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Archive for November, 2011

Road Maps

[John] proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark 1:7-8

I suspect that our culture really doesn’t like this kind of teaching very much.  When I was in my early adult years, there were all kinds of self-help books that had been published in order to make us more confident, more self-aware, more sure of ourselves.  I’m Okay; You’re Okay, How to Be Your Own Best Friend, Looking Out for Number One, and so forth were titles on my bookshelf.  They DID help me build some self-confidence, but they also taught me that the only one that TRULY counted in this world was ME!

While there isn’t anything wrong with these books, as followers of Jesus, we need to pay attention to the messages that are bombarding us in the media.  The messages are all self-serving, and many of them tell us that we aren’t good enough the way we are.  John the Baptist didn’t have any self-esteem problems.  He knew who he was and what his job or calling in life was:  it was to pave the way for the Messiah.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that John was related to Jesus, but we don’t find that elsewhere.  Even if he was Jesus’ cousin, he recognized that Jesus was the One sent from God and truly was God’s son.  John had important work to do because he was a transistioner from the old order to the new.  Like many prophets before him, his voice called out to Israel to repent and return to God.  Yet, he also pointed the way to God and knew that a new era, a new covenant, new teachings about God would be incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

As the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, our job is to incarnate the presence of Jesus, the Christ, the risen son of God in the world through living his teachings, following his example, and carrying on his ministry in the world.  It’s far too easy to be caught up in “the world” and ignore that we are called to live counter-culturally.  Being compassionate, considerate, kind, caring, and going out of our way to help others can be seen in the world, and our work is to model that not only with each other in the church but also with complete strangers.

I try to do this and work hard at being considerate and polite, as well as friendly and generous.  Time and time again, I’m treated with silence or suspicion from someone.  For example, I had a cart full of purchases, and a person with two or three things was standing behind me, so I invited them to go in front of me.  They were shocked, but they at least said thank you several times.  That’s just one small example, and we have opportunities to make a difference to others in small things.  Those random acts of kindness may actually cause a “pay it forward” type of domino effect.

When we care about others and show it, when we do something just because it’s a nice thing to do, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to those who are less fortunate than we are, AND when we do it because it’s what Jesus told us to do AND because we want to do it, we are paving the way for Christ to work in the world.  It doesn’t matter whether the other person thanks us or not.  Just do it!

The road map is given to us through the scriptures (check out Matthew 25!), as well as by reading about how Jesus reached out to others.  We may not always be able to follow the road map perfectly, but we sure can give a good try and then keep on trying.  Most roads were paved in one day!  Someone (I forget where I read this – sorry) once said, “Where there is no path, blaze a trail!”  God bless your journey!

Anticipation

“Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all:  Keep awake.”  Mark 13:35-37

In our Bible study this week, we had a conversation about pregnancy and what it was like to wait during those months before the baby was born.  Everyone agreed that there was great excitement, some anxiety, little nervousness, hope that the baby would be all right, and many other emotions that go with pregnancy.

Jesus warns the disciples to be prepared because we never know when God will act in our lives.  We need to live in pregnant anticipation.  What does that mean for you?

Who matters?

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Matthew 25:20

     This is from Jesus’ teaching that is often called the “Final Judgment.”  The sheep and goats are separated, and the “king” tells each group what they did or did not do to minister to others, especially the poor, disenfranchized, and outcasts.  The “sheep” were surprised that they had done anything – they just DID it without expecting anything in return.  They had a “servant” attitude.

     The goats were also surprised that they had been brought to task for not doing anything.  If we read the parable carefully, we discover that they really had no idea they missed something.  Maybe they had never really learned what they were supposed to do.  Maybe it was sins of omission.  Whatever the case, they were not in the “king’s” good graces.

     Our call as followers of Jesus is to do exactly that:  follow him – follow his teachings, follow in his footsteps, follow in his example.  That means living our faith and producing the fruits of faith through acts of compassion, kindness, caring, and helping.  It becomes part of who we are, and it is a process of learning about who Jesus is so we can live our lives with his guidance and direction.  It also means that we have a steady companion on the journey.

     It’s hard to talk to God every moment of ever day, so I learned to practice the presence of Christ with me with the knowledge that I’m not alone.  I gain strength from knowing in my heart that God is but a breath away, and I catch myself thinking “we” can do this or “we” can do that.  Who is “we”?  I think it’s my recognition that God with me even when I’m not aware of God’s presence.  In Methodist theology, it would be preventient grace – the grace of God that is with us even when we are unaware of it, even when we may have pushed God aside or ignored God.

     What about the goats?  Is there any chance for them?  God’s grace is far wider, deeper, and broader than any of us can imagine.  It isn’t up to us to decide their fate – maybe we have been one of the goats through sins of omission.  Our goal as a follower of Jesus is to be a sheep, guided and blessed by the Good Shepherd, confident in the Shepherd’s presence with us.  Where will we offer the hand of caring and compassion this week?  Where will we see the face of Christ on another person?

Receiving Gifts

“You are a good and faithful servant.  I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more.  Come and share in my happiness!”  Matthew 25:21 (CEV)

   The parable of the talents is one of most familiar parables for those who have read the Bible and attended church for a while.  It is about the three servants who are entrusted with the “talents” (in this case money, but symbolically meaning gifts and graces).  The first two took their money and invested it, doubling the amounts, and the third servant hid the money, buried in some hole somewhere until the master returned.

   So, there are several ways of looking at this, but I would like to put it in the context of today’s church – here in the 21st century.  Our Tuesday afternoon Bible study group had a great discussion about what this meant not only for the church, but also for us as individuals.  We all are given gifts and graces that God intends for us to use in our lives.  They may be the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and [gulp] self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).  OR our we may have GIFTS of the Spirit:  wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking clearly, or interpreting what others say.  (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

     We even could be given a specific gift for a specific task or role – the gifts of God’s grace:  prophecy in proportion to faith; ministry in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.  (Romans 12:6-7) 

   Do we USE the gifts God has given us?  Actually, do we receive them graciously?  Or do we deny them and hide them away somewhere.  When we use our God-given gifts, we often discover more gifts that we haven’t realized were there.  As individuals, some are called to preach, to teach, to comfort, to care, to interpret, to lead, to pray, to uplift – whatever it is that God calls us to do, we are asked to use our gifts to serve God, to connect with others, to grow in faith, and to NOT keep them to ourselves.

   Our gifts multiply – they grow with use.  Someone once told me that they had no idea they could teach until someone asked them to teach Sunday school.  They always felt that they didn’t know enough, but what they discovered was that they learned with the children and then grew in their own understanding of the Bible, of God, and their faith journey.  People whose knees rattle and shake in front of even a small group of people will tell you that they can’t read scripture, and yet, I have heard many people of that mindset read beautifully.

   A friend of mine who was extremely shy heard someone say, “I’ll read” when I asked for someone to read scripture the following Sunday.  She turned around and looked behind her to see who had said it and then realized that it had been her voice and had come from her.  What a suprise!  She ended up reading quite often, much to her surprise.  Her confidence increased, and she gradually was able to overcome much of her shyness.  Eventually, she became an interim pastor for a small church in Maine.

   It seems to me that it would be helpful to think about our gifts that God has given us.  Maybe we feel a nudge toward something which is God’s way of saying, “You ought to try this!”  Maybe we have always wanted to do something, but were afraid to try – give it a try!  There is no shame in trying!  Let’s use our gifts, let them multiply, and glorify God through them.  The grace of God is a huge gift, and it’s big enough for everyone!  God bless your day!

 

Discouragement

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”  Psalm 42:5

Many of those of us who are pastors tend to think that the growth of a church depends solely on us, and in times when we see attendance drop, lack of volunteerism or hear criticism about picky things, it is easy to become discouraged.  Discouragement also comes when we are overworked, tired, taking on too much, not delegating enough, or ready for vacation.

That’s when it is important to stop, step back, take a little break, rest, and regroup.  Sure, it’s easy for me to say, but doing it?  Hmmm – not so much.  There are days when I think my sense of humor has totally run away.  That’s when I know I need to watch “Funniest Home Videos” or something that will make me laugh.  I start to feel overwhelmed, and then I’m setting myself up for making mistakes, forgetting things, or overreacting to something someone says.

During those times when I feel most discouraged, I wonder what I’m doing wrong.  Why isn’t the attendance at church increasing?  Why haven’t certain people been in church?  Was it something I did or said?  Have I ignored someone too much?  Not given the right amount of care to someone?  Missed something along the way?  Been a poor listener?

The word “I” is pretty prominent in that last paragraph.  The Psalmist reminds me that it’s about God and my trust in God.  I plant the seeds, God takes care of the rest.  While it’s not always easy to remember that, it certainly helps me to put aside my own worries about ME and focus on what God has called me to do.  I’m called to serve God, not myself.  I’m called to care for a congregation to the best of my ability, and that’s all God asks of me – just to do my best.

Included in doing my best is taking care of myself so I have the energy to care for my parishes.  I think I do it fairly well, and I know I can do better!  Maybe writing this today was one more way to turn discouragement over to God.  Sweeping all the cobwebs out of the basement and cleaning up down there so I can set up an exercise area is another way of taking care of myself.  Of course, now I need to go down there and USE the space for exercise!  (I DO plan to do that regularly.)

Discouragement always has something to teach me.  It’s important to take the time to ask what is behind it and what I’m supposed to learn.  I think we all can learn from that.  Some of the stories in the gospels talk about Jesus being discouraged with the slowness of the disciples’ learning, but his patience prevailed.  I’m glad he’s patient with me, too!

Are you a saint?

“Who are these dressed in white robes, and where did they come from?”  Revelation 7:13 (CEV)

We often think of saints as those who have lived a very pious life, who exemplified living a life in Christ, who have gone to heaven and are now wearing white robes, shining their halos, and sprouting large wings.  A saint certainly can be someone who lived a life of piety and was always in close connection with God, and there are other kinds of saints, too.

In Paul’s letters to the churches he started around the Mediterranean Sea, he often started with:  “To all the saints in . . .” as he addressed the faithful worshipers in that city or area.  That would indicate that saints are far more than those who have gone on before us (although people who have been a strong influence on our spiritual lives and who are no longer living can certainly be included with saints.)  I’m sure we can all name people who are special to us, whether living or dead.

Think about the “saints” in your life:  a Sunday school teacher, an aunt or uncle, your parents or grandparents, an older person in the church who listens to you and cares about you, people who are there for you to pray, support, encourage, and lift you up, and most of all, those who bring the presence of Christ to you.

My maternal grandmother died when I was in my senior year of college back in the 1970’s, and she had a strong influence on my spiritual life.  She didn’t talk a lot.  She loved her home and her seven children and twenty-three grandchildren.  Her family was her life.  Her church was important to her, and she was active in the church as much as she could be.  I’m not sure I was totally aware of her influence until years after she was gone, and now as I reflect on her life, I realize that she lived her faith visibly.  Maybe I have given her sainthood in my own mind, and that’s all right (even though she would be the first to deny it.)

Living saints in my life are far too numerous to list, and most of them would be shocked that I had put their name on the list.  My husband, my parents, some of my friends, and countless parishioners would top the list.  They aren’t perfect, and I’m sure I’ve been quite able to list their faults (along with my own).  What they are is consistent in sharing God’s love with me in a wide variety of ways.  They are the ones who keep me accountable, teach me patience, love me even when I’m not very lovable, and accept me for who I am even though I don’t deserve it.  They are the ones who get me through the hard times and celebrate with me in the joyful times.

The question I have to ask myself is:  Am I a saint to someone else?  I’m not sure it’s something we can plan to do – it just happens.  It happens because we are living out the teachings of Jesus, living the way God has called us to live, being who God has helped us to be, and becoming who God is helping us to become.  We are God’s beloved children who just ARE.  We are given the gift of love which intended to be shared with others, and we rarely know that we have made a difference because we are just who we are as God’s child.

That’s a saint.  So, are you a saint?  Are you living your faith, loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself?   If so, chances are you are definitely a saint to someone else!  God bless you!

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