Dear God, grant me the peace that exceeds my puny ability to be calm in the storm. Remind me to inhale your grace and exhale a little breeze of compassion and understanding into this broken world – even when I’d rather throw a temper tantrum. Shake me gently to reboot my reason so things are put back into proper perspective. Clear the fog from my eyes so I can see the way you want me to go. Be my spiritual GPS and clean the prejudices from my ears so I can hear you whisper “all is well.” Pour the balm of Gilead on my dis-ease. Take my hand and help me walk in faith on the tempestuous waters of my weary world. When I am ready to push the panic button, tap me on the shoulder and remind me to look in the back of the boat where the true captain of my soul is sleeping in heavenly peace. Amen
All of my best friends when I was a kid were my fellow Boy Scouts. Much to my chagrin one of them posted this picture on Facebook a few weeks ago – yes, I’m the short one. This picture is from the day Blaine and I got our Eagle Scout awards. My point is not to brag but to show the Scouts here today that if this 90 pound weakling could make it to Eagle anybody can!
I see a lot of parallels between what I learned in scouting and our Gospel lesson for today, and I want to focus on just two – trust and obedience. A Scout is trustworthy is the first Scout Law. But when I try to remember all 12 points of the scout Law the one I often omit is obedient. There’s probably some deep psychological reason for that, but we aren’t going there today.
When Jesus, a carpenter and itinerant preacher gives Simon the fisherman advice on how to fish Simon’s first response is to say, “Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing.” Simon’s tired, smelly and in bad need of his morning coffee and a shower. But the story doesn’t stop there. Simon goes on to say, “Yet if you say so I will put down the nets.” Why would he do that? Jesus doesn’t know anything about fishing, and yet when he says, “Put out into the deep” Simon obeys. Why?
Luke gives us a clue. Simon begins his response to Jesus by calling him “Master.” He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t already know something about Jesus that makes him respect and Trust him. But before they can catch a boat load of fish they have to translate trust into obedient action and actually “put out into the deep.”
What might putting out into the deep mean for you right now today?? What is God calling you to do that is risky, outside your comfort zone? To fish for people means we all need to spread Christ’s love and mercy to a friend, fellow student, family member, neighbor or co-worker – especially those who are very hard to love.
Another important part of Scouting is the Scout oath which begins, “On my honor I will do my duty to God and my country.” When I was a scout I equated those two things. But with more life experience and deeper study of the Scriptures I have learned God and Country are not one and the same. God is listed first in that oath on purpose. Duty to God is bigger than duty to anything else because God is bigger than anything we can imagine or comprehend. So when our personal desires or interests come into conflict with what God would have us do, our duty is to follow the example of Christ.
That’s what it means to be called to follow Jesus, to be his disciple here and now. The call to discipleship is not just something that happened way back then to Simon and the other fishermen. It is the urging of God’s Holy Spirit calling all of us every day to do our duty to God.
The fishermen were not expecting a call from Jesus. They were just doing their jobs to try and make a living – and out of nowhere Jesus calls them instead to make a life and a life changing decision.
What might that kind of call look like today if it happened to you at work or school? Maybe like this skit:
Cast: Andrea, CEO of a seafood company.
John Thunderson, a friend and client of Andrea’s company
Jamie, John’s sister and business partner
[The scene is a contemporary office – Andrea is the only actor who appears on stage. The others are heard from offstage via microphones. Andrea is at a desk with lap top, papers piled up, disheveled, coffee cups on table, looking very frustrated and harried, coat on back of chair.]
Phone rings – Andrea ignores it for a couple of rings, then answers it, cradles it on shoulder while still working at computer
Hello, yes, this is Andrea.
Hi Bro. Yes, as always, but I’m never too busy for a good idea, what’s up?
Wait a second, Simon; is this another one of your hair-brained pyramid schemes? If I had half the money back I’ve lost on your too-good-to-be-true investment tips I could retire today.
Just give me the bottom line – how much do you need?
No money? OK, I’ll bite, what’s the punch line?
[Cell phone rings] Hang on Simon; I’ve got another call coming in.
[Answers cell phone] Hey John. Can I buzz you back in a sec – I’m on my other phone?
OK, yes, I understand it’s urgent. I’ll get right back to you, I promise. My brother’s on the other line–needs some money or something. I’ll just be a minute. Thanks.
[Disconnects cell phone and goes back to desk phone}
Simon, you still there? Sorry about that. What?
Oh, it was John Thunderson. Probably needs a new jingle for his latest Thunderson Tuna TV campaign. Anyway, what’s the deal here?
You don’t need money, so what do you need? [Pause] My time? That’s even worse. How much time and for what?
Whoa, slow down. I’ve not heard you so excited since you won the singles championship at the club. Let me see if I’ve got this anyways close to straight. You heard this motivational speaker who’s recruiting volunteers, and you want me to go with you to a training session for two weeks — in Buffalo???
Simon, I can’t do that. I’m swamped here. We just opened that new processing plant in Savannah. The shrimpers union is holding me up for a huge increase in benefits. [Looks at calendar] And I promised Mike I’d take care of the kids this weekend so he can visit his mother. I just can’t.
Yes, I’m really glad that he’s attracting big crowds. And I know we can use all the networking and publicity we can get for the business. You go and let me know how it looks when you get back. What kind of time commitment are you looking at after the training session?
Well, you better find out. I need to get someone to cover your territory if you’re going to be a groupie for this guy and save the world.
[Looks at phone] Now what? Text just came in. Gotta go, bye.
[Dials desk phone]
Jamie, it’s Andrea. Got your text. What’s going on?
Yeah, John called awhile ago, but I was on the other phone; so I haven’t really talked to him. You sound excited about something. Is everything OK?
[Cell phone rings] [Pauses and looks at phone] – Yeah, it’s John again, hang on Jamie.
[Answers cell phone]
John, sorry, I haven’t had a second to call you back yet. [Pause] Yeah, matter of fact; she’s on the other phone right now. Listen, let me call you back and we can do a conference call, OK?
[Hangs up cell and picks up desk phone] Jamie, you still there? Good. Listen, that’s John on the other phone. Let me put you on hold a minute while I call him back and we can all talk together on a three-way, OK?
[Punches buttons on phone] OK, you both there now?
John and Jamie: [together, from off stage over mic] Yes, I’m here.
Andrea: Good. What’s going on, you both sound frantic about something? Your folks OK I hope?
John: [excitedly] Yes, they’re fine, thanks, but I called because I’ve got this great idea I need to talk to you about!
Jamie: [interrupting] And I called to warn you about this crazy idea that has relieved John of his senses!
Andrea: Whoa, one at a time, please. Jamie, you go first.
Jamie: Andrea, please talk some sense into my brother will you? He’s gone batty over this guy and wants to run off tilting at windmills!
John: Jamie’s just too conservative, Andrea, not willing to take any chances. This is really big and we need to get in on the ground floor. I mean you have to hear this guy in person to understand. He’s just amazing, the way he can motivate people and inspire loyalty and creativity.
Jamie: But what does he know about the fish business? He’s a building contractor, for god’s sake!
John: For God’s sake–that’s it! I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that’s it! He’s got some kind of extraordinary power. Why take chances with something that awesome? If he’s a phony, he’ll fade away faster than Frosty in the noon day sun. But if he’s the real deal, I don’t want to be on the outside looking in. And I don’t want my friends and family there either.
Andrea: Slow down, you two. Who in the world are you talking about?
John: Didn’t Simon tell you? He said he was going to Buffalo for the training.
Andrea: Oh, that. I didn’t realize you were talking about the same thing. I didn’t listen to him all that carefully I’m afraid, just too much other stuff going on.
Jamie: Good for you, Andrea. I’m glad someone still has at least one foot planted in reality. This guy is a contractor who has had some kind of religious experience and thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity. He’s peddling peace and love and a bunch of feel good stuff that just won’t play in the real world. I hope you didn’t let Simon sell you a bill of goods.
John: I can’t explain it, Andrea. But, trust me, you owe it to yourself to meet this guy and decide for yourself. There’s something about him that I’ve never seen or felt before. He simply exudes this amazing sense of peace. He looks at you, and it’s like he sees right thru to your soul.
Andrea: Sounds like x-ray vision to me. I don’t want anybody getting that close to me, thanks.
John: I know, I didn’t think I did either. But this is different. There’s no sense of threat, no judgment–just affirmation and love. He takes you where you are and draws out the very best in you. I’m going to Buffalo this afternoon, Andrea, and I think you should come along, really.
Jamie: Great and you’re leaving me to take care of Mom and Dad AGAIN?
John: Yes, Jamie. They’ll be OK for a few days. This is more important. I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my life. Please come too, Jamie; give it a chance. The rat race we’re in isn’t making you happy. There has to be more to life than selling fish. This is more important, I just know it is.
[Pause–while Andrea weighs her options, then starts putting her coat on to leave]
Andrea: Sorry Jamie, I’ve known John since high school, I’ve never heard him so psyched before. I’ve got to see what this is about. It’s up to you, but I wish you’d come with us and give it a try.
[Andrea hangs up phone and exits, leaving everything as is on the desk]
I wrote that skit 15 years ago for a clergy gathering that was held here at Northwest over in the ministry center. It was the first time I was ever in this building, and I had no idea that part of my call would bring me here to be part of this great congregation many years later. I want to thank the talented people who made that video possible – you probably recognized Heather Sherrill as Andrea, but off camera were two other wonderful people – Barbara Luke as Jamie and our AV coordinator Eric Gauder who recorded and produced the video. These are very busy people. It took about a week of texts and emails just to find an hour when we were all available. Yet they took time to do this because they know that part of their call is to share their talents with and for God’s church.
God is still calling you and me every day, but like Andrea and John in the skit we stall and procrastinate and rationalize. So why do we resist God’s call upon our lives? When the first disciples haul in that amazing boat load of fish Luke says the crowds were amazed. But notice Simon’s immediate reaction when he suddenly realized who Jesus is. He falls on his knees and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
It’s that feeling you get when going a little over the speed limit and suddenly realize there’s a state trooper with a radar gun aimed right at you. To follow God can be scary because of guilt, sin, insecurity, or the big unknown of just what doing our duty to God might involve. Jesus is calling these fishermen to leave everything they have done, everything they do — their comfort zone, their livelihood. And he offers no detailed job description. He just says, “Follow Me.” That’s scary- like being a federal employee trusting the government won’t be shut down again in five days.
When I first felt my own call to become a pastor I was 15 and at a senior high church camp worship service. We were asked to sign a 3 x 5 card if we felt called to some kind of Christian service. I signed the card, but I didn’t tell a soul – not even my family. In fact it took me 4 years before I was ready to reveal that call publicly. Why? Fear – I was afraid of being ridiculed or shunned by friends who would be afraid to be themselves around me. As you saw in that first picture I was already a little nerd. I didn’t need any other uncool qualities for my peers to judge.
So I said “Sorry God, I’m going to be an aeronautical engineer.” I lived in Neil Armstrong’s hometown so that was a very respectable calling. And it promised a lot more financial security than being a pastor. But God doesn’t play fair. She persisted and even used my first college calculus course to finally convince me to switch majors and plan on going to seminary.
But answering God’s call does not mean you all need to enroll in seminary tomorrow. God’s call is as unique for each one of us as we are all different in many ways. God’s call is very simple- just love each other – and that requires no graduate degree. It can be a ministry of your presence at a funeral, a phone call or a card to lonely friend, taking a meal to a grieving family, donating to charity, praying for someone in need, visiting a nursing home, writing a letter to a legislator about a social justice issue. Opportunities to answer God’s call are all around us, here and now every day. Our call is to pray for wisdom to discern what it is God wants each of us to do right now and then trust that call enough to go into action.
All the church growth experts agree that people are most likely to visit a new church if someone invites them personally. Notice that in the Scripture for today Jesus gives a personal invitation to the fishermen, and for them to respond so quickly he must have done it with urgency. We can’t tell from the written narrative – we don’t have snapchat photos or video so we miss the inflection in Jesus’ voice or how it felt to have Jesus look you in the eye and say “Follow Me.” And he spoke their language. They knew how to catch fish; so he says, “Come with me and I’ll put the talents you’ve already got to work catching people for my Kingdom.”
We have to be smart about discerning when God is calling us and when it’s a wrong number. The best way to be smart is to enlist help. Scouts are organized in troops – there no such thing as a solo scout, and there’s no such thing as a solo disciple.
Obedience to God doesn’t mean taking every problem on personally. Even Jesus needed help and called disciplines to join him. Well, guess what – Jesus needs reinforcements even more today. He’s no longer walking this earth and relies entirely on people like us to Trust and Obey him. If we do God empowers us with the Holy Spirit and will guide us to discern exactly what it is we are each called to do. And when we say yes, God provides the courage for us to do our duty.
God often speaks to us through music, and this week for me the message has been coming through a loveable green frog. Kermit puts it this way: “Have you been fast asleep, and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name. Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors, the voice might be one and the same. I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something that I’m supposed to be. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me.”
May today be that day. Amen
Benediction: What is God calling you to do? God is pretty persistent – so you might as well answer the call, nudge, text, email or personal invitation. You won’t regret it. Go in Peace.
The world is a little colder today and not just because the weather outside is frightful. With thousands of people around the world I am mourning today the death of Bishop Judy Craig. When my mother and mother-in-law both died within 3 months of each other Bishop Craig went out of her way to inquire how I was doing when I saw her at a meeting. She was the most pastoral and yet genuinely prophetic human being I have ever known. 15 years later when we were colleagues at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio – I was the director of the Doctor of Ministry program and Judy was Bishop in Residence. She was scheduled to teach a course in that program one weekend and got news on Thursday that her brother had died out of state. I was also out of town and very concerned about who would teach that course, but when I reached Judy on the phone there was not one question about it. She was at peace with human mortality and knew there was a time for mourning, but it would be after she taught that course.
The last time I saw Judy was at a special dinner in her honor at the seminary where a scholarship was established in her honor. She had her portable oxygen with her, her physical being was failing; but it was oh so very well with her soul. When I waited my turn in line to greet her after the dinner I bent down to speak to her and in true Judy Craig style she complained about our making all this fuss over her. But then she did something I’ll never forget. She pulled me down close to her and kissed me on the cheek; and now I will always know what the kiss of peace is.
She was a rebel and a trailblazer for any and all who were marginalized, but she also had spent many years in local church ministry where she learned the art and necessity of balancing pastoral and prophetic ministry. When she gave the best commencement address I’ve ever heard at MTSO in May 2008 she told this story that captures the very essence of her spirit which lives on in all of us who were blessed to be touched by her life.
“I’m reminded of the story of a farmer who hired a builder to come and use the finest materials and build a beautiful barn. Then the farmer went out and got on his tractor and bulldozed down the old barn.
And the next day there was a storm threatening, but the farmer went into town anyway. And the storm hit, and the sleet was going sideways, and as he drove home, he was smiling to himself because he thought of his cattle in that nice, warm barn. He’d left the doors open so they could get in.
But when the farmer got home, he found the new barn empty. He went back out in the sleet and the wind, leaned into it as he walked toward where the old barn had been. And there, huddled in the wind and the sleet, were the cattle – inside the foundation of the old barn.
Recognize that? You’ll encounter people like that. Just then, dig out your patience and your modeling and your best invitational self. Pull out those great biblical illustrations about God’s future and the wonderful stories of church history. And then go and stand with those miserable cattle in that wind and love them anyway until they will finally begin to follow you into the new barn.”
Judy, you will always give us compassion to love because you so loved us.
“There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” – Robert Frost
When I was a young child some people in our neighborhood built a fence on the property line between their house and their next door neighbors. That was unusual in those days before subdivisions where almost every yard is fenced. This fence was also unusual for several other reasons. It was 8 feet high but only about 16 feet long, leaving easy access around either end between the neighbors’ yards. You see it wasn’t a practical fence at all since it could not keep anyone or any animal from easily just going around it.
I overheard my parents discussing this fence one day and thought they were calling it a “spike” fence which made no sense because it was completely flat on top. There was nothing spikey about it! When I inquired about the fence my parents told me it was not “spike” but a “spite” fence because the neighbors who built the fence were angry with the folks next door. I don’t know if we ever knew what they were angry about, but I realize now the fence was a symbol of their animosity about something. It wasn’t really made of plywood but of anger.
Symbolic walls are much harder to tear down than physical ones, and I believe that is the reason for the stalemate and government shut down just now. President Trump has correctly pointed out that in the past Democrats have voted in favor of parts of a wall on our southern border; so the problem is not about a physical wall or about needing better border security, it is about what this wall has come to symbolize.
From the day he launched his campaign for president with remarks about Mexicans being “murderers and rapists” to racist comments about “s***hole” countries, to his refusal to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville this President has demonstrated over and over that he is a racist. His father was a racist landlord in New York, and son Donald has not evolved from those roots.
Racism is an expression of fear, in this case fear of losing power and privilege that wealthy white males have controlled in this country since the first illegal immigrants landed at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And the wall stalemate/debate is grounded in that fear, and that is why it is so hard to resolve.
I have reread several artistic reflections on walls as I enjoy my own privileged status to sit in comfort with a cup of coffee and ruminate about what are life and death issues for unpaid government workers and desperate refugees. My thoughts have ranged from the account of the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6, to a play about an imaginary wall (“Aria da Capo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay), to Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” to my own climbing up on a part of the Great Wall of China a few years ago.
All of those walls are the result of fear and somewhat based on reality. The citizens of Jericho were wiped out by Joshua and his men when “the walls came tumbling down.” The two shepherds in “Aria da Capo” kill each other because each of them has what the other wants on his side of the wall, but as they die and collapse on where the wall “is” they discover it does not exist except in their own imaginations.
I don’t know my Chinese history well enough to know how well the Great Wall worked at keeping their enemies out, but the sheer magnitude and effort and cost it took to build that wall speaks volumes about how great their fear was.
Frost’s poem cuts to the chase by asking hard questions about the need for walls. Do fences make good neighbors? Are walls needed if we follow the advice of the Great Commandment in both Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels to “love our neighbors as ourselves?” Maybe that’s naïve, but on the other hand maybe it’s the only way, truth and life?
One of my goals for the New Year was to cope better with my chronic aches and pains. Now the phrase “be careful what you ask for” has new meaning for me. I injured my right shoulder a few months ago and was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, 50-50 chance that physical therapy would help me avoid surgery. I think those odds have gone down. I have reinjured it twice in last couple of weeks lifting things the wrong way. This is not the way I wanted to practice dealing better with pain.
My theologizing about pain seems to come around on a two year cycle. (cf. my post on 3/25/17 “Rejoicing When God says No,” and 5/19/15 “Encouraged and Inspired.”) As in both of those instances I keep coming back to St. Paul’s verses (II Corinthians 12:7-10) where he describes his repeated requests for God to remove an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t know if this is an actual physical ailment, a metaphor for another kind of suffering, or both. Here’s what those verses say in the NRSV:
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
If this was just about physical weakness I should be getting stronger by the minute, but of course it isn’t. The repetition of “not being too elated” indicates that’s important. The “slings and arrows” of life can serve to keep us humble, and when dealing with God’s power that’s the only realistic stance to take.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in “The Message” helps reinforce that point:
“So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’”
I don’t like the word choice of “handicap” by Peterson. In no way do I want to tell anyone with a disability or handicap that it is a gift from God. But we all have challenges to cope with be they physical, emotional, or relational, and accepting those humbly as just the way things are is much better than either being resentful or conceited.
God is not a super being that we can call upon to intervene and pull out our thorns. That’s like complaining that roses come with thorns instead of rejoicing that thorns come with roses. For reasons that are above our pay grade to understand the human condition comes with pain. I am inclined to agree with Buddhism’s diagnosis of that pain as being caused by our “attachment” to things that are temporary. My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about letting go – letting go of things I can no longer do and humbly finding and celebrating things I can do, I hope with more wisdom gained through experience. Letting go is important practice for that inevitable letting go that comes with mortality.
And ultimately the feeling of being at home in the universe, my favorite definition of “Faith,” comes from letting go of our need to control or understand everything. As mere beings our humility/weakness makes room for the true majesty and mystery of Being itself, which we call God.
I don’t claim to have achieved Paul’s contentment with “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I am not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them!! But I do recognize that state of “being content with whatever I have” which Paul describes in Philippians 4:11 as the goal of faith.
Paul describes that feeling in different words that are very familiar: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I also like the way Peterson paraphrases that verse because it emphasizes the Creator/creature nature of our relationship with God which is the reason humility is our ultimate reality.
Peterson says, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” That puts things in their proper perspective.
The final scene of the excellent movie “Castaway” shows the star, Tom Hanks, in a barren landscape at the intersection of two deserted country roads. Hanks plays a FedEx pilot who is the sole survivor of a crash in the Pacific. He manages to stay alive on an island with no companionship except a volleyball he names Wilson. When he miraculously is rescued and returns to his former home after several years he discovers that it is sometimes true that you can never go home again. His wife having buried a symbolic empty casket after giving up hope of his survival has remarried and moved on with her life, leaving Hanks more adrift on land than he was at sea.
Then years behind schedule Hanks delivers the lone package that survived the crash to a rural address where a beautiful artist lives. Leaving her home he comes to the aforementioned crossroads, and the film ends leaving the question hanging as to which way he will turn.
That metaphor came to my mind as 2019 began 12 days ago, perhaps because our nation and world seem to be a crossroads where the future shape and even survival of our planet depends on choices we as world citizens must make about climate change, international relations, our use of technology for better or worse, etc. Perhaps the cross-roads image is even more vivid for me because the church denomination I’ve given 50 years of service to is coming up fast on an intersection in Indianapolis in less than a month. A church conference will be held in February that will determine if the United Methodist Church survives and if so in what form.
Personally my 73rd New Year’s means I have accumulated many memories of different turning points and roads not taken in my own life. Professionally 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a United Methodist pastor. I made huge decisions to accept the responsibilities of ordination, and in those 50 years since I’ve made thousands of personal and professional decisions that brought me to where I am today. Yes, there are many of those decisions for which I’d like to have do overs, but like the Hanks character I know I can’t go back and make a different choices as to which way to turn in my life.
But the past is prelude to my next chapter. I can learn from the choices I made in the past to inform decisions I will make in the future. The kinds of crossroads I will face in my 70’s and beyond are certainly different than those I encountered earlier in my life, but as long as I draw breath I will make decisions about how to live each day of my life and what goals or bucket list items I choose to pursue. In retirement I actually face more decisions every day since my daily routine is not predetermined by job responsibilities. There’s both freedom and anxiety in that situation. It requires more energy to make so many decisions at a time in life when energy is at a premium.
Twice in this New Year I have seen something early in the morning on our bedroom floor that I have never noticed before. I’m sure it must have been there before, but I am not a morning person and admit I am even less observant when I first roll out of bed than the rest of the day. What I’ve noticed is that the light that slides out from under our bathroom door intersects with a white edge on our carpet to form a beautiful cross. I’m still wondering why it is just now that I’ve recognized that symbol, but what it has helped me realize is that so many of the decisions that have determined my course in life revolve around the cross.
I was born into the church, baptized as an infant and taken regularly to church my entire childhood. That decision for my early life in the shadow of the cross was made for me, as was one of the most significant turns in my life course when I was 11 years old. Until that point in my life we had attended a small rural Congregational church in the community my father grew up in 5 miles from our home. But when I was nearing my 11th birthday my parents made the decision to find a church in the town where we lived. They wanted me and my sisters to go to church with the kids in our school and for me they wanted a good Boy Scout troop. It so happened the Methodist church had the best Boy Scout troop in town, and as they say “the rest is history.”
Because of the sacrifice my parents made in giving up the congregation and friends they loved my life went down a totally different path than it would have otherwise. My life for the next 7 years revolved around that church and that scout troop. My values were shaped by the Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, and scout leaders who went down that road with me. All of my friends and most of the girls I dated were part of that congregation, and when I answered the call to ministry I chose to attend a liberal United Methodist seminary that transformed my faith and purpose not only for ministry but for my life. As a United Methodist I was active in the leadership of the Wesley Foundation student ministry in college, lived in an intentional covenant community/rooming house sponsored by that ministry; and it was also on one of my first visits to the Wesley Foundaiton that I met my first wife who is the mother of my children, grandmother to my grandkids, and still a dear friend and colleague in ministry.
All because of a choice made for me to attend First Methodist Church. And now 62 years later that denomination, which became the United Methodist Church in 1968, is facing a momentous decision about the acceptance or rejection of LGBTQ persons as full and equal sisters and brothers. Which road our General Conference will choose to follow next month will have far-reaching consequences for this large denomination of Christians and will create a crossroads that will require many people, including me, to make difficult personal decisions about our own relationship to the church. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will empower faithful and courageous choices inspired by the one who chose to take the road to Jerusalem and face the cross waiting for him there.
I/We can do worse at the cross roads of 2019 than pondering the meaning of these words written for the 1905 Methodist Hymnal by Frank M. North:
“Where cross the crowded ways of life, Where sound the cries of race and clan
Above the noise of selfish strife, We hear your voice, O Son of Man.”
In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.
Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.
Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.
During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen