Imagine Church Inspiring Our Everyday Words

by Rev. Doug Gray

When we look around at our world, most of us are aware that some things are not quite right, and some things really stink. We instinctively know that things could be better, but there are so many hurting people, so many ways we see people hurting each other. It’s incredibly easy for us to see what is wrong with the world—with our job, our city, our country, our neighbor, the driver who cut us off, the waitress who messed up our order, our kids, our partner. We hear people using words to be cruel, to get an edge, to cut others up or cut them down to size. It’s so easy for us to hear what is wrong with the world—with a song that glorifies hurting someone, politicians that cut at each other or simply lie, the neighbors that take their pain and frustrations out on each other, the person who fails to be polite to us. It’s harder for us to see and hear what is wrong with our own lives.

James challenges us to give up the fracturing ways of the world, and become people of integrity. If I swear by God, then I’m really telling the truth, then what does that say about our regular words. Instead, we are called to be transparent people. Let us be willing to say what you really feel. If you believe how you feel isn’t how you want to be, say that. But when you say yes, mean it. Don’t say yes out of obligation, and if you don’t really like doing something …for God’s sake—yes I mean that literally!—don’t do it! If you say yes, then choose it with your whole heart. Grumbling, muttering, sarcasm—that’s not worthy of our life together, of the loving and gracious spirit of Christ in our midst. Let us say the truth in love, but we have to be able to be real with each other. That’s the path of integrity.

James challenges us to give up the words that push people away and divide us from others, and to take up the words that bring us together. The other day, I went into a store looking for a couple things—I mean I was on a mission, and I really had to get back. So I grabbed my gear—I think I had it right—and I headed for the check out. I made one small mistake. I asked the cashier how her day was going. You know, “How you doin’?” They say, “Fine.” “Yeah me too.” Only this time, when I asked, “How you doin’?” she starts telling me her entire life’s story! Oh my gosh! Are you kidding me? I don’t have time for this. I caught myself up short. Her trouble was going to isolate her, just like I wanted to get away as fast as I could, nobody would probably actually listen to her. And in that moment, I realized that I shouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want to hear…and then I thought how blessed I am that she would share her troubles with me. Thank You, God! As it turns out, I was not having a really fun day, but let me tell you, compared to her—I won the lottery! James recognizes the logic of our competitive and fearful world. If someone’s in trouble, we don’t want it to stick to us. If someone’s sick, we don’t want to get infected. If someone’s happy, well, that might be catching and overwhelming too. So we push the troubled and sick off into safe places—hospitals, homes, prisons, treatment facilities—away from us and society. Watch how James talks about words—Are you in trouble? Let your words and your heart pray. Are you happy? Let your words and your heart sing! Are you sick? Let your words and your heart summon the elders of the church to your side. As you pray and sing and summon, others can share the moment with you, include you in their thoughts and prayers, even be moved and changed by the chance to be together. Worship and church are great places to be however we are. Words can bring us together.

Words matter. When we speak with fracturing, hurtful words, then our fractured and wounded hearts are revealed. When we speak as Jesus would, our words can heal, and fill with hope. When we speak falsely or from ulterior motives, then our fearful and divided hearts are revealed. When we speak as Jesus would, our words can bring peace and forgiveness. Words matter. They show us the truth of our hearts, that we too are fractured, wounded, fearful and divided. We can say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” How can our hearts ever become right enough that our words can truly be love? In that moment, we can pray to God words like those of the band, Evanescence

How can you see into my eyes like open doors,

leading you down into my core

where I’ve become so numb.

Without a soul,

my spirit sleeping somewhere cold

until you find it there and lead it back home

Wake me up inside

Wake me up inside

Call my name and save me from the dark.

Bid my blood to run

before I come undone.

Save me from the nothing I’ve become!

Now that I know what I’m without

you can't just leave me.

Breathe into me and make me real—

Bring me to life

God’s words speak life. We want God’s words to become our words, because God’s words are life and wholeness. Imagine God going with us into our world, inspiring our words every day!

Impact for Christ

by Rev. Doug Gray

When I was in college, I had the chance to work at a wilderness, summer camp in New Hampshire. Together with another young man, I was to be in charge of twelve, ten-year-old boys…and we had a ball. Being a wilderness camp, we had three weeks to get our gang used to backpacking. Our final trip was a three-day hike around the ring of the Ossippee Mountains, a pretty ambitious goal. The first night we were sitting around the campfire after a horrible dinner prepared by the campers themselves. We were talking about what we would do the next day. One of our intrepid bunch suggested that we should “bushwhack” from our current location to Blueberry Hill, camp out there and have fresh-picked, blueberry pancakes for dinner the next night. What they called “bushwhacking” is hiking without a trail, usually using a compass and a topographical map. My partner and I looked at each other over the campfire. He shrugged. I shrugged. So the next morning we packed up, got our bearings on Blueberry Hill, and, with our compasses and maps, we were off into the wilderness! How hard could it be? Today, we, as a fellowship and as individuals, stand on the edge of a great adventure, excited and perhaps a little nervous about a spiritual journey deeper into relationship with Jesus. What will the journey be like? Will we be up to it? Are we there yet? We can look for guidance and inspiration to our passages this morning.

First, Jesus shares a vision of where we are to meet Him. When the women meet Jesus, He tells them that they will see Him again in Galilee, and to make sure they tell everyone about it. For some years now, we have been talking together about what God is calling us to be and do in this neighborhood and in Quincy. Over the last year, that vision has gotten clearer and clearer. We are like these brave, kind women going to Jesus’ tomb, only to find that Jesus has risen, and that God has a vision for we will meet Jesus. Like the women, we have shared and clarified that vision with each other. Today is the day God said we would meet Jesus, on the mountaintop together.

Second, Jesus says, “Go.” When I was a kid, my brother and I sometimes had way too much energy. We were getting into things and causing a ruckus, and my mom would say, “Go outside and find something to do.” The first time she told us that, I argued with her. I could be quieter, really I could…and she said, “Go!” And you know, my brother and I and our friends had all sorts of adventures—building tree houses, playing basketball, inventing games—but all the adventures all began with the word, “Go!” We are a little like Abraham and Sarah. God is promising us a better future, but we cannot stay as we are and be faithful. We must go. We are a little like the disciples, who have spent three years of their lives with Jesus, and now Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them all I have commanded.” God is giving us a mission—to show people how Jesus loved and to help them love like that—but that mission lies out there. We cannot stay as we are. Jesus says, “Go!”

Finally, with the adventure comes a promise. In the 1990s, when Apple fell on tough times, Apple’s chairman, Steve Jobs, traveled from the Silicon Valley to New York City. He wanted to convince Pepsico’s CEO, John Sculley, to move out west and run his struggling company. As the two men stood in Sculley’s penthouse office, looking out over the Manhattan skyline, the Pepsi executive started to decline Steve Jobs’ offer. “Financially,” Sculley said, “you’d have to give me a million-dollar salary, a million-dollar bonus, and a million-dollar severance.” Flabbergasted, Jobs gulped and agreed—if Sculley would move to California. But Sculley would commit only to consulting from New York. At that, Jobs issued a challenge to Sculley: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?” In his autobiography, Odyssey, Sculley admits Jobs’ challenge “knocked the wind out of me.” He said he’d become so caught up with his future at Pepsi, his pension, and whether his family could adapt to life in California that an opportunity to “change the world” nearly passed him by. Instead, he went to Apple. Sculley had a purpose, but no promised outcome. But when we go with God, we go with a promise. Like Abraham and Sara, when we go, we receive the promise that through us all nations will be blessed. Like Jesus’ disciples, when we go, we have the promise that Jesus will be with us wherever we go, even to the ends of the world, the end of the age. When we go with God, we go with these promises.

The adventure can definitely be a place of testing, as my campers and I discovered that day we decided to bushwhack our way to Blueberry Hill. Once we left that first mountaintop, there were lots of times down in the valley when we couldn’t see our way, got off track, and weren’t sure we could make it. By then, we were committed. Only the way forward. And yes, the blueberries were very sweet when we got there! As we stand on this mountaintop together, we should celebrate! Jesus said, “I’ll meet you there!” And here we are right on time…and here is Jesus with us! We have a sense of Jesus saying to us, “Go! Love people like I do. Show grace to those who least expect it. Be a light in uncertain times. Weave the love of God into your community.” Of course, the adventure is learning to trust Jesus more, to look for His Presence, to count on His guidance, and to trust in His providence. We can’t see every step on the way, and we will certainly face challenges. But we have each other and we have a promise from Jesus, “I will be with you wherever you go.” God says, “Go!” So here we go! And God is with us always!

Impact the Community

by Rev. Doug Gray

Something miraculous happens sometimes when a group of people becomes community. Sometimes it happens in a sports team, a choir or band, a project or work environment, a neighborhood. Have you ever been in a group of people that became community? What did that feel like? How could you tell that your group had become community?

 [Take responses from the congregation.]

 You are really onto something there. In fact, some might argue that God’s purpose from the very beginning was to create community, to restore broken community to wholeness, and to energize healthy community for the future. In our passage for today, Paul focuses on this last part.

First, unified but not uniform. The other day I was joking around with someone and we had a good time going back and forth. They asked me what I did for a living, and I told them I was the pastor of a really cool church. [pause] And all I got was crickets. “Oh,” they finally said. “I could never be in a church.” “Why?” I asked. “It seems like religion just wants you to be mindless. Say yes to all these things. Say no to all these other things. Someone telling you what to believe all the time.” That’s just not my experience, and it’s part of why I love being Congregational, part of why I love being part of this church. We are unified, but not uniform. One of the threads through all the stories of community is that a community has a shared goal. They know why they are and where they are going. I love that we are all different, and I love that we are all here to find God together. I love that we all have different ways of approaching things, and I love that we are trying to learn what it means to live like Jesus. We aren’t in lock-step—it’s really more of a dance. As different as we are, still we are learning how to have fun, how to love God, and how to be the best selves God made us to be. We are one body—the Body of Christ—but we have lots of parts.

Second, empowered for the common good. In early America and before, many towns had a “commons,” a shared pasture land on which everyone could graze their livestock. Boston Commons is a park on one of those shared spaces. Since the Commons was a shared resource, the cost of grass being eaten was shared by everyone. The Commons was a terrific idea—shared green space, shared pasture for the animals, everyone took care of it. Of course, every farmer wanted to improve their family’s situation, and so would want to add more livestock. Except, if everyone only added livestock, and nobody took care of the shared resource, then the Commons was over-grazed and became no good to anyone. Garret Hardin, in his paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” writes, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” In other words, if we are only in this life for ourselves, we fail and so does everyone around us. Paul shows us the way out of the Tragedy of the Commons. He writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Whatever God has given you to do, wherever God has placed you, God has equipped you to be a blessing…AND God will give you the power you need to show grace in a way that helps us all to rise.

Third, every role matters. So I have a confession to make…I wish I were a tenor. I always wanted to have one of those amazing voices that could hit the high notes and melt people’s hearts. But I don’t have that kind of voice. When I was in high school, I was in fantastic choir—we traveled, made Christmas albums, sang at nursing homes. I found my place as a bass or baritone, and I learned to listen for people’s voices. When Todd wasn’t in the tenor section, the songs didn’t feel right. When Jennifer wasn’t singing alto, the whole section kind of wandered. When we were all there, when we were all focused, and all singing it was so beautiful that it could make the hair stand up on your arms, and melt people’s hearts. In the same way, I can tell when one of you is missing on Sunday morning—something is different in the feel of worship. When we are all here, when we are all focused in on God, something happens in our worship that really is remarkable. And every person matters—from Harry who dances for joy when the music moves him, to one of the littles running up the aisle to check in with mom or dad, to the prayer warrior who has trouble rising from their seat, to the person with doubts who comes any way—every one of us brings something to the party that wouldn’t be here otherwise. I believe there’s a reason you are here today, because I know that every role matters.

God does something miraculous sometimes when a group of people becomes community. It took this church to help it happen 104 years ago. That’s how this sanctuary and fellowship hall were built, but it changed Squantum. Rev. Davison (who pastored this church in addition to being full-time pastor of the Atlantic Memorial Congregational Church) said: “Squantum is without a hall of any kind, and its social activities have been stinted for this reason. The fact that the Community Hall is separated from the church proper and its religious work, will tend to make [the] Community Hall available for...the best interests of Squantum.” We are not uniform in our gifts, but we are unified in our purpose to serve Christ. We do not seek our own good only, but we are empowered by God to show the love we have received. We do not shrink from the task ahead as people who feel unworthy or inconsequential in the work of God, for we know that each of us matters, each of us makes a difference, and when each of us does what God places in our hearts to do, empowered by the Spirit, something miraculous happens, and we become community. What Squantum needs—what our world needs—is for a group of people who truly care, to light the way to true community. We know it’s Christ who makes it all happen, but what Squantum will experience is the love of God through us. Something miraculous happens when a group of people demonstrates community.

Impact Our Caring

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things are really enjoy is seeing the look on someone’s face when they are truly surprised. I went looking for some on the internet. One thing I love about surprise are the looks on people’s faces. The shock you see in someone who is truly surprised is hilarious. [Show the photos in the slideshow.] And I know not all of those people were truly surprised, right? It’s hard to capture that look, because it happens so fast. But true surprise—it’s priceless! That’s why people throw surprise parties and warn people not to spoil the surprise. In today’s passage, we find Jesus telling the story of two surprises, two surprises that will help us understand more deeply the call to care.

The first surprise is that meeting Jesus is way easier than we think. One day, a highway patrol woman pulled over a car for speeding. As the officer was writing the ticket, she noticed several machetes in the car. “What are those for?” she asked suspiciously. “I'm a juggler,” the man replied. “I use those in my act.” “Well, show me,” the officer demanded. The juggler took out the machetes and started juggling them; first three, then more until he was tossing seven at one time, overhand, underhand, behind the back, putting on a dazzling show in the breakdown lane of the highway and amazing the officer. Just then, another car passed by. The driver did a double take, and said, “My God. I've got to give up drinking! Look at the test they're giving now.” The thing I find interesting is that for the guy who is good at it, it’s no big deal to juggle the machetes by the side of the road. The officer and the other driver think it’s amazing, but for the person juggling—meh, no big deal. Lots of people think meeting Jesus is really hard—like juggling machetes—but when we care for “the least of these my sisters and brothers,” we meet Jesus.

The second surprise is that God cares about “the least of these” and calls them brothers and sisters. But haven’t you been “the least of these” in your life? How many of us remember being left out on the playground? Or how many of us have had a time when we were in big trouble? Or how many of us have been bullied by someone who was bigger, or in a position of authority? We have all been hungry and thirsty. We have all needed clothes and been sick. Even if we have not been in a literal jail, many of us have been captive to addictions and patterns of behavior that hold us captive. My point is that we have all had times when we were “the least of these” and God cared about us. Perhaps someone helped us when we were up a creek. Perhaps someone brought us food or took care of us when we were sick. However it worked, we have been on the receiving end of grace—and God cares and calls us to see the same humanity and need in others…and to let it move us.

The final surprise is a doozy:  when we care, something in the world changes. In the 1950s, a group of scientists was studying the Japanese monkey on the island of Koshima. “Scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant. An 18-month-old female…found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.” For several years, one by one, family by family, the monkeys learned how to do this new thing, though a few never gave up eating sandy sweet potatoes. And then one day—and it seemed to happen overnight—it just became the way things were done. It seems that the community came to a tipping point, and one more monkey learning how to live like that, and suddenly, everyone was doing it—and not just on this island, but on all the neighboring islands as well.[1] When one of us shows kindness and compassion, it changes the people around us. It changes the atmosphere and energy in a way that is contagious, even if people can’t explain why.

When the best surprises come to us, what is the look on our faces? What do we feel in our hearts? What do we say, “Are you kidding me? Is this for real?” We know how the world works, and suddenly we are faced with someone whose caring is beyond what the world would do. Have you had a moment like that? Perhaps we don’t even know whether to laugh or cry. That’s grace! That’s how Jesus loves us. That’s how God provides for us. That’s how the Spirit leads us. It’s a world created for us and it’s good! It’s a baby born in a manger. It’s the Son of God, hanging on a cross. It’s a couple of handfuls of people creating community out of loving inspiration on Pentecost. And through the years, sometimes the church has gotten it devastatingly wrong—and we can still get it wrong today—but those have all been times when the church has focused on power at the expense of love. The power of the cross is that Jesus gave up power for love. Shocking. The biggest surprise of all. The church at its best creates surprises of caring and compassion. And it all begins with thinking about “the least of these, Jesus’ sisters and brothers.” Who are the “least of these” around us? Who are the people who have the least say in how things go? Who are the people who are most left out? Who are the ones most in need of kindness? Let us go to them, the least of these, listen to them, and find Jesus. Let us serve them, the least of these, and learn from God how to love. Let us surrender our wills to show God’s love, and change the world. And watch for God’s surprises to come!


[1]Ken Keyes, Jr, The Hundredth Monkey, 1984.

Impact the Church

by Rev. Doug Gray

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up. Maybe we can think about that together for a moment.

 What’s one sign that you are growing up?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

 I think there’s a part of each of us that really doesn’t want to grow up—ever. You know, like Peter Pan, we kind of wish we could live in Neverland and just run around in the woods and play all day, and never grow up. In our passage for today, Paul talks a lot about growing up or maturing in our faith, and how we can have an impact on and through our church.

 First, growing up in Christ is normal. When our oldest, Morgan, was born she nursed for a while, and that was good, but when she started eating rice and baby food she started to put on wait and she slept through the night…and that was great! Did you ever try some of the baby food? Some of it’s ok…but some of it…nasty! Of course, the next big step was giving her small bits of the same food we were eating. She loved that! And I can’t blame her. Growing up is normal. Our diet and activities change too as we mature. In fact, a baby that never matures is a terrible, terrible tragedy. And it’s a terrible tragedy when we don’t grow up spiritually. What does it mean to grow up spiritually? What does it mean to be spiritually mature? Paul says it’s to be “like Christ in everything.” If you want to know what God wants the mature you to look like, to be like, to act like, and to feel like it’s Jesus Christ. Growing up into Christ is normal people for folks who follow Jesus do.

 Second, sometimes we go through times of great growth. Think back on your life for a moment. Can you pick out a time when you grew a lot as a person, perhaps in your relationship with God?

 [Take responses from the congregation.]

 What do all these times of great growth have in common? Intense challenge. In his book, Breathing Under Water:  Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr writes, “Until you bottom out, and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel…You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as wanting. In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources and resources fail you. Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager. So God makes sure that several things will come your way that you cannot manage on your own.” God wants to use the challenge to make us like Jesus Christ. Jesus faced challenges too. before He was going to die a horrible death, Jesus knew what was coming. Would He trust God, or His own abilities? So Jesus took some friends, and

 “They came to a garden called Gethsemane and Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ ... Distress and anguish came over Him, and He said, “The sorrow in My heart is so great that it almost crushes Me.” Mark 14:32–34 (TEV)

“Father,” He said, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from Me. Yet I want Your will, not mine!” Mark 14:36 (NLT)

That prayer is the heart of spiritual maturity. Jesus gets it—it’s not about what He wants…it’s about what God wants. Are you facing troubles in your life right now? Does it feel like they will never end? As you look into the face of that trouble, the real prayers are “God be with me! Show me what You want and help me do it. Use this situation and me for Your glory.” Then trust. God doesn’t promise it will be easy, but we don’t have to worry if we go in God’s way. The promise of the resurrection is that if we learn to seek and walk with the True Manager, there is new life on the other side of the challenge, a life with greater depth, inner peace and more profound joy.

  Dear friends, in every church’s life, the fellowship comes to a crossroad, a moment when God lays before them a real, intense challenge. We face one of those times of high adventure and great growth right now. For some of us, this Generosity Initiative seems scary, risky. We can’t see the whole road ahead, and it makes us anxious and worried. That’s ok. That’s normal. If that’s you, take a deep breath with me right now. We are about to learn how to walk by faith not by sight. For a lot of us, all the talk about faith and love is nice on Sunday morning, but we go back to the real world on Monday. Aha! Well, guess what? We are in the real world right now, and all that faith stuff we talk about in church? This generosity initiative is where we get to actually try it out for real. Because God wants to be for real in our lives, not just a Sunday morning thing. God wants to be for real in our lives, for us to grow in our trust in Him. Now we get to learn to trust God for real, with our money and our lives. We don’t have to see every step, just the next one. Then we pray, “God show me what you want!” And we step out the way God shows us. And then we look for the next step, and we do the same thing. That’s faith friends, and we are going to walk it together. We will hold hands as we go, because we will feel safer that way, because we will feel each other’s hope and bring God’s courage to each other. We will hold hearts as we go, because we are all going to be learning how to do this together, and we will have to be thoughtful of each other. Part of the challenge for us is that we are not doing this for ourselves, for our own egos, but for God. So we will have to listen to each other in love, because we all want to do what God wants, and we will all have our part to play. “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” By the way, I don’t really know exactly how all this will go, but I trust that God has given us this vision, of a bigger welcome, better community and deeper faith.


First, recognize our giftedness in humility. One day, a highway patrol woman pulled over a car for speeding. As the officer was writing the ticket, she noticed several machetes in the car. “What are those for?” she asked suspiciously. “I'm a juggler,” the man replied. “I use those in my act.” “Well, show me,” the officer demanded. The juggler took out the machetes and started juggling them; first three, then more until he was tossing seven at one time, overhand, underhand, behind the back, putting on a dazzling show in the breakdown lane of the highway and amazing the officer. Just then, another car passed by. The driver did a double take, and said, “My God. I've got to give up drinking! Look at the test they're giving now.” The thing I find interesting is that for the guy who is good at it, it’s no big deal to juggle the machetes by the side of the road. The officer and the other driver think it’s amazing, but for the person juggling—meh, no big deal. Paul talks about how we have gifts God has given us—things we are so good at, we just do them and God blesses them. Are you good at taking care of things? Are you good at organizing? Are you good at teaching? Maybe you like to cook or make people at home. Every person is gifted by God to be a blessing in ways that others on the outside will look at and say, “Wow! That’s incredible!” Each one of you brings some unique things to our life together.

 Second, understand our need to grow together. Paul writes, “The gifts he gave were…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Paul is clear that we are not going to just grow up in Christ, but that we need to grow up together. We want to know and grow with each other, to understand what makes another person smile, and to do things together. At the same time, we are meant to all reach “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Not just one of us, but all of us together. In the 1950s, a group of scientists was studying the Japanese monkey on the island of Koshima. “Scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant. An 18-month-old female…found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.” For several years, one by one, family by family, the monkeys learned how to do this new thing, though a few never gave up eating sandy sweet potatoes. And then one day—and it seemed to happen overnight—it just became the way things were done. It seems that the community came to a tipping point, and one more monkey learning how to live like that, and suddenly, everyone was doing it—and not just on this island, but on all the neighboring islands as well.[1] When one of us matures in Christ, it makes a difference for all of us. But I don’t just want all of us to grow up in Christ because I’m your pastor and pastors want that for their churches. No, I want that for our church because as we mature in Christ, Jesus will be able to make a greater impact on our lives, our families, our community through each of us. Something remarkable happens and Jesus can be clearly seen in us in a way that’s contagious. We need to grow together.


Ten years ago, could we have imagined that God would have brought 20 kids to our Sunday School? Ten years ago, could we have imagined that a 100 people would come to a party at the church? Ten years ago, could we have imagined that we would have our own youth group, and send out missionaries?


For the last four years, our fellowship has been praying about what God wants to come next, dreaming with God about how the grace of Jesus Christ could make an impact on this community. Over the last two years, in particular, haven’t we felt the energy in our fellowship rising? Haven’t we felt God’s Holy Spirit with us when we worship—moments of transforming power and awesome holiness? People in our neighborhood are starting to get it because of God at work in us—that they are loved, that they are welcome, that God wants to show the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ in a way that changes people. But our church’s building is not ready for all these high-energy dreams. Our kitchen isn’t ready for the prime-time hospitality of Jesus Christ. People who use our bathrooms do not leave them singing God’s praises! Jesus came to serve the last, the least and the lost, but if someone has a wheel-chair, we leave them sitting in the entryway, using a second-rate entrance to the basement. As a fellowship, in conversation after conversation, we have recognized that God wants more for us. Our building needs to better reflect the welcome of God. And now we stand on the threshold with a chance to Impact the people of Squantum for Christ, not just for this year, not just for two years, but for decades to come!


One day, a highway patrol woman pulled over a car for speeding. As the officer was writing the ticket, she noticed several machetes in the car. “What are those for?” she asked suspiciously. “I'm a juggler,” the man replied. “I use those in my act.” “Well, show me,” the officer demanded. The juggler took out the machetes and started juggling them; first three, then more until he was tossing seven at one time, overhand, underhand, behind the back, putting on a dazzling show in the breakdown lane of the highway and amazing the officer. Just then, another car passed by. The driver did a double take, and said, “My God. I've got to give up drinking! Look at the test they're giving now.” In this one story we capture the problem churches—including our church—have faced in the past, and also the solution God intends. One reason some people don’t come to church is they are afraid people are going to ask them to do something really hard, perhaps something they don’t want to do—don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to juggle machetes! The solution is to change how we think about ourselves and God, to stop for a moment and rethink why we are here and what we are hoping for. Think about the juggler in our story: for the juggler, what the officer has asked is really easy, a demonstration of something the juggler not only knows how to do but loves to do. I believe that’s what God desires of each of us, living out our spiritual gifts in a way that we think is normal, but others look at and say, “Amazing!” But more importantly, we will be growing—deeper in our relationship with God, wider in our understanding of what it means to serve, stronger in our desire to walk with God.


Part of me wants kids, but a bigger part of me never wants to do homework again. — Matt Donaher


My best friend in high school and I meant a lot to each other. We double-dated, played pranks, went on youth group trips, stayed up all night talking together. But when we went away to college, that was almost the last time we saw each other. It’s not that we ever stopped liking each other, but we just grew apart.


Going from being a teenager who lives at home, to a college student who may not live at home but still relies on her parents for most things, to a grown woman who actually has to take care of everything on her own can be a rough transition. We all experience a hiccup or two along the way, but growing up is part of life, and you can’t just pick and choose which parts of being an adult you like and which ones you don’t. There comes a point where it’s time to ditch the excuses and grow up.

1. YOU STILL REGULARLY ASK YOUR PARENTS FOR MONEY.If it happens once in a while when you’re just starting to get on your feet and figure things out, that’s no big deal. But if you need help from them every month just to pay basic bills, you might have a problem.

2. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO BUDGET. If you have a decent job and make good money but you somehow end up in the hole every month anyway, there must be a reason. Prioritizing your spending money is what adults do, so if you haven’t figured that out yet, there’s no time like the present.

3. YOU CAN BARELY BOIL WATER WITHOUT BURNING IT.Sure, you could eat out every day, but it’s probably a lot healthier (and a lot easier on your newly implemented budget) if you make the majority of your meals at home. You aren’t Carrie Bradshaw — it’s not cute that you keep shoes in your oven.

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Rihanna Gives Her Younger Self Advice

By Connatix

4. YOU HOLD GRUDGES.Learning how to forgive is important to not only your own emotional well-being, but it will help you maintain relationships. Everyone makes mistakes, and if you can’t forgive and forget, you might end up pretty lonely one day.

5. YOU ACT ENTITLED.Millennials are always accused of expecting things to fall into their laps with little to no work. If you have an attitude and you act spoiled, people aren’t going to like you, and they won’t want to work with you. It’s as simple as that.

6. YOUR PRIORITIES LEAN MORE TOWARDS PARTYING THAN ANYTHING ELSE.If you’ve ever actually turned down a job you really needed just because it might interfere with your weekend social life, you need to do some serious soul searching.

7. YOU KEEP DATING THE SAME TYPE OF GUY EVEN THOUGH IT NEVER WORKS OUT.They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, and that couldn’t apply more flawlessly to your love life.

8. YOU GOSSIP LIKE IT’S YOUR JOB.Constantly snarking behind people’s backs isn’t a good look. You may think you’re being funny, but guaranteed the people laughing nervously at your jokes are wondering what you say about them when they aren’t around.

9. YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS ARE LIMITED TO TEXT-SLANG AND EMOJIS.Writing a professional sounding cover letter is almost impossible, and you actually catch yourself saying the word hashtag out loud. Time for a smartphone intervention.

10. YOU STILL CARE WHAT PEOPLE THINK… A LOT.Whether it’s what you eat for lunch, the music you listen to, or the dress you wear out for your birthday, you always need a posse of followers to validate your decisions.

11. YOU HAVE NO SELF CONTROL.You’ll buy those shoes you can’t afford, have three more drinks than you should on a regular basis, and never think twice before starting fights with anyone and everyone. Your judgement seems to have a couple screws loose.

12. YOUR RELATIONSHIPS ARE DRAMATIC AND CONSTANTLY IN FLUX.You’re all about the on-again, off-again relationships and fights with friends are a regular occurrence. No one ever really knows what your moods will bring, but it’s always a roller coaster.

13. YOU COMPLAIN BUT NEVER TRY TO CHANGE ANYTHING.If you want things to change, you have to get out there and change them. No one else is going to do it for you. And yet, you seem to be content complaining non-stop to anyone who will listen.

14. YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH AUTHORITY.Would you say you still kind of have that stubborn mind set where if anyone tells you to do something you have a strong urge to do the exact opposite, just because? Who do you think you’re helping? Definitely not yourself, that’s for sure.

15. YOU NEVER TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.Even when you make a huge mistake, you’ll never admit it. You’ll rationalize, and pass blame until the cows come home. Nothing is ever your fault,— that’s your story and you’re sticking to it. But it actually takes a lot more maturity to apologize for your mistakes, and people would respect you a lot more for it.


15 Signs It's Time To Grow Up

·       by Melissa Dixon

 

·       – on Aug 10, 2016

 

·       in Girl Talk

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Everyone has to grow up at some point in life but in order to make a change, you have to realize it is time. You can’t rely on everyone else to take care of you for the rest of your life. If you can relate to these signs that it’s time to grow up then you need to take a good hard look at your life and decide that it is time to make a change. Everyone around you probably already knows and have maybe even discussed how immature you are behind your back. Put their gossip to rest by making a change and grow up already. It may take some time and will definitely take a lot of effort but once you decide to make a change you will be well on your way to becoming a responsible adult who makes good decisions. Take this opportunity to stop acting like a child and start adulting!

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15You Don’t Have a Job

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Having a job isn’t the most fun part of anyone’s life but it does pay the bills. As an adult, you have to take more responsibility for your own life by paying your own bills and taking care of your own needs. You can’t rely on other people to take care of you forever and once you get a job you will gain more respect from those around you. Create a resume or start filling out some applications and hit the job trail right away. This is one of the most important steps in becoming an adult and taking care of yourself. You don’t have to love your job but you do have to do your best, work hard, and before you know it you will be on to bigger and better things. Once you build up some experience to put on your resume you can look for something that pays better or a job you actually look forward to each day.

14You Spend Most of Your Time Playing Games

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How do you expect anyone to take you seriously if you spend most of your time sitting in front of a computer playing games or staring at your smartphone? If you are always holding onto an Xbox controller how are you supposed to live your life? Your time just flies by when playing games and before you know it your life is going to pass by too. Get out of the house and breathe in some fresh air, enjoy things in the real world instead of always being in virtual reality. Don’t waste all of your time staring at electronics when you can head out and have some real life experiences. Life will pass you by if you don’t get out there and live it like you were intended to. Call up some friends and head out for a day in the park, life experience will help you grow up faster than a day spent playing video games.

13You Never Have Your Own Money 

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One of the most annoying things for most people is being hit up for money constantly. If every time you reach out to your friends or family you are asking for a loan or handout they are going to stop taking your calls. Why should they have to work hard for their money just to hand it to you? People in the real world have to work hard all day in order to afford the luxuries that have come so easily to you. Make your own money and then you will appreciate the hard work your friends and family have put in while giving you handouts whenever you ask. You will appreciate every dollar you make after having to work hard like everyone else. Your family and friends will begin to respect you once you earn your own money especially if you make an attempt to pay everyone back that you borrowed from over the years.

12All of Your Friends are Starting a Family

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Everyone you went to school with is getting married or having kids or hitting both of these milestones. It seems that every time you log into social media there is another engagement notification coming up or a new baby picture posted from one of your friends. You may decide that you don’t want to get married or that you do not want to have any kids but that doesn’t mean you should spend the rest of your life sleeping on your mom and dad’s couch. If everyone around you is buying their first house or moving out of their parents home to their first apartment it may be time for you to do the same. Your parents would be proud of you for getting on with your life, after all, they raised you to become an adult someday -they don’t want you slacking off and hanging around their house until the end of time.

11You Sleep Until Noon

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If you are staying up late every night and sleeping until noon every day, you definitely need to get a grip on your life. Unless you are an emergency room doctor that works the midnight shift, you need to adjust your schedule and start living a normal life. Most jobs at entry level positions are going to require you to start your day in the morning and sleep at night. Changing your sleep schedule can be a tricky thing at first but after a few days of waking up extra early, you will be able to go to sleep at a more normal time at night. Getting your schedule in check is a big part of growing up, sleeping all day will only lead to your life passing you by. Wake up a decent time and start looking for a job, you will need to keep better hours in order to keep a good job anyway so start getting your schedule on track now.

10You Party Every Night

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Going out with a group of friends and partying every night is a good sign that you need to grow up. Not only is this harder to do as we age because our bodies can’t handle it after a certain point but in order to get up in the morning for a real job, you may have to spend a few nights in each week. Try to reserve the weekends for partying and enjoy quiet evenings at home during the work week or at least lay off the drinking the night before you have to head to work. Nothing says you need to grow up more than getting fired from a job for being lazy due to a hangover. Even if you think you are slick and getting away with it, the people around you can tell when you come in sweating alcohol out of your pores and avoiding doing any work when possible. Get some rest before heading to work and make an effort to keep your job, that’s what grown ups do.

9You Can't Even Cook

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If you eat like a five-year-old, constantly shoving chicken nuggets and fries into your mouth you may want to learn how to cook. The older you get too the more your body will hate you for eating like there's no care in the world. You can’t always rely on mom to cook you a homemade meal when you are in need of some actual nourishment and nutrients from your food. Head to the store and pick up some cookware, a cookbook, and a few basic grocery items. You can even google recipes that have step by step instructions for beginner cooks so you can’t mess it up. Start basic and cook yourself a grilled cheese sandwich paired with a bowl of tomato soup. Start keeping basic cooking supplies stocked in the refrigerator like butter, milk, and cheese. Have spices on hand, pick up some meats and veggies and before you know it you will be making meal plans like a real adult.

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8Your Eating Habits Have Never Changed

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As we age unfortunately it is important to pay more attention to our bodies and lay off the junk food. If you eat cookies for breakfast and cake for dinner every day it will catch up to you soon. As we get older our nutritional needs change and we start to pack on the pounds due to slower metabolism as well. Try a protein shake for breakfast and skip all of the junk food as meals, your body will thank you. Over time your child-like taste buds will adjust and you will actually enjoy eating more healthy options. You may even start to crave a fruit salad instead of a handful of cookies for breakfast. Pack your lunches to include healthier foods so that you aren’t tempted to swing through a drive-thru for chicken nuggets and ice cream. You may even get invited out on a real dinner date now that you enjoy eating at more upscale restaurants rather than yelling your order through a clown’s mouth.

7You Act as if You Are Entitled to Everything

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Everyone has to work in life to be able to afford both basic needs as well as luxuries. You can’t expect everyone to pay your bills and give you everything you have always wanted while they struggle to meet their own basic needs. When you were a kid that was acceptable behavior only on the grounds that you weren’t able to understand how the world worked just yet. Adults are held to a higher standard as they should be, and you need to work for what you want in life, nobody is going to just hand it to you. You have no right to expect everyone else to give you everything you want without putting any effort in yourself. If you work hard for what you want you will appreciate it more but feeling entitled to everything is only going to make you feel like you are constantly unfulfilled and want more.

6You Never Take Responsibility

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If you are always blaming things on everybody else and not taking responsibility for your own actions or decisions you definitely need to grow up! It’s nobody else's fault when you mess up in life, it’s about time to start taking some responsibility for your own actions. You can’t keep blaming other people for your problems and this is certainly not the way to try and fix them. If you never take responsibility for your own actions then you will never be able to change your ways. Your friends and family are probably extremely annoyed at your lack of owning up to your problems and if things don’t change they may never take you seriously. Start taking responsibility for both the good and bad things in your life and work on fixing what is wrong rather than blaming everyone else for your own shortcomings. Own up to your own mistakes and then you can start to take pride in that things that you are doing right.

5You Have Never Paid a Bill

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If you have made it this far in life without paying a bill, chances are your free ride is about to come to a screeching halt soon. Nobody wants to support an adult when they are fully capable of taking care of themselves. Supporting yourself financially is a big step in life and it is definitely important when you are transitioning into adulthood. Take pride in your hard work and buy your own things instead of letting other people foot the bill for you all of the time. You will appreciate everything a little more that you earn with your own money rather than taking things for granted because they have come so easily to you in the past. Once you start to earn your own money and begin to pay your own bills you will start to respect other people's hard work and not expect them to pay for everything anymore.

4You Still Throw Temper Tantrums

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There is nothing more embarrassing than an adult throwing a temper tantrum! Just being in the presence of someone who is clearly an adult but acting like a toddler can make everyone within a mile radius uncomfortable. You clearly have a lot of growing up to do if you are throwing temper tantrums as an adult and this behavior is extremely unhealthy as well as unattractive. Get it through your head that you are not entitled to anything and create your own happiness. Don’t rely on everyone else to make you happy because this is only going to lead to more temper tantrums when you don’t get your way. Learn to be in control of your emotions and take deep breaths to get through the rough spots until you can get a handle on the situation. Being in control of your actions starts with being more aware of your feelings and the triggers that normally would cause temper tantrums.

3You Don't Clean Up After Yourself

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Everyone makes a mess in their daily life but usually they take responsibility and clean up after themselves. There is a famous saying that some people use when talking about a coworker who doesn’t clean up after themselves at work: Your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself. The problem with that is that it implies that it is your mother's job to clean up after you and that is just not the case. Even when you are living at home or visiting your family you can’t expect your mother or father to follow you around cleaning up your messes forever. Clean up after yourself and even offer to lend a hand to others to help them clean up. Your parents would appreciate it and it definitely is a big step in growing up as well as a great way to build a little character by helping others out.

2You are Unreliable

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If you are always late to every event you attend or never call your friends back when they leave you messages, you are unreliable and it has probably been noticed by everyone you know. It can be really annoying for those around you to deal with your unreliable ways and if you don not change them soon you may lose a friend in the process. Saying you are going to meet up at a certain time and not showing up even if you had the intentions of going doesn’t just make you unreliable it makes you a liar. Try a little harder to leave your house early or make sure to not over-schedule to the point where you are having to cancel plans constantly. This is not a good behavior to continue to have and it will constantly cause problems for you as an adult in the real world.

1You are Always Complaining

Don’t be the friend who is impossible to please and always complaining about where you hang out or what you eat. Not only is it unattractive but it is extremely annoying. Nobody wants to be around someone who is always a downer and brings the rest of the group down with them. It can ruin everyone's good time to be around constant complaints and criticism. Try to be a little more positive and be the one to keep everyone's spirits up. Go out of your way to compliment your friends on their appearance or their choice of activities to enjoy together. Put a positive spin on everything and you will begin to see things in a more positive way. It won’t be long before you feel happier and don’t have any criticisms at all. Before you know it you will not be the one who is known as the constant complainer.

[1]Ken Keyes, Jr, The Hundredth Monkey, 1984.

Imagine Church Transforming Our Ordinary Activities

by Rev. Doug Gray

I’d say we are pretty savvy people here. I’d like to play a game with you called, “Name That Outfit.” I am betting that if I give you an occasion, you can tell me what to wear that would be appropriate. For example, if I said “Bedtime in the winter,” you might say “flannel pajamas.” Alright? So let’s play a couple rounds 

1.    Warm summer day at the beach.

2.    Cool, drizzly day in the spring.

3.    Work in the garden on a sunny day.

4.    Going out to dinner with some friends to a very nice restaurant.

5.    Funeral.

6.    Wedding.

So that was fun! If you’re like me, as I was thinking of the occasion, I could actually see the clothes from my closet that I would pick. One of the fascinating things about our passage for today, is that Paul uses the metaphor of clothes to talk about living life with Jesus. How do clothes help us think about walking with Jesus?

First, wearing the new wardrobe. Did you ever watch the show, “What Not to Wear”? It’s on Amazon Prime Video now. [Slides.]  It featured Clinton Kelly and Stacy London, two fashionistas who help people who are hopeless dressers. The first thing they would do is talk with the hopeless dresser about why they needed help, and then they would take away all the awful clothes. What I loved about the show was that as they are talking about clothes, often people confessed that they wore these awful clothes because they didn’t think they were beautiful or because they couldn’t find anything that fit. Clinton and Stacy would help the person learn how to put together an outfit that would look fabulous, even help the person learn how to shop for clothes. At the end, each individual wore their clothes with confidence and an inward sense of their own beauty that really showed. Paul says our old life—full of selfishness, self-indulgence and deceit—is like a set of clothes so filthy, so awful, that the only thing to do is throw them away. When we really want Jesus to be part of our lives, we lay all the clothes of our lives before Him, and we hear God say, “I love you! You’re beautiful in my eyes! I have something better for you.” Maybe a couple pieces of our life wardrobe are in good shape—but the rest? It’s all gotta go! God is giving us a brand-new wardrobe that fits our new identity in Him—loved and beautiful, powerful for peace. None of the brand labels the world looks for matter—just the “Made by God” one on our hearts. Once we have worn this new wardrobe, the old ways just don’t fit anymore.

Second, the new wardrobe goes with us everywhere. Unlike some of our clothes that are only good on certain occasions, the new wardrobe fits all occasions. When I was in college, I hadn’t figured out where God wanted me to go or be, but I remember I was copying some articles in the library, when Gregg Swope came up and said hi. Gregg was a seminary student at the seminary next to campus, and he was one of those people who is just cool—he was a marathon runner and played the guitar. But he also had this aura about him, and when he talked with me, I felt peace, as if the warmth of God’s love had come close to me. I felt like I could share my freshman stress with him, could share anything with him. As we walked back across campus, and said, “Goodbye!” I knew I had walked with Jesus. I’m pretty sure that Gregg was just saying hi, and pretty sure he had no idea that being with him that day affected me like that, but he was wearing Christ well that day. Compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, forgiveness, contentment, love—whenever we go, wherever we go, people will know—even if they can’t quite put their finger on it—that we are wearing Christ.

Last week, we talked about how many people think of church as a place where we go apart

 

Imagine Church: Engaging Our Whole Lives

by Rev. Doug Gray

With school starting this week, I spent some time thinking and praying for students and teachers. Do you remember any of your teachers? Who was one of your toughest teachers? What made them hard?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

I think lots of people approach life like we approach school—find the person in charge of a class, figure them out, do what they want, and carry on with our lives. Like a student switching classes, many of us think of God kind of like a teacher for class Sunday morning…and when we are done, we set God aside until the next class. We call it “going to church,” and “worship” is the name of the class, and Jesus or God is the teacher. We come out of the world, and we go to the God-place and do God-things. How we usually think of church might look like this:

 

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Work with me here:  Anyone know how many hours in a week? 168. Let’s set aside some time for sleeping, roughly 8 hours a night—56. How much for God? Worship plus some social time before and after, maybe 2 hours. If you’re really involved or have additional responsibilities, maybe it’s as much as 10 hours…but let’s stick with the 2 hours for a minute. How much does that leave you? 110 hours. For most of that time, we scatter into the world, like this:

 

 

God stuff: 2 hours. [Switch picture to graphic with red dots in corner.] Our stuff: 110 hours. [Switch back to graphic with red dots spread out.] That’s how humans have often thought of worship, including the folks in Jesus’ and Paul’s time too. They thought that if you give the gods the offerings they want, pray the prayers they want, then they reward you with better stuff in this life and a better after-life. If you look at it this way, the only piece that really matters is what we do for God that’s connected with the building, and the only people really doing ministry are the folks who get paid to do it in the building on Sundays. This is how lots of people think of church.

For the people of Jesus’ and Paul’s time—and maybe for us—Paul’s words are shocking: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” Wow! From Paul, we get a very different way of imagining worship.

First, worship is a response to God’s mercy. In school, we study because of what we get out of it or because our parents make us. With God, we worship because of what God has already done—created the world, created us, come to us in Jesus Christ, sacrificed His life for us on the Cross, rose from the dead for us, shows us kindness and grace in our families, work and school every day. Paul writes, “…in view of God’s mercy…” We worship because of Who God is and what God has already done for us.

Second, worship is giving our whole life to God. In school, we learn new stuff, and then we go back to the rest of our lives. What God longs for is a relationship, to become part of our eating, working, sleeping, parenting, playing, cleaning—whatever we do. If that’s so, then worship isn’t just something like this—

 

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—worship is something that happens wherever we are in our weeks. So God goes with us into all of these places,

 

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ready to help and strengthen us, wherever we are, whoever we are with.

Finally, worship allows God to shape us. In school, we learn new stuff, but we don’t really have to change. Paul writes, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” If we become like everybody else, the culture in which we live takes over and our dots gray out. What we are hoping for is that God will change our lives, that we will not just learn some new things and carry on, but be transformed! God doesn’t just want to teach us about what a nice person does, what kinds of love Jesus showed, and how to save your marriage—though God can do all those things. What God really longs for is the same thing we long for—that we would become a truly loving, truly good person. God will shape us— and then we will become better friends, better partners, better children and better parents. Worship allows us to be transformed.

Earlier, we thought about our toughest teachers, but when we think about our best teachers, they truly care about us as a person, and with humor and challenge, they help us think like scientists and athletes, musicians and writers. And so we become, to some degree, scientists, athletes, musicians and writers. That’s a reflection of how God wants to work in us too. By renewing our minds and hearts, God helps us think about differently ourselves and our life together. So what if the way our culture has taught us to think about church is the way our culture wants us to think about church? Imagine church is really the people—us!—and church goes wherever we do. What if we are the church when we are gathered—

 

 

—and we are the church when we are scattered

 

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What if the real front lines of ministry are not in here—but out there? What if God has placed you in the world with a purpose—to be the seed of God’s love where you are planted? Imagine church engaging our whole lives!

God’s Sure Defense

by Rev. Doug Gray

Occasionally I come to passages that are very difficult for me to preach from. Today’s is one of those, not because the passage itself is difficult, but because the topic it addresses is so enormous and so filled with peril. As your pastor, however, I feel compelled to talk about spiritual warfare because I want you to be forewarned and forearmed. This morning we will cover some of the basics about spiritual warfare, watch for some dangers in looking at the shadow instead of the light, and lastly, delight in the ways in which God guards and arms us for the battle.

Basics — Now to the basics:
1. God is love. In John’s first letter, 4:7–8, he writes, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Love is the only concept large enough to encompass everything God is.
2. Evil is by nature against life and liveliness. M. Scott Peck, recounts how his young son defined, “That’s easy, Daddy. Evil is live spelled backwards.” Any act which seeks to destroy life and liveliness for destruction’s sake is by definition evil.
3. Satan exists, though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t run around in a red suit with horns, a tail and a pitchfork. Jesus believed Satan existed and spent a fair part of his ministry casting out demons.
4. Evil, then, comes in two shapes: human and demonic.
The story is told that one bright, beautiful Sunday morning, the townspeople were in church, listening to the organ play. Suddenly, Satan appeared at the front of the church. Everyone started screaming and running for the front entrance, trampling each other in a frantic effort to get away from evil incarnate.
Soon everyone had evacuated, except for one elderly gentleman who sat calmly in his pew, not moving, seemingly oblivious to the fact that God’s ultimate enemy was in his presence.
Now this confused Satan a bit, so he walked up to the man and said, “Don’t you know who I am?”
The man replied, “Yep, sure do.”
Satan asked, “Aren’t you afraid of me?”
“Nope, sure ain’t,” said the man.
Satan was a little perturbed at this and queried, “Why aren’t you afraid of me?”
The man calmly replied, “Been married to your sister for 48 years!”
Our world has both human and demonic evil, and it is often difficult to tell them apart.
5.    Spiritual warfare is the battle to which Paul refers in verse 11, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Followers of Jesus Christ can take to the battlefield with a confidence, power and protection that no one else can.

Dangers
Evil is so corrupting, that studying it is spiritually hazardous. What are some of the clearest dangers?
1.    That we think Satan is God’s equal and opposite. Satan is a fallen angel, so if Satan     has an opposite, it’s really Michael, the archangel in charge of God’s heavenly armies. God is sovereign, and Satan cannot compete when God takes the field.
2.    That we start to blame everything that goes wrong on demonic powers. My experience is that people are fully capable of making awful choices and doing horrific things all on their own.
3.    That we will focus so much on the shadows around us that we turn and forget about the light. More on this later.
4.    That we will call something evil just because we don’t like it or don’t understand it. Down this path lies the madness of the Inquisition, witch hunts, slavery, the Crusades, Communism and Nazism. We must look into our own hearts and see our own capacity for evil before we can examine anything else.

God’s Sure Defense
At last, we have the foundations necessary to explore the wondrous armor and weapons God gives us to face whatever may come.
1.    Belt of Truth. Protecting our most vulnerable parts is the belt of truth. If evil is a cockroach, then the truth is the light that makes it run for cover. The Bible says that Satan is the “father of lies” so honesty and truth always upset his plans. Living in the light of God’s truth is our sure protection.
2.    Breastplate of Righteousness. Guarding our spiritual vital organs is the breastplate of righteousness. In the Bible, righteousness is literally, “being in a right relationship with God.” When we are in a right relationship with God, the deadliest attacks bounce right off. Indeed, we may even be unaware of them, so secure are we in our walk with God.
3.    Feet with Readiness. Next, we are to fit our “feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” Roman soldiers wore hobnailed sandals or short boots. They were unbelievably tough, could walk through or over anything, and could keep going when the soldiers of the other side were quitting. One Roman legion is said to have marched 100 miles in a single day! We, too, are equipped for the long haul, ready to march through or over anything because of the Good News of peace we have.
4.    Shield of Faith. The shield of faith, like it’s Roman likeness, is not a small shield, but a full, body-length shield that completely protects the bearer from all airborne attacks. When we have faith, we trust. The more we trust, the less fear operates in our lives. A few verses later (v. 18) in John’s first letter, John writes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Trust reminds us that ultimately what matters is not what we want, but what God wants. The night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane one of the most perfect prayers ever prayed: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Do you hear the agony? He wants one thing, but even in the face of this terrible future, his great trust in God is greater than his own desire.
5.    Helmet of Salvation. The helmet of salvation, like a battle helmet, protects our head—our clear seeing, hearing and thinking—from attack. If we know that Jesus loved us so much he was willing to die for us, we will not be distracted or confused by any evil we encounter. If we belong to God, no one has the strength to take us from God’s protection.
6.    Sword of the Spirit. God also gives us the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Where the other pieces Paul lists provide strong defense, the Word of God becomes one of our sure weapons. If we are living in the Word, spending time regularly reading the Bible, then God’s Word will help us cut through all the temptations, trials and attacks we might face. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, Jesus responded to each temptation with scripture. The more we are steeped in the Word of God, the better prepared we will be.
7.    Prayer. Finally, Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Prayer is one of the essential elements of our spiritual arsenal. Why? Because prayer keeps our spiritual armor and weapons in good condition. Prayer keeps the rust from making our armor vulnerable to attack and sharpens and oils the sword of the spirit. Prayer is one of the ways we open ourselves to the working of God in our lives. Prayer invites God in and transforms us into God’s image. Prayer is so vital that Jesus prays often and with such power that the only thing the disciples ever asked Jesus to teach them was how to pray. Prayer is important for keeping us in good spiritual condition, ready to face whatever God, our Commander-in-Chief, asks of us. Prayer reminds us that ultimately, the most important spiritual battles are within us.

The story is told that one day, Jesus and Satan were having an ongoing argument about who was better on his computer. They had been going at it for days and God was tired of hearing all of the bickering. Finally God said, “Cool it. I am going to set up a test that will run two hours and I will judge who does the better job.”
So Satan and Jesus sat down at their keyboards and typed away.
They moused.
They did spreadsheets.
They wrote reports.
They sent faxes.
They sent e-mail.
They sent out e-mail with attachments.
They downloaded.
They did some genealogy reports.
They made cards.
They did every known job.
But ten minutes before their time was up, lightning suddenly flashed across the sky, thunder rolled, the rain poured and, of course, the electricity went off. Satan stared at his blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld. Jesus just sighed.
The electricity finally flickered back on, and each of them restarted their computers.
Satan started searching frantically, screaming “It’s gone! It’s all gone! I lost everything when the power went out!”
Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all of his files from past two hours.
Satan observed this and became irate. “Wait! He cheated, how did he do it?”
God shrugged and said, “Jesus saves.”

In the end, our confidence does not come from our faith or our great spiritual prowess, but from God and God’s strength. Paul writes in verse 10, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” The battle is really not ours in the end. The battle is between God’s forces and Satan’s. The battle belongs to the Lord. And we know who is going to win.

Why is this something for today? To be sure, when we say that we stand for God we are saying we stand against evil. Because to say that we will do what God wants before we do what we want, drives Satan nuts! Satan hates it when we enjoy each other, when we delight in God’s Presence, when we experience joy and purpose together, when we share between us, and follow in Christ’s footsteps. So I know Satan is not going to like it one bit what we are about to do together. We are coming into a time in this church’s life when we are setting ourselves up to do some colossally wonderful things with God, things that have the potential to make our fellowship incredibly strong in faith, tenacious in love, joyful in sacrifice. Satan is going to hate what we are doing. But God is going to smile! By God’s grace and with his power, we will move into the glorious future God has planned for us together

Hammering at Heaven’s Gates

by Rev. Doug Gray

Anyone know someone who has trouble getting rid of their garbage? One magazine I read, had some ideas for classes someone could take if they were having trouble clearing out the junk.

     Class 1. Refrigerator Forensics:  Identifying and Removing the Dead.
     Class 2. If It’s Empty, You Can Throw It Away:  Accepting Loss, Semester 1.
     Class 3. If the Milk Expired Three Weeks Ago, Keeping It in the Refrigerator
          Won’t Bring It Back:  Accepting Loss, Semester 2.
     Class 4. Recycling Skills 101:  Boxes That the Electronics Came In.
     Class 5. Recycling Skills 201:  Styrofoam That Came in the Boxes That Electronics Came in.
     Class 6. Giving Back to the Community:  How to Donate 15-year-Old Levis to Goodwill.

According to Elizabeth Royte in her book, Garbage Land:  On the Secret Trail of Trash, we each create over 4 pounds of trash every day. Even with the recycling we do, many of the things we throw away—plastics and Styrofoam for example—are going to be around for centuries. Our world seems to have two kinds of problems:  1. Too much garbage that we don’t or won’t get rid of, and 2. finding a safe place for all the garbage once we do get rid of it. If we are honest, we have the same kind of problems in our inner lives as well.
     The first really big problem we have with trash is there’s just so much of it all the time. In each of our lives we have trash that is accumulating

     •    old hurts we received as children (perhaps from our parents)
     •    hurts we have done to others
     •    times when we let someone down
     •    times when we did something we know God wouldn’t like
     •    fear of failing
     •    fear of success

It’s this kind of trash that has piled up in the life of the person writing Psalm 130.

     1    Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; 2 O Lord, hear my voice.
          Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

     When we find ourselves burdened with the trash of our lives, Jesus wants to help us find the trash and take it out. This is not a do-it-by-yourself project. Timothy Cargal notes, “We realize that we cannot maintain a solid stance in the shifting pile of refuse we have created. When we try to climb out, we simply lose our balance and fall deeper into the pile. The debris of our sinful actions creates a kind of quicksand that sucks us ever deeper in.” It’s out of those depths that we cry out, hammering at heaven’s gates. Sharing what we have done and want to be different really matters here, but ultimately, forgiveness cannot be complete until we receive it…and that means someone gives it to us. It’s something Jesus does for us and something we can, by God’s grace, do for each other. The psalmist writes to God, “But with You, there is forgiveness, that You may be revered.” To listen to each other and to forgive are some of the most profound ways in which we can be Christ for another human being, but the wellspring of all that forgiveness is the steadfast love of God.
     The second really big problem we have with trash is that has to go somewhere. In recent decades we have learned that part of the problem with physical trash is not only it’s immediate smell or danger to us, but that it goes somewhere and can become a health problem for others. Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s an area between California and Hawaii where lighter-than-water plastics have been swept by prevailing ocean currents. It’s twice the size of Texas! Closer to home, chemicals, paints, oil, electronics and nuclear cooling rods—we worry about the safety of where we put these things, because it’s so easy for these things to contaminate the water we need to drink or the air we need to breathe. The same is true in our own lives:  if we do not find a place for the trash of our lives, it can leech out into how we treat others, becoming a toxic hazard to the groundwater of our families and the atmosphere at work. Our lives can even be “re-contaminated” as our toxic anger, depression, and bitterness come back to us from those we love. Again we come to the end of what we can do. Our brokenness and trash seem to have us spiraling down, and all we seem to be able to do is to hammer at heaven’s gate, hoping God will answer. The psalmist writes in vss. 7–8, “O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” Timothy Cargal asks, “Where does our [life’s] garbage go? What is the final destination of our gossip and insults, half-truths and lies, lusts and longings, selfish manipulations and self-less wanderings? All this trash goes straight to the cross. And that’s where it stays, forever. No toxic stew. No environmental danger. No waste management problems.” That’s full redemption, and God Himself did that in Jesus Christ.
How do we solve the problem of trash in this world? Ultimately, by making less of it, and by making sure the trash we make is not the kind that sticks around. When it comes to our internal trash, the only way to make less toxic waste, is to stay close to God, to live the way Paul talks about in Ephesians.
     This afternoon, Clara and I are headed to Gavin House again. Every time we are there, I meet good people—people just like you and me—but the “trash” in their lives is completely overwhelming them. Many of them are hammering on heaven’s gates, not even really sure if there is a God, not really sure they want there to be a god, but knowing they desperately need the God who can help them with the toxic goo of their addiction, along with their pain, guilt and sorrow. And every time I’m there, I share the Good News that when we cry out from our depths, God is listening. Whenever we are hammering on heaven’s gates, we can turn to find Christ is standing beside us already. When Clara and I share this Good News at Gavin House, I see this gleam of hope in their eyes haunted with suffering. I want you to hear this Good News too:  The best part of God’s plan for our lives is that trash removal is only the beginning. God’s real plan is renovation—to make us totally new in Jesus Christ. You see, when we sincerely offer up the trash of our lives, God takes it all in—cleansing our hearts because He himself plans to come and live in us. We will never be alone, and always have more light and love to share than we thought possible. May Jesus Christ come into each of our lives, help us clean up, awaken in us a desire to be different, and make His home in us—a place of welcome for our friends, family and yes, by God’s grace even the stranger and enemy. We may be dismayed by our trash, but God delights in freeing us.

 

Are We Still Shopping for God?

by Rev. Doug Gray

Message

I.       Introduction — What the Crowd Has in Mind

So there are lots of different ways to shop. What are some of the ways that people shop?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Sure. So how do you know what to buy?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

That’s really interesting. One of the interesting things about our passage for today is that the people are shopping for a Savior. What they are looking for and Jesus’ response may help us go deeper in our thinking about our life with God.

II.      Shopping for a Savior

First, we often look for a savior who does nice things for us. I think of this as “The Santa Claus God” because many of us think of God keeping track of the naughty and nice things we do, and if we are nice, then God will show up and do nice things for us. I remember as a teen-ager praying a prayer like this:  “O God, if you would only give me this beautiful bike, or the boyfriend I really want, or the job I think is the right one, then I will do (fill in the blank) for You. Oh, and I won’t ask for anything ever again.” We say we want a God Who does nice things for us, but once God does one nice thing, then like, the crowd with Jesus, we want another, and just one more. It will never be enough. Jesus says to us, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

Second, we often look for a savior who we can control. I think of this as “The Fair Parent God” because lots of us think of God as someone we can make do what we want. The people ask Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” We just want God to be really clear about what we should do, and then when we do it, and then God should reward us. When I was a teen-ager, my Dad traveled a lot, and one time he was home, and I wanted to go to the mall. I knew if asked him, he would ask me, “Have you done your chores?” so I did my chores really quickly, because I was sure I could get him to drive me to the mall if my chores were done. We do that with God sometimes, don’t we? We read the Bible, or listen on Sundays, and we make a list of the things God wants us to do. And then if something happens, and we don’t get what we want, or something bad happens, then we are mad at God. We may even say to ourselves, “This God thing is dumb! How could there be a God!” Jesus says to us, “The work of God is this:  to trust in the one he has sent.”

Finally, we often look for a savior just like there used to be. I think of this as “Your Grandma’s God” because lots of us think that the way God used to work is over. The crowd says to Jesus, “Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” In this church, maybe we hear the story of wise Rev. Davison, who helped the people of Squantum get together and build a church. Or maybe you might hear about Ellen’s grandmother, whose kindness and hard-work were as legendary as the Bean Suppers. Or if you want to go further back, perhaps you had family who came over on the Mayflower—women and men who made incredible sacrifices in order to worship God as the Holy Spirit and their consciences told them to. So we think of Rev. Davison, Ellen’s grandmother and the people of the Mayflower as larger-than-life individuals, and they might have had faith, but it’s not like that anymore, or we could never be like them. Jesus says, “It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.”

IV.     Conclusion:  Not Consumers, but Relationship

Are we still shopping for God? Are we looking for the God Who is the best deal? Or maybe we’re looking for the God Who will keep the good times coming? Or maybe we’re looking for the God Who will make things the way they used to be? Do we love God for what God does for us? Or do we love God for Who God is? At every turn of today’s passage, Jesus makes it clear:  God is more than Santa Claus, handing out miracles to the nice people. God is more than a fair parent, who can be controlled by what we do. God is not just the one who worked for your Grandma. Jesus says, “…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” God is not Someone Who gave…God is Someone Who is giving. How often are we satisfied with a God who rescues us when we’re in trouble, but we won’t seek Jesus when times are easy! How often are we content with having a pleasant life, when God wants to give us a life filled with power and purpose! Jesus comes to each of us today with the same offer he gave to the people in that crowd so long ago: Jesus wants to offer us himself. Jesus wants to bypass our consumer instincts and give us his heart. That’s odd, isn’t it? Often we think of giving our hearts to God, but rarely do we think of Jesus giving us His heart. But that is the greatest treasure of all! Jesus wants us to have the same kind of abundant life He so clearly possessed. Jesus wants us to be whole and mature, giving and forgiving. Jesus wants us to have all our desires find a resting place in Him. Jesus wants us to lead others to the same table where they can be completely fed as well. The only way for us to grow and find peace is to quit shopping for a savior, and let the Savior in.

God’s Signs Point to…

by Rev. Doug Gray

Sermon

One day Jesus and Moses went golfing. They came to a par-3 hole with a large water hazard—really a lake—in the middle. Moses picked out a seven iron and teed off, laying up perfectly just short of the lake. Jesus went to his bag and pulled out his 2-iron. He said to Moses, “The other day I saw Tiger Woods hit the green on this hole with a 2-iron. If Tiger Woods can do it, so can I.” So Jesus teed up, swung…and chunked his ball into the lake. “You know, Jesus,” Moses offered, “you really ought to try something a bit lighter.” But Jesus would hear nothing of it:  “If Tiger Woods can do it, I can do it.” So Jesus teed off again, swinging with all his might, and chunked the ball into the lake again. “Jesus,” Moses said, “I know you are amazing, but I really think you should try laying up before the water hazard.” Jesus quickly responded, “No way! If Tiger can do it, I can do it.” So Jesus teed off again, swinging even harder, only to see this ball go kerplunk into the lake too. At this point, Jesus realized that he had used his last ball, and Moses was not about to let Jesus lose Moses’ balls in the hazard, so they headed down to the lake to see if Jesus could retrieve any of his balls. When they got to the edge of the lake, Jesus set down his bag and walked out onto the lake, bending over to look for the balls he had lost. While Jesus was walking on the water looking for his golf balls, a guy in a cart pulled up next to Moses. “Who does that guy think he is—Jesus Christ?” “No,” said Moses, “he thinks he’s Tiger Woods.”

So how did the guy recognize Jesus? (He was walking on water.) Even in the joke, walking on water is a sure sign of who Jesus is. A sign points to something. A restroom sign is not the restroom; it just shows the way to a restroom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus only does 7 miracles, and John never calls them miracles, he calls them “signs.” Each is meant to be a “sign” pointing to Jesus, showing us the way to understand Jesus better. In our passage for today, we have two of the seven signs, and the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Where do they point?”

The first sign finds Jesus taking five small loaves of bread and two fish, and feeding more than five thousand people. What sorts of things could this point to? First, it points to God’s great compassion for our physical needs; God wants us to have what we need to live from day-to-day—food, shelter, clothing, fulfillment. We have to do our part, recognizing that God wants to have what we really and truly need. Second, this sign points out God’s mind-blowing abundance. Jesus doesn’t feed 20 or even a hundred—He feeds more than 5000! Third, this sign points to God’s ability to escape the limitations of our imagination. Philip can’t imagine how they can find enough money to buy what they need. Andrew can’t imagine how five loaves and two fish could be enough. They are thinking inside the box. How do you get food? They only know about buying it or sharing it. As John is writing this, he remembers how the children of Israel, newly freed from Egypt and wandering in a desert wilderness, wondered how they would eat, what they would drink. From inside their little boxes, these people who saw God’s power part the Red Sea can’t imagine how God could help them make it. God provided water from rocks, manna from heaven, and quail from the sky. This sign points to God’s compassion for our physical needs, God’s abundance and God’s powerful love.

The second sign finds Jesus walking across the lake to his disciples in a boat. This sign points to God’s rule over chaos. When Jesus walks through the wind and the waves—walks on top of the water—he demonstrates that no matter how much chaos and craziness comes to our lives, God can still dominate it, still penetrate it, still cross it to be with us. This sign also points to God’s great compassion for our spiritual and emotional needs. Did you notice how the people tried to make Jesus king? Did you notice how Jesus dodged them? The glory they had in mind for Jesus was earthly glory—political power, financial wealth, a kingdom—only as they understood it. Jesus will not reveal his glory for that. But when Jesus’ disciples are scared and alone in the middle of storm in the middle of a lake, Jesus comes to them and says, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” By saying, “I AM,” he is making a far greater claim than just being king. He is saying he is God. Why does he reveal more to the disciples now than he was willing to earlier? I think because God knew how much they needed to be reassured, knew how much they needed to know they were safe. This sign points to God’s rule and God’s compassion for our deepest heart-needs.

If in fact, these “signs” point to who Jesus is, then they are also road signs that point to how we should be—aware of God’s Presence, trusting in God’s Providence, believing in God’s Purpose, living as God’s children. When we look at the needs of the people around us—those in this fellowship, those in Quincy, those in around the world—the needs seem so colossal, so beyond anything we can meet, that like the disciples we throw up our hands. Even though we can’t imagine how God can do incredibly great, mind-blowing things, like Andrew, we just need to bring what we have to God, and let God bless it and discover that something amazing has happened! There is enough and to spare for everyone! If God is over all, then we have nothing to fear. Indeed, we can count on God coming to us, giving us glimpses of what God’s glory in the very storms of our lives.

So how do we recognize Jesus in our lives? These signs point to Jesus the Christ, to the awesome love of God on which we can build our whole lives. These signs are not outside of the world, and they do not ignore the realities of our world. On the contrary, the greatest sign of all…the sign of the cross on which Jesus died points the way to a deeper, fuller life by putting our lives on the line for God. The sign of the cross points to how God’s awesome love is greater than the limitations of evil, corruption, suffering and death. These signs show us that God loves us so much he blows away the limitations of our imaginations, providing for the needs of our bodies and the needs of our hearts. God’s love is stronger than the tiny boxes we try to put God in, cutting through the storms and chaos with a word, “I am God. Don’t be afraid.” Somehow knowing God “is” means that grace is possible, that love can win, that joy is abundant, that hopes come true. These signs show us the way to experiencing the awesome, heart-filling, sacrificial power of the love of God.

Explosive Grace: Changing Our Recordings for God’s Recordings

So a while back, I found this great app. It makes sound effects. It’s hilarious! Want to hear?

[play some sounds]

That’s great, isn’t it? So did you notice that they all have at least one thing in common? What are some of those things?

[take responses from the congregation]

Very good! Yes, you are really paying attention. The biggest thing that they have in common is that they are recordings, and no matter how many times you push the button, you get the same sound. I think a lot of us have recordings we have made over the course of our lives, but they not only record people’s voices, but feelings as well. You make a bonehead play in a game, and what kinds of recordings do you get? “Wah-wah. You stink!” You do just the right thing at the right time, “The fans go wild! Cheers!” Or maybe something happens and a recording of your mom or dad comes out of your mouth. Sometimes these recordings are helpful, but sometimes they begin to get in the way. In our passage today, Paul talks about how to free ourselves from the recordings that can dominate our lives.
First, recognize the emptiness of the recordings. Paul writes, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” The word for “conceit” can mean empty of honor or glory. Tim Keller adds, “So conceit is a deep insecurity, a perceived absence of honor and glory, leading to a need to prove our worth to ourselves and others.” This emptiness often leads us to do one of the things Paul warns us not to do:  provoking or envying. Keller writes, “’Provoking’ is the stance of someone who is sure of his or her superiority, looking down on someone perceived to be weaker. ‘Envying’ is the stance of someone who is conscious of inferiority, looking ‘up’ at someone they feel is above them.” What’s interesting is that when we do either of these things, we are focused on ourselves, right? Either we are proud that we are just soooo good, or we are worried that we are not good enough. And in an odd way, we are looking to how other people make us look and feel to find out how we should look and feel. My sophomore year in high school I wanted desperately for people to like me. I wasn’t really sure how I fit in, if I could fit in, but I really wanted to be liked and included by the kids in my church youth group. I tried so hard, mostly out of insecurity. At school that same year, however, I have a feeling that I was insufferably arrogant about my classes, which were going well. Both my fears and my arrogance came out of my insecurity. Regardless of whether one of our internal recordings is provoking us to feel superior or trying to make us envy what others have, what they offer is empty promises. Being self-focused and depending on others to know how to feel about ourselves will never find us hope or meaning or purpose. The recordings that tell us how to feel are empty.
Second, recognize the power of God’s messages. One of my father-in-law’s favorite songs has a chorus that goes like this:

     Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble,
     When you're perfect in every way,
     I can't wait to look in the mirror,
     I get better looking each day.

I can imagine someone trying very hard to be humble, but of course the harder we try, the more pride we get in our work…which is not very humble. C.S. Lewis once said “humility is not thinking less of yourself: it is thinking of yourself less.” That’s the “law of Christ” Paul talks about us fulfilling in verse 2—thinking of God more and ourselves less. Jesus lived and taught and died and rose, not for Himself, but for His heavenly Father, and so we too might hear God say, “I love you! I love you for who you are not what you’ve done! I loved you before you did anything to deserve it.” That’s grace. Those are the recordings God wants us to listen to not only with our ears, but with our minds and our hearts. We end up not comparing ourselves to others, but simply trying to live truly in light of God’s great “I love you!”
Finally, we carry each other’s burdens, but our own load. I remember as an 8th grader, I realized on a Friday, that I had a major project due in English on Monday, and I hadn’t even started. At first, my mom got after me a little for lack of planning, but before long I was buckled down and writing poem after poem, working on the clipart that had to go with it. My mom worked with me off and on, not doing the heavy-lifting for me, but staying up late with me, helping mem to organize and hole-punch the project. She carried my burden—isolation (I felt like I was alone in my problem), frustration (It was going so slowly, but she helped me understand it was still going), despair (I will never get this done!)—but still it was my load. I will never forget my mother’s kindness that weekend. The image Jesus uses is a yoke, a kind of harness for two that allows sharing the load and learning the task. Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”(Matthew 11:28–30) When we help carry other people’s burdens, that’s the way to do it. Not provoking or envying, not condemning or judging—just doing what we can. We can’t live another person’s life—they have to carry their own load—but we can help them carry the burdens.
I do love the sound effects app, but I like some of my internal recordings a lot less. I’ve spent most of my life trying to become aware of the messages I have received from others. The farther I go down that path, the more I realize they have no real hold on me. Oh sure I have knee-jerk reactions to things some times, but knowing God loves me, knowing that God died for me, knowing that what God thinks about me is what really matters, that’s really helped me take a deep breath. You see we really play for an audience of One, for Jesus. We are all learning to trust that the Spirit will give us what we need when we need it. May we learn to lose the empty conceit and gain the fulfilling trust. By the grace of God, we have today to live in light of that grace, to invite God to change out our records, for His.

Explosive Grace: Gospel Character

In life, we all face questions that get at the heart of existence. I ran across one the other day:  Where do the characters go when I use my backspace or delete them on my PC? It turns out characters go to different places, depending on whom you ask:

  • A Buddhist might say: If a character has lived rightly, and its karma is good, then after it has been deleted it will be reincarnated as a different, higher character. Those funny characters above the numbers on your keyboard will become numbers, numbers will become letters, and lower-case letters will become upper-case.
  • A 20th-century, bitter, cynical, nihilist might say: Who cares? It doesn't really matter if they're on the page, deleted, undeleted, underlined, etc. It's all the same.
  • Stephen King might say: Every time you hit the (Del) key you unleash a tiny monster inside the cursor, who tears the poor, unsuspecting characters to shreds, and eats them, bones and all. Hah, hah, hah!
  • Some Christians might say: The nice characters go to Heaven, where they are bathed in the light of happiness. The naughty characters are punished for their sins. Naughty characters are those involved in the creation of naughty words…
  • Dave Barry's explanation: The deleted characters are shipped to Battle Creek, Michigan, where they're made into Pop-Tart filling; this explains why Pop-Tarts are so flammable, while cheap imitations are not flammable.
  • IBM's explanation: The characters are not real. They exist only on the screen when they are needed, as concepts, so to delete them is merely to de-conceptualize them. Get a life.
  • An animal rights activist might say: You've been DELETING characters??? Can't you hear them SCREAMING??? Why don't you go CLUB some BABY SEALS while wearing a MINK coat, you pig!!!!

Of course, I’m not sure Jesus would have much to say about deleting characters on a screen, but I think Jesus has a lot to teach us about character. In fact, I think perhaps the greatest question of our time is not what happens to the characters we delete, but how do we build character that is good news? Paul it turns out has been tip-toeing his way towards talking about character, and in our passage he uses the metaphor of fruit to get to the core of the mystery of building character!

But what is character? Character is who we really are when there’s no one else around, but it is sometimes most visible when we are with others. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree.” So the way people know our character is by what we do, define one decision at a time, every day, all our lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson even said, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”[1] Following Emerson’s logic, we might think controlling our thoughts is the key to building character. Paul thinks it’s like growing fruit.

Because what we really long for are the fruits of the Spirit. Timothy Keller points out four things about how the Spirit works that are like fruit.

First, fruit is gradual. Like apples on a tree, zucchini on the vine, or raspberries on the bush, it happens day by day, moment by moment, the individual changes so small they are almost imperceptible. Children are like that too. We look at a child and it seems like we only look away for a moment, and they have grown!

Second, fruit is inevitable. When we are trying to follow Christ, trying to know Christ better, trying to make more of ourselves available to Christ, we don’t have to stress about whether we will have fruit. We don’t have to worry. Like pears on a tree, beans on the stalk and blueberries on the bush, the fruit will come.

Third, fruit comes in bunches. Have you noticed that with fruit, you usually don’t get one apple, one zucchini, one raspberry at a time? It seems to come in multiples. So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. A loving person has joy and peace, shows patience and kindness and becomes a person of integrity and trustworthiness, marked by gentleness and self-discipline. Some of these we may be better at than others because of our temperament, but those who sincerely follow Christ will find Christ’s character growing and fruiting in them.

Fourth, fruit comes from roots. Without good roots, the fruit will not grow and fill out, having the sweetness it’s meant to have. So it is for us who are seeking Jesus. If we are only living on our strength, our wisdom, our resources, then Christ will never come to full fruit in us. Jesus even said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit.”

     How do we build character? When I was a kid, my parents would ask me to weed the garden in the hot sun, and I didn’t really want to do it. They said, “It builds character.” When I attended basketball camp and had to play basketball 12 hours a day, my leaders said to me, “It builds character.” When I had a really mean boss, but I really needed the job, someone said to me, “It builds character.” When I spent four and half years dating Cynthia, but most of it away from each other, we used to sigh and say, “It builds character.” When a grandma called me to come be with her granddaughter after her baby died, and I had a recital to go to and a sermon to write, I said to myself, “It builds character.” We build character as we face ourselves, as more than one good meets another and we must choose. . In verse 5:16 and 17, Paul talks about the two competing parts of us who have chosen to follow Jesus. The self-seeking, self-focused, selfish part of ourselves he calls the “sinful nature” that reflects our brokenness and fearfulness. The Spirit is that part of who we are that is all for Jesus, completely redeemed for God, all-in for our Lord. Who am I going to follow in this moment? We have a chance to get ahead at work, or meet our child after school. We have a chance to get some email done, or go for a walk with our spouse. These are not easy choices—getting ahead at work can mean a better life for our family, but time with our families builds relationships. Or maybe someone verbally attacks us and we have the chance to attack back or find a different path. The sinful nature is us at our smallest, meanest, and most self-indulgent. Paul’s first list of the sinful nature are selfish, self-indulgent, and fearful responses to life. They are all things we do, or attitudes we have and they are all about immediate gratification. When we live by the Spirit, we break free from our limitations, and can choose the path of love and grace.

 

Conclusion


[1]Ralph Waldo Emerson is the first to phrase this thought this way. It’s an ancient thought. For an interesting exploration of the history of it, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/.

Explosive Grace: True Fatherhood

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of our family’s favorite TV shows for a while was called Clean House. A while back, they went in search of the messiest home in America. They found it in St. Louis. The daughter, Bridget, had written to the show, pleading for help with the home she lived in with her mother, Sharon. Not long after, a team of people showed up at their door, ready to help them sort through their clutter and mess. As the team stepped gingerly through the piles and mounds of clutter, Sharon denied she had a problem with hoarding things, or that she had a problem with buying things and bringing them home, even if she didn’t need them and couldn’t use them. With the team’s help, Sharon and Bridget put most of their clutter in a rummage sale. Get this:  they had enough stuff to fill an empty K-Mart—with departments! With the money they made at the rummage sale (plus some matching money from the show), the Clean House team were able to redesign and organize Sharon and Bridget’s home. What amazes me is how hard it was for Sharon and Bridget to part with things which in most cases they hadn’t seen or used in years, and it had all piled up to the point where their lives had become narrow lanes through their home. Many of us have issues like this—oh, maybe not having piles and piles of clutter. But many of us sometimes feel trapped by our lives, as if they are closing in until we only have narrow lanes in which we live. What is it that keeps us in those narrow lanes of living? And how do we escape from the prisons in which we live? Our passage for today talks about freedom, how we give it up and how we can find it again.
     We begin with how we give it up. The Galatians are struggling with both their fears and their hopes. The well-intentioned missionaries have played on their hopes by encouraging them to “get serious” and “go hardcore” in their faith by loading on a pile of rules to their walk with God. But these missionaries have also played on their fears:  what if what we are doing for God is not enough? What if we have to show our love more than we are now? This fear can take us into dark places. Like Sharon, afraid to give up any of her things, afraid to make the changes that will open things up, we too can clutter our lives with rules thinking they mean God will love us better, while they gradually curtail our freedom. We forget that we can’t make God love us more than God already does.
      Of course, the other extreme is the folks who throw out all the rules. I remember my first semester of college. Yeah baby! Mom’s not around. Dad’s not around. Woohoo! I’m staying up all night! Yeah, and I’m eating pizza and frootloops at every meal. I thought, “I’m walking on the wild side!” I could go on, but maybe that’s for another time. The point is that kind of living lost its luster pretty quickly for me. It felt like what mattered most to me got lost in that approach. I realized going to classes was actually something I wanted for me—a way to say “I love you!” to the me I wanted to become, and a way to say “Thank you!” to the God who gave me the gifts that brought me there. I started looking for ways to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. I didn’t have the words for it, and some of the time I felt really isolated from people and angry at God. I was trying to figure out how to be the boss of my life, but I hadn’t figured out how to trust God to be my real boss. I was trying to learn what Paul means when he writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
       Which may lead us to ask ourselves:  What do I trust? Where have I placed my hopes, my identity, my sense of security? If our faith is in a certain level of income, a degree of status, or our grip on “The Rules,” then we are driven by these things, and the fear of losing them. If one of these things should fall through, then we can feel lost and adrift, even feel that our world has ended. Like Sharon, how often have we chosen to let our lives narrow out of fear of missing something or losing something, until we have nothing but a dark maze. For Jesus, loving and trusting meant He could conquer his fear and face the cross, trusting God would bring things right in the end. And on that first Easter, God surprised the world by raising Jesus from the dead, to even greater freedom. What counts is not “The Rules” or being able to do whatever we want…what counts is faith expressing itself through love.
       So where do you place your trust? Do you feel like you are on a roller-coaster, white-knuckling it through life, wishing things would just stop moving? Like Sharon, are you holding on to things, the comfortable and familiar, trying to pretend that nothing is going to change? Only by taking the risk and letting go, can we get past fear and learn to trust the Lord who loves us so deeply and only wants to give us more. From that place of trust, deep friendships and loving relationships can grow and fill our lives with the intimacy we crave. From that place of trust, we can share what we have—even if we don’t have much. From that place of trust, we can truly help another person, opening ourselves to them as we trust that God has a plan. From that place of trust, we can have deep peace about whatever is to come, because we know that the same Lord Jesus who loved us enough to go to the cross, will walk hand-in-hand into the future with us. Only as we get past fear and find that place of trust can we truly live after God’s own heart. Thanks to grace in Jesus Christ, we catch a glimpse of true fatherhood:  we are perfectly free, but best of all freed to love. What counts is faith expressing itself in love. Happy Father’s Day!

 

Explosive Grace: The Cure for Insecurity

by Rev. Doug Gray

     As some of you know, I grew up in Hollywood, CA, and that meant having colorful characters around. Though we lived in a modest, quiet neighborhood, Alan Hale, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island lived a couple of streets over. Michael Jackson shopped at our grocery store and attended the same elementary school I did. And down the street from us lived the deGarza family. They had a nice pool in the backyard and their son, Jeffrey, was just a year or two younger than my younger brother. My Mom struck up a relationship with Mrs. DeGarza and we went over to their house to go swimming. While we were there, I heard Mrs. DeGarza and others say things to Jeffrey like, “You’re such a lazy boy! You’re good for nothing.” Frequently they called him, “the little monster.” Anyone ever been called hurtful names? I’m guessing all of us have. When some called you names, how did that make you feel?
      In Isaiah, other countries have been calling Israel all sorts of names. “Ha ha! Babylon won the war, knocked down your walls, took your leaders, and made your country a wasteland. Hey, your name isn’t Israel after all. I bet your name is ‘Deserted’ because not only are your streets deserted, but your God deserted you!’ ‘No wait,’ said someone else. ‘I know, your name is ‘Desolate.’ Your country is a wasteland and no one loves you.” From where the Jews sat in Babylon, there seemed to be a lot of truth to those names. That’s what really hurts about the names people call us. We start to wonder, “Maybe it’s true.”
     But the worst hurt comes when we start calling ourselves names and really mean it. How many of you have ever been so mad at yourself that you said something like, “I can’t believe you did that. You are so stupid!” The times when we are most likely to do that is when we fail at something, and (if you are like me) we are the nastiest about it we make a promise and blow it. This is often especially true when we try to change long-standing habits and fail. If we try to change and blow it enough times, we begin to say things to ourselves like, “You are such a loser. What a failure.” And that can take us down a dark road into depression, tension, anger and despair. Calling ourselves these names may even make it more likely that we will blow it again, and when we do, that takes us further down the road in a vicious cycle that makes our lives seem darker and darker. Whether other people call us names or we call ourselves names, when we believe all the rottenness that comes at us, we become slaves. Slaves? Oh yes, we can be dominated by these ideas about who we are. If we let them, they will rule our lives and darken our days. Paul writes, “…when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.”
     Lots of forces push against us every day, trying to name us, to define us. Those who sell things try to persuade us to define ourselves with their products. They define us by their stuff and they make money. The powerful call us ‘powerless’ so that they can have more power. Bullies will try to label us ‘weak’ so they can push us around, use or abuse us for their own gratification. Others will label us ‘immoral’ so they can feel all goodie-two-shoes about themselves. The forces that name us want us to believe they are the ones that matter, that we have to “give them their due,” that “that’s just the way it is.” It’s so easy to fall into a place where we feel boxed in and hopeless in the face of this, more subtle name-calling. That’s just where these people, these forces, want us to be.
     And if we are honest, we do our own name-calling, don’t we? Sometimes we internalize the messages we receive and pass them on to others. We do it with our words, our actions, our thoughts and our dreams. We participate in the “name-calling” when we don’t stand up for those who are being bullied or treated unjustly. We participate in the “name-calling” when we show less honor to someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, or socio-economic status. Oh yes, we do our own name-calling, don’t we?
     To my knowledge, there is only one way out of slavery to the name-calling, only one way out of bondage to our habits, and that path lies through Jesus. Jesus knows what to do with the names that others give us and the ones that we give ourselves. And Jesus can transform us by His grace, so that we can uncouple ourselves from these forces and stop the negative name-calling we do. Paul writes “now that you have come to know God, or more importantly to be known by God…” When our oldest, Morgan, was in elementary school, she went through a period where she got sadder and quieter. When we asked her about it, she shared that she was being bullied. It had started with name-calling. We asked her what kinds of names do they call you, and she told us. “And you believed her?” we asked. “Do we call you those things?” She shook her head. “Why would you believe her? She doesn’t even know you!” Imagine how much more we are known by God, how the grace of God defines us, how we can be transformed just by believing that we are loved!
     That’s what God longs to do with each of us. When we give our hearts and lives over to Jesus, God tells us our real names. They are who we really are, the persons God created each of us to be. For the children of Israel, God was going to change their name from “Deserted” to “My Delight Is in Her.” Instead of “Desolate,” God was going to make her “Married” because of God’s great love and God’s great desire for intimacy and trust with the children of Israel…and with us. In Galatians, Paul talks about how the name “Slave” is replaced with “Son” or “Daughter.” And the implications of that are huge:  we are wanted; we are loved; we are provided for; we will never be alone; we can talk with God and know God listen. Paul even writes that because our name is no longer “Slave” but “Son” or “Daughter,” we can actually call God, “Daddy.” God wants us to come close!
     Not long after our pool times at the deGarza house began, Mom asked if Jeffrey would like to come to our house before nursery school and then Mom would take him. It added a certain amount of craziness to our family life and seemed unnecessary to me, so I asked Mom why she would offer to do this with Jeffrey. She said, “I wanted there to be at least one place where people spoke kindly to him.” She paused, then added, “People tend to become what they are called. If you call someone “little monster” long enough, pretty soon they begin to believe it. I wanted Jeffrey to hear people call him the names God has for him.” And that’s our mission! Sure, this is a great time to consider leaving our old ways and our old selves behind, to let God erase the old, negative names we have been called or have called ourselves, and to ask God to share with us our real names. But this is also a great time for us to decide to use the God-given names for people, rather than the ones others have come up with. What if, like the Jesus, we set about the work of erasing the rottenness of the world’s names for people, and reminded them instead of the names God gave them?

 

Explosive Grace: Instant Promotion

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Do you remember playing dress up? Or maybe you remember your kids playing dress up? What were your favorite things to dress up as?

     [Take responses from the congregation.]

     Did you every wear your parents’ clothes?

     In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves in Christ.” This powerful image of being “clothed in Christ,” gives us a some key insights into what life in Christ is meant to be.
     First, we are meant to find our primary identity in Christ. Clothes tell us a lot about someone, don’t they? In fact, most of the time we choose our clothes to say certain things about ourselves. If we wear Patriots, Red Sox or Celtics gear, we are identifying with that team. Can you imagine wearing your Red Sox gear in New York City? One of my friends is a NY Yankees fan—I know, there’s no accounting for taste—and he had the courage and fortitude to wear his Yankees gear to a Red Sox game. Boy! Did he catch it from the Red Sox fans! They didn’t care about how kind and gentle he is. The generous people there recognized him as a baseball fan and might respect him for that, but it was a long night for my buddy. Being clothed in Christ means—whatever we are wearing—for us belonging to Christ and living for Christ is the most important part of who we are.
     Second, we are reminded of the closeness of our relationship to Christ. I love raiding my Dad’s closet. Many years ago, I “stole” a wonderful, very unique sweater. Initially, it smelled like him, but has always reminded me of my cool Dad. I have depended on it to kept me warm on cold days. Wearing that sweater is like getting a hug from my Dad. In some ways it’s better—I can’t have Dad hugging me everywhere I go, but I can wear the sweater! When we are clothed with Jesus, there’s a rich intimacy to the experience. Just as my sweater is close to me, so is Jesus, embracing me as I travel on my day. I depend on Christ to keep me warm when the world can be so cold. Just as we can feel our clothing if we take a moment to focus, so we can experience the intimate feel of Jesus if we are mindful.
     Finally, we are to imitate Christ. When I was a kid, I loved trying on my Dad’s clothes. I really couldn’t imagine that I would ever be big enough to fit in them, but I knew I wanted to be like him when I grew up. When we were playing dress up, we were really trying on an identity, trying to experience a piece of what it was like to be an astronaut, princess, lawyer, mom or dad. In our minds, we believed the phrase, “the clothes maketh a person.” In a sense, being clothed in Christ means we want to grow up to be like Him. Whatever we are wearing, our prayer is that others will see grace and honesty, kindness and justice, sacrifice and spiritual maturity, joy and truth—that they will see Christ in us.
     In our society, clothes are often used to set up divisions—Red Sox or Yankees, rich or poor, weak or powerful, male or female, goth, gay, ethnic—they are all divisions we can often see in clothes and manners. Part of what Paul wants the Galatians to do is to look past the clothes, to see Christ on each other. That’s why Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” “No longer Jew or Greek” means cultural barriers just don’t matter, and we can accept one another without one group feeling superior or inferior. “No longer slave or free” means God looks past finances, manners and immigration status; and we are called to do the same. “No longer male or female” means we see people’s giftedness before we see their gender. Paul is talking about how Christians are to see other Christians—to look for Christ first in each other. But more importantly, to see that we are all heirs of the promise in Jesus Christ. Because Christ has come upon us, clothed us in the richness of His sacrifice, we recognize we have all received a promotion—to first-born, full-inheritance status. May the prayers of our hearts be “Lord, I want You at the core of my identity, in the deepest places of who I am. Lord, help me be mindful of how close You really are, and help me live like You, longing for grace to be the most obvious part of who I am. Help us to see Christ in each other! Come, Lord, Jesus, and be the intimate focus of our lives!”

 

Explosive Grace: E Pluribus Unum

by Rev. Doug Gray


Every once in a while there’s a law just makes you wonder. For example, according to Reader’s Digest:

     •    Did you know that in Alaska, it’s illegal to be drunk in a bar? Ummmmm.
     •    In Chico, California it’s illegal to build, maintain or use a nuclear weapon?
     •    In Connecticut, a pickle has to bounce when dropped from a height of 1 foot.
     •    In French Lick Springs, IN—black cats have to wear bells on Friday the 13th,
           “The rule was introduced on October 13, 1939, ‘as a war measure to alleviate mental
           strain on the populace…’”
     •    In Wells, Maine—it’s illegal to advertise on a tombstone. Because that population
          can’t go anywhere?
     •    In Nevada—illegal to determine someone’s shoe size with an x-ray machine.
     •    In New Hampshire—you can’t collect seaweed at night.
     •    In Oklahoma—No “horse-tripping” events…oh and no bear wrestling either.
     •    In Memphis, TN—You have to have a permit for begging. It used to cost $10,
           but now it’s free.
     •    In Utah—It’s a felony to hurl a missile into a bus terminal, unless you are an
          appointed officer of the peace or commercial security personnel. How is that a
          good idea for anyone?
     •    In Vermont—They passed a law, that there can never be a law prohibiting
          clotheslines. Disaster averted!
    •    In at least two counties in the state of Washington—It’s against the law
         to poach Sasquatches on someone else’s property. [1]

Part of me thinks these laws are ridiculous, but you know these laws come from somewhere. Why do we even have laws? This question underlies Paul’s argument to the Galatians today, and his answer is one that defines our country, and could define our lives as well.
     First, we have laws because people push and cross boundaries. Paul writes, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…” What makes me a little nervous about the laws I listed up above, is that every one of them has a story. The folks in Chico wanted to make it clear they didn’t want anything to do with weapons of mass destruction. The folks in Vermont wanted to make sure they could always use clotheslines. But also the dark side of humanity:  if we make panhandlers purchase a permit, then maybe we won’t have so many panhandlers, perhaps trying to make the poor less visible. The laws help us know where the boundaries are. For most of us, we would rather stay within those boundaries. But we can’t make enough laws to cover everything, to take into account every hard-hearted or ill-considered idea. We need the rule of law, as Paul says, these boundaries “imprisoned and guarded” us. We can think of the law as a way to teach us what not to do.
     But second, we wouldn’t need laws if our hearts were right. Paul writes, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Imagine for a moment, if we were all as loving and gracious as Jesus. How would we treat the people around us? What would we choose to do today? Imagine for a moment, if we were to say to God, as Jesus did, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Imagine just for a breath-taking moment, what would happen if you brought a bunch of people together who were all living that way? Where Moses’ Law in the Old Testament is mostly “Thou shalt nots,” Jesus teaches “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s huge! But harder, because in order to walk in the way of love, we have to think and feel, to pray and consider. How is God leading us? What does God want us to say or do? If our hearts are right, then we would always be in a living conversation with God, transformed by Christ—which is really what God longs for, right?
     Underneath American society at it’s best is this deep, rich, transformational undercurrent. Here’s the way one former president put it in 2004:

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one. [2]

This idea of “E pluribus unum”—out of many, one—has its roots in passages just like ours today. Paul is talking about what life as a Christian is meant to be—knowing we are all children of God. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The genius of America is that it took that truth to heart—there’s no white America, Asia America, black America, or Latino America—there is only the United States of America. There are no Red States or Blue States, only the United States of America. What divides us is not as strong as what unites us.
     On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember those who have given their lives for our nation and for each of us. We have patriots who have fought in wars and patriots who have protested wars. But always we must be grateful for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice because they have done it for all of us, so that we might have the freedom to follow God as our conscience dictates. The fact of the matter is that when we put Christ at the center of our lives, surrendering to God’s direction, allowing our hearts to be transformed by Christ’s love, something extraordinary happens:  we live for more than just ourselves. When we live for Christ, our lives go beyond what is legal, to what is a blessing, beyond what the law can demand, to how grace can transform not just us, but the world.


[1]Reader’s Digest at https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/dumbest-laws-america/

[2]From Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention. Quoted from Al Franken’s book

Explosive Grace: Beyond Expectations…The Holy Spirit Comes!

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Maybe you have heard this classic joke. Once there were three monkeys sitting on the branch of a tree. Why did the first monkey fall out of the tree. Because he was dead. Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree? Because he was dead. Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree? Peer pressure. I remember as a teen hating all the peer pressure that was around me all the time every day. Some people expected me to be good—to do the right thing, to do my work, to be honest and helpful. Some people expected me to be bad—to cheat when I could, to break the rules when it suited me, to do what felt good. And there were all these “rules” that went with every group at school—people I could and couldn’t hang out with, things that “just weren’t done,” and things I had to do to be cool. With everyone else’s expectations pushing me one way or another, I found it hard to figure out what my motivations for doing anything were. Am I doing it because I think it’s a good idea, or because this person or this group think it is? Anybody else ever struggle with this? Yes indeed. In our passage for today, Paul wants to dig into this challenge for us. How do we escape the pressure of other people’s expectations?
     First, remember your mountain-top experiences. Have you had a moment when everything seemed very clear to you? Perhaps a time when you felt really close to God? Those experiences are not an accident! They’re not random! God gives them to us to encourage us and to help us stay on the right path. During spring vacation of my 8th grade year, a bunch of folks from my school went to the Grand Canyon and hiked down to the bottom for a few days. When we got to the trailhead, we looked out over the Grand Canyon and it was amazing, breath-taking. You could look out and down, and see some of the trail, as it wound it’s way down into the canyon. You could even pick out a few features of that trail—a giant rock here, a stand of trees there, and the river far below. It was a 7.5 mile trail to the bottom, and my pack seemed awfully heavy, but I rejoiced when I passed the giant rock, celebrated when I stopped to rest at the stand of trees, and was encouraged when I could hear the river rapids near the bottom. In those moments when God makes things clear for us—singing a song to God and we discover we are singing about our life with God, being in prayer and Jesus comes as a strong Presence, or talking with others and we have an “Aha!” moment. Paul says to the Christians in Galatia, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!...Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” Paul is reminding them of the vivid moments they had together—as God changed people’s lives, did miracles, and moved their hearts. Just like it was for the Christians in Galatia, so it is with us—our mountain-top experiences are not things we make happen, they come as a gift from God. When people’s expectations are pushing at us, remembering the mountain-top experiences keeps us focused on how God is leading us.
     Second, grace is the road forward. Do you have any “bad old days”? One of my “bad old days” is the time in my life when I tried to make everybody happy. Someone said, “Can you do this?” and I said, “Yes!” Someone else said, “Could you help me with this project?” and I said, “Sure!” I did that with enough people and enough projects, that I discovered I was getting more and more stressed, worn out and sometimes very uncomfortable with who people thought I should be. The problem was that I believed if I made everybody else happy, that I would be happy, and I was miserable! I didn’t realize it, but I had found the curse that Paul talks about when he says, “…all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” No matter how hard I tried, I could never please everyone, including my perfectionist self. No matter how hard I worked, I could never do it all exactly right. And into that space stepped Jesus. I remember getting to a point in those “bad old days” when the pressure was getting higher and higher until I just sat down on the stairs near my office and cried, pouring out my sorrow, worries and fear. “I’m trying to do it right, Lord!” And when I had finished sobbing out my heart, I had this sense of Jesus almost putting his hand on my shoulder, and saying clear as day in my heart, “I never said you had to do all of this.” All Jesus wanted was my love and my life. If I was walking with Christ, then I didn’t have to go every place for everyone, just the places Christ wanted me to go. When we look at the cross, we see Jesus Christ who became cursed, so we could escape the curse of everyone’s expectations. When we give our lives to Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes past everyone else’s expectations and begins to show us how to live with God and how to live for God! Grace is what frees us in the first place, and grace will show us how to love and live beautifully.
     When we are surrounded by people’s expectations, we can find it really hard to know what is us and what is just going with what the people around me wanted. We may even feel like one of those monkeys in the tree. Into that that darksome and tangled mess shines God in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we have never really thought about the cross, never really considered not just the goodness and wisdom of Jesus, but the power of His sacrifice. Not everyone wants what is truly best for us—it’s really for them, so they can make a buck, so they can feel better about themselves. Even the people who truly love us can’t know my needs and dreams to the depths of my being. But God does, and God is in it, not so we can make God look better, but so we can become our own best selves. I learned that when I finally realized that Jesus had died for me—not just everybody. In the love of Christ, we find freedom from all other expectations, and then the Spirit comes and leads us from the mountain-tops into living lives that show that grace to others.

Let’s pray.

 

Explosive Grace: Called on the Carpet

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Moms know. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why…but moms know. Mom is folding laundry at the other end of the house and so you try to sneak into the kitchen to get one of the cookies cooling on the racks. Just as you reach for one of the cookies, Mom shouts from the other room, “Don’t take any of those cookies.” How does she know that? Or you and your mother are having a conversation on the phone, and Mom says something and you roll your eyes, and she says, “Don’t you roll your eyes at me.” She can’t even see you and she knows you are rolling your eyes! Moms know. If we need it, moms call us out, call us to be our best, not just for what we do, but for the attitude we are doing it. In our passage for today, Paul calls Peter out for getting something really wrong in his relationships, and their conversation is going to help us understand God and moms a little better.
     First, love first. Philip Yancey shares a story told to him:  A person working “with the down-and-out in Chicago,” tells the story of “A prostitute [who] came to him in wretched straits, homeless, her health failing, unable to buy food for her…daughter. Her eyes awash with tears, she confessed that she had been” renting out her own daughter, “to support her own drug habit. The listener could hardly bear hearing the sordid details of her story. He sat in silence, not knowing what to say. At last he asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. “I will never forget the look of pure astonishment that crossed her face,” he later said. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel even worse than I already do!’” Philip Yancey adds, “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. [1]” Peter is putting rules first—rules for trying to be holy, rules for separating oneself from food offered to idols. Jesus put love first, people first, reminding people of their best selves. At its best, the church and moms put love first.
     Second, think about the consequences to relationships. In one of my earliest confirmation classes, we were in the opening orientation session, looking at expectations and requirements. The first thing on the list is regular attendance in worship. One of the moms raised her hand, “So how many Sundays a month is regular attendance?” It’s a very reasonable question in some ways—she wanted to know what the minimum was so that she could be sure her teen would qualify. In some other ways, it made me sad, for it showed me an attitude of fear or worry. Timothy Keller writes, “Legalism is looking to something besides Jesus Christ in order to be acceptable and clean before God. Legalism always results in pride and fear, psychologically, and exclusion and strife, socially.” The Christ-followers in Antioch were part of one of the first inclusive churches—Jews and Gentiles worshiping and eating together. Into this community come people who put rules first, that what makes us right with God is following the rules—eat this, don’t eat that. Suddenly, there were people on the “in” and people on the “out”—Jews and Gentiles—where before there were only children of God following Jesus. Where there was one table before, now there were two. Paul calls Peter out for unthinkingly introducing pride and fear, exclusion and strife, into this church. Paul knows the thing that matters is not just what Peter did, or how Peter changed his behavior, but why Peter did it—the attitude he had as he changed what he knew to be right out of fear. The consequences of that attitude were going to be huge!
     What bugged me most about the Confirmation mom’s question is how quickly she gave away her freedom to have a rule. Rules are easier. When we know the rules, we know we are secure within their boundaries, and we know what we can do that will really irritate our parents. Rules are easier. We don’t have to think, and we don’t really have to care—we just have to follow the rules. When we know the rules, we can sneer and jeer and shun those foolish and misguided unfortunates outside the rules. But rules fail to make us loving, whole people, with a good connection with God. Ultimately, what probably warms the hearts of every parent most is knowing that their child is thoughtful and loving, using their freedom to be a blessing, and walking right with God. The saying that parents give their children roots and wings is right on target. From Paul’s perspective, we are rooted in Christ and gain the wings of grace. When we try to live and love like Jesus, God’s grace will make everything work out right—our relationships, our jobs, our parenting, our communities, and our world. The best things only happen when we use our freedom to show grace, to embrace those who need it most, to suffer with those who are hurting— no “us” and “them,” just God’s children loving.
     Paul knows. Moms know. How? Maybe it’s because they have eyes in the back of their head—mine always said so. But probably it’s because they love us that they know us so well. What makes for good relationships? Probably less of the negative thinking of much of Jewish Law—don’t do this, don’t touch that, don’t eat this either. Probably more of the positive thinking of Jesus—Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. At the end of the day, keeping the rules might keep the peace, but living in grace is more about love. At their best, moms live out the kind of love Jesus showed, not just in his teachings, but in his death on the cross. The promise is that when we love—desire it, live it, thank God for it—then whatever our sacrifices, we will rise again just as Jesus did.

One of my favorite T-shirts challenges me: The front says, “Jesus save me…” and the back says, “from your followers.” I like this T-shirt for a bunch of reasons—I think it reminds us that Jesus is the one who saves, not the church…and that all too often, people in the church do not act in ways that Jesus would. So what would Jesus like to the church to be? As the early church was wrestling with how to be faithful, what were its issues? How do those help us today?

As I was thinking about this passage and Mother’s Day, I realized that I had something else that tied in: The Top Ten Ways You Know You’re a Mom:

     1.    Your feet stick to the kitchen floor and you don’t care.
     2.    You spend an entire week wearing sweats.
     3.    Your idea of a good day is making it through without a child leaking bodily
            fluids on you.
     4.    Your favorite television show is a cartoon.
     5.    Peanut butter and jelly is featured in at least one meal a day.
     6.    You’re willing to kiss your child’s boo-boo, regardless of where it is.
     7.    Your baby’s pacifier falls on the floor and you give it back to her, after you suck
            the dirt off of it because you’re too busy to wash it off.
     8.    You’re so desperate for adult conversation that you unload on a telemarketer
            and HE hangs up on YOU!
     9.    Spit is your number one cleaning agent.
    10.    You’re up each night until 10 p.m. vacuuming, dusting, wiping, washing, drying,
             loading, unloading, shopping, cooking, driving, flushing, ironing, sweeping,
             picking up, changing sheets, changing diapers, bathing, helping with homework,
             paying bills, budgeting, clipping coupons, folding clothes, putting to bed,
             dragging out of bed, brushing, chasing, buckling, feeding (them, not you),
             PLUS swinging, playing baseball, bike riding, pushing trucks, cuddling dolls,
             roller blading, basketball, football, catch, bubbles, sprinklers, slides, nature walks,
            coloring, crafts, jumping rope, PLUS raking, trimming, planting, edging, mowing,
            gardening, painting, and walking the dog. You get up at 5:30 a.m. and you have no
            time to eat, sleep, drink or go to the bathroom, and yet you still managed to
            gain 10 pounds.

What do these two readings have to do with each other? Ah yes! Well, as it just so happens, being a woman in general and a mom in particular means you get somethings about being church.

When we make it about the rules, we insert fear into the love relationship. Just like fear finding Peter when he starts to worry about the hard-core, rule-following folks from Jerusalem, so fear and worry find us when we are focused on rules.


[1]Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997), p. 11.

 

Explosive Grace: Putting Fractured Lives Back Together

by Rev. Doug Gray

     The story is told that many years ago, John and Marsha moved into an all Catholic neighborhood. The neighbors invited the new family to go to mass with them, and afterward, introduced John and Marsha to the priest, Father Dominic. When they had talked for a little bit, Father Dominic invited the couple and the neighbors into his study and shut the door. This made the John and Marsha a little nervous, and they mentioned that they were born Congregationalists, and had really never been Catholic. Would it be hard to become Catholic? Father Dominic said, “No problem.” He waved his hand over John and Marsha and said, “You were born a Congregationalist. You have lived as a Congregationalist. Now you are a Catholic.” Then he shook their hands, “There! Now you’re Catholics!” and the couple joined the church the next Sunday. When Lent rolled around, the Catholics all stopped eating meat on Friday. But that first Friday in Lent, one of the neighbors was walking past John and Marsha’s house, and he could smell steak cooking on the grill. He thought he was imagining it. But the next Friday, he was walking by, and again he smelled beef cooking on the grill. It smelled amazing, and his mouth started watering. That Sunday, several members of the church cornered Father Dominic. “Please, Father,” they begged. “You have to get them to stop. The meat smells so good, it’s leading us into temptation.” So the Father promised and the next Friday, he headed over to John and Marsha’s house. Sure enough, as Father Dominic was walking up to the house, he could smell the meat cooking on the grill. He peeked over the fence and saw John waving his hand over each steak. He was saying, “You were born a cow. You lived as a cow. Now you are a fish.” What makes a Christian a Christian? Is there some magic formula that you have to say and do? How do you know? Our passage for today asks some of the same questions…will the answers surprise you?
     “What makes a Christian a Christian?” is really not a question anyone can answer. When we moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, the first Sunday I was there, two of the church’s teen-agers were ushering. One wore blue jeans and the other wore baggie sweat pants. That afternoon, Lois Schmidley (who had left 90 in the dust) called me up on the phone. She told me how she couldn’t believe how the girls were dressed. Would I please talk with them about it? I said, “Lois, I think God was glad to see them today. Don’t you?” What I wasn’t going to say to Lois was that those young women were the daughters of an alcoholic who hardly had two nickels to rub together and was hardly able to function, let alone look after his daughters. If the young women had clean clothes, it was because they had cared enough to wash them. If they had fancy clothes for Homecoming, it was because they had worked for them, or borrowed or been given them. I knew that church was one of the few places they were loved and appreciated for who they were. Underneath Lois’ phone calls was the belief that in order to be Christian, you had to dress and act in a certain way. While that may have been her cultural experience, it was not the cultural experience of these young women. What made Lois and these young women all Christian is that they all wanted to be close to Jesus Christ, to learn how to live and love and laugh with Jesus.
     What makes someone a Christian is the wrong question. It should be Who makes someone a Christian. Because the answer is Jesus Christ. Does that seems a little weird. Didn’t Jesus die 2000 years ago? Yes and no. Yes, Jesus died on a cross 2000 years ago, crucified though innocent, going to the Cross out of love for God and each of us. No, Jesus is not still dead. People have seen Jesus, walked with Him, talked with Him. And Jesus promised when two or three gather in His Name, there He would be—and over and over again, we have experienced the presence of Jesus in our midst. Around the world today, people are gathering to worship God with Jesus in their midst. Whether they are in stone cathedrals with gold crosses, or mud huts with wooden ones—millions of people are looking to this sign of shameful death and seeing love, looking at a symbol of powerlessness and seeing the gift. That’s grace—love before we were ready or deserved it, love just in time. Jesus is the One Who comes to us, arms open wide, to love in a way beyond what we find in the world. Paul writes, “for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles…” Jesus is Who makes us Christians, and experiencing Jesus’ grace is part of what transforms us.
     So we can’t really know who’s a Christian, but we can look for signs of grace. Paul writes, “when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me…” Do we see people suffering out of sacrificial love for others? That’s a Jesus thing. Are we welcoming strangers, standing up for justice, and showing kindness to those who need it most? Those are all Jesus things. The only thing the pillars of the Jerusalem church asked Paul to do was make sure everyone remembered the poor. Jesus did after all. But doing these things doesn’t make us Christian. We don’t get into heaven by putting enough checkmarks in the Book of Nice. We show grace to others because of the grace we have received.
     You’ll notice that being Catholic or Congregational or anything else doesn’t make you Christian. It’s not whether or not you eat meat on Fridays, or even what kind of religious experiences you’ve had. It’s not how much money you have, what language you speak, what songs you sing. All those who seek Jesus and try to live by grace are our family in God, on our Team Jesus. It’s not for us to decide who is a Christian and who is not—that’s for God to sort out. It is for us to ask ourselves is my life marked by grace? When others come into my circle, can others warm themselves at the fire of God’s love? At the end of the day, the One Who matters is Jesus, and the gift of grace that changes all we are.