Confusion and Joy

My message for Easter Sunday Celebration at First Friends Church in Emporia, KS.

John 20:1-21

Confusion and Joy

These were the emotions that accompanied the experiences of Jesus’s closest friends and followers on the day of his resurrection. And why not? Any one of us would feel the same. For years they had followed him, listened to his teaching, witnessed his miracles and even the glory. They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would rescue God’s people Israel from their cruel oppressors. He would be their hero, arrayed in armor for battle, leading the charge.

Only he wasn’t. And he didn’t.

Instead he surrendered without a fight. He wouldn’t put up a defense in his trial. He let them bind him, whip him, beat him, spit on him, mock him, pull out his beard, and then he carried his cross to the place where they would crucify him.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah. Maybe they’d all been conned by a smooth talker who knew just the right things to say. Maybe they were wrong and he was just a good teacher intent on reminding Israel of God’s love and mercy. Maybe…the maybes were endless. What do you do when your dreams come crashing down?

The disciples holed up in an upper room, one with a good solid lock on the door.

The women gathered their spices and went to finish the job of burying the man they had followed who treated them like no man ever had before. Like persons of worth. Like bearers of the divine image. Like God’s children, not objects, not slaves, but companions for the journey. The women rolled up their sleeves and got to work as soon as the Sabbath had ended and they set out to anoint the body before it had another day to swelter in the tomb.

When they arrived, they were met with a puzzle. The stone was rolled away. The door open and unguarded. The tomb empty. What had happened? Who had been here, where was the body, how do they now carry out their final tribute to their friend without a body? The questions multiplied by the minute. Not once did they dare to hope that they would see him alive again.

Mary took charge, running to find Peter and John. She told them what they had seen, and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John stopped at the door, but Peter being Peter ran right on in and stood in the space that had just held the body of their friend. Empty. Just the cloth binding that had wrapped his corpse lying on the shelf to show that the space had been occupied.

They returned, more questions than before. No answers. No idea of what to do next.

Mary stayed behind. Overwhelmed with grief and frustration, unable to perform this last service for her teacher, she wept. Through her tears she gazed again into the tomb and there—where minutes before there was darkness and empty space—sat two angels. I don’t know if the day could have gotten any stranger for her at this point, but they speak to her of her tears. Why is she weeping when Jesus is not dead? Who is she looking for?

She turns as she answers, as if to search for him once again, she just wants to know where his body is. And then she sees him. Thinking he is the gardener, she asks him where they have taken him. She volunteers to go and carry him back to where he belongs. He speaks her name and she knows. It’s Jesus.

Her confusion turns to joy in a moment, so great that she throws herself at his feet. Fresh tears burst forth. There is no logic in this moment, she doesn’t try to figure it all out. He is alive and that is all that matters to her. She is consumed by a joy as overpowering as her grief had been moments ago.

Jesus gave her a message and she carried it faithfully to tell the disciples that he was alive, risen from the dead.

Other Gospels tell us that they did not believe her. It was news too good to be true, the delusion of a woman lost in despair.

That night he stands among them and blesses them. “Peace” he says, imparting to them divine wholeness, healing, restoration, forgiveness for their faithlessness, all in one breath. And then he begins to speak to them of the mission he has for them. Just as the father had sent him, he now is sending them to carry his message of the kingdom, to bring hope and healing and light where darkness, brokenness, and resignation have reigned for so long.

If this were a fairytale, at this point we would say that they all lived happily ever after. But we know that is not true in this case. They did not immediately lose their questions, their doubt, their need. They did not immediately receive the peace he offered. They did not immediately understand their mission. Like us, they were human beings living real lives with real hardship. But on that day, resurrection day, their confusion was overcome by their joy.

Jesus is alive.

They walked with him, and listened to him again for a time before he ascended into heaven. And he promised them that they would not be left alone. That promise is ours as well. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in our real lives with real hardship, real questions, real doubts.

Today we celebrate the day that their confusion turned to joy, and we can join our joy with theirs because in rising from the dead, he defeated the last fear, the last stronghold. Jesus has conquered death and hell and the grave, and no matter what we experience in our earthly lives we know we do not walk alone and the victory he won is ours as well.

Jesus lives and so do we, free to live in this bodily life, free to look forward to a life that does not end, free to know that our lives can have eternal significance as we follow him.

Christ has risen, Alleluia!

 

Justice & Mercy Depend on a Humble Heart

A message given at Friends University Chapel, February 9th, 2017

I was born here in Kansas in a very small town south of Greensburg. If this were a joke, you might ask me, “How small was it?” To which I would reply that it was a town so small that I was born the New Year’s Baby on the first day of May. That is how I promptly lost my 15 minutes of fame, just hours after I was born, by being mentioned on the national news.

I grew up in a home where my parents were active in ministry. My dad was a pastor, my mother a pastor’s wife, then they transitioned to camping ministry where we spent the next 8 years living on the grounds at Camp Quaker Haven, just South of Arkansas City, Kansas. We moved to Wichita when I was in 3rd grade, and I attended Wichita public schools until I graduated from East High in 1997. (Go Blue Aces.)

I was always a really good student, and I left High School, and even college feeling like I knew a lot and had a good understanding of the world around me. I can’t tell you how much less I know now than I did when I graduated from High School 20 years ago. That isn’t anything new, I am sure lots of older people give you a hard time about not really knowing anything because you are young. We joke about it, but it really has been true for me that the more of life I experience, the more I learn that I still need to study and grow.

I started at my church 10 years ago. The first week I was serving my congregation, a man went on to hospice care and died. His funeral was 10 days after my first Sunday. I didn’t perform that funeral, thank the Lord there was a former minister who the family had already planned to come do the service. I got to wait a whole 9 months before my first funeral. I have now officiated at over 30 funerals. But that first death taught me something. I had no answers for this grieving widow who was old enough to be my grandmother. I had nothing to say, and wasn’t even sure how to pray or how to help. I went to her house and just sat on her couch saying nothing for almost an hour. I felt like a complete failure. She saw it differently. In the 10 years since, she has often remarked that she felt so loved and cared for because of that time I spent sitting in her living room.

I also serve as a birth doula, supporting laboring women encouraging them and helping them stay focused, to move, to breathe so that they can make progress toward their goal of having a great birth experience. Birth is such a fluid thing, it is different every time, there are no hard and fast rules of what to do or what will help every woman. What they really need is someone to be with them. Years of ministry, of walking with people through death and new life, I am convinced that one of the most important things we can do to support our fellow humans is simply to show up and be present for those life-changing moments. Presence is something that characterizes my approach to ministry. It is how I make a difference in the world.

How many of you want to make a difference? I don’t meet many people who are 100% satisfied with the way the world works, with the way people treat each other, with the health of our families, communities, and churches. There aren’t many rallies where people chant “Keep things the same! Keep things the same!” We all want to make a difference, and it can be so difficult to know how to make our mark, how to impact the world in a way that only we can as individuals.

As Christians, we want to impact the world for the kingdom, it is in our most basic prayer: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That prayer begins to be worked out in our hearts first. Let your will be done in me as it is in heaven.
I love the verse that has been chosen for your theme this year. Micah 6:8 was one that I learned in high school and I knew it was important. In my mind as a minister, as a follower of Jesus, as someone who wants to make a difference in the world, this verse sits alongside Deuteronomy 6:5 that instructs us to love God with all our heart, soul, and essence, the verse Jesus quotes alongside Leviticus 19:18 which says to love your neighbor as yourself. These are what Jesus used as his ruler when applying the rest of the law and prophets. Love God, love neighbor as you love yourself. The same two things are emphasized in this verse.

There are three things in Micah 6:8. We are instructed to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

I want to talk with you this morning about humility. That doesn’t sound like a very fun topic, but I believe it is critical to understand, to practice, to possess humility if we are going to make a difference in the world.

It isn’t hard to get on board with the first two parts of that verse. Who doesn’t want justice? I want justice for myself, my family, my neighbors, my enemies. As a middle child, I am often accused of having an overdeveloped sense of fairness. I want everything to be fair. If there’s a box of 12 ice cream sandwiches, it only makes sense that everyone gets 2 in my family of 5, with 2 left over that obviously go to the parents. It’s only fair.

And we all can get on board with mercy. Who doesn’t want to be forgiven when we’ve messed up? Who doesn’t want to see the sick healed, for the world to be repaired? We like mercy, it’s something we see as a positive contributor in our lives and society in general.

Humility gets a bad rap, though, because we associate it with humiliation. We think that to be humble we have to think less of ourselves. Some very smart person once said that humility is not thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less! (Rick Warren)

Humility is not a bad thing, it’s just being honest about who we are and what we bring to the table.

Humility is basically this: recognizing our strengths without pride, and our weaknesses without shame.

Wouldn’t we all like this to be our state of being? Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell people about who you are without blushing or strutting? Wouldn’t you like to be able to offer your particular gifts to the world without worrying about people thinking you are being vain? Wouldn’t you like to be able to admit you are not equipped for certain tasks without being though less of? We get to that place by practicing humility.

Humility is a necessary ingredient in self-discovery, and in building true, lasting relationships. Humility allows us to ask for help as well as lend a helping hand. We can do both without worrying what people think about us. Humility takes all our anxiety about getting it wrong or being misunderstood and throws it out the window. Because humility helps us see that everyone has weak spots. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes. When you have gaps in your skills or you take a wrong path, you are not alone. It is the very definition of being human to not be infinite, to not be perfect, to fall short. The other side is also true: Everyone has strengths and something to contribute, you, your neighbor, the least of these has something to give.

That is why we have people included in the scriptures like the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus. Jesus took his 5 dinner rolls and 2 little fish and fed 5,000. He wasn’t being proud or arrogant in offering what he had. He was just holding out the thing he possessed, with an understanding that it wasn’t enough, but he offered it anyway. When we are faced with need in the world, when we come up to a problem or a situation that needs our input, we don’t have to do everything. We just humbly give what we have and let that be combined with God’s grace and the obedience of others. We can trust God to be faithful to take what we have to give and use it for the kingdom.

There is a great children’s book by Max Lucado called Your Special Gift. It tells the story of a town of folks who have a special relationship with their creator. One morning they all wake up to find they have been given gifts. These gifts all have a function, one gets a hammer, another a pallet and set of paints, the Baker gets a spoon, the Florist a beautiful vase, you get the picture. Later that day, a family limps into town, their wagon broken, their spirits low. They had an accident while on the road to meet the creator. Everyone in town gets to work to help them, but they all just do the first thing they see. The mayor’s wife tries to cook the family a meal, the Baker tries to fix the wagon wheel, someone brings clothes that don’t fit. It’s a disaster. Everyone is yelling, nothing is working, the food is burnt and cold. Then they all start again, each one using their gift to help. The tailor uses his needle and thread, the artists paint the wagon, the Mayor’s wife tells the children a story, the Baker brings them food, and the guy with the hammer fixes the wheel.

The story comes to it’s peak with these words spoken by the creator: “Just do the most what you do the best.”

So much of our ability to make a difference hinges on our ability to know what our unique part is. Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ. It is one of his most used analogies for what it means to work together. He says that we can’t expect everyone to be exactly the same or serve in the same way. We are all different and have different roles to play, jobs to do if the body is going to function. How are we going to know what our role is if we can’t look objectively at our strengths and weaknesses? If we want to make a difference, and we want to be able to do that well, we need to start practicing humility so that we know where we fit!

Humility is a pre-requisite for both Justice and Mercy.

Without humility, our attempts at Justice and Mercy turn into well-intentioned ego boosters. We find ourselves engaging in justice and mercy because it makes us feel superior. It stokes our pride.

When we try to practice Justice without humility. We can find ourselves walking into a situation where things are out of balance, and we instantly become Judge, Jury, and Executioner. Without humility, we have no empathy or compassion. We are instantly above it all. It is up to us to solve the problem, without asking for help, without asking those in the situation what needs to happen.

When I talk about this, trust me I have experience. I have been a parent for 13 years. I am currently parenting a teen, a tween, and a preschooler. You can’t know how many times I have walked into a room where things were happening and immediately brought the hammer down! Without asking questions, I assessed the situation, I knew who the culprit was, I knew what they had done and how much time they would do as a result. And you don’t know how many times I have been dead wrong. It happens to the best of us. Maybe you don’t have kids, maybe you won’t ever have kids. That is great. But you may still find yourself in a situation like this where you have authority and need to use it wisely.

Humility is what allows us to practice the Servant Leadership that Jesus calls us to when we are in positions of privilege or authority. Jesus said “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

If you want to make a difference, it means setting aside making a name for yourself.
Paul tells the church to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, seeking the good of others over our own. He says, Look not to your own interests, but instead to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4

We need to serve others, but we need to make sure we aren’t doing it for ourselves. We have to be careful not to swoop into the room as the Rescuer! Acting in the role of rescuer puts all the focus on us and how we will save all those poor, poor people who can’t save themselves. When it is about us being rescuers, we totally pass right over the resources of people who we label “victim.” I have a very good friend, Sue, who told me a story a couple of weeks ago. She was at the post office and there was a man in a wheelchair who needed some help with his stamps. She took them and peeled them off their backing, placing one edge of the stamp on each of the envelopes, leaving the rest of the stamp for the man to stick down on his own. She recognized that he had the ability to smooth down the stamps and only needed help getting them in position. The man was tearful with gratitude that she recognized his ability and allowed him the dignity of doing what he was able.

If I were in her shoes that day, I would probably have stuck the stamps down and maybe even put them in the mail slot. It would not have occurred to me to leave him a job to do. Sue has an advantage over me, in this regard. She raised an autistic son, and works in advocacy for autism awareness and support for parents of special needs children. Sue helped me see that our good intentions don’t save us from making people feel like we don’t value them.

Humility empowers others.

One way to avoid making a complete wreck out of a messy situation is to take a step back and ask some questions.

Humility is required to listen, to learn, to see through the eyes of another. If we want to take real action that leads to justice, and improves the lives of others we need to take inventory. What do we really know about the situation? What do we still need to learn? What are our strengths? What is beyond our ability? What is missing?

We need to talk to those we are seeking to empower. What are their strengths? What do they bring to the table? Where do they need help? One big clue is: Where are they asking for help? Too often, we walk in with a solution in hand and never bother to ask those we are trying to help about their ideas for solutions. If we will do this simple thing of taking inventory then we can begin to piece together a picture of how our strengths might overlap with their areas of need. Then we can understand how we can work together and encourage or empower them to use their own resources. It takes humility to empower, cooperate and not simply rescue.

Robert Lupton wrote a book called Toxic Charity, in it he takes apart our typical Western Christian approach to helping those who are in need. He talks about why we often rescue instead of building relationships. First of all it is easier to swoop in with a solution and swoop out again. Second it makes us feel good about ourselves. The one we help is often left with no long-term plan to maintain what we’ve just brought into their life, and are left holding the bag when whatever help we have given runs out. Relationships have to supersede our instinct to rescue. It may require more of an investment on our part and it will take more time, but it will also produce more and better fruit in the long run.

Humility recognizes that our resources have limits, we have our own weak spots.
Do you remember Jesus’s story about the man who was concerned about his neighbor? She had this problem, there was a speck in her eye. The man was so worried about her, about how the speck was affecting her family, her church, her community involvement. He worried about it night and day, until he decided to go help her. He took over a first aid kit with antibiotic drops and tweezers, surgical gloves, the works. When he rang her doorbell and told her his plan, she slammed the door in his face. He had a bigger problem, he had a tree branch stuck in his eye.

We all have areas of our lives where things are not right. We need to seek healing for ourselves before we can truly help others. When we discover areas where we need to seek justice or empowerment for ourselves. Just like before we need to inventory our strengths. What can I do about my situation? We need to look around and see who is near me that I can recruit to help? Have you ever been in a situation where you needed help and you were too afraid to ask for it? Why was that? Why are we so scared of admitting we are not perfect? Usually it is because we don’t want people to think poorly of us. It takes humility to admit we have a need and ask for help!

Without humility, it’s all about us. It’s all about ego. It’s all about pride.

Humility is the bedrock of mercy.

When we talk about mercy, I don’t know if we have a good understanding of what it means. In some cases, mercy refers to a person in a position of power not punishing a person who deserves it. In other contexts, mercy refers to binding up the wounds of the injured and tending to the sick. The definition really encompasses both of those meanings when we use our position and strengths to help others regardless of the reason they are suffering.

Many times when we think about mercy, we immediately associate it with forgiving those who have wronged us. When we have been hurt by someone, it is so easy to shut down the relationship or to become martyrs to try to save it. Neither one is healthy. We need humility to see the situation as it is. Humility helps us recognize our part in conflict, and to recognize what is not our part. If we can’t distinguish between what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for, we can find ourselves taking on way too much or way too little of the blame.

It takes humility not to hate. When someone has wronged us, it is so easy to write them off and never talk to them again. But cutting someone off does not heal our hearts. Forgiveness recognizes that what they did was hurtful and wrong, but by forgiving, we decide not to make them pay for it. Sometimes we do have to put distance between the other person and ourselves, especially if there is a pattern of abusive behavior. We can still choose to forgive, but we also choose not to put ourselves in a place of being repeatedly abused. We can’t fix other people. It takes humility not to enable.

Humility is also required to seek forgiveness and mercy for ourselves as well. We have to step back and recognize that we didn’t handle that conversation, that interaction well. We need to apologize and ask forgiveness of the one we wronged. It is easy to come up with a list of things that other person did to provoke us, but as I tell my kids, just because they were in the wrong does not give you the right to join them.

Mercy toward the hurting requires humility in order to be healing.

Practicing mercy without humility can turn us into the martyr. Martyrdom looks really good from some angles. It looks really selfless, but reality sets in when we find ourselves talking about how much we’ve given up, how many sleepless nights we’ve spent tending to the needs of others. We may even brag about how we have worn ourselves thin and what we’ve sacrificed. When we do this we guilt everyone around us for asking for help. We guilt others over their sacrificial service that is less-than-ours.

Working in the church, I see this happen, and what it breeds is bitterness, resentment, and a sense of entitlement. This last one is really dangerous, because it leads to well-intentioned people making really bad decisions on how they will spend church money, how they will use church resources, and what vices they will indulge in because they have worked so hard, been so unappreciated, and they deserve a break. Service that should be done out of love becomes a score board where everything we do is measured against everybody else’s service, and whether we get enough recognition and applause.

These score boards show up in other ways when we try to practice mercy without humility. We find ourselves broadcasting our good deeds. Jesus talked about it by referring to men who would literally throw a parade with trumpets to announce when they were bringing their offering to the temple. Humility means not tweeting out that you are being generous. No Facebook posts or Instagram pics of our awesome service. Let’s face it, our service may not be much, but we will make sure everyone knows about that $5 we gave to the hungry or the hour we spent at the soup kitchen.
Once again, it becomes all about us, all about ego, all about pride. We need humility so that our service can be genuine, out of love, out of concern for the needs of others and not our own reputation.

When people are hurting around us, we desperately need to be humble. Have you ever been suffering and had someone say something that was just so insensitive? Don’t be that person! I can tell you from personal experience that when you are hurting it is better for others to say nothing than the wrong thing. I’ve experienced pregnancy loss three times. People say things like “God needed another little angel in heaven.” Or they say “If the baby would have lived, it would have had disabilities.” None of those thoughts are helpful. It takes humility to say, “I have no idea what you might be feeling.” Or “I have no idea what you need right now, but I want to be here for you.” We need humility not to be trite or patronizing.

When we say these things, it is usually because we feel awkward and we’ve heard someone else say something similar. But patting people on the head and telling them everything’s going to be alright doesn’t make anyone feel better, except maybe ourselves. It is so much better to simply sit and say nothing. Just be there. It’s not about whether you have something brilliant to say that will make their pain better. It’s about your presence.

Humility is not a matter of putting yourself down. It is a matter of seeing yourself with the eyes of truth. Humility gives us the ability to practice radical honesty about who we are, about where we fall short, about where we excel. In every job interview you ever attend, you will be asked two questions: What strengths do you have? What weaknesses do you have? If for no other reason than this, you need to learn to look at yourself with some level of objectivity.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
― Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

If you are going to make a difference in the world you need to know who you are. You need to have a radically honest conversation with God, with those close to you about your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t do everything. No one can do everything. But you have something that you do well. What do you have to offer the world? When you answer this question, you can raise your hand to volunteer with confidence. You can say no to things that do not fit with your skills and talents with grace instead of excuses. You can take your unique talents and by playing the part designed just for you, you might just change the world.

When Justice Rolls Down, Don’t Get Swept Away

An address given at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration
January 16, 2017

Amos 5:24 “But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the world I am often discouraged. It doesn’t take much, if our eyes are open, if our hearts are tender, for us to see the trouble around us. When we watch the news, when we talk with people and hear their stories, we see injustice, oppression and evil. Everywhere we look, there are those with power lording it over the weak. People in authority abusing their positions, and the world applauds or turns away to walk on by. If we are people of compassion, this is troubling.

And I believe it is troubling to God, too. I say this because from beginning to end, we hear God’s prophets speak out on behalf of the oppressed, the powerless, the marginalized of society. Isaiah tells God’s people to stop their noisy pretense of worship and do the right thing. Micah tells God’s people that God’s requirements are simple: justice, mercy, humility. Jesus tells us God has a special relationship to the poor, the grieving, the empty, and the weak. James tells us that true religion is caring for the orphan and widow and holding the world at arm’s length. Revelation invites all who are thirsty to come. God cares about justice.

When our hearts cry out at the brokenness around us, you can be assured that we stand in agreement with the God of the universe, and we can know that we are not alone.

We are not the first people to look around and see that the world’s systems are broken. Tonight we celebrate and honor a man who stood not long ago crying out for justice. Before him marched men and women who called for release from oppression. We’ve been fighting for justice for a long time.

In tonight’s Old Testament reading, Amos the prophet spoke these words that are so familiar to our movements for justice. He says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

This is our cry for justice. This has been a freedom cry, a battle cry against oppression. We cry out for justice with these words, but did you know that this verse comes in a passage not about foreign oppression of Israel? They are not in the context of deliverance. No, they comes in a passage outlining how the nation God established has itself become an oppressor. The people were calling out for justice, but it was their justice, justice for themselves but not justice for all. This passage details God’s disappointment with God’s people. It is a lament, and a call to repentance. A call to turn from their own ways and to walk in the ways of God.

Tonight, my friends, we need to hear that call for repentance, as well. Repentance simply means a change of mind and heart, a turning from one path to another, to go a different way. All it takes is a glance at the situation where we find ourselves in the world to know that we need to walk in a different way! We need to turn away from oppression and toward justice. We need to turn away from injustice and towards the peace of God. We must turn away from our own solutions that have become idols to the power of God for deliverance.

We have a problem. We have lots of problems, but we have one big problem, one big failure that needs to be laid aside. It is not a new problem, this isn’t a 21st century problem, it’s a human problem. It is as old as Cain and Abel. It is an “us” and “them” problem. We see humanity divided into those who are righteous, like us, and those who are sinners, like them. We can also say we are divided into those who are oppressors, like them, and those who have suffered oppression, like us. This division kills compassion, it kills empathy, and mercy. It divides us and disables us. It leaves us all looking after our own self-interest and forsaking the interests of others.

We want things to be different! We try all kinds of ways to bring about change, we fight wars, we launch campaigns, we protest and lobby. We even lobby for God to get involved. For us, for our rights, for our own sense of righteousness.

We pray for deliverance from oppression, and this is good, but if we stop there, we fall short. What I want to know is do we also pray for deliverance for the oppressor?

Dr. King recognized that the one who oppresses us is also a child of God. They also stand in need of mercy, grace, love, and peace. Through their acts of oppression, they oppress themselves as well. Oppressors need to experience repentance, deliverance, and freedom from their own brand of evil that eats away at their very souls.

That is why Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. He does not say to pray that God would smite them because he knows they are smiting themselves by their own hand. Jesus does not tell us merely to pray for the persecutor, for the oppressor, but to love them. To love our enemies, Jesus says, is to reflect the very nature of God in heaven who sends rain on the just and unjust and the sun to shine on the good person and the evil person alike. Jesus does not pray for God to strike his enemies down, he prays for grace.

Dr. King echoes this call for forgiveness, compassion, and recognition of our shared humanity with those who are oppressors. In his work that we have heard from tonight “Love in Action,” we hear his words commending Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Dr. King tells us that Jesus had other choices!

…he could have said, “Father, get even with them” Then he could have said, “Father let loose the mighty thunder- bolts of righteous wrath and destroy them in their tracks.”  Then he could have said, “Father open the flood gates of justice and let the staggering avalanche of retribution pour upon them.” But this was not his response Though subjected to inexpressible agony, though suffering excruciating pain, though despised and rejected, nevertheless, He cries, “Father forgive them.”

Dr. King compels us to see that the injustice towards Christ, the very sinless Son of God, results not in a cry for revenge, but a cry for mercy. Jesus prays for their restoration. He prays for them to be forgiven and returned to a right relationship with their creator. Our nature cries out for revenge, but Christ presents another way, a path of forgiveness and wholeness and truth. The path seems impossibly hard for us! Jesus does not expect us to walk alone, it is a trail that he himself has forged before us, marking the way to peace. Jesus went first, so that we could walk in his footsteps.

I will ask it again, when we pray for deliverance from oppression, do we also pray for deliverance for the oppressor?

This is an important question to ask, not only out of concern for our fellow flawed human beings but for ourselves because:

What if we are participating in the oppression of others?

When we pray for an end to injustice, we must be careful that we are not heaping judgment upon our own heads. The prophet Amos says, “Why are you looking forward to the day of the Lord?” God’s people wanted justice, they wanted the day of the Lord to come so that there would be an end to oppression. But Amos the Prophet tells them they should not pray for it to come quickly because they are also in danger of judgment!

It is all too easy to walk through life blind to the ways in which we ourselves participate in the problems of injustice. Remember that Jesus said, “They know not what they do.” If those men had known that they were driving nails into the hands that shaped the universe, would they have continued? Or would they have fallen on their faces? Would they have cried out for mercy in anguished repentance?

Dr. King tells us:
“We must continue to see the Cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness  But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that Cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did.”

My friends, tonight, I am afraid that if we called for a flood of justice and righteousness, we would ourselves be swept away. How often have we participated in oppression, and systemic injustice blindly? Sometimes that blindness comes from our culture and our media and our politics. We are blinded by rhetoric and celebrity opinion. Many times we have acted in blindness and with good intentions. Dr King says again, “Sincerity and conscientiousness are not enough History has proven that these noble virtues can be relegated to tragic vices There is nothing more dangerous in all the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Maybe more tragic for us than well-intentioned ignorance is that sometimes we choose blindness. We feel justified by our position and our privilege. We believe that our perspective on the world, our good intentions, and our opinions are the only ones that matter. We shut out the views and experiences of others, we refuse to listen. We stubbornly blot out any hint of imbalance or inequality in the experiences of others. We are so convinced that our experience of the world is the right one that when privilege is removed, it feels like we are being oppressed. Remove advantage given to us based on our religion, based on our race, based on our class, and the leveling of the playing field causes us to feel suddenly off-balance. We have walked crooked for so long, when we stand up-right the world itself seems slanted.

Sadly, at other times we face the temptation to participate in injustice justified by our own experience of oppression. “I was oppressed, now I will show them what it feels like to walk with a boot on their neck.” We refuse to forgive. We refuse to follow in the way of mercy. We want more than justice. We are looking for vengeance.

Dr. King has something to say about this:
“Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law He knew that the old eye for an eye philosophy would end up leaving everybody blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with a radical love. What a magnificent lesson. Generations will continue to rise and fall, men will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the alter of retaliation, but ever and again this noble lesson from Calvary will come as a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil, and only love can conquer hate.”

How can we call for justice to roll down like the mighty waters if we are the ones perpetuating injustice? We must ask for the light of truth to illuminate not only the darkness of our enemies, but our own darkness as well. We must cry out to God both:

Forgive them for they know not what they do…& LORD, forgive us for we know not what we do.

Those we view as oppressors need forgiveness for the ways in which they rend both their own souls and the lives of their victims. They need mercy for the brokenness brought about by ignorance to the reality in which they live. The oppressor does not need to be repressed, the oppressor needs to be regenerated. They need to be redeemed, they need to be renewed in the image of their creator. And so do we.

The truth is that we need freedom, and so do they. Let us not forget that Dr. King so eloquently said, “No one is free until we are all free.”

You and I, friends, we all need the same things. We all need the grace of God that forgives us when we know not what we do. We all desperately need the mercy of Christ who will open our eyes to injustice, not only at the hands of our society, the hands of those in power, but injustice wrought by our own hands in our own families, in our own schools, in our own churches, in our own towns and cities, and in our own hearts.

If we would pray: Forgive them for they know not what they do…LORD, forgive us for we know not what we do, that would make a good start because:

Justice begins with repentance.

 I want to share a story with you to illustrate my point. It goes like this:

There was a man who had a problem. You see this man had a neighbor with a speck in her eye. This speck bothered that man and he was troubled day and night over the inability for that woman to see clearly. He was worried about her family. He was worried about her kids. He was worried about her workplace. He was worried about how this speck, this impediment to her vision would affect her community involvement, her church attendance, her giving to the poor. He was so worried about it that one day—he was determined to help her, you understand—one day he walked over to her house with a first-aid kit. He had tweezers and antibiotic drops and gauze bandages. He was going to help her with her speck, but she would not let him in the door. You see, he had a bigger problem of his own. There was a tree branch stuck in his eye.

Maybe it will be more familiar this way:

Jesus said “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5

Justice begins with repentance. It begins with our own repentance. It begins with a recognition that we are all God’s children. That we have all gone astray, each one to their own way. We all need to have our sin-wounds bandaged. We all need to have our feet set on paths of righteousness for God’s name sake and for the sake of our souls. We must have our understanding broadened to see the ways in which we have participated in oppression. We must acknowledge that we have not loved our enemies, we have not prayed for our persecutors, we have not sought God’s peace, but instead we have walked in our own way. We call for justice, but chase vengeance. We call for freedom, while putting others in chains. We call for the healing of our nation and our world, and we think we will get there if we can only convince that “other person” to let us take the speck out of their eye.

Friends, I stand before you and admit, I am guilty. I will confess with the Apostle Paul that I have not already attained all this, nor have I already been made perfect. I do not stand above you as one who is free from this trap. I find myself making an idol of my own causes and methods and heroes and programs. Likewise, I find myself making demons of those who stand opposed. I need to repent, to turn away from my path to the pathway of God that leads to true peace. I want a peace that is not just an absence of conflict, but a peace that restores. I need this peace.

We all need this peace of God that begins at the root of who we are, a healing and a wholeness that leaks out, pouring forth into the lives of others, flowing over the land and filling the whole earth. If we want an end to injustice, we must seek this peace and pursue it in our lives and communities, increasing the health of our bodies and the justice in our society. We can only find this peace in a person, the Prince of Peace himself, the embodiment of the Divine who showed us how to walk in peace regardless of the absence of peace in the world around us.

This is how I want to see God’s justice roll down, not in a wave of destruction, but as a well of living water bubbling up from within to bring healing to nations, starting right here. It can start right now, in our hearts, in our homes and our churches and our community!

Our nation may be like God’s people of old, a people freed from tyranny turning that tyranny on others. But there is hope. There is hope in each one who will turn away from injustice and cry out for mercy. There is hope every time two or three gather to pray for release for the oppressed and restoration of the oppressor. There is hope when we recognize our common humanity and humbly seek restoration in ourselves as well as the world around us.

Then, and only then, we can pray for God’s justice to roll down like a mighty water, then we can call forth righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and we can be confident in that day that we are already moving in the flow of those waters, and we will have no fear of being swept away.

 

 

Christmas Pondering

Luke 2:19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

When was the last time you did any pondering? With the way everything moves so quickly, it is hard to find time to ponder anymore. Social media makes it easy to be emotionally moved by love/anger/fear/sadness/empathy one moment and laugh at silly cats talking about cheeseburgers the next. How is it that we can shift gears so quickly? The emotion barely has time to set in before we are scrolling on to the next thing. As disturbing as this might seem, the information we are reading and the stories we are moved by mostly have to do with the lives and experiences of other people, sometimes people we’ve never met who live on the other side of the globe. It is easier to keep them at arm’s length and only allow them to touch our emotions on the surface. Still it is troubling that we interact with so many deep needs with so little thought. Possibly more troubling is the thought that we could be losing the art of thinking and feeling deeply about things in our own lives.

It might just be me, but when things get busy, during the holidays or toward the middle of each school year, I function with very little deep thought from day to day. I follow the commands of my calendar, moving from one appointment and event to the next without any time to process what I have just experienced. Like scrolling through Facebook, I can find myself keeping the story of my own life at arm’s length and the events of my day from drawing any deep thought.

With all that was happening in her life, the announcement of the angel, the trip to see her cousin Elizabeth, the return and Joseph coming to take her to his home, the journey to Bethlehem for the census, Mary took time to ponder. Perhaps in the stillness of a baby sleeping after the shepherds had left in the early morning hours. Maybe in the days to come as she experienced first-hand feeding a baby from her body, sleeping 45 minutes at a time, changing for-real clothe diapers. Definitely as they met Anna and Simeon in the temple after the time of purification to dedicate little Jesus as a firstborn son. She actively stored up these experiences and pondered them in her heart.

When we ponder, we establish memories. The stories we tell ourselves and others about the events in our lives are the ones we keep for years to come. Moments that we pass over without a thought are gone forever, but those we choose to reflect upon are treasures that last.

What is happening in your life right now that could use some mulling over? What treasures are you brushing off for more pressing demands of work, or the louder demand from the buzz of your phone? For those of us who don’t check our phones that much, maybe it’s using the radio or TV to drown out the silence. A little of that is ok, but if we find ourselves simply filling space with meaningless activity then we need to reevaluate. With all of this filler, we forget to feed our souls.

By contrast, when we remind ourselves of God at work in our lives, when we turn our hearts to gratitude for all we have and all God has done for us, when we take time to ponder, we find the deep joy God offers to us in himself.

Scientific studies have recently shown that what we ponder makes a difference in the ways our brains function, carving neural pathways so that the thoughts we think a lot, we continue to think a lot.  Like driving home and forgetting how you got there, our mind follows pathways that are familiar without our direction. It works with gratitude, being thankful as a practice makes it easier to see things to be thankful for and reinforce the gratitude. The same is true if we think about what God has done for us and is doing in our lives. Wouldn’t it be great to have gratitude and joy as our autopilot response? When we tune our minds to perceive God at work and find even more to ponder.

God gives us a lot to think about. We can start with what he did for people in ages past, recorded in the Bible. What he has done for all of humanity and the world in coming in the flesh to walk among us in the person of Jesus. Redemption. Grace. Mercy. Love. We can move on to how this plays out in our daily lives specifically. His giving us family and friends. The job that feeds us. The children that fill our homes with cheerful noise. The animals and pets that provide such loving companionship. The friends close by whose care and concern for us shines bright. The warmth of love transmitted from loved ones who are far away in cards, pictures and letters. A bird outside our window. The sun shining, the breeze blowing, the glint of light off of the snow, the break in the clouds. All can be reminders of God’s love and care.

God has done such great things for us, let us not set aside his blessings for fleeting pleasures, busy schedules and mindless lives. Let’s take time to ponder, and in that act of pondering store up treasures of memories and grace.

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

 

Fundamentals—How Now Shall I Live?

 

We’ve been asking the question for millennia.

How do I live my life? What is the guiding principle behind the decisions I make?

Facebook Responses How do I live

We struggle, even those who have considered carefully how we should live. We don’t always know how to apply the moral and ethical ideals that drive us. We are not always going to get it right, but we are called to walk in love, to seek the good of others, to serve them and seek to honor them.

Humility is Key

In the book of the prophet Micah, the question is asked how do I approach God to please him?

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings…Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil…?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:6-8

God is not interested in our appeasement or sacrifices. God desires that we walk in humility and love each other.

This is a problem for me, because I love to be right. There is nothing I want more than to always be right about everything in every conversation and every argument, and make every right choice. Always.

Except I am not, and neither are you. We can be assured that on some points, we will get it wrong. From time to time we will each believe and say and do wrong things. There are no exceptions, which is why it is so important to walk in humility and grace that sets us free.

Liberty.
Christian liberty is to be granted in all areas not essential to one’s final salvation. Due to human imperfection there are differences of faith and practice among God’s children, but they anticipate a time of greater unity in the faith. Until that time there must be unity in essentials but liberty in non-essentials, with love in all things.
EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice

Giving up power & position

Humility is a daily attitude recognizing that our status is not the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if I have an impressive title or great reputation if all I do is serve my own self interest. We are called to follow God’s example of using our gifts, talents, and resources to serve others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…
Philippians 2:5-7

Choosing to love

Our humility, our service, our lives are empty if we do not act in love. Love is not a fuzzy feeling or something that drifts with our moods. Love is a desire and determination to seek the good of the loved one. Love means choosing to do good for someone even if you disagree.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children  and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

God calls us to join in the work of reconciliation, to join in actively seeking the good of our neighbor along with ourselves and our world. It begins with humility and it looks like love.

 

 

 

 

 

Fundamentals—Church

We all have different thoughts, images, and impressions surrounding the Church. For some those are precious memories of a family supporting us in our difficulties and rejoicing in our victories. For others, and probably far too many, Church evokes a sense of dread, betrayal, and pain.

Let’s face it, we have some really high highlights–disaster relief, establishing centers for healthcare and education, works of mercy wherever the Church has ventured. We also have really low lowlights–the Crusades, persecution of Jews in Europe, the Inquisition, persecution of other Christians with whom we disagree, sanctioning the oppression of many indigenous peoples through colonialism, and more.

We have to recognize our mixed heritage so that we can live today with humility in seeking to answer the questions, “What is the church supposed to look like? What is our purpose? What does it look like when we get it right?”

Our regional Faith and Practice says this about the Church.

The Church.
Those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior are born again into His kingdom by His Spirit. These persons make up the true Church of Jesus Christ which is spiritual in nature and universal in scope. By His Spirit, Christ is present whenever two or three meet together in His name. Such a meeting is a local church which is a visible manifestation of the Church universal. Every believer should be related to a local visible part of Christ’s universal Body in order to worship, witness, and work more effectively for the glory of God. Every believer is committed to be involved in the stewardship of God’s Kingdom through the Church until the Lord returns.

In Friends tradition, the Church is made up of every believer.

That means our Methodist friends, Baptist friends, Presbyterian friends, Catholic friends, Orthodox friends, our Pentecostal and Charismatic friends, too. All believers, regardless of which denomination, whatever name they go by or group they worship with, all are part of Christ’s Church. That means we all have a shared burden over our past failures, and we all have a shared victory in the ways the Church is bringing light into dark places and healing where there is hurt.

The apostle Paul has a lot to say about the Church, what it should look like, and how it should work together. He wrote consistently about the church being a unit made up of different parts with different gifts and functions. You can read all about it in I Corinthians chapter 12 & and the foundation of that cooperation in chapter 13. I want to narrow the focus, though, to the purpose of the Church. Paul talks mentions it in part of a prayer in Ephesians 3.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:17-21

Our number one purpose as the Church is to glorify God.

Glorify is a word we use a lot and study very little. Its definitions include the act of worship, as well as “to light up brilliantly” and “reveal or make clearer the glory of God by one’s actions.” Glorifying God means living and acting in such a way that we shine a spotlight on God’s goodness, mercy, righteousness, and love.

Paul calls us God’s ambassadors. Ambassadors do everything in their power to represent their nation and its leaders well. They aim to showcase the values of their culture and bring about better understanding between the people they represent and those with whom they live.

We glorify God through worship that looks like service.

Worship is more than a time set aside each week where we get together, sing, preach and testify to God’s goodness. This is great, but we can lose sight of the obvious, the people we meet with are our fellow ambassadors. The ambassador’s main function is outside their cultural bubble.

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people. Galatians 6:10a

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Colossians 4:5-6

Yes, we need to serve and minister to the needs of those are within the Church, but we absolutely must serve and love those who are not.

Love God, Love Others

Jesus famously gave a brilliant answer to those asking which part of the Torah was his guiding principle. He said the entire Law and Prophets hang on two commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. If this is Jesus’ central command, it ought to be the guiding principle for all believers in their everyday life, but even more so the bedrock foundation of the actions of the Church.

Glorify God, Serve the World

Living on that foundation of love allows us to bear witness with our lives to the Good News. What is Good News? That God created us, loves us, reaches out to us, wants to restore our lives, relationships, and all of creation. Our job is to live so in step with the Spirit that we can give an answer to why we follow Jesus, what walking in faith has produced in our lives, and do so in a gentle and gracious manner.