I Am a 13th Generation Dreamer

Open Letter to:  Sen. Bob Corker, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. John Duncan, Jr., Rep. Phil Roe, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, Rep. Jim Cooper, Rep. Diane Black, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Rep. David Kustoff, Rep. Steve Cohen, all members of the Tennessee State Senate, all members of the Tennessee State House of Representatives, Gov. Bill Haslam, Mayor Tim Burchett and the Knox County Commission, Mayor Madeline Rogero and the Knoxville City Council, and to all prospective candidates for these offices from this day forward

Today, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, claiming that they were shifting the “onus” for codifying the policy into law to Congress. I say “claiming” because the president has already indicated that the only way the DACA recipients (Dreamers) will be saved is if you all collectively agree to give him the funding to build his border wall.

You must stop this action by the President and the USAG, and you must stop it without concession. These bully pulpit tactics of your respective parties and the President must end, and they must end now.

We are all Dreamers, ladies and gentlemen. Every single one of us who has been here for more than seven generations! None of our ancestors came here legally. They came seeking freedom from tyranny, freedom to worship as they pleased, and a chance at a better life, but they came here uninvited, unwanted, and without a legal path. The parents of today’s Dreamers are no different! They are seeking freedom from persecution, war and enslavement, freedom from tyranny, and a chance to live a better life. They are no different from my immigrant ancestors, nor from yours.

I mean this with absolutely no disrespect to nor diminishment of the 800,000 DACA Dreamers, at all.  I say this because they have absolutely exactly the same rights as I have to stand in this country, to remain in this country, to be part of this country. They are 1st generation Dreamers.  I am a 13th generation Dreamer, the mother of 14th generation Dreamers, grandmother of 15th generation Dreamers, and great-grandmother of the 16th generation of Dreamers. The earliest of my known “immigrant” ancestors arrived here sometime between 1585 and 1610. The first generation of known Dreamers in my family was born in Boston in 1614.  The “legality” of that 1st generation Dreamer ancestor of mine is no better than the legality of the DACA Dreamers 403 years later. What part of this do you not get?

I represent one of sixteen generations of a family that carries not just the “white” DNA of most of “Europe” but now, through marriages, blending of families that add other family lines, and the birth of subsequent generations, a family that carries the DNA of American Indians, Africans, Mexicans, and Koreans.

My family is every single category of “other” the government seems hell bent on persecuting, destroying, and demonizing, and we have been there on the front of every line that built the very nation each of you claims to serve!

Sixteen generations descended from the colonists, frontiersmen, and settlers you commemorate with monuments and statues, and claim to emulate with your service and laws, the slaves that were beaten into building it, and the indigenous Americans this government is still trying to wipe out.

Sixteen generations of Americans, ladies and gentlemen, who have fought in every war waged on this continent and by this nation we call the United States of America.

And for what did they fight?

So that five living generations of this family could watch while today, September 5, 2017, the President of the United States could act like some neighborhood bully threatening to crush the kitten he’s holding if we don’t turn over our lunch money and souls so he can build his damn wall? No, no, a thousand times no! They fought to make America what it is: Land of the free, home of the brave, sanctuary to the oppressed.

America hasn’t always been a sanctuary. American has always been the sanctuary for the oppressed of the world! And yet, your parties have spent 228 days allowing one man to destroy everything my ancestors and many of yours fought and died for because it’s easier to sit silently while he and his cohorts vilify and demonize “other” than  it is for you to stand up and be the people you campaigned that you are: Christians with deeply held faith and family values.

Well, fine.  I’m standing here and I’m calling you out on your claims about who you are.  Prove yourselves true to your words, your “family values”, and your “Christianity”.

Show that you value all families by protecting the Dreamer children who know no other life but the life they have here in this country. When you fail to stand up for today’s Dreamers, you fail my ancestors and yours.

Make good on your claims of Christian faithfulness and witness by doing what “Christians” are called to do regarding immigrants, and note: the Bible makes no distinction between “legal/documented” and “illegal/undocumented” immigrants. The scripture passages are listed below in case you’ve forgotten them, save one:

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV): “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Ladies and gentlemen, you are making it nigh on impossible to carry out the greatest commandment when your actions do not carry out the promises of faithfulness and family values you made about yourselves, and you are preventing this nation from exemplifying those commandments when you allow the President to vindictively persecute the Dreamers. And what he and USAG Sessions have done is persecution.

There is no – N.O. – compassion in ending DACA; none whatsoever. There is only clear, bigoted contempt for anyone in the category of “other” and clear, manipulative contempt for the truth of what America is and always has been: Sanctuary from oppression. There is only certain death, persecution, and exploitation of those you would deport.

Prove you are the men and women with deeply held faith and family values you claimed when you campaigned for our votes. Defend the DACA policy through legislation, through law suits, through ordinances, through calling down your own law enforcement agencies from assisting the DOJ in this persecution of these children, and through whatever it takes to codify it into law and prevent the deportation of 800,000 children who trusted this government enough to enroll in DACA in the first place, and by not allowing the President to force or trick you at the expense of these children into paying for a wall that we do not need instead of the roads, bridges and public schools we do need.

With all due respect, prove it.

Valerie Ohle
Knoxville, TN 37920

Lest you forget, God’s position on immigrants is clear:

  • “The LORD your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 CEB)
  • You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9 NLT)
  • When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)
  • The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49 NIV)
  • Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!” (Zechariah 7:10 CEB)
  • The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9 ESV)
  • You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you” (Ezekiel 22:4, 7 HCSB)
  • “‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner. They do not fear Me,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Malachi 3:5 HCSB)
  • If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7 NIV 1984)
  • Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3 ESV)
  • When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21 NIV)
  • “When you have finished paying the entire tenth part of your produce on the third year—that is the year for paying the tenth-part—you will give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so they can eat in your cities until they are full” (Deuteronomy 26:12 CEB)
  • “‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40 NASB)
  • Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2 NIV)


Foot-In-Mouth Disease IS Curable … Sorta’

the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. There are a number of branches and subbranches of semantics, including formal semantics, which studies the logical aspects of meaning, such as sense, reference, implication, and logical form, lexical semantics, which studies word meanings and word relations, and conceptual semantics, which studies the cognitive structure of meaning.

the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text.

plural noun: semantics
“such quibbling over semantics may seem petty stuff”

There is an outcry going on for Christians who are attending churches where the theology, etc, are bad to leave those churches (and seek new faith homes).  The Twitter hashtag to follow the conversations is #EmptyThePews. The most current discussions on this are based on the failure of many prominent Evangelical church leaders to rebuke President Donald Trump’s statements on the tragedy at Charlottesville, VA.

My brain went straight to seeing spaces where there used to be faces in the congregation and one of two things happening:

  1. No one noticing … or possibly even caring that some were missing.
  2. Someone noticing some were missing, but not understanding why and not present enough to ever ask.

What I said on Twitter was:

“Leaving bad churches is wrong. Change the church you’re in. If you don’t, it never changes & healing never comes. Don’t #EmptyThePews 1/2”

“2/2 Stay in the pews and #EmptyThePulpits. Replace #plasticpreacher power mongers with true witnesses for Christ. #riseupchurch!”

The semantics I used in constructing my tweet sucked fetid air, and for that I apologize.

I created a misunderstanding, parts of which were/are/will be beneficial to my own education, but failed to make clear what I meant.  The key parts beneficial to me:

One participant righteously asked of my tweet, “Is that an order? Or my choice? 😐 thanks for judgement 👌🏽” It sure sounded like it was an order and, again, I do apologize for my poor choice in wording. I wasn’t ordering. I was, however, admittedly imploring, but even then in a way that wasn’t clear and for which, I had not considered any of the following points:

  • Mega-Churches
    I have never been to one, have no desire to go to one and, in fact, pretty much solidly don’t like or even approve of them – not even the Methodist mega-churches. I’m not even wild about churches with attendance in the “hundreds”.  My home church typically has Sunday morning attendance of <70, one church I subbed at over a two-year period had attendance of <60, and another I speak at occasionally has attendance of <40 … easily. I do not have a permanent appointment at this time, but have specifically requested to be considered for smaller churches of <100.
  • Personal Safety
    There are those among us who are extremely vulnerable and are targeted by bad theology and, even worse, bad theologians. Acknowledged. Outraged that anyone has to suffer this in a church of all places.
  • Wrongful Involuntary Unintended Assumption
    I acknowledge that some (many?) have been fighting for change for far longer than just the present times. My brain didn’t pick up on that. Again, I apologize.

On a separate note: To the person whose response implied, “you’re a woman, sit down, shut up, 1 Timothy says so”, I offer absolutely no apology. Just making that clear and adding this, “Dude(tte?), I forgive you, but … Grow up. If this was an attempt at sarcasm (yes, I looked at your profile and tweets) about a book you don’t like, next time practice self-control. It wasn’t your argument.  If you really believe what you said, go apologize to your momma for somehow thinking she and every woman like her are less than equal to you and to God for belittling half His children. Meanwhile, I’ll pray for your soul.”

Back to the task at hand.

  • I, again (and again and again ad infinitum), apologize for miss-stating myself on this and inadvertently offending anyone.
  • Some may need to leave quietly because of circumstances, I get that (see above).
  • Some may need to leave quietly and quickly for personal safety, I get that (see above).

I hope that’s now clear.  And I pray that the point I failed to make will now be made clear and perhaps benefit those who actually take the time to read this article. But … as I said above … I used bad semantics in the Twitter post when I was trying to verbalize that thought, and it resulted in an initial conversation that went sideways (deservedly, so).

My gut reaction to #EmptyThePews was, “Oh, but wait!”

Ask any of my pastors for the past 10+ years and they’ll tell you I don’t have a problem saying, “Oh, but wait!”

Or, ask my mother who’s known me all my life.

Or those I worked with in the state-wide American Indian community, anyone who has the misfortune of representing me in Government, people affiliated with running the schools where my children attend(ed)  … you get the idea, and this list could get long – I’ve been this way for most of my 60 years.

Please also understand, I’ve been an unofficial but constantly practicing agent of change for many years. I’m a stand and fight for what I believe in and love kind of woman.  It was natural to who I am for me to react in the way I did and my thought for a few days now has been:

“If people just up and leave, nothing changes.”

And I still believe that.  Even in the church-related situations listed above that, now that I’ve been reminded of them, warrant departure, I’m the one that wouldn’t leave quietly, whether it was vocally on my way out the door, publicly via social media or letters to the editor of the local newspaper, or through letters to the chain of command upward from the specific church.  I’m the one that has never done much of anything like that “quietly”.

Because I watch so many of today’s good theologians and progressive Christian leaders (some of whom were participating in my now regrettably infamous Twitter thread) speak out candidly on so many church-related things, I (cue Wrongful Involuntarily UnintentionallyASSumed most people reading my tweet would share my point of view.

My viewpoint/opinion was based on the lens of my own experience:  I was born in the 50s, a child in the 60s, a teen in the 70s, survived the 80s, parented in the 90s through now. Churches were the center of local culture.  You didn’t schedule secular things on Wednesday evenings because that was “church night” and you knew every kid in town was going to be at youth group (where I come from, they didn’t do Wednesday night services or fellowship meals; that was YOUTH night). Schools were the venue for secular activities, but churches controlled the community calendar by and large. The ministers and priests got together over dinner at local restaurants and communicated with one another. Most of us had never heard of a non-denominational church, let alone a mega-church.

Even today in the communities I grew up in, inter-denominational events are not unusual and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you still don’t schedule non-church activities on Wednesdays.

Now add the lens of someone who will be (hopefully) appointed to an existing church (as opposed to a new church plant). Basically, I’m going to walk into someone else’s interpretations and theology, more than likely someone who is far more conservative (from a faith standpoint) than I am by virtue of where I live.  This area was divided during the Civil War, remained divided after including division within my denomination in this area, and voted heavily for the person at the core of what triggered the whole #EmptyThePews hashtag.

So now who is the one that’s going to (at least initially) be accused of bad theology?

You know what they say: “A progressive southern woman preacher’s work is never done …”.

So, please allow me to reword my original tweet as follows:

“I cannot participate in #EmptyThePews without doing everything possible to change the church I’m in if it needs changing. If I don’t stay and fight for it, it has no hope, it won’t change, & healing will never come. Further, I will feel forever guilty for walking away knowing I left a dying patient on the table. FOR ME PERSONALLY, it is better to stay. FOR ME PERSONALLY, it’s better to try to re-educate.  I pray I’m not alone in this, but if I am, so be it.”

For the participants in the thread especially and for any others, thank you for taking time to read through this and if I’m STILL not being clear or you STILL feel like I’m judging, tell me so (Twitter: @SheSeesFar).  And please accept my apology for at least the initial “failure to communicate”.

And to the leadership of mainline denominations and their many churches, stand up, damn it, and call out those Evangelical leaders who are silent or sinning against God by condoning in any way (even their silence) the sin of racism, marginalization and oppression.  Of ANYone.


Looking for the Christ In Who?

The weekend of August 11-13, I was attending the first session of licensing school for local pastors.  The group I was with – thirteen students and two deans – was diverse in age, gender, race, church- and non-church-related experience, and (near as I could tell) political ideology. I think the 35 year-old young man sitting next to me was a bit surprised to find out that, at nearly twice his age, I was as or more progressive than he saw himself.

News about current events was limited to bits and bytes of information caught on TV in the dining area of the hotel each morning at breakfast, on the television late news we all went to our rooms and watched each night before falling into exhausted sleep, and/or through brief glimpses at our social media during breaks. Other than that and calls home to check in with the family, there was very little outside contact.

The deans and the guest lecturers had a packed schedule to follow.  Being a student, I admit I was hesitant to say, “HEY! We need to talk about these things. I need to talk about these things! My new friend sitting next to me really needs to talk about these things because he told me his frustration.”

I hesitated … and missed an opportunity. No, I wasted that opportunity. And in doing so, I stole opportunities for everyone else in the room to voice their issues, concerns and/or questions about ministering to others in these days of tribulation and lamentation.  And that’s what these days are right now – tribulation and lamentation.

Snippets from the weekend are now characters riding in the cars of a roller-coaster that races around in my mind …

From student- and clergy-delivered messages at morning worship and evening vespers comes:

  • Who is in your house?
  • Where is your Jerusalem, your Samaria, your “ends of the earth”, and who are your Pharisees, Sadducees and Gentiles?
  • How do you keep the faith?

Guest speakers throughout the weekend added to the snippet collection:

  • Connection is critical.
  • History is important, memory is long.
  • God uses disagreement to further the kingdom.
  • Unity isn’t always immediate or possible.
  • Here’s what you didn’t know about our churches during the Civil War.*

From social media and informal discussions:

  • I didn’t like that graphic of 4 missiles in the visuals for today’s message.
  • My previous extensive military service experience says we shouldn’t worry about being attacked by North Korea.
  • Yes, but … I don’t want to be associated with a country that would fire nuclear missiles at another country.
  • If your church isn’t condemning racism, it’s time to change churches.
  • Too little, too late.
  • Platitudes are not helping.
  • Reading this, envision a finger pointing at someone …
  • Please tell me she didn’t just use a verse from the Sermon on the Mount to justify torch-bearing racists.

From my family when I finally got home:

  • Have you seen the news?
  • (Imagine name calling I shouldn’t repeat in public.)
  • (Now imagine my head nodding in agreement with most of what they had to say.)
  • The guest preacher didn’t say anything this morning, but _______ talked about it.

From my own archive of past and post-weekend snippets floating in and out of roller-coaster seats:

  • Barbara Brown Taylor’s message, The Right Answer.
  • Steven Furtick’s post-Orlando message, It’s In Your Hands.
  • Bits from 10+ podcasts by Doug Bursch on his book, Community of God.
  • Numerous other podcasts by a litany of hosts and their guests.
  • Bits from Scott Sauls’ book, Jesus Outside the Lines.
  • If you can stand up and say that this prejudice is wrong, why can’t you stand up and say that all prejudice is wrong?
  • Guilt over my own past (and present) name calling, finger pointing, scapegoating.

An odd collection of thoughts riding that high-speed roller-coaster that lives in my mind, and the not-so-amusing amusement park ride was now increasing speed to a degree of that would make roller-coaster thrill-seeker fans breathless. What more could my brain possibly add or even hold?

Cue mental looping of Track 14 on Alana Levandosky’s Behold, I Make All Things New album that says, “I’m gonna look twice at you, until I see the Christ in you, I’m gonna look twice at you, until I see the Christ in you, ’til I’m looking through the eyes of love, ’til I’m lookin’ through the eyes of love.”  

I’m not sure how he speaks to those of you reading this, but when it comes to me, the Spirit is a technology geek, I swear. Faxes, car radios, YouTube, the multitude of albums on my phone playlists, and even Twitter.  Only occasionally does he go directly into my head.  Most times, I look at the source of his messages and mentally (or even out loud) say, “Got it. Thank you!”

Not this time, though.  This time, he cued up a song in my head that I already knew. This time, I bucked, kicked, pulled against his guidance hard, and tried to block out the music.

How was I suppose to look for the Christ in racists that were overtly proud of their racism? In a president that was refusing to name the problem, in politicians whose statements of condemnation seemed like hollow vote-getters as those same politicians were supporting legislation that perpetuates racism, worse, and in messages from all fronts that seemed to carry code for actual support of the racists and/or military action? Where was Christ in two bullies chest-puffing at one another while the world’s most devastating weapons lay at their fingertips?

Why did I feel like I was seeing Christ’s back disappearing through the about-to-slam-shut exit door when I looked at people I admired greatly – popular theologians, recognized speakers and clergy from all facets – as I read post after post that suggested anyone in a church where these issues were not addressed on Sunday was in the wrong church and should start looking around, or as I watched their online statements and articles (those parts of their ministries that I can observe from my place here in East Tennessee) seeming to devolve into secular politics with very little ministering or even shepherding Christ-like ways or at least alternatives?

Was that what I was seeing, or was I misreading several dozen people who seemed to all be going in the same direction? A direction in which I was fighting my own eagerness to follow, a path that I promised daily I wouldn’t take but that I found myself trying to walk backward on each evening.

And then the voice came again – stronger – but gentler, too … “Hush, child. You’re not listening.  I was singing that to you.  I’m lookin’ for the Christ in you. Who’s in your house?”

I live for those moments when the peace that passes understanding washes over me. I wish I would allow myself to have them more often.  At least now I could say, “Got it. Thank you!”

It was at this point that I rewrote Alana’s song … “I’m gonna’ look twice at me, until I see the Christ in me, I’m gonna find the Christ in me, so I can be the Christ to thee, ’til I’m looking through my eyes with love, ’til I see you through eyes of love …”

It’s so easy to be swept up in visible, audible, tangible, typewritten turmoil, in the throes of publicly shared anger, outrage, emotion. God help me, I get caught in that dustpan multiple times a day, despite deleting social media apps from my phone and forcing myself to limit time spent on social media sites when I’m sitting at a computer; despite limiting morning and evening intake of news broadcasts to one hour each so as not to be an ostrich.

When I fail to do that; when I get swept up; when I surrender to the anger, outrage and emotion, I am hard-pressed to find Christ in myself and, while I know he’s always with me, I’m pretty sure I’ve shooed him out to wait on the front porch rather than inviting him into my house. If I can’t find the Christ in me, it’s nearly impossible to see the Christ in anyone that is the subject of what becomes my anger, outrage and emotion. Worse, it’s virtually impossible to minister to others also suffering through anger, outrage and emotion.

Oh, I can placate them. “I’m right there with you.” “I see your point.” “I feel your pain.” “You’re preaching to the choir.” “Preach!”

BUT … I need to be able to add “… but …” to those statements, and when I can’t find the Christ in me, that addendum can’t come. At least for me it can’t.  As someone who’s been paying attention, experiencing and observing for 60 years, I feel secure in saying it can’t come for a lot of us. Sadly, it seems some of folks have given up trying to find the Christ in themselves or have outright denied access to him. They may claim a connection with him, but they don’t live out that connection fully.

I pray for them just as I pray for myself, and I blame it on the human in all of us.  Thank God, it’s a redeemable mistake.

So, long story short, I’m looking for the Christ in me to be able to see the Christ in you, them, even those other folks over there. If you don’t start seeing it when you look twice at me, please say so.  It means I got caught in earthly-ness again.

If you’ve never listened to Alana Levandosky’s album I mentioned above, I hope you’ll take time to look it up on YouTube.  In the liner notes, she says she intended to “weave the church calendar as found in the Anglican/Catholic/Lutheran traditions into the Christ Hymn (Colossians 1:15-20 New Jerusalem Bible) and ended up with a “Christ Narrative”.  It’s beautiful. It’s centering. It’s contemplative.  It’s my go-to for cleaning myself up after a trip into that wretched dustpan.

Thanks for taking time to read this.  God be with you and His peace be upon you. Amen.

*Thought I forgot that asterisk, didn’t you?  I am in the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. The history of Methodism is interesting and, to me, the history of the Holston Conference is even more interesting, especially related to early American history, the Civil war, and the lingering effects within this area. If you want to know more, let me know and I’ll connect you with those that can explain it.

Teach Us How To Pray

prayer (prer) noun: prayer; plural noun: prayers

  • a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. “I’ll say a prayer for him”
    synonyms: invocation, intercession, devotion; archaicorison “the priest’s murmured prayers”
  • a religious service, especially a regular one, at which people gather in order to pray together. “500 people were detained as they attended Friday prayers”
  • an earnest hope or wish. “it is our prayer that the current progress on human rights will be sustained”

Origin – Middle English: from Old French preiere, based on Latin precarius ‘obtained by entreaty,’ from prex, prec- ‘prayer.’

Recently, I came to two realizations:

#1:  When called upon to spontaneously lead corporate prayer in any setting, I am prone to become like a deer in the headlights. It isn’t because I don’t pray enough. I have a “pray without ceasing” monologue running in my mind every waking hour (and I mean that literally; mentally talking to God while doing just about anything else is the only “multi-tasking” I do successfully … and, yes, I do listen for the answers).  The corporate prayers I offer while leading worship services are carefully crafted in advance. But, I need to do some serious work on my ability to lead spontaneous, extemporaneous corporate prayer. Public prayer does not roll easily off my tongue. Prayer is, so far, far too personal an experience.

#2:  I have a serious problem with a certain televangelist’s “National Day of Prayer” corporate prayer rallies. I believe it’s the wrong way to lead your congregants in prayer because it’s praying for the political agenda of the prayer leader rather than praying that God’s will – whatever that will may be – be done, that you to be given the strength to accept that will, and that it does not meet the criteria of “do no harm”. Too often what I read from that certain televangelist is both hate-filled and promoting harm to others. I think both it and he are major contributors to the hijacking and destruction of Christian faith in America. It ultimately leads to the worship of nation over God.

When I’m struggling with something, I start researching for solutions, answers, and explanations.

There are 222 prayers in the Bible. Actual prayers, not just references to prayer; 176 in the Old Testament and 46 in the New Testament. If you throw in references to and mentions of prayer (“he prayed, he entreated the Lord, he called upon the name of the Lord”, etc.), you can add another 428. There are 450 recorded answers to prayer in the Bible. The first mention of prayer is in Genesis 4:26, there are 25 different records of Jesus praying during his earthly ministry, and Paul mentions prayer (prayers, prayer reports, prayer requests, exhortations to pray) 41 times.

Prayer is clearly one of the most important things we can do, and it’s also the most powerful of our spiritual tools.  Samuel was taught to hear the voice of God, and to pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10) Jesus made a habit of spending the early hours of each day praying alone in a solitary place (Mark 1:35), and even planned a retreat with his disciples following a particularly strenuous period of fruitful ministry (Mark 6:31).  In the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18), Jesus taught the disciples to pray and not give up. Jesus even gave his disciples an example of how to pray and gave them the prayer we know as “The Lord’s Prayer”. (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4).  And Paul taught us, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t!” (Romans 8:25-27).

The Bible gives us all kinds of instructions on how to pray …

It lists at least nine main types of prayer:

  • Prayers of faith (James 5:15)
  • Prayers of agreement aka “corporate prayer” (Acts 2:42)
  • Prayers of request aka petition or supplication (Philippians 4:6)
  • Prayers of thanksgiving (Psalm 95:2-3)
  • Prayers of worship (Acts 13:2-3)
  • Prayers of consecration aka dedication (Matthew 26:39)
  • Prayers of intercession (1 Timothy 2:1)
  • Prayers of imprecation* (Psalms 69)
  • Praying in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:14-15)*Imprecation means a spoken curse; to pray the Imprecatory Psalm or a prayer of imprecation today would be to go against Christ, who commanded us to love one another, our enemies, and those who persecute us. Cursing our enemies is not loving them.

It even tells us about five specific postures we can assume during our prayers: Sitting (2 Samuel 7:18), standing (Mark 11:25), kneeling (Chronicles 6:13; Daniel 6:10; Luke 22:41; Acts 7:60, 9:40, 20:36, 21:5; Ephesians 3:14), prostrate (literally with one’s face to the ground; Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:35), and with hands uplifted (1 Timothy 2:8).

And, the Lord’s Prayer – the model Jesus gave for how his disciples should pray – breaks down into six key focuses; an outline if you will of what to cover during prayer:

  • Honor God’s name and everlasting glory: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;
  • Call for His kingdom and eternal will:  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven
  • Ask for His provision (He will provide):  Give us each day our daily bread
  • Ask for His forgiveness (God always forgives, but we must also forgive others): Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
  • Ask for His protection:  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil 
  • Honor His authority and providence:  For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever 

Finally, the Bible tells us how to end our prayers.  The word “Amen” translates to “Let it be”, “so be it”, “verily,” and/or “truly”, and first appears in Numbers 5:22 where God commands it to be said by a person who is yielding to His examination.

Prayer was essential to, in fact the essence of Christ’s relationship with the Father.  He prayed regularly (Luke 5:16; Luke records more instances of Jesus praying than any other Gospel writer), and he often prayed alone (Mark 1:35; Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12, 9:18).  He prayed in communion with or submission to his Father (communion: Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2; Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22 / submission: Hebrews 5:7; Matthew 6;10, 26:36; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42), giving his Father praise and thanks (Matthew 11:25-26; Luke 10:21; Matthew 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16; John 6:11; Matthew 15:36; Mark 8:6-7; Matthew 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17-19; 1 Corinthians 11:24; the Lord’s Supper; Luke 24:30; John 11:41-42). He prayed at his baptism (Luke 6:12-13), before choosing the apostles (Luke 9:28-29), before his transfiguration, before his death (Matthew 26:36-46); Mark 14:32-41; Luke 22:39-46; John 17:1-26), and on the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:34,46; Luke 3:21-22).

He taught about prayer (Matthew 6:9-15; Luke 11:2-4; Matthew 5:44; Matthew 6:-8; Luke 6:28; Luke 18:1-8,9-14; Luke 21:36).

He prayed for children (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17), for his disciples (Luke 22:31-32; John 14:16; John 17:6-19), for his persecutors (Luke 23:34), for himself (John 12:27-28; John 17:1-5), and for all believers (John 17:20-26).

He continues to pray for all God’s children (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1).

He had some important points to make about prayer, too:

Matthew 6:5-8 – “5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

And, he had his reasons; Prayer is designed as the way we “draw near to God” (James 4:8).  It helps us deepen our personal relationship with God and, in order to do that, we must spend daily, concentrated time praying to God privately … one-on-one.

This isn’t to say there aren’t times when praying in public – in front of and audible to others – is appropriate.  Public prayer is totally appropriate at family meals, as part of worship service, at weddings and at funerals. But it is to say there are right and wrong ways to pray, and that’s where my realizations land:  I want to pray in the right way and there are some like that certain televangelist who I feel not only pray in a very wrong way, they encourage others to join them; they abuse the “prayers of agreement” and appear to be promoting “prayers of imprecation”.

It makes sense that the origin of the word, “prayer”, comes from precarious. From Merriam-Webster’s website:

“This little happiness is so very precarious, that it wholly depends on the will of others. Joseph Addison, in a 1711 issue of Spectator magazine, couldn’t have described the oldest sense of precarious more precisely-the original meaning of the word was “depending on the will or pleasure of another.” Prayers and entreaties directed at that “other” might or might not help, but what precariousness really hangs on, in the end, is prex, the Latin word for prayer. From prex came the Latin word precarius, meaning “obtained by entreaty,” from whence came our own adjective precarious. Anglo-French priere, also from precarius, gave us prayer.”

Prayer can certainly be precarious – requiring and depending upon the will or pleasure of another (God). And oh, how it must pain Him, when our prayers are selfish, hate-filled, or (even unintentionally) harmful to others.  Praying an petition to God that represents more a partisan political agenda based on falsehoods, myths, and misinformation and/or that petitions God for actions you [have to] know would cause harm to others … that’s just wrong. Period. If you don’t believe me, though, consider the wisdom of Mark Twain who wrote the War Prayer.

As I understand and interpret the scriptures, the only “national” or even “international” prayer agenda of the Church should be that agenda contained in the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Thy [God’s] will, not my will, not your will, not some televangelist’s will, and certainly not some earthly ruler’s will.  All that we do including prayer is to be done in a spirit of love. All. Partisan politics are rarely reflective of anything similar to love. That makes, in my opinion, the televangelist’s ulterior motive not only suspect, but very probably anti-Christ.

I don’t ever want to be anti-Christ, so I take prayer and praying seriously, and that means I hesitate to offer extemporaneous corporate prayers that may ask for certain (my own or that of others) selfish outcomes. My heart is true to God, but sometimes my head and mouth speak without consulting my heart or waiting for the guidance of the Spirit.

And so, I find the words to Jason Upton’s “Teach Me to Pray” a good example of my mission in my quest to learn to pray well:

Not my will or my plans or
The way I want it
I’m so tired of my hands in the way
So reveal to these eyes the true heart of my Father, today
Lord teach me how to pray

So I’ll keep asking, for Your kingdom to come
Looking, for Your will to be done
For every nation, tribe,
And every tongue
Lord, teach me how to pray

My goal is to learn to pray for God’s will first, foremost and always above – instead of – my own.  My goal is to learn to trust that God provides. My goal is to reduce my wants and increase my thanksgiving.  Lord, teach me how to pray Thy will, not my will.

My goal as a future pastor is to teach my congregation to pray for God’s will first, foremost and only, to submit to His authority, and to pray only out of love for one another.  I can’t go the direction of that certain televangelist and his “National Day of Prayer”, and if I can’t go that direction I certainly cannot lead anyone that direction.

Lord, teach us how to pray Thy will, not our will.


 In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, amen.

Reflections on Extraordinary Ordinary Time

The church calendar breaks down into seasons:

  • Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas)
  • Christmastide (December 25 through January 5)
    • Christmas Day
    • Baptism of the Lord Sunday
  • Epiphany (January 6 through the day before Ash Wednesday)
    • Epiphany Sunday (closest Sunday to January 6)
    • Transfiguration Sunday (Sunday before Ash Wednesday)
  • Lent (Ash Wednesday through the Saturday before Easter)
    • Annunciation Day*
    • Ash Wednesday
    • Palm Sunday
    • Holy Thursday
    • Good Friday
  • Easter (Easter Sunday through Pentecost)
    • Easter Sunday
    • Ascension Day (forty days after Easter)
    • PENTECOST (fifty days after Easter)
  • Season After Pentecost (The Sundays after Pentecost through Christ the King Sunday)
    • Trinity Sunday
    • Reformation Day (Oct. 31)
    • All Saints Day (Nov. 1)
    • Christ the King Sunday (the Sunday before Advent)

*Annunciation Day is March 25 unless that date falls during Holy Week or one of the Lenten special days.

The Season After Pentecost is “Ordinary Time”. And, I think it’s my favorite.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love all the seasons – the anticipation during Advent, the celebration and joy of Christmastide and Epiphany, the gravity, reflection and soul searching of Lent, the promise of Easter.  But those are busy times in the life of the Church and, for many of us, in secular life as well.

Ordinary time, though.  That’s when the Church has an extraordinary opportunity to really show through actions – missions, outreach activities, discipleship – the Good News.  Actions during Ordinary Time can’t be dismissed as insincere by virtue of being holiday-related. Actions during Ordinary Time are done simply because it’s what Christ would do.   And, in today’s messed up, consumer-mentality world … that’s rare.

So, yes … The Season After Pentecost … the season when we are recently filled with the Spirit … that’s my favorite.  Sacred, extraordinary Ordinary Time.

Breaking Free

Written version of the sermon delivered to Walland UMC on Sunday, June 25, 2017:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

Last week, I talked to you about Seeing Red; about really digging deep into the Gospels to the point where you literally know and carry them out as easily and subconsciously as you draw breath. This week, I want to warn you about something that will prevent you from being able to do that. I want to warn you about “fear” because “fear” will stop you dead in your tracks.

How can fear stop us? Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Seminary, wrote the following as the introduction to his commentary on our passage from Matthew this morning:

“Fear: Is there any more pervasive or powerful force in human experience? From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities.”

Now remember, unlike what we currently experience today in the United States, Christ lived during a time when “politics” and “government” significantly impacted the church.

Caesar, like Pharaoh, determined and declared what the “state” or “national” religion of the empire would be, and then declared himself to be the high-priest, king and earthly manifestation of whatever Roman god he’d chosen, the worship of which was required of every person within the bounds of his empire. To fail to bow to Caesar or pledge allegiance to him on demand – something the Jews couldn’t do without breaking the first commandment God gave Moses – was a huge risk, almost always ending in punishment that included beatings, life imprisonment and even death.

For the followers of Christ, that death sentence was even more of a sure thing; they were literally living, traveling, taking meals with the Son of God and King of all kings and, in addition to Caesar, they faced an additional threat from the Jewish high-priests, who could and would have them flogged in the synagogues, and then arrested and thrown into a Roman prison.

In our passage from Matthew, it’s clear that Jesus knows how fear of such things could and probably would cause the disciples to fail. No matter how brave they’d been so far, courageously leaving the security of their homes and families to follow him, they often feared. In doing his bidding this time – going out with absolutely nothing, not even shoes on their feet – they were destined to be on a collision course with the powers of the earthly world.

So, as Jesus prepared them for their mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he was point blank honest and blunt about the threats they would face: arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, hatred and persecution.

And, yet, he told them, “So, do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known … Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul … Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows …”

In other words, Jesus was saying to them, ‘don’t let fear get the better of you and don’t let anything – not even fear for your life – keep you from your goal, your mission … your work in my name.’

The Gaither Vocal Band recorded a song a few years ago, and the chorus starts like this …

Sometimes it takes a mountain
Sometimes a troubled sea
Sometimes it takes a desert
To get a hold of me

We’ve all had our mountains, our troubled seas and/or our deserts that we’ve had to face from time to time. Mountains built of terminal or chronic illness, death and grief, seas tossed and torn by trouble in our marriages, jobs or businesses, deserts where, like Haggar and Ishmael, we had no resources and no hope.

And, like the Gaither song goes on to say, we’ve most likely cried out …

Forgive me, Jesus
I thought I could control
Whatever life would throw my way
But this I will admit
Has brought me to my knees
I need you Lord and I’m not ashamed to say

We cry out the moment we break away from trying to control whatever put us on that mountain, sea or desert long enough to fall to our knees, give it to God and pray for His help.

In retrospect, it is that moment of breaking away that takes us to a breakthrough where, even though the outcome might not have been specifically what we asked of Him, we recognize that God, in His faithfulness, heard our cries and met our needs. Usually, hopefully … even if down the road a bit … we recognize that the outcome He gave us was for the better and for our good.

It’s then that, if we are wise, we again give thanks and praise and give ourselves to God all over again admitting to God that:

Your Love is so much stronger
Then whatever troubles me
Sometimes it takes a mountain
To trust you and believe

Our mountain has been conquered, sea calmed, water in and a way out of the desert has been provided. All is well with our souls and it’s safe travels and smooth sailing from this point forward with no problems or setbacks, right?

No, not right. Not even close to right, amen?

So what gives? Surely we learned our lesson. God of the mountain, sea and desert rescued us in our darkest hour and set us down on solid ground. He helped us stand up on two feet, in His word, we matured from the lesson we learned, and we put our nose to the grindstone of life and soldiered on.

And yet, we invariably wake up one day to find ourselves like a butterfly with one leg tethered by a single, sticky, unbreakable thread of a spider’s web, beating our wings for all we’re worth … hovering in a frozen, frantic mid-air flight.

If we were to – again – break away from what it is that’s holding us in place, we’d find out the name of that thread is “change” … and we fear change as much or more than anything else we face. Even though “change” is something we should be able to deal with, change shouldn’t be any big deal … the fear of it is … and that fear lurks and waits for us down here in the Valley between the mountains, deserts and troubled seas.

The truth is, we all fear change, and because we fear change, we nail ourselves to the wrong crosses, put bars on the windows, nail the doors shut, and strap ourselves into our chairs. We get a strangle grip on what we already know, what we feel safe with, what keeps us warm and comfortable, what we’ve always done, the way it used to be, and We. Refuse. To. Let. Go. … the whole time, beating our wings just as hard as we can and wondering why we can’t break free and fly!

It’s our refusal to let go of our fear, to acknowledge and consider, possibly even accept and embrace change … our self-inflicted, self-manufactured fear of change … that holds us back, holds us down, and stops us from fully living and breathing and carrying out the Gospels in our own lives.

In our personal lives, fear of change can keep us from accommodating the needs of those who we’re in relationship with because we’re clinging to what makes us feel comfortable, safe and satisfied, diminishing their needs for the protection of our own until … eventually … we find ourselves back on troubled seas.

When we let the fear of change keep us from making personal sacrifices by giving up what we like and want in order to lay up stores for the future, we lead ourselves back into the desert with no resource or hope.

And beware: we can put ourselves right back on some mountain because of fear of change. Consider the diabetic who’s told that he has to change his diet, but that means giving up his favorite foods. Consider the smoker who doesn’t quit because it “helps me calm down or stay awake”. Consider the addiction or depression that goes untreated because of the victim or the victim’s friends and families are in denial or enabling.

What about all of us here as the church? Fear of change as individuals or groups of individuals can impact how we live and breathe and carry out the Gospels as the church in our communities, our nation, and in the world

Benjamin Cory, a prominent Christian author, blogger, speaker, cultural anthropologist, and public theologian, just started a new series of articles on the Christian church in America, and Mr. Cory believes the church is in trouble. He believes the reason statistics show that our churches are stagnant or in decline is because we’ve been lying to ourselves for so long, we not only believe the lies, we’re raising a whole new generation to believe the lies, too. The first lie he addresses is one he believes to be one of the most deadly: “Church is something you do on Sunday.”

I’d like to amend that to say that the lie we’ve all believed is, “Church is something you do on Sunday and/or the building you do it in.” Because the truth is that “Church” is neither. What we’re here doing this morning isn’t “church”. What we’re doing this morning is participating in a corporate worship service, corporate meaning group. And this building that we’re doing it in isn’t a “church”. As beautiful as it is, it’s just a building. YOU, me, us – we are the church; All of us and each of us.

That means the same fear of change you hold as individuals will influence the decisions you make on behalf of the church about how you as the church influence and impact the community, the state, the nation and the world.

As “the church” both individually and collectively, we have a responsibility to serve God and Christ in all we do.  When we fear even the slightest change in what we’ve always done, what we know, what we’ve been told to think, the “position” we’ve always taken, when we fail to be the hands and feet of Christ and stand in the gap for anyone who gets thrown into that column labeled “other” …

I rewrote this part of my message a dozen times. I had a whole list of the “others” that we, through our own fear of change, toss into the not just stormy seas, but raging oceans; not just mountains, but jagged granite peaks; not just any desert but the biggest, hottest, most barren most inhospitable desert there is.

I finally took the list out for two reasons: One – I can’t read through the list out loud without becoming too emotional to go on, and Two – that, even though I’ve taken a pledge to say the names in that column and to stand up and speak out for them, I gave in to a fear of change: That if I did speak the names of those in the other column, some of you might be offended. I let my fear of change win and will be silent on their names.

I am, however, not going to be silent on one name – the name of the change we fear that causes us to fail to stand in the gap for all those in the column labeled “other”. The name of that change is “us”. You. Me. Us. We would have to break free from everything we’ve ever been told, read, heard, or believed about those in the “other” column. We would have to recognize and accept that they are fully equal to us in value, in the right to human dignity, in the right to exist, to worship and to enjoy a decent quality of life and equal treatment under the law. We would have to accept that they too were created in Imago Dei, God’s own nature and image, and that God has a plan for each of them just like he has for us …

That’s a hard change. It means weighing your fears and the decisions you make because of those fears against the second greatest commandment, Christ’s commandment – Love one another as I have loved you – Jesus loved everyone, even those who didn’t love him back; and Wesley’s three simple rules – Do no harm, do good, love God.  If it harms anyone – anyone, it’s no good.  If it’s no good, you can’t do good.  If you can’t do good, you’re not loving God the way God wants us to love Him.

It means – and this is the hardest part of the change – it means that we have to break free of the hate, the fear, the doubt that has been handed down to us from generation to generation, that’s handed out by politicians and pundits and theocrats, and we have to say, “The hate stops HERE and will be healed in me!” Otherwise, “What is not healed is handed down”, and the cycle of fear begins again, and we are guilty of making the mountains, stirring the troubled seas, and withholding water in the desert.

Bringing it back here to Walland United Methodist Church, you’re about to experience change. You’re getting a new pastor and new pastors tend to change things up a little … okay, sometimes a lot.

The order of worship is probably going to change. He might have different ideas about the music used during worship. He could have different expectations for the work your committees do, sometimes even a different idea for where you as a church should be headed.

I would probably rock you to your foundations. As a faith leader, I would want to be sure that the church and I are reaching out to the community, offering space for other churches, groups and events that may need it, extending invitations to our activities, and going out those doors.

The early church wasn’t as much about corporate worship as it was about community; helping one another, walking together through all life’s ups and downs. I don’t know about you, but that community idea is the only “way things were” that I want to hold on to.

After all, Christ didn’t spend his time closeted away in a building ministering only in a way that kept the faithful parishioners all snug and comfy. He took his adult ministry literally into the streets, out into the country, on hillsides, by the sea, wherever he was is where he ministered. And that’s where I believe, as a faith leader, I should be leading the church – out the doors and out into the community.

That same definition of the church as “community” needs to apply to the state, the nation and the world. We should be embracing and extending ourselves into them … not as judge, jury, and prosecutioners of what the world will or won’t do, not of councilmen, legislators, governors and presidents that make and enforce what the world will or won’t do, but as disciples, ambassadors, and laborers for Christ. No parties. No sides. No labels. Remember: Christ said, “I didn’t come to judge the world, but to save it.”

Before I finish up here, there is one more change that we fear, especially as the church. That change is the introduction of new ideas and new ways of interpreting things, especially scripture.

Very often when someone suggests a different interpretation of the scripture, we clutch our bibles tightly to our chests and scream, “NOOOOOO!!!” That’s not what my New International Version English translation Bible published for the first time as the complete Old and New Testaments clear back in 1978 says!

Did you know the Bible has been translated into English more than 450 times, that it’s been translated into a total of 635 languages other than English, that it’s been close to 2,000 years since the original texts of the New Testament were written, and well over 2,000 years since the last original texts of the Old Testament were written? But this New International Version bible published as a complete bible for the first time in … 1978 … THIS is right GOD’S literal word … word for word.

Folks, you cannot sit down and read this book like you read a novel, or even a text book. That’s why I said last week that you need to study the gospels over and over until you can literally breathe them. STUDY … not “read”.

Don’t fear that kind of change, folks. Embrace it and let it drive you deeper into the Gospels and closer to the Word who is Christ. Look deep, and then look deeper still.

In closing, remember: The God of the Mountain is the God of the Valley, too. He is ever present, ever faithful. His love was, is, and ever shall be bigger than any trouble you might face, any change you might fear. Don’t just break away and breakthrough. Strive to break free so you can truly, completely, live, breathe and carry out the Gospels.

Let us pray:

God, we thank You for the mountains, seas and deserts You’ve already carried us over, across and through, breaking us away from what held us there, and bringing us to the breakthrough that holds us close to You.

We know that You are bigger than any trouble or challenge we may face, and we ask that You help us to break free from fear and open our minds and hearts to whatever changes we have yet to face.

We pray your spirit descends onto us and opens our hearts and minds so that we may fully hear You in Pastor Benson’s interpretation of Your word. We pray Pastor Benson be filled with your spirit.

And all God’s children said, amen!


As you go from here, remember this:

God is God, God is Great and God is Good. Whether you’re on a mountain, a troubled sea, in the desert or just down here in the Valley, He is bigger than any trouble you face.

God’s heart was revealed to us when He sent us His son, and He wrote His love for us in red on a hill called Calvary.

As you prepare to welcome Rev. Benson, God has already given you all that you need to open yourself to his teaching, and to face and conquer the fears that keep you from breaking free so you can reach out in loving care and kindness to others, so that you can be the Church, and so that you can extend yourselves out into your community.

Go into God’s world bringing the good news of redemption and hope. Give to others what you receive in Christ.

In Jesus’ Name, go in peace and may the God of Peace go with you always.




Seeing Red(der)

On February 19, 2017, I delivered a message called “Seeing Red” to Vestal UMC.  On June 18, 2017, I delivered that message again, this time to Walland UMC and, somewhere along the way, the message changed; not in its basic point, but in tone and delivery. The change was good – for the better – and was, in part, due to living into the message I delivered the first time.  Below is the written version I worked from at Walland UMC.

Seeing Red – Walland

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

I have a few things I want to talk to you about today. These things have been heavy on my mind for a while now. They have to do with Christians, and with the Bible. My concern is that I’m not sure we’re getting either one right.

About a year ago, Alana Levandoski released an album titled “Behold, I Make All Things New.” In an interview about the album, Alana said:

“Whenever, historically, we have seen God as “out there”, we’ve done things in the name of God that would otherwise be seen as a desecration if we saw God as in here.”

Alana went on to explain that she wanted to tell the central story to the Christian faith in a way that would remind us that God is in here. Going on in the interview she said”

“Imagine if we could go for a walk and we saw every bush burning, if we realized that everywhere we walked was sacred ground. Imagine if we looked into someone else’s eyes and knew that what we do to them, we do to Jesus. For whatever reason, this was lost. There was some sort of split that happened. The central teaching of Jesus is “Abide in me as I in you”, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” … and somehow along the way, we separated ourselves from all of that.”

I think Alana was dead to rights with what she said. I also think I might now how the split happened and how we lost our bead on the central story of Christian faith. Let me explain.

I am not a Christian. You see, to say “I’m ~a~ Christian” makes “Christian” a noun. A thing. An item. An object. And that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here. “Christian” is not a noun. It’s a adjective. It describes an action – the action of following, of being like Christ; of being His hands and feet here on the earth, of carrying out the commandments and directives he gave us.

When we announce that we are “a” Christian or when we say, “Oh, so and so is ~a~ Christian”, we’re just checking off a box on a label, and we are removing the responsibility of carrying out the actions to be Christ-like from ourselves or those we name as ~a~ Christian. And the responsibility for carrying out those actions is critical – it’s our entire God-given purpose. It’s the most important responsibility we could ever hope to undertake! As Thomas Merton said, “Christianity is Christ living in us.” Living – to live – an adjective implying action. Christ living in us and through us.

No, I am not “a” Christian. I am, however, continuously striving to be Christian. It’s a daunting task that requires vigilance because I’m human, so I stumble, fall, backslide and sidestep daily, but I’m not giving up. I hope and pray that all of you are striving, too, and that none of you will give up either.

OK, that’s the first thing. The next part is the Bible, and I think it may be where we get messed up on the first part.

In this box are 1,138 pieces of paper – one for every page of scripture in my bible. The number of pages in a bible can vary based on the translation times the page size divided by the presence or absence of study notes, illustrations, etc. My bible is an NIV without any extras, so it only has 1,138 pages.

This first part is the Old Testament – what some refer to as the “the Hebrew Bible” consisting of the Torah (those books we call Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy), the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim (which combined hold all the rest of the Old Testament books). When you put those three parts together, you get the Tanakh.

That’s a boatload of paper isn’t it? There are 872 pages, to be exact. It’s actually 70% of the whole Bible. And, almost all the most colorful stories are in this part. You’ve got talking serpents, a giant ship with an onboard zoo, floods, pillars of fire, chariots, burning bushes, splitting seas, plagues of frogs and locust, wars, civil strife, family drama, more wars, oppression, survival, wilderness adventures … You could preach from this stack for a lifetime and probably never get through it all.  What’s important to note about this section for us Christians is that this part is where we learn not just that the stove is hot, but what the stove is.

OK, let’s pull this next bunch out. This thin little bit is the Book of Revelations. It was written by the Apostle John as a letter to seven specific churches in what was then called Asia and is now called Turkey. For no more pages than it is, it is every bit as exciting as anything in the Old Testament, but not very many preach about it, choosing instead just to refer to a few scriptures in it like, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20). Sadly, those that do preach from it extensively may actually be getting it completely wrong. At any rate, we’re going to start a second stack with this.

Next, we have the Epistles. The Epistles are, like Revelations, letters. They make up 21 of the 27 books in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote 13 of them, ten to specific churches and three to church leaders. Paul’s are mostly encouraging the churches he was writing to, pointing out things that could become bigger problems, or explaining how the church should work. The Apostles Peter and John who were two of the Twelve Disciples, James who was Jesus’ half-brother, and Jude, who was a servant of Jesus, wrote the other eight. For the most part, their letters are more general or universal, intended for all the churches rather than sent to a specific church.

I’ve heard a lot of preachers deliver messages out of the Epistles, especially Paul’s letters to the various churches, and when they do preach out of them, they tend to reinforce those messages with scripture from the Old Testament. Since they’re “New Testament”, let’s put these over here in the second stack with the first letter, Revelation.

Let’s see. What’s left? Acts of the Apostles! Hey, I like this one. It’s where many preachers are right now during the season of Pentecost. Did you know they made a TV mini-series just a year or three ago about this one. Good stuff! We’ll add it to the second stack, too.

Before I get to whatever’s left in this box, though, I want to tell you about four fellas. Three are practicing Jews. One isn’t. One of them is a doctor. One used to work for the government. One is a preacher. And one is just a boy, a teenager, who’s his Teacher’s favorite, beloved even. As it turns out, two of them are best friends with the Teacher, and one happens to be a close friend and colleague of another close friend of the Teacher.

I needed to tell you about them, because these four gentlemen left you … this. Eye-witness accounts by two, and reports of first-hand accounts by two others. Everything you need to know about the Teacher … who the Teacher was, who the Teacher is, who the Teacher ever shall be … what He did, what He SAID … EVERYTHING … is right here … in this .. the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And the most amazing part, for me anyway, is that these four fellas didn’t just “recollect” … they didn’t say, “I remember the time Jesus talked about feeding the poor …”. No way! They wrote, “Jesus said” and “Jesus did”, and then they wrote down what HE said and what HE did to the best of their ability and memory.

I want to read you a story by Kaitlin Wernet:

Gathered around the living room, we remained seated as the doorbell continued to ring. We didn’t need another casserole or vase of sympathy flowers; we needed words.

Void of compassion, the blank document—an unforeseen obituary—stared back at us, wringing all adjectives of their meaning, one after another. Each suggested description seemed to shrink our beloved boy, the one who held the titles of both my best friend and younger brother, into someone foreign and unrecognizable. The task of fitting all of his life and all of our love into one small newspaper column was exhausting, so we traded our pencils for pillows and gave up for the night.

A few hours later, unable to sleep, I found my sleepy-eyed father furiously scribbling notes on a stack of white index cards. Between the light blue lines were favorite stories, memorable quotes, and beloved quirks. My dad handed me a stack, and as the dark sky faded into morning, our collection of cards finally created the outline of something familiar—someone familiar.

I imagine the apostle John sitting down to translate the encounters he’d had with Jesus into suitable words. To him, Jesus was not a faraway character, but a trusted friend and beloved Savior. Writing these words, this Gospel account, John probably recalled intimate details about Jesus—the way he smelled, what his favorite foods were, the sound of his laugh. He could clearly call to mind the expressions his friend made when feeling tired or excited or somber. Yet, John undertook the task of assembling words to describe the heaven-sent Son of God to those of us who didn’t know Jesus in the flesh.

Through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, this dear friend of Jesus begins his narrative with the thing that identified Jesus most: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

After years of witnessing Jesus’ parables, miracles, and interactions firsthand, John presents Jesus as the Word. Jesus did not come to merely deliver a message from God—he himself is the message.

Three of the Gospel authors were that close to Jesus. They shared a level of intimacy with him that gave them those memories, and it’s from those memories that they wrote the Gospels.

Now, understand, the Bible as a whole is God’s word, we know that. God’s Spirit was fully on Moses when he recorded centuries of oral traditions and his own eye-witness accounts of the Exodus. God’s Spirit was fully on every prophet and poet and author of the Old Testament. It was all God-inspired, and it is God’s holy word.

But the men who wrote the Old Testament couldn’t walk or break bread with God as they knew God. They couldn’t physically embrace or touch God or kiss His cheek. They couldn’t even look on the Face of God when He did appear to the few of them who were privileged with that experience. They could only know as much of God the Father’s will, His commandments, and His laws as was revealed to them by Him through Moses who gave it to Joshua who gave it to the Elders who gave it to the Prophets who gave it to the most high priests of the Temple. And they didn’t get to experience the depth or breadth of love that God showed us through the sacrifice of His son.

The Epistles and Revelation were written by men who knew the Teacher personally in the flesh or to whom he revealed himself after his resurrection, but they were written to explain, interpret, and reinforce. They are clarifications and affirmations of things that had happened here in the Gospels – kind of like how-to manuals. They don’t add to the Gospels. They just expand on what’s already there.

The Gospels, on the other hand, are essentially eye-witness accounts, a kind of transcript if you will, of what God Himself … manifested in God the Son … said and did while in the flesh, in real-time, walking among us as a man, breaking bread, sharing meals, laughing, crying, comforting, and healing with his own hands, his own voice. Not shouting down from the heavens in a booming voice with no face or from the center of a burning bush in the desert, but standing right there with them. And Acts is an account of what he empowered the disciples to do through the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.

Consider this. The next time you tune into one of the televangelists or even local church broadcasts, pay attention to what they’re preaching. I’d be willing to bet they’re preaching from one of Paul’s Epistles or from the Old Testament. Or, check your social media feed or the section of your favorite store that carries any Christian items. How many bible devotionals, images on Facebook or Instagram, t-shirts, coffee mugs or everywhere else do you see quoting Jesus? Again, I’ll wager … not that many. Most will be quoting something from one of the Epistles or the Old Testament.

We worry that we know the Ten Commandments. We stomp and fume and file law suits to try to get them hung in every possible public building. But can any of us recite the Sermon on the Mount? Beyond “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do,” can any of us recite anything Christ said?

That’s why I believe we’re getting both “Christian” and the bible wrong. That’s how I think the split Alana Levandoski referred to happened, how we “lost” the central story of Christian Faith.

And that’s why I’m seeing red, why I need you to see red, and why you need to see it more than 5-20 minutes once a week on Sunday; why you need to see it every day, study it, meditate on it, and you need to pray on it and over it and under it.

You need to know the Gospels so well that they become like breathing. We’ve been here for a while now this morning. Show of hands: How many of you sat here all morning thinking about your next breath and the one after that and the next and the next? No one? Yet you’ve been breathing the whole time. Or at least I hope you have.

If we don’t see red as quickly and easily and without thought as we breathe, we can’t be Christian. We can only be Christian if others can tell by our outward actions that we are living out what Christ taught us. “Abide in me as I in you.”

And where do we find what Christ taught us? We find the first-hand account of his teachings in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

All these other books – the Old Testament, the rest of the New Testament – they’re all wonderful, holy, God-inspired, God-given works, but … without the Gospels – they don’t get us where we need to be. We couldn’t even understand the other 23 New Testament books without them, plus we’d all be Jewish!

Which leads my last point and some more Red I want you to see.

I need some volunteers to come up here with me. If you would please form a line going out from the cross over here out this way facing the far wall, and if you would each place your hands on the person in front of you. Now just hang in here with me for a few minutes.

The people in this line represents 42 generations. Every person represented in this line except two lived in the Old Testament part of the bible. EVERY person represented in this line was Jewish. Every single one. This line is a blood line – a family tree.

It begins here in the front and comes forward in time for 42 generations. It includes a lot of names we all have trouble pronouncing, but it also includes names we recognize like Abraham, Isaac, Boaz, King David, King Solomon. You can’t push your way into this line, you can’t cut this line, you can’t buy your way into this line. There is no earthly government or executive order or army or any world leader that can get you or themselves into this bloodline. Not even Ancestry dot com’s DNA tests could get you into this line. You only get into THIS line by being born into it. It is unbreakable until …

Until we get all the way to here. To the last person represented in this line. And I’ll tell you what; this last person is someone special, because THIS person made a way. He suffered mightily for it, though. He was ridiculed, he was beaten, he was whipped, he was humiliated, but he was unlike any other person before him or since.

Yet, with all he went through, He still made a way. And when they finally took him, when they nailed him to that cross … when they pierced him with a spear … when His red, red blood ran down and wash and spilled and washed over all of us …

His blood broke every chain, freed us from our sins, adopted us into His impenetrable bloodline … under HIS new covenant … and made us sons and daughters of God! His red blood!

He didn’t put any restrictions or exclusions or exceptions on it, either. He hung there on that cross and said, “Father, forgive THEM for THEY know not what they do …” And John tells us, “For God so loved the WORLD” … not just the Jews, not just the disciples, not just this bunch or that bunch or the bunch over there …. THE WHOLE GREAT BIG CHAOTIC, LOST, FRIGHTENED, ANGRY, WONDERFUL WORLD. His blood poured out over all of us!

How precious is that? How undeserving are we? And all He asks of us in return is to follow Him. To spread the Good News. To be HIS hands and feet. To go where and when he calls us and do what he bids us to do … to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give both our shirt and our jacket, to be charitable, to help one another … to love God above all others, to love one another and even our enemies…

To love God above all others and to love one another, even our enemies, as he loves us … By his own words, the two greatest commandments.

Is that so much to ask for all He’s done for us?

This man here at the end of this divine bloodline made a way for everyone. And now it’s up to us to find the way He made, and to step fully and firmly onto that Way.

To do that, we absolutely have to clearly and completely see Red.

If we take away this Red – the Red of the Gospels – then we take away the Epistles and Acts, because they couldn’t have happened or been written without this Red.  That leaves us back here in the Old Testament and never knowing the loving sacrifice of God for all of us … for the world.

See this red, study this red, know this red, keep it in your heart, LIVE it, BE it …

And see His red that He spilled out for all of us … in the face of everyone, no matter what or who they are, because there is NO ONE on this planet that His blood was NOT spilled for. No one. You may not see it at first glance, but keep looking. They may not know it’s on them, but keep showing them. You’ll find it and they’ll see it if you look hard enough and deep enough.

It’s there. I know it’s there. Because He’s promised you that right here in THIS red.

See red, folks. When you see, study, know, live, breathe that red; as you grow more and more in the teachings in the Gospels, as you carry out what He taught … THEN … then you ARE Christian.

And all God’s people said … Amen.

Hello? Is It Me You’re Looking For?

The world is wonkers, and it’s filled us with doubt, frustration, suspicion, fear, anger, judgment, assumption, and self. Yes … self.  We’re looking at the world from a position as center of the worldly universe. What’s in it for me? What’s it going to cost me? How’s it going to help me? Me, me, me.

That is the prime motivator of the Us vs Them politics and policies going on around the world.  Just think about it.  The guy sitting in the Oval Office sold himself into that seat by feeding doubt, fear, anger, frustration, suspicion, and telling us it was okay to put self first, put “America First”.  Then along came a few prosperity gospel preachers and millionaire televangelists, and they said, “See! This is what we’ve been saying straight out of the scriptures for years now!”

Only it doesn’t come straight from the scriptures, and it sure doesn’t come from Christ. And Christ is where we fail on two points consistently, constantly, and unanimously … even the best among us:  We fail to see Christ, and we fail to be Christ.

It’s probably bordering on sacrilege to relate this to a Lionel Richie love song, but it works.

I’ve been alone with you
Inside my mind
And in my dreams I’ve kissed your cheek*
A thousand times
I sometimes see you
Pass outside my door
Is it me you’re looking for?

How many times have people “passed our door”, and we never really saw them? How many times have we looked at some imaginary object in another direction just to avoid seeing them? Crossed to the other side of the figurative street? Pretended to be so absorbed in a task, we “unintentionally” *cough* missed making eye contact or engaging with them? Didn’t take time to converse with those who so clearly tried to engage with us?

I can see it in your eyes
I can see it in your smile
You’re all I’ve ever wanted
And my arms are open wide
’cause you know just what to say
And you know just what to do
And I want to tell you so much
I love you

How many times have we asked ourselves why we did (or didn’t do) those things? Doubt, frustration, suspicion, fear, anger, judgment, assumption, and self-absorption are the why, should we be so bold as to be honest about it.

I long to see the sunlight in your hair
And tell you time and time again
How much I care
Sometimes I feel my heart will overflow
I’ve just got to let you know

Oh, we’ll go purposefully looking for Jesus and God at least 55 minutes each week.  Yeah, buddy, for an average of 55 minutes once a week, we’ll sit in church waiting for Jesus and/or God to manifest themselves in whoever is standing behind the pulpit.  Or, wait! Maybe we can find him at Sunday School, at one of our many church committee meetings, UMW meetings, United Methodist Men meetings.  No? Well, He’ll definitely show up at the fellowship meal on Wednesday.  After all, we are a “Christian” church.

Some of us may go another route (translation: justify missing our 55 minutes once in awhile) by tuning in to one or more broadcasts of other local church services or various televangelists. We curl up on our couches, bibles or bible apps in hand, amen a little louder because there’s no one to hear us and we like what they’re saying, change the channel when we don’t, and wait for the revelation of God or Jesus to come over the airwaves.

Cause I wonder where you are and I wonder what you do
Are you somewhere feeling lonely? Or is someone loving you?
Tell me how to win your heart, for I haven’t got a clue
But let me start by saying I love you

To quote Bishop Willimon, “the location of these divine human meetings is rarely, and I can’t tell you how much it pains me to say this, rarely at church.” While we’re ardently (some) or at least passively (others) looking in churches and to preachers to elevate us to that point in which we meet God or Jesus face to face, we’re missing opportunity after opportunity after opportunity … right in front of us … every day.

In the face of a stranger. In the touch of a friend. In the voice of a child. In the cry of the wounded. In the tears of the grieving. In the garden, in street, in the alley, in the next cubicle at work … God, Jesus, the Spirit are all waiting for us to find and follow and be their hands and feet.  They’re saying to us …

Is it me you’re looking for?
Cause I wonder where you are and I wonder what you do
Are you somewhere feeling lonely? Or is someone loving you?
Tell me how to win your heart, for I haven’t got a clue
But let me start by saying I love you

Lionel’s love song is a little off.  God, Jesus, the Spirit always know where we are, always know what we’re doing, always know when we’re lonely or hurting or happy or frightened or angry, always know if we’re being loved – truly loved – and who it is that’s truly loving us.  And they do have a clue – more than a clue – about winning our hearts.  It’s not them that are waiting on signs and wonders.  They’re just waiting on our hearts to invite them in, and for us to rise up and go looking for them in the world, to be their hands and feet, to build their kingdom here as it is in heaven.  And they’re saying, “Let me start by saying I love you.”

“This Can’t Be Christ, Can It?” from Ministry Matters™. Bishop William Willimon (UMC)

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/207564436 w=640&h=360]

Bible-In-A-Year Plans, Be Damned!

The first Sunday of January, my church offers up a “bible reading plan” designed to take you through the bible in one year, then graciously includes the week’s readings in the Sunday bulletins. This year, they even added a chronological reading plan.

For a couple years now, I’ve failed the plan(s) the first week in.

I thought the chronological plan would help me.  Chronological works better for me because it makes more sense (I’m not a fan of those shows that flip back and forth through flashback scenes, either – I lose track). I even started writing a bible study called “The Life of Christ” using the chronological plan.  That was three or four months ago, and I’m only done through Day 4 or 5.

I’ve tried “topical” plans – same problem as the regular non-chronological plans – I can’t do the whole “skip around in historical context” thing. I get lost.

I’ve tried “character” plans where you study a specific character or group of characters, and done slightly better (especially when I was looking at female characters in the Bible).

I’ve tried sitting down and reading it like a book of literature – essays, poems, non-fiction short stories, biographies, etc.  Like one might read A Wrinkle In Time or The Screwtape Letters, or even Grapes of Wrath.  It doesn’t work for me. My brain wants to visualize the scenes and there isn’t enough “scene setting” for me to do that unless I stop and research it through historical, artistic, and other sources (which totally blows any form of “plan”).

Does that make me derelict? Unfaithful? Not at all.  It makes me honest about how I personally learn.

I can’t read anything but dime store novels quickly. My brain doesn’t work that way.  It’s a reading style way too superficial for me. Too fast. Too lacking what I need to read for understanding – context, depth, diverse interpretations by others far more well-schooled than I am, time to think it through, possibly repeat all of the above, and then a way to record what I got out of it.

So how do I study my Bible? Using a combination of things and without a timetable or deadline:

  • I dig deeper on the verses referenced in the message each Sunday. While the pastor delivering the message has unpacked much of the verses for us, I may read or re-read it later and some other “voice” in it will call out to me.  (See To the Hesitant for an example of seeing something in a passage many pastors may not have unpacked or even noticed.)
  • I dig deeper when someone speaks or writes about a passage and that still small voice in me says, “Wait. What?!?”.
  • I dig deeper and cartwheel outward to other passages when someone speaks or writes about a passage and that still small voice in me gets loud and shouts, “Yes! This!” because I want to make sure it isn’t the enemy just messing with me (and the enemy will).
  • I dig very deeply and do Olympic level cartwheeling when the passages are used in a message I’m delivering myself.
  • I compare multiple translations.
  • I read a diverse array of commentaries on the passage or chapter.
  • I research historical context.
  • I journal it in writing and through art or graphics (think visual logosomatic language).
  • I talk over my interpretation with my family or another pastor.
  • If it’s relevant, I add a post about it to the Seeing Red: The Life of Christ chronological Bible Study I’m writing for my church’s youth/young adult programs.

All of which are done after meditation on the passage and prayer for discernment.  If it takes me the rest of my life to read the entire Bible, so be it. At least, for me, I will know that I read it and knew it well.

To the Hesitant

Message for Sunday, May 14 (Mother’s Day), 2017 at Vestal UMC

Today’s passage from John 14 takes place the night before the crucifixion, the evening of the Last Supper. They’re gathered around the table, Judas has already left the party, it’s night time, and we find Jesus trying to comfort his disciples. He’s told them once he’s going someplace they can’t follow on their own, he’s already told Peter that Peter will deny him three times before morning, and now he’s trying to reassure them, telling them, “Don’t worry or be afraid – I’m just going ahead of you to make a way for you. I’ll come back and get you when the time is right. You already know the way to where I’m going.”

Normally when someone gives a message about this passage, they talk about verse 1 – Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me … or the first part of verse 2 – My Father’s house has many rooms … or even verses 6-7 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Yet those are not the verses that called out to me when I studied this passage to prepare today’s message.  What struck me was that at least two of his disciples seemed doubtful about what Jesus was telling them. Thomas is up front about it. He’s like, “Wait, what? We don’t know where you’re going.” Philip’s a little more subtle. He doesn’t admit it.  Instead, he says, “Look, just draw us a map. That’s all we’re asking.”

Now, you’d think after three long years of being with, traveling with, listening to Jesus, these folks would be able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them, that they had learned enough from him to understand what he was saying … But they didn’t … instead some – at least two – seem confused at minimum, and doubtful at most.

Doubt or some variation of the word appears in English translations of the Bible around 49 times. Reading closely, though, there are instances where people seem to be in doubt and the word isn’t used – like Thomas and Philip in today’s Gospel passage.  Normally when we hear or even use the word “doubt” or when we are “doubtful”, it’s because we don’t believe something … we don’t believe something will happen, that what is being said is true, that whatever it is can be done, that whatever has been decided is the right decision.  When we doubt another person, we are, in a way, saying we don’t trust them to do something.  At least that’s how I feel when I doubt.

The Bible, however, was not originally written in English.  Wait. You didn’t know that?  Sorry, it’s true.

Something you’re more likely not to know is that, in the original Koine Greek language of the New Testament, the most common words translated into doubt are distazo (di-stah-dzoh) and diakrino (dee-ahk-ree-noh).  The words mean to hesitate or to waver. Distazo is used twice in the New Testament, and diakrino is used nineteen times.

The revelation for me in what I learned from all that was that it meant most people weren’t doubting after all – at least not the way we define doubt … they didn’t not believe … they … hesitated.

Now, Please understand … hesitation or doubt, whichever you call it, is not a sin.  The poet, Khalil Gibran, wrote “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know it has a twin named Faith,” and a theologian named Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”

Doubt or hesitation can cause you to sin, but only  if you let your hesitation reach the point of being that pain too lonely to remember your faith. On the other hand, if your hesitation causes you to question and, through your questioning, you remember your faith and you learn and strengthen your ability to face what it is you’re doubting, then your initial doubt becomes a beneficial element of your faith.

And don’t give yourself a hard time when you find yourself hesitating. Those with faith as true as John the Baptist can sometimes hesitate. In Luke 7:18-23, John the Baptist is in prison and has begun to doubt, to hesitate. He’s getting so worked up, he sends two of his own disciples to Jesus, asking “Are you the one who is come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus sends them back to John with a message that ends with “Blessed are those who do not stumble on account of me.” Jesus was clear:  Don’t let your hesitation cause you to stumble … to fall away … to fall by the way.

And even Jesus himself hesitated twice there in the garden …

Mark 14:32-29 reads: “They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.”

And understand that there is probably no one in this building that has not hesitated at some point in their lives when they were faced with something that seemed insurmountable, unbearable, undo-able, unattainable,and/or unfamiliar. Or that won’t hesitate again in the future.

That’s why my message today is “To the Hesitant”, and I’m including myself in that group because I, too, have hesitated … I too, hesitate …

Maybe you’re hesitant to seek a promotion at work, or to accept a leadership position in your community or here at church or to volunteer for a special task or committee or … maybe even to answer God’s call to ministry … because you’ve never done that before, because you don’t feel qualified, or because in the past you haven’t been successful.

Maybe you’re hesitant to tell your family and friends outside of your church family how you feel about God, about Jesus, about your faith because you fear they’ll reject you … ignore you … laugh at you … ridicule you.

Maybe you’re hesitant to do something new, to venture into “new territory”, because it means change and taking a risk.

Maybe your hesitation is about your ability to be a parent and you’re so unsure, you may choose instead to walk away, or to deny the experience altogether. Maybe you’re living with that hesitation in your past. I am. My greatest hesitation did not end well …

Maybe you’re the one that got walked away from, and now your hesitation is finding the strength to forgive the ones who did the walking.

Maybe you’re hesitant because someone let you down, and you did the walking away and you can’t seem to see a way back or out or even forward.

Maybe, because someone walked away from you, you hesitate to see yourself worthy of love by anyone else, or you hesitate to trust anyone else for fear they might walk away, too.

Maybe you’re sitting there doubting God because you weren’t even given any of those opportunities to hesitate. Maybe your child was taken from you too soon, withheld from you, or you were never given the child you yearned for to begin with.

Maybe you’re hesitant to admit that you need help giving up an addiction like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, social media, video games, sex, porn, overeating, over-dieting, compulsive spending. Maybe you’re hesitant because you can’t remember life without the temporary euphoria from that quick fix. Maybe you’re hesitant because you think admitting the addiction is admitting you’re vulnerable, scared, weak, incapable, or a failure.

Maybe you’re hesitant because some portion of society or some kind of self-declared authority has declared that your past or present circumstances, your addiction, or even your lifestyle makes you unworthy or brands you as unforgivable and therefore un-redeemable.

Maybe you’re hesitant because you’ve heard society or some authority say people like you are unworthy so many times that you’ve begun to believe it yourself.

Maybe you’re hesitant about the people you see as “other” based on race or religion or immigration status or whatever because you’ve always heard bad things about them and getting to know them yourself is hard. Maybe you’re hesitant about getting to know them because you might have to ultimately admit what you heard was wrong … you were wrong about them.

For Christ’s sake, Get. Over. It! All of you. Right now!

Do you think for one minute that Jesus went through all he did – the ridicule, the constant accusations, the condemnation, hearing His Father’s words twisted and convoluted by God’s own priests and rabbis … do you think he would have suffered the pain or taken upon himself the burden of the sins of every living person in the whole world past, present and future, and then have given up his own life … so we would still … hesitate?

Yes, Jesus hesitated, too, but then he said, “Not my will, but THY will!” Twice! In one night!

Don’t you ask yourself why he hesitated? Why, after 33 years of knowing the plan for his life, he said, “God! Let’s rethink this! I’m hesitant!”

One of the most profound things I read after learning that “hesitate” would be a more appropriate word than doubt was stated recently by someone on the Internet who uses the name, Begonia Arizona.  Begonia said, “Maybe he wavered twice that night so that my heart would know it wasn’t alone …”.

Maybe he wanted to stress to you that, ultimately, surrendering to God is the only real solution.  He certainly stressed over and over and over again that you’re not alone … none of us is alone.

Jesus showed us – every single living, breathing, created in His own image, child of the one true God one of us – a new and better way that would bring us hope and peace. He taught us to love one another and to forgive one another; to work together and play together; to build His Father’s kingdom on earth together, and then … someday … to have eternal life … together.

When you hesitate – when you sit here and point mental fingers at someone else or at some ghost from the past or even at yourself in the mirror … when you doubt … when you question your own worthiness or that of those ghosts and others you can’t quite understand or forgive … you fail to give yourself or them what Christ brought to us and died for … To be made new in Him, to be made whole; to have second chance after second chance after second chance. To be forgiven. To forgive.

It’s through Christ that we serve THE GOD of new beginnings, of second chances … God who catches us when we fall, who carries us when we can’t go on by ourselves. God who loves us so much He sent His only begotten son, that whosoever would believe in him would have eternal life. God who loves us so much, sent His only begotten son to make a new covenant for us because, by ourselves, we continually fail to keep His laws.

It says so right here in Romans 8:1-39: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

I know I asked y’all to study the Gospels, but I want you to look at Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” That verse isn’t there for you to chant when you’re poised in the starting blocks waiting for the gun. It’s about winning races or competitions or surviving a weekend with three toddlers. It’s there to remind you that, through the hardest times, through the darkest hours, up the tallest mountains, no matter what … Christ is there with you and for you and will carry you through and will give you strength when you hesitate.

Say it with me … “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Say it again … “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Now say it like you mean it. Shout it. “I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO GIVES ME STRENGTH.”

Call on his strength! Stop hesitating and forgive. Stop hesitating and seek forgiveness. Stop hesitating and forgive yourself. Stop hesitating and seek or accept that leadership position. Stop hesitating and ask for help if you’re facing something that’s just too big on your own. Stop hesitating and find courage to reach out to your friends and family outside the church. Stop hesitating and reach out to the “other” in your neighborhoods and community.

Most importantly, stop hesitating and just trust that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are working in your life and are with you every step of the way up whatever mountain you’re climbing.

While you will most certainly face times that are dark, lonely, painful, or obstacles that seem too hard a mountain to climb, finish lines that seem they just can’t be reached … trust this … YOU can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.

And all God’s children said … Amen.


Proof Is Easy

Delivered Sunday, April 23, at Walland UMC.

Worship Greeting:

L: This is the day that the Lord has made.
C: Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Good morning! I want to thank David for letting me twist your Order of Worship up a bit this morning. I’ll explain later, but I wanted to follow the Order of Worship laid out in the front of your hymnals as close as possible this morning. That means this first portion of our service is all about praise, worship and proclamation! So let’s get to it, shall we?

Opening Prayer:

Father God, who has given us Your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our salvation, help us to put away thoughts of malice and wickedness. Purify us that we may serve You fully with our lives and the truth of your Word. We humble ourselves before you to give You praise and to worship You in the name of Jesus Christ, Your son and our Lord. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer:

Most Holy God,

We are a people who need you in your fullness
— as Creative Father, Redeeming Son, and Sustaining Spirit.
Our lives have complications and pain,
our world has war and despair.
But we were made in your image, and
your Spirit was breathed into us
that we might experience hope in your goodness.

There are situations that make it hard to be aware of that goodness.

We pray now for those whose lives are affected
by the negativity in these circumstances:

When bombs and terrorist and military attacks kill and injure innocent people around the world . . . (brief silence)

When storms and hurricanes are so strong they destroy even the homes designed to withstand them . . .(brief silence)

When political battles bring out pettiness over issues too important for bickering . . . (brief silence)

When our hearts ache, hurt by broken relationships and unmet expectations . . .
(brief silence)

When we are exhausted emotionally from illnesses in ourselves or those we love . . . (brief silence)

When we are overwhelmed by loneliness and isolation even though you are always with us . . . (brief silence)
Gracious and Merciful Lord, our church is working to hear the words of your Spirit.
Our desire is to learn what and who you are calling us to be in your world.
We call out to you that we might have the courage to give to you whatever burdens we entered with today so that our hearts and minds can be open to you, to your Word,
and to your Spirit — your Ruach*
— the same life-giving breath from the first of creation.

Christ challenges us to know you, God,
as one who would search us out if we are lost.
But we must also know that when we are not the “one,”
we are members of the 99 waiting together for your guidance.
So it is together that we use our breath to pray the words Christ taught us:

“Our Father . . .”

As Ms. Buchanan provides our special music this morning, please continue to give silent praise and worship to God and our Lord, Jesus Christ, by thinking about and giving thanks for our many blessings and also for grace, healing, and strength for all those lifted up today.

Proclamation & Responsive Reading:

May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

1 Protect me, God, for the only safety I know is found in the moments I seek You.
2 I told You, Lord, “You are my Lord, for the only good I know in this world is found in You alone.”
3 The beauty of faith-filled people encompasses me. They are true, and my heart is thrilled beyond measure.
4 All the while the despair of many, who abandoned Your goodness for the empty promises of false gods, increases day by day.
I refuse to pour out blood offerings, to utter their names from my lips.
5 You, Eternal One, are my sustenance and my life-giving cup. In that cup, You hold my future and my eternal riches.
6 My home is surrounded in beauty; You have gifted me with abundance and a rich legacy.
7 I will bless the Eternal, whose wise teaching orchestrates my days and centers my mind at night.
8 He is ever present with me; at all times He goes before me. I will not live in fear or abandon my calling because He stands at my right hand.
9 This is a good life—my heart is glad, my soul is full of joy, and my body is at rest. Who could want for more?
10 You will not abandon me to experience death and the grave or leave me to rot alone.
11 Instead, You direct me on the path that leads to a beautiful life.
As I walk with You, the pleasures are never-ending,
and I know true joy and contentment.

Offertory Prayer:

All things come from you, O God, and with praise and thanksgiving we return to you what is yours.
You created all that is, and with love formed us in your image.
When our love failed, your love remained steadfast.
You gave your only Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior, that we might have abundant and eternal life.
All that we are, and all that we have, is a trust from you.
And so, in gratitude for all that you have done,
we offer you ourselves, and all that we have,
in union with Christ’s offering for us.
By your Holy Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Message: Proof Is Easy …

There’s a line from one of my favorite TV shows that has stuck with me for weeks now, and I’m pretty sure it stuck because of today. The episode is about an aging magician facing a 99% chance that he has cancer. This magician has absolutely bullet-proof faith, both in his skills as a magician and that he does NOT have cancer. On the other hand, one of his doctors, Dr. Noa Kean, is the ultimate doubter and non-believer. She’s certain of the 99% odds against him.

At one point, the magician does a card trick involving Dr. Kean. When the card she picks – the Queen of Hearts – doesn’t come up like it’s supposed to, she’s convinced her doubt is more right than his faith.

At the end of the episode which is several hours, patients, and emergencies later, the magician asks Dr. Kean what’s in her front pocket. She reaches in and is shocked to pull out … the Queen of Hearts.

“How’d you do that?” she demands.

“Why’d you ask that?” he says.

“Because I want to know how it works,” she quips.

He says to her, “No, you don’t want to know. You want proof! If I don’t tell you how I did it, all you’re running on is faith. Proof is easy. Faith is hard damn work.”

Our passages today are about Doubt, too, but also about Faith.

In John 20, Thomas doubted Christ’s resurrection unless he could see and touch the risen Christ himself. Unless he had his own proof rather than the word of the others. It isn’t like Thomas didn’t know the dead could rise. He was around for Lazarus.

But Jesus was the one who raised Lazarus. And Jesus was dead. There was no one to raise him the way he raised Lazarus. So Thomas doubted.

Where were the doubters in our passage from Acts?  If you read several verses before our passage, you learn that it was Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit had just been visited upon the Disciples, that “Every God-fearing Jew from every nation under heaven” that’s in the area – hears the same thing: “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind” coming from heaven, and then the disciples suddenly speaking in the languages of everyone from every nation present in the crowd … and yet, even having witnessed this amazing sign, “some in the crowd doubted”; declared the disciples were just drunk … at 9 in the morning. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but 9 would be a bit early for me to start drinking anything but my second pot of coffee. But still, some doubted …

If you think about it, some of the greatest heroes in the Bible were doubters. For example:
• Moses doubted he was capable of leading an entire nation out of Egypt.
• Gideon doubted his ability to save Israel so much, he actually tested God not once, but twice to make sure God was right.
• Sarah and Abraham doubted God when he promised to give them a son. They doubted what they were hearing so much, they actually laughed! At GOD!

Now, Thomas got his proof when Christ appeared before him and the other disciples a week later. Moses got his proof when they finally reached the Jordan River. Gideon got his proof when he defeated the Midianites even after God sent away all but 300 soldiers from his army. And Sarah and Abraham got their proof when Isaac was born.

Proof, while not always immediate, is easy …

But Faith? That’s hard work. So, Faith must then be the opposite of Doubt, right?

Faith is good, and true, and – if practiced steadfastly – brings blessings and protection and the Love of God …

Doubt, on the other hand, is dark and suspicious and joy-stealing.  It’s the enemy whispering in our ear to throw us off track.  It comes creeping in like the Angel of Death in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, licking at our heels, wrapping around our ankles to try and trip us up, sometimes even covering us like a cold, grey shroud.

So surely Doubt has to be the opposite of Faith. Right?

Or is it? Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And, the poet, Khalil Gibran (a Lebanese Maronite Catholic), wrote, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that Faith is his twin brother.”

I think the reason it seems so opposite to us is that it’s easier to give in to doubt than it is to step out in faith.

At my age of nearly 60, I “doubt” I’m going to lose the 10 … okay, 15 … okay, 20 pounds I need to lose.

I doubt my 15 year-old is going to be un-grounded before she graduates in two years if she doesn’t clean her room.

Those are just the small doubts. I have some bigger ones.

I have, as I’m betting at least some of you do, a lot of doubt about our country right now, about the future as a citizen of this country, and even about the world as a whole. Instead of praying my great-grandson has a better life than me, I’m just praying that there’s something good of this country left for him.

And, I have doubt about my own future.

At my age of nearly 60, I “doubt” I’m going to be able to find a comparable job to replace the one I’m losing at the end of December when my boss retires.

If I can’t find a comparable job, I “doubt” we’re going to be able to afford the major repairs our house needs any time soon.

I’m about three quarters of the way through the Candidacy process. It took three years to get this far, and it wasn’t easy to answer the Call I got in the first place, and all that’s left are one report from my mentor and the big interviews – the Psychological Assessment interview, the SPR & Charge Conference interviews, and the interviews with the District Superintendent and Board of Ordained Ministry.

But I find myself doubting with every step. Not doubting God’s call on me. When I finally let myself hear it, it was crystal clear. No, I’m doubting the people involved in those interviews will find me a suitable fit for the Holston Conference and Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

• I’m only 12 years away from the mandatory retirement age for Methodist ministers. The majority of the candidates for Licensed Pastor are much … much, much younger than me. They would be a much better investment of time and resources in terms of career longevity.

• I’m a social and political activist and have been for a couple decades at least. It is clearly reflected in my personal social media posts.

• I have a past and, while I don’t live in that past anymore, others may not be able to leave it behind.

• I’m not good at coloring in the lines and I don’t do well when people try to put me in a box.

• I like diversity. I thrive in it. Racial, cultural, theological, economic, social diversity.

• I’m a woman and, while we all might want to think we don’t feel this way, a woman behind the pulpit can be a problem for some folks.

While, to me and with the possible exception of the age issue, those are traits that would make me well suited to being the pastor of a church, especially a church in an urban area with a broad mix in the community, my doubt lies in whether others will see them like I do or see them more as negative points.

So how do I deal with my doubts and not end up giving in to them? Well, honestly, sometimes I do cave in.  But mostly, I face them with Faith. Conscious, deliberate, diligent Faith.

Thomas had faith in Christ, but not in the resurrection. He doubted it and declared he wouldn’t believe it unless he saw for himself. A week passed, Jesus appeared and showed him the scars and that’s when Thomas finally believed in the Resurrection.

But the lesson wasn’t just that Thomas got his proof and then believed. No, there was more – much more. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed … or, as our magician friend from the television show said, “Proof is easy. Faith is hard damn work.”

So what did Jesus have to say about Doubt and Faith beyond what he said to Thomas?

One day Jesus’ disciples asked him to increase their faith. He replied, “If you have faith small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will be so (Luke 17:6).

Faith as small as a mustard seed isn’t much to ask of us. And it must be enough because it:

  • Healed the woman with the issue of blood who didn’t say a word; she just believed and touched the hem of his gown.
  • Healed the daughter of the Centurion who felt so unworthy of Christ that he wouldn’t allow Christ to visit her in person; he just said, “if you say she’s healed, she’ll be healed” (Luke 7:2-10; Matthew 8:5-13)

Countless stories of acts of faith are in the Gospels and yet, in almost every story, someone doubts.

And do you know who were the most likely to doubt him? The religious – the priests and rabbis that knew first hand the prophecies that had told of his coming!  His own disciples often doubted.  Men and women that witnessed the miracles that came out of those acts of faith, and yet they doubted.

Remember the story of the disciples and Christ crossing the sea in a storm? Jesus was sleeping and the disciples were frantic! Convinced they were going to be tossed in the sea and drowned. When they woke him, he asked them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Then he calmed the storm and stilled the sea (Mark 4:35-41).

Faith is hard work. It means believing in the unseen and trusting in the unknown. But if we do that … if we continually, consciously believe that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)” … if we trust God’s promise to Jeremiah – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11)” … then eventually, consciously believing will become instinctive believing which becomes just knowing … KNOWING God is there. KNOWING Christ is ALWAYS right beside each of us. KNOWING that voice we hear guiding us in certain directions IS the Holy Spirit.

The little doubts, we can handle ourselves … like doubting we locked the door or turned the dome light off or unplugged the iron. But the big doubts, or even lesser doubts that require patience because we can’t deal with them immediately? Give those to God. Trust in His timing, His plan for you, His love FOR you …

Don’t let your doubts keep you from God.  Christ meets us where we are – doubts and all.  When you have doubts, give them to God and let it lead you to real God experience, to authentic spiritual experience that helps you to become more loving, compassionate, courageous persons and communities.

And, remember what James said in James 1:6: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”

Proof is easy. Faith is hard work. But, the peace and resolution that are the reward of faith are worth it.

As Peter said in his letter, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

And all God’s children said, Amen.

Prayer Call:

As we sing our closing hymn, if you have doubts you’re struggling with or you just need to hit the reset button on your faith, come up to the altar and give it to God. If you need additional prayer, just give Don or I a nod and one of us will be there to pray with you.


Thank you, again, for having me here this morning. I look forward to seeing you again in June. And now, hear this benediction …

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Statement of Calling

In my lifetime, I have broken every one of the original ten commandments as well as Christ’s second commandment, some more than once, and a few of them daily.  I would hazard that you could include most of the other 609 Old Testament laws, too. My life until about eight to ten years ago was a whirlwind of bad ideas and mostly bad decisions.

From young adulthood through middle age, I made the Woman at the Well with her five paramours look like an amateur. I was racist, Islamophobic, and homophobic. I was angry, hostile, a poor employee, an inconsistent parent, and dishonest with others and myself. I was hateful, spiteful, vengeful and quick to blame. I was constantly seeking love, wanting to be loved and accepted, and oblivious to how unlovable I was to everyone but God.

I now know why, for so many, many years, I didn’t understand the relationships between God, Jesus and the Spirit, or my relationship with Christ or the Spirit. For years, I knew who God was, I knew Jesus was this guy who was born late in December, managed to age 33 years in just 3-4 months, performed a lot of miracles, was arrested and crucified, He died, was buried and He rose three days later, only to disappear until the next Christmas season.  At least, that’s all I heard him mentioned unless someone was praying out loud. They always prayed in His name.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I accepted Jesus as being real instead of a story in the Bible, it wasn’t until my late-thirties that I understood that He died for me, and it wasn’t until about four years ago that I understood the Trinity or the Holy Spirit.

It has only been in the last two years, though, that I’ve come to understand the relationship Jesus wants to have with me.  Not just as my Lord, but as my friend, my redeemer, my protector, my rock. Not just here with me when I call Him or when I want Him, but always, even when I don’t deserve him.   I wasn’t ready to know and understand who Jesus was before the last two years.  I didn’t know how to be a true friend because I wasn’t a good friend to anyone, not even myself. I didn’t know how to forgive. Not even myself.

Forgiveness is something I still have to work at, but not nearly as hard.  I’m still not the best example of the kind of friend to Him I should be, but I’m working on it and I’m willing to go wherever He leads me to do whatever He needs me to do if it means I can get closer to becoming that kind of friend for Him. He is who I follow and will follow for the rest of my life, and it’s His gospel that I am committed to carrying out into the world.

I know that God led me to and through all of this for a purpose greater than myself. One would think someone my age would question and even doubt a calling to pastoral ministry this late in life, especially with all that’s going on in the country and the world.  But it’s like I told my Mom just the other day. I understand now why it took this long for me to hear God, to know Jesus fully, and to learn to listen for the Spirit, why I couldn’t hear God’s Spirit over my own noise until such a relatively short time ago.

Now is my time.  Now is full of people who are where I’ve already been, people out there who are searching and seeking and blaming and angry and becoming frustrated and walking away and coming back and going in and out. I’ve walked in their shoes, I’ve made their mistakes, I’ve sinned many of their sins, I’ve had their doubts, their frustrations, their fears and their failures. Their excuses and justifications are not new to me. I’ve already used all those excuses.

God needs people like me now. People who believe that, to be Christian, you must learn, know and follow the teachings of Christ first and foremost; not clobber one another with passages from Moses and the other prophets, and then justify your clobbering as Christ-like because you add “in Jesus name, amen” when you’re done.

God needs people who will challenge a congregation to think outside the physical church, to go and do, to be the hands and feet, and to be unafraid to sit among today’s lepers, prostitutes, unclean and tax collectors. People who understand and remember that God so loved the World, not the world except.  God needs people who know that God the Father never forces or bullies or coerces or legislates anyone on this planet into believing in Him or following God the Son. He needs people who are willing to stand up for the bullied, the coerced, the excluded, or the persecuted, and who will teach others to do the same.

  • I was called into ministry when I was baptized as an infant.
  • I was called into pastoral ministry at the age of 57 at Mountain View UMC in Knoxville, TN.
  • I was called for this time of division, this time of strife, this time of re-marginalization, this time of exclusion and this time of chaos to reach both those who are the victims and those who victimize because I have been a divider and been through division, have caused and suffered strife, have marginalized and been marginalized, have excluded and been excluded, have cast out and been outcast, and have created chaos and survived chaos.
  • I was called to teach God’s people about God’s peace through Christ, about Christ’s message to serve the least among us, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, the stranger,  to teach them that peace is not pacification or submission to oppression, that it is not exclusive, that there are no “exceptions”.
  • I was called to strive to become a peacemaker, and to teach others to be peacemakers, to stand in the gap and to teach others to stand with me for Christ.
  • I was called to gather the seeds that have fallen on barren or rocky ground and replant them in fertile soil.
  • I was called to deliver the Gospel of Christ, the Good News, to all God’s children.

That list sounds grandiose, arrogant, rebellious and somewhat radical, even to me. However, I wrote this statement following significant prayer, and have maintained an ongoing conversation with God while I wrote, edited, re-wrote, started over, and wrote again. My final bullet list above was written at the behest of the voice of the Spirit talking forcefully in my right brain.  Right or wrong in the eyes of those who read this, it is the calling I have been given.


My statement of calling was completed on January 26, 2017. I began the candidate certification process for Licensed Local Pastor through the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church earlier that month.

L-R: My mom, my step-grandmother, me, Butch (my husband), our daughter Aidan. This was taking following the Feb. 19, 2017, service at Vestal UMC, Knoxville TN, where I delivered the message – Seeing Red.

Down On the Farm

Spirit Dog Farm is a micro-farm located on 4+ acres of reclaimed farmland in Knox County in East Tennessee. Before being parceled off more than a few decades ago, it was used to raise corn and a couple market calves. We are in the process of converting it back to a working farm.  We’ve had some setbacks the last few years due to my husband’s unexpected disability, but we haven’t given up on our dreams!

Keep an eye on this section to find out what’s going on, available, in season, etc.  When the farm is in production, we use the same standards of practice as certified organic growers. We are members of the Pick Tennessee Products program and are Certified Appalachian Grown.  We’re also active in 4H, avid farm-crafters, and devoted lovers of all kinds of livestock!

Ladies Farm Journal

Just this female farmer’s blog chronicling our adventures in turning our property into a farm, raising kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, and trying to survive in a chaotic world. Hopefully someone can learn from our mistakes … erhhh … experience!

LFJ also includes our thoughts, reflections, aspirations, inspirations and exaltation (with a smattering of probable frustrations) on farming, plus bits and bytes of garden wisdom, our efforts to “Just say NO to the Grid,” recipes, and our Porch Rocker Politics … Because life on the farm ain’t always laid back and, like it or not, the decisions of government at any level impact us as individuals, families and communities. As Christians, parents, neighbors and citizens, it is our duty to make sure those decisions serve all versus a select few. We vote. Do you?


Oh, yay, another homeschooling, homesteading, long dresses and hair in a bun blogger!

Ummm, nope. Not at all.  We are a fairly stereotypical American family living in a metropolitan statistical area of approximately 1,000,000 people. We have, by farming standards, a tiny acreage zoned agricultural in a … sort of developed rural setting. Our kids went/go to public schools (more on that later), and we attend a local United Methodist Church.

So why feature faith on a farm blog?

Because it is our faith that gets us through the tough parts. It is through our faith that we count our blessings. And it is by our faith that we continue to push forward:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. – Romans 8:28

He causes all things to work together … the good, the bad, the disastrous, the “meh” … all things.  And there you have it in a nutshell.  A page dedicated to our faith and … eventually, hopefully, filled with our thoughts and pondering on God’s message, our church activities, my own journeys through Bible Art Journaling and leading “The River”, an arts-based middle and high school-aged youth group at our church, and anything else we are guided to present to you.


Within the Faith category, you will find:

  • Sermons:
    Messages and sermons I have delivered to various groups and congregations of the United Methodist Church
  • Liturgy-Lite:
    Posts using a fuller liturgical format written to simulate live service for online ministry participants, allowing the reader to hear hymns, etc., at the appropriate points in the post (service). The homilies included in Liturgy-Lite posts are significantly more brief and less in-depth than those prepared for a live service and should be seen as “reflections” designed to entice the reader to think further on the topic.
  • Notes Along the Way:
    Meanderings on faith, personal spiritual growth, developing spiritual discipline, etc.
  • Bible Art Journaling:
    Bible art journaling is a way of not only studying the Bible, but of expressing what you learn through art. While I don’t do this journaling as often as I used to, it is still extremely meaningful to me and I find that it pulls me deeper into the word in a more meditative state.

Seeing Red

This is the written version of a message I delivered on February 19, 2017 to the congregation of Vestal United Methodist Church, Knoxville, TN.  I so very much appreciate Pastor Kevin Blue for giving me the opportunity to not only speak in front of his church, but experience and participate in a more traditional order of worship.

While this is what I wrote, I actually delivered the majority of the message without a printed transcript, so my verbal delivery was not exact.

Seeing Red

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

Normally, Pastor Kevin takes this time to give you his reflection on the gospel reading, and I’ll get to that. But, before I do, I need to get you to “See Red” with me. I mean really, truly “See Red.”

I want to talk to you about the Bible for a bit. In this box are 1,138 pieces of paper – one for every page of scripture in my bible. So, let’s pull out the Old Testament. That’s a boatload of paper isn’t it? – 872 pages, to be exact. It’s actually 76% of the Bible. And, almost all the most colorful stories are in this part. You’ve got talking serpents, a giant ship, floods, pillars of fire, chariots, burning bushes, splitting seas, plagues of frogs and locust, wars, civil strife, family drama, more wars, oppression, survival, wilderness adventures … You could preach from this stack for a lifetime and probably never get through it all.

Back to the box and the remaining 266 pages.

These pages represent the Epistles and make up 21 of the 27 books in the New Testament. The Epistles are letters. The Apostle Paul wrote 13 of them, ten to specific churches and three to church leaders. Paul’s are mostly encouraging the churches, pointing out things that could become bigger problems, or explaining how the church should work. The Apostles Peter and John who were two of the Twelve Disciples, James, Jesus’ half-brother, and Jude, a servant of Jesus, wrote the other eight. Their letters are more general or universal rather than sent to a specific church.

I’ve heard a lot of preachers deliver messages out of the Epistles, especially Paul’s letters to the various churches, and when they do preach out of them, they tend to reinforce those messages with scripture from the Old Testament. So let’s put these over here with the Old Testament pages.

OK, let’s pull this one out. This thin sheaf is the Book of Revelations. It was written by the Apostle John, and it’s every bit as exciting a story as anything in the Old Testament, but not very many preach about it and, when they do, they tend to misrepresent it. However, they do refer to a few scriptures in it, so we’ll go ahead and put it on this stack, too.

Let’s see. What do we have next? Acts of the Apostles! Hey, I like this one. Did you know they made a TV mini-series just a year or three ago about this one? Good stuff! We’ll add it to the big stack, too.

OK, before I pull the last pages out of the box, I want to tell you about four gentlemen. Three are Jewish. One isn’t. One is a doctor. One used to work for the government. One is a preacher. One is just a boy, a teenager, but very beloved by his Teacher. Two are best friends with the boy’s teacher. And, one is a close friend and colleague of another friend of the boy’s Teacher.

Those four gentlemen are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and they left you this. Eye-witness accounts by two, and reports of first-hand accounts by two others. Everything you need to know about Jesus … who he was, who he is, who he ever shall be … what he did, what he said … is right here in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And the most amazing part, for me anyway, is that those four fellas didn’t just “recollect” … they didn’t say, “I remember the time Jesus talked about feeding the poor …”. No way! They wrote, “Jesus said” and “Jesus did”, and then they wrote down what he said and what he did to the best of their ability and memory.

Now, the Bible as a whole is God’s word, we know that. God’s Spirit was fully on Moses when he recorded centuries of oral traditions and his own eye-witness accounts of the Exodus. God’s Spirit was fully on every prophet and poet and author of the Old Testament. It was all God-inspired, and it is God’s holy word.

But the men who wrote the Old Testament couldn’t walk or break bread with God like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did with Jesus. The men who wrote the Old Testament couldn’t physically embrace or touch God or kiss His cheek. They couldn’t even look on the Face of God when He did appear to some of them. They could only know God the Father’s will, His commandments, and His laws as it was revealed to them by Him.

The Gospels, on the other hand, are eye-witness accounts, a kind of transcript if you will, of what God Himself … God the Son … said and did … while He was in the flesh, in real-time, walking among us, breaking bread, sharing meals, laughing, crying, comforting, healing with his own hands, his own voice not shouting down from the heavens, but being present right there with them.

These other New Testament books were all written by men who knew him personally in the flesh or to whom he revealed himself after his resurrection, but these are for the most part, clarifications and affirmations of things that happened here in the Gospels.

You’re lucky here at Vestal. Pastor Kevin told me he always does his reflections out of the Gospels. But there are so many other churches and preachers out there that spend almost all their time over here in these other books and don’t break out the Gospels until Advent, Lent and Easter, and even then, most will refer back to Old Testament prophecies in an effort to justify or prove foreknowledge of the Gospel passage.

And here’s my problem with that and why I’m seeing red and  why I need you to see red, too. And you need to see it more than 5-20 minutes once a week on Sunday. You need to see it every day. You need to study it. You need to meditate on it. You need to pray on it and over it and under it.

You need to know the Gospels so well that they become like breathing. You’ve all been sitting here for some time now. Show of hands: How many of you sat here all morning ignoring the message and consciously thinking about your next breath and the one after that and the next and the next? No one? But you’ve been breathing the whole time. Or at least I hope you have. If anyone is napping next to you, please nudge them and make sure they’re still breathing …

Why? Well, that’s my first point. See I AM a Methodist, but I am NOT a Christian. You can look aghast or gasp or furrow your brows. It’s okay. I did the first time I heard that, too. But it’s true.

I can’t be “a” Christian because Christian isn’t a noun. It’s not a name. It’s an adjective – a word that describes a noun. I can’t be “a” Christian. Thankfully, however, I can be Christian. We can all be Christian. But … and it’s a pretty important but … we can only be Christian if others can tell by our outward actions that we are living out what Christ taught us.

And where do we find that Christ taught us? We find the first-hand account of his teachings in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

I want you to See Red by with me by digging into the Gospels and, more importantly, the church, the universal Body of Christ, the WORLD needs you to See Red first and above all other scripture.

All these other books – the Old Testament, the rest of the New Testament – they’re all wonderful, holy, God-inspired, God-given works, but … without the Gospels – they don’t get us where we need to be. We couldn’t even understand the other 23 New Testament books without them, plus we wouldn’t even be Christian! We’d be standing in our designated spots outside the temples, waiting for the high priest to speak to the crowd.

Which leads my second point and some more Red I want you to see.

I need 7 gentlemen to volunteer to come up here with me. If you would please form a line going out from the cross over here out this way facing the far wall, and if you would each place your hands on the gentleman in front of you. Now just hang in here with me for a few minutes.

Every man in this line represents 6 people. Every person represented in this line except two lived in the Old Testament part of the bible. EVERY person represented in this line was Jewish. Every single one. This line is a blood line – a family tree.

It begins here in the front and comes forward in time for 42 generations. It includes a lot of names we all have trouble pronouncing, but it also includes names we recognize like Abraham, Isaac, Boaz, King David, and King Solomon. You can’t push your way into this line, you can’t cut this line, you can’t buy your way into this line. There is no earthly government or executive order or army or any world leader that can get you or themselves into this bloodline. Not even Ancestry dot com’s DNA tests could get you into this line. You only get into THIS line by being born into it. It is unbreakable until …

Until we get all the way to here. To the last person represented in this line. And I’ll tell you what; this last person is someone special, because THIS person made a way. He suffered mightily for it, though. He was ridiculed, he was beaten, he was whipped, he was humiliated, but he was unlike any other person before him or since.

Yet, with all he went through, He still made a way. And, when they finally took him, when they nailed him to that cross … when they pierced him with a spear … when His blood ran down … That red, red blood … when that blood was spilled and washed over us?!?

His blood broke every chain, freed us from our sins, broke an impenetrable bloodline, and brought all of us into HIS BLOODLINE … under HIS new covenant … and made us the adopted sons and daughters of God! His red blood!

He didn’t put any restrictions or exclusions or exceptions on it, either. He hung there on that cross and said, “Father, forgive THEM for THEY know not what they do …” And John tells us, “For God so loved the WORLD” … not just the Jews, not just the disciples, not just this bunch or that bunch or the bunch over there …. THE WHOLE GREAT BIG CHAOTIC, LOST, FRIGHTENED, ANGRY, WONDERFUL WORLD. His blood poured out over all of us!

How precious is that? How undeserving are we? And all He asks of us in return is to follow Him. To spread the Good News. To be HIS hands and feet. To go where and when he calls us and do what he bids us to do … to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give both our shirt and our jacket, to be charitable, to help one another … to love God above all others, to love one another and even our enemies…

And, by his own words, the two greatest commandments … To love God above all others and to love one another, even our enemies, as he loves us …

Is that so much to ask for all He’s done for us?

This man here at the end of this divine bloodline made a way for everyone. And now it’s up to us to find the way He made, and to step fully and firmly on to that Way.

To do that, we absolutely have to clearly and completely see this red and see His Red.

See this red, study this red, know this red, keep it in your heart, LIVE it, BE it …

And see His red that He spilled out for all of us … in the face of everyone, no matter what or who they are, because there is NO ONE on this planet that His blood was NOT spilled for. No one. You may not see it at first glance, but keep looking. They may not know it’s on them, but keep showing them. You’ll find it and they’ll see it if you look hard enough and deep enough.

It’s there. I know it’s there. Because He’s promised you that right here in THIS red.

See red, folks. When you see, study, know, live, breathe that red; as you grow more and more in the teachings in the Gospels, as you carry out what He taught … THEN … then you ARE Christian.

Gentlemen, you can go back to your seats. Thank you.

I’d also like to thank you for allowing me and my family to be here with you this morning. I have to tell you that I love older churches like Vestal, and I’m fascinated with yours. I know a lot of you are newer members of Vestal, so you may not be aware that the building we’re in right now dates back to the 1920’s, or that the cemetery outside is even older. The oldest grave I could find record of belongs to a Mr. William Doyle. Knoxville was only about 15 years old when William Doyle was born in 1793. Mr. Doyle died 70 years later in 1863.

To give you a little historical perspective on why I find all that fascinating, it means that God has been especially present in this space on the corner of Ogle Avenue and Martin Mill Pike – that this has been considered and consecrated as holy ground – for at least 154 years. It gives a new perspective to that hymn, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place …”. And you know that wherever the Father is, so is the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

So, thank you again for having me and allowing me to breathe in and stand with the presence of the Lord in your church today, and to have – hopefully – encouraged you to See Red.

And all God’s people said … Amen.

A Time to Grieve …

distressLet’s see what you’ve won America…..

  • Muslims in America have no idea what the future holds for them.
  • Women will lose their right to privacy and access to healthcare.
  • Gay couples don’t know if their marriages will be valid or if they haven’t yet taken their vows if they’ll be honored.
  • Our black brothers and sisters will be stopped and frisked under the false pretenses of “law and order”
  • Hispanic immigrants won’t know if their family will stay intact.
  • Our stock market has lost 5% and trading has been halted, economists fear over $1 trillion dollars has evaporated from our economy already.
  • NATO doesn’t know what they should expect from our country and its commitment to securing Eastern Europe.
  • Over 20 million Americans will lose their health insurance.
  • The Middle East becomes even more volatile.
  • American factory workers will lose jobs because of a trade and economic plan destined to fail.
  • Thousands and thousands of students will continue to accumulate massive student debt.
  • Russia has no one to check their ambitions.
  • Mexico’s economy may be on the brink of implosion.
  • The world may see a recession/depression that makes 2008 look “okay” per at least one leading economist.
  • Our planet may move towards destruction exponentially, with our coastal cities on a fast track towards going poof.
  • We are no longer the trusted leader of the free world, a position we have held for over two centuries.

America is in distress.

Note: This was borrowed from a friend’s post on Facebook on Wednesday, November 9, 2016, and credit needs to go to “Iva” (where my friend got it).  I wish I’d written it.  I certainly find it to be a factual and nearly complete list of what I believe we are about to face.


Opening Prayer

Grant, O God, that Your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that the barriers which divide us may crumble, the suspicions disappear and the hatreds cease; that, with our divisions healed, we may live together in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Call to Worship

(From Joel 2:28, Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24, and Hosea 14:2)

Leader: Creator God… Call us all.

People: You declared, O Lord, that our sons and daughters would prophecy;
the young will see visions, while the elders dream dreams.

Leader: Resurrected Christ… guide us all.

People: You have told us, Great God, what is required:
to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with You.

Leader: Holy, Holy, Holy Spirit…move us to action.

People: So that justice rolls like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Leader: Take away all guilt; accept that which is good.

All: We offer our worship — the fruit of our lips to you, our God. Amen.

Hymn: Love Divine (Cokesbury 22; V1,2 & 4)

Praises & Concerns:

Let us pray.

Father God, Creator of all, Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers. We come to you today, heads bowed, hands open and uplifted, carrying the fruits and burdens of our hearts, those spoken here today and especially those that were kept unspoken.
• We shout praise and joyful thanksgiving for those blessings you have bestowed on us, most especially for the blessings we have yet to recognize.
• We lift up to you those who are hurt or ill and ask that you be with them, comfort them, guide their care providers and, if it be your will, heal them completely.
• We lift up to you those who are grieving. We ask that you ease their minds and hearts, and give them comfort for as long as they need, and that you remind us to be patient, kind and understanding for as long a time as they need to grieve.
• We lift up to you those who are struggling with depression, anger, frustration, addiction, temptation, finances, relationships or personal problems. We ask that you strengthen their will and help them stand strong against any darkness. We pray that you provide for and bless them. We ask that you soften hearts that have hardened and are unforgiving, and mend hearts that are broken.
• We lift up our communities, our country and our world, Lord. There is so much turmoil, so much division, so much negativity, so much greed and corruption, so much hate – hate we don’t even really and fully understand. Humble us, Lord, and help us clear the logs from our own eyes so that we can see clearly our fellow brothers and sisters. Tear the fear and hate from our hearts and open them so that we can truly love one another, even our enemies.
• And now, in the words your Son and our Lord and Savior taught us, let us pray …. (Lord’s Prayer)

First Reading (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7)

29 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Hymn: In the Garden (Cokesbury 62; V 1-3)

Second Reading (2 Timothy 2:8-15)

8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.

11 Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12 if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13 if we are faithless,
he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

14 Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Children’s Time (Pam Comer)

Hymn: Just As I Am (Cokesbury 151; V 1-3, 6)

Third Reading (Luke 17:11-19)

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[a] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing unto you, oh Lord, our rock and redeemer.

Just a word of warning before I begin: I still haven’t mastered the Bishops’ twelve minute sermon.
Everyone take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Do you feel that? The quiet, the restfulness, the calm? The feelings of love, caring, kindness are literally tangible in this church, like ripe fruit you can reach out, pluck and savor. There is a sense of family here. Of goodness. Of oneness.

But in about a half hour, we have to go out there. Out into a world increasingly filled with anger. A world that’s loud and brash and rude. A world where telling it like it is has become more important and acceptable than being kind, respecting others, or simply not destroying someone else’s dignity or value. A world where it’s more important to be able to say, “I saw that coming” than it is to give a preventive warning or show any sincere empathy or sympathy.

People are suffering and even dying out there for the most senseless reasons! They were different, they were acting suspicious, they weren’t the right religion, they knew too much, they knew too little, she cheated on me, he hit me, I thought he was going to hurt me, she wouldn’t stop crying, they bullied me, they’re living on land on want, they have land I want, they’re the enemy. Suffering and dying. For no good reason.

Entire communities are dying. Institutions are dying. In some places, entire generations are dying. Hopes, dreams, gains from years of struggle and sacrifice and progress are dying. Even a lot of churches are dying.

And, as all these people and things and entities lay dying, those of us left standing are so busy blaming each other for their deaths that we tend to miss their funerals. Rarely do you hear someone who stands up and says, “I take responsibility. I need to own my mistake. That was my fault.” Nope. It’s always“he did it, she did it, they did it”. Rarely, if ever, do you hear “I did it” or “we did it”. Always, no matter the situation, the blame is going to be placed on “him, her, or them”, but almost never on “me, myself or I”. Heck, we’ve even taken to blaming natural disasters like hurricanes or floods or wildfires or earthquakes on people … on SOMEBODY.

Especially on the really big stuff. Those people in charge of the REALLY big stuff are like the kings and queens of blaming someone, aren’t they? And fast on the draw, too. They’re like pfeeeww! She did it! No! pfewww, pfewww, pfewww, he, him and THEY did it! God help us all if they ever really load those fingers. We’d probably all be dead.

But still, even as we sit here this morning, praying and worshiping and praising God … the dying continues. And so does the blame.

Ask yourself something:

How do we save a life by pointing fingers? How can we end the fight this way, when blame is the truth we’re preaching, and lies are what we’re believing?  No one ever wins when the goal is to settle the score. When the only goal is to settle the score. To get even.

  • 1914, World War I – someone shot an Austrian duke, and the whole world went to war.
  • 1939, World War II – one country attacked another, and the whole world went to war.
  • 1950, Korea – one half of a country attacked the other half of a country, and we went to war.
  • 1954, Vietnam – the same thing happened in another country, and we went to war. Again.
  • 1991, Persian Gulf – one man defied the UN, and we went to war.
  • September 11, 2001 – 2,996 people died and more than 6,000 others were wounded in a terrorist attack, and we have been at war ever since.


And that’s just the “military” wars. There are so many other wars and conflicts and confrontations. So much anger. So much and so many kinds of death and destruction.

Did you know that law students are taught that, in any court case, and case tried before a judge … no one wins? No matter what the final decision of the case is, everyone on all sides loses something or someone.

No one ever wins. So what do we do stop this madness? What can we do? Most importantly, what does God want us to do?

Similar to the Israelites in our passage from Jeremiah this morning, we seem to be exiled to an angry, hateful world that’s increasingly hard to recognize and often, we seem to wake up in some alternative universe or foreign land where everything is upside down. Golly, there have been many times lately that I was sure I woke up in a Mad Maxx movie!

But, in that passage delivered through the prophet Jeremiah, God tells us what to do. He tells us that we should learn to cope, to deal with it. Jeremiah writes, “Build houses … plant gardens … take wives … multiply there …. (and … this is the important part) … Seek the welfare of this city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [Babylon’s] welfare you will find your welfare.”

So God says we should continue to live our lives going about our business, making our homes, feeding our families, making families. BUT … really big but … AS we go about those things, we should pray for and “seek the welfare” of this world we find ourselves in. “Seek the welfare” which, by the way, means to work diligently to further the common good because, in doing that, we provide for our own good.

A few verses past our reading today, we’re given God’s assurance that our hard work for the welfare of our community and the world is not in vain nor left to chance when Jeremiah writes “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Our other verses have similar advice. Persevere. Stay the course. Endure. Stay faithful because He is faithful, even when we are not. Don’t quarrel about words, don’t be ashamed of who we are as Christians, and promote truth. Have faith. Trust. Give God the glory for any blessings. Praise Him in the midst of the storm.

But it’s Jeremiah that I want to focus on. “Seek the welfare of this city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [Babylon’s] welfare you will find your welfare.”
How do we … how CAN we … how SHOULD we … seek the welfare of this world we’re in? Meditate on that for a moment while I share a prayer[1] with you.

We’ve prayed the prayer with no reply
Words float off into the night
Couldn’t cut our doubt with the sharpest knife
Oh God forgive us

Silence isn’t comfortable
We want to drive through peace and instant hope
Our shallow faith, it has left us broke

Oh God forgive us
Enslaved to our uncertainty
Help us with our unbelief
Oh God forgive us

Young and old, black and white
We’re rich and poor, there’s no divide
Hear the mighty, hear the powerless, singing

Oh God forgive us
Oh, God … forgive us. Forgive us for letting the earthly world tear us apart individually and collectively. Forgive us for closing our eyes, our ears, our hearts to the suffering of others. Forgive us, Lord, for not remembering what you taught us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:9 when you said:
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the Sons of God.”
Forgive us, Lord, for not learning, for not striving to become peacemakers and for too often becoming instead peace takers. Oh God … forgive us. Amen.

In that prayer is the answer to how we can “seek the welfare” of this crazy, cranky, upside down world we’re in. We can become peaceMAKERS.

You might ask why should we, what is a peacemaker, doesn’t the UN have guys that do that for us, and how would we possibly do that, anyway?

Well, there are numerous scriptures that help make sense of it. According to Colossians 3:15, we are called to peace. In Galatians 5:22, we learn that peace is one of the seven fruits of the Spirit. Hebrews 12:14 tells us to “make every effort to live in peace with EVERYONE.” First Peter 3:11 tells us to turn from evil and do good, to seek peace and pursue it. James 3:18 tells us to sow in peace in order to reap a harvest of righteousness. Proverbs 12:20 tells us that those who promote peace will have joy. Romans 14:19 tells us to make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.

And that’s just a sample. There are more. But those clear up the why part. God, through his prophets and apostles, told us to seek peace and pursue it, make every effort to live in peace, sow peace, promote peace, and do what leads to peace. And we’re to be obedient about what God tells us to do, right?

Next comes the what part. What is a peacemaker, anyway?

Well, according to the dictionary, peace means freedom from disturbance; it means quiet and tranquility. It means freedom from or the cessation of war or violence.

Maker means someone who makes or produces something. When you put them together, peacemaker means someone who brings about peace, especially by reconciling adversaries; an arbitrator, mediator, negotiator, conciliator, go-between, or intermediary.

Now, it’s important at this point to understand the difference between peacemakers and peace keepers. Peacemakers work to create or bring about the peace. Peacekeepers, on the other hand, maintain an existing peace – often using the same methods as a peacemaker in serving as go-betweens and intermediaries. Peacekeepers are those guys that work for the UN in certain areas around the world. Peacekeepers are usually military and “enforce” the peace.

But we’re not called to be peacekeepers. Matthew 5:9 was clear. We are to be peaceMAKERS.
Ok, good. We know why – God said so. And we know what – that’s cleared up. So how? How do we right here in Walland, in East Tennessee, in the Southeastern United States, in the United Methodist Church … how do we “seek the welfare” of the world we’re in by becoming peacemakers?

One. By. One.[2]

One by one, we can call for a ceasefire. One conflict, one disagreement, one misunderstanding, one injustice, one issue, one movement, one person, one family, one neighborhood, one community, one school, one business, one organization, even one election.

One by one.

One by one, we can choose to not ignore something just because it doesn’t impact us directly. Choose to not avoid something just because we don’t understand it. Choose to not stand and watch in silence, because we’re afraid to speak out. We can choose to be an intermediary, a voice of reason. Choose to not just listen to but actually hear all sides. Choose to advocate. Choose to support. Choose to stand in the gap.

One by one. It might sound lonely, but it isn’t. Because we can do it standing side by side, even when we’re on different sides. Standing there. Side by side. One by one. We can call for a ceasefire.

I saw something posted on Facebook by a Methodist Pastor[3] that I want to share with you. It goes like this:

“How many [Methodist’s, Baptist’s, Episcopalians, etc.] does it take to change a light bulb?”
[You’ve probably heard this old riddle before.] What makes a joke so often exceptional is that it sheds light on the activities we take for granted in new and exaggerated ways. Of course the real answer is only “one” yet we have so many different answers based on experience.
I wonder if our understanding of God’s forgiveness (mercy) and judgement (grace) can be likened to this old riddle. How many people does God forgive and make whole? Again, the real answer is “one”, and the “one is me. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year I have a need to be forgiven and made whole. Oh, I would like to believe I did not require this but that again would be a falsehood, or what we refer to as a lie. You see, it is so easy for my mind to dwell on evil, for my response to be retributive, for my actions to be self-centered rather than to usher in Kingdom living to those whom I am offering myself to. Yes, like so many I face all of the same temptations of everyday life, and just like you, I can admit that I fail often in resisting temptation. But just like you, God stands always ready to accept me. In Christ, I have already been forgiven and a new life has been provided. All I need do is turn back onto the right path, [the path] that always sees Jesus ahead of me on [the] water. I know that every moment I find myself sinking, Jesus reaches out and lifts me back into the boat. In Jesus Christ, God has given us all the changed bulb, no matter when it burns out and without the need for a committee or board to determine if the cost is too high, what type is necessary, or even if we can do without the light (I never can, maybe you can).
So, the true answer is really just one, but it is one at all times and in all places. “[2 Peter 3:9 CEB says] The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.”
Yes, God wants us all, no matter who you are, no matter what you are doing, to recognize what has been freely done for us eternally in Christ Jesus. Amen.[?]

Just like the true answer to the riddle about the lightbulb, the answer to, “how do we become peacemakers” is one. One by one.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God.”
It’s our calling, folks, and we need to step up to the plate and answer the call now more than ever. This world we’re exiled to is desperately waiting for us to answer that call.

Let us pray.

Dear Father, we ask your forgiveness for those times when we’ve been peace takers. We come to you now and ask that you strengthen us and guide us as we work to seek the welfare of our community and our world. Father, teach us to live humbly and love unconditionally. Take away our hurt and anger and frustration and pain, renew our hope, and bless us with peace so that we can become peace makers. In Jesus name, Amen.


Pre: Father, we have heard your words and received your wisdom. Let us now give from our hearts what we can from what we have.

Post: Heavenly Father, You are the Creator and Source of all things good. You have showered us with greatness and love even on the days we turn against You. Through this act of giving, Father, we affirm that we love you and that we will strive to do better at making peace instead of taking peace. We offer these gifts and the service of our lives, praying that they may be used to transform the lives of others. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Hymn (Bringing In the Sheaves)


To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. Make this moment forward the time and season for making peace. With each other, with enemies, with yourselves, and for the welfare of the world so that together, standing side by side, one by one, we all call for a ceasefire.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


  1. All credit to For King & Country on their album, For King & Country: Run Wild, Live Free, Love Strong, song title O God Forgive Us
  2. All credit to For King & Country on their album, For King & Country: Run Wild, Live Free, Love Strong, song title Ceasefire
  3. All credit to Pastor Roger Cary, Patton/Sedgewickville UMC, Sedgewickville MO


Delivered to the congregation at Walland UMC, Walland TN on Sunday, October 9, 2016.

Oh-oh, Spaghetti … OH!

This one would be fun to sneak in as a surprise dessert!

Let Them Eat Cake Sandwiches!

I love this! Not so much the sprouts and greenery choices, but the concept! What a way to wow a soup and sandwich night!

Fun and Fancy Fellowship

messycookFun and Fancy Fellowship

My church (and probably yours) has a regular Wednesday night fellowship meal plus an assortment of special events that involve meals or finger foods.  I’m always keeping my eye out for recipes that are different from the normal “church casserole” type dishes, and I’ve decided to add a subcategory to “Faith” called “Fellowship” to (mostly) house the recipes and videos I’ve been collecting. Hope you enjoy!

Let Me In

Once again, I have been blessed to have conducted the worship service at Walland UMC. Below are the components of the service and my message.  Thank you, Rev. David Fugatt, for allowing me this opportunity and congratulations on your promotion to Provisional Elder!

Jump to Message – Let Me In

Opening Prayer:

Almighty God, give us wisdom to perceive you, intellect to understand you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate upon you and life to proclaim you, through the power of the Spirit in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Call to Worship:

L: Who do we follow… A teacher?   You were a good teacher,
P: You were a good teacher, full of wisdom, a moral compass, guidance for the journey.
L: Who do we follow… A prophet?  You were indeed a prophet,
P: You were indeed a prophet, ringing God’s word of love, justice, and freedom for the journey.
L: Who do we follow… A friend?  You were certainly friend
P: To outcast and sinner, feeding the weak, lightening the load for the journey.
L: Who do we follow… All of these, none of these, for as this world’s Saviour, you are all of these and so much more,
P: As you take the very least of us, And make the very most of us.
Who do we follow? Jesus Christ, Our Saviour.

Opening Hymn:  Praise Him, Praise Him (Cokesbury 238)
Sharing of Praises & Concerns

Pastoral Prayer

And now, in the words your son, our Lord and Savior taught us …

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

First Reading – 1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21

21 Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”
3 But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
5 His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
6 He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’”
7 Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. 9 In those letters she wrote:
“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.”16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’”
20 Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”
“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free.

Hymn: Whiter Than Snow (Cokesbury 146)
Children’s Time
Second Reading – Luke 7:36-8:3

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[a] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
(The Parable of the Sower)
8 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Hymn: Jesus Saves (Cokesbury 131)
Third Reading – Galatians 2:15-21

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[a] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”[b]

Offering & Doxology
Offertory Prayers

Before: Living God, you are the source of life and renewal. Thank you for the powerful, even miraculous, ways that you provide for our needs!

After: O Lord, our God, your steadfast love surrounds those who trust in you. We are grateful for your faithfulness, even when we struggle to commit ourselves and our loved ones to your care. In times of trouble, your Spirit lifts us and carries us through. We rejoice that you call us to be part of this congregation where your love in Christ is made manifest. We dedicate our gifts and offerings to bless our neighbors through the caring ministries of this church, in the name of our risen Savior. Amen. (Psalm 32)

Message – “Let Me In”

May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, oh LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Before we get started, I don’t know how many of you might have had the opportunity to watch any of the episcopal addresses made at General Conference this year. If you didn’t, I encourage you to look them up on UMC.org or on YouTube and watch them. They were so very inspiring. And they were brief. Very brief. In fact, they had a time limit of only twelve minutes to deliver what were powerhouse messages. Twelve minutes! That is SO not going to happen this morning, but I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

Also, parts of this message are going to be a little unconventional today, but Jesus was an unconventional guy, right? OK, let’s get started.

I like to watch those shows on TV about law enforcement profilers. Those profilers – at least the TV profilers – sometimes use a little trick to get someone to dig deeper into what they know than their conscious mind allows. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to do that with you, so please set your bibles, phones, etc., aside and make yourselves comfortable – well, as comfortable as one can be in a church pew.

OK … What I would like you to do is to close your eyes and take a couple of deep cleansing breaths, relax. Now picture a place that you love. It might be on the bank of your favorite fishing spot, or riding a horse down your favorite trail. It could be your front porch, your garden … someplace nice, someplace quiet, someplace you feel loved, safe, happy and content. Add yourself to the scene. Picture yourself relaxed, listening to the sounds around you, smelling the flowers or apple pie or coffee – whatever is around you. Feeling the breeze if there is one. Just relax and get comfortable in the scene.

Keep your eyes closed as I continue to talk and stay in the scene you’ve created in your mind. If, while I’m talking, other figures come in and out of the scene, that’s okay. Just let your mind’s eye go with whatever is happening. Just keep your eyes closed and listen to the words:

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

If you who haven’t already, you can open your eyes now. If your neighbor nodded off, then please wake them gently before you leave the building, but let them sleep for now. That way I can add hypnosis to my job skills.

With any luck, those of you who did manage to stay awake might have seen a figure enter the scene. Hopefully, if you did, you also heard His voice, not mine. Because those questions ARE His.

The verses I just spoke to you are the first four stanzas of the lyrics that John Bell wrote in 1987 to an old Scottish folk tune. Bell’s version of the song is called “The Summons”. In the Summons, Bell does something very unique that most songwriters are unable to accomplish. He asks thirteen questions that Jesus asked in the Gospels. Granted, Bell paraphrased the questions, but – none the less – they are questions that Jesus asked.

On the surface, we probably all nodded agreeably at each question. “Of course, Lord! Of course, I’ll follow you!”

We know from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that large crowds followed Jesus wherever He went, and that He praised their faithfulness for doing so, but He didn’t call them. On the other hand, He DID call His disciples.

Simon, or Peter as we best know him, and Andrew landed their boat, dropped their nets and immediately followed Jesus when He called them. James and John did likewise, except they responded so quickly, they left dear old Dad sitting there still IN the boat with the hired help! Matthew literally stood up and walked away from the booth where he collected taxes when Christ called him.

But could WE, really, literally … do what the disciples agreed to do? What did they agree to and what is the song asking us to agree to? Let’s look at that for a moment.

We’re agreeing to drop everything; with no time to plan or prepare or price shop or put our affairs in order or pack a few things and say goodbye to our families … just leave.

Leave with no knowledge of where we would be going, how we would get there. No pre-employment discussion of wages, benefits, vacation and sick days, reimbursable expenses. No information on what our responsibilities were going to be? Could we really, literally, “come and follow Him, if He but called our name”?

How many of us would struggle to say yes to everything in even the first two lines of that song?

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?

And then, there’s the rest: Are we able to care as much and as well for the cruel as we do the kind, caring for the kind even though they’re not like us or don’t believe in what we believe.
For those that are blind from lack of moral understanding of God’s Word, will we be able to let them see, to show them the Light that is Christ?

Can we bring ourselves to “kiss the lepers” of today – the unclean, the unwanted, the outcasts, the untouchables – all those considered by “society” to be somehow lesser or unacceptable or unfit, even those that are considered unworthy of Christ’s forgiveness, undeserving of God’s love?

Will we find it in ourselves to invite them to our table or join them at theirs? Walk with them? Talk with them? Witness to them without condemnation or judgment? To call them sister and brother, and to show them the love of Christ through our own actions?

Are we ready and willing to free the prisoners of oppression or of the self-imposed imprisonment of hopelessness, fear and guilt by telling them the Good News, teaching them about Christ, and letting the love of Christ show through all that we do?

If we still say, “Yes, Lord, yes. I’ll follow you,” and we do these things – things that, in today’s society, go against the grain and flow of the majority, against most of the electorate, sometimes even against those who are closer to us – our family and our friends; things that are called radical, that may be considered subversive, and even dangerous, things that may attract the attention of those who oppose what we’re doing or who we’re doing it for … things we’re doing and in who’s name we do it that may frighten others who don’t see what we see or know what we know or agree with us …

As the song asks, are we ready to “risk the hostile stares”? Do we have in us the strength to survive the angry comments, the hateful slurs, and the ridicule that may follow our actions because of our actions? When our friends and family condemn us, call us names, or even turn their backs on us, will we still say, “Yes, Lord, yes. No matter what the cost, I will follow You …”?

I’ve been avoiding the hardest questions to answer, at least for me.

2 Corinthians 5:17 says,  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Are we – you, me, we – are we ready to die to self with Christ on that cross? I know we all want our sins forgiven, we all want to know we are guaranteed our place in the Hereafter through our profession of faith. But that’s done through grace. That’s a gift – not earned. This is something else. This … This is why we’ve been given that gift of grace. This is what we’re being summoned to do.

Are we willing, ready, to let Christ transform our souls so that He can grow within us? Are we willing to be steadfast in growing our new life in Him and only Him? Are we ready to do the very best we can to become as close to living, breathing, walking, talking imitations of Christ in this earthly life as possible?

Will we allow Him to use us to answer prayers – the prayers of those who cry out to Him? The prayers of those who are sure they’re crying out to no one? The silent prayers no one but He and our Father will ever hear?

Are we able … can we be humble enough to do all these things without expecting or accepting any accolades or rewards or even recognition; to admit that it is not us who do these things, but Christ? Do we have the courage to stand up and say that we are only His hands and feet, that what we do is all to His honor and His glory?

Will we let go of the “me” we each think we are and become new each day in Him? Can we leave that “me” behind? Are we going to be able to love the new “me” … even if the new “me” is nothing like we ever thought “me” would be?

Will we let ourselves trust fully in Him and let go of fear, of doubt, of worry … just let the Spirit lead us?

Will we, with all sincerity, genuinely, openly and joyfully admit to anyone we encounter what He means to us, what He means IN our lives?

I’ve got to tell you, it took me a long time to get this message straight enough just to deliver it this morning right here to you – to a room full of believers!

But WE’RE being called BY HIM to deliver this same message to everyone – other believers, non-believers, outright God-haters, people convinced God could never love them – and not just to tell them, not by posting it on Facebook or Instagram or a blog … but to SHOW them through our lives and how we live them. Are we able AND willing … to do that?

The vast majority of us will fail, you know. Oh, we’ll try. There’s a Japanese proverb: Fall down seven times. Get up eight.  And we WILL fall down at this seven times, and then seven more and seven more. But I know in my heart of hearts that we will get up EIGHT times. And, if we CAN do that and if we CAN say at this point, Yes! Yes, yes, YES, Lord, I WILL follow YOU! …

Then we will have found faith in him and we WILL change the world by seeing it through HIS eyes, feeling it through HIS touch, speaking HIS words and being HIS voice.

We just need to let Him in. He’s asking us to. He’s saying, “Let Me in.” He’s given us the instructions and example we need to begin working toward becoming Christ-like, to be the best imitations of Him we possibly can.

We just need to let Him in.

Will you?

We all have A-Ha moments. But have you ever had an Arghhh moment? Have you ever, literally, grabbed your head as if to tear your hair out or keep it from exploding? Do you sometimes cover your ears because you just didn’t want to hear another word? Have you ever clapped your hand over your mouth to keep from saying something you’re pretty sure you’ll regret later, grabbed your chest because something angered or hurt you so deeply, or simply thrown your hands in the air in exasperation and a mental sign of surrender?

My mom tells a story about when she was a little girl. She got sideways with my grandmother, and she raised her arm up as if to strike. When my grandmother gave her that look – you know – the look moms around the world are famous for? My mom looked at her, thought twice, and said, “See my elbow?!”

If you embark on this journey to become more Christ-like, you’re going to have those days, those “arghh” moments. I want to give you a “see my elbow” route out of those bad situations. It’s also a great way to start the day, and to invite Him in to your life.

This is a short prayer called a body prayer. You can remain seated, but you’re going to need your arms and hands, so if you’ve picked your bibles or phones back up, please set them down again.
When you find yourself in those Arghhh moments, remember this and do it instead … Repeat after me using the same movements:

• [Touch top of head with both hands] Christ be in my mind and in my thinking.
• [Touch ears] Christ be in my ears and in my hearing.
• [Touch mouth] Christ be in my tongue and in my speaking.
• [Place both hands over heart] Christ be in my heart and in my loving.
• [Place hands out to sides] Christ be in my life and in my living.
• [Palms upraised] Amen.

In closing, there is one more stanza to that song, The Summons, and it goes like this:

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I’ll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

I’m going to do my utmost best for the rest of my earthly life to make that last stanza my answer. I’m going to let Him in.

Will you?

Closing Prayer (based on Matthew 16: 21-28)

Merciful God,
You call us to follow;
to turn away from our own selfish interests,
and to take up our cross and follow after You,
even if the path is difficult to see,
or is heading in a direction we would never have chosen for ourselves.

Forgive us for being so quick to question
and so hesitant to follow.
Help us to see with the eyes of faith,
rather than from our own human point of view.

Teach us to follow without fear,
knowing that You are always with us,
leading the way.


Closing Hymn: Softly & Tenderly (Cokesbury 137)

There’s a cartoon that circulates the Internet, especially if you follow a lot of church related sites or posts. In the cartoon, church has been dismissed, but all the congregation is standing in the aisle – not moving – just kind of stopped dead in their tracks, and they’re staring up above the door leading outside. Over the door is a big sign that says, “The Mission Field Starts Here.” There are two pastors standing back a little from the crowd. One pastor looks at the other and says, “I wonder if we’ll ever get them to leave the building.”

The mission field starts at those doors, folks. Christ is here with us now, most assuredly, but He’s calling us to go out THERE. To BE His hands and feet. To BE deliverers of HIS love, HIS voice, HIS touch. To BE examples of HIS life. To lift up HIS name.

He’s calling to us. Will you come and follow me?

Softly, tenderly … if you listen with all your heart, you can hear him … just there at the edge of that scene we created when this message started … We just need to let him all the way in. We just need to let him in.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Resolution Revolution

They asked me back! Walland UMC Pastor, David Fugatt, asked me to come back again. God is good all the time, and all the time, God is GOOD! This, my second sermon, was delivered on January 3, 2016, the First Sunday of Epiphany and the first Sunday of a brand new year, at Walland United Methodist Church in Walland, TN. This one didn’t develop as easily as the first sermon. I had a message in mind, but God had a different one (as you’ll see in the message). God won. And that’s as it should be.

Jump to Message – Resolution Revolution

Opening Prayer:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Call to Worship

L:       Lord, this year, we will follow the Star of Bethlehem.
P:      Too long we’ve gone the wrong way, followed the wrong stars!
L:       We went South following movie stars, greed, and lust.
P:      Star of Wonder…
L:       We went East following stars of militarism, nationalism, and war.
P:      Star of Light…
L:       We even went North following our own visions, our own intuition, and our own way.
P:      Star with Royal Beauty Bright…
L:       Lord, this year, we will follow the Star of Bethlehem.
P:      The Star of Hope.
L:       The Star of Peace.
P:      The Star of Joy.
L:       The Star of Love.
A:      The Star that is You.

Praises and Concerns:

Perfect Light of revelation, as you shone in the life of Jesus, whose epiphany we celebrate, so shine in us and through us, that we may become beacons of truth and compassion, enlightening all creation with deeds of justice and mercy.

Inspire all those who lead and serve in this church. May they know your guidance and direction.  Help us, your Church, to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter. Show us how to serve others, and how to offer love, care and support.

Guide all those who are called to lead and advocate in the world, may they carry love with them always. We lift up the leaders of our nation, our state, our county, and our community. Inspire our leaders, teachers, doctors, social workers and counsellors to be bringers of hope in all situations. Protect all those who carry peace to other nations. Bless the food, care and shelter they provide.

Lord, no one is a stranger to you and no one is ever far from you loving care. In your kindness watch over refugees and exiles, those separated from their loved ones, young people who are lost, those who have left or run away from home, those who feel isolated and alone. Calm their fears and lead them into peace and freedom.

Bring them back safely to the place where they long to be and help us always to show your kindness to strangers and those in need.

(For those lifted up by the congregation)
For those who have lost loved ones recently, comfort them in their grief and heal the broken-hearted.

Comfort those who live with on-going grief. Help them see the light of heaven.  We lift up

Come embrace those in pain and physical suffering. May they feel you close to them.

(For the community, nation and world)
Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable. Lead us to be generous with our time, possessions and money. Finally, we bring to you our unspoken prayers for any in our community that we know to be in need. May love and goodness fill their lives.

God of every land and nation, you have created all people and you dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Listen to the cries of those who pray to you, and grant that, as we proclaim the greatness of your name, all people will know the power of love at work in the world. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

And now, in the words your son, our Lord and Savior taught us …

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6

60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Second Reading: Psalms 72:1-7, 10-14 International Standard Version

1 God, endow the king with ability to render[a] your justice, and the king’s son to render your right decisions.
2 May he rule your people with right decisions and your oppressed ones with justice.
3 May the mountains bring prosperity to the people and the hills bring righteousness.
4 May he defend the afflicted of the people and deliver the children of the poor, but crush the oppressor.
5 May they fear you as long as the sun and moon shine [b]—from generation to generation.
6 May he be like the rain that descends on mown grass, like showers sprinkling on the ground.
7 The righteous will flourish at the proper time and peace will prevail until the moon is no more.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring gifts, and may the kings of Sheba and Seba offer tribute.
11 May all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.
12 For he will deliver the needy when they cry out for help, and the poor when there is no deliverer.
13 He will have compassion on the poor and the needy, and he will save the lives of the needy.
14 He will redeem them[d] from oppression and violence, since their lives are[e] precious in his sight.

Third Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Resolution Revolution

May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, oh LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Good morning, and thank you for allowing me to come back and speak with you again.  I’m taking that as a sign of encouragement.

I have to tell you, this whole second sermon process has been vastly different from the first one.  For starters, there were the readings. I just wasn’t able to pull them to a singular point as easily as the last time I was here.  Then there was the fact that not only is today the first Sunday of the New Year, it’s also the First Sunday of Epiphany. And just to top it off, God didn’t opt to send me a fax via Rabbi Packouz (although He did arrange a late night trip back to the office to reconstruct this message after I either failed to save it properly or the computer glitched).

This time, God decided to whisper in my ear, creating what my mother, the Paralegal, calls cartwheeling and what I perceive as the most extreme form of Olympic level mental gymnastics I’ve encountered in a very, very long while. Every time I tried to go to the readings and Epiphany, His voice whispered “Resolution”.  And the harder I tried to stay on task – at least I thought I was staying on task – the more frequently – and loudly – He whispered, “Resolution”. The gymnastics were mostly the result of me trying to marry my ideas with His.  Bad idea. I’m lucky to have made it through with minimal injuries.  When God speaks, one should listen. Lesson learned.

What that all boils down to is that, instead of telling you how an unknown number (typically told as three) of Magi (the Magi were probably priestly descendants of the people of Media which is area that we now refer to as Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and parts of Kermanshah in northwestern Iran) who were Gentiles (Gentiles meaning they were not Jewish) became aware through dreams or prophecies that something big was unfolding in the universe, and that there would be a sign to foretell the event.

I wanted to explain to you how these Magi felt so strongly about the importance of whatever was coming that they traveled somewhere around 830-1864 miles (depending on which route they took) by camel for somewhere between 43 and 98 days (again depending on which route they took) through foreign countries, across deserts, and causing them to meet with rulers like Herod who were known to be not so nice to deal with.

I planned to give you the definition of epiphany – my personal favorite was from the 17th Century English poet, John Milton who wrote: Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies – those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world – and then to explain to you that the Epiphany was when those Magi finally arrived at Bethlehem by following that glorious, glorious star and took one look at the infant Christ child they knew – they just simply knew – that, not only was He a King, but he was the King of Kings! And that they were so certain of who He was, that they defied Herod’s order to tell him where the Christ child was, and instead left the country by a different route to go home and share the news with their own people.

I even arranged for us to sing What Child is This and We Three Kings today, just to tie it all together.  Ah, the best laid plans of mice and ministers.

Can I just stop and say that I am pretty sure I have now gold-medaled in every single possible category of the Olympic-scale gymnastics I went through to get to the point where I surrendered to God’s whispered “Resolution” and gave up on telling you about Epiphany?

Instead, I’m going to talk to you about Resolution.  Your resolution. My resolution. Our resolution … the New Years kind of resolution for sure, but I’m hopeful you’ll agree when I’m done that it is also just about every other definition of resolution I could find.

By the way, did you know that only 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, and only 8% of those making resolutions are successful in keeping them?  And that’s the easy kinds of resolutions, folks:  Losing weight, getting organized, spending less and saving more, enjoying life to the fullest, staying fit and healthy, learning something exciting and new, and spending more time with family.  Personally, I’m lucky if I remember them the next day.

But today, I’m going to ask you to make only one resolution. And this one resolution will be much harder to keep than your usual resolutions; it will possibly be the hardest resolution you’ve ever tried to keep.

I’m going to ask you to make and keep this resolution as individuals, as families, and as the Church; to work hard and diligently to keep this resolution all year long and, no matter how many times you may find yourselves failing to keep it, to pick back up, shake it off, and try, try again. At face value, it’s going to sound simple.  I assure you it is not.

I ask you today to make and commit to keep a specific commandment.  Of all the 619 Old Testament laws and the commandments we know, this one is the hardest of all to keep and the easiest to break. It’s the one that I’m fairly certain – if I were audacious enough to ask whether you’d ever broken it – would cause every one of you in this room to raise a hand.

Before I tell you which one, though, I want you to think about something. In Matthew 4:17, when Christ was just beginning his preaching there in Galilee, He said to us, “You must change your hearts – for the kingdom of Heaven has arrived.”

Changing your heart, that’s not always an easy thing to do.  Some of us are older and more set in our ways. We have … experience (that’s the excuse I use the most) in things that have led us to our … understanding (another word I use because it’s easier on my conscience than “opinion”). And some of you are younger and, due to lack of experience, still open to the possibility that us old folks might be wrong despite all “our” experience.  Besides, you’ve seen it on the Internet, so you have your own “knowledge” to draw from.

But remember that, from the start, Christ warned us – You must change your hearts. And to make and keep the resolution I’m about to give you, trust me – we will all need to change our hearts.

We know from Matthew 22:37-38 that the greatest commandment is “ … YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND …”  And that one is certainly the most important.

But loving God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind is not hard, and becomes easier every day as I learn more and more to let go, to trust Him, and to accept His plan for me. So no, it isn’t that one.  The commandment I’m asking of you to make as your 2016 resolution is the one right after the greatest commandment.

In Matthew 22:39 Christ says, “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I’m going to ask you to make your 2016 New Year’s resolution to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Not the way you love your spouse or your kids or grandkids or your parents or your favorite fishing pole.  Not even the way you love bacon or your favorite coon hound.  Although, those last two might be close. Those are all things that are easy to love most of the time because we invariably like them.

No, I want you to love the way Christ intended when he gave us that second greatest commandment.  Because, if we can love the way Christ intended, two things happen: We find it impossible to break any other commandments or laws, and we find peace and rest through the resolution of many issues or problems or stresses or anxieties in our own lives.  Just by loving.

You know, I counted not less than nine scriptures where Christ commanded us to “LOVE ONE ANOTHER.”  I counted several others where Paul, John the Apostle and Peter reminded us through their letters to churches that Christ had commanded us to love one another.

And here’s the thing I found most interesting, most amazing, and most difficult. Nowhere in those nine scriptures, nor the scriptures before and after them could I find where Christ said “LOVE ONE ANOTHER EXCEPT OR UNLESS OR IF …”  Nowhere.

This is where it gets really hard for me, because … personally … this is where I am breaking the second greatest commandment there is not just now and then or daily, but multiple times a day! I repeatedly, frequently, willingly, consciously fail to love everyone …

Christ never said if or unless or except.  He just said Love one another.  Love one another even if the others are liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, richer than us, poorer than us, older, younger, heavier, skinnier, prettier, not as pretty, healthier, sicker, mentally ill, disabled.

Christ never said love one another except the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Bhuddist, Atheist, Agnostics, Apathetics, Fundamentalist, Dominionist, Reconcilers, Reformationists, Creationists, or Charismatics.

Christ never said love one another unless they’re gay, straight, bisexual, undocumented, illiterate, red, white, black, yellow, pink with purple polka dots, the worst drivers we’ve ever seen, aisle hogs at Krogers, in our way, always happy, always sad, perpetually ticked off, unreasonably cranky, or just plain mean.

We’re just supposed to love one another regardless of the ifs, regardless of the unlesses and regardless of the exceptions.

And Christ’s command to love one another gets even harder yet, because the next part comes not only from Christ in multiple passages reinforced yet again by Paul, John the Apostle and Peter, but straight from God, Himself, through Moses, when he told us in Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

In Matthew 5:44-45, Christ repeated that commandment with, “”But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.…

And in Luke 6:27-28, “But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

And in Matthew 5:38-42, Christ warns us not to practice an eye for an eye, but if someone slaps us, to turn the other cheek; if someone sues us and takes our shirt, to give them our coat as well; if someone forces us to go with them a mile, to go with them two; to give to the one that asks and not turn away from the one who wants to borrow. A hard thing in this day and age when so much of the world is talking about what they hate, labeling what they hate … when so much of the world around us and … sadly … often including us is just simply hating.

Not only are we to love one another as He has loved … as He loves us.  We’re to love all those kinds of people we don’t love, don’t want to love, don’t think we should have to love, and … we’re supposed to love the people who don’t want to love us – our enemies. And if we do that, then all men will know that we are Christians … that we are His disciples … by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.

Equally important, loving each other is a debt we need to pay. If we love one another as we are supposed to, then it will be as Paul said in Romans 13:8 – “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another for whoever loves other has fulfilled the law. Or in Romans 13:10 – “Love does no harm to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” And in Galatians 5:14 – “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love one another.  It’s so hard to do! And so easy not to do. It’s so much easier to hate what you don’t like, what you disapprove of, what hurts you, what disgusts you.

To really love people who do those kinds of things or make us feel that way completely, thoroughly, the way Christ loved? It’s almost inconceivable.

But that, my friends, is the resolution I’m asking you to make and do your minute by minute utmost best to keep in this New Year – To really and truly love one another.

Remember what Christ said in Matthew 4:17 – “You must change your hearts – for the kingdom of Heaven has arrived.”  Indeed we must, and the first and biggest step toward the change will be when we honestly, sincerely do our best to “love one another as He has loved us” so that “they will know we our Christians by our love.”

Before I wrap up, and thinking back on those mental gymnastics of mine over the Epiphany and Magi, I think I now know what the Magi recognized when they saw the Christ Child. I want to read to you a verse and chorus from a song by John Stoddart:

The world is full of sadness.
So much pain and tragedy.
Still there shines a star of hope
Inside of you and me.

If we could just be blinded
By what tears us all apart,
We could see beyond the outside
And look straight into the heart.

Oh, what Christmas means
Is more than just some tinsel on the tree,
Long ago on Christmas Eve,
Love was born for you and me.

You were in heaven.
I was on earth.
When I needed you here,
You sent a baby so dear,
In a manger,
On the hay,
You sent me love from a star
On Christmas day

Love from a star.  Love.  I believe that’s what those Magi saw – what they recognized – when they first saw the Christ child: They saw the purest, most unconditional love ever known positively glowing from that baby. Love from a star.

So, if you will indulge me, prepare to and change your hearts. Make a decision right now to make LOVING ONE ANOTHER your New Year’s resolution. And then work diligently to keep it. And remember 1 Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

And all God’s people said … Amen.

Offertory Prayer

Father, we have heard your words and received your wisdom. Let us now give from our hearts what we can from what we do have.

Heavenly Father, You are the Creator and Source of all things good. You have showered us with greatness and love even on the days we turn against You. Look into our hearts and receive this heartfelt thanksgiving we offer to you. Thank You for all the gifts and blessings You have showered upon me and my family. You are the rock of our spirit and without You, we will be nothing.

Through this act of giving, O Father, we affirm that we love you and that we will strive to do better at loving our neighbor. We offer these gifts and the service of our lives, praying that they may be used to transform the lives of those in need. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Chalking The Door (for Ephiphany)

As you leave this morning, the ushers will be standing at the doors with a gift my home church and my family have prepared for each of your households to help you celebrate Epiphany on this coming Wednesday.

Inside the gift, you will find a piece of chalk and a half-sheet of paper that explains an old tradition called “chalking the door” and provides some suggested prayers for you to use. Chalking the Door is an act to place a blessing on your home for the coming year.  The pieces of chalk were blessed by Pastor Mike Treadway and the congregation of Mountain View United Methodist Church this past Sunday.  They have asked me to wish you a blessed New Year.  It is my personal hope that you will use the chalk to bless not only your own homes and businesses, but those of your neighbors as well.


The Lord direct your way.
The Lord give you strength to love one another as He has loved you.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Altar

I was asked by my former pastor, David Fugatt, to substitute for him at his new assignment, Walland United Methodist Church, Walland, Tennessee, on October 11, 2015.

I want you to know, I was bowled over. Floored.  David was the first person I approached about wanting to become a Licensed Local Pastor. His reaching out to me to substitute for him in his new church was … I was just … I said yes, of course, but … wow.

I decided I would share my portions of the service with you here:

Jump to Message – A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Alter

Opening Prayer:

Lord, you have called us here this day for healing, hope, and transformation. As we listen to the Scripture, as we pray our prayers and sing our hymns, as we hear the words of wisdom, please open our hearts to hear your claim on our lives; that we may fully and joyfully serve you. Amen

Call to Worship:

L: Peace be with you.
P: And also with you.
L: It was easy to come to worship this morning.
P: We feel welcome and look forward to the worship service.
L: How hard it is to enter God’s kingdom.
P: We have to be ready to let go of the things that tie us down.
L: Get ready. God is waiting for you.
P: Open our hearts and our spirits, Lord, to receive your word for us. AMEN.

Praises and Concerns:

With all our heart and mind let us pray to the Lord. Let us lay our requests before Him, saying
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

(For the needs of the Church)
Inspire all those who lead and serve in this church. May they know your guidance and direction. We lift up Pastor Fugatt, Beverly Dalton, Don Story, Pam Hammonds, and those members of our congregation that serve your presence here in so many ways.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Help us to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Show us how to serve one another, to offer love, care and support.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

(For the world)
Guide all those who are called to lead and advocate in the world, may they carry love with them always. We lift up the leaders of our nation, our state, our county, and our community.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Inspire our leaders, teachers, doctors, social workers and counsellors to be bringers of hope in all situations.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Protect all those who carry peace to other nations. Bless the food, care and shelter they provide.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

(For those in need)
Comfort those who live with grief. Help them see the light of heaven.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Come embrace those in pain and physical suffering. May they feel you close to them.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Watch over all those who feel isolated and alone. Calm their fears and lead them into peace and freedom.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

(For the local community)
Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Lead us to be generous with our time, possessions and money.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

For those who have lost loved ones recently, comfort them in their grief and heal the broken-hearted.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Finally, we bring to mind any in our community that we know to be in need. (Pause for a few seconds.) May love and goodness fill their lives.
Lord in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

And now, in the words your son, our Lord and Savior taught us …

Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

First reading Job 23:1-9, and 16-17, New International Version

Job 23:1 Then Job replied:
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand[a] is heavy in spite of[b] my groaning.
3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling!
4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.
6 Would he vigorously oppose me? No, he would not press charges against me.
7 There the upright can establish their innocence before him, and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.
8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him.
9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.
17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

Second reading Hebrews 4:12-16, International Children’s Bible

Hebrews 4:12 God’s word is alive and working. It is sharper than a sword sharpened on both sides. It cuts all the way into us, where the soul and the spirit are joined. It cuts to the center of our joints and our bones. And God’s word judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts.
13 Nothing in all the world can be hidden from God. Everything is clear and lies open before him. And to him we must explain the way we have lived.
14 We have a great high priest who has gone into heaven. He is Jesus the Son of God. So let us hold on to the faith we have.
15 For our high priest is able to understand our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he did not sin.
16 Let us, then, feel free to come before God’s throne. Here there is grace. And we can receive mercy and grace to help us when we need it.

Third reading Mark 10:17-31, New International Version

Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God!
25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel
30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Altar

May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, oh LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer.

It’s easier to take a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Praise God! It’s okay, honey, we’re broke! We’re GOIN’ to heaven!!!

By the way, it’s okay to say amen if you’re in the same boat I am.

OK, time to get serious. The first thing I want you to do is take out a pencil or pen and change the name of today’s message. It isn’t a typo … you’ll (hopefully) understand in a bit. Please change “A Funny Thing HappeneD …” to “A Funny Thing HappenS …”

All done? Good. Now let’s talk for a minute about our scriptures. – By the way, you probably couldn’t see it, but my family just rolled their eyes in unison. I never talk “for a minute” about anything, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Our first reading was about Job, a very good man who always did what was right and always obeyed God’s commandments. Job had been a rich man with many animals and servants. He had a wife and ten children. God had given him many blessings and he understood – he knew – that those blessings came from God and no one else.

God knew Job was righteous, but Satan argued with God. Satan said Job was only righteous because God had blessed Job so abundantly. God knew better, so he told Satan to go ahead and take everything from Job, but not to harm Job himself.

So Satan caused all Job’s servants to die, burned his sheep, stole all his camels, destroyed his crops, and then Satan caused a storm to knock down his son’s house, killing everyone inside including all of Job’s children who had gathered there for a feast.

Despite all these things and without knowing why all this misfortune had befallen him, Job remained faithful to God.

So Satan again argued to God. This time he argued Job was only faithful because he still had his health. God knew better, but he told Satan to go ahead and take Job’s health, but that Satan couldn’t kill Job. And boy-oh-boy, Satan did just that with a vengeance. Job got extremely sick with sores all over his body. Things were so bad, Job’s wife told him he should just commit suicide and his closest friends told him he must have sinned greatly against God and that he needed to repent as soon as possible.

In the part of the story we read this morning, Job was in pain, frustrated, longing for some kind of sign from God that acknowledged his complaint, but couldn’t find God no matter which direction he looked. He literally wanted to find God’s house, plead his case, and hear God’s judgment of his innocence.

That’s how much Job trusted and loved God. He was certain God would find him innocent.

Now consider our passage from Mark. Jesus and his disciples are walking along in “a region of Judea beyond Jordan,” most likely east of Jericho when a “rich young ruler” comes up to them, throws himself down in front of Jesus, and asks what he needs to do to be granted eternal life.

First Jesus told him that he must obey the commandments.

STOP … We have to obey all of the commandments? From childhood? Ummm … honey? About those tickets I mentioned earlier? I might have to take a later flight. But, I’ll meet you there! Wait for me! K?

Oops, sorry. I got sidetracked just then. Back to the rich young ruler guy.

Well, the young ruler declared he had obeyed all the commandments since he was a small child. And then Christ told him there was one thing the young prince hadn’t done. He was to sell all his possessions and give all his wealth to the poor, and then to “come and follow me.” And, we know from the scripture that the young ruler was immediately heart-broken, turned, and walked away because had so much to give up.

Note to self: About that commandment issue earlier … may have slight opportunity for redemption. Scratch yard sale idea. Just bag and box for charity.

Moving on …

We also know that it was a teaching moment for Christ to the disciples. When that young ruler turned away, Christ said to them, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God! Dear children, it is VERY hard to enter the Kingdom of God.” And then he said that part about the “GREAT BIG CAMEL and the iiiiitty bitty needle eye.”

Now, this declaration from Christ pretty much rocked the disciples to their core. “Who then can be saved?!?!” they asked. Christ went on to explain to them that it was not humanly possible to get to heaven, but that, “With God, all things are possible.”

While the disciples may have breathed a small sigh of relief, they were only slightly reassured. After all, we’re talking the most important thing in …in … everything to them: Getting. Into. Heaven. They quickly pointed out that they had already given up literally everything to follow Christ.

“Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up his house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

OK, so far we have two rich guys. Job goes through some pretty horrendous stuff, loses all his stuff and – what we don’t see in today’s passage – eventually gets his stuff back plus. The rich young ruler guy seems to be forsaking the most important stuff – his ticket to heaven and eternal life – just to keep all his earthly stuff.

And in the middle of those two stories, we have that scripture from Hebrews that, at first reading, almost seems out-of-place with the other two. I mean, good grief! God allows Satan to take everything from Job including his health. Jesus tells a rich guy he has to sell everything to get into heaven. And now, in a message to a group of Hebrew believers who are beginning to doubt and question the gospel they’ve been told, Paul or one of Paul’s followers is talking about God cutting us up with a super sharp sword and then that confusing part about high priests. For Pete’s sake, we’re Methodists! We don’t even have priests! What’s that all about?

Our passage from Hebrews this morning is about God’s ability to look into our very core and know what we truly believe, think, know … to know what we try to hide or avoid or ignore … or justify.

The author tells the Hebrew believers there is no place inside of them into which God cannot see, no place within or without where they can hide anything from God. They are totally naked and exposed in His sight. He goes on to assert that the high priest living in Jerusalem at that time was not the high priest at all. He urges the Hebrews to pay attention to and heed the gospel, and to accept Christ as the ultimate and only Apostle and High Priest of the Jewish nation.

He tells them Christ understands their weaknesses because Christ faced all the same tests and temptations we do, but that Christ managed not to cave in to those temptations. He tells them they need to hang on tightly to their belief in Christ in order to be able to go before God, receive God’s mercy, and find God’s grace when they most need it.

Right. We now understand what those readings were all about, but … again … what do a rich guy that loses everything, a rich guy that keeps everything, and a warning to some First Century Hebrews have to do with each other, and where was the part about some altar? More importantly, what does any of that have to do with any of us?

Well, here’s the thing. To me, this altar is a critical key to our relationship with Christ, with God, with getting what we all hope for – that golden ticket – where we end up living an eternal life in Heaven.

To me, this altar represents the foot of the Cross. It’s that important. After all, it’s the Lord’s Table at communion. It’s where we bring the symbolic Light of the World when we’re here worshiping together. We place our collective offerings on it. We stand before it for baptisms, weddings and funerals. We kneel at it for special prayers and petitions. It’s where we, as the body of Christ, as the Church, reinforce, reaffirm, and very often declare and testify to our faith in Christ, in God, and in the Gospel.

And, to me, this is where we should run – without hesitation – when that light bulb finally clicks on and we are moved by the Spirit to give ourselves to Christ, and to claim him as our Lord and Savior.

This altar. Right here.

And yet … for a host of reasons … we very often hesitate to do what it takes to get from out there or from where you are sitting or … yes … even from here where I’m standing … to here.

So what stops us? What do we have to do? Is the only option to repent, give up everything we have, and live the rest of our lives in total poverty? Especially in a country where homelessness and vagrancy are often against the law of the land?

How can we do that? You can’t give what you don’t have, can you?

Well, maybe you can. Maybe … just maybe … the answer lies in how we define “have”, and how we define, view and prioritize what we don’t have.

Why don’t I have any money? I have bills, that’s why. And a mortgage. I have livestock to feed. AND … I have a teenager, a twenty year old, and grandchildren!

(Okay, I’m sure I heard at least one muttered amen, and the rest of you were definitely thinking Amen.)

I have insurance payments, creditors, utilities, Netflix … wait! I can dump Netflix! Maybe not. Aidan just gave me a threatening look.

The roof needs to be fixed, I like to eat fairly regularly … And some weeks, it’s hard or downright impossible just to scrape together an offering.

A simple nod is totally acceptable if you’re in that same boat with me, and don’t be shy. It’s a big boat.

I also have plans. I have ideas. I have wants and desires for things I don’t have or can’t do yet. And, trust me, I have things to do. I really want to go see that movie about that prayer room. And I want to be able to quit my job and go back to farming full-time and Butch wants a tractor, and I need new glasses and so does Aidan and … andAndAND

Am I getting any new nods out there that didn’t nod before? Y’all don’t need to be afraid to admit you’re in it with me. Like I said, it’s a big boat. The Ark would have been small in comparison.

You know, we get so hung up on hanging on to the little bit we think we have, and on figuring out how to go about getting what we don’t have but believe we need, that we don’t even realize our “have/don’t have” worries push us off the path to eternal life and onto the path of that Rich Young Ruler.

OK. Pause for just a second. Some of you are starting to make that, “Oh boy, here we go … another guilt trip about giving more money to the church” face.

Let me reassure you. This message is not about how much you give to the church. It’s not really even about money. I noticed as I was preparing my parts of today’s service that you folks take your offering up after the sermon. Most Methodist churches I’ve been to don’t. They take it up before the sermon and I personally think there are two reasons they do it before.

One – the preacher doesn’t have to feel bad or get to gloat based on the fullness of the plate.

Two – you folks get a whole week to get over any unintentional guilt I may have accidentally laid on you through my message. I promise you – this is not about monetary offerings to the church.

So, when we do get to the offering this morning, please refer to last week’s sermon for appropriate levels of guilt and approval ratings! Thank you. Now to conclude …

MY message is about getting you to recognize and rid yourselves of those things you hold on to that prevent you finding your way here.

Our “riches” are what we have, even when all that we have is just our self. If we refuse to humble ourselves and share … willingly … what we do have, then we are that rich young ruler. If we refuse to humble ourselves and share … willingly … what we know to be true through the gospel – the Word of God – we are hoarding that knowledge, and we are that rich young ruler.

I don’t have money, but I do have a home that I can open to someone without a home. I can make time to use my physical energy and strength to do something that helps someone in need. I can do more than just nod at the disabled veteran asking for help outside Wal-Mart. I can actually walk up and speak to and smile at him or her. I can let him know he’s loved and appreciated, and I can even give up that $5 bill in my wallet – you know … the one I was saving to buy a sausage biscuit on the way to work in the morning? – just to help him a little bit. And I can do that without standing there imagining or believing or assuming he’s just going to use it to buy beer.

I can organize a fund collection for the daughter of my neighbor that passed away. I can grow a garden to feed a needy family. I can forego the yard sale and donate my excess to charity. I can stop letting my prejudices, my preconceived notions, my proclivity to judge by sight, my personal politics, my fears and my phobias prevent me from being the hands and feet of Christ or sharing the good news or loving my neighbor and my enemy as I love myself and as He loves me.

When I see my neighbor or UMW sister or that stranger sitting four rows up on the other side come to this altar in tears, I can join them and comfort them and pray with them. I can make my “I cans” bigger, better than my I haves. I can set aside my pride and humble myself.

I can pray, fervently, that I have the faith of Job, that I trust God, and that I be as obedient to God as humanly possible; that I can accept the storms right along with the rainbows, and accept His conviction when I hesitate or let my “haves/don’t haves” win out over my “I cans” … and they do win out more often than they should.

I can do all that because I know that I am forgiven – not through my works, but through Christ’s sacrifice for me and through God’s grace. Because, with God, all things are possible – even little old me finding a way to turn “I have” into “I can”.

I want to share something with you briefly before I wrap this up. The night I stayed late at the office to finish writing this morning’s message the fax machine rang. Yes. It was God. He wanted to make sure I read the Aish HaTorah, a Jewish newsletter from Rabbi Packouz in Miami Beach, Florida that my boss gets. There were two midrashim, or stories, in it that I’m pretty sure He wanted me to pass along to you.

Rabbi Packouz, writes, “A person poured out his heart to me. “I would like to believe in God, but it is so hard. How do I know that God created the world? Why can’t God just show Himself and make it easier for me to believe?” Whatever words of wisdom, insight and erudition I shared were like water off the back of a duck. It occurred to me that oftentimes people would rather be bothered by the problem than bothered by the answer.

The next day in synagogue, I picked up a Midrash – a collection of stories and commentaries dating back a couple of thousand years. I opened it and came across the following two midrashim.”

First Midrash: A disbeliever once asked Rabbi Akiva, “Who created the world?” “The Almighty,” replied Rabbi Akiva. “Prove it!” demanded the disbeliever. Rabbi Akiva replied, “Come back tomorrow.”

When the man returned on the following day, Rabbi Akiva asked him, “What are you wearing?” “A robe,” replied the man. “Who made it?” asked Rabbi Akiva. “The weaver,” said the man. “I don’t believe you! Prove it!” demanded Rabbi Akiva.

“That’s ridiculous. Can you not tell from the fabric and design that a weaver made this garment?” the man answered. Rabbi Akiva then responded, “And you … can you not clearly tell that God made the world?”

After the disbeliever left, Rabbi Akiva explained to his students, “Just as a house was obviously built by a builder and a garment obviously sewn by a tailor, so was the world (which follows a natural order) obviously made by a Creator!”

Second Midrash: The Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Yehoshua, “Does the world have a master?” “Certainly,” replied Rabbi Yehoshua. “Did you think the world exists without an owner?”

“Who then is the master?” asked Hadrian. “The Almighty is the Creator of heaven and earth,” responded Rabbi Yehoshua. Hadrian persisted. “If this is true, why doesn’t He reveal Himself a few times a year so that people should fear Him?”

“That would be impossible,” replied Rabbi Yehoshua, “for it says … No man can see Me and live.” “I don’t believe that!” responded Hadrian angrily. “No one can be so great that it is impossible even to look at him.” Rabbi Yehoshua left.

Later, at noontime, Rabbi Yehoshua returned and asked the Emperor to step outside. “I am ready to show you the Almighty!” he announced. Curious, Hadrian followed him to the palace garden.

“Look straight up into the sun. There you will discover God!” exclaimed Rabbi Yehoshua. “What?” retorted Hadrian, bewildered. “Do you know what you’re saying? Everyone knows that it is impossible to look directly into the sun at noon!”

Rabbi Yehoshua smiled. “Note your own statement! You admit that no one can gaze at the sun’s full strength when it is at its zenith. The sun is only one of the Almighty’s servants, and its glory is only one millionth of a fraction of God’s splendor. How then do you expect people to be able to look at Him? Yet, He promised that the day will come when He alone will be exalted and His greatness be accepted by all.”

It’s fascinating finding thousands of years old eternal answers to eternal questions. It’s also fascinating to note that in the first midrash it says, “After the disbeliever left …” We note from this that in spite of the compelling answer, the man still left a disbeliever.

Winston Churchill once said something to the effect of “Many people have stumbled across truth … and then picked themselves up as if nothing happened.”

It’s hard to get past our preconceived notions and prejudices, no matter how intellectually honest we claim to be.

OK … You thought I forgot that “Funny Thing,” didn’t you? You’re not getting off that easy, folks.

The “funny thing” I hinted about in the title of my message is us … ourselves. It’s me. And it’s you. And you and you and you … it’s each of us. We are each our own worst obstacle. We stop ourselves from completing the journey to this altar.

Don’t let you get in the way of yourself anymore. Diligently work to have the faith of Job. Make your “haves” into “cans” to share with your fellow man. Do whatever it takes to make your naked soul worthy of inspection by God the Father. Crawl, walk, run … as fast as you can … to this altar and pour yourself out to Him. Come often. Come willingly. Come and give yourself to God.

And all God’s people said … Amen.

Offertory Prayer

Father, we have heard your words and received your wisdom. Let us now give from our hearts what we can from what we do have.

Heavenly Father, You are the Creator and Source of all things good. You have showered us with greatness and love even on the days we turn against You. Look into our hearts and receive this heartfelt thanksgiving we offer to you. Thank You for all the gifts and blessings You have showered upon me and my family. You are the rock of our spirit and without You, we will be nothing. Amen


– modification of Go In Peace lyrics by Sam Baker and Numbers 6:24-26
Go in peace.
Go in kindness.
Go in love.
Go in faith.
We leave the past behind us.
The past is done.
Go in grace.
Let us go into the world, not afraid, not alone.
Let us hope by some good measure, safely to arrive at home.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.