The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

I’m drawn to folks with a strong sense of purpose. Many of the folks I admire are dedicated to their craft, their work, their art. I have been a dabbler all my life, and I’ve got a lot of hobbies but don’t know that I am totally dedicated to any one thing..except Jesus. I can imagine not playing the guitar anymore, though with a great deal of loss, or one of the other instruments I dabble with, but I don’t see life without seeking the Lord.

Luckily, I don’t have to do anything like that. But it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, don’t worry about being enough, doing enough, being the person I think God wants me to be. I’m alcoholic, and at this writing I’ve been sober for a little more than 33 years. What I’ve learned through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is a straightforward way of seeking God — no pretense, no BS, but a sheer look up from the floor and crying for help. I’ve been a pastor for nearly 18 years, and a churchman for most of my life, and I’ve seen more honest cries for help more regularly in recovery rooms than anywhere else.

There’s a gift in losing all you have, and finding out what you held on to was worthless. Living a life in truth — “practicing these principles in all our affairs” — leads to the abundant life Jesus talks about in John’s Gospel, or so it seems to me.

Here’s a couple of verses I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks, and I took the blog title from the second one. Both of these quotes are from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you and have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine”, but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. Galatians 2:20

This notion of dying to self, and putting it in these terms that “my ego is no longer central” is so eye-opening, isn’t it? I am not going to be so preoccupied with what you are thinking of me, or if you are thinking of me, and I’m not going to keep trying to prove myself to God. I don’t have to — God loves me, and I don’t have to keep trying to prove that to myself or others.

Here’s the second quote, this one from Matthew 11:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. Matthew 11: 26-30.

I’ve got a lot to learn about writing a blog, and I’ll include some sermons in this as well and perhaps a podcast, but it’s good for all of us to remember that God loves us, and we don’t have to prove it to ourselves, to others, or to God.

We are invited to live into it. Maybe you’d like to walk with me on this journey.

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Check Point Charlie and Waiting on the LORD

Part of the former Berlin Wall

We were driving along in the dark of the early morning, along an excellent highway in Berlin, heading toward the airport.  Our driver, Stefan, showed up in plenty of time for our 3:30 am departure.  He was probably in his early 40s, friendly and stocky, and as I rode in the front seat of his mini van he told me he preferred working nights.  He had one more pickup that night, then home for bed.

“I’m a day sleeper,” he said, and smiled.  

He picked us up at the Crowne Plaza, where we had been staying a couple of extra days because of a pilot strike.  He asked about my life,  and I asked him about his. 

As we drove along the highway he said we were traveling the route of the Berlin Wall, and that where we were was once no-man’s land.  

The Wall fell in 1989; 33 years ago on this same route we might have been under deadly fire.  

Stefan said as he grew up in West Berlin he never thought he would see the Wall fall in his lifetime.  

During our stay we went to Checkpoint Charlie, the once-heavily guarded entryway between East and West Berlin.  While there a harsh reality, and a broken heart, settled upon me.  In the museum we saw and read about the  many desperate folk who tried so hard to escape to freedom: in hidden compartments in vehicles; in specially modified suitcases; with home-made scuba gear, and more.  After all the years of resisting Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, after waiting for and praying for the defeat of their own country, many saw a ray of hope come with the end of World War II, only to have the “Iron Curtain” descend upon them and see the ray darkened.

How did they wait?  What did they hope for?  How did they pray?  

****

When my friend Jay served his time in prison he told me he clung to Psalm 27, particularly the verses starting at verse 11:

Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me in a level path, because of my enemies.  Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.  I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!  Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait, I say, on  the LORD!  

Jay was in prison in the late 1980s, waiting those long months in jail to be released.  I think of others in prison now, waiting for their own release by serving their time, by pardon, or by death.  

I think of Stefan, growing up in a divided city and a no-mans land where you could be shot for seeking freedom, and where other young men were tasked with the shooting.

And I think of what seems to be a slow-moving God, seeping among divided loved ones, divided denominations, divided countries and leaders, with few seeking reconciliation and forgiveness.  

And I think of waiting as a form of trust, as a form of obedience, as an act of faith that God is at work in the world, and as we wait and watch we may see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.  

Wait, I say, on the LORD.  

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Trust and Trustworthy

Taken outside the Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick Derbyshire, England, 2014

For several years I made a strong but half-hearted attempt at selling insurance and mutual funds; strong because I worked hard, half-hearted because my heart was just not in it.  I tried to trick myself that it was, and I was excited about the money potential, but that latter part so rarely came my way, probably because, yes, my heart was just not in it.  

I had the privilege of working with a man of great integrity and strong faith. He mentored me in some ways, and gave me a distinction which came back to me this week, when I was reading the Psalms.  

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.    (Psalm 90: 1-3)

In one conversation with my friend and boss I said that I trusted God, and he pointed out the difference between trusting God and God being trustworthy.  God is trustworthy, whether or not I trust Him.  God does not become more or less trustworthy dependent on my faith.  

When we were kids (and this is a long time ago now),  there was a wonderful teleplay of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin in the title role. (It’s available now on YouTube!) My generation became entranced.  At one point in the story, the fairy Tinker Bell, represented by a light on the set, was wounded and near death.  Tink would be strengthened and healed by belief — and Peter Pan looked at us through the TV screen and begged us to say out loud, “I do believe in fairies!  I do believe in fairies!” and Tink’s light, which had dimmed almost out, gradually strengthened and then shone bright.  Our belief had strengthened Tinker Bell, and she would be okay.  Whew!

Well, God’s not like that.  God is trustworthy, regardless of whether we trust God.    In our Core Value of “Sharing Fellowship”, one of the questions is, “Am I confessing my sin?”  I confess that often when I pray I do not conclude by leaving it all in the hands of God, who is faithful and worthy to be praised.   I pray and give it to God, and sometimes I take it right back up again.  Another choice would be to watch and see what will happen.  But that takes patience…and maybe love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  

And I’m not always there.  But God is.

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Who You Kiddin’?

Image by LRus of Pixabay

Run with the Horses 

Who You Kiddin’?  

One of my favorite of Eugene Peterson’s books is Run with the Horses. Petersen gets the title from Jeremiah 12:5 — If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? 

The heading over chapter 12 in Jeremiah in my Bible is “Jeremiah’s complaint.”  It’s tempting to shake my head at Jeremiah, but I get it, I understand.  Over the years of my walk with Jesus I have been tasked with things I thought unfair, and too much for me.  Occasionally a well-meaning friend will quote some Scripture like “God will not give you more than you can bear”, and I’ll laugh if I’m lucky.  (And the well-meaning friend, too!)

In our Inspire Way of Life one of  the Core Values of Discipleship is “Using Disciplines”, and one of the questions hit me today:   Am I  “listening to God through the Bible?”  

Is the Bible informing my life?  Is the Bible revealing my life?  

Once I was pastor of a church and a hurricane destroyed the Sanctuary.  My wife and I were out of town and couldn’t get back for days because of cancelled flights and flood damage through the area.    The Sanctuary had to be leveled and a new one put in its place.  We worshiped outside for three weeks because the air was foul and we needed to make sure the building was safe.  This started an adventure of several years.

I thought I had challenges before that, but I guess i was just running with the footmen before the Lord called us to run with the horses.  

And now we are facing some difficult decisions about our denomination, about our church, about our ministry.  When we dealt with the hurricane, were we running with the footmen or running with the horses?

Either way, God is faithful, and has been and will be with us.  

Am I listening to God through the Bible?  Is the Bible informing my life? 

And what about those other times when I am dead tired of all this “religion” stuff and want to walk away?  Jeremiah tried that, too, and here’s what he wrote in Jeremiah 20:9 — If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

The love of God is deep inside Jeremiah, deep and burning like marrow on fire, and he tries to ignore it, tries to hold it in, and he cannot.  I know about this, too.  Maybe you do, too.  

Is God speaking to me through the Bible?  Is the Bible informing, or even revealing, my life?  I think so.

I think during my times of doubt, despair, anger, uncertainty Jesus is sitting next to me and saying something like:  “Who you kiddin?  You know I’m going to be with you, and you know you can’t give me up, and you know you don’t want to.  And you know that I will get you through wherever I call you to go.”  

This blog is named after a phrase Eugene Peterson uses in his translation of Matthew 11: 28-29:

Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

And, as long as I’m quoting something, this verse rarely fails to bring me to tears:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go

The rivers of woe will not thee overflow

For I will be with thee, thy troubles  to bless

And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.  

How Firm a Foundation (1787) 

529 in the UMH hymnal

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Lead Me to the Rock

Taken from a helicopter in Hawaii

Am I following the Spirit’s lead?  

What a great question!  How do I know whether is it the Spirit’s lead or my own wishes?  How do I learn to identify the Spirit’s voice?  I saw a poster a few years ago that attributed a quote about friendship to John Lennon.  I’m a lifelong Beatles fan and I’ve read probably way too much about them, and I knew that quote was not John’s voice.    A little research proved my gut reaction.    So then I wondered…

How can I learn God’s voice as well as someone else’s?  I suppose it is by approaching the Lord and His Word with the same intensity, with the same desire to know.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and the Lord will direct your path”.  (Proverbs 3:5-6) I was walking along a bayou and going over my memory verses and this was one of them.  As I walked, I suddenly understood that the Lord would “direct my path”, but that meant I needed to be moving somewhere, and be willing to surrender to the leading. 

Am I engaging mission?  Am I following the Spirit’s lead? 

At least for me, the answers are not readily apparent.  This week I’ve been revisiting Psalm 46:10 — Be still, and know that I am God. 

I’m wrestling with many things, or so it seems to me.  I’m a retired pastor serving a wonderful, small church and our denomination is splitting.  Like every divorce there is rancor and blame on both sides.  If we leave where  we are, we will take a financial penalty but we’ll be free.  If we’re free, do we want to yoke ourselves to another denomination or would we want to be simply Christians, being part of the Church that is the Body of Christ in the world?  Or maybe the denomination is not that important, but the fellowship of our local church, a form of “life together” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about.  Where can we best be obedient to Christ?  

I don’t know what decisions we’ll make.  (It’s “we” because my wife and I are a ministry team and we will make the decisions.)   In my reading this week I came back to Psalm 61.  Here are the first three verses, from the King James Version.  (I’m not a KJV only person, but it tends to be the one I go to most when troubled, probably because it is  the version I read when I fell in love with the Bible as a little boy.)

Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.  From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.  For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.  

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I”  moves me.  Lord, let me see as you see, let me understand from your perspective, lead me to a place of peace beyond my understanding, lead me to the rock that is higher than I.  

Am I following the Spirit’s lead?  I hope so;  I am seeking to;  and I am waiting and listening.  

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Sharing Fellowship

This picture is from several years ago along the Prayer Trail at Lakeview Methodist Conference Center in Palestine Texas

Core Values of Discipleship

Sharing Fellowship

This past week we were invited to an awards ceremony for our 9-year old granddaughter Zadie.  Zadie had been invited to a Wednesday night Bible study at a local church by one of her friends, and she grew to love it.  She would ask me, a retired and still-working UMC pastor, if I knew some of her memory verses and other wonderful things she was learning.  At the ceremony she was celebrated along with a lot of other kids who had memorized Scripture and concepts.  This is a local Assemblies of God church, and they were using the King James Bible.  It was a fantastic evening, that these children were loved and encouraged and challenged.  They didn’t get the award unless they had done the work.  

I talked with the pastor afterwards, and he had served this faith community for 30 years, he had seen many of the young leaders in the church grow up, get married, have children.  When he learned I was a retired UMC pastor he asked if I had been part of the group that moved every two years or so.  When he was a kid growing up in West Texas, his parents told him that the Methodist pastor’s children would be moving soon, so to keep that in mind as he became friends with them.  We know too many pastors, too many pastor’s families, that moved so often without the chance of putting down roots.  

Yet I wondered if this pastor had friends he could confide in, people who were not of his “flock”.  

I entered seminary at 45 years old, and I had been mentored in discipleship relationships for many years before then.  With a few sterling exceptions, most of my old friends are still from this time before, or people I served with in churches  where we met in authentic covenant groups, much like our Wesleyan bands.  The friends from the last few years I have met in band.  

From our core values of discipleship in the Inspire Movement:  Am I making close spiritual friendships?  Am I sharing the ups and downs of my spiritual life?  Am I giving and receiving guidance?  And I growing in the fruit of the Spirit?  Am I developing my spiritual gifts?  Am I confessing my sin?  

Am I willing to be open, to be vulnerable, to be and receive a true friend of trust and discernment?  I am, and I am blessed by the bands I am in, where I can share where I am seeing God in my life, and be willing to be guided by prayerful reflection of others.  

Most men I know don’t have deep, spiritual friendships.  Most pastors I know do not have friends like this.  Holding yourself apart  is a way of distancing ourselves  from others and from God.  We hold ourselves apart, but we don’t have to.  We have an opportunity with the principles of the Inspire Movement to find the “open door” the Spirit revealed to  John in Revelation 3:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

“‘I know your works.  Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.  I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name…” (Rev. 3: 7-8)

The Lord working in our lives is that open door, an open door to the reality of our lives, the reality of the love of God.  We are able to pass through that open door with the help of others, with the guidance of spiritual friendships like we form in band and in house fellowships and the like.  My granddaughter is forming spiritual friendships, memorizing the Word of God and coming to a deeper relationship with Jesus, all because someone stepped out and asked her.  I am doing the same because someone asked me about Inspire, about band.  It is a good thing to see the Lord at work in our lives.  

What do you think? 

More information on the Inspire Movement can be found at https:inspiremovement.org

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Ascension

My wife and partner Brenda had a total knee replacement surgery April 5. I have done no blog writing since then, but have kept up with the writing of sermons. For those who are interested, the following is a portion of what was preached on May 29, 2022, Ascension Sunday, at Cooks Point United Methodist Church, shortly after the murder of elementary school children and teachers on May 24, 2022 at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.

The day’s texts were Acts 1: 1-11 and Luke 24: 44-53.

With the terrible news of this past week — terrible news, horrible news, we had a reminder of the evil in our midst. We’ve heard lots of talk and speeches and posturing about the need of more laws and more regulations, and where to place the blame, and while there may be something to that, they miss the point.

I remember after the Columbine shooting — April 20, 1999 — there was a call for more and stricter laws, and one commentator pointed out that over a dozen existing laws had been broken by the shooters.

There is something else that needs to be addressed, that needs to be recognized.

Sin.

Evil.

Spiritual forces of wickedness.

My friend Elizabeth Moreau wrote this in her blog, Servants’ Feast last week: If we want to make sense of what happened in Uvalde, then we need to accept that the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone acknowledges and ansers such unspeakable evil. This is a world that has rejected its Creator and sought to be our own gods — from the beginning of time. The only barrier to the evil that prowls around looking to devour is the Cross of our Lord. We live in a world that needs to be saved, and that is precisely what we see every day in limitless ways, including in the mass murder in Uvalde.

Listen to this passage from 1 Peter 5, starting at the 6th verse:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

I think the shooter was devoured…

I’m taking us back to our baptismal vows, taken by candidates for baptism and by their sponsors.

The candidates for baptism are brought forward, and the pastor asks these questions:

On behalf of the whole church, I ask you:  Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races?  

I do.

As Christians, we recognize the reality of evil — the spiritual forces of wickedness, the evil powers of this world, and our own sin.  

As followers of Jesus, who believed in, lived by and taught the Scriptures, we believe that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the truth of Isaiah 53:6 — all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 

We believe in the power of sin, the evil powers of this world, the spiritual forces of wickedness — and we believe that as Christians we have the power to renounce and reject them.  

But that doesn’t take away the reality.  

Part of that reality is that we have to be sober-minded, we have to be vigilant, because our adversary the devil is roaming the earth like a lion, looking for someone he can devour.  

The core issues for us to face are these forces of spiritual wickedness, the evil powers of this world, and our own sin.  That is primary.  

Remember a few weeks ago we explored 1 Corinthians 15, the last chapter of the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the new church just a few years after the death, burial, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.  Paul wrote this:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…

When we address the tools of evil as if they were the cause of evil, we miss the central point.  

I often use the analogy of  alcoholism and drug abuse because of my background and my lens on the world.  Someone who is an active alcoholic has to stop drinking.  That is the primary problem.  Everything else is secondary.  His or her home life, spouse, children, stress levels, anything else are not the cause of the problem.  It is the alcohol, and until that stops nothing else will change.

Our primary issue is not the tools of evil, but evil itself. Our primary issue is sin.   And that is addressed by repentance and embracing the grace of God offered through the torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who died for our sin and was resurrected to offer new life.  

Where was God in that classroom, and in other pathways of terror?  I believe right there, just like every other horror, every other denial of humanity. 

And we have a mirror, where we can look at see what we’ve become, and see our need for a Savior.  We become doers of the Word of God, and not just hearers.  James tells us that when we are only hearers and do not obey the Word, we are like people who look in a mirror and then forget immediately what they look like.  

But you and I are here, as agents of Christ in the world, as part of the new Kingdom of God, helping each other and others see the mirror truly, opening our eyes that we may truly see and be witnesses of Christ in the world.  

RISE

So now we move to the texts for today, and talk about the Ascension of Christ.  Last Thursday was Ascension Day, 40 days past Easter Sunday.  We don’t make as big a celebration of Ascension Day as other events in Christian and world history — like Christmas, Pentecost, Easter — but it is central in the plan of the Lord.  

We have two texts today, both written by Luke the Evangelist.  In the Acts passage read earlier, Luke gives a brief summary of what he had done with his first book, the Gospel of Luke.  He wrote Theophilus, who could have been his benefactor, that he wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day Jesus was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

After his sufferings he presented himself to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during the forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  

Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of God since he began his ministry.  Remember after the temptation in the desert, again for 40 days, he began his ministry teaching and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.

But the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of our world.

That’s hard to grasp now, and it was hard to grasp then.  His followers didn’t understand.  Here’s part of our text:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set up by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The kingdom of God is not like an earthly kingdom.  Those of us who are part of the kingdom of God are spread throughout the world, agents for change in all parts of the world.  Christianity has moved throughout the world, and soon it will be stronger in the southern hemisphere than in the northern.  Africa, South America, Asia and China have growing populations of Christians, and resultant persecutions as well.  We are the infiltrators of the spiritual forces of wickedness, the evil powers of this world, agents of transformation in a fallen world, with Jesus on the throne. Jesus was telling his followers that they did not understand, but they could trust him.  

And he is telling us the same thing. We do not understand, but we can trust him.  

Jesus is trustworthy.

In our gospel passage from Luke,  Jesus further explained what had happened and gave hints of the things to come.

Then he said to them, “these are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise  from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have clothed with power from on high.”

HOPE

Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures — maybe he showed them the passage from Isaiah I quoted above.  Maybe he told them that he was the water gushing from the rock in the wilderness, or the fourth man walking in the fire in Daniel, or that it was he who was the suffering servant in Isaiah or the still small voice Elijah heard.  Maybe they came to understand that all the Scriptures pointed to Jesus, from the blood on the doorway protecting the people of Israel in Exodus to the prediction of the Messiah riding in on a donkey in Zechariah, to all the references in the Psalms.  

Jesus had already ascended by the time he was speaking to them right before he was carried into heaven.  He said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you….”  He was still there, speaking with them in person, but he was not still with them in the same way.  Jesus was  already enthroned as the new king.  

Think about that.  Jesus as king, as his enthronement took place on the Cross.  And we are his followers, scattered around the world and across time.

In the Acts passage, after Jesus was lifted up, his followers remained there, gazing up toward heaven, and suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said to them, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him to into heaven.”  

And Luke’s Gospel account added that they went back to Jerusalem, and were continually in the temple praising God.

Jesus left so that he could be with us.  He is with us today,  and he can be with those who call upon him and worship him throughout the world.  In the Apostles Creed we proclaim that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and will come again in glory.  The Resurrection of Jesus brought about the new world, and Jesus is offering us the chance to bring more folks into the kingdom before that great and glorious day to come.  

We have work to do.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen. 

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Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy

Blessed is he whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146: 5-10)

It was the first night of the Kairos Prison Ministry inside one of the state prison units in Texas, and we had sandwiches and chips for dinner: ham and cheese and/or turkey, on wheat or white bread. Mayonnaise and mustard in little packets, lettuce and fruit and cookies were available.

“I haven’t had a sandwich like that in nine years,” a young man assigned to our table said. He probably wasn’t 30 years old. Sandwiches like that are what my wife and I have if we don’t have any leftovers and don’t want to cook.

The mission of Kairos Prison Ministries International is “Changing Hearts, Transforming Lives, Impacting the World”. It begins with a 3 1/2 day weekend in the unit, with prayer and teaching and singing and food, and love shown in lots of ways. A “prayer chain” hundreds of feet long of colorful linked paper strips with names and locations stretched across the three “rooms” we used for meeting, chapel and cafeteria. (“Rooms” because it was a gym with portable dividing walls.) Every color a name, and every name a prayer.

It’s not my purpose here to define Kairos or give a full account of the weekend, but I saw changed lives when people saw that strangers loved them in the name of Jesus. Letters from the team and many others to each participant told them they were being prayed for, that they were loved, and that Jesus came for them, too. Quotations from many of our Scriptures, many written by Paul in prison, took on new meaning inside those walls. One man had not received a letter in the 40 years he had been incarcerated. I met with a young man, 19, who had been imprisoned since he was 14 years old, slightly older than my grandson. He told me some of his story, and he told me he had never told anyone all before that day. A burden was visibly lifted from him, and a joy started to come over him as the weekend went on — it looked like hope.

One of the changed lives was mine. One of the songs we sang was “My Jesus”, which has a chorus of “Let me tell you about my Jesus, and let my Jesus change your life!” I’m not the type to cry openly, but I did that weekend. During my days before sobriety I did what was necessary for me to be in prison; I didn’t get pulled over, I didn’t get stopped, I didn’t hurt anyone and there is no reason for any of that except God’s mercy.

Sin is the great leveler. All of us have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23, written from prison) And all of us are made in the image of God, and all of us are those Christ came to save, to give a new hope, a new purpose, a new and abundant life.

We had a night where we wrote the names of those we needed to forgive on flash paper, stuck the pages on a nail on our cross, and watched the paper — and the director’s eyebrows! — go up in an instant.

Kairos is not a quick weekend where the little saviors come in and then leave. We start weekly “prayer and share”, and work to get fellowship communities working inside the prison, among the “brothers in white.” A band of brothers in Christ is formed, and new hope is given to those without it.

The Great Awakening in England began in part under the preaching of John Wesley, who gave the news to the poor, to the brokenhearted, to the prisoners, to the coal miners, that there was a God who loved them, even then, even when it looked like they had a thrown-away life — and they heard for perhaps the first time that when Jesus said “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16) — that the “”whosoever” meant them, meant you, means me.

Revivals don’t start in Highland Park or River Oaks or Beverly Hills. Revivals start when the ones who had no hope realize that Someone came for them, and loves them — and those of us who want to and are called get an opportunity to be a part.

“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore

Jesus, ready, comes to save you, full of pity, love and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus. He will embrace me in His arms.

In the arms of my dear Savior, O – there are 10,000 charms.” Joseph Hart, 1759

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Poor in Spirit, Step 1 and Romans 7

Photo taken several years ago at Lakeview Methodist Conference Center in near Palestine, Texas

Is there a link between the Beatitudes, Romans 7 and Step 1? I’m starting a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount, found in Mathew’s Gospel in Chapters five through seven, and, not surprisingly…well, see what you think.

The Beatitudes are the beginning of this famous sermon, and Jesus began with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” John Wesley, co-founder with his brother Charles of the Methodist movement in England about three hundred years ago, wrote extensively on the Sermon on the Mount. Out of his 44 sermons that were and are viewed as doctrinal standards for Methodist people (at least some now!), 12 were based on the Sermon on the Mount.

Wesley believed the Lord Jesus started with “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” because we have to acknowledge our sin, our brokenness. If we do not realize what we have been saved from, then we have a great difficulty realizing what we have been saved to. If we do not come to grips with our sin — lust, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, pettiness, gossip, etc. — then we will never understand why the things we thought would bring us joy bring only a temporary respite. We are searching for something that cannot be found apart from God. St. Augustine famously wrote that our souls will find no rest until they rest in Thee, O Lord. We acknowledge our sin, we mourn our sin, and we are comforted.

In Romans 7, one of the most intriguing passages in the Bible, Paul writes about the anguish the domination of sin can bring. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me….For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7: excerpts from 14-25)

This blog is about the link between discipleship and recovery. For those of you in recovery, how does this sound to you? Does that reading from Romans bring up any memories? “I’m going to stop as soon as…..(fill in the blank).” “I’m going to show my control; I’m only going to drink wine from now on.” Or the classic: “I can quit anytime I want.” And the drinking, and the drugging, continues…

Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” We have to admit we are powerless, admit our sin, admit we need help. Within a week, God willing, I will celebrate 34 years of sobriety, more than half my life. Yet at any AA meeting I will introduce myself like this: ‘Hi, I’m Frank, and I’m an alcoholic.” I don’t say that out of fear, but out of gratitude for the God who saved me, and the people God used to do it. It’s been more than half my life since I used alcohol or other drugs, but I know I could go back to where I was and to where I was headed within a few hours if I forgot who I am and where I came from and how I got out.

Churches might be better off if we introduced ourselves like this: “Hi, I’m Frank, and I’m a sinner.” The more I realize my sin, the more I realize the darkness I once lived in, then the more of the light of Christ I can see in my life, and in the world. Wesley believed we come to changed lives by the Sermon on the Mount, walking with Jesus as he shows us the way to the kingdom of God. By loving God and loving our neighbor, there is a real chance that our lives can be changed. It’s Jesus who makes that possible. Only Jesus…

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Blessed are the Grateful

Hydrangeas outside the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, England.

A friend asked me if I would write a post with what advice I’d give the me from 20 years ago. I suspect he is 20 years younger than my 67 years, and his question has given me a lot to think about.

In this past year my friend Ronnie died. Ronnie and I were in high school together, and we played guitars together and even performed in an open mic forum or too. Ronnie could sing so well, and wrote some beautiful, heartfelt songs about some parts of a difficult life. Being blessed with what could be a long life has awakened gratitude in me. Yesterday I had a routine medical procedure that required me being put under anesthesia. Before I went under I offered a prayer to the Lord for a good life, grateful for the love of God, for my family and those who love me, for the chance to live.

Twenty years ago I was working for the Bread of Life, part of the ministry to the homeless of St. John’s Downtown in Houston, and was beginning my candidacy process to be an elder in the United Methodist Church. I wouldn’t start working in a church for another year and a half. I was in the second of five years of seminary. Brenda and I had been married for coming on five years, and we were praying for the next step.

I was guarded toward church ministry, and had been avoiding the call for many years, but was still drawn and driven toward it, perhaps like the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for a time of temptation after his baptism. (Mark 1: 12) I knew of many unhappy stories of those who served in the church, and I would both learn more and have a few of my own in the years to come.

But I would say to that guy from 20 years ago to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” — like we say in the AA rooms — and to “count it all joy” when we encounter diverse temptations. (James 1). Throw yourself on the mercy of God, cast your cares upon the Lord, and don’t try to take them back when you do. Read and be shaped by the Word of God, and pray not for things, but for character and relationship. All the worry, all the anxiety, all the hoping to get folks to do something or be something — all the concern about what others thought of you or how they regarded you — let that go as best you can. None of it matters in the end. None of it.

I’ve been reading some poetry from William Stafford. He wrote a poem every morning before dawn for years. In the months before he died in 1993, he continued this practice, and many of these last poems are astounding in their beauty.

“Toward the End”, begins with this quote from the Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila: This is from the collection, The Way it Is: New & Selected Poems. Watch how he ends, with the realization of joy that makes all of it worth it — no more regrets, no more wishes of difference…gratitude. While reading this over and over I had images of faces flashing by from all the years, some close, some distant, some painful, some fierce, all being part of what brought us here, as I saw nothing but blessings…

“Toward the End” by William Stafford

Let mine eyes see thee,

sweet Jesus of Nazareth;

let mine eyes see thee

and then see death.

Theresa of Avila.

They will give you a paperweight

carved out of heavy wood with black letters

that say everyone likes you and will miss

so steady and loyal a worker.

You carry it home and look at the nice message.

Not always have people allowed you even

a quiet exit — catcalls from that woman

who once appeared kind, plenty of lectures.

And oh the years of hovering anger

all around when each day reluctantly

opened and then followed like some dedicated,

stealthy, calculating, teasing assassin.

Now you can walk into the evening.

Walls where people live lean

on each side. You feel your mother by you

again, and your father has taken your hand.

Sister Peg skips ahead and looks back

that way we all loved and said, “Ours —

how eager she is! Beautiful!” We didn’t

stay true, Peg. We didn’t, we didn’t.

The road bends gradually, then aims

straight at sunset. People are streaming

where all the sky opens on a bluff

and the sea drops off, blue and bright.

Suddenly this moment is worth all the rest

Never has the sweetness arched so near

and overwhelming. They say a green flash

comes if you are lucky right at the end.

Now you see it was always there.

******

I would tell my 47 year old self that the anger was not worth it, the resentment was not worth the life given up in exchange. Give yourself over to the Lord, and learn to love God and neighbor and let God take care of the rest. The “green flash” Stafford writes about reminds me of C. S. Lewis, who wrote that at the end, when we review our life, we’ll see that hidden Hand that’s always been there, and we’ll turn to the Lord and say, “so it was you, all along.”

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All the Time

Here is our little Maggie, just over seven months old.

God is at work, all the time. I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot in the last few years, I mention it in my writing and preaching, and more and more it rings true. God is at work, all the time.

The freeing of Egypt from slavery began when the baby Moses was pulled out of the water, but nothing would show for 80 years. The salvation of the world entered history in a stable far from home, but most of the world didn’t notice. A friend of mine told me a story of walking in the woods, and she and her companion came across a perfectly formed cross from two fallen branches. They marveled, and her friend wondered what else they might have missed because they didn’t have eyes to see. God is at work, and most of the time we don’t know it.

This past Sunday, the day after Christmas, marked 48 years since I had heart surgery, a pericardiectomy to remove part of the lining around my heart. I was 18, and had caught a viral infection somehow during the previous summer. I would have been dead by Easter without intervention, I was told later.

I hemorrhaged after the surgery, and most of my blood had to be replaced. Blood wasn’t screened as much as now, and I turned yellow, called “temporary jaundice.” Twenty years later, I learned I had Hepatitis C, which had just been realized. The only treatment was interferon, which had a 25 percent chance of success and would give me flu-like symptoms for several months. Since I felt fine, I declined, year after year as I kept checking my liver enzyme levels. God is at work, all the time.

Nearly 20 years after the diagnosis, new treatments became available, and they had a better than 90 percent success rate. Because I had not participated in the interferon regimen, I qualified…and after a few months I had “no indication of the virus.”

Additionally, I stopped all alcohol intake in 1988 — my sobriety date is February 17 — long before I learned of the hepatitis. This may have saved my life. I don’t know. But I know God is at work, all the time.

I have this picture of our little Maggie because she and her brother Winston ran out the door I opened yesterday and went on an adventure. Frantically we chased them, and many in our neighborhood participated, and I saw them again, on the other side of a busy street. They don’t know about cars and roadways and they ran out in the street as a truck with a trailer pulling lawn equipment was coming down Eagle Ave. I yelled and the driver didn’t see them. Winston cleared the truck and Maggie was lightly touched by a tire. She spun and screamed. She has a laceration requiring stitches but no broken or crushed bones. One second slower and she’d be dead. Three seconds slower and both pups would have died on the road.

Is that God protecting them? I don’t know. But as I kept thinking about it all day, reliving seeing Winston get clear and Maggie spinning after the truck passed by and hearing her scream, as I kept giving thanks she was alive and not seriously hurt…

for the first time I thought about how relieved my long dead parents must have been when their son pulled through that terrible surgery and the aftermath, and lived. My mother told me she promised God that she would dedicate me to His service if I lived, and here I am.

God is at work, all the time.

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