New Creation: Treasure In Clay Jars

[My apologies, The Sunday Stiletto Readers!  It has been a crazy busy week so I am very much delayed in posting this blog.  I hope you enjoy and look forward to the next posting in a few days!  Blessings!]

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 4:5-12

Some of my fondest memories growing up are from the time I spent in United Methodist Youth Fellowship.  While I was in high school I had the privilege of serving in the Youth Praise Band – I strummed the bass, sang, and dabbled a little in guitar.  One of the first songs I learned to play was Trading My Sorrows by Darrell Evans.

The bridge of Trading My Sorrows sings and elaborates upon a very important part of this week’s Scripture passage from II Corinthians 4 – “I’m pressed, but not crushed; persecuted, not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  I’m blessed beyond the curse for His promise will endure and his joy is gonna be my strength.  Though the sorrow may last for the night His joy comes in the morning!”  The tempo and drum beat would drive through the first two sentences, drop out around “though the sorrow may last for the night,” and then build again to ring in God’s joy that arrives at dawn.  This section was always my favorite.  I couldn’t help but smile when I sang it.  I couldn’t help but revel in the assurance of God’s promise.

The rest of Evans’ song is profound as well.  The verse sings, “I’m trading my sorrows.  I’m trading my pain.  I’m laying them down for the joy of The Lord.  I’m trading my sickness.  I’m trading my shame.  I’m laying them down for the joy of The Lord.”  The chorus affirms “Yes Lord!” I will do these things – I will lay them down and claim your joy.

In studying this week’s passage and reflecting on this song, I am aware that this passage speaks about and song sings about sufferings.  Sorrows, pain, sickness, and shame are sufferings and cause sufferings in this life.  Both admit that life is not a bed of roses.  Both recognize that there are thorns (if you will allow the metaphor) and, at times, those thorns cut deep.  Suffering is part of the human condition.  For people of faith, suffering is also part of our faith experience.  Having faith does not make us immune from suffering.  If anything having faith probably leads us to more questions about suffering – leads us to ask why.

Asking why is not a fissure in our faith.  Asking why does not challenge or weaken our faith.  I think asking why is a sign of faith – a sign of faith seeking understanding within our relationship with God.

As Christians we can ask why sufferings occur.  The answer is because there is evil in the world.  God did not create the evil.  God is not the cause of the evil.  I believe much of the evil that causes the suffering we experience is the result of individuals or systems of individuals abusing God’s good gift of free will.  So what do we do about our suffering?  Or more to the root, what do we do about the evil?  We respond to it with compassion and charity.  We transform it with justice and accountability.  We imbue it with empathy, love, and hope.

My biggest challenge is to lay down sufferings.  When I am asked about my day, more often than not, I quickly jump to my sorrows.  I carry sorrows for such a long time.  Doing so deprives me of joy and shields me from the beauty of God’s mercies that rise each morning with the sun.

I need to lay down my sufferings.  I need to claim God’s joy.

Yes, Lord.

Prayer: “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.  Great is thy faithfulness!  Great is thy faithfulness!  Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”* Amen.

*”Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 140.

Marinate: Among the Thorns

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 13:7, 22

Yesterday I had the opportunity to gather with a small group of fellow clergy in the Orlando area to discern and brainstorm and craft liturgy for some of our Annual Conference worship services.

(For folks reading this that are not familiar with Annual Conference – it is the annual gathering of United Methodist clergy and lay persons across the Florida Conference, which spans from Key West to the time change line west of Tallahassee, to do the work of the church.  We have plenary business and voting sessions that are punctuated, enhanced, grounded, interpreted, and appreciated through the worship services that precede and follow them.)

Our over-arching desire yesterday was to have the liturgy truly be the work of the people.  Often in liturgy the leader or the one provides a bulk of the speaking and naming of what we are celebrating or offering petitions for while the people or the all have brief admissions.  We want to flip that as much as we can – so the people – the all – have a greater presence in leading the liturgy.

Once we established this structure our focus shifted to the subjects of the liturgy.  Quite simply, we ain’t finished yet.  (Pretty confident we will refrain from using the word ain’t in the liturgy, but I find it fitting presently.)  As Christians, as United Methodists, we are constantly becoming.  As John Wesley would say, we are going onto perfection.  We are not there yet.  We are unfinished.  We are imperfect.  But through God’s grace, leading, and provision each day we are working out our salvation to reclaim the image of God in which we were created.

We paused to draw images into our mind that illustrate our unfinished state:

  • Hunger
  • Poverty
  • Access to quality healthcare and education
  • Struggles with conflict resolution and peace making
  • Judgment, prejudice, and hate
  • Premeditated acts of evil instead of intentional acts of kindness

Our meeting dismissed with each of the team member’s receiving our writing assignments and setting dates of when we would regather.

Our meeting dismissed an hour before the bombs exploded at and near the Boston Marathon finish line.

I drove home to check on one of my four-legged-children that did not have a very good weekend – she ate something she should not have eaten! – and shortly thereafter received a call from a friend of mine asking if I had heard from another friend who was attending the Boston Marathon as the cheerleading section for a runner.  I said no…and immediately my heart sank.  What had happened?  Bombings, he said.

Like a moth to the flame I watched the news coverage from afternoon till late night.  I waited anxiously to hear from my friend Sarah.  She texted around 11pm that she was home and all in her party were safe.  She was shaken but okay.

I give God incredible thanks for her protection and cry out in raging anguish for those who were injured and lost their lives in this senseless act of violence.  I have the utmost respect for the first responders and runners that headed into rather than away from the smoke.  God bless you and keep you always.

It is sadly ironic that hours before the liturgy team was brainstorming specific examples of where we, as an unfinished people, are still in need of God’s grace…and this horrific example came barreling towards us…

My God, we are unfinished.  When will we as a species acknowledge the unfinished-ness and brokenness and instead of amplifying it act in such a way to heal it?  When will we say “NO!” to the bombings and massacres and violence and hate?  When will we truly come alongside the persons who think and scheme and enact these horrors so that they can be healed, we can be healed, and then these evils won’t happen again?  When will the systemic evil be transformed?

My God, I confess to you that I am in the thorns this week.  I am struggling to grow in faith and trust of your word alongside tragic events that seek to choke out my joy.  Lord I recognize that the thorns must grow up alongside healthy seeds because if we remove one we will surely damage the other.  I am unsatisfied with this reality because it appears that the thorns are winning.  With each act of violence and hate and apathy to change or heal the first two, it seems like the thorns are the victor.  In these dark and thorny spaces, God of goodness and God of light, assure me that though sorrow may last for the night joy comes in the morning.  Your joy is coming.  Your goodness will prevail.  Strengthen me to be an instrument of your will and a bringer of your peace.  Deliver me – deliver us – from the thorns.

Prayer: “Can you hear the voice of the children softly pleading for silence in their shattered world?  Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate, blood of the innocent on their hands. Crying Jesus, ‘Help me to feel the sun again upon my face? For when darkness clears, I know you’re near, bringing peace again.'”* Merciful God, hear this the prayer of the children and the agonizing confession that we have failed…as evidenced by our offering this prayer yet again. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Bring your peace. Amen.

*from The Prayer of the Children by Kurt Bestor

Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between ~ New Creation

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Revelation 22:1-6

I can’t believe it!  Our 12-week series Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between: The Bible in 12 Themes has come to an end.  And what a trip we have shared.  We have one more installation this week – New Creation.  Next week is Laity Sunday at Reeves and then the first week of October I’ll kick off a new series.  It will be…uhh…interesting.  So you’ll want to make sure you stick around.

Y’all come back now, ya hear!  (Polk County Moment of the day)

But first things first!  New Creation!  Huzzah!

I can’t help but think of social justice when I think of God’s New Creation.  When I reflect on present creation I do so with a spiritual gaze that I received upon welcoming Christ as the Lord of my life.  In welcoming Christ as my Savior I was reborn in him and given spiritual senses that help me see and interpret the world in the mind and manner of Christ.

This gift isn’t just for me.  I don’t have a monopoly on it.  Everyone who has Christ as the Lord of his or her life shares in these spiritual senses.  Our challenge – not a burden but a time of discovery – is to learn how to use them to the fullest!

When I gaze upon creation with my spiritual senses I can identify the good that persists in creation – friend helping friend, peaceful negotiations rather than arguments with guns, feeding the hungry, access to healthcare and fresh water, companionship, care for the earth, and so much more.  But I also see where creation continues to ache…where our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, neighbors continue to cry out, “Where were you when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, alone, sick and in prison?”  Where were you?

Where was I?

When I think of the New Creation I imagine a place where we will no longer have to ask one another “where were you?”  Because we will all be there.  We will all have shown up.  We will all have loved and served and accompanied and healed and reconciled.

I crave this New Creation in the present.  And the awesome thing about God is that we can help God bring it about right now.  Yes!  Right now!

The writers of The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary agree that the New Creation – this New Jerusalem – is a city coming to us from heaven, “but humans can be the means of channeling God’s grace into it…Human agents infused with the Spirit of the new creation may contribute to that future reign of God here and now in the midst of the debris of the old world” (NIB: Revelation, 729).  I love that.  In the midst of the debris, the ashes, a fractured people living in a broken world can rise up in God’s Spirit, be made new, and partner with God in making all things new!

What an incredible opportunity!!!

Theologian N.T. Wright says that the Kingdom of God – this New Creation/New Jerusalem/heaven on earth/eternity – comes and will come “as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always – as Paul puts it in one of his letters – bearing in the body the dying of Christ so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed” (Surprised By Hope 112).  

God’s New Creation is coming.  And we can help it get here.

Reflection: Think of a time in your life where someone or some portion of Christ’s Body asked “Where were you when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, alone, sick and in prison?”  If you weren’t with them, where were you?  Was that place or activity helping you bring about the New Creation?  How will you be mindful now in how you spend your time so that your actions partner with God in bringing about the New Creation?

Alpha, Omega, and Everything In Between: Musical Interlude

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 91

(or any Psalm of your choice!)

This week we enjoy a musical interlude.  Consider it our intermission in our journey through twelve major themes in Scripture.  But this isn’t your typical intermission.  Don’t tune out.  You can get up for a snack if you like, but come back quickly!  There is music to sing!

Like there are many different tones in music, there are a diversity of tones in the Psalms.  There are psalms of praise, psalms of lament, psalms of questioning, psalms of awe, psalms of forgiveness, psalms of assurance.

The Psalms can be sung.  The Psalms can be read.  The Psalms speak to all aspects of the human condition.  When we are joyful, mourning, hungry, seeking justice, aching for rescue, and more – there’s a Psalm for that!

When our words fail us, we have the gift of the Psalms.  They are a human composition, but I believe they were composed by God and then shared through human  hands.

The crafting of psalms continues today.  Perhaps you write poetry or music to get rolling thoughts out of your mind and onto paper.  Perhaps when you are stressed or worried you turn to music to give you  words when you can’t find them.  When I struggle to give voice to my emotions, I turn to my favorite songs both sacred and secular.  When I hear them or sing along to them I emote and then sense God’s peace.

Our lives are psalms.  We live them as we write them.  And like the Psalms, what we do with our lives is an offering to God.  Sometimes what we offer is not so pretty – those times of anger, frustration, and loss – but God honors that offering because it is authentic and true.  In the Psalms I believe we see humanity setting pretenses aside and standing in real-ness and genuine-ness before God.  And in a world that seems to be all about “putting on faces” and “keeping up appearances” I think we would do well to express, emote, and find our voice in and among the Psalms.

Reflection: (A) Take time to write a psalm of thankfulness to God for what God has done in your life this week.  To shape your psalm writing consider: (1) what God has done for you, (2) how God’s action changed you and/or your circumstance, (3) what will you do now that God has acted on your behalf, and (4) how has this experience made you more genuine and real?

(B) Think through your music collection – whether vinyl, CD, or MP3 – and identify songs in your repertoire that you see as psalms.  Maybe it’s a ballad by The Beatles or Kenny Chesney or Alanis Morissette or Journey!   Maybe it’s a hymn!  Study these songs.  Do they speak to thankfulness, struggle, or wonder?  How do they shape or how have they shaped your experience?  How do they help you set aside the facades and the appearances so you can uncover the real, genuine you?