Sunday’s Sermon Today: More Than Stories – In the Beginning (Gen. 2:4-9, 16-19)

In the Sound of Music, Maria teaches the Von Trapp children how to sing with a song called “Do-Re-Mi” that includes the line, “Let’s start at the very beginning, A very good place to start.” While Maria wants to teach the children to sing – and experience joy – this also proves to be a reminder to all of us that the beginning is in fact a good place to start.

Launching into a new sermon series always feels daunting – and exciting- at the same time. This fall, we will be exploring highlights from the Old Testament, looking to the ways that God speaks to his people through the stories and experiences of people before Jesus.

And the beginning seems like the right place to start.

While Genesis 1 starts “in the beginning,” and lays out a broad spectrum of God’s creative powers, sun, stars, oceans, plants, people, etc., Genesis 2 digs into the special creation of humankind in the image of God.

The first thing we can see in Genesis 2:4 is that the overview from Genesis 1 is still valid: the heavens and the earth once did not exist but God did.

We can disagree about so many things in the Bible, but our understanding of the world is absolutely influenced by whether we can accept that there is a Creator God who intentionally formed everything… from scratch.

Think about that for a minute. God created from scratch.

There was no blueprint outside of God. There was no world to mimic. There was no outside influence on what the world would look like. But God created because God had an idea and authority to make this happen.

I once operated with a blueprint. In college, I served as an assistant to the builder of a house. More accurately, I was the assistant to the second assistant. I think that roughly translates to “gofer.” I carried wood, hammered nails, and, reluctantly, helped wire the electric sockets. While each of the sockets we did that day needed to be rewired after the inspector came through, that wasn’t the most egregious error our boss made that summer.

When the house’s internal beams were completed, it was discovered that the foundation was off by 1/100 of an inch. While that seems like a small amount, unless you’re competing by distance for an Olympic medal, the degree of error was augmented by the levels of floorboards, joists, house levels, etc. until the ceilings on the second floor were off by … a foot.

The builder had not followed the blueprint, and had haphazardly set us to work.

In the story of Creation, there is nothing haphazard – but God’s creative powers are above reproach, each item, each hair, each blade of grass, is set out perfectly, intentionally, and powerfully.

So what then do we do if we have read and understand Genesis 1 and then read the opening verses of Genesis 2? We find ourselves in Genesis 2:5-7 with a decision to make: Genesis 2 says that there were no plants on the earth – and no rain had yet fallen – but God created humankind. For the skeptic in us, that may create a problem: the first two books in the Bible don’t have the same chronological order for things.

But that doesn’t mean that they disagree.

We must remind ourselves that the first few books of the Bible would have been passed down orally for centuries, and that people passed these stories down orally. Have you ever heard the same story told by two different people, say the story of how a couple first met or how the proposal went down? While the two people may recount the story differently to their children – especially if they’re Bob Saget on How I Met Your Mother -the end result is that they are ultimately married.

So, if the story of chronology in Genesis 1 doesn’t agree with Genesis 2:5-7, what is the point of Genesis and the different stories?

Consider what is the same in both stories: God created humankind from the dust of the ground – and breathed life into that first man.

Whether you take the story literally – or figuratively – the point is that humanity came existence because God a) intentionally created and b) used God’s own divine breath to make people out of the substance God had just created (the dirt of the ground).

In both settings, God created humankind imago dei — in God’s image. Out of God’s substance.  Regardless of what you’ve been told before – regardless of the value that you or someone else has placed on your life – you are created in the image of God.

You have the ‘divine spark,’ God’s creative breath, in you.

And God wasn’t content to just create humanity and send it off spinning like a top, or, like someone proposed once, like a Watchmaker who wound up the clock and then walked away from it.

No, God created humanity to be in the midst of this lush, perfect garden that God had created – he filled it with trees that were good to look at and eat. And then God made the center of Garden: he put the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the whole set up.

And he told the first man – let’s call him Adam – not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge because he would certainly die. While we are not solely focused on the way that the good garden God created became corrupted, it is important to recognize that in creating humankind, that God intentionally allowed for the choice making, both good and bad, of all humanity. God could have set up a series of dominoes and called it humanity; God could’ve made us like marionettes like Pinocchio longing to be a real boy.

And yet, God created us in God’s image and gave us the power to choose good or evil.  God created us with the power to choose God – or not – because God creates with the desire that we will want to be with God. But God will not force us to be.

God wants what is best for this man he had made: God makes him a partner – the woman – and forms all of the animals for the man to name them. 

The story goes something like this: Adam was walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, so God asked Adam, “What is wrong with you?”

Adam said he didn’t have anyone to talk to.

God said, “I was going to give you a companion and it would be a woman. This person will cook for you and wash your clothes. She will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will not nag you, and will always be the first to admit she was wrong when you’ve had a disagreement. She will never have a headache, and will freely give you love and compassion whenever needed.

Adam asked God, “What would a woman like this cost me??”

God said, “An arm and a leg.”

Adam asked, “What can I get for just a rib???”

God as we understand him is Trinity, or three-in-one, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God IS community, and God offers us community by bringing us into communion with God – and with each other. But none of that is possible if the first man has no one to be with. So God creates the human partnership through the story of the first man and the first woman.

But, how should we put this, God is not interested in freeloading! God presents the first man with a job, with a way of participating, and creating with God. God could easily have created the animals and named all of them, but those who carried the story of Creation from the beginning of our faith understood that God wants humanity to be creative partners with God … from the beginning and moving forward.

Which leads us to this: we live in the in-between, between the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which ultimately allowed for the sin of the first man, and the Tree of Life. If we fast forward thousands of years, or better yet, to the last book of the Bible, Revelations, we see that the Tree of Life again exists in our reference.

First, the author of Revelations tells us that he has received a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth,” a place where the people of God will be intimately, immediately, absolutely present with God himself. Here, pain and suffering, death and crying, pain and trouble, will be no more just like the existence of everything “good” when God initially created it. Here, the spring of the water of life – promised to that Samaritan woman at the well – overlaps with the Tree of Life:

“On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

What God created in the beginning, God will fulfill.

What God intended for all of us, God will make an abundant reality.

That is the future; that is the hope.

But God created us – and God continues to allow us to live, and work, and move, and play with that future ahead of us.

So what of the now? What are we to glean for the very moment?

We are neither in the beginning nor at the end but somewhere between the two trees.

We are created in the image of God.

We exist by the breath of God’s divine life.

We bear the creative powers of God in the world.

We are created for community and blessing to each other.

We are individually sculpted to participate in God’s good plan for the world.

So, where does that leave us?

It should leave us empowered, hopeful, and focused: God is moving in our world with a plan for our good and we get to participate.

What will you create this week? What will you nurture in someone else? What will you recognize is your long dormant gift? What will you do for the kingdom of God?

Even in the middle, something new can come. Even now, there may be a moment where someone will someday remember: “In the beginning….”

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Sunday’s Sermon Today – Be the Attitude: The Cost of Discipleship (Acts 16:16-40)

Do you know anyone who has a persecution complex? Anyone who thinks that everyone is out to get them? Anyone who thinks they are always right and others are always wrong?

Jesus closes his Beatitudes with this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

Sometimes, the church can have a persecution complex. I’ve seen this in interviews I’ve done with Christian movie makers and musicians.  “Well, no one will play our CD because it’s too Christian to be on the radio,” or “no one will go to the movie because it says Jesus Christ is the only way.” Are there other options? Like what if no one went to the movie because it wasn’t any good or if no one bought the music because it wasn’t their style?

The Apostle Paul says there is real persecution we face when we follow Christ. He wrote in II Corinthians 4:8-12: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

Paul writes this as a man in chains, a disciple of Jesus who had a personal experience of meeting Jesus – and who was ultimately put on trial because he continued to hold to his faith. Paul experienced the beauty of the gospel and the way that it would be received by others. But it still seems somewhat abstract, doesn’t it?

“Persecution” isn’t quite concrete enough.

Paul and theologians like the 20th century pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that our faith couldn’t be truly understood or explored unless it was lived out. There was a direct correlation between what we believed and what we did. If we claimed Christ but didn’t live like it, or didn’t share it, then it wasn’t really faith, they said. These men said that our faith must be passionately pursued – and lived out – in spite of the cost.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, and the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

I remember a t-shirt I bought once at our swimming championship. It said “Nothing good comes easy; nothing easy is good.” It was about hard work and effort that lead to results in the pool. But it’s also a parallel to our lives in faith. While we can freely accept Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf – Jesus died on the cross and did the heavy lifting for us – there is hard work in pursuing Jesus through the way we live our lives.

But that can be a bit abstract, can’t it?

So consider this story from Paul’s life, found in Acts 16:16-40. Here, Paul and his mentee, Silas, are planting churches and sharing their faith when they are followed by a woman possessed by a spirit. Because of the possession, the woman has the ability to tell the future – and a slaveholder uses her powers to make money. She’s sick – and she’s a slave. After being followed by this woman for days, Paul rebukes the spirit in the name of Jesus and she is made whole again.

When the slave owners saw that she was no longer profitable – she could no longer tell the future because she’d been made whole and freed from the possession – they had Paul arrested. They accused Paul and Silas of stirring up a revolt against the Roman laws which wasn’t what they had done at all. Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten, flogged, and thrown into prison.

Now, here’s where things get really interesting. Paul and Silas respond to this persecution – this inappropriate punishment – by … singing. While they sang hymns, the doors of the prison burst open, an earthquake ripped through the foundations of the prison, and every prisoner’s chains broke open.

The jailer rushed in to recapture the prisoners but found they were all escaped except for Paul and Silas who knew they hadn’t done anything wrong.  The jailer was going to kill himself, having failed his duty and knowing he’d be punished, but Paul interceded on his behalf. He not only begged the jailor not to harm himself but also proceeded to share his faith in Jesus Christ. Their example in the midst of persecution led to the salvation of the jailor’s family, and to the redemption of their ministry by their example.

Paul was hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.

Is that enough to convince you? Or does that still seem like a fable from another time?

The history of the church is full of stories of people whose faith drew them into confrontation with powers outside of their control, but how with great courage, they persevered. The church’s list of martyrs is numerous, but it seems alien to us in the U.S. where our faith is “safe” and often easygoing. Today, let us consider martyrs past and present to consider the cost of discipleship we would be willing to pay in our own lives.

In 155 AD, Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, who had a vision that he would be burned alive as Roman forces cracked down on Christians. In hiding, Polycarp was discovered when two slaves gave up his location under duress. But when soldiers arrived to arrest them, the eighty-six-year-old theologian refused to run and instead provided hospitality to his captors, asking only for an hour to pray before being taken into custody. Over the next few hours, he was pressed to renounce Christ and refused, again and again, until he was finally lead out into the middle of the crowded amphitheater and burned at the stake.

In 1536, William Tyndale was hung for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English. You may recognize the name because Tyndale Books is one of the most prolific publishers of the Bible in the world today.

Polycarp and Tyndale were persecuted, but not abandoned.

In the 1940s, amidst Nazi persecution of Jews, Corrie ten Boom’s family began a ministry to rescue their Jewish friends and neighbors, ultimately starting an underground railroad of sorts for those fleeing the Nazi regime. This is the same statement made by others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Confessional Church pastor, whose Cost of Discipleship I referenced above. See, Bonhoeffer wasn’t merely a poet or theologian, but he actively struggled with how Christians should respond to persecution – and evil – right up until the day when he was hanged for his efforts against Hitler’s Nazi party.

In film The Insanity of God, out now, Nik and Ruth Ripken shared their story of missionary living, and triumph in the face of tragedy. Called to missions out of rural Kentucky, the Ripkens first served in Somalia, where anti-Christian persecution killed one-hundred percent of the people that the Ripkens discipled in their faith. During the same period, their son died from a lack of appropriate medical care. In the face of dangerous persecution – and personal loss- the Ripkens withdrew from Africa, doubting the presence and power of God in situations like that. But in their exploration of faith by others in Communist countries like Russia, the call of God’s heart began to embolden the Ripkens in the midst of their grief.

In the film, Ripken says, “Now, I’m in deeper dangerous, because the Bible is coming alive. Satan had tricked me into believing that the Bible was an old book, with things that God used to do. And here I was experiencing the Bible in the present tense, with the things God did coming alive.”

Corrie ten Boom and the Ripkens were struck down, but not destroyed.

Even in the face of persecution, these people – and thousands like them – have held to the promises outlined in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful, the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God.

Blessed are those who hear the call of God in their lives and answer.

Blessed are those who recognize the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and live each day to honor that sacrifice with their lives.

Regardless of the consequences.

I wonder today what it would look like for us to answer the call of discipleship from Jesus, to respond passionately and powerfully.

What do we stand to lose? Is it our sense of security? Is it our status in society? Is it our financial stability? Is it the respect of some people around us? Is it friendship?

The final Beatitude says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Not blessed are they but a direct remark from Jesus to his disciples – that they are blessed when they are insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused because of Jesus.

And so are we.

So, I must ask: are you insulted, persecuted, or falsely accused because of Jesus? Is your way of living, thinking, loving, and communicating so alien from what the world expects that you are the subject of conversation?

Not because you have a fish on your car but because the Icthus is a sign of your lifestyle.

Not because you go to church but because church goes with you when you walk out the door after worship.

Not because you can recite the Scripture but because the Scripture lives in you.

God asks us to lay down our lives – daily – to answer the call of discipleship. Will we answer? Will we go where we’re called to go?

Jesus says there is blessing to be found in the persecution – blessing to be found in the challenge.

Our faith comes with a price.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Be the Attitude – Peace Starts with You & Me (Isaiah 9:1-7)

Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called children of God.–Matthew 5:9

I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. Whether it was Superman or Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be the person who would defeat evil and make it so that everyone else would be safe. These were some of the figures of my childhood who embodied “peace and justice,” who seemed to be the kinds of heroes that made peace happen. The world was black and white, and everything ultimately looked good, with no hints of grey, as a child.

I’ll never forget where I was on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Just months from graduating from seminary, I ran around the halls of the classroom building with everyone else trying to catch bits and pieces of the information that were coming in about the attack on the World Trade Center. This was unlike anything my generation had ever experienced: this was the destruction of security, and safety, and peace as we knew it. Innocence for me, naiveté of the world around us, that was now a thing of the past. The truth is, for the most part, America had lived in a seemingly safe bubble for years, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Pearl Harbor decades behind us.

The world around us has been dealing with the lack of real peace for years. The world of the Old and New Testaments is ripe with the sense of fear and unrest from the time of Noah through the days of Jesus. But in the midst of all of it, there was hope.

In our scripture today, from the Prophet Isaiah, with words later echoed by Jesus in Matthew:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

For the people of Israel, Isaiah’s prophecy was one of a future hope; in Jesus’ words, the same scripture becomes a promise of a kingdom that Jesus brought, even though no one knew it yet. A kingdom that we live in but which is not yet fulfilled or complete.

These words of Isaiah are the stuff of Christmas! Whether you’ve grown up in the church and heard the words over and over again during Advent, or you’re a fan of Handel’s the Messiah, the words roll out a litany of who Jesus is and what he represents:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.

I have to admit: that sounds great! I believe that Jesus is all of those things: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But a world where justice and righteousness exist forever? That sounds almost too good to be true when I watch the news today, when I see the headlines:

-Teen fatally shot by cops

-Suspect in Starbucks attack unfit to stand trial

-Woman gets fifteen years for child porn

-More bombing in the Gaza strip

-Family robbed in own driveway

None of these things fill me with hope. But we’re called to this kingdom, to this following Jesus, to being the children of God. We’re straining toward something different, but the violence is all we seem to know.

We think if the other guy has a gun, then we should have one, too. And if the other guy has a bigger gun, then we better get one, too. We take it nationally to the point where we think the only way to end a war is to blow them away first, to act proactively. But is that real peace or merely ending a conflict by being a bigger bully?

What if it’s supposed to look different?

Rick Love tells of a story that took place during the ongoing wars between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, St. Francis of Assisi chose to seek out an interview with the sultan of Egypt, to share his faith in Jesus Christ with this Muslim. Recognizing that he was going as a sheep among wolves, he was soundly beaten and captured by the sultan’s men and dragged before the sultan himself.

“Why are you here?” the sultan demanded, knowing full well that it was foolishness for a Christian to make his way into Muslim territories alone.

“Muslims we shall never become,” Francis replied, “but we are messengers from God and we have come to share our faith with you.”

The sultan proved to be taken by their courage and straightforwardness, and gathered the Muslim advisors to hear Francis’ message. Francis focused on the good news of Jesus Christ and begged for the fighting to end; the advisors urged the sultan to behead Francis.

“These men want me to kill you,” the sultan said, “because that’s what our law demands. But I will ignore the law because it would hardly be fitting to respond that way given that you have come here to risk your lives in order to save my soul.”

The good monk was fed and hosted, and freed to come and go as he pleased within in Muslim territories. His freely offered kindness defused a situation that would have otherwise ended bloodily.

But one story won’t turn our hearts around, will it?

What about the story from World War I, told beautifully in the narrative film Joyeux Noel about the ceasefire between the Germans and the Allied forces? About the Germans, French, and Scottish soldiers who defied their superiors and declared that no guns would be fired on Christmas Eve, just because it was Christmas?

What about the mosque in Bon Air that extended its love toward the United Methodist church there on the anniversary of 9/11 by gathering at the UM church with flowers and attending that service? What about the UM response to the mosque by extending the same act of peace and love when various Muslim businesses were targeted several years later?

We understand what ‘not peace’ looks like, but too often we settle for avoiding conflict, or separating ourselves from situations where conflict might occur, or faking our happiness and peace, or simply preventing conflict by “conflict management” instead of actually making peace.

Maybe none of us will immediately impact the world for peace; maybe we’ll never lead a rally that actually changes political decision making.

But what if we would actually experience peace for ourselves? Maybe we should pursue it individually first, then corporately second, and maybe, just maybe, it will begin to run upstream to our community, to our nation, to the world.

Jesus urges his followers to pursue peace by taking the plank out of their own eye first and then working to help the person they are in conflict with to remove their speck (Matthew 7:3-5). Cornelius Plantinga says that this peace is not peace made but God-given shalom: “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight; the way things out to be.”

It’s that kind of peace that makes us the children of God, and yet we can rarely wrap our minds around it, even for our individual relationships.

I’m reminded of my dad’s swimming coach mottos when I think about being peaceful. More often than not, when it’s about peace, I want the other person to act peaceful, and then (maybe) I’ll do what Jesus might do. That’s when the words come floating back from the pre-swim meet pep talks: “You can’t do anything about the person in the other lane, you can only control what happens in your lane, so do your best.”

But that requires me, you, us, to look at peace differently. To see peace differently before it ever gets to ‘not peace.’

There’s a parable about a town that relied on the tears of a very old dragon to make the crops grow, to renew the spring from which the the town’s water came. Each year on the day set aside as the town ‘celebration,’ a group of the strongest warriors would be gathered and feasted about town. Armed to the teeth and wearing the best armor they could afford, the group would venture into the forest to the dragon’s cave.

Down, down, down into the dragon’s lair, the men would go each year, and each year they would battle the dragon. Each year, they would harvest the dragon’s tears, and each year the dragon sent them back to their village broken and battered, a few warriors less than they had begun. The crops grew meager food and the well gave just enough to get by, but the means of the dragon’s tears allowed them to survive.

When the year had nearly been up, one young warrior-to-be stole away the night before, full of the town’s stories and jokes. Arriving by himself, he stole his way down to the dragon’s lair and softly began to speak from a cleft in a rock. The dragon rose up as if to strike quickly, but listened to the words of the young man. The humor and wit were evident, and the dragon settled back to listen.

Soon, the dragon was laughing, his belly shaking, and a lone tear stole its way to the corner of his eye. Shortly after, the ground began to be pelted by the giant tears of laughter rolling down the dragon’s cheeks, and the little vial that the young man had brought couldn’t hold all of the dragon’s tears.

That year, the crops grew bountifully, and the spring welled up with the purest water.

There were still tears, but this time, they were tears of joy.

I wonder if would see peace differently if we saw ourselves differently. If we saw each other differently.

Too often, we make a major mistake about peace: we think that we’re going to be able to accomplish it by ourselves.

Let’s be real: I’m not peaceful. I’m not wired to be peaceful. I want to lash out, strike first, make sure that I’m taken care of.

If I am peaceful AT ALL, it is because I recognize that I can’t do it on my own but have to trust God to help me grow into peace.

Paul writes to the church in Phillipi:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:6-9)

Do not be anxious? … Think about what is true, and noble, and right, and pure. And peace will be with you.

God’s peace, not your peace or my peace. Because we would be covered in prayer and like-minded with Jesus. Because we would focus on the good and the right and the pure.

What would that look like in your life?

What would happen if you banished the need to be justified? If you failed to show anger or irritation when someone slighted you? If you made the decision not to be that customer?

This week I found myself tempted twice to speak, and shockingly, chose silence. The first time, I was standing in line at Panera- the only one standing in line- and a woman walked up out of the blue and took her place… in front of me! There was no explanation that I could find to justify her ‘cutting’ me in line, and my first reaction was to say, “Um, excuse me, but I was here first.”

The second time, we were told to speak to a different worker at Walmart, then passed off to wait for a manager at Walmart, only to be told that she couldn’t help us at all! A key was with another manager, no it wasn’t, maybe it was… and finally, after ten or so minutes of watching my children try not to turn the checkout line of Walmart into a gymnasium, the first manager came back with the key. My growing frustration was only egged on by my children’s agitated state… I wanted to comment.

Neither situation is a big deal, right? Neither moment is earth shattering or terrible, but we have an expectation of how the world works: you don’t cut in line and the customer matters most of all!

There’s another story from war that Love tells, this time about a Turkish officer who led the attack on a village, and personally took over an Armenian home. He saw to it that the parents were killed and that the daughters were abused, even participating himself. Finally, the eldest daughter escaped and trained as a nurse. After a time, she found herself nursing in a recovery unit for Turkish officers, and recognized that officer in the midst of her responsibilities. He was dying, and over time, he was nursed back to health by that same woman. Upon hearing a doctor announce that he would’ve died without her care, the officer asked her, “We have met before, haven’t we?”

“Yes, we’ve met,” she replied.

“Why didn’t you kill me?”

“Because I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies.'”

The truth is that we take an attitude of vengeance into the way we drive our cars, the way we vote, and the way we interact with people all the time. And most of us have never faced a situation like that young woman.

But we long to be justified in all aspects of our lives, to be vindicated when we think we’re right, at great cost- including to our families, and our friends, and our coworkers.

We’re pretty selfish- we expect that other people recognize how special we are. We fail to see the way that our words and our actions hurt other people; we see the punch but don’t remember the words that ground the other person down for years that lead up to that fist flying. We say we’d never shoot someone else, but we cut the people we love down with our words all of the time. They’re the ones we know the best, and the ones we feel the least amount of fear from, so why not hang them out to dry?

If we take a good look at the Bible, we recognize that the first conflict occurred when Cain killed Abel. Family first, right? But it’s not actually the first ‘non-peace’ or violence in the Bible. No, that occurred when God showed up to inquire of Adam what had happened with the tree of knowledge, and he replied,

“What had happened was… she made me do it.”

Good work, Adam. You just set the bar for what male-female, husband-wife, confrontations will look like until Jesus comes a second time. But most of us skip right over Adam’s verbal blame because at least he didn’t kill someone.

And somehow, we’ve let not-peace, the aggression toward another person into the room because it’s “not that bad.”

Paul, beaten down and held captive for the sake of the gospel, wrote about peace over and over again. This is a guy who went after other people, Christians, to see them punished because he was so sure he was right in being Jewish! Imagine that apology: “I’m, like, um, terribly sorry I beat you up and arrested your brothers and sisters because, I, like, thought I knew everything. Actually, uh, God is like, way, bigger than I ever could’ve expected…”

You can almost hear him trying to get through to other people who are likeminded to what he used to be in Romans 12:16-18: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Paul is writing this two thousand years ago for this guy (pointing at self)!

There’s nothing there that says that just because you’re peaceful, that the other person will respond peacefully, too.

There’s nothing in Paul’s experience that says that if you do the right thing, that other people will treat you correctly. In fact, Paul told slaves to do their best work and be honorable toward their masters even when there was no hope of freedom.

But the ideal here is that we’re living into a peace that will absolutely exist in the future because God has promised it. The words of the Christmas song we’ll sing after the sermon, “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” lay out a framework for the building blocks of how we can live into real peace.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

We’re supposed to practice it but we have to admit that it exists first- we probably have to experience someone else showing us that kind of love and not-peace before we actually get our ‘aha’ moment, or at least a strong experience of God’s overpowering love for us.

The author of the song, Jill Jackson-Miller told how she came to the words of the song in an interview with NPR on Humankind:

“When I attempted suicide [in 1944] and I didn’t succeed, I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me, which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and I knew I was here for a purpose.”

Jackson wrote the lyrics in 1955 and her husband Sy Miller wrote the melody as they experienced a group of nearly two hundred teens, gathered to explore friendship and understanding each other. Representing a diversity of nations and races, they sang the song together, living it out in their community as they reflected over the words of the song.

The song urges us to remember that we are not “other” but brothers and sisters, that we are not competitors or opponents but strangers who have not become friends yet. The song echoes the teachings of Jesus and Paul, who lay out the way that God expects us to act toward peace:

Love your enemies.

Turn the other cheek.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Pray for those who hurt you.

Do good for those who mistreat you.

Bless those who curse you.

Peacemaking means that we can’t sit on the sidelines; we can’t hide our eyes and act like the injustices in our families and communities will go away. It doesn’t mean that we feel peaceful or that we necessarily fully understand what loving people who don’t love us back looks like. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a court of law where someone is right or someone is wrong like Judge Judy.

Peacemaking doesn’t even mean that we are necessarily going to create peace. It just means that we are choosing to control what we can control: that as far as it is possible with us, we will live in peace.

That we will be the good guys, by following the best Guy, that we will do what’s right, that in that moment, we will be who we’ve always wanted to be.

Peace is not easy; peace is complicated, and sometimes painful, and always a journey.

So what attitude about life do you need to change this week?

Who do you need to love peacefully even if they don’t offer peace back?

Who do you need to intercede for that they may experience peace from the hurt they receive?

How can you model your life after Jesus, who chose to take the beatings that weren’t his to receive, to suffer the pain that he didn’t deserve for you and me?

I leave you today with one last (real life) example of freedom from not peace and the embrace of real peace, from one of my favorite movies of all time that no one has seen: To End All Wars. The screenplay is by Brian Godawa, but it’s the real-life story of Ernest Gordon, a Scot who became the chaplain at Princeton University after World War II. Abused and beaten down by the Japanese soldiers who controlled the prisoner of war camp, and forced to help build the Burmese Railway, Gordon makes the decision to not seek justice and violence on those who had mistreated him. Instead, he cares for their wounded and puts his life on the line so that even the head of the camp will be spared. Gordon recognizes that if he acts in violence and anger, he is no better than those who hurt him. As he wrote in his memoir:

“What is the final destination of hatred? When you look in the eyes of the enemy and you see yourself… at what price, mercy? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love ones enemies? What can a man give in exchange for his soul? These are the questions I asked during my time in the camps… the answers changed my life forever.”

Peace will win. What we can control is whether we will be part of it or not.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today – Be the Attitude: Like a Child

They say that love can heal the broken
They say that hope can make you see
They say that faith can find a Savior
If you would follow and believe
With faith like a child. 

—Jars of Clay, “Like a Child”

Faith like a child – I wonder what that would look like? When Jesus says the pure in heart will see God, I try to consider what it would mean to be pure in heart. I end up thinking about young people – children even – who pursue things in the face of adult cynicism.

Think young Arthur pulling Excalibur from the rock in The Sword in the Stone.

Think Snow White, with a princess who is unafraid of an evil witch’s power.

But when it comes to purity, there’s nothing quite so pure as the things kids say. They simply lack the shades of nuance and deception that adults do. I know this is true, because I live with two kids who are almost compelled to tell the truth. Consider Chunk’s confession in The Goonies: sometimes, we just have to tell it like it is.

A few of my favorite reminders about how kids think:

Three boys are in the school yard bragging about their fathers.

The first boy says, “My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem. They give him $50.”

The second boy says, “That’s nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a song. They give him $100.”

The third boy says, “I got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!”

++++++++++++

Or this: A preacher’s little boy inquired, “Daddy, I notice every Sunday morning when you first come out to preach, you sit up on the platform and bow your head. What are you doing?”

The father explained, “I’m asking the Lord to give me a good sermon.”

The little boy said, “Then why doesn’t he?”

+++++++++++++

Darlene was sitting on her grandfather’s lap as he read her a bedtime story.

From time to time, she would take her eyes off the book and reach up to touch his wrinkled cheek. She was alternately stroking her own cheek, then his again. Finally she spoke up, ‘Grandpa, did God make you?’

‘Yes, darling,’ he answered, ‘God made me a long time ago.’

Feeling their respective faces again, Darlene observed, ‘God’s getting better at it, isn’t he?’

Kids do say the darndest things, don’t they?

We know that children are pure in heart – we even encourage them not to grow up to fast, to enjoy the little things in life.  But as we grow older, the weight of the world begins to weigh on our shoulders, and suddenly things begin to change. One of them is our purity of heart…

Now, Jesus says in the Beattitudes that “blessed are those who are pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Later in Matthew he said, “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ There seems to be a direct relationship between being like a child, being pure in heart, and growing into the kingdom of God.

So how can we be more like children? How can we be pure in heart?

But the problem is that the longer we live in community, the more troubled we become – the more shields go up and the masks drop down over our faces…. and our hearts.

And Jesus says we should be more like children… seriously, what would that look like?

#1 Children value the ‘other.’

Sometimes, we get caught up in thinking that we all need to be the same.

We think we need to do things the same way as other people – that we need the things that we have – that we need to look like them.

I remember back in the eighth grade, getting contacts, and experiencing a world like it was the first time. I could see! I was free of glasses – and in the same time, braces – and I thought that somehow that related to how cool I could be.

I remember the first dance – you know, boys on the left and girls on the right – and I saw that the ‘cool kids’ all had… white pants that glowed fluorescent underneath the DJs’ lights. So I begged my parents to buy me those baggy, MC Hammer pants!

You know what is incredibly not cool? White pants!

But the thing is that kids know that they’re special – and so is everyone else. They love what other people can bring – and they value those other people for what they are and what they do. They are aware of the divine spark in each other.

There is a story of a monastery that had fallen upon sad times.  Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again ” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, “the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. (The Rabbi’s Gift)

What would happen if we valued each other for our differences? What would happen if we recognized the presence of Christ in each of us?

#2 Children wonder.

Kids want to explore. Kids want to know what’s behind that corner, off the path.

My kids are still like that. They’re crazy! I can remember being on the softball field, and turning to the bleachers. There went my youngest, unsteadily up the bleachers to the top – where he could jump off! I would never climb something four times my height and jump off of it – unless there was water below.

Sometimes, I catch myself – calling out to prevent them from the straying off the path. The worries about poison ivy … or stepping in less pleasant gifts left by pets … they get in the way of my sense of exploration. But my kids, they want to experience sticks, and bugs, and funny shapes on trees. They see the beauty of God’s creation around them, and they want to wrap their hearts and little arms around them.

I love Christmas (yes, I know it’s July and Christmas is months away). I love the decorations, the gift giving, the Christmas carols, the cookies (yes, the cookies!) … and the sense of wonder.

Christmas is that time of the year when the space between what is – and what could be – is closed to the smallest degree. At Christmastime, we see the world in the way it could be, in its goodness, full of grace and promise… and kids eat that up. Kids wonder all of the time… and if we could capture that essence in ourselves, it would change our lives.

#3 Children imagine, and aren’t afraid to try. 

Kids want to run up mountains and fight dragons, or spin around in a sea of bubbles and pretend they’re princesses. Kids believe they’ll be something impossible – even when adults tell them there’s no way that could happen.

It’s not always the skeptics who show up to test our children though – sometimes, we’re guilty of doing the same thing:

A kindergarten teacher was walking around her classroom while her students drew pictures. One little girl was scribbling so intently that the teacher asked what she was drawing. The little girl replied, “I’m drawing a picture of Jesus.” The teacher said, “Oh honey, nobody really knows for sure what Jesus looked like.” The little girl, without missing a beat, responded, “They will in a minute.

Can you imagine the stories of the Bible come to life? Can you see yourself wrapped in the promise of God’s love and grace for your life?

Children can. Children see what could be.

And finally…

#4 Kids believe, even in the face of skepticism, and aren’t afraid to share. 

A boy was sitting on a park bench with one hand resting on an open Bible. He was loudly exclaiming his praise to God. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! God is great!” he yelled without worrying whether anyone heard him or not.

Shortly after, along came a man who had recently completed some studies at a local university. Feeling himself very enlightened in the ways of truth and very eager to show this enlightenment, he asked the boy about the source of his joy.

“Hey” asked the boy in return with a bright laugh, “Don’t you have any idea what God is able to do? I just read that God opened up the waves of the Red Sea and led the whole nation of Israel right through the middle.”

The enlightened man laughed lightly, sat down next to the boy and began to try to open his eyes to the “realities” of the miracles of the Bible. “That can all be very easily explained. Modern scholarship has shown that the Red Sea in that area was only 10-inches deep at that time. It was no problem for the Israelites to wade across.”

The boy was stumped. His eyes wandered from the man back to the Bible laying open in his lap. The man, content that he had enlightened a poor, naive young person to the finer points of scientific insight, turned to go. Scarcely had he taken two steps when the boy began to rejoice and praise louder than before. The man turned to ask the reason for this resumed jubilation.

“Wow!” exclaimed the boy happily, “God is greater than I thought! Not only did He lead the whole nation of Israel through the Red Sea, He topped it off by drowning the whole Egyptian army in 10 inches of water!

While the above example is fictional, I’ve experienced kids tell grownups that God loves them – even adults who don’t believe there is a god.

I’ve seen kids tell people they were being prayed for, even when those adults hadn’t seen prayer make a difference before.

The truth is, that these characteristics of children – and many more – would be attributes we should embrace for our grown-up selves. They would free us from worry, unlock us from the chains of doubt, and open us up to the life God wants so desperately for us.

We could truly be pure of heart… if we would just become like little children, welcomed into their Father’s arms.

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View From the Shore (3.0) #7: Living Like Friday Night

On the last day at the beach, we did it all.

We went on an excursion, got Duck Donuts, swam in the ocean and the pool. That night, we got pizza from our favorite place. We went digging for crabs. We took family pictures we had put off all week. We went out for ice cream. We played cards way too late (I won both times). We let our kids stay up too late.

Because the realization was that for all of the time we spent doing nothing, or playing Pokemon Go, or staring at Facebook feeds, our week was over for another year. And we wanted to soak in the remaining hours, and enjoy it as much as we could.

So we did. And we laughed, told stories, and acted like we didn’t have to leave (or get up early the next morning).

And as I crashed from a day spent riding waves too big for me, chasing kids in the surf, and looking for black bears and alligators (long story), I realized I want to live my life like it’s Friday night at the beach.

I want people to know they’re loved, and that where I am, there’s community.

I want people to see the best that life has to offer even if “when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”

I want to soak up my time here, with the people God has given me to call my family (biologically and otherwise).

Because while a week at the beach may be short, life is short, too. So, I need to start living Sunday through Thursday like it’s Friday night.

Game on.

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View From the Shore (3.0) #6: Beware the Undertow

The weather has been less than ideal this week, if you’re looking for all-day sun. But if you time things just right, you can have a solid four-hour period of beach time, followed by a storm or two. That has led to some days where the water is peaceful and calm, and others where the turbulent waves call for yellow ‘dangerous current’ warning flags.

Standing out in the waves, the water crashing well short of the shore (but still falling into the ‘shore break’ category), I watched over my eldest son and his cousin as they gamely crashed into waves. They saw the bubbles and foam caused by the crashing waves that were neither too high nor all of that fearsome looking, and considered the beach a safe place to play, warning signs or not.

The boys could only see the surface, the apparently effortless breaking of the waves and the beauty of the ocean. The boys didn’t notice the other warning signs, the cross-pattern of crashing currents.

The boys didn’t recognize the undertow.

As I stood out there with them, watching their cheerful enthusiasm and periodically grabbing them by the shirt out from under a wave, I recognized that I’m quite a bit like the boys in the waves.

I can see what’s on the surface. I see something as okay or acceptable; I see something as painless or victimless; I see the symptoms but not the actual problem. I judge a book by its cover…

… and fail to see the undertow under the waves. (I know, I just mixed metaphors.)

The reality is that there are things which God has deemed good or bad for me, and whether I can see the reasons or not, there are warning signs about what I’m getting myself into. Sometimes, it’s not a STAY OUT sign; sometimes, it’s just being on my guard.

But if I fail to see the signs, if I fail to learn from my experience, the results can be deadly.

Like getting sucked out to sea by the undertow.

 

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View From the Shore (3.0) #5: The Simplest Moments

I love the beach. It’s well documented – because I tell everyone, I write about it, and it’s my favorite place in the universe.

I love the swimming and body surfing, the eating out at our favorite places, the shopping, the fishing, the putt-putt- all of the things that happen at the beach.

But my favorite moment this year came in one of the simplest moments. I decided to head out for ice cream, and no one wanted to go with me. Except for my five-year-old.

The best ice cream shop on the beach was about a half mile away, and as the sun began to fade, he and I set out for the shop.

With his little hand in mine, we began the walk down through the rows of houses, enjoying the silence….

Wait! Who am I kidding?

No, the walk there and back was peppered with conversation, with questions (did you know children average 225 questions a day? I’m sure he met his quota), and observations. And with the faintest bit of sun shining off of the puddles we walked past, I realized that I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

We didn’t talk about anything intense or uber serious, but we spent the time together, in relationship. And I realize that this is what God hopes for in us – a relationship, with my childlike questions and God’s expansive answers, observing the sun, and puddles, and ice cream, together.

Sometimes, the simplest things really are the best.

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