can still be enthusiastic and empowered in Christ.

So let me tell you more about Stan Curtis, the boy left by his parents at an orphanage who decided to make something of his life. Back in 2004, Curtis took a leap of faith, he took a risk and started a program called Blessings in a Backpack, which provides food for children and families over the weekends.

I didn’t know this but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Education, 21 million children are on free or reduced-cost school lunches, which means 1 out of every 2 4th grader receives a free or subsidized meal. What that often means then is children who are fed well during the week often go hungry on the weekends because there is not adequate food at home. Through Blessings in a Backpack, such kids are given a backpack filled with nutritious food on Friday afternoons to take home for the weekend. Stan Curtis started this ministry because he grew up poor and hungry; in his struggle, he grew strong and courageous. He took a leap of faith and now because of him, 1000s of children are not as hungry and any one of us could start a Blessings in a Backpack in any neighborhood. It’s like a franchise outreach project.

That is exactly what Tama Clapper is doing out in Gillette, Wyoming. She started by giving backpacks to 50 kids who one local school said were hungry, and now she is feeding over 400 children in 10 different schools. She and the 50 Holy Spirit, empowered volunteers who have come forward are working to end hunger in their community.

We human beings are capable of so much when we are inspired and impassioned about something. Recently, one word has come to be special to me and that word is risk. Because going through the tough times and living into our potential as children of God requires some risk on our part. You have to keep putting yourself out there. Ad astra per aspera.

To the stars through difficulties.

Remember the heart burn we talked about in the beginning? If you have it or not? Passion. Intensity. Enthusiasm. Heart for something or someone other than yourself. It’s a call to action. It’s a call to be who you truly are and live your best life now. Let’s go for it.

So I’m going to leave you with these words about risk, and I pray you heed them when the Spirit strikes.

Risk: Be willing to lose something in order to gain something else. Take an emotional risk: [trust someone fully or say to someone else] I love you and want to be with you. Take a financial risk: [change jobs or] invest in [your own] business. Take a creative risk: pick up a paintbrush or a violin; go [dancing]; show your [memoires] to somebody. Be willing to show your vulnerabilities: cry. Take the risk and show more power than you’ve shown before: insist! Risk everything, and if you lose it all, realize how much richer you are for it. Risk being laughed at, risk being heckled, risk being silenced. Risk being hurt. Risk being more joyful, more brilliant, more alive, and more filled with the [Holy Spirit] than you’ve ever imagined. Only when you’re ready to risk losing it all can you risk having it all…. (Snyder, Rachel. Words of Wisdom for Women. Pg. 268).

My inspired comrades, let’s take a risk! Ad astra per aspera! To the stars through difficulties.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On the Winning Team!

The tulips are blooming. The trees are popping. And the sun is shining! It is as though earth knows what heaven is up to.

And yet, sorrow still holds its place in this realm. My second cousin, Jamie, had a stroke on Friday at the age of 15! A stroke at 15! He will never play his favorite sport of Rugby again. And poor Trayvon. He will never play again. As if these things aren’t bad enough, the revolution for freedom in Yemen has turned into a massacre.

In light of all this, it is hardly notable that one, simple man was killed 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 others. What makes Jesus story so exceptional is his resurrection, made possible because God’s love and power is greater than any horrible act humanity can commit, because (as the old hymn proclaims) God’s grace is greater than our sin.

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

Easter is packed with meaning and its implications for our lives are numerous. For the young or the young at heart, just the awesome details of the story produce wonder: that the stone was mysteriously rolled back, that angels sat in Jesus’ tomb, that Jesus stood in the garden on the 3rd day and talked with one of his best friends, and that she, Mary, saw him alive after she had seen him dead. Just the story itself is enough to wake you out of your spiritual slumber if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

For the experienced seekers among us, the story’s details, while rich, are nothing compared to what the story means for us as disciples. Experience in this life may have convinced us that death has the final word, but Easter makes us question our certainty. Like Paul we cry out, “Where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting?”

We realize that it is God who has the victory. It is life that wins. And we say to ourselves, if God raised Jesus from the dead then nothing is impossible for God. Not mortgages, not marriage problems, not infertility issues, not chronic illness, not chronic pain. Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we know that anything is possible for us as well.

For the disappointed, the depressed and the doubtful among us, the Easter story proclaims the mindset we have been missing. We find hope in this idea that there is life after death. That there is joy after suffering. That there is a new story being written. While we are trying to figure out our lives, this Easter message breaks in and announces to us, “Because he lives, you also shall live.” Yes! We are no longer held captive by spiritual death but are resurrected with Christ to new life.

And for those who are drawing near to the end of their life on earth, they remember Jesus’ words on the cross: Today, you will be with me in paradise. And Easter for those in this realm is the promise of a future and a new existence. They know that they are headed to the mansion, and they are confident and secure because Jesus has paved the way home.

Easter is a grand proclamation by God that life will not be simple or easy, but it will lead to great rewards in this life and in the next. Christ had to die in order to be resurrected, but resurrected he is!

On this day, Jesus wins. God wins. Life wins. We win. And so now we must ask ourselves, how will we live into the Easter story? Because grace (and the messages of Easter are the very definition of grace) requires a response from us. Now what?

It’s time for us to live like winners. No more walking around with our heads down and shoulders slumped, apologizing for who we are, what we say and what we do. Our team just won and we need to share the glory and the victory with everyone and everything. We need to put our joy out there.

I’m not talking about being conceited and prideful. I’m talking about sharing the love, celebrating the life, proclaiming with exuberance the happiness we feel.

You’ve probably seen a sport’s team celebrate after a hard won victory. In football, they dance in the end zone and dump Gatorade on the coach’s head, in basketball they cut down the nets, in baseball they rush the pitcher’s mound, in soccer they tear off their shirts and run around the field, in tennis they shoot balls high into the stands. In essence, the people express the excitement and enthusiasm they have.

Don’t be afraid, my friends, to express your joy, your victory, your new life! Because come this morning, into this evening and again every day after today, you are on the winning team. Live like a winner.