Monday, July 30, 2018

multidimensional love

Last Sunday, my husband, Jay, and I drove to Charlotte to watch a professional soccer game.  As we walked from the car to the stadium we passed a man with signs placed along the sidewalk.  Each listing condemnations and things he considered false truths.  He clearly had an idea of who God is and what or who God loves and doesn’t love and anything contrary to his beliefs would mark you for an eternity of flames and torture. 
Now, we didn’t speak to this man, but usually in situations like that, even when I tell them I am a Methodist pastor, I am told that I don’t believe in God the right way, my femaleness combined with a position of spiritual leadership has inevitably put me on God’s Do Not Call list. 
This always makes me wonder:  are we worshiping the same God, following the same Jesus, do we all have to believe the same way, or is it more like the directions we are given by GPS? 
When we typed in the address for the stadium on the way to the game, we were sent I-40 to Hickory, through Gastonia to Charlotte.  On the way home, we were sent to Greenville SC to catch I-26 back home.  So clearly there are multiple ways to get to our destination.  We have our preferred routes and maybe we have pitstops planned along one route that doesn’t exist on another, but they will both get you where you want to go. 
(Now, let me just say this.  I think this man thought he was doing and believing the right things, I don’t like them.  Any religion which offers more hate than love, more condemnation than grace and more rules than relationship is on the wrong path.  But I also acknowledge he’d probably think the same thing about me.)
The writer of Ephesians is clearly not a stranger to this phenomenon.  There have always been differing views on what it means to follow Jesus.  In his day it was the Jewish versus Gentile believers.  Those who followed Paul thought differently than those who followed Apollos or James, or Thomas or any of the other apostles and missionaries for Christ in the early church. 
Today it is Evangelicalism compared to Mainline Protestant compared to Catholic or Orthodox.  We all worship God and believe in Jesus, but how we get there and what we do along the way is different. 
As Paul writes this letter, he realizes no matter what path we are on, there is value in the common threads which bring us together; prayer, deepening our relationship with God and being strengthened for service.  So, Paul prays for the church.  Prays for you and me, and that man on the street.  Paul prays we would know that we all belong to the same God and Father.  That we may be strengthened in our faith, that Christ would dwell in our hearts, that we would be rooted and grounded in love, and that we may know with every ounce of our being the abundance and awe inspiriting love God has for us and all of God’s children. 
He prays that we would be so filled with God’s Spirit that we could see past the limitations of our own physical bodies, our own narrow vision of God and God’s desires for us and that we would trust God so explicitly with all that we are and all that we have that we would be able to accomplish things for Christ that are beyond our wildest imaginations which will continue well past when our life has ended. 
This prayer is huge.  Just reading it seems overwhelming.  It is something we want so badly for ourselves, for our church and for those who don’t yet know Jesus.  When we spend time thinking about this kind of love, it is hard to not get giddy with excitement. 
It’s like hearing someone say I love you for the first time.  Our hearts race, faces flush, we get butterflies in our stomachs, you can hardly sit still and you cannot wait to shout it from the mountaintop. 
It is just too much to bear.  And sometimes, we are so overwhelmed with our own love, gratitude, and excitement we don’t know where to start.  How do you show your love for them?  Words, songs, poetry or do you do nice things for them, buy gifts, do favors or go to the ends of the earth for them? 
This happens when it comes to God and how we respond to God’s love for us too.   
For some, the focus is on words.  Have you said the prayer, confessed your faith in front of others, been baptized, and do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?  There is a strong focus for many on words; on reading scripture, praying, preaching, professing and sharing testimony, using words to convince the world that they too need a personal relationship with Jesus.  They spend a lot of time being rooted and grounded in their love and relationship with God.  But for some, it ends there.
Then there are others who focus on action.  They want to show others the height and depth and breadth of love through their willingness to go to the ends of the earth for someone else.  These are your volunteers, your workers, the ones who are challenging the church to dream big dreams, try something new for Jesus.  They may not talk about Jesus a lot.  Their mantra is akin to the words of St Francis “preach often, only using words when necessary”.  They may say – what’s the use of telling someone Jesus loves them if their stomachs are grumbling so loudly that your words are drowned out?  They believe you show someone the love of God by loving them and meeting their needs.  But they may not stop working long enough to talk about Jesus or listen to him. 
Both ways are needed.  We all have different love languages (Gary Chapman).  Someone may be more likely to respond to one and not the other.  But each on their own doesn’t fulfill what God has imagined for us.  We need both. 
Those whose primary focus is words and a person’s internal relationship with God can forget we are called and saved for a purpose.  In extreme circumstances a person may spend all day in prayer, telling God how much they love Jesus, and neglect to love their neighbor.  Jesus tells us the way we treat others, is the way we treat him.  What good does it do to tell Jesus we love him if we aren’t willing to be kind when we meet him?
On the other hand, those whose focus is on action often neglect to introduce others to their reason for giving and helping.  And the danger for them is they work so hard and give so much that they run out of fuel.  They burn out and dry up.  They don’t have the roots in personal prayer and relationship with God to sustain them when times get difficult.  They may not receive the spiritual nourishment they need to do the work of God.  And, without it, they fall into the trap of believing they are accomplishing tasks by their own power and will and may even forget who they are serving. 
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism tells us there can be no personal holiness without social holiness and no social holiness without personal holiness.  We need both to be whole and both to grow in our faith and in our relationship with God. 
To fully experience the breadth, and length and height and depth of the love of God in Christ, we must access it in our quiet private devotional times and personal prayer, but we also must access it in service to and with others, helping, loving and encouraging people you know and those you don’t. 
Jesus isn’t just in the heart, or in this room.  Jesus is out there.  Why would you want to profess your love for someone and never meet them face to face? 
This is how we come to a better understanding of how much we are loved.  But this is also how we learn to expand our imaginations and begin to dream big God-sized dreams and given the strength and desire to seek after them. 
God doesn’t want you to sit at home, comfortable with your own ideas, and limitations.  There is a whole world of love and promise out there for you.  Nor does God want you to go out in the world on your own, a lone ranger fixing the problems of the world by yourself.  God wants you to take the Spirit with you fueled by worship, study, and prayer. 
We need both, we need each other, to encourage our weaknesses, support our efforts at stepping out of our comfort zone, and to hold each other accountable.  People of prayer need people of action to bring them along and people of action need people of prayer to help them slow down and refocus on God’s will. 

Jesus wants you to experience all the dimensions of his love, not just one.  Allow Jesus to love you- inside and out.  

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tug of War

Ephesians 2:8-22
This scripture requires us to do a little bit of a history lesson.  As the Christian movement started, the early church had a few issues.  They faced opposition from the outside; persecution by religious as well as cultural leaders.  But they also had some internal struggles.  Before Peter’s dream of the unclean animals and before Paul expanded his mission to the Greek Isles, most of the early Christians were Jewish.  And, they believed they were doubly special.  Not only were they part of the Chosen People of God as Jews but also chosen by Christ.  They believed if you wanted to be a Christian you had to keep all the Jewish customs.  All Jewish boys were circumcised on the 8th day of life.  Non-Jewish people, Gentiles, were not; hence the derogatory statement about circumcision. 
So, some Jewish Christians believed Gentile Christians were second-class citizens, less deserving, less special, which clearly caused some disharmony in the community.  The Jewish Christians had always been included in the family of God but now there are interlopers, red-headed stepchildren, so to speak, with different cultures and value systems and now they have to figure out how to get along as one big happy family.  And, as you can imagine there was some hostility. 
The writer of Ephesians essentially says you are one in Christ.  You are one family.  You both have equal access to God in Christ and it is Jesus Christ on the cross that brings you together.  So act like it.  And of course when the letter was received, everyone did just that, and they lived happily ever after…. Right?!   Of course not!
What is it about human nature that even those who have everything they need in life, and in faith in Christ insist on playing Tug of War with Jesus?  Instead of allowing Jesus to be the hope and peace which unites us together.  We fight over who gets him and his blessings. 
Many non- Christians see the hostility, hurt, confusion and chaos within individual churches,  denominations and within the universal church and understandably say:  Jesus I get-but I’m not sure I want to have anything to do with the church. 
There are an estimated 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.  In our little community in Western North Carolina alone, we have at least 5 different types of Baptist churches, 3 members of the Methodist family, and 2 different types of Presbyterians, plus a whole host of others.  Many of these churches exist because the Christian family couldn’t get along. 
For people who claim to not like divorce, churches do it a lot.  Some of you have left a church because of the hostility you experienced.  Someone’s feelings get hurt, there was a shift in church politics, a change is made that some don’t like, and a few came together and decide to take their ball and go home.  They would rather leave than do the work of reconciliation.   Even the United Methodist Church is in the process of deciding if we can survive our family problems, hostilities and hurt feelings. 
I am not pointing the finger at any one person or group.  In one situation or another, we have all preferred to leave a situation than work the problem out.  Unfortunately, it seems to be part of our human condition.  This isn’t limited to Christians, but it is exacerbated and illuminated when we profess to be united in Christ. 
The problem is we as people of faith are not reconciled to each other, or God.  And often we aren’t reconciled to ourselves.  We choose to ignore the things about ourselves we don’t like.  Blaming our problems on others, criticizing others so that we don’t have to admit any fault in ourselves.
We claim faith in Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor, but what we really mean is I believe God is on my side.  The personal relationship with Jesus allows individuals to say: “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine!” forget the rest of you.  And if you don’t like the image of Jesus being painted then you can go somewhere else. 
Anne Lamont a Christian author is famously quoted as saying “you know you have created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you hate.”
It seems as if we have taken the image of Jesus on the cross and one group grabs one hand while another grabs the other hand and we play tug of war with Jesus.  Pulling Jesus to “our side” whatever that side is.  Wrestling him away from “those people”. 
When we do this our energy is depleted.  Our faith becomes about us, and what we want, not Jesus.  And we no longer have the energy to actually do the work of God or follow Jesus because we are too exhausted fighting about who Jesus belongs to.  This is just another expression of hostility toward the “other”, one-upmanship, being higher on the food chain, more important than someone else: insider vs outsider, or as our scripture names it.  Near v far, citizen v. alien, stranger v. friend. 
It is such a common part of our culture whether it’s church, nationality, social class, color or language that we have come to accept it as normal behavior.  For one group to be special or important we assume that means someone else must be less special and less important. 
This breaks God’s heart.  No one likes to have a family meal to have all the children fighting and angling for attention.  Every time we do that we are crucifying Jesus again and again.  God looks at all of humanity, no matter our differences and proclaims they are his child.  They were made in the image of God, knit together in their mother’s womb, special, unique and loved equally. 
And if we profess there is only one God, creator of all, then we must accept that “those people” whoever they are, as our brother and sister- whether they share our faith or not, because everyone, even non-believers are still created by God, worthy of God’s love and redemption. Even you, whether you believe it or not, are loved and cherished by God.
The love, grace, mercy, and compassion of God is a gift, freely offered and available at no cost- to everyone who accepts it.  This is the start of reconciliation.  It starts by seeing Jesus not as an object to be possessed but as the keystone that holds God’s arc of promise together.  The cornerstone of our life and faith. 
People of faith are chosen, not because they are special, but instead for a purpose, to participate in the work of God to bring all creation back into unity and harmony with God. 
This starts when we acknowledge where and whom our focus is and where it should be.  When we realize our focus is not on Jesus, but our own selfish desires, then we can begin the process of changing that attitude and mending God’s broken heart and ours. 
This means catching ourselves when we make a critical comment about others.  When we blame problems or challenges on a group of people, catch ourselves saying “those people” messed everything up or if my group was in charge we wouldn’t be in this mess, we can stop and remind ourselves that they and their opinion are just as important as ours.  There is no us or them, it is only we.  We are in this together and we need every voice. 
It allows space in our hearts to listen to someone else’s point of view.  Most of the time when we say we are listening, we are just looking for a weakness, something to refute, argue about or challenge.  We aren’t listening to their perspective but a way to convince them to see things our way. 
When we listen with the heart of Christ.  We soon understand we have more in common than what divides us.  We are more alike than different.  But this also means, there are no winners and losers.  We may not always get what we want, but we may see that there is a better way than we first imagined. 
Reconciliation, harmony, getting along with others doesn’t happen overnight; in our families, the church, or in politics but it is necessary work if we are to be the body of Christ.  V 10 of the scripture for today says we are created for good works, it isn’t just feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger.  It is those things, but more than that, it is being an example to the world about what it means to find hope not in our own human understanding of political, cultural and national peace, but in the true peace of Christ that outlasts all of us.  This is true hope, true peace.  A peace that crosses boundaries, isn’t imposed by force, challenges the dividing walls we put up to keep others out and showers us with that peace which surpasses all understanding.    
It is living our faith in the community in such a way that when others see the way we treat people who are different, they can say, that person loves like Christ. 

This was the example of the early church Jews and Gentiles.  The places where they shared meals, worshiped and prayed together were in the open.  People could easily walk by and see these two people sharing intimate moments together and this became the example for all the world to see and know that peace was possible.  How much more of an example would it be today if we did the same.  If we could learn to focus on what unites us in Christ and work together for his peace to spread through our church, our families, our communities, our nation and our world.    

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Successfully weak

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Most people and organizations, churches included struggle with what it means to be successful.  On one hand, the world tells us success is about numbers.  It is about productivity, salary, number of people at your party, number of clients or how much you are liked.  In the church we talk about numbers of people in worship, bible study, people who have come to a relationship with Jesus, number of dollars in the plate, number of meals served, and volunteer hours given. 
And of course, in all these scenarios the higher the number the more successful a person or organization is.  We expect this in the world.  It is part of living in a capitalistic society.  We are expected to work hard, earn more and shut out the competition, making more stuff with fewer resources so that we can get the approval of those above us, get a bigger paycheck and make our company more money. 
Even in the church, there seems to be some competition about whether someone is a successful Christian, even if we don’t use that term.  Have they ever healed someone by laying hands on them?  Do they pray eloquently or speak in tongues?  Do they receive visions or a word from God?  Maybe we think of the person who can quote scripture, is always doing something for others or always seem to be praising and never having a bad day. 
We can always find some point of comparison.  And honestly, it is often difficult to feel like we measure up.
And, if we aren’t hard enough on ourselves, worried about measuring up, others will point it out for us.
Why aren’t you more like So-n-so?
It happens in families: growing up a friend of mine repeatedly heard the phrase, why can’t you be more like your sister? 
We hear it at work:  We might have reached our sales goal if you hadn’t taken that vacation.  So-n-so made sales calls from the hospital bed, couldn’t you have made a few from the beach?  Everyone liked the person you replaced a lot.  She used to bring doughnuts to the office on Fridays. 
It is in these moments that our hard work, our likability, our numbers become a source of pride.  We are so driven by these markers of success that we often neglect our own health, relationships, and spiritual lives. 
This is where we find Paul as he nears the end of his letters to the Corinthian church. 
Paul travels to and from Corinth several times in his ministry but in his absence, other ministers have come in and begun to build on the foundation Paul laid.  In 1 Corinthians 3, we hear Paul responding positively to this type of ministry sharing when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, God gave the growth”. 
Now that more time has passed and those unassociated with the original apostles have begun to build on that foundation, pride and the world’s definition of success is setting in.  Many commentaries believe that these new missionaries were trying to change some of what Paul had taught and had tried to discredit Paul’s authority. 
They claimed divine visions, dreams, and miraculous signs and then said things like “can your precious Paul do that?  You should follow us instead.”  And because of their signs and wonders, some have begun to question and doubt Paul’s influence and authority in the church. 
This isn’t an unusual scenario either.  We see very charismatic leaders all the time who people hear their message of blessings, wealth, and dreams coming true and their congregations and followers soar and book sales climb!
Years ago, I was doing a project and I asked the church what kind of preacher they would like to have.  Their response:  Billy Graham.  Of course- a preacher like that would be sure to quadruple their congregation. But even then, Billy Graham was in his 80’s and wasn’t the Billy Graham they wanted.   
This is the type of personality Paul is up against.  There is only one Billy Graham and very few people will ever mark his accomplishments. 
In this environment, Paul is compelled to taunt his credentials, pull rank so to speak and reassert his authority.  He essentially says- I could boast about those same things other ministers do too… I have seen visions, I have spoken in tongues, I have built the church from the ground up, they would be nothing if I hadn’t laid the foundation for their ministry.  I am the man!
But instead, Paul decides to boast without boasting, giving credit to others for his own spiritual experiences; visions, revelations, and experiences of God which would have given him credibility before people but humility before God. 
Instead, Paul chooses to brag about his weaknesses.  He uses this opportunity to draw the church and us back to what really matters and redefines what it means to be successful. 
Instead of making a list of all his accomplishments, he tells us just how human he is.  He like all of us is tempted by this desire to be successful, to be liked, appreciated and admired.  But he has been given a thorn in his life to keep him from getting too cocky. 
Although there has been much speculation, we don’t know what the thorn in Paul’s side was.  And maybe God keeps it vague on purpose because we all have our thorns.  Even the most successful people, by the world’s standard, have shortcomings, challenges, imperfections and barriers that cause them pain.  We, like Paul, all have this messenger of Satan, whether it is problems we bring on ourselves, challenges imposed on us by others, or some sort of physical ailment. 
And we like Paul may cry out to God to remove this burden from us and we may lose faith when it seems to stubbornly stick around, despite our best efforts. 
This, strangely enough, is when God’s power, grace, and blessings are most evident.  We all have things in life we just can’t overcome on our own and this is when the Glory of God shines the brightest.
It is when we acknowledge our shortcomings. When we can admit we don’t have it all together.  When we can accept our weaknesses then we can give credit where credit is due for those things that seem like a worldly success. 
We see Bill Gates as the epitome of success but there is no way one dorky kid soldering electronics in his parents’ garage as a college drop out would ever become one of the wealthiest people in the world.  God did and now the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving God the glory by giving their fortune away as they seek to address issues of global poverty and health care to improve the lives and increase the understanding that all people have equal value in the eyes of God.  (
Who would have ever thought a peanut farmer from Georgia would ever become president, much less kickstart global programs like Habitat for Humanity and the Jimmy Carter Center to “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope”, all while still teaching Sunday school at his church.  
The same goes for churches as much as individuals.  When a small church makes a big impact on the community.  We know it isn’t because we have unlimited resources, or people knocking down our doors to help- it is because God is working through us to make God’s kingdom a reality in this place.  This is the exact reason God gives us Big Audacious Goals.  God calls us to dream bigger than we think is possible, bigger than we can handle, bigger than we can accomplish on our own so that others can see God working through us in our weakness. 
The reality is we are a small church in a small community.  Even if we were to double in size we would still be a small church in a small community.  The world says this will never be a recipe for success.  The world says we are too small to play with the big kids. (
That is a bunch of rubbish!   God says; “My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
God has big plans for you as individuals, for you as a church, even in our weakest moments, even when we cannot stand much less march.  We may often feel like the kid in the corner saying, not look what I can do… but look what God can do! 
This is the story of Jesus.  It is in his weakest moment that the Glory of God shown brightest.  It is in the humble circumstances of his birth and the humility of the cross where God said… Look what I can do!  In this one life, in this one act, I can and will redeem the world. 
Don’t allow Satan to convince you that your thorn is too big, your weakness too great.  Instead allow God to work through your weakness, showing the Glory of God as central to our lives as people, as a church and as a community. 
And when we do.  Others will testify to the glory of God not because we brag about our strengths and minimize our weaknesses, but because of what God does in and through us.