From Wreck to Restoration: We Cry Out

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

Eustace is one of the main characters in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a sullen little boy that is critical of everything and landing on the Dawn Treader’s latest voyage was absolutely the last thing on his list of desires.

Actually, it was not on his list of desires at.all.

The longer the crew sailed, the more incorrigible Eustace became. His arrogance, self-centeredness, and anger worsened ten-fold.

One day the ship docked on an island and the crew set off to explore their surroundings. Eustace made his way into a cave and stumbled upon a great treasure! His greed was all consuming. He eagerly pulled valuables towards himself and stuffed whatever he could into his pockets. Finding a gold cuff he placed it on his arm, which initiated a chain reaction across his skin. His soft skin was transformed into scales, his bones lengthened and stretched, and horns replaced his hair.

Eustace transformed into a dragon.

At first he thought himself quite grand. People did not usually pay particular attention to Eustace unless he was causing an arrogant, self-centered, angry tantrum, but now everyone would pay attention to him! He would show them – all of the thems!

But the longer he sat, the more distraught Eustace became. Feelings of pride became feelings of panic and Eustace realized that he did not want to be a dragon. He was bound to the treasure he had taken that was not his. He had become the treasure’s captive and while everyone else could leave the island on the Dawn Treader, he would be left alone.

Try as he might Eustace could not change himself back into a boy. Eustace attempted to scape away his scales to only find layer after lay underneath. In hopelessness he cried out. In this, Eustace’s greatest moment of humility, Aslan appeared and peeled away Eustace’s dragon skin.

Remembering the encounter Eustace said,

I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt…

He peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm.

And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…*

Only God could free Eustace from his scales, which were a visible prison built by his sin, and Aslan – Lewis’ God-figure, did just that. Eustace cried out to Aslan and Aslan saved him.

We are incapable of saving ourselves; only God can save. Try as we might to remove our sin on our own, we are incapable. We need God’s help.

When we cry out to God our God frees us and forgives us. When we cry out to God our sin is peeled away and our hearts are rendered tender. We might feel frail or weak, but in humbling ourselves before God to be forgiven and made new, what may look and feel like weakness is evidence of true strength.

At times we can feel captive to our sin in prisons of our own design. Find rest and receive comfort, dear friends, that our God is the God that has come, is coming, and will always come to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isa 61:1 and Lk 4:18-19).

Thanks be to God.

Prayer: “Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness. Come, my Life, and revive me from death. Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds. Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins, kindling my heart with the flame of thy love. Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there. For thou alone art my King and my Lord. Amen.”**

*C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader 108-109.

**”An Invitation to Christ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 466.

From Wreck to Restoration: We Commit Sin

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 2:4-13.

A congregant once said to me, “Pastor, I’ve never heard a preacher talk about sin as much as you do!”

I remember laughing as he said this…and then I was quite struck as his words washed over me. If pastors are not talking about sin, then how will people in our congregations know how to talk about sin? How will people in the world know how to talk about sin?

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite authors, advises that we need language about sin as much as we need language about salvation. In her book, Speaking of Sin, she writes,

Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart form the full impact of what has been forgiven.*

It is not easy to talk about sin. Why dwell on the bad stuff, especially when God has promised to forgive the bad stuff and absolve us of it? I believe we need to talk about our sin, not so we carry the guilt and shame of it with us always, but so that we know the weight of our sin, and therefore the magnanimity of God’s amazing grace.

An essential component of John Wesley’s Class and Band structure was to have members of the bands sit before one another and answer the question, “How is it with your soul?” In responding to this question the band members would share where they excelled, struggled, and out right failed in their lives – personal, professional, and of faith – since the last band gathering. (Wesley would say the life of faith pervades all spheres of life.) It was not enough for band members to say that they sinned; they would have to name the sin specifically and articulate how that sin had harmed God, their neighbors, and themselves. Some might consider this method a severe form of behavior modification, but it worked for the Early Methodists and it continues to work for many today that participate in a covenant or accountability group.

Developing a language to discuss sin draws us into intentional thinking about our sinful acts as well as their consequences and repercussions. From this sort of reflection I am led to

  1. Repent of my sin and seek forgiveness and reconciliation and
  2. Make note of the circumstances, my actions, and my reactions, so that my behavior will be different the next time I encounter the same or similar circumstances.

I talk about sin and I talk about my sin as a way of letting people around me know that I am  a safe place to talk about sin. And maybe one day, if they would like, we could talk about their sin together. And when that conversation begins it will most surely end with the affirmation that our God forgives our sin, that Jesus removes the guilt of sin, that the Holy Spirit breaks the power sin has over us, so that we will indeed live as the forgiven and the redeemed.

Prayer: “In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me. So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin 4.

**”The Old Rugged Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal 504.

From Wreck to Restoration: We Are Called

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 1:4-10.

This Sunday the Tuskawilla Family begins a new six-week sermon series – From Wreck to Restoration – as we study texts from the book of Jeremiah. We begin our study with the prophet’s call story.

Earlier this week I had the privilege to spend time with my sweet sister-in-law, Vivian and nephew, Jacob. Jacob is 11 months old and such a joyful little boy. And with his age comes a bit more suspicion about people he is not familiar. Upon seeing Andrew and me, Jacob was cautious and gave us the look of “I think I know you…but my mama better stay right close.”

We spent the afternoon playing with toys and swimming. Andrew took Jacob to the piano for a lesson and I watched as Jacob visibly eased into comfort with Andrew. It was not necessary for Vivian to be in Jacob’s line of sight; Jacob knew he was okay.

Me on the other hand – Jacob’s unfamiliarity lingered – and that was okay. I remained near. I spoke kindly. I smiled. And just before Andrew and I left to come home, while Jacob was playing on the floor and I sat nearby, he crawled into my lap and wrapped his arms around me in tHe best Jacob-size hug.

It won my greatest hug of the day award.

In that moment, Jacob knew me. I was (am) a safe place for him. I was (am) someone that loves him. With me – with Andrew and me – our nephew will always have a family and be at home.

The book of Jeremiah – like all our prophetic texts – tells the story of God’s people being anxious, suspicious, and hesitant in returning to God. They are in exile in Babylon. They hope God has not forgotten them. They wonder if God will forgive them. The prophets affirm that God is with them and that God knows them…but I can imagine the people of Israel and Judah looked suspiciously at the prophets just like Jacob looked at me early Monday afternoon.

The people’s suspicion was okay. And God remained. Through the prophets God spoke words of kindness and affirmation. Through the prophets God communicated a message of hope and salvation. The people would return. And no matter what, they were (we are) God’s children and God was (is) their (our) God.

God wants each of us to let down our guards, to suntended our hesitation, and to climb into God’s arms. God wants to and does hold us close – most especially in the moments when we experience exile. We are members of God’s family. With God we have our home and God is always welcoming us home.

I encourage you to draw near to God. In doing so we move from wreck to restoration.

Prayer: “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning. Born of the one light, Eden saw play. Praise with elation, praise every morning, God’s re-creation of the new day.”* Amen

*”Morning Has Broken,” The United Methodist Hymnal 145.

Remembering September 11

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 51:1-10, Micah 4:1-5, and Matthew 18:21-35.

I will never forget. I was sitting in my 11th grade AP Literature class when our principal all called over the intercom system, “Teachers, please turn on your class televisions. A plane has just hit the World Trade Center in New York City.”

My class sat in silent horror as we watched the smoke rise from the building. We could not take our eyes away from the screen – the North Tower, the South Tower, the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania. Initially all students were kept in our third period classes; eventually the school board determined that the schools were secure and we could continue through our class schedule. But it really was not “continuing.” Students migrated silently between classes. From one room to the next we entered, sat in our desks, and watched the news.

I had so many questions. My fears mounted. As I reflect 15 years later, I continue to have many questions and in returning my thoughts to this day, my fears are stirred up afresh.

After 9/11 life seemed to come back to normal – whatever “normal” was – until my brother drove home from his Army base in Virginia one afternoon to hug me and my family. He was saying “goodbye.” He would deploy to Kuwait headed for Iraq in the next 36 hours. And all the 9/11 terror came crashing back down, but now it was not in New York or the Nation’s Capital or Pennsylvania. Those places were all very far away. Now the terror was too close to home…in fact it was in my home and taking my brother – that I would holler at because his music was too loud coming through the wall between our bedrooms and because he somehow managed to get water on every surface in the bathroom after showering – half way around the world into the very face of danger.

The house was too quiet without him. And although I prefer a dry bathroom, what I would have given to have slipped on water left on the floor.

Charlie served his country well. And Charlie came home. Many did not.

Brave men and women served our country – served our fellow country men and women well on 9/11 – people they knew and people they did not know. We were united. We were all Americans.

We are all Americans.

Some of those men and women that served on 9/11 came home. Many did not.

Countless lives were lost – unnecessarily lost. And to this day it is hard for me to recall what happened, to look at images from that day, to hear recordings of people calling for help and reporting the horrors they faced. I do not want to remember. I do not want those feelings to return.

But…

It is crucially important to remember that human beings are capable of this sort of behavior and activity. We remember by seeing these images, listening to the cries for help, and committing ourselves to behaviors that will not lead us to this sort of activity again.

Says the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10).

Says the Prophet Micah, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2).

Says Peter to our Lord Jesus, “‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times'” (Mt 18:21-22).

May these verses guide our prayerful desire to craft behaviors that lead to peace rather than destruction, to unity rather than division, to love rather than fear our neighbors.

May we take time this week to remember 9/11, even if it makes us uncomfortable…dare I say especially if it makes us uncomfortable. God is communicating something to us in these moments. May we never forget and with God’s help we will not return to behaviors that led to activities that resulted in the terror of this day 15 years ago.

Prayer: “O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others; open my ears that I may hear their cries; open my heart so that they need not be without succor; let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich. Show me where love and hope and faith are needed, and use me to bring them to those places. And so open my eyes and my ears that I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee. Amen.”*

*”For Courage to Do Justice,” The United Methodist Hymnal 456.