I am sitting here in a chair with my computer in my lap. There's at least one clean bottle. My hair is clean. I did eat something for breakfast (though at 11 am). Baby girl smiled for the first time last night.
I'm calling this a winning Friday.
Yet, the kitchen counter isn't clean (the clutter is driving me crazy!). Nor is all of the laundry folded (my favorite household chore). And I think there is a giant milk stain on the carpet upstairs and I need to scrub out (it's starting to smell). This is not to mention that there's more than a dozen thank you notes that are long over due to be written all sprawled out on the kitchen table (I seem to write one every other day). There's a gift we got a double of that I need to return to the store before I can't anymore. And I think I need to pay the electric bill . . .
But, right here right now I am letting that expectation of "to do" go. I want to write something about life as it all feels so very different now in the past two months. How I don't sleep anymore but amazingly I am ok. How much I love holding baby girl in the rocking chair. And how much I am thankful for times when she falls asleep near me.
This moment of reflection I'm having right now may not last for more than 5 minutes. I may not type more than just this one sentence before having to hit save and come back to it another time (in an hour, tomorrow or next week?)
The baby will probably soon cry announcing that's it's time to eat again.
Or, the phone will ring about something I forgot to do.
Or, I'll remember that if I don't make it to the dry cleaners in an hour then . . .
Yet, in all of these new pushes and pulls, this is what I most know. I have to make time for soul. For my soul. My soul can't be all consumed in caring for another human being.
But it is a conversation about temptation of loosing ourselves in another person and calling it love. It isn't.
And us women can easily go into overdrive when it comes to our children, can't we? I've seen it happen to so many of my friends . . . It really easy to allow the work right in front of us crying the loudest (and in my case literally true) to be what is ALWAYS most important. But it's not.
To be a good caregiver, at least as I am learning, I can't lose the parts of me that make me, me. I have to ask for help.
So I must have time to really catch up with friends. To visit friends. To write. To preach. To go on dates with my husband. And to dream about my next project.
The way I do these things, of course I know won't be the same volume or pace as they were before baby girl came into our lives, but I can't let joy of vocation, of friendship or the future be wrapped up in one other person. It's just not good for her. And it's not good for me either.
And I believe no matter what stage of life you find yourself in-- young children at home or not-- there's a lesson in this for all of us. How are we doing to take care of our souls? How are we going to put what we love at the top of the priority list? How are we saying no to good things so that even greater joys can find us?
Sure, now I'm "her" mother. But I'm also a lot of other things. Pastor. Advocate. Wife and Friend. Thank goodness for the community of support around us right now that gives me time and space to lean into so many of life's gifts. I'm hoping today that you find space for this too.
This daily grind is about wholeness after all, isn't it?
Guest blogger: Jayme Cloninger
On February 19, Washington Plaza Baptist participated in the Baptist Women in Ministry's Martha Stearns Marshall day of preaching by inviting Jayme Cloninger to preach, a recent college grad who is a friend of Pastor Elizabeth.
Jayme currently serves as a human rights advocate for the Enough Project on the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign in Washington DC. Jayme grew up as a small town girl in Denver, North Carolina, where her heart for global missions and social justice grew in her involvement with local community development work and her three trips to South Africa. After attending Samford University in Birmingham, AL (where Pastor Elizabeth also attended), Jayme followed her passion and vision for faith and human rights to help mobilize the faith community and grassroots efforts to influence US Foreign Policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jayme is thinking of going to seminary sometime in the near future.
I'm proud to share her sermon here! I know you will be blessed as you keep reading. We all think Jayme has a bright future in ministry ahead!
Thank you for sharing your Sunday morning with me and for this opportunity to participate in a declaration of truth found in Isaiah 43. As Pastor Elizabeth mentioned, in honor of Martha Stearns, a pioneer for women in ministry from the second half of the eighteenth century, this month, Baptist Women in Ministry are inviting young women to preach a sermon at a local Baptist church. And so, here I am, a young female, giving my first sermon. A place I never thought I would ever be.
I grew up in a traditional home, where I was homeschooled for all 12 years, and attended a pretty conservative Southern-Baptist church. Jokingly, I often refer to myself as a recovering home school evangelical.
For my parents, homeschooling was an opportunity for them to raise their children with a “godly education.” As a result, my faith is very much interwoven with my love for academia. Education and faith were seen as two tools for breaking generational sins. Both my parents come from broken homes with alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, poverty and so much more. Higher education was not an option when the reality of life called them to care for their younger siblings. And so, when the time came for them to raise their own children, they looked to faith and education as the gateway to redeeming the generational sins that have for too long tainted our family history.
Reconciliation for a broken past and hope for a better future are two things both my parents eagerly seek after from the Lord. In telling my mom that I would be speaking from Isaiah 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me when she immediately began to recite the verse from memory, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Following the promise recited, my mother asked, “Jayme, did you not know that Isaiah 43 is my favorite chapter in the Bible? Did you not know that I pray those words for our family everyday and have done so for thirty years?” I couldn’t hold back my tears. In that moment, chills ran down my spine, for I could truly sense the Lord’s renewing spirit in not only my life, but also in the life and story of my family.
As with each of you, my story will continually evolve, a fluid journey of past, present and future. When we look at our past circumstances, we often get caught up in over-analyzing what was, in the hope of creating a solution for the present that will allow us to avoid the same bad situation in the future. In doing so, we allow our past circumstances to define our current situation.
Now, let me pause here and ask a question: Do we really want to be a people who orient our lives according to the past? Is that the hope that we have?
This is where we find the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. A people who allow their former transgressions to determine their lack of present hope, blinding them to the faithfulness of God. Here Yahweh calls out the promise of deliverance in saying, “I am about to do a new thing.”
The Lord declares that “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In the present moment of despair and exile, God reminds His people of his continual faithfulness. For the presence of God never left, it was continually in the midst of exile and despair.
If the truth of God’s faithfulness and redemption was true for the people of Israel in their dark season of defeat and captivity under Babylon, how much truer are those words for you and I in our present season in life?
God calls on Israel to adopt a new way of life. A way of life that is not bound by their sins or their transgressions. As the Lord moves through history, from the story of Israel, we witness hope come to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Thankfully, with the life of Christ we can actually experience the new. For as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This new creation, this new way of life is a life redeemed. A life bound no longer by death, but by a resurrection.
This morning, I would like to spend the rest of our time together discussing what it truly means to live in the new, to live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ.
Such a conversation is timely with the transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, and for those who has participated in the sermon series God Calls, and the study on spiritual gifts. As you have walked through Epiphany, you have wrestled with its practical implications for your individual lives. This season of Epiphany has been a time for us to celebrate the revelation of the mystery of Christ.
Pastor Elizabeth has walked with you through a large discussion on how God calls each one of us to live out the gifts God has given us. I to have been on this journey with you. Reading and following Pastor Elizabeth’s blog and having numerous follow-up conversations with her and other friends. In the initial sermon on God Calls, we reflected on what it means to care for oneself, and how to glorify God with our bodies as agents of service and love.
From the story of Jonah, we learn that God Calls you and I to “those people.” God commissions you in love and deed to care for all people.
In the study of the Spiritual Gifts and the sermon on God Calls you to Listen when No One Is, we see the life of Samuel and how the Lord developed in his heart the ability to listen keenly to the Spirit and to use his spiritual gifts for the Kingdom. Here we are challenged to use our Spiritual gifts, as did Samuel, to bless others.
In the previous two sermons, there has been an underlying theme of renewal. As Pastor Elizabeth pointed out, with both Israel and our present lives, “because God was God-- the ruler of all, the Lord of all, the Creator of all things, even in exile, even in these undesirable circumstances--- there is a call for renewal. A call to begin to consider anew the most troubling circumstances in light of who God was and is.”
So what does it actually look like for each of us to live in the new, even in the midst of our own moments of exile?
We may be surprised by the answer.
As God parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, in their second exodus, God promises to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” The water in the wilderness is God’s faithfullness to continually redeem and make all things new. God is not bound by the previous exodus to usher in a new act of salvation. As God did for Israel, God will surprise us with his ways for redeeming our past and present.
As did Israel, we often fall victim to our own works to live out the new. Our problem solving skills not only burn us out, but as we read in Isaiah 43, we end up burdening God with our self-attempts at righteousness. We often miss the core of experiencing the new, connecting with the eternal.
As Paul Tillich put it, “There is something that does not age, something that is always old and always new at the same time, because it is eternal. That which creates the new is that which is beyond old and beyond new, the Eternal.”
In The Shaking of the Foundations, Tillich continues to explain that with the life of Christ, we now have the opportunity to live a life that represents the very thing that transcends the old and the new. Love.
Through the mystery of Christ we are revealed a new kind of love, a love brought through self-expenditure. A love that took on our human nature to overcome our transgressions.
In living out this new, we have each been equipped to carry out this love for the edification of the body of Christ and the service of the Kingdom. With your study of the spiritual gifts, you may now realize that you are a perceiver, server, teacher, encourager, giver, ruler or been given the gift of mercy. May this love become the revelation of the new in our lives.
It is easy for us to talk about using our gifts as we sit in a church and have room to reflect on their meaning. But what happens when we are back in our moment of exile? Our moment of defeat?
As someone who is an advocate for justice and human rights, I daily seek solutions to broken situations within our society. I serve as a community organizer for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide and crimes against humanity organization. Specifically, I focus on the conflict in eastern Congo, a place known to be the home of worst war since World War 2, claiming over 6 million lives. It’s a conflict perpetuated by a corrupt government, struggle over natural resources, where rebel group control and battle the different mines and in attacking other local mining communities, use rape as a weapon of war.
For me, as someone who is far removed from the conflict and who works inside the beltway to make Congo a priority for US Federal Government, I daily battle with the cynicism that there is no hope for Congo.
I started this job in June of 2011, and in the first half of my time at Enough, I was overwhelmed by the history and situation of Congo. When you think you have a solution to a problem, you usually will cause another.
After about six months, I began to finally meet a lot of the Congolese diaspora community here in the United States, opening the door for new friendships to be cultivated. These relationships give me hope.
The Congolese community mobilize themselves around practical solutions for the crisis in their own country. Despite not being able to directly care for their friends and family in Congo, they are using their time here in the US to raise awareness and pressure the US Government to take stronger action on Congo. The diaspora model for us what it means to live in the new, advocating for hope and peace, in the midst of the worst trials and moments of exile.
Just as the Triune God advocated for the freedom of Israel in exile, and his deliverance through Christ, so too are we to advocate for hope and justice in the midst of our community’s darkest season in life. In our new creation, we are to model the same love Christ has lavished us with. For Paul continues to write in 1 Corinthians 5, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
As ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the tools to live out the new and to advocate for God’s continual redemption in and through the world. Adam Taylor, the director of advocacy for World Vision, writes in his book, Mobilizing Hope, “God has made us for a profound purpose. When we sit on our gifts or make a litany of excuses for why we aren’t prepared or able, we block the manifest glory of God that is within us. Trying to tackle injustice based on our limited abilities means playing small. Instead we must tap into the renewing power of faith to overcome the barriers that get in the way of transformed nonconformism.”
And so, I pray that as you transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, that the eyes of your hearts will be opened to the power of the spirit in your life to equip you to live in the New. To live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ. For as Tillich eloquently said, “Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age; it removes guilt and curse. It is working even today toward new creation. It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history. But it is not completely hidden to those who are grasped by its reality. "Do you not perceive it?" asks the prophet. Do we not perceive it?
This weekend on Friday night and Sunday morning while gathered around the tables after sharing a meal together, Washington Plaza Baptist engaged in a study of spiritual gifts based out of Romans 12:1-8.
Why did we do this?
Learning about and discussing spiritual gifts seemed like a great fit for these two goals.
How thankful I was to Beth Dotson, a friend and former teacher of mine to come and lead the special weekend events all the way from Tennessee! Her presence was a blessing to all of us.
If you missed the action this weekend or just want to know more about this motive gift study that we've been up to, here's the summary. You can also take a test online by clicking here. Feel free to email me if you want more information. (Pastors and other church leaders: I highly recommend this study!)
MOTIVE GIFTS: Romans 12:1-8
Each motive gift (basic God-given inward drive, motivation or inclination) and may be symbolized by a figure to help focus its nature.
1. Prophecy: An eye. Declaring truth and insight with the aim of evoking repentance and restoration. The ability to “see”, to discern, where people or programs really are. The motivation to make motives right. TRUTH.
2. Serving: A hand. Giving practical assistance and help. The ability to both see and do things which need to be done. The motivation to demonstrate love by meeting practical needs and giving assistance. ACTION.
3. Teaching: An ear. Clarifying truth. Primary emphasis on the Word. The ability to impart knowledge and to lead others into revealed truth. The motivation to search out and validate truth which has been declared. CONSISTENCY, COMPETENCY, AND THOROUGHNESS.
4. Exhortation: A tree. Stimulating spiritual growth; lovers of people. The ability to encourage people to grow and to successfully meet the experiences of life. The motivation to stimulate the faith and personal maturation of others. GROWTH.
5. Giving: A gift. Giving and motivating others to give. Special sharing of material assistance. The ability to handle and give assets. The motivation to see the work of God and the ministry of others go forward and succeed. STEWARDSHIP.
6. Leadership: Profile of a face. Organizing people to complete a goal, giving administrative and leadership aid. The ability to see long-range goals and to facilitate others in the right tasks. The motivation to coordinate the activities of others to achieve common goals. TASKS AND RESULTS.
7. Mercy: A heart. Personal support, empathy, with primary compassion for spiritual and emotional rather than practical needs. The ability to feel where people are and to identify with and relieve those who are is distress. LOVE.
WHAT IT DOES
Declares the will
Keeps us centered
on spiritual principle
Renders practical service
Keeps the work of ministry moving
Researches and teaches the Bible
Keeps us studying and learning God’s Truth
Encourages personal progress
Keeps us applying spiritual truths
Shares material assistance
Keeps specific needs provided for
Gives leadership and direction
Keeps us organized and increases our vision
PERSON OF COMPASSION (MERCY)
Provides personal and emotional support
Keeps us in right attitude and relationships
God Calls You: to See What Others Don't I Samuel 3:1-10; Romans 12:1-8
Several years ago while participating in the Lewis Fellows Young Clergy Leadership program, our group of 30 pastors gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for 3 days of workshops. One afternoon, our discussion sessions suspended and we were all encouraged to walk from our downtown hotel to the historic district of the city known as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s childhood home. Because we were studying leadership, it was important, we were told to get to know the culture and surroundings which shaped the greatest American civil rights leader of all times. Those of us who had not been to this site were eager for the opportunity to visit and absorb as much as we could.
As we began to walk around MLK's childhood home, it became apparent that one of the greatest influencers we learned upon Martin's life was his father. Though raised in separate but not equal segregated Atlanta schools-- his Martin Sr. was known to push his son to not become complacent in his studies or in his life.
One historian wrote: "Martin Luther King, Sr., quite often referred to simply as "Daddy King," served as the first role model for young Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the principal influences in molding his personality. . . . He assisted in the organization of voter registration drives, participated in the NAACP, and sat on the board of Morehouse College. As pastor of the local church, he embedded strong religious ideals in his son and linked him to the church. The lectures from both King's parents on the subject of racial harmony stuck with Martin and armed him against all forms of prejudice."[i]
As the national park service guide concluded the tour, he summed up our experience in the home by saying, "If it wasn't for Martin, Sr. paving the way-- calling out academic and spiritual gifts in his son, we might not be standing here today talking about this man who did so much good for our country and the racial equality of all humankind."
Similarly, today, our lection for this morning directs our attention to one of the greatest priest and prophets of all in time found in the Old Testament: Samuel, who would begin his life of service at a young age through an apprenticeship. Samuel, who would become a spiritual leader for turbulent times of transition in Israel's life together-- guiding and anointing the first two kings in the nation's history.
But, as we know, we don't just arrive in life without being under the influence of someone who teaches us. Who was the influence behind the spiritual upbringing of Samuel, like Martin Luther King Sr. was to his son? The answer arises in our lection for this morning.
In Samuel's childhood, Eli served God in the temple as the head priest. Though not his father, Eli had been in relationship with Samuel from his toddler years. Samuel's mother, Hannah, who struggled to conceive, prayed hard for Samuel's arrival. Eli was there to give Hannah a word of encouragement that God heard her prayers and one day she'd have a child. And, when Samuel was born and once weaned, Hannah dedicated Samuel to God in the temple for a life of service. Eli became his guardian.
Yet, while this story sounds beautiful from its beginning, it is important to note that all was not perfect. There were great problems in the land. Historically, since Moses and Joshua lead the nation of Israel to the Promise land, the people weren't very good at listening or paying attention to God's plans for their lives. The leadership system in place of judges did not receive wide-spread support from the people. The spiritual foundation in the land became increasingly far off-center of what God's presence in their lives looked like.
Furthermore, in a culture were religious leaders passed from generation to generation, Eli's biological sons were not up for the job. The son to son business of serving in the temple would stop with Eli. In fact, prophets had already showed up at Samuel's doorstep foretelling the consequences of the sons' corrupt behavior. Personally, I can imagine that Eli grieved the sadness of unmet expectations on part of his family-- they were not the family he wanted them to be.
So with all of this true, it didn't exactly seem like a moment in time when God would show up . . . when God would do something new... when God would bless.
Yet, if we know anything about our God we know that when we least expect is the very time that God does begin to move.
And, Eli emerges as the natural first choice. But, Eli, what? What was God thinking in picking him to begin this new movement in Israel's history that would begin with the call of Samuel.
This is what we know: Eli probably thought his moment in time of doing anything significant with his life had passed. It was his time to retire-- to kick back and enjoy life a little. And, physically, his health is failing. He's going blind in fact. Look with me at verse two where we are told about Eli, "whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see."
Again, let me reiterate that seems completely unlikely that Eli would be the one to SEE anything significant. He couldn't see.
But, he does see. In the paradigm of how God works in the world-- using the most unlikely of us for the most unlikely of tasks, God calls out Eli to use his gift of prophecy or discernment to SEE things for Samuel.
In our New Testament lesson for today, we heard the words of Paul that we've stuck close to all weekend if you've been around for our chili cook-off and special Bible study sessions this morning. We've learned that we all have spiritual gifts. And these gifts are meant not for ou r own good, but to build up the Body of Christ. And, most of all, we've learned that using our spiritual gifts is how we move in and through our corners of the world with SIGHT bigger than just what we know. Offering our gifts to God is how we worship the Lord with our daily lives.
If our gift is service, we will see things that need to be done and do it-- we'll see when the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the paper products to be refilled in the bathroom, the food collected here to be taken over to the food bank. And, we will do.
If our gift is mercy, we will see the hearts of the hurting and broken-- offering a listening ear, a tissue, or simply being a presence.
If our gift is encouragement, we will see the bigger spiritual picture of individual and groups concerns-- offering a word of motivation, placing a meaningful book in a person's hands at just the right time, or offering to share a testimony in worship of where we see God at work in our lives.
If our gift is teaching, we will see the deeper truths in the texts of scripture and other literature that are meant to grow others in wisdom and knowledge-- enjoying the research process of preparing to teach as much as the teaching and watching the joy come to folks eyes when they get a new understanding.
If our gift is giving, we will see how our momentary resources can be used for the good if managed well-- being ok with less new things so that more funds can be directed to mission organizations, being ok with not getting credit for making donations, actually preferring it this way, and being blessed by seeing the fruits of their personal sacrifices bless the community at large.
If our gift is leadership, we will see the bigger picture of how to position just the right people in just the right places to bring transformative change in the administrative life of a community-- being the one who steps up and says a word, being the one who coaches others to claim their callings too, being the one who inspires vision in practical ways.
And, if our gift is prophecy, we will see the possibilities of what God can do that may not seem clear in the present moment-- using our voice to say yes to God's leading and helping others do the same.
And such was Eli's gift. When Samuel came to Eli twice in the middle of the night thinking that it was him who was calling his name, "Samuel, Samuel," Eli redirects him back to bed. By the third time Samuel hears a voice calling his name and still comes to Eli thinking that Eli was trying to tell him something, Eli sees the situation clearly. It was the Lord doing the calling. And because this was true, it was Eli's job to help Samuel recognize this and respond accordingly.
In verse 9, we hear Eli's prophetic word: "Therefore Eli said to Samuel, 'Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak Lord for your servant is listening."
Though it might be easy to be critical of Eli-- talking about his failings throughout his life and most certainly mentioning that he raised poorly behaved sons-- I believe that in this moment in time Eli fulfilled God's calling upon his life to see what others (aka Samuel) did not.
You see, with all the life-changing, spiritual game changing, Holy Spirit filled moments that Samuel would soon lead within the nation of Israel, it was Eli's six words that helped this boy who had not yet known the Lord to SEE the Lord for the first time. Using his discernment gift, Eli became the influential person who help Samuel think about the inconceivable plans that God had already prepared for his life.
It might be easy at this juncture of the sermon to think that calling to use your spiritual gifts is just for professional Christians or "those important" people (whoever those people are). But need I remind you that God places a calling to use our gifts on ALL of our lives. No one who desires to be used by God is left without a gift. No one.
Over a year ago now after a series of sermons, Sunday School lessons and discussions in Church Council, we agreed as a church to begin a deacon ministry again. And, so we asked for names from all of you of folks you thought had the gifts to do this job full of the gifts of mercy, service and encouragement. And, with my list given to me by the Congregation Care team of who your recommendations were, I began to make some calls to several of you.
While a few said "yes" eagerly right away, most of those I called were quite shy. "Who me? No, I can't be a deacon in this church?" (And you'd go to tell me the reasons why we shouldn't pick you).
But then after some time had passed, several of you came back to me and said, "Well if you believe in me and congregation see these gifts in me, I think I need to give it a try to serve."
And such an experience is not isolated to merely the deacon ministry. Countless times, I've seen the same situation played out in our community life together. Many of you have found yourself in positions of service, leadership or care that you never in a million years imagined you'd be. But, you're the ones signing up now to be being the liturgist, leading one of our ministry teams, helping out in children's Sunday School or serving in our hypothermia project because why? Someone used their gifts to encourage you to use yours.
This is the big picture my friends-- God wants God's body on earth to be blessed. God wants us to have every gift we need for the kingdom building that awaits us. And so God gave us each other. But, not just so we could bump shoulders and see someone sitting beside us in the pew. But, so that by using our calling-- seeing God through OUR particular lens of giftedness-- we help others see what they might never see if it weren't for us.
I dare say if Martin Luther King, Jr. was not taught serious study of the things of God from his father, we would not know his name today or have freedom in all the corners of our land where it exists today. If Eli hadn't told Samuel to go and respond to the Lord when God called, we wouldn't have known King David and all that he would teach us about praising God's name through song.
I dare say too that there are countless new stories ready to be written in our community if only we each use our gifts to help others see what they could not see without us recognizing it first.
In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.
However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. "What?!?" we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: "We don't need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I'll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same."
And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.
Rest assured I'm not asking you to empty your wallets this morning . . . . though I am sure the trustees wouldn't mind.
But, what I am saying, like Tony Campolo said about giving, is that in this church, just like other local communities of faith, God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish. God has given us teachers. God has given us servers. God has given us encouragers. God has given us leaders. God has given us those who can show compassion. God has given us givers. God has given us prophets.
This question then just sits on our shoulders: are we going to all God to use our gifts so that others can be blessed through us? How are you going to make God known by seeing what others don't?
[i] Gregg Blackely "Formative Influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Peace Magazine. http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v17n2p21.htm
"What stirs up in your happiness that is long-lasting?"
"How do you feel God has gifted you for service in the Body of Christ?"
Such have been questions our adult Sunday morning class has been considering over the past two Sundays in our "Congratulations, You Are Gifted!" class. January in worship and in all aspects of church life is focused this year on calling and spiritual gifts. We're even having a special community gathering on Friday night (and Chili Cook off too) to talk over all of this in an informal setting. We're claiming that the life of discipleship is all about first knowing ourselves and in the authenticity of God's gifts to us serving others accordingly. Biblical texts such as I Corinthians 12-14 and Romans 12:1-10 have been keys to this study.
Yet, what I have found in teaching is many folks really don't know what brings them deep joy and some have never studied spiritual gifts before. So, we've been starting with the basics. Beginning with detecting clues about what makes each of us tick, what moves us and what our aspirations for our future might be.
We began the discussion Sunday with everyone sharing their answers to some fill in the blank questions. One of these was: "Movies, songs, books, art, experiences that have touched me the most are…"
Though I didn't answer it in class, if I did, I would go to first to the song, "Say" sung by John Mayer. It is a ballad I sometimes listen to on Sunday mornings in effort to gear myself for preaching. It is good not to be afraid to say what I need to say. It is good to be filled with confidence that no matter what God will find a way to speak through me. I'm sure Mayer was not thinking of the preaching task when he recorded this, but for me, he is:
Take out of your wasted honor
Every little past frustration
Take all your so-called problems,
Better put them in quotations
Say what you need to say [x8]
Walking like a one man army
Fighting with the shadows in your head
Living up the same old moment
Knowing you'd be better off instead,
If you could only . . .
Say what you need to say [x8]
Have no fear for giving in Have no fear for giving over
You'd better know that in the end
Its better to say too much
Than never to say what you need to say again
Even if your hands are shaking
And your faith is broken
Even as the eyes are closing
Do it with a heart wide open
Say what you need to say [x24]
I look forward to what the next two sessions of our "Congratulations, You Are Gifted" class will offer all of us. My hope is that all of us find a way to "Say what we need to say" about our own lives and begin to live into our calling and spiritual gifts as a community.
Let the Light Come: Christmas Eve 2011
Isaiah 9: 2-7
What are we celebrating tonight? (Christmas? Anyone excited about Santa? And still some of you might say it is Jesus' Birthday?)
Jesus' birthday is the answer I learned as a child growing up in Sunday School. Christmas was all about Jesus' birthday.
Tonight is not Jesus' real birthday (hate to burst your bubble on that one) because no one really knows for sure. However, tonight was chosen as the occasion for the Eve of celebration because of its correspondence on the calendar year with the season of darkness, at least in Northern hemisphere. In the year 350, December 25th became the official Christmas day by a decree from Pope Julius on to correspond with Winter Solstice-- the longest and thus darkest night of the year.
And though the words "presents" "joy" "mistletoe" or even "baby" sit as the centerpiece of what we think about this time of year, especially tonight-- we'd be completely off track on this holy night, if we didn't start our conversation together about scripture with the word: darkness.
I don't know the last time that you found yourself in complete darkness-- where you literally could not see what was right in front of your face, where you were putting one step in front of the other hoping that you would not fall or run into a wall. It's a rarity in our days of electric everything in the city in which we dwell and emergency readiness kits and flashlights at our bedside. City lights and guiding light posts are nearly everywhere, even in the most remote parts of our land.
Professor Karoline Lewis tells a story of being with her family in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a tour of Jewel Cave-- a place where she experienced darkness in a dramatic fashion.
After travelling down roughly forty flights of steps deep into the cave, the lights guiding the tour are extinguished, plunging those walking into total darkness. “Of course,” Lewis writes, “this is not just to show you how dark it is. We all know that. Rather, it is a reminder of that oft-forgotten fact that without light, even the smallest speck of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness. We could be down in that cave five minutes, five hours, five years and still never see our hands in front of our faces. This is what darkness does to you.” (Thanks Abby Thornton for sharing this great story with me!).
And, such was the situation described in our Isaiah text before us this evening. Though not literally in physical darkness, everything metaphorically around the original hearers of the text was dark.
Corrupt leadership was in power. Terrorist driven enemies were at the nation's doorstep. Spiritual leaders were no longer valued for insight they could provide. Mothers worried about their children's futures. Fathers worried about seeing their children grow up in a free and fair land. And, the rich were getting rich and the poor were getting poorer.
Virtues like hope, peace, joy and love that we've been talking about all Advent season-- were not on the main stage of community life and interactions with one another as the prophet Isaiah spoke these words of the Lord.
Sound familiar at all to life in 2012?
For as much as we gather this evening in the cheer of our holiday colors and sweaters, for as much as we gather with the warm fuzzies that we get from singing the Christmas carols in community that we've known since childhood, for as much as our stomachs are full of Christmas cookies, special pies and holiday bread-- we also understand Isaiah's words of what it means to be a people who are living in a land of darkness. For just as we've experienced the drudgery of short days for the last several weeks-- going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark-- which psychologists say is their busiest time of the year (the darkness seems to depress all of us more than normal it seems), many of us have also approached Christmas season this year, very well aware of the emotional and spiritual darkness that surrounds our lives.
Beloved ones will no longer be around our dinner table this year and we miss them more than words can say.
We've found our jobs cut our hours, pay us less and expect us to be happy about it anyway.
We've faced new realities about our own lives that have left us confused, disappointed and lonely.
Beloved friends and family members have endured suffering after suffering, seemingly unable to catch a break and in journeying alongside them, our hearts have broken too.
Darkness looms over us, often no matter if we want it or not, no matter if we know it or not and hides from us, all of us, the life that we were born to live, the life that we were created for by God.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined."
And it to this state of darkness, that all of us know something about, Isaiah speaks a word of prophecy saying: "Listen up, all of you who know you are in the dark, all of you who can't see even a shimmer in front of your faces-- a GREAT brightness is about to shine, a light is coming."
Yet, as the passage goes on, what is indeed strange about this gift of a light is that it was foretold to come in the most vulnerable, most innocent, and most unassuming of package: a baby.
For Israel, the light was not going to come through a triumphant new king who would just appear on the scene and slain all those who ever said a word of harm against them as they hoped. It wasn't going to come by anything they'd seen before and could predict logically on a spreadsheet. And, it most certainly wasn't going to come on their timetable.
The gift was to be called as verse six tells us: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (anyone hear Handel's Messiah playing in the background as I read these words?)
Biblical scholars go on to burst Handel's and our bubbles again here saying that Isaiah in fact, was not envisioning Jesus when the words were penned-- many think they were prescribed about the prophet were about Azaz (the corrupt king ruling Israel at the time)'s son, Hezekiah-- that he would be the spiritual leader that Israel needed next to be saved from their enemies.
But, regardless, this is what we know as we continue reading in the second testament, in the gospel narratives, that hundreds of years later, another child is born. And, this would not just be any child, not just a child who grew up to be a just leader, or a skillful teacher, or even a boy who grew into a man who would make his momma proud-- though this child would be all of these things.
This child would be the one who took on the yoke of the burden of his people, who would take the bar across his people's shoulders, who would take away the rod of their oppressors-- and not just for the nation of Israel, but for the whole world. And, such would be because this child would be not just any light, but THE light.
This child would be the GREAT light that forever broke the bonds of life-crippling darkness, whose life would say to future generations: "No more let sins and sorrows grow nor thorns infest the ground: I come to make God's blessings flow far as the curse of darkness is found."
And the world would forever be different, why? Because the light came. The light shone. The light brought hope that there was more to this life than the darkness all around.
And, this would be the hope: for all of us, past present and future who have found our lives walking in darkness, that in Jesus, we can be in the light too.
As many of you know that in January, Kevin and I had the opportunity to travel to Israel with several leaders of other faiths from the Reston area. And, one of the highlights for me of the trip was to spent a couple of hours one day in Bethlehem, the city we are told in gospel reading for tonight is the place where Jesus was born. While visiting the Church of the Nativity, I was awestruck there unlike any other place of among the Christian sites we visited of the holiness of the location said to be the birthplace of Christ. Though again, no one could prove without a doubt that this was the exact place of this historical event, but I didn't quite care.
After descending the stairs into a small chapel named for Mary and placing my hand on a spot designated as the spot of the birth-- I felt the light. Maybe it just was by sheer connection to the thousands of Christ seekers and skeptics alike who had placed their hand on the same spot too. Maybe it had something to the do with the spiritually charged trip I was already having. Maybe it was because I had already visited countless Jewish and Muslim sites already and I was thrilled to final be in a place that was important to my faith. Yet, regardless, I tell you the light was there. It was a powerful moment of faith for me. Call me a CathoBaptist, but I was ready to walk the aisle of faith all over again in the middle of this Catholic church. For there just is something powerful in thinking about the light... the very face of God come to earth.
He's the light that can make the most sarcastic of us this Christmas open our heart to believe again.
He's the light that can break through the coldest of hearts, the most horrid of circumstances-- stuck right in the middle of what the carol calls the bleak mid-winter.
He's the light that can give us all hope that what we see or can't see right in front of us is not all there is.
He's the light that says to our overwhelming and oppressing of circumstances-- rejoice for a new joy is here.
Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wonderers . . . calling all grieving friends . . . calling all those who want a life different from you see right in front of you right now. Come, to the table this night. Come and receive the very life and blood of our Savior and Lord. Come, and receive what you are most longing for this Christmas: a light has come. Darkness will be over soon. And, hope is born anew!
Luke 1: 57-66 (CEB)
57When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”
61They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.”62Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.
63After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.”64At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.
65All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.
Earlier in Luke chapter one, we read that Zechariah was serving his tour of duty of a lifetime in the temple making the offering in the Holy of Holy place. And, it was in the temple that he heard the word of the Lord that was unthinkable to him: he was going to have a son.
According to Jewish tradition at the time, it was expected that the first-born son would carry on the family tradition by receiving the surname of his father.
But, this would not be; for, as unusual as the circumstances of the birth were (Elizabeth and Zechariah were well past childbearing years), the name would be just as unusual. The angel Gabriel said the baby would be named John which means "God has been gracious." And, nine months later came this babe.
So, according to Mosaic law, on the 8th day of life, when the circumcision was to take place, this surprising name choice was made known in the neighborhood too. For when Elizabeth said the baby's name was to be John and Zechariah affirmed the choice, the neighbors who had come to celebrate with them in this ritual practice were surprised. Probably saying something like: "What are they thinking bucking tradition in this manner?" as verse 61 (NSRV) records the response of the onlookers probably spoken in an accusatory tone to this new family of three, "None of your relatives has this name. [John]."
And not only was the actual community surprised at Elizabeth's childbearing abilities and the name given, but the prophecy declared over this newborn child's life.
Verse 66 says about the babe, "for the Lord's hand was with him." And, at this time in scripture history, you just didn't say that about anybody.
For even more than usual, God was in this birth as answer to prayers like none other. Baby John was called out to play a crucial role in salvation history though the details of it all would be determined over time.
So with the surprise of all of this intact, what does the story say was the response? Seems like a silly question doesn't it because surprises usually make people happy, make people want to go out of their houses skipping, or make one break out into song like they are living in a musical, right?
But if we consider the full context of Zechariah, this fellow had every reason not to be joyful about this surprise.
Sure, it was great that he finally held that son in his arms that he'd be hoping for. But, in his elder years, if his left brain was turned on, he knew that he probably was not going to live long enough to see his son do all the things every father hoped to experience with his child. It might have been too old to watch John learn how to throw or chop wood or say words from the Torah by himself much less gotten married. And so Zechariah, could have said, "God if you had just brought me this blessing just a little bit sooner, THEN, I could be happy about it. But, now, I just can't."
Also, Zechariah could have been a poor looser about the choice of name. He finally gets the son he had dreamed about having for years and he doesn't get to name him after himself. John would not be "marked" as his according to culture, no one would have automatically known he was Zechariah's child. And, so Zechariah could have barked at God saying: "Ok God, don't expect me to happy about it."
And, furthermore, Zechariah, like any proud dad, could have refused celebration because his son was not THE one, God's choose servant-- the Emmanuel God with us that they had all been hoping and praying would arrive. Just like any baseball coach dad or soccer mom, whose son is good but not that good to play on the all-stars team, Zechariah could have complained: "I am glad John is here, but I am not going to thank you for him because, you could have given me more. If you were going to all the trouble to bring about this one miraculously, why could not have my boy been the Messiah?"
But instead of being so uptight and self-seeking in exactly what kind of blessing that God needed to bring him, Zechariah took the path not so widely traveled called joy.
He accepted what he has been given as good. He didn't cling so much to the lost dreams of the past so that he couldn't take in this blessing. And, ultimately he allowed God to bless him so that there was nothing left to do but to sing for joy.
As I read and re-read the words of this Psalm known formally as the Benedictus which follows, what I couldn't help but notice is that the description was not about Zechariah. It wasn't about his son, funny name or not.
And it wasn't about the neighbors who came to coo and woo at the baby. This song of proclamation of a birth was not about any of the typical things you'd expect a first time dad to shout about.
Rather, the joy that Zechariah just had to proclaim was about God.
It was about how God had remembered a people who long thought they were forgotten.
It was about how faith in God could connect the past to the present.
It was about being so full of thanksgiving for God's presence that he just couldn't be held back.
How easy it is this time of year to think that joy comes in packages, that joy comes in the perfect holiday parties or the perfect family memories, but what if we allowed ourselves like Zechariah to be surprised for how the ways of joy led us too?
No matter what we see on the surface of our lives, joy can find us. It can find us if our Christmas tree is big and beautiful or if it looks like Charlie Brown's.
Joy can find us if we bake cookies or we eat store-bought ones.
Joy can find us if we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" for the 20th time or boycott tv altogether.
Joy is not about this season and all its gifts, joy ultimately is about God: the One who gives us hope that our life is greater than just what we see or can even understand right now.
So where are the corners of joy in your life that need to be uncovered? No matter what is going on in your life. No matter how difficult some circumstances are. No matter how out of hope you feel, I know deep down somewhere there is joy to be let loose for God is with us. And so, surprise, joy can find even you!