{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

No, You Are Not a Self-made Person (A short reflection on Psalm 139)

Psalm 139:1-18

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

If there has ever been a biblical text that destroys the cultural idea of being a “self-made person,” this is it. The Psalmist reminds us that before we were rational human beings, capable of making our own choices and declaring our own rights and privileges, a Mystery greater than us has “searched and known” us. This Mystery knows when we rise and go to bed. It knows our words and thoughts even before we utter them. And contrary to Ayn Rand and others who would say that our independence and freedom is where we find power, we are told that the power of God’s grace hems us in, from behind and before, and that grace lays its hand upon us — knowledge that is much too great to fully understand.

When I think of the day my daughter was born, the words of this psalm come to mind. I remember the almost paralyzing feeling of standing before a miracle that I knew I was only a passive witness to. I had no credit to claim, only a gift to receive and a miracle to behold. The little hands and feet. The tiny chest rising up and down with each breath. Words cannot begin to form the praise that rises from our souls. You know without anyone having to say a word that you are in the presence of something “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

The words of this psalm also come to mind when I think about standing next to the bed of a dying person. There is a real beauty often hidden in death. When we come to die, we find ourselves totally vulnerable. All that we’ve “earned” or accumulated in life is stripped away. And all that is left is our humanness — dirt, and salt, and water — exposed but pure and real. If we’re lucky, in between the moments of grief and sadness we can find glimmers of grace — light shining through the broken shards of human clay — and it’s beautiful. And we cling to the power of the words, “I come to the end — I am still with you.” Those words have the power breathe life into the most wonderful and the most terrible of moments.

We are human. And with that comes the potential to do great things. We can split atoms and splice genes. We can go to the moon and we can destroy all of creation 10x over. But there is a grace in knowing that despite all of that potential, our “unformed substance” was beheld before we were even aware. Our frail frames were not hidden from the One that created us in the depths of mystery. And, probably best of all, there is no darkness that can overpower the light of the Source of Light.

Life, Work, and Service: Searching for Balance as We Follow Jesus

http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-viewimage.pl Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.

http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-viewimage.pl
Original source: Collection of J. Patout Burns and Robin M. Jensen.

There was a wonderful segment this past week on National Public Radio written by Diedre Sullivan entitled, “Always Go to the Funeral.” Sullivan writes about how her parents taught her as a teenager that you make time for someone’s funeral when they die.

She takes the lesson a step further and says, “I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it.”

Her parents were the kind of parents I want to be. They taught their child that no matter what, you don’t get to be the center of your own universe. Other people matter. Sometimes you will be inconvenienced for the sake of someone else. And you know what, that’s OK.

This past Sunday, I’m preached a sermon about how Jesus had the audacity to heal a woman on the Sabbath. It was custom that rest be the theme of the day on the Sabbath. But Jesus reminds us that rest is just a part of the response of praise to the God who has created us, redeemed us, and who continues to bless us every day of our lives. Sabbath, then, is the day set aside to celebrate and give thanks for being set free from anything that separates us from fully living as the people God made us to be.

We live in a world where working too much is a way of life. Our schedules are so full we never take the time to stop and consider why we’re working so hard. Is it to provide the means for our families to live? Is it to make a difference in the community? Or is it secretly because we find our own meaning in the work we do and the successes we achieve?

Benedictine monks adopt as a motto the phrase, Laborare est orare, “To work is to pray.” This doesn’t mean we spend our work day asking God for one thing after another on a never-ending wish list. It means we approach our work the same way we approach our worship — in reverence and with a spirit of thanksgiving for the God who so abundantly blesses us. It means we work to serve and we rest to celebrate and give thanks. And when we see our work and our rest from this perspective, a funny thing happens. It becomes more difficult to see ourselves as self-made people who are the authors of our success.

It becomes more and more important to set time apart for praise and worship to the God who so extravagantly gives. And it becomes evident that we must extend the hand of generosity and compassion to others even when we don’t always feel like it.

Sullivan later writes in her article, “In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.” How true she is!

May we find opportunity to serve God and others through our daily work. May we take a day of rest to reflect on the abundance we enjoy as a gift from the God who’s grace knows no end.

May we find more ways to share our abundance with others in our giving and in our service. And may we learn the grace to do all of this whether we feel like it or not.

This column was originally published in The Macon Telegraph Religion Section on Aug. 24, 2013:
http://www.macon.com/2013/08/23/2624076/serving-giving-and-showing-thanks.html#storylink=cpy

Prayer for New College Students

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Loving God,

It’s finally sunk in — there comes a point in my life when my parents will not make every decision for me.

Where I am timid to befriend others, give me the courage to humbly witness to your love and grace for all people.

Where I am tempted to make difficult choices, help me remember the lessons of faithfulness from my childhood.

Where I am nervous about the coming days, give me the peace that passes all understanding.

I am thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow into adulthood,

but help me also know this is a time to learn and grow in my faithfulness to you and my service to others.

Grant me the grace needed to grow into a mature follower of your Son, Jesus Christ,

in whose name I offer this prayer. Amen.

A Prayer For Parents Dropping Their Child Off At College

Gracious God, Source of Life, Giver of every good and perfect Gift:

You are the loving Parent whose example I have longed to follow as I raise my child. I give you thanks for the gift of (name).

I am reminded on this day, just as on the day they were born, that your grace is very present in their life — even when we do not always know it.

Give me the courage today to trust in that grace. Help me remember that before (name) was mine, they are yours.

May your grace continue to form (name) into your image, that they may spend this new phase of life better learning to love you and their neighbor; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Next Post: A Prayer for the New College Student

There’s Just One Thing Missing: Our Missional Misstep in The United Methodist Church

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“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

If you’re a United Methodist, then you probably recognize this as our mission statement. As a denomination, we proclaim these words make up our missional identity in how we exist as the church.

We crafted these words as our denominational mission statement over the last 20+ years and, in the process, we’ve worked on perfecting the language, teaching the biblical basis for the statement, and ensuring that no United Methodist forgets those important words.

We’ve plastered these words on letter-head, banners, websites, flashy ads, and church signs.

We’ve used this statement to justify just about every change and argument against change that comes our way.

We use this statement to set our goals, cast our vision, and critique those who may fall short of our desired outcomes.

If you know your Scripture (and if you’re reading this blog I’m assuming you at least know some Scripture), then you know this mission statement is based on Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)

I’ve been a Methodist pastor for 3 years now. And I’ve been raised as a United Methodist for my entire life. But it’s only been recently that I’ve noticed something missing from our mission statement and how it aligns to Jesus’ words in The Great Commission. Maybe you’ve heard it explained how important the verbs are in this statement: We’re called to make disciples by teaching and baptizing.

The only problem is, we tend to forget one very important verb when we talk about the mission of the Church…

GO!

As we grow into a more heightened awareness of what ails the church, we naturally search for solutions. It’s only normal that when there’s a problem, we look to find the solution. But why is it that so many of the resources out there on how to “make disciples” says so very little on the church’s need to go? We talk a lot about what we need to do but so much of it seems to be confined to what happens within the walls the church buildings and program calendars.

I know what you’re thinking: “We have more and more out there on how to attract people who are outside of our church walls.”

Yes, but how much of that involves the church leaving its walls to go and find and be with those who are outside? Too much of our mindset is geared around attracting people to us when we ought to be following the Spirit’s call to go and leave the comforts of our buildings and programs and agendas.

Theologian, Marva Dawn, puts it this way:

“When we say we go to church on Sunday mornings, we’re exercising a bad theology. We don’t go to church. We participate in worship so we can be church everyday of our lives.”

We measure things like membership and worship numbers in order to gauge the health of a congregation. And these are important things to measure…to a degree. But too often we forget how easy it is to sit in a pew and never be a true follower of Jesus. And we fail recognize that what we need most are not more studies, meetings, circles, and small groups. What we need most are people who have the guts and inspiration to try to live like Jesus in their normal, everyday lives. And we pray that we learn to do that with some sense of community as the Body of Christ.

If we want to find our missional identity as the church, then it means confessing and asking forgiveness for the sin of self-preoccupation and narcissism. It means being willing to seek out real and authentic relationships with people for no other reason than because they are children made in the image of God. And it means learning to worry a little less about opening our doors, so that we can worry a little more about closing our doors behind us so we can go into the world where God is active and alive and at work in surprising ways.

This short (3 mins) video says this even better:

 

The Heart of Worship, The Heart of Discipleship

"Celebration" by John August Swanson

“Celebration” by John August Swanson

It’s 1:30pm on Sunday afternoon. I’ve finished my lunch and settled in for another routine Sunday afternoon filled with reading and writing and baseball whenever I’m not chasing my 16-month old daughter around the house. By all accounts it’s a typical Sunday afternoon except for the fact that this particular afternoon didn’t follow a typical Sunday morning worship service. You see, I felt the Spirit of God this morning in a way I’ve haven’t experienced for some time. And it all came about because of a simple change in rhythm.

This month at Mulberry we’re changing the rhythms of worship a bit. We’ve asked for people to submit their favorite hymns – preferably ones they haven’t heard in worship in a while. We received a good many submissions so we’ve decided to tweak our order of worship a bit to include more singing each Sunday during the month of July.

Maybe the change of rhythm was at fault, but I found myself noticing things in worship I’ve never noticed.

As we listened to a wonderful soloist, I noticed a mother and her 8-year old son on the 4th pew. The son had his head settled in his mother’s lap for the music. The mother sat and gently stroked the hair on the back of his neck. And for a moment, while everyone around her was focused on what was happening in front of them, she seemed to be taken to a special place. I watched as she stared at the back of her son’s neck gently stroking his hair relishing in a moment where her baby who was too big to be called a baby anymore found quiet rest in her arms. He soon will be much too big for these moments and yet, by God’s grace, they found this moment in the place and space where we worship the eternal God. And I got to peak into this moment where the in-breaking of God’s grace was quietly evident for this family.

My senses must have been heightened after that because I couldn’t help but see grace in other moments during the worship service – in the face of a squirming child; in the quiet dedication of couples who had been married much longer than I’ve been alive who innately know how to worship together; in the faces of families facing loss and heartache and stress and yet know that they need to be in worship even if they can’t fully explain it. Grace, present and palpable all around us.

Holy Communion was especially grace-filled. I found myself noticing peoples’ hands as they took the bread and dipped it into the cup.

“This is the body of Christ broken for you…”

Hands of all shapes and sizes and ages. Some were young and delicate. Some trembled as they approached and were visibly worn because years of love and work and dedication have a way of leaving its proof on our hands.

“This is the blood of Christ shed for you…”

I saw children bounce up the stairs to our chancel area to join their families around the altar for prayer. I saw young couples at the very genesis of adulthood kneeling together in prayer. I noticed one woman slowly make her way up the stairs with the aid of her cane. Aches and pain and a lack of mobility would not dare keep her from the altar of prayer.

We fit some more hymn requests into the communion time. Soon I heard the words of one of my all-time favorite hymns begin to add even more depth to the tapestry of this scene of grace. 

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!…”

“This is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for your sins and the sins of the world…”

I saw faces in the communion line light up as the congregation sang. Everyone began to sing that hymn particularly loud. It was as if we all knew that through this sacrament – this simple bread and grape juice – we were, in fact, sharing in a foretaste of God’s eternal glory.

The sacrament ended and we closed the Table. Timing worked out perfectly to where we had one more verse to sing together before we could proceed.

“Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior and happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above. Filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

By the time we finished no one needed to say a word. We knew this worship service was delightfully surprising. Together we gave thanks for the holy meal and asked God to send us out into the world in the service of others. You could almost hear in the collective recitation of the prayer that this particular sending forth carried with it a certain hope and enthusiasm.

You know, we spend a great deal of time worrying and trying to brainstorm new ways to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We even run the risk of programming and gimmicking ourselves to death. Today I was reminded that our most basic (and primary) act as disciples is to faithfully offer ourselves in worship to the God who alone is worthy to be praised. So I challenge you to consider shifting your rhythms of worship and look around and listen. God is there, active and present, calling us all to be a people of worship. We are called to gather in praise. We hear God’s Word. We share in the holy meal together. And we are sent forth into the world to offer ourselves in service to all of God’s children. Sounds to me like the very heart of worship is also at the heart of discipleship.

Flannery O’Connor and Grace

200px-FlanneryO_Connor_normalI’m just beginning a church-wide Sunday School series on the life and writing of Flannery O’Connor. It’s a joy to be co-teaching with Dr. Gordon Johnston, Professor of English at Mercer University. This blog post is a column that will appear in The Macon Telegraph this coming Saturday in their From the Pulpit column in the Religion section.

Flannery O’Connor and Grace

This summer at Mulberry we’re doing a four-week class on the life and writing of Flannery O’Connor as part of our Sunday School hour. It’s a wonderful opportunity to gather a diverse group of people together in a setting different from their normal classrooms to learn and share about the extraordinary power of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

If you’re from Middle Georgia, then you’re probably well aware of the fame of Flannery O’Connor even if you’re not that familiar with her writing. Her family farm, Andalusia, in the Milledgeville area is open to the public. And she has long been viewed as one of the most prolific Southern writers of all-time and one of the great gifts Middle Georgia has given to the world of art.

But the literary world is not the only place where the fruits of her writing have been enjoyed.

Flannery O’Connor has made a tremendous impact on the theological world as well. Perhaps no pastor, church leader, or theological thinker has ever come as close to defining the grace of God in such raw and passionate terms. Where most of us would hem and haw and talk about grace in vague or overly sentimental ways, Flannery O’Connor knew how to write about the grace of God in such a way that you could feel it – like a punch in the stomach that somehow wakes you up to a life you never knew you could live.

We can go no further than a couple of her great quotes:

“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.”

“Grace changes us and change is painful.”

You see, Flannery O’Connor had a gift that she shared with anyone who would dare call themselves a Christian – the gift of honesty. She knew the temptation to reduce the grace of God to overly saccharine and shallow terms; the sort of theology you might find in a Hallmark movie. While that sort of thing is heart-warming, it’s not nearly deep or strong enough to stand up to the forces of evil, hurt, sorrow, and prejudice we know in our own lives. She knew the only rebuttal for forces that strong is a force equally as strong and sometimes violent – God’s grace. She was also honest enough to admit that God’s grace is so amazing and powerful it could only come from God. You can’t manufacture that sort of thing yourself through money, prestige, or a strong work ethic.

Flannery O’Connor is a treasure for preacher and lay person alike because she calls us all to a greater honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. Her stories are often harsh and grotesque because they are stories about, well, us. But more importantly, her stories are about a God who will stop at nothing to sift through our prejudices and hypocrisies in order to grab us by the shoulders and shake us to our core. All the while shouting and screaming, “You are my child! And damnit, I love you!”

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