A Strong Foundation: Thoughts on Confirmation Sunday

Luke 6: 46-49

46 ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? 47I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’

As many of you know, I take my two dogs to a cemetery near my house every day to run them off leash.

I have been doing this for years.

First with our Vizsla Copper.

Then Copper and the wiener dog Roxy.

Then with our second Vizsla Lucy and Roxy.

But before I ever did this with any of them, I had to train them to do three things.

They had to come when I called.

They had to listen to my instructions.

They had to do what I told them.

Why?

Because if they come, listen and do, they will be safe and sound.

On those occasions when they didn’t do one of these things, there is inevitably trouble.

It is the same kind of thing with our children.

When we have children, as soon as they are capable of understanding us, we want them to do the same things.

Come when we call them.

Listen to what we say.

Do what we tell them.

Why?

Because if they come, listen and do, they will be safe and sound.

On those occasions when they didn’t do one of these things, there is inevitably trouble.

Which is what Jesus is saying to his disciples in today’s scripture reading.

He is telling us that we need to do those same three things.

Come when he calls us.

Listen to what he says.

Do what he tells us.

Why?

Because if we come, listen and do, we will be safe and sound.

On those occasions when we don’t do one of these things, there is inevitably trouble.

But if we look closely at what Jesus says, there is only one thing that is critical.

Doing.

Doing what Jesus wants us to do.

We can come.

We can listen.

But if we don’t do, a fall is coming.

So how did this all come up?

Jesus has called his disciples.

Jesus took them down to a place where a large crowd of people had gathered.

The people were there to be healed.

They wanted to touch and be touched by Jesus.

He had power.

Jesus was quite the celebrity.

They were beginning to call him Lord.

Maybe they thought if they called him Lord, he would use his power to straighten out their lives.

But Jesus want’s none of that.

He is not here for notoriety.

He is here to teach people how God wants them to live.

And when they do that their lives will be straightened out.

So what does he tell to do?

Rely on God.

Love your enemies.

Don’t be judgmental.

Forgive.

Be kind and care for each other.

This is living the Jesus way.

So the people have come.

They have listened.

They have called Jesus Lord.

And now Jesus admonishes them.

Don’t call me Lord and then do whatever you want.

Do what I tell you to do.

If you do, you will have a strong foundation for your life.

You can stand up to anything the world throws at you.

But if you don’t.

If you go your own way.

Your life will have no foundation.

You will be consumed by the troubles and demands of the world.

When I read our passage this week, it reminded me of a coach telling her team what to do to win a game.

Do these things and you will win.

Follow my instructions and we will do well.

Jesus is giving us instructions on how to live a life whose foundation is a relationship with God.

Instructions on how to do that.

How to live in a complex world.

I also thought about the last time I bought an item of furniture I had to assemble myself.

It was just a shelf.

I pulled it out of the box.

Lots of pieces.

Lots of hardware.

An instruction book.

Which I threw back in the box.

I mean, how hard could it be to put this together, right?

An hour later, it was assembled.

With the shelves upside down.

And a couple extra screws.

Kind of wobbly.

If I had read the instructions and done what they said, it would have looked like it did in the store.

Once I read the instructions, it did look just the way it was supposed to.

And life is a lot like that.

We want our lives to be put together well.

We want them to be sturdy.

So we need some instructions.

Which is what Jesus is trying to give us.

He is our instruction manual.

Come to him, listen to him, do what he says and your life will be put together well.

You will withstand the storms of life.

But sometimes we ignore the instructions, or we make a mistake, or we just forget.

I did that last week with another shelf kit.

I did not read the directions … again.

They ended up backward.

So I went back to the instructions.

And got it right.

That is what Jesus offers, too.

Life kind of backward?

Come back to me and listen to my instructions.

I will be there to tell you … again … a better way.

So it’s a good thing to keep that instruction manual nearby.

What is that instruction manual?

The Bible.

The things Jesus says.

The things other writers say.

So when you are faced with a choice, or a challenge, or a problem, or some confusion.

See what Jesus and his followers have to say.

And here in Luke, Jesus says this:

Rely on God in difficult times.

Make peace with your enemies.

Be tolerant.

Forgive.

Be kind and care for others.

These are the things Jesus calls us to do.

When we do, these things, we have a foundation based on a relationship with God that gives us direction for living a good life that will stand up to the bad stuff in the world.

Don’t and you will be overwhelmed and swept away.

That is what we have tried to teach Kathryn, Michael, Jacob, Sam and Molly.

In Sunday school.

VBS.

Kids Club.

Trailblazers.

Children’s choirs.

Confirmation.

At last week’s retreat.

And what I charge you to do is continue to learn.

Just as we all do.

Because faith is a struggle sometimes.

And we need to continue to look back on the instruction manual.

To look to Jesus for some guidance.

To learn to live the Jesus way.

To trust him.

To worship him.

And to rely on him.

These are the things we have tried to teach you.

JMPC makes a promise to all the children who come here:

With joy and thanksgiving, we now welcome you into Christ’s church for we are all one in Christ. We promise to love, encourage, and support you, to share the good news of the gospel with you, to help you learn the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed, so that together we can grow as faithful Christians.

We have tried to teach you these things.

But we have also tried to teach you what Jesus taught his disciples.

Rely on God.

Love your enemies.

Be tolerant.

Forgive.

Be kind and care for each other.

Have we done that?

Let’s see:

Jacob.

God is the boss of me…. Try telling him that you don’t want to do something or you did something bad. He might not get mad, just disappointed. … The Holy Spirit gives me hope. …

Jesus would be the guy that through hard times he will hold your hand and help you through it.

And then Jacob tells the story of the footprints.

Jesus and his disciple.

When the two sets become one during the hard times, it means Jesus is carrying his disciple.

I think Jacob gets it.

Michael.

God to me is my God and he will always be there.

Also, he will always protect me.

Jesus is my lord and savior.

He died for my sins and he is there in my heart.

I think Michael gets it.

Kathryn.

God has always been the one person I can always count on, to talk to, and feel their presences even when he is not there.

When I have not done well on tests, or I feel stressed about my everyday hectic life, I always stop to think about how God is with me and it makes me feel like I can conquer the hard time I am going through.

I think Kathryn gets it.

Sam

I believe the Holy Spirit is everywhere in the universe. The Holy Spirit will always be there for me…. I believe God is the most powerful person in the entire universe. …

God has power over everything in the universe.

I think Sam gets it.

Molly.

I see Jesus as a role model, someone who sets the standards and raises the bar for humans to live up to. … By giving us a great example to follow, we strive to push ourselves to be as great a person as we can be…. I believe the Holy Spirit surrounds us guiding us in making the right decision. This way we can continue on the path God has set for us.

I think Molly gets it.

You are all in a good place.

But this is not the end.

It is just the beginning.

You will keep on learning.

You will have to.

And if you want that strong foundation that guides you in a complicated and confusing world, keep looking to Jesus.

He is your instruction manual.

Your strong foundation.

It is both simple and a struggle.

Rachel Held Evans describes it this way in her book Searching for Sunday.

Mine is a stubborn and recalcitrant faith. It’s all elbows and motion and kicked up dust like cartoon characters in a cloudy brawl. I am still early in my journey, but I suspect it will go on like this for a while, perhaps until my last breath.

With that in mind, it is my prayer that that what we have done is teach you not so much how to avoid the doubts and confusion and troubles of life in this world, but to have given you a resource, and instruction manual.

Jesus.

Use him.

And live the Jesus way.



Mid-Week Meditation: Frank Wilczek and Krista Tippett on beautiful Physics and the mathematics of God?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a TED Talk I listened to that called mathematics the “language of God”. I have always been one of those science geeks who loves it when there is something new discovered and who is appalled when people proclaim that there is some sort of conflict between faith and science. Simply put, I believe in the God that created everything – what is seen and what id unseen. Things we think we understand and things we will never understand. Some say that God is just the explanation we use until science explains things. But in my brief experience of 59 years on the planet, I have noticed that every time science discovers something, it’s like opening a door into a room with a whole lot of things we never knew about and don’t really understand. This, I have no doubt, will continue for as long as we are here.

But … I also believe that there are things we can discover that point to God. Things that are constant. Rules and laws that exist, though we don’t really know why. We can explain them, but can’t really explain where they came from. Yet they are constant and can be relied on and so can give us comfort.

Recently I listened to the April 28, 2016 “On Being” interview of Frank Wilczek who is the Herman Feshbach professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You should check it out if you are a science geek like me.

In the middle of the interview, a discussion of “symmetry” took place. Here is how it went.

Dr. Wilczek: Well, “symmetry” as used in common language is kind of a vague word. It means “balance,” “harmony,” ”goodness.” [laughs] Somehow it has nice connotations.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I liked the way you said it’s also fairness.

Dr. Wilczek: But it’s also vague.

Ms. Tippett: We even — symmetry, ethical symmetry, we look for.

Dr. Wilczek: Fairness, yes. Yes, proportion. But in science we need to have a more precise concept, and the concept that we use that’s more precise that has something in common with the common usage, but is a special case of it, and gets amplified in different directions, is that symmetry in physics and mathematics means change without change. Now that seems kind of mysterious and mystical but it means something very concrete. Einstein’s theory of relativity — it says that if you ride by the world at a constant velocity, any constant velocity, although things will look different — so some things will be coming at you, other things will be moving away, faster — the same physical laws will apply to this new configuration of the world. So you can make a change in the way everything looks, but you don’t change the laws.

A simpler example might be helpful here. We’re used to the idea that a circle is a very symmetrical object. What does that have to do with change without change? Well, a circle is an object that you can rotate around its center by any angle, and although it might have changed, and every point, in fact, moves, the circle as a whole does not move, and that’s what makes it symmetric. If you take a more lopsided shape and you rotate it, there’s no way — it won’t come back to itself until you go all the way around. So if you take an equilateral triangle it’ll come around after you turn it one-third of the way, so it has some symmetry, but much less than a circle. So that’s a concept, change without change, things that might have changed but don’t, that picks out special kinds of objects, like circles.

It turns out that very symmetric laws are laws that seem to be the laws that nature likes. Nature likes laws and likes equations that support enormous possibilities for transformation, where things look different, get different names and different situations are described, but the same equations apply.

Read that last paragraph again. Symmetric laws. Laws that never change, though support possibilities for transformation, differing appearances, different understandings depending on differing situations. The same math explains them all. So maybe math is the language of God.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he says this:

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together.

Our triune God holds it all together. God is the constant equation. It works because God makes it work. And he gives us the ability to see the symmetry. The possibilities for transformation. The differing look, names and situations that make it all beautiful. And spiritual.

Read a bit more from Wilczek:

Dr. Wilczek: Well, I think it would be a very healthy thing, as well as a very rewarding thing for religious traditions to focus on, where they’d find a lot of common ground, and also rich possibilities in exploring the concept of beauty. I think it would also be very helpful and very healthy and very stimulating to bring in science there, because science, especially modern physics, has taught us some really, really surprising and wonderfully imaginative and beautiful and fantastic things that are aspects of the actual, physical world, and presumably in a religious interpretation are aspects of God’s work that are by no means obvious. And you really have to expand your mind to appreciate them. And, to me at least, it gives a real feeling of spiritual growth and depth when I deal with these concepts.

Wilczek finds this all beautiful and spiritual. And so do I. God gives us beauty and lets us investigate creation and have fun doing it. And what we see is beautiful. Just as God intended.

One thing that also struck me in the interview concerned my thought that regardless of our investigative efforts, we will never really know it all. There was something really profound said by Wilczek on that point and that tied into another episode of “On Being” I commented on earlier today. Here is what Wilczek said:

Dr. Wilczek: [Here is] a very striking quotation of [Isaac] Newton, and I think very sincere on his part. … “I know not how I appear to the world, but to myself I appear like a boy on a beach who came upon some particularly beautiful pebbles, while the great ocean of the unknown lay before me.” So he realized that he understood some things very well, and he understood what it meant to really understand something, but at the part of that is realizing that you don’t understand a lot of things, and there’s a profound humility that comes from really understanding something, because then you understand what it means to really understand something, and you realize how much is missing, that is different.

I think [this idea has] made me much more tolerant. Because so many things that bother a lot of people seem trivial to me. That and the lesson of complementarity, the idea that you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it’s very, very helpful in dealing with the human comedy and …

I can appreciate you for what you are, even if you’re annoying. I can have the fun of trying to understand where you’re coming from even if I don’t approve of it.

The realization that we just don’t know everything. That we need to listen to each other [right Robert Isay?] and be a bit more ready to confess our limited understanding of things. A bit more tolerant of what others think. Then maybe we can see the beauty in diversity that is governed by a particular equation that came from God.

Not sure how all this fits together or makes any sense, but that is what I am meditating on today.

Jeff



Fire! Thoughts on feeling the Spirit’s presence.

Acts 2: 1-21

2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Today is Pentecost!

Pentecost comes, not surprisingly, 50 days after Easter.

The day promised by Jesus when the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven to dwell with us in our world.

And do … what?

To encourage us.

To comfort us.

To empower us.

To live the Jesus way.

A bit of Pentecost history.

Pentecost is a Jewish celebration.

It is called the Festival of Weeks, and has been celebrated by the Jews since the Exodus.

Shavu’ot.

It is celebrated 50 days (or 7 weeks) after the first day of the Passover.

It commemorates the time between the exodus from Egypt to the giving of Torah by God to the Jews.

Torah came to Moses in the clouds and thunder and fire and lightning and the sound of the horn on Mt. Sinai.

It was frightening to the people.

An experience of the divine.

And it is Torah that counsels the Jews on how to live with each other and revere God.

Maybe we could call it the birthday of Judaism?

And it was during a Pentecost celebration that the Holy Spirit was given to us by God.

The Spirit also came noisily in the wind and fire.

And the people were also frightened.

It also was an experience of the divine.

And it is the Spirit that now counsels us on how to live with each other and revere God.

We do call it the birthday of the church.

Which we don’t really do much with Pentecost in the PCUSA.

We get the red paramonts out only one day a year.

Advent gets 5 weeks of purple.

Lent gets 50 days of purple.

Epiphany and Eastertide get weeks of white.

Pentecost gets one day of red.

Maybe we should give Pentecost more its due.

Because the coming of the Holy Spirit is no less important than the birth of Jesus.

It is a coming of the divine into our world and into our lives.

The Holy Spirit becomes our advocate.

Our counselor.

Our comfort.

Our encourager.

But Pentecost and Christmas are much different.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a baby in a little backwater town of Bethlehem.

We understand that it was a Silent Night.

Peaceful.

Comfortable.

Joyful.

But then we have Pentecost.

Not the same.

Pentecost comes with wind and noise and fire.

Pentecost is scary and awesome.

Exciting and confusing.

Some years ago I went to Universal Studios Amusement Park with my family.

The first ride we went on was the roller coaster Incredible Hulk.

The anticipation built as we waited in line.

When it was our turn, we were strapped and harnessed in to our seats.

The anticipation was increasing.

Then, the floor dropped away.

Now it was anxiety.

A bit of hyperventilation.

Then off we went.

Now the Hulk is not like most coasters.

There is no slow ascent to the top of a hill before a steep rush down the other side.

No.

The Hulk goes straight up a dark tunnel acceleration from zero to 40 in about 2 seconds.

You then are thrown out of the tunnel into the bright sunlight just as you are inverted and enter a series of loops.

Top speed is 67 as you are thrown left and right and upside down.

Then the brakes slam on as you return to the gate.

You walk off thinking you have never had such an experience before and as for me, I got right back into line.

I wanted to do it again.

That is kind of what I think the coming of the Holy Spirit was like.

Christmas is like the merry-go-round.

Peaceful and fun.

Pentecost is the Incredible Hulk.

Scary and exciting.

What must that have been like in Jerusalem?

Apostles waiting as they were told to by Jesus.

The Shavu’at crowds filling Jerusalem up.

Then a sound from heaven.

The sound of the blowing of a violent wind.

Have you ever heard a tornado?

They say it sounds like a freight train coming fast.

Maybe that is the sound they heard.

Certainly a sound that got everyone’s attention.

A bit of fear.

Hyperventilation.

Then it hits them and off they go!

It fills the house and sets fire to their heads!

They speak in languages they do not know!

Outside, a crowd of people gather.

Good Jews from all over the world.

They see and hear all this and can understand the Apostles as the Apostles declare the wonders of God.

This is something never seen before.

People were excited.

People were afraid.

People did not understand what was going on.

Some thought the Apostles were drunk, but that was not really credible.

The good Jews asked what a good Jew would always ask when such thing happened.

What does this mean?

So Peter quotes the Prophet Joel’s description of the outpouring of God’s sprit that inaugurates the “last days” of salvation’s history when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Does this mean that Pentecost inaugurates the “last days”?

You bet!

According to Peter we are living in the last days of salvation’s history.

The beginning days were the days before Jesus.

The old covenant.

The “last days” are the days since Jesus.

The days of opportunity for all to be reconciled to God.

The new covenant.

Inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit.

So what are we to do?

Peter says that we are to change the way we think.

Join the community of disciples of Jesus.

Call on the name of the Lord.

Receive the counsel of the Holy Spirit.

And what does the Spirit do?

The Spirit compels us to live the Jesus way and carry out the Great Commission.

We see it happen in Acts.

The Spirit accompanies the Apostles on the mission given to them by Jesus to those who call on the name of the Lord.

The Ethiopian Eunuch.

Cornelius.

The Philippian guard.

Thessalonians.

Corinthians.

Philippians.

Galatians.

Ephesians.

Colossians.

Romans.

You.

Me.

And it all started at Pentecost.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have been there?

To experience the arrival of God.

To feel the wind.

So see the fire.

And yet …

I don’t know about you, but I never heard the wind.

I never saw the fire.

Why not?

Maybe it’s because of what scientists call Sensory Integration.

Our brains filter out sensations that might overwhelm us.

For example, as you are sitting here listening to me, you don’t feel your clothes.

Continually sensing our clothes would overwhelm us.

This sensory overload would distract us from what we are or should be doing.

If we constantly sensed the presence of the Spirit there might be such a sensory overload that we could not actually do what the Spirit compels us to do.

So we filter it out.

And do what the Spirit pushes us to do.

But just because we don’t feel our clotes, does not mean we don’t wear them.

Just because we can’t feel the Spirit, doesn’t mean we aren’t affected by the Spirit’s presence.

We still do what the Spirit encourages us to do,

That is why the Spirit came.

To counsel us in how to live the Jesus way!

And to encourage us to do so.

To push us.

We don’t really feel the wind and fire.

But it is there.

Krista Tippett is the host of a radio show called “On Being” which relates faith to culture.

I recently heard her interviewed.

She was talking about wisdom and faith and hope.

She said that these are not things we need to “feel”.

They are things that cause us to live a particular way.

It reminded me of the Holy Spirit.

She said:

[W]isdom is also — it’s a possession, but it’s a possession that is applied, right?

So the litmus test of wisdom is not just what is contained in that person, but their imprint on the world.

Wisdom encourages us to act.

Our actions demonstrate the presence of wisdom.

Tippett then relates that same thought to faith.

I’m not that interested in faith, or spiritual life, that doesn’t have a practice about it, right? That’s not put into practice.

Faith encourages us to act.

Our actions demonstrate the presence of faith.

And then Tippett relates this thought to hope.

And [hope is] also — it’s an action.

Hope encourages us to act.

Our actions demonstrate the presence of hope.

Wisdom, faith and hope might not be “felt”, but if we act on them, we demonstrate their presence.

So if we life the Jesus way, which includes faith, hope and love, we demonstrate the Spirit’s presence.

Even if we can’t feel it.

And then Tippett says that if we practice living this way, what we practice, we become.

Tippett says:

… [W]e can develop spiritual muscle memory. The more we do it the more we [are what we do] — and it’s really not about feeling it. Doesn’t have to be about feeling it in the first instance. But it can become instinctive.

I like that phrase.

It becomes instinctive.

It becomes part of us like the Spirit of God.

And we become part of it.

Maybe it does not rush in with noisy wind and fire.

But it is there.

I know it because I see what it pushes us to do.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is that part of the Trinity that pushes us to put our wisdom and faith and hope into practice.

The practice of living the Jesus way.

Loving God.

Loving each other.

And when we do that, we carry on the Pentecost event.

So we need to think about that when we do what we do as the body of Christ.

VBS?

Family Promise?

The Christmas Affair?

Mission trips?

Produce to People?

SHIM?

Duquesne.

Chigamula.

Heifer Project.

Roldy.

And our youth.

Did you experience the presence of the Spirit on Youth Sunday?

Maybe not wind and fire, but I felt God’s presence.

Do we do all this because we are good people?

Not really.

It’s because the Holy Spirit pushes us.

With the wind.

That still rushes.

And the fire.

That still burns.

Whether we feel it or not.

The Spirit is right here.

Take a moment and just think about that.

And when you do, you’ll want to get right back into line and do it all again.



All in One: Thoughts on Jesus and moms and their kids.

 

John 17: 18-26

18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

So here it is.

Mothers’ Day 2016.

It is also Youth Sunday.

A nice combination.

Because without mothers, we have no youth.

Without youth, we have no mothers.

All who gather here are sons or daughters of mothers.

Many of you are mothers.

For most of us, it is a day of celebration and thanks to our mothers and the mothers of our children for all they did and do for us.

A day of appreciation and love.

But we must also be sensitive to the fact that not all of us have reason to celebrate this day.

Mothers and our relationships to them are often complex.

Some mothers are brave, strong, compassionate, full of wisdom and grace.

Some mothers are vulnerable, worried, frustrated, and hurried.

Some mothers have relationships that are strained and are no longer a source of joy.

Some mothers have died, no longer live with us, but whose memory lives on in our hearts.

Some mothers grieve for lost children born or unborn.

Some mothers are struggling to raise children, and are tired and weary and anxious.

Some mothers are preparing for emptier nests.

Some mothers are stepmothers, navigating the pitfalls and joys of combining families.

Some mothers are grandmothers, who are doing the hard work of raising children … again.

Some mothers are waiting and sometimes struggling with the biological process that brings new life.

Some mothers are waiting to adopt, or have already done so.

Some mothers do not have children, but instead teach, lead, care for, and guide the children of others.

In other words, …

Some families celebrate Mother’s Day.

Some don’t.

But I think there is a reason for all of us to commemorate this day, regardless of our family circumstances.

It’s kind of like celebrating Veterans Day when we know no veterans.

Like celebrating Memorial Day when we know no one who died in the wars.

It’s like celebrating any number of secular holidays when we have no personal reason to.

We celebrate what others have done because what they have done is important.

Today we celebrate every kind of motherhood.

It’s about celebrating servant-hood and love.

Regardless of the biological connection.

I like to think of it as like a “labor day” for mothers.

They might not get paid to raise their children, but that does not mean they don’t labor.

Giving birth to, caring for, and raising the kids is important work, regardless of who we look to as our mother figure.

Many Moms are not necessarily a nurturer as much as a means of survival for the family.

The cook.

The doctor.

The housekeeper.

The teacher.

The disciplinarian.

The protector.

The provider.

The Biblical scholar.

The lone parent.

What do mothers want?

So I Googled “mother’s dreams for her children”.

I got 55,000,000 hits!

I guess mothers have lots of dreams.

I think a mother will pray that her children be:

Happy.

Loved.

Educated.

Adventurous.

Fulfilled.

Healthy.

Safe.

Part of a community

Successful.

Self-assured.

Part of history.

In a peaceful world.

Understood.

Able to afford healthcare.

Good parents.

Employed.

Fed.

At Peace.

Mothers want their children to survive.

So a child must also be trained to withstand the storms of life that are inevitable.

Bullies.

Jealousy.

Betrayal.

Hate.

Failure.

Confusion.

Rejection.

War.

Poverty.

I have seen two commercials that Procter and Gamble are have run in preparation for the Olympics.

The first is about the encouragement and support moms have given to their children as they begin to participate in their sport.

These in the winter Olympics.

A little girl steps on the ice for the first time.

She becomes an Olympic ice skating champion.

Mom is there.

Through out.

A young man is riding a skateboard his mother gave him as she watches on.

He becomes an Olympic snow board champion.

Mom is there.

Through out.

A young girl is jumping off gym equipment.

She becomes an Olympic freestyle ski champion.

Mom is there.

Through out.

A young man learns how to ski.

He becomes an Olympic slalom champion.

Mom is there.

Through out.

All about encouragement.

The second commercial is about mothers whose children are faced with danger and trouble and are calmed and given confidence by their moms.

A girl terrified by a tornado learns to be fearless on the uneven parallel bars.

A boy who is bullied learns self-esteem and becomes a world class soccer player.

A boy who suffers screaming coaches learns confidence and becomes a world champion diver.

A boy who is afraid during a turbulent flight learns to remain calm and becomes an Olympic runner.

A girl in a car accident learns how to respond to terror and becomes a world class volleyball player.

That’s what moms can teach their children.

It makes them strong.

It helps them survive.

It’s what mothers want to leave to their children who ultimately go out into the world without them.

And that is kind of what Jesus wants for his disciples and what he wants for us and our children.

He wants them and us to survive.

Which brings us to our scripture reading today.

Our scripture reading is a prayer that Jesus prays over his disciples just moments before Judas leads the Temple guards in to arrest Jesus.

A bit of background.

This is at the end of what we call Jesus’ Final Discourse.

Jesus has just told the disciples all he wants them to know about why he came and what is to happen next.

He is going to send them out into the world without him.

And so he prays for them.

While it is a prayer, it is also like a benediction.

And he calls on the disciples to do one thing.

To keep what he taught them in them.

To keep Jesus in their lives.

Just like Jesus kept the Father in his.

To remember what he taught and live the way he lived.

And survive.

Jesus in our hearts and mind and lives.

All in one.

It seemed to me that Jesus’ prayer is like a prayer a mother might pray over her children.

And Jesus asks God for one thing for them.

Unity.

With Jesus.

Because to be one with God means survival.

Eternally.

That is what Jesus was talking about in our scripture reading this morning.

Jesus tells us that there is only one way to build a life that will be secure and survive the storms that will always come our way.

You have to be one with Jesus.

To know him.

Why would we not pray that over our children?

We spend our lives teaching them about God and his love for them.

It is something we commit to do for all kids baptized here at JMPC.

At the baptism of children, we make this promise.

Brothers and sisters,

we now receive this child

into Christ’s church.

I charge you to nurture and love her

and to assist her to be Christ’s faithful disciple.

With joy and thanksgiving,

we now welcome you into Christ’s church;

for we are all one in Christ.

We promise to love, encourage, and support you,

to share the good news of the gospel with you,

to help you learn the Ten Commandments,

the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed,

so that together we can grow as faithful Christians.

And then we follow through.

Mothers teach children that kind of lesson by passing their faith along.

Letting their kids see their own desire to be one with God.

Moms “encourage” their children to attend church and Sunday school.

Moms are in church and Sunday school themselves.

Moms organize and teach VBS.

Moms chaperone youth outings.

Moms teach youth to sing.

Moms direct the Christmas pageant.

Moms send their kids and chaperone mission trips.

Moms make the church central to the lives of their families.

They teach their kids about Jesus.

And while it sometimes seems like those lessons are ignored or forgotten, they rarely are.

And what is interesting is that Jesus was trying to do the same thing.

Only his “children” encompassed the whole world.

So does Jesus’ prayer for his disciples give us an example of for what we should pray for our kids?

I think it does.

Let’s try to turn Jesus prayer into a mother’s prayer.

Dear God: As you have sent me into the world, so I now send my children into the world. And for their sakes I have done what I can to be a good mother, so that they also may be good people. I ask not only on behalf of them, but also on behalf of those who will inhabit your world with them, that they may all be one. As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have used me to raise them. The glory that you have given me I now give them, so that they may be one with us, as we are one with each other, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have been with us and will love them even as you have loved me. God, I desire that these children you have given me, may be with us where we are, to see your glory. AMEN

That would be a good prayer.

The prayer of a faithful mother asking God to make the children unified with her in the faith and with God.

We are seeing a lot of that here at JMPC.

Look at the children coming to us.

In the last month we have baptized three children.

Since I have been here we have baptized over 10.

Last year we confirmed 8.

This year 5 more.

We are doing this here, both moms and dads.

And we can really see the success today.

At the 11:00 service, the youth will lead, sing and preach.

The service will focus on Jeremiah 29: 11 where God proclaims “Surely I know the plans I have for you … to give you a future with hope.”

We will hear graduating seniors Abby Cowser and Marie Dykstra tell us about their faith journeys and what it means to them to be members of JMPC and the body of Christ.

Their mothers, this congregation, participated in that.

And we can only pray that we continue to raise children to be faithful followers of Jesus.

To become one with him.

One with God.

All in one.



Mid-Week Meditations: Krista Tippett on being surprised.

 

May 11, 2016

The radio show and pod cast “On Being” is hosted by Krista Tippett. Her bio on the “On Being” website begins this way:

Krista Tippett is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, she received the National Humanities Medal at the White House for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of ?every background to join her conversation about faith, ethics, and moral wisdom.”

Her interviewer on one program where she was the interviewee actually said this:

I have a friend who’s a friar of a Benedictine monastery, and he has all his monks listen every day at lunchtime to Krista’s program as a form of what they call lectio divina, a scriptural reading.

I love this show. It takes modern culture into the domain of faith. I truly recommend it.

Recently, Tippett was interviewed on her own show and made what I think are profound statements about what we really know about truth and how that affects the way we live. Her interviewer was Pico Iyer.

Mr. Iyer: … Even though I’ve been listening to you for all these years. And when I read your books and when I listen to your programs, the kind of words that come up again and again are “doubt” and “surprise.” And I feel that both of those must be really important to you. …

Ms. Tippett: Yes. This is a bit glib, but it’s still true that the only thing in fact that is certain in life is that the next thing that happens will surprise us. I like the language of surprise maybe even more than doubt, or just a willingness to be surprised I think is a great virtue. And it’s a great virtue when we approach other people, strangers. It’s not really the way we get trained.

We kind of get trained and educated to arm ourselves with who we are and with representing that. And there’s a place for that. But to walk through the world open to being surprised, and open to being surprised by people who are very different from us, opens all this possibility and it’s also more pleasurable than walking through the world armed and ready to judge, and thinking you know everything. That’s a heavy burden to bear. Knowing everything.

I have just become more and more acutely aware of how in American culture we hand over our imagination and our deliberation about everything. We set up these competing poles, and religious voices have played into that same dynamic, as well. Any important issue that we have to take up, we create the sides. But we know that in life it rarely works that way. Either in ourselves or in anyone we know.

… And I also think most of us have lots of contradiction in our own — even if we have a position. But on any important subject, left of center, right of center, I think all the way up to those extreme poles that we let frame the discussion, there are people who have some questions left alongside their answers.

So as I listened to that interview, along with wanting to buy her latest book (which I can add to the big pile of great books I want but have no time to read), I thought of the Apostle Paul and his first letter to the Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 13: 8b-12

… [A]s for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Paul says that our brains are insufficient to understand God. We see in a mirror dimly. A glass darkly. A mirror covered with steam. We speak like children. We think like children. We reason like children. Only when we are in the presence of God will we know fully.

So now we just have desires of how things should be. And we want them that particular way so much that we are unwilling to consider something different or even better! And yet we have questions we are unwilling to confess. What if we are not right? What if we don’t really know? What if we don’t really understand? What if there is another way?

When we ask those questions we open ourselves to something important. To be surprised. That is what happened to C.S. Lewis, right? He was an agnostic at best. An atheist at worst. But then he opened his mind to Jesus and was “surprised by joy”.

Do we want to risk missing that?

The best line of this entire interview (and Tippett has many) is this one:

But to walk through the world open to being surprised, and open to being surprised by people who are very different from us, opens all this possibility and it’s also more pleasurable than walking through the world armed and ready to judge, and thinking you know everything. That’s a heavy burden to bear. Knowing everything.

Those two phrases.

So true.

That’s a heavy burden to bear. Knowing everything.

Perhaps it would be best to take Paul’s words to heart. Tobe relieved of that burden. The burden of knowing everything. And let the Spirit take us on a journeny of surprise. One that we can only take if we open our minds and listen.

Thanks for reading this mid-week meditation.

Jeff



“Running the Race”

Hebrews 12:1-3

Emily Cowser

This is an exciting time of the year.  The weather is warmer, spring flowers are blooming, and marathon season is here.  The Boston Marathon, one of the top 10 most popular races in the country, was just about two weeks ago.  And (it couldn’t be any better timing) today is our very own Pittsburgh Marathon and it is occurring right now as I speak.  Marathon participation is booming and what used to be something that approximately one out of a thousand Americans took part in has now become much more common of a goal.

 

So what makes these physically taxing feats so popular?  Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush that comes with the feeling at the starting line.  Maybe the hope of transforming yourself into an ideal body with all of the physical exercise that comes along with training.  Or the sense of community–running with a crowd of others experiencing the same sensation.  But no matter what the hook is that gets someone attached to running, I think that what pushes us is the purpose for which we run.  And purpose is something much more than just enjoying a sensation or setting out to lose a few pounds.  Purpose is much deeper than that.  For me, running has a purpose of providing a source of fulfillment.  I find that when I run and am physically fit and healthy, I naturally feel better.  Drastically better.  I feel more alive, alert, and motivated in all aspects of my life.  Running clears my head, helps me to relieve stress, and allows me to express my emotions.  Therefore, one of my chief purposes of running is to feel good, and thus fulfilled.

 

In the same way, one of the primary points in this passage in Hebrews is that we run for a purpose.  Now what is that purpose?  It is important for us to identify that, so that we know what we are running for.  First, let’s look at the ultimate endpoint of our race.  Imagine a race where the runners saw no finish line.  It just didn’t exist.  What would keep them going?  I would predict that most of them would stop eventually; they would have no goal in mind because there was no endpoint to their journey, so they would just wear out after awhile. Similarly, we must seek this endpoint in order to identify the purpose of our race.  As followers of Jesus, we believe in eternal life through faith.  So as we run this exhausting journey, we can keep in mind this promise of being with God for eternity in heaven as our finish line.  And Hebrews says that Jesus did the same thing.  He writes, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Therefore, the Bible says that we can keep our eyes on Jesus as an example of achieving purpose.  But more than just “making it to heaven,” it clearly says that our purpose is not just to run in the race, but to win the race.  In 1 Corinthians it says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”  So in these verses, it specifically discusses this idea of running for a purpose.  It says that our purpose is to win the race so that we can get the prize, eternal life with Jesus, not something temporary but something that will last forever, and in order to do so, we must have run with faith.  That is our objective.

 

Next, the passage tells us to run freely. The Christian contemporary band For King and Country’s most recent album titled ‘Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.’ reflects on this exact topic. The band says that their inspiration for the album came from experiencing the highs and lows of life and enduring the race that we all face.  They describe this idea of running freely, or running wild, as “to risk everything, to hold nothing back, to lay it all on the line,  your reputation, your success, your comfort.  It’s that moment when fear is overcome by faith.” As I have been reflecting on the message of Hebrews, I think that this is exactly what it is talking about.  He says that we should throw off everything that hinders us – our sins, our fears, our tendencies to conform to the ways of this world, our desires that are not rooted in God’s plan for us – and that we should run.  And For King and Country’s description of running wild captures the essence of this journey in that our fear must be overcome by our faith.  Our eagerness to follow Jesus must outweigh our sinful desires, like when we lose our focus on God because we struggle with gossipping, or cheating on a test because we conveniently see someone’s answers next to us, lying to our parents, judging others, coveting what our friends have, or holding grudges rather than living freely by letting go and forgiving.  Our faith and willingness to follow Jesus must outweigh these things. Our trust in God’s plan for us must surpass our fears and worries.  Our willingness to surrender and let go must conquer our longing for control and inclination to take the easy way out. That is how we should truly run.

 

Yet what is a trickier aspect of this concept of running the race of faith is the idea of perseverance.  This message is repeated several times.  It says that we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” that Jesus “endured the cross” so that He could win the race, and that we must “not grow weary and lose heart.”  Every point during a race, I reach a point where I start to become physically and mentally exhausted.  This is referred to it as “hitting the wall” and is actually studied at length by scientists and exercise researchers.  In fact, there are even mathematical calculators you can find online for approximating at which point you will hit the wall during your marathon.  According to Susan Paul, an exercise physiologist and running coach, “hitting the wall refers to depleting your stored glycogen and the feelings of fatigue and negativity that typically accompany it.  Glycogen is a carbohydrate that is stored in our muscles and liver for energy.  It is the easiest and most readily available fuel source to burn when exercising, so the body prefers it.  When you run low on glycogen, even your brain wants to shut down activity as a preservation method, which leads to the negative thinking that comes along with hitting the wall.”  But what is continually debated about this phenomenon is how much it is purely physical as compared to its psychological components.  Triggered by the physical aspects of hitting the wall, the brain starts to think negatively and have feelings that you can’t go any further or dig any deeper, when perhaps this isn’t necessarily the case.  And this closely parallels with our spiritual journey, the race that we are running.  We hit those lows sometimes, when we ask God why this is happening to us, why we have to go through this, when this is going to end, just like the feelings of fatigue that runners experience.  This is natural with the struggles we face in our overly chaotic lives.  A loved one gets cancer, a friend deserts us, we don’t make the sports team we tried so hard to get on, we encounter an injury that holds us back from our goals.  I certainly experienced this type of low with a year long hip injury and the surgery to correct my hip, which I have finally fully recovered from.  Our “spiritual glycogen” is running low and we get worn out.  But then the negative thoughts start rolling in, the mental side of the wall.  We start to doubt, to question if we can truly continue our race of faith, if God really is there, if there is a purpose to all of this.  And that excitement about winning the race, keeping our faith, having eternal life, being with Jesus forever, and living freely starts to dwindle.  But how do we get past this wall? The suggestion in Hebrews is that we keep our eyes on Jesus.  We trust that we have a Savior who can completely empathize with where we are – because He experienced the same thing Himself, but more than we could ever imagine, because He went through the intense physical pain of crucifixion.

 

So now that we see the philosophy of this race – how we must run with purpose, run freely, and run with perseverance – how do we actually put this into action?  Sure it’s great to discuss great metaphors for our lives and understand the physical science behind running phenomenons, but what do we do now?  How do we literally run this race in a way that we can actually live out?  Well, I will give a few practical suggestions.  My hope is that at least one of them will resonate with you.

 

First, in regards to running with purpose.  One way that we can run with purpose is to stay connected with God through His Word.  If we dwell in the Bible, spend time meditating on it, and talk with God, we are much more likely to have this purpose living inside of us.  But this needs to happen more than just showing up for church on Sunday, we need to cultivate these habits daily.  In regards to physical running, training is something where consistency is key.  Marathon runners plan out months in advance a strict regimen to follow of both diet and exercise in order to obtain their goal.  We must do the same in our own lives through daily devotion with God.  I like to check in with myself everyday and ask, “Am I focused on God’s purpose for me?”

We can also run with purpose by inviting others to run with us and keeping our eyes open to opportunities along the way.  Since we have already identified eternal fellowship with Jesus as our ultimate finish line, don’t we want others to come along with us?  So we must encourage each other in our spiritual journeys.  And in doing so, we should keep our eyes up ahead to whatever chances God may be placing in our race – opportunities to help others through small acts of kindness or a moment for growth.  Maybe it’s as simple as holding the door for an elderly person, saying hi to someone in the hall, or choosing to go to youth group rather than just stay at home watching TV.  Take these opportunities and these moments, for I sincerely believe that the little things in our lives help us to run this race so much stronger.

 

In terms of running freely, trust is something that often comes along with practice.  But if we continually remind ourselves to trust God, we are more likely to be receptive to do this when faced with actual struggles, temptations, or hindrances.  Develop a mantra of trust to remind yourself throughout the day.  One that I commonly use is 5 simple words “let go and let God.”  This helps me to breathe, slow down, and let go of what is holding me back.  Maybe yours is “The Lord is my shepherd” or another favorite verse. But whatever it is, having a simple reminder to keep us close to God helps us to throw off the hindrances of our lives.  When we let God take control of our lives, we overcome sin, fear, and temptation.

It is also important to remember that running freely doesn’t necessarily mean achieving our will, but God’s.  For King and Country also has a great definition of the idea of living free.  They say that “it’s not the liberty to do whatever you want, whenever and wherever you want, but rather it’s living in accordance with the author of humanity and finding freedom by connecting with the Creator who conceived you.”  So we must keep in mind that the path of our race may not end up leading us where we thought it would, but that we can trust that God will be with us wherever we are running.

 

And finally, let’s look to some running experts for practical advice on breaking through the wall.  One common tip is to distract yourself.  So after hitting that wall in a marathon, runners might try to take their mind off of the physical distress by focusing on the cheering crowd, music that they are listening to, and the scenery around them.  Similarly, sometimes we can take our focus off of the obstacles in our faith journeys by taking some time to relax and distract.  Whatever your niche is – yoga, reading, playing your instrument, spending time with friends – can be a helpful tool in conquering spiritual hurdles.  I turn to physically running, of course, as a way to clear my head and de-stress.

Mental imagery can also be powerful in hitting the wall and persevering to the end.  In a race, I find that if I think through the race in my head and visually see myself crossing the finish line, I am more apt to persevere and keep going.  In our faith journeys, if we truly imagine the joy of being with Jesus forever and having no more burdens, no more pain, no more suffering, as we are told in Revelation, we can use this mentally to keep going.

But most importantly, we can do try to run with heart.  To take it all in and live our lives to the fullest for the feeling of it.  To run for the love of the run.  Because truly what keeps us going is that love.  God first loved us, and we are then called to live out that joy in our own lives and share it with others.  By relying on God’s never-changing love, we can run wholeheartedly, with faith as our eyes, rather than sight.

So I’ll conclude with some insight from a marathoner, who was reflecting on her feelings before the starting line.  She says “The questions of doubt seem to disintegrate when I remind myself why I’m even doing this, or why I started running in general.  To try to put it in the most simple of bumper sticker terms without going into my own life novel, running has given me the brightest light in the darkest of places.  It has made me realize that I am capable of way more than I thought possible, even when the questions of doubt come around.  We are all in a quest to be our best self.  So, for me to be able to share my love for running with other people who are also pushing forward despite whatever battles they have fought or whatever odds they are currently against is something I will never take for granted.  When I started running in the basement of my family’s house 7 years ago, I could have never in a million years thought that it would literally be taking me across the country to meet a ton of very inspiring people and to run one of the world’s most beautiful marathon courses.  What is this life?! Trust your training and trust your process.  But, most importantly, believe in your abilities.”  And I’ll add to that, believe in God’s abilities.



God’s Plan for Marie

I pondered for a while what I should say to you all today. I’ve had the idea in my head for years as I have listened to many kids before me do so…including my own brother. As I was In the middle of reading through Jeremiah, I found that thinking of what is important to say is pointless, and rather I should just focus on what God has said to me in these past 18 years. Jeremiah closes his mouth and lets God to the talking, even though he IS scared and resists at times. It is hard for me and for all of us to listen to God. But we must remember that he has a plan–his beautiful, incomprehensible plan.

For proper reflection on these verses today I took to reading the book of Jeremiah. It was a bit of a difficult task for me. Through the beginning, and for what seemed like the entirety of the first 28 chapters, God is pretty angry and Jeremiah is pretty frustrated. At the time, Jeremiah is sent to preach to a sinful and proud Jerusalem who don’t seem to think they are doing anything wrong. As I read through these situations, I really thought of today’s world. It is easy to look around and be disgusted, honestly. The idolizing of money and selfishness of our world is comparable to Judah’s. We see terrorism, and hate crimes, and discrimination. God was horrified with Jerusalem and he was mad. Is it possible that God is mad at America today too? It seems like Jerusalem will never heal until God shares a beautiful fact of hope in chapter 29. Here we are today, perhaps in a similar situation. Sometimes it seems like we have to live through 28 chapters until God is going to reveal that wonderful hope in the 29th. I’ve found times like this in my life, as I’m sure you all have in yours. But, the glimmer of hope, is what I really want to talk about.

We’ve all found ourselves in places of despair and difficulty. And we’ve all heard the great news that we are in God’s hands and He’s got it all under control. But why is it so seemingly impossible to truly believe it! I remember the very first time my brain and soul realized that God could take bad things and make them for a greater purpose. I think it was before we even came to this church, I was around 11 years old. I was in a swimming pool by myself in Wildwood, New Jersey. It was the evening and I had been pondering for a while and it entered my mind “oh my gosh. Wow. God can use this terrible divorce that has happened and it can result in something good. My mother’s and I relationship will be better now. Wow” That was a pretty cool realization for a confused 11 year old. In that moment I believed in that hope. God’s presence overcame me in that swimming pool and I was wrapped up in that chapter 29.

But of course, probably by the next day, the glimmer of hope did not remain that bright in my heart. Chapters 1-28; being my own sin and the yucky world that we live in took over and I lost sight of that wonderful fact that God is RIGHT THERE WITH ME! In the understandable way that a person can get, I was depressed and wondering what purpose I really had in life when God spoke to me again, very loud and clear, through a boy named Pepperoni Pizza Paul. Pepperoni Pizza Paul was a self proclaimed nickname that was adopted by a boy 4 years ago when us senior highs were playing a very serious name game at The Pittsburgh Project. In order to help each other in our small group learn our names, we went around and said our name accompanied by a food alliteration. I believe mine was macaroni and cheese Marie, and Noah’s was maybe Nacho Noah? Anyway, one night God’s words to me came out of Pepperoni Pizza Paul’s mouth. He was talking about a story we heard at the meeting that night, and I have the paper right here from when I wrote down exactly what he had said later that night. He was talking about a story about a little boy named Timmy that we had all heard from the meeting that night…
“How terrible it is that Timmy committed suicide at age 11. He didn’t even know what was ahead of him. Jesus suffered his entire life and knew he would suffer more, imagine if he committed suicide at age 11…where would we be now?”
…I didn’t realize until that moment that the suffering I was enduring at that time in my life was making me have, in official terms, “suicidal thoughts”. I knew what thoughts I was having, I just didn’t know that they were just not what a healthy Christian, was supposed to think. I remember sending a genuine message reading “Why do we have to go through all this hard stuff, can’t we just get to heaven already?”. There God was in Pepperoni Pizza Paul…I was saved, and I didn’t even know I needed it. I was not seeing any hope at that point in my life and chapter 29 came along again, here God was,; “Marie! I know the plans I have for you! Good plans!” Jesus, who endured the worst human suffering of all time, KNEW it was going to happen, and still lived to glorify God’s plan. After Pepperoni Pizza Paul said that, I believed that light of hope a bit deeper. I remembered for myself that I, and every brother and sister of mine, have a purpose, despite our Sin, thanks to Jesus Christ.

God speaks this chapter of hope to each and every one of us. “_____! I know the plans I have for you!” “_____! You will call on me and I will listen to you!” “____! You will seek me and find me!!” The gross sin of this world and our ignorance to God’s saving grace is inevitable. However the catch is that in this life, chapter 29 does not come after 28 chapters of suffering. This beautiful promise of God, that God has plans for us to prosper. Plans of good and NOT evil. He will listen to us when we pray. We will seek him and we WILL find him, if we seek with all our heart. This promise is being whispered to us from chapter 1 all the way through chapter 100 and forever into eternity. We will not live without suffering… in chapters 30-51 Jerusalem is not suddenly without sin. I know that both before and after that moment with Pepperoni Pizza Paul I’ve had moments where my heart fully believed God’s promise and also moments when I was ignoring God. But during those moments God is always yelling my name waiting for me to uncover my ears. “I know the plans I have for you!” Worldly sin is unavoidable. Hatred and pride and hurt will be there till we die. But God’s promise of hope is present all the way through eternity.



God’s Plan for Abby

Who would guess that a simple freezing of a computer could save someone’s life? This was the case for United Airlines Flight Attendant, Elise O’kane. In August of 2001, she was scheduling her flights for the next month on the airline’s computer system, trying to get her usual Boston to Los Angeles flight. But, she accidentally switched two numbers and scheduled herself the wrong flight. Later, when she tried to exchange her unwanted flights with her coworkers, she logged into the computer system and it began to freeze and she was one minute late to schedule the flight she wanted -Flight 175 on September 11th. A short while later, she met someone at a restaurant who was so excited to be an attendant on Flight 175, which soon after crashed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower. The man she had met at the restaurant, and other colleagues on her usual flight were killed. Elise wondered what she had done to be saved. She ended up taking a leave of absence and attending nursing school. Some of her patients return to her to express their gratitude for her help in their recovery. They also tell her that she was meant to be a nurse. Elise uses this as confirmation that she was meant to be in this position today, although she feels guilty that people died where she would have been without a mere computer glitch. The fact that Elise was saved and then has saved others lives working in a hospital is proof that God saved her life that day in order to set her on a path that she was meant to be on. The Lord says he knows

 

It’s is difficult to decipher where God wants me to go in my life. It seems as if every decision I make is up to me, even though I can feel God pushing me one way or another. Granted, I’m only 17 years old and my day to day decisions revolve around what to eat and what to wear. Up until this fall, that was all I knew in the way of making difficult decisions. Should I wear black or gray shoes? Do I want a sandwich or a wrap? Do I need a jacket to go outside? For me, that kind of all changed in high school. At the end of my junior year,  I had to start looking and colleges and thinking about the future. For some, that is an exciting process! They know where they want to go and what they want to do. It seemed as if everyone was in a position where they already had their life figured out. Now me, I completely dreaded the entire process. I had no idea where I wanted to go, I looked at schools with 2000 students and some with 40,000 students. I looked at schools in the middle of the city and some in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say, I didn’t exactly know what I wanted in a school. I looked at majors such as forensic science and physical therapy.  It was a daunting process for me because I felt like I had to make the decision right then. Turns out, you have a decent amount of time to make the final decision.

I have also felt God’s presence in my life leading me to take certain paths, for example going on mission trips. I’ve felt pushed by him to take these leaps of faith to step out of my comfort zone. These trips have proved to be some of the best experiences I’ve had in my journey with God let alone my life in general. I have met so many amazing people whose outlooks on life have changed my perspective about life. How can a homeless person who does not know where their next meal will come from be more content with their life than myself? Turns out their faith in God has led them to a point where they can trust in him to take care of their needs. I think God is calling all of us to trust in him enough to take care of our needs. I know I need to take this leap of faith in my life to trust him entirely to provide for us. Just as the Lord declares that he has plans for each of us to prosper and not be harmed.

How does this all relate to God and the path he has for each of us? There is a conscious in each of our minds between right and wrong. One could argue that this conscious is the disappointed look your parents give you, for sure worse than them just yelling at you. But I think it is God setting us straight on our path. Just as Jeremiah 29, verses 11-13 say, God has plans for us all to grow and have a great future. Some people may ask why Elise, the flight attendant believes in God’s plan for her rather than just dumb luck. Well for her, after patients tell her that she was meant to be a nurse, she knows that God sent her on this path in order to save others and live out his plan for her. For me, it meant leading me to the right school, finding my group of friends, finding a major that I’m passionate about, attending mission trips that have changed my life and most importantly having an incredible bond with my family and my church family. Although I am not really sure what God’s plan is for me in reference to during and after college, his promise to us in Jeramiah 29 leads me to believe that he has something great in store for us. The fun is all in the surprise for me.

Some also argue that Jeramiah 29, 11-13 is the most misinterpretted verse in the Bible as we take its original meaning our of context. Originally, this verse appeared in a letter written by Jeramiah to the Jewish community taken exiled in Babylon to express God’s comfort that they will eventually be able to return to their homeland. Critics say that we shouldn’t be taking this verse to heart, thinking it applies to every person in every situation of their lives. Which, true, maybe at the moment God didn’t intend for this to mean that he will help me choose the correct college or help Elise escape 9/11. But I think that the words spoken in Jeramiah can transcend time, and can be modeled to be relevant in all of our lives. Even if at the time he didn’t realize that today this verse would be plastered on social media and tattooed on people’s bodies, I think that this verse can resonate with anyone who is lost in their lives. It comforts me to know that just as God had a plan for the Jews during Biblical time, he has a plan for me today.

So what does this mean for you? For sure, there is pain and suffering in the world, but that does not mean that God’s promise to lead us to a hopeful future has expired. He promises to listen to all of us in our time of struggle and to lead us to the light. For all of us, this means that taking a leap of faith is essential to do what we feel God is pushing us to do. What do we have to lose? If you feel as if you are at a stagnant part of your life, stay strong. Because God promises each and everyone of us that hope exists. For the Lord is the one who knows the plans he has for each of us.



Super Better! by Jane McGonigal; the Apostle Paul and us?

One of my favorite TED Talks was by Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. game designer who designed the game Super Better. [McGonigal has several TED Talks and several games that she believes can improve, and even lengthen your life.] She tells the story about how she suffered a concussion that did not heal correctly and left her depressed and fearful that her life as she knew it was over. So, McGonigal designed a game to help her get better. She used the typical game “pieces”. She gave herself a super avatar (Jane the Concussion Slayer), she recruited allies (twin sister and husband), she gave herself epic quests (walk around the block), and chose “power-ups” (snuggle with her dog). What she found was that her depression left her quickly even though the concussion took a while to heal. McGonigal decided to put the game on line (its free) to help others and she named it Super Better.

While I was listening to her TED Talk and checking out Super Better, I started to think about the Apostle Paul. Paul complains Second Corinthians

… in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

This came to me when McGonigal pointed out that the seeking others to play this game was a way of asking for help when she could not do it outright. It made me think that God gave Paul a problem that required him to ask for help. It demonstrated Paul’s need for humility and recognize his need for others. God’s grace was to provide Paul not with a quick cure for this one problem, but with an understanding that Paul needed a community to support him. The support would get him through all his problems (and Paul had many).

The one community that gave Paul the most support was the church at Philippi, led by Lydia. Listen to what Paul says to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

And:

I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from [you] the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

Whatever Paul was dealing with personally; his allies the Philippians were an important help to him in overcoming his “thorn”. They were God’s grace. So when we are dealing with life’s troubles, physical, mental, spiritual, where can we find allies. Many places for sure, but one place is a community of faith. A church which understands that it is a hospital for those who need some kind of healing. A place where folks can play a form of Super Better!

As to the rest, an avatar, a quest, and power-ups, try to find these in Paul’s letters. I think you will and when you do, you will understand that Paul got Super Better as his life went on; from persecutor of disciples to the great Apostle to the gentiles. These are also the kinds of things we can find at church.

Was Paul’s life a form of Super Better? Does God want us to play such a game? Maybe. Thanks, Jane!

Just a mid-week meditation.



Her, Too? Thoughts on women in ministry.

Acts 16: 9-15

9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

In 1789 the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America met in Philadelphia.

All participants were by church law men.

Women holding church office was considered unthinkable.

Women were not even allowed to lead prayer in the presence of men.

In what we now call the PCUSA, women were not allowed to be ordained as elders until 1930.

The first woman to be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament was Margaret Towner in 1956!

Only 60 years ago.

Today, the proportion of women serving in ordained offices, including ministers, is nearly 50 percent.

So why this historical lesson?

Because it is necessary to demonstrate that we tend to ignore important scriptural lessons that are inconsistent with cultural preferences.

This lesson is taught repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles.

God is in charge of who will lead his church and who can be part of it.

Whether we like it or not.

Here is a brief list.

At Pentecost, 3,000 Jews, accused by the Apostles of turning their Messiah over to the Romans, are in.

Paul, a persecutor and killer of disciples, is in.

An Ethiopian eunuch, someone of uncertain gender, is in.

Cornelius, a pagan Roman occupier, is in.

And today we meet Lydia, a Gentile business woman.

She, too, is in.

Do we see a pattern here?

People thought unworthy, unclean, unwelcome, and demeaned.

They are all welcome in Jesus’ community.

And some become heroes of the faith.

Like Lydia.

Lydia is a woman living in Philippi.

There is no mention of a husband.

She has moved herself to Philippi from Thyatira.

She has a “household” which means that she has family and servants that she manages as the head of the house.

She runs a business that sells purple dyes which is a big deal.

And she is a God worshipper.

What we might call today being spiritual, but not religious.

A seeker.

This fiercely independent woman was something of a novelty in those days.

Because in those days, women were hidden at best and marginalized at worst.

Not Lydia.

She becomes the champion of female discipleship.

Luke’s description of Lydia’s story is brief.

It started with Lydia’s trip down to the river.

We don’t know why Lydia went there.

We do know there were other women there but we don’t know if Lydia was with them.

Some speculate that they were all together for a kind of worship service though who or what they were worshiping is unknown.

There they are met by Paul and his entourage.

One of whom is Luke.

The story of how Paul got there is important.

He had intended to go east from Troas in what we now call Turkey.

That would have taken them to modern day Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, maybe China.

The world would be a different place had Paul gone east.

But Luke reports that the Spirit leads Paul to Macedonia, or west, into modern day Europe.

What we call Greece.

Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man who asks Paul to come to “help us”.

So Paul goes to find whoever “us” is.

He ends up in Philippi, which is a pretty important place.

There is no synagogue there so on the sabbath he looks for a place to pray outside the city down by a river.

And there he meets Lydia.

And what happens next is pretty extraordinary.

Paul sits down and starts talking to these women.

Men talking to unescorted women was not done.

Yet here Paul is teaching these women he just met about Jesus.

Lydia listens and God opens her heart.

She is baptized with her entire household and invites Paul and his companions to stay with her.

And so there is the first recorded house church in Europe.

Led by a woman.

Lydia.

And she is wildly successful.

It is said that every missionary journey into the Roman world from that point on goes through Philippi and Lydia’s home.

Her church is the gateway west, the direction God has directed for Paul and his followers.

Within 300 years, Rome Christianity is the state religion of Rome.

And Lydia was part of that.

She was first.

The Philippian church was a great treasure to Paul.

Listen to what he said in his letter to them.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

He loved that church.

The one run by Lydia.

So why then do we not have a woman leading a PCUSA church for 1900 years?

We allowed cultural bias to trump scripture.

Regardless of the fact God had selected Lydia to lead his church in Philippi, and to open the gates for the Gospel to enter Europe, the church decided that women did not belong in leadership.

And while I am certain that women continued to be critical to the church and its mission and ministries, they were not permitted to hold ecclesial office, let alone pastor and preach.

I have this image in my head of Lydia – arms tightly folded across her chest, head turned at an acute angle, eyes wide, tapping her toe.

And maybe standing beside her – 3,000 Jewish converts, Paul, the eunuch, and Cornelius – all shaking their heads.

But Jeff you say.

What about all those statements of Paul that seem so patriarchal.

Doesn’t he require men to be in charge at church?

Simply put, no.

What about Paul telling the Corinthians that women are to be silent in church?

That was Corinth.

A place where the church was in trouble because of many conflicts.

One conflict involved unruly people in church.

Church was chaotic and not uplifting.

Paul wanted everyone to simmer down and get some order.

One way was to impose a sort of gag order on the women who were apparently the cause of the problem – in Corinth.

In one particular congregation.

But an interesting thing Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is that one of the people who was responding to was a woman named Chloe, or as we would know her, Mrs. Green.

A leader in the church.

Paul was calling for order in the church.

Not setting up a church hierarchy that reduced women to second class citizens.

Paul’s model was Lydia.

Running her business efficiently and effectively.

Running her household efficiently and effectively.

Running the church efficiently and effectively.

Efficient and effective.

And there were others Paul lifts up as leaders in the new churches:

Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Julia and Olympas in Rome.

Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi.

Nympha in Colossae.

The women prophets in Corinth.

And of course – Lydia.

It is also clear that women were supporting Jesus and the 12 and that some were likely considered disciples.

Let us also not forget that women were in the upper room after the crucifixion.

And let us not forget that Jesus first showed himself to the three women at the empty tomb.

So Jesus had no problem with women.

So in this context, when Paul tells us in his letters that women are to submit to men, or remain silent in church, or dress in a particular way, he is likely referring to a specific issue.

Paul acts as sort of a referee who tries to end church conflicts by telling folks that they must function within the culture they live in.

Why?

Because it makes the proclamation of the Gospel efficient and effective.

It is all very Presbyterian.

Its all about decency and order and decorum.

How we act in church says a lot about our faith.

So why did the church say for all those years that women were not allowed to lead the church?

It was cultural.

But as the culture changed, who was permitted in church, what was permitted in church, and who was permitted to teach and preach in church, also changed.

And we see a theme.

How do we preach the Gospel in the most efficient and effective way?

By using our gifts in the context of our culture.

Not our nationality.

Not our economic class.

Not our race.

Not our gender.

Not our unchangeable identity.

Not even our age.

It is the use of our particular gifts, in the context of our culture that effectively and efficiently communicates Jesus to those around us.

Efficiency and effectiveness.

Doing the right thing.

Doing the thing right.

And recognizing that God is in charge of how it is to be.

God calls who God calls.

12 clueless disciples.

3,000 Jews.

Paul.

The eunuch.

Cornelius.

Lydia.

Us.

And when God calls our differences don’t matter.

Listen to Paul.

He says it best.

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.