Halloween: O Holy Night

Some thoughts about Halloween…

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

peanuts halloweenHalloween is sometimes called an evil or even a demonic holiday. However, I believe when we narrowly define demonic evil as fictional ghosts, goblins, and vampires that come out one night of the year, we may miss the true demonic evil that surrounds us every day—Greed, hate, racism, sexism, and all kinds of bigotry haunt our world day and night.

Furthermore, when one takes a close look at how our society observes All Hallows Eve, I believe one can reach the conclusion that Halloween may be the most holy night on the calendar. For example:

On what other evening of the year do we turn on our porch lights to welcome, not only friends and family, but all who may pass by?  All are welcomed and greeted with smiles and laughter, and “all” even includes witches, monsters and little devils. It does not matter who they are or from whence…

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What Does Heaven Look Like?

Heaven

Sermon written and preached by Dr. Jarrett Banks and Rev. Shannon Speidel for All Saints’ Sunday, Central Christian Church, November 6, 2016 to remember church members who died since our last service in May, 2016.

Revelation 22

To be honest, the promise of going to heaven one day, as heaven is often stereotyped, to live forever and ever and ever has not always appealed to me. Floating on some celestial cloud playing a harp for all of eternity does not sound like good times.

Furthermore, I have always been leery of Christians who seem to make going to heaven one day the whole point of what it means to be a Christian. It sounds rather selfish to me. And when I consider the selfless mission of Jesus, that type of theology seems to miss the whole point of what Christianity is all about.

I have also never desired to live in a mansion or walk on streets of gold. Again, because of what I know about Jesus’ identification with the poor, such opulence seems contrary to the words and works of Jesus.

However, there is one description of heaven in the Bible that I do find rather interesting, even attractive.

The most vivid and perhaps the best description of heaven may be found in the last chapter of our Bible.

What does heaven look like?

Although the description is certainly symbolic, it is nonetheless beautiful. There is a holy city, and in the middle of the city’s main street, there is a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

What does heaven look like?

On both sides of the river, there is the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, and the leaves on the trees have the power to heal the nations.

What does heaven look like?

Nothing accursed will be there. There will be no more hate; no more bigotry; no more ugliness; no more racism and misogyny, no more poverty, no more war, no more politicians and no more elections, no more of anything that is vile, foul or evil.

There is nothing accursed in heaven, because the throne of God, the compete rule of God, and the Lamb, who is Jesus the Christ, will be there.

And here’s my favorite part. There is nothing accused in heaven, because all of the servants of Christ will be there; together, gathered around the throne worshipping the Lamb face to face,

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Ed Wedel.

Paul urges the Christians in Galatia to take responsibility for doing the vey best that they can with their life” (Gal 6:5).

In Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation we read that for this generation, “responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on.” Responsibility was something that was what really got ‘em going.”

This is why I believe we will remember Edwin Wedel the epitome of the “The Greatest Generation.” Responsibility and faithfulness was his juice. Ed was responsible to his country, serving in WWII in the United States Navy, to his family, especially to his widowed mother who needed his care, and to this, his church he was so very faithful.

What does Heaven look like?  Heaven looks like Delcea Batterman.

In the story of the prophet Elijah in 1st Kings, coming into a struggling woman’s world and asking her to have faith, so that she may be given all that she needs, Delcea had faith. We can never deny the steady and firm faith of Delcea Batterman.  Delcea, didn’t just hear the word of the Lord in her life, she acted on it.  Delcea shared her gifts with others and uplifted all those she met. Delcea found herself in a blessed life because of all she was and all she believed and did.  She practiced an active faith, one of sharing, giving and presence.  Heaven must indeed look like Delcea Batterman. (1st Kings 17:8-16)

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Iris Butts.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God loves a “cheerful giver.” The entire creation speaks to the generosity of God. Iris Butts certainly had the heart of a cheerful, generous giver as she was continually looking for special projects here at Central Christian Church to support. Worth Bracher remembers being constantly contacted by Mary Beach calling to relay a message from Iris to find another project for her some of her money.

What does Heaven look like?  Heaven looks like Ray Feightner. 

The apostle John said: Love is of God, for God is Love.  And in this sense we can see the light of God in the life of Ray.  We can see the love he had for God’s people when he saw a man in his nursing home cafeteria, who happened to be black, and he had multiple people walking away from him because they refused to sit with him at a table.  Ray, having seen this, sought out this man’s table, shared his meals alongside him and they became fast friends.  Ray was willing to seek out what was right and act on it in welcoming ways.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Bob Shaw.

Jesus said there is no greater love than this, that one is willing to lay down their life for their friends (John 15:13).

After serving in the United States Army, Bob worked as a lineman for an electric company. One day, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Bob was on the ground while a fellow lineman was high in a bucket truck working on an electric line. Not knowing that the line was live, his co-worker grabbed the line. The electricity immediately grabbed him, not letting him go until Bob says he could see smoke appear to come from the top of his head. Without hesitation, and putting himself at risk, emulating the sacrificial love of his Lord, Bob climbed the pole and pulled his co-worker off of the line, saving the man’s life.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jane Adams.

In first Peter, we are told to… “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, Service on another with whatever gift each of you has received.  Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ”.  These beautiful words so accurately paint the picture of Jane Adams.  Jane was a faithful servant of Central Christian Church, but also for all of God’s people in all areas of life.  Jane’s generosity of spirit spread throughout the lives of those who surrounded her.  Jane was passionate about the work of God, often serving silently without recognition and without complaint.  She opened her heart wide upon marrying her husband Paul and becoming a mother to his six children.  And this is definitely not shocking to anyone… they became hers and she became theirs.  Jane had a way of doing that in all her life, she became ours and we all became hers.  Heaven must indeed, look like Jane Adams.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Karolyn Bruner.

In Colossians we read that we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…forgive each other. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:12-17).

Karolyn will always be remembered by those who knew her for her kind and beautiful spirit, her big heart and generous attitude, for her talents in serving others, and as a very caring and compassionate person.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Johnny Matthews.

The Psalmist declares for us “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the god’s I sing your praise.”  And very few people had as much thankfulness as Johnny Matthews.  Johnny lived a life borrowed, having survived a bus accident as a young adult, he became keenly aware of the gift of life and the thankfulness for more days to enjoy before finally being called home.  Because of these things Johnny lived life to the fullest extent.  His family, was a highlight of his life, always expressing a willingness to do anything for them.  Johnny was graciously thankful, never letting the truest fulfillment of life, escape him.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Gayle Lewis.

Isaiah prophesied:

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:30-31)

We will never forget and always be inspired how Gayle kept the faith, persevered to fight the good fight, even in the midst of adversity, pain and suffering. Although the great storms of life—death, divorce, and disease, would come and sometimes knock her off her feet, Gayle’s faith in God would always propel her to get back up and continue with perseverance the race that was set before her.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jan Newkirk.

The Apostle John writes these words “believe in God, believe also in me.  In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”.  Jane Newkirk was rocking in a cradle in the church nursery of Central Christian Church and treated this church as her home.  She treated it as a special welcoming body that existed in the midst of God’s loving care.  Jan would actively prepare the worship space for God, even making sure the candles for communion were freshly bronzed or silvered out of respect for its reverence.  And just as she prepared a place for us all in this experience of worship, we can be assured she is in a place especially prepared for her.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Phyllis May.

The Psalmist declares that the steadfastness of the Lord endures forever. We got a glimpse of this steadfastness in Phyllis. As part of the Caregiver ministry team, she continued to telephone people in our community who needed calling on even when she was unable to physically visit with them.

Call it pride. Call it a strong will. Whatever you call it, Phyllis had it. She had this steadfastness, this relentless persistence about her. Yet, one hesitates to call it stubborn or obstinate, or hardheaded, because, with Phyllis, it was more aptly described as a gracious persistence, a steadfast love.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Helen Chisum.

The apostle Paul writes that we are to Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Helen Chisum embodied all of these attributes through the many mountains and valleys in her life.  Helen always persevered through the lose of spouses and raising her seven children throughout the immense lost and grief that accompanied her pain and struggle.  Helen was steady and present.  She was someone who was flexible with her dreams, always willing to walk the paths afforded to her and relying always on an ever-present God, who never gave up on her strength and always encouraged her perseverance for the journey.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Joan Ingmire.

When Jesus sent his disciples into the world to be his hands and feet, welcoming little children and caring for the sick, Jesus sent them out without a purse, without money, as examples of selfless self-giving. As a faithful disciple of Christ Joan volunteered over 6,000 hours at St. Mary’s hospital caring for the sick. And while she was a member of the Christian Church in Billings, more than anything, Joan loved teaching children about this sacrificial love in Vacation Bible School.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jim Butler.

In Genesis we are taught very clearly about hospitatlity.  In Chapter 18 we hear this story The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  This story of humbling oneself before God is followed by Abraham giving him the best of everything he had in true hospitable fashion and there has been such hospitality offered here, in the life of Jim Butler.  There wasn’t a time when a visit with Jim wasn’t started by seeing the biggest smile and “Boy am I glad to see you!”.  And you know what, he truly meant it!  Jim was a beacon of hospitality and welcome in a world that often struggles to find it’s way.  Jim knew what it meant to welcome others as the lord welcomes us all and made you feel it each and every time you were together.  Jim’s genuine love and welcome for all people has to be what heaven looks like.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Inez Fisher.

Jesus said that when we give, not to sound trumpets and call attention to ourselves, but we should give in secret, and our God who sees what is done in secret will reward us. Inez was one of those ‘behind-the scenes” church worker. For years she could always be counted on to put mailing labels on the Visitor the church newsletter. She was the reason that many of you received your newsletter, and you never knew it. Several of you were bothered that she did not have a memorial service. But that was who she was. Full of humility, she never wanted to call attention to herself.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jimmy Johnson.

The gospel of Luke shares with us all that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  No greater words can be said in regards to Johnny Johnson.  Johnny was a man who was bigger than life.  He lit up a room with his joyous personality and his humor.  He was a jack of all trades and kept busy, but as a family member states, he will be most remembered for is unconditional love for all people.  Johnny was a man who truly loved his neighbors, near and far.  He sought out the opportunity to help people who needed it, showed up for people, and held them all within a caring heart that he carried with him everywhere he would go.  As a man who embodied Jesus’ only commands to the fullest, it is without a doubt that Heaven must look like Johnny Johnson.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like a river of life, bright as crystal. Heaven looks like a tree of life with branches of healing. Heaven looks like the rule of Christ, the Kingdom of God. And the good news is that heaven looks like the servants, of God, members of this family of faith who have gone before us, who are now and forever worshiping the Christ.

They all taught us that heaven looks like the words and works of Jesus. Heaven looks like who God is calling us to be as the church. Heaven looks like extravagant grace and unconditional love. Heaven looks like the selflessness of Jesus, the mission of Jesus.

So, maybe living forever is not so bad after all.

 

Thank you O God for the way the saints who have gone before us still teach us how to live, how to serve, how to follow our Lord to be the church you are calling us to be. Amen.

Renewing Our Hearts to Partnership: Embracing Diversity

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Ephesians 4:1-16 NRSV

There is but one body and one Spirit—just as you were called into one hope when you were called.

Unity. It is the theme of World Communion Sunday. But when we talk about “unity” in the church, what are we really talking about? Are we talking about everyone believing the same thing, thinking the same way, being on the same page when it comes to matters of faith and practice? Are we talking about sharing the same set of values and moral principles? Are we talking about one particular style of worship? What does “unity” in the church really mean?

I believe the ancient story of the Tower of Babel can help us with this.

In the eleventh chapter of Genesis we read:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The whole earth was one. One language. One people. One tribe. One race. And they all came together to live in one place. They all came together to build something special, something great, something wonderful that would be a symbol of their unity.

Unity, oneness, togetherness, harmony, people of the same minds living in one accord. Isn’t this the will of our God, God’s great purpose for humanity?

So what’s not to like in this seemingly perfect picture of unity in Genesis chapter 11? As it turns out, according to God, the creator of all that is, not very much.

Let’s look at God’s reaction to this oneness in verse 7 of our story: “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…”

What? Are you serious? What is wrong with this great portrait of human unity, of one race of people, one nation, one language, all of one mind, coming together, to build something great, to celebrate the pride of one master race?

The truth is that the builders of the great tower in Shinar had accomplished not what God wants for humanity, but what many throughout history, including the likes of Adolf Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, have wanted for humanity: One master race of people coming together to form one supreme social order, one culture, sharing the same ideals, values and moral principles.

For so many, diversity is a threat. Diversity is something to fear. Diversity is something to segregate and discriminate. Diversity is something to scapegoat. Diversity is something to send to the gas chambers, lynch in the trees or shoot in the streets.

I am not sure if anyone in my lifetime has articulated the thinking of the people of Shinar better than Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker back in 1999. Some of you may remember his response when he was asked by Sports Illustrated if he would ever play for the New York Mets or New York Yankees.

Rocker said:

“I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the number 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there.”[i]

The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us that what John Rocker said “racked his nerves” in the world is exactly what God wills for the world. In verse 4 we read that the purpose of building the tower was to avoid what depressed John Rocker on the No. 7 train leaving Manhattan for Queens, and to avoid what John Rocker heard in Times Square.

The purpose of settling in Shinar and building that tower was to live in a world with no foreigners, no confusing babbling in the streets, no queers or kids with purple hair to encounter on the way to work, no eating in the marketplace with people on strange diets, no rubbing elbows with people wearing weird clothes, head coverings or dots on their foreheads.

No sitting in the same pews at church with people dress differently than we do on Sunday morning and definitely no people who think differently, believe differently, or worship differently.

The people in Shinar said: “We will be truly unified! We will look alike, think alike and believe alike. We will sing worship alike, sing alike and pray alike.”

So they came together and said, let’s build a tower of unity “to not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

And God’s reaction to this kind of unity? Let’s “scatter them over the face of the whole earth,” to create a world of diverse languages and cultures, to create a world of foreigners.”

God was only accomplishing what God had always willed for the creation: diversity. In chapter one of Genesis, we read that the original plan for creation was for humankind to “multiply and fill the earth.” And after the flood in chapter ten we read where God sanctions and wills all nations to be “spread out over the earth.” (Gen 10:32). Simply put, from the very beginning of time, in spite of our will, in spite of our fear and our racial or cultural pride, God wills diversity.

Therefore, if we ever act or speak in any manner that denigrates or dehumanizes another because of their race, gender, language, beliefs, dress, nationality or ethnicity, we are actually disparaging the God who willed such diversity. According to Genesis, diversity is not to be feared, avoided, prevented, lynched or shot. If we want to do the will of God our creator and redeemer, diversity is to be welcomed and embraced. In other words, if we love God, we will also love our neighbor.

And this is what should unite us as Christians!

It is the love of God for all of us, a love that God wants us to share with others that unites us.

I believe it’s why Jesus called it the greatest commandment. Loving God and neighbor is what should unite us; not race, not correct doctrine, not a set of beliefs, not one style of worship, but love.  It was Disciples of Christ forefather Thomas Campbell who said: “Love each other as brothers [and sisters] and be united as children of one family.”

And the Apostle Paul wrote: “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

The story of God’s displeasure with the Tower of Babel is God’s gracious stamp of approval, of blessing, on every race, every tribe, and every language in every land. It is the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for creation. The song we learned as little children cannot be more true: “Red, yellow, black and white, they are all precious in God’s sight.”

God is not color-blind, as I hear some say, for God creates, wills, blesses, and loves color. And it is this love that unites us all, as we have all been created to harmoniously see humanity as God sees it: as a beautiful, diverse, colorful rainbow created by, sanctioned by, and graced by God.

As Bible-believing Christians, our nerves should never be racked on Sunday mornings, [as my mama used to say, we should never get in a tizzy!) if we look around the congregation and see some diversity—see some folks who not only dress differently and look differently, but see folks we know believe differently, live differently, worship differently, interpret the Bible differently, and yet they still choose to partner with us through this church, united by a commitment to share the love and grace of Christ we have all received with the world.

And it should rack our nerves all to pieces on Sunday mornings, if we look around the congregation and only see a bunch of folks who look just like us.

And if we are not immensely bothered by a lack of diversity in this sanctuary, if we are not partners in ministry with those who differ from us, if we would rather remain homogenous by remaining divided, I believe we need to remember not only this story in the first book of our Bible that describes a beautiful and diverse creation willed by God, but I also believe we need to think about a about a passage in the last book of our Bible that describes a diverse eternity willed by God.

And we must as ourselves the question: If diversity bothers us now, what are we going to do when we get to that place we think we’re are going after we die to live forever and ever.

Because guess what? According to Revelation, heaven looks more like Times Square and that No. 7 train on the way from Manhattan to Queens than some affluent suburb outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

In Revelation 7, we read these words:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures [each representing the diversity of all creation], and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.

Let us pray:  Thank you O God for the diversity that is in this place we call Central Christian Church. Help us to accept it, embrace it, love it, as we partner together to be the church you are calling us to be in this city and in our world.

[i] Read more: John Rocker – At Full Blast – York, Braves, City, and League – JRank Articles http://sports.jrank.org/pages/4014/Rocker-John-At-Full-Blast.html#ixzz39oVUCEtA

Fear and Compassion

Great sermon from my colleague Rev. Speidel. I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside her at Central Christian Church in Enid.

Where are the Christians?

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Luke 7:11-17

One of the ways I try to take care of myself physically and emotionally is by practicing yoga. I used to take yoga classes consistently when I was in college, but have picked it up again in the last few months after about 10 years. The encouragement to start again came from a good friend who moved here, to Enid, and is an instructor.

I am not that fabulous. But I try really hard. I have learned not to concern myself with the advanced yogi in the back row who can throw himself into a handstand whenever he is so moved. I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with taking breaks when needed and sneaking a sip from my water bottle, when my body is saying “that’s about enough of that Shannon, we don’t want to pull EVERY muscle we have”.

In one of our recent classes, our…

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Between the Verses

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Psalm 6 NRSV

About one-third of the Psalms are called “Lament Psalms.” I love these Psalms for their sheer honesty. These Psalms are unashamedly real, straight up authentic. They speak to the reality of our pain, frailty, and failures. They also speak to the reality of the pain of our world: the plight of the poor; the despair of the displaced, the evil of war, the scourge of disease, and all kinds of injustices. And they speak of the reality of what sometimes seems like God’s apathy or even absence in this world.

Psalm 10 reads:

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—

7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;

8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding-places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9   they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

Walter Brueggemann says that the Lament Psalms “break the force of denial” teaching us that the truth of our pain must be told. They teach us the importance of declaring out loud that things are bad. Things in our lives are bad. Things in this world are bad. And even things about our relationship with God are bad. The Psalms teach us to honestly say out loud that when it comes to God, even on our best days, we have our doubts.

However, that is not our tendency. Is it? We have this notion that any amount of crying, complaining, protesting or “lamenting” means that our faith is weak. And to ever doubt God, well, that is simply out of the question!

To be a positive witness to the world to the saving acts of our God, we believe we should always wear a victorious guise. Thus, this morning, there are churches everywhere full of smiling, happy, clappy Christians casually dressed singing simple, repetitive songs devoid of any semblance of reality. And there are churches full of serious, somber Christians in suits and dresses, preachers robed with stoles, monotonously singing the old hymns of faith without any real concern for the suffering of others.

Christians everywhere have a tendency to retreat into sanctuaries and cling to denial, ignoring the suffering of this world. We cover it up with a smile or hide it with our Sunday best. We deceive ourselves by pretending that with our faith everything is good, everything is working; when in fact, everything is far from good, and nothing is actually working. Confession of sin, acknowledgement of pain, and doubting God is something that is done sparingly and always privately, if it is even done at all.

However, the Lament Psalms move us in the opposite direction. They persuade us to not only tell it like it is, but to publically tell it like it is to God.

And these Psalms teach us it this kind of honesty, this kind of truth-telling, that is the only way we can experience new life and salvation.

Those of us who have read the stories of Jesus should not be that surprised. For whenever Jesus encounters people in need whether it is blind people, poor people, or in the case of Jarius’ daughter and Lazarus, dead people, it is always the needy person, or the family of the dead person who summon Jesus to come into their life or into their house. It is always the one who is in great need, the one who is suffering or grieving who takes the initiative to invoke the help of Jesus.

When Bartimaues, the blind beggar, hears that Jesus is passing by, he cries out, over and over, until Jesus hears his lament, a lament that sounds much like a Psalm: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” It is then, and only then, after the man honestly cries out in need to Jesus, publically voices his desire to change, that Jesus stops and heals him.

Psalm 32 speaks clearly about the power of our honest cries. The Psalmist writes: “While I kept silence,” in other words, while I was in denial, while I was pretending to be a happy, clappy person of faith or a stoic, serious religious person, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” In other words, when I pretended everything was working, that all was good, my body wasted away.

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not hide my iniquity.” I stopped playing religious games, stopped pretending, stopped faking my faith, stopped trying to appear like I had it all together with my fine wool suit and silk tie, or with my long robe and stole. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” (and guess what happened next!), and you came, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin,” the guilt that was eating my life away. “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you,” fully, sincerely, honestly.

Thus, Psalm 6 is one of my favorite Psalms. For here the Psalmist honestly pours out his heart before God like none other.

1 O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
3 My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

Here the Psalmist tells the truth, the whole truth, to God. There is no holding back, no masking the pain, no masquerading behind a Bible and a hymn book, no pretending to be strong because others will think he is weak. There is no denial. This Psalmist takes the initiative, goes to God, and keeps it very real. And notice what happens next. Look at what happens somewhere between verses seven and eight.

Somewhere between seven and eight, God shows up. New life, inexplicable, yet certain, comes. Easter happens. Pentecost arrives. Blessed assurance, amazing grace, and a peace beyond all understanding are received. Thus in verse eight, the Psalmist confidently continues:

8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.

Now, we do not know what exactly happened between verse seven and eight. We just know that something happened and that something was God. Somewhere, somehow, someway, God breathed on the Psalmist new life, inexplicable, yet certain. God came, and God resurrected, restored, and revived. When the Psalmist was honest saying “this is not working,” “this is bad,” God came and worked all things together for good.

Somewhere, somehow, someway between verses seven and eight God showed up. Perhaps through a still small voice. Perhaps through a quiet warmth that mysteriously erased the terror from his bones and soul.

Or perhaps through love expressed by a friend. Perhaps God came through a visit from a concerned neighbor. Perhaps someone cooked supper and brought it over, or simply offered a listening ear or an empathetic embrace. We just know that somewhere between verses seven and eight, God, in some inexplicable yet certain way, came.

I see this all the time in the church. People come to me and tell me that their life is over. Nothing is working. There is no way.  Some are grieving a loss: either a job loss, a lost opportunity or the loss of a loved one. Some are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. They come to me honestly, pouring themselves out. In their life, it is verse 7, and they are languishing.

Then a short time later, I see them again. And suddenly, it is verse 8. They tell me that life has never been better. How losing that job was the very best thing that happened to them. That although they still grieve over the loss of their loved one, God not only brought them great comfort and peace, but God has made them a stronger, better person. They say that although they thought their life was over, they realize that a new life is only just beginning. There is now a way when there was no way.

The good news is that this is how our God loves to work in the world. It is the very nature of God. However, as the Psalters remind us, when we are languishing, if we ever want to experience what is between verses seven and eight, it is up to us to take the initiative. It is up to us to come honestly before God, confess our sins, confess our brokenness, confess our weakness, confess our need of God. It is up to us to tell God the whole truth. And then I promise you, somewhere there between verses seven and eight, God will inexplicably, yet certainly show up.

And as people of faith, when verse 8 comes, I believe God continually calls us to go back to live in between the verses. God calls us to service somewhere in between verses seven and eight keeping our minds and our hearts open to the cries, to the pain, and to the needs of others.

And who knows, even today, you may be that inexplicable, yet certain something that happens for someone living between seven and eight! It may be through preparing a meal, sending a card, making a phone call or making a visit, or by just being present to listen to someone’s cries. God is calling each of us, every person in this room, and God is counting on us to be there for others between the verses, so all of God’s children can get to the verses where they are able to confidently sing:

“The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication. The Lord accepts my prayer.”  “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” Amen.

All I Really Need to Know, I Learned Playing Baseball

David-Allen1
David Allen Ball Park, Enid, Oklahoma
Message delivered to players and coaches of the Junior College World Series at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Breakfast in Enid, Oklahoma 5-27-16.

In Robert’s Fulgum’s best-seller, All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten, Fulgum says: “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten.”

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat.  Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some. Take a nap every afternoon.  When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

I believe every person who has every played baseball could say the same thing; that is, all you really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, you learned playing baseball. Since we are talking baseball, here are a list of nine things:

  1. Pray Before Every Game

But don’t pray for God to protect you from injury. And please don’t pray for God to help you win the game. Instead, thank God that you are physically able to play the game. Thank God that you are healthy enough to run, and slide and swing to risk injury. And then ask God to forgive you for seeing people in wheelchairs and feel no remorse. Each morning when you wake up to the gift of a new day, pray that God may help you not to take it all for granted or to act as if you somehow deserve it or have in someway earned it.

  1. Back Each Other Up

This is perhaps one of the first things that you learned about playing this game: the importance of leaving your position to back a brother up. What a better world it would be if we all practiced this simple principle and had each other’s backs.

  1. Step Outside the Box

In baseball, you step outside the box to take a deep breath, kick the mud off your cleats, and relax. But you also step outside the box to refocus.

Let me see how focused you are this morning.

You are driving along on a Oklahoma Highway on very stormy night You pass by a bus stop, and you see three people waiting for the bus:

  1. An elderly woman who will die if she is not rushed immediately to the hospital.
  2. An old friend who once saved your life.
  3. The perfect woman you have been dreaming about your entire life.

Which one would you choose to pick up, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?

Why wouldn’t you give your car keys to your old friend who is good at saving lives and let him take the elderly woman to the hospital? Then stay behind and wait for the bus with the woman of your dreams!

Sometimes we gain more in life when we step outside the box and refocus (from (drrobertbrooks.com).

  1. Don’t Be Embarrassed to Spit or Scratch or Make Other Necessary Adjustments

There is only one requirement to become a Christian. And that is to confess that you are not perfect, you’ve got some problems and you need some help. The trouble with the church today is that we have too many people in it who simply do not meet this basic requirement. They think they are better than others, more holy, more righteous. So much so that they are very quick to judge others who are not like them. So go ahead, spit and scratch, be human, be real, let people know you have problems and you need some help.

  1. Watch for the Signals

What happens if you fail to look down at your third base coach? What happens if you look down at the coach, but ignore his signals? It’s not good.

Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite preachers and writers, has written:

If you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even in the most limited situations, God through life itself has something to teach you.

In other words, every day God is giving us signals.

He continues:

Taking your children to school, and kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace that God is not present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.

 6.  Keep Your Head in the Game

It was the great Yogi Berra who once said: “Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.”

If you understand Yogi’s wisdom, you know that what you focus on and think about before and during the game can make or break your performance.

Without the mental toughness to handle pressure, to bounce back after making an error, striking out, falling behind, or suffering an injury, without the ability to focus on what’s important and to block out everything else, you will never win at anything.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus….”

Each day, before I encounter someone, my neighbor, a co-worker or a stranger, before I face any obstacle or make any decision, I try to get my head together. And as a Christian, I do that keeping my mind on the words and works of Jesus: “Love everybody, including your enemies.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Feed the hungry.” “Do not judge.” “Forgive those who have wronged you.” “Remember, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”

  1. Be Willing to Sacrifice

Many a game have been won with a well executed bunt or a sacrifice fly. This principle is the very heart of the of the Christian faith. This coming weekend, Americans will pause to remember those who have sacrificed their lives defending their country and freedom around the world. Jesus once said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus says that if we are not willing to sacrifice in this life for the sake of others, we will certainly lose our lives. 

  1. Someone Is Depending on You to Get Them Home

Although they might be able to steal home, it is much easier to score if someone has an RBI.

American Journalist George Will once wrote:

Baseball is a sport that thrives on personal accountability. Every day, fans, sports executives and ball players alike can check the box scores to determine how well certain players performed in the previous game. Whether a player struck out three times or went 5-for-5 with a pair of home runs, the information is easy to access and provides people with the numbers necessary to formulate their own assessments about a particular player or team.

Imagine what type of country we would be if everyday America’s doctors and teachers, lawyers and preachers, firefighters and police officers, every business owner and every worker, says Will, had to “read in the morning’s newspaper a box score measuring the caliber of their previous day’s work.”

  1. Play the Game, Not the Clock

One thing that is unique to baseball is that it is played without a clock.

Just as we have no idea how long a baseball game might last, none of us know how many years we have on this earth. Therefore, life is not so much about how long we live, as it is how we live.

In his Pulitzer-Prize-Winning musical, Rent, author Jonathan Larson wrote the following words:

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred moments so dear,

Five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure—measure a year?

In daylights—in sunsets

In midnights—in cups of coffee

In inches—in miles

In laughter—in strife.

In five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure a year of life?

How about love?  How about love?

How about love? Measure in love.

Seasons of love.  Seasons of love.

When it is all said and done, none of us can control the number of days we will have on this earth. No one knows how many minutes or even how many innings will be played. We can, however, control the love that we offer to others. And in the end, others will truly know what kind of life we lived.

Yes, the truth is, all you really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, you learned playing baseball.

The First Easter Word

peace John 20:1-10, 19-21 NRSV

It is 34 degrees. Feels like 24. And it is snowing! What in the world are you doing here this morning? Why are you here so early? Do you have any idea what time it is? What is it that compelled you to set your alarm clocks before 6am, so you could get up, get dressed and drive to this place this morning?

What are you looking for here this morning? What are you hoping to find? What are you expecting to see? What do you want to hear? What is it that you need, early on this rather cool Easter Sunday morning?

Well, preacher, isn’t it obvious? We have been living in some difficult days, to say the least! We know it has only been a short time, but it seems like forever since we felt like waving palm branches, dancing in the streets, and shouting, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So much has happened to us since we last felt like dancing, since we felt like celebrating anything.  We’ve endured so much, suffered so much, lost so much.

And as grief, anguish and despair consumes us these days, so does the guilt. We have made so many mistakes in life. We have disappointed so many people. We look in the mirror each morning and a betrayer and a denier looks back at us.

And not only have we disappointed many, so many have also disappointed us. We have deeply hurt by those claiming to be religious. We have been terribly wounded by those claiming to be friends, and we have been painfully rejected by those claiming to be family.

We feel forsaken: forsaken by others and even, at times, forsaken by God. And because of that, we are anxious, agitated and afraid.

So, preacher, you know what we want. You know why we are here. We are here to hear that first Easter Word.

We are here to listen to the Risen Christ as he returns to his disciples from the grave, to the very ones who betrayed, denied and abandoned him, to the very ones who had been devastated by the religious establishment, to the very ones who were so anxious, agitated and afraid that they were cowering together in an upper room behind locked doors.

We are here early this morning to hear Jesus pronounce that first Easter word, that word that we long to hear these days more than any other word: “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

That is why we are here! To hear that first Easter word from our Savior and Lord—the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels:  “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!” –and the last word that came from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We deniers and betrayers, we who suffer and grieve, we who are so very anxious, set our clocks early this morning so we could hear God say to us once again: “PEACE.”

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. My love for you has no end. My love for you never fails. My love does not keep an account of wrongdoing saying I love the sinner but hate the sin. It is without reservations, without conditions. My love offers a grace that is greater than all sin and a peace that surpasses understanding. Peace be with you, for you are my sons. You are my daughters. I have always loved you. I still love you. And I will love you forever. I will forgive you always.

I am making all things new. Fear not, for I am working all things together for the good. I am the resurrection and the life, and because I live you will also live. Peace be with you.

“PEACE.”  This is why you are here. This is why we are all here this morning. We have gotten up early, and we have come to church to hear that first Easter word, a word that we desperately need to hear.

And, just as we need to hear it, so do all of those, who for whatever reason, are not here this morning. It is the word that every human living in this fragmented world needs to hear from the church, and it always needs to be the very first word that they hear from church.

For as soon as Jesus pronounces that word, he says, “As the Father as sent me, so I send you.” We have been commissioned by none other than the risen Christ to share this word with others.

However, sadly, even after nearly 2000 Easters, churches all over this world have ignored this commissioning. And tragically, the very first words that many hear from the church are words that denote the exact opposite of peace.

The first words they hear from many in the church are words of judgment and condemnation. They hear loud, angry, hate-filled rants and protests. They hear words judging them as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they are condemned by those who justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that was used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination.

They may hear reserved words of welcome to come in and sit on a pew, but they clearly get the message right away that they are not to expect to truly become a part of the church. They are not to expect to be able to use their gifts to serve with and alongside those who have been deemed worthy for service.

The sad truth is that there are many people in this world, people in our town who are anxious, agitated and afraid. Just like us, they oftentimes feel God-forsaken. It has been forever since they have felt like dancing in the streets and waving palm branches. They have been deeply hurt by people claiming to be religious, terribly wounded by those claiming to be friends, and painfully rejected by those claiming to be family. Just like us, they look in the mirror and see only guilt and shame.

And just like us, they are yearning for the same word for which we all yearn, that very first word of Easter: PEACE.

They hunger and thirst for the same peace that caused us to set our clocks way too early this morning. And they hunger and thirst for a community of people in our world who have the audacity to truly live as followers of Christ who take the commission of their Risen Christ seriously to share this peace with all people. They are thirsting for a church that seeks to be, not an institution or club of moral and devout people with right religion, right beliefs, right color and right lifestyles, but a church that seeks to be the living embodiment of Christ in this world, serving, loving, accepting and embracing the poor, the lost, the broken, the fearful, the grieving, those riddled with guilt and shame, and those whom society has rejected as outcasts, offering them the unlimited hope, unfettered grace and unreserved love that is in that first beautiful first Easter word, PEACE.

So, let me ask you again. What in the world are you doing here this morning? Why are you here?  I hope you have come to hear the first Easter word. And I hope you have heard it: PEACE. Your sins are forgiven. You are loved. You are accepted. You are enveloped with an amazing grace.

But I also hope you are here to receive this word so you can take it from this place to share it with all people, especially with those in our world who need it the most.

And now, may the PEACE of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ be with us all, now and forevermore.