Tag Archives: Christianity

No, I didn’t fly south for the winter . . .

I live in the Midwest, and I live through the four seasonal changes for better or worse.  In fact, I think if I did not live those cycles, I might not fully appreciate those wonderful days of late Spring, Summer and early Fall.  And what about those picturesque Winter snow days?  There is something about living through the seasons that enriches our lives.

Still, I have had to acknowledge that this winter, my season did not follow the typical ‘at rest’ pattern that often develops in the heart of winter.  This winter the days have filled to overflowing with a new direction.

I have shared that I needed to take a year off for rest, but I also know that during that year I was refueling for the next phase whatever it might be.  Resting was difficult and I filled time with the full year-long Bible study.  I did my best to maintain weekly blogs and connections.  And the year passed quickly.

How easy it is to fall into the classical use of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up 

what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

The passage is referenced often as we make transitions in our life and remains a staple in our Bible library.  Its wisdom is timeless and reminds us that we all do go through various seasons in our lives.  We are human and the Bible repeatedly reminds us that all of humanity experience the same patterns in our human lives.

I am just one more who has to be reminded that I am human and that I, too, must experience life transitions.  I must admit that I have my limits and how I live my life revolves around the priorities I establish–and those priorities change from season to season.

You, too, know this truth.  You, too, must realign your lives based on the seasonal changes that you experience.

Therefore, I must forgive myself for the lapse in writing a blog for the last month.  I must ask your forgiveness for not reaching out to you personally.  I must realign reality with my priorities.

My first priority is to God, true, and he expects me to worship him, to serve him, and to do all that I can to make disciples of him for the transformation of the world–more importantly for the personal transformation that occurs for those who come to know God through the life of Jesus Christ, his son.

With that understanding, I returned to an active pastoral role in my home church.  The work is a passion and I want to do all that I can for this community of faith.

At the same time, I know God expects and understands that my family is a priority and for seven months that has included the emotional and physical support needed as the result of a tremendous accident.

Therefore, I must balance my passion for ministry with passion for my family.  The pause in blogging is the result; and the reality is that I have no idea how I will balance these three elements on into the seasons ahead.  

I did not fly south for the winter, which is in our country a phenomenon that happens when winter hits the Midwest and the North and individuals reach retirement–or now can work remotely during the winter-ravaged months.  

I make no promise to the regularity of my posts, but I want all to know that God is present in my life and in your life.  I pray that all who read these words know they are part of my faith family and that I love them as God loves them.  May your seasons be filled with God’s glory and for us in the Midwest, may the sun shine, the daffodils pop up, and spring begins to creep in.

Dear Patient Father,

Thank you for your everlasting, ever

     present love in our lives.

Thank you for the words of Scripture

     that guides us in the transitions of life.

Thank you, too, for the community

     of believers who love one another.

Guide us in accepting our humanness

    and grow into our faith.

Guide us in loving one another,

     so they, too, may experience your love.

Amen.

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Believe it or not, it’s ADVENT!

And I feel like celebrating.  I admit there are some Advents that I have not felt like diving into the Christmas madness, but this year I am ready.

Why?  Maybe it is the cold, but also maybe because I have invested the full year in that year-long Bible study and am so excited to be nearing its conclusion.  

As Christians, and especially if we have been raised as a Christian since birth, Christmas has always been so important.  Sadly, though, we can often fall into such a rut that it loses significance.

Maybe that is what happened.  I also know that with kids it is part of the parenting role to be excited, but then the kids grow up and have their own kids.  Christmas develops its own pattern and you must readjust yours to meet the season of your own life.

Whatever the case is, Advent has arrived, and I have decorated more than I have in years—probably thanks to my daughter’s push.  And I still have more to do.

But why, again?  As I have continued the study this year, I feel like I have been given new insights into the entire development of Christianity.  It is a gift that will just keep on giving.

Therefore, as we begin the process of saying farewell to 2019, look forward to 2020.  Consider adding a Bible/scripture reading plan into your life on a daily basis.  It is the gift you give yourself.

Just in case you have none available to you, check a few different ones I found by googling “Bible reading plan 2020”:

One of my favorite websites is BibleGateway and they provide a variety, too, at this link:

https://www.biblegateway.com/reading-plans/?version=NIV

I could go on, but this is a starting point for you to prepare for January 1, 2020.  If you try to read the entire Bible in one year, be prepared to allow 45+ minutes a day.  If you add in study notes, it can take more.  I was on a year of rest so I had time to focus on the reading.  At this point, I do not know what I will do for 2020, but I am beginning to ‘shop’ around.

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord, 

We know you are The Word, but we so often fail to read your words.  Thank you for speaking to me through scripture and for speaking to those who turn to your words.  Speak to them, renew them, and guide them in loving one another.  –Amen

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Sometimes one needs reminding in order to move forward

First, let me restate that I am a Christian and that my denomination of choice is United Methodist. 

Also, let me include the framework of my personal study—a year-long Bible study that pairs an Old Testament reading with a New Testament reading. 

For my study, I am using the Wesley Study Bible (WSB) which is a ‘new revised standard version,’ that is considered the basis for Methodists even though I often read other translations like the New Living TranslationThe Message, and the New International Version.  

Why is this important?  Because I want to share a quote from the WSB notes that has stuck in my brain for a couple of weeks:

As individuals, families, and congregations evolve, growth entails finding meaningful ways to integrate the present with the past, to connect new members with those who have a long record of faithfulness, and to honor history while embracing change.  The weeping of the elders carries a moving double significance.  Their disappointment with the new construction is at once a sad refusal to welcome the future and an important challenge to a new generation that they have much to achieve to rival the community’s former glory.  Only the elders carry with them the historical memory of the community.  They are the only ones who can raise this criticism.  The combination of joy and sorrow reflects the multifaceted nature of the community, old and young, Jews of Babylonian and Persian origins, along with those from Jerusalem; lay and clergy, along with their differing hopes, fears, and expectations.  Out of this group characterized by difference more than similarity, once again, God will fashion a faithful people.  As Wesley notes, “The mixture of sorrow and joy here, is a representation of this world.  In heaven all are singing and none sighing; in hell all are wailing, and none rejoicing; but here on earth we can scarce discern the shouts of joy from the noise of the weeping, let us learn to rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”  (p.573)

The context for this study note is Ezra 3, especially verses 12 and 13:

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many should aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish

the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (NRSV)

Reading Old Testament scriptures can be confusing as they are not necessarily written in a chronological order and the texts are written by different authors.  Therefore, reading the text takes discernment, especially prayerful discernment.

The context of the book of Ezra is summarized in the introductory notes of WSB helps:

Written sometime in the early period of Greek occupation of Israel’s land (after 332BCE), [the books of Ezra and Nehemiah] tell an idealized story of a reconstituted but small Jerusalem community threatened with obliteration by imperial rule, interethnic strife, and the abusive excesses of an elite class. (p. 569)

Therefore, the scripture is talking about the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the religious center of the faithful Israelites.

John Wesley believed that they study of scripture needed to be done with attention to four elements or, as we might refer, filters:

  • the scripture itself, 
  • the tradition of Christianity,
  • reason (or logical reasoning), and
  • human experience

Using these four filters is considered Wesley’s quadrilateral.  

For some, this structure for Bible study may seem weighty, or maybe even unnecessary; but for myself, I think it is important because it helps me understand how the scriptures can speak to me in the 21st century just as it did in the ancient centuries.  The themes are timeless.

(I understand that is a great deal of background information about studying scripture, and how I personally study.  If I did not do that, then how would anybody understand the significance of the study note I shared in the opening?)

Today, as churches have to reshape themselves; it is difficult to manage the old with the new.  It is difficult for people to let go of what “has always been” in order to embrace the possibilities of “what can be.”

As I read Ezra, I understood how the elders of the faith community were thinking, yet the challenges of ancient society caused things to change.  Being allowed back into Jerusalem to rebuild the temple was critical to the elders, yet the circumstances could not possibly be the same as it was when it was first erected.

The very same circumstances exist today.  In each faith community, the shifts in one’s culture, the wear and tear on a building, the elders versus the younger generations force the church to evolve.

As I read through the study note included in the opening, I was reminded how difficult it is to take a long-standing faith community symbolized by its very structure in the heart of a community, must change.

Read again the first lines of the note:

As individuals, families, and congregations evolve, growth entails finding meaningful ways to integrate the present with the past, to connect new members with those who have a long record of faithfulness, and to honor history while embracing change.  

No process of rebuilding is easy.  The elders will weep.  The youth will cry for change.  But, in God’s world, the constancy of grace and love should bring the generations together.  It will not be easy, but God’s timeline only sees one goal—to love one another as one wants to be loved.

The faith communities today are struggling, but the more I study scripture, the more truth of God’s world becomes evident.  We are gifted with the opportunity to live in this world, and to do all that we can to experience earthly life to its fullest.  

Today’s faith communities are struggling, and the goal is to find ways to carry God’s grace and love forward to others.  The culture changes, it merges with different cultures, technology creates new ways to communicate.  

Change is a constant, but God’s grace and love do not change.  We are taxed to do all that we can in any way that we can to share God’s love with one another; and that means love one another in any way we can.  The faith communities must then accept change within its own parameters in order to grow God’s kingdom any way that we can.

What we must remember is that this earthly life we live is just a human experience and the promise of life eternal guides us in living Christ-like lives now.  Hence the emphasis I added to the study note via underlining:

. . . let us learn to rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Life is what we make it during our earthly journey, but it is just a hint of the glory that awaits us.  Please join in me in prayer:

Dear Lord, our God,

As we continue our earthly journey, growing in faith,

   fill us with the grace and love you show us

   so we may share that grace and love with others.  

Help us to find ways to join the generations

    with compassion and empathy

   in order to lead others to know you personally.  

We want to rejoice with those that rejoice

   and weep with those who weep

   as members of your family, always.  –Amen

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Activate prayer any time, any place, anyway you can

Last week, I was fortunate enough (maybe I should say, blessed) to attend a Ruby Payne conference, attend a Passion City Church worship service, and bond with two passionate Christians seeking to learn more about how to make pathways out of poverty—more specifically how our churches can make pathways out of poverty.

 

Certainly that is a great deal to list in the first paragraph of a blog, but I needed to jump in and get started (that helps me when I have departed from a routine).  Please allow me to continue.

 

The Missouri UMC Conference established an initiative for the 2019 year: to increase the church-school partnerships from 10 to 40% in an effort to create “pathways out of poverty.”  This is a lofty goal, indeed; and an educational task force is operating to assist this effort.

 

At least that is the structure that is currently established.

 

Three of us attended the Ruby Payne conference, Addressing the Challenges of Poverty,in Atlanta on September 23-25.  The focus was on how to work with the multiple agencies that provide resources for those in poverty, aka the under-resourced.

 

About 20 years ago, I attended a Ruby Payne conference that introduced me to her framework of poverty.  That experience taught me so much about the hidden rules that exist not only for the socio-economic poverty class, but also for the middle class and the wealthy.

 

The knowledge base made me much more accepting of others who were in different life circumstances than my own.  In fact, I had to reassess my own background and figure out my own hidden rules.

I firmly believe that it made a tremendous difference in my teaching and continues into my ministry.  I have not one doubt that this information is a key to the conference’s initiative, too.

 

But, I am wondering way too far from my blog’s opening title.

 

Our small team was asked to use prayer as we stepped into the conference: Prayer for guidance.  Prayer for understanding.  Prayer for the conference.  Prayer for the churches.  Prayer for the people in our communities.

 

Growing up, prayer meant a formal set of words offered at specific times with specific purposes.  Prayer had a visual appearance of head down and hands folded.  I was a kid, learning.

 

Prayer was given at each meal in our household and even today, I yearn to hear my dad’s words.  I cannot remember them all and my family has tried to rebuild it, but we can’t.

 

Prayer was used in church and we all had to memorize the Lord’s Prayer. The minister, aka pastor or preacher typically offered prayer.  Sometimes lay people prayed, but I never really felt like prayer was used all the time, any time, or anywhere.

 

Then, I grew up.  I begin realizing prayer was a tool, a connection with God.  I participated in a small study group about prayer.  I began hearing about prayer differently.  And even through the discernment process and the training to become a licensed local pastor, I continued to learn about prayer.

 

And I used prayer—officially.

 

And I used prayer—personally.

 

Then this summer I read the book, Talking with God by Adam Weber, and I became comfortable with prayer in an even deeper manner.

 

Prayer is a tool but it is even more.  Prayer is a conversation with God, one that never has to cease, that can change on a whim, that can be tears or laughter.  Prayer is essential in our Christian lives.

 

Prayer is any time.

 

Prayer is any place.

 

Prayer is anything.

 

Throughout the days of travel, conversation, presentations, meals, walking, and more, prayer is all that you do when living as Christians.

 

The Missouri Conference has a dream, and that dream can involve every individual through prayer.

 

The work that Ruby Payne has done is prayer in action as the educators, the agencies, the legislators, and the interested citizens work to address the difficulties in life that come through the barriers created by the hidden rules of socio-economic classes.

 

There is no reason to believe that any church denomination has an answer to the problem, but there is a reason for each Christian—regardless of denomination—to join in prayer that we can do all that we an for all those we can in any way we can wherever we can and whenever we can (yes, John Wesley said it and we should continue to say and do as the same).

 

Prayer is the first and most essential task we all can participate in doing. We can pray regardless of age, gender, or race.  We can pray alone or we can pray in groups.

 

Yes, I did mention attending a worship service while in Atlanta.  I was not familiar with Grace City Church, but when I started learning about it I wanted to go.

 

What an experience!  The church was an old Home Depot store transformed into a worship space.  No stained glass windows.  No pews, just padded chairs.  No alter.  No typical appearance associated with the traditional church in which I grew up or am accustomed attending.

 

But there was Jesus!  There were people—everywhere.  There was music.  There was a sermon.  There was an offering.  There was PRAYER!

 

And I know that God was pleased.

 

I walked away from that setting and discovered that I had witnessed just a miniscule picture of what true Christianity can be.  The congregation was not what I have witnessed before.

 

The people were all one:  No race mattered.  No age mattered.  No gender mattered.  No social class mattered.

 

Only one thing mattered:  God’s unconditional love.  Prayer was alive and witnessed.

 

Dear Loving Father,

 

I am with you always, and I pray always.

Use me in ways I may not understand

So that I can share your kingdom with others.

 

I pray when I struggle, and I know you listen.

May my unconditional love of others

Provide a prayer for them in their struggles, too.

 

I pray in order to hear you, and yet I am unsure.

Let me continue to pray and to do all that I can

In any way, for all, in any way, at any time I can.

 

Thank you, too, Father, for all those who join

In prayer to do the same wherever they are

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Contemplating the Mystics of The Church

Sermon for April 15, 2018:  This sermon developed from the images of Leawood, KS, Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass windows.  The images of those who continued God’s work after Jesus’ resurrection.  Today, the image of Saint Teresa of Avila was the inspiration for this sermon.

How many Christians harbor a seed of uncertainty about the resurrection?   Until we walk the same path that all must walk, there is no concrete evidence our logical minds crave to answer that lingering question.

In the lectionary’s scripture for this week there is a reading from I John 3:1-7.  This letter was written by John the Apostle, whose brother was James and father was Zebedee. Based on writing styles and historical research, the same person is believed to have written the gospel of John.

Scholars believe the first letter of John was written as a circularletter to be shared among churches.  The purpose was to reassure the early Christians and counter false teachings. The letter provides three descriptors of God:  God is light; God is love; and God is life:

Scripture connections:

I John 1:5-7  God is Light

This is the message we heard from Jesus[a] and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.

 

I John 3:1-3  God is Love

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.

 

I John 5:11-12 God is Life

11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.

 

Today’s world is consumed with logical thinking and the need for proof; Christianity is targeted as an outdated concept. Christianity cannot be boiled down to a code that computers can dissect and recreate with accuracy.  Christianity is simple but complex.  It is faith in what is known, but what is also not known.

As the weeks, years, decades, centuries distanced people from the events of that first Easter Sunday, The Church developed, evolved, and continued to share the story Jesus taught the Apostles and the earliest disciples.

The gospel written by the Apostle John differs from the other three and is sometimes identified as the mysticalgospel.  Why?  This gospel focuses on the fact that Jesus was God more than focusing on his physical human qualities.  God is light, love, and life.  The Word.

Scripture reconnect:

John 1:1-5, 9-14

1In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,[a]
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.[b]

 

     The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

     10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.

     14 So the Word became human[a] and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.[b] And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

The Church had the task of continuing God’s work as delivered through Jesus Christ. And The Church continues.  At first there was just the one denomination, as we would call it today, but the reality is that even in the earliest days, believers formed different cells focusing on different perspectives.

Some fled into distant countries to live together in isolated communities.  Others blended into community churches located in homes.  Differences developed based on national cultures, strange practices, eventually creating orders who taught and trained others to continue the work of the Apostles.

Leaders developed into Popes, and The Church that evolved into the most organized arm of Christianity became known as the Catholic Church.  An organized religion developed and The Church grew.  The evolutionary process has seen various movements for reformation and Teresa of Avila, who later was beatified as a saint, led one.

[Insert video introducing St. Teresa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn4v6atYpq8&t=0s&list=PLFlOzfWR7LMU3h-0LlX_QPiZWi_Lx_rFm&index=5]

Teresa of Avila lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisitions and is known as a mystic.  Admittedly this is an uncomfortable facet of Christianity that does not match the 21stcentury mindset.  Therefore, I turned to the Harper Collins’ Bible Dictionary:

Mystic:  one who has a direct experience of the divine presence, an intimate and transforming communion or union with God.  . . . Traces of mysticism are sometimes identified in the Pauline Letters, especially where Paul speaks of union with Christ.

With that definition as a foundation, the writings of John the Apostle can be understood as being mystical, too.  The words from his writings and the quotes from St. Teresa are similar.

As John wrote in his first letter, God is light.  An article from biographyonline.com explains that after a severe illness during which St. Teresa experienced a vision.

In one of her visions she saw an angel pierce her heart with a spear with a golden tip and the pain, instead of being debilitating, became a movement into ecstasy for the mystic.  As she herself wrote, “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”  This event became symbolic of her life, that she was chosen in a special way to share in the pain of Jesus Christ. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at https://www.coraevans.com/blog/article/the-incredible-life-of-st.-teresa-of-avila)

Afterwards, Teresa shared her vision, and some clergy argued the vision was the work of the devil.  She lost her confidence in her own visions and raptures, sometimes called ecstasies.

The article, though, continues to explain more:

However, in the course of time, she became absorbed in deep contemplation in which she felt an ever-growing sense of oneness with God. At times she felt overwhelmed with divine love. The experiences were so transforming, she at times felt the illumining grace of God would wash her soul away. She was so filled with divine contemplation it is said at times her body would spontaneously levitate. Teresa, however, was not keen on these public displays of ‘miracles’. When she felt it happening she would ask other nuns to sit on her to prevent her floating away.

Mysticism is not common in today’s faith discussions, but St. Teresa is accredited with part of The Church’s reformation.  Being included in the Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window (Leawood, KS) connects her to the evolution of The Church. She is accredited with starting a new order that focused on the values of poverty and simplicity:

She guided the nuns not just through strict disciplines, but also through the power of love, and common sense. Her way was not the way of rigid asceticism and self-denial. Although she underwent many tribulations herself, to others, she stressed the importance of experiencing God’s Love.

God is love.  The gospel of John along with his letters emphasizes that God is love.  St. Teresa’s writings include quotes that echo John’s teachings:

  • “It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”
  • “The surest way to determine whether one possesses the love of God is to see whether he or she loves his or her neighbor. These two loves are never separated. Rest assured, the more you progress in love of neighbor the more your love of God will increase.”
  • “We may speak of love and humility as the true flowers of spiritual growth; and they give off a wonderful scent, which benefits all those who come near.”

St. Teresa’s work clearly emphasized that God as love includes being a servant.  A few quotes from her sound very familiar to John Wesley’s most notable quote:

Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at Wikiquotes.com )

St. Teresa used these words:

  • “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
  • “If we practice love of neighbor with great perfection, we will have done everything.”

St. Teresa knew God as love. She also knew God as life.

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life. . . . If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.”

In her visions, she experienced God’s love.  By the union with God through Jesus Christ, she saw God as life.  The metaphor that a nun is married to The Church simply means they are as devoted to the church as spouses are devoted, singularly, to each other. As a nun, St. Teresa’s life was devoted to God; God was her life on earth as well as after death.  In the biography, a fellow sister/nun describes St. Teresa’s death:

“She remained in this position in prayer full of deep peace and great repose. Occasionally she gave some outward sign of surprise or amazement. But everything proceeded in great repose. It seemed as if she were hearing a voice which she answered. Her facial expression was so wondrously changed that it looked like a celestial body to us. Thus immersed in prayer, happy and smiling, she went out of this world into eternal life.”

This final picture helps us to understand the mystical aspect of Christianity.  The Church cannot fully explain the complexity of God:  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the figures who have carried the story forward along human history’s timeline, provide glimpses.

Even St. Teresa explains her mystical faith in God:

“They deceive themselves who believe that union with God consists in ecstasies or raptures, and in the enjoyment of Him. For it consists in nothing except the surrender and subjection of our will – with our thoughts, words and actions – to the will of God.”

As Methodists who know the words and works of John Wesley, St. Teresa’s words and work, we see that God is, God was, and God always will be light, love, and life—eternal life. To fully accept God in our lives, we, too, must be mystic at least to some degree.  There is no other way to know the reality than to rely on The Word—through reading scripture, through prayer, and through loving one another in any way that we can.

Closing prayer:

St. Teresa prayer life has also been the subject of study.  She said, “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”

Now, please join in prayer:

Dear loving, life-giving Father,

As we wake to the sunlight of the morning,

As we lie down to rest in the moonlight,

Fill our souls with light, love and life

Taught us by your son Jesus Christ

And guides us as the Holy Spirit.

May we hear The Word within our minds

So that we, too, may live as your children

Following and reflecting your light others,

Loving one another as we want to be loved,

And confidently believing you are life

Now and forever, amen.

In closing:

            Here we sit in the Midwest in our protestant church.  The story of The Church is filled with saints who carried the Word forward, beyond the geographical home of Jesus Christ.

Here we live in the 21stcentury in a culture far removed from ancient thought, yet the saints kept Jesus’ work alive.

Therefore, when we learn that someone in our contemporary world experiences God in a mystical way, the story can empower us even more.  For some, the following story sounds familiar, for some it will provide encouragement.  This is the Easter story now, in our own world  [Accessed on April 12, 2018 at http://www.carmelites.net/news/resurrection-in-a-kansas-backyard/:

 

Resurrection in a Kansas Backyard

APRIL 1, 2018 | GREGORY HOUCK, O.CARM.

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Easter Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year in the Catholic Church, but for priests like myself it can sometimes be an occasion for sleepiness and maybe some crankiness. We’re cranky because the night before, the Easter Vigil, is a very large celebration in which the liturgy itself and the festivities afterward can go on for hours until early in the morning. Getting up the next morning for 7:30am mass can be pretty difficult.

 

This past Easter Sunday, I was helping out at a Carmelite parish in Kansas. It was a beautiful day; but that didn’t quite cut through the sleepiness. The aisles were choked, every pew taken, and I’m wrapping up one mass and preparing for the next when a man approaches me and asks me to give Last Rites to his dying father. Though this the last thing I want to hear at this moment, I tell him I can be there that afternoon, after the last mass.

 

Afterward, as I am plugging his address into the GPS in my car, I seriously consider blowing it off. I really need a cup of coffee and maybe something to eat. I need some time to rest. ‘I could show up tomorrow morning, no damage done’ I think to myself. But there was something quietly urgent about the man’s request, so I head over.

 

When I pull into the driveway, a crowd of people that could only be family is standing on the front lawn of the house. I think they must be waiting for the ambulance; I’m sure that because I hesitated, I am too late. But I find out pretty quickly that the family isn’t waiting for the doctor – they are waiting for me.

 

“Dad asked us to carry him out to the backyard to enjoy this weather,” the man explains. “We were afraid that if we stayed out back we wouldn’t hear the doorbell ring.” The family members– the dying man’s wife, two daughters, two sons, and a handful of college-age grandchildren – are pleasant enough, and as I am following them out to the backyard, I feel a bit calmer.

 

Out back, the dying man is propped up on a lawn chair. After relaxing in the sun and visiting for a while, I bring out the anointing oil, as well as Communion, in case anybody wants to receive. The Catholics in the group have skipped mass, afraid they’d lose their father while at church, and they are relieved at not having to forgo Communion today. I perform the Last Rites ceremony, and then I talk briefly about the Easter Gospel from this morning’s mass. I talk about the Doubting Thomas story, and about how Thomas’s newfound faith in Jesus is its own resurrection.

 

After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?.’”

 

After distributing communion, the dying man asks to speak with me privately. Assuming he wants his confession heard, the family gets up and retreats into the house, and we are alone. After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?’

 

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” he explains. “I’ve always had one or two jobs to keep food on the table. My kids – I think they knew I loved them, but I never told them that.” He pauses for a moment. He’s looking away from me. “I think they loved me, but they never told me that. We never said these things out loud – we just were a family.” He turns to me again. “But suddenly these last two days, being with them all the time, I know how much they love me. And I never really knew that before.”

 

As he speaks, I can feel my attention to his words sharpening. “I married my wife because she was the prettiest woman I ever saw – but I never really knew that her heart was so much more beautiful than that.” My Doubting Thomas sermon is starting to feel a little silly in comparison.

He stares out into the grass. “And I finally realized what I’d been missing my whole life. Today, after a few days with family constantly at my side, I finally got it. The whole point of life is to love. The reason we are alive is to love – and that makes this the best day of my life.”

 

I begin to understand that this man has just given me a gift – and that clarity like this is contagious. Love itself is a resurrection. The family returns and we sit around chatting for a while, and suddenly I am not so hungry, not so desperate for a cup of coffee. This man is approaching death, I realize, with joy; and that is a gift to his family too. They are not grieving so much as delighting in watching him exit with grace.

The next morning the phone rings in the rectory at an oddly early hour. It’s a representative from the nearby funeral home: “We’d like to schedule a funeral this week.”

 

“I know” I say to the voice over the phone. After hanging up, I’m sitting alone in silence for a few moments when I realize that tears are falling down my face. As a priest, I’m often called to be present when people die but, in truth, I’m generally not much of a crier. It dawns on me that my tears are not in sadness for the death of a man I barely knew. Instead, they are for the grace and privilege I felt at being witness to a resurrection on Easter Sunday afternoon in a backyard in Kansas.

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Mary Magdalene at the The Cross/The Tree of Jesus

Easter Sunday sermon:  The scriptures are embedded in the text, but I would also like to share that I am sharing some of the music from Jesus Christ Superstar during the service, also.  Please listen to Mary Magdalene’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the final song, “Jesus Christ Superstar” at its inclusion.  I was fortunate to see the Broadway production in 1972 with my high school classmates on our senior trip.  The fact that it is going to be a live performance this Easter Sunday on NBC will be a dramatic ending to this Easter Sunday.  

Let me introduce you to Mary of Magdala.  Her image is the final one in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window.  She is sitting on a stone, weeping and alone—at least the artist has her pictured this way in the window.

The trial and the crucifixion is over and the very same people who were standing along the road cheering as Jesus arrived on a donkey one week earlier are now in hiding.  Mary of Magdala is not.

Mary stayed beside Jesus as he hung on the cross and died. Joseph of Arimathea takes the body and places it in his personal tomb late Friday just before Sabbath began. The first opportunity Mary and a few other women have to complete the burial practice was Sunday morning:

It was customary to wash the body and anoint it with perfumes and spices, not ever for embalming but always to control the odors. . . . The hands and feet were wrapped with linen clothes (grave-bands), and the face and head were covered with a small cloth and bound.  It was loving friends and relatives, mostly women, who prepared the body.  The Jews did not use coffins and did not embalm. [Accessed on 3-29-18 at http://www.bible-history.com/backd2/burial.html.]

 

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary of Magdala is first introduced by Luke earlier in the story of Jesus’ ministry found in Luke 8:1-3:

Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.

 

This introduction immediately follows the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet while at a dinner with the Pharisees.

But who is this Mary and why did she stay beside Jesus only to be the one who witnessed and recognized his resurrection first?

Research shares insight into the character Mary Magdalene, but the reality of this woman cannot be definitively identified with factual details.  The possibility of her relationship with Jesus being more than a disciple is the subject of movies.  The research cannot refute it, but the fact does not change the importance of Luke’s and John’s reporting of her presence at the resurrection.  And, if the possibility of the intimate relationship with Jesus is true, the morning of the Resurrection may actually be more believable.

The Gospel of John reports the morning’s events to the earliest Christians:

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

     Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

     11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in.12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

      14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary came from the city of Magdala, a trade center, and probably was a successful businesswoman in the textile industry. She was afflicted with seven demons according to the scripture.  The story does not explain, but you know the demons that can cause one to lose focus. Maybe she was mentally struggling with manic depression.  Maybe one demon was physical pain from something like endometriosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe she had a strawberry birthmark that caused her embarrassment.

The demon does not matter, but what the story tells us is that Jesus loved her unconditionally and healed her from the demons. Such unconditional love is the message that Jesus delivered.  Mary chose to accept that unconditional love and responded in a manner that she became a disciple—maybe even one of Jesus’ inner circle, an apostle.

Put yourself in Mary’s place on that Sunday morning. Would you have been sitting on that rock weeping?  Or would you have been one who had gone into hiding?

Mary’s story continues as she arrives at the tomb early Sunday morning.  Her sorrow keeps her steps slow and heavy.  Her head remains downward.  She carries the supplies she needs to complete the burial ritual.  There is no joy in her heart, in her step, nor in her expression.  Her eyes are red from the tears shed over the past several days.  Her hair is a mess.  She has no reason to fix herself up.  She is raw.

And as she reaches the tomb, she looks up.  The stone is rolled away from the opening! The exhaustion she feels turns into agitated confusion.  Why is the tomb open?  Why is the tomb empty?  New tears begin flowing now from confusion and uncertainty and even fear.

Then she turns and sees a figure.  Out of context.  Out of a mind.

And the figure speaks to her. Only when he addresses her in that familiar tone she knows so well, “Mary”, does Mary of Magdala recognize Jesus.  In John, the story continues:

     16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

     17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

     18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Tears turn to joy!

Mary carried the news to the other disciples.  She knew where they were.  She knew the importance of reporting what she saw—who she spoke to. The story of Jesus’ ministry must continue and she who may have been the most emotionally connected to Jesus now had to take a new role—deliver the message of his resurrection.  He still had work to do and even though she wanted to hold him, she couldn’t.  Her faith caused her to move into action.

In a male-dominated culture, where Jesus treated the women equally, Mary Magdalene recognizes the truth of the resurrection. Jesus is alive and all the disciples now must carry the story forward.  They must live as Jesus taught them.  You, too, even 2,000 years later are to join in the task of telling the good news, living the Christian lifestyle, and loving one another as you want to be loved.

Why did Jesus speak to Mary that Sunday morning?

Because he lives.  [Conclude with the music, Because He Lives.]

Closing prayer

 

Dear ever-loving Lord,

May we experience the joy

Mary of Magdala did

As Jesus called out her name.

May we hear God call our names

As Mary Magdalene did

Knowing we, too, are with you

Now and forever.

Guide us to understanding.

Guide us to commitment.

Guide us to serve

One another in love,

Unconditional love.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

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The Family of Abraham

Sermon given on Sunday, March 4, 2018, the 3rd Sunday of Lent during which the sermons are focusing on the Old Testament families and the lessons for the 21st Century

Scripture connections:

Genesis 12:1-4a

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

     So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed. . .

 

Genesis 12:7-9

Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your descendants.” And Abram built an altar there and dedicated it to the Lord, who had appeared to him. After that, Abram traveled south and set up camp in the hill country, with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. There he built another altar and dedicated it to the Lord, and he worshiped the Lord. Then Abram continued traveling south by stages toward the Negev.

 

Genesis 13:1-3

So Abram left Egypt and traveled north into the Negev, along with his wife and Lot and all that they owned. (Abram was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold.) From the Negev, they continued traveling by stages toward Bethel, and they pitched their tents between Bethel and Ai, where they had camped before. This was the same place where Abram had built the altar, and there he worshiped the Lord again.

 

Genesis 18:3-8

     “My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”

“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”

     So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures[a] of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.

 

Genesis 18:13-14

“Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

 

 

Reflection: The Family of Abraham

How many of us would pick up and leave our homes without knowing where we were going or how we were going to make a living? How many of us would trust our own “hearing” if we thought God was telling us to do just that?

Dare I suggest that if we ‘hear’ God talk to us, we would demand some verification that it was God speaking. As a people, a culture, we question everything that we hear, even demanding some form of proof. We certainly would not just pack up and leave like Abraham did.

In Genesis 12, there is a key to the importance of the scripture. Look closely at the six clauses of verse two:

  1. I will make you into a great nation. . .
  2. I will bless you and make you famous . . .
  3. . . . you will be a blessing to others.
  4. I will bless those who bless you. . .
  5. . . .and curse those who treat you with contempt.
  6. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.

Those are extremely compelling reasons to follow God’s command.

Looking at each of these clauses and reflecting on today’s world, there are challenges to our understanding of how this one man and his family fit into our 21st century world. Abraham’s full story covers almost 15 chapters in Genesis, but I suspect many churchgoers would only identify the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God.

Abraham follows God’s call to walk away from his birth family, which was against the culture’s social rules. The oldest son was the rightful heir and expected to remain with the family until the patriarch died. That son then had the responsibility for the remaining family members. The system was complicated; for instance, when Abraham’s brother died, he was responsible for his nephew Lot, so he included him in his household when he left his father Terah’s house.

Following God’s instructions was not simple for Abraham as John Wesley noted:

Abraham is called to abandon the security of his homeland, social sanctuary, and family support, in order to become the head of a new household, even while he himself is still childless, and without knowing where he is going . . . Abraham needed to depend upon the Lord alone for guidance, because this call upon his life tested in Wesley’s words, “whether he could trust God farther than he saw him”. [i]

 

Following God’s call defied all the traditional expectations. Yet, Abraham heard God call him to go out on faith and establish a new nation.

How does this fit into today’s world? Our understanding of the nations is much more concrete with all the scientific and geographical knowledge that is available today. The idea of establishing a new nation is not logical for us. Yet stop and redefine nation.

The nation that God led Abraham to establish has evolved into a religious nation, not a political nation. In fact, the family of Abraham is credited with the founding of three religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

In Genesis, when Abraham left his father’s home, God appears to him:

Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your descendants.” And Abram built an altar there and dedicated it to the Lord, who had appeared to him. After that, Abram traveled south and set up camp in the hill country, with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. There he built another altar and dedicated it to the Lord, and he worshiped the Lord. Then Abram continued traveling south by stages toward the Negev.

 

The journey continues even after this point because a famine hits and Abraham moves his family on to Egypt.

Still the challenges continued. Using a trick, Abraham attempted to fool the Pharaoh concerning Sarah. The Pharaoh figured it out and sent them out of Egypt. And the story continues as recorded in Genesis 13:

So Abram left Egypt and traveled north into the Negev, along with his wife and Lot and all that they owned. (Abram was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold.) From the Negev, they continued traveling by stages toward Bethel, and they pitched their tents between Bethel and Ai, where they had camped before. This was the same place where Abram had built the altar, and there he worshiped the Lord again.

 

How does Abraham’s story fit into our world today? Think about how many times we are asked to relocate. Life’s circumstances can dictate changes that may not make sense, but when Abraham’s circumstances led him to move, God never left him. God led him in making the decisions of where to go and how long to stay. Abraham’s faithfulness made his family into a nation of faithful people.

Is your faith strong enough that as you travel through life, God remains by your side? Do you live your faith in such a manner that you demonstrate God’s grace and love to others? Do you see how Abraham’s faithfulness led to the blessings promised in those first verses of Genesis 12?

In the ancient culture, wealth was amassed by possessions, by the size of the family, by the territory the family inhabited. The fact that Abraham and Sarah did not have any children was a difficult truth and challenged their faithfulness.

The concern was so overwhelming that Sarah decided Abraham should have a son through her slave-girl Hagar. Much like a surrogate in today’s society, Hagar did give birth to a son Ishmael. The story is complicated with a power struggle between Hagar and Sarah, but also for Abraham. A son signaled the continuation of a nation. God had promised Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation.”

The birth of Ismael could have completed the promise, yet God returns to Abraham to reaffirm his covenant including Sarah:

19 But God replied, “No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. 20 As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year.” 22 When God had finished speaking, he left Abraham.

 

Even though Abraham laughed off the possibility of Sarah and he having a son, he continued to demonstrate the love for others and is noted for his hospitality to strangers. The story includes the example when three strangers arrived and he served them (Genesis 18:3-8):

     “My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”

“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”

     So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.

 

These strangers asked about Sarah and also told Abraham that God would bless them with a son. Now it was Sarah time to laugh, but one said,

“Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

 

Abraham’s story continues as Sarah does give birth to a son Isaac. God kept his promise. The familiar story of Abraham is filled with examples of faithfulness. We may not understand how God could ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son Isaac, but we do know that God tests us. When we follow God’s law, God will provide. When we follow God’s law, he rewards us.

A study of Abraham’s family shows that the nation God promised is really a nation without boundaries. Abraham’s family continued teaching how to be faithful. Ishmael may have been sent away, but even his faith established the Islamic religion. Isaac is identified as founding the Jewish faith.

And the nations continue.   Jesus was born as man whose lineage is traced back to Isaac. Those who accept Jesus as their savior are part of Abraham’s nation that continues to grow as Christianity—a nation that continues to grow.

The family of Abraham teaches us how to be faithful, how to listen to God, and how to trust God. Today’s nations may have boundaries, but the heavenly nation established by God has no boundaries. Remain faithful to God. Listen for God’s instructions. Trust God and you will be blessed.

Works Cited

The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.

 

 

[i] (200918-19)

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