Christmas Eve in New Zealand

We trickled out of our hostels and hotels, we travelers from far-flung spaces, winding our way by twos and threes and sixes to tiny St. James Anglican Church. It wasn’t until Elaine and I reached the quiet one lane highway that I realized we weren’t going to be the only out of place visitors in the congregation on Christmas Eve, far from home.

In truth, there were only two members of St. James there. As the priest introduced herself, she confessed that she, too, was a visitor–from another part of New Zealand, here with her husband and son to gather us in worship with nine lessons from scripture, an Advent Candle, and song.

Looking at it one way, we all botched it. The priest’s iPad quit sending out sound, though it had worked half an hour before. When it did finally work, the recorded pianist couldn’t keep a steady time; we struggled to find our way as we sang, one time finding ourselves a whole bar behind. We lit the candles out of order. At one point, a man in his twenties in the second row on the left had to put his head down and cover his mouth to keep from laughing. Looking at it one way, our visiting congregation with the visiting priest performed horribly.

And yet…

She asked for volunteers to read God’s redemption story, nine passages that painted a wide ranging biblical arc. So we heard the Good News in a New Zealand accent; and an American, a British, an Irish, and a vaguely continental European accent. We watched a child from Kuala Lumpur light one of the Advent candles, and it was the Canadian young man from the second row who saved Christmas by restoring the iPad’s sound.

We became a community. Not a deep one. Not a lasting one. But we were gathered.

And for so many reasons…because for the first time in years I wasn’t leading the Christmas Eve service, because on one level it was so hilariously awful, because it was so wrong and weird to be apart from our kids and our people, because so much has withered and not stood the test over the last few years…for so many reasons I saw the heart of it all again, anew.

We became a community because we welcomed Jesus, God-come-near. From almost every continent, we vagabonds sat in a small chapel in New Zealand, gathered to honor and worship a baby born two thousand years ago in oppressed and impoverished Palestine. Christian community truly is God-instigated, not human-created.

We try to create it.

We try to make it.

We often perform it better than we rag-tag wanderers did tonight.

But we botch it. We get full of ourselves, we make it about ourselves, we build our tiny empires and identities. We exclude when we mean to include, we dig in our heals when patience is called for, we wound our own because they didn’t get it quite right enough. We are infinitely creative in our failure, and yet we keep trying.

True community, the kind our souls were created for, comes with the invitation to come. Come to the One who has drawn near, to the Word made flesh. We somehow found ourselves in a chapel full of hope, though wrapped in our human frailty and failure. We came and we found a divine home where none of us (well, only two of us) lived and belonged.

Come.

“O come, let us adore him.”

Once again, it is Jesus that I keep coming back to in this year of unsettled, magnitude ten earth-shaking. I can’t leave him. And I keep finding him, or being found, or something. Tonight we found him, or were found by him, or something. We were gathered, we found community, not because of the words we sang or the service we tried to create. We were made a community by the One we believe took on flesh for our salvation.

“O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.”

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Gratefulness and Jubilee

Tonight we leave for New Zealand. Seeing those words on the screen staring back at me increases the shock and amazement already in my head.

Tonight we leave for New Zealand, thanks to over a hundred of you who gave generously, to those who planned for months and surprised us last May 23rd. I’m still so thankful to so many: Lisby Rogers Curtis Gemeroy, Rachelle Staley, and Natalie Koskela who were the main drivers; Meghan Rogers Czarnecki, Hannah Frankcamp, Joshua Reid, Nolan Staples and Sarah Staples Kelley for all their work on the party; Alan Akins, Stefan Czarnecki, Lyssa McConaughey, Steve Fawver, Natalie, Hayley, Aubrey, Jacob Graham, Shawn McConaughey, Michelle Akins, Mareesa Fawver, Stephanie Andres and Mikayla Kinnaman for an amazing scavenger hunt; and so many friends far and wide who generously gave for us to go experience unspoiled natural beauty, fly-fishing…and, um, Lord of the Rings filming sites!

This year has reminded me that thankfulness and gratefulness are choices, and that there are times when they are difficult choices. 2017 has been a year of pain and loss for many of us. It’s brought the most changes for me personally in any of my adult years. There’s no sense denying I grieve the losses of no longer being a pastor; the loss of working daily alongside some of the people I most love and respect in the world. There have been family health challenges I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’ve wrestled with countless questions and self doubt and fear. Elaine and I have said more than once it will be good to put this year behind us. But ending the year with this trip will be a conscious choice to be present and to choose gratefulness.

Elaine and I turn 50 in 2018, and she claimed for us many months ago the biblical concept of a Year of Jubilee. I want to choose to enter Jubilee by wrestling for gratefulness.

So when we post a picture on this trip, it’s gratefulness to you for your generosity. It’s a thank you for staying in relationship with us, when honestly right before that surprise party last year, I thought I had lost all but my closest people.

When we are standing alone in New Zealand’s native natural wonder, I will be choosing gratefulness for friends and teammates who saved my soul; for those of you who still let me walk alongside you through the highs and lows of life.

I will be choosing to redeem this year by finding and naming all the beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring moments of our community’s grace and care, by naming God’s faithful presence. Thank you for this amazing gift of the time to do that in a bucket-list place. I love you all.

Make Me Yours

From almost 15 years ago, the memory came flooding back tonight, prompted by the same song that caused the original experience. Me, standing in our kitchen, 2 am, holding our baby who was finally asleep; glasses literally fogged over, humidity off the charts because of the burst dishwasher pipe that had spewed all over the kitchen. Crying. Holding our baby, overwhelmed, and crying.

The tears weren’t desperation. I don’t know exactly how to describe them; not relief, not joy. They were the kind of tears that are familiar but not frequent, tears that mark a thin space in my soul, that give evidence of a Divine movement of grace working on my innermost being.

I felt a longing. A longing for God to do a work, a work that I could glimpse but that I knew I had not really experienced. An unmaking. An unraveling. A holy disruption. A hallowing, a refining fire. In a rush I saw almost equally my inadequacy and my pride, my fear and my presumption. This song, this live version of a song I knew well, was placing me on a sort of peak, a precipice where I could see more of the vista than I ever had before, and where I could also fearfully plunge to my death.

I sort of naively embraced that death metaphor. The way of the cross had already become central in my theology, but at age 34, in that weird mix of humility and pride, I both knew I had things in me that needed to die, and was confident I was up to the journey of surrender. The thin space, the precipice moment was met with my willing, conscious invitation to Jesus to unmake me and help me truly live in Christ-like, obedient surrender.

“More and more I need you now /I owe you more each passing hour

The battle between grace and pride /I gave up not so long ago

So steal my heart and take my pain/Wash my feet and cleanse my pride

Take the selfish, take the weak/And all the things I cannot hide

Take the beauty, take my tears/This sin-soaked heart and make me yours

Take my world all apart/Take it now, take it now

And serve the ones that I despise/Speak the words I can’t deny

Watch the world I used to love/Fall to dust and blow away

I look beyond the empty cross/Forgetting what my life has cost

Wipe away the crimson stains/And dull the nails that still remain

So steal my heart and take my pain/wash my feet and cleanse my pride

Take the selfish, take the weak/And all the things I cannot hide

Take the beauty, take my tears/This sin-soaked heart and make me yours

Take my world apart, take my world apart

I pray, and I pray, and I pray”

(Worlds Apart [Live], Jars of Clay, 2003)

It’s a crazy stupid prayer to pray. But I did pray it, as I listened to the song on repeat through headphones, trying not to let my tears wake the finally slumbering daughter in my arms. And I kept praying it for several years: through spoken words and silent thoughts, through singing, in my car, in my office. I kept praying it, with a sacred memory of that thin space of holy longing that surprised me in the chaos of our kitchen, in the lonely hours of the morning.

I didn’t understand what I was praying. So many spiritual traditions describe this unmaking, this deconstruction, this ripping of the foundation of human hubris. Not to get to emptiness, but to experience a re-orientation where the living God can be Center and Guide and Light. Not to eliminate our personhood, but to have a spiritual Reality and relationship at the core of who we are.

I didn’t understand, but I kept praying. I kept offering, which is really all you can do. You cannot “make” pride stop or servanthood grow. The constant offering, the yielding is part of the unmaking.

The song form of the prayer faded with time. Tonight, as it came through my car speakers again, I could almost step outside myself and see Aubrey and me in the kitchen of the house we no longer live in. I could almost visually trace the years of offering, the yearning, the times of complacency, the times of bitterness. And with the distance, in the almost visual separation from myself, I saw these last two years in a new light.

I feel like I have to make a disclaimer here, because I hate self-pity and I am more than aware that the turmoil of our church and Yearly Meeting has not made me their main or biggest victim. Others have been erased and wounded while I was given leadership. I’m not the main story.

Yet my story is all that is mine to share, so I want to be faithful to share it.

I am Yours, God. You have made me Yours. I have now walked what once was just a path I glimpsed, and you have proven yourself faithful, so faithful.

I’ve been face down on that maroon and blue (almost black) carpet, and you’ve taken my selfishness, my weakness, my tears; and you’ve made me Yours.

I’ve knelt countless times beside that brown chair with the wheels, angrily swearing, anxiously panicking, and you’ve made me Yours.

I’ve run miles on asphalt around this town, pleading and asking and begging and questioning; and in the absence of answers, in my unmaking, you’ve made me Yours.

I’ve begged you for strength and wisdom and courage…for myself, for my family, for my friends. And you have answered, as our world has fallen to dust and blown away. You have made us Yours.

You have been achingly present, trembling through my hands and my voice. You have at times forcefully yanked my focus away from myself and lovingly, gently, instantaneously shown me how you are at work in someone else. You’ve given me the indescribable gift of holding others before you in your Presence, of being the vehicle of your grace through Spirit pictures and Spirit power.

And I am Yours.

Tonight I saw that you have been answering this prayer from years ago. You’ve been forming my character, forming our characters. In the unmaking and the fracturing and the pain, you have always been planting, shaping, nudging, resurrecting. You’ve been offering Yourself.

Tonight in a new thin space, I had a glimpse that I have been in this glorious process of being REmade, not just UNmade. You have become more of a Foundation and Center and Revealer than ever before…and I believe you have more of Yourself to reveal to me still.

And I am Yours.

 

Loving America, Loving God (From 2011)

(Message given on September 11, 2011, at Newberg Friends Church)

Last year we added another driver to our family.

So, I went looking for another vehicle. Our budget was small-I was looking in the $1000-$1500 range. Have you ever looked for a car in that price range? It’s awful! I spent hours pouring over Craigslist, test driving well over a dozen cars. And then I found it. The best car purchase I’ve ever made. If you were to come up with the perfect used car story, this would be it. An older couple who had immigrated from Germany 30 years ago had purchased it new, a 1993 Toyota Camry. You know those scheduled maintenance checklists you find in the owner’s manual that everyone ignores? They did every single one at exactly the right time and handed the records over to me.

Here’s how cool this couple was: the Camry was the first car they’d ever bought that wasn’t a Mercedes Benz!

As we stood in a Safeway parking lot, talking and waiting for their daughter to pick them up, they couldn’t stop talking about how much they loved America. 30 years ago in Germany, the wall had not come down. Germany was not unified. They kept talking about living in East Germany, knowing that any letter they received could be intercepted and read, realizing that at any time police could search their home for whatever they wanted, not having the freedom to go anywhere they wanted to go. This couple loved America, and hearing their perspective made me appreciate our country deeply. I love our country, too! I am very grateful for so much of what we experience in our country.

With the anniversary of 9/11, I’ve read and seen lots of things, as you probably have too. I’ve been moved again by the stories of how people helped strangers, how they gave their lives in the effort to rescue others.

It seems good and important for us to spend some time in prayer for the families of those who lost loved ones. It can be a moment of silence, or if you’d like to lead out in prayer, feel free. [WAIT and pray]

Is there a difference between loving America, patriotism, and nationalism?

I asked that question on Facebook earlier this week, and loved the thoughtful responses that were given. Several gave beautiful examples of what they loved about America-it was clear we agreed that loving America is not a bad thing.

Carol Sherwood wrote, “I am very grateful to be born in the United States and to have the freedoms, blessings and privileges that being here affords me… I still get a tight throat when I sing the national anthem…”

Kelsey Hampton wrote, “loving america to me means loving the opportunities and freedoms that this country provides (i.e. a passport that allows travel almost anywhere, free public education, freedom of speech, etc).”

I would add that I love the beautiful way America has worked-not perfectly, but has striven to increase equality between ethnic groups, between men and women.

 

Brian Groves wrote, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are some of the wisest words ever to be written… What makes this country great is the way it has attempted to provide an environment in which so many things are possible for the individual to achieve while maintaining a relatively balanced sense of fairness, order and opportunity.”

Nationalism, as the comments agreed, is at the other end of the spectrum, with patriotism somewhere in the middle.

A friend from high school wrote, “Patriotism is pride in one’s country, it “SHOULD” be pure and not exclusive. Conversely nationalism to me implies isolationism..that there is only my country and I can’t be open or respect other ideals and peoples.”

Kelsey Hampton seemed to sum up the issue well: “i see these as a sort of sliding scale, with appreciation for one’s country on one end, and extreme, ethnocentric nationalism on the other. pride in a country is fine, as long as we are honest with ourselves about the disparity, mistakes, and problems within our borders, but it is with extreme pride that extreme falls come, like genocide and wars.”

Nationalism sees one’s nation as the best and the only. As a Christian, as one who reads the bible which clearly teaches all through its pages that God loves and blesses and desires to save ALL the world, nationalism is simply not acceptable.

It was moving for me to see the wisdom of many in our community just in their responses to this simple question.

I would guess that if we had time to have a discussion with everyone here today, we would come out very similarly. We would have widespread (though not universal) agreement that loving America can be a good thing, and is completely in line as a follower of Christ. At the other end of the spectrum, we would almost all agree that nationalism is not ok, and that patriotism is somewhere in the middle-sometimes ok for a follower of Christ, sometimes questionable.

I think we would have wide agreement on those categories. Where we would have much more disagreement is in deciding which category a particular action falls into. Is an American flag on the platform of a church loving America, patriotism, or nationalism? Is being thankful for the sacrifices of those in our military loving America, patriotism, or nationalism?

These are the questions where the rubber meets the road. It’s challenging. Wrestling with them can produce conflict and tension even between two people who both claim to follow Jesus. But if we all agree that somewhere there is a line where loving America crosses into an inappropriate nationalism, nationalism that is not compatible with the God we love and serve, then we have to face into the tension.

Here’s one of the questions we wrestled with as we planned worship: what is appropriate to sing in church on the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

 

As we sing these next two songs, I want to invite you to think about this tension between loving America, patriotism, and nationalism. For you, where do each of these songs fit? “America the Beautiful” is a prayer…does it fall in the appropriate place on the spectrum in your mind?

The “Song of Peace” maybe raises a different question. On a day when most of America is focused on remembering American suffering, is it dishonoring or NOT loving of America to sing a song that forces us to look at God’s love for all nations? As we sing, invite God to speak to you. [Sing]

 

I think what prompted me to tackle this topic today was a letter I received earlier this summer.

Someone from our church wrote me with a great deal of emotion, asking why our church does not celebrate and honor those who have sacrificed for us on Memorial Day and on July 4th. He felt our silence in worship on those holidays was not loving America. It troubled him to the point that he likely will not be able to worship with us any longer.

Why don’t we celebrate/honor those holidays? It’s complicated, but the most simple answer is that we don’t want to cross the line into nationalism. We don’t want to do something which would further the idea that our country is more right, more loved by God, than any other. Some, like this man, would say that we go too far by our silence.

Last weekend we were in Seattle for my nephew’s 3rd birthday. My brother lives about a block from a huge church, and as we drove in, I couldn’t help but notice signs all along the edge of the church property. Each had an American flag as background, and the words were something like: “9/11. We will never forget. Join us for worship on 9/11/11.”

For me, that dances right along the line of great discomfort, on a number of levels. It seems to be preying on the emotions of people at this time simply to get them to go to church. But more importantly, worship is by definition God directed. Worship is worship of God. I don’t know what that church is doing today. If worship of God becomes tangled up with honoring America, I get uncomfortable.

The church has wrestled with this for a long time.

Most people can look at the world and see fairly easily that God’s kingdom and values are not identical with earthly kingdoms and values. So what is a Christian to do in the face of that?

Way back in the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote “City of God,” a treatise comparing the city of God to the city of human institution. At the time, Christians were scared out of their minds, watching the Roman Empire collapse, wondering where God was in all of it. Augustine was fairly scathing in his response. He saw Rome as a “City of Man”, not the city of God, and its fall meant absolutely nothing about God’s power or work in the world. They were not identical.

And you can trace this wrestling all through the history of the church. A thousand years later, Martin Luther wrote his doctrine of the two kingdoms, refusing to see God’s work and a nation’s work as identical. It’s the very principle that our nation was founded upon, with political theory elaborated by John Locke drawing from these earlier theological works.

Is there a chosen nation anymore? Is God identified with any particular government?

 

There is a related, but a different question here. People will continue to argue over whether or not America is a Christian nation but I think one thing has to be made abundantly clear. Whether or not we are a Christian nation…we are not God’s chosen nation. We are not the new Israel. God has not taken the American side against the rest of the world. That thought is nationalism, and it is unbiblical.

Turn with me to Revelation 5:9-10

This is the revelation God gave to John of what will happen at the end of time, when God makes a new heaven and a new earth. We find lots of language in Revelation about the New Jerusalem and the New Israel. But it isn’t anything like God’s choosing of Israel in the Old Testament. Look at chapter 5 verses 9 and 10, as the beings in heaven speak out why Jesus is worthy to lead into eternity.

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

The new Israel, the new Jerusalem, the new church is universal. It is not bound by political borders or decided upon by martial governments. It is defined by the crucified Christ whose blood purchased members of every tribe and language and people and nation. We are citizens of this new community, a community of the redeemed that supersedes our American community and takes priority.

Turn with me to 1 Peter 1:1.

Peter, an apostle of jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…

Peter is writing to the hinterlands, to former city states and provinces and kingdoms, ones far from the heart of the Roman Empire. He’s writing to multiple ethnicities and cultures…and it’s to that group that he says in chapter 2 verses 9 and 10:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

We can love America.

We should be grateful for the country we live in. And we can never forget that God has been, is, and will always be making a far greater community, country and nation from all tribes and languages and people! Philippians 3:20 says it clearly: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior for there, the Lord Jesus Christ…”

 

All of this begs an important question: how ought we, as followers of Jesus, respond the the difference between our own nation and the kingdom of God? How are we to engage our own political system, our own culture?

In 1951, a theologian named Richard Niebuhr wrote a hugely influential book to deal with this question, called “Christ and Culture.”

He outlined five categories for how Christians have chosen to engage the culture or the state. On one extreme is what he calls “Christ Against Culture.” The oversimplified idea is, culture and government are completely corrupt. God’s work now is to create a separate, pure church to stand against the corruption, and one day to bring in the kingdom. In this category, the Christian response is not to join, but to stand against our nation and culture as a pure and holy example. Niebuhr puts us Quakers in this category. (I disagree with him, but he’s dead, so he really doesn’t care…)

The other extreme he calls “Christ OF Culture”. The oversimplified idea is, culture and Christianity can be largely one. At its best, culture and government embody the best of what God has created, and the Christian can fully engage in the work of government, because we work to bring about both God’s best and the best culture offers. This is the thought behind very liberal views that humanity is moving toward utopia. But it is also the foundation for recent movements in America like the Moral Majority; Christians can use government power to enforce Christ’s morality.

The problem that comes with this extreme is that it is quite easy to blur the line and think that my culture is farther along the rode to the Kingdom of God than any other, and therefore we must enforce our thinking on other nations. It’s nationalism.

Niebuhr of course has three other categories that try to live between those two extremes, and it’s likely that most of us live somewhere between the extremes as well. But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve had to ask myself the question: which extreme do we seem more likely to move toward? And I have come to the conclusion that to be faithful to what God would have me say to you, I must warn us against the extreme of nationalism.

I’ve read some powerful stuff this week.

One of my former professors, Miroslav Volf, wrote this:

For many Christians, America has become a fierce goddess, who claims more of their loyalty than the God in whose name they have been baptized and whose absolute Lordship they solemnly avow.

William Willimon, a Methodist Bishop, wrote powerfully in Christianity Today this month:

“American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat … when our people felt vulnerable, they reached for the flag instead of the cross.”

 

Stanley Hauerwas teaches at Duke Divinity school. As he reflected on 9/11, he recounts some of his own spiritual journey:

But then John Howard Yoder and his extraordinary book The Politics of Jesus came along. Yoder convinced me that if there is anything to this Christian “stuff,” it must surely involve the conviction that the Son would rather die on the cross than for the world to be redeemed by violence.

These are radical thoughts, but I have staked my understanding of Jesus Christ’s gospel and Jesus Christ’s cross around them.

I realized how provocative this is when I read Mark Tooley’s piece in the American Spectator:

John Howard Yoder…sought to re-interpret the Crucifixion as primarily a rejection of all violence.

Re-interpret? If he doesn’t see the cross that way, how does he see it? Tooley spells it out clearly:

Yoder’s stance [is] that the Crucifixion more centrally rejects all violence [rather] than offers atonement for universal sin.

Tooley is crystal clear. The cross accomplished forgiveness and nothing more. Anything else the cross does, for Tooley, is a re-interpretation. I simply cannot agree.

I will stand for a cross that is not limited to just forgiveness for our sins.

I will stand for a cross that purchased members from every tribe, language and nation, including our own, for God. I will stand for a cross that Jesus asked us to take up every day, not just as a badge of forgiveness, but as a way of life. I will stand for a cross that is a far more moving and emotional and powerful and life changing symbol than the stars and stripes.

I will love my country, I will be grateful for the blessings of the life I live. And I will stand for a cross that asks me to be willing to sacrifice all those blessings for the sake of another. I will stand for a cross that redeems my life, gives it meaning, gives it a power that is not my own.

I will love my country, and I will love our God…and I will stand for the cross in all its fullness.

The God in Joyful Assembly

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 25, 2017)

One of my standard jokes…and ask my kids, I have too many repeat jokes…one of my standard jokes whenever people ask me what I’m preaching about is to say: “God.”

But today, it’s not a joke, it’s actually true. Today I want to talk about God; about our image of God, and about drawing near to God. Today is a joyful celebration of being in the presence of God!

It’s my last chance to speak here as pastor of this church, and that pushes me to think of what is most important, what is at the heart of what is most life giving and central to my faith in Jesus Christ. And I think my heart-cry message has to do with our image of God.

I’ve tried to be faithful to speak and teach about a wide variety of topics. Since we believe ALL of life is spiritual, that means there are a whole lot of different things to talk about. I hope I’ve been faithful to cover a bunch over the years.

But of course I have my heart cries, my themes that I return to with passion over and over. And for me, as I think back, when the Spirit of God is moving most passionately in me, it’s usually to call out a vision for an image of God that is inviting, loving, and joy-filled.  What I feel most put on this earth to do is to speak about and to embody the wide open embrace of the God who has drawn near to us.

Because this is what has changed and shaped and guided my life. This is what has given me life!

This is why I chose to serve as a pastor for 27 years, why I know even without the role I am still going to be passionate about doing whatever I can to demonstrate God’s open arms of love. Bit by bit, year by year, verse by verse, person by person, I’ve watched this grow in me. I have seen that when I think of God, my fear and trembling and shame have lessened and been replaced by the absolute reality of a God who is approachable and knowable, who walks each moment of each day with me, who can be discovered sitting with arms wrapped around the unloved and displaced and oppressed.

I know our Creator God–the God who bought so much diversity and beauty into this world–I know our Creator God is real and knowable and longs to draw us into an embrace. And I want everyone…I want you to know this good God, too.

My journey has been a long one, and it is still ongoing. Because the holiness of God, the otherness of God, the beyondness of God is real as well. How do we think of all this? How do we integrate it all? It will continue to be a journey for me.

But my testimony, my experience, is that because of Jesus, our core experience of God is not fear and shame and groveling and terror. Because of Jesus, I believe our core experience of God is acceptance and joy and embrace. Because of Jesus, we have the ability to approach our Creator God and find our home.

And I firmly believe I am not making this up! I see a beautiful unifying thread describing this approachable God throughout the New Testament, through the entire bible. 

One of the most clear and most profound of those places is in the book of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrew 12:18-24

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24, TNIV)

Hebrews is describing two different pictures of God’s very self. The first view of God is represented by Mt. Sinai. It’s not even named in Hebrews, but this is clearly describing the mountain where God gave Moses the law and the stone tablets with the ten commandments; it is the picture of the Jewish God of Torah, of the law, of awe and fear. Yet here in Hebrews it pales in comparison with the second picture, that of Mount Zion: the city of joy and redemption where Jesus brings us in to find our home.

Sinai and Zion; gloom and joy; death and life; Moses and Jesus; fear and embrace. These verses paint such a vividly clear picture, and there is no doubt that the author wants us to radically change how we see God. Because of how superior Jesus is, the author of Hebrews is inviting us all to a new experience of the same God who has always been. We are invited to an experience so new that the contrast in our minds, the contrast in our perception and experience of God, is as different as the contrast between Sinai and Zion.

In the original language, this is absolutely exquisite poetic writing. William Lane attempted to pull the poetry into English.

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An economy of words that paints a foreboding picture, isn’t it?

I’ve told before of a horrific recurring dream I used to have as a kid. I would have to walk on this stepping stone path. I was forced to go from stone to stone, I couldn’t leave it, couldn’t not go forward. One of the stones would be the trigger; I would step on it and hear a spring snap, and then this horrible maniacal [note: I mispronounced this in BOTH services!] laughter, and the dark sky would light up like red fire, and I knew my fate was sealed. But I had to keep going from stone to stone until it happened, until the whole thing exploded.

It was how I lived my life, with this belief that you were always going to mess up, but there was nothing to do but go forward and wait for the punishment. It was my perfectionistic, people pleasing, don’t-mess-up-life encapsulated in one horrific nightmare.

And I’ve come to realize it was a metaphor for how I viewed God, too. God was just waiting for me to mess up. Waiting to spring punishment on me. Making me keep going through the motions while I knew all along that I had failed and didn’t measure up.

This is how Hebrews portrays Sinai, how Hebrews describes how the Jewish people interacted with God in fear. Untouchable, blazing fire. Darkness, gloom, whirlwind. God’s voice so threatening that we all beg that no further thing be said.

The author of Hebrews is selectively pulling these images from Deuteronomy 4. It’s a biased selection, actually; in Deuteronomy while Sinai is awesome and fearsome, God is also clearly present…not distant as the Hebrews account seems to convey. The author of Hebrews also goes further than Deuteronomy to say that not only the people, but even Moses was “terrified and trembling”.

This is a debater’s case, a biased case to highlight the differences. I believe the truth is that God has always wanted to be known, that even Sinai was God coming to connect with humanity. But the point is well taken, isn’t it? And we in Christian circles, Christians who have never tried to live by Torah or thought of ourselves as people of Moses…even we in Christian circles have sometimes created a picture of God that is as fearsome as these seven haunting lines, haven’t we?

But with Jesus, there is a new picture, a new covenant, a new goal. Here’s how William Lane tries to express the poetry: 

 

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The contrast is clear and striking, when they sit side by side. Living God! Innumerable angels! A festive party! A permanent place for us in heaven, where Jesus even makes a way for us to stand before the Judge of the universe; where our spirits are transformed and made perfect! Instead of “do not touch,” it is “come on in!”

Even the blood image, which we often are confused by in our non-sacrificial culture, even the blood image has changed. In the Sinai world, Cain’s murder of Abel led to Abel’s blood crying out to God, having a “claim” on God for revenge and for justice. Blood cries out for gloom and retribution on the wrongdoers.

But Jesus’ blood cries out for us to enter the party once for all! To find a home in the very presence of our Creator God. To experience a process of being made perfect. Being changed and transformed is not something that has to happen IN ORDER to approach the mountain of God; rather, the process of transformation happens WHILE WE LIVE in God’s presence in Mount Zion.

This! This is the view of God that has captured my heart and soul, that transforms me. This is the view of God that inspires me and compels me and stirs passion within me!

George Guthrie wrote this about Hebrews 12: “Do our sermons boom and flash with the darkness of Sinai more than they sing and gather people to the festiveness of Zion?”

I’ve been trying to make them sing for quite awhile, and I don’t think I will ever stop trying. 

The first sermon I gave during seminary at Glendora Friends Church was in 1991. Here’s a snippet:

“We view God like He is a frustrated parent.

“We often see God just the way that the judge is pictured in this story.  We think God has a lot to do, doesn’t care about us at all…we think he is ready to fly off the handle at any moment. We don’t think God really cares for us.

“If you haven’t had many people care for you in your life, it is often very difficult to believe that a great big God cares for you.  You may not believe me or the Bible when we say that God really does care for you…You [may] not even let God have the chance to show you that he does care for you.  Jesus told this story to say, ‘Give God the chance!  Let him show you he cares for you!’”

Two months after I started here as Children’s pastor, in August of 1993, the theme is there. I said:

“There is hope for change. No longer is there just the law shaking its finger at us and saying ‘Do this! Don’t do that! Meet this standard!’ Instead, there is a new and real hope for change because of what Jesus has done.”

In 1996, I brought stories I had told the kids downstairs up here to this room. And one was about Genesis, about creation, about the heart of God:

“Then came the words which are so special to us, the words that were different from all the other words God had spoken thus far. Light and dark, sky and sea, plants and animals….all reflected God’s creativity and life. But now came words that were different. Words which spoke to life God’s longing desire, words which made it possible for God to know and to be known, to love and to be loved.

“Words spoken, and there we were! Something out of nothing, something which became SOMEBODIES! We reflected not only God’s creativity and life….we were made in God’s image.  Made like God. Oh, not in how we look…not even in how smart we are. But like God in this amazing sense: made with a longing to know and to be known, to love and to be loved. And the God who needed nothing and had everything, now had someone to share everything with.

“Words spoken again; not words of creation, but yet again something new. Words of blessing. Words of love. Words of sharing and relationship. And oh, did God ever know how VERY good it was!”

[Note: I skipped this example in both services, but include it here] On Easter Sunday, 2001 in Boise the theme leaps off the page again:

“Why am I a pastor? …God has made a huge difference in my life. God has made life worth living. I want to do all I can to help others experience God in that way.

“God loves you. I really mean that. He really means it too. God loves you. Is it hard for you to picture God in that way?

“Real Easter comes when we understand the love God has for us. Love that has no conditions and that cannot be stopped. Love with enough power to overcome the worst thing we can possibly imagine. Love that can change us and make us who God intended for us to be, like his son Jesus Christ.”

This is who I have long known God to be…and on my last Sunday as pastor here, I celebrate as well how my experience and conception of God’s love has grown and grown!

Our God lives in the center of a party of angels, and Jesus invites us to walk right in! And all that Jesus does for us…all that Jesus has done for us to make this possible…It’s because Jesus became human like us.

Jesus experienced our same struggles, the same weakness, the same temptation to sin. Sins are there as they were on Sinai. But because of Jesus, the message is no longer fire and terror and “do not touch”…the message is “come on in”…the message is, “Let us approach.”

What Jesus did removes the fear, removes the need for anything else. It is done. Jesus has permanently made a way for us to walk into the majesty of God.

I’ve had so many times where I’ve been conquered by my fear of how God will respond to my failures and selfishness and wrongs. I’ve sat with so many people who see their own junk and then look to God like the gloom and fire of Mount Sinai. I want to leave that behind.

But what I want to make crystal clear is that I am not just wanting to do away with the the scary picture of fear. I do not only want to destroy a negative view of God, to wipe away a condemning view of God so that we can then walk and go wherever we want to go with our lives.

Instead, I want to hold high for us all the beautiful picture of God welcoming us, inviting us to go right to the heart of the joyful, majestic assembly where God makes a home!

We leave gloom and fear behind, not to walk wherever we want; we leave the fear to fall into the embrace and enter the joy!

It’s all so that we will–to use language from Hebrews–so that we will draw near…so that we will approach God…so that we will walk with Jesus right to the center of Mount Zion where God dwells. That’s the relationship and the home we were created for! That’s where joy is–at the heart of God.

I hear God calling: “Come to me!” I hear God saying to you: “Come to me!” It is worth it, friends. It is life. It is home. Listen to Hebrews 10:19-25.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25, TNIV)

If I’ve got this last day to have the privilege of speaking up here, I’ll use it to echo these words: 

Draw near to God! Hold to hope! And let’s encourage each other and spur each other on to love and good deeds.

May you and I live in the heart of Mount Zion, in God’s very presence…now and forever!

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.

NCDBarrel

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.

01 William Hobson

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.