Near the Cross: Prayer and Gratitude

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 4:10-23.

Spiritual Discipline ~ Celebration

Discipline Scripture ~ Matthew 28:1-10.

During the Season of Lent, Christians through the ages ‘try on’ different spiritual disciplines as a way to lean into their life of faith in a new, deeper, or fresh way. Each week during Lent, I will offer a reflection – including thoughts by the renowned Richard Foster – on a different spiritual discipline as modeled for us by Jesus.

The life of Jesus is bookended with joy. He was born under the chorus of joyful glad tidings of the angel chorus. Jesus says to his disciples in John 15 that he has said these things – taught these things – ministered these things – so that they – that our! – joy would be complete because Jesus’ joy was and is in us! Through Jesus and only Jesus is good news brought to the poor. Through Jesus and only Jesus are captives released. Through Jesus and only Jesus do the blind recover their sight. Through Jesus and only Jesus do the oppressed go free. Through Jesus and only Jesus do we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19). And friends, we declare it with joy!

Foster believes “Celebration brings joy into life, and joy makes us strong. Scripture tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength. We cannot continue long in anything without it.”* The source of joy is obedience – and specifically – obedience to Christ. The invitation and challenge all Christ followers have is for obedience to Christ to work itself into every part of our lives; “when the power that is in Jesus reaches into our work and play and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourning. To overlook this is to miss the meaning of the Incarnation.”**

John 1:14 tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Message translation of this verse tells us that the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Jesus is at our block parties and cul de sac pick-up basketball games. Jesus is with us when we miss the red light because someone else – or because we! – were not paying attention. Jesus is with us when we feel stubborn and stingy. Jesus is with us when we wonder if any one sees us…if any one cares. Jesus is with us – to heal, to make new, to gift and give joy – abundant and everlasting.

Foster says the truest heart of the discipline of Celebration is holding and being held by the Doxology as our life song – to praise God from whom all blessings flow – and in the moments where the blessings seem absent or stripped away – moments of suffering and hardship and injustice and grief and loss – let us look up in faith. Sorrow may last for the night – and those tears are so bitter – but trust, my friends, that joy comes in the morning.

Jesus is coming – on the third morning – the first day.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise God all creatures here belong

Praise God above ye heavenly hosts

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.***

For further reading, see Celebration of Discipline pages 190-201.

*Celebration of Discipline 191.

**Celebration of Discipline 193.

***“Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” The United Methodist Hymnal 95.

Near the Cross: Prayer and Discipleship

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 3:17-4:6.

Spiritual Discipline ~ Submission

Discipline Scripture ~ Matthew 26:36-46.

During the Season of Lent, Christians through the ages ‘try on’ different spiritual disciplines as a way to lean into their life of faith in a new, deeper, or fresh way. Each week during Lent, I will offer a reflection – including thoughts by the renowned Richard Foster – on a different spiritual discipline as modeled for us by Jesus.

Truth be told – I struggle with the concept of submission. To me it is a word that carries with it a whole lot of baggage…and a whole lot of harm. And so when I place it in contact with and context of my faith – I cringe. I repel. I bristle.

Many years ago now Andrew and I were honored to stand as attendants at the marriage celebration of two friends from college. The wedding homily was preached, and the text that reads “wives submit to your husbands” was not only included but expounded – extoled even! Hackles just starting to relax, Andrew and I began our walk during the recessional march. He leaned close to my ear and said, “Guess you’ll have to submit to me now…”

I said without missing a step – literally – “Fat chance!”

I am grateful for the wisdom and vocabulary of Richard Foster. With his help the concept of submission becomes more palatable. It is no longer a repulsion, but an opportunity.

When Jesus first prays in the garden, it is a prayer of petition. He asks that the cup prepared for him would pass. When Jesus prays in the garden a second time, it is not a prayer of petition, but rather a prayer of acceptance. His words, “your will be done” ring loudest (Mt 26:42). Here, in shadow-filled Gethsemane Jesus shines a light on the corresponding freedom to submission. Writes Foster, “It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.”*

Initially, Jesus wanted his own way. The accountability of mortality is real. Jesus wanted that cup to pass. But through submitting his will to God’s will, he started to see something more than his own face in his mind’s eye and in his heart. Jesus saw our faces. And so Jesus chose our hearts. Jesus chose us and in so doing said an eternal NO to sin and its consequence, death.

In biblical teaching, submission refers to the spirit with which we view other people; because of submission, we do not have to be right all the time. Losing the desire to be right all the time releases us to the freedom that gives way for others.

Our Jesus is the ultimate example of giving way for others. Foster describes Jesus as living a cross-life:

“The way of the cross, the way of a suffering servant was essential to his ministry. Jesus lived the cross-life in submission to all human beings. He was the servant of all. He flatly rejected the cultural givens of position. Jesus shattered the customs of his day when he lived out the cross-life by taking women seriously and by being willing to meet with children. He lived the cross-life when he took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples.  This Jesus who easily could have called down a legion of angels to his aid chose instead the cross-death of Calvary. Jesus’ life was the cross-life of submission and service. Jesus’ death was the cross-death of conquest by suffering.”**

Jesus called his followers to submit to this kind of life. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” and “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 8:34 and 9:35). Foster reflects, “The cross-life is the life of voluntary submission. The cross-life is the life of freely accepted servanthood.”***

Jesus calls us to a tall order, which begins on bended knee.

Look for an opportunity this week to make way for another person. There are more important things in this world than being right – like being kind, being generous, and especially being kind and generous with forgiveness. Meet with God in prayer and discuss your relationship with submission.

I will be praying for the strength to take on the mind of Christ, so that my “fat chance” will some day become Jesus’ “your will be done.”

For further reading, see Celebration of Discipline pages 110-125.

Prayer: “Abide with us, that so, this life of suffering over past, an Easter of unending joy we may attain at last.”**** Amen.

*Celebration of Discipline 111.

**Celebration of Discipline 115-116.

***Celebration of Discipline 116.

****“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.

Near the Cross: Prayer and Perseverance

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 3:12-16.

Spiritual Discipline ~ Service

Discipline Scripture ~ John 13:1-5, 14-15.

During the Season of Lent, Christians through the ages ‘try on’ different spiritual disciplines as a way to lean into their life of faith in a new, deeper, or fresh way. Each week during Lent, I will offer a reflection – including thoughts by the renowned Richard Foster – on a different spiritual discipline as modeled for us by Jesus.

In our Discipline Scripture text this week we read of Jesus serving his disciples by washing their feet. His service ends with instruction, as it so often does. In John’s Gospel Jesus applies The Golden Rule, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). We, who follow Jesus, are called to serve. Called to humble ourselves. Called to honor one another. We are called after the example of our living Lord.

As we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we learn more deeply the differences between Self-Righteous Service and True Service:

  • Self-Righteous Service
    • Comes through human effort
    • Is impressed with the big deal, meaning impressive gains
    • Requires external rewards
    • Is highly concerned about results
    • Picks and chooses whom to serve
    • Is affected by moods and whims
    • Is insensitive, meaning meeting the need even when to do so would be destructive
    • Fractures community
  • True Service
    • Comes from a relationship with God deep inside the individual
    • Finds it almost impossible to distinguish between the small service from the large
    • Rests contented in hiddenness
    • Is free of the need to calculate results
    • Is indiscriminate in its ministry
    • Ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need
    • Can withhold the service as freely as perform it
    • Builds community

Says Foster, “True service quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for the needs of others. It draws, binds, heals, and builds.”*

Through service we lean into the radical role reversal that Jesus taught – that Jesus incarnated. That the last will be first. The least will be greatest. The weakest will be the strongest. Jesus did not seek position or title. Jesus served with a towel. Jesus served at the table, excluding no one. Jesus served on the cross, becoming sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

Recall a time when you were served. What was the circumstance? How did being served make you feel? How was your relationship with the person that served you transformed by that encounter? How has this or how can this experience shape your future service? How has serving rather than being served changed your life for the better? Share your answers with a friend. I look forward to serving you in worship this Sunday.

For further reading, see Celebration of Discipline pages 126-140.

Prayer: “And through these days of penitence, and through thy passiontide, yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.”** Amen.

*Celebration of Discipline 128-130.

**“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.

Near the Cross: Prayer and Sacrifice

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 3:1-11.

Spiritual Discipline ~ Solitude

Discipline Scripture ~ Luke 5:16.

During the Season of Lent, Christians through the ages ‘try on’ different spiritual disciplines as a way to lean into their life of faith in a new, deeper, or fresh way. Each week during Lent, I will offer a reflection – including thoughts by the renowned Richard Foster – on a different spiritual discipline as modeled for us by Jesus.

Our Discipline Scripture for this week is one of many texts that describes Jesus practicing outward solitude. Jesus spent forty days alone in the desert before starting his professional ministry. Before selecting the disciples he spent time alone. Upon learning of John the Baptist’s death he drew away by himself. After feedings and healings and teachings he sought time alone. Seeking outward solitude was a regular practice for Jesus; so should it be for us.

Inner solitude is also to our benefit. Foster says that inner solitude is what sets us free from loneliness and fear. Inner solitude is not just a time of being alone and being quiet; it is a time where we have a develop a heart that is keenly listening for God’s voice. Listening for God’s voice leads us in when to speak and when to keep silent; without God’s voice guiding us, we will miss the mark every time. Foster writes, “We must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully. We must seek the fellowship and accountability of others if we want to be alone safely. We must cultivate both if we are to live in obedience.”*

It is true that silence can make us feel helpless. But rather than feeling helpless, I like to think of silence as an invitation to trust – for God to speak for us, for God to speak into us. Rather than fill the world with words that grasp at straws or that do not truly reflect our heart, through solitude and silence, we welcome God to be our justifier rather than alone having to explain ourselves.

To practice solitude, Foster recommends identifying and observing the moments of solitude already present in your day – like the quiet moments in the morning when you just wake up or when you are stuck in traffic – let’s face it! – anywhere in South Hillsborough County! You can also seek to create moments of solitude by completing an assignment and then pausing in reflection or taking a walk outside.

The fruit of this work is increased sensitivity and compassion, towards ourselves and towards our neighbors. And I think we would all agree that our world could definitely benefit from increased sensitivity and compassion. Solitude is the threshold to cross to lead us there.

For further reading, see Celebration of Discipline pages 96-109.

Prayer: “As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst, so teach us, gracious Lord, to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most holy word.”** Amen.

*Celebration of Discipline 97-98.

**“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.

Near the Cross: Prayer and Formation

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 2:12-30.

Spiritual Discipline ~ Study

Discipline Scripture ~ Luke 2:41-51.

During the Season of Lent, Christians through the ages ‘try on’ different spiritual disciplines as a way to lean into their life of faith in a new, deeper, or fresh way. Each week during Lent, I will offer a reflection – including thoughts by the renowned Richard Foster – on a different spiritual discipline as modeled for us by Jesus.

In our Discipline Scripture this week, we read of Jesus in the Temple as a child. He and his family travelled – as was the custom – annually to the Temple to worship, to repent, and to give their offering. His parents started their journey home, but Jesus was not with them. He stayed behind in the Temple, listening to the scribes and asking his questions. Jesus took that opportunity to study, and he availed himself to that opportunity throughout his life. Luke 2:52 says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Foster says, “The mind is renewed by applying it to those things that will transform it.”* There is no greater transformation in this world than the one that comes through a relationship with Jesus. Knowing Jesus exposes us to the truth, and as we grow in that truth, we gain knowledge of the love of God, and that knowledge will set us free.

Foster observes that study involves four steps:

  1. Repetition – regularly channeling the mind in specific directions in order to ingrain habits of thought.
  2. Concentration – the centering of the mind on what is being studied.
  3. Comprehension – understanding what is being studied.
  4. Reflection – defines the significance of what we are studying, and specifically, to see things from God’s perspective.

That turn – to see things from God’s perspective – alerts us that study demands humility. Foster writes, “Study simply cannot happen until we are willing to be subject to the subject matter. We must submit to the system. We must come as student, not teacher. Not only is study directly dependent upon humility, but it is conducive to it. Arrogance and a teachable spirit are mutually exclusive.”**

I had a teacher in undergrad that every student called Dr. B. He taught business classes; we have him to thank for much of my church finance savvy. One of Dr. B’s most important lessons was wait to I-ize – meaning do not move too quickly from interpretation of what is being studied to application of what is studied. Foster agrees with Dr. B. We must first interpret – know what a lesson means – so that we can discernably apply what the lesson means for you (for me).

This week select a text and explore it through the four steps Foster identifies. Seek an interpretation of the text before an application. Share your insights with a friend. In this way, we try on the example set for us by Jesus – of listening, of asking questions, of living a life set towards holiness.

For further reading, see Celebration of Discipline pages 62-76.

Prayer: “As thou with Satan didst contend, and didst the victory win, O give us strength in thee to fight, in thee to conquer sin.”*** Amen.

*Celebration of Discipline 62.

**Celebration of Discipline 66.

***“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.

Near the Cross: Prayer and Service

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 2:1-11.

Spiritual Discipline ~ Fasting

Discipline Scripture ~ Mt 6:16-18.

During the Season of Lent, Christians through the ages ‘try on’ different spiritual disciplines as a way to lean into their life of faith in a new, deeper, or fresh way. Each week during Lent, I will offer a reflection – including thoughts by the renowned Richard Foster – on a different spiritual discipline as modeled for us by Jesus.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides clear instruction as to how we are to give alms, pray, and fast. Concerning fasting, we are not to look dismal or disfigure our faces. Changing clothes or wearing ashes were common signs of mourning and repentance. To separate those acts from fasting, Jesus directs us to wash our faces.

When we fast, we are not to attract attention because fasting is for spiritual purposes, not attention. Fasting is a between the individual and God.

Jesus does not command us to fast; rather it is a discipline that we can use as an offering to God. Remember, Jesus says “whenever you fast” not “you should fast.” Jesus upheld this discipline and anticipated his followers would as well.

Foster writes, “ Fasting reminds us that we are sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Mt 4:4). Food does not sustain us. God sustains us…We are told not to act miserable when fasting because, in point of fact, we are not miserable. We are feeding on God and, just like the Israelites who were sustained in the wilderness by the miraculous manna from heaven, so we are sustained by the word of God…”*

If you choose to try on fasting, progression should be observed. Be sure to check in with your primary care physician before starting a fasting routine. Begin with a partial fast one day a week, staying hydrated with fresh fruit juice and water. Try this for a few weeks and then you can either extend the hours you fast and/or increase the number of days you fast. Remember, “fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.”**

For further reading, see Celebration of Discipline pages 47-61.

Prayer: “Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray, teach us with thee to mourn our sins and close by thee to stay.”*** Amen.

*Celebration of Discipline 55-56.

**Celebration of Discipline 60.

***“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.

Lord of the Dance: The Dance Begins

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 1:1-5.

During the Season of Lent, the Tuskawilla UMC Family will worship through a sermon series based on the hymn, The Lord of the Dance by Sydney Carter. Each week will draw its subject from a verse of the hymn as we study and sing our way to this year’s Easter Cantata – Jesus! The Resurrection of the Messiah – which our Sanctuary Choir will gift to the congregation on Palm Sunday.

To help us prepare for this study, I offer an excerpt from an article published about Carter’s hymn entitled History of Hymns: Lord of the Dance. This article is available courtesy of The General Board of Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.

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History of Hymns: Lord of the Dance

“Lord of the Dance” (1962) captured the spirit of the 1960s protest movement in the United States. It became a sacred equivalent for songs by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, including “Where have all the flower’s gone” and “To everything turn” (later made even more popular by Peter, Paul, and Mary), as well as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the wind” (1962). While the direct – even, for some, sacrilegious – language accompanied by the folk acoustic guitar bordered on heresy for some; for others, these songs were a breath of fresh air. “Lord of the Dance” brought this sound and spirit into the church, especially in services designed to reach young people.

Called a “carol” by Carter, “Lord of the Dance” was not the first song on this theme. “Tomorrow will be my dancing day,” a seventeenth-century English carol, provided an obvious model for this famous hymn. An earlier medieval carol also explored the allegory of the dance as a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with Christ. Carter adapted a melody from the Shaker dance tune Simple Gifts. The first four stanzas appeared in the Student Christian Congress Hymns (1963), and the five-stanza version in 9 Songs or Ballads (1964). Carter’s Green Print for Song (1974) suggests that he wrote the words first and then adapted the tune of Simple Gifts to the text later. Simple Gifts has been identified as a quintessential American folk tune by composer Aaron Copeland (1900-1990), who quoted the tune as the climax of his famous symphonic work Appalachian Spring (1944).

A favorite of youth groups in the 1960s and 1970s, “Lord of the Dance” spread far beyond the Christian community, partially because the song never mentions Jesus or Christ by name. Its most famous use beyond the church is as a “Celtic” dance for Michael Flatley’s world-famous show, Lord of the Dance. The origins of the tune are not Celtic, however, but thoroughly American.

Always the iconoclast, Carter’s theological perspective may not pass all tests of orthodoxy. The opening lines of this first-person account of Christ’s life have been thought by some to “contain a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” While inspired by the life of Jesus, Carter implied that the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose), a statue that sat on his desk, also played a role in the song’s conception. The choice of an adapted Shaker tune for the melody – sometimes called the “shaking Quakers” who were known for their vigorous dancing during their rituals – rounds out the dance theme. Carter acknowledged the theological contradictions, but never attempted to resolve them.

He notes:

“I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”*

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Lent is a wonderful opportunity for us to grow in our knowledge and love of Christ – to know him first and best. Over the course of this sermon series, my hope is our understanding of Christ as our leader, teacher, defender, offering, and future will flourish. We begin this week studying how “the dance was begun.” I look forward to seeing you in worship and worshipping with you on our way to Easter.

Prayer: “I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun, and I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth. At Bethlehem I had my birth. Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.** Amen.

*To read the full article, please visit https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-lord-of-the-dance.

**”Lord of the Dance,” The United Methodist Hymnal 261.