A Prayer for Portland

“Dragon history is always oral history. The written word is so final, so set. Yes, people argue about it but in the end, their arguments are all about interpretation. The spoken word remains alive, writhing, and twisting forever.”

The Hazan
One of the Hazanim

 

gc prayerWhen my brothers and sisters in the faith (and a daughter by blood among them) come together in just a few weeks in Portland, there will be much that has been read and even more that will be said. I know that many prayers are being shared for this holy gathering of people who must worry about words. I only hope the one I add is read by a few, spoken by more, and heard by the only One that matters.

A Prayer for Portland 2016

Gathered from scattered gatherings of the very same clan
They flock and nest in one place for weeks.
To reproduce? To create? To be recreated?
To hold fast? To change? To paint a brighter future?
To hope.

No one knows what will really happen but my prayer is this:
Let your words, whatever words you share,
even the ones in the deepest, darkest corners,
of the unseen places of your heart, be words of life.

Speak those words to life and let all others die the death of the Accuser.

Leave as one, returning to places where clans gatherHope
To share One,
To reproduce,
To create,
To offer recreation,
To hold fast,
To change,
To speak a brighter future into existence
with words that cannot fail.

Leave as one…to hope.

Profession NOT Possession

A sermon for Princeton First United Methodist Church, September 13, 2015…

Mark 8:27-38

041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpgI was standing outside the “Princess Playhouse,” the local community theater in Mt. Hope. I was waiting on others to arrive for the rehearsal scheduled that afternoon and evening. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time and really didn’t expect much to be happening on the streets while I waited.

To kill time, I decided to look over the copies of the playbills that were displayed on the walls outside the entrance to the Princess. I read one from ten years before and then started to look at the playbill for the production of Count Dracula we had performed the previous Fall.

In the midst of my reading and daydreaming I suddenly heard a loud voice behind me say, “Friend, do you know Jesus?”

I’m not sure if the two young men who had snuck up behind me thought they would get extra points for sending a teenager straight to heaven by scaring him to death or if they thought this was a particularly effective evangelistic approach. I can tell you from experience, however, that they were much closer to succeeding on the former than they were ever going to get on the latter with me.

After composing myself I turned around and gave them my best United Methodist Youth smile and said, “Why yes. Of course I know Jesus. I go to the United Methodist Church just over the hill there.”

“Well,” the young man who had not scared me said, “you may have learned about Jesus in Sunday School but do you know him?”

The other joined in as he opened a Bible he was carrying, “The Bible tells us that all have fallen short of the glory of God.” He let me glance at the moving Bible page. “And it tells us that Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins but we have to accept him in our heart and confess him with our lips.” He flipped through a couple of bookmarks he had in the Bible and let me see the words blur by my eyes.

“So,” the second one asked again, “do you know Jesus well enough that if you stepped off that curb and got hit by a car that you would be assured that you went to heaven?”

I just blinked at them a couple of times and said, “Yes. I do.” And I turned around and kept reading.

I heard their feet shuffle a few times and then finally one of them said, “We will be praying for you, brother.” Thankfully, he said this as they were leaving.

This text we just read from Mark’s gospel is one about some people who definitely “knew” Jesus. At least, it is about those people who were closest to him, who shared their lives with him, who witnessed the work that he did and gave up all they had to follow him.

In a conversation with them as they are walking along some road Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say that I am?”

I’m sure that those who knew Jesus so well wanted to show that they were paying attention to the crowds around him and they offered the many answers that they heard.

I imagine that there was bit of silence – not really silence but more of just the sounds of people walking for a few minutes while those answered hung in the air – before Jesus asked his second question, “Yes, but who do you say that I am.”

I can almost hear the gravel sliding as Peter comes to an abrupt halt on the roadway and answers Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”

The whole group stopped when Peter said this – at least in the way that I see it happening – and Jesus kinda nods and then does something rather odd. He sternly orders them – not asks them nicely, not laughingly tells them – but sternly orders them to tell no one about him.

There is another account of this conversation in another Gospel that tells us a bit more about Jesus’ response to Peter but that didn’t matter much to Mark. At least not enough for him to include it in his account, so we will go with Peter’s answer that he knew Jesus well enough to profess him as Messiah and Jesus sternly orders the whole group not to tell anyone about him.

A rather odd way to get a movement going, don’t you think? Don’t tell anyone about it.

Scholars have used gallons of ink and preachers like me have thrown around millions of words about this whole idea of Jesus telling the disciples to be quiet about who he is. I have been and obviously am going to be another one of those participants today.

I think the key to understanding why Jesus said this is in the several verses that follow this warning. The ones where Jesus explains exactly what being the Messiah meant to him. The ones where Peter tries to treat Jesus like a child and scolds him about saying such things. The ones where Jesus calls Peter Satan for just thinking about himself and human things rather than the heavenly, kingdom things. You hear it also as Jesus says to the disciples, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Deny yourself – means setting aside your own agenda. Take up the cross means that we acknowledge when we are following Jesus things are not going to be so clear and easy, they are going to be messy. Things are going to get rough.

It is clear from these words that follow Jesus’ order to the disciples to not talk about who he was that Jesus was worried that maybe disciples have a hard time figuring out how to explain Jesus and they do much better when they just follow Jesus.

In other words, for disciples then and now, this lesson from Mark is telling us that our profession of faith must never be one in which we take possession of Jesus – instead, our profession is to possess the cross. We are to give up our own agendas, our own thoughts of what God should be and let Jesus be the leader, no matter what.

Peter and the rest of the first disciples had a difficult time with that way of living. Jesus knew it and thought it best to tell them to be quiet.

Disciples today? Well, I think if we are honest, it is still a struggle sometimes.

The pastor was happy to announce to the small country church that an anonymous donor had given a gift to the church in order for the Trustees to outfit the church with chandeliers. The Trustees would hold a meeting later that afternoon to decide whether to accept the gift or return it to the donor.

The meeting time came and people who felt both ways about the gift came ready to fight.

“If God had intended for chandeliers to be in this church, we would have had them a long, long time ago,” said one side.

“God means for us to have these chandeliers, or else he wouldn’t have put it on the heart of someone to donate them,” said another side.

The arguments went on and on. Neither side willing to budge even after an hour or so of debate. The resorted to name calling. They resorted to questioning the faith of one another, the donor and the pastor. The arguments went on till it began to get dark outside and darker inside.

Finally, the one person who hadn’t said a word throughout all the meeting cleared his throat and said, “Folks, I don’t know much about chandeliers – don’t know nothing about them actually, but I will tell you this. What this church needs is some light!”

Sometimes, the church does need some light. Especially when they fight with each other over earthly things rather than focus on the heavenly, kingdom things of being one in Christ.

Over the past several weeks, many of us have witnessed a battle which has caused mind-numbing damage to Christianity. The battle took place in a circuit clerk’s office and in courtrooms in Kentucky as well as in front of the watchful eye of the entire world.

First of all, I know that many people have feelings about whether Kim Davis should issue marriage licenses or not. Many people have strong feelings about the whole same sex marriage issue that has risen to the forefront of our society. Our church has been engaged in conversations about sexuality and faith for almost my entire life – and people feel very strongly about things one way or another.

Second, I have restrained from saying anything about this latest battle because I know how easily it is to be misunderstood when someone already disagrees with me. It is hard to speak when we don’t know if anyone is really listening. I know it is equally difficult to listen when I don’t like what someone is saying to me.

However, regardless of how we feel about same sex marriage and the battle continuing in Kentucky, I hope and pray that we can all see why sometimes Jesus tells us to just keep our mouths shut when it comes to telling people who we think he is.

On the same sex marriage side of these demonstrations, I have heard people completely disown their brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to act differently than they would in these circumstances. I have heard vitriolic, hurtful name calling. I have seen hate filled signs from the side of this argument that starts their position by saying “Jesus loves all sinners.”

AND, on the side of Kim Davis and her supporters, I have heard people completely disown their brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to act differently than they would in these circumstances. I have heard vitriolic, hurtful name calling. I have seen hate filled signs from the very people in this argument who say Jesus is their Savior and Lord.

You see, the saddest part of all this is that both sides lay claim to Jesus as Messiah. And they do so loudly, so all the world can hear.

Is it any wonder that sometimes, sometimes, Jesus just looks at the disciples and sternly tells them not to tell anyone who they think he is.

The only one winning in this battle in Kentucky is Satan, because all of us Christians just can’t seem to keep from dragging Jesus into our battles.

A person I follow on Twitter, an author named Doug Bursh, made this comment this week: “I think we might need fewer reformers and more repenters. Perpetually pointing out the sins of others makes us annoying.”

I believe we have seen Christianity take a mind-numbing blow in the hearts and minds of many people who have not yet met Jesus. And it is going to hurt us all in the long run.

Our profession of faith must never be one in which we take possession of Jesus. Instead, our profession is to possess a cross and help one another carry it when necessary.

Ask Almost Anything – Catching Up

There have been three slightly related questions that have come in during our Ask Almost Anything series that I believe I would like to try and answer here, rather than take up time in worship. (Don’t worry, we will print some copies out so folks without access to the blog can read them as well.) Continue reading “Ask Almost Anything – Catching Up”

Ask Almost Anything 2015

God, please send us the people that nobody wants and let us demonstrate your hospitality to all. Help us to see the people that live around our church so that our invitation will be with open hearts. Create a place of acceptance so that all feel welcome just as Christ welcomed us.

Amen. (1)

Well, we are up to it again at a Church in the Heart of Princeton. We are spending several weeks in worship doing a series called “Ask Almost Anything.” As the name implies, we are allowing people to anonymously email or drop off questions that I will then attempt to answer during our sermon time. (Some have referred to this as “Stump the Chump” but that name was already taken by a radio show.)

On this past Sunday I was able to address two questions. One was on observing the Sabbath and the second was on the theological idea of predestination. You can find my answers here.

We ended the time of AAA with a very thought provoking question that I promised to answer via this blog and in worship next Sunday. The question was: “Why does it seem that Christians can be some of the most judgmental people in the world?”

Wow!!!

Let me point out that the first thing that struck me with this question is that it asserts that Christians ARE judgmental. The person who asked this question has found themselves on one end or the other of the judgmental tendencies of our faith.

Now, if you asked me if it were “inevitable” that Christians be judgmental, I would have to answer with a resounding, “No!” If you asked me if I thought Christians can be judgmental, I would answer (somewhat judgmentally, I must add as a disclaimer) that “Yes. Yes, we certainly can fall into that category at times.”

The assumed position of the question writer – that Christian are at times judgmental – led me to pause before I gave a full answer and reflect this question back to our congregation. I asked them to think and pray about this and even ask themselves: “How can I be less judgmental this week?”

I’m glad I waited to answer this.

On Tuesday a new video came out from “Chuck Knows Church.” If you are not familiar with this series, I invite you to check out any of these videos – they are both informative and entertaining. The new video that came out on Tuesday, however, is the first part of a longer series being produced that takes a hard look at how a church might turn itself around from the brink of closure. I have been looking forward to this series but was absolutely astounded at how much the first episode, not to be confused with the introductory episode, fit the answer I really wanted to give about this question.

I invite you to watch the episode before you read any further.

 


Okay, if you took the time to watch the video, and again, I would highly suggest it, then you might now understand the prayer at the beginning of this post. It is the prayer that ends the episode and points out that hospitality is not something we “do at church” – it is a lifestyle we have received with Christ. That’s right…along with giving us eternal life and forgiveness, Jesus gave us hospitality. Jesus chose to welcome us and imparted upon us that same Spirit so that we can be people of hospitality as well.

So, about this “judgmental” question…

I guess the best answer to give is that Christians become judgmental when they refuse the gift of hospitality that has been given to them. When we reject or forget or otherwise lay aside the welcome Christ gave to us, then we will very quickly become judgmental. However, if we hold on to the gift, well, that would lead us down a different path altogether. We would be accepting of those who disagree with us. We would be welcoming to those who are different than us. We would see each person as someone Jesus’ wants to welcome into God’s Kingdom and the judgment can then be left up to someone much more qualified.

I hope this answer helps!

Oh…and if you have any questions, ask Chuck. Tell him your pastor sent you! 😉

Welcome and Wanted

TearKen Wilson, in a blog post that appeared here reminded me once again of the great importance of language in dealing with issues that at times so divisive that it threatens to break apart the Body of Christ without an Eucharistic prayer or flare.

I especially found this article helpful and hopeful for my love of the United Methodist Church because it shares such a crossroad with my own story.

Before I go any further, I want to add a caveat. I am working this out in my life…I have not arrived. I want to hear from people who disagree with me from both sides because then and only then will I find the iron and the presence of Spirit that will sharpen us all. I don’t want diatribes about my misguided “thinking” leading me on a path straight to hell. (I have a good feeling that I will delete those replies with more reluctance than relish but delete them nonetheless.)

So here goes…

Let me start with my story. At the age of twenty, my girlfriend became pregnant with our second child. (The tragic loss of our first child is another confession for another day and has little to do with this story, so I will move forward.) It was decided that the best path forward for the two of us was marriage. So, on her Senior prom day, we were married. We honeymooned in Pipestem, WV for a weekend and she went back to school and I went back to work in the convenience store industry. Our daughter, Leslie, was born a little over three months later and was welcomed and wanted in our family.

For a short time, the marriage went well. But truthfully, I was not good at communicating my needs and I was even worse at listening to my young spouse. Our marriage went downhill fast and by the time Leslie turned two, her parents were divorced.

Meanwhile, I had begun to answer a call to ministry that began sometime in my early teen years. I wondered what the cloud of an “unmarried pregnancy” and then a divorce would do to my ability to serve God’s people in the United Methodist Church as a pastor and Elder. I knew my Bible. Fornication was a sin and my child has been conceived in this very way. Divorce was also clearly a sin and the fact that I fully intended to marry again someday made that sin even worse according to plain reading of Scripture because this would mean that I and my new spouse would place ourselves in a perpetual state of committing adultery.

(As a side note, during the time I was divorced, I met up with some well meaning, extremely faith filled divorced persons who were holding onto “Covenant Marriages” with their divorced spouses. They swore off the possibility of ever marrying again and considered themselves forever married to their first spouse even when that spouse moved on and remarried. I found this whole way of thinking beyond anything that made any type of sense to me – despite my Biblical knowledge. There would be something wrong with me saying I was still married to my first wife when she married her third husband. I had a word for this – creepy.)

Eventually, I met and married Pam, the love of my life and the mother of my two other daughters as well as the very close “bonus” mom to Leslie. And I continued my theological education and my quest for ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church.

One time…one time…did this whole marital history come up in the midst of the many interviews that I went through. It was not a question about my fitness for ministry, though. It was a question about how I had dealt with the pain and healing that God’s grace had seen me through. It was a pastoral question.

I graduated from Duke Divinity School and was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church in 1998. I have served in that capacity without anyone filing a complaint against me for committing adultery against my first wife – despite what the Bible says. In fact, I remember the first words from the Board of Ordained ministry that approved me were “Welcome! We want you to do marvelous things with God’s grace working in you.”

I share all this because after reading the article on C. S. Lewis and his marriage noted above, it struck me that I had benefited from years of the words-can-hurt-or-heal1Church working through the language needed to deal in a pastoral way with a very difficult cultural and theological problem. Divorce was rampant in our society and yet this did not stop God from calling people like me to ministry and ordination. And yet…and yet…the church struggled enough to find the language that would work with a sinner like me – “Welcome” and “Wanted”.

Ken Wilson suggests that these words may be the way that we approach everyone who wishes to become a part of this great story that is God’s Kingdom incorporated in the structure of the Church. It could be about that person’s struggle with addiction, their gossipy nature, their tendency to destroy God’s temple with overeating, the reliance upon trusting in their own ability to provide for themselves rather than giving freely to God or it may even be about sexual identity. It most certainly could be about the divorce/remarriage problem that plagues our churches. (I hope you note that all of these things I have listed are clearly prohibited by Scripture and have as much to do with choice as anything else might have to do with choice.) We are all captured by the sin of our choices and we could all begin to work through them together with the use of two very powerful theological words:

Welcome…

Wanted…

These words do not affirm anything going on in the spiritual growth of the person, but they acknowledge that in God’s Kingdom, there is work to be done. We can welcome and want people to be a part of that story wherever they are in the story of God’s redemption and perfection of our lives. And we can live out that redemption and perfection in our own lives without having to cast out others who we think are not there yet.

Two simple words…welcome and wanted. They are words I am glad have been said to me. They are words I will gladly share with many others.