Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Wilderness of Waiting

Scriptures for Sunday, December 4th


How many of you have ever driven a long distance to go on vacation?  Have you experienced the phenomena by which the trip there seems to take forever but the trip home seems shorter?  In studying the common occurrence, psychologists tell us that our anticipation of something changes our experience of it
We experience that with Christmas too. 
Do you have a child in your life who just can’t wait till Christmas?
How do they respond to the anticipation?
Have you ever seen a child so anxious with anticipation they were about ready to burst?
Its one thing when we anticipate something good coming.  At times, the anticipation of something wonderful can be even more exciting than the thing itself.
But, what if what you are anticipating is not so pleasant.
Have you ever waited with someone as they anticipate bad news?  As they wait on news about cancer results?  Or as they anticipate the dissolution of a marriage.  Or the collapsing of the job.
Though the event itself is traumatic, the anticipation of it can be even worse.
In those moments, our temptation can be to run.  Even though I am a pastor, I have to admit to struggling to endure with someone who is going through considerable pain.  Especially if that pain is drawn out.  It wears on them.  It wears on me.  At times, I just want to run, to save myself.  In those moments, I can at times lash out or grow embittered toward the very person I am trying to help because they have become such an emotional drain on my life.
It is in the context of this that we can use our imagination to think through Joseph’s experience of the nativity.
We shared last week that the wedding plans were going smoothly until something unexpected and strange happened. Mary is with child and not by Joseph. Her story of a visitation by an angel is bizarre and borders the unbelievable. 
So here is Joseph-  engaged to a woman who the world would think ill of.
Either they would think Joseph got her pregnant out of wedlock
Even worse-  that she had cheated an Joseph and was no longer a virgin.
Either way, Joseph’s reputation was trashed.  This despite the fact that scripture indicated he was a righteous man.  Thus, he may have been greatly respected, but that was all for naught now.  
But he evidently cared more for Mary than his own reputation as he chooses “to dismiss her quietly.”
I don’t think we understand how agonizing a decision this would have been for him.  His reputation is on the line.  
As a righteous man, what he should have done to maintain his integrity is to dismiss her publicly.  Likely, the best way to preserve his reputation was by dragging her to the village square, publicly proclaim her adultery and have her stoned.
This is what a righteous man concerned about his reputation would do.
And yet, he decides to do the difficult thing- to sacrifice his own reputation, and likely, his own family and friends, by sticking with her.
Thus, this very decision to stay with the pregnant Mary was the very one that likely delivered him into his own wilderness.
He was probably racked with doubts-  I mean, does he really believe this?
He may well have been cut off from his own family-  all he has to rely on is the very woman who has caused him to be shamed.
And he has to endure this for not just 9 months, but his entire life.
Anyone who knew him would mock him behind his back.
His reward-  well, he is largely forgotten to history.
Think through the Christmas carols you know-  do any feature Joseph prominently?
I struggled to find a hymn that featured him, and even in that hymn Mary plays a more prominent role.  
So, Joseph endures the disgrace of staying with Mary, only to be mocked by family and friends and to disappear in the Christmas narrative.
Would you have the strength to do something similar?  To knowingly lose your reputation to help someone else?  To remain with someone who was going through such pain and tragedy?
Its often a thankless job.  The person experiencing trauma is hardly in the position to be grateful.  And if there is social stigma involved, you are unlikely to be lauded for your efforts.
Think of those who cared for AIDS patients in the height of the 80s.
Or for those who devote their work to loving and caring for prostitutes
Or for those who continue to fight for justice on unpopular issues-  like gay rights or the death penalty.
You get thrust into the wilderness.  And you can lose your reputation.
When you are in the wilderness, it can seem like it will never end.  Think of the Israelites wandering through the desert.  Or Elijah running from the murderous Jezebel and hiding in a cave.  Or Jesus being tempted in the desert.
Our scripture from 2 Peter acknowledges the difficulty of that moment.  He tries to provide words of comfort for people waiting for Christ’s return.  
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. “
But, frankly, does that comfort anyone in a crisis?  That God’s time is not like ours.
But here is the funny thing about the desert.  When you are willing to enter in, to endure, your life can be transformed forever.
The Israelites eventually reach the promised land.
Elijah gets to see God and be recharged for worship.
Jesus emerges from the desert to be acknowledged by God in baptism.
And Joseph gets to be there when Christ enters into the world.  
All because each was willing to wait out their time in the desert.  
Can you do it?  Can you endure? 
As we anticipate this Christmas season, let us learn a lesson from the poor forgotten Joseph.  Let us learn to endure with someone in crisis, let us open our hearts to someone who is dreading the coming of this holiday season.  It is in enduring with them,  willingly exposing ourselves to their pain, where we can find Christ this holiday season.

Monday, November 28, 2011

God's Little Surprise

Scripture Texts for Sunday, November 27th:


Imagine Mary

By all accounts, Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl in an ordinary Jewish community.  And she was living a very ordinary life.  But what is ordinary for others is always extraordinary for the individual living it-  and Mary was at a pretty extraordinary phase in her life.  Joseph had proposed, her father had approved, and now Mary was in the throws of wedding preparation.  The day that she dreamed of as a little girl, when she would leave her father’s house and be united in marriage, was right around the corner.  

She just knew her friends must be jealous of her.  I mean, of course Joseph didn’t have much money, wasn’t very powerful, and didn’t have many connections.  But he was a carpenter and should be prepared to provide for her family.  But, Mary thought, what is truly amazing is just how wonderful of a guy he seemed to be.  She had heard of friends who had been married off to men who barely paid attention to them, who seemed to care very little about the woman but instead hungered for the dowry that would come with him.  But never in Mary’s 15 years did she think she’d find a man who seemed to be so kind, caring and loving.  “He didn’t look through me, but actually cared that I existed!”  It was more than she could ever have hoped for!

And then, just when everything seemed perfect, life took an unexpected twist-  One night she has a vision of an angel, and just like that- Mary found herself pregnant!  “Oh my god- my life is over!  Joseph is a nice guy, but he is never going to buy this!  How exactly is anyone supposed to believe that I’m both a virgin and pregnant!  My engagement will be broken off, my family will shun me, and I could well be killed.  What did that angel say?  Oh yea-  “I have found favor with God!”  God-  if this is how you treat those you like, can you like me just a little bit less?!?!?!”
At that moment, Mary’s whole world must have seemed like it dissolved.  She had prepared herself for a particular life-  one in which she be married, would have kids, would support her husband, and, if they were lucky, would live long enough to see her grandkids.  She didn’t prepare herself for this.  Who would have thought to prepare themselves for this?
What an unbelievable “gift” from God.  How totally unexpected.  Have you ever received a gift like that?  Something totally out of the blue, unexpected, and maybe even confusing?  I don’t think we can imagine just how confounded Mary’s expectations were.
Now, I might have subverted some of your own expectations when I read the second text.  What on earth does a scripture text that is usually used to talk about the “end of time” have to do with Advent?  This is a time for Christmas carols and nativity stories-  why clutter things up with that passage?
You see, today is not just the start of Advent, but the start of a whole new year in the life of the church.  When ever we start something new, like Mary starting to get ready for her marriage, we come in with some set expectations.  While we know we can’t predict the future, we usually have some idea of how things are going to go.  The author of this text in Mark had some pretty specific ideas.  He envisioned the sun and the moon going dark, stars falling from the sky and the whole earth shaking.  Sounds like the start of a great disaster movie.  He also talks about Jesus coming back in a grand procession where he would be greeted by all of his followers who would escort him to earth.  And, even better- this was going to happen soon.  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
And yet, to the best of our knowledge, life didn’t unfold the way the author expected.  Instead of witnessing the triumphant return of Christ and the establishment of a great kingdom, the author likely saw the temple, the seat of God’s power, the dwelling place of God, torn to ruins by the Roman army.  He had a very specific vision of a glorious future.  Boy, did God surprise him.  
Advent is traditionally seen as a time of expectation.  We await the celebration of the coming of Christ.  And of course, we await the time with family, the special Christmas eve candlelight service, the hunt for the perfect gift, the opening of gifts, gorging out on Christmas cookies, etc, etc, etc.
Now, I realize some of us may await this time more eagerly than others.  For many, Christmas is a time of pain because of broken relationships, broken families, lost loved ones, and general malaise.  Whether we await with joy or enter with dread, we likely come into the Christmas season with fairly set expectations.
But, if there is any one consistent aspect of scripture, I think its that God constantly surprises us and confounds our expectations.  Most frequently, this is a good thing. God is unexpected generous; outrageously forgiving, unbelievably loving.  Just when we think God might abandon us, we are surprised by the presence of the divine.
And, at times, that surprise might confound us.  It certainly surprised the author of Mark.  It certainly surprised Mary.  As we await Christmas, what we really need to consider is how to prepare for Christ coming back in some unexpected way.
What if Christ came back only to be trampled in the riot last Friday at the Strongsville Victoria Secret?
What if Christ came back only to be pepper sprayed on the UC Davis campus last week?
What if Christ came back in the midst of the protest in Cairo square in Egypt?
Or during a Tea party rally?  
Or as part of the annual pilgrimage by many millions of Muslims to Saudi Arabia?
The point being is that when Christ comes back, and as Christ comes back, he is going to constantly confound our expectations.  Even the author of Mark, while describing a vivid and specific vision, admits “that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Personally, I sort of expect that God is confounding us in a different way.  We constantly talk about when Christ will return only to miss the fact that Christ is constantly returning.  He is returning in every new birth, in every act of sacrificial love, in every couragous step to leave a violent situation.  Where ever there is an explosion of love and life, there Christ is.  
Our Wednesday morning bible study I think has experienced a bit of this.  We were surprised to study Islam and find Christ bursting forth in the Qu’ran.  Who expected him there?  And as we meet with members of the Brecksville Unity Center on Saturday, a Shiite mosque, I think we’ll be surprised to find that Christ is already there at work and will make himself known as we meet and grow to love new friends.
So, how do we deal with this confounding of expectations?  What do we do if Christ shows up as some unexpected pregnancy that completely messes with all the plans we have in our life?  What if we are favored with our own unexpected surprise?
Mary responds pretty remarkably.  I mean, she’s afraid, and she certainly asks a number of questions.  But ultimately, she responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.‘   I sometimes wonder just how long of a pause there was between the end of the angels speech and Mary’s acceptance.  I just can’t imagine it was immediate.  But somehow, someway, Mary was prepared for God’s little surprise.
Can we be ready?  I think we can.  But its going to require us to stretch and grow, perhaps just as much as Mary.  I think the way we get ready is by doing something unexpected-  we stop waiting.  We anticipate the coming of Christ, but we do so not by waiting impatiently, but by doing.  By embracing our loved ones, our community, and our world in prayer.  We re-devote more of our time away from spending and instead invest in our church and our community by providing for those who do not have the financial means to celebrate the holiday.  We get over our fears and welcome the community in with outrageous love after the Community tree lighting.  And we begin to realize, as one United Methodist pastor put it, that Christmas is not our birthday, but is a celebration of the moment in which the divine is united with humanity in the form of Jesus Christ.
This advent, let’s get away from waiting.  Lets just assume Christ is already coming back, is already here, and is just waiting to be found.  Let’s get ready.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fulfilling our Baptismal Vows - Service

Scriptures for Sunday, November 20th.
Today is the liturgical version of New Years Eve.  We have journeyed together through scripture and through the Christian year and have reached the culminating point in the journey-  Christ the King Sunday.  This is a day in which we celebrate the majesty of our King Jesus, and one in which we recommit our entire lives to his authority.  In fact, there is probably no more appropriate day for us to have renewed our baptismal vows and to have given our commitments for the next year.  We are testifying in all ways possible that we intend to live in this world as if it is the kingdom of God.
However, I sometimes come to Christ the King Sunday with mixed feelings.  I tend to think our culture does not have any problem picturing Christ as this great and powerful King to whom we need to submit.  We often sing of God or Jesus with grandiose language and talk about how powerful the name of Jesus is.  And though we may struggle with some of the implications, and though I may resist strongly the idea that our loving Christ would cast anyone into eternal punishment, I think our culture also has no problem picturing Jesus sitting in a throne in judgment at the end of the ages.  In a way, it is the perfect Sunday to discuss our baptismal vow of service.
We tend to respect and idealize power.  Though not all respect the president, most respect the office of the presidency as it has always been the most powerful position in the world.  We often respect the titans of industry who have helped shape the world.  When the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, passed away, we as a nation reveled in just how this amazing man reshaped society because of his visionary image.  Our American dream often encompasses moving up the economic, corporate and social ladder to reach the optimum level of success.
In a vacuum, there is nothing wrong with the lauding of any of these displays of power.  In Christianity, however, we temper this idea of Christ as King, Christ as all powerful, with many other contradictory images.  Our great and powerful King enters the story not as a conqueror, but as a helpless babe.  Our mighty shepherd is himself protected early in life by those who would cause him arm.  Our Lord of life had no physical kingdom, eschewed all armies, and washed the feet of his closest servants.  This is a King unlike any we have ever known.  Someone whose power comes not from accumulating might, but by rejecting every opportunity to embrace power.  Thus, part of me wonders if Jesus would be a little embarrassed by devoting a day each and every year where we celebrate him as a grand king.
Kingly imagery has its place.  But when we think of Jesus on the thrown, I think we struggle to understand the implications of today’s scripture.  How can Jesus both be on a throne, but also declare “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Is Jesus in his palace, or in a cardboard box?  Is Jesus wearing an Armani suit, or a thread bare t-shirt that provides no warmth?  Should we seek an audience with the King, or figure out what time visiting hours are at the prison?  Frankly its kind of confusing.  How can Jesus be both?
Just because it is so confusing, I want us to supplement our kingly image of God with a different image.  One drawn from the very symbol of God’s love that we celebrated today-  that of water.  The water in baptism makes present God’s love for us in the here and now.  It allows us to touch and feel God’s presence when we touch and feel God.  But we know there is far more to water than just its use in baptism-  water is at the core of all life as we know it.  It is water that allows crops to go.  Water, whether in the ocean or the lake, teams with life.  When scientists search other planets for life, they begin their search by looking for water.  Where there is no water, there is no life.  
Do you know that we as humans are 60% water?  In fact, water is perhaps the largest ingredient in all life forms.  But the water does not stay trapped within us.  We take it in, we sweat it out.  It passes through the skin.  It is absolutely necessary, and cannot be contained.  I cannot prevent the water that is in me from being absorbed into the air and possibly flowing into one of you.  
What if Jesus is like that water?  What if it were impossible to have life if God through Jesus was not present.  And what if that water that is Jesus flows in and amongst every single living thing?
What would it look like if we really believed God was in and through everything?  If God were actually present in each one of us the way water is present in each one of us.  How would we live differently?
Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by some possible chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in all the nearby towns. So the old abbot and the hermit commiserated together. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
When the monks began to see the Messiah in one another, new life sprang forth where only death had existed.  What would happen if we embraced the hermits vision?  What if we really and truly believed that the Messiah is present in our lives and that we will interact with that same Messiah potentially every day of our lives.
Would your treat your neighbor differently?  Would you look at the beggar on the street in the same way?  Would you think the same about a person put before trial?  Would we act in the same way when we serve a community meal.
My friends, this is what our baptismal vow of service calls us to.  We are to submit to the kingly authority of Christ by assuming that Christ is in each and every person we meet.  When we act that way, and when we love in that fashion, God’s kingdom will be truly present.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fulfilling our Baptismal Vows- Presence



Have you ever been just off? Just a little late?
Maybe you were joking back and forth with a friend, were playfully insulted, and then no comeback comes to mind.  Its only a minute later, when the moment has passed, that the perfect thing pops into your mind.
Or perhaps you find yourself attracted to someone across the room at a party.  You sit and try to work the nerve up to approach them, figure out the right thing to say, and finally decide you are going to risk being foolish and open yourself up to a stranger.  In the moment you make to walk over, they get up and leave with their friends.  The moment has passed- your opportunity missed.
On the other side, have you ever been in the right place at just the right time?  A friend is in crisis, and you happen to pop in just when they needed you?  Or perhaps a child was about to run into the street in front of a car and you grab a hold of them just before they are about to be hit.  
In all these scenarios, the difference between experiencing utter joy and utter misery, the difference between a life changing experience and just another humdrum day, is mere seconds.  I know that in life, sometimes I am prepared to respond at a seconds notice when a situation occurs, but all too often I am  oblivious until it is too late.  The difference?  I am only ready to respond when my heart and mind are fully engaged in the moment.  Or, to put it in terms of the our second baptismal vows, I’m only ready when I’m actually present.
Now, of all the baptismal vows, of prayer, presence, gift and service, surely this seems like the easiest.  I mean, the other three require you to do something, whereas this one just asks-  are you there?
The parable Jesus tells today reveals the true complexity of being present.  All 10 of the bridesmaids were waiting for the groom to arrive.  Apparently, they were waiting so long that day turned into night and the groom had not yet arrived.  The story tells us that 5 of the women were prepared for that delay but 5 were not.  And who can blame them?  Who expects the groom to be late to his own wedding?  But, when suddenly, unexpectedly the groom arrives in the middle of the night, it is only those who have the presence of mind to be ready that get to enjoy the festivities of the wedding banquet.  The others can only morn another opportunity lost.
We are told in the parable that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  In a way, this can seem harsh and scary.  If this is about the eternal fate of our souls, are we really all prepared for that moment to come?  But I think, at times, that Matthew’s choice of language might obscure the point here.  You see, Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” a lot in scripture- 31 times in his Gospel in fact.  This is a phrase, at least in the NRSV or NIV translations, that is unique to Matthew.  This is because Matthew has a particular quirk in his writing style-  he follows the Jewish practice of not using the Lord’s name so as not to take it in vain.  Thus, instead of saying Kingdom of God, he instead called it kingdom of heaven.  2,000 years later, we miss this nuance because we tend to use the word heaven to refer to a place of reward in the afterlife.
If you consider that Matthew is referring to the here and now instead of some unknown future time, I think this parable takes on a whole new dimension.  Rather than a pop quiz designed to separate out the good from the bad- rewarding one and damning the other, the text actually becomes a key revealing how we can experience the kingdom of God.  What separated out the 5 wise bridesmaid from the 5 foolish ones?  They were prepared for the moment?
How can we be prepared to be present for someone?  First, we have to learn to look beyond ourselves.  I am incredibly guilty at times of thinking the whole world revolves around me.  When a friend has a crisis at a bad time, I can at times coldly bemoan the timing of the crisis and its impact on me rather than focus on the person going through the crisis.  Thus, I become less present for that person, and I become a barrier, rather than a gateway, to the kingdom of God entering into that moment.
How can we move beyond ourselves?  One of the ways I’ve found is right here at the communion table.  I haven’t always appreciated communion in the past.  It seemed ritualized and ordinary.  It was only after I started seminary that I realized that this is the one regular moment when we all come together to experience God’s presence.  Too often, I as the pastor end up being the central point.  At communion, it is God’s presence, represented by the juice and bread, that is to take over our senses.
At times in our history, we Christians have missed the point.  Rather then being present at the table, and celebrating God’s presence there, we have fought over the specific nature of that presence.  Is Jesus really there, in body, or in spirit?  Or is it in memory?  Its not that these questions aren’t important, but when the debate distracts from the presence of Jesus in our midst, we are like foolish bridesmaids who miss the opportunity to experience the kingdom.
In a moment, I’ll be privileged to invite Rev. Bob Springer, a retired Lutheran pastor to lead us in communion.  I’ve grown to know Bob and appreciate his willingness to come do this.  A key aspect of Bob’s work in ministry has been working to overcome those things that divide us at the communion table and prevent us from fully experiencing God.  And, as a pastor, I’m especially privileged to have the opportunity to just come to the table this morning worried about nothing more then experiencing the love of God.  
Whether its communion, or church, or just life, the kingdom of heaven is waiting to burst forth into your life today.  And the kingdom of heaven is waiting for you to be the one to open up the kingdom of heaven to others.  If you are distracted, you may miss the opportunity to create a piece of the kingdom of God right here and now.  But if you are present, you’ll experience the joy that is the kingdom of God right here in your midst.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Laity Sunday- Pam Young's Testimony

When I was a young girl, I was always fascinated by a plaque on my aunt and uncle’s wall depicting several years worth of “Perfect” or “Faithful” Attendance at their church. I remember standing there, many times, looking in awe at that plaque. To be able to attend church that often—WOW!
You see, my family did not go to church. Which is strange, because the first date my dad and mom went on; he took her to church. Anyway, I was 6 or 7 and wanted desperately to go to church. My aunt and uncle would take me when I stayed the weekend with them, but that wasn’t often enough because they lived 30 miles away. I had had a taste of Sunday school and all things kid-friendly and I wanted to be there.
So, I began a campaign to get my parents to take my younger sisters and me to church. Many Sunday mornings went by and my parents had just as many excuses—especially my father. 
 “I’m tired from being up too late last night”
“We don’t have any clean clothes”
“You didn’t wake us up in time”
Well, I was relentless. Week after week, this went on, until finally, my dad looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not going to give up on this, are you?” “Nope!” I said. “Okay, everyone get dressed. We’re gonna go to church.”
I remember my mom, my sisters, and I danced around the living room. We were so excited. So, we started going to a little Baptist church in the area. I lived in West Virginia, and there wasn’t much church shopping to be done in those days. You went wherever was close enough to drive to. 
When I was 8 years old, we had an altar call (as Baptist churches are known to do from time to time). The preacher’s name was Caddy Moss. The song was “Just As I Am”. We sang a couple of verses, the preacher started talking in that soft-spoken, heart-grabbing way, while the music continued softly in the background. 

I was unable to stand still. My heart was thumping so loudly, I thought everyone could hear it. I knew that I had to go to the altar. I had seen other altar calls and knew that is what people did, but until that moment, I didn’t understand why. I felt so compelled to move forward, even though no one else had done so yet. Pastor Moss said, “And a little child shall lead them” and sure enough, others started coming to the altar as well. Pastor Moss prayed with me and I knew from that moment that Christ was part of my life and that I would never be the same.
That was the beginning of my knowledge that God was working in my life. Very soon, I was faced with challenges and obstacles to overcome. But, thank God, he had his hand on me and he never left me to fend for myself. While I would not want to face those same challenges again, I know that I am stronger, more faithful, and more aware of his presence because of them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Laity Sunday - Judy Perry - Joyous Burdens of Love

A little bit of background of my history as a Methodist goes like this.  As a family unit, mom and dad took us four girls to Sunday school and church.  At some point in our young lives our parents left the church when we were too young to get back to church.  At age 19 it was my decision to get to church.  My husband and I were married in a Methodist church and our children have been raised here at Independence United Methodist Church.
Fast-forward to now and my Joyous Burdens of Love.  In our most recent “Reading with the Pastor” book titled CLAIMING ALL THINGS FOR GOD the author summarizes for us about an experience of reading a collection of articles and talks of Tomas Kelly a Quaker philosopher.  It reads, “Perhaps there is no more important Word for us activists whose lives are too busy, who hear so many urgent voices, and who care about so many ongoing tragedies.  God “does not burden us equally with all things,” but only with certain callings and tasks which are to be our part in the “joyous burdens of love.”  And mark this:  “We cannot die on every cross nor are we expected to.”  Rather, we are to focus on the particular arena to which God leads us.  And there we are to labor in peace and power and faith and joy, rooted in “the unhurried serenity of the Eternal” at work.  Rather, we are to focus on the particular arena to which God leads us.  And there we are to labor in peace and power and faith and joy, rooted in “the unhurried serenity of the Eternal” at work.  Thanks be to God!”
One of my joyous burdens of love was working on me for a couple of years.  God was unhurried in my heart.  I wanted to make sundresses for little girls in need.  When the earthquake in Haiti caused so many people to be in need of assistance, there was an urgent call for me to get started making dresses.  I labor at the sewing machine in great joy.
Another joyous burden of love is our Sunday morning class.  God led me to ask for a Sunday morning class over 10 years ago.  Eventually I started to lead the class.  This joyous burden of leading the class is that I’m not a teacher.  We’ve discovered that I facilitate.  We started this fall in a study about hospitality and welcome and the risks involved.  The first day of class I experienced my joyous burden of love combined with hospitality and welcome and risk all at the same time when we all came in along with Pastor Jared who also walked in, sat down and didn’t leave.  
One more labor in peace and power and faith and joy rooted in God is the meal we prepare and serve at Pearl Road United Methodist Church.  Again God was working on me for several years only I had a barrier.  This barrier or risk was my idea that I might precipitate upon seeing a child needing his or her hair combed or experiencing a person in need of a pair of shoes.  I risked going to labor and saw what I had feared and didn’t cry.  I came away from another joyous burden of love with a commitment to going again and again.  I will go and do likewise.
To close I think about the lyrics to Lay Down your Burdens sung by Amy Grant.  The chorus repeats “lay down your burden I will carry you, I will carry you my child, my child.  As I lay down my burdens to God, I can get past public speaking, and uncomfortable feelings involved with being a servant and realize my work is a joyous burden of love.
Thanks be to God!  Amen!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Laity Sunday - Ted Lux's testimony

On Sunday, October 23rd, Independence UMC celebrated Laity Sunday.  The sermon consisted of 3 testimonies given by faithful lay members of our congregation.  Unfortunately, Pastor Jared was on vacation so we couldn't get these posted until now.  I hope you find them as inspiring as our congregation did.

When it comes to my spiritual life I’m always going around looking for trouble.

I believe I’m going to heaven but there are always those nagging questions, like, “Am, I good enough? Do I do enough?”
And that nagging gets worse if you think about Genesis 1:26. It reads, “And God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
Notice that it says “Let US make humankind in our image, according to OUR likeness.” That use of the plural is an obvious reference to the existence of the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
But that’s for our pastor to take up at another time.
Let’s go back to “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”   I’m not one to decide what the Bible means but here’s what I think it means.  I think it means that we are made in the image of God. Remember the old phrases, he takes after his father or she takes after her mother.  If you put that in the context of a comparison between us and God that’s pretty strong stuff. Now I really wonder if I measure up.
If we’re made in the image of God would anybody recognize God in me or you?
Genesis 1:26 doesn’t stop with talking about the image of God. The verse reads, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion. Now as you know the Bible says dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds and cattle and so on.  But as usual I’m going to borrow a thought from my spiritual hero, Dr. Normal Vincent Peale, perhaps the greatest preacher of the 20th century.  He suggests that God also has given us dominion over ourselves, to have dominion over the circumstances of our lives. To not let any person, any disease, any problem rule our lives. That’s a tall order too.  But if we are made in His image, and He has control over all things then we can have control too.
I’m certainly not going to stand here and make it sound easy.  There isn’t a person in this sanctuary, regardless of age, who hasn’t had one or several problems to deal, financial, circumstances that just wear us down day after day.  But look around at the very people you know. And if you’re new to this church you can look at people you personally know. We have watched others deal with their problems and not given up.
There are two kinds of people...those who have dominion over their problems and those who give in or give up. There are many people sitting here right now who I am in awe of, because they have drawn on the strength of the Lord to stand up to problems. They refuse to give up.
Some people say, what choice do I have?
In truth there is a choice, to ask God for help and strength or to give up. Sure there are days like it feels that HIS help and strength aren’t coming but it’s still there.
As I said we know of examples of great burdens right here in this congregation but rather than make an example of someone you know I’ll tell you about an Air Force nurse named Kris. This is a sad story and her story is still being written. My purpose in telling you her story is not to dwell on the tragedy but rather how Kris, and in particular her mother are dealing with it.  It demonstrates a choice we make when faced with our problems.
About a year and a half ago Kris was on her way home from work at an Air Force base hospital in Texas when she was involved in a horrific car accident. To this day she cannot walk or talk.  She is the daughter of one of my buddies from high school and his wife, Carol.  Carol, and Kris herself, have refused to give up in the effort to restore Kris to health.  But here’s the important part. Carol sees every step of the way as being guided by the Lord. In spite of all that has happened she gives God credit for every little victory that takes place.  No matter how tough the going gets we must always believe, we must always know, that the Lord is right by our side.
Now let’s go back to being created in God’s image and the question, if we’re made in the image of God would anybody recognize God in us.  I think if we had a show of hands we’d all say we believe in angels. But who are angels? Where do they come from?
They’re us. God uses us to help his people on earth. But He can’t use us unless we let Him.
Think about this...and some of you have already heard this story about what Bert and I experienced on our vacation to Europe last month.  We were traveling with two friends of ours, Stuart and Becky. We were walking on the streets of Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia in northern Africa. Tunisia is right next door to Libya.
We’re still not sure exactly what happened but Stuart experienced a freak accident which left a major wound to his leg. He was down on the ground in the street bleeding badly. Bert and I were some distance ahead. The street was teaming with people and bumper to bumper traffic and people had already gathered around him by the time we got back. Someone had already wrapped the wound with a scarf and stopped the bleeding. 
One angel.
We had to get him back to the ship to be attended to by the ship’s doctor but the traffic was at a standstill.   In what seemed like just a moment two men put Stuart and me in the back of their SUV and then began a ride that made me feel like a movie chase scene.
Somehow the man driving managed to get through all the traffic and get us back to the boat. And remember, they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic!
Two more angels.
The doctor on the boat said that Stuart had to have surgery on his leg in Tunisia because if he waited until the boat’s next stop in Sicily major infection could set in.   And on top of all that the boat was ready to leave Tunisia.  It seemed like just a few minutes later that the four of us were on the dock watching the boat leave and there we were in Africa!
Enter two more angels, Emira and Elyes. 
They work for a company that cruise ships hire to take care of any problems in that particular port.   Out of nowhere an ambulance shows up. Emira and Elyes tell us we’re on the way to a wonderful, clean hospital. Don’t worry, they said, this is where the rich Libyans come for plastic surgery. That night Stuart had surgery on his leg and was released the next day. But the doctor says Stuart can’t travel for at least a day. Elyes and Emira take us to a beautiful hotel, tend to all our needs, pick us up a day and half later, take us to the airport and get us on a plane to Rome.
Stuart is fine and the injury is slowly recovering.
Great story, but what’s the point?
Simply to be ready, and willing, when God needs you to be an angel.  The two men on the street who put us in their car could have said, let the police take care of it, beside it’s obvious they’re Americans.   Although Elyes and Emira were doing their jobs they could have said, hey, it’s 5 o’clock and that’s when we stop working. We’ll check in with you tomorrow. No, on a moment’s notice they literally turned their lives over to us.
There is no way that I’m going to stand up here and tell you to be like them or I’d be one big hypocrite.
All I can say is...let’s all of us be ready to be an angel and be made in His image.