From Wreck to Restoration: God Shapes Us

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 18:1-11.

In a farewell to summer before school resumed I joined my dear friend, Holly, and her son, Gage, at the beach one afternoon. There is something so soothing about the sound of crashing waves upon the beach. 

After several rounds of cards and watching Olympic Beach Volleyball, we headed down to the beach ourselves. Gage, in his creativity, wonder, and joy said, “Let’s build sandcastles!”

Now growing up a native Floridian, I spent many a summer day on the beach, but I have not built that many sandcastles. Gage and Holly are experts. We built a pyramid-shaped castle, complete with a mote. We built a drip castle. And then we set about our biggest endeavor – a sandcastle in the shape of a turtle. 

Yes – a turtle. 

Our assignments: Holly – sculptor | Gage – water | Sarah – sand

With great ease and steady hands Holly modeled a sea turtle out of that mound of sand. First the shell, then the flippers, then the head, and lastly a little tail. Holly took care in shaping each piece and didn’t move on until every grain was just so. 

Then, Gage invited me to crosshatch the shell – pressure. So much pressure.  

It was incredible to stand back and admire our work. The turtle would remain until the tide returned and would begin its own sculpting to smooth some of the mounded sand and take others back into the Atlantic. While our turtle will be gone the materials remain for the next group of friends to come and create.

I am thankful that just as we had the opportunity to shape the sand into our creations, God continues God’s shaping of us in our lives throughout our lives. God builds us up, God smooths us out, God gathers us, God separates us.

God shapes us for a particular task. Then, God shapes us again.

God’s shaping comes through our stewardship – through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. God’s shaping comes through our interaction with Scripture – through our study and response. God’s shaping comes through the hands of the Holy Spirit and through the hands of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sometimes we are ready for God’s shaping and at other times it catches us by surprise. Sometimes we are hungry for God’s shaping and at other times we wish God would pass by us. God’s shaping is part of our sanctification, part of our life and living in holiness. We may not want it, but we need it. We may not welcome it, but we are better for it. God will not force God’s shaping upon us; this shaping is part of God’s gift of grace and desires us to accept it.

I encourage you to find your way to some sand this week. Spend some time shaping and creating. Feel the grains of sand in between your fingers. Gather and separate the sand. Build it up and smooth it again. Think of how you have experienced and received God’s shaping in your life. Give thanks and prepare – for God’s shaping and for the shaping that God will do.

Keep our brothers and sisters in Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, throughout Florida and along the Southeast Atlanta Coast in your prayers in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Please stay safe and check in on one another.

Prayer: “Take my life, and let it be concreted, Lord, to thee. Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of thy love. Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for thee.”* Amen.

*”Take My Life, And Let It Be,” The United Methodist Hymnal 399.

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Faithful Living

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.

When I read the words “Let mutual love continue” I immediately think of Mr. Bill Gill. Bill is a member of Gray Memorial UMC in Tallahassee and I had the privilege of meeting Bill during my interview for membership as a provisional elder in the Florida Annual Conference in January 2010.

It was one of those damp, cold January days. I flew in from Atlanta the day before, ventured to Polk County for a quick siesta, and then after receiving thorough instructions about driving my mother’s brand new car to my interview, I drove to the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. I was invited to come for lunch; my interview would start at 1pm. I remember being too nervous to eat and standing awkwardly at the back of the dining hall, quaking in my stilettos, seeking a friendly face. Bill’s gaze caught mine and his wise, kind eyes assured me that everything, in fact, was going to be okay.

Bill looked in on me throughout the afternoon. He was caring and comforting. And as a prelude to the news that I would be commissioned that year at Annual Conference, he smiled and said, “We have much to expect from you. God is doing great things in you and I am going to enjoy watching it all unfold.”

When it came time for my ordination interviews Bill sought me out again – this time a friendly and familiar face. Bill and I always seem to find one another at Annual Conference without planning it – God keeps seeing fit to draw us together. He asks about my appointment. He asks about my family. And he shares the great things going on at his church, which one of my friends happens to serve.

(Sometimes Bill says that Jack is up to something…and that is when I assure Bill that pastors are always up to something…)

Whenever we are together Bill humbles me with his encouragement. “We have much to expect from you. God is doing great things in you and I enjoy watching it all unfold.” And now his encouragement includes this phrase followed by a hug, “I am so proud of you.”

I feel, know, and treasure Bill’s love in my life. He showed me hospitality as a stranger and in him I have found such a generous friend. The relationship I have with him and the care I continue to receive from him has shaped and continues to shape the relationships I have with others. As I said in my sermon last week, “small acts have expansive consequences.”* Bill’s small act of sharing love in my life continues to live beyond both of us from that moment we shared on a Tuesday afternoon that last week of January in 2010. That love, which is Christ’s beautiful love, is living on in me and I know it is living on in him.

Thank you, Bill. Thanks be to God for you. May Christ’s mutual love always continue in you and through you. May Christ’s mutual love continue in and through all of us.

Prayer: “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you. Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are near and far away. These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love, all these are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”** Amen.

*Craddock, F. B. (1990). Interpretation–Luke. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 171.

**”Jesu, Jesu,” The United Methodist Hymnal 432.

 

God Never Said That: God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 38:3-8 and I Corinthians 10:1-13.

This morning I received this text message from my dear friend, Dan:

Sarah! We were just called out by our seminary professor!

It may surprise some of you, but this is not new for Dan and me…we were known to meddle quite a bit during our Candler Days. Since it has been a while since we have been called out by a seminary professor, I was immediately curious. What was happening?

Dan is attending a continuing education event at Epworth by the Sea in St. Simon’s, Georgia and our pastoral care professor, Dr. Karen Scheib, was the plenary speaker this morning. Her plenary subject was the importance of covenant groups – groups that connect electronically, over the phone, and/or in person to share the highs, lows, and happenings of life. Dan and I are in such a covenant group. We make a point to connect several times throughout the week via text message, call one another at least once a month, and see one another a minimum of once a year.

During our interactions, whether texting, talking, or in person, we laugh; we cry; we share ministry resources; we challenge one another; we build up one another.

I cannot imagine my life without Dan or Brenda. My life is better because they are in it.

When I experience moments where I feel like that last piece of straw is about to break the camel’s back – meaning my back! – I am so grateful for friends like Dan. God did not say this life would be easy; God did say that we would not live this life alone. Our loved ones, family, and friends are such gifts to us throughout our lives as they lend their perspective, advice, hands, feet, presence, and faith to our benefit and aid.

Are you a member of a covenant group? I would venture to say you probably are, even if you do not call your group a covenant group. When you are in need, afraid, worried, or sick – who do you call? When you have had an incredibly joyful experience – who do you call? When you need to check in about what is going on in your life – the highs, the lows, and the happenings – who do you call? The persons that come to mind as you answer these questions constitute your covenant group.

In addition to your check-ins, consider how you might grow in relationship with God alongside your covenant group members. Perhaps you

  • Begin or end or begin and end your conversations with prayer.
  • Participate in a Bible Study together.
  • Serve on a day-long or extended service project together.
  • Eat together.
  • Fellowship together.

I have found that being intentional – that making my covenant group a priority in my life – is central to my faith development. My covenant group is central to reminding me that even when I do not think I can handle one more thing that God provides a way forward. Thanks be to God that the members of my covenant group are part of that way forward.

Prayer: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul. It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul), it is well, it is well with my soul.* Amen.

*”It Is Well With My Soul,” The United Methodist Church 377.

 

FAMILY ~ It Begins With YOU

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Acts 2:38-47.

This week Andrew and I had the opportunity to return to some of our “old stomping grounds.” No, we were not in Polk County, but that is a great place, too! We were in the greater Atlanta area visiting dear family and friends, eating practically everything in sight, and reminiscing about our time spent here while in seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

I may have also been bitten by the Doctorate of Ministry bug…but we will talk more about that later.

It is good to visit “home” or “the homes” throughout our lives because those occasions help us to reflect on how things were and how things have changed, and how we were and how we have changed. Going home is as much a physical visit as it is a spiritual and emotional visit. It draws me to a time of reflection as well as gratitude. Yes, somethings change – people who used to live or work in certain places are no longer there, buildings that were once used for one thing are now used for another purpose, praising God that one section of road construction is finally completed only to find that they have simply moved the construction two miles north.

And yes, somethings stay the same and get better with age – hospitality, kindness, generosity, curiosity, encouragement, and love.

This Sunday in the Christian Year we return home to Pentecost – the birth of the Early Church through the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit. In returning to this home we are reminded of how things were and how things have changed and how we as God’s people were and how we as God’s people have changed. I am so thankful for the legacy from our Pentecost home that remains and sustains – worship, confession, gathering around Christ’s table in fellowship, thanksgiving, acts of mercy, acts of justice, service, companionship, and transformation. I am thankful for the ways our legacy from our Pentecost home has changed, morphed, and evolved through the generations. And I am hopeful for how we will continue shaping our legacy as a family of faith through our relationship with and response to the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

I invite you to join me in prayer for the continued shaping of our legacy as a United Methodist faith family as the voting at General Conference begins on Monday, May 16. I am hopeful that decisions made by this elective body and voice of our denomination recall our home in Pentecost – the mighty presence of God and the immediate, authentic, inclusive response to God’s presence in our midst – as they add their heads, hearts, and hands to the shaping of the United Methodist witness in the world for the next four years.

Gracious Lord, may hospitality, kindness, generosity, curiosity, encouragement, and love define United Methodists and our witness. May people see your face, your light, and your welcome in us.

Prayer“Wind who makes all winds that blow, gusts that bend the sapling low, gales that heave the sea in waves, stirrings in the mind’s deep caves: aim your breath with steady power on your church, this day, this hour. Raise, renew the life we’ve lost, Spirit God of Pentecost.”* Amen.

*”Wind Who Makes All Winds That Blow,”The United Methodist Hymnal” 538.

FAMILY ~ Ministry of All Believers

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ephesians 4:1-16.

My friend Dan Dixon has the keenest ability to send me cards that 100% describe how I am feeling at the present moment. My most recent installment looks like…

 

IMG_0107

This.

I think it should be titled, “Sarah Miller: This Moment In Time.”

The inside of the card reads, “Ever have one of those days?” And underneath those words Dan kindly wrote, “Yes, we do! Yes, we all have!”

How wonderful it is to be reminded that I am not alone in this life and that I have a great friend that will send me a picture of a soaked cat to lift my spirits.

In the card Dan thanked me for all the ways we stay connected as colleagues as well as friends. We share resources, we ask advice, we laugh, we vent, we sit in silence, we complain about all the things we should have been taught at Candler, and through talk, text, and/or email, we offer “towels” to one another on the days we are utterly soaked.

Dan has the incredible gift of speaking truth in love – “Sarah, you are doing a little too much right now.” “Sarah, listen to your committee members on this.” “Sarah, let that go.” “Sarah, forgive yourself.”

In her book Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”*

Through the relationship we share, Dan and I are able to be brought out of ourselves – and most importantly, brought out of the stories that we tell ourselves that are not a true reflection of our actual selves – so we can love and nurture, so we can struggle with growth and grapple with fear, and so we can try on the rawness of vulnerability and realize that we can live with that rawness for just a few moments longer than we did the last time.

Barbara Brown Taylor observes that we are all born with “instinctive care” – that innate knowledge to do whatever we need to do to care for ourselves. To love the neighbor as the self requires that we apply that same sort of instinctive care to someone else, that we do whatever is needed to care for another. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “to become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.”*

When we apply instinctive care to one another in community we experience unity. We share our joys and sorrows in community. We do not walk alone; we walk with others. We share one another’s burdens and we work together to lighten those loads. We offer affirmation, we ask questions, we seek and share forgiveness. This is what it means to be in relationship with one another. This is at the core of our ministry to one another as believers – caring for one another, which leads us to caring for all, as Christ cares for us.

Is there someone in your life presently that relates to or resembles my above “moment in time?” How might you reach out to them, and in so doing, instinctively care for them as you would for yourself? Consider how your actions will draw the two of you closer together. And imagine what our world would be like if we all genuinely and diligently answered our calls to to this sort of care.

Prayer: “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 93.

**”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” The United Methodist Hymnal 557.

 

Seven Questions of Faith: Am I Accepted?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 8:1-11

In a couple of weeks I will graduate from my 13-month, 303-hour yoga teacher training program. This has been an incredible time of growth in my practice, not just in my physical abilities (because trust me, I still fall – a lot!), but in my understanding of yoga philosophy, anatomy, and in appreciation of yoga’s incredible ability to unite people with so many uniquenesses and abilities to breathe and move as one.

I have also grown in great love and respect for my yoga teacher trainee family. Before we started our training journey our common denominator was our teacher, Holly. We were all novices to one another, coming from different professional, vocational, and familial backgrounds. Our first few interactions were all experiences of testing the waters with one another. Holly never impressed upon us an expectation for relationship; she fostered what occurred organically between us. I am so happy and grateful to say that  Joy, Dom, Lauren, Jeri, Kristine, and Stephanie are some of my best and favorite people ever.

Early on in our training we participated in a workshop experience with a local yogi that encouraged us to begin writing the story or narrative that brought us to yoga. We all have our own path. The evidence of that path will appear from time to time on our mats and is also a part of the equation of what results from time spent on our mats.

We each began to journal. I returned to yoga in May 2013 as a way to address my chronic cranial pain and chronic migraine diagnoses. I tried to manage my pain through medications, but the side effects I experienced were not worth it. So I looked east to this ancient practice for strengthening and relief. I still struggle with chronic pain, but not nearly as severely. I am healthier and stronger than I have ever been.

What we did not know at the outset of our journaling was that our workshop leader wanted us to share our journal entries with one another. We were still a new group on this journey together…did we really want to share such personal information so immediately? Did we really want to reveal parts about ourselves that could potentially make us feel weak or less than or ashamed and potentially make ourselves visible as weak, less than, and shameful before people we were still getting to know?

Seated in a circle, looking one another in the eye, each taking our turn, we shared our stories. And we shared grace as we listened. Stories of recovery from medical events, of recovery from addictions, of seeking community, of seeking acceptance, of wanting to grow, of wanting to ground, of fear, of freedom, of friendship. Hearing one another’s stories – made up of confessions and dreams, worries and confidences – knit our little yoga family together in a big, big way. We did not judge one another’s journeys. We did not assign value or status, other than to recognize the worth of the neighbor to our right and to our left.

We thanked one another for our courage in sharing. And thank you, Candace, for leading us in this gift of narrative and birth of community.

In our Scripture passage for this week Jesus hears a narrative of a woman, not told in her own words, but by the words of the ruling religious and governing body. It is a narrative that in the ancient world and in Jesus’ world would bring shame and feelings of worthlessness not only upon her but on her family as well. But when Jesus looked up and spoke to those in range of hearing, he did not assign value or status, other than to recognize the worth of the daughter of Abraham standing before him. In recognizing her worth Jesus did not diminish the worth of the scribes and Pharisees; rather, he invited them to remember her worth by recalling the grace they had received as they journeyed down their paths in life.

Take some time this week to remember your personal journey. What has brought you  to this point? Recall your formative moments, both positive and negative. What grace did you receive in those moments? What grace resulted from those moments? How did your perception of yourself change as you received your worth as a beloved child of God? How has your perception of your neighbors changed as you recognized the worth in another of God’s children? How has God knit you into community in the past and present? How do you anticipate God knitting you into community in the future?

Be grateful for your journey. Be grateful for God’s grace in your life. And be grateful for where God is leading you right this moment.

Prayer: “Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, that we to judge thee have in hate pretended? By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted. For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death and anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.”* Amen.

*”Ah, Holy Jesus,” The United Methodist Hymnal 289.

God In A Box

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 9:2-9

This week the Tuskawilla Community welcomes back Rev. Melissa Cooper to share with our congregation. Melissa serves as the Program Coordinator for our Conference’s Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. She is the genius behind our Conference’s LECFamily Camps and Retreats Ministries and a visionary for cultivating intergenerational ministry cultures within churches across our Annual Conference. Melissa has recently started working with a team at Tuskawilla. She is helping us learn about and from our organic intergenerational nature as well as learn new ways to expand the intergenerational impact of our ministries.

Melissa is also one of my favorite people. Ever.

The friendship that Melissa and I share started out as a mountain top experience, plummeted into a valley, and then came back up to a middle ground where we continue to flourish in relationship, moving as life does between the mountain tops and the valleys.

We met at a conference retreat where I could talk and she could not! Melissa was training as a facilitator for this conference program and her task for that retreat was to be a silent observer – to look, to listen, to journal, and then when the conference was over, she and other trainees like her would dialogue about their experience during the training. I was a participant at this retreat, and I confess, I was not too keen on being there. And when I add “not too keen to being here” to several days of several hours of group work that is then reported back to the larger group and we do not receive a break until all the groups have reported in – oh I was all the more willing to share to move the whole conference along! So I talked quite a lot and Melissa did not…and somewhere in the midst of what I said, what she heard, and what God did in the midst of all of that, when the retreat ended Melissa made a beeline for me!

I think her first words were “Let’s be friends!” and I was like…”ummmm…okay?” We made plans to connect later that Fall. We hugged and said good bye.

Mountain top.

By the time Melissa and I got back together, I had received disappointing news about a project I had been working towards for over two years…and I was angry. I really did not feel like seeing anyone, but I keep commitments once I make them and I headed to meet Melissa for dinner. She walked in as her joyful, sassy glasses wearing self and oh, I hurricane’d all over her parade. I griped. I complained. I aimed anger at her – someone that, HELLO!, this is my first real opportunity to spend time with her! – and ate my dinner like a sullen, soaked house cat.

Poor Melissa. She was probably thinking “where’s the other girl!? I want to be her friend…get this one out of here…”

Valley. Deep, deep valley.

I remember sitting in my office a few days later wondering if I would ever hear from Melissa again when my phone buzzed. It was a text message from her. I think it said something blatantly obvious and wholly comforting, something like, “So that was a rough night, huh!?” I laughed. And texted back, “Yeah…that about sums it up.”

Out of the valley to the gift of middle ground where all people can grow. And I give thanks that our friendship continues to grow.

In the Scripture passage for this week we read about Peter’s mountain top experience with Jesus. Jesus’ transfiguration occurs. His clothes “became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” and Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus (Mk 9:3). The persons representative of the Law, the Prophets, and Eternal Salvation are all in one place!

This mountain top experience is the complete package!

And Peter wants to stay. He wants to build tents. He wants to set up camp. But after the cloud descends and he hears “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus leads Peter and the other two disciples back down the mountain (Mk 9:7). Moses and Elijah are gone. The moment is gone.

Valley. Deep, deep valley.

Jesus and his disciples return to a place of middle ground. They return to their work of continued growth in relationship with one another and service of their neighbors. They return to their ministry of healing, of teaching, and of preparing the people – preparing themselves – for Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

This middle ground is a place of growth. In a way mountain top and valley experiences are static. Not much happens there. It is in the place between where we move towards a mountain top or away from a valley or the other that we learn about ourselves, that we learn about our God, that we strengthen relationships, and that we strengthen our faith.

I give thanks for the gift of the middle ground I continue to receive in my life…and I especially give thanks that Melissa did not wash her hands of me after that awful, awful first date. She showed me grace and understanding. Jesus showed Peter grace and understanding. May these be the gifts that you share with yourself and someone else as you explore the middle ground this week.

Prayer: “Holy God, upon the mountain you revealed our Messiah, who by his death and resurrection would fulfill both the law and the prophets. By his transfiguration enlighten our path that we may dare to suffer with him in the service of humanity and so share in the everlasting glory of him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God for ever. Amen.”*

*”Transfiguration,” The United Methodist Hymnal 259.