Mountain Meditation: The Narrow Gate

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 7:13-14.

Early on in my undergraduate studies my professors taught me that every one is a theologian; each individual person is engaged in the work and study of God. Theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich were known to recommend doing the work of theology with a Bible before you, a pint in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. With this recommendation came the understanding that theology was – and is – meant to be lived. We do not practice theology or grow in our study and understanding of God in isolated laboratories. We enter a certain space week after week for concentrated exposure to theology and as we leave, it is not as if we place our work on hold to be picked up again the next week. We are meant to carry what we have learned, what we have seen, what we have felt in worship into the world with us to see how it carries, how it sustains, to determine whether or not what we have ahold of is the wheat or the chaff.

A question of theology that comes up with regularity is the question of pre-destination – does God predestine some people for exaltation and others for condemnation? A person could read any number of texts from Scripture – including our passage for this week – and answer the question of pre-destination in the affirmative. But does God really?

“Pastor Sarah, what do you think?”

The doctrine of pre-destination states that God has selected some for exaltation in glory and others for condemnation in eternity. The doctrine states that God has this decision made from the outset of time, that our works can neither argue our case for the better or deteriorate our position for the worst. If this doctrine holds, it smacks up against the understanding that we (humanity) have free will; are our choices really our own – really free – if God has pre-destined everything?

United Methodist Theology – based upon the sermons, journals, and speeches of John Wesley – does not ascribe to the belief of pre-destination. Now, John Wesley was a theologian and a cracking preacher, but he was not a systemitician – a person that constructs a rational or coherent system of thought. While some theologians spent a bulk of their work articulating their understandings of the foundations of the earth, which then connected to their understandings of the foundation of faith, Wesley accepted work from fellow theologians as his starting place and continued the dialogue in agreement with or resistance to that theological thought.

Wesley strongly believed that humanity has free will – that we are free to choose or refuse the gift of God’s grace – and that God’s grace would not be forced upon us because then it would not be a gift. Wesley also strongly believed in the benevolence of God; therefore, in his thought, there was no way that God would choose some for exaltation and others for condemnation. Wesley believed all humanity would be held accountable for our actions before God and that because of God’s grace we would be able – and strengthened – to stand on the day of judgment.

Theologians after Wesley’s day continued the quest to offer a response (resistance) to the doctrine of pre-destination. The response that settled in my heart is this one – that God chooses all people for exaltation and chooses sin of condemnation. “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). The Ecumenical Apostles’ Creed includes that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” When Jesus descended to the dead, he descended to conquer sin, and to conquer the consequence of sin, which is death. His rising on the third day shows his triumph over what humanity thought was our ultimate defeat, and in rising, Jesus secures hope of resurrection for all that died before and will die after him.

I believe we have free will. I believe it is our choice to follow Jesus through the narrow gate and up the path that is beyond it. I believe God holds us accountable for our words, signs, and deeds. I believe God’s grace emboldens and redeems. I have seen and continue to see evidence of this in my life – my Bible before me, a news source in one hand, and a pint of coffee in the other.

How have you experienced your faith intersecting with your daily life? How do you consider yourself a theologian and apply yourself to the work and study of God?

Prayer: “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.”* Amen.

*”Come, Thou Fount,” The United Methodist Hymnal 400.

Mountain Meditation: Don’t Worry; Be Mindful

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 6:24-34.

If there were a prize for worrying…I would be worried that I would not receive the prize.

Can you relate?

In the right doses worrying can help us. Worrying can alert  us to dangers. Worrying may contribute to (prod…instigate…motivate) our decision making practices. Worrying can move us from inactivity to activity.

On the other hand, worrying can become obsessive and incapacitating. Worrying can crescendo the feeling of being overwhelmed to the feeling of being completely paralyzed.

In his book What is the Opposite of Worry Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen names three powerful antidotes to worry:

  1. Being held in loving arms,
  2. Cultivating a soothing inner voice, and
  3. Befriending all of your emotions.

When I was in high school I spent many Sundays serving in the church nursery with many of First Lakeland’s youngest worshippers. One boy I remember in particular, his name is Zachary, would cry unconsolably when his mother brought him to the nursery – new place, new people, no Mama. We would try every trick in the book to engage (distract) Zachary with a toy, stuffed animal, or book. Not interested. And so the caregivers would take turns holding him close to our chests. With time his accelerated heart beat would slow as he listened to and felt the caregiver’s heartbeat. He would cry into the crook of the caregiver’s neck until he felt safe enough to peek out into the room. And then we would watch his progression from peeking out his gaze, to lifting his head, to wanting to be turned around to face the room, to leaving the caregiver’s lap to play on the floor. Zachary had every right to worry, but his time spent in loving arms assured him that Mama would be back soon, that he was safe, and that it was, in fact, okay for him to have a little fun without her.

From being held in loving arms and hearing soothing voices I believe we develop soothing inner voices. We learn how to self-comfort. We learn how to have a moment of being out of control and then safely coming back into control. But to find and raise up our personal voices, it is vital that we hear soothing voices. That we hear we are beloved. That we hear we are cherished. That we hear we are made in the image of God and that makes us worthy and special. That we hear that nothing can take away God’s love from us. I believe one of the best pieces of advice given to John Wesley was this, “Preach faith until you have it, and because you have it, preach faith.” The same principal applies here, “Say the words of a soothing inner voice – for yourself and others – until you have it, and because you have it, say these words.”

Having a soothing and rational inner voice (I know – I know…it may take a while to hear the rational side, but it is important, too) creates a platform for us to draw near to all of our emotions. We are complex beings. We feel and experience along a huge spectrum! I do not think it is helpful to call some feelings and emotions good and others bad because all of them sum up who we are. Rather, if we are able to connect with each of our feelings – to understand them as well as our responses and reactions to them – we learn endurance. We gain perspective. We learn from the past moments as we look forward to the future.

These combined antidotes – being held in loving arms, cultivating a soothing inner voice, and befriending all your emotions – leads to what Cohen calls practicing mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness, argues Cohen, is the opposite of worry. Sort of like Tai Chi where the flow of energy is received and immediately redirected somewhere else rather than internalized, so we should approach worry: recognize the circumstance, feel what is felt, name it, respond to it, if appropriate, and then let it go so you are prepared for what may be coming next.

I believe Cohen rightly calls mindfulness a practice. It takes time to develop. It takes intentional behavior and commitment. And I believe it yields great peace – the kind of peace that passes all understanding.

Join us this Sunday as Samantha Aupperlee shares a message with us on this Scripture passage and topic! Thank you, Samantha, for sharing your leadership in worship!

Prayer: “O come and sing this song with gladness as your hearts are filled with joy. Lift your hands in sweet surrender to his name. O give him all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name. Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs. Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.”* Amen.

*”Spirit Song ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 347.

Mountain Meditation: Pray This Way

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 6:5-15.

On Thursday I had the privilege to attend The Victory Cup Initiative at Rollins College. Think “Shark Tank” but for local non-profits in the greater Orlando Metro area to receive grant monies from local philanthropists.

Nearly 200 non-profit groups throughout Central Florida applied to be a part of The Victory Cup Program. Out of the initial applicant pool 80 were selected. And then 16 from the 80. And then finally 10 finalists were selected from the 16 to participate in a seminar program with Rollins College to perfect their “pitches” through storytelling.

Each of the 10 organizations had 2 1/2 minutes – 150 seconds – to tell the story and vision of their organization to over 300 philanthropists from the greater Central Florida area. First prize was $20,000; second prize was $10,000; third prize was $5,000; and the remaining seven finalists each received $1,000. It was an incredible morning of sharing hope and hearing hope, which is such balm for the soul.

I attended The Victory Cup at the invitation of Wendy Blair, the principal of Tuskawilla UMC’s Community Partner – The Arbor School of Central Florida. She shared a story about Emily, a high school student that participates in her classes with The Arbor School on our church campus. Wendy shared:

Imagine that you are a parent sitting in the principal’s office of your 13 year old daughter and being told that she is never going to learn past the 2nd grade level and trying to let go of every parent’s dream of careers, family, and independence for her.

When Emily was 5, her mother had to fight the school district to have her placed in a classroom that was appropriate. In 2nd grade, the school had an art show to show off the kids’ art work. Emily’s mother took time off from work and they went to the art show.   Imagine the pain they both felt to not see anything with Emily’s name on it because her teachers “thought she wouldn’t know whether her work was hung or not”.

After trying many different schools without success, they joined Arbor School 5 years ago. Together with Emily and her mother, our teachers and therapists set up a plan for Emily to achieve her hopes and dreams.   Our unique approach included very small classroom instruction using curriculum that was created based on her talents to fill in the education gaps that prevented her from making progress.   Our speech therapists worked with her to overcome her inability to pronounce words correctly. Our occupational therapists provided her with new self-confidence by improving her ability to process information and problem solve. Music therapy brought out a beautiful singing voice.

Today Emily is a self-assured young woman. Like any 18 year old, she is posting on Facebook while texting her many friends. She has also begun to blog. She is currently a junior in our high school transition program working to complete the credits she needs to graduate next year and is researching colleges that carry a major of journalism.

We have many stories like Emily’s. The diagnosis and journey may be different but the story is always the same.   Parents having no hope and feeling left out of their child’s education.   Schools and teachers who give up on the kids because they are different.

Recently at a music recital, Emily sang her latest song. I want to leave you with just a few of her words from her song “Being Strong”

Without you I am alone with no hope, but I found someone to help lead me to the way….

When I think about all the incredible work that Wendy, her teachers, staff, and therapists with The Arbor School are doing with the students and families they serve, I truly believe they are living into Jesus’ words “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). It is such a blessing to have these inspiring students meeting, engaging, and learning on our church campus. I truly believe our buildings are being used as they are intended to be used – daily, for enrichment, for people to safely and with joy draw near to one another as they draw near to who God desires them to be through and with their learning. This is Kingdom work! I am delighted to see how TUMC’s relationship with The Arbor School continues to blossom.

If you would like to learn more about The Arbor School of Central Florida, click here.

Prayer: “Let us praise the Lord. Kum ba ya. Let us praise the Lord. Kum ba ya. Let us praise the Lord. Kum ba ya. Oh, Lord, kum ba ya.”* Amen.

*”Kum Ba Ya,” The United Methodist Hymnal 494.

Mountain Meditation: Kingdom Living

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 5:38-48.

This week I had the privilege to travel to Fruitland Park to spend a day in prayer for dear friends that interviewed with the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I remember my interview day…nervous and knotted. So much led me to that interview moment: my call, my service in the local church, my education, my paper writing. And when I arrived at my interview I remember thinking “Okay, time to be perfect!”

Jesus concludes our Scripture passage for this week speaking of perfection, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). 

What is perfection? It is defined as the state of being perfect, of being free or nearly free of any flaw or defect.

Our God is indeed perfect. And I believe through our God’s grace we are going onto perfection, that we will be made perfect in this life. 

There is, however, a difference between being perfect and perfectionism. Being perfect is undertaking the heart work and hard work of facing one’s flaws – caused by sin – and being present in the process. Presence in the process looks like reflecting on what has happened, honoring the feelings in those reflective moments, and then discerning and acting upon decisions that will be life-giving rather than decisions that will further give into sin. This presence leads individuals in knowing him or herself and in knowing who God desires her or him to be. 

Perfectionism, on the other, is hard work without the heart work. It is an attitude rooted in performance and production rather than presence. People that act in and out of a spirit of perfectionism may look pristine on the outside, but the emptiness and achy-ness that results from perfectionism bores deep into one’s heart and soul.    

As I walked into my interview I heard Jesus’ words – be perfect. And in that perfection – seen in our Heavenly Father and seen in his Son – I was present. I shared my story – my struggles and my salvation. I shared of my transition from perfectionism practices to seeking perfection. I showed me and how God used and continues to use me. I testified to the truth that God has a plan and intent to include all people in God’s work.

God’s plan and intent looks different from the world’s. It is hard work to make our lives – to live our lives – in God’s plan and intent – but it is so fulfilling. 

In that spirit of fulfillment, I prayed my friends into their interviews. I prayed that they would be perfect and present, that they would show the evidence of their heart and hard work. 

And indeed, they did!

This is also my prayer for you this week. That you would take time to sit and reflect. That you would take time to be present in reflection of your struggles and your salvation. That you would take time to continue your attention to the heart and hard work before you. And in all of this, friends, we will be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

Prayer: “God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name, I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name, and in Jesus’ name I come to you, to share his love as he told me to. He said, ‘Freely, freely, you have received, freely freely give. Go in my name, and because you believe, others will know that I live.'”* Amen. 

*”Freely, Freely,” The United Methodist Hymnal 389.

Mountain Meditation: Kingdom Blessings

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 5:1-12.

In times of great transition I find that it is not the best choice for me to consider the big picture. While the big picture is important, it is also quite overwhelming. Often I am energized by the abundance of tasks to be completed, but when I feel like my feet are on shifting sand, which usually follows the reminder that I am not actually in control, my energy drains faster than a white chocolate mocha out of my husband’s coffee cup.

And that, friends, is fast!

So rather than focus on the big picture and feel so daunted that I cannot accomplish anything, I choose to focus on the immediate next. What is the next immediate task for me to accomplish? And then once I do that, what follows? It could be a snack break; when I am stressed I forget to eat! It could be sending a quick message of encouragement or reading one sent to me. It could be – and maybe should be! – finding another two-by-two area of wood on my desk. Whatever my immediate next, this truth endures: small acts grow into tasks. Tasks grow into accomplishments. Accomplishments piece together the big picture.

And once the big picture is present, God invites us to look beyond that big picture and start the process all over again.

I have paused quite frequently this week to ask God to help me identify my immediate next. As I have studied the Beatitudes I feel my immediate next is peace. God is calling me to be peace as the prelude to any further activity, be it a conversation, compilation, or complication.

In an article he wrote for The Huffington Post, Eric Simpson says, “The Beatitudes teach us how to be peace not just be at peace, but to become peace so that peace can spread, and that peace can come from being rooted both in the life of God and in the physical world.” When I feel restless, anxious, worried, or out of control, being at peace is the furthest act from my mind. Being peace, however, helps calm my mind and my heart. Through peacefully approaching my immediate next – with a clear heart and mind; with encouragement from my God, family and friends; with the confidence that yes, there are trials in this life, but joy comes in the morning – I am able to accomplish whatever is before me as well as join God in nurturing peace in the world.

What is my immediate next? To trust that God knows what is coming. Right now I see glimpses of the big picture, but our God has the entire horizon in his view; God has the whole world in his hands. So with trust I walk forward to my immediate next – for myself and for our congregation.

Prayer: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”* Amen.

*”Blessed Assurance,” The United Methodist Hymnal 369.