Images of Advent: The Rebuilt Ruins

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4

There was a certain romance to the ruins of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat that Jon and I encountered when we visited Cambodia last summer.  Some of these massive, ornate 12th-and 13th-century structures stood relatively intact, but there were others that were practically hidden in the jungle, overgrown with trees that had literally taken root in and around some of their walls.  With them there was just enough structure left to be able to tell that something big and beautiful had been there, but enough stones and rubble on the ground to make you feel like you were Indiana Jones or someone, intrepidly exploring the wild jungle and discovering the ruins of an ancient place for the very first time.  There seemed to be a certain sense of authenticity in the ruins—even if it was a false sense of authenticity—that you didn’t get at the temples that were farther along in the process of reconstruction.

Still, the temples that were more intact than others gave you a sense of this glorious history of the Khmer Empire, and we could imagine what these majestic structures once were, and what kind of city must have surrounded them, and what kind of kings must have brought them into being.

The city of Jerusalem had once been great, too.  King Solomon had built the Temple out of the finest stone and covered it all over with gold.  He built a palace for himself from the finest cedar trees from the forests of Lebanon.  He had hired the best artisans to carve golden cherubim and pillars decorated with pomegranates.  And, for a time, there had been prosperity and peace.  It was Zion—the city of God.

But by the time the prophet Isaiah wrote the words we read today, the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins.  Jerusalem may have once been great, but the Babylonians were greater, and one day they had marched into the city of God, taken the elites captive and sent them into exile, ransacked the city, and destroyed the Temple where God was believed to reside.  The city was left bombed out, so to speak—empty, poor, without leadership, left to pick up the pieces.    Perhaps trees grew, their roots encompassing those finest finished stones that had once formed walls.

Eventually the exile ended and the captive Israelites were allowed to go home.   But as they say, you can’t go home again.  Think of that sinking feeling as you come home to a place that you can never really come home to, as you realize that everything that mattered to you has changed.  Gone was that glorious Temple and the city of God that had risen up around it.  In its place were ruins.  And there was no romance to these ruins, because they were their own.

Pretty bleak for Advent, right?

Well, imagine one person standing up in the midst of the rubble and daring to imagine that this city could be great again.  Imagine one prophet daring to proclaim that God could once again be seen in this city that looked like it would never live again.

That is an Advent kind of hope.

The Old Testament texts that we sometimes read at Advent are full of rich imagery like this, but we don’t often spend a lot of time with these images and how they illustrate our sense of anticipation and our preparation during the season.  For one thing, the prophetic texts can be a little tricky to read in the context of Advent.  They are about Jesus and not about Jesus at the same time.  The Hebrew prophets were writing and speaking to their own historical context, about kings and war and exile and peace.  They didn’t know about Jesus or have him in mind.

But we do believe as Christians that Jesus fulfills their prophecies, possibly in a way that no one, not even the prophets themselves, expected.  They proclaimed that God would bring hope and peace in the midst of exile and oppression.  They just didn’t know what form that would eventually take.  But as long as we’re careful not to read in things the prophets aren’t saying, these rich images do tell us something about Jesus, about what they were waiting for, and what we’re waiting for in this season of waiting.

It’s hard to think of this image of ruins and not think of someplace like Syria.  Neighborhoods where people sat with friends at cafes and kids rode their bikes in the street are now rubble, bombed out by ISIS.

Or it’s hard to think of this image of ruins and not think of someplace like Ferguson.  Places where people shopped or got their hair done are now torn down and burned down by people’s rage against injustice.

Or it’s hard not to think of a place like Baltimore, pretty close to home, for much the same reasons.

We may look at these pictures and ask along with the prophet Ezekiel, can these dry bones live?  Can this bombed-out, burned-down, smashed-in rubble once again be a city with culture and parks and places to eat and go?  Can it once again be a neighborhood with business and life and neighbors?

It is a heavy time in our world right now, and sometimes a “yes” to that question almost seems like too much to believe.  Even Pope Francis recently said that our celebrations of Christmas this year are a “charade” when “the whole world is at war.”[1]  But maybe that is why we need to take the time to observe Advent before we get to Christmas: these are pictures from a world that desperately needs God and salvation to show up.

One problem with starting to think that there’s no way these places can live again is that it’s pretty limiting of God and what God can do.   But also, when we sink into despair, we begin to think there’s nothing we can do about it.  We pray for peace and we pray for justice, but the job is simply too overwhelming to begin.

And that’s why Advent is a time not just to remember how much we need God, but to cling to the hope that God will come and save us.  Advent hope is not the kind of innocent hope that lets you keep believing that Santa Claus is real and there’s still magic in the world.  It’s the raw, earthy, sometimes almost desperate kind of hope that God can make real differences in the lives of real people in real places.  It’s the kind of hope that stands in the middle of the rubble and needs, wants, prays for, even challenges God to come make something out of these ruins.

Here and there, little by little, we see signs that it is true, that new life is possible.  If you had seen New Orleans in the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, you might have felt that same sense of overwhelming despair, that things would never be the same again.  In some ways they may not be, but little by little, New Orleans has risen from the ashes.  People with faith in something put one stone on top of another. They shall raise up the former devastations.  Of course, it’s even harder in Syria, Ferguson, Baltimore—where we are not just battling weather, but hearts and systems alike have to change.

And still, even in those places, among the burnt foundations and the smashed glass, Isaiah’s words ring out: They shall repair the ruined cities.

As I said, Isaiah wasn’t writing these words with Jesus in mind.  His words are about exile and life after exile, but Jesus reminds us that exile is sometimes about more than where on the map we find ourselves and how far away we are from home.

It’s worth noting that these verses are what Jesus adopts as his own mission statement, in the Gospel of Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, just after his baptism and his 40 days of temptation in the desert.  “He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day,” Luke writes, “as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.”  And he said to them, “’Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”  He drops the mic.

These are the verses that will define his ministry.  He is here to bring good news to all the people who need it most.  Real, particular good news, to real, particular people.  He stops reading before he gets to the part about rebuilding the ruins, but for the people gathered in that synagogue who already know the scripture well, I imagine it must have hung in the air like an unspoken promise.

The Temple in Jerusalem, at this point in history, has been rebuilt, restored, and it is as glorious as ever.  At a time much closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry than its beginning, his disciples will walk out of the Temple and look around themselves in awe and say, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”[2]  It won’t always be that way.  The Romans will reduce those large, beautiful stones to rubble once again.  But even in the meantime, Jesus can look around him and see the ruins that we don’t, the ruins all around him in lives that are hurting.  The ruins of the lives of the poor, the captives, the oppressed.  That is the rubble that Jesus stands in the middle of when he proclaims, “This is the year of the Lord.”  These ruins will be restored.  These dry bones will live.

I read an account of a young woman who at the age of 16 walked in to find her mom had attempted suicide.  “The bottom dropped out of my world,” she said.  When that happens, it tends to be ruins that are left.

Of course, looking back she could see the things she hadn’t before, or had dismissed.  Her parents had recently gotten divorced, and she and her mom and sister had moved out.  Her mom started sleeping more, and getting distracted mid-sentence.  “Her thoughts of despair had started to overwhelm her,” this young woman wrote, “…but neither my sister or I knew this.”[3]  These ruins may be ruins of the less obvious kind.

There are those of us here who are weeping for the state of our world and praying “Come, Lord Jesus,” but there are also those of us—and we may be the same people—who have felt the bottoms drop out of our own worlds, who are weeping for the ruins of our own lives, who are wondering if exile is forever and not daring to believe that we will ever feel home again.

They may be the ruins of failed relationships, the ruins of depression or illness or addiction, the ruins of poverty or the ruins of fear or despair, the ruins of poor choices and sin and brokenness, the ruins of what once was or the ruins of what we thought might be.  But they are ours, and God does not forget God’s ruined city.

This is our Advent hope: that God cares, not just in a theoretical, otherworldly, cosmic kind of way, but in a real, raw, tangible, earthy way, for real people and real places and real situations and real lives.  That God cares enough to come down here and literally start picking up the pieces—going first when we can’t.

But did you notice the pronouns in this verse?  “They shall build up the ancient ruins, it reads, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

They are the exiles who have come home.  They are the oppressed who have heard good news.  They are the brokenhearted who have been bound up in love and comfort.  They are the prisoners and captives who have heard the proclamations of liberty and release.

It is our hope in what God can do that allows us to rise from despair and start—putting one stone back on top of another.

Come, Lord Jesus.

[1] https://ca.news.yahoo.com/pope-says-christmas-charade-because-121919232.html

[2] Mark 13:1; cf. also Luke 21:5

[3] http://ie.reachout.com/real-stories/inform-yourself/depression/living-and-rebuilding/

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One Year With Jesus: Learning to Tell Sacred Time

When you were little, you learned how to tell time.  You learned which one was the minute hand and which one was the hour hand, and which day came after another, and which month came after another.  As you grew up, you learned to organize your life by telling time.  You counted down to the weekends and to spring break and summer vacation, and learned which were the busy seasons in your job, and you made New Year’s resolutions by January 1, and you planned things with friends and relatives according to calendars which made sure you showed up at the same place at the same time.

If you have Jewish friends, or Muslim friends, you know that they tell time a little differently.  You can still both look at the same calendar and show up at the right place on March 24th at 4:30 pm.  But you may know, for example, that the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, falls not on January 1 but usually sometime in September, and that Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, which doesn’t correspond to any of our Western secular months and whose timing actually changes every year.  Telling time differently from the world around them, at least here in modern-day Western culture, is one way of keeping a distinct identity, as well as way of marking time as sacred.

We Christians actually have our own way of telling time, too.  Today, for example, is New Year’s Eve: it is Reign of Christ Sunday, also known as Christ the King Sunday, the culmination of the whole year before, when we celebrate Christ’s lordship and kingship over our lives and all creation. In one year in church, we also go through a series of seasons and special days that help us mark our time as sacred.  Each season has its own emphasis and comes with certain things we say or sing or do to observe it.   Living by the Christian year with all its seasons helps us to live into the rhythm of our own story, from the birth of Christ to his death and resurrection to his coming again.  It is not just a story of things that happened a long time ago, but events we become a part of, and which become a part of us.

Today we will walk our way through the Christian year in readings and hymns as we learn again how to tell sacred time in our own particular way.

 

Advent – Mark 1:1-8

Advent, which begins next week, is the beginning of our Christian year.  It’s a four week period of preparation and anticipation as we wait for the birth of Christ at Christmas.  If you think about it, it’s a little weird to wait and prepare for the birth of someone who was born over 2000 years ago.  But again, doing so helps us to live into the rhythm of the story, allowing us to remember our need and desire for peace and salvation which we trust is coming.  It’s also a time when we look ahead to Christ’s second coming, when the Kingdom of God will be on earth as it is in heaven.  That is something we are still waiting for.

Advent was traditionally a time of fasting and repentance for people to prepare their hearts for Christ.  We don’t often observe it like that today.  But its color is purple, the color of repentance.

[Hymn #211 O Come, O Come Emmanuel]

Christmas – Luke 2:1-7

Most of us tend to be pretty over the whole Christmas season beginning December 26, but as the song promises, Christmas consists of 12 days—beginning on December 25th.  It’s a season of celebrating the incarnation, God becoming human and walking among us, and the salvation that God offers in Jesus.  On the Sunday after Christmas we sometimes read the few stories we have of Jesus as a baby or a child: his flight to Egypt as a refugee with his family, his dedication at the Temple, or being left at the Temple as a 12-year-old holding his own in debate with the rabbis.

Christmas is a feast season, and feasts get the color white, which always comes after purple and fasting.

[Hymn #246 Joy to the World]

 

Epiphany – Matthew 2:1, 7-12

Epiphany, January 6, is a day, not a season; but this day and the season that follows are a time of discovery and revelation.  During this time the wise men visit Jesus and the gifts they give name him as a god, a king, and a martyr; we heard God declare “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased,” at his baptism, and, on the last Sunday of the season, those words are echoed again as Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop with his disciples, before he heads to Jerusalem to be crucified.  In all these events, something is revealed to us of who Jesus is.

Epiphany gets the color white; the season afterwards, which lasts until Lent, is green; that is our first short taste of ordinary time, which I will get to later.

[Hymn #254 We Three Kings]

 

Lent – Mark 1:9-13

The season of Lent—purple, for fasting and repentance—begins on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter if you don’t count Sundays.  The 40 days symbolize the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, as well as the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and praying and facing temptation and preparing for his own ministry.  Traditionally, it was the 40 days of catechesis, or teaching, that converts got before their baptism on Easter Sunday.  We still observe Lent by fasting or giving something up, focusing on our own mortality and sin and human frailty, as Jesus’ death on the cross looms closer and closer.

[Hymn #269 Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days]

 

Holy Week – John 19:16-19

Holy Week is still part of Lent, but it’s a special part of Lent: the week beginning on Palm Sunday and ending just before Easter where we relive the drama of Jesus’ last week, beginning with his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, through his last supper with his disciples, his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the Roman governor, and his crucifixion.  I love Holy Week because more than any other week, it is when we tell our story well.  We live those ups and downs with Jesus as we reflect on things like whether we would have been there shouting “Crucify him.”

[Hymn #292 What Wondrous Love is This]

 

Easter – Mark 16:1-7

Easter, like Christmas, is not a day but a season: a 50-day, seven-Sunday season that takes us to Pentecost.  Traditionally it was a period to “continue the faith formation of new Christians.”[1]  It is a season of celebrating resurrection, new life, and salvation, and it ends with Ascension Sunday, when Jesus ascends back into heaven after walking around on earth for a while after his resurrection.  Easter gets white, which again, always comes after purple.  Feasting follows fasting, which I think in itself teaches us something about the seasons of our life.

[Hymn #302 Christ the Lord is Risen Today]

 

Pentecost – Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost is the one Sunday of the year when I get to wear this red stole—red for the fire of the Holy Spirit!  It’s the day we sometimes call the birthday of the church.  Jesus has ascended back into heaven and the disciples are huddled up waiting for their next steps and on Pentecost, God gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will go with them in a way that Jesus no longer can.  And their Christian mission begins.

[Hymn #2117 Spirit of God]

 

Ordinary Time – Matthew 13:31-32

After Pentecost we enter into this long season we call Ordinary Time, which takes us just about up to Advent again.   “Ordinary time” makes it sound kind of boring, like there is nothing special about it.  But “ordinary” doesn’t really mean that.  It means something more like “ordinal.”  During this season we mark the Sundays by counting them, as we did for several weeks between Epiphany and Lent: the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, for example.

There are several special Sundays during these months from June to November, such as Trinity Sunday and World Communion Sunday, where we go back to white, but the truth is ordinary time can seem kind of ordinary.  But so can life, a lot of the time, and so can Christian discipleship.  Sometimes life isn’t really painful or really exciting, it’s just life, counting the days, trying our best, and the rhythm of our story accounts for that and calls it sacred, too.  Ordinary time is a time for growth, represented by the color green, as we pay attention to the teachings of Jesus and hope to move a little further along the road to perfection.

[Hymn #405 Seek Ye First]

 

Reign of Christ – Revelation 1:4-8

And that brings us to today, New Year’s Eve, the last Sunday in the Christian year.  It’s an easy Sunday to ignore, here in the already-present chaos of the secular holiday season.  But in a sense this is what it’s all been building up to.  This Christ who we’ve waited for and discovered and followed to the cross, this Christ whose new life we claim for ourselves and who we try to follow faithfully day by day, this is the Christ who will finally reign over all of creation.  The Kingdom we already recognize among us will come to fulfillment.  And then, next week, the story that shapes us begins over again.

[Hymn #154 All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name]

[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/why-is-the-easter-season-fifty-days-long

Love God, Love Others

Scripture: Mark 12:28-34

Sometimes in church I fear it can feel like we are going in a lot of different directions at once.  We’re talking about spiritual gifts one week and learning about Paul’s letters another week, wondering how to do something about racism one week and how to do something about refugees another week, and meanwhile we’re building a budget and asking for money and making sandwiches and writing a mission statement and thinking about what a new building might look like in this place a couple years down the line.

For pastors it can be even worse, as we go to training for how to craft worship and training for how to build small groups and training for how to reach our neighbors and training on how to have an effective digital presence, and I’m sure that’s not that different from most of you in most of your jobs, which inevitably require putting a lot of skills into action at once to please, often, a lot of different bosses.

Most of these different things are good things and there are usually good reasons to concentrate on all of them. Few jobs involve just doing one thing, and neither does Christian discipleship.  But if you are like me maybe sometimes you feel a real desire to just throw off all the extras and the built-up expectations and get back to the basics of what it means to be a Christian, even what it means to be God’s people in the world.

That’s a feeling I’ve been having for a little while now and I’m not sure I can even tell you when it started or when it came from. But I’ve recently found myself thinking, OK, out of all of this varied, good, even necessary stuff that my life seems to consist of, what really is at the core of this Christian life that I’m trying to live?

It’s a question that led me, this fall, to reread the Gospels asking the question, “What does Jesus directly tell us to do?”  Not what does he hint at in parables, not what example does he set—those things certainly aren’t irrelevant, but I was looking for something point-blank: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  “Forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  You’ll be hearing more on that in early 2016.

It was a question I took with me to Korea, where, as I told you a couple weeks ago, I visited a number of different churches.  They were big churches, but I wasn’t really impressed by their size.  And they clearly had a lot of resources, but I wasn’t really impressed by that, either.  And people sure did get up early to pray, and I’m not going to lie, I was impressed by that, but in the end I’m not really sure that getting up before dawn is at the core of Christian discipleship either.

But I came home really impressed, really convicted, really inspired, by how many of these churches held together a deep commitment to prayer and spiritual life, and a deep commitment to serving their communities.  How those two foci didn’t seem to compete with each other, but to inform and enhance each other.  And I began to think that maybe there was a beginning of an answer to my question, right there.  And what’s more, I began to realize that maybe Jesus even said something along those lines.

“What is the greatest commandment?” one scribe asked.

And, maybe surprisingly, Jesus answered him.  Jesus rarely answers questions directly.  More often he tells a story.  Or he does something to point out the hypocrisy in the question.  But not here.  And he doesn’t get out of it by saying all the commandments are equally important.

“The first is this,” he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength.”

And then he goes on, “And the second is this: love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s not that all the other stuff isn’t important or even sometimes necessary.  It’s just that this is at the core of all of it.  All the other commandments and all the other things we find ourselves having to do should be, at their core, ways to help us love God and love our neighbor better.

And so I’ve begun to think that what makes us the church, what makes us followers of Jesus, what makes us God’s people, is at its most basic our commitment to this two-in-one commandment; and that perhaps how we love God is by drawing close to God in prayer and spiritual discipline, and that how we love our neighbor has to do with how well we are welcoming and serving the people and community around us.

For a large portion of my life I think I have been somewhat lopsided in my commitment to the greatest commandment.  Because, from a fairly young age, I knew that I was called to put my faith into action through serving my neighbor.  That was true when we took hotdogs into downtown DC to feed homeless people at the parks and Metro stations, or painted houses on mission trips, in youth group when I was in high school.  It was even more true when I went to college and met Jesus in people I had the opportunity to serve, from the Burmese immigrants I tutored in English to the mentally disabled adults I worked with at my church’s Respite Care program.  And I still tend to believe that faith isn’t really any good if it doesn’t manifest itself in welcoming and serving and working for peace and justice.

I never really had that same passion for prayer or the so-called “spiritual life.”  I prayed, too, but mostly because I knew I was supposed to.  Praying seemed a lot more mysterious, like you couldn’t really be sure how it worked or if it worked or how you were really supposed to do it or what difference it made, and what why worry about it too much when you could just be out handing someone a sandwich.

I remember going to an admitted students weekend at my seminary over spring break in my last year of college, and meeting a guy who said he felt called to the “contemplative life.”  Everyone else wanted to do things like work for world peace and justice, and I couldn’t help hearing this one guy talk about his call to silence and think, why?  There is so much need in this world.  There are so many people to feed.  There is so much reconciliation that needs to happen.

For some of you that may ring true and for some of you the opposite might be true: it’s easy and comfortable to have a long conversation with God and to make it a point to do so every day and you go a little crazy when you don’t get a chance to meditate and you have a deep faith born of natural gifting or experience that God hears and engages with you in your prayers, and after all who are we to think that we can save the world through our own actions, anyway.  Those different convictions spring from different spiritual gifts, to be sure, maybe also from what our culture values, and maybe a little from the judgment we have against people who express their faith differently than we do.

I don’t remember when it was that I started actually wanting a deeper spiritual life.  I guess it was probably a little bit at a time.  I withdrew to Holy Cross Abbey for a weekend to escape the constant pressure of exams and grad school applications.  I started trying to find new and different ways of praying.  I fell in and out of patterns of reading the Bible each day.  Sometimes I felt at peace and connected to God.  Sometimes I didn’t.  A lot of times I’m still trying to find what kind of discipline works best for me.  But somewhere along the line my classmate’s desire to live the contemplative life started to make sense to me, or at least a little more sense than it had at first.  Nothing we try to do in this busy world ultimately seems enough if we’re not spiritually whole.

I remember spending time at Holy Cross Abbey, again, a couple winters ago (something I hope to do again soon), and sensing the deep beauty of the monks’ daily rhythm of prayer.   They also had their work to do, whether it was cleaning the abbey or making fruitcakes to sell or providing spiritual direction to retreat-makers in the guest house like me, but in the midst of that, over and over again, they kept coming back to prayer.  They kept returning to let God remind them of what was important, and what was at the core of everything else they did.  And there was part of me that really wanted something like that in my life—not to go completely monastic, but simply to live life infused with that same rhythm, always coming back to God and to grace in the midst of whatever work I do.

I think of other monastic orders such as the Benedictines, and how they started out in the Middle Ages with their rule of ora et labora, prayer and work.  Of course the Rule of St. Benedict was a lot more complicated than that, but that was at its core.  Their rule of life included offering radical hospitality to strangers, often pilgrims on their way to some holy place or another, welcoming any guest who arrived as if that guest were Christ himself.  And I wonder if they were able in part to extend that hospitality because those were words they came back to time after time: “When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you?  Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”  It is a love of neighbor that is deeply rooted in prayer and spiritual discipline.

Something I’ve gradually become convinced of is that loving God and loving neighbor aren’t really two separate commandments at all, which is probably what Jesus was trying to say.

Try to love God alone, and our faith doesn’t make any outward difference to the world.  It becomes selfish and meaningless, more about getting ourselves to heaven than about being part of God’s kingdom here on earth.  But try to love our neighbors alone, and we might forget how or why.  The reservoir of love and grace that we pull from will undoubtedly be less deep, and we might less fully understand how God what work God has for us to do.

But instead, imagine a life of deep spiritual commitment where you were constantly coming back to God, constantly remembering who God is and that God is with us, constantly letting God remind you of what is important, constantly asking for help and grace.  In the end, after all, I think prayer is less about asking God for stuff, although God does want us to pray about our needs, and more about aligning ourselves with God’s will.

That is what I heard over and over again in those churches we visited in Korea: They prayed every day, and they brought their needs and their worries to God, and they also asked, “What do you need us to do here in this community?”

And God answered, how directly or indirectly, I’m not sure, but God answered, and so they built a homeless ministry, a library, a hospital, a cultural center, a school for refugees.  And sure, maybe you can do some of those things anyway, but it’s easy to go off in a lot of different directions when you aren’t listening intently for God’s call.

And that, I think, is the church being the church: a gathering of people who are doing their best to follow Jesus, who are committed to loving God, who are committed to constantly coming back to the means of grace, allowing God to speak and lead and remind them of what’s important, and putting that into action by loving their neighbors in ways that meet real needs in the community around them.

Remember that age-old question of John Wesley and others since him: Why doesn’t faith seem to be making a difference in people’s lives?

I’ve come to believe that a stronger commitment to prayer is something that will make a difference in my life, and that even has been, as I ask for God’s grace and ask God to help me extend that grace to others. And I believe that if that is a commitment we have as a congregation then that’s something that will make a difference in our life together, and it will make a difference in our neighborhood and our community as well as among the people we each meet in our individual weekday lives.

Today happens to be the day we are celebrating our financial commitments to Arlington Temple for 2016, and as I shared with you last week, I do think that’s one of those many things we do that has loving God and loving our neighbor at its core.  We’re dedicating a portion of our budget to God and practicing the discipline of looking beyond ourselves and the things we want, and we’re putting that money to use to continue to be a place where we come together to worship and love and feed and welcome our neighbors during the week.

But maybe today is also a time to think about committing, or recommitting, to living out the greatest, most important, most basic commandment: love God, love others.  It can be a time to think, again, about what kind of discipline best lets you draw close to God.  Is it reading the Bible a little each day?  Reading a Psalm at various times throughout your day?  Finding one prayer that speaks to you to pray each morning?  Committing to spend some quiet time listening to God in the morning or on your lunch break or in the evening?  Or maybe some combination of those things?  And it can be a time to think, again, about paying attention to how God is calling us to change and who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do for others, through those means of grace.

And if we were all deeply committed to those things, we might still not be a big church.  We might still not be a rich church.  But I believe we would be, hopefully even more so, a church where God did big things.

You can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor, the image of God in your midst.  That I have always believed.

You can’t love your neighbor well if you don’t love God and seek God’s grace in doing so.  That I am increasingly convinced of.

May God answer our prayers by giving us the grace to live, love and serve better.  And we will be not very far from the Kingdom of God.

Giving Joyfully

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-14

When I was about six and in Daisies, our troop leaders gave us an assignment to go home and go through our stuffed animals and bring one in to donate to Goodwill, or some organization like that.  This was maybe one of my first lessons in stewardship.  Well, I went home and I went through my stuffed animals, but there was none that I was willing to give away.  In the end, I cried, and my mom took pity on me and said we could donate one that she had bought and stashed away for that purpose.

I wasn’t actually a spoiled kid, I should add.  And it was a long time ago, but I’m still not much of a naturally generous person.  I do think I’ve come a long way since then, but it’s one of those things that is born of discipline, like going to the gym, and which I’m still sometimes bad at.  This spring at one point I had reasons to make donations to several organizations (beyond my usual giving to the church) and after a few of those I got kind of mad and said, “That’s it!  I’m not giving anyone any extra money for a couple of months!”

My friend Kristen has a son named Ward who is six, currently.  Ward is the kind of kid who will get $20 for his birthday and immediately donate all of it to Stop Hunger Now so that other kids can eat.  When Ward sees a homeless person panhandling at an intersection, he always wants to have a dollar on hand to give that person.  Kristen actually gets kind of worried about it, because she wants him to know the value of a dollar, but she also doesn’t want to snuff out his natural generosity.

I guess you could say the moral of this sermon is: be like Ward, not like me.

We all need examples to live up to, and sometimes they are six.

Having an example of giving to live up to is also the theme of today’s passage from 2 Corinthians.  You could say that this passage is the first church stewardship letter.  And if that’s the case then you should be thankful I’m not pulling out all the stops like Paul does:  “The Macedonians were begging me to take their money!” he says.  “I’m not commanding you to give, I’m just testing the genuineness of your love,” he says.  “God loves a cheerful giver,” he says, a little later on.

No one ever wants to hear that God loves a cheerful giver.  If you have to be guilted into cheerfulness, it’s probably already a lost cause.

Here’s what’s going on in Corinth at the time.  Like all of Paul’s letters, the events can be a little hard to piece together, even more so because 2 Corinthians is probably actually made up of fragments from a couple letters.  But what this stewardship letter revolves around is a collection Paul is taking for the church in Jerusalem.

You may remember that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and the original church in Jerusalem had a kind of split along the way.  They disagreed on whether Gentile converts to Christianity also had to be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary law.  They sorted all this out at the first ever church council meeting, and agreed that Paul could go on his way and that his new Christians didn’t have to be Jewish.  But, according to Galatians 2, they had one condition.  “They asked only one thing,” Paul writes, “that we remember the poor, which is actually what I was eager to do.”

Now Paul is collecting money for poor Christians in Jerusalem, though it’s unclear just how much poorer they are than anyone else, and beyond meeting a need, it’s an important gesture of church unity in the face of differing missions.

Paul’s associate Titus kicked off this campaign in Corinth, and in the beginning, the Corinthians were really responsive to it.  But then things got tense between them and Paul for a while for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, and even though they’ve made up by now, the Corinthians’ giving is lagging.

But in the meantime, the stewardship campaign has also kicked off in Macedonia!  The Macedonian churches are a couple you might recognize, like the Philippians and the Thessalonians.  And like Paul says, the Macedonians are really excited about this campaign!  They want to see the thermometer go all the way to the top!  And they don’t even have that much to begin with, but they can’t bear to miss this opportunity!

I already told you about how the thought of giving made me cry, and I also tend to be naturally suspicious of fundraising efforts, so when I read something like this I have to ask myself what could have possibly made the Macedonians so joyful about giving.

Of course let’s allow some room for Paul’s portrayal of the Macedonians to another congregation he also hopes will get excited about giving.  But even so, maybe the Macedonians do have some reasons to be joyful.  This is a project that lets them participate in something bigger than themselves.  It connects them to a place they’ll never go, to brothers and sisters in Christ they’ll never meet, to a church that is responsible for passing on the good news to them. Jerusalem is where their salvation began, and if they can give back to a place and people who already gave so much to them, then that’s not something to be begrudging about, that’s something to celebrate.  It’s something they believe in, and they consider it a privilege.

I don’t actually know if the Corinthians caught back on, but I do know who comes across better in the story—and who, in fact, is also supposed to be our model for joyful giving.

I could never actually preach a stewardship sermon like Paul does.  I don’t want to play people off each other or tell you the amount you give is directly proportional to the genuineness of your faith and love.  I also don’t actually want you to give beyond your means.  If it’s a matter of paying your tithe or paying your rent, you should probably pay your rent.  Unless of course you live in a house that is bigger than you need, in which case, you should maybe move to a smaller house, and then pay your tithe and pay your rent.

Instead I’ll try to keep it simple and make the two points that I make every year around this time:

  • Giving is a matter of Christian discipleship. And of course words like giving, generosity, and stewardship don’t only apply to money, but they do apply to money.  Intentionally setting aside a portion of your budget each week or each month to give to God’s work in this world is a way of making a habit of looking beyond yourself and putting God first.
  • I’m not sure that whether or not that money goes to the church reflects the quality of your discipleship, but the church needs your money. It takes money to gather here for worship on Sunday and it takes money to keep our doors open for our homeless neighbors and our business neighbors and any other neighbors who might stop by during the week.  And it’s been a bit of a rough year for us financially.  But you’re here, and so I think these things have value for you, and I hope you believe that God is at work here.  And just like giving gave the Macedonians an opportunity to be part of God’s larger work, it gives you that opportunity too.

So that’s my pitch, and if you haven’t already taken an estimate of giving card for 2016, there’s one in your bulletin, and you can bring it back next week and we will all celebrate our commitments to being part of the work God is doing through Arlington Temple!

I met one pastor when I was in Korea recently who came to his church in the middle of a huge building campaign that had gotten interrupted by the previous pastor’s resignation, which I took it was connected to some sort of scandal.  His congregation, understandably, was pretty bitter.  This church had a special service each year to make their contributions to pay down their building debt, and that year the pastor said he only wanted people to come and give if they found joy in giving.  “God only wants gifts given in joy,” he said.  They set out chairs for 300 people at that service, and 1000 came.

I thought about telling you the same thing, but it made me a little nervous.

Some people find joy in giving right in the moment, whether it’s something big or small.  I think of some of the people we see here at church during the week.  They are people who don’t have much.  They are trying to work out housing, find employment, scrape together money for an ID.  One of them will occasionally leave me an offering of a single Metro token.  One guy, upon hearing that Divine was going to visit her family in Ghana recently, ran after her as she got into her car and handed her three dollars and told her to give it to a child in Africa.

He ran.

I, however, know that if I only ever gave what I felt joyful about in the moment, then it wouldn’t be very much.

But I also know that I don’t want to be a grown-up version of that six-year-old crying at the thought of having to give one of her toys away.  I would rather be someone who is generous, who isn’t irresponsible about it, but also who isn’t so calculating, figuring what each dollar will cost me.  I would rather be someone who sacrifices a little to not always put my needs, and my wants, first.  I would rather be someone who looks beyond herself to the need in this world and the ways I see God at work in response, and who commits to being part of that work.  It’s something I believe in.

To be honest, there’s not much joy in a stingy life.

I think I started tithing, when I was in seminary, because I knew I was supposed to, especially if I was one day going to be standing in front of you all asking the same.   There are times when it has seemed like a burden.  But what I’ve realized in the past few years is that it’s actually pretty important to me now.  I am not going to tell you that I feel some deep surpassing joy each time I write my check at the beginning of the month.  But I do it because I’ve made that commitment, and I do find joy in knowing that this makes me more of the person that I want to be, and more importantly, more of the person who I think God wants me to be.

Maybe that’s why Paul calls giving a “grace”: even though we heard Paul tell his Corinthians to “excel in this generous undertaking,” some translations say that they should “excel in this grace of giving.”  God works through our giving: not just on whoever or whatever we’re giving to, but also on us.

I fill out that pledge card with the joy of knowing that God is at work on me.

Whether it’s that or something else, I hope—and even believe!—that you have a reason to find joy in giving too.

A World of Saints: Reflections on a Week in Korea

Scripture: Revelation 1:9-11; 2:1-7

Today is All Saints Day, and All Saints is a good time to remember that we are part of a larger story.  It’s a story that began a long time ago, and it’s a story of beauty and brokenness and love and deceit and war and blessing and exile and death and new life.  It’s a story of our turning away and God leading us back, over and over again.

And it’s a story of people, broken, flawed, blessed people, who encountered God and passed the story on.  It’s the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of Deborah and Ruth, of David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, of Mary, Peter, and Paul.  It’s the story of the earliest Christians like the ones John wrote to in Revelation, Christians with their holy and not so holy qualities, and it’s also the story of our grandmothers and Sunday School teachers and friends and mentors who, likewise, encountered God and passed the story on to us.

It’s a story of saints, and today is especially a time to remember those saints who have passed the story on and completed their time here on earth.  They are sometimes called the “church triumphant,” while we here on earth are the “church militant,” still struggling along in this journey of faith and sanctification, but never alone in our story.

Today I want to tell you about some of the saints I met last week.  Most of them are not the kind of saints who have finished their labors here on earth and gone on to glory.  But they are the kind of saints who are regular old people who have encountered God and helped remind me of my own larger story just a little bit.

As many of you know, last week I was away on Bishop Cho’s annual Pilgrimage for Spiritual Renewal, where he takes a group of clergy from across the conference to visit churches in Korea.  The idea, among other things, is to help us get a taste of the real commitment to prayer and spiritual discipline that many Christians in Korea have, that many of us Christians in the US do not necessarily have.

Our host church for the week was Bupyeong Methodist Church in Incheon.  Bupyeong has an ongoing ministry of welcoming groups of pastors from around the world for various kinds of training and retreats—they host about 10 groups a year.  Bishop Cho told us before we left that one of the purposes of the trip was for us to experience radical hospitality, and this church definitely had the art of welcoming down.  We stayed in dorm rooms right at the church which were as nice as hotel rooms.  Every day volunteers came in to clean and make our beds; every day volunteers cooked us an amazing breakfast; every day we were transported around Incheon and Seoul in the church bus.

Now I’ll tell you right now that this was a church with 5,000 people in attendance on any given Sunday, and clearly a lot of resources.  And in no way do I believe that a church has to be large or rich to show radical hospitality.  But it was certainly an impressive operation, and took a lot of commitment from a lot of volunteers.

A thing that a lot of churches do in Korea that a lot of churches do not do here is have an early morning prayer service.  That service was a key part of our experience in Korea, so every morning music was piped into our rooms at 4:40 am to get us to the sanctuary by 5.  I am not a morning person, and the 13-hour time difference only helped a little.  We would go to the sanctuary and there would be a couple hymns, always sung really fast, and with everyone clapping along.  I guess the thought was you’d better make it energetic or everyone would fall asleep.  Then there would be a message, and then half an hour of prayer.  That did not mean silent, contemplative prayer.  It meant half an hour of people crying out, rocking back and forth and clapping in prayer while the organ continued to play those peppy hymns in the background.  It was a surreal experience at 5 o’clock in the morning.  I know that a lot of the pastors in our group found early morning prayer to be the most meaningful part of our time there.  I’ll be honest, though, it was pretty hard to get used to for me.  By the end of the week I was just beginning to feel like I could pray silently in the midst of it all.

But there were hundreds of people there every morning.  We happened to be there during a 50-day special early morning prayer emphasis, so we were told that otherwise it would have been half that, which would still have been hundreds of people.  Many of these people started every day that way, seven days a week.  Many of them also went on to work long hours after that.

We got a chance one morning to meet with a few people who were devoted participants in early morning prayer and to hear about what it meant to them.  One woman said that the whole praying out loud thing seemed strange to her too, at first, and she’d even wondered if she was really in the right place for her.  But she said that over time the passion and energy in the room became contagious.  It helped her to pray with fervor when everyone else around her was praying with fervor.

Another man told us that he comes because he works long hours, and early mornings are the only time of day he has to give to God.  How many of us use our busy schedules as an excuse for not praying rather than making prayer a priority?  (Myself often included.)

Bishop Cho made the point that when you come to early morning prayer, it means adjusting the rest of your day around that.  You can’t stay up until midnight every night when you have to get up at 4.  When you devote that first hour of your day to God, it affects everything else.  It really is like offering God the first fruits of your time.

Almost every day after prayer and after breakfast we headed out in the church bus to visit other churches in the region to learn about what they’re doing in ministry.  One of the first churches we visited was called 100th Anniversary Memorial Church.  The name refers to the 100th anniversary of the church in Korea, which occurred in 1985.  One neat thing about this trip was the chance to learn a little bit about the history of Korean church.  We learned that a Methodist missionary and a Presbyterian missionary arrived on the same boat on Easter morning 1885.  This church, as part of its mission, took care of Seoul’s foreign missionary cemetery.  We got to tour the cemetery and see the grave of that first Methodist missionary, Henry Appenzeller.  It was a reminder of how much people have sacrificed to pass on that story, and it was amazing to see how many Korean Christians were grateful to Americans just for being from the country that produced those missionaries.

We also got to serve lunch at a soup kitchen one of our days in Seoul.  The feeding ministry is only part of a larger ministry called Dail Community that cares for poor and homeless and elderly people around the city.  The story goes that Pastor Choi, its founder, walked past a homeless man in the subway one day.  He had probably walked past homeless people in the subway a lot, but that day something made him turn around and he bought the man a bowl of ramen.  Then he said, “I’m the pastor of such-and-such a church, and I want you to let me know if there’s anything else you need.”  Well, two or three days later that man showed up at the church and he brought a friend.  And a feeding ministry was born.

Pastor Choi told us that one Christmas Eve he happened upon two or three homeless people in a square, and he asked them, “Why don’t you go to church?”  They said, “We tried to go to church, but they gave us some money and told us to leave.”  So instead of going to church that night, Pastor Choi lit a candle and they had a Christmas Eve service right there.  Dail still has a Christmas Eve service every year and now thousands of people come.

One day we visited a church called Jesus Town Ministry where, at some point in its history, the pastor asked himself why he saw people coming to church every Sunday but their lives weren’t changed, and the community around them wasn’t changed.  You might remember that’s the same question John Wesley asked before he started the Methodist movement in 18th-century England.  This pastor found a Wesleyan kind of answer: they went back to the old Methodist model of class meetings.  People meet in small accountability groups throughout the week.  The church leadership rises up out of these groups, so you have lay leaders providing spiritual care for people in their groups.  What also rises out of these groups are lay-run community ministries.  Right in its neighborhood in Seoul, Jesus Town Ministry operates two schools, a clinic, an elder care center, and a homeless ministry, among others.

Another day we visited the Church of the Good Shepherd in a suburb called Seongnam.  The pastor there told us that church did not make him happy as a kid.  People were always fighting and there didn’t seem to be any joy there.  Everywhere he looked pastors were abusing people’s trust and giving the church a bad image.  The problem, he said, is that we don’t believe Jesus is really with us.  One day he was reading from 1 John and he read the words “Love one another,” and he broke out in tears.  He said, that’s the way the church should be, and I’m going to be a pastor, and that’s the kind of church I’m going to build.

When he came to Good Shepherd that is not the kind of church he got.  He ran church meetings using a small cross and a bell.  The leaders passed the cross around the room as they spoke, reminding themselves of Jesus’ presence with them.  If anyone felt like things were not going in a way that would be pleasing to Jesus, they could ring the bell, and the whole group would stop and pray together for one minute before resuming.

In an attempt to cultivate a greater sense of intimacy with Jesus, this pastor began journaling.  He tried to use it to stay focused on Jesus’ presence during his day.  Then he invited church members to join him.  Then they created small online groups in which people share their journal each day for accountability.  Now even non-members in different countries participate in this ministry of journaling.  Even the pastor shares his with his church leadership and associate pastors.  Does that sound dangerous to you?  Gradually, they saw relationships begin to change.  This church could find joy and be in ministry together when they were focused together on Jesus’ presence with them and what he wanted them to do.

I don’t want to give a too idealized picture of the Korean church.  One of the things that was obvious to many of us is that female leadership is not a big thing in churches there.  One of the things we actually learned was that it seems as if the church there may be at the beginning of a decline, too.  Christians make up about 30% of the Korean population, and the church doesn’t necessarily have a great image among non-Christians.  That can probably be partially attributed to the high-profile sins of certain megachurch pastors, just as it partially can here.  Some Koreans are deciding they don’t trust big churches and starting to go back to small ones, which may sound like good news to those of us who are small-church kinds of people.  In a way it was sad for us clergy to hear that a church we’ve always heard is doing so many things right in its commitment to prayer and discipline is struggling in many of the same ways we are.  On the other hand, there is something comforting in the realization that in this whole imperfect, worldwide communion of saints, we’re scared of many of the same things.  And that we still have a lot to share with each other out of our own strengths and weaknesses as part of the same story.

Here’s the one most important thing that our brothers and sisters in Korea shared with me: I came back inspired by the way the churches we visited combine deep spirituality and passionate prayer with a strong commitment to service.  I think a lot of us want to focus on one or the other.  I probably err on the side of focusing on service.  I do pray; I even try to be consistent about it.  But even then I’m not sure the two are always well-integrated in my life.

But what I saw in these particular churches was a commitment to prayer and discipline that was expected to change lives and change communities.  It was expected to bear fruit in loving and serving others.  The two were inseparable.

And I came back convinced of something I’ve been suspecting for a while: that maybe our job as the church is to get back to the basics of what it means to be disciples of Jesus.  That it maybe doesn’t matter how “relevant” we are or what kinds of fancy outreach we do or what programs we have as much as it matters that we are people who are intentionally trying to stay attuned to God and who let God change our lives and who let God, through us, change our community.  This is what Jesus called loving God and loving your neighbor, the two great commandments.  And I think that if we’re focusing on those things, people will want to know more.  I also think you probably haven’t heard the last from me on that as I continue to ponder it more.

I don’t think I’m going to start getting up before 5 every morning, but I am grateful for how some saints across the world helped share our story with me, and hopeful for what that may mean for all of us.

Living With Intention

Guest preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: Joshua 1:6-10

Nothing affects your life more than fear. And, I know that you are afraid, even though you’ve been trying to hide it. You’ve been keeping up appearances. But, everyone can see it in your eyes. Your posture speaks louder than your words, whether you will admit it or not. I am scared too. We are all scared. We are not very sure how things will turn out. There are many uncertainties.

America is facing an epidemic of fear. Our wars are never ending. Our congress is increasingly self serving. They don’t seem to care about families affected by their continued threats of government shutdowns. The number of un-housed (homeless) families keeps growing. Hospital bills are paralyzing. Families are being torn apart by Cancer and mass incarceration. The burden of huge student debt is impacting the choices or lack of choice in the lives of young people. Homicides and Mass shootings are now becoming a norm, and we are tired of hearing the same condolence speeches from our politicians and preachers. There is no safe place, whether you are in church or kindergarten. Of course we are scared and worried sick.

Today, many people are hospitalized because of worrying about everything. In fact, the National Institute of Health (NIH) has even categorized this sickness as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).  About 6.8 million Americans suffer from this fear disease every year. Six percent will suffer from it at one point in their lifetime.

Many of us show symptoms of GAD – i.e. persistent, uncontrollable worry. GAD sufferers worry about minor and major issues equally despite the realization that their fears are unfounded or unrealistic. Although people with GAD may know their worry is out of proportion to reality, they are unable to control their anxiety.

But, we are not the only ones facing challenges. Thousands around the world are being forced to make dangerous treks in search of safety and hope for their children. They escape violent gangs and drug cartels, running for thousands of miles through dangerous jungles and deserts, with no shelter, food or water. With little children strapped to their bodies, hoping to find somebody who cares enough to protect them. But, instead, they are received at our borders by angry mobs of adult men and women screaming “go back, you are illegal. You are undocumented. When did running for your life become illegal?

I will never forget the images I saw last year in Murrieta California, of old men and women screaming at crying babies and young mothers, “you are not welcome,” “we don’t want you,” “Abort them if you can’t feed them.” Women who are mothers and grandmothers themselves were spitting on little ones.” Then men with guns put them in handcuffs, loaded them into buses, and shipped them to detention prisons. God knows how long they’ve been there. Asking God, how long? And sadly, the church is quiet and just watching from the sidelines. God is asking, who shall lead my people?

Scripture tells us that Joshua, the one chosen to replace Moses, was also afraid. That same confident Joshua who stood boldly and declared before Israel “we can certainly do it,” when all the other spies said they looked like grasshoppers in comparison to their enemies, was now afraid.  He was afraid of the responsibility to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Moses was dead. The prophet, whom God used to deliver the Israelites out of slavery, and spoke directly with God, was dead. The people were still in mourning and were discouraged. They needed someone to lead them. And Joshua was the guy. So, naturally Joshua was afraid. These people were difficult to lead. He saw how they complained to Moses from day one. They complained nonstop for 40 years, and even caused Moses to disobey God. Somehow, I can sympathize with Joshua. Leading a self-centered people is not an easy job. Besides, Joshua may never have seen himself outside of his job as Moses’ helper. But, fear could not be used as an excuse. God commanded him to be strong and courageous.

Similarly, most of us are overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges we face daily. We don’t know where to start. We don’t even know how to solve our own issues. How could we possibly address gun violence in our communities or immigration? How could we be God’s people in the world, when we don’t even speak to our next door neighbor? Like Joshua, many of us do not see ourselves outside of our formal jobs. Our jobs have become our self image. We are afraid to lead. We are afraid to speak out against racism and discrimination. But, fear is no excuse for inaction. God commands us to be courageous.

Why are so many people making themselves sick from fear?

My guess is that we have lost our priorities. “Without a vision, scripture tells us, people perish.”(Proverbs 29:18). Unfortunately, we are living in an age of information overload. Our ability to focus and pay attention is dwindling. We can’t read anything longer than a tweet. Many of us are living like the Walking Dead (Zombies). Our lives are on auto pilot. Our minds are cluttered. We are highly connected, but extremely lonely.

We can no longer think without the help of smart phones. We can’t get around without a GPS.

Many of us no longer get our counsel from church or the Bible. Instead, we get it from talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, who are known to insult women on radio. We have no patience to figure out anything on our own. We want someone to do it for us. – Pray for us, read the bible for us, we want others to build our friendships for us. We want others to raise our children, feed our cats, walk our dogs, cook our food, and clean our house. We are too busy, yet doing very little.

Does this mean we have no hope? Condemned to a life of fear? Not at all

There is another way of living. It is living with intention. Living with intention entails living with purpose. And, living with purpose does not come by accident. It calls for courage to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Being a disciple isn’t a casual walk in the park. Sometimes, it will challenge you, and push you to lead an unwilling and scary people.

One of Jesus’ popular instructions to his disciples was “fear not.” The bible mentions fear over 500 times and the KJV bible mentions “fear not” 103 times. Some have even suggested that there are 365 “fear not”, which means you have one for each day of the year. That shows that fear is one of the greatest challenges we face.  Fear, is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear paralyses and diminishes our vitality.

Jesus, however, came so that we might have life, and have it in abundance. “God’s grace has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)

Joshua was commanded time and again to be “Be strong and courageous.” This phrase appears over ten times in the NIV Bible. God expects us to be courageous. God cannot command us to do something we are incapable of doing. “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline (sound mind KJV).” (2 Timothy 1:7). Therefore, don’t be afraid to stand up for the gospel. To do what is right, and speak out for the least of these. We are commanded not to be afraid. Therefore, don’t be afraid to make your house a welcoming place for people who don’t look like you or share your culture. Be strong and courageous. Be the bearer of good news. Open your church to unlikely candidates. To live with intention is to live with courage. Courage is a choice. Courage is not the absence of fear, but it’s going on regardless of your fears.  As Bob Proctor once put it, “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.”

As a modern culture, we have become obsessed with bad news and celebrity status. All the blogs we follow are about gossip. All the articles we read are about scandal. We can’t watch an entire move unless it contains deception, infidelity, and violence. Some people even get physically sick when no one likes their posted selfies. We are intoxicated with vanity. Even in church, we want the superstar preacher who can give messages that sooth us; that entertain us, instead of challenging us to be holy and relevant.

Nothing steals our joy from life more than fear and a loss of meaning.

Fear has Implications:

  1. Fear obscures your vision. You cannot fulfill your life’s assignment when you are ruled by fear. Fear causes you to abandon your life’s dreams
  2. Fear diminishes your creative ability. Instead of being creative, you become defensive, suspicious.
  3. Fear interferes with your overall functioning – causing sickness in your body, spirit, mind. It affects your relationships. Fear even affects our economy
  4. Fear steals your joy and keeps you in bondage. Fear is a thief. Arrest it.

Conversely, you need courage to do anything meaningful in life. You need courage to raise children. You need courage to be in a relationship. You need courage to be an effective disciple. You can’t please God without it. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) Faith and courage go together. A person of courage is also full of faith.

God invites you to live with intention — to live with a courageous awareness and purpose.

Joshua was commanded to be strong and courageous in order to lead the Israelites. But, not just by sheer will-power. He was to depend on the word of God; to discipline himself by controlling the thoughts in his mind and the words in his mouth. He was to meditate on God’s words day and night, and to do exactly what was commanded. Not to pick and choose what to obey or not. Meditating on God’s word allows our minds to focus on God’s grace and power rather than our own strength and intelligence. It helps us put fear in its rightful place.

Fear is a powerful emotion triggered when we focus on negative images. What are you feeding your mind on? What are you watching or reading? Who is speaking into your life? Who are you listening to? In order to deal with fear, all we have to do is shift our focus. We have to guard our hearts (minds) as Proverbs 4:23 urges. It’s not easy, but we have to practice daily. Fear cannot be wished away. It must be faced, daily, and replaced by courage. It’s a habit.

How do we live with intention? Five things we learn from Joshua 1:8-9

  1. Decide: you have to make a decision that you will live by God’s standard, and not follow the opinions of the masses out of fear. But in order to obey God, you need to know what God says.
  2. Study God’s word and let your vocabulary be saturated with it. “Don’t let it depart from your mouth.” Confession of God’s word helps us to internalize it and build our faith.
  3. Meditate on it day and night. What we focus on grows. Meditation allows us to be conscious of what we are doing and why. We become more intentional in our actions and behavior.
  4. Act on it. Be careful to do everything that you are commanded. Not to pick and choose. Courage grows when we keep doing what we fear, not by avoiding it.
  5. Do not be discouraged. Things will go wrong sometimes. They will take longer than expected. Loved ones will die. Your friends will disappoint you. You will not always be strong and courageous. Sometimes you will be afraid, but God will always be with you wherever you go. Persist on doing what is right and be faithful to what God has called you to do one day at a time.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Do not carry the worries and failures of yesterday into your today and tomorrow. Start afresh. It means paying attention to what’s going on within you and around you. One useful tool you can use is the Examen which was developed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola and adopted and modified by many traditions, including John Wesley.

You can also modify it to suit your own meditation style.

Before you begin, as in all prayer, remind yourself that you are in God’s presence, and ask God to help you with your prayer.

  1. Gratitude: Recall anything from the day for which you are especially grateful, and give thanks.
  2. Review: Recall the events of the day, from start to finish, noticing where you felt God’s presence, and where you accepted or turned away from any invitation to grow in love.
  3. Sorrow: Recall any actions for which you are sorry.
  4. Forgiveness: Ask for God’s forgiveness. Decide whether you want to reconcile with anyone you have hurt.
  5. Grace: Ask God for the grace you need for the next day and an ability to see God’s presence more clearly.

The purpose of the Examen draws from an understanding that it’s easier to see God in retrospect rather than in the moment. When things are rough and happening, it’s hard to see God at work. So learn to take a moment every now and then during the day and pay attention. For, God is always with you wherever you go. Be strong, and courage. Don’t be afraid or discouraged. Go into all the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. God invites us all to live with intention.

Amen.