Take Courage

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Haggai 2:1-9.

“Take courage,” says the prophet. But what does that mean?

For me to “take courage” means to show up, to take responsibility, to persevere, to speak truth in love, to work, and to repeat.

There are many days where I hear Prissy’s famous line in the back (or front) of my head, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” except I replace “birthin’ babies!” with some other obstacle I am facing that day.

(Though truly, I also do not know anything about birthing babies!)

What I do know is this – that when I am afraid, when I feel low, when I face adversity, when I am met with the unknown I have two choices – take courage or take a hike. “Take courage,” says the Lord, “for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4).

Our God calls us to a full an abundant life and it is a life for which we must work. Early in the garden after The Fall, God said to Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:17-19). Some may read this and think that God is telling Adam – telling humanity – to take a hike, but I hear these words in a different light. Yes, after The Fall our relationship with God and God’s plan for humanity was dramatically transformed, but that does not mean that our God does not want and does not intend good things for us.

Yes, we will toil – and we will eat. Yes, in the fields we will endure thorns and thistles and the fields will also produce our food. Yes, we will sweat and we will have bread. And yes, we will return to the ground from whence we were taken – we are from God, we return to God, and in the in-between time God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

So in the hard days – and it seems like there are many especially in this season – take courage, my friends. Show up, take responsibility, persevere, speak truth in love, work, and then repeat all of that again and again and again.

Our God is with us – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Prayer: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life. Say to the Lord, “My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!” … The snare of the fowler will never capture you and famine will bring you no fear. Under his wings your refuge, his faithfulness your shield … You need not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day. Though thousands fall about you, near you it shall not come … For to his angels he’s given a command to guard you in all of your ways. Upon their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone … And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.”* Amen.

*”On Eagle’s Wings,” The United Methodist Hymnal 143.

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Seven Questions of Faith ~ Where Is God?

Sunday’s Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14

I have a theory about the intended purpose of dogs wearing collars with tags, and more specifically, my intended purpose for my dogs wearing collars with tags.

We call them necklaces in the Miller house.

Collars with tags, or necklaces, are helpful if the pups meet a new human friend. The collars and tags share their names and give evidence that they are currently vaccinated.

What is my intended purpose for the pups wearing their necklaces? Necklaces deactivate a pup’s stealth mode. The tags that dangle off a collar do not make much noise, but they make enough noise to reveal their location, reveal their current activity level at that location, and reveal if that location is changing from one to another.

Samson and Tala…I know where you are! And that brings me great comfort.

Sometimes I would like to put a necklace on God so that without a shadow of a doubt I would know where God is. Always knowing where God is would – can you imagine it!? When the world gets loud through shouts of violence, cries of pain, and weapons of words or machines preach a blaring gospel full of hate, what I would give for a sensory assurance of God’s presence.

Just to hear God say, “My children! I am over here!”

And that is when I need to remember that in the midst of all the noise, God is still speaking. God is still making Godself known. In the loud moments the change must happen in me. I must focus my eyes and tune my ears to recognize God’s presence. Finding God’s presence in what at first may have appeared an unlikely place encourages my assurance of God’s presence to move from knowledge in my brain to beating confidence in my heart.

God’s presence is revealed through helpers, comforters, and providers. God’s presence is revealed through a cup of cool water, a bowl of steaming soup, a pair of new socks, and a kind, welcoming word. God’s presence is revealed in Scripture, song, and sacrament. God’s presence is revealed in you and me.

So in us and because of us, what sort of divine presence do our neighbors experience?

Victor Hugo penned in Les Miserables,”to love another person is to see the face of God.” Where is God? God is in each of us. God is capable and yearning to take up residence in each one of us so that we can become God’s echoes in the world. In this way when people wonder where God is or wander in search of God, we can lend our voices to saying “God is here. Allow me to show you how. And, more importantly, allow me to show you why.

Prayer: “Emmanuel, Emmanuel, his name is called Emmanuel. God with us, revealed in us, his name is called Emmanuel.”* Amen.

“Emmanuel, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 204.

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.

Upbuilding: Determined to Share

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Thessalonians 2:1-8

This year I am participating in a new mentoring program initiative at a local high school.  This program matches students in the local high school to volunteers in the community that want to come alongside these students and support them in their educational success.

I have met with my mentee three times so far.  For the first two meetings we talked sports – I talked about football and my mentee is continuing my education about basketball – I may understand it eventually!  We talked a little about our families and what we want to be when we grow up.  The conversations skimmed the surface, which is normal.  We were getting to know one another.

This week the conversation increased in depth.  My mentee shared a goal with me, but my mentee’s heart was not happy.  It was downcast.  The goal was before my mentee and the path to achieve that goal presented itself like walking across broken glass on hot coals up a mountain both ways without shoes.  So, we circled the wagons.  We strategized.  We came up with a plan.  We even role played the conversations that would need to happen and possible outcomes that could result depending on what was shared in those conversations.  And slowly but surely my mentee’s downcast heart became hopeful.  The frown on my mentee’s face started to turn up at the corners.

I cannot wait to see my mentee this next week and follow up on the progress towards his goal.

I am confident that my mentee and I were able to share in that conversation because we had intentionally laid the ground work of getting to know one another.  Sharing about ourselves took time.  A relationship had to be built.  Trust had to be established.  Showing up incarnated my commitment, incarnated my care, incarnated my investment in his success.  I am in my mentee’s corner.  I will hold him accountable.  I will celebrate his successes and I will help craft plans for greater acheivements so his goals will become his reality.

I also have a goal of understanding basketball by the end of all of this.  I am pretty sure my mentee will make that part of my reality.

This mentee/mentor relationship is not a one way street.  Just because I am the mentor does not mean that I am not being guided, and learning, and being formed and transformed by the conversations shared with and insights gained from this intelligent mentee.  We are both giving.  We are both receiving.  We are both committed to sharing about ourselves, learning about one another, and learning together.

Sharing ourselves with others is a way to share Christ with them – to love our neighbors, to serve our neighbors, to care for them, to comfort them, the challenge them, to congratulate them.  This is what living life is about.  This is the life that Paul lived with the Thessalonians.  He was a mentor to and a companion of the Thessalonians.  He was also a mentee of the Thessalonians.  They lived life together.  He was dedicated to sharing with the Thessalonians and rejoiced over the sharing the Thessalonians did with him.  Together, they incarnated that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt 18:20).  Christ is there with them.  Christ is here with us.

As I was leaving our mentoring time this past week my mentee asked where I was headed.  “Back to my office.”  “Where is your office?”  “At a church.  That’s where I work.  I pastor a church.”  “What!?  You’re a pastor??”  “Yes, I am.”  “Could…could we talk about that sometime?”  “You bet.  You just let me know.”

Where two are gathered…

Amen.

Prayer: “Draw us in the Spirit’s tether, for when humbly in thy name, two or three are met together thou are in the midst of them.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Touch we now thy garment’s hem.  All our meal and all our living make us sacraments of thee, that by caring, helping, giving, we may true disciples be.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!   We will serve thee faithfully.”* Amen.

*”Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 632.

The Gospel According to Showtunes: He Lives In You

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I John 4:11-17

Emotions are running high in my life.  I am sad.  I am excited.  I am nervous.  I am exhilarated.

I am moving this summer…the seventh move in seven years for Andrew and me.  In the next six weeks I will say goodbye to the Reeves UMC congregation that has nurtured, challenged, affirmed, and stretched me and my pastoral identity over the past two years and say hello to the congregation of Tuskawilla UMC.

It is a very strange place to be.

I am transitioning in service from one local church to another.  My family is also transitioning to another residence as well.  So our current parsonage is bespeckled with boxes and packing peanuts and bubble wrap, which is fine until you are walking around in the dark and your foot finds the bubble wrap!  I’ll just say that you wake up really quick!  There are signs of this move all over the place: in my emotions, in my vocation, in my home.  With all this transition some days I am struggling to identify a leg on which to stand.

And then I received a birthday present from my dear friend Lillian.  She bought me a globe.  It is small, about the size of a large grapefruit and it sits atop this brilliant silver stand.  The colors of the globe are muted; the water is dark and the countries are colored in greens, yellows, and peaches.  As much as I cherish this globe, I cherish her reason for giving it to me even more.  She wanted the globe to be a sign and an assurance that God is with me wherever my travels and transitions take me.  Though my appointments may change and though I may move out of one house and into another, my residence and my home is with God.

The concept of Emmanuel – God with us is one we usually hear during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but let’s not confine Emmanuel to those brief seasons.  God with us is our blessing and assurance each and everyday.  People say that the only thing constant in life is change.  Change is not the only constant; God is a constant – the constant – and with God as my constant I know that God will guide me, ground me, and grow me through any change I may face.

I conclude this post with a benediction that my friend and mentor Jenny would offer at the end of the worship services she led.  Remember this blessing (and hearing her voice in my head) are such a gift this evening.  It is said that this blessing is a riff on what is inscribed on the breastplate of St. Patrick.  I hope you enjoy.

Prayer: God go before you to guide you.  God go behind you to protect you.  God go beneath you to support you.  God go beside you to befriend you.  Be not afraid.  And let the blessing of Almighty God, The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, descend upon you, settle in around you, and make its home in you.  Be not afraid.  Go in peace.  Amen.