Needy

(Message given on June 18, 2017 at Newberg Friends Church)

  As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’
He called out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
‘Lord, I want to see,’ he replied.
Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.

19  Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.’ (Luke 18:35-19:10, TNIV)

I noticed something in the book of Luke that I have never noticed before. 

I think I can blame Stephen Langton, former archbishop of Canterbury, for me not noticing until now. Carolyn read two stories from the book of Luke earlier, the blind man by the side of the road and Zacchaeus the tax collector. The blind man comes at the end of chapter 18, and Zacchaeus comes at the beginning of chapter 19, and it’s that big chapter divider that I blame for not putting these two stories together before…and that’s why I blame Stephen Langton.

In AD 1227, Langton is the one who divided the bible into the chapter divisions we use today, to make finding things easier. So because of this archbishop who lived 800 years ago, I’ve always seen this big “19” that’s made my mind separate the blind man and Zacchaeus.

But of course when Luke was writing the gospel, he was writing one story. He was intentionally crafting together the things he knew about the life of Jesus, crafting them together in themes that make important points, as the Holy Spirit inspired the writing. And what I noticed that was new to me was the connection, the similarity between these two moments in Jesus’ life.

These two men needed Jesus so much that they broke through every social barrier to get what they needed.

They let themselves be needy, breaking decorum in order to connect with Jesus. The crowds actively try to squelch the blind man, but he just yells louder. Zacchaeus knows his limitations, knows he won’t be able to see Jesus, and he flaunts all social norms to run ahead and climb a tree to be able to see Jesus.

This bold, even desperate display of neediness is not something that is easy for us…for me.

There have been plenty of times I’ve talked about playing baseball, but one thing you don’t hear me talk very much about is my one year as a football player.

Let me rephrase that. I don’t think I can claim to be a football player. I think I should say “the year I tried to play football.”

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That’s me, over there circled on the right.

It was my sophomore year in high school, and the reason I’m not in uniform here in the team picture is that I was already out for the season with an injured back. I was 5’ 9” and maaaayyyyybeeeeee 135 pounds…you know, the perfect specimen of a football build.

I had never played organized football up until this point in my life, but, you know, I’d watched it on TV so what more do you need?  My best friend on the baseball team was a wide receiver, and so I joined him with the receivers, and occasionally played defensive back. Actually it’s more accurate to say everything I played was very occasional, as I was like 3rd or 4th string and rarely got in the game.

So since I never played before this year, I had a huge learning curve to figure out the terminology for the play book, where to run routes on the field, etc. All that I (sort of) figured out were the passing plays as a receiver; I didn’t know anything about the way running plays worked, the way the numbers and letters told which hole the running back ran through and stuff like that.

Here was the problem. The JV football coach was Mr. Morishita, and I’d had him for a special individual science class in 8th grade. He thought of me as a smart guy because of that experience, and that was his gigantic mistake…because I was NOT football smart.

Near the end of the first half of one of the games, he decided to put me in the game for one play. BUT–since he had this false impression of me, he didn’t just send me into the game–he decided to send in the next play to the quarterback with me.

And of course…he called a running play. The ones I didn’t even understand the terminology for.

I remember the feeling of utter panic building in my stomach. Relax, I told myself, relax: just memorize whatever he says phonetically. You can do this. He’s gonna say it, you repeat it in your head for the few seconds it takes to run out to the quarterback to tell him the play. Just relax.

The first part of our “code” for plays was either split black or split red…it told us what the formation was, what side the play was going to, right or left. So he goes, “Split Red, blah-blah-blah-bloggidy-blah”, and I start running out to the quarterback repeating it phonetically in my head while sweat is pouring down my forehead. And I’m ten yards away from the coach and he yells out, “Koskela, wait! Split black, split black.”

And it was all gone. Poof. Nothing in my head at all. No idea what to say after Split black. I got to the quarterback, and go “Split black seven H 14” or something ridiculous, and he just rolls his eyes at me and goes “That makes no sense at all” and he has to call a time out.

Coach comes out to the field, mad and totally confused why a time out got wasted. Quarterback of course rightly throws me under the bus, and Coach starts yelling, “You can’t even bring a play out to the field? Why in the world didn’t you just say you don’t know what you’re doing?”

Why indeed! Why didn’t I just say: “Not comfortable bringing the play in, coach”. There were like three of us going in at once, it would have been no problem. Why didn’t I just say, when he changed the formation: “What was the play again?” Why didn’t I just admit I was out of my league, admit I didn’t have a clue?

Because we all hate doing that!! 

We’d much rather fake our way through and hope things work out…and so many times it crashes and burns like it did for me on the football field. I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of the coach and my friends by saying I didn’t want to take the play out to the field, so instead I made a much LARGER fool of myself by messing everything up for the team.

You’ve probably got stories like this by the dozen. I know I do. I remember being 25 years old and in my first week on the job as children’s pastor here. My desk was over in what we now call Barclay C, and I was sitting at the desk absolutely paralyzed. I knew there were all kinds of things to do…but I had absolutely no idea what those things were. And I didn’t ask anybody. I just sat there paralyzed so I wouldn’t look incompetent.

Ironic. Because I didn’t want to LOOK incompetent, I actually WAS incompetent.

We do this with bigger needs, too. We don’t admit our financial struggles to people who would be willing to help. We don’t admit the way substances are impeding us from doing our jobs because we don’t want people to judge us. We don’t say we need help parenting a high schooler, or help figuring out our taxes, or help trying to do the right ethical thing at work when there is pressure to do otherwise.

As with so many things that are important in our life with God, over the years I’ve discovered what is true…and then slid back away from what I know to be true.

Or maybe it’s more like there are more and more layers to acknowledging our need, to being willing to be vulnerable and ask for help. College was this huge time of learning to take off the mask of having it all together and being willing to be vulnerable about the things I didn’t know, or things I didn’t have together, or things that I needed help with. But like I said, years later there I am sitting at my desk in my first week on the job, not knowing what to do and afraid to tell anyone I needed help.

Six years after my first week as a children’s pastor, I was interviewing at Boise Friends Church for their senior pastor position, and that was one of those times where I remembered the truth of being honest about what I didn’t know. Part of what made it easy to do that, I think, was that I really wasn’t that sure I wanted to move to Boise and take on that responsibility. And I didn’t know those people at all, so the pressure of looking needy or like I didn’t have it together wasn’t that big of a deal.

In the interview, I remember answering a lot of questions with: “I don’t know. I haven’t been a senior pastor before. I’m not sure how I would handle that.” And it didn’t kill me to admit I didn’t know everything! In fact, I remember that was one of the things they told me later helped them trust me: I was willing to admit when I didn’t know something.

But of course these things cycle. 

When I came back here to NFC 15 years ago as a 34 year old, it wasn’t hard to admit my needs, wasn’t hard to admit I needed help. Everybody knew it! I spent the first year with a mentor pastor. The elders did a great job helping me to learn. And then, over time, things got easier. I gained experience that gave me confidence. It got a little more difficult again to admit when I needed help, when I was overloaded, when I was needy.

One of the gifts of the difficulty of the last few years is that I have once again been so completely over my head that dependence on God has not only been needed and easy…it has been absolutely essential for survival. Like the blind beggar, the shouts of people to act respectably or pull it together don’t stop me from crying out to God.

Like Zacchaeus, I’ve had all kinds of things and people in between me and Jesus, and I have had absolutely no problem doing the equivalent of running ahead of the crowd, swallowing my pride, and climbing a tree so I could see Jesus unimpeded.

It’s made me think of the ways being in the church can add challenging layers to our natural human resistance to admitting our need. As much as we talk in the church about the fact that it is God’s grace that we rely on…we send mixed messages.

For instance, everyone in church culture seems to celebrate someone’s initial openness about their struggles or sins or failures…we celebrate how that’s led to someone accepting forgiveness from Jesus. But then we expect changed lives. We expect good lives to be the result. And this creates a strange cycle where we don’t want to admit when we aren’t acting as God intends, and where we sometimes internally take credit for when we do live well.

Last summer Michelle Akins spoke on the blind beggar, and our tendency in the church to sometimes be like the people telling him to be quiet. She said:

“Called to be the light, to be welcoming and inviting – instead there is this desire to silence the pain or the needs of others. Don’t rock the boat we shout. Be quiet, stop complaining, leave me alone. Leave us alone. Deal with your own problems. We are trying to hear Jesus, and all your racket and neediness makes it really hard for us to focus.”

We sometimes make grace doubly go away.

We don’t give ourselves or others grace for mistakes or failures, leading to hiding our need; and we give ourselves credit for living a good life, thinking we’ve earned it, making us want to try harder rather than admit our need to God.

Church culture can sometimes push us away from the very thing that opens us up to God’s grace and God’s activity in our lives: it can push us away from admitting our need.

This is why the blind beggar and Zacchaeus are such a gift to us! Any shame we might feel from boldly admitting our need is completely overcome by the transformation that comes through Jesus, through grace!

I’ve learned to go ahead and cry out…Jesus, have mercy on me! I’ve learned to make asking for help my first response rather than a last resort. I’ve learned to be bold and tell Jesus what I want.

I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that I can tell the story of the last 8 months of my life in 8 verses, nor that the story ends with Jesus giving me exactly what I said I wanted, like with the blind beggar.

But I will stand up here and say this.

God is so tangibly close, even with all the loose ends in my life. Discernment for others and prayers for others have never been so vividly clear and so obviously guided by God’s Spirit, with things outside of my own wisdom. My neediness and bold asking has opened up new ways for me to see the goodness of God!

So I commend this way of life to you! Reject the false idea that after you’ve started following Jesus, you can’t be honest about struggle or need. Push through whatever keeps you from letting down, being vulnerable, crying out in need. Push through embarrassment and inhibitions and the “what will people think?”

Climb a figurative tree to see Jesus! Cry out for mercy, no matter how much pressure you get that you should have your life together, that you should be keeping it together better.

Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost, and I’m here to give witness that this promise makes admitting my lostness completely worth it! May you find that to be true for you, too.

Perseverance, Character, and Hope

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 11, 2017)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5, TNIV)

I’ve had the great joy of being in Oxford two times in my life.

Growing up reading C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, Oxford has always been a place of wonder in my imagination. As early as 1096 teaching was occurring in Oxford, accelerating rapidly in 1167 when King Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Tensions erupted in the 13th century between those who lived in the town of Oxford and the students who came to study, actual fighting and killing between “town and gown”. For students’ protection, residence halls were quickly built that then evolved into the separate colleges which still make up the entirety of Oxford University today, colleges with walls around quadrangles, enclaves of safety.

I had read that, but when you are actually there and walk cobblestone streets with walls keeping you from the towering spires and stained glass that you can only glimpse from the outside, you realize the separation and seclusion between everyday life and the world of academia. You realize the wonder of the libraries and learning…well, ok, I realize that isn’t a “wonder” for everyone, but it is for me…you realize normal regular old you is walled off from so much.

The first time I was in Oxford was with our whole family, on the amazing trip to Europe we got to take as part of my sabbatical four years ago. Like many things on that trip, we got to see it, but our time was so short we didn’t really get to do it justice. On our way from London to York, we spent a couple of hours walking around Oxford. We hadn’t done any planning ahead of time, hadn’t made any arrangements, so we just had to do the best we could.

On the one hand, I was in heaven realizing I was actually there were Lewis and Tolkien and so many had lived and learned. But it really was kind of a pathetic visit. We walked along the streets, I got excited about things like the Oxford Press bookstore.

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One of the colleges was open for tours, so we walked through it…but most of the place wasn’t accessible to us.

I remember at one point I left my family and ran across the street, because I saw one of the really cool looking colleges. The sign told me it was Queen’s College, but the access was blocked. I remember I felt so sneaky and daring when I darted in the entrance, hung by the side, and leaned my phone over the rope and took a picture of the courtyard!

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My second visit could not have been more different, because when I visited the second time, I was visiting our daughter Natalie, who was an admitted student of Oxford on a semester abroad.

She was my access to joys and sights unimaginable! Her student body card got us in everywhere. Because she was in, whenever I was with her, I had access too. That forbidden courtyard in Queen’s college that I snuck a picture of? This time, we just walked right in.

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And not just the courtyard! We could go in everywhere, including the beautiful chapel.

She got me in the Bodelian Library;

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We ate in the Christ Church dining hall, where William Penn and John Locke and John and Charles Wesley all ate as students.

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But most wondrous of all was when we were invited into the private library at Christ Church College, the college within Oxford University that Natalie was assigned to. You could not get in this room unless you were a member of Christ Church College. Even if you paid for a tour of Christ Church, you wouldn’t see this room.

To me, it was a room that was heaven on earth. Without the access that Natalie made possible for me, I never would have seen this room, this room where there were first editions of Milton’s Paradise Lost that may have been in that room since it was published in the 1600’s. It is, as they say, who you know that gets you by in life.

I give all that to you as a visual picture to illustrate a faint glimpse of what Paul is trying to convey to us here, of what becomes available to us through Jesus Christ!

“We have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”

Jesus is our access. He is our entry. He is our advocate. Jesus is the one who opens doors for us, who leads us into wondrous places and experiences that our minds cannot imagine!

I love the image Paul uses of grace, of God’s gift to us, as something “in which we now stand”. It’s a space we inhabit. Faith in Jesus brings peace with God, and flings wide the door so that we can walk in with Jesus and inhabit the same space as the God of the Universe!

To move back to the analogy, I love that I had the opportunity to have access to those places in Oxford because of Natalie. But even with that, I just went and gawked there one time and then I left. As a student for a semester, she had a deeper and richer experience. It wasn’t just the beauty of the place she experienced, but the actual teaching and learning and shaping of an education.

Then there are the students who are there all four years, with that much richer of an experience…and then the dons and professors who spend their lives inhabiting those spaces and mutually learning and teaching with students.

Paul is opening our eyes to a true glory we can experience, a true glory we can boast in. Jesus is so much more than our access to get a picture of some amazing heaven! He is a guide, an entry way, into a way of life now and forever that can be lived in grace…where we can stand, we can inhabit the graceful space that is the very presence of God.

No wonder Paul says, “We boast in the hope of glory!” 

For these past few weeks, the lectionary texts keep bringing us back to living in the life and power of the Holy Spirit of God, keep drawing us to see what Jesus and the Spirit can usher into our here and now life. Today’s text reminds us we can experience the very glory of God! The very space of grace! This is where we can stand now and will stand for all eternity, because of what Jesus has done. Clinging to Jesus makes this possible!

And what I love about these verses is the way Paul refuses to let us start thinking all heavenly and pristine and future. He makes it earthy and messy and NOW.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4, TNIV)

This is one of those places in the bible that can cause me to roll my eyes. Come on, Paul, really? Glory in our sufferings? Celebrate our sufferings? What are you trying to pull on us? And if this was a denial that suffering was bad, or if it was some kind of glossing over to find something positive, this wouldn’t be compelling to me.

But instead I see this as an honest acknowledgement that we all experience suffering, and that because of the access to grace we have through Jesus, something positive can be brought out of suffering. Suffering can be redeemed. That, I DO find compelling!

Not only that, but there is no waving of a magic wand here. We co-labor, we struggle with Christ to see this redemption and hope born in us. Suffering doesn’t magically lead to hope because we hold Jesus’ hand. Instead, there is a progression we go through, a progression that implies our cooperation and effort, a progression that isn’t just words on a page, but a progression I have observed in this real, human, gritty world.

When Paul writes that suffering produces perseverance, you and I both know that isn’t always the case.

We can and we sometimes do make very different choices than to persevere in God’s intended direction. Experiencing suffering can lead to many different responses on our part. The most natural is to avoid the suffering, and we avoid in a million ways. We use substances to numb the pain of our suffering; we sometimes stop going where God is leading when the suffering of resistance is too great; we stop taking risks to avoid suffering, settling into safe routines.

But it’s fascinating to me that Paul uses the word “persevere” as the thing that suffering produces. What he clearly intends is not the “natural” result of suffering; Paul is guiding us toward what God’s Spirit desires to produce in us as a result of suffering. God desires, then, for us to persevere in the face of suffering. And that word in this context is profound.

Just as we have access through Jesus to a standing place of grace, Paul is letting us know that in the face of suffering, God’s desire is to keep guiding us. God’s desire is for us to persevere, for us to keep walking hand in hand where Jesus is leading even as we experience difficult and hurtful things. Suffering is not a sign to give up, or something to avoid or numb; it is just another experience of life in which we have the opportunity to “attach” to Jesus and find he gives us access to the strength to persevere, to keep moving in the direction God is leading.

Our choice to keep moving in the direction God is leading even as we experience suffering, combined with the access by faith in Jesus to God’s grace; these together are the means by which we co-labor with God in our transformation. God gives the strength to persevere as we choose to allow even suffering to be a venue in which we stand in God’s grace. Those co-laboring choices are what lead to change and moral development in us, what lead to what Paul calls development of our character.

I don’t mean what I am going to say to be a statement of taking sides; I mean this only as an example of what I have observed up close and personal as I have walked alongside our staff.

I have in my mind so many examples of Elizabeth Sherwood and Steve Fawver, of Michelle Akins and Nolan Staples, choosing in the midst of the difficulty of the last months to keep standing in the grace Christ gives them access to. I have watched them persevere in doing what Christ has asked them to do. With all kinds of reasons to run away or lash out, I have instead watched them draw more deeply from Christ and walk the path ahead of them.

Christ has enabled them to persevere beautifully. I name and honor Christ’s work in them. I thank God for and I celebrate the exemplary character I see in them, character forged by the Holy Spirit…character which brings hope, just as Paul writes! Hope in them…and hope for me as I see Christ in them.

This is good news! And it is practical news. And it is time-tested and people-tested news.

The peace we have with God through Jesus Christ, the access we have to stand in the grace and presence of God in the Holy Spirit…it is real. It is transformative. It is powerful. And it is marked by character and hope and the love of God.

I see it. I celebrate it! Paul’s words here and my observation of Christ’s work in the team and in so many others over so many years encourage and challenge me to live in this myself. To not avoid suffering or let it discourage me or paralyze me or cause me to settle, but rather to let it challenge me to hold even more tightly to the hand of Jesus as he leads.

It challenges me to walk alongside Jesus, to ask for and look for the perseverance that God will bring; perseverance to continue in obedience and faithfulness. I hope for and long for and ask for God to build character and hope in me!

And I celebrate what Paul says: that “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

May God bring perseverance and character and hope to all of us! May we walk where Christ leads into the grace where we can stand and live. And may God’s love pour over us, dwell in us, and overflow to others!

Strong, Firm, and Steadfast

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 4, 2017)

Back in 2002, for the six months before I became lead pastor here, Ron Woodward served as the interim pastor.

I was grateful that he encouraged the church to take an inventory called “Natural Church Development.” Many people from the church answered a series of questions that were designed to measure 8 key characteristics of healthy churches, an assessment that had been tested and verified over time and in many churches.

Natural Church Development used the analogy of a barrel with wooden staves. The theory was, the shortest barrel stave was going to limit how healthy your church was, like in this picture: the shortest one is where the water is going to pour out. So the most efficient way to help your church as a whole was to give attention to the characteristic which was the lowest; improve that, and the whole church would improve.

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For us, “Functional Structures” was our minimum factor, as they called the short stave, for two years running; it guided our attention for quite awhile, with Sherry Macy working on our publications and systems, and it began the thought process which led us to create an administrative pastor position and hire Elizabeth Sherwood.

But the reason I bring it up today doesn’t have anything to do with our minimum factor. Even though Natural Church Development is really explicit about reminding churches not to focus on your actual scores for the different factors, but instead focus on their relationship to each other, on which is the least; even though they told us not to focus on the actual scores, that’s what a whole lot of people did.

One of the first things I did as pastor was meet down in the social hall with a whole bunch of the leaders and committee members of the church as we went over the results of the Natural Church Development survey. Each factor or characteristic was assigned a number between 1 and 100…and NFC’s results were all between 39 and 48.

The numbers said we were an average church.

This did not sit well with people. Many were so convinced that NFC was an exceptional church that there was immediate resistance to the entire Natural Church Development process. Why should we work on the minimum factor if it was so clearly mistaken about what kind of church we are?

It was a little bit funny, to see people’s indignation. But mostly, it was concerning. People were so convinced NFC was a great church, so proud of who we were, that it was causing them to not want to address important areas that were being brought to light.

Over the years, other instances have brought to light that one of our corporate issues is pride. We were the first church in town back in 1878. For decades, we were the largest church in town. We’ve built a beautiful facility and we’ve had people serve and minister in countless ways in this community.

In our best moments, we are conscious of the way God’s Spirit has been the initiator and instigator of all these things. One of the best examples of humility is when we rightly celebrate God’s work through us, when we attribute to God the beautiful, loving, powerful things we do in obedience.

And in our not-really-best moments, we forget that focus on obedience and dependence. We take matters into our own hands, and can then be tempted to see success as “our” work. I’m not saying our work or efforts are always wrong, nor that we shouldn’t celebrate and recognize that part of life with God is the beauty of being co-creators with God. I’m not one who believes in that false dichotomy that human work is always filled with evil and only God brings anything good.

But I bring this up to get us thinking about how to distinguish between humility and pride, issues that are front and center in the part of the bible we are looking at today.

Humility is perhaps best described as a dependence upon God, an orientation of life with God at the center. Humility is perhaps best illustrated in the surrender of our right to decide the direction of our lives, but instead to submit to God’s ends and God’s means.

Humility is the attitude which gives permission for God to do the kind of Spirit-work in our lives that we’ve been talking about the last two weeks; it’s a willingness and trust for God to make us “strong, firm and steadfast”…words that come from 1 Peter 5:10 and are the title of today’s message.

Turn with me to 1 Peter, near the end of the bible. 1 Peter chapter 5, beginning in verse 6.

   Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your fellow believers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6-11, TNIV)

“Humble yourselves” is probably better translated, “Allow yourselves to be humbled.”

In the original Greek, the verb is in the passive voice, and when that occurs in the New Testament it is often called a “Divine passive”, with the assumption that it is God who is the actor and subject, not us. The word humble has as its root “being made level, smoothed down.” But the clear focus of verses 6 and 7, which form one sentence in the original Greek, is not on God bringing us down.

Rather, as we allow ourselves to be humbled, as we allow God to do God’s work in us, God’s activity is to lift us up in due time. We actually do the work of allowing ourselves to be humbled by casting our cares, our worries, our efforts to take care of the things that are stressing us…we actually do the work of humility by letting God shoulder our cares and anxiety. Why is this worth it? Because God cares for us.

God desires to lift us up. God cares for us. The Holy Spirit’s power, as we saw last week, works to make us a space or a vehicle for God to do good work. As Jesus taught, as is taught in so many places in the bible, Peter reminds us that dependence, humility, submission, obedience to God is the way to give God space to do amazing work in our lives.

Last Thursday was the 139th anniversary of the start of our church.

The beginnings of our church is a story I’ve come back to many times in my years here, and it isn’t just the anniversary three days ago that has me thinking about it again. It is the dependence on God, the humility, the willingness to be open to God working in different ways that stands out in the early years of our church.

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William Hobson is the man who came to Oregon from Iowa, looking for a place to start a new settlement of Friends. He came here to the “grubby end” of the Chehalem Valley in 1875, and our church began as Chehalem Monthly Meeting on June 1, 1878.

Hobson was what would best be described as a Conservative Friend. In a time where Friends were being greatly impacted by revivals and preachers, Hobson held to the old ways. The meeting he started here was like our open worship time for the whole service. They gathered in silence, and they spoke only when led by the Spirit. Hobson and some others were recorded ministers, and offered leadership, but it truly was God in charge: a quiet, reflective, calm faith.

At the 25th anniversary celebration for our church, Doctor Byron Morris shared a memory of when things first began to change. The young people wanted things to be different. They wanted revival meetings! Here’s what he said:

“Some of the younger members thought it was about time to hold a revival meeting…We finally got permission to hold a Bible Meeting at the church…We started in… We prayed and sang and it was so fine we had another one next night…When the fire got to burning that way the older people began coming. Why they did not start in when the balance of us did I am not able to say…Revivals were not so much in evidence in those days. At any rate Uncle “Billy Hobson’ as he was familiarly called came in and apologized like a man…”

Just let that sink in.

Completely different worship! Singing, loud, fire, new ways, new energy. This wasn’t what Hobson had started! This wasn’t Conservative Friends worship! It seems at first the older ones didn’t like it so much that they stayed away.

But led by Hobson, they apologized for their resistance. They recognized the power of Jesus at work. They celebrated, rather than squashed, this new way of worshipping the Lord. And people, new people, began coming to the Lord. Dozens, and dozens more at future revivals. You can read the minutes and you can see the records of new people with lives transformed.

Hobson’s humility…his recognition that God was at work…his lack of pride in insisting things be his way…this, I believe, is exactly the thing that allowed God to move in a huge way through someone else: John Henry Douglas.

douglas

Douglas came to the frontier town of Newberg in July of 1890, and God moved mightily through him. He held meetings every night for a couple of weeks, and the Newberg Graphic wrote a front page article describing the large attendance and the great movement of God to change lives:

“The reverend gentleman has certainly sustained his reputation as an able expounder of the bible. For forty years he has been engaged in his present work and in all his efforts he has been remarkably successful. Combining a pleasing presence, an expressive face, a wonderfully good voice, and a kindly, earnest manner, he commands attention from start to finish. As the result of his work here a large number have been converted.”

Hobson celebrated how God was changing lives through Douglas. He was nearing the end of his life; the following winter, he would fall ill, and he passed away in June of 1891. But rather than be bitter at the changes, rather than being jealous that Douglas and other revival leaders brought more people to faith in Jesus than Hobson ever did himself, Hobson was thankful and grateful that God was planting a beautiful garden of the Lord.

Hobson and the church invited Douglas to come again in 1891, and this time hundreds, literally hundreds of people in a town of less than a thousand, accepted Jesus Christ. The Graphic news story is almost breathless, describing how the meetings stretched to three weeks in length. “Such an awakening Newberg has never had before and the enviable reputation our town has had for morality is being strengthened in a very marked degree.”

Lack of humility could have come in so many ways.

It could have caused Hobson to never show up at the youth revival, or in doing what he could to stop Douglas and his methods. Douglas could have seen hundreds of people have their lives changed by God, and claim that as his own work rather than God’s work…or see Hobson and the earlier ones as failures with their old methods, and take over the church completely.

But each of these men demonstrated the kind of dependence on God, the kind of willing obedience, the kind of humility that allowed God to work through them and to create a unique, growing, vibrant church that sent people all over the Pacific Northwest, creating 30 other churches in the first 25 years of our church’s existence.

When I think of verse 8: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”…when I think of that verse, there are probably lots of examples of what that can look like.

The enemy can push us away from humility toward pride; toward an unwillingness to see God working in a different way than we think, toward thinking we’ve created this and we must protect it.

As we’ve struggled through the last few months, watching much of our church be battered beyond recognition, the enemy can use the opportunity to push us to defend, to take matters into our own hands, to fix and preserve. Or the enemy can cause us to push for the change we think must occur, that is right, that isn’t backward, push us to disregard everyone else in the quest for our vision of what is right.

Pride can come in more than one way: a pride in seeing the stuckness of an old church and breaking all relationship to move forward; or a pride in heritage and how things have always been done. There are many dangers in many directions.

What would it look like to allow ourselves to be humbled?

To cast all our anxiety on God, and depend on the lifting up of God’s mighty hand?

The last months and years have leveled me, humbled me. I’ve become so aware of all I don’t know, of all I cannot do. Passages like this in 1 Peter have pushed me to place myself at the feet of Jesus; to name my inadequacies and cry out for wisdom. To yield my desires and ask to be led in obedience. To name my hurt and ask for healing. To name my wrongs and ask forgiveness.

Just Friday, Elizabeth and I once again prayed in this room. We prayed for our community, casting our anxiety on Christ. Our tears fell on the floor once again as we did our best to yield ourselves to God.

Because it is in humbling ourselves that we give God the opportunity to work. It is in humbling ourselves that we stand firm and resist prideful striving. It is in humbling ourselves that we act out our trust and hope in these words:

“The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Spirit Power

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 28, 2017)

Last week, we looked at the promise of God’s presence with us in the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift which Jesus promised on the last night before he was crucified.

Jesus promised his good friends that they wouldn’t be abandoned; they wouldn’t be left alone, because God’s very presence in the Holy Spirit would surround them. The Holy Spirit guides and teaches and is present through even the most difficult things. All of that, I believe, is true.

What’s interesting is that the bible talks about the Holy Spirit in many places, and in those various places, different qualities are emphasized. As we take all of these in, we realize that the Holy Spirit is more than presence, and Guide, and Teacher, and Advocate. In fact, in the two places we are going to look today, the best word to describe what the Holy Spirit brings is power.

Power. That is intriguing. For me, it immediately begs the question: power for what? Power like gasoline in the tank of my car, to go wherever I want to go? Power to contain or control someone else, like an electric fence to keep cattle in a field? Power to give others access, like the electricity that makes that elevator lift back there go?

There’s something about thinking of God’s power inside me that really grabs me, and it probably grabs a lot of us. It was one of the reasons Jesus had so many people in the crowds that followed him: they saw that he had power, power to heal and confront the people who were oppressing them with spiritual and political power. Power is attractive.

So as we look at these biblical passages, the question in front of us is a key one: power for what? How does the bible describe that the power that the Holy Spirit brings will be used?

Today is called “Ascension Sunday”, the day of worship when we as the church remember when the resurrected Jesus ascended to heaven to take his seat at the right hand of God.

As we will see in the book of Acts, after Jesus was resurrected on the first Easter, he walked the earth for 40 days before returning to heaven. Today is actually 42 days since Easter, but it’s the closest Sunday to the 40 day mark, so this is Ascension Sunday. Turn with me to Acts chapter 1. Listen for Luke’s version (he’s the author of Acts), Luke’s version of the promise of the Holy Spirit.

    In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:1-11, TNIV)

The “power for what?” question is a good one to explore with this passage. One of the things that stands out to me is how the disciples have a mistaken impression that the Holy Spirit is going to bring power for their goals, power for them to do get what they want, power to restore their country to a kingdom, to the glory days.

“Now, Jesus? I mean, wow, you back to life is an amazing sign of God’s power in your life. Now are you going to get rid of these Romans and lead our nation to glory again?” It’s a natural reaction, and we shouldn’t forget that just about every one of us has a similar response. We follow Jesus, and we often unconsciously (or consciously) expect following Jesus should help us get what we want.

God, give me a parking space; help me win this game; give me this job; fix this relationship; heal my friend. It is natural. It isn’t necessarily bad or wrong-in fact, I’ve taken to heart Jesus’ words that we can ask for anything in his name.

But Jesus’ response to the disciples’ natural reaction tells us that while we are allowed to ask for anything, that doesn’t mean we will get it. It doesn’t mean the power of the Holy Spirit is ours to decide how it will be used. Jesus doesn’t chide them in his response, but he does remind them who is making the decisions. Listen again to verse 7.

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

It’s crystal clear: you are not calling the shots, God is. God is the decision maker, and Holy Spirit power is going to be used as God decides. 

I think this is a really important guiding thought for us when we think about the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we wield as we wish. The power of the Holy Spirit is woven together with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The truly amazing thing is that while we are given amazing power, God has plans and direction for that power.

It’s always tricky when we read the bible to know what things are specifically for the people at that time who received the words, and what things can apply sort of universally, to all of us who follow Jesus. I don’t claim to know how to always get that right. But I think in verse 8, there’s a big way the power of the Holy Spirit functions for all of us across time and around the world. Let’s look there again.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

“You will receive power” and “you will be my witnesses.”

I think this is one of those times where there is a causal relationship here; the power of the Holy Spirit is what makes it possible for the disciples…and I believe us, too…the power of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be witnesses.

Witness is a powerful word in the New Testament. It’s got the idea of a court, where you are testifying, you are verifying, you are giving evidence of something that has happened. It’s got the idea of actually being the space or vehicle that brings things out, that makes things known, makes them manifest…the idea that our very lives, our changed lives ARE a witness…our very lives make known and bring out the activity of God and give evidence of what God is doing in our world.

Part of the Holy Spirit power to be a witness…maybe the primary or central or first part…part of the Holy Spirit’s power to be a witness is for God’s power to be at work in our lives, transforming our lives, taking action in our lives. I think about it this way: I’m not subpoenaed or “empowered” to be a witness unless I was present where some action took place. I’m only a witness in court if I was part of whatever the activity in question is.

Part of the Holy Spirit’s power to give testimony, to be a witness, is for our lives to be spaces where God’s activity is taking place. Let me be more blunt with that. I don’t believe we are witnesses who just have some content of beliefs that we spout at people. We’re not like sales people working from a script in order to sell a product. No, the kind of witnesses God creates with the Holy Spirit are the kinds of witnesses whose lives are changed and transformed; that change, that fruit of the Spirit exhibited in these disciples’ lives is then a witness to the world through the disciples’ actions and words.

Which leads to the most exciting thing! You and I are given the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit to be made into people whose actions and words give witness–we testify to the world–about the love, grace, and power of our Creator God!

And when we grasp the excitement of that kind of power, is it any wonder that Jesus speaks so confidently that these kinds of witnesses will spread to the ends of the earth?

Because this isn’t a command, like the Great Commission. This isn’t a burden to put on our to-do list, like we have to get up each morning and literally put the weight of Judea, Samaria and the world on our shoulders as a task for us to go do. This is Jesus saying what GOD is going to do through the power of the Holy Spirit.

You WILL receive power, and you WILL be my witnesses to the ends of the earth! No should, have to, go try and accomplish this. Just a clear indication of the gift of the Spirit’s power and the goal of what God is doing by giving it. God IS directing the power of the Holy Spirit. God WILL be made known all over this planet. And it happens because the power of God’s Holy Spirit is so great, it makes you and me ground zero for God’s loving activity and gives our actions and words the ability to point the whole world to God.

Could this be? THAT much power? And how will it all happen?

To explore these questions, turn with me to the other passage for today, Paul’s familiar prayer for the Ephesians. Turn to Ephesians 1:15-23.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all his people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:15-23, TNIV)

Here is yet another part of the bible with different words used to describe the Holy Spirit. Here in Ephesians, the Spirit is connected to wisdom and revelation. I’ve been drawn to that and even preached about that several times before, so today I want to move to the later section where Paul describes the functions of the Spirit. And that’s where power comes in again, “incomparably great power for us who believe.”

This is one of those sections that challenges us if we ever question whether God really could forgive me, really could use me, really could make me someone in whom others could be encouraged and led to God. The Holy Spirit has incomparably great power! The same power, the same mighty strength God used to raise Jesus from the dead; the same power that proved evil cannot, does not, and will not win! That’s the power at work through the Spirit in you and me who follow Jesus!

In other words…yes, God’s Holy Spirit comes with power to change anyone, to make any life a space where God’s beautiful, loving, justice-seeking activity can be a witness to the world!

That power has already come to rest in the authority of Jesus, who is seated in the place of authority for the universe, an authority and power that no other power or rule can stand against. To answer our questions: “Could this be, that you and I could see God so at work in us that we are witnesses to the world of God’s power?” Yes it could! “THAT much power?” Yes! The same power that turned the deathly horror of Good Friday into the joyous life of Easter is at work in you and me. Yes!

Which leaves the last question: how will it all happen? For that answer, Paul’s last part of the prayer gives direction and points out another way that God lets us know Holy Spirit power is being used. Look again at verses 22 and 23.

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

God uses Holy Spirit power to put Jesus in a place of authority; authority over all creation, but specifically authority to pull together the church, the body of which Christ is the head. God uses Holy Spirit power to turn individual disciples into an organic church.

God’s power constitutes the church. God’s power links us all together in an organic, living way. And one of the keys is that God’s power creates a body out of us precisely in the act of connecting us to Jesus, the head.

It’s beyond obvious to say that we at NFC need this reminder now. 

God’s power makes and creates the church. Only the Holy Spirit’s power can make a church. And the only church the Holy Spirit’s power is making is the one, worldwide body that is intimately connected to Jesus, the authority and guide and head.

We didn’t make Newberg Friends. We won’t make any church. God’s power through Jesus’ death and resurrection, through the Holy Spirit, is what draws us together, fits us together, knits us together and makes us THE CHURCH.

My big “a-ha” was this: I really don’t have to plead to God to be at work in our church in this difficult time. God is already at work, here and everywhere, with resurrection power that puts Jesus at the center and brings all these different parts of the body together in functional interdependence.

God is already at work. With enough power, incomparably great power, to do it. We have choices, we take responsibility for how we are helping or hindering the work of church-making that God is doing. But God has been at work, is at work, and will be at work no matter what!

That’s the hope I need. That’s the hope we need. 

Oh God, open the eyes of our hearts to see your incomparably great power! Bring all things, even all of us squabbling and hurting and confused people, bring all things into right relationship with Jesus; help us find our places in Your body, the church.

Give us, let us receive your Spirit’s power, so that in our individual and corporate lives your activity is easy to be seen and is a witness here in Newberg and to the ends of the earth! Come, Holy Spirit!

Not Orphans

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 21, 2017)

What encouragement might Jesus have for us in this difficult time as a church?

One of today’s verses from the lectionary, from the group of Sunday bible selections that are used by churches around the world, comes from John 14. They are the words of Jesus to his disciples on the night before he was crucified, the night before their world was turned upside down. 

I chose to speak about these verses today, because I think they offer us hope, too. Turn with me to John 14, verse 15. 

‘If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever– the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.’ (TNIV, John 14:15-21)

Aubrey and Elaine and I have watched the first couple of episodes of the new version of Anne of Green Gables that’s produced by Netflix.

(I’ll leave out any comment about comparing it to the other version, as we really don’t need any more tension in our lives, do we?) But I bring it up because one of the things this new version does really well is make you feel how awful and abandoned the experience of being an orphan can be-the pain of not having a home, of being alone and having to fend for yourself.

Jesus knew his time with his disciples was coming to an end. He knew the disciples were going to experience what it was like to be alone, to have to fend for themselves. What we know from the biblical record is that the disciples were afraid and hiding for quite awhile, even after the resurrection. And we know that they also experienced persecution and had to leave Jerusalem and were scattered all over the known world.

What leaps off the page to me is verse 18: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” It leaps off the page for what it doesn’t say, and for what it does say. 

It doesn’t say, “You’ll stay together and have each other and be a community.” It doesn’t say, “I’ll protect you from disappointment and persecution.” It doesn’t say, “Everything’s going to be ok.”

But it does say the disciples will not be abandoned. They won’t be orphaned and left to their own devices. It does say “I will come to you.”

Once again, like a familiar musical theme in a symphony, the promise of hope we have is the presence of God.

God comes to us in our times of distress and struggle. From the garden of Eden through Abraham’s journey to Canaan, from slavery in Egypt through corrupt kings and exile, from an intimate supper with Jesus through the pain of crucifixion…God comes near to us. God’s promise is that we will not be left alone and orphaned, no matter what we go through.

This is what I cling to. This is what we have to offer each other. On the night before Jesus died, he promised that the disciples would not be orphaned, that he would come to them. This is also our hope.

As we look at the whole passage, this of course is the promise of the Holy Spirit of God.

Jesus says he will ask God for another advocate. Just as Jesus has been their defender, their protector, the one who has stood up for them, another advocate like Jesus will be sent. This section is one of the parts of the bible that develops our idea of God as Trinity, because there is such a clear sense that the Holy Spirit whom all can experience is an advocate equivalent to Jesus. Jesus and the Spirit and the Father are all bound together in an eternal relationship of love, an idea hinted at here and explored in detail in chapter 17.

It’s there in verse 20, where it says: “You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Our hope is that God comes to us and doesn’t leave us orphaned…and not only that, but because of Jesus we are actually drawn into that eternal relationship of love that IS God: Father, Son, and Spirit. 

This kind of presence of God in our lives, this kind of union with the Godhead…it’s such a deep love that it pulls us, draws us, compels us to obedience and truth. This active participation in God’s love empowers us to keep God’s commands, to live in line with God and with truth. It’s all woven in here so beautifully, with verses 15 and 21 like bookends to this section. 

God’s presence with us; living in love and truth and obedience; being “in” Jesus and therefore “in” God is all beautifully and organically pulled together; love and union with God and obedience and truth. This, also, is our hope and our goal.

How does God’s presence, how does the gift of the Holy Spirit help us to be obedient to Jesus and keep his commands?

One legitimate way to read these verses is that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth helps us to keep Jesus’ commands. And there are so many expressions we have that speak about this idea. People talk about their conscience nagging them to do something or to make something right. Quakers talk about allowing our lives to be exposed by the Light of Christ.

The Psalms offer a prayer for God to search and know my heart, and see if there be any wicked way in me. The gift of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, God’s presence in our lives brings awareness and conviction for the ways we are not being obedient to God…and I believe also actually loves through us, empowers us with God’s life and power. 

Sometimes that awareness and conviction of how we are not keeping God’s commands comes loud and clear even with a simple thing. I was talking with Elizabeth at the office this week, and I said something, something that she actually received well. But it wasn’t long at all before I felt the Spirit’s nudge that something was wrong in what I’d said. It wasn’t in the content, and it wasn’t in the effect. Instead, it was what had prompted me to say it. 

What I had said had come out of my own envy; it had come from a wrong motivation. I knew what the Spirit was asking me to do, so I went and confessed it to her and apologized. It wasn’t a big deal at all, but it’s a recent example of how the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s presence, can challenge me and help me to see when I’ve not been obedient. My experience has been that it takes some effort and intention on my part to pay attention to those nudges. And it’s also been my experience that acting on them, like going right away to apologize this week…acting on these nudges helps me better listen and act the next time.

Some of you might remember Stan Thornburg.

He was pastor at North Valley Friends and other churches in our Yearly Meeting, the son of Hubert and Vivian Thornburg. Almost 20 years ago I went to a conference in Seattle, and I stayed with Stan for a few nights. I vividly remember one conversation with him, because it was about this very thing: how do we human beings pay attention to and accept this amazing gift of the Holy Spirit?

We got talking about obedience to God. Stan was a bit of a rebel-he often broke the rules, he caused grief for his parents and for teachers and for others who wanted him to keep in line. But what I discovered is that Stan took obedience to the Holy Spirit extremely seriously. In fact, he worked at it more diligently than most people I’ve ever known.

“How do you hear God?” I remember asking. “How do you know it’s really the Holy Spirit, and not just your own thoughts?” When he was in his 20’s, he came to a crisis point where he realized he either needed to take faith in God seriously, or he was going to reject the whole thing. And he had that exact question: “How do we really know it’s God and not just our own thoughts?”

So he decided to experiment. Every day, he got up and prayed and asked God to speak to him. He literally wrote down everything that came to his mind in the silence after that. At the end of the day, he would also write down every thought he could remember from the day that seemed like it was God. He emphasized to me: EV. ERY. THING. Tiny things. Big things. Crazy things. Stupid things. He wrote it all down, trying to capture everything that he thought was potentially God saying something to him.

At least once a week, he would read through everything he had written. He’d keep track of what things seemed to come true or be proved right, or that proved to be not true. If it was something he was supposed to do, but he hadn’t done it, then he would use the reminder of reading it again to commit to doing it.

He did this diligently every day for six months: ask God to speak and lead, write down everything he thought, and then read it and test it and notice which seemed to actually happen or bring good fruit in his life. This rigorous intentionality, this daily experiment had an amazing result. He knew it was time to stop the experiment because it got redundant: he knew as soon as he wrote something down whether it was his own thought or something from God, because the experiment had helped him recognize the Spirit’s nudge.

The other thing he said that really stood out to me is that while the experiment of writing and checking was obviously helpful, he thought that what was more helpful was committing himself to do the things he thought the Spirit was asking him to do. Even if it was a risk or a stretch or embarrassing to try. He said it was in the listening and doing, the listening and the obedience, that the nudges of the Holy Spirit became clear.

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever-the Spirit of Truth.” The Holy Spirit helps us, guides us to live in obedience.

When I examine my own life, what I see is this: the best and most profound changes in me have come when I make every effort to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit, the inner teacher.

This Spirit of Truth has often challenged me and convicted me deeply…but it is a conviction that does not bring shame, that does not paralyze me, that doesn’t make me feel my worth has lessened. My experience of the Spirit of Truth is that it convicts me of specific actions rather than vague condemnation, that conviction always comes with a tangible next step to take. Shame tends to overwhelm me and paralyze me that nothing can be done.

This Spirit of Truth is often at work in me in a different way than conviction as well. Sometimes what this Advocate does in me is speak truth to me about my worth as a child of God. This, too, is powerful truth work that God’s Spirit does, and it is a mighty gift. In a world where we receive so many worth-killing messages based on our appearance or our acceptability to some person or group, the Spirit of Truth is there whispering that we ARE worthy, we HAVE value because we are created by God!

In a world where we can feel alone, rejected, confused, oppressed…Jesus’ death and resurrection made possible the gift of God’s presence in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit of truth who will not leave us as orphans! The Holy Spirit who has and will come to us.

Thanks be to God.

Rock of Refuge

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church, April 30, 2017)

I’ve been reading and praying the Psalms often lately.

I’m grateful for these prayers, songs, poems… these expressions of worship that have been used by faith communities for thousands of years. They model what I need. They model what we all need. The Psalms take the highs and lows of life, they take all the good and bad experiences of life and show us how to direct it all towards God. Sometimes it’s directed in praise, sometimes in begging for relief, sometimes in lament…and sometimes with a desire for God to make things right by punishing someone else.

I’ve had this strange experience several times, the experience of reading a Psalm and having it do two things. It will absolutely speak to my condition. It will give voice to my ripped up soul in powerful ways, ways that make me say “me too!” (that’s a footnote reference to Sara Kelm and the words she spoke here years ago.)

But also in that same Psalm, there can be an attitude that actually doesn’t help me to live as Jesus intends me to live. Many of the Psalms, in the very act of being a true expression of the Psalmist’s feelings, call down vengeance on those who oppose the Psalmist.

The Psalms are far more honest and true to the full range of human expression than we often allow ourselves to be in “good Christian circles”. And in that honesty, in forcing myself to look at my own vindictiveness, I’m reminded of how radical Jesus’ words to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to go love the Samaritan and the tax collector and the Roman oppressor…I’m reminded how radical Jesus’ words truly are.

But I read the Psalms, and I follow Jesus, because I want both.

I want a life that is honest. Raw. Real. I want a life that is integrated, which is related to the root of the word “integrity”. I want to follow the honesty of the Psalms. And I also want to follow the direction of the Psalms, the direction that is always toward God and for God and asking God for help and guidance.

Without both of those things…without facing the reality of ourselves and our circumstances, and without bringing all of who we are to God…without both of those things, there are potholes and train wrecks ahead of us. God truly is our refuge! Our hope!

And with all my heart I believe this is what we all need. We all need a life oriented around and directed toward and guided by God’s righteousness and hope. For those of us with breaking hearts in this time of our church, we are very aware of that need.

But I firmly believe it has always been and always will be our need. We were created by this God, this God to whom the Psalms bring all the rawness of humanity. Our hope is found in God, our refuge and strength.

Today Psalm 71 is going to guide our worship.

Turn with me to Psalm 71. This is a prayer to God; a prayer of praise, a prayer for deliverance, a prayer for many things. May we allow these words to guide us to our own honest encounter with God, even this very morning.

In you, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge,
to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress. [Psalm 71:1-3, TNIV]

What does a refuge, a safe place, a safe presence look and feel like for you?

I remember as a kid that there were several things that would help me to feel safe. When I was in third grade, we got a big collie who was named for our 12th president, Zachary Taylor. I have no idea why the people we got him from named him that, and I was a little annoyed that I didn’t get to give him a name. But I spent countless hours sitting in our backyard with my back to a big tree and my arm around Zach. It was a refuge, a safe presence.

Another safety thing for me is that I think I have the opposite of claustrophobia…rather than fear small spaces, I love them! In elementary school my friend Bobby had the most awesome space in his room; you opened this little door in the wall, and there was a tiny space about 4 feet high, just a tiny little room built into his bedroom wall and underneath the stairs outside his room. I vividly remember when his dog had puppies; cuddly, eyes-not-yet-open puppies who lived in that tiny room. Being in there with puppies in your lap was the refuge of all refuges! (That’s TWO dog references! I blame the Hamptons and all those pictures of their new puppy Wrigley.)

Take a moment and think about the places and people that are a refuge, a safe place for you. [PAUSE]

Refuge in the bible has several deep and rich meanings, all of them rooted in the presence of God.

God’s protection and guidance were seen by the Israelites in the wilderness as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud would stop and descend on the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, God’s presence made it a true sanctuary; a safe place of holy awe.

There are examples in the bible of people who were in danger of being hurt or killed by others, and they would run to the tabernacle or temple to find safety in God’s presence, literal safety and sanctuary from attack. Guilty people could find safety at the tabernacle in God’s presence. There were cities of refuge, safe places where people who had accidentally killed another person could find safety from vengeance until their trial.

These places of refuge, of sanctuary, of safety were safe because God’s presence made them safe. And all through the Psalms, we find this beautiful idea of a physical refuge or sanctuary morphing into the spiritual reality that God’s very presence is a safe refuge to which we can cling, no matter where we are or what our circumstances.

Psalm 71 is a great example of this. “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge…” “Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go…” In the devotional prayers of the Psalms, we see something emerging that today we too often take for granted: there is nothing that can happen, nowhere we can go, nothing that can stop us from being in the living presence of God as a refuge.

The Psalmists, and people of faith throughout the generations, call out to us to join them in the refuge of God’s presence. When things are uncertain, take refuge in God’s presence. When we feel isolated, alone, rejected…God desires to be our rock of refuge. When we are betrayed, wounded, grieving: take refuge in God’s presence!

I’m thinking right now of all the places that have been mini-sanctuaries, mini-refuges in the last few months.

One of the chairs in my office. Kneeling on the floor next to our bed. My car. Not because of their physical space, but because of the living presence of God, God who speaks truth and heals shame.

I’m also thinking of a prayer image that God has given me for some of my friends and for my family as I have prayed for them in the last few months. I’ve prayed for a sort of “Spirit bubble” around people. I picture it in my mind, a bubble of refuge and safety, a tangible surrounding of God’s presence as they go through their day. It’s like a moving refuge in which they breathe and live in the presence of God’s Spirit, and I’ve loved praying the truth that wherever they are and whatever circumstances they go through, they are safe in God’s presence.

In this next section of Psalm 71, listen for the back and forth, the movement several times between honest, raw fear, and declarations of trust and praise. 

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.
For you have been my hope, Sovereign LORD,
my confidence since my youth.
From birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
I will ever praise you.
I have become like a portent to many,
but you are my strong refuge.
My mouth is filled with your praise,
declaring your splendor all day long.
Do not cast me away when I am old;
do not forsake me when my strength is gone.
For my enemies speak against me;
those who wait to kill me conspire together.
They say, ‘God has forsaken him;
pursue him and seize him,
for no one will rescue him.’
Do not be far from me, my God;
come quickly, God, to help me. [Psalm 71:4-12, TNIV]

Wicked and evil people grasp me… but my hope is in God. I’ve become a portent, an omen, an ominous sign to many… but God you are my strong refuge.

Back and forth, back and forth between the honest fear and anger and sense of attack, toward praise and trust and hope in God. This is the power and beauty of the Psalms. There isn’t any sugarcoating or denying of pain or evil. It’s named, but it is named and it is brought to God in trust and in longing for safety and healing.

But we also see the dark side when the raw honesty leads to vindictiveness, toward desire for revenge.

May my accusers perish in shame;
may those who want to harm me
be covered with scorn and disgrace. [Psalm 71:13, TNIV]

My tongue will tell of your righteous acts
all day long,
for those who wanted to harm me
have been put to shame and confusion. [Psalm 71:24, TNIV]

These are the types of verses I meant when I said that sometimes reading the Psalms seems to push me away from the path Jesus asks us to walk. My own way of working through this…you can feel free to disagree and find your own way…my own way is to think that in God’s graciousness we can honestly pray anything, even from our darkest places.

But just because these prayers for accusers to perish in shame and be covered with scorn and disgrace are in the bible, I do not think that means it is where we should stay, or something we should expect that God will do. Everything that Jesus taught and did, right through Gethsemane and Good Friday, show us God’s way is not to wish harm and shame on those we see as against us.

I even imagine the Psalmist, entering the refuge that is the presence of God, entering with all the honest and raw pain…I imagine the Psalmist soothed, healed, bathed and changed by God’s saving presence. As the Psalmist chooses to voice praise, chooses to find refuge in God, chooses to speak of God’s saving acts…I imagine God doing a work that swallows up and removes that desire for the accuser to suffer.

I even imagine God doing that in you and me.

I think the reality is, we need the raw honesty of naming our desire for others to suffer like we are suffering…we need to name it as part of the process needed for us to find refuge and transformation in God’s presence.

I spent too much of my life trying to snuff out and deny my negative feelings, because they didn’t look like Jesus. I’ve tried more often in the last decade to bring all of who I am to God. Not because I want to stay in that yuck. No, I work to bring all of the dark sides of me to God because I want my woundedness and my vindictiveness and my sinful desires to find healing in the safety of the refuge of God’s presence.

I want to find God as a transforming refuge wherever I am, so that God’s presence and power will work in and through me. I don’t want a refuge that removes me from all others, that takes me out of community and life. I want God’s refuge around me to shape me, so that God’s power can be seen like a treasure through the cracks in my clay life.

This also is the power of Psalm 71: the way the Psalmist not only finds refuge in God, but proclaims and shouts God’s good and saving work! Listen to this beautiful example, this example of sharing with others the power of God through God’s tangible acts on our behalf!

My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds,
of your saving acts all day long–
though I know not how to relate them all.
I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign LORD;
I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone.
Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come. [Psalm 71:15-18, TNIV]

I see so much challenge in this!

It is not pithy, wise spiritual insights you and I are to proclaim, but God’s saving activity in our lives. It is not doctrine that our mouths are to tell, but God’s POWER…God’s power that shows in mighty acts of safety and salvation, God’s power that is worth sharing with the next generation!

And then there is honest acknowledgement of pain right alongside hope again.

Though you have made me see troubles,
many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up. [Psalm 71:20, TNIV]

I say with utter sincerity and joy and hope: I see the goodness of God in the land of the living. 

I see God’s saving acts as I walk alongside people and hear their love for each other. I see God’s activity in people in this community who are dealing with their own pain and yet are choosing to reach out and love others.

“You HAVE been my hope, Oh Sovereign Lord…my confidence since my youth.” “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you–I, whom you have redeemed.” I take these words from Psalm 71 as my own today.

I will speak and proclaim the goodness of God our refuge, I will join the Psalmist this morning to call us to run to God with all the honesty we can muster…and find refuge in the presence of the Holy One of Israel. We don’t need to do anything special or go anywhere “holy”. Right here, right now, the sanctuary presence of God waits to envelop us with a Spirit bubble of safety.

Right here, right now, the living Jesus Christ… who conquered shame and rejection and sin and death…the living Jesus Christ will draw us in with open arms and listen to all our anger and pain, and not put us to shame. The Spirit probably won’t let us hold on to our vindictiveness, either; but the Spirit will not shame us as God works to transform us to be like Jesus Christ.

Right here, right now in open worship…Go to the living refuge and sanctuary of God. Invite God’s safety and healing, ask for deliverance and forgiveness, and ask for justice, ask for things to be made right. Ask God to show you beyond a shadow of a doubt God’s specific mighty acts and righteous deeds and power, so that you will have your own story to proclaim to the next generation.

Go right now to our God of refuge!

Easter Hope

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 16, 2017)

Several years ago, I read the book “Boys in the Boat”. 

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I already knew the ending, because somebody had told me these University of Washington rowers won Olympic gold in 1936 (sorry if I just ruined it for you). But actually, my point in bringing this up is that I don’t think it WILL ruin it for you. Somehow, the author does an amazing job of building suspense all through the book, and even through the final race…even though I knew what was going to happen.

Today is Easter…and we know the end of that story too. But I love the layers of meaning we can continue to find!

The truth is I love rehearsing things I already know and love. I re-read favorite books and re-watch favorite movies. I read through old track articles, I look at old pictures, because I’m a nostalgic person, like I said last week. To re-immerse myself in the things and people and memories that are important to me is to remind me who I am and what has shaped me. It helps me make sense of today, challenges me to act now in line with the values that have always shaped me.

Whether you are like me or not, perhaps that idea can give a glimpse of why there is value and meaning in looking at the central truth of Christianity, looking at Easter resurrection when Jesus was raised from the dead. To tell the familiar story and to hold it today is to remind us who we are and what has shaped us. It helps us make sense of today, and challenges us to act now in line with the values that have always shaped us.

We already know the end of the story; we began the service together saying “Christ is Risen!” But let’s rehearse, remember, re-enter this central truth. Turn with me to Matthew 28.

  After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.’
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ (Matthew 28:1-10, TNIV)

It’s not going to surprise you, is it, that I went back and read things I said on previous Easters?

11 years ago, I did this whole thing about how in high school, I was voted most spirited boy and was co-president of the pep club and a cheerleader. I would do just about anything to get people fired up about the Clackamas Cavaliers!

But I realized I didn’t want to be president of the Jesus Pep Club. Because you can’t really force or manipulate people into joy or into following Jesus. I said something then that I think still holds truth:

I’ve thought a lot about how wonderfully important it is to have Good Friday AND Easter, both of them, as the center of what we believe as Jesus’ followers. If we only had Easter, the church and its leaders would be stuck with the one and only option of being pep club-type cheerleaders. We’d have to plaster on the smile, and the clapping, and the “head bob”, and yell encouraging cheers to each other no matter what life brought to us.

If we only had Easter, Christianity could become an other worldly, pretend faith that just told everyone “smile, everything’s going to be great.

Easter DOES give us the hope and the promise that everything will be made right. It DOES scream out to a broken world that God is not powerless, God is not silent, God is not impotent. God has the power and the desire to turn our worst experiences into redeemed hope. But Easter comes after Good Friday. And they are impossible to separate from each other.

I still can stand by these words.

But I have a confession.

Reading that message, and even more so some of the other ones, I get the gnawing feeling in my stomach that there have been times I was talking at you. A little removed. A little like I had something to give you all. A little condescending.

I think I see that in re-reading because…because this year, I don’t just want to tell you this stuff. I need this stuff.

I need some Easter in my good Friday. I don’t want to just talk about an empty tomb, or speak words of truth. I need living, breathing, nail-scarred Jesus telling me “Do not be afraid.”

My friend died a few weeks ago. Our family has faced health scares. Dear and close friends have been slogging through more than anyone should have to slog through. We’re all watching long standing friendships and community splinter.

We need Easter. We need living, breathing, nail-scarred Jesus telling us, “Do not be afraid!”

Sometimes when we look at these familiar stories about Jesus, one of us pastor-types will say something like, “Where do you put yourself in the story?”

But the question that is coming to my mind this year just changes one word, but is making a whole heap load of difference to me. The question coming to my mind this year is: “When do you put yourself in the story?”

And I’m drawn to verse 1.

I’m drawn to the “when” when these women, these two Marys, are chilled at dawn, death-spices pungent in their noses, eyes red and cried out, noses rubbed raw from the heaving uncontrollable sobs, because their worlds crashed in on them on Good Friday when they watched their friend and their hope be executed.

The “when” that is in-between time, that time when hope seems absent, when all these women know to do is what they’ve done before: come try and make the best of what’s horrible, come with love and care and spices while they grieve their loss.

It’s the “when” of not-yet. I want to be like these women, these women who haven’t given up trying to find a way to show love and care, who sacrifice by getting up as soon as the law allowed after the Sabbath, to serve Jesus for what they think will be one last time. It’s the “when” when even though it seems Jesus has been proven wrong, you’re still willing to keep serving.

It’s the “when” before God reveals power beyond our thinking, beyond our hoping. [PAUSE]

I also notice that the center of the hope, the center of this first Easter, is Jesus suddenly meeting both Marys.

The center of our hope is Jesus alive! Jesus greets us! And we, too, can cling to him, just as they did. To me, it’s the realization that at both of these “whens” of the story…the cold, dark, hopeless when of the dawn walk to the tomb, or the holy moment clinging to his feet…it’s the realization that in both of the “when’s”, Mary and Mary are doing the same thing. They are doing all they can to go to Jesus.

As Easter people, we can remind each other to come back to the very basic center: be with Jesus! Go to Jesus! Hope in Jesus! That is where our hope is born and where it can be rekindled. As I put myself at Jesus’ feet once again, I turn toward the hope as I expressed it last year:

We are Easter people! The ones who beyond all hoping, beyond all imagining, saw death turned upside down and inside out. We are Easter people, the ones who don’t just learn about a historical figure, but talk and cry and laugh with a risen Lord!

We are Easter people, the ones who believe in the craziest reversals, the ones who have watched faithful, loving sacrifice and submission be vindicated and validated by the greatest show of Godly power in the history of all creation, who believe that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, defeated sin and death and evil power once and forever more when he took a breath in that silent, deathly still tomb.

We remind each other to trust God’s power to bring Easter to our lives.

I want to close today with words from St. Gregory of Naziansus, a saint from the fourth century:

He’s one of the early church people that has captured me over the years, and these words challenge us to connect our lives with Christ. These words refuse to allow us to stay at a distance, but pull us to depend completely on Jesus…and to offer Jesus our lives.

Yesterday, I was crucified with Him;

Today, I am glorified with Him;

Yesterday, I died with Him;

Today I am quickened with Him;

Yesterday, I was buried with Him;

Today, I rise with Him.

But let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us — you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work, or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material things of earth…

[No…]

Let us offer ourselves,

The possession most precious to God, and most fitting; Let us give back the image that is made after the Image; Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honor our Archetype;

Let us know the power of the Mystery,

And for what Christ died.

Let us become like Christ,

Since Christ has become like us.

Let us become God’s for His sake,

Since He for ours became Human.

For the Joy

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 9, 2017)

We all have good days, and we all have bad days.

Sometimes what looks like a good day on the outside, by the circumstances, by what people see…sometimes what looks like a good day is more difficult than might be imagined unless you get the inside story.

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and getting the first century version of a ticker tape parade. It looks like a very good day! The crowds wave palm branches, they spread their cloaks on the road to make it sort of like a red carpet entrance, as they shout words of blessing and praise from Psalm 118.

But Jesus knew, even as he rode in on a donkey as the man of the hour…Jesus knew there was great difficulty coming. He had announced to his best friends what was ahead of him just a little before this grand entrance, on his way up to Jerusalem, the city on the hill. Turn with me to Mark 10:32.

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’ (Mark 10:32-34, TNIV)

Jesus knew what was coming.

And he went anyway. It’s the kind of person I want to be. I want to be obedient to what God has asked of me. I want to hold to God’s call even when positive things like a Palm Sunday type crowd want to sway me in a different direction. I want to hold to God’s call when things get difficult.

Because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not ultimately about getting your best life now, as one best selling book describes the Christian faith. It’s not ultimately about beliefs or practices or activities or growing a church. Ultimately, what Jesus asks of us is to follow him in obedience no matter if that gets us a Palm Sunday crowd or a cross on Golgotha.

If you push back a little earlier in Mark chapter 10, Jesus makes the cost of following him very clear. He’s responding to someone who asks him how to gain eternal life: [10:21] “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The man he’s talking to, as well as all the disciples, are crushed by this news. “Who then can be saved?” his friends ask. Who could possibly have that level of determined obedience that won’t be swayed or distracted by people or things? Jesus gives his answer in verse 27: “With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Whether it’s Palm Sunday or Good Friday for you and me, or anywhere in between…it is God’s call and God’s equipping that direct us and give us strength.

This has always been the difficult way of faith; to respond to God’s call and find God at work in us, faithfully equipping us.

In the book of Hebrews, we read a roll call of some of the most faithful people in Israel’s history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph…Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, Samuel. Turn with me to Hebrews 11, verse 36.

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:36-38, TNIV)

These are famous examples of people who prove that God does make things possible that seem IMpossible to us. And the letter to these Hebrew Christians, these Jews who knew both the famous saints of Israel as well as Jesus Christ…the letter to the Hebrews points us to our way forward.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3, TNIV)

These words are a reminder to me that it isn’t only gritted teeth and resignation to suffering that is the way of faith. Look at those words! Look at the reminder! “For the joy set before him.”

Joy! The joy of mind-blowing redemption, the joy of resurrection when everything you hoped has literally died. Joy!

I’ll be the first one to admit that “joy” is not the first word in my mind when I think about this season for our church. And I think that’s exactly why I was drawn to this text for us today. I will fix my eyes on Jesus. We can fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who knew what was ahead of him even before he got the temporary royal welcome in Jerusalem.

We can fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who, “for the joy set before him…endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

For joy!

Not happiness, not pleasure necessarily. Happiness can come from things. Pleasure can come from experiences. But joy is something that comes from God! Joy is the utter contentment and fulfillment that things are made right. Jesus, in facing both the cheers and the jeers of Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life, Jesus had in his mind the joy that he believed God would bring…the joy which God DID bring.

When we find ourselves overwhelmed, either by praising voices that seem to distract us from God’s call, or by attacking voices that cause us to doubt…when we find ourselves overwhelmed, we fix our eyes on Jesus. Jesus kept his eye on the joy that God would bring as Jesus followed the path of obedience. The joy of resurrection, of redemption, of remaking, of safety in God’s presence.

“Consider him,” Hebrews says, “who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

This is what we need!

We need strength from our God, who can do what is impossible in human eyes. We need endurance like Jesus, who could keep God’s plan in focus whether crowds cheered or jeered.

But maybe what we need most…ok, maybe what I need most…is the reminder of joy. Jesus has shown us that there is life after death; there is sitting in God’s presence after the via dolorosa, the way of the cross. There is eternity in the loving presence of God, as our connection to Jesus Christ ushers us into the same love relationship with God that the three persons of the trinity have experienced from before time began!

It’s not just suffering. It’s not just the slog. There is joy from God to come! Whether people distract, cheer, or attack.

When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we are reminded that there is another, more important audience than a cheering or jeering crowd of people. We run toward Jesus, scorning opposition and shame thrown at us, because we anticipate a deeper joy to come. There is God’s welcoming, saving, strengthening and loving presence.

God’s presence is the goal AND the means to get there. Jesus is simply God’s very presence in human form, joining our world and pioneering the way for us. God’s presence is with us right now through the Holy Spirit. For the joy set before us, we will fix our eyes on Jesus in hope.

In this disagreement in our church right now, how will we live in obedience? How will God’s presence and power show through us?

What we want to see evident in us and to the world truly is God’s redemptive work, rather than our own wisdom.

As I get closer to the end of June and the end of my time as pastor here at NFC, I find myself looking back to the beginning of my time here. It doesn’t take much to do get me to look back-my family will tell you I’m a nostalgic person. In fact, I feel like Facebook’s memories, those reminders that show you what you did on the same day in previous years…it’s like it was made for nostalgic me!

Ten years ago on Palm Sunday, I said this:

“Somehow, in the mystery and the love of God, Jesus’ death and resurrection make a new way of living possible, a kind of living for you and me where God’s Spirit truly lives in us.

But the new life comes after a death. The miracle of rebirth comes after the bones. The power of God comes not on the celebration of Palm Sunday, but after the obedience of Good Friday.”

The joy set before us is that God’s treasure is what lasts, what remains. God’s power is not defeated by our own failure, by brokenness, by pain and suffering. God will be active, and God will be visible…sometimes because of our actions, and sometimes in spite of our actions. This is the joy set before us; God’s power is not overwhelmed by our failures.

If there is one thing I am responsible to do as a pastor, it is to remind us all, myself included, of this: Joy is coming! And following Jesus is the only way to get there.

Following Jesus can be hard. It means not being distracted by the people who shout praise in our direction, or being deterred by people who want to crush us. Yet the joy and power that sustained Jesus and brought him to the right hand of the throne of God, that very same joy and power is the presence of God’s Holy Spirit that is available to you and to me.

That doesn’t make the suffering right. It’s not a “blessing” of our failure. No, it’s simply a reminder that it is God, not us, who does the impossible. It is God, not us, who brings rebirth and resurrection. It is God in whom we place our trust to bring joy.

Joy is coming! Because God is a redeeming God. God cannot be stopped by human mess-ups. Human arrogance crucified Jesus, but even death could not stop our God who resurrects!

Joy is leaking through the sorrowful fabric of this universe because of the faithfulness of Jesus! 

Joy is set before you and me as our hope to endure and not lose heart as we strive to live in faithfulness to God.

Even on Palm Sunday, even in the suffering of Holy Week, we live today after God’s definitive act in the cosmos. We live now as the followers of a resurrected Lord. God’s joy is set before us, it is woven in and around us, shining through our faults and failures and flaws like cracks in jars of clay.

It’s our reminder that no matter what the circumstances, we can actually celebrate and worship with greater exuberance than that first century palm-waving crowd. For the joy set before us! For the joy that is coming! For the joy that Christ made possible by his faithful endurance.

May we fix our eyes on Jesus.

May we follow his example, and set our eyes on the joy God sets before us, the joy God brings, the redemption God works over and over again in the face of our failures as individuals and as the church.

Today for open worship, we invite you to speak out your praise to God. To celebrate the joy set before us. To honor the God who does what is impossible in our eyes. On this Palm Sunday, may we offer true expressions of praise as our worship.

Honest Thoughts

Over the last few months, our community of Newberg Friends Church has been fracturing. It’s been painful for us all, in an almost infinitely different amount of ways. There is always hope of something new and good coming out of this, because we serve a God who redeems and resurrects. Grief for what we knew and loved is a normal part of loss, and grief is what I have been feeling. There is also the realization that we have not been a perfect community and some things do need to be different. We, as individuals and as a community, need refining.

In our gathered meetings, things have been said that I do not agree with, that do not describe how I experience Christ and the bible. Hurtful things have been said. I’ve had broken moments before God, because as a pastor and one in leadership, we did not stop hurt. I apologize, and I have asked for God’s forgiveness and direction for the future.

One step I am prompted to take is to share some of my honest thoughts. These are my thoughts; you are free to disagree with them, as I offer them with an open hand and not to coerce. These are my thoughts; I would ask that you not assume that I speak for other pastors, or elders, or anyone else.

Over the years, I’ve changed how I think about what it means for LGBTQIA people to be faithful to Christ. In last Sunday’s meeting, there was a statement that pastors have not given reasons for a change from Faith and Practice that are biblically based. It has been challenging over the last year to be in a different place than our Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, and I’ve sought God’s direction for how to both have integrity with what I believe and submit to my community. I have not always got that right. Some believe my changes are evidence that I have left biblical faith in Jesus Christ, that I have been influenced by culture. I want to say that from my perspective, these changes have come because of my faith and how the message of the gospel has shaped my life.

Back in January, I surrendered my recording (similar to ordination) with Northwest Yearly Meeting. I want to share the letter I sent at that time as a partial explanation for where I stand. May God help us all in these difficult days. May we all share our beliefs with humility as we strive to listen, discern, and care for each other. May God be faithful to lead us all.

January 30, 2017

To the NWYM Board of Elders,

I am surrendering my recording with Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church.

I am grateful for all the ways this community has nurtured me, mentored me, and taught me. I am grateful for all the ways my family has found life and guidance and has experienced the presence of Jesus through the people and ministries of NWYM. You’ve been a huge part of my development as a follower of Jesus, and I will always be grateful for that. I am sure that many people within NWYM will continue to shape my life.

But I can no longer remain a recorded minister with NWYM.

I no longer support our Faith and Practice statement on human sexuality. This has been a long journey for me. In the last year, I have come to the personal conclusion that I am welcoming to all and affirming that same sex marriage is a viable option for followers of Jesus Christ. I am ready to be part of a church community where LGBTQIA people can openly and honestly be themselves and fully participate. I am ready to be part of a church community where LGBTQIA people are not excluded from membership, leadership, or pastoral ministry based on their sexual orientation or on whether a commitment to celibacy is made. I believe the criteria for membership and leadership should be the same for everyone: a commitment to Jesus Christ, evidence of the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit, and obedience to Christ’s calling.

More than that, I believe the way we have interpreted and enforced this part of our Faith and Practice over the last five years has had the result of excluding and shaming people. It has opened my eyes to the culture of secrecy that our belief and our practice has created, a secrecy that is not in keeping with our Jesus, the proclaimed Light of the world. This secrecy, necessitated by our statement and its enforcement, is having devastating effects spiritually and emotionally and physically, as evidenced by the high suicide rate for LGBTQIA youth.

But surrendering my recording is far broader than one issue. I see NWYM increasingly embracing a holiness theology and practice that is based on purity and separation. Whatever is deemed as sinful or wrong; whatever people, actions or beliefs do not fit within the purity system are to be removed and excluded. This is not consistent with how I interpret scripture. I have not found this way of dealing with sin to be effective in my experience. The power of Christ’s gospel is that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The power of the incarnation is that God took on frail, human, marginalized flesh, identified with us, embraced us in all our weakness, and redeemed us. The power of the cross is that once and for all, the sorrow and the sin and the scapegoating of all human experience was swallowed up by our suffering Savior. The power of the resurrection is that Jesus is the firstborn of a new family, a new nation, a new community; a community not bound by narrow limits of purity or obedience but consecrated by a person’s commitment to the living Lord.

Our salvation came because Jesus bore the wrath of the holiness purity system with his violent death. His death demonstrated that system’s failure, by rejecting and crucifying God’s Messiah. His resurrection demonstrates God’s power to do a new thing, a permanent thing…an ushering in of the reign of God, “bringing all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10). The holiness purity system has been proven wrong. God’s clear plan and purpose now is one of unifying, not of separating. Why are we as an institution going against what God has done and is doing in Christ?

I’ve watched the Yearly Meeting draw boundary lines which exclude not only LGBTQIA people, but also any who might believe or teach something against Faith and Practice’s statement. This does not match the practice of Jesus, who broke all the boundary lines and purity standards of his day. He ate with tax collectors, let prostitutes touch him, ate and drank with “sinners”. This radical acceptance, I believe, is what made it possible for people to come to repentance and be changed by the Holy Spirit of God. I’ve heard many say: “Yes, but Jesus also said ‘Go and sin no more.’” I would remind that it was Jesus who said that; not the disciples, not the religious leaders. I believe it is the present Jesus Christ, it is the Holy Spirit today that convicts of sin and empowers true change, not our boundary lines or proclamations of sin.

Northwest Yearly Meeting and other Quakers taught me the power and beauty of a wide open, bold pursuit of God’s truth. I learned that all of life was sacramental. I learned the positive power of giving testimony to God’s work in us as opposed to the restrictive power of creeds. But over recent years, I’ve received many messages from NWYM that as a pastor, as a recorded minister, I should not voice my perspective if it did not fit within Faith and Practice. I’ve heard messages that it is dangerous for people to hear something contrary to what has been defined as truth. My perspective is completely opposite. I believe God’s Holy Spirit is active and powerful. I believe it is in the bold asking of questions and listening to other perspectives that the Holy Spirit is able to guide us into all truth. I want to live in a community where we boldly question as we seek God’s truth, trusting the Holy Spirit, the scriptures, and the community to keep us on the path of discipleship. It is discipleship, not purity, to which we are called.

In addition, the recent decision to initiate a reorganization into two Yearly Meetings without asking for approval has clearly demonstrated to me that I no longer belong as a recorded minister of this Yearly Meeting. We are obviously divided. Yet a small number of people have made the decision to define what Northwest Yearly Meeting will be. I left the ECNA church to join Northwest Yearly Meeting for many reasons, including a model of communal listening together to the Spirit of God. I’ve valued waiting and silence, wrestling and churning with my community as we do the hard work of discernment. I’ve grieved our inability to live that out over the last three or four years as a Yearly Meeting.

So it is with regret that I surrender my recording to you. I love the people of Northwest Yearly Meeting. I will do my part to keep relationship open. My hope and prayer is that we all together will seek Christ.

Sincerely and with love,

Gregg Koskela

Universal and Particular

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 24, 2016)

 

Most of us who grew up in the United States probably had an image of Jesus’ birth that was something like this…

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or maybe this…

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It’s important to be clear to say that Jesus didn’t glow as he laid in the manger…that’s not what it means that Jesus is the Light of the World! Jesus also was not white. He was born to a particular time and place, to Palestine in the 1st century, a Middle Eastern Jewish baby born into a world of color.

Nativity

Our faith hinges on this unique, miraculous act of God!

God went “all in” for us and with us, becoming a human being like us. This happened in this world, this world which is bound by time and culture and place. For the eternal, all-encompassing God to join with humanity, for that to happen in this world, it had to be defined by a time and a people and a culture and a place.

It really did happen! Jesus was born as an outcast with the shadow of illegitimacy over him, to people who were defeated and oppressed by an occupying foreign government. The unbound, universal God became particular and located, with a color and a language and a smell and a people. It is good for us to look at this picture, and remember that most of us with our color and language and smell and people would be outsiders in this scene.

But something beautifully miraculous happened in this cosmic act of love!

As particular and as specifically located as this was, there was never any doubt God was doing this for us all. When the angels lit up the sky to sing and shout his birth, peace was announced for the WHOLE earth. When Simeon blessed baby Jesus in the temple, he said: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of ALL nations; a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”

Magi arrived to honor him as King, Magi who lived so far away it may have taken them two years to travel all the way to find Jesus. This is good news of great joy for ALL the people! In this sense, none of us are outsiders. None of us are outside God’s act of drawing near, of God taking on human flesh.

Jesus did look something like this picture…maybe not with the cheesy costumes, but with this color skin on him and around him. Yet this cosmic act of love by our Creator God to join humanity is something people around the world see as a connection with THEM. It isn’t just Western culture that remakes baby Jesus into our own image. There’s something so powerful about God joining our human world that we all can’t help but feel like Jesus came to our people and looked like us.

We can make our way south from Palestine, through Congo…

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and Uganda.

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People there see Jesus as their own, too. There’s a wrong way to do this of course, to rip Jesus out of what truly was his Middle Eastern home and claim him as our own, erasing what was actually true.

But there’s a healthy way to do this: never forgetting that Jesus actually lived as a first century Jew, but realizing that it was news of “great joy for all people”…realizing that when God became human, there was a connection forged with us all.

And so you can head east…to India…

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to Thailand…

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to China…

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to Korea.

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You can cross the water to Japan…

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to the Philippines…

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to Australia.

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You can leap the vast Pacific and see Jesus in Bolivian garb…

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as if he came to Guatemala…

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or to the Crow Nation in Native North America.

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And while none of that is true in the literal sense, because Jesus was a first century Jew…the actual Jesus who walked Palestinian soil is truly “a light for revelation” to all us outsiders. God truly became one of us. God’s coming to a particular time and place and yet being the savior for us all reminds us of our common, equal humanity before God.

All these beautiful imaginations of the Holy Family remind us that God came to us all!

It truly is a great joy, joy to all the world! Tonight, we say thank you for the gift of Jesus. We say yes to God with our minds and hearts. Let’s continue our thanks and our worship by singing together.

Joy to the World, Hark the Herald

We’re coming to the main point of these “candlelight” Christmas Eve services.

This is my last year getting to lead this service, something I’ve missed only once since 2002. I was remembering that first Christmas Eve service in 2002-I was 34, 5 months into a job that was over my head. We also had a baby who was five and a half months old, so we were sleep deprived and trying to come to grips with life and work.

After the last Christmas Eve service, I was talking to someone up there in the balcony. I wish I could remember who it was. Anyway, he made me realize that many of you were still trying to come to grips with me in this role, too. He said something like, “I wasn’t really convinced you could pull this lead pastor thing off; I’ve been watching all fall. But when you came out here tonight with the sweater and everything went ok, I knew we were all going to make it!”

If only I’d known five months sooner! It just takes the sweater!

I bring that up tonight for one reason only: someone else is going to wear the sweater next year, and it’s going to be just fine for everybody. Because you and I both know that’s a great metaphor: being a pastor is first and foremost about what you put on. Are you covered with the calling and the empowerment of God’s Spirit? That’s what matters, and that’s from God.

The church isn’t a pastor. It’s a community of Spirit-empowered people who help each other gather around Jesus who is our center. Thanks be to God!

Just a few reminders before we share the light from these advent candles with each other.

Even these little flames are dangerous, so please be careful of papers and clothing and hair around you, not to set them on fire. It’s easier to pass the flame by having the lit candle straight up and down and tipping the unlit candle over the lit one.

Use the shield to keep the hot wax from burning your hand, and please do your best to keep it from dripping on the floor or the pews.

These words are ones I’ve been sharing on this night for many years.

May this act of lighting candles bring honor to Jesus, who on a silent night long ago entered our world and our frame of reference so that we would not be alone in the dark.

May our caring for the light of these candles remind us of the need to pay attention to what God is doing in our lives each and every day of the year.

May the ease with which we share the candle light with our neighbors remind us that Jesus lives to be shared with everyone!

And, may the light that will soon illuminate this entire room remind us that however dark it seems in our world, however dark it seems in our lives, there is NO darkness great enough to overcome God’s supreme and ultimate light, Jesus Christ.