Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

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In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

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Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family

Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

I try to have my sermons finished by Thursday afternoon before being preached on Sunday. This allows me to truly experience Sabbath on Fridays and forces me to think about the scripture throughout the beginning part of the week rather than procrastinating until the end. But every once in awhile, something will take place during the week that necessitates a sermonic change.

Last Friday morning I woke up, read over the sermon one last time and it just didn’t feel right. With everybody online going crazy about the executive order for religious liberty and the House voting on a bill that would repeal and replace most parts of the Affordable Care Act, I felt like God was calling me to trash what I had written and start over. So I did (You can read that sermon here: “The Politics of the Church.“)

But I had already written an entire sermon and crafted a whole worship service around a central theme! So I asked the congregation to pray for me as I offered the new sermon, written later than usual, outside the normal connections through our whole service. And, because I wrote two sermons last week, I have included the sermon that wasn’t preached below…

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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“Pass the wine.” The party was getting on into the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was having a great time. The food was good and plentiful. The wine flowed profusely. The stories kept bubbling forth. “Remember that time we walked into town and everybody just kept staring at us, waiting for something to happen?” “Or what about the day we ate by the beach and talked about the future.” “I’ll never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when we walked out of town that one time and wiped the dirt of our feet.”

It was a great party.

There’s something about the stories and the food and the wine that help blind us from the reality of what is to come. On Thanksgiving we fill our bellies in denial of all the money we are about to spend during the Christmas season. On New Years Eve we clink the champagne in ignorance of all the mistakes we made and we believe that this year will finally be the one we get it all right. On Easter we tell stories about the resurrection in hopes that hope will not fade in the weeks that follow, but the normalcy of life slips in and our hallelujahs don’t have quite the force they did a few weeks ago.

But what did the host think during the party? While the friends were passing around the bottle and giggling with memories of the last few years, what was going through his mind? Was he buzzed with the joy of his compatriots as he walked around the table filling their glasses? Was he nostalgic about all they had been through and in denial of what was going to happen in just a few hours?

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is forever quoting and referring to the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. The psalms, it seems, are his prayers. They are familiar and well known and comforting. But while he sat at the table that night, that last night, when he told them the bread was his body and the wine his blood, I wonder if he thought about the 23rd psalm when he looked across the table and into the eyes of his friend Judas: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy preaching on well-known texts. Give me some obscure passage from Zephaniah or Joel and I will get up here and proclaim it with everything that I’ve got. In fact, I rather enjoy preaching on the passages we don’t know because we can all come to the text with a fresh perspective. But when we read a passage that everyone knows, a passage that we’ve all heard more times than we can count, the challenge becomes that much greater.

Like John 3.16 – For God so loved the world… As soon as the words hit the air most of us immediately wander in our minds to black tape under the eyes of sport figures, scratched notations in bathroom stalls, and college evangelists trying to save souls. And because of this we forget that John 3.16 is part of a much bigger story of Jesus meeting in the late hours with Nicodemus.

Instead, I could randomly flip open the bible, pick any verse, and I think we would receive it better than the well-known texts because we would not bring any of our own baggage to God’s Word.

But today we’ve got one of the most well known, perhaps the most well known passage in all of scripture: Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And already most of you have tuned out whatever I’m about to say. Because the moment we hear these remarkably familiar words, our minds jump back in time to memories of this passage. We start thinking about the last time we read the passage out-loud at a funeral. We remember sitting down on our Grandmother’s lap and hearing her repeat the words without looking in her bible. We are transported back to our childhood Sunday school classrooms where many of us were forced to repeat the psalm, out loud, from memory, in front of our peers.

Perhaps for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of joyfulness and peace. We think about the green pastures and the still waters and whatever stress we’ve got going on in our lives starts to fade away.

And maybe for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of strange and bizarre reflection. The green pastures and still waters are nice, but why in the world is God preparing tables for us in the presence of our enemies? Our cups are overflowing with many blessings, but why can’t we dwell with the Lord forever, and not just while we’re living?

It is remarkably difficult to approach this text with open eyes because it already means so much to so many of us.

But what did it mean to Jesus?

That night before he gave himself up, the evening of the Last Supper, did he think about the table being prepared before him with an enemy? Did he still believe that his cup overflowed with grace and peace and mercy even though one of his closest disciples was about to betray him for a couple pieces of silver?

In the midst of stress, fear, and anxiety the psalmist offers a strange alternative: the refreshing peace found in the Good Shepherd.

But is the Lord really a good shepherd? Yeah, God will set us down in the green pastures, and will lead us beside the still waters; whatever that means. God takes us down the right paths for his name’s sake, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have the kind of faith such that I could walk through a place or a time in my life described as the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. I get afraid every time I get a phone call from an older member of the church on their way to the hospital, every time I hear my son fall to the ground with a loud thud, and even when I’m hear at night in the sanctuary and all the lights are off.

And the rod and the staff? Those aren’t meant to be tools of comfort like a quilt or a duvet. Rods and staffs are meant to wring us and knock us back on to the right track when we’ve gone astray. And where does God eventually lead us? To a table prepared just for us in the presence of our enemies.

We love this psalm, we pray it and read it and hear it all the time. But sometimes, God sounds more like a bad shepherd than a good one.

Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t think about what it really says, or even what it might’ve meant to the one we call the Good Shepherd.

I want to have the faith of the psalmist, I want to be able to look at the darkest valley, and the rod and the staff, and the table filled with my enemies with hope and joy. But this psalm isn’t really about me or us, nor is it about what we think of the Shepherd. It’s a psalm about who God is, and what God does for us, his sheep.

God’s protective power, God’s immense grace, is so great, so unimaginable, that God has the audacity to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. A good shepherd would prepare the table in the presence of our friends and our families; not with the people who want to destroy us. God’s table, provided for us, is not the table we would choose for ourselves. Like a middle school cafeteria, we would rather sit with the people we like than with the bullies eyeing us from across the room.

We read in the psalm that God transforms every situation. But we take that to mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. A good shepherd, we think, would protect us from every type of evil. But no, our bad shepherd says there will be deathly valleys and enemies galore; the difference is that our shepherd has done something that prevents them from destroying us.

We will absolutely experience hardships, and fear, and stress, but the bad shepherd is with us in the midst of them.

Our shepherd is only a bad shepherd in that we think we know what God should do for us. We abstract this psalm from the reality to which it speaks and make it out to be some kind of shield to protect us from everything in life. What makes our bad shepherd a good shepherd is that our shepherd will never abandon us.

Being a disciple is a way of life that we cannot know outside of being converted to it. For taking up our cross to follow Jesus changes every little thing about the way we live. It means that even though we talk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil because Jesus has defeated the very death that casts a shadow in our lives. We cannot live without that fear unless we’ve been converted to a way of life that constitutes knowledge of the bad shepherd who takes care of us.

Sitting down with the very people who hate us is not something we could do without being converted to it. All of us, sinners that we are, would choose the other table. But God in Christ chose to sit down at the table where his betrayer sat, offered him the same bread and cup that we are offered here in church knowing full and well what he was about to do.

Being a Christian is possible only through the grace of God empowering us to follow His Son on the way. We cannot do it on our own accord, and it cannot take place without a radical restructuring of what we know and what we believe. We cannot follow Jesus without sitting at the table, elbow to elbow, with the people who would rather betray us.

And, again, that makes God sound like a pretty bad shepherd. What kind of God would willfully send a child to the table with bullies? What kind of God would use a rod to knock us back into line? What kind of God would ignore the rest of the guests to make sure our cup was overflowing at all times in the middle of a party?

The very same one who was willing to take on our flesh in the incarnation. Our ­bad shepherd really is the good shepherd because Jesus came to live and to die and to live again for the sheep. Christ is the one who makes possible the goodness and mercy that follows us all the days of our lives such that we can sit at the table with hope, because Christ did the same thing for us. Amen.

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Devotional – Luke 17.5

Devotional:

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

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4 years ago I received the phone call about being appointed to St. John’s. And over the last 4 years I learned what it really means to love God through the people of St. John’s. Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes, through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, bible study, and Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and church picnic.

St. John’s UMC has increased my faith.

While here I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through the faithfulness of the church. I have seen people surrounded in the midst of sorrow and grief when they needed it most. I have seen tears spilt over the precious sacrament of baptism, and in recognition of the incredible gift of communion.

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into the promise when I received the phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came to St. John’s not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say today that serving St. John’s has been the greatest privilege of my life.

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But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been praying for God’s will to be done and we have discerned that the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to serve as the Pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA at the end of June.

I am grateful beyond words for the community of Staunton, VA and for the people of St. John’s for increasing my faith. I have nothing but hope and faith that the church will continue to pour out God’s love onto the last, the least, and the lost. I rejoice in the knowledge that our God makes all things new.

This is a time of new life for St. John’s: a new pastor, a new chapter, and new beginning.

In the coming weeks of transition I ask that you please keep my family in your prayers and I encourage you to continually seek out new ways to increase the faith of the people around you like you’ve done for me.

Less Preaching, More Praying

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

 

I’ve mentioned The Circle in a number of recent sermons, and for good reason. Every week, our youth gather together as a witness to the loving nature of God made manifest in their lives. While others their age are consumed by that which they consume: the Internet, social media, attention from co-eds, false identities, and even politics, our kids are consumed by another thing they consume: the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.

But I don’t want to lay it on too thick. I love our youth, but they can be miserable at the same time. I have never been more self-conscious about my balding head than when one of our boys insists on bringing the subject up every single week. (Honestly, I think he does it not because he cares about my lack of follicles, but because he enjoys watching my reaction to his provocation.)

Another one of our youth will miss a meeting (too much homework, play practice, or some other obligation) only to have her brother tell me that she’s not at The Circle because a recent sermon I preached made her lose her faith.

Another one of our youth will purposely pretend like he can’t find a particular book in the bible, forcing one of us to flip through and declare the page number only to have him smile diabolically in return.

Like I said, we’ve got wonderful and miserable youth at this church.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, we follow the same formula every week – we gather around the table for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Communion looks a lot like it does in this room whereby we pray together for God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us, and on the gifts of bread and the cup. And after we feast we go to the box.

The box contains a random assortment of questions designed to get all of us to share and reflect on what it means to be faithful. An example: “Who do you trust the most and why?” The question propels us to think about the value of our friendships, and implores us to be thankful for the people we trust.

One of the more frustrating questions is: “When was the last time you shared your faith with someone?” Everyone always sighs deeply when that one is pulled, but one by one they’ll each struggle to share a moment from the last week or so when they talked with someone about their faith.

But recently we read a new question: “If you could change one thing about the church what would it be and why?” Without hesitation, my follicle-conscious friend said, “I’d get rid of the preacher!” Another youth however, took the question seriously and said she would make the youth group larger so we could share the stories of Jesus with more people.

One by one each youth got a chance to reflect about a particular change to the church, and we ended with our adult volunteer for the evening. You see, everyone has to answer the question from the box whether you’re in the sixth grade of you’re sixty.

After giving the question some deep thought she said, “I’d get rid of the preaching… I’ve always thought that preaching in worship was okay, but it’s not the most important part of what we do. Sometimes you go on a little too long. But I would definitely increase our prayer time. In fact, what if all we did was pray?”

I got burned.

The preaching on Sunday is a little long? Seriously? You all should be grateful! I get you out of here before the Baptist churches in town every week, and we want to talk about the length of the sermon?!

I’m only teasing. But maybe she’s on to something. What if we prayed more, and I preached less?

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The psalmist, at least the author of Psalm 119, was a praying poet pleading with God. No preaching, no pontificating; only praying.

Teach me Lord, give me understanding, lead me in the path of your commandments, turn my heart to your decrees, turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life.

Where does this life of prayer come from? Praying like the psalmist requires an awareness of God’s presence. We can pray like the psalmist when we poetically plead with God, not to show that we are above anyone else, not out of arrogance, but with remarkable humility and hope – we ask God to give us what only God can give us.

And we can dispense with polite trivialities. No more do we need to start our prayers with a listing of God’s divine attributes, no more do we need a long list of adjectives before we begin to converse with the Lord. We need only pause, breathe, and then declare our faith in the Lord who hears and responds to our prayers.

Teach us, O Lord, your ways and we will follow on the path to the end. Give us understanding God, so that we can observe your will here on earth with our whole hearts. Lead us on your paths and we will delight in traveling the way that leads to life. Turn our hearts to your commandments, and not to our own selfish and arrogant ambitions. Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, the things that fade away, the things that do not give life, and instead give us life in you. Confirm to us your promises God because we are worthy when we fear you. Turn away the disgrace that we are ashamed of, for you are forgiving. O God, we have longed for your will; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. In your righteousness, give us life.

When those words become our words, when we can utter them with true faith and humility, when we can ask for God’s will to be done and mean it, then our prayers will always mean more than my preaching. As Karl Barth said, when we clasp our hands together in prayer, it is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Because this is what we need God to do for us. We need God’s help to empower our uprising against the disorder of the world. We need God to teach us, to lead us, and to turn us. We cannot do this stuff on our own.

God, thank you for gathering us together in this place, at this time, with these people to call on you to make us into your people. Come to us now! Awaken us! Give us your light! Be our Teacher and our Comforter! Speak to us through the scriptures, through the prayers, through the hymns, through the sermon, so that we may hear just what we need and what will help. Preserve us by your Word; protect us from hypocrisy, error, boredom, and distraction. Give us knowledge and hope and joy.

We can pray like that. We can pray like the psalmist. We can do it from the comfort of our bedrooms when we wake up and right before we fall asleep. We can pray from the depths of our souls in this holy place whenever we gather together. Our prayers can be as long and as profound as the entirety of Psalm 119, or they can be as short and as simple as: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Praying to God is a good and right thing because it actively makes us participate with the divine. Praying calls us to question the status quo, and to wonder about what could be. Praying challenges us to see ourselves for who we really are and to ask for God’s help to be better. Prayer changes things, and more often than not the thing that prayer changes is us.

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But sometimes we need to be prayed for, more than we need to pray for ourselves. Do you hear the difference? It is good and right for us to pray to the Lord like the psalmist, but at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a willingness to share our burdens and needs with others, and to receive their prayers for us when we cannot pray on our own.

Years ago, I helped lead a mission trip to Costa Rica. We went for a week, and I was responsible for keeping track of the youth at our different work sites, and led devotions each night. A large focus of the trip was partnering with the local community in order to empower them, rather than helping with something only to disappear a few days later.

Every day, whether we were working on construction for a new school building, or we were helping young children in a day care program, the whole trip was about creating relationships with people.

Of course, for some of us, myself included, this was quite a difficult task since there was a language barrier. We quickly learned to speak with our hands and with the few words we knew of each other’s languages, and we did the best we could.

At the end of the trip I asked the youth to each pair up with someone they connected with during the week, but not someone from our own team. The kids quickly dispersed to find the friends they made over the week and I watched my sister Haley walk over to Jose. Haley and Jose were the same age; both had wonderful and loving personalities; but they couldn’t have been more different.

One grew up with all the advantages and privileges of an American who grew up outside of Washington D.C. The other lived day to day without a clear understanding of what the future held.

And yet, even though they spoke different languages, and had different hopes, and different dreams, they sat down together and prayed for each other. Haley went first, she prayed for Jose and lifted him up to the Lord. I only later realized it was the first time that Haley had ever prayed for another person out loud. And after Haley said “amen” Jose grabbed her by the hands and prayed for her.

Haley could not understand a word he uttered, but she wept as Jose prayed for her.

I know this is going to drive some of you crazy, but I am here not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. So, in just a moment, we are going to pray for one another. You will feel tempted to find one of your friends in the congregation, someone you are comfortable with, but we all need to resist that temptation. We are going to stand up, and move about the sanctuary until we find someone we are not as familiar with, and they will be our prayer partners. And we’re going to talk to them. We’re going to listen to them. We’re going to pray for them. And they are going to do the same for us.

Remember, God does not need ornate and complicated prayers; God only needs our hearts. Pray for one another as you feel led, and then I will lead us in a congregational prayer. So, let us pray.

We are afraid, God, and we believe we can and should hide ourselves from you. We did it in the Garden, we did it in the wilderness, and we still do it today. We even think we can hide from ourselves. For better or worse, usually for worse, our desire to hide scatters and shatters our identity in you. As a result, we begin to hate ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and even You. We hate ourselves, and one another, because You refuse to believe that we are the masks we wear. God, help us learn to trust your love. Help us to learn we do not need to pretend to be something we are not. Help us accept that we are who we are because of You. Forgive us God. And as forgiven people, help us follow your Son in this world shaped by lies and deception. As your forgiven people, make us your salvation, that the world might see how good and great it is to be who we are, your children. Amen.

Devotional – Romans 15.7

Devotional:

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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It is hard to welcome one another, until we ourselves know what it means to be welcomed. We can imagine what we need to do and how we need to behave, we can get out the best silverware and the matching dinner sets, we can fill everyone’s cups to the brims, but until we have experienced being welcomed, we will struggle to welcome others.

I spent the last week in Orlando, Florida with my in-laws for the Thanksgiving holiday. They were forced to practice a new type of welcoming and hospitality because they hosted their 7-month old grandson for the first time. In addition to the normal preparations for people visiting, they had to procure a stroller, pack-n-play, diapers, wipes, and an assortment of other necessary items. Moreover, they had to adjust their schedules to the sleeping habits of our son and reorient all of their plans around his general disposition and mood.

And while we sat around the dinner table on Thanksgiving I was struck by how welcomed I felt throughout the week. They could have made assumptions about what we needed and then acted on it, but instead they approached us and asked what they could do to help. They could have become quickly frustrated with Elijah changing their plans but they adapted and made us feel comfortable. They could have expected us to change to fit into their way of life, but instead they changed to fit into ours.

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One of the most brilliant aspects of the Advent season is our anticipation of the way God fit into our way of life by taking on flesh and being born as a baby in a manger. Rather than giving up on humanity’s inability to repent and turn back to God, God comes down and meets us where we are. God, in Christ, welcomes us into the kingdom of God by connecting with us in ways that we can perceive and understand.

The same holds true for the life of the church, and for us as individual Christians. We welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us, for the glory of God. When we encounter those for whom the church is a strange new world, we don’t just wait for them to “catch up,” instead we adapt our ways to meet them where they are. When we welcome people into our homes for food and fellowship, we don’t dominate the conversation with whatever we want, instead we seek to invite all present to shape what we talk about. When we discover new people sitting in the pews near us, we don’t make quick judgments about who they are based on their appearance, instead we remember how the Lord welcomed us and we do the same toward others.

Devotional – Philippians 4.7

Philippians 4.7

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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How do you think people would respond if there was something that, if consumed once a week, would improve mental and physical health and reduce mortality by 20-30% over a 15-year period? What if this miraculous elixir was in reach of millions of people in America and research has proven that it truly does make a tremendous difference in the lives of people who consume it? How quickly do you think it would become the most popular remedy in the country?

Last week, under the “Breaking News” tab on USA Today Online, was a story detailing the availability of this particular product and the research to back up the claims. And, believe it or not, the “miracle drug” is regular church attendance.

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After 20 years of research, a group of colleagues from Harvard University published their work suggesting that regularly attending religious services brings about better physical and mental health. Regarding physical health, the researchers claim that, “Adults who attend a service at least once a week versus not at all have been shown to have significantly lower risk of dying over the next decade and a half.” Beyond physical health, participating in regular worship leads to “greater optimism and lower rates of depression.”

After reading the article, one would think that every house of worship would be filled to the brim every weekend!

However, the article begs the question: Why do people worship?

Do we gather together because we want the physical and mental health benefits? Are we so consumed by the fear of death that we will sit in uncomfortable pews once a week just so we can live longer? Do we understand and value worship the same we that we understand and value the prescriptions in our medicine cabinets?

Or, do we worship because in worship we encounter the living God? Are we so consumed by the love of God that we cannot understand a way of life without gathering together once a week? Have we been transformed by the Lord who knows us and calls us by name?

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. We encounter the peace of God whenever we gather together, whenever we proclaim God’s Word, whenever we respond to that Word, and whenever God’s sends us into the world to be the light that shines in the darkness.

Worship, though apparently beneficial for our mental and physical health, is not about what we get out of it. Instead, worship is about what God gets out of us.

Devotional – Luke 19.1-2

Devotional:

Luke 19.1-2

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
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In a few weeks many churches will celebrate All Saints Sunday. In the United Methodist Church we use it as an opportunity to prayerfully give thanks and reflect on the lives lost in the local church over the last year. Some churches will ring bells and read off the names of the dead, others will cover their altars with belongings from the deceased, and others will invite grieving family members to come forward and offer thoughts on those who died.

But when we think of the Saints of the church, we tend to think about incredible figures from church history: Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, etc. We think that to be saintly requires a life of such profound faithfulness that most of us will never come close to it. Therefore, the saints we daydream about are the ones also found in stained glass windows and famous paintings.

Saints, however, are the people who inspire us to be totally different. And more often than not, the truest saints are those who were once a lot like us, and were radically changed by an encounter with the living God.

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Zaccheaus is a beloved and often overlooked person from scripture. The wee-little tax collector, despised by the town, wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus, so he climbed a tree. Jesus, upon seeing the man up above, called him down and invited himself over for dinner. This interaction fundamentally transformed Zacchaeus’ life and propelled him to return what he had taken “even four times as much.”

Some of God’s truest and most peculiar saints are much more like the little tax collector who recognized his weakness enough to climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the Messiah. Zacchaeus was a strange man and his interaction with Jesus was equally strange. The result of sitting together for a meal was enough to radically transform his life forever. But even in his strangeness, we catch glimpses of the truth; we begin our journeys of faith by recognizing our need, but doing something in response to that recognition, and then discover that the love and power of Jesus has transformed our lives in ways that we never could have anticipated.

Zacchaeus is the kind of saint who could inspire us to change our lives precisely because he is so much like us. If we were only inclined to confront our brokenness, climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the Lord (or walk into a church on Sunday morning), we might just hear Jesus say, “I’m going to your house today,” and our lives would be transformed.