Hope For The Holidays

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 1:26-38

Recently I saw The Martian starring Matt Damon. This film – and book, which has been highly recommended to me and is on my list to read – chronicles the survival of Astronaut/Botanist Mark Watney after he has been left on Mars. A storm threatened the work and lives of the six person Mars crew; so, the crew chose to abandon their work and return to their space station. Mark was blown off course by a piece of debris as he struggled through hurricane force winds on his walk back to their short range spacecraft. His crew assumed he was dead and with heavy hearts executed their launch sequence to flee the storm.

Mark woke up a few days later, half buried in sand, and wholly aware of his singular existence on the Red Planet. He returns to the crew’s work and living station on Mars and completes an inventory of supplies. He records in a video diary that while he has food for now, he will die of starvation without a renewable source of nutrition. His water supply will soon deplete. And what if his facility is damaged or the systems that purify the air so that he can breathe are destroyed?

Mark’s reality washes over him…he hangs his head. And then, resolute – so resolute that he leans into the camera filming his video diary – he affirms, “I am not going to die here.” His resolution fuels his hope. Yes, of course, Mark faces challenges and set backs. Even so, he lives the mantras “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and “where there is a will, there is a way.”

It was incredibly encouraging for me to witness Mark’s inner strength as well as how he was able to draw upon the strength of others that rallied around him. During this time in our world where the reigning mantra seems to be “every man, woman, and child for him or herself” – perhaps even “every nation for itself” – to see this display of compassion and camaraderie – reminded me of my source of inner strength, who leads me in compassion and camaraderie for others – all others – whom my hope, my Christ, welcomes as neighbors and friends.

We are a people of hope. Hope was knit into our fleshy fabric at the time of  creation. It is a legacy that was affirmed by God to Abraham when God covenanted, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” The judges and the prophets repeated God’s promise. The Psalmist sang God’s promise. And with the coming of Christ, God further invigorates the hope saying, “I will be your God and I will be with my people.”

Mary receives this message of Emmanuel in our text for this week and she looks to the future with – I am sure – a mild dose of concern that is tempered with a great deal of joy. Immediately she is drawn into community with her relative Elizabeth and they share with one another the gifts of compassion and camaraderie. They live as neighbors and friends. They help and comfort each other. They affirm that even in the midst of this most unanticipated, unexpected, unpredictable of circumstances, that neither one of them is alone.

Mark felt quite lonely up on Mars until contact was reestablished with NASA and his fellow crew mates. There are folks right outside our doors, on the street corners, in the cars next to us, on the other side of the fence or cubicle wall that feel like they mights as well be on Mars because their loneliness is so profound. Maybe you are the one attempting to hurdle the obstacle that is loneliness only to fall back down again.

If you feel your hope is waning or gone, stand up, go to the nearest mirror, and look at yourself. Really look at yourself. Look at yourself until you see, you feel, that you are created in God’s image and that God’s hope is indeed within you. Then affirm – out loud – that you will not stay where you are, continuing to feel how you do. Say it. “I will not stay here. I will not continue to feel this way.” And then reach out. Call someone you trust. Call the church office! We are created with innate hope that leads us into unity. Reach out, my friend.

If you feel strong and secure in your hope, ask God to reveal to you someone that needs a helping hand or encouraging word this week. And do not ignore who is revealed to you! That person may not be your first choice, but that person is God’s choice. We are all God’s choice. And we are all in this together.

Hope, my friends, is so powerful. It is the belief in the unexpected and the unanticipated…and it leads us towards the unexpected and the unanticipated. That journey is trying as well as beautiful. It is a journey that God walks with us through thick and thin. It is a journey with Emmanuel. And I hope will you will join the Tuskawilla Family as we journey together this Advent Season.

Happy Thanksgiving! And see you Sunday.

Prayer: “Holy God, the mystery of your eternal Word took flesh among us in Jesus Christ. At the message of an angel, the virgin Mary placed her life at the service of your will. Filled with the light of your Spirit, she became the temple of your Word. Strengthen us by the example of her humility, that we may always be ready to do your will, and welcome into our lives Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”*

*”The Annunciation to Mary,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 256.

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Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Micah 6:1-9

This past Saturday I attended a district committee meeting and our group began with a devotion and time of thought centering by meditating on The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. It was particularly timely and particularly powerful for this to be our centering image given the terror that waged in Paris and across our world in Lebanon, Syria, Japan, and Mexico last week.

If you are familiar with the piece, then you will recall the swirling formations in the sky that represent chaos, the eerily lit sun-moon off in the corner, and the darkened landscape of community tucked in a valley between mountains.

(They might be hills to other folks, but to this Florida girl, they are mountains!)

The leader of our meeting asked our group to consider the painting in silence and then to share what we saw. After a few moments I shared that at the center of the painting is a church, complete with stained glass windows and steeple, but it is completely dark. No light is emanating from it. The surrounding homes are all aglow, but the church is asleep.

For van Gogh this painting was his interpretation of what had happened (perhaps has happened) to the church – the light, the Spirit has gone out – and not in the way to flourish in the world – but as a commentary on how the Spirit of God has been extinguished. Therefore people did not (perhaps do not) turn to the church as an institution, as a faith community, as a people in times of sorrow or joy. The church had (has) lost its relevancy; so, while other structures and the people within them are alive and well, the church functions much like a tomb, a memorial of days long past.

What will return the church to relevancy? What will resurrect its hope? Our God and only our God.

And what will return the light and recall the Spirit to the church? The faithfulness of God’s people in doing what the prophet Micah challenges and charges t0 “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

There is a powerful scene at the end of The Half Blood Prince in the Harry Potter film series. Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School had died and the pupils and faculty stand around his body in mourning. The Dark Mark floats in the sky, a symbol that the battle between good and evil continues and that evil has taken this round. Those who loved and are faithful to Dumbledore weep at his side and then one by one they spark a light at the end of their wands and lift them skyward. Each individual light  pales in comparison to the Dark Mark coursing through the sky, but together, their collective light obscures and then erases the Dark Mark.

Hope. The church has hope. We have hope. God is our hope. And we are invited to live that hope by accepting the invitation to be God’s vessel of hope to others in our very shadowy world.

A quote that I continue to see and hear following the continuing terror attacks that plague our world bears repeating here. It is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Together, may we be God’s light, may we be God’s love.

Together.

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This week the Tuskawilla Community will be led in worship by our very own Rev. Kate Ling – and y’all – she has amazing worship planned! Thank you, Pastor Kate, for your partnership and mentorship in ministry. And I will see the Tuskawilla Community for the First Sunday of Advent.

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Prayer: “Lord, we pray not for tranquility, nor that our tribulations may cease; we pray for thy spirit and thy love, that thou grant us strength and grace to overcome adversity; through Jesus Christ. Amen.”*

*”For Overcoming Adversity,” The United Methodist Hymnal 531.

Jobbbb: Blessing

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Job 42:1-6, 10-17

This week the Tuskawilla Family concludes our study of Job with a lesson on blessing. It seems a bit jarring, knowing what we have walked through with Job and perhaps experienced through our own reflections during this study, to now speak of blessing.

Job has been through the ringer. Like Jacob, Moses, others before him, and others after him, Job struggled with God. After the struggle he carried the lasting marks of that encounter with him. His physical wounds healed. Hisfamilial and material wealth was restored. Yet, this restoration did not return Job to his Job 1 self. His restoration was a new beginning, bearing in his heart, mind, soul, and strength all that had transpired and allowing that to guide but not define his future.

Job’s discourse with God comes to an end in the first six verses of Job 42. His last words to God before the narrative prose of the epilogue begins are “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” according to the New Revised Standard Version (Job 42:6). Kathleen O’Connor observes that the “in” in this translation of Job 42:6 “reinforces a theology of fire and brimstone, of human inadequacy and divine capriciousness as Job despairs and gives in.”* But other translations of this verse capture Job repenting “of” dust and ashes. Some may question, “How big a difference does this two-letter preposition make?” For O’Connor and myself, “in” versus “of” makes all the difference. Repenting “of” dust and ashes suggests that “Job gets up from his ash heap of sorrow and loss to get on with his life.”*

Job’s witness teaches us that we will experience suffering and that even in the midst of suffering when we feel that God is most silent, our faith – that God will speak again or that our God is already speaking in ways that we are not yet equipped to hear, understand, or interpret – draws us out of suffering, out of dust and ashes, towards new, altered, and continuing life. But to experience that blessing, to allow its transformation to reign and renew, Job had to vacate the ash heap. He had to release his anger and confusion toward himself, his family, his friends, and his God. He had to get up and continue walking forward.

Consider an ash heap in your life. Are you still there? Have you walked forward from it? What blessings did you receive in doing so? What lessons did you learn about God and yourself through this experience?

Join us this Sunday as Todd Zimmerman joins me in co-preaching and shares with us the blessing through and beyond life’s trials. His witness is a powerful testimony of leaving and learning beyond life’s ash heap. Our service will conclude with a special time of reflection and prayer. I look forward to worshipping with you.

Prayer: “O worship the King, all glorious above, O gratefully sing God’s power and God’s love; our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days, pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise. Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, in thee do we trust, nor find thee to fail; thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.”**

*Thoughts from Kathleen O’Connor in Feasting on the Word Year B Volume IV 196.

**”O Worship the King,” The United Methodist Hymnal 73.

Jobbbb: Back Up

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Job 38:1-7, 34-41

This Sunday Tuskawilla UMC and Montverde UMC will be participating in a “pulpit swap.” I will journey out to Montverde to share and worship and my beloved, Andrew, will walk around the corner to share and worship at Tuskawilla.

(Okay, he may not walk…but he will not have the usual trek out to South Lake County!)

I am so excited for Andrew to lead you in worship this Sunday! And I am thankful that TUMC’s services are recorded because I am definitely looking forward to experiencing his sermon once it is posted. Y’all welcome him warmly…and be sure to check out his shoes! That way he will feel right at home.

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Andrew continues our Jobbbb series with Back Up. When we last left Job in Job 23 he was seeking an audience with God to plead his case, but God was absent and silence abounded. In our text for this week God speaks…and it is as if the floodgates have been opened. Job wanted to interrogate God and now the tables have turned. Following his cursing Job wants to ask God – wants to know from God – why? In Job 38 through Job 41 God wants to ask Job – wants to know from Job – not why but who?

I confess that I am resisting the urge to begin watching all of my Christmas movies – don’t you just love Christmas movies?! A favorite of mine is The Holiday and in one scene a heartbroken Iris (played by Kate Winslet) is crying over her gas stove because the guy she has been in love with for.ev.er just announced his engagement to another girl on the same newspaper staff. *Disclaimer: do not try this at home* Having just turned on one of the stove’s pilots to heat her teapot she begins to inhale the gas seeping into her house, until the DING of a computer alert startles her out of that reckless behavior. *Disclaimer again: do not try this at home!* Throwing open a window and breathing in the cool Coventry English air, Iris smacks her own cheek and admonishes herself saying, “Perspective!”

In God’s speeches from the whirlwind, it is as if God says to Job, “Snap out of it! Be alert! Back up and gain some perspective!” God questions Job about the inner workings of the creation, how the stars were hung in the sky, how the seas collected, how animals hunt and care for their young, and most fascinating, about the mighty Behemoth and Leviathan, ancient mega-beasts that resembled a hippopotamus and sea monster, respectively. Through this interrogation God asks Job, “Who are you? And who am I?”

When I was in high school the band Downhere played a concert at my home church. I find their music to be genuine and profound. In their song “Great Are You” they sing, “Because I’ll never hold the picture of the whole horizon in my view, because I’ll never rip the night in two, it makes me wonder…Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? And great are you.” Like Job, we cannot say where we were when the heavens were speckled with stars or the instinct to care for young was knit into each animal’s heart. We will “never rip the night in two.” So perhaps then our role is not to question God. Perhaps our role – our primary role – is to know who we are.

I invite you to spend some time reflecting on that question this week – “Who am I?” Each of us will have unique and individual characteristics and all of us will share this characteristic in common. I am/We are created in God’s image. And I am/We are created to stand in awe of God, to stand in gratitude of God, and to stand in worship of God. There are so many things that we will never do because we are not God. We are not meant to be God. So why not take this invitation to focus on what we can do…on who we are. We can be and are awed by God. We can be and are grateful to God. We can and will worship God.

That, my friends, is our perspective.

Prayer: “To God be the glory, to God be the glory, to God be the glory for the things he has done. With his blood he has saved me; with his power he has raised me; to God be the glory for the things he has done.”* Amen.

*”My Tribute,” The United Methodist Hymnal 99.