Unity

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  – Messiah Jesus, John 17:17-23

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My daughter Maddie’s picture under The Cloud Gate Sculpture in Chicago – surrounded by people from across the globe.

Unity.  What does it even mean? The dictionary says, “the quality or state of not being multiple; a condition of harmony; the quality or state of being made one.” But for United Methodist Christians the word is laden with different meanings.  As the United Methodist Church struggles with actual unity, the word ‘unity’ has been co-opted.  Some refer to it as a ‘totem’, a ‘code word for mushy moderates’, ‘an idol’, ‘selling out full justice’, and ‘a holy-sounding argument for those who want to avoid the issue altogether’.

I have a different perspective on unity.  It is rooted in my understanding of scripture and the experience in the context I serve.  Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is unique.  It is actually a collection of diverse worship communities (churches) who live out their faith as ONE church.  The Sanctuary, Mercy Street, Contemplative, Upper Room, The Branch, Fair Haven, and Holy Family are each very different.  Most people who spend a weekend with us and visit our differing services realize this is not their parent’s church.  Different lead pastors, different contexts, and really diverse people.

Our worship community pastors, the lead pastors of each community, are a tight-knit group.  We really love each other, we spend a lot of time together, and we are very different:  Male, female, white, black, hispanic, asian, young, old, married, and single.  We come from different parts of the country and we’ve been educated in different schools.  We have all been formed by different experiences.  There is very little ‘uniformity’.  But there is a deep unity.

Last week, we met to discuss how we want the Holy Spirit to help us lead Chapelwood through the next few years as the UMC struggles with the issues before us.  We started with our own stories.  We shared our personal beliefs on the issues surrounding scripture, the life of Christ, marriage, sexuality, gender, and many other issues.  We’ve had these conversations before, but we were very intentional this time to press each other to go as deep as possible with our struggles, beliefs, and dreams for our church.  When we finished, a few things were clear to me:

  • We do not all see the issues the same way and we do not all long for the same outcomes…
  • We are currently wrestling with many of the issues…
  • We love the people we serve and we grieve knowing there are people on all sides of these issues in our communities – some who may find staying in the UMC difficult…

And, with all the differences we shared, we left our time together with more commitment and love toward each other than when we started.  The power of the Holy Spirit actually pulled us together – not apart – as we shared our different stories and our different dreams for the church.  I left more focused on Christ.  Jesus was glorified in our sharing.

And this is just one reason why I wholeheartedly disagree with people who say unity is some type of totem, excuse to avoid conflict, or excuse to exclude others.  Unity is not the end…the glory of Christ is the end…unity is the means by which we get there.  Unity is very challenging.  People who claim unity is an excuse to avoid conflict have never actually contended for honest unity in a diverse community.  It is far easier to draw bold lines in the sand, state what you believe, and then stand far removed on one side of the issue.

I do not fear schism and separation in our denomination.  Why?  Because it’s easy.  It is intellectually and spiritually lazy.  And it relieves the tension of the day (until the next issue arises).  Schism is definitely messy, but it’s not horrifying.

You want to know what I fear?  Unity.  I fear, revere, dread, cherish, dismay, exalt, and esteem unity.  Why?  Because unity means I have to give and take, live and die, learn and be taught.  It requires deep humility, love, and grace – things I don’t always do well with.  I am blessed to live in a community that seeks to live into the prayer Jesus prayed.  And my prayer is that ‘we also may be sanctified in truth…that we may all be one…so that the world may believe that God sent Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.’

Love and Hate

Luke 2:25-35

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study by Professor Semir Zeki of University College London. Zeki studied the brains of people who profess deep hatred towards a person and deep love and here is what he discovered.  When people looked at the images of those they hated, it involved specific areas in the sub-cortex of the brain. One area they already knew was connected to contempt and disgust. But they found these same areas of the brain were involved in deep feelings of love. Zeki proposes that this may be connected to the preparation of aggression that may come when you feel someone you love is threatened.  While love and hate are found to be at work in the same area of the brain, there is one interesting difference. Zeki and his research team found that the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reasoning become deactivated during love, whereas very little of the area is deactivated in hate.

Zeki concludes with this hypothesis…love seems to be less critical and less judgmental toward those loved. Hate is more judgmental, more critical, and more calculating…seeking ways to injure, harm, or exact revenge. The other interesting find? Hate could be objectively quantified in the studies. Love could not. There was no way to objectively quantify love.

Zeki could have saved a lot of time if he had just read the New Testament…

Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the coming of the fullness of love to the world. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son… Christmas is the time we celebrate when love came down from heaven. And this is a season of love. There is something warm and cozy about Christmas. Families gather, meals are shared, we reach out to those who are not with us by phone and Christmas cards.

But as we explore the great paradoxes of Christmas, this week we focus on the second Sunday of Advent’s theme…love. We know that the world Jesus came into was not only a world of love. Just as in Jesus day, we are surrounded by the paradox of a world where God is pouring out His love into a world filled with hate.

The Magi search for the child to pay him homage as a power-hungry king tries desparately to keep power by slaughtering innocent young children.  The angels announce the birth of the Savior to a poor band of shepherds.  Joseph and Mary receive news of the miraculous birth, but their experience is not exactly glorious.  Our world is not different. We see the paradoxes all around us.  Love comes in the midst of a world of hate.  People killing innocent people and calling it faithfulness. People mistrusting those around them and those in authority. We need love more than ever in a world filled with hate.

In today’s passage, we see Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple as was the custom. Simeon was a righteous and faithful man and very old. God told him he would not die until he laid eyes on the Savior of the world. As Jesus is brought into the temple, Simeon is drawn in and when he lays his eyes on the child, he rejoices! He says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon sees the light of salvation for all people, including the Gentiles. Love has come down.

IF we ended there, that would be enough. But the Bible points us to another paradox…Simeon continues…“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

We see this bitter prophecy played out in the life of Jesus as he confronts the lives and motives of so many.  He called us to examine our inner thoughts as well.  In John 3:19 Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Jesus was and is the One who reveals our inner thoughts and calls us to choose light and love over darkness and hate.  We are confronted with this Sign everyday.

The good news is that love has come into the world. But that love will call for a decision from the world. A decision to love in the light…or hate in the darkness.

The Big Three: Money, Sex, and Power

I Corinthians 9:24-27
24Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified

Most of us are overwhelmingly focused on the tasks we have to accomplish each and every day. Last week on Tuesday morning with a bunch of guys at breakfast, I was sharing with them an app I have on my iPad where I keep all my notebooks. The first one I go to every do is the To Do book. I create my To Do list. If I don’t, I will forget something (in addition to the many things I forget to put on my list.) But you see, part of the problem with our out of control lives is this To Do list. We are more focused in our lives on what we have TO DO, then who we are working TO BE. A friend of mine recently asked me if I have ever made a TO BE list instead of a TO DO list. He told me, if you let the TO BE list guide you, you will find your life transformed.  Why is it we spend more time focusing on what we need to do instead of focusing on who we are? Thomas Merton once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is so true.

Three human needs have the capacity to destroy any one of us if we don’t spend time in examining our lives: money, sex, and power. It is no wonder early monastic communities established three vows for those called to religious leadership: poverty, chastity (celibacy), and obedience. These vows were severe protective measures to guard against the fatal compulsion of these three needs. While the early monastics approached these three human needs with vows of denial, that is not the only way to bring them under control.  During the Reformation in the 16th century, the leaders of the church stressed a more positive response to deal with the Big Three: faithful stewardship, covenantal love, and self-giving service as healthy responses to these three temptations. Rather than deny the needs, they sought to control, direct, and redeem them. This new understanding in Christian faith saw money, sex, and power not as evil in and of themselves, what matters is how they are used in our lives. This is why self-examination is so important in managing our out of control lives. Instead of just going, we need to figure out what makes us go.  Over time the church’s view toward money, sex, and power shifted as the role of each in society was changing.

The modern era has sought to make peace with money, sex, and power. It seems that many of us believe we are immune to the dangers of each one. But the truth is, they still have the power to destroy families and lives if they remain unchecked.
I’ve shared stories before of how the BIG THREE can destroy lives. We’ve seen it in our own families. Most of the time, I have found that what leads us to fall to their power is that we never really spent time examining what makes us tick. We never spent time on our TO BE list.

Paul talks here about bringing his body under control and how important it is. We must know that money, sex, and power have the ability to cloud our judgment, corrode our values, and capture our will leading us to behave in ways that are irresponsible.

Where does the search for begin? You and I need to look for individuals who have demonstrated the inner capacity to deal creatively with money, sex, and power in their lives. In Christian tradition, we have called these people spiritual guides, mentors, abbas, or ammas (fathers or mothers).  They come alongside us, with our permission, and become “ruthlessly compassionate truthtellers”.  We can’t overcome the power of the Big Three alone.  We need someone to help us – to guide us.  Will you find someone to come alongside you?  To help you TO BE the person God created you to be?

Rule Number 6

Exodus 18:13-26
13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ 15Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God.16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’
24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.25Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.26And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves.

Luke 10:25-37
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, in their book The Art of Possibility, tell the story of two prime ministers who were sitting in one’s office discussing affairs of state. Suddenly an aide burst in, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The host prime minister quietly said, “Peter, kindly remember Rule Number Six.” Peter was instantly restored to complete calm, apologized for the interruption, and left the room. The prime ministers resumed their discussion. Several minutes later, another aide rushed in, shouting and stamping. Again the host prime minister quietly said, “Marie, please remember Rule Number Six.” Marie calmed down immediately, apologized, and left the room.  The visiting prime minister said “I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Tell me, what is this Rule Number Six?” The host prime minister said, “It’s really very simple. Rule Number Six is ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously.’” After a moment of pondering, the visiting prime minister inquired, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”
The host replied, “There aren’t any.”

One of the biggest problems we face day to day in our “uncontrollable” lives is that we take ourselves way too seriously. You have no idea how this affects your ability to be free, enjoy life, and live fully for God as God intended, which draws others to a living and loving faith in Christ.  The truth is, life is uncontrollable. But the height of pride and vainglory is to think that we can control it. And because we think this way, we are often frustrated and disappointed. This is tied to our expectations, but it is more than that. This is about how we view ourselves in the midst of the life we live. Most things in life we can’t control, rather than let the uncontrollable disturb us; we need to remember Rule Number 6 and how we can learn to view life, and ourselves, differently.

I do a lot of weddings here. And if you are involved in weddings often, one thing you can count on – something will go wrong. It could be a big thing or a small thing. It may be something you see or something you never see. There are just too many details over months and months for something not to go wrong. Whether the pants don’t show up in the best man’s tux, or the candle just won’t light, or a groomsman falls out, or maybe just after the bride declares her love to the groom and kisses him, the soloist sings “I’d rather have Jesus.” Something is going to happen!
I remember the father of one wedding recently who was so serious and so nervous about his one line. When I ask, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” his reply had to be perfect. All night at the rehearsal he kept looking at me, “Her mother and I do…Her mother and I do…Her mother and I do.” I kept telling him, it’s okay. Next day, I ask the question, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” and he replies emphatically, “My mother and I do.” He was terribly upset as people began to laugh, but his daughter, with a huge smile on her face said to him, “That’s perfect. We will never forget that!”

A few years ago, I was doing a wedding on a golf course in Columbus, Georgia. It was a beautiful setting on a walking bridge across a beautiful shallow stream next to the green. Everything was perfect. I handed the groom a beautiful diamond wedding ring which he took in his hand…took her hand in his…and as I asked him to place it on her finger and repeat after me…he dropped it, bouncing off the walking bridge into the ankle high, flowing stream. He began to freak out, the bride laughed, and two bridesmaids and a few guest took off their shoes and proceeded to make their way into the stream.

The reason Rule Number 6 is so important is because when things like this happens, it is not a tragedy! It is not a disaster!! It is a disclosure of our humanity! When we have a right understanding of who we are in Christ, we practice not taking ourselves so seriously – Rule Number 6. It is one of the best ways to remind us of our humanity – our need to rely on a power greater than ourselves.

Today, in both our passages of scripture, we see Rule Number 6 at work.

First, Moses is leading God’s people in a very inefficient way. He is dealing with everything and it is killing him, but he feels he must do it! After all, he’s Moses and he is God’s chosen leader! It takes a reality check from his father in law to say, “Look at what you are doing! This is not good!” Moses listened to his father in law, but the temptation and reveals a great lesson – we can’t do it all and we are not the center of the universe. Even Moses needed help and he understood it.

In the second passage today, a lawyer is trying to justify himself by asking Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life. As Jesus answers, he apparently doesn’t remember Rule Number 6, because he feels the need to justify himself. Jesus tells a story that digs deep into issues of identity and worth by making the neighbor, the one who helps the man in the ditch, a Samaritan – one of the most reviled groups of the people the Jews had in their day.

There are two selves doing battle in us all the time. Paul talked about this when he wrote, “what I want to do I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do, I do.” We see it today in the scripture about Moses as he struggles to lead God’s people and is able to receive help from his father in law. And we see it in the interchange between the lawyer and Jesus in Luke 10 as he tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  If you want to understand Rule Number 6 and how to use it, you have to understand the Calculating Self and the Centering Self.

THE CALCULATING SELF
This Calculating Self is the part of ourselves concerned with our own survival in a world of scarcity. This is the part of ourselves that not only thinks we are the center of the world, but causes us to act like we are the center of the world. The Calculating Self is always measuring, always evaluating how we are perceived and is always calling out, “Take note of me.”  The Calculating Self is a part of who we are, but the power of SIN has really distorted how it works in us. The Calculating Self develops when we are children – we are the center of the world, demanding, measuring our worth on what we accomplish and what others think of us. As we grow up, some of us are able to harness the Calculating Self and we gain some sense of control over it, we mature – but it’s not easy. Unfortunately, no matter how confident or self-aware we are as adults, underneath the surface we see ourselves as marginal, at risk for losing everything.  The Calculating Self without proper control is always trying to climb higher, get more control, displace others, and find a way in. The Calculating Self must be brought under control through the work of God’s spirit, love and humility and one of the best ways to do this is to learn to “not take ourselves so seriously”. As we peel away layers of opinion, entitlement, pride, and inflated views of ourselves, others instantly feel the connection. As we have the grace to practice Rule Number 6, then the other part of ourselves begins to work through, the Centering Self. And this is where we need to grow.

THE CENTERING SELF
Inscribed on five of the six pillars in the Holocaust Memorial at Quincy Market in Boston are stories that speak of the cruelty and suffering in the camps. The sixth pillar presents a tale of a different sort, about a little girl named Ilse, a childhood friend of Guerda Weissman Kline, in Auschwitz. Guerda remembers that Ilse, who was about six years old at the time, found one morning a single raspberry somewhere in the camp. Ilse carried it all day long in a protected place in her pocket, and in the evening, her eyes shining with happiness, she presented it to her friend Guerda on a leaf. “Imagine a world,” writes Guerda, “in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend.”

Such is the nature of the Centering Self, the part of ourselves that embraces God’s image in us and lives centered on Christ’s principles of love and humility. Since the calculating self is designed to look out for Number One, it rears its head when we find ourselves at an impasse, whenever we are threatened – whether in politics or personal relationships or in the business world.  We are able to gain control of the Calculating Self through prayer, humility, love and self-discipline which allows the Centering Self to take over. When this happens, we find that childish demands and entitlements are not important for us anymore. Something changes in us. We die to self and live to Christ. We love more. We are less concerned with how others view us. We grow confident in our Christian identity, rather than a constructed identity based on what we do, what we know, or what we earn.

Today’s lesson is this: Practice Rule Number 6 – Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously
Keep alive and well your ability to laugh. Laugh with – never at – others. Laugh loudest at yourself. Poke holes in pomposity. Keep smiling – people will wonder what you’re up to!

Discovering Peace

Psalm 56: 1-13
1Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;  2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High, 3when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  4In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? 5All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.  6They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life, 7so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!  8You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?  9Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. 10In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, 11in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?  12My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.  13For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

This is a high anxiety world and suffering is all around us. I don’t have to tell you that. Globally, nationally, locally, and even in our own homes, the suffering is real and palpable and it causes us to be afraid. And while sometimes words can bring comfort, often times there are no words that bring comfort.

Psalm 56 puts words to the fear we face. It puts words to those in a world who are out to get us. “They trample on me, all day long they are out to get me, my foes oppress me, many fight against me.” I’ve wanted to claim Psalm 56 as the “preacher’s psalm”, but I think I will have to stand in line behind a lot of you who want to claim it as “realtor’s psalm”, “bankers’ psalm”, “teachers’ psalm”, “or (insert your life here) psalm”.

King Charles I, the King of England during the English Civil War, was imprisoned in and ultimately beheaded. During his captivity in 1649 he quoted the first two lines of this psalm, “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me; 2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High,” He used verses 1-2 as a response to the taunts of the jailers who were using Psalm 56:1 as THEIR cry, “All day long your foes oppress me.”
We can all relate to Psalm 56. This Psalm speaks to the passion we feel when we just have had enough. “God, c’mon now. You see what’s going on and I’m not a bad person. I’m kind of expecting you to step in here and make things right.” We are not without hope because we are a suffering. The Psalmist chooses to trust in God and we must as well if we want to find peace in an out of control life.

So how can we gain peace in an out of control life? I want to share two things I believe can help.

Reclaim the language of lament

To find or reclaim peace, we must bring all of our lives to God.  It seems that everything we do in our culture is about avoiding negativity because we believe that somehow that doubt will cause us to be failures. We do this in the church really well because we believe that to acknowledge negativity and suffering is somehow a lack of faith – as though by speaking our fears, hurts, and doubts somehow means God has lost control.  This is why in our culture so many of us feel obligated to say things to suffering people like, “It’s gonna be okay, this is gonna make your stronger.”  One of my former professors at Columbia, Walter Brueggeman, says if you read the Psalms and you will find many instances of faith language that speak in the darkness to the darkness. Some may call it a lack of faith, it is really a bold act of faith to cry out to God. Why we can cry out to God we are reaffirming that the world is to be experienced as it is and not in some pretend way. Just because we don’t want pain and suffering doesn’t mean it will go away!! It is a bolder act of faith to cry out to God with nothing out of bounds. Everything can properly be brought to God. To withhold parts of our life and experience is to withhold parts of ourselves from God’s sovereignty. “Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

I remember sitting with a family in their home after they received news of the husbands terminal cancer. With me in the room they tried to negotiate positive language. I was simply listening, and he finally said, “What I want to say to God right now is not very nice.” I told him to say it. He needed to say it.

We must choose hope in God

Hope. We use the word quite a bit, but I’m not sure we know what it really means. Hope in Psalm 56 is a trust in God and it is something we CHOOSE. The Psalmist writes in verse 11-12, “In God I trust…my vows to you I must perform.”
Hope is not only the desire for something but also the expectation of receiving it. Hope is not so much a passion or emotion, as a desire of the will. A decision based not only on our experience of God in the past but our expectation of how God promise He will work. Hope is to cherish a desire with anticipation. Hope is to expect something with confidence. Hope is . . . to Trust.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that Hope and Faith depend on each other “not only as a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Hope doesn’t just bring comfort, it stands over against suffering and persecution – it protests it!  Our Christian hope looks toward the days when Christ will make all things new. When we hope, it creates in a believer a “passion for the possible.”  Hope stands against the powers of darkness and suffering and says, “God WILL – God will”

Micah 7:7, the prophet writes, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord and confident in Him I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”

Recovering the language of lament. Choosing hope in God. These are keys to finding peace in an out of control life.

The Witness of Unity

John 17:20-26
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

We just celebrated World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October.  On that day, we lifted up our unity as Christians in the church universal by sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion along with thousands of other Christians worldwide.  There is an urgent need right now for Christians to be a witness through unity, especially in our American political climate.  First and foremost, Christians are fundamentally called to demonstrate our faith guided by Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, during this season of presidential politics many of us seem to guided more by our commitment to political ideologies than the teachings of Christ.

Let me give you two examples.

I have a good friend who is a Christian and a Democrat. She started visiting a new church in the community where she lived.  While she thought her faith and politics lined up, she learned very quickly that the people in her new church did not agree.   In a Sunday school class conversation, several seemed to imply (and one person directly stated), that one cannot be both a Christian and a Democrat. She liked her church and knew everyone did not feel this way, but here she was in a congregation where leaders of her class were telling her that her political views were not Christian. What kind of church would say such things?

I know another man who shared with me his pain around faith and politics. He is a Christian as well and a faithful member of his church. He never told me his political affiliation, but he expressed some deep pain from friends and congregation members who sent out partisan emails. He is the kind of guy who studies the facts and whenever he would try to point out the errors of certain emails (of which most were partisan lies), the response back to him was not exactly in keeping with the kind of love Jesus modeled. They responded to him harshly and he had not even asked to be sent those emails! Someone just included him in all the FWDs. One man said to him, “Don’t talk to me anymore!” What kind of church would say such things?

Actually, both of these people attend the same church.  And the church these two people attend is the church I pastor.

I appreciate some aspects of both parties and disagree with others. I have voted for persons in both parties. Jesus would not perfectly fit either political party. The truth is we Christians have damaged our witness when it comes to how we participate in partisan politics.  I know many people of strong faith who become very un-Christian in their behavior when they begin to talk about politics.

In John’s gospel today, Jesus is talking about unity. As we gather around the table to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we celebrate unity in the Body of Christ. Our faith teaches that we are one body and Christ is the head. This does not mean we are all the same or that we all see the world the same way. We struggle in our differences; I get that – I struggle as well. But we must remember that just because we are commanded to be ONE doesn’t mean we have to all be the SAME.  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  In this section of the gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that our unity is rooted in our faith and that our witness to the world will not be about “right belief” but rather about “right living” – Jesus models the Father, and he calls us to model him. Our love of God and one another, if it is true and authentic, should rise above any difference in our political ideology.

Let me encourage you to be a faithful witness to the love of God in these coming days and weeks. Remember the teachings of Paul from Ephesians 4, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another.”
I want you to be involved and engaged in the political arena, but I want you to remember that you are an ambassador of Christ first and foremost. Our faith should not be trumped by our loyalty to a political party. If it is, we compromise our witness to the world.

Are you a witness to the cosmic power of Christ in our unity? Or is your witness of Christ compromised by our lack of love and unity?

I Believe in Life Everlasting

Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5
21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

22Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Several years ago, after my father died, we took his ashes to be scattered over my grandfather’s family’s grave plot behind Zion Hope Baptist Church in Crisp County, Georgia. The scattering of my father’s ashes was not what affected me as much as looking around and seeing all these tombstones of men and women dating back to the early 1900’s…all with my last name. There was even a Corporal John Stephens, a soldier who fought under both General Joseph Johnson and General John Bell Hood as the Union General Sherman marched from Chattanooga to Atlanta.  My grandfather told me that was his grandfather’s brother and died at home after the militia disbanded with the fall of Atlanta. Being at that cemetery and hearing my grandfather tell of his grandfather and their families gave me a sense of history about my own life. There is something powerful about knowing where you come from.

My grandfather, Rome Stephens (I called him Coach), told me of his childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia and how all the businesses would close at noon and how he and his father would go fishing most afternoons. He shared about how my great-grandfather died in 1937 at 57 years old of a heart attack while at work. My grandfather was 15 at the time.  Coach also shared with me that at his wedding to my grandmother Edna when the minister asked if anyone had any reason why these two should not be married my great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side stood up and said, “He didn’t ask me if he could wed my daughter.” My grandfather was frozen in fear as silence gripped the house. My grandmother looked at my grandfather and the preacher and said, “Don’t pay any attention to him, he’s kidding around.”  That helps to explain a lot about my sense of humor.

Stories that tell us where we come from are stories of origin.  They have tremendous power to help us understand where we came from and why we are here. But stories of origin have counterparts: stories of destination.  Stories of destination tell us where we are going.  As meaningful as our stories of origin are our stories of destination are more powerful, shaping force.  Stories of destination point to ultimate destiny. They answer the question “Where are you going?” in a much broader sense: Where are you headed? In what direction is your life taking you? What is your true destination? Such stories are the counterpart of stories of origin.

The book of Revelation is a story of destination just as Genesis is a story of origin. The common center in both our stories of origin and destination is God – God is the center of both our stories of origin and our stories of destination.

The stories of my past are not the stories that give me hope…they merely help me understand who I am in the present. The stories that give me hope in the present are stories of where I am headed. Belief in “The resurrection of the body” is a powerful statement of hope to me and all of us who see our bodies failing and wasting away day by day. There is something deeply comforting to know that as my body breaks down and grows old, that in the end, I will receive a new body.
The reason why this last line is in our Apostle’s Creed each week, is to reconnect with our story of destination – we are headed somewhere particular. We are headed back to God. In the end, we will dwell with God just as we did in the beginning before the fall. God is the beginning and God is the end.

As we have journeyed through the Apostle’s Creed, we have been confronted with our core beliefs that we recite each week. Here, in the final line of the Creed, we are met with our story of destination. It is appropriate that the Creed begins with our story of origin and ends with our story of destination.

The Apostle’s Creed reflects our faith, but it does much more. It forms us each week because it gives us both our story of origin and our story of destination – and everything in between!

I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

1 Timothy 1:12-17
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

I remember in college a young girl who asked me, “Is it possible to forgive someone who is dead?” She asked it after our college youth ministry team was leading a lock in and several of us had shared about forgiveness. I had shared about my father walking out on my family when I was 14 years old and how my forgiveness of him was important to my spiritual growth. After the program, she felt she needed to forgive to be able to grow in her faith.  As we inquired about the question  she told us that her uncle had died a year ago.  When she was very young he had abused her in ways that were disturbing and atrocious. Now that he was dead, she wondered if forgiveness was possible and if her relationship with God was in danger.

My first reaction was connected to the kinds of examples we had shared in our time with the youth and how insignificant they were to the level of wrong done to this young girl.  Second, as I thought about it then and have thought about it since, I have asked this very human question. “Does that guy even deserve forgiveness?”

Paul, in this passage of scripture today, is also reflecting on some very personal things with his young protege, Timothy.  Paul says, “I am grateful to Christ who has strengthened me…even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence.”  Paul is sharing his own personal confessions with young Timothy. In a wonderful moment of gratitude, Paul sums up the central understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to forgiveness, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is true and worthy of full acceptence. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am foremost.”

Wow! Talk about authentic and self-revelatory (and I remember my preaching professors telling us to never use our personal lives as examples!) This is quite a confession, but the confession is not really the focus here. For Paul, the focus is the grace and mercy and forgiveness showered on us in Christ Jesus.

When we declare each week that we believe in the forgiveness of sins in the Apostle’s Creed, we are first and foremost giving thanks to God in Christ Jesus who forgives us.

Theologian Stephanie Mar Smith, refers back to Martin Luther (1483–1546) when reflecting on this passage because of his similar emphasis upon the mercy of God in the face of human sinfulness. In his early years, Luther was ridden with anxiety because he believed that he could not live up to God’s righteous standards. Then, as he studied the Scriptures, he realized that the righteousness of God was not a standard to which he must attain, but rather a gift from God: a mercy by which persons are made righteous through the righteousness of Christ.

The depth of sin was revealed, which Luther interpreted as the human arrogance that attempts to justify oneself before God (I am sure this doesn’t apply to anyone here – no arrogance and no one who attempts to justify their actions before God and others).  In addition to the revealing of our sin, God justifies us and declares us not guilty through the righteousness of Christ, who acts, loves, and believes on our behalf. This is important to grasp, because many of us don’t really think we are that bad.  We don’t believe we are really deserving of punishment – certainly not hell. But in order to understand how God’s grace works in forgiveness, we must first grasp the grace and mercy God has shown to us for our sins – which is what Paul reveals in this morning’s passage.

The first thing we have to do is get in touch with our sinfulness.  As Methodists, we don’t really preach those kinds of “hell, fire, and damnation messages.”  We prefer the “you are loved of God” messages.  This hasn’t helped our people understand the need for extravagant forgiveness and mercy.  While I am certainly not encouraging us to beat each other up, a healthy dose of our position before God would help us deal with our arrogance as it relates to sin.  How can you really be thankful for forgiveness if you don’t feel you need it?  Which leads to another problem as we begin to think about forgiving others…

If we truly believe God has forgiven us, then it is easier to forgive others as God forgives us. Jesus indicates in the gospels that if we do not forgive others, we in turn cannot receive forgiveness – not because God chooses not to forgive us, but rather because we choose to close off the channel of grace.

Simply put, I like to think of grace flowing through us like a drain.  If we identify our deep need for forgiveness and receive great mercy and grace, we are more motivated to forgive others.  If we really don’t feel we need that much forgiveness, we don’t have that much grace to share with others.  Also, if we refuse to forgive others, we do not allow the grace of God we have received to be shared with others which shuts down our ability to receive grace.  When the drain is clogged nothing comes out…and nothing more can go in.  Forgiveness is a spiritual act between you and God. We must forgive the other because if we don’t, our spirits become narrow, distorted and selfish. That in turn keeps us from receiving the grace of forgiveness from God. When you forgive another, it is something that takes place in the spirit – you are set free to be a channel of grace again.

Forgiveness is required and necessary.  I will never forget that brave young girl in that small church in South Georgia who desired to be a whole person and a vessel of grace. I don’t know where she is now or what she is doing, but I can tell you this. If my God is willing to forgive me…and if that girl was willing to forgive her uncle…than, by God’s help, I can forgive anyone who wrongs me. Lord, let your grace and mercy flow through me.

I Believe in the Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-31
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton actually borrowed that ancient phrase from a saying that dates back centuries – “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Simply put, he is saying I did not get here by myself and that is true for all of us. We are not who we are on our own. We each owe a debt of gratitude to more people than we can name for who we are and for what we have done.  And not just thanks to those we’ve known in our lives. We owe a debt to the generations who have come before us that we don’t know! We have all stood on the shoulder of giants. For those of us who are Christians, we are who we are because of the community of faith that has brought us here. That community of faith is the CHURCH.  (My church members were concerned that somehow this statement was connected to recent presidential political banter “You didn’t build that”.  That is not in my mind at all here, so please don’t place your political fears here!)

In the Apostle’s Creed, each Sunday we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” When we say it, we are declaring the unique role the church, the body of Christ, plays in our lives.

Now let me clear something up at the very beginning, the holy catholic church (with a little c) is not the same as talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The word catholic, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “of broad scope, relating to all humankind, universal”. For the first 1,000 years there was only one Christian Church, the universal church, the catholic church. When we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” we are not aligning with Roman Catholicism. We are saying we believe that the church universal is the body of Christ and no matter what denomination we are we are.  We are a part of the ONE, UNIVERSAL body of Christ.
If you have a “universal remote control” at your house you can help your understanding of small “c” catholic by referring to it at the “catholic remote” from now on.

The church is important. God’s design and will is that the church is Christ’s body on earth. This is important for us to understand as we think about how God works in the world and how we are a part of that.

There are those who say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” And that is true. Just like you can be an American and not vote or participate in making your country a better place to live. It is true one can be a believer in Christ and not go to church, but it is also true that to be fully committed as a Christ follower and disciple, you must be connected to the community of faith. Trust me, I’ve known hunters and golfers and others who tell me they find God in a tree stand or on the fairway on a beautiful morning. And I will say, sure you can see God there! Christian theology for 2,000 years has taught that God is revealed to all through natural revelation – i.e. the birds and the trees.  But it is only through what theologians call “particular revelation” that one can live distinctly as a disciple of Christ.  In our faith, we believe this “particular revelation” comes through the church.

The second type of person I have experienced as a pastor quite a bit is the one who says, “I will go to my Bible study at my friend’s house and that will be my church.” Or, “I will be involved in Walk to Emmaus or Gathering Place or “(insert valid ministry here)” and that will be my church. Just as Paul stated, the ear is not the eye and the foot is not the hand. These parachurch ministries are vital and important and they are extensions of the body of Christ, but they are NOT the church by themselves. Churches are not perfect, I will be the first to admit. And many of these ministries and groups sprout up because the church hasn’t done its job, that is true. But Paul makes clear that the church, the body of Christ, has a distinct personality because it is God’s prescribed way to save the world. Imperfect as it is, it is God’s vehicle that provides the fullness, balance and accountability we need in our lives. It is okay to supplement your church with other studies and groups, but to abandon the church is not healthy. There is no tradition, obedience, submission, or covenant involved beyond the church. When we look for substitutes for church, what we are really looking for is church on my terms. That is selfish and gives us over to the temptation of power in our lives.

The church calls us to submit to Christ.  One thing I know about people, is we don’t change naturally. I don’t become a better person or a better Christian just because I know I should. The way we change is when others come alongside us and encourage us, and yes, sometimes admonish us lovingly.  If left to my own will, I would do only the things I think are good and worthy. The church calls us to more. To not forget about the poor, the marginalized, the needy – in our world and among us.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 15:26 – 16:15
26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest reflects back to a time when he is a child and he and Jenny are standing on a dirt road in front of his house. Bullies approach and begin to throw rocks at Forrest. Jenny helps him up, touches him on the arm and cries out the famous line, “Run, Forrest, Run!” With her encouragement, standing beside Forrest, he is energized and begins to run.  As he runs, he shatters his leg braces (what he calls his, “magic shoes”). In that moment of pressure and persecution, Jenny gives him the encouragement he needs to run free. Forrest says, from that moment on, if I was going somewhere “I was running!”

We all need someone to come alongside of us. Whether it is in our moments of joy or our moments of grief, we all need someone who will help us up, touch us on the arm, speak the truth to us and give us the encouragement we need to run free.
Each week in the Apostle’s Creed, we proclaim, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” When we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, we declare our faith in a God who has come alongside all of us in every moment of our lives.  In order for Jesus to be in every one of our hearts and lives, he would have to send the Holy Spirit – the person of the Trinity who dwells in every one of us and comes alongside every one of us.
The Holy Spirit is God with us. And Jesus says in our scripture today that the role of the Advocate is to speak the truth to us and encourage us in our lives.

Jesus tells us in verse 13 that when the Spirit comes, He will guide us in all truth, speaking to us the things He hears the Father saying. I hear people often say the Holy Spirit is our conscience and I do not believe this is correct. Our conscience is our conscience.  I have known people whose conscience have led them to do good things and others who are led to do not so good things.  The Holy Spirit is wholly other than your conscience. The “Spirit of truth” speaks truthfully and bears testimony on Christ’s behalf. The Holy Spirit speaks to our conscience, if we are willing to hear him. But the Spirit will say precisely what the Father and Son have said – nothing different. The Holy Spirit will strengthen the community of believers and enable them to speak the truth about what they have experienced of Jesus the Son. I can’t tell you how many times I have come across Christians who have said, “the Holy Spirit told me ______________ (fill in the blank)” and I think to myself, “That ain’t the Holy Spirit.” If you ever wonder whether it is your conscience or the Holy Spirit, just put it up against the truth that the Father and the Son have already revealed. And, does it glorify the Son.  That’s your test.

In John’s Gospel the essence of love is to be connected to and share deeply in the presence and work of Jesus. In Jesus’ farewell discourse we see him dealing with the disciples’ love and sorrow at his impending departure. Jesus, anticipating the grief they will feel, prepares the disciples for his return to the Father. Although it is time for him to leave them physically, he will continue to be with them spiritually through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is assuring us that he will indeed remain alive in the community, and not just in the community – in the individual Christian.

I think of so many of you who have gone through or are going through difficult times. My mind and heart goes out this week to a young man in our community who was in a car accident Friday, Tucker Anderson. As difficult and horrible as all these things are for friends and family, I continue to see how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those impacted bringing comfort – reminding them of the presence of God.
Every single one of us has been touched by or will be touched by moments of life where we need the presence of God in our lives to be real and powerful. The Holy Spirit is always with us, but often it isn’t until we really need the encouragement of God that the eyes of our hearts open to sense that he is alongside of us – helping us up off the ground, giving us the encouragement we need to trust for the next moment.

I Believe in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who is with us, guiding us in all truth and coming alongside us to heal and encourage.