Christmas in June

 

brown pinecone on white rectangular board

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Yes, it has been awhile since I’ve written a blog article. Hope you missed me! Life is fine, no crises, just a little out of balance – life/work balance that is. So I hope you’ll encourage me to get back to my writing! And, by the way, Happy Father’s Day!

What struck me tonight, was that although we cannot, nor should we, live in the past, we can, through technology, experience history — of friends, family, co-workers and anyone with whom we are connected through email or social media. This experience used to be a faded, dog-eared family photo album we pulled out on special days like today. But because this morning, I had an odd Facebook memory come up from a different season, I was provoked. We were all in winter heavy sweaters, but it was 89 degrees today! Thank you, algorithms and advanced math for this miscalculation! to my benefit . . . Continue reading

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We Have the Best Shepherd!

A Sermon preached at The United Baptist Church, Annandale, VA May 7, 2017

Since Easter, we’ve been learning about God’s intention to become an experience through His Son, Jesus Christ. We saw this in the women’s testimony at the tomb, in Thomas’ reassurance in the upper room and several other post-resurrection appearances like last week’s Emmaus road sighting.

This week, we experience Jesus during his teaching ministry, as he’s trying to help believers see that He is the only path to God. Prophecy, especially Isaiah, and John the Baptist’s preaching declare Jesus to be the Messiah. This John 10 passage setting takes place before the Crucifixion, yet is written most likely between 85-95 AD, from Ephesus, where the apostle Paul had already established a church, well after Jesus’ Resurrection and the Temple’s destruction by Rome. Scholars dispute the authorship of this gospel, but agree it reflects the Johannine community (followers of Jesus through John), and textual study shows the author intentionally recorded signs of Jesus’ Messiahship. Therefore, this gospel was an encouragement for the threatened and dispersed Christians, and also had evangelistic appeal to the Gentiles. SO, Jesus declares that he is both the Gate (only way in or out) to the sheepfold (a pen of protection) and the Shepherd of the sheep (his followers). We’ll look at all 3.

Are there any sheep herders in the church today? Oh good, so let’s talk a little about these sheep. Admit it, when you think of sheep, don’t you think of fluffy white animals, like in the song, “Mary had a little Lamb, it’s fleece was white as snow?” Well, let me tell you they weren’t! We have an image in our minds eye of rolling green hills, like the pastures of Great Britain, a U.K. WETA image of Scottish sheep herding with dogs. But look at the bulletin cover — we are in Israel, where there is rocky soil, terraces with trees rather than much grass, and caves. Sheep are dirty; overeaters – will graze to the dirt. They smell bad, are oily and vulnerable to predators like wolves, panthers and jackals. Palestinian sheep are kept for their wool and are known by the shepherd for many years. In this story, the sheep are both real and metaphorical figures representing Believers–Christ followers, who have been expelled from synagogues for their beliefs that Jesus is the Messiah. These images made sense because the implied reader of John was somewhat familiar with the person of Jesus, the geographic area and temple Judaism.

SheepfoldIsrael   The Sheepfold (image) was basically a cave or a pen where several shepherds could gather their flocks for the night, to protect the sheep and themselves from the cold, the weather and predators. The “GATE” to the cave or enclosure also gave the shepherd a chance to examine his sheep for injuries of the day (he used his lowered staff over the gate to slow down entry), and provided a time for physical rest/sleep. Even so, thieves and robbers tried to steal the sheep for their meat, milk or wool by climbing over the fence or sneaking into the cave through another entrance. The readers of the day probably understood that the sheepfold referred to the Temple (in their minds the Holy place of God’s protection) and the thieves to the Religious leaders, who “stole” money and God from the people. According to Margaret Barker’s 2014 book, King of the Jews, Temple Theology in John’s Gospel, “Corrupt priests would destroy the light of the law, plunder the offerings, deride the sacred things and live dissolute lives.” Contemporary texts both Jewish and Christian confirm that the images of the gate/door and the conflict between good and evil were about the high priests and access to the holy city, to the temple and to its teaching. Gate was also deliberately ambiguous by Jesus and this author, referring 1. to the Sheepfold’s gate, 2. this Temple entry Gate and 3. Jesus as the only Gate to God in both relationship here on earth and in Heaven.

The Shepherd’s job was hard; he was never off duty if his sheep were in pasture. He was chastised for leaving his family for long periods of time, when he could not protect them. Yet, William Barclay describes a Shepherd’s characteristics in glowing terms: constant vigilance, fearless courage, and patient love for his flock; no surprise that Jesus chose this image! Psalm 23 gives us (the sheep of his flock) such comfort:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (NRSV)

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (KJV) 

This is a Psalm of David, the shepherd, yet is a bit misleading. The Shepherd’s tools were a scrip (a bag made from animal skin – for his food supply), a sling (a weapon), the staff (not like our children’s Bible Story pictures, but a short wooden club with nails embedded in the bottom for a weapon and a slit at top with a leather thong attached to swing from his belt for quick access, and a rod (with the shepherd’s crook in it to catch straying sheep). The shepherd loved his sheep so much that he gave them names, so when they mixed at night with other sheep in the sheepfold, in the morning, he called them out by name and tone of voice, so they would come out to join their flock. Sheep will not, even today, respond to a stranger’s voice. Think about your pets – most dogs and cats will come when they are called by you but not when a stranger approaches. Since Jesus is our Shepherd, will we come when he calls us? (I certainly hope so!)

I hope this Bible study about sheep was as interesting to you as it was to this city kid! Now you’ve probably heard many readings and different interpretations of this passage. What occurred to me, as I was discussing the topic with Pastor Yawn, was how similar Sunday church is to the Sheepfold. We are all so different in our backgrounds, ages, educations, and ethnicities, yet we come together Sundays to rest on the Sabbath, to remember our faith, our Savior and all that has been done the previous week in Jesus’ name. It might be work, family, serving others, serving the church, making and delivering sandwiches for the homeless, comforting the bereaved, singing in the choir, raising money for organizations, delivering food for Meals on Wheels, caring for loved ones, just being hospitable to those sharing our space, meeting your neighbors or living your retirement out beyond our walls, with gardening, golf, crafts or volunteering. Our lives can reflect Jesus in every sphere, if we let his Holy Spirit, like a Shepherd lead us, as the hymn says.

We feel protected here on Sundays but we are not protected in the world – there is illness, injury, wrongdoing – yet we cannot live in fear. Remember the Acts passage that Aubrey read. Not only are we devoted to one another in fellowship and Church Covenant, but we have the Good Shepherd to sustain us and provide for our needs. We actually have the BEST Shepherd to watch over us, guide us when we stray, protect us from our enemies. We come here on Sundays to recharge, refresh ourselves and to celebrate how we see God working in our lives, on our streets and in our world. True, some days are harder than others to recognize the Shepherd, but like the sheep, we trust His voice, his skill, his teaching. We must remember to look for God’s presence in both the difficulties and the joyful moments. He is the Gate to our relationship with God. He knows us by name.

This church voted to open its doors to others, to become a sheepfold or enclosure of sorts to other sheep! Being a Mission Center is uncomfortable sometimes, to be with others not like ourselves, to entrust our facility to others. Yes, it can feel threatening to be vulnerable physically as our human strength is limited. Yet we have the strongest and mightiest Shepherd to watch over us, transform us and lead us. That Shepherd guided this church to be bold and to be Jesus to people who don’t know him.  Throughout the week, I see our Mission Center and all church activities as an opportunity to share the Gospel through actions, not preaching–even when there are touchy or practical issues to handle. People are seeing Agape-love through you as you allow them to experience God just by being yourself. Just this week, a new Saval (food supplier) driver, Martel and I were getting acquainted as he delivered turkey and cheese for our Sandwich team. I shared with him the purpose of the meat delivery, and he beamed with joy and gratitude to be a small part of something bigger than himself or his role in life. There is good will and ministry happening here every day! Can you see it?! Can you participate as opportunities present themselves? He’s calling your name . . .

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Would We Recognize Jesus?

 

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A new path

Sermon Preached at Westover Baptist Church, Arlington, Virginia April 23, 2017.

Two years ago, I was in transition: had been ordained, left a position I had completed and was looking for my next assignment. I began walking for fitness. This bulletin cover is my photo of one of the Fairfax County trails I frequented – it became a sanctuary of sorts, where I prayed, pondered and contemplated the Holy Spirit’s direction for my life. Although this trail looks empty, people did ride, walk or run by, mostly in a hurry; I heard birds, woodpeckers, frogs, fish gurgling in the creek; I saw foxes and deer often in the mornings. These natural elements in the midst of the city traffic helped me to feel God’s presence. This image is now my screensaver as a reminder to look to Jesus and for Him on my path. Feel free to use this image this week as you pray and meditate.

For today’s lesson, it might help us to remember a literary point. The Gospel writer Luke used several styles of writing – first, an “orderly account” investigated from eyewitnesses, a physician’s perspective, historian’s facts with a painter’s imagery, formal Greek language, and finally a creative tone of preacher/storyteller, like this passage. None of the styles were embellished or “fake news”; Luke’s accuracy was supported by contemporary historians like Josephus and Eusebius. But the creative side of Luke permits us to climb into the story and imagine ourselves there, on the road. The full passage reads as follows:

Luke 24:13-19: “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ he asked. ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people’ so they continued to tell the stranger about the previous week.

Imagine hearing the whole Gospel read aloud like a movie – a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, full of emotions as one experiences Jesus: his joyful birth, his compassionate healing ministry, instructive parables like the Good Samaritan, lost sheep, lost coin, the Prodigal Son and finally, the difficult Passion week we just experienced: from the shouted Hosannas of Palm Sunday, to Pilate’s and Herod’s mock trials of Jesus, the painful crucifixion of our Lord and Savior, and the expected yet surprising resurrection. Today, a week later, we find ourselves experiencing Jesus through several post-resurrection appearances (before his ascension to the Father – a period of 40 days). As we noticed in our Responsive Reading, those who saw him did not even know it was Jesus, until he revealed himself to them! None of these appearances were to the public – only for the disciples and close followers. It was not a matter of unbelief or doubt, but was about the unconditional acceptance of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection – they knew him in the flesh as a friend, a mentor, a teacher. They had been promised a resurrection, too, but in a world of persecution and destruction, no wonder they were worried and distracted about their own fate. Recall that Luke was written in the 80’s, after the temple had been destroyed and while Christians were in hiding.

Can you imagine the scene? The disciples were both sad and fearful: they had heard what the women at the tomb had seen, or not seen, so they were telling this stranger about Jesus’ missing body. And the stranger “said to them, how foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (the stranger) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

 

After he refreshed their memory, this man was going farther down the road, but “they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” By this time, because of the teaching, I imagine they felt a familiarity – you know a sort of déjà vu; they still did not know who he was, but they offered hospitality to this stranger! [Perhaps also because the roads were not safe at night] So this familiar stranger went in to stay with them. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Even though it is Cleopas’ house (we assume), the Guest, this familiar Stranger, acts as Host by breaking bread and pouring the wine. It is then through that remembrance and emotional connection, that they saw His nail-scarred hands, and recalled Jesus blessing Jesus the food for 5000 (and it is the same phrase we read at the Lord’s Supper), that their eyes are opened. They realize they had been with Jesus all along! Then Jesus vanished and appeared elsewhere to other disciples.

Their awareness and acceptance were significant. They began to recount the Emmaus journey and their years following Jesus, and their faith was strengthened. Their existing belief was affirmed; their worries resolved and hope was renewed!

 

3 points of the journey stand out to me. ONE, they welcomed the Stranger, even before he felt familiar; who knew the man they would meet that very day was God’s son?!!! ||  Perhaps like we would do at the office for a new employee over coffee, they told him what was going on in Jerusalem, but more likely they shared the news for his own protection. Still, he was accepted into their company and conversation. Do you automatically engage others in conversation when you meet them? TWO, the sharing of Scripture created a common bond between them. How true is that for us today? Do we know our Bible well enough to share verses with outsiders? More often, a planned Sermon, podcast or Bible Study discussion opens our eyes to God’s presence and/or to un-repented sin in our own lives. THREE, how generous they were to invite him to stay with them! “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) When all three experienced Table Fellowship together, their eyes were opened to the Messiah. “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matt 18:20)” and as commanded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second commandment is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:29-31)” Are you starting to perceive a directive?

I hope you listened to the lyrics of our hymns today; Doug had not read my sermon, only the passage, yet chose carefully the perfect pairing of music to message. Thank you, Doug! “The Master has called us . . . Immortal, invisible, God only wise . . . Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus.” || I ask, would we recognize the risen, invisible Jesus on our life’s path? Would we welcome him, if he or she were a stranger? What if he or she was unbathed, poor and homeless? Would we welcome the stranger if he or she appeared to be mentally or physically ill? In our violent world, are we afraid of “the other?” True, we must use common sense, caution and our legal system as precautions, yet as Christ followers, are we not called to die to self, serve and include others; to meet the needs of those who cannot care for themselves. How do we live out that mandate?

Yes, we spiritually and financially support local and global organizations that feed the poor; house the homeless and heal and comfort the diseased. We go to Haiti, Senegal, etc.; we tell our conversion stories; we share the Gospel message of Jesus to those who have not yet heard. We pray; we fast; we study and learn Scripture to share. We invite the Stranger to events and fellowships like Friends and Family Sundays and Movie Nights! (and if we don’t then we should!) As Christ followers, we offer hospitality and care. I saw this with my client in a post-surgery rehab setting – caregivers, nurses and doctors who sacrificed much to serve. And though Westover receives some small benefit, we offer space in our church building to others as community outreach and as a Christian example. If we are to fulfill the Great Commission (the last paragraph of our Responsive Reading), we must begin to and consistently recognize Jesus through the Holy Spirit, so we can introduce others to Him.  

Jan told us at Easter breakfast how she had experienced God’s direction through her clients’ words, mostly because she was listening! And so, I challenge you to become aware of the people along your own Emmaus road, who may be “Jesus” to you or who may need to see the “Jesus” in you! They could be co-workers, family members, neighbors, building partners; business acquaintances, gym workout pals, your plumber, electrician, hair stylist, barber, fraternity brother, and yes, even strangers at the grocery store or car wash! Are you treating them with an open heart and mind to hear their story? Are you willing to build a relationship with a stranger? Or like the disciples on that road, are you distracted by fears, life’s busy-ness or personal burdens? Yet, Jesus did not give up on them! He won’t give up on you! 

Are you open enough to hear our risen Lord Jesus speaking to you through the Holy Spirit? Is your heart burning within you to be Transformed? Will you recognize Jesus?

 

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Self Care

On one of my life event anniversaries, I decided to practice some self-care. Not the usual pampering nap or movie; I took my cue from Cheryl Strayed’s mother: “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” Cheryl Strayed is the author of best-selling memoir and movie, Wild. Both depict her personal transformation and healing as she hiked the “Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State” alone. WildTP_Books-680

Well, I am not a fit hiker yet, so I stayed local and walked 3 miles of the trails at beautiful Burke Lake Park, to put myself “in the way of beauty”. The geese were abundant; fishermen arrived, sweaty joggers panted and home school moms taught their toddlers about fish, frogs and birds. There was much to take in: Frisbee golf teams were competing; groups of retirees walked to stay fit and someone practiced yoga on the amphitheater stage. I attempted fitness stations, but it was too hot and muggy. Forced to rest and stretch periodically, I noticed many of the strategically placed benches had been funded and dedicated to a loyal Burke Lake fan, most of whom are no longer with us. It was then I realized I did not walk alone with my memories that day. Continue reading

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Identity – Part 2

In the last two blog posts, I asked you to ask yourself the question: “Who am I now?” I do not mean what most people ask “What do you do?” Think deeply on this. I am not only my education, my job or my family. Who are you now, today? You are made up of all your experiences, family traditions, beliefs and education. It may not be easy to answer, especially if you are in the midst of a major life transition. You may be morphing from single to married, from young married couple to parents, from administration to management, one career to another, school to work, from addiction to sobriety or from one role in your family of origin to a new one. Continue reading

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Identity (Part 1)

Loss and transition are closely linked. When one experiences serious loss, there may also be a shadow loss of self. One has deeply disruptive emotions to process. Not only is this a period of intense exhaustion, it can be a time of confused identity. Much like how Peter Pan is separated from his shadow until Wendy sews it back on in J. M. Barrie’s story, one’s identity fades after a loss, until healing and grieving reunite the two.

Am I still a son/daughter, sister/brother, or wife/husband? Officially, yes, one’s role or title remains the same; however, in the practical day-to-day existence, one’s role has changed. Society defines the terms above while our relationships dictate the responsibilities associated with each role. So when a loss of relationship occurs, such titles no longer make sense. A seismic shift occurs within us — emotionally, psychologically and in our language. Continue reading

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Transitions

We know what loss means. It can be the death of a co-worker, a friend or loved one, the loss of a job or financial stability, or the loss of one’s home or identity. Healing takes time and effort.

A new path

A new path

Transitions are more frequent and complex. Merriam-Webster defines transition as “a change from one state or condition to another.”[1] While the losses listed above occasionally demand a change of state or condition, today’s post addresses the acceptance of this change. You may be moving to a new city, changing jobs or careers, retiring, experiencing divorce or separation, marriage, graduation, empty nest syndrome or having one’s first baby. Continue reading

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Vulnerability

On the blog post of June 2, 2015, we explored the challenges of important life events such as anniversaries. The 3 listed tools are helpful, but may need further explanation. They only work if a person is vulnerable enough to take an action toward healing. The word “healing” implies a wound to be cleaned and dressed; a wound may be a physical break in tissue or an emotional experience that creates pain.

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Loss is an emotional wound which may re-open one previously healed. Memories, regrets and guilt sometimes surface unexpectedly. These all need to be delicately addressed. Taking the first two steps may feel daunting but are so worth it. Meditation and exercise can be performed alone to begin the cleansing process. Experiencing silence is a good place to start your meditation, even though you may only practice five or ten minutes. Exercise may be awkward too, but it is a proven healer. Starting out with a beginner’s body, few skills and no stamina may create an uncomfortable vulnerability. Stick with it or reach out for a safe friend or trainer to join you.

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The third action to find a supportive group or therapist requires research and some transparency. The rewards of healing within community are comforting, stabilizing and valuable. If you need help finding such a group, let me know. There are many avenues of support where vulnerability is expected, cherished and protected.

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Addiction Cartoon

I find this a charming and informative cartoon about addiction and hope. If you see yourself or someone you love in the drawings, please find the appropriate support 12-step meeting closest to you (online or phone book).

The Alcoholics Guide to Alcoholism

One of the simplest, best explained animations/cartoons I have seen on the subject of addiction and recovery. Recommended.

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Anniversaries

10466730_10152435851730272_2097726240_n[1]This is a bittersweet time of year for me. May and June represent significant events: Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days, end of school year, graduations, family birthdays, start of summer vacation, weddings, new births, and memorable losses.

These months trigger both joy and DSCN0992sadness. Holidays do that for some people too. What about you? Are there times of the year that stir up painful memories? Are there wonderful yet stressful life events to be coordinated and celebrated? How do you cope with your mixed emotions or insomnia? Here are 3 of many ways to be better prepared for anniversaries of this kind:

  1. Silent meditation, preferably outdoors, is a healthy tool to acknowledge and process complex feelings.
  2. Exercise, hiking and nutritious food choices are helpful for better sleep and mood control. I have found that the comfort foods we crave during these seasons actually trigger adrenaline surges and subsequent crashes.
  3. Supportive groups, a spiritual community and/or therapy provide safe places to discuss one’s reactions to the date and event. 10423355_10152475888275272_1107921713_n

One such group is beginning to form in Northern Virginia (or through Skype, perhaps); if interested, please complete the confidential contact form and/or send me a message privately through Facebook or Linked In.

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