Monday, March 12, 2018

Experiencing Life in the Psalms: Going God's Way

Psalm 119:9-16    (NRSV)
How can young people keep their way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
    do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
    so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
    all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
    as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
    and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word.

We live in a time when it is difficult to live a life of purity.
Our world seems to glorify immorality.
Our world seems to applaud and often even reward bad behavior.

To see this all you need do is look at the movies and TV shows that dominate our airwaves --- Heck, all you really need to do is watch the news.
(I could use examples of many current politicians on both side of the aisle (Local and national) but if I did no one would listen after this --- they would either hi-five me or scream bloody murder.)

We live in a time that it seems to be increasingly difficult to strive to live a life that is God centered.

I have no desire to bash the evils of our society this morning,
We have a hard time agreeing what constitutes societal ills and how to solve them
My intention this morning is to help us learn how we might begin to live a life that is centered in the way of God

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm in our Bible

But it is also rather unique because it was constructed in a very deliberate way --- a way that we often don't recognize in our translations.

There are 176 verses in Psalm 119 and it is divided into 22 sections of 8 verses each.
And what is fascinating each section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse in the section begins with that letter.

So since we are looking at the second section --- each word (in the Hebrew) begins with the Hebrew letter Bet.
          We unfortunately lose this interesting acrostic Psalm in our English translations

I encouraged you to read the entire Psalm --- because every verse (with the exception of verses 1-3 and 115 are directly addressed to God.
          So as you read this Psalm, you find yourself drawn into something profound

In many ways this Psalm becomes a love song --- drawing us into a deep intimacy with God.

The whole point of this Psalm is to draw closer to God through following the way of Torah --- the teachings of God's law.

This section begins with verse 9
          How can young people keep their way pure?

I love that question.  My hunch is that the author is writing about himself and asking this important question.

How exactly is a young person to navigate the multiple distractions and the overwhelming siren songs of our world so that they can live with integrity?

As a person who is no longer young --- I am usually happy to fill in the blanks and tell the young person what they must do.

Not that I think that I should have to do those things --- mind you . . .
          But I have the answers to what they should do . . .

But our passage this morning gives us the real answer
How can young people keep their way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.

I think Peterson in the Message really makes it obvious:
How can a young person live a clean life?
    By carefully reading the map of your Word.

When you read the scholars as they dissect this passage they have two primary ways of looking at the author.

First, he is asking this question in a rather pious self righteous way --- looking at all the sinners around him.

But what if we have here --- not the testimony of a sanctimonious young man but rather the cry of someone who is trying to right themselves after some terrible mess that they have created in their life.

Is it possible that our author knows full well that the only way to real happiness is following the way of God ---
but his life has come off the rails and now is longing to return to the way of faithfulness to God?

I read this section of Psalm 119 and the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke's Gospel comes immediately to mind.

Can you imagine our author saying:
          How do I cope with my sense of shame?
          How do I stop punishing myself?
          How do I let go of the memories that are a nightmare to me?
          How do I forgive myself?

Patrick Woodhouse writes:
"This whole eight-verse section can be re-imagined as words of repentance from the prodigal son to his father, whose words of welcome he has 'hidden in his heart,' and in whose 'way' he takes 'greater delight' that in all the 'riches' he squandered in that far country.

Such interpretation makes sense in the context of an ancient Jewish world where the religious path was universally valued.

But what of our world?"

While the author asks about young people --- I think the question for today is:
          How do any of us navigate this world of ours and live with integrity?

I saw a commercial the other day for a new TV show --- maybe it can help us to live the way of God.

The show is called Living Biblically and is based on A. J. Jacobs' 2007 best selling book, The Year of Living Biblically.

The premise of the show is:
After the death of his best friend, film reviewer and dad-to-be Chip Curry tries to turn his life around. When he accidentally purchases a copy of the Bible, he decides to live by it "to the letter" much to the confusion of his non-believing wife Leslie and the bemusement of his priest, Father Gene.

I have to admit to you that I read the book a few years ago and my recollection is that it isn't going to help us much.

It will probably make a better TV sitcom than offer us real tools for living God's way.

In 2012 Rachel Held Evans wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood, the description of the book says:
Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn't sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment--a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

It didn't work too well for her either . . .

Maybe we need to look in a different direction
          I invite you to look with me what the Psalmist suggests.

He starts in v 10
With my whole heart I seek you;

The Psalmist suggests that if we want to live in the way of God that the first step is to seek God.

We must have a desire to get to know God

v. 11 
          I treasure your word in my heart,

This morning we are giving Bibles to our 2nd and 3rd grade children.
We want our young people to treasure God's word --- but do we model reading our Bible to them?
Do they see you "treasuring" it

If we want to follow God's Way, the only way to do it is by getting to know God

v. 15
I will meditate on your precepts,
    and fix my eyes on your ways.

Matt has been leading a study on prayer and meditation.
          Are we willing to take the time necessary to meditate on God and God's way?

And finally the author says:

v. 16
I will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word.

Are we willing to become obedient to what God is trying to teach us?

And I don't personally think that means that we need to make a list of the 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible and try not to break them

Most of those laws are outdated and frankly irrelevant today

But are we willing to listen and learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus on his Way?

I came across a wonderful story about a young woman who really wanted to go to college.

But as she reviewed the application, her heart sank when she came across this question.

The question asked: "Are you a leader?"

Being both Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, ''No,'' completed the rest of the application and to be honest expected the worst.

To her surprise, she received this letter from the college:
''Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.''

As Christians are we willing to be followers --- followers of Jesus on his Way to God.

On Jesus’ Way to life that is full?

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Experiencing Life in the Psalms: Wonder

Psalm 139    (NRSV)
To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

In four months my life is going to profoundly change --- and I cannot even begin to imagine how different it is going to be.

I remember that day 30 years ago when the doctor turned to me and said, Mr Conger you have a daughter.

Now, sometime in July, I will hear similar but very different words.  Instead of being a father --- I will be a grandfather.
          It is hard to even imagine

As I was reading our scripture this morning, I was meditating on this soon to be reality, and Psalm 139 really spoke to me.

It seemed as if God was already preparing me to welcome this new child:
          For it was you who formed my inward parts;
          you knit me together in my mother's womb (v. 13).

And as I continued reading, God seemed to be speaking to me even clearer.  As I wonder how this unborn child can go from a hoped-for dream of her parents to flesh and blood, bones, muscles, long skinny fingers and cute ears. Then I read:
when I was being made in secret . . . Your eyes beheld my unformed substance (v. 15).

And while I am excited and anxious, I know that my feelings are nothing in comparison to Jessica and Sam's.  And that their feelings are nothing compared to God's.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me. (v 1-5)

My hope for this baby, today, and on the day she arrives is that she will one day realize and pray with the psalmist,
          I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (v. 14).

And while the arrival of this grandchild is certainly changing the way that I read scripture, I know that most likely, you are reading and hearing this passage very differently.

As we continue our journey through the Psalms, our theme this week is WONDER.  Each of the Psalms that you will be sent as a part of our Lenten Devotional has to do with Wonder.  Psalm 8, Psalm 104, Psalm 19, Psalm 103 and todays Psalm 139.

As I read and prayed over these Psalms --- one thing kept coming back to me.
And maybe this is a bigger challenge for me than it is for you, but it is certainly something that I struggle with --- WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO WONDER?

Somewhere along the way --- I stopped being as enamored with wonder and became more concerned with certainty.

And from my perspective, it seems like it is a pretty typical problem for many of us.

I have a friend who used to be a part-time magician.
We would sit around and he would practice his magic tricks with us.

There was nothing really big about the tricks that he did --- mainly sleight of hand

But I would watch closely and do my best to figure out how the trick was done

I have always loved magicians, and marvel at their skill to trick our brains

But one day, he and I went to see a local magician perform
Throughout the show --- I would turn to Mark and say --- did you see that

Finally, after me interjecting my wisdom at figuring out how the trick was done, Mark turned to me and said --- "Quit trying to figure it out and just let yourself be amazed"

I had lost some of my sense of wonder

Over the years I have encountered many on the Christian journey who suffer from what I call for lack of a better term "dead eyes".

What I mean by that is when you look into their eyes they seem hollow and flat --- as if the very spark of life had been taken from them.

I am willing to bet that we all know people who are just like that

Since I first became aware of this phenomenon, I have asked many people one basic question:
How do you remain fully present, fully-engaged, fully-alive in a ministry that can become mundane, rote, and nothing more than an empty repetition?

I don't just ask this question just to pastors (although we seem to suffer from it more that many) — but also to entrepreneurs, business people, stay-at home moms, empty nesters, retirees, and college students.

I ask because I've seen that ghost-like look in countless eyes regardless of age, socio-economic status, or profession.

The battle is constant.
"How do I not lose myself?"
I ask like a beggar searching for scraps of wisdom.

Over the years I've learned a few things. Most of the advice is pretty simple but also transformative.
  • Work with good people you enjoy.
  • Stay grounded in community.
  • Stay rooted in Scripture.
  • Surround yourself with people who love you enough to say "no."

But there was one more thing I learned.

I was talking about this with a friend and they offered one simple piece of advice --- NEVER LOSE THE WONDER.
          I only wish I had learned it years earlier.

Almost 25 years ago, I went on a two week mission trip to central Jamaica.  I left Nancy at home with three little girls under the age of 5 (and of course it was January).

I went on this trip because I was at a crisis point.  I was almost five years into a new church plant that was consuming my soul.
          We were doing well in attracting people
                   people with great needs
Our average adult age was about 25 or so, and we attracted a huge population of divorced persons

While we had good numbers, we could not financially sustain the ministry --- and it was taking a toll.

While I loved what we were doing (Nancy and I gave birth to this baby church) --- my eyes were getting dulled by the increasing challenge of staying afloat.

So off I went to Jamaica ---
          Oh the stories both Nancy and I could tell (but I will leave that for another day)
I am just thankful that she didn't packed up the car with our three little girls and head back to North Carolina --- not that she didn't think about it!

There were just three of us from the church that went --- we joined a larger group helping to re-build a church in the middle of nowhere. 

The church was located on top of a hill (It seemed like a mountain at the time) and most of the people who came to work would struggle every day just to get up the hill, because the only way up was to walk.

Since we were "young" the three of us were given the job of carting up the materials to the church every day.
So up and down the hill we went carrying bags of cement, wheelbarrows of rock or piles of lumber

I would be lying if I didn't say --- it was the hardest I have ever worked and maybe the most rewarding work I have ever done.
          I had no payroll to worry about
                    Or mortgage to make sure got paid

I went with dull eyes --- but while I was there --- God began to fill them again.

On one of our last nights, I went out for a walk by myself, and sat down on a hillside.

What I remember vividly was that the night was very dark

I was looking off into the distance, watching huge conveyor belts move bauxite that was being mined in the mountains and I sat in awe because I KNEW I was in the presence of God.

I knew that where I was sitting was holy ground.

Psalm 8 began to run through my mind
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

And the 139th Psalm became real to me.

I realized that even though I had gone to Jamaica to flee God, to flee the responsibilities that seemed to be weighing me down --- there was no place that I could go that God wasn't already there with me

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

And in that moment --- I heard the voice of God

Where does God speak to you?
·         In the wonder of creation?
·         When holding a new born child?
·         When offering food to someone who is hungry?

One of my favorite poems was written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; And only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

In a few moments we are going to share in the Eucharist

As I go through the liturgy you can try to figure out the magic words.
But I promise you, it will still be bread and grape juice

But, if you are willing to allow your wonder to take over --- it will also be Jesus

Monday, February 19, 2018

Experiencing Life in The Psalms: You Can't Stand Still

Psalm 122  (NRSV)
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
    and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
    I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

Most of us are familiar with the Psalms,
we may have maybe even memorized some, like the 23rd or 100th
But very few of us tend to read the Psalms.

And that is pretty surprising since the Psalms are the most quoted literature of the Hebrew Bible in our New Testament.
          The early Christians saw in Jesus the fulfillment of the Psalms
          Today as Christians we tend to see the Psalms through the lens of Jesus

Even though many don't read the Psalms, they are at the center of Christian worship

We hear them read, we sing them, we even use them in our prayers --- often in fragmentary form.

But the Psalms as whole texts often seem to our modern ears to be strange if not even foreign.

And though the Psalms were created in an ancient culture --- the language that they use --- the amazing poetry ---- seem to wrestle with the question of what it means to be fully human.

The themes that are found in the Psalms include:
·         our longing for justice
·         the poverty of riches
·         caring for the poor
·         wonder of creation
·         the search for happiness
·         the quest for integrity
·         the need for silence and solitude
·         the struggle with grief, loneliness and mental illness
·         and the realization of our mortality

And at the center of it all --- is God.

You cannot open the Psalms without encountering God

Patrick Woodhouse, in the quote at the top of the bulletin said:
Could it be that, . . . the Psalms are in fact pointing to the greatest malaise of our times: the erosion of belief in a transcendent reality which all our lives can be measured and shaped, and given hope and meaning?

The Psalms are full of God

Woodhouse continues:
The one thing you cannot escape if you read the Psalms, is God.  They are shot through and through with the divine presence, the divine grace and the divine call.  This is why, despite the difficulties of their cultural context, they need to be valued and loved and known, not just as odd fragments but as whole texts, which, when deeply pondered can kindle faith afresh and reorient a person's entire perspective.

It is my hope that over this season of lent that the Psalms will help you to learn to live differently in the world.

We are hoping to help you do this though the daily devotions we are sending you, our sermons on Sunday mornings, and the workshops that Matt has put together to help us learn to pray the Psalms.

The Psalms invite us in and offer to help us to discover life.
          The abundant life that Jesus talks about (John 10:10)

Over the six Sundays of Lent we will seek to open the Psalms to you. 

All the great religions include the practice of pilgrimage

Certainly, the foundational story not just in the Christian tradition, but also Judaism and Islam is the story of Abraham.

Abraham was called on a journey --- just like you and me.

Every human --- even though sometimes we are deaf to it --- has been called to travel beyond what we know.

To be a pilgrim is to travel in search of God.

Have you ever gone some place that you just knew you belonged?

The year was 1992
Nancy and I were given the opportunity to go to Israel for the first time.

When you landed at Lod (Tel Aviv) the airplane didn't pull up to a gate, instead they brought out stairs and you walked out onto the tarmac.

As soon as my feet hit the ground --- I knew I was home.
          I don't even know how to explain the feeling I had
                   It was like I was where I always belonged.

A little over a week later, when we boarded the plane to come home --- all I could think about was how I could get back. 

And since then I have returned almost every two years. 
          It has been 5 years ---- and I am itching to get back.

But when Nancy and I boarded the plane to go to Israel I was going as a tourist. 
I was anxious to see the sites that I had read about and take in all the history.
          When I left, to go home, I understood that I was had become a pilgrim.

The difference is significant.

One of the things that the Psalms has done is help me to understand why being a pilgrim is so important

Psalms 120 - 135 are all songs of pilgrimage.
          In your bible they are often given the label --- "Songs of Ascent"

The reason why they were called that is because pilgrims would sing these songs as they literally made their way up to Jerusalem

Of all of these Psalms --- in my mind --- Psalm 122 is the greatest of the songs of ascent

The Psalmist begins: (The Message)
When they said, “Let’s go to the house of God,”
    my heart leaped for joy.
And now we’re here, O Jerusalem,
    inside Jerusalem’s walls!

I said that when I went to Israel for the first time I went as a tourist --- but left as a pilgrim --- what is the difference?

First, for tourists --- when they go on a trip (on a journey) they are taking time off from their busy hectic life and will return to the same busy, hectic life ---- hopefully --- refreshed but basically unchanged.

But when you travel as a pilgrim --- what you are seeking is an entirely new life --- a new way to look at the world --- a new beginning.
          Not just more of the same

Second, you build a different kind of relationship with people when go through life as a tourist verses going through life as a pilgrim.

When you are on a tour, the goal is to make the tour as pleasant as possible. 

In other words, you will engage your fellow tourists with safe conversation, never allowing yourself to go too deep that might result in making the trip unpleasant.

Unfortunately, that is how we often treat church.
          We do our best to avoid subjects that might be uncomfortable, or controversial
                   Immigration, poverty, gun violence --- need I go on?
                             (I pray we not stifle the young people of Parkland Fl)

But pilgrimage is different.

When we journey not for our own sake, but because we want to be transformed, we are willing to wrestling the hard, difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable subjects.

Third, one of the great things about being on a tour is somebody else takes care of your luggage.  You pay to have them do that for you.

When you are being a Christian as a tourist what the tourist puts in the offering plate is a fee for a service.
          the sermon
          the beautiful music
it is a brief vacation from the cares of life.

But a pilgrim sees things differently.

To be a pilgrim means that you joyfully consolidate your resources with other pilgrims.
Sharing the responsibility and the load.

Pilgrims offer their tithe (10% or more of their income) to God not as a tip or a tax.
          Not as a response to great music or sermons.
They offer their gifts because they understand that all of it already belongs to God.

Sure, the pilgrim is still the steward over the money --- but what has changed is our understanding of it.
Our understanding of money expands and not contracts.

If we give our money without participating in the ministries that spend the money --- then we are only tourists, and not truly pilgrims.

Fourth, tourists want to have a clear understanding of exactly where they are going and what they are getting.  Pilgrims trust that God will lead them.

Let me try to explain

When I get ready to take a tour, I do a great deal of research and shopping before I go.

I want the most value for my dollar.

So I pick a tour company that will give me, what I think is the best value.

I want to know, exactly what the itinerary is,
what we are going to see,
where we are going to stay.

And if something doesn't go just right --- I expect the tour company to make it right.

I bet you are all the same way . . .

But when you are a pilgrim, you put your trust in God.

Remember the Abraham story?

In the book of Hebrews, the 11th chapter, the author talks about having faith in things that we cannot see.

He uses the story of Abraham to illustrate his point and he says in verse 8: (NRSV)
Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

Please don't misunderstand me

I am not suggesting that when one is a pilgrim that they don't care about where they are going. 
That they should not create a budget or a plan

I am not saying that at all.

What I am saying is that when you are a pilgrim --- you are willing to adapt to whatever God throws at you.

A pilgrim plans for the journey, but a pilgrim is un-anxious about the future

The reason a pilgrim can be un-anxious is that a pilgrim knows that God will provide.

Remember how our understanding of our financial resources changes as we become a pilgrim?
Well, one of the ways that God provides is through the shared resources of the other pilgrims who are on the journey with you.

Finally, Tourists are more interested in taking pictures of the sights ---- Pilgrims are more interested in transformation.

For many Christians there are three primary photo ops in their life
          When they get their child baptized
          When they get their child confirmed
          When their child gets married

And you could throw in the photo ops of Christmas and Easter

I know that is kind of uncomfortable for me to say . . .

Christian tourists can even go to church regularly, and attend bible study --- but if they aren’t willing to become a disciple --- if they aren't willing to be transformed --- they have missed the point of the journey.

The point of the journey is to meet Jesus --- and to fall in love with him.

During this season of lent, I invite you to become a pilgrim.

          I invite you to seek God's face

To fall in love with Jesus, and to allow that love to change you.

I love this Psalm
I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

I was excited because, the Psalmist says, I was excited that I was invited to pilgrim to God.

But more than that --- this pilgrimage represents all that is good about God.

A place of shalom

I long to go back to Jerusalem --- to set my feet there again.
          Not to see the sights --- which the history geek in me enjoys . . .

          But to allow me to grow closer to Jesus

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Matthew 5:10-12   (NRSV)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Proverbs 31:8-9   (NRSV)
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

If we want to experience REVIVAL in our lives, in our church, in our community and world it requires that we begin to look at the world differently

We need to take off the cultural glasses that we wear and begin to see the world through the eyes of Jesus

For me, it requires a return to innocence

A letting go of trying to be in control of everything around me and putting my trust --- putting my faith --- in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Jesus and Peter and Paul.

We have talked these last few weeks of what that means.
          Our need to turn back to God
Revelation 2: 5a    (NRSV)
Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first
          Our need to seek holiness
1 Peter 1:16   (NRSV)
as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Our need to fully embrace the GIFT of grace which Matt will look at in detail next week
Ephesians 2:8   (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
          And we need to live out what Wesley called "Works of Mercy"

John Wesley believed that as one journeys through the "means of grace":
          Prevenient Grace ---- Justifying Grace ---- Sanctifying Grace
the proof is found in how we choose to live, love and interact with the world.

Adam Hamilton writes in his book REVIVAL:
Too often, Christians have thought that the goal of faith is to be born anew and cultivate a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ."  Wesley considered this goal to be an essential part of the Christian life, but he also believed that focusing solely on one's personal relationship makes for an incomplete faith --- narcissism masquerading as Christian Spirituality.
Hamilton goes on and says:
As Christians, our salvation is FROM narcissism, indifference, sin and death, and it is FOR good works.

Wesley agreed with Paul who, in the passage that we will look at next week reminds us that we were made for good works.
Ephesians 2:8-10   (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Works and faith are inseparable

The key, however, for Wesley and Paul and for us --- is making sure we keep them in the proper order.

Works, doing good deeds, acts of mercy --- are always to be a response to faith ---- a response to the Grace that God has shared with us --- not a way of earning God's love.

Do you remember what Wesley said the goal of the Christian life was?
          SANCTIFICATION ---- being made perfect in Christian love
That for Wesley, and for us --- should be the goal of our Christian walk.

And do you remember what Sanctification looks like?
It is what I talked about last week
          Loving God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength
          Loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself

There was a second way that Wesley described sanctification, and that was through what we often call the Golden Rule. 

That second great summary of Jewish law that is found in Matthew's Gospel
Matthew 7:12   (NRSV)
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

For Wesley ---- the Golden Rule should be evident in our lives as we move toward sanctification.
          We should experience what Paul called the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians
Galatians 5:22-23   (NRSV)
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But it should also manifest itself in "Works of Mercy"

Now if we were to go back and look at Roman Catholic theology we would find that there are 14 defined works of mercy
          Seven are what they call "corporal acts of mercy"
          Seven are spiritual works of mercy

Wesley spoke of all of these and other acts of mercy in which we INTENTIONALLY care for and assist others who are in need.

The corporal acts of mercy are drawn from Jesus parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Feed the hungry
provide drink for the thirsty
clothe the naked
care for the homeless
visit the sick
minister to the prisoners
bury the dead

The Spiritual Works of mercy are:
instructing the ignorant
counseling those who doubt
admonishing sinners
bearing wrongs patiently
forgiving others willingly
comforting the afflicted
praying for others

It is through these acts of mercy that God is working in and through our lives

Revival --- personal and communal --- is found in living out those acts of mercy.

One of the things that Wesley really challenged us on is to make sure that we truly love God with our WHOLE head, heart, soul, and strength

Wesley understood that most of us struggle with loving God with ALL OF OUR BEING
Most of us are usually pretty good at either loving God with our heart or our head, but loving with both seems to be a challenge.

Every week I come across news articles, surveys and polls that are showing that when our young people head off to college that more and more of them (than ever before) are turning away from organized religion.

I read those articles and frankly I am not too surprised.

Christianity like the rest of our country has become increasingly polarized

Fundamental Christianity has established a pretty clear --- TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT --- stance on many social issues.

And our young people are taking them up on the offer and leaving.

I am shocked by the things that people post and say on places like FaceBook and Twitter --- it seems often that we feel like loving God completely means it is OK to speak with venom against those whom we disagree.

And I see, and hear too many of the young people who have grown up in this church, and other churches throwing up their hands and saying: "I don't need it!"

But do you know what the craziest thing is . . .
          While they don't GO to church --- they are actually BEING the CHURCH

They are living out those acts of mercy
          They are filled with compassion and caring

They are engaged in serving others and trying to make a difference in the world --- trying to make the world a better place for EVERYBODY

We need to help them see that Jesus ---- Jesus is the reason to engage in acts of mercy

How are you doing at doing at loving God with your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength --- and at loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself?

When I left Ridge Church I went to work for TradeWinds – an organization that works with people who are physically or mentally challenged

One of the first events that I went to was a Bowling night

What made this event special was that the sponsors who come out to bowl would only bring three people for their team.
That is because we would add a consumer (one of the clients) to be the fourth member of each team

We called it a Fundraiser --- but that really wasn't what it was all about.

It was about you and me getting to meet and interact with some very special people

We served pizza and pop and gave out a few prizes.

But the night was all about new friends.

The morning of the bowling event Michael came to join the TradeWinds family --- he moved into one of the group homes.

When Keith came to TradeWinds would not communicate with anyone.
He still struggles to speak --- and he is very hard to understand
But the week before the event he was telling me about going bowling and the day after the event --- he told me about how much fun he had

But the highlight for me was Sara
Sara is one of those special people who is FILLED with joy
One of her nicknames is giggles --- because she loves to giggle
At one point during the evening she came up to me
threw her hands in the air and said
"This is the best day of my life"  and then as an afterthought she added "Up till now"
Because EVERY DAY --- Every moment is the best day of her life!

Let me ask you:
          Who was blessed that night?

The truth is --- when we forge those kinds of relationships --- when we live in service to others --- we BOTH are blessed!

I came across the most amazing story.
It was probably on someone's Facebook page --- and I often don't click on things that people have shared on their page --- but for whatever reason --- this time I did.

It was a story about two young wrestlers in Georgia --- and I wish I could show you the video, but we don’t have that capability.

Demetrius de Moor's father was killed in action in Iraq.

Demetrius is an up and coming Wrestler and he was busy preparing for the second most important wrestling tournament in Georgia each year.
The most important --- is of course the State Finals --- but the oldest running wrestling tournament in Georgia is the South Metro Tourney.

Michael Lind is also a wrestler --- he is a member of his High School wrestling team
          He loves the sport but has never participated in an actual meet.

Michael's coach went to Demetrius' coach to see if someone on their team would be willing to wrestle against Michael.
Demetrius volunteered.

Of course, what made the match interesting was Michael suffers from Down's syndrome

Demetrius could have creamed him, but instead he wrestled with him and he forced Michael to earn a hard fought victory.

It was the greatest day in Michael's life.
But maybe not surprisingly ---- also in Demetrius' life.

Because he learned the most important lesson --- it's not about winning or losing --- there are some things that are more important.

If you were to ask Demetrius who won that day --- he would tell you he did!

But what really shocked me was reading the comments people wrote about the video.
While 90% were amazed at what Demetrius did --- there were quite a few who took exception that he "let" Michael win.

Our heads know that it was crazy --- but when we temper our heads with our hearts --- when they are really working in tandem we know that what Demetrius did was an act of grace and mercy!
Demetrius didn't let Michael win
Michael let Demetrius win!

So, how about you?

How are you on the journey toward perfection?

If you haven't started, I invite you to take a moment RIGHT NOW and invite Jesus into your head and heart.
Ask Jesus to help you love him FULLY --- and to love your neighbor like you love yourself.

If you do that --- you are well on your way toward perfection!


I found out three hours before church that I would need to preach --- this is my "Sunday morning special".  Please excuse any typos or out of the ordinary bad grammar. :)

1 Peter 1:13-16   (NRSV)
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

This morning I am continuing our journey through John Wesley's life by focusing on the concept of HOLINESS.

Holiness is one of those "funny" words ---
we all think we want it
          But we are not really sure what it is
          or how we get it

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines Holiness as: "the quality or state of being holy"

Wait a minute --- I was always taught by my teachers that you can't define a word by using a form of the word.

That was the definition for the noun "holiness" but it later goes on and describes the same word but as an adjective.
"emphasizing the doctrine of the second blessing; specifically :  of or relating to a perfectionist movement arising in United States Protestantism in the late 19th century"

Like most definitions of theological concepts, it doesn't help a lot but it points us in the right direction.

And they are wrong in ascribing the perfectionist movement as something that arose in the US in the late 19th Century

"Holiness" came to be a term found within the Methodist Movement to help describe Wesley's instance that we all must move toward perfection.  The only way we could do that is by living in a state of Holiness.

Are you all confused already?

Let's go back to the life of John Wesley and see how he began to live out this concept.

Obviously the roots of Holiness/perfection are found at the apron strings of his mother Susanna.  The lessons that she taught at home to her children were all rooted around being in a right relationship with God.

Do you remember the question I shared last week?  Susanna would ask each of her children every week when she met with them privately this powerful question.
          How is it with your soul?

If you ask me, that is the root of Wesley's understanding and expectation that all Christians be on the path to perfection or holiness.

But getting there required many winding roads along the way.

When John was ten years old, he left the safety and security of the parsonage in Epworth and traveled the 150 miles or so south to London and Charterhouse School.

It was there that he began his formal education.

As John reflected back on this experience, 25 years later in his journal --- an important habit that he developed --- we wrote about the experience.

As you read the entry --- you realize that John was a pretty typical kid of his day growing up.

But he says he became convinced that salvation was found in 3 things.
1.    Not being so bad as other people
2.    having still a kindness for religion
3.    reading the bible, going to church, and saying my prayers

After finishing at the Charterhouse --- John began his studies at the University.

At the age of 17, in 1720, John began his studies at Christ Church --- which is one of the most prestigious colleges that make up Oxford University.

And again --- according to his biographers --- John Wesley was a pretty typical college student --- he did the kinds of things that college students did in 1720.

Education was the opportunity for the upper class and the clergy in Wesley's day --- so his decision to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandparents really wasn't all that surprising.

So following graduation, John began studying for his master's degree but also began preparing for ordination.

At this point he seemed to want to become an academic --- and realized that ordination was important since most of the professors at Oxford were ordained.

This inward reflection that Wesley was going through as he prepared for his ordination seemed to lead him into a deeper spiritual quest.

Around this time he read Jeremy Taylor's book: The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.  It seems to have had a profound impact on him.

Wesley was drawn to a passage from 1 Corinthians 10:31 that was highlighted in Taylor's book:
1 Corinthians 10:31   (NRSV)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

Taylor laid out the concept that everything that we do --- should be an act of worship and prayer and is thus religious.

This concept cut Wesley deeply to the core.

He also began to realize that we as Christians often alter the ending of the Lord's Prayer without even being consciously aware of it.

That final phrase in the doxology of the prayer:
"For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory."

He began to believe that sin had caused many of us to pray it not that way --- but rather:
"Mine is the kingdom and the power and the glory."

I think a lot of us have that inner drive for affirmation --- praise --- recognition --- as I shared last week.

And it probably really is a good thing --- because it is one of those things that help motivate us to get things done --- the problem is when it becomes our PRIMARY MOTIVATION.

When that happens we have strayed from giving God the glory and instead are desiring the glory for ourselves.

Sometimes in our desire to be in the "holy" relationship with God we work harder, seek to do more --- thinking that will draw us closer to God.

That is certainly what John Wesley did.

In his early years following Oxford, Wesley became one of "those people" --- you know what I mean --- one of those people who think that they are getting it all right --- who think they know it all --- who think your relationship with God has to be a carbon copy of theirs.

And then it all crashed in around him.

In 1735, John Wesley made the fateful decision to come to America.

He arrived in Savannah at the British Colony of Georgia.

But it was the trip over that began the domino pieces falling that would transform Wesley's life and understanding of God.

Obviously, the passage over to America was by ship --- and John Wesley was terrified of the sea. 

It was a three month long journey and through-out the journey they were beset by terrible storms.
          John was convinced he would die
                   He began to question his faith

On January 25, 1736  (282 years ago this Thursday) John recorded in his journal what was the climax of the voyage and the terrible storms that they encountered.
the mainsail was in tatters, waves washed over the ship, and the water "poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up."  He observed that the English passengers were screaming in terror, as he was, but a group of German Moravians calmly sang a psalm. (Revival, Hamilton)

Wesley was never the same after that experience.

He began to focus inward on the inner assurance that can only come from God.  He realized that he had been focusing on outward assurance and it did not comfort.

Two years later, this experience came to full bloom when Wesley had what we today call his Aldersgate Experience. 

Despite the seeds that were planted in Wesley's heart --- his experience in America was nothing short of a disaster.

He struggled mightily with how to connect his desire for Holiness and how to convert others.
In many ways he missed the whole point of what he was trying to teach

What was still lacking in Wesley's life --- will be the subject in a couple of weeks --- GRACE.

But let me just say:
It is next to impossible to treat others with grace if you have yet to fully experience it.
And Wesley had yet to fully experience or embrace grace.

I find this period in Wesley's life one of the most fascinating, and I could talk about it for hours --- but sadly we cannot.

All of these experiences however, were the proving grounds as he struggled to understand what HOLINESS was all about.

If you really want to understand Wesley and his struggles you can read his sermon/treaties that is found on the web entitled: A Plain Account of Christian Perfection

In the midst of it Wesley wrote:
"I saw that giving even all my life to God . . . would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart to him."

But in some ways, it is in a sermon that Wesley preached that he clearly articulates what it means to seek holiness in our relationship with God.

It was preached to the students and professors at St Mary's Church in Oxford.

Wesley seems to be challenging all of us not to be ALMOST CHRISTIANS --- but instead to become what he called an "Altogether Christian."

The style of this part of the sermon almost sounds like it could come from an African-American church of today with its rhetorical questions asked with great passion and in a rapid fire format.

This is how Wesley defined what if means to be fully Christian as he challenges us with these questions!

Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?
Can you cry out, "My God, and my All"?
Do you desire nothing but him
Are you happy in God
Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing
And is this commandment written in your heart, "That he who loveth God love his brother also"
Do you then love your neighbour as yourself
Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul as Christ loved you
Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee
Hast thou faith in his blood, Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross
Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins
And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God

It was in the formation of small groups that Wesley believed that they questions can move off the paper and into our hearts and lives.

We need people to hold us accountable
We need people who will love us as we stumble
We need people who will encourage us to grow

That is all found in the small accountability groups that became so central to the Methodist movement and are still central today.

This movement toward holiness --- toward perfection is a lifelong quest.

It is moving religion from our heads and placing God in the center of our hearts and in all that we do.

As I putting this together, I came across a website that provided some interesting insight into perfection.

One of the author’s central agreements is that John Wesley really didn't create this idea of perfection.

And I would agree.

It certainly is found in the passage we looked at from 1 Corinthians, and also in 1 Peter
1 Peter 1:13-16   (NRSV)
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

But that it really is found in that central tenant of our faith --- the Shema

Do you remember it? 

Or maybe, as I like to call it --- the Jesus Creed.
"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."  The second is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  There is no commandment greater than these.

Living "in Christ" has always been the goal of the Christian faith --- Wesley just helped us to find ways to do it.

If it is your goal --- to seek holiness or perfection --- let me suggest some questions you need to learn to ask yourself on a regular basis.

How does this action, word, thought affect my relationship with God?
How does this action, word, thought affect God’s ability to love others through me?
How am I fitting God into every aspect of my life for God’s sake?
Is God a major factor in everything I do, say, think, and feel?

Matt shared with you in his email Friday these same questions, but in a bit more modern language that would really be helpful for us to ask ourselves.
Did the Bible live in me today?
Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
Am I enjoying prayer?
When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
Is Christ real to me?

These really are great reflection questions for us to ask ourselves daily, weekly, or monthly.

As followers of Jesus, our goal must be to strive for holiness.

It is not always easy to answer those questions in the affirmative, but we (as the church) are striving to help you along your journey.

During the season of Lent (that starts in just a few weeks) we are going to look at the Psalms both on Sunday mornings and in small groups (on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings) and inviting you to use the Psalms to help you grow in your walk with Jesus.