Seven Questions of Faith: Is There Hope?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 24:1-12

I spent time with my niece last week. Addison helped me prepare a side dish that our family would share at dinner – sliced squash and zucchini on the grill. She was in charge of seasoning; in complete honesty it was her idea to add the red pepper flakes, Anna and Gramps (Mom and Dad)!

(Okay, maybe not complete honesty…Addison had an accomplice!)

After dinner Addison wanted to show me her latest achievement. At the age of almost nine months, Addison is starting to walk. She has a variety of “push toys” that she can position herself behind and then totter all over the house. She pulls herself up and stands next to furniture. She will take steps while holding onto the hands of loved ones. And she loves to dance to the hot dog song, a popular tune on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

At times Addison takes steps without fear. At other times she is a bit more timid. What does not change is that she steps. Addison moves forward.

Mixed with fear and timidity, Mary Magdalena and the other women approached the garden tomb. The shadows that lingered since the Sabbath began are finally starting to fade.

Deep blue becomes gray. Gray becomes pale blue. Pale blue gives way to light.

And the women step forward.

They come to the tomb; yet, their intent on being there is not looking ahead but behind. They come to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial and to their astonishment, Jesus is not there! He suffered and died and left his grave clothes behind.

He is risen, just as he said!

Confident of their next steps, the women leave the garden and hurry to the disciples. They witness to what they have seen, and yet many of the disciples, who had physically moved forward but were still looking behind, did not believe.

Peter is the first to wonder…

He left the safety of the disciples’ hiding place to venture to the tomb. He stepped forward, clinging to his faith.

Could it be?

It is.

We that journey with Jesus this week will take many steps – to the upper room, to the garden, to the governor’s house, to the cross, to the tomb. As we journey may we look forward rather than behind. Looking forward will draw our attention to the present moment.

Gone are the shouts of praises and waving of palm branches.

Prepare for the Last Supper.

Then prepare for death.

And once that death has occurred, my friends, do not look back at it.

Honor the steps that you take, be they fearful or timid or heavy or tearful or have some other character. Whatever their character, take steps. Be present.

And prepare for resurrection.

Prayer: *Merciful and everliving God, Creator of heaven and earth, the crucified body of our Son was laid in the tomb and rested. Grant that we may await with him the dawning of the third day and rise in newness of life, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.”*

*”Holy Saturday,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 367.

 

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Seven Questions of Faith: What About Suffering?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 27:27-31.

Some smells never leave you.

Growing up in Polk County I was introduced early on to the smell of burning leaves. In the late 80s and early 90s citrus canker was a huge ordeal. Once the canker set in the only solution was to burn the trees. Burn the trees. Defeat the canker. Protect the living.

No matter where I am, if that smell is in the air, I know exactly what is happening. Somewhere near something is burning. Something is being defeated. A measure is being taken to protect the living.

On Friday, January 29, 2016 I stood on the side of highway in the region of the Golan Heights in Northeastern Israel. Behind me was Israel and down the hillside below my feet, beyond the fence of the demilitarized zone, was Syria.

Syria

The smell of burning was in the air.

It was not trees burning this time. Smoke rose from homes, buildings, and ground cover due to the burnout of explosions. And the burning smell was not on its own; it was accompanied by the popping of gunshots. Due to the distance the popping sounded like a woodpecker drumming against a tree.

This scene broke my heart. It is burned into my memory as the flames burned the ground. I stood on that hillside and listened. I inhaled. I exhaled. I wept. I raised my left hand to my heart and extended my right hand towards the broken land. I joined in prayer with my friends gathered there.

We prayed for the people that decided that land should burn. We prayed for the people that believe more in violent defeat than in justice and peace. We prayed for the people who chose these methods as the means to protect only some of the living. We prayed for those who suffered. We prayed for their suffering to end.

Inhaling. Exhaling. Weeping. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

As we left side of the highway our bus fell silent, which for a group of 35 made up of pastors and spouses is quite a feat, indeed! Though the bus was silent my mind reeled, heart ached, and spirit wondered, “What about suffering? What about the innocents? Why?”

I was reminded of these questions for the remainder of the day as the smell of smoke lingered in my hair and on my clothes. My neighbors are in harm’s way. They are afraid and feel alone.

Does anyone see? Does anyone care?

Jesus sees. Jesus cares. Jesus suffered. Jesus suffers still.

Jesus suffers when we suffer. Jesus cried over the venom in the hearts of the people as he looked down upon Jerusalem before he finished his pilgrimage to his grave. Jesus cries over the venom that spews and spreads evil that breaks apart families, turns friends into enemies, fortifies walls instead of bridges, and leads some to untimely deaths in unmarked graves.

But unlike our suffering, Jesus’ suffering culminates in transformation. Though battered, mocked, and spat upon, Jesus’ suffering is the gateway to resurrection.

For him. For us all. In this world and beyond this world. In ways we can see fully now and in ways that we will only see fully once the veil of mortality is completely repealed.

I pray for the day that all suffering will end. I pray for the day that burning smells and their kindred memories will be replaced with peace.

Prayer: “Almighty God , you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to suffer death on the cross. Grant that we may share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and ever. Amen.”*

*”Palm/Passion Sunday,” The United Methodist Hymnal 281.

Seven Questions of Faith: What Brings Fulfillment?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 13:1-5, 13-17.

Through washing the disciples’ feet Jesus enacts and makes visible his love for his own. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15).

As I marinated in this text this week I also marinated in the question, “How is it that I enact and make visible my love for my own?”

I am an accomplisher. I accomplish tasks with regularity and efficiency. I accomplish tasks as a way of expressing my love.

And one of my primary ways of accomplishing and therefore expressing love – cleaning.

I pause for a moment because I know my parents are picking their jaws up off the floor. As a child my parents would attempt to twist my arm six ways to Sunday to get me to clean and now it is one of my primary ways to express love for others.

I know you are proud, Mom and Dad.

Some of you may wonder…why cleaning? This is why.

During college Andrew was a church custodian for one of the largest United Methodist Churches in Florida. And allow me to let you in on a little secret – church people are not the cleanest people. For five years Andrew cleaned up messes that he did not make. He scrubbed walls and floors and trashcans. He swept, mopped, and polished. He worked well into the night – every night – so that guests to the campus would arrive to find their room and adjacent facilities in pristine and hospitable conditions.

Andrew took pride in his work. He served well. And he became an example for me.

I clean with the diligence and commitment that I do as a way of making easier the path for others around me. As I accomplish the tasks my hands may be manipulating a rag or a broom, but my heart is focused on the individual I am serving in that moment. My dedication to that task frees my neighbor to dedicate their hearts in another area, to another person or project, which will bring them joy and hopefully sustain these waves of service as they continue rippling.

It is true, cleaning tasks are not always glamorous…and sometimes they are down right smelly. And that is when I think about my Jesus, kneeling before the pungent feet of his disciples, offering them comfort and care through washing their feet.

“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

I encourage you to find time this week to consider how it is that you enact and make visible your love for your own. Consider how you make easier the paths of those around you. And then begin to identify the ways that others make easier your path. Give thanks for the many ways the waves of service ripple to and from you.

Prayer: “Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go to the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show; hope and health, good will and comfort, counsel, aid, and peace we give, that your servants, Lord in freedom may your mercy know, and live.”* Amen.

*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal 581.

 

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.

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.

Seven Questions of Faith: What Matters Most?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:28-34

Have you ever watched a reunion between family members or close friends? The likes of a person or group being surprised by the return of a loved one at a football game or running across an airport terminal to embrace?

I experienced one of those moments this past week. A mother and dear friend from Andrew’s last church invited us to attend the Hillsong United concert with her, another parent from the youth program, and 25 or so of our former students. The students – they didn’t know we were coming. So as we gathered outside the CFE Arena at UCF one student after the next came out of the parking lot, identified the agreed upon meeting spot, and upon seeing us, ran as fast as they could to embrace each of us as hard as they could. One of the girls even ran towards us while wearing an air-cast on her foot! We love and admire your enthusiasm, Kelli, but we want your foot to heal!!

Each embrace restored my soul. Each embrace filled my cup. Each embrace reminded me what matters most.

Relationships. Caring relationships.

Some of my most formative relationships growing up and continuing to today are are with my youth group leaders. These folks are some of the first people outside of my family that saw me for me. They identified my gifts. They nurtured my call. They encouraged my curiosity and wondering about the mystery of God.

I am so grateful for these relationships. Because of them I looked forward – and look forward! – to sharing these kind of relationships with young adults. God made an impression on me through the hands of my counsellors and I am humbled by the opportunities to make God’s impressions on the young men and women I serve.

In our Scripture passage this week Jesus identifies how we are to act in the – in our – ultimate caring relationship – by loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And then Jesus instructs us in how we are to make impressions on one another – by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

We are so loved by God. God’s love shapes us. God’s hands by way of God’s love are literally all over us. God is constantly running towards us, reuniting with us, and welcoming us home. Whether we have moved away from God or God has moved and asks us to follow, whole and holy relationship with God remains our goal. And we grow in whole and holy relationship with God by leaning into and modeling whole and holy relationships with our neighbors.

I believe that each time we participate in a reunion with a loved one – whether we have been apart for a day, a decade, or what feels like a decade – when we feel that embrace, when we fill our cups, we feel God’s loving impression upon us through the hands of our neighbors. Sharing God’s loving impression with others draws us deeper into relationship with one another and with God, which truly centers us on what matters most.

Prayer: “I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet. I love to tell the story, for some have never heard the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word. I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”* Amen.

*”I Love to Tell the Story,” The United Methodist Hymnal 156.

Seven Questions of Faith: Who Is Jesus?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-16

Over the past several years I have had the privilege to serve as a curriculum writer for our Annual Conference’s Camp and Retreats Ministries. It is a very humbling experience to be a member of these writing teams. I am always in awe of what the Holy Spirit brings about through opportunities for learning, fun, and fellowship for the campers as a result of these teams working together. And I am always in awe of the impact our God makes through the contributions of these writing teams.

Sometimes I can feel so small. Usually in those moments I dash to find a stellar pair of stilettos, but when that does not help, I think back on the experiences in my life when I have opened myself up to be used by God. I am one person, but where two or more are gathered, our God is present and our God is able to do infinitely more than we can ever imagine. Opening ourselves up to be part of our God’s imagining, that is the true stuff of miracles.

Last year one of the curriculum writer’s ideas was to open up space for campers to write down questions of faith that would be answered by their age-level worship leader before the end of the week. I had the sweet opportunity to be both a curriculum writer and a worship leader last summer so I knew what I was in for…but I was in no way prepared for the depth of the faith questions asked by my Week 8 rising 6th-8th graders.

Some of their questions were…

  • Where are the dinosaurs!? (One of my personal favorites.)
  • Do I have to believe everything in the Bible?
  • Do I have to read and understand the Bible the same way as my parents, youth leader, or pastor?
  • I’m not sure if I’m saved. I accepted Jesus, but then I sinned. Am I still saved? Does God still love me?
  • I’m not sure about God; I’m not sure I believe. Does that make me a bad person?
  • When Jesus says “Love your neighbor” does he really mean every neighbor?

These are only a few of their questions…and I had around 20 minutes to answer as many as I could, not to mention the follow-up questions that came up during our short time together!

These campers asked deep questions of faith that revealed deep longing for greater understanding of God and, I believe, greater belonging with God.

During the Season of Lent, which begins with our Service of Ashes on Wednesday evening at 7pm, we will ponder Seven Questions of Faith. I am hopeful that through this season we will grow in greater understanding of who our Lord is, who we are, and who and how we are in relationship together.

We begin this week with the question, “Who is Jesus?” This was a popular question in the First Century after Jesus started his public ministry. People could not believe that the miracles and ministry coming from Jesus could be the same person born of Mary in humble Bethlehem and run out of Nazareth by his neighbors. Others did not want to give Jesus credit for how he was declaring the glory of the Lord through his ministry; surely he had to be Moses, or Elijah, or another of the prophets. For so long God’s people waited and hoped for their Messiah, their anointed one, their Savior…and yet here (there) he was…and they could not believe.

Rather than defending himself or offering an apologetic for who he is, Jesus turns to his disciples to answer “Who am I?” Peter answers this deep question of faith boldly and, in so doing, reveals his greater understanding about who Jesus is and his greater belonging in relationship with Jesus.

I encourage you to take time this week to answer for yourself, “Who Is Jesus?” Write down your answer in a journal. Talk about your answer around the dinner table with your family or when you are out enjoying time with friends. Consider how your understanding of who Jesus is has changed over time and perhaps is still changing. What have you learned about who Jesus is? What have you learned about yourself in learning about who Jesus is?

Prayer: “His name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord. He is the mighty King, Master of everything; his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord. He’s the great Shepherd, the Rock of all ages, almighty God is he; bow down before him, love and adore him, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord!”* Amen.

*”His Name Is Wonderful,” The United Methodist Hymnal 174.