Tag Archives: Silence

Facing Craziness

The Friends talk about the power and peace that comes when we operate out of a “quiet center.” This concept is a bit involved, but an oversimplified summary is that we can operate in a much healthier manner if we cultivate an attitude of quiet listening for the voice of the Spirit/Light Within/Jesus and carve out time to quiet our minds. This gets important when anxious times arise.

My two year old has been stable on her heart medicine for two months now and as that has quieted we are dealing with walking our six year old through navigating bullying. On top of that I am getting surgery dome on my hands for carpal tunnel a week from this coming Friday. All of these things are sources of struggle and anxiety that threaten my ability to operate from a quiet center. I would love to say that I have maintained a quiet center throughout these times, but that statement would cause every farm in the area to be overwhelmed with fertilizer. What I am finding is that as I am more intentional about cultivating listening space in my life, the anxieties are less overwhelming, the struggles feel more manageable. I become less harsh and more kind, and my ability to deal with adverse circumstances is enhanced.

I am deeply nervous about having both hands operated on, and I really am not excited to have a month of not lifting more than 5 pounds, but as I step back and sit in the presence of Jesus, I can breathe again and take the next step. I can pick my daughter up and explain how what she is doing is a bad idea rather than yelling. I can live as a better human being because I am operating from the same Spirit and power that Jesus operated from. When we close our mouths, set our agendas to the side, and wait…our strength is renewed and the anxious edge is blunted.

My postings will be a bit erratic for the rest of the year, so as we enter a holiday season that for many of us is a source of anxiety or pain let’s take the time to turn off the anxiety inducing messages and wait expectantly for the still, small voice.

I Got Nothing

The well is dry, the baby is not. Join me this week in appreciating the gift of sacred silence.

Gil

Relational Integrity

(Click here to listen.)

[So I gave a sermon that felt like like two disjointed pieces, both of which needed to be said. I wrestled with whether to just chuck the whole thing and try again or go with what I had and hope I was hearing what God wanted me to share. I chose the latter, but would love to hear some critique of what I might have said better.]

When I was younger and quite a bit more abrasive, I had stuff to say about the way my church was organized, about all the hypocrisy I saw and about how that one customer wouldn’t be able to recognize a clue even if Sherlock Holmes handed them one on a silver platter. My relationships abraded and eroded rather quickly when I indulged my insecurities in this way. Of course what I was really trying to do with my acidic comments was to hide exactly how insecure I was about my own failings. I had no integrity in the way I dealt with myself, so of course that same lack of integrity spilled over into my relationships with others. As we enter the grand finale of James’ epistle, he gives us another view into what it does and doesn’t look like to maintain the integrity of our relationships.

9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.12Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

James 5:9-12

 Grumbling and judgment again! I think we can be a little encouraged that every generation of the church has had to struggle with these things. Even from the beginning there has not been complete agreement on the important issues of the faith, and in some ways that shows a healthy investment in our faith. Our integrity starts to unravel in the interactions that come when we disagree. As I mentioned in a previous sermon James got to see this kind of intense disagreement in his time as a leader in the church, and this disagreement featured two of the apostles almost coming to blows in the street and groups of Jews who went out to Gentile churches to preach a gospel that required conformity to Jewish law. Even after the first council of the leadership of the church that was recorded in Acts 15 with such phrases as “after much debate” and James’ elegant solution, many of the Christians who had come over from the Pharisees continued to grumble against those who thought differently, and Paul got irate and did his own grumbling about those Pharisees, some of which ended up in the letters to the Galatian church. James is calling everybody on the carpet; himself included, and is reminding us and the people of his day exactly what the results of grumbling and working against those you disagree with in the church are: judgment. James says from experience that going around and playing the grumbling political games reflects poorly on us, not the ones we are grumbling against. At its core this passage calls us to have the highest standards of integrity for ourselves and our own interactions, and he gives us some instruction on how to maintain the integrity of relationships that contain disagreement.

James begins by reminding us of the suffering and patience of the prophets, that maintaining our integrity in our relationships may mean painful waiting. James is talking about the disagreements we have over faith not being resolved according to the timetables we wish them to be resolved in. When we try to impose decisions on others, build coalitions to promote our views, deliver ultimatums, and engage in whisper campaigns in the church we damage our witness by displaying a lack of faith in God. By reminding us of the suffering and patience of the prophets James is reminding us that we have a call on us that is larger than simply being intellectually correct. We are called to bring the truth in love. All too often we will err one direction or the other if we are impatient and don’t wait. The prophets who truly are speaking in God’s name aren’t looking for specific effects on a specific timeline, but are trusting in God to change hearts in His good timing. They aren’t so focused on bringing the truth that they do all sorts of collateral damage through judging attitudes and they aren’t so open that they become enmeshed with the very problems they seek to alleviate.

We are called to endure in our love beyond the easy outs of judgment and apathy and persevere in showing the compassion and mercy of God. God’s purpose as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is reconciliation and not judgment. Our work, if we truly desire to follow Jesus, is the same. Are we willing to pay the price? Are we willing to remain whole and not over-function for others by trying to be their conscience, moral compass, or to do other’s internal work for them? Will we maintain our integrity by focusing on the calls in our own lives and allowing others to work their own salvations out in fear and trembling? That is what James is talking about here, not worrying about what others are doing as much as about how my interactions with others reflect the love, grace and mercy God has shown me. This is not easy! It is not easy to watch friends and family learn life lessons the hard way. It is extraordinarily tough to witness pain in the people we love and care about. We must witness it though, not only witness it, but painfully endure beside them, extending the compassion and mercy of God even, no especially, when we think someone doesn’t deserve it. Job endured not only physical trial, but the trial of religious “friends” who wanted to fix him, because he obviously wouldn’t have suffered so much if he hadn’t done something deserving punishment. Sometimes we have to endure the bumbling efforts of others trying to make sense of our pain. What Job saw that we miss sometimes is that his friends were deeply affected by his tragedy and desperately wanted to find some way to fix it. Yes, they were lousy comforters, but Job is sure not the last person to experience poor comfort from religious folks that were uncomfortable with someone else’s pain. To prevent this, I am going to teach you one of the secret things that get handed on in seminary. If they find out I told you, the seminary mafia will come and force me to read Dialectical Metaphysics. Shudder. Anyway here are the do’s and don’ts passed on to us: Show up, make coffee, make a meal, wash the dishes, be a calm presence, don’t speculate about why, don’t quote anything from scripture or platitudes about silver linings or things getting better, speak as little as possible, listen, and don’t be afraid to cry or say “I don’t know what to say but I love you.” When we operate from a place of integrity we are better able to be with someone through their pain without anxiety. Job’s friends had a broken and imperfect understanding of God, and their own fears of God’s wrath were projected onto Job. Job endured however by recognizing the compassion and mercy of God, that God was not the mean judge in the sky waiting for people to mess up so he could strike them down. James reminds us that Job kept his integrity through the time of trial because he never accepted the judgment of his friends who had all of the answers and none of the questions. Since Job retained his integrity in the face of accusation and trial, he became the one through which his friends’ integrity could be restored. God did rebuke Job’s friends, but He didn’t condemn them. God gave them a path to wholeness that began with restoring the relationship with the friend they had so deeply harmed. Integrity came from imitating the character of God and following his purposes that James describes here as bringing compassion and mercy to the world.  

James was deeply concerned that the way he saw the people of the early church interacting did not match up to the mission God had laid on the church and he saw that Christians were displaying a lack of integrity not only with others in the faith, but also with people outside it as well. Christians were mimicking the practices of Roman culture, who invoked the name of their gods to witness to the truth of their words in court or business dealings. Integrity of speech and integrity of action are mutually dependent. When we say “Yes” it needs to be a given that we will do “Yes” and when we say “No” we will not do the action we said “No” to. This is a fundamental Friend’s testimony, that our words will be true even when that does not go in our perceived best interest. Swearing an oath proves nothing about whether a speaker is honest, and can create a division in our minds between the time to speak the truth, and a time where truth is less important. James says boldly that in order for us to keep our integrity intact we must follow Jesus’ command to not create any division in our souls that gives room for untruth to be expressed from our lips. Lies and broken promises condemn us. The very God we invoke to cover us and attest to truth listens for the whole time, not just those words, and our untruths and broken trusts will stand and condemn us. That is not the end of the story though. Our failure to live up to the holiness of God is forgiven, if we ask, if we turn away from patterns of brokenness and seek to live in the compassion and mercy of God. God waits for us, waits with his compassionate arms flung wide. God waits for us to accept his eternal compassion and mercy by passing them on to every person in our lives no matter what. Then we will be made whole because we accept that we need repair, just like our neighbor. When we look at our lives from the perspective of trying to manage sin, we become overwhelmed and look for ways to pass that judgment on to others because we cannot in any way, shape or form manage our sin. When we look at our own brokenness or refuse to look at our own brokenness it shows in our interactions. We get critical of those we say are living in the more visible forms of sin. We try to pass the shame we feel in ourselves onto others as a way of getting some relief, but friends there is no relief there. In fact we have been given a way that is much more effective in bringing transformation. We can in word and deed give the grace of God that we were given. We can stop trying to manage sin and instead become grace managers. When we give God’s grace and truly show with our actions and words that God loves each human being, right now, exactly as we are with a love that cannot be stopped by any of our actions. It is God’s love of me as I am that gives me the strength to look at the calorie counter app, step on the scale, and begin making changes in the way I have been mistreating my body. I need God’s love and grace first through because without those things I can’t see myself as worthy of caring for myself. The same goes for each of you. I want you to know that God loves you exactly the way you are, that God put you on this earth so that he could love you. Right now God loves you exactly the way you are and wants nothing more than to be part of your life. No matter what change you or others think you need wait and accept God’s love, because without recognizing the unconditional love of God you and I have no integrity. When we deny the fact of God’s love for us we cannot see ourselves or others clearly, and when we look through the lens of our own shame and guilt the damage we do to ourselves and others turns our words against us. That is the incredible paradox here that when we give and receive unconditional love we can then begin to live up to that love. As we enter our time of open worship, I want you to take in the love of God, to recognize and tell yourself that God loves me exactly the way I am. After 5 minutes of silence someone will rise with the microphone. If you feel God stirring you to speak take a moment to discern around that calling. You can use the blue pamphlets in the pews to aid you. Let us pray.

The Much Abridged Faith Journey of Gil George

I decided to share the text of my testimony as well as the video. I place my story in your hands:

It has been a great privilege to sit with some of you and hear the stories about how God is at work in your lives. I believe it is a deep privilege to be given a window into other people’s lives with an eye towards the workings of God. I am so thankful to God for the privilege of sharing the joy that comes from following Jesus and experiencing his presence, grace, and mercy. The importance and power of our testimonies is taught in the book of Revelations 12:10-11

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

 

My family came to Christ when I was 4 years old, from that point on I was raised as a follower of Christ. At this point in my life I just knew that Jesus loved me. One of the first hymns I learned expresses this simple faith of my childhood.

Jesus loves me this I know For the Bible tells me so

Little ones to Him belong. They are weak but He is strong

Yes Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me

Yes Jesus loves me, The Bible tells me so

Jesus loves me he who died Heaven’s gate to open wide

He will wash away my sin Let His little child come in[i]

 

The church that we were part of was a Congregationalist church on the border of Queens and Long Island in a town called Inwood. Our church had a ministry resettling refugees, and many families took people directly into their homes. My family bought a 15 room house in Far Rockaway, and formed a Christian community dedicated to taking in the wanderer. We had people from 21 different countries live with us during the 6 years of ministry, and often I would find myself going from one culture to another as I changed rooms. This time significantly shaped my outlook on culture, and on the importance of listening for other cultures’ viewpoints.

We are one in the Spirit; We are one in the Lord

We are one in the Spirit; We are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity, May one day be restored

 

And they’ll know we are Christians By our love by our love

Yes they’ll know we are Christians By our love

 

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand

We will walk with each other we will walk hand in hand

And together we’ll spread the news That God is in our land

 

We will work with each other we will work side by side

We will work with each other we will work side by side

And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and crucify our pride

 

All praise to the Father from whom all things come

And all praise to Christ Jesus His only Son

And all praise to The Spirit who makes us one[ii]

When we moved to Philly in 1988, I was deeply angry at God (who was given as the “reason” we moved). My parents enrolled me in a private school that I eventually got kicked out of, ostensibly for financial reasons, but mainly because I wasn’t afraid to disagree with the bible teacher on interpretation. Meanwhile we had been attending a Church of God in Christ church in the primarily African-American neighborhood we lived in. My father became the second white elder ordained in the denomination, and I was part of the youth choir. After being kicked out of the private school in October of my senior year, I attended my neighborhood school where I was again in the minority. I was the only white student in the school, and I loved it. I experienced renewal through participating in the drama program at school and in the all-encompassing worship of the African-American church we were attending. At this time in my life I began to own my relationship with God as something apart from my parents’ relationship with God.

I know it was the blood I know it was the blood

I know it was the blood for me

 

Chorus

One day when I was lost He died upon the cross

And I know it was the blood for me

 

They pierced Him in his side they pierced Him in his side

They pierced Him in his side for me

 

He hung his Head and died He hung his Head and died

He hung his Head and died  for me

 

They laid him in the tomb they laid him in the tomb

They laid him in the tomb for me

 

He rose up from the dead He rose up from the dead

He rose up from the dead  for me[iii]

I moved to New York, found out that you can’t really go back home and learned forgiveness in a new way. Denny was a knee capper for a prominent crime family who had been injured on a job, and was found wandering the streets. He ended up in our ministry home somehow, and when his mind returned, he left, but would come back and visit us. On one of these visits he bragged about an arms deal his buddies had going on. My father invited the police, and his associates put a contract out on us. Our house was set on fire at 11:30PM one night, but there was only cosmetic damage. We hid in a safe house and the contract was lifted a week or so later. When I moved back to NYC from Philly I was attending the church I had grown up in. Denny was attending the church. I didn’t believe he was saved and I was still scared of Denny. Denny wasn’t stupid, and invited me to go to a diner with him. We had a long talk, and I ended up forgiving Denny and asking Denny and God to forgive me for my merciless behavior. There is truly no person who is irredeemable.

After one year I returned to Philly where my father was called to assist in a church plant a couple of neighborhoods away that was a joint venture between the Mennonites and the Church of God in Christ and that is where God introduced me to Anabaptists. The Anabaptist theology made a lot of sense to me, and after being part of that church for some time, I began attending a Brethren church plant called Circle of Hope in the downtown area that was mainly attracting a younger crowd, and through its ministry learned to take the church less seriously (in a good way). It didn’t look, feel, or sound like anything I had previously encountered, and that opened my eyes to the realization that the form of worship means nothing and the act of worship means everything. Our 7PM service had a slightly different style of music.

As the deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after Thee

You alone are my heart’s desire And I long to worship Thee

 

You alone are my strength my shield to you alone may my spirit yield

You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship Thee

 

You’re my friend and you are my brother even though you are a King

I love you more than any other so much more than anything

 

I want you more than gold or silver only you can satisfy

You alone are the real joy giver and the apple of my eye[iv]

Then my girlfriend of 1 month left for a 1 year mission trip. A few months later my father was diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was 6 months to one year and he didn’t have insurance. While my girlfriend was on her mission, her father was also diagnosed with cancer. I broke down, left my job and eventually moved back home to help out. My father was my mentor, and losing him to a long drawn out time of suffering taught me how to bear my anger to God. I found that I could take the darkest rage to God and let God have it. I screamed, yelled, swore, and called God just about every name I could think of. God just withstood it and left peace in the wake of my rages. I am still a bit angry at God that my daughters don’t have a grandpa, but God is a big God and can take my frustrations. The real lesson for me in this was finding that God really wanted me to bring the ugly, hard, nasty bits of myself to the table as well as the parts that I felt were acceptable. My father died in March of 2000, we moved to Albuquerque in early August my fiancée’s father died in late August and we were married in December. Heck of a year! My wife and I are very well matched; we complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we both have strong communication skills. I have grown much in my relationship with God through this relationship, as I see how much grace I need on a daily basis. Because of the situations we faced the year before we were married, we have a deep understanding of the necessity of grace in our relationship with each other. We have put that understanding to use now that we are parents of two young daughters, and therefore in the sleep deprivation stage of parenting. We already know how to give extra grace, so that has been less an adjustment. The period of time at the beginning of our life together was insane. We were completely drained emotionally, but were able to continue with God walking beside us.

I cry out for your hand of mercy to heal me I am weak

I need your love to free me Oh Lord my rock my strength in weakness

Come rescue me oh Lord

You are my hope your promise never fails me

And my desire is to follow You forever

For you are good for you are good for you are good to me

For you are good for you are good for you are good to me[v]

After 8 months in the Southwest, we decided to retreat, and I took a job at a Mennonite retreat center in the Poconos. I was the kitchen manager for the kids’ camp, and my wife was the Director’s Assistant. We stayed on for two summers, and felt that the retreat time was over and it was time to return to reality when we were going in to New York and Philly to recharge. We moved to Tacoma in the fall of 2002 and became part of the L’Arche community. In that community I learned that while the core members may have had physical, mental or emotional disabilities, I had spiritual disabilities that they didn’t have. It was during this time that I came under the mentorship of a Friends’ pastor, and I felt again the call to pastoral ministry. The call to ministry had always been active in my life, but for the first time I felt ready to pursue it. Finding people whose theology and practice matches what you have come to in your relationship with God feels like coming home and I found my spiritual home in the Northwest Yearly Meeting.

I began the recording process at Olympic View Friends Church in 2004, and began preaching at McKinley Hill Friends Church in 2006. I learned a huge amount in those places, but mostly I learned that I didn’t have the tools to effectively live into my call. With the help of the Friends Center scholarship I went to seminary in my final surrender to the call God has on me. I have known about the call to ministry for a good portion of my life. I ran from it, but always kept finding myself in spiritual fatherhood wherever I went; it was just a style of relationship that happened. I went through Seminary to get the tools and preparation I need to effectively pastor God’s people who I love so much. Right before seminary my daughter Amy was born, and I began to get a vague perspective on the fatherhood of God. I am awestruck by the degree of patience we are shown. I had no idea of the depth of love I was capable of for my daughters, and to consider that God’s love for us exponentially exceeds that of ours for our children boggles my mind.  Cleta Crisman served me well as a guide through the remainder of my recording and my first years of parenthood, helping me process what I was learning in school, teaching me to be a better communicator, and helping me juggle the responsibilities of being a Daddy and schoolwork.

During my seminary years I attended the RiversWay community and learned what it meant to be part of a ministry team, providing mutual support, accountability and learning to lean on other’s gifts.

Now that I am the Pastor at Clackamas Park Friends Church I am finding such joy in God’s work in the church. To see the hand of the Holy Spirit—and name that in people’s lives—is an awesome gift that I am humbled to receive. In my eventful life I have learned what the most important thing is.

All I once held dear built my life upon all this world reveres and wars to own

All I once thought gain I have counted loss Spent and worthless now compared to this

 

Knowing You Jesus knowing You There is no greater thing

You’re my all you’re the best you’re my joy my righteousness

And I love You Lord

 

Now my heart’s desire is to know you more to be found by you and known as yours

To possess by faith what I could not earn all surpassing gift of righteousness

 

Oh to know the pow’r of your risen life and to know you in your sufferings

To become like you in your death my Lord so with you to live and never die[vi]

 

Audiography
 


[i] CCLI Song # 1187 Yes, Jesus Loves Me

Anna Bartlett Warner | William Batchelder Bradbury

Public Domain

For use solely with the SongSelect Terms of Use. All rights reserved. http://www.ccli.com

 

CCLI License # 378755

[ii] CCLI Song # 26997 We are One in the Spirit

Peter Scholtes

© 1966 F.E.L. Publications. Assigned 1991 Lorenz Publishing Company (Admin. by Lorenz Corporation)

For use solely with the SongSelect Terms of Use. All rights reserved. http://www.ccli.com

CCLI License # 378755

 

[iii] CCLI Song # 28823 I Know it was the Blood

Marvin V. Frey

© 1977 Marvin V. Frey (Admin. by Helen M. Frey)

For use solely with the SongSelect Terms of Use. All rights reserved. http://www.ccli.com

CCLI License # 378755

 

[iv] CCLI Song # 1431 As The Deer

Martin Nystrom

© 1984 Maranatha Praise, Inc. (Admin. by Maranatha! Music)

For use solely with the SongSelect Terms of Use. All rights reserved. http://www.ccli.com

CCLI License # 378755

 

[v] CCLI Song # 313480 Good To Me

Craig Musseau

© 1990 Vineyard Songs Canada (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.)

Mercy / Vineyard Publishing (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.)

For use solely with the SongSelect Terms of Use. All rights reserved. http://www.ccli.com

CCLI License # 378755

 

[vi] CCLI Song # 1045238 Knowing You

Graham Kendrick

© 1993 Make Way Music (Admin. by Music Services, Inc.)

For use solely with the SongSelect Terms of Use. All rights reserved. http://www.ccli.com

CCLI License # 378755

Pure Religion

(Click here to listen.)

When I was growing up, something happened to my church. I was only 7 at the time, but the only thing I noticed was that suddenly we had a whole lot more people around. These people were from many different places and in the space of two years our 30 person church became a 250 plus person church. Our church went from being a predominantly white congregation to having our worship services in three languages. At the time I saw this as just a normal thing and was not paying attention to what might have caused this shift. The teaching didn’t seem to have changed, it was the same stuff about living as a Christian, doing what was right in God’s eyes and being good witnesses to what the gospel was really about. To keep the suspense down to a minimum, what changed was simple and profound, people actually started living out the gospel. The church had been something we did on Sundays to identify with a type of faith and had not penetrated beyond that. Then the church started to pray and listen for God’s call, and those prayer meetings were electric, people were listening with the desire to obey God, and change started to happen. One of the members of the church took in some refugees, who were fleeing Vietnam, then more people opened their homes, more refugees started coming and people were living their lives as if Jesus really meant all that stuff he taught in the gospels. Incredible changes started happening. It was an incredible time of growing and stretching, people were being saved, body, mind, and spirit. A few years later when we were chugging along and doing well, a serpent came in. This person tried to force themselves into a position of authority in the church, gossip, backbiting and slander crept in, eventually there was a split and the church that had been growing in every way when it had focused on God’s call, crashed and declined. We had lost sight of this week’s scripture from James to our detriment.

26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)

These are some pretty important words for us to revisit on a regular basis. When we are un-cautious with our words, there are consequences that range from broken relationships to lost opportunities, to people losing their faith. I have a family member who went through that split and because of the degree of nastiness that was employed, gave up on the idea that God was doing anything to redeem people. Last week we talked about our actions and the way we interact having consequences, and James is reminding us that an unbridled tongue wreaks havoc on a faith community. I will not lay any kind of claim to having complete control of my tongue yet. I do not always think before I speak, and the reality is that none of us maintains perfect control at all times. What James is saying here is that there are consequences to our lack of control. I don’t know about you, but most of my regrets in life are tied to words that escaped my lips. Words that came out of my mouth followed by the thought “I can’t believe I just said that.”  And eventually the words “I am so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” Regrets are not God’s best for us, and when we don’t reign in our words we are stepping away from God’s desires for us and are operating without the support of the God who loves us. These lapses have even greater consequences in the faith community. When our tongues flap around without connection to the Holy Spirit, without us weighing the words and their possible impact, we take our religious focus off of Christ and set it on ourselves. We speak in self-serving ways that do not consider other parts of our body and we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that we are the center of creation rather than God. Our religion becomes worthless to others and us because it has lost its Christ-centered focus and is instead focused on the self. What we focus on becomes our destination, and when what we focus on is ourselves, we stop growing and changing into the image of Christ.

Thankfully James doesn’t leave it there, but tells us what pure and undefiled religion looks like in God’s eyes. The first thing we notice is that the focus of this religion is outside of ourselves. When our religion is focused on the needs of others, we are much closer to God’s best intentions for our lives. These aren’t just any others, however, these are widows and orphans, literally the fatherless. In our society it is possible for women to survive without a husband or male figure in their lives, but in the times that James writes women had no voice, no right of self-determination, and no power in society. For a woman to lose her husband was to become almost instantly destitute, for a child to not have a father was to have no advocate for them in society. James is reminding us that God sees the value in every human being, and that keeping our religion pure would be demonstrated by the assistance we give those who our society has no use for. To care for the orphan and widow was a bold proclamation of the inherent value of human beings regardless of social status. Or to quote Jesus:

12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

 

This message has equal application today as it did then. Our society teaches us to work hard at connecting with those who are wealthier or socially equal in order to advance ourselves, but when our focus moves outside of ourselves and onto Jesus, we begin to look for how we can give others the advantages and opportunities that circumstances deny them. To think beyond ourselves in ways that benefit others brings us into a connection with God defined by Jesus as righteous.

What this external focus with priorities that serves others also does is insulate us from the temptations of the world around us. The world has priorities to sell us more stuff, to get us to seek self-fulfillment, and to covet what we see others have. I have to keep asking myself all the time the question of what ways my priorities are being determined by cultural expectation rather than submission to God’s values. If I am not keeping vigilant then, just as when my vigilance over my tongue brings self-serving behaviors, my priorities become influenced by the covetous nature of keeping up with the “Joneses”, but really a little ahead of them if I can swing it. Keeping ourselves unstained by the world is our goal, but it is one we struggle to reach for. We cannot bridle our tongue, serve those at the margins of our society, or live according to the priorities of God without two crucial relationships. The first relationship we need to cultivate is our relationship with God. Without God none of these objectives is achievable. We must cultivate a constant sense of the presence of God, knowing that Jesus is right here with us ready to direct us in the path of righteousness. The second necessary relationship is our relationship with this faith community. God has called us together to challenge each other when we are blinded by the world, to encourage each other to reach for God’s hands and to support each other against the onslaught of covetous advertising trying to distract us from God. Only when we cultivate both of those relationships will we be able to come close to the goals James has given us here to control our tongue, to care for those who are marginalized, and to not allow our priorities to be dictated by cultural expectations. As we enter into open worship consider your relationship with God and our faith community and ask God to show you how you are living well in those relationships, and to help you make the changes needed to grow in those relationships. When we humble ourselves in the silence ready to obey the words that flow from communion with the Holy Spirit our community will begin to order itself according to God’s priorities and the world around will notice that there is indeed something different here, something that calls each of us beyond ourselves, something that makes it possible for people of multiple classes and races and other worldly divisions to come together in mutual service. Let us enter the purifying presence of God together with hearts ready to obey.

Listening Action

(Click here to listen.)

Did you ever step into a situation, thinking that you knew what was going on and then realize that you have not only put your foot in your mouth, but made the situation worse? If not, then I think there is some coffee ready in the fellowship hall, this sermon is for the rest of us. When I was younger I had something to say about everything and I used the time other people were talking to formulate my next words. I didn’t listen. One night I was up in my apartment with some friends after church and the topic of vegetarianism came up. Now I opened my mouth with a couple of quips, a few snide remarks and angrily ended with the remark that vegetarianism was a great fad for rich suburban white people who could spend all that money on getting the right proteins from vegetables, but us poor folk from the hood could use a little less judgment if we went with what we could afford. Sitting right next to me was a guy who I hadn’t met before, but I had heard he lived in deep southwest Philly in a very rough neighborhood. I figured that I must have scored some points with him since he knew what was up with living on what you could get. Since this sermon is on being slow to speak you can guess where this is going. What I had succeeded in doing was seriously antagonizing one of the few strict vegans from that neck of the woods, and he proceeded to tell me exactly how flawed my reasoning was, that I was an idiot for opening my mouth from complete ignorance and that I could take my idiot opinion and lodge it in a location upon which the sun shineth not. I would have done better if I had absorbed the information in today’s scripture from James:

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

James writes todays passage as a lesson from experience. James had been the leader of the Jerusalem church during a huge conflict over whether Gentiles had to fully obey Jewish Law before they could be considered saved, and tempers flared. The book of Acts recalls a loud confrontation between Peter and Paul, and a council that was held to settle this issue in Jerusalem by the Apostles. I have to wonder if James is trying to share how that conflict could have gone a bit smoother, with less hard feelings and didn’t alienate Jewish practitioners of the faith. Within a hundred years the ethnically Jewish part of the church was almost non-existent, so maybe James has something here to help us get through our own disagreements without those same feelings of ill-will and anger that plague the church so very often. Begin by training yourself to actually listen to what others have to say, especially if you disagree with them. Quite often we will automatically refuse to listen to disagreement, but if we do we can learn quite a bit. To give an example, I make it a habit of listening to my friends who are atheists speak about the church and actually try to absorb what they say and see if I can wrestle with some of the hard questions they have. Sometimes what they have to say makes me angry and I own that as something from me and not from them. What I have learned is that a vast majority of atheists don’t necessarily disbelieve in God, but disbelieve a very specific God. An atheist in Saudi Arabia doesn’t disbelieve in Jesus, they don’t believe in Allah, Jesus isn’t on their radar. What I have learned from my atheist friends, some of whom were on track to be pastors, is that the way we live as the church has an impact on how people view the God we claim to serve. Even though our actions do not save us, we cannot say that they are unimportant, because they may be what draws people in or pushes them away from following God.

Being quick to listen and slow to speak means a shift in the way we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We cannot think that our voice is the only one that bears any kind of truth, we must humbly submit to the voice of others in order to refine our understanding of God. Our first instinct when we hear an opposing point of view is to get angry and lash out at the other person’s “ignorance”. This serves mainly to cover up the fact of our ignorance. We humans grasp for any kind of control we can have, but the truth is that even the most powerful human beings ever to exist had very little control over their lives, especially the ending of those lives. Since so much is beyond our ability to control we react from fight or flight when we feel the little tiny bit we think we have is being challenged. This anger at loss of control not only does not produce righteousness, but puts us in direct opposition to the actions of Christ in the world. Seriously look at the history of the church to see what kind of horrors arise when power becomes the focus of the church. Even in recent times we see prominent leaders being corrupted because they didn’t recognize their own tendencies, faults, and failures. When we think we have all the answers, it sets us up to stop depending on God for our strength, our provision, and our direction. Having all the answers closes us off to the words of the gospel when they come in to challenge us with the reality of our own limitations. When we act without listening first, anger, sordidness, and the rank growth of wickedness follow all too easily and fill our lives with unrighteous debris.

There is an old joke about churches and necessary change: “How many meetings does it take to change a light bulb? CHANGE??!!” There is a human tendency to prefer being stuck in something familiar to venturing into the unknown. This manifests itself in many ways, but I want us to start paying attention to what is going on internally so that we can be more faithful to the calls God places on us. In this next piece I am going to talk about ways that I have experienced spiritual inertia in the hopes that you can recognize some of the same things in yourself. My first experience with spiritual inertia is that of being very emotionally involved in a topic to the point that it distorted my ability to hear clearly from God or others, and I could not act on anything other than what I was emotionally over-invested in. To overcome that inertia I had to trust that God would make things right even if I thought the decision might be wrong. Another type of spiritual inertia is when we know exactly what God is calling us to do and say we need to keep listening because we want God to change His mind. This is what James is specifically addressing in today’s text: disobedience through inaction. This is probably the type of disobedience I have most encountered in the Friend’s Church and frankly myself. Last year, the Yearly Meeting had some listening groups around the contentious issue of homosexuality. These groups were not called to accomplish anything other than listening to each other, and the Elders of the Yearly Meeting asked me if I would lead one of the groups. Now my mental response was “So you are inviting me to juggle flaming chainsaws on a tightrope over a shark pool.” What my mouth said was: “I’ll need to pray about that.” A week later I made the mistake of actually praying about the situation and God was pretty clear about what His desire was. He wanted me to do it. OK…Let me wait a week and see if God changes His mind. He didn’t. Let me ask some other people to pray to see if they hear something different. Nope. I eventually agreed and led one of the groups, but my initial response was not one of obedience and I had to ask God to forgive me. Following Christ and obeying God is not easy. We don’t have an easy to follow list of do’s and don’ts that constrain us, but have a law of liberty that says we have to look beyond our actions to our motivations. This is so much harder  because we have to constantly keep a look at ourselves and ask ourselves the very hard why questions, even about the things we do that are acceptable and normal. Is the way I drive motivated by the love of God and neighbor? Are my media choices motivated by the love God and neighbor? Are what I eat and drink motivated by the love of God and Neighbor? Are the words I am speaking about another person motivated by love of God and neighbor?  The mirror of the law of liberty is not always very flattering and sometimes shows us that even though we are doing the correct actions we do them for the wrong reasons! Is it any wonder that we may want to forget what we see when we look at the truth of our brokenness and not want to admit how desperately we need God to change our hearts? There is something that happens when we look at ourselves, warts and all, and ask God to help us better reflect His image. We are transformed. We begin to act from purer motivations, and it does require sticking to it after many failures. Even after 35 years of following Christ I still fail and God has to pick me back up, brush me off, kiss the owies, and I have to accept His help and forgiveness and take that next step towards living from the motivations of Loving the LORD my God with all my heart, mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself. God’s desire is for us to be refined into purer and greater reflections of the love that motivated Him to set aside his authority and power, live as a slave, and be obedient to death, even death on a cross. So let us truly listen to each other and God, not allowing our immediate reaction to bubble over and cause strife, but also when we have heard and understand what is required of us, let us act. The story I opened up with happened 16 years ago and because I stopped and listened, and because my friend Matt didn’t write me off for my big mouth, God was able to teach us how to love each other well. Both of us are married with kids, and maintain contact despite the fact that we are on opposite ends of the country. When we listen with a commitment to act in love wonderful things happen and relationships are healed and forged. During our time of open worship allow yourself to be carried away by that purifying fire of love. Pray that God burns away all within that is not operating from the motivation of love for Him and our global and local neighbors. After 5 minutes of silence I will bring the microphone to any that feel led to speak, and in that silence weigh the words you feel given and ask that every word spoken in our communion together would flow from the love of Jesus within us. Let us listen together ready to act on the loving revelation of Jesus.

He Is Risen! Now What?

(Note: This week we had a little difficulty with our sound system and I had to re-record the first paragraph of the sermon. Click here to listen.)

All of the men who followed Jesus had tried their best to crawl into the deepest holes they could find in Jerusalem and see if they could pull the hole in after them. They had seen and heard of the brutal death that Jesus suffered, and they knew that one wrong move could put them in a similar situation. They were afraid and who could blame them? Would any of us do any different if we were in that situation? Try to put yourself in these disciples’ shoes for a minute. A week ago, Jesus entered the city to the “Hosannas” of the multitude, and over the course of the week those shouts changed to those of “Crucify Him!” The mob had been stirred up and the Romans were on alert. The entire city was just coming off the rest day of Passover and everybody was waiting to see if new violence would erupt, most likely directed at those who had openly followed Jesus. I wonder how many of us might have decided that discretion was the better part of valor and stayed hidden, I probably would have. But there were these women who followed Jesus, probably just as scared as the men, but they knew there was a job that had to be done. The body had to be prepared. On Saturday after the sun went down they went out and bought the spices they would need for the next morning. One thing to note is that the Jewish day begins and ends at sunset, so they had an hour or so to get what they needed. They woke up early the next morning and crept out to the tomb afraid of what they would find when they got there. When they got to the tomb it was open. Think about what might have been going through their heads when they saw the huge stone rolled out from in front of the tomb. Those poor women, already in a great deal of fear encountered the unexpected. Jesus wasn’t in the tomb anymore. The scriptures don’t tell us how long it took them to build up the courage to look inside. When they did look inside, all they saw was a young man in a white robe sitting up at the end of the stone Jesus body had been laid on. There was probably blood still on the stone, and the women, in their fear assumed the worst, that the body must have been stolen. On our end of history, we know what happened here, but those women had just suffered through two horrendous days, the loss of hope that came with seeing Jesus brutally killed, and now this. The “young man” in the tomb probably didn’t need a lot of insight or people skills to see the panic that was setting in and tried, unsuccessfully, to reassure the women. Having already confessed that I probably wouldn’t have been there, if I was, I think this would have been the last straw for me as well. Those women fled in terror and amazement, not daring to believe what was said to them, maybe not even having those words register in their minds until after the panic had faded.

The oldest manuscripts we have end the gospel of Mark at the end of verse 8, the rest was added in after other accounts had been written, and I think take something away from the purpose of the Gospel. As you read through Mark, there is a breathless excitement that runs through the whole book. Mark is filled with action, urgency and immediacy and keeps on going in this breathless style that tells of what Jesus did, and what he was thinking, and what his reactions were, and how he just kept plowing forward to this climactic conclusion of the death and resurrection, leaving the listeners wanting to find out what happened next. Listen again to the ending of the gospel.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8

 

There is a question here, underlying this text that we need to consider: what are we going to do with this message now that we have received it? This ending gives us an invitation and some instruction on how to proceed. The first words out of the young man’s mouth are “Do not be afraid/ alarmed.” In this narrative, it is pretty obvious that it must have taken a while for that to sink in. I think that we also can learn from this advice. We have a lot of fear broadcast into our lives. The news is on 24/7 with all kinds of stories on what is killing, or is going to eventually kill, you, the world is falling apart and you need to protect yourselves and your families. (This report brought to you by Bob’s Bunkers, providers of quality hidey holes. Survive climate change, asteroids, the Russian…ahem Muslim invasion, the breakdown of law and order, or the apocalypse of your choice in comfort and security.) Fear sells, and boy do advertisers, politicians, and news anchors know it. We are bombarded by messages that tell us to be afraid, be very afraid, and coincidently to buy a product, vote for a politician, or listen to the next piece of news in order to get a fleeting illusion of security or protection. When we believe those lies, the way we interact with the world comes to resemble that of the women and disciples, hiding behind the walls of our churches and homes and having less and less direct interaction with others. Believing these lies is a symptom of an incomplete faith, and the Young man in the tomb tells us what the cause is: We are looking for a dead, crucified Jesus in the tomb and not finding him. When we make decisions and live from a place of fear, we are forgetting about the resurrection. In terror and amazement we run away from the empty tomb.

The good news is that Jesus was completely aware of this and is right here with a message that He is going ahead of us and we will see him. The living Christ is here and the living Christ is with us, we only need to silence ourselves, turn off the TV, the computer, the phone, and the tablets, put down the newspapers and the magazines, pick up a bible, start praying and listen. When we focus instead on the good news of hope, on His kingdom and His way of being and doing what is right, we live in the victory of the resurrection. We then live in a world in which peace becomes not only possible, but the only possible choice. Through the presence of the resurrected Christ, another world is breaking into this one, and though there is still fear and everything is not as God intended it, we are given the ability to live into the values of that other world. We become witnesses to the existence and desirability of God’s way through word and deed, because we walk in the presence of Christ. This gospel ends with an invitation, and I want to extend that same invitation to you. Christ is right here with us, waiting for each of us to accept the peace that comes from following Him. Each of us has some way in which we fail, in which we allow the fears of life to sneak in and dictate some piece of our values, to treat some other group or person as someone less than a beloved bearer of the image of God, even to see ourselves as people less than beloved children of God. Now is the time for us to turn away from that which holds us back and prevents us from fully taking hold of the promised life of wholeness and well-being. Through the resurrection we have a Christ who is present to teach us himself if we would only listen.

As we enter into our time of open worship let me encourage you to listen with an attitude of humble obedience. In that attitude we enter into communion with God and each other, and I pray that each person in this room would be filled with the presence of God, that each of you would hear God’s voice speaking in the silence of your soul, and that you would obey that voice. He is risen! He is here! Let us listen together and place our lives in God’s hands as Jesus did before us.