See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
(1 John 3:1, NRSV)
As we enter into the month of March, we come toward the completion of the Christian season of Lent and our entrance into the Paschal Mystery with the renewal of life and hope that follows. And just like my opening sentence, there is a lot packed into the words and traditions of the Lenten season. This year during Lent, we will be completing our church-wide study and unpacking the substantive insights contained in Gordon MacDonald’s book, Who Stole My Church? Our study overtly included open and respectful conversation and dialog around long held questions and beliefs, and how we might be informed by God’s leading. To say that many of us have found this experience transformational as individual Christians and as members of Christ’s Church would be an understatement. I have felt blessed and privileged to have been a part of our various study groups and discussions.
Another wonderful and related read, especially in the Lenten season, is a short but rather packed book by Bishop Reuben Job, entitled Three Simple Questions; which asks “Who is God?,” “Who am I?” and “Who are we together?” And in the end, as is so often the case, these simple questions have enormous significance, and Bishop Job’s answers are strikingly simple, albeit with a fullness and substance that we can spend a lifetime unpacking. First, God is love beyond our wildest imaginations, and the ways God has and will manifest that love number beyond any capacity to count. Secondly, Jesus Christ demonstrated that God considers every single one of us as God’s children. Thirdly, together we are God’s family, and as Christians we are the living body of Christ.
“No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
(Romans 4:20-21, NRSV)
You know that metaphorical idiom: “The elephant in the room.” It speaks to the obvious that no one wants to discuss. These such elephants present themselves in virtually every aspect of human life—the work place, social institutions, family dynamics, and even churches. They also can be found at almost every level, from the most serious, to even the lighthearted. The problem is, wherever and however they exist, by not discussing those things, by not acknowledging their existence, by refusing to name them, we ultimately give those things power over the things we truly want.
I have been privileged to witness and recognize one such elephant that is particularly pertinent at this time in our communal faith walk and journey here at Marble; and that is our church-wide book study of author Gordon MacDonald’s work, Who Stole My Church. Interestingly, this book has generated a wide range of initial reactions, ranging from curiosity to irritation to amusement to even anger. Some of us were unable to put the book down once started, and others of us had to set the book aside after only a few chapters unable to keep reading.
“All this also comes from the Lord Almighty, whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.”
(Isa 28:29, NIV)
I would like to share with you a reading I recently came across that I found particularly striking for me in the book, A Guide to Spiritual Discernment, by Janet Wolf:
Our Wednesday night Bible study group has become a rather odd community of sorts. There are usually six to ten of us—two or three people who are struggling with mental health problems, three men who are homeless, several dealing with time in prison, and others wrestling with emotional and physical scars. Folks come with a hunger for healing, wanting food for the body and soul and a place to be at home.
John, one of the men who is currently homeless and staying, as the others who are homeless do, at the downtown mission, started out one night: “Stayed down at the mission again last night—house of pain for real. Woke up this morning and my shoes were gone. Somebody stole my shoes. I didn’t even have to think about what to do—I pulled out my knife and I went looking. I was walking all up and down the dining hall, table by table, and I meant to get my shoes back. Kept thinking: in the old days wouldn’t anybody tried to touch my shoes—‘cause they’d know I’d get ‘em ‘fore they could ever put ‘em on. Oh, yeah. I was mean and folks knew it. Didn’t care. And that’s how it was this morning. It’s one thing to give up drinking and drugging. It’s another thing when they steal your shoes.
“And I’m hollering, threatening, and walking up and down with my knife out where everyone can see. I’m going to get my shoes. Then old Jim here (points to another homeless man in the group) starts hollering from the other side of the room: ‘Bible says if they take one cloak give them your other one; if they took your shoes, give ‘em your socks. Put that knife away and give ‘em your socks.’
“And I’m swearing and getting madder. Ain’t givin’ nobody nothin’! I want my shoes! And old Jim, he just keeps hollering: ‘Give ‘em your socks, John!’
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
(Isa 9:6, NRSV)
Okay … time to be honest. This year, as we have been approaching Advent and the Christmas Season, I have newly discovered the Hallmark Movie Channel. Actually, I have known of its existence for many years previous, and it has historically been the central issue behind struggles for possession of the TV remote control, especially with their Christmas movie marathons. These mushy, extremely predictable, “chick-flick” stories were hard for me to make all the way through—and don’t even try to get me to take in two in a row. Now having confessed all this, I would not be at all surprised if a number of you “Ladies” are thinking to yourself, “Typical man!” And I would have to further confess, “Guilty as charged.”
But I have to also confess that I am this year finding myself actually keying in that channel number on the remote, and doing so without any “traditional” prompting. This year, I find myself looking forward to the predictable endings, when all the misunderstandings and contention between the characters gets resolved. I catch myself being drawn into the “mushy” plots where the happy ending always involves characters patching up broken relationships and at least one new couple lives happily ever after. And as far as the “chick-flickyness” goes, my official position is that I tune into that channel strictly to honor my wife’s wishes (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
“Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices.” (Hebrews 13:16, CEB)
I had the good opportunity very recently of chatting over a cup of coffee with our Executive Director of the Milan Main Street organization, Jill Tewsley. It wasn’t long into our conversation when the topic of 3rd Thursdays came up. Now I obviously could not see my own face, but I could see Jill’s, and there was an instant radiance of excitement on hers when we came upon this topic … and I am guessing that she saw the same in mine.
3rd Thursdays was a special day each month between May and October, when our downtown pulled out all the stops, stores and eateries remained open longer, lots of vendors put up their canopies in Tolan Square, and the east end of Main Street became “Kid’s Zone.” And while it sounded like a really good idea when we kicked it off this past spring, we never imagined it being so successful.
“…they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he said, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.’ ” (Matthew 9:11-13, CEB)
Jesus was always challenging the established norms of the day. Often this involved him engaging with those whom the religious elite and aware would not be caught dead with, i.e., sinners. And often, those ultra-religious types would challenge Jesus about such associated practices. It was after such a challenge when Jesus responded with the quote from Matthew above. Now, I don’t know about you, but I find immense personal comfort in Jesus’ response. Because, if Jesus came to identify and validate the already righteous that they may proceed to Heaven, I am afraid my name would not be on that list. But if Jesus came to offer guidance and opportunity for the unrighteous—i.e., sinners—to find their way to righteousness, well then there is hope for me.
Perhaps this hope is not so different from the hope we have upon going to the doctor when we are ill or there is something not quite right with us. Our hope is that the doctor will know what our problem is, and then offer us the way to become healthy. Some continue this line of thought to draw parallels between a hospital and the church, that is, a place where people who are sick can go to find credible knowledge, support, and healing.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matt 28:19-20, NRSV)
I was recently reminded of a rather “spirited” meeting I attended many years ago of the church Missions Committee. The main objective of that particular meeting was to create the prioritized list of missions that church would focus on in the next calendar year. Many very good options were raised and captured. But when it came time to identify the top contenders, a rather heated debate ensued. The gist of the disagreement centered around the distance from the church that was required in order to consider an idea a true mission. Some felt that it was not truly “missional” unless it required travel to a foreign country. Others were fixed on doing “mission” work locally to keep mission dollars in “our own back yard.” Sadly, the meeting ended with many hurt feelings with some people eventually dropping off of the committee.
Reading this, you may be curious as to which side ended up “winning.” As well, I suspect that many of you have already concluded that no one really “won.” Missions in that church took a major hit that day. But what saddens me the most, is that they were not even arguing about “missions” in the first place—at least, not the “missions” that Jesus was talking about when he spoke the Great Commission to his disciples …or possibly better written, the Great Co-Mission.
“Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?”
(Psalm 85:6, NRSV)
By now, you have undoubtedly heard of the revitalization effort taking place in our Milan community that goes by the name of Milan Main Street. While its principal focus is on the revitalization of the Milan downtown, proper, its benefits extend to the entire Milan business corridor and even more importantly to the very extents of community life. Many very visible positive changes have recently come about because of the energies and commitment of numerous talented and dedicated people here in Milan who want to see our community thrive. These include: the removal of some blighted buildings, paint and other façade uplifts on Main Street, a number of new businesses opening, the multi-million-dollar renovation of the East Main block, Let’s Chill Winter Fest, Bloom, The Crooked Tree Play Festival, and most recently, 3rd Thursdays. What is incredibly encouraging is that Milan Main Street is just getting started. I strongly encourage you to consider if you might have something to offer this grass-roots initiative, perhaps in ideas, skills, or simply a little time.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
(Romans 15:7, NRSV)
I like going to relatively new restaurants. The employees and management seem pumped up. Everyone tries harder to make your experience positively memorable. The food is typically above average and always good. It seems like they make extraordinary service and food normal or customary. I leave wanting to go back.
Invariably, though, over time something happens. Routine service becomes average. Management loses the spark that was there when the restaurant first opened. The food somehow degrades to mundane, or worse, unreliable. What is now customary is no longer extraordinary; customary becomes mundane, or worse, mediocre. I no longer want to go back. What is needed is a radical step to reclaim that excitement, that original enthusiasm, that initial energy. Radical means a significant departure from the usual or customary, and a radical move is needed particularly when usual or customary is no longer motivated by striving for the extraordinary.
“They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, CEB)
Believe it or not, I am but only two months from being here at Marble four full years. And one thing that was obvious right from my starting here, is that the people of Marble Memorial UMC love this church. You make worshiping God a priority in your lives, you give so much of yourselves, and you care about others in this church and in the community.
But this in no way should be surprising. I say that because God created us (humanity) to be social creatures; created to not only want to be with one another, but to be dependent on each other. As well, the Christian faith is itself meant to be pursued and embraced with one another, i.e., in community. Jesus modeled the inseparable importance of being in community as virtually everything he did, he did in the midst of others, with the only exception being personal prayer with God. Further, we learn and grow in grace by experiencing that grace, or God’s love in action, through tangible manifestations of that love by others. As such, we know that Christ intends his church to be a vital component in our local communities and the world, as reflections and manifestations of his presence, healing and love.