A Gift Worth Giving

Recently I’ve read Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life, by Johann Christoph Arnold. It’s a Plough Publishing book, and I recommend it and anything published by Plough, including the beautiful and thoughtful quarterly magazine of the same name.

I’ve been thinking about this gift of having a long life, and learning to embrace it. I have friendships more than a half century old, I’ve been able to make some music longer than that, and as I get older my faith seems deeper, and perhaps more certain — if you can say that faith is certain –or maybe it is richer. I’m learning to seek more peace.

In the sixth chapter of Hosea the prophet wrote: For with hearts like an oven they approach their intrigue; all night their anger smolders; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven, and they devour their rulers. All their kings have fallen, and none of them calls upon me. (Hosea 6:5-7)

Those images: hearts like an oven, smoldering anger — most of us know what this is like. Most of us are too familiar with what it is like to be so angry, so chronically resentful that there is always a smoldering fire, always a heart like an oven ready to heat.

True for you? It’s been true for me, way too true and for way too long. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, on page 66 we can read: It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile…we found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.

How much of my time, of my years, have I squandered, wallowing in resentments and endless replays of “what shudda happened!” How much time — maybe enough time.

In Rich in Years the point is beautifully made to reconcile our lives. Make peace with others, make peace with yourself, make peace with God. Forgive…easy to do, impossible to do, essential to do if we want a life of freedom.

In forgiveness we become free,from that bondage of resentment. Right now, this is the life we have. Christ came to announce the coming of the kingdom of God, salvation by the forgiveness of sin — we gain our lives by confessing the hurts we’ve held on to, the “cherished resentments” we have so valued, and by offering and receiving forgiveness. Try it today. And try again tomorrow. And the next day. And when you think you fail remember this: for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything… (I John 3:20)

Give a gift worth giving this Christmas. Give the gift of forgiveness to that special person…and to you.

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Just on the Other Side

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Hosea 6: 1-2

I’m more and more drawn to the idea that God is at work in our lives, and only in those bright moments of clarity can we know it. The one who would lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt had come when the baby Moses was pulled from the water, but no one would know for 80 years. A baby born to an elderly couple came out of the wilderness 30 years later to proclaim the hope of the world. A baby born far from home to an unlikely couple and who would have thought: “Mild He lay His glory by, born that man no more may die..”

God is at work, right now, in your life and in mine. When I read the Hosea passage recently, I thought of my sister, who developed an infection in her shoulder around some hardware put there in a previous surgery. Her shoulder was torn and cut away, that she might heal. Sometimes God needs to re-open a wound on me, something I thought I dealt with, when the anger, the hurt, the resentment comes back. That wound needs to be torn, and broken, so that the underlying infection can be healed and I can begin a new life.

God is at work, bringing the wound, bringing the healing, and often I don’t know it until I look back.

Probably the same for you. What do you think?

The picture is our Winston, seeing a bigger possibility when he hears me walking his big sister just on the other side of the fence.

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What Do You Think I Should….

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth. Hosea 6: 1-3 ESV

One of our former pastors, the wise and incredible Dr. Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s Downtown, Houston, said we were all recovering from something. This week I’ve been wrestling with something, and found some help in the most unlikely place, the book of Hosea. For those of you who have not read this Old Testament book, I recommend it.

I’m struck by this line that the LORD has torn us, that he may heal us. That he has struck us down, and that he will bind us up, that we will be revived after two days, and will be raised up on the third. Of course we think of Jesus’ resurrection, but something about the living word of God makes this applicable for me, too. I’m still recovering from something.

I’m still recovering from seeking other people’s approval before I move forward. This week I’ve been praying and thinking about what to write next, what direction I want to take my writing, and I realize I’m waiting for someone to tell me, or give me ideas, or some other way of avoiding stepping into the place God has given me to dwell.

This is idolatry, the seeking favor of others you may have put in the place where God should be…

Hosea was writing to specific people at a specific time for a specific purpose, but I read this in November of 2021 and it showed me something new. Maybe God tears away to expose an old hurt that didn’t heal, like a scab over an infection that never cleared up and will prove deadly if not cleansed.

Whatever I write and whenever I write, I want to write because I believe God is calling me to it, not to seek someone else’s approval.

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Born Again

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, ESV)

This is such an odd saying, and for many of us we have grown up with it and it still doesn’t make sense. In John’s Gospel Jesus talks in images, like being “born again” (or “born from above”), and his ‘I AM” sayings, “I am the Bread of Life; I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”…and his followers are often confused. I can only imagine what it would be like to hear Jesus say these things and then just move on down the road, walking with him and talking with him with your head spinning, not understanding but knowing there is something there, something undefinable but somehow solid, “more real than the air we breathe” as poet Rich Mullins sang.

We don’t understand our beginnings, we don’t understand where they’ll lead. In the Gospel account, Jesus is approached by one of the religious leaders, Nicodemus, to find out more about him, and probably to be near him. Jesus is a magnetic presence, and later in this same gospel he said that when he was lifted up he would draw all people to him. (I’m not giving all the Biblical references, and if you look them up it will be good for you!)

After all these years of reading this passage, just this week it hit me that if someone is born again, there is a new life beginning. From being born we have to grow up.

And so I thought about that with our recovery process, about how we have to adjust to new beginnings when we stop using alcohol and other drugs, how we have to begin a new life, for many of us far different from the one we had been living. We may and probably will have to change our friends, change our habits, change our social life. We will probably encounter folks who do not want to support us in this new life-choosing decision, telling us we are probably over-reacting or maybe be aggressive and tell us we are weak, that we “just can’t handle it.” You know what’s been said to you. These things have been said to me.

In AA we have such a wonderful system in place to grow into our new life. Get a sponsor, work the steps, go to meetings. A sponsor is someone you can trust, someone you confide in, someone who will guide you, teach you, set you straight when you need it. The steps make you admit over and over that you have lived a life of “self-will run riot” and it has cost a great deal, and you are on a life saving mission to save your own life. And early on you are encouraged to sponsor someone else, which will strengthen you. We even celebrate a new sobriety birthday, marking months and years.

In the church, we may have that rebirth experience and most of us don’t have a sponsor, don’t have the steps, and just come back to church. And we drift away. When we are born again we need to be cared for as we grow.

In the last several years we have been involved with the Inspire Movement (inspiremovement.org) working to help make disciples of Jesus of folk who are interested and teaching them to make disciples of others. We need to grow in our faith in Christ, we need to have someone close to us that cares for us and that we care for. In Inspire we have “house fellowships” of up to 20 people who share a meal and time together and “fellowship bands”, groups of three or four who lean in to deeper relationship. In each other there is a central question: Where have you see God in your life?

If this seems interesting to you, check out the website, or contact me. We need to grow up.

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Trinity

A cross on the grounds of Cooks Point United Methodist Church in Caldwell, Texas
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False Gods, Simplify

Lakeview Methodist Camp, Palestine Texas

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Fasting

Here is Winston, about nine weeks old. Winston has been with us for nearly two weeks. Earlier this week, he and his sister Maggie (yes, named after two British prime ministers) chewed on a Sego palm, something extremely toxic for all dogs. We took them to the veterinarian, where they began two days of treatment. Initially, the bloodwork was good, but the vet kept them overnight to watch them. The next morning Winston’s liver enzyme levels had skyrocketed and we were fearing for his life. Both my wife and I spontaneously fasted and prayed, without telling each other. The spiritual discipline of fasting is ancient and trustworthy, and perhaps can help develop a greater hunger for something more profound. Perhaps the giving up of food or drink can awaken a hunger for a deeper and more meaningful life, can develop a hunger for God.

Those of us who are alcoholics, or addicts of another sort, are fasting today, if we are working our program. I am fasting from alcohol today, and have been for more than 33 years. God willing, I will continue the fast the rest of today and begin again tomorrow. Giving up alcohol and other drugs has opened my life up in profound ways, most importantly in my search for God. I no longer look for the God of my understanding, as is mentioned in the 12 Steps, but I seek and am found by the God completely beyond my understanding, the God of grace that forgives my sin and faithlessness not because of what I’ve done but because of who Jesus is.

The next day we called the vet and found out that Winston’s levels were now normal, with no explanation. Folks joined us in prayer all over the world. Winston and Maggie are back home with us, living testimony to the power of prayer and the gifts of God’s mercy.

Did fasting make the difference? I don’t know. I don’t know a lot about how God works.

What I do know is that I am grateful.

To God be the glory! Amen.

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Choosing Life

A vulture waiting on a rooftop during a recent walk….

I have a friend who has a lovely wife and a young child. The child is growing up away from his father because his father is in prison. He is separated from his family and in prison because he chose death instead of life, he chose the demon spirits in bourbon rather the the Holy Spirit, and because he continually believed he was stronger than he was, that he was more powerful than he was, that he was smarter than he was…he believed, whether he acknowledged it or not. And when I hear from him, it is like there is this sense of nobility, that he is on some sort of holy quest. Most of us alcoholics or other addicts can relate to this sense of the heroic — Satan, and I believe in Satan, is the Father of Lies, and addicts are so vulnerable to those whisperings in the ear that no one understands our quest, our true self, and we will be vindicated in the end. The Father of Lies.

Alcoholism is primary, progressive, chronic and fatal. If not dealt with as primary, it will end up as fatal — either in actual loss of life or the death of a family, the death of a dream, the legacy of a boy growing up with his father in prison and the secrets around that as he goes to school…I know something about that, and many of you reading this know something about it, too.

But it didn’t have to be that way. And it doesn’t have to be that way for anyone else.

Here is from the first chapter of James:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.

There is no sin in being tempted. Being tempted can be a wake-up call. I am tempted by things my family and friends are not — my own desires. But when I entertain desires that can lead to upheaval, I can give them root. And when rooted and fed and nurtured, they gives way to sin and death. Death of a marriage, death of a relationship, death of a ministry, death of self…

But it does not need to be that way, for those who trust in Christ Jesus. In our baptismal vows we say we believe in the power Christ gives us to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” We have the power to say no, and not give in. We have the power, but some, like my friend, did not seek out that power. We have to want it!

Look at the vulture, on the housetop waiting.

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. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5: 8-11)

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The Way, The Truth and the Life

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Pentecost

Here’s a sermon from 2009 about Pentecost, the time the Church remembers the pouring of the Holy Spirit, giving the power to witness. How valid is our witness? Do we witness to the resurrection in our own lives or do we reshape God to fit our ideas? I’m interested in what you might think…Here you go:

Frank Richard Coats

May 31, 2009

Pentecost Year B

Acts 2: 1-21

The Gift of the Spirit

Focus statement:  God wants all to be saved

Last Sunday afternoon I went home for a little while, had lunch with Brenda and took a brief nap and then headed down to Houston for the Texas Annual Conference.  Somewhere along that long road to Houston along US 59 I passed some sort of business with an enormous Confederate flag flying out front.  It was more than two times larger than the flag of the United States of America which flies outside our Welcome Center.  And I had a physical reaction:  I felt a tightening in my stomach, and my hands gripped the steering wheel a little tighter as I wondered why the person inside would fly such a flag.

When I was a kid, growing up in Houston, I loved the romantic stories of the South.  Those of you my age may remember the TV show The Rebel which starred Nick Adams and had a wonderful theme song sung by Johnny Cash.  The romantic story of a noble, defeated cause  which still held its integrity and gained strength through its brokeness appealed to me.  I liked gray better than blue, too, and I liked the stars and bars.

But as I became older and learned more of what brought about the Civil War I wondered why there was such romanticism about a rebellion against the United States.  I wondered why the leaders of that rebellion are held in such high esteem.  On this past Memorial Day, we saw figures that almost half of all Americans who have died in battle died in the Civil War.  Deaths on both sides counted, because Lincoln never acknowledged the South’s right to secede, therefore the Confederacy was never an acknowledged separate nation.   

And I would hear the ideas that it was about states’ rights and the seizing of power by the federal government that brought about the rebellion, and it was not about slavery but about keeping the South down and not letting them rule themselves.  

But it was about slavery.  The states wanted the right to maintain the practice of the buying and selling of a people they regarded as less than human –  3/5 human in our Constitution – and the federal government had no right to say they could not.  Almost half of the constitutional delegates in 1787 were slaveowners after all, and they had not seen fit to outlaw slavery.  Even Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, owned other people.  

All these things were going through my mind as I saw that large, large Confederate flag hanging alongside an American highway.  What were they thinking?  And I wondered if they believed — as our scripture says — that all who called on the name of the Lord would be saved.

Today’s reading lets us know where God stands – God who created all of us, who loves all of us, who created all of us in the image of God – we are given an example today of the Kingdom of God, moving beyond any ideas of territories or boundaries.

The text opens with “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place.”  

Our celebration of Pentecost is from this passage in Acts, but the original celebration was a celebration of the wheat harvest, and was 50 days after Passover.  “They” refers to the apostles. The first chapter retold the story of the Ascension of Jesus and then the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas.  You remember that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, tried to return the money for the betrayal and killed himself before he could reconcile  with the others.  His next meeting with Jesus is something we can only imagine…

So they were all in one place.  Before Jesus ascended, he told them to wait in Jerusalem until power came upon them from one high.  He said, You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,  in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  After he said this, they watched him rise out of sight.  

So they went back to Jerusalem, and prayed and praised the Lord.  Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance.  

The sound of the violent wind, the manifestation of tongues of fire and the sudden cacophony of voices in lots of languages drew a crowd.  More and more gathered as they heard and witnessed this strange sight. And people from all over the world were there in Jerusalem,  the pattern moving from east to west.  Some place names were “archaic” by the time of the first century, meaning some of the places no longer existed.  They all heard the stories of the power of God in their own languages.  And the marveled that the men speaking were Galileans, not men of education or culture but …well…just fishermen…

And they heard from all the world, and from the past and now to the future, of the power of God, of the deeds of God.

And the word used here means “languages” and is not the same word used for “ecstatic speech” that Paul uses and that we mean when we talk about people “speaking in tongues”.  This means being able to speak in a foreign language not known to the speaker.  

So try to picture yourself there.  About midmorning there is a sound of a violent wind that goes through a house, through a building, and suddenly these men whom you had seen around the place and perhaps recognized as being some of the followers of Jesus started speaking in these foreign languages.  And people around you started turning their heads at the sound.  “I hear someone speaking my language”;  “They’re talking to me!”  “How do these men know this?”  

“What’s going on?”  

And “is what they are saying about God true?”  “Does their God care for me, too?”

Of course there were scoffers, and the text says: All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  

Then Peter, who had not long ago denied Jesus in front of a servant girl and two strangers, rose to speak, and made one of the boldest speeches in the book of Acts.   Peter, once terrified, had been changed.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he gave witness to Jesus. 

He said they were not drunk, because it was only nine in the morning.  Now of course this doesn’t mean it is not possible to be drunk at nine in the morning!  But Peter is defending the character of the others and the power of God.  He framed what had happened in the ancient prophecy of Joel, of the things that were to take place in the last days.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, smoke and fire and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.  

To prophesy means to speak the word of the Lord, not necessarily to foretell the future like most of us think of it.  Before the Spirit came upon people selectively – there is the story of Saul being struck by the Spirit and prophesying, which seems to be like going in a frenzy.  And the birth narratives of Luke talk about people being filled with the spirit:  Zechariah, Mary, Simon, John the Baptist and then Jesus.  

But now Peter says the gifts and power of God are open to all people, not just the chosen few.  Old and young, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free.  Through the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ the world is opened, the Holy Spirit, the power of God is poured out upon all the world, crossing all barriers of time and space, making the love and power of God to witness to the power of the resurrection, the power of the forgiveness of God and the strength to change lives, available to all.

Do you think that’s true?  

I go back to that large Confederate flag I saw last week.  Does that person think God’s love and mercy is available to all?  To everyone?  

And then there is the question for me:  Do I think it is available to him?  

Let us pray:

Merciful God, you who open the church to all people of all nations and races, give us the grace to love as you love, to forgive as you forgive, to be as you are as you shape us into your image.  May your shape us into your image, and bring to light all our attempts to shape you into ours.

Amen

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