Learning to Play into Love: Playing into Our Differences

by. Rev Doug Gray

Once a little girl went to a special dinner at her friend’s house. The vegetable that night was buttered broccoli, and the mother asked if she liked it. The child replied very politely, “Oh, yes, I love it.” But when the bowl of broccoli was passed, she declined to take any. The hostess said, “I thought you said you loved broccoli.” The girl replied sweetly, “Oh, yes, ma’am, I do, but not enough to eat it!” Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It’s one of those things Jesus says that makes Christians nod and say to themselves, “Oh yes, I love it, but none for me right now.” We would much rather play at life, and loving our enemies seems more like work. But I believe the ability to forgive enemies and show them compassion is one of the key ways God releases power into our lives and into the world. How can this be? How does this work? And how can we begin?
How can this be? On the face of it, forgiving our enemies is supremely unnatural. Jesus notes this when he says, “You have heard that it was said, “Love your friend and hate your enemy.” It’s the way the world tells us it should be: what goes around comes around. Revenge is a dish best served cold. And when we are hurt, striking out is often our first reaction. During the dark days of autumn, 1936, the empire of Japan invaded China through Korea and into Manchuria. Thousands upon thousands of Japanese troops poured in, bringing their tanks, bombers and a ruthless brand of extermination and torture. The Japanese feared the Chinese Christians and went out of their way to destroy their churches and kill believers whenever they had the chance. Among the believers were the president of China, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Madame Chiang. At the height of the conflict when the Japanese troops were at the walls of the capital city of Beijing, Madame Chiang rushed through the chaos to her mother’s room in the palace. Finding her Mother’s door closed she gently pushed it open. Finally, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw her mother in the corner of the room, kneeling in prayer. As the bomb flashes lit up the room she could see that her mother’s face was peaceful, even content. Madame Chiang rushed over to her and knelt beside her. “Mother,” she whispered. “You are so powerful in prayer. Are you praying for the defeat of our enemy? Will you ask God to crush them before our entire country is wasted? Could you pray for an earthquake to annihilate them?” The old lady smiled gravely and then gently caressed her daughter’s face. “No, my daughter. This is not my prayer. When I pray, don’t expect me to insult God’s intelligence by asking Him to do something which would be unworthy of you, a mortal.” It was a lesson Madame Chiang never forgot over the many years she and her husband spent in exile on the island of Taiwan. (Adapted from Macartney’s Illustrations) Praying for our enemies even loving them is not normal. It’s not natural. It is supernatural, and it can only happen when our hearts have been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. It’s this kind of love that Jesus showed as He hung dying on the cross, in an agony of pain—he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It’s this kind of love that transforms lives.
How does this work? In a sense, loving our enemies works because love dodges past the walls of hatred and violence to penetrate and challenge the heart of our enemy. I know I’ve told this story a few years ago, but it’s worth telling again. Robert Baake tells a story that happened a little more than 30 years ago: a young man was studying to be a doctor in Cairo. The craziness of his residency in a downtown hospital was made harder when his father was murdered. Though everyone knew who had done it, the police could not find enough evidence to arrest the man. One day, this young resident was working in the ER when he received word that the ambulance was bringing in a gunshot victim. When the gunshot victim came in on the gurney, the young doctor couldn’t believe his luck: there on the gurney was the man who had killed his father! Shaken, the young doctor ordered the necessary, preliminary work, and then he found a phone and called his mother. “Mom,” he said, “the guy who killed dad is in the other room. He’s been shot. All I have to do is take my time and he will die. What should I do?” She paused for a moment. Then she said clearly, “Jesus Christ was a healer. You are a healer. You must heal this man for Jesus.” The young doctor did just that. You can imagine the wounded man’s surprise when he came out of anesthesia to discover one of the people who most wanted him dead had saved his life. When the young doctor explained that this is what Jesus would have done, the murderer burst into tears, confessed his crime and begged for forgiveness. The young doctor surprised himself by giving it. Eventually the two men became friends. After a time, they concluded that God wanted them to do something for the poorest people in Cairo. They could think of no one poorer than those who work in the landfills of the city. Because the Jews and Muslims have taboos about dealing with the unclean, the vast majority of the 80,000 people who work amid the utter squalor of the dumps of Cairo are Christian. These two former enemies found a small building that was not being used and started a Bible study. Their first meeting had 11 people, including themselves. Fast forward twenty years. That Sunday school class now meets in a hollowed-out hall in one of the hillsides, enough to seat 5000 at a time. The point of this story is not how great the numbers are, nor is it about the importance of going out and starting bible studies (though that is always a great thing). No, the point of this story is that forgiveness and healing between two people was the seed God grew into a mighty fruit tree that not only transformed those two souls, but fed the bodies and souls of many people since. When we love our enemies, the power and might of God is released into us and the other. It works this way, because when we love our enemies, we are loving like God. Jesus says in our passage, “When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”
One of the challenges of our time that Christian Schwarz points out in his book, The 3 Colors of Love, is that we are encouraged to start with feeling good or loving, and to let the feelings shape our thoughts. Then when we act out those thoughts, we have our good and loving deeds. Loving feelings lead to loving thoughts lead to loving actions. It can work that way, but for most of us, the real growth comes when we start with loving thoughts—forgiving thoughts—then act on those loving thoughts, only to discover that the feelings of love follow. Think of our young doctor friend. If he acts on his feelings, the man who killed his father will never be his best friend. If we listen to our feelings, we will often not be our best selves. What we really need is to listen to Jesus Christ, to allow the still, small voice of God to change what we choose. Perhaps by letting God change our thoughts and our actions, perhaps we will find our feelings and moods gradually change too. Our goal after all is to become more like Jesus.
What makes it hard to forgive our enemies, to listen to widely divergent opinions, and to welcome people’s differences—is fear. We fear that we will hear something that will upset us or make us uncomfortable. We fear that someone will not like us or be upset with us. All of those things could happen. But since our God loves us—we can live our lives as if we had an audience of one. If we are doing what God would want, we are ok. Even better, we are loved. Why should we fear people? We can let the love of God rule our lives—that means we can forgive and we can listen and we can accept that God is at work in lives very different than our own, with opinions very different from our own. Perhaps the real blessings—the real and best play in life—are only available to all of us, if we can begin to forgive our enemies and welcome, even play into our differences.
Which brings us back to a little girl and broccoli, and to us who are sitting here. “Loving our enemies? Oh yes,” we say, “I love it. But none for me right now.” To this God has two things to say: First, a word of compassion to those who are hurt: God sees your pain. Jesus knows your pain, for he suffered unfairly too. Lay your pain at God’s feet and let his arms enfold you. Second, a word of challenge to the rest of us: Grow up! Grown-ups think before they act, and try to do the right thing regardless of their feelings. Did we think following Jesus was going to be all ice cream and cake? Let us start stretching ourselves to depend more on God’s strength. Let us relax into the security of God’s arms. We can think less about our rights and more about the people around us, yes, including our enemies. Will it hurt us to be compassionate? Jesus didn’t just die for you, but for your enemy too. Through you, Jesus wants to touch them with the same grace you received. Yeah, I know it’s hard, hard for everyone. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. Jesus loved his enemies and prayed for those who gave Him a hard time. Let us grow up in the faith today, and let God’s grace shine through…today and every day.

Learning to Play into Love: The Green of Justice

by Rev. Doug Gray

During a practice session for the Green Bay Packers, things were not going well for Vince Lombardi’s team. Lombardi singled out one big guard for his failure to “put out.” It was a hot, muggy day when the coach called his guard aside and leveled his awesome vocal guns on him, as only Lombardi could. “Son, you are a lousy football player. You’re not blocking, you’re not tackling, you’re not putting out. As a matter of fact, it’s all over for you today, go take a shower.” The big guard dropped his head and walked into the dressing room. We might think, “Man, that is harsh!” And maybe it is. When we read something like the messages God gives Amos and James, our first inclination is to think, “Man, that is harsh.” They make us feel uncomfortable, and in our time, we often just ignore the things that make us uncomfortable. Yet, if we stay in the tension, that uncomfortable place, God can teach us. Today, I want to suggest three ways God can take our discomfort with these passages and rearrange our lives.
First, God’s house—God’s rules. Have you ever heard the fateful words, “As long as you live in this house…” or “As long as long as you live under this roof…”? Have you ever said them? I have a friend who heard those words, and so she left. But that’s kind of hard to do with God—because God’s “house”…is the whole universe! God made it, and God set the “house rules.” How do we know what God wants? One way is by exploring the universe and history as we they come to us and trying to understand how God works through them. Another way is by reading God’s Word, which throughout the generations, throughout the centuries, has spoken truth to those who read it. We don’t have to like how the universe runs, but it’s still going to run that way…God’s house—God’s rules.
Second, justice matters to God. Justice is a cool word, but not onemost of us clearly understand. What is justice to God? So as many of you know, Cynthia and I have three children, and Morgan is 10 years older than Caleb. When Morgan was in high school, she had the chance to travel to Europe for a couple of weeks, and Hannah desperately wanted to go. “It’s not fair!” Hannah said. “I haven’t even been out of the country!” To which Cynthia replied, “Fare is what you pay to ride a bus.” By which Cynthia meant among other things, “Yep, it’s not fair. But ‘fair’ is not as important as ‘right.’” The idea of “making things right” seems to be hugely important to God. In fact, God seems to stick up for the bullied, to defend the defenseless, and to help the helpless. God seems to delight in accomplishing amazing things with people no one expects. Ancient Egypt was a superpower with awesome military and governmental might, but when the Egyptians enslave and oppress the Hebrew slaves, and they call out to God—God comes to free them! The story of the Exodus is God stepping in on the side of slaves. Whenever God’s people are oppressed and desperate for rescue, and they turn away from what they want, turning towards what God wants—God does amazing things! Starting in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God talks about taking care of the widow and the orphan, talks about caring for the stranger in your midst, because you once were strangers in Egypt. Jesus told a story about the importance giving food to the hungry, drinks to the thirsty, invitations to the stranger, clothes to the naked, caring for the sick and visiting people in prison. Mysteriously, when we do those things, Jesus said we were doing them to Him. God cares—and God loves it when we care. In a world that is often not fair, God wants things to be right, for everyone to know they are loved. God cares about justice.
Third, God gives us opportunities to change. Sometimes that happens through circumstances. The former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Mike Holmgren looks back at a heartbreaking moment, when he was cut from the New York Jets as backup quarterback to Joe Namath, that directed him to a bigger plan. “I had committed my life to Jesus Christ when I was 11, but in my pursuit to make a name for myself in football, I left God next to my dust-covered Bible. But after getting cut from the Jets, I pulled out my Bible and found comfort in a verse I had memorized in Sunday school: ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). I asked Jesus Christ to take control again. My priorities in life are faith, family, and football—in that order.” Holmgren had the wisdom to take the opportunity to change. In addition to changing circumstances, throughout history, God has sent people to speak the uncomfortable truth to self-focused power. That’s what God asks Amos to do in a time when the wealthy are getting wealthier, and the poor and being ground down into the dirt. The message sounds harsh! It’s a wake-up call! The few are so comfortable that they can’t hear the alarm bells going off! The God who cares for the poor, who listens to the prayers of the lost and the lonely, who welcomes strangers and frees slaves—God is going to take care of them. This means that God wants to be part of our politics, but not as a Republican or Democrat. Jim Wallis, in his book, God’s Politics:  Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, writes, “God’s politics are therefore never partisan or ideological. But they challenge everything about our politics. God’s politics remind us of the people our politics always neglect—the poor, the vulnerable, the left behind. God’s politics challenge narrow, national, ethnic, economic, or cultural self-interest, reminding us of a much wider world and the creative human diversity of all those made in the image of the creator. God’s politics remind us of the creation itself, a rich environment in which we are to be good stewards, not mere users, consumers, and exploiters. And God’s politics plead with us to resolve the inevitable conflicts among us, as much as is possible, without the terrible cost and consequences of war. God’s politics always remind us of the ancient prophetic prescription to ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live,’ and challenge all the selective moralities that would choose one set of lives and issues over another.” [1] Again, this is not Democrat or Republican, not the standard evangelical or liberal Christian. This is about being passionate for God and letting God’s Word and God’s Spirit work in us. When we are on the wrong side of God’s idea of justice, the hammer can fall anytime. We had better turn around quick! Fortunately, God gives us opportunities to change.
Forty-five minutes after dressing down that big guard, when Lombardi walked into the dressing room, he saw the guard sitting in front of his locker still wearing his uniform. His head was bowed and he was sobbing quietly. Vince Lombardi, ever the changeable but always the compassionate warrior, did something of an about-face that was also typical of him. He walked over to his football player and put his arm around his shoulders. “Son,” he said, “I told you the truth. You are a lousy football player. You’re not blocking, you’re not tackling, you’re not putting out. However, in all fairness to you, I should have finished the story. Inside of you, son, there is a great football player, and I’m going to stick by your side until the great football player inside of you has a chance to come out and assert himself.” With these words, Jerry Kramer straightened up and felt a great deal better. As a matter of fact, he felt so much better he went on to become one of the all-time greats in football and was voted the all-time guard for the first 50 years of professional football. What God wants most is for each of us to see that there is a great person—a great follower of Jesus Christ—inside us. If we are failing, if we are not on the right side of justice—God will tell us the truth, and we may not want to hear it. But the question we should be asking ourselves as we listen to the prophets is the same question Lombardi hoped the guard would be asking, “But is he right?” And in that uncomfortable place God can teach us justice. In that uncomfortable place, perhaps we will see the face of Christ on a sister or brother. In that uncomfortable place, perhaps we will find God is sticking by our sides until the greatness of Christ in us has the chance to come out and assert itself. Please God, may it be so.


1 Jim Wallis, God’s Politics:  Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005), p. xv. The scripture to which Wallis refers is Deuteronomy 30:19, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

 

Learning to Play into Love: The Red of Truth

by Rev. Doug Gray

This fall we are considering the idea that maybe working at our faith is often not as helpful as playing at our faith. We can still be passionate about God, still long for God, still love God with our whole hearts, minds and strength, but maybe playing has more of grace and opens us to our dynamically creative God in some new ways. Last week we talked about how God’s love and God’s light go together, and that like light, they can be broken into different colors—blue for grace, red for truth and green for justice—all of them ways to express love and light. Today we are thinking about the red of truth, and we will ask the question, how does truth help us play the game of life better?

The Truth is always more than we think.
In a trial, a Southern small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly grandmother to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy, and frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned! Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She again replied, “Why, yes, I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women. One of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.” The defense attorney nearly collapsed. The judge instructed both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said, “if either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll send you to the electric chair.” I think we would all agree that Mrs. Jones told the truth. The Truth can make us uncomfortable sometimes, like these lawyers. But Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) How can living our lives in the light of truth help our lives become more playful and more fulfilling?
Let the Truth be always more than we think.
Once there was a husband who had too much to drink…again. When he got home, he snuck up the stairs quietly. He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he’d received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he had totally pulled one over on his wife. When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. “You were drunk last night, weren’t you!” “No, honey.” “Well, if you weren’t, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?” I think sometimes we are like this husband:  we over-indulge ourselves and arrive home beat up and bruised. Rather than share with God what’s really going on, we sneak in and put band-aids on our image. We think we’ve gotten away with it, but God is not fooled. Why do we do this? Are we afraid to stand before God as we are? Are we afraid of what God will say? To our fears, Jesus speaks the words, ““I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.” The love of Jesus, shown on a cross. The forgiveness of Jesus, great enough to clean the stain of any sin. Even when we think something is unforgiveable, Jesus’ steadfast love and powerful forgiveness are great enough to let us come home. That’s what Jesus means when he says in another place, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The Truth is what frees us from the chains that bind us. Like light shining in dark places, Jesus’ truth scatters the cockroaches of worries that control our night. Like alcohol poured on a wound, so Jesus’ truth cleanses our hurts so they can heal. We sometimes wonder how God could forgive us, but the Truth is always more than we think.
The Truth is always more than we think. Once, when someone was stubbornly arguing with him, Abraham Lincoln said, “Well, let’s see how many legs does a cow have?” “Four, of course,” came the reply disgustedly. “That’s right,” agreed Lincoln. “Now suppose you call the cow’s tail a leg; how many legs would the cow have?” “Why, five, of course,” was the confident reply. “Now, that’s where you’re wrong,” said Lincoln. “Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Have you heard the expression, “The truth is what you make of it”? Or maybe “All truth is relative”? People can say lots of things, but no matter how we try to fool ourselves and others, ultimately there is a reality bigger than us, a Truth with a capital “T”. You can call it what you want and ignore it at your peril, but that Truth still exists. Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer, is famous for saying, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” So whether or not we believe in God isn’t going to make God go away. In our day, how much of our day is spent wondering what news story to believe, what person to believe? When we are in tight with Jesus, Paul says our goal in the church is that “the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” The truth is always more than we think.
The Truth is always more than we think. We are inclined to think of truth as science does—what we can see, touch and hear, what we can measure, and reproduce. But the Bible talks about Truth as a relationship. The Hebrew word for truth is ‘emuna, but we often read it as trustworthiness or faithfulness. Since God made the universe, then it will run on God’s principles! More precisely, we know God is trustworthy because of Jesus, because of how Jesus and God are not in it for themselves. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” For Jesus, it was not about His life—it was about the life of those who want to come in through Him. Jesus didn’t come so we could live boring lives or lives in little tiny boxes. Jesus came so we could have a great big, abundant life, life to the full and overflowing! So if our lives are founded on God’s Truth and trustworthiness, the Truth is always more than we think.
The Truth is always more than we think. The day Jesus was crucified, Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Israel. Jesus said to him, “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” And Pilate asked the question all of us would ask, “What is truth?” Jesus doesn’t answer. I have often wondered why? I wonder if it’s because even though there is a capital “T” Truth, the question is really whether we will seek our own personal truth that always winds up empty, or be on the side of God’s truth which frees and fills us. At times, the truth may make us feel uncomfortable, but only because we don’t like what we learn—that we blow it, that we fall down, that we are often afraid, and that we can be selfish and harsh. We know that’s not what Jesus wants for us, but it’s true nonetheless. But even in the dark and difficult places, God is with us—God is trustworthy! Even when we struggle to do what we know is right, God strengthens us. Even when we are not sure where the courage is going to come from to follow the Lord who loves us, Jesus carries us. And through it all, “…speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Let us, then, be on the side of the Truth, and let us look for Who is trustworthy, for the truth is always more than we think.

 

Learning to Play into Love: The Blue of Grace

by Rev. Doug Gray

Leah Pelligrini tells the story of a guy who comes down with the flu. He’s the kind of guy who swims laps at the gym before work, who remembers to back up his computer on a weekly basis, who displays his kids’ crayon masterpieces in frames on his desk. He is used to being in control. But thanks to the flu, he is reduced to…” a dripping, miserable mess. “He is even forced to surrender the second half of a day when he had intended to Get Important Stuff Done.” Finally, the lunch hour drags in. He collapses into his car, crawls into his house and closes himself into his bedroom. We “can imagine him contorted under the covers with the curtains drawn, sniffling and writhing in the dark, and sputtering to himself through the garbles of congestion, “Everything is [garbage].” [1] At times, I have been that guy, maybe you have too—miserable, in the dark, feeling like nothing is going to get better, and if someone were to turn on the light, we feel like it would probably just hurt anyway. But light is just what we need.
Of course, the Bible is full of images of light. The first thing God says in the Bible is, “Let there be light!” And it was good. John would say of Jesus, “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5) One of the curious things about light is that it can be broken up into separate colors, and one way we use that electronically is to project red, green and blue to make color images on a screen. Christian Schwarz in his book, The 3 Colors of Love, uses this idea to help us talk about God’s love and our life with God. According to Schwarz, if we read the Old Testament closely, three words are used about God’s love all the time—hesed (grace), emunah (truth), and tsedaqah (justice). Over the next couple Sundays, we are going to explore all three of these, but it all starts with God’s love that blends all three of these perfectly together. In fact, as we will come to understand, in order to play into love we will need all of them. Today, we will focus on the blue of grace.
Grace is one of the few really good words Hallmark has not made too nice. It has a rich, complicated meaning for us. When you think of grace, what comes to mind? What is grace to you?

[take responses from the congregation]

Yes, wow! Excellent! Grace is indescribably beautiful and perhaps the best one word answer to who is God, because God’s love is grace. In the Old Testament, when the writers want to talk about God’s love—real love—the first word they start with in Hebrew is hesed. It’s not easily translated into English because at its core, hesed is a relationship that hangs in there, loves when it’s hard, forgives when it’s hurt, sacrifices when it’s not expected—love that gives itself away to make things better. And grace feels miraculous. In the movie, Bruce Almighty, God (played by Morgan Freeman) says that “a single mom who is working two jobs and still finds time to take her kid to soccer practice—that’s a miracle. A teen-ager says no to drugs and yes to an education—that’s a miracle.” For my money, the best English translation for hesed is steadfast love. But when we read the Bible for ourselves, we can find that rich, wonderful hesed translated as all kinds of things—mercy, love, covenantal love, compassion.
In our passages for today—yes, three of them!—we see God coaching us into the steadfast love of grace. Each of these passages helps us with a different piece of the hesed puzzle. The first piece of the hesed puzzle is to love with all we are. Before each of our children was in school, my day off during the week was often spent doing something with one of them. We’d go around and look at fish tanks, run errands for the family, play games in the yard—whatever would be fun for my 1–4-year-old at the time. One day I was getting phone calls from the office that were making it hard for me to focus on Hannah, and I saw a long-suffering look on her face and realized this was not the Dad I wanted to be. I thanked God for the insight, and after the second call, I silenced my phone, and put it away. Instantly, her face brightened and we went on to enjoy our time together, but I had to decide whether I was going to give her my whole attention or only part of it. Do we love like that? Do we love a little, but not give our whole heart? When we love, God longs for us to love like God—completely, utterly, ultimately. Go all in and love with all we are.
The second piece of the hesed puzzle is that love hangs in there. Do you ever do or say something, and afterward you think, “What was I thinking?!” I do it all the time! I try to have it together, keep it together—and sometimes it just comes out wrong or I do something I know better than to do. One of the things that astounds me in the world is that through all of those “What was a I thinking?!” moments, Cynthia has continued to love me. My parents have continued to love me. Steadfast love continues to hold on. Michael W. Smith sings, “And friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them. And a friend will not say never, ‘cause the welcome will not end.” That’s hesed, and it’s breath-takingly beautiful when someone’s love hangs in there.
The final piece of the hesed puzzle is that love is scandalously open-hearted. In the Old Testament, God chooses a couple, Abraham and Sarah, for a special, covenantal relationship. Why Abraham and Sarah? I don’t know! We can make guesses, but at the end of the day, we don’t know! That God chooses a single family—Abraham’s family—to become God’s special, chosen people—to love and defend and sacrifice and teach—it’s a scandal! Abraham and Sarah and their family are not right all the time, and sometimes they get it really wrong, but still God chooses them, loves them. According to Genesis, God’s vision was that the whole world would be blessed through these people, that they would be a light to the nations. Through these people God wants to show special care to the widow, the orphan and the alien in our midst, to change people’s hearts. Hosea speaks for God, “I desire hesed and not sacrifice.” In the fullness of time, Jesus came to broaden this mission, so that the whole world might receive this same scandalous invitation from God: “I love you! And I want to be with you forever!” It’s the love we see as a father throws a party for a son who has squandered his wealth. It’s the love Jesus explains as he describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a heavenly banquet where God is going to make sure everyone comes in. That may offend us. Perhaps we want only the nice people, the good people to make it in, and Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps we want only the hard-workers or the people who look like us, and Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” God loves each person—even the ones we may not like—as if they were the only one. God’s love seems to be scandalously open-hearted.
And we can get grumpy sometimes. The world doesn’t go the way we want it to. We can be sick of body and diseased of soul, thinking to ourselves, maybe even thinking about ourselves, like the guy with the flu, “Everything is garbage.” The story teller continues, “After a few hours as he tossed and turned and ached, he heard tiny footsteps on the stairs, footsteps that paused briefly before gently opening his bedroom door. As he was about to rasp, ‘Please, please go away and leave me alone,’ he heard the voice of his 3-year-old son who said, ‘Daddy, I just came to hurt with you. I just came to hurt with you.’ The little boy crawled into bed beside him, put his arms around his neck and taught him as he would later reflect, the true meaning of what it means when we say Emmanuel, God with us.” That God is with us, [2] that we are loved—it’s a gift. Grace. Like all true grace, it reminds us that we are anything but garbage, that we are beautiful and wanted, that everybody is. God is with us and we are loved, and grace will play anywhere.


[1] Based on Leah Pelligrini’s (https://thecorestories.com/story-light/) retelling of the true story originally told by The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Washington National Cathedral, December 23, 2016. https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-rev-randolph-marshall-hollerith-4/

[2] Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Washington National Cathedral, December 23, 2016. https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-rev-randolph-marshall-hollerith-4/

Kick-Off Sunday: Learning to Play into Love

by Rev. Doug Gray

So as the title of my message today suggests, I have been thinking a lot about playing, and I wondered if you would think out loud with me for a moment? What are your favorite games to play? What do you like about them?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

That’s very good! Did you notice what they all have in common? They are fun! Do we have to work at them sometimes? Sure, but we play them because they are fun. Are we always happy with how they go? No, but we play them because they are fun. The problem with lots of people’s approach to God is that either they take it too seriously, or their church takes it too seriously. What if loving were more fun and more rewarding?

First, grace frees us to play. One day a young, new preacher was walking with an older, more seasoned preacher in the garden. Feeling a bit insecure about what God had for her to do, the younger minister was asking the older preacher for some advice. The older preacher walked up to a rose bush and handed the young preacher a rosebud and told her to open it without tearing any of the petals. The young preacher looked in disbelief at the older preacher and was trying to figure out what a rosebud could possibly have to do with her wanting to know the will of God for her life and ministry. But, because of her great respect for the older preacher, she proceeded to try and unfold the rosebud while keeping every petal intact. It wasn't long before she realized how impossible this was to do. Noticing the young preacher's inability to unfold the rosebud without tearing it, the older preacher began to recite the following poem:

     It is only a tiny rosebud
     A flower of God's design;
     But I cannot unfold the petals
     With these clumsy hands of mine.
     The secret of unfolding flowers
     Is not known to such as I.
     GOD opens this flower so sweetly,
     Then, in my hands, they die.
     If I cannot unfold a rosebud,
     The flower of God's design,
     Then how can I have the wisdom
     To unfold this life of mine?
     So, I'll trust in Him for leading
     Each moment of my day.
     I will look to Him for His guidance
     Each step of the Pilgrim's way.
     The pathway that lies before me
     Only my Heavenly Father knows.
     I'll trust him to unfold the moments,
     Just as He unfolds the rose.

The curious thing about our lives is that we have the power, the responsibility to make decisions, and yet, part of loving—and loving God—is simply a gift, the unfolding of grace in our lives. We cannot make ourselves more mature in God, any more than a rose can unfold itself or a fruit can make itself any riper. We become mature by loving. We love because God loves us first. Paul writes, “…hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Relax into God’s arms, relax because we know God will be with us no matter what. Let the work and play run together. Let love be the gift we are given and the gift we give. Let God fill us. Let the grace free us to play.
Second, be aromatherapy for the world. So I need a volunteer for a moment, someone who can recognize fresh herbs. [Get a volunteer from the congregation, and invite them forward.] I have here three different kinds of fresh herbs, and I want to see if you can recognize them by the smell. [Hold out the three bags of herbs—mint, basil and rosemary—one at a time.] Very good! Would you pick one of these to take back to your seat? You can take it home with you if you want. The thing about people of God, is that if we are full of grace, then the grace of Jesus Christ wafts through the world with us, like the scent of these herbs as [the person who has the herbs] goes back to their seat. If the love of God is who we are, and the love of Christ is what we try to do all the time, then the Holy Spirit is the fan that wafts the scent of Jesus wherever we go. It’s unmistakably beautiful! The people who love kindness will smile. The people who don’t believe in a free lunch will grimace. The people who are having bad days will feel better. The people who feel bullied or beset by their problems will take a deep, refreshing breath. The people who take life oh so seriously, may feel a little more like playing. The best part about herbs is that if by chance you crush a leaf—[crush a leaf of basil or mint between your fingers]—it releases even more scent! And that’s true of those who follow Christ too. The people who crucified Jesus thought they were ridding the world of Him, but by placing Him high on the cross, they just made it easier for the world to see. Wherever those who follow Jesus are crushed for the sake of love, their kindness and joy and love have penetrated and changed the world even more. We are called to be aromatherapy for the world.
Maybe what the world needs most of all is people like you and me, who are willing to let fear get swallowed up by love. Maybe what the world needs is people who get that taking God seriously means playing and having a good time as we live and learn to play into love. God has paid the price already, before we were ready. Surprise! And so we laugh with God and ask God to show us how to play into love, and change the world.

How to Get Out of the Time Crunch

by. Rev Doug Gray

I love Labor Day weekend! I love the delicious irony that we celebrate Labor Day by resting or playing or cooking or whatever…pretty much anything but labor. I also love that it’s the deep breath before the school year starts—for us in the church, the year of ministry. But where did the summer go? Do you ever feel like there’s not enough time? What are some of the things we feel like there’s never enough time for?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Sure. Of course, there are also times when deadlines are on us, and we get into a time crunch. In a sense, our experience of time is very weird—sometimes stretching out before us with endless possibilities and sometimes shrinking until we are funneled down to one moment. From the day we are born, we live our lives moment by moment, but always forward. Our passage for today is one of the most important passages you will ever read because it not only deals with the nature of the universe, but the meaning of life and how to get ourselves out of the time crunch.
First, God’s Name says it all! In verse 14, God says, “I AM who I AM”—or the Hebrew could mean “I WILL BE who I WILL BE.” But if we are thinking about how we experience time, God has left out something. Did you notice? God left out “I WAS who I WAS.” Remember that God created time and space. Like a painter that stands outside her painting, or an inventor who stands outside their invention, God is stands outside of time and space. Unlike a painter or inventor, God has chosen to be involved in life within the universe, but God is not limited by them. So where we are limited to living our life moment by moment only forward, God just is. In fact, in every time and every place, God is. Which means God is—in our past—and God is with us now—and God is with us in the future—even though we are not there yet. God is there already. The idea that God is in all times at the same time, and still God is not bound by time, that is what eternity is. God says, “I AM.”
Second, God’s call us to the adventure. As many of you know, I love weddings, and when I run the wedding rehearsals, someone from the wedding party always asks me, “How do I know where to look?” I always say, “Wherever the action is, that’s where you are supposed to look.” That’s really true in our passage for today. So we are going to go through God’s words and look for the action. What’s the first verb you see that God speaks? Good! God sees—my people and what they are going through. What’s the next verb? Yes! God hears—the cries of His people who are hurting. What’s next? That’s right. God knows/is concerned—what they are going through matters to God. Another one? Come down? Whoa! God is stepping in?! Wow! To do what? Three more verbs here. Yes, to deliver, to rescue. Once a friend of mine had a retriever that found a rabbit’s nest and went to bite one of the little ones. The owner pounced on the dog, and before it could bite the baby rabbit, forced the dog’s jaws open, and snatched the baby rabbit out. The word for rescue here is like that, “snatching” the Hebrews from the jaws of Egypt. Alright! Two more verbs. “To bring up.” They are going to leave one land and go to another, to leave one life and find another, to leave the old and find the new. They are going to rise! God will bring them up. The last verb? Do you see it there? Now, go! Because I have seen and heard and care…because I have come down to rescue and bring up…therefore, God says to Moses, “You go. I am sending you.” Because God sees and hears and cares and has come down to rescue people and bring them up, God says to us, “You go! I am sending you!”
These words, these commands, are a little unnerving. We might start by pointing out that since God has come all this way, we would hate to deprive God of the chance to do this. Or we might try to suggest that really we don’t have time right now. Would tomorrow work? Or we could try what Moses does, and say, “Who am I to do this?” Which brings us to third, God is with us. In a sense, this is the answer to all our reservations, struggles and excuses. There’s always a reason to not be one of God’s team, to make one of God’s plays for the lost, the last and the least. We can always trot out some rationale for why we can’t help this person in this moment. We are after all finite beings—limited in energy and money and time. The call to adventure never begins conveniently, but if God has grasped our attention (with or without the burning bush), then we become aware of God’s Presence. We become aware that in our moment to moment life, we have reached a turning point. This is the moment. This is the time when we make a decision to follow God’s lead—or not—to let the One Who is outside of time guide our steps—or not—to learn to trust that the Presence of God comes with a promise to rescue and bring up, not just the other person, but us! God is with us!
Here we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of all existence:  that the God who sees and hears and cares has come down—to meet Moses and to be in Jesus Christ, who said, “I AM the bread of life…I AM the good shepherd…I AM the vine…” But even more incredible than God coming down is this crazy idea of God working in and through us—just like Moses and Jesus—to free those who are enslaved, to bring hope to the hopeless, and to love those who are left out. When in our moment to moment lives we take a moment and give it to God, in that moment we touch eternity. Instead of being on the world’s time, we step outside and live on God’s time in God’s terms. The more we love like God does, live like Jesus showed, the more we will laugh with joy! The time crunch is gone, swallowed up in victory!

 

 

Yeah, God Knows It’s Hard, But That’s Why God Is with Us

by Rev. Doug Gray

The story is told that one Sunday, the Sunday School was giving a presentation in worship. Every child had worked really hard to learn some of Jesus’ words, but one little boy forgot his lines. Fortunately, his mother was in the front row to help him. When he was drawing a blank, she gestured and formed the words silently with her lips, but it didn’t seem to help. Finally, she leaned forward and whispered the cue, “I am the light of the world.” The child beamed and with great feeling and a loud clear voice said, “My mother is the light of the world!” We chuckle, perhaps because we can imagine the relief of the boy, and perhaps the embarrassment of the mother, but throughout the ages, God has worked through women to let His light shine. Today our eyes have turned to two more of those women, what some might think are unlikely heroes, two midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. Why are they heroes?

First, they recognize who is really in charge. In the story, after Pharaoh commands the women to participate in his genocidal plans, our passage reads, “But the midwives feared God…” We need to remember that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for fear is a complicated one. It can mean simple fear like “I’m afraid of the dark,” but it’s also used to describe the awe we can experience in the presence of something big and wild. That’s the sense we have in sayings like the one from Proverbs:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[1] Or Isaiah as he is talking about God’s anointed one,

      “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
                 the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
                 the Spirit of counsel and of power,
                 the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
     3     and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
            He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
                       or decide by what he hears with his ears;
     4    but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
                     with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. [2]

In C.S. Lewis’ fabulous book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Christ-like figure is a huge lion named Aslan. Through a talking beaver, Lewis says,

     “He’s the King of the wood, and the Son of the great Emperor Beyond the Sea…”
     Susan replied, “A Lion? Is he safe? I shall be rather nervous about meeting a lion…”
     “Safe?” [rejoined the beaver]. ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King
     I tell you.” [3]

I’m with Susan. If I were meeting a lion face-to-face, with nothing between us, I would be rather nervous too. So you see, fear makes sense if we are in the Presence of Someone so much bigger, so much stronger and so untamed. And our midwives, Shiphrah and Puah have that kind of holy fear of God. Paul would add, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Faced with the imperial power of Pharaoh, still the midwives honor God by doing what God wants. They know that God is the one really in charge.

The second reason these midwives are heroes is that they know that life will find a way. The Book of Common Prayer reads, “In the midst of life, we are in death,” but I think the reverse is perhaps even more true:  In the midst of death, we are in life. That idea is everywhere in this passage. The language is all about multiplying, swarming, teeming, spreading…all about life. Have you ever tried to stop life? We have joked with each of our kids when they were growing fast, that we were going to put a brick on their heads to keep them from growing so fast. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? One part enjoying the present and wishing it could continue, but also another part recognizing that no matter how hard we try to keep things from changing and growing and becoming, the more it will escape our limitations. How pointless are the Pharaoh’s attempts?! Fear leads him to try to block the growth of a people, even trying to twist the river (a source of life) into an instrument of death. And it fails! Shiphrah and Puah even say the Hebrew women “are lively and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” Who’s in charge of life? It’s not Pharaoh! In the midst of his death-dealing, a couple gets married and by God’s grace brings life into the world, a boy who will change everything. Life is going to find a way.

Underneath all of this is the reality of God’s unstoppable, steadfast promise working its way in the world, for Shiphrah and Puah the Promise of a land, a people, and a Presence. The power of this promise can be threatening to the powers that be, as Pharaoh feels threatened by the multiplying Hebrews. But the harder people try to oppose God’s promise, the more out of hand things will get, as we read, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” The power of this promise brings hope to those who are beat up, beaten down and just beaten, and that grace is among us, and that God sticks with those who stick with God.

“Is He safe?” Beaver says. “’Course He’s not safe. But He’s good.” And in Jesus Christ, we see the same principles as in Shiphrah and Puah today. Are the Pharisees who sentence Jesus to death in charge? They have the authority to sentence Jesus to death, but they are not in charge. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden reminds us, “Daddy, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” Are the Romans in charge as they take Jesus to the cross? Perhaps in name. But as Jesus hangs on the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And talk about life and love finding a way! The Resurrection proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that when we put God first, when we trust that God’s life will find a way, we will experience the power and Presence of God. Is God safe? Of course not. But it’s because I see God coming to us in Jesus Christ, because I hear the love in Jesus’ voice as He prays in the Garden and on the Cross, because I have experienced that love in Christian community, I can know that Jesus loves me—not safe, but loved.

For us living in the First World in the 21st century, our passage is a cautionary tale. If we align ourselves with the forces of oppression in our day, we will find ourselves on the losing side, because God cares about the poor and the needy, the widow, the orphan and the alien in our midst. Indeed, to the extent that we align ourselves with the forces of hope and equality, our lives will have less fear and anger, and more peace and grace, because we are bringing our lives in line with God’s promises. It starts simply:  by us choosing to do what God wants first, and by finding ways to add life and liveliness to those around us. It’s true what the little boy said, “My mother is the light of the world.” Wasn’t she trying to help her boy succeed? Of course! Did it happen the way she expected? Of course not! That’s life, working its way out in love. But what the little boy perhaps didn’t realize as he was trying to do his level best, is that he too was a light, sharing truth. Jesus would say to all who would listen and he says to us today, “You are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Yeah, it can be a big, scary, hard world, but that’s why God is with us and God’s love shines through.
 


[1]Proverbs 9:10

[1]Isaiah 11:2–4

[1]C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Quoted from audio-dramatization “Help from the Beavers,” 5:30. ©1998

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The Well, the Work, and the Waves

by Rev. Doug Gray

Of course, we’ve all heard things like, “She has her father’s eyes” or “He’s got his mother’s laugh,” but can you name any of your physical traits and which family member they “come from”?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

It won’t take us long to think of other things we get from our family—a love of nature, joy in helping others, or a pet peeve—and some of the things we get from our family we are maybe not so happy about. We might even call them character flaws, or dysfunctional approaches to relationships. In our passage for today, we surely see the favoritism and family deceptions of Jacob’s family suddenly explode. How do we deal with dysfunctional family traits? How do we find hope as we wrestle with ourselves, our families and our God?
First, let’s be honest. There are times when we are like Joseph in the well. What are some of the things that land Joseph in the well?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

If we are honest about our own character and our own situation, when we find ourselves in the well—a deep, dark place in our lives—we have often set ourselves up. Oh yes! At times our own brokenness and weaknesses come out in ways that trip us up. When I was a kid, I learned that making people happy meant that I felt good and I felt safe. That works fine if you’re a kid. As an adult and a leader, I discovered not only that I can’t make everybody happy, but that I will wear myself out trying to do it, and the things that I really want—or that I know God really wants—sometimes mean someone is going to be unhappy with me. But if I’m honest with myself, that people-pleasing thing can get me into trouble really fast, and lead me to being really unhappy. For Joseph, all his flaws are coming home too. Maybe that’s happened to you too, and when it does we can be honest and own the pieces that are ours.
Second, recognize that we are powerless to get ourselves out. In college, I played on the varsity volleyball team, and I was shown how to approach the ball and hit. So I learned it. The next season, a new coach who had led several teams to national championships, came and told me I was doing it all wrong. I had to start over, learning the right way, but I couldn’t get it right without his help. The challenge with healing our deepest character and family flaws, is that most often, we only learned them one way—the wrong way! We didn’t learn to do them the right way. The easy, familiar ways for us to behave are the ones that got us into trouble in the first place. Usually there comes a point when we begin to see clearly that our challenge is more than we can get ourselves out of. When we are trying to change at the deepest levels, we realize we aren’t even conscious of all the places where we need to change. Like Joseph, we are in the well, and then sold into slavery. We may even ask, “Why, God, are you letting this happen to me?”
Third, lean into God. The thing is that Joseph can’t really do much about the well or the slavery. He can’t control those pieces. So what’s left? God and himself. Where is it God is taking him? How will God be with him? How will God make a way for him? How can he live so that God can bless him? When I was relearning my approach for hitting in volleyball, I went through a period where it seemed to get worse—I couldn’t hit anything. My timing was off and there were times I went home wanting to cry because it was so hard and it felt like I was failing so badly. But my coach kept encouraging me—telling me when I did it wrong, helping me understand when I was getting it right even if it felt all wrong to me. When we are trying to change at levels we can’t really reach, we can fight it, or we can lean into Coach Jesus, and receive the encouragement, strength and guidance we need.
The problem with the well is that we can’t see a way out of it. We can’t see how we can possibly be what God says is possible—more wholeness, more peace, more joy. The real work begins as we lean into God and trust that God will guide us to the right place, even if it’s a place we can’t see or understand or even imagine. And we may even have a sense that we are going through even tougher times than when we started. Leaning into God, learning to trust God in the middle of the hardest times is the real work. But we are trading our sorrows for joy. We are trading our pain and flaws for renewed relationships and better tomorrows…but dang! It can be hard. Fortunately, we don’t just worship an abstract God, because in Jesus we find someone who stands in the middle of the storms of our lives, who invites us to leave the safety of the boat and step out onto the waves. Suddenly, we discover we are loving and treating people in new ways—it’s like we are walking on water! How did we do that? If we are honest, we know it’s not us. Because if we are honest, we know we were the cause of most of our problems. Because we recognize how powerless we are to escape the depths of our problems, we know these changes are not ones we have made. While we were trusting God, leaning in for God’s strength and encouragement, God has been making us ready for power. Through the well and the work and the waves, we keep our eyes on Jesus, who knows what it’s like to surrender himself to God’s guidance, and who walks with us through dark places to better days. We can have our heavenly Father’s eyes of compassion. We can grow our heavenly Father’s heart. We can have our heavenly Father’s life through the well and the work and the waves. If we will only lean into God, our deepest flaws and our hardest relationships can be healed. If we will only lean into God…

 

Our Name That Turns Struggles into Transformation

by Rev. Doug Gray

The last few weeks we have been spending time in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, with some of the greatest Bible stories of all time. Sometimes we have been amazed at their faith—as we watch Abraham and Sarah get up and go where God wants or wait for the baby that doesn’t come until he’s 100 and she’s 90, or Isaac and Rebekah dealing with childlessness. Sometimes we shake our heads, because they play favorites with their kids and manipulate their way through the family. We would surely call them a dysfunctional family. And still God loves them! And still God’s keeps the promise that God will be with them, that God will give them a land and descendants, and will bless the world through them. The most manipulative part of the story so far is when Jacob and Rebekah conspire to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the great blessing that should be Esau’s inheritance. It works, but Esau is just waiting for their dad to die before he tries to kill Jacob. So Jacob gets out of town, meets God in a dream one night, and arrives in Northern Syria to stay with his mom’s brother. Twenty years later—and some dysfunctional relationships later—Jacob has four wives (I did say dysfunctional!), twelve children, and tremendous wealth in livestock and servants. God says it’s time to go home. As they get within a few days journey, Jacob sends a messenger to test the waters with his brother, Esau. The messenger returns saying, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” Jacob starts to take steps to make sure that his family survives if Esau’s troops attack. That’s where we come to the story:

When I was kid, my dad used take my brother and me into the living room. We would clear all the breakable things away, and then we would have what my dad called, “a tussle.” We would jump on Dad and he would roar and sometimes he would fall over, and then other times he would pick us up and throw us across the room onto the couch. We would laugh and grab his ankle and his arm and try to pin him down, and he would pretend that we were making it hard for him, but he was so strong and so big, my brother and I knew he could take us anytime he wanted. As I watch Jacob and God wrestling in our story today, I wonder if it’s a little like my dad wrestling with my brother and me. I mean, it’s not as if Jacob really has any chance of beating God, right? Can’t you hear the answer? “In this corner, weighing in at infinite power and endurance, the immovable rock who meets the irresistible force, the Lord of Hosts and King of Kings, God Almighty! And in this corner, weighing in at 180 pounds of middle-aged flab, the trickster himself, Jacob!” Who do you think is going to win? And still God wrestles with Jacob! Why?

First, God wants us to know God intimately. Who’s the hardest person to beat in basketball? The person we practice with all the time! We know how they think, and we know that little fake they do with their head before they go the other way. The more we play and work together, the more we know each other. That’s why we often do team-building exercises at work, why we do things together as a church family—so we will know and appreciate and care for each other. That God can end this match at any time says that God wanted Jacob to know and understand him better. When we face times of trouble, wrestling with God and ourselves, it really helps to remember that God wants us to know Him.

Second, stubbornness has its perks. Anyone out there stubborn? How about competitive? What happens when you are stubborn and competitive? I was poking around on Reddit, an online community, and I ran across this post, “My girlfriend and I often laugh about how competitive we are. But I laugh more.” So that’s kind of funny, but then I read the comments:

     •    Haha that’s funny, but I doubt you laughed as hard as I did at this joke.
     •    The real competition is always in the comments.
     •    Found your girlfriend. Stole your girlfriend.
     •    This is a good joke. It was better when I told it, but you did just fine. [1]

You’ve known people like that, right? They just won’t let it go. Is it just stubbornness or competitiveness that keeps Jacob wrestling with God? Maybe that’s all it is, but if Jacob gives up, there’s no blessing. If Jacob gives up, there’s no growth, no change, no hope. When we face stormy times, wrestling with God and ourselves, getting stubborn puts us right where God wants us!

Where God wants us is in relationship with Him, wrestling with God about the things that really matter in our lives. Perhaps Jacob is wrestling with his fears about meeting his brother in the morning, or his worries about his family’s safety. What things are you wrestling with right now? When we face stormy or difficult times, it can be really tempting to just hide until it all goes away, or to give up because it’s just too hard. Wrestling and striving, trying and tussling—Jacob hangs on for the blessing, and is transformed. The name change is just a sign that something has really changed for him—and he will never be the same. Like Jacob, we don’t always recognize that it’s God we are wrestling with while we are facing our challenges, heart-aches and frustrations. We might think it’s just a problem to solve, or a relationship to work on, or sadness to endure, but maybe it’s really God. Maybe it’s God who wants to wrestle with us like a dad with his kids—to be known by us, to bring out our stubbornness, to help us find that new name that God gives to those who are transformed.


[1]https://www.reddit.com/r/Jokes/comments/5nsszj/friendly_competition/

Getting Way More Than We Ask For

by Rev. Doug Gray

The last few Sundays we have been following the great extended, often dysfunctional family of faith in Genesis. Of course, it starts with Sarah and Abraham, the couple who packs up and goes because God says to. That’s definitely faith! And then they believe it when God promises they will have descendants like the stars…even though Sarah is 90 and Abraham is pushing 100. When God says Sarah is going to get pregnant, Sarah laughs—and God says they should name the baby, Isaac, which means laughter! Isaac marries Rebekah. Like Sarah, Rebekah struggles to conceive and when she does…it’s twins! Esau is born first and Jacob second. Isaac likes Esau best and Rebekah favors Jacob. When Isaac is old and can’t see, Rebekah and Jacob scheme to trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing meant for Esau. When Esau discovers the trick, he says Jacob is a dead man. With nothing but the pack on his back, Jacob gets out of town in search of his mom’s extended family, a month’s journey away. Last week we read how God came to Jacob in a dream, promising him land, descendants and a chance to bless all families on earth. God says, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob wakes up and knows he has had a life-changing experience of God. Jacob then continues his journey and makes it to the fields and the well outside the town where his mom’s family lives. He’s just starting to ask a bunch of shepherds how to find his uncle, Laban. That’s where we catch up with our story.

Do you remember what it was like to be left out when you were a kid or a teen? My one saving grace is that I was tall. I remember wanting to be picked for the games, but I was never first. Of course, I wanted the cool people to like me. I suppose what I really wanted to know was that I was special, that I mattered. As you think about what it was like for you when you were a kid or a teen, did you ever have experiences like these? I think most of us do. Do you remember your first crush? Your first job? Your first lousy boss? How do we deal with people who leave us out? How do we learn from the experience? How do we deal with people who are not after our good, but their own? One of the things I love about this passage, is that we get to see all kinds of facets of human behavior and interaction, and we might ask ourselves, how do we find God in all this?
First, play your game. One of my favorite memories of my grandfather, Henry David, was the time he played me in ping-pong. I think I must have been in 7th or 8th grade, and I had spent hours and hours playing ping-pong at youth group and on youth retreats. I had worked really hard at it, and I was pretty good (I thought), so when my grandfather offered to play me, I thought I could take him. I should have paid more attention to the twinkle in his eye. Grandpa totally schooled me. He could make the ball spin away from me, go backwards and even jump at me. The more I lost, the harder I tried, and pretty soon I wasn’t able to even make the plays I was good at. In our passage for today, Laban is totally schooling Jacob. Jacob the Trickster, who tricked his brother out of his inheritance, and tricked his dad into blessing it, has met his match in Laban. But where I got flustered with my grandfather, Jacob stays pretty cool with Laban. He works hard and keeps going. Jacob is playing his game—not Laban’s! Jacob plays the game and trusts God to work everything out.
Second, learn compassion. Once again, this family struggles with playing favorites. Jacob loves Rachel, not Leah. Rachel is graceful and beautiful and Leah has…soft eyes? Do you remember signing people’s yearbooks, or filling out notes at the end of camp? Remember how you could always tell the people who didn’t know what to say about you: “You’re nice.” Or “I like your smile.” I am grateful they liked my smile I suppose, but “nice”? What does that mean? You’re better than a serial killer? Thanks for not being Josef Stalin? I feel for Leah in our passage. The author could say all sorts of good things about Leah, and all we get is “soft eyes?” Rachel is a hot ticket and Jacob loves her, but Leah…not so much. God is paying attention though, and when it comes to making babies, Leah comes up with a touchdown and the extra point! That’s right, seven children! And God has compassion on Rachel too, for she will have two. And yes, we probably need to feel some compassion for Jacob, who is not only working in the fields during the day, but his four wives—Leah and Rachel both give their maidservants to Jacob as concubines—keep him busy at night. They even start trading with each other for Jacob’s attention! Through all this, we can learn compassion from God, who sees people’s needs and looks after the least of these.
When we are kids, it seems like the end of the world when we aren’t picked first for kickball or basketball. We feel lost and left out. As we grow we realize that life isn’t always fair. In fact, mostly life is not fair. There’s always someone who seems to be getting away with something. There’s always a boss or neighbor who is being a jerk, or just in it for themselves. Just as Jacob just keeps living on the promises, so we can just keep playing the game as God gives it to us. Jacob works hard, serving Laban, and God blesses Jacob. Jacob prayed for God to be with him and keep him, to feed and clothe him—and by the time he’s getting ready to head for home, he’s thinking about four wives, twelve children, their servants, their flocks. Jacob got way more than he asked for—some of it was hard, even laughable, but overall it was good. Our lives are often like that too, aren’t they? We ask for blessings, or healing or comfort or strength…and God gives us Himself, a love that never ends, a power greater than our troubles, a hope that never fails. Because we see Jesus willing to go to the cross, we recognize that sometimes our lives will also require sacrifice. And because we see Jesus rising from the grave, we begin to understand that somehow we will not just survive our hard times, but that by a power we can never fully understand, God will lift us up. We always get way more than we ask for…and that is grace!

 

Living into the Moment That Changes Everything

By Rev. Doug Gray

“Where were you when…” These words define our generations and how we understand the world. Can you think of some of the moments when everything has changed for us all? I’ll give you an example:  for some people, they can tell you where they were when they heard that World War II was over. For others, they know exactly where they were when they heard about Sandy Hook Elementary School. What are the events that people might say, “Where were you when…”

[Take responses from the congregation.]

The thing about all of these events is that they stick in our minds with great vividness. We can recall with great detail when our worlds began to shift. While we have some shared experiences about times the world seemed to change, we each have times in our personal lives when everything seems to change. Some call this a “moment of clarity.” An alcoholic—I’ll call her Janet—said, “A moment of clarity is often described as a sudden, and deep acceptance of some truth that has been impossible for us to see.” Can you think of a time when your own world changed? They can be positive or negative experiences.

[Take responses from the congregation.]

When that happens, what is it God is calling us to? How do we live into these moments that change everything? In our passage for today, Jacob has one of those moments that changes everything for him. What can we learn from him?
The first thing is to recognize that something extraordinary has happened. What is the truth or truths we see clearly? Jacob wakes up after having an amazing dream, and says, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” Janet wrote of her moment of clarity, “I remember it vividly. I awoke from a drunken stupor weekend spent in a blackout, lying flat, face down on my kitchen floor, I could not move. I remember my thoughts running something like this: Is there any wine left? What am I doing on the floor? I need more wine. What day is it? What time is it? OMG! What happened? How much did I drink. This is crazy. I am scared. I cannot move. What happened? I cannot move. This is horrible. OMG! I am going to die. This is crazy. I cannot do this any longer. There is nothing else left to do – I will either die a drunk or I have to get sober!” For this alcoholic, the moment of clarity brought clear understanding of the paths and a choice of which one to take. For Jacob, it was meeting God directly in a whole new way—God is not away out there, but God cares and God has promised him a future. We have to recognize this moment of clarity for the truth we can see from it.
The second thing is to immediately do something about this truth. Janet writes, “With this realization, I felt a sense of surrender, and peace, something that is tough to explain; I felt lite and relieved. I had never felt like this before, it was an absolute stillness internally; I was not angry, I was not sad, and I was no longer afraid. It did not matter. Whatever was on the other side of this life, just had to be better. I picked up the phone, and for the first time in my life, I asked for help.” When Jacob wakes up, he immediately stood up the stone that had been his pillow and poured oil on it. Jacob marked that stone and that moment, locking it into his memory acting immediately.
The final thing is to carry that moment into the next moment, the next choice. For Janet, making that first call to get help was only the beginning. “The moment of clarity was vital to my transformation… Many of us struggle for years to get out of the devastating cycle of addiction, because often recovery starts only when the truth finally breaks through our deep denial. For some it happens in this moment of clarity, for others the defining moment is actually the result of a progression of traumatic experiences caused by our addiction. Nevertheless, the moment of clarity has happened to virtually all of us, and it has singlehandedly propelled us into recovery.” For Jacob, the promises God made to him, the relationship they truly started that night—these make him a different person as he starts back on his journey to find his future far away. If we are wise, we carry these moments of clarity into all of the rest of our lives.
Jacob has out-cheated and out-competed his brother, and now he has to get out—leaving his home and family. And in this critical moment, God speaks with clarity. Christopher Kennedy Lawford, in his book, Moments of Clarity: Voices from the Front Lines of Addiction and Recovery, writes, “[Moments of clarity] are rare. Nevertheless, everybody has them. Those unanticipated seconds in time when the whirlwind of life ceases and a virgin oasis of awareness suddenly opens the mind to a thought or a vision that resonates beyond that moment, even when the moment goes away. For addicts and alcoholics, such experiences are usually the catalysts that turn despair into hope and the helplessness of addiction into the promise of recovery.” The ironic part is that we all share in the challenges of addiction in one way or another. In the end, like Jacob and Janet, we often come face-to-face with our flaws and failures and realize that we are hopeless to escape them. And then something miraculous happens—we receive a promise from God that we have a future, and it is not through what we have been. Janet says, “Whatever was on the other side of this life, just had to be better.” Jacob, not really sure about this God-thing, says, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God…” And Jesus makes it even clearer as He struggles with the cross that is to come, and prays “Yet, not what I want, but what You want.” In that moment of clarity comes clarity of purpose…and amazingly God raises Jesus to this new life. And that’s the promise to us today. Maybe this is a moment of clarity for you, a time when heaven and earth are joined, and all of a sudden you understand things more clearly, know God’s purpose more clearly. Won’t you recognize that something extraordinary has happened? Won’t you do something in this moment to lock in the truth you have been shown? Won’t you take this moment and through it, let God change all the rest of your life for the better? The promise Jacob received is also our promise: “…and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, … for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Let’s pray!

 

The Games Families Play…Or Not!

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I love about the Bible, especially the OT, is that God seems to choose unlikely, sometimes flawed people to bring redemption and hope. In the Book of Genesis, once we leave Creation and Noah behind, almost the entire book is about a single, dysfunctional family system that God chooses to pour out love and blessing on and through. It starts with 2 people—Abraham and Sarah—who answer when God calls. God says, “Go to a land I will show you.” And then God promises, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abraham and Sarah sell the house, pack up the camels and start. Where? They only know to keep going until God says stop. Now that’s what I call faith! But the promise is also about family. Just like Abraham and Sarah who go for many decades without children, their son and daughter-in-law, Isaac and Rebekah, are having a similar problem. Will the power of the promise continue to work? How can God make them a great nation when they do not have any children? That’s where we pick up the story today.

What are some of your favorite board games or card games?

[take responses from the congregation]

Why are they your favorites?

[take responses from the congregation]

Part of the reason they are your favorites may be because you just like to win, or because of the good times you have had around the table. But we generally don’t like playing games with people who are over-competitive, who are mean, or who cheat. Right? So when we look at today’s passage, we have a problem—the main characters do all of these things…and more! How the blazes are we to understand God working through this story?
First, faithful people are always trying to find God. One day, a four-year old went to the doctor for a check-up. As the doctor looked into her ears, he asked, “Do you think I’ll find Elmo in here?” The little girl stayed silent. Next, the doctor took a tongue depressor and looked down her throat. He asked, “Do you think I’ll find Sponge Bob down there?” Again, the little girl was silent. Then the doctor put a stethoscope to her chest. As he listened to her heart beat, he asked, “Do you think I’ll hear Barney in there?” “Oh, no!” the little girl replied. “Jesus is in my heart. Barney’s on my underpants.” God is in Isaac’s and Rebekah’s lives. They pray to God. They lean on God for strength and understanding. Are they flawed human beings? Sure. And still they are trying to find God and believe God cares and has power.
Second, watch out for trading away future hope for present security. Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of stew—and gives up his inheritance to fill his belly. Jacob, on the other hand, gives up his integrity to score a win against his brother. I worry about how easy it is to give up our privacy to have a few laughs and see my high-school friends’ pictures. I worry about how often our society seems to make decisions out of our escalating fears, when probably better decisions are made out of loving concern. Oh, wait I see now, that I too can get sucked into worries. Jesus’ disciple, John, writes, “Mature love casts out fear,” so God makes our present secure, and holds out the amazing hope of a better future. Paul writes in our Romans passage, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We don’t have to choose between future hope and present security because God secures them both.
The scandal in all of this is that God chooses. God chooses Abraham and Sarah, out of all the others in their time, to receive the promise of descendants and a land and a purpose:  to be a blessing to all peoples. God chooses Isaac instead of Ishmael. God chooses Jacob instead of Esau. Why? It’s not fair! No, it is not fair. “They are such flawed human beings,” we think. “God could do better.” And we are probably right…but God chose them. All of a sudden, we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of all existence:  that God has chosen you…and me…to love, and die for in Jesus Christ. Wait! Time out! That’s not fair! I didn’t ask for it! It’s true—you didn’t ask for it! Paul writes, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin…”(Romans 8:3) God reminds us that if it were about the rules, about boot-strapping our way to being good, we would all fail and lose the game. We could never be good enough, never keep the rules well enough, and like Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau and all humans, we can always find way to mess things up. And still God chooses them and still God chooses us—out of love.
So the real question becomes, how will we respond? How will our lives be different because God chose us, because God loves us? The real hope is that what was utterly impossible for Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, is possible for us who know Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of a right relationship with God. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.(Romans 8:10–11) And we are empowered by the Spirit to let our fears be overcome by love, to let our selfishness be flooded with trust, and to let our anxieties be replaced by hope. We don’t have to play the manipulating games other people may play. In Christ, we can be a better friend, a better member of the family, because we have strength and wisdom and kindness beyond our own. Life is more than a game and God is at work in us, and with God, in the end we know we will always win.

 

Making Sense of Tough Situations

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I love about the Bible, especially the OT, is that God seems to choose unlikely, sometimes flawed people to bring redemption and hope. In the Book of Genesis, once we leave Creation and Noah behind, almost the entire book is about a single, dysfunctional family system that God chooses to pour out love and blessing on and through. It starts with 2 people—Abram and Sarai—who answer when God calls. God says, “Go to a land I will show you.” And then God promises, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram and Sarai sell the house, pack up the camels and start. Where? They only know to keep going until God says stop. The power of God’s promise is the dominant theme for everything in Genesis after Genesis Chapter 11. Abram and Sarai are so faithful that eventually they will be given new names that are more familiar to us—Abraham and Sarah. They are the parents of the three great monotheistic faiths of the Middle East. Indeed, they are sometimes called the “Abrahamic Faiths.” But before they are Abraham and Sarah, the legendary spiritual parents of our faith, they are Abram and Sarai who know God has made a promise, but they can’t see how it is going to come true. How can God make them a great nation when they do not have any children? That’s where we pick up the story today.

Because our world has some situations for which we do not have answer, the following drugs or herbal remedies are currently under clinical trials:

    •    St. Momma’s Wort — Plant extract that treats mom’s depression by rendering
              pre-schoolersblissfully unconscious for up to two days.
   •    Emptynestrogen — Suppository that eliminates melancholy and loneliness by
              reminding you of how awful they were as teenagers and how you couldn’t wait
              until they moved out.
  •     Flipitor — Increases life expectancy of commuters by controlling road rage and
             the urge to flip off other drivers.
  •    Buyagra — Injectable stimulant taken prior to shopping. Increases potency,
            duration, and credit limit of spending spree.
  •    Jackasspirin — Relieves headache caused by a person who says they love but
            who can’t remember your birthday, anniversary, or phone number.
  •    Anti-Talksident — A spray carried in a purse or wallet to be used on anyone
            too eager to share their life stories with total strangers in elevators.
  •    Nagament — When administered to a partner, provides the same irritation
            level as nagging them all weekend, saving the administering partner the
            time and trouble of doing it themselves.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a quick answer—maybe not a drug—for every tough situation? Particularly where family is concerned, sometimes it’s really hard to know how to deal with people who have important parts in our lives. In our passage for today, we get to watch three people of faith try to figure out what God wants when their family situation is getting really awkward.
First off, try to figure out what God wants by doing something to make things better. Lots of the great things in our world started because someone just decided to do something about it. Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone to help people who are hard of hearing. Mother Teresa starts a mission for feeding and educating children, and later takes care of lepers, because she saw something had to be done. Father Bill’s and Interfaith Social Services here in Quincy began in just that way. Someone’s got to do something, maybe this is what God has in mind. Sarai has a bright idea of how to get around her infertility—get someone else to have the baby! Of course, as Sarai finds out, sometimes our bright ideas don’t work out quite so well. What she thought was going to make things better, seems to only make things worse. Thank God, that’s not the end!
Second, when we get stuck, God is looking for us! When I was five, my parents went out and left me with this really nice teen-ager as a baby-sitter. Part way through the evening, I headed into the bathroom and locked the door—which I knew I wasn’t supposed to do, but anyway. When finished up, I went to the door, I couldn’t get it unlocked. I thought to myself, “I am going to be here for the rest of my life.” So I asked the baby-sitter for a cookie, who went and slid one under the door. Meanwhile, the baby-sitter is trying to figure out how to get the door open, can’t reach my parents, and keep me supplied with cookies. I thought this was a pretty good gig, but eventually the fire department and my parents arrived about the same time. Once I couldn’t get that door open, I couldn’t see a future outside that bathroom, but I did have cookies, and I knew people were looking for me. Hagar can envision no future with Abram and Sarai, so she runs away. When Hagar is stuck and hopeless, God comes looking for her. So she calls God, “the God who sees.” I think we have all had times when it was hard to see our future. In our distress God comes looking for us!
Third, God opens up new paths and new futures. When God comes to Hagar, God grants her a glimpse of a future, when she will have a son, who will be the father of a mighty nation, and together they will be free. Wow! To know that is out there! Just as Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai with a better attitude knowing her life has promise, sometimes when we return to our lives with a better, more hopeful attitude, we are just where God wants us to be! The door to the new future may not be open now, but maybe it will open later. We have a sense that God not only sees our predicament, but that God can see a future we can’t.
Now of course, I am not advocating that God always wants us to return to abusive relationships. Sometimes escape is what keeps people alive and the future God has in mind is a better future without the oppression and violence of that kind of relationship. But I am suggesting that when we experience the same kind of hopelessness or frustration that Hagar experiences, we don’t really need a quick, external answer. The God we worship is a God who sees our trouble and is looking for us. We do our part to try to make things better, but God knows where we are headed and God has a brilliant future ahead for us! In that place, we “can rest in the knowledge that God keeps promises.”[1]

 


[1]Terence Fretheim, Genesis in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Knoxville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 453.

Finding Joy in Endurance: Shining Like Stars in the Darkness

Bob Woods, in Pulpit Digest, tells the story of a couple who took their son, 11, and daughter, 7 to Carlsbad Caverns. As always, when the tour reached the deepest point in the cavern, the guide turned off all the lights to dramatize how completely dark and silent it is below the earth’s surface. Have you ever been in that kind of complete darkness, darkness so complete you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. What was it like?

[take responses from the congregation]

You don’t have to go far to learn that our world can be a pretty dark place. All we have to do is check the news and we know. And yet in our passage for today, we are told that we “shine like stars in the universe.” How are we supposed to do that?
First, always focus on the truth. An old story tells of a desert nomad who woke up hungry in the middle of the night. He lit a candle and began eating dates from a bowl beside his bed. He took a bite from one end and saw there was a worm in it, so he threw it out of the tent. He bit into the second date, found another worm, and threw it away also. He figured that if this went on, he wouldn’t have any dates left to eat, so he blew out the candle and quickly ate all the dates. Paul writes, “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish...” If we are honest with ourselves, we usually know when we are doing things for the wrong reasons, and when we are doing them for the right ones. Then choose the right. Always focus on the truth.
Second, we can let the light change us. David Yarborough tells the story from one of Max Lucado’s books of a lady who had a small house on the seashore of Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. She was quite wealthy, but also very frugal. As you might imagine, people were surprised, when she decided to be one of the first to have electricity installed in her home. Several weeks after the installation, a meter reader appeared at her door. He asked if her electricity was working well, and she assured him it was. “I’m wondering if you can explain something to me,” he said. “Your meter shows scarcely any usage. Are you using your power?” “Certainly,” she answered. “Each evening when the sun sets, I turn on my lights just long enough to light my candles; then I turn them off.” Yarborough goes on to say, “She tapped into the power but did not use it. Her house is connected but not altered. Don’t we make the same mistake? We, too-with our souls saved but our hearts unchanged—are connected but not altered. Trusting Christ for salvation but resisting transformation. We occasionally flip the switch, but most of the time we settle for shadows.” Paul says, “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We want God’s light to change our hearts until we want what God wants.
Finally, shining in the darkness is something we do together. Paul writes, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” As I noted when I was reading the passage, the verb for work out is plural in the Greek. Who does the work? God! But this working out our own salvation with fear and trembling is something we do together with each other and with God! When I asked Cynthia to marry me and she said, “Yes!” and we made promises to each other that was grace. Every day since then, we are working out our marriage—sometimes with fear and trembling! It’s the same with God, isn’t it? God says, “I love you!” and sent His Son Jesus to show us the Way, and to offer His life for ours on the cross. And that is grace so frighteningly wonderful we almost can’t believe our ears! And then God works with us every day, giving us of Jesus’ resurrection power, changing our hearts until we begin to want what God wants, until all we do has God’s fingerprints all over it.
What is it like to be plunged into complete darkness? The little girl, suddenly enveloped in the utter darkness of the Carlsbad Caverns, was frightened and began to cry. Immediately was heard the voice of her brother: “Don’t cry. Somebody here knows how to turn on the lights.” We are the people who know God, and God knows how to turn on the Light! We are the ones who know God is truth, and when we focus on the truth found in love and grace, we reflect this light to the world. God knows how to turn on the Light! We are the people who try to live in the light, to let it seep into our pores, fill our hearts and change our lives. We are a people called together—young and old, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of race and ethnicity—called to shine like stars in the darkness. Jesus said of us, “You are the light of the world.” And here we are today—hungry for the Light, surrounded by others who are hungry for the Light, feeling the joy of the Lord welling up inside of us. Can you feel it? It is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good will. In partnership with God and each other, then, let us be the church on the hill, and in the darkness, let us shine like stars reflecting the grace of Jesus Christ.

Dancing God’s Way Through

by Rev. Doug Gray

Our world is experiencing some challenging, even dark times these days. Perhaps we are worried about our world—with so much violence and hatred, as our leaders struggle to work together. Perhaps we have lost jobs, have someone who is sick or are worried about family who might lose theirs. Perhaps the financial pressures are starting to impact our marriage or family life. Perhaps we are so busy that we find it hard to have time to take a deep breath. It seems like there ought to be a way through these tough times, but how do we find it? Is there really a path God has in mind for us? How do we keep dancing through tough times?

The first sign of God’s way through is that it plays. Have you noticed how focused we are on work these days? We want everything to work—our cars, our jobs, our lives, our kids. We are told we have to work at our marriages and at parenting. It’s all too much work! It’s too serious. For marriage to work it has to play. When marriage is hard is when we need to make sure that we inject some play or a playful spirit. Playing is effort, but it has an element of fun and joy that draws us in and motivates us. We don’t work an instrument, we play it. We don’t work basketball, we play it. One thing I love about this fellowship is we approach worship and work with a playful, joyful spirit—we are determined to help each other enjoy our time together. Paul says, “…make my joy complete,” because the first sign of God’s way is that it brings the joy and freedom we have when we play.

The second sign of God’s way through is paradox. In the last passage for today, Paul writes of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Jesus is God…and human? Yes! How can that be? It’s a paradox. At first we think that’s ridiculous! How can that be? And then we look around and discover how much paradox there is. We live in a physical world of atoms and forces we can touch and measure, and yet our physical world is full of mysteries—the beauty of clouds, and the touch of a small, trusting hand. How can light make things grow in sunlight and cut through steel as a laser? How can a daughter be a grandmother and a mom at the same time? How can we be aware of the history and the future, can remember years and decades, and yet we can only live our lives going forward? Amazingly, paradoxically, the same God who made heaven and earth, is the same God born as a baby in a stable, the same God who has given each of us life and the same God who desires for us to know Him intimately. We can give up our either/or, black-and-white thinking, and embrace the mysterious paradox that tough times provide the path to being stronger, more loving, more whole.

The final sign of God’s way through is servanthood. That’s the genius of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, at the heart of the church at its best—this church at its best. Ann Weems, the great Christian poet, writes this story:

A group of believers gathered in a church. They believed in one God, God Almighty, who made the world and everything in it. They believed in God the Creator. And they believed that God the Creator sent the Son, Jesus Christ. They believed these things and they said them every Sunday. They were very busy and did the things most churches do. They had church dinners and they inquired about each other’s families. And at Thanksgiving they collected canned goods for the poor. And on Sunday mornings they were done decently and in order. They were good church people. But one Sunday morning during the service of worship, a little boy came running in the church door, ran right down the center aisle, and stood under the cross screaming, “Help me!” He was a thin child with dark, sunken eyes. The clothes he wore were no more than rags. His feet were bare and he shivered and then, with a cry, fell—under the cross. Everything was quiet—and then a voice yelled, “Get him out of here!” And another said, “We don’t want to get involved with his kind.” And a third said, “Get someone else.” But the rest of the congregation arose quietly, in unison, and walked as if they were in step until they, too, stood under the cross. They bent and lifted the child gently and ministered unto him. And then, as if for the first time, they noticed each other. They smiled and reached out to one another and began to dance. Some people laughed, and said, “They’re drunk!” But others asked, “What does this mean?” And the people answered, “The Lord’s spirit has poured out upon us. The Lord has anointed us to care for God’s children everywhere who are crying, “Help me!” And now this church is decorated in the bright colors of joy. The people wear robes of caring and commitment. The call to worship is, “Help them!” and the entire congregation dances together.

Of course, the world thinks people like us are crazy. The world rewards people who work and make things work. The world often shrugs its shoulders when we begin to talk about mystery, meaning and purpose. The world often scratches its head as we give up power to love and trade authority for servanthood. But we are people of the promise—when we walk in God’s way, we know there is a way through. Whether in playing or paradox, we know God will give us the strength and wisdom we need to find that way, the way Jesus showed us. And when that way shows us a path where servanthood will lead to sacrifice of ourselves and our lives, we face it not with fear, but with anticipation and trust. We are people of the promise—that when we offer our lives to Christ, even the toughest times show forth God’s glory, and will bring new life. No matter how hard the road, when the world huddles up or hunkers down, God’s way through tough times finds us dancing with the Lord who never lets us go.

“Never worry alone. When anxiety grabs my mind, it is self-perpetuating. Worrisome thoughts reproduce faster than rabbits, so one of the most powerful ways to stop the spiral of worry is simply to disclose my worry to a friend... The simple act of reassurance from another human being [becomes] a tool of the Spirit to cast out fear -- because peace and fear are both contagious.” 
― John Ortberg Jr.The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You


“You can only afford to be generous if you actually have some money in the bank to give. In the same way, if your only source of love and meaning is your spouse, then anytime he or she fails you, it will not just cause grief but a psychological cataclysm. If, however, you know something of the work of the Spirit in your life, you have enough love "in the bank" to be generous to your spouse even when you are not getting much affection or kindness at the moment.” 
― Timothy J. KellerThe Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God


“Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes--all the time! It must be that way, for God's glory and kingdom. If we function according to our ability alone, we get the glory; if we function according to the power of the Spirit within us, God gets the glory. He wants to reveal Himself to a watching world.” 

― Henry T. Blackaby, Experiencing the Spirit: The Power of Pentecost Every Day


“When you strip it of everything else, Pentecost stands for power and life. That's what came into the church when the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost.” 

― David Wilkerson, The Cross and the Switchblade


What made Jesus so irresistible to people in the Roman Empire? Sociology Rodney Stark writes,

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. 1


Ann Weems, the great Christian poet, writes this story:

A group of believers gathered in a church.

They believed in one God, God Almighty, who made the world and everything in it. They believed in God the Creator. And they believed that God the Creator sent the Son, Jesus Christ.

They believed these things and they said them every Sunday.


[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity:  A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 161. Quoted in Leonard Sweet’s Learning to Dance the Soul Salsa:  17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2000), p. 114.

Living Ready: Fearless!

by Rev. Doug Gray

Starting when Caleb was small, he and I have often raced up the stairs before bedtime. I would say, “Ready…Set…Go!” and wherever we were on the main stairs, we would go tearing off trying to get to the top of the stairs first. After a while, I would say, “Ready…Set” and by the time I get to “Set” Caleb had already headed up the stairs. “Hey!” I would call after him. “I didn’t say, “Go!” Sometimes I feel like life is like that, before I’m ready, life is off and running and I’m trying to catch up. Our passage for today has some great ideas for how to live ready, and how to live fearlessly in uncertain times.

First, live with no regrets. The good we know is what we should do. Peter writes, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? … It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Have you noticed how nothing is easy? So the tempting thing is to cut corners and take the easy way out. But Peter is totally right—if we are going to have issues in life—we may as well have them for doing the right thing. Whether we are living forward or trying to catch up, if we live with no regrets, we will always have peace at the end.

Second, let Jesus rule in your heart. Peter writes, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” When we are behind, we don’t have to fear, only trust. When we look into an uncertain future, we don’t have to fear, only trust. If Jesus is Lord of our hearts, then He will be at work in our lives, in our hearts, in everything.

Third, be ready to explain your joy. Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

A very interesting, well-educated Greek philosopher, named Dr. Alexander Popaderos went to the island of Crete every summer to teach a class on ethics for two weeks. One particular summer, just as he was getting ready to close the class, he asked, “Now are there any questions before we go?” And just as he was getting ready to say, “OK then you’re dismissed,” a little man in the back of the room, a rather timid looking guy, sort of hesitatingly raised his hand and said, “Dr. Popaderos?”

“Yes?”

“I have a question.”

“Yes, what is it?”

He said, “I’d like to know, what is the meaning of life?” As you can imagine, people were ready to go home, and they were very irritated by this little guy’s question!

Dr. Popaderos very quickly quieted the group, he said to the class, “You know, if you don’t mind I’d like to answer that question.” He reached into his back pocket, and took out his wallet, and out of his wallet he took a little mirror about the size of a little larger than a quarter, honed down on the edges, kind of sparkling. And then he told this tale, he said, “When I was a child, I began to realize that I could have so much fun with that mirror. I would simply catch the glint of the Sun, and shine that mirror into an otherwise darkened place. As I grew older I began to learn that this is no child’s toy. This is really a metaphor for my life. Now I am not the light—I am not the source of the light. I am simply a broken mirror fragment. But if I allow the sun to shine on my mirror fragment, it is amazing what light I can bring into darkness.” Then he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the meaning of life.” Each of us is a mirror fragment. We are not the Light. We are not the source of the Light. We are simply a broken mirror fragment. But when we permit the SON to hit our mirror fragment, and then bounce off into the life of a darkened heart, there can be change, there can be illumination.*

One of the beautiful things about Memorial Day is that we have a moment to reflect on the lives of others who lived ready, to go where our nation said go and do what had to be done. The armed forces get something that is true of our walk with Jesus Christ:  we must always be ready, for the time of sacrifice and opportunity will come when we least expect it. So are you ready? How’s your mirror? Are you reflecting the love of Jesus’ well? Every day, we rise and think, “Ready…set…go.” But life is already off ahead of us. The world is searching for what we have found and who has found us. “Howard Hendricks said, ‘In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.’ Jesus . . . wants us to see that the neighbor next door or the people sitting next to us on a plane or in a classroom are not interruptions to our schedule. They are there by divine appointment. Jesus wants us to see their needs, their loneliness, their longings, and he wants to give us the courage to reach out to them.” It’s time to stop stuttering and be ready. Jesus is ready to work through us, even when we are not ready. We can live fearlessly in the face of uncertainty, because we can trust God to give us what we need when we need it. Jesus wants to shine his light not only into our lives, but into the lives of those who have no idea where the light is coming from…and they are hungry for it. Jesus is ready to shine.

Ready…Set…

*Source: Matt Black, sermoncentral.com

Running the Race: Dreaming Together

by Rev. Doug Gray


Philippians 1:27 Whatever happens, live a life worthy of citizenship in the Good News of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, playing side by side with one mind for the faith of the Good News, 28and are in no way freaked out by your opponents. For them [your steadiness] is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30since you are competing in the same contest that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Philippians 2:1 If there is any encouragement to being united with Christ, if any persuasive tenderness to His love, if any participation with the Spirit, if any gut-deep affection and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by having the same mind and the same love, with your hearts beating in unison and your minds focusing on one purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or pointless self-glorification, but in deep humility esteem each other as better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others as well.


I watched The Field of Dreams the other night and one of the conversations that struck me is one that the main character, Ray, had with his wife, Annie. Have you seen the movie? Ray has heard this voice in the middle of his corn field telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray sees a vision of a lighted baseball field near his house. A few nights later, he and his wife are lying in bed and she turns over and says:

Annie:   Are you actually thinking of doing this [that is building the baseball field]?

Ray:      ...I’m 36 years old. I have a wife, a kid and a mortgage and I’m scared to death I’m turning into my father.

Annie:   What’s your father got to do with it?

Ray:      I never forgave him for getting old. By the time he was as old as I am now, he was ancient. I mean, he must have had dreams, but he never did anything about them. For all I know, he may have heard voices too, but he sure didn’t listen to them. He didn’t do one spontaneous thing in all the years I knew him. I’m afraid of that happening to me. And something tells me this may be my last chance to do something about it. I want to build that field. Do you think I’m crazy?

Annie:   Yes, but I also think if you really feel you should do this, you should do it.

Some of us here are just getting started on dreaming and we have strong imaginations. Some of us here are like Ray’s father, believing the dreams of our hearts are gone, our hearts and spirits atrophy until we think the time for dreams is over. And many of us are like Ray in Field of Dreams, afraid we may be getting too hard of heart to dream strong, passionate dreams. In today’s passage, Paul dreams a dream for his close friends at Philippi, a strong, heady dream God has for each of us and for this congregation.

Paul’s dream for his friends in Philippi has five parts. Paul first dreams of the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ. The word he uses here for encouragement might mean “support” or “incentive” or “loving consolation.” Next Paul dreams of fully reflecting of God’s love in their lives. What Paul is talking about here is not just a nice feeling, but what he calls the “persuasive tenderness of God’s love.” It’s the love that always calls us to do what we know is truly best and not just best for ourselves. Then Paul dreams that his friends will have a sense of participation in the work of the Holy Spirit, of experiencing fellowship with others and with God that only the Holy Spirit can bring. Those who came to my first worship with you all may have experienced some of this. Many people have remarked to me that the air felt like it was charged with electricity, that it gave them goosebumps. All these words point to the awesome presence of God, the Holy Spirit flowing in and through us. God gives this gift to help draw us together and to grow the love between us. That’s why Paul’s fourth dream is that his friends would be marked by deep affection and compassion. The Greek for this kind of affection means the affection should come from our bowels. Now I don’t think Paul’s dream was that the Philippians would all feel the need to head for the latrine whenever they got together, though I guess that would be a kind of fellowship too. No, it’s an affection so deep that you feel it with your gut, an awareness of another person’s need so deep that it requires action. Finally, Paul writes in verse 2, “make my joy complete by having the same mind and the same love, with your hearts beating in unison and your minds focusing on one purpose.” Paul’s language is really strong here: he wants them to literally be “together-souled” and “one-minded.” This unity in Christ goes beyond trivial disagreements to a unity of essence that we should seek before all else. Augustine expressed the tensions in this dream well when he wrote, “Let there be in the essentials, unity. In all non-essentials, liberty. In all things, unconditional love.”

What do these look like in action? Maxie Dunnam tells of “a man [who] was unfaithful to his wife, walked all over her, used her, and went his...selfish way. But he kept coming back, asking his wife to accept him and promising to be faithful. That story was repeated over and over again until the woman couldn’t take it any more. She committed suicide. The woman had a friend in our church who had experienced much the same thing with her husband. This church member told me the story of her friend’s suicide. As she wept she confessed, ‘That has been my temptation. You don’t know how many times I’ve been on the verge of suicide. I couldn’t follow through on my temptation because of the love and support of Christ through this church. I want you to know that Mary and Jim, Bob and Karen, Ben and Ann have kept me alive.’” My dream is that we would be so tuned into each other, that when life really stinks for one of us that we would suddenly find several people (or all of us?) alongside us, helping us along, walking with us, encouraging us in our faith. Isn’t that what Christ does for us?

All of these dreams Paul has for his friends have one thing in common: they all encourage people to say to themselves, “It’s not about me.” Our world says, “You’re the boss. You are #1. Have it your way. The customer is always right.” We are encouraged to tailor everything which fools us into thinking we are the focus, that we are what matters. Leonard Sweet, in his book SoulTsunami, draws on a New Yorker cartoon that “shows a new person being introduced to hell, with fire and devils bearing pitchforks everywhere. A friendly devil says to him, “You’ll find that down here there is no right and wrong. It’s just what works for you.” Sweet concludes: “Hell is getting what you want. Hell is doing only what works for you. Hell is building a self based on a foundation of one. Heaven is being the self God made you to be and the self you can’t become without God and the church. Heaven is living a self-identity that is God-given, not self-constructed…The search for self-fulfillment can only be met in the context of belonging and contributing to a community where the common good takes precedence over the self.”

All of a sudden we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of our faith. To strengthen our ourselves and our congregation, we must put aside our limited, personal goals in favor of Christ’s goals for the Church as a whole and our local congregation in particular. If God’s grace and love are the river of blessing, then humility is the channel. If God’s power is high-voltage electricity, then our humbleness before God allows us to handle it safely. What’s interesting about while Christ demonstrated that one person can do this, he commissioned the Church because working and living for God, being channels for God’s grace and love and power is easier and safer if we do it together. Humility is the art of seeking God’s dreams. If we can unite even just a little, then we will make God’s joy complete and we will find that dreams come true. And just as Christ received the promise, so too, when we put God’s dreams first, the power of the resurrection comes into our lives.

At the end of The Field of Dreams, Ray is standing talking with his father’s spirit. Ray’s father looks around at the sky and the corn and farm house, lit up in the early evening, and he says, “It’s so beautiful here. It’s like a dream come true. Can I ask you something? Is this heaven?” Ray smiles and says, “It’s Iowa.” Ray’s father, “I could have sworn it was heaven.” After a moment, Ray asks, “Is there a heaven?” His father looks him straight in the eye, “Oh yeah! It’s the place dreams come true.” Ray looks at the sky and the corn and the farm house, where his wife and daughter are reading on the porch... “Maybe this is heaven.” My dream for us is that when people meet one of us, when they worship or have fun here at First Church, they will discover that this is a place where God’s dreams come true, a place where earth and heaven meet.

 

 

 

 

Running the Race: Keeping Joy in the Mess

by Rev. Doug Gray

I have scoured the internet, and here are my “Top Ten Ways You Know You’re a Mom”:

10.    You know you’re a mom if you’ve ever crawled under a crib at 2 a.m. searching
         for a pacifier like your life depended on it.
9.      You know you’re a mom if your emergency kit for the car is not jumper cables
         and a scraper, but Band-Aids, tissues, diapers and wipes
8.      You know you’re a mom if you think of physical pain on three levels: pain,
         excruciating pain and stepping on a Lego.
7.      You know you’re a mom if happy hour has become the 60 minutes between
         your kids going to bed and you going to bed.
6.      You know you’re a mom if...you can recite 10 children’s books in the car at a
         moment’s notice.  One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish......and so much more!!
5.      You know you’re a mom when, instead of running from vomit, you run towards it.
4.      You know you’re a mom if you have tried at least once to put your husband in time out.
3.      You know you’re a mom if you’ve ever stuck a pacifier in your mouth just to clean it off!
2.      You start rocking from side to side when you hear a crying baby.
1.       Hearing “Mom!” yelled out in public makes you stop and look around, even when
         your kids aren’t with you (or have grown up).

Now I know we are not all moms here, but we have all had moms, and there are some things our list above—and Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi!—seem to have in common:  they all offer us insights into how to keep our joy in the middle of the mess.
First, in the middle of the mess, we notice the unexpected blessing of opportunity. For Paul, the mess is being in prison—not something most of us have had to do. Paul discovers that what should be holding him back, making it harder to share the Good News of Jesus Christ—that being in prison is actually helping him. A friend of mine worked in a nation-wide market chain, and she hated it. She didn’t like the environment, or the people or the products she was selling. “Why do you stay, then?” I asked. She stopped for a minute, then said, “Besides the money? Because maybe the way I know God will come through in how I live and treat people.” I think she was totally right. True, in that economically depressed area, she didn’t have a lot of job options, but she recognized that some of the most hurting people in our community either worked or shopped at that store. In the middle of our mess, we may suddenly find an unexpected opportunity.
Second, in the middle of the mess, we find out what really matters. Paul has learned that some people are sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ for selfish or even greedy motives. Now that might upset us, but Paul is cool—as long as Jesus is proclaimed. That’s something we learn from loving others, right? Things that used to gross us out—now we don’t even bat an eye. Things that used to make us flip out, now we don’t even worry about. Why is that? I think one reason is that we figure out that what matters is the one we are caring for—child, adult, friend, partner. Unclean and disgusting situations? Yeah, sometimes—but we are unfazed out of love and compassion for them. In the middle of the mess, what matters is that they know they are loved.
Finally, in the middle of the mess, we find our purpose. Occasionally we may have clean, crisp moments when our purpose becomes crystal clear. Thank You, God for those! But my experience is that most of the moments that define us are messy. Part of Paul, for instance, writes, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” Our lives could be easier, less messy. I guess we could try to escape…but when we really look into the eyes of the people who count on us…the trust they have in us, the hope they have because of us…perhaps they are why we are on this planet? Seeing people become, being with them through thick and thin, praising and thanking God for what we have…priceless! We may not ever get thanks from the people whose lives we touch and bless…but if they experience joy, it’s enough.
As it’s Mother’s Day, perhaps a story of my mom will illustrate the combination of these. For second grade, my parents switched me from public school to a private school. I will never forget coming back from the first day of class, sobbing because everyone was expected to know how to write cursive and I only knew how to print my letters. My mom seemed to take it in stride—well, then you need to learn how to write cursive. She spent four hours that day, teaching me how to write. I had to work at it, practice, pay attention, struggle with it—but Mom was there beside me. I knew we could do anything. As I look back at that evening I realize how Mom took my rotten day, my anxiety and my despair and found the opportunity to teach me about loving someone enough to suffer with them. Through her patience and perseverance, I learned I could do anything I really worked at—and I knew I really mattered to her. I learned that her strength and joy seemed to grow when things were hard.
Which brings us back to finding joy in the midst of the messiness. Real love tries to do the right thing whatever the conditions. It’s Jesus, the Son of God, leaving heaven and immortality to be born as a baby, to experience what it was like to live the mess that our lives can be, to be tempted in every way like we are. Jesus knows what it’s like to have a messy life, but somehow he always seems to know the loving thing to say, the right thing to do, the thing that God wanted. We often think of Jesus suffering on the Cross—and for sure He did, even though our lives were a mess—but the messiness is part of his living with us too. He touched people who were gross and smelly, opened Lazarus’ tomb though it would smell, even healed those who had leprosy. He hung out with people’s whose lives were a struggle—prostitutes, tax collectors, the broken and desperate. So if your life and mine are messy, tough and a struggle, Jesus is happy to meet us there. Jesus is happy to help us find the opportunity in the mess, find what really matters in the mess, find our purpose in the mess. Perhaps in the mess, joy will find us as we live the love of Jesus Christ.

 

Running the Race: Painting the Church in God’s Colors

by Rev. Doug Gray

The blog, Godreports, tells this story:  “My life began in an unusual way,” says Akiane Kramarik, 17, who spent her early years in rural Illinois. By unusual, she refers to her underwater birth in “a shack” on the edge of a cornfield. “Our family had no money, no friends, no relatives, no television or radio. Our life was quite simple—long walks in nature, open conversations, and hands on explorations of knowledge,” she says…. In her early family life, there was no prayer, no discussions of God, and no visits to church. Yet in the insular atheistic environment her parents created—free from media influences or even outside babysitters—Akiane suddenly began to talk about God….She spoke of colorful dreams and visions about heaven, Jesus, and God’s amazing love. Her stunned parents realized her intense focus on God could not have been inspired by anything in the world they created for her…At a tender age, God implanted the desire to articulate her divinely-inspired dreams and visions into art. “When I was four years old, suddenly I started experiencing vivid impressions…and a great desire to express them through art,” she says.”[1] What an amazing thing! To see heaven, to have a vision of God, and then to have the ability to express that. Wouldn’t you like to see that painting? In our passage for today, Paul paints a beautiful picture of what God is like when God comes into our life together is supposed to be with three primary colors.

The first color our life together should have is the bright yellow of joy. Joy colors everything Paul says about the Christians in Philippi. He writes in verse 4:  “In all my prayers for all of, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…” The joy comes from their togetherness, the way they work and play together in the good times and the hard times. Joy! Do you know 68% of churches that are growing say they laugh a lot together? But joy goes deeper than happiness, because even when we are sad, when we mourn each other’s losses, if we are together, then we experience joy as a “rightness” or a “peace” together. Paul writes in verse 7:  “for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.” Grace and joy shared in whatever we do, even the hard, heart-breaking stuff. Joy is what we have when God’s grace is shared. The more our fellowship becomes what God wants it to be, the more joy will color everything we do and are together.

1.    We have confidence because it’s God! One of my favorite quotes of all time is
       from the great Baptist preacher, E.V. Hill, “If God is in it, God will win it.”
2.    We have confidence because the good works bring about God’s justice
       —no more oppression, but freedom; no more greed, but people seeking the
       common good ahead of their own interests.
3.    We have confidence because God is the one who began the good work and
       God is bringing it to completion. It will be done the way God imagines it. One of
       my favorite bumper-stickers is “Be patient. God’s not done with me yet.
       ” How awesome!

The more our fellowship becomes what God wants it to be, the more our confidence in God and what God wants to do through us will saturate our life together.

The third color our life together should have is the warm, rich red of love. Paul writes in verse 9:  “And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight…” Leonard Sweet tells how “Illustrator/painter Gustave Doré, one of the patron saints of the DreamWorks team of Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen, was handed a painting of Jesus just finished by one of his students. Asked for his critique, Doré studied it, his mind searching for the right words. At last he handed it back to the student. “If you loved Him more,” he said, “you would have painted Him better.’”[1] Love leads us into deeper knowledge of God, of what makes God smile, of how we can follow God best. The result is that we will be “filled with the fruit of” a right-relationship with God. The more we love, the more wonderful things will happen, not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus Christ is doing through us, and not so we look good, but as Paul puts it, “to the glory and praise of God.” Love is meant to abound more and more—our love for God and for each other can grow, for the heart which pumps the deep, strong love is not our hearts, but God’s! Our infinite God wants us to abound in love! The more our fellowship becomes what God wants it to be, the more love fill everything we do and are together.

So our life together is meant to have the strong, vibrant colors of joy and confidence and love. But what will this actually look like? For the next several Sundays, we will explore the vibrant colors with which God wants to paint our lives—yellow the color of heart-filling joy, blue the deep confidence in God’s Presence, and red the life-giving color of love. For a world adrift and at a loss, these colors paint a picture of hope, a picture of Jesus Christ, who gives Himself again today, that we all might have new life in Him. The story is told about a little girl who, on the way home from church, turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, the Preacher’s sermon this morning confused me.” The mother said, “Oh!  Why is that? The girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are.  Is that true?” “Yes, that’s true,” the mother replied. “He also said that God lives within us.  Is that true too?” Again the mother replied, “Yes.” “Well,” said the girl.  “If God is bigger than us and He lives in us, wouldn’t He show through?” As we draw on the great reservoirs of God’s grace to paint our church and our lives, may the King who is among us and within us be revealed.


[1]Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami, p.

 

[1]http://blog.godreports.com/2012/01/for-child-art-prodigy-akiane-jesus-is-for-real/.

Deeper into Real Life: Finding the Past to Find the Future

by Pastor Doug

Do you ever open up your mouth and your mother or your father pops out? What are some of the things that come out?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Growing up is not just about learning the family’s stories, but internalizing the messages about what matters and how to do relationships—friendships, marriage, parenting, etc.. Some of those messages will save our lives, but some of them don’t seem like they work that well for us. In fact, the curious thing about us is that at times it seems like we are reading from a script, playing the same parts our parents or grandparents did. Wouldn’t it be great if we could escape the ready-made scripts of our families and our world? Wouldn’t it be great if we could really, truly be our best selves without all the hang-ups? Our passages for today help show us the way.

First, God is able to bring hope and new life out of darkness. You know how we are not supposed to have favorites with our children? Well, there’s a reason for that, and the way Jacob favors Joseph is a real problem in our passage for today. Look at what it does to Joseph? He’s a tattle-tale and arrogant to boot, and his brothers get so jealous of him that they nearly murder him. But Jacob picking a favorite son is nothing new in the family—Jacob’s mother and father each had a favorite child, and it was disastrous for their family as well. For that matter, in the previous generation, Abraham and Sarah have a similar dynamic with Ishmael and Isaac. Not all these factors have to be negative. Some just are. As a young kid, my family moved around a lot—I had lived in Kansas, Ohio (two different houses), Michigan, and California, and we were there for 8 years. That’s pretty typical for a pastor’s family, and through it I learned that home is wherever your family is. So what are some of the features of your growing up? What are some of the ways your family background affects you today? Why don’t we take just a moment to list some things—three ways your family has challenged us, and three ways we have been blessed by our family experiences. [Pause for reflection.] The Bible also understands family as a multi-generational system, and talks about how the sins of one parent can rest on their family for three or four generations. Peter Scazzero writes, “God never loses any of our past for his future when we surrender ourselves to him. Every mistake, sin, and detour we take in the journey of life is taken by God and becomes his gift for a future of blessing.”[1]

Second, God brings healing to our hurts. Some of us may have had nightmarish experiences of family. Some of us carry deep scars on our hearts. Some of us wish we had made different choices. We may not want to look at our past. I remember the summer I spent working on a teen ward at a psych hospital, doing what is called Clinical Pastoral Education. It included deep reflection on my own life—my family, my choices, my prejudices, my future. Cynthia can tell you that I spent most of the summer all churned up inside as God and I looked for skeletons in my skeletons. Scazzero writes, “It can feel like a black hole or an abyss that might swallow us up. We wonder if we are only getting worse. Yet Joseph wept repeatedly when he reunited with his family.”[2] God walks with us as we go back and encounter our old hurts. God can bring healing and fruitfulness.

Finally, we can partner with God to rewrite our scripts. One of the things I love about the Bible is that not everyone has it together. In fact, most of the book of Genesis is about Joseph’s dysfunctional, extended family. Joseph’s brothers are taking the whole dysfunctional thing to a whole new level by wanting to kill, and later selling their brother, Joseph, into slavery. But something happens as Joseph suffers setbacks, has chances to succeed and is forgotten—does he learn compassion? or maybe humility? or perhaps dependence on God? These are lessons most of us only learn when we go through dark times. After Joseph becomes second only to the Pharaoh in Egypt, still his brothers are worried that Joseph’s going to go back to the old scripts. Joseph says, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Are all Joseph’s old scripts broken? Probably not. Still, God was there with Joseph in the midst of all his hardships and challenges: “God intended it for good.”

When we open up our mouths, our parents often pop out. Sometimes we laugh about it, but some things our parents said or did, just make us want to cry when they come out of us. We can ask why it is so. Why did all these things have to happen to us? We can even feel trapped by the scripts into which we have fallen. But I don’t just have good news for you today. Peter Scazzero writes, “The great news of Christianity is that your biological family of origin does not determine your future. God does! What has gone before you is not your destiny! The most significant language in the New Testament for becoming a Christian is ‘adoption into the family of God.’ It is a radical new beginning. When we are spiritually reborn by the Holy Spirit into the family of Jesus.”[3] Jesus is the brother we wish we had. God is the Heavenly Parent we have always wanted. And the longer we hang out with God, looking fearlessly at our families and scripts, the longer we have to lay them all before God with gratitude for whatever good we have received, and the longer we have to learn from this Jesus what our lives could be. So God helps us rewrite our lives with grace, and who knows? Maybe today we’ll open our mouths and out will pop our Heavenly Father.


 

[1]Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, p. 112.

[2]Scazzero, p. 113.

[3]Scazzero, p. 103.