Lectio Visual for Tuesday

Gustave Doré, 1865. Korea Computer Mission
taken from Job 14

The practice Lectio Visual isn't complicated.  Take your time and as you view the image walk through the following steps:

            Look (Read):  Consider deeply the image and what is being “said.”
            Linger (Reflect):  What is the verse or word being given to you?
            Led (Respond): How are you being called to respond?
            Lay (Rest): Be in God's presence.
            Live (Return): Moving back into the world with how we've been changed.

Take time to reflect on the image.  As you look at this image, what words come to your mind?  Look at the people, their faces, their body language.  What speaks to you about the location?  The weather?  Specifically, what Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak to you?   You may think of a recent news article or a quote by a famous person.  So it maybe from another word or phrase that you are  inspired you to look up a Scripture.  If you need help, you might try going to www.biblegateway.com to do a search through the Bible.  In this case, consider Job 14 as this passage is given credit by the artist.  

Remember that there are those images, icons or symbols that attract us right off the bat.  We are   now an incredibly visual society and images are important.  Christianity has been using images since the earliest days of the church.  BUT, we need to realize that there are also images that don’t attract us or inspire us with joy or peace that are just as likely to be used by God. 

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take that as a guide for your prayer through this day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.  If it is a full story, consider using more of Lectio Divina which I talk about elsewhere on my blog.

Scandalous Love Makes For A Different Kind Of Christmas

Everybody wants to know they are important to someone. Do you remember writing notes in Elementary School: I like you. Do you like me? Check Yes, No, or Maybe. God created us for personal and authentic relationships. In the beginning God noted, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

So when we are rejected or ridiculed – it hurts. And we hurt, we move away from the cause of our hurt. We hide our imperfections, our shortcomings. We begin to apply the same pattern to all our relationships, including our relationship with God. Just like the first man and woman, we run and hide from the sound of God’s footsteps because we sense shame. But remember, it is we who are running. God is not – God keeps after us. Christmas is the celebration that God is still coming after us with a passion!

This has been God’s history though. He made a very special promise – a covenant with a small tribe of people who became known as the Jews. He loved them and built them into a great kingdom but over and over again, they broke their side of the covenant. God sent prophets to them to teach them, remind them and warn them.

One of those prophets was Hosea. Hosea compared this relationship with God to a marriage commitment and the Israelites, the Jews had broken their side. As a living parable then, Hosea married a prostitute. Again and again she left him, just like God’s people did. Over and over, Hosea went out and rescued her and loved her. 

When the Lord first began speaking to Israel through Hosea, he said to him, “Go and marry a prostitute, so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution. This will illustrate how Israel has acted like a prostitute by turning against the Lord and worshiping other gods.” So Hosea married Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she became pregnant and gave Hosea a son. Hosea 1:2-3 (NLT)

Then the Lord said to me, “Go and love your wife again, even though she commits adultery with another lover. This will illustrate that the Lord still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them. ” Hosea 3:1 (NLT)
We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy. This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:4-7 (NLT) 

"Hosea represents God’s relentless love and Hosea’s wife of prostitution, Gomer, represent’s God’s people – not just the Israelites but also you and me,” said Mike Slaughter. We’ve been created to find our most significant meaning in life in a relationship with God, yet like a prostitute we give ourselves to everything but God. 

Hosea’s life shows us the real heart of what the Incarnation at Christmas is all about. God tells Hosea, “Go, show your love to your wife again…love her as the Lord loves the Israelites (3:1).” In the manger is born God’s son – God has come to buy us back!

God works in unexpected places that we might be tempted to ignore. Most would have given no thought of a young teenager named Mary or a young carpenter named Joseph. God did. The world had no interest in an enslaved people in Egypt called the Hebrews. God did. No one cared much for a prostitute. Hosea did. God did and God still does.

God was not oblivious to grief in our community, the tragedy Connecticut nor what happened in China. God does not miss the fact that 1 child dies every five-seconds from hunger issues. God knows about the 16.6+million AIDS orphans and every 45 secs a child dies of malaria. God knows this recession has stripped many of us of our homes, depleted our 401K plans and increased our debt. We try to run from the truth, hide from the reality but it remains. We may neglect the needs but God does not.

Only when we realize how far we’ve strayed from God’s love can we respond in faith; a faith that leads to loving actions. Jesus came to earth as a tiny baby, in scandalous and humble circumstances. Immanuel – God with us. That is the love we celebrate at Christmas, and the kind of love we are CALLED to show and CAN show in return. Do you really believe God loves you madly, passionately, and unconditionally? What would it mean for us to love others “scandalously,” in a way different from how we show God’s love in the world now?

An Inconvenient Truth - John Wesley and the Book of Discipline

An education can be a dangerous thing.  Going back to school by choice, well, that can just really mess you up!  Well, at least that is what I have thought since going back to work on my Certification in Spiritual Formation.  It really has been good but it has me pushing myself mentally, physically and yes, spiritually.

Of interest for me on this journey has been a simple one: what did John Wesley have to say about spiritual formation?  Now if you’re not a Methodist, this may not be of interest but we Methodists are kind of stuck with what maybe an inconvenient truth – Wesley’s 52 StandardSermons and his Notes on the New Testament are part of the United Methodist Church’s Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (see Paragraph 103).  These are far more than merely a collection of pithy notes and sayings, they represent the theological work of a transformed and transformational Christian.  We have said the writings of John Wesley matter – we don’t get to ignore them or term them archaic or of no value.  We have declared they are more than historical – we have said we need them for our work as the church.

This arena of spiritual formation is not represented in this material directly.  To find spiritual formation, you have to look under mysticism and mystics of John Wesley’s larger works.  Take your pick and use the index but forewarned, these writings represent a varying array of opinions and ones that do change over time.  More to the point, Wesley has varying opinions on different mystics even.

Not much has been available to beyond two pieces that I have found in researching this topic.  Dr. Robert Tuttle followed up his dissertation with the publishing of his book, Mysticism in theWesleyan Tradition, published in 1989.  Dr. Kenneth J. Collins, also addressed the topic of “John Wesley’s Assessment of Christian Mysticism in his submission to the Lexington Theological Quarterly.  I have long been impressed with Dr. Collins’ writings on Wesleyan-Methodist Theology and I certainly recommend both works.

What struck me as of particular value is what Dr. Collins’ writes at the end of his work.  It is four questions, taken from the whole of Wesley’s works on the subject of mysticism and Collins’ own knowledge of Wesley’s thoughts and theology.  They represent what, I think, is a thoughtful and helpful gift to us as clergy and laity to examine and reflect on practices as well as theologies and theories we seek to bring into the church.  Consider these questions posed by Dr. Collins:

1.  Is it Christologically based? 
2. Does it detract from Jesus as mediator?  (Does it stress a direct relationship with God apart from Jesus?)
3.  Is the practice rooted in the atonement?
4.  Is it rooted in the means of grace? (ex: prayer, communion, Bible reading, etc).

We may be in the extreme center, but our discipline does not allow us do theology and practice in a vacuum either and I don't mean just in relation to spiritual formation but all of our work.  It would serve us well to wrestle more fully the history and reality of our Wesleyan-Methodist Heritage in our day.   We may well find it more than just fruitful but liberating to know more fully the work of one whose heart was strangely warmed and then set on fire by God’s grace and mercy.

Giving Up On Perfect - Experiencing a Different Kind of Christmas

 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you! ”Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”  Luke 1:26-34 (NLT)

Chevy Chase’s character, Clark Griswold, has seemingly lived a life of giving up on perfect but no where does it come to hit home than in “A Christmas Vacation.”  Nothing about Christmas goes as planned.  In many ways, the movie is a stunning editorial on the effects of today’s consumerism and marketing schemes.  Christmas is often a time of painful reminders of family or financial loss.  Christmas many times arrives not with the gifts we hoped for but the unexpected we hoped to avoid.  Like our tree, Christmas many times arrives upside down.

But then, in truth, this is just where and when God shows up in our lives - when things are upside down.  This is the truth of that stable where Jesus was born, we just sanitized.  Come on, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?”  Whoever heard of a newborn not crying?  Really?  The writer of Luke makes it fairly clear from beginning to end, following Jesus is a real life proposition - it is messy, just like life.

We have an idea that if we do the right thing, the good thing, then good is what we’ll get in life - nothing bad is going to show up.  Nothing inconvenient will take place.  The idea that Jesus insulates us from life’s difficulties is another one of those mirages.  It disappears in the face of reality.  This is what Mary’s story brings home to us.

Even though marriage at the time was common for teenage girls, how emotional prepared do you imagine Mary must have been?  How theologically formed would you expect a 12-15 year old girl to be when the angel appeared and begin laying out this baby’s messianic ties to King David?  Do not be afraid?  Yeah, right!  We know in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:18-19), her fiance, Joseph, didn’t handle the news all that well when she said, “The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.”

It becomes easy to sanitize the facts of the miracle birth because we know the end of the story but in truth, it only complicates our lives.  We then sanitize all of the interactions of God with us, thus creating an unbelievable world of magic and fantasy with no messiness, no complications and no difficulties.  This flies in the face of reality of Jesus’ birth, life and death. 

Mary, a teenage girl, betrothed in marriage to Joseph – finds favor with God and so what happens?  She becomes pregnant out of wedlock.  I’m sure you’ve seen the “I’m proud of my honor student” bumper stickers.  Maybe you’re like us  and have put them up on your mini-van too.  The reality is even if your child was making D’s (and I made a few), you still favor your child because the child belongs to you.  We miss this important reality, God’s favor can’t be earned.  God comes to us in our times of doing right AND in your time of doing wrong.  As Pastor Mike Slaughter put it, “You are highly favored by God because you are God’s!”

Christmas is going to come at times when the season in our life is not perfect.  You may not feel much like celebrating.  But Christmas is more than just another holiday, it is a birthday and it is Jesus’ birthday.  When we celebrate it, even out of our weakness and pain, even when everything is upside down, we are celebrating the birthday of one who has known suffering and life’s mess.  We remember God DOES know what we go through and he is with in the midst of it all.

Life offers us no promises about staying safe and living comfortably.  The Bible offers no such promises either.  It is a very real book that does not gloss over or sanitize the realities of how life was and Jesus’ birth makes it clear, it was a messy affair – very much in keeping with reality.  I had a great young mom begin attending one of the churches I served.  She had a little background in Christianity but had been away for some time.  She called me one day very upset.  As we talked she said to me, “You didn’t tell me about all this death and violence in the Bible!  I started at the beginning and was trying to read it to my daughter and I just had to stop.  I can’t read this to her.” 

She was right.  The Bible isn’t like any other book and it isn’t something which can be picked-up and read straight through.  Some of it isn’t for children.  Maybe we need to put warning labels on our Bibles.  Imagine if the Bible only had the “good stories” and “good teachings?”  How trustworthy would this book be if it denied the existence and struggles of pain and inconvenience that we face?  Paul, who tells in 2 Corinthians, of being whipped, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked, is bluntly honest with his young trainee Timothy, saying to him:

“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12).

Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus?  Because God knew that even when life didn’t make sense, she would choose to continue to serve God.  Her words ring clearly even now, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38).”  While we have no records of what Mary and Joseph taught Jesus as a boy, surely, he learned this truth. 

Have you given any thought to the messy places around us – in our community, our country and our world?  What if you did the Christmas present challenge or something like it and intentionally set aside some of that money saved to go to the Christmas offering this year – our offering that goes to those messy places?  Imagine what you could do if you gave up on making Christmas perfect and instead, as a family, decided to make a difference.  

How Is the Life of Prayer In the Pulpit?

Do you ever have one of those thoughts that simply hangs on, digging in the fingernails, refusing to let go?  I have been grappling with one ever since beginning my journey as a church planter a number of years ago.  But let me preface it by saying, this is not intended to be even about church planting.  No, it really is simply a thought.

It started with listening to a conference speaker who explained how Acts 2:41, the response to Peter’s sermon with “…three thousand souls being added to the number,” was a good measuring stick for church starts.  “Really?,” I thought and there it stuck and it did not leave me.  I learned the real data later on, what churches need, people wise, to become a church.  There is a simple reality of economics in our day that plays into this but then this is no different from established churches.

We keep finding ways to measure and report effectiveness.  It has been talked endlessly now how pastors can be more effective as leaders and CEOs.  It seemed like for the longest time, we could have the best of both worlds – borrowing from scripture on one handed and the sages of the corporate world on the other hand.  Yet, we’ve neglected to consider what Les McKewon terms “The 3 Things Every Leader Gets Wrong.” He identifies those three things as:

1. The time needed to do things.
2. The relative importance of people and ideas.
3. What other people hear you say.

And just like getting the best of both worlds, when leaders err this way (and I have), then the church receives the worst too.  Not only have we, as pastors, failed in leading our people, we’ve failed to demonstrate to live out the pattern of life Jesus lived and the Fruit of the Spirit-filled life which Paul taught - 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NKJV)

I know this too well from my own failings both in ministry and in my own heart.  I kept coming back to my calling to ministry.  Most of us did not come into ministry to enhance resumes and gain our share of the pie (I did say most).  I came into ministry because God called, or let me put it this way – I prayed and God spoke.  Now others confirmed this calling, so certainly it was not in a vacuum.  What remains as the foundation is my journey began with prayer.

We don’t have a means to measure prayer at all.  Now, we may try to measure our prayer but it doesn’t have the same measurability as say, numbers in chairs on Sunday morning or giving figures.  As Don Salier’s points out so pointedly,  “…there is a tendency to define prayer primarily by its effects and by our own consequent actions in the world.  The prayerful life is shown by its fruits, assuredly; but it can never be reduced to its “results (from Worship as Theology)."  As Salier’s notes, if we go down this road, reducing prayers to something measurable, to results, “…prayer slides toward magic.”  

We cannot find in Scripture where God calls us to performance.  To be actors in a play for God’s amusement is the stuff of mythology.  John Wesley in his sermon on “The Means of Grace,” declares, “The chief of these means of grace is prayer, whether in secret or the great congregation…”  There maybe many things on the to do list.  The chief among them is not to be a more effective leader.  Clearly not, the chief among them is to recognize we’ve been adopted into the family of God (Romans 8:15) and we as, the children, need our time with God.  To keep our prayer practice in the forefront of our lives and ministry, is indeed a challenge, one not so measurable but one of far more significance to our soul.

A Different Kind of Christmas: Expect A Miracle

Isaiah 7:14 NASB  "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

Luke 4:16-21 GNB  Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath he went as usual to the synagogue. He stood up to read the Scriptures  (17)  and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written,  (18)  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed  (19)  and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people."  (20)  Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. All the people in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him,  (21)  as he said to them, "This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read."

The time leading up to Christmas is often a time of wonder.   I’ve often wondered, like you have, just what does God looks like?  If God showed up today, how would I recognize it was God?  Or how about when you pray, how do you imagine God?  Is it the face of stern judge or that of a loving and concerned parent?  Is the God you wonder about a God who just cares about salvation and heaven or about the reality and struggles of life here and now?  Does God know how stressed you are about your grades, does he care about how tough it is in your family, or how excited you are about a possible promotion?

As we begin our journey to Christmas morning, let’s cut to the heart of this and admiit Jesus was not what or who people imagined God to be.  While today we acknowledge him to be God’s Son and of absolute power and authority, when he was born into the world it was a whole other story.  Born a Jew in the middle east under Roman control, his family escaped genocide to Egypt, only to return to a non-descript village, growing up as the son of a carpenter.  His life was spent associating with everyday folks and navigating the political and religious turmoil of his day, resisting power, corruption, consumerism and popularity.  This is why Jesus could say that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled.  Jesus lived it out.

Along the way we substituted Santa Claus for Jesus.  In more places than one.  Think about our early wonderings about God.  In your heart haven’t you ever heard these words echo when you pray:  “He sees you when you’re sleeping...He knows if you’ve been bad or good?”  If our picture of God gets distorted, our perspective becomes skewed and we no longer see Jesus for who he is but for what we can get from him.  Like magic, it is an illusion, and illusions are mere entertainment.

Let’s look again at the words Jesus read in regarding the poor and the captives.  Now substitute the message we started hearing in our radios, tvs and pop-up ads weeks ago:   “...he has chosen me to bring  free shipping on orders over $50  to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim Buy One - Get the Second for Half-off to the captives and recovery of shopping days to the blind, to set free the oppressed to decorate their homes (19)  and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people with 0% interest for one full year."

The magical Christmas promised by ads is an illusion.  It is certainly not Biblical.  What we have been given in Jesus is a reality of a meaningful life.  Mike Slaughter, pastor at one of the largest UM churches in the US brought this home when he shared a conversation with a friend who retired early from his work.  This friend was jabbing Mike about still working, so Mike asked him, “What do you do with all your extra time?”  His friend responded, “Oh, I play golf everyday and my wife and I collect shells on the beach.”  So that is the meaning of life?  Like Mike, I want to be able to say I left this world something far more important than a lower handicap and a dust collection.

Imagine this Christmas to not be magical BUT meaningful.  Better yet, what if YOU were part of a meaningful miracle?  You must remember though, that miracles don’t just happen - they are born, and there is pain in birthing - this, Mary, the virgin mother, knew when she said yes to God. 

So imagine as a family what new tradition you could give birth to help focus on Jesus’ presence rather than on the presents.  One idea is the "Four Gift Rule" going around.  But I don't think it ought to be for our kids alone, what if the whole family did it?  Just begin the conversation today.  In the coming weeks, we'll throw out some more ideas you might consider as you expect a miracle this Christmas! 

Don't miss any of what is in store.  Next week will be a Celtic Christmas and the next step on our journey as we work on "Giving Up On Perfect!"

Lectio Visual for a Saturday

With a new sermons series beginning about A Different Kind of Christmas, this visual seemed to leap out at me.  Take your time with this one.

The practice Lectio Visual isn't complicated.  Take you time and as you view the image walk through the following steps:

            Look (Read):  Consider deeply the image and what is being “said.”
            Linger (Reflect):  What is the verse or word being given to you?
            Led (Respond): How are you being called to respond?
            Lay (Rest): Be in God's presence.
            Live (Return): Moving back into the world with how we've been changed.

Take time to reflect on the image.  As you look at this image, what words come to your mind?  Specifically, what Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak to you?   You may think of a recent news article or a quote by a famous person.  So it maybe from another word or phrase that you are  inspired you to look up a Scripture.  If you need help, you might try going to www.biblegateway.com to do a search through the Bible.

Remember that there are those images, icons or symbols that attract us right off the bat.  We are   now an incredibly visual society and images are important.  Christianity has been using images since the earliest days of the church.  BUT, we need to realize that there are also images that don’t attract us or inspire us with joy or peace that are just as likely to be used by God. 

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take that as a guide for your prayer through this day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.  If it is a full story, consider using more of Lectio Divina which I talk about elsewhere on my blog.

Thinking About A Different Kind of Christmas

Who gets top billing in your Christmas celebrations?  I don't mean this as a judgmental questioning, but as a serious question about how you think of this time of year.

I can remember the December when temptation overcame me.  I snuck into the inner sanctum (underneath the Christmas tree), found a package with my name and peeled off the tape at the end.  Looking back, the irony is quite apparent.  It was the early days of the Transformers, and the Transformer in that box was a character called, (wait for it)..."Mirage."  Later in the week, my parents called my sister and I in for a family meeting.  Apparently, she too, had given into temptation.  My parents let us know in no uncertain terms, the gig was up and there would be no presents if this happened again.

Like that Transformer, today, most of what is promoted as Christmas is a mirage.  It seems like an oasis in the midst of our crazy-making lives trying to make ends meet and maintain our families and dreams.  The miracle we expect on Christmas morning so often disappears moments or a few days after we unwrap the gifts.  Magic and illusions always do.

But Christmas is about a miracle.  Miracles don't just happen - they are born through labors of pain and in the everyday.  What we see in Jesus is this very miracle we desire most - the preeminent event in the world that God did.  Through us, God has the continuing opportunity to be about miracles.  We need only say yes when God asks and then be ready for a different kind of Christmas!

"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call 
His name Immanuel. "  
Isaiah 7:14 (NKJV)

Join us at Cumming First United Methodist Church at our 9:51 Worship Service (at 9:51am in the Family Life Center) as we begin our new series, "A Different Kind of Christmas!"

Healer: Prescriptions from the Great Physician

Luke 17:11-19 NASB  While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee.  (12)  As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him;  (13)  and they raised their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"  (14)  When He saw them, He said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they were going, they were cleansed.  (15)  Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice,  (16)  and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan.  (17)  Then Jesus answered and said, "Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine--where are they?  (18)  "Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?"  (19)  And He said to him, "Stand up and go; your faith has made you well."

            These ten weren’t asking for signs.  They weren’t trying to show off.  They were lepers.  Their bodies falling apart.  They were isolated, separated and humiliated by a disease that even allowed a Samaritan, a man of mixed heritage, to find community because no community would allow them in.
            That alone tells us something more is here, hidden. Something more is implied in this healing.  Consider that the term “sozo” is used for both “healing” and “forgiveness.”  Something more than just healing has taken place.  Something transformative without and within was experienced on that day with one of those lepers.
            That is good to know, that brings some comfort for those of us who haven’t found the physical healing to take place.  But then, when we suffer, we’re not far removed from some pretty esteemed company in the Bible.  God didn’t heal Moses of his stuttering.  Jacob, who was quite healthy, actually found himself handicapped after wrestling with God.  God didn’t answer David’s prayer and fasting for his infant son. God didn’t raise Ruth’s husband and two sons from the dead. God didn’t remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh nor did he stop the stomach illness of Timothy.  Remember that 100% of those who Jesus healed, still died.
            I will not be an apologist for an incomplete view of healing packed in a false assurance.  Certainly not, when we consider that the symbol of our faith is a cross: a symbol of pain, suffering, humiliation and execution.  We, pastors, laity and theologians, have not spoken to this well.  
           I want to share a story I've never shared in a sermon before because it brings this home for me.   The evening before my surgery to remove my cancerous testical, I sat on the couch and listened as a local preacher in our community explained that bad things happen because we’ve taken Jesus on the throne of our hearts.  A week later, as I was still recovering, I saw that same preacher speaking, and on one hand he had a cast.  The irony was not lost on me.  When asked about why some were ill, Jesus also said (see John 9:1-3), our suffering and pain isn’t so easy to explain away.  Sinfulness is not always the cause.
           The Healer is concerned about you - all of you - your whole being.  Our traditions, reasoning, experiences and the Bible, reinforce this as one of the cornerstone pieces of our faith that God is in love with you and me, John 3:16 is that all telling verse and passage of God’s love but even it is just one of many.  As such, he cares about our mental pain, our physical suffering and the condition of our souls.  Our faith tells us in the beginning chapters of the Bible, that this is a soul-making world where our pain and suffering play a role in our journey. 
            But like Jacob, I find myself wrestling with God, maybe you do too.  To give you and I freedom, God has limited, at times what God is going to do.  I suspect, that is because the healing I need has far less to do with my physical condition as it does to do with healing my soul; healing my faith.  I have an assurance, not pollyanna pie in the sky, wish on a star -hope about God’s role and work as the Healer.  We are called as God’s people to come together and pray for one another for sure but I want to suggest to you, God does not intend this as a prescription for our healing but plan of wellness:

1.  Sustenance is where it begins.  What are you putting in you and no, I don’t mean just food.  When challenged by the devil, Jesus had no problem with his response.     Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' " Matt 4:3-4 (NKJVIn fact throughout his ministry, Jesus pointed this out time and again the health of our soul is dependent on God’s word.

2.  The second part of the wellness plan is to recognize that Hebrews 6:12 is correct, we can become spiritually dull and weak.  A strength plan is also important.  Again, there are many verses but I think it is key to consider here Jesus’ words again.  What we take in, God’s words are not merely for us to ponder but to live out.  Jesus said of this  “…whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matt 20:27-28 (NLT)

3. It is more than a commandment, it characterized the life of Jesus for he understood the true need for Sabbath, at time to rest.  Genesis 31:12-18 makes the importance of Sabbath clear.  We find in Mark 1:35; Mark 6:30-31 and Luke 5:16 that Jesus took time to rest, to not work.  He took time to go to temple and synagogues.  Rabbi David Horowitz, who spent a week with my Academy group in early November, shared much with us about Jewish influence upon our Christian faith.  This helped us to understand better the practices of Jesus' life.  You see, Sabbath is NOT about worship for 1 hour each week, but it is to be three fold:
            1.  It is about REST.  This is a gift.
            2.  It is about JOY.  It is time together, not alone.
3.  It is about Sanctification.  In the synagogue, when sending forth, the people aren’t sent forth to go in peace.  Instead, they “Go To Peace.”

            My experience; our experience and the Biblical history leave us at times wanting.  The path to healing isn’t so easy.  A doctor once said to a patient before surgery, “I may hurt you, but I won’t injure you.”   Like the lepers, we come wanting healing – we don’t want to feel hurt but God comes wanting us to be whole.  We know that one leper, went away whole in body and soul.  Does your plan of wellness include both body and soul?  The path for wellness, for wholeness is available to all, just as it was to the lepers.

Lectio Visual for Wednesday

Lectio Visual is the practice of spiritually reading an image.   To begin, take time to reflect on the image.  The image is entitled The Evening of the Deluge, c. 1843, by Joseph Mallord William Turner.    As you look at this image, what words or thoughts come to your mind? 

As you continue to practice Lectio Visual, as you view the image walk through the following steps:

            Look (Read):  Consider deeply the image and what is being “said.”
            Linger (Reflect):  What is the verse or word being given to you?
            Led (Respond): How are you being called to respond?
            Lay (Rest): Be in God's presence.
            Live (Return): Moving back into the world with how we've been changed.

Take time to reflect on the image.  As you look at this image, what words come to your mind?  If there are people or a person in the picture, what might they be saying?  Specifically, what Scripture passage or phrase does the Holy Spirit inspire them to speak to you?   Maybe it is a word or phrase that inspires you to look up a Scripture.  Today's image comes from the story of Noah and the Great Flood found in Genesis 6-9.  This may guide you but you may find another Scripture brought to mind. Consider why that might be?

Certainly, there are those images, icons or symbols that attract us right off the bat.  BUT, we need to realize that there are also images that don’ attract us or inspire us with joy or peace that are just as likely to be used by God. 

Whatever that verse or word or phrase, take that as a guide for your prayer through this day.  Read or say that verse or phrase out loud if you have time or space to do so.  If not, silently reflect and pray.  If it is a full story, consider using more of Lectio which I talk about on my blog.

Are You Practicing Tzedaka? Celebrating Stewardship

And [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, "Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on." (Mark 12:41-44 NASB)

This past week I spent a week of continuing education at week 2 of TheUpper Room’s Academy of Spiritual Formation. With other Christians, we journeyed with author Linda Douty as she spoke on spiritual practices and Rabbi David Horowitz who helped us make connections between Christianity and our Jewish roots. At one point David shared with us a story of going to see a lady from his synagogue who was dying. As he walked into the room of the hospital she said, Rabbi David, I’m going to see your boss soon. Do you want me to deliver any messages?” In response, David said, “Yes, tell him to speak more clearly, we keep having a hard time hearing what you’re saying!”

Now, if you have sat with me in almost any Bible Study or small group, you’ll likely have heard me say that it isn’t the things I don’t understand God say that are hard but the ones that I do understand. I think the Rabbi would agree that there are times God is very clear but that is for another time.

You see, this story is one that may not be as clear as we think.  Some would consider this story from Mark’s gospel a poor text to use on a Celebration Sunday like today. Why? In it’s context, Jesus has been speaking about corruption in the Temple. It speaks about those who drop down money in the plate with little thought or concern.  Yet there is more to it.

It is like the story of the Sunday School class where the teacher asked the children if they thought it good to give $1,000,000.00 to missionaries to which they responded, “Yes!” What about a $1,000.00? “Yes!” What about $100? Yes! What about $1? To which all but Jenny said, “Yes!” The teacher asked Jenny, “Why didn’t you say yes to $1?” “Well,” she said, “this time I Have a dollar!”

We read 2 Corinthians 9:7 and are reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver."  The text never says the opposite though.  I can't find the text where God hates a mad giver.  Rabbi David taught us an important element of Jewish spirituality called, “TZEDAKA” commonly translated “charity.” “Jews,” he said, "don’t give because it is the right thing to do but because God commands it.”  There are 8 degrees of Tzedaka, and God honors all of them starting with the first degree of giving grudgingly.

Now Jesus said, out of all she had, this widow put in everything. This is a Jewish rabbi observing a Jewish woman.  We have no idea what level of tzedaka but we know that she gave, we know that her small amoung was more than all others and it was she who Jesus honored, I think, because she didn’t just believe, which is easy to say, but she did something: what she could.

We have shared these past few weeks all the good, the charity, the tzedaka through Cumming FUMC because of the giving. Right now, there are many who feel anxious about their finances or are experiencing it in their homes. Some in this very worship space. As part of Celebration Sunday, you’re not being asked to sign a contract but to estimate your giving, your step, your tzedaka for the coming year so that together, we might prepare and move forward as God’s people and offer the same to a world who doesn’t care if we believe in God but cares if we believe enough to do something.

Methods of Spiritual Maturity - Fasting and the Rule of Life

There is a story about a young monk who was very excited about the coming season of Lent and his practice of fasting this year. As he got more excited, he began to consider how little food he was going to need. He began making plans for maintaining his fast and for he was going to “out-fast” the other monks. In his meeting with the abbot before Lent, he began to share all his plans and his excitement about how pure he would become from the experience. The abbot listened quietly, pondering the words of the young monk for some time. Finally, he spoke and said, “my young brother, fasting is not about what you will achieve nor about your pride. This Lent I want you to eat all of your regular meals. Oh, and in addition to that, you should eat one chocolate bar a day!”

As we come to a close, I think this is an excellent story to end on not merely because I am going to speak on fasting but because in speaking on fasting, we address the nature, the temptation of the human being to turn and twist that which is good for us into that which can rot our souls.

Those of you that have had to undergo treatments and surgeries, blood testing and the like may have discovered what I have found so helpful. Rather than watching the nurse or doctor stick the needle or IV in, I look to the face of the care giver. It doesn’t seem to hurt so bad. Rather than focus on the relationship, we focus on goals (because that is what we are taught, right?). Rather than focus on the healer, we focus on the wound.  In spiritual practices, we often focus on the practice, the act rather than on the One we seek to relate to through these methods.

The methods of spiritual maturity are not to gain “the spiritual world.” They are to bring us to a place where we become people perfect in love. Jane Vennard writes points this out so clearly,
Jesus commanded his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). And so he commanded us. To love as Jesus loved is to love without aim. In all relationships, human and divine, in prayer and in physical contact, we simply attend with love. We pray to pray. We love to love. And we wait for God’s grace to find us (42).”
Jane’s words clarify the goal of love - all. The prayers we pray, are not to further our power or authority in the Kingdom but so we might know God, be available to God. Many of those to whom God revealed himself, weren’t even praying at all! To Moses, God came when Moses was tending sheep. To Samuel, he came while Samuel was laying down to sleep. To Paul, he came when Paul was on the road.

How engaged they were in “spiritual practices," we don’t know but they were at places where God was confident they would get the message He wanted to be with them. It wasn’t required that they being doing holy things but that they were available. Our methods, our practices, our spiritual habits make move us toward this availability.

As I’ve already noted, John Wesley was well studied in Scripture, placing the Bible as the central authority for the Christians in England striving to follow Jesus. Wesley was not interested in a new church - he was interested in new Christians becoming mature Christians. His sermon on, The Means Of Grace, outlined primarily the practices of studying scripture and prayer. He preached that, “The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing and meditating thereon);… (from Sermon on The Means of Grace).  But by know means was this all that Wesley saw in Scripture and encouraged of the people.

The third practice of importance not to be missed by Wesley (and also, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards to name a few others) is the practice of fasting which I want to touch on for a moment because fasting represents the third of the private/personal methods of spiritual maturity. Jesus is fairly clear that fasting was and was intended to remain a practice of his followers when he said,
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Mat 6:16-18 NASB)
Wesley’s sermon on this text notes “…in what manner are we to fast…let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on him.” (Sermon: Uponon Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (VII).  Follow the link to get a fuller understanding of Wesley and fasting.)

There is some good material, even more new material out regarding fasting and with it all, a lot of misunderstandings. I referred often to Richard Foster’s, Celebration of Discipline as one of the foremost resources. Marjorie Thompson’s, Soul Feast, is another. I really appreciate though, Jane Vennard’s concise and Biblical understanding of fasting and it’s purpose, namely, “...to create space in your life to attend to God (pg 22).”

Fasting is not a punishment. In the Bible it is practiced in times of sorrow and defeat (2 Samuel 12:6-16 and Judges 20:26). It was done in time of preparation for events (Exodus 34:28 and Matthew 4:2). In the early church, it became part of worship (Acts 13:2). Because of the nature of our society and it’s view of bodies and food, talking of fasting is difficult. For those whose health would be in jeapordy, certainly a food fast would not be what God is asking of you.

But when what we own begins to owns us or what we consume creeps over us and consumes us, then it isn’t hard to see where fasting plays a role for us spiritually. We are to have no other gods before God and fasting whether from food, from the internet, from e-mail, from football, from whatever it maybe, is a vital practice.

In its simplest form, fasting is going without food, only drinking water, for a 24 hour period. Breakfast to breakfast or another meal is the most common. I have often chosen to do 1 meal a day, usually lunch. Or I have chosen to do a juice fast, drinking only water and juice to help soften or eliminate headaches when it has been a while since I have fasted. What must be considered at all times, is why you are fasting.

Dr. Allan Coppedge, who has been a leading scholar and teacher in Wesleyan-Methodist Theology, outlines 3 Essential Elements for the early Methodists. However, their application is not just for then as we have been discovering in the growth of churches across denominations that have discovered the importance of these.

For the Methodists, these Elements, I think, formed in Wesley’s time a “Rule of Life,” a set of practices that ordered one’s life. This ‘Rule of Life’ comes from the St. Benedict and his practice of helping order the life of monks. Within our Christian tradition a “rule of life” has come to refer to “the kind of structure that supports spiritual growth (pg 145, Soul Feast).

As you’ll see from Dr. Coppedge’s outline, for Wesley, the Methods of Spiritual Maturity consisted of:

I. Use of the Means of Grace
A. Private
        1. Bible Reading
        2. Prayer
        3. Fasting
B. Corporate
1. Public preaching/teaching of the Word
2. Family devotions
3. Prayer in the societies and classes
4. Sacrament of Lord's Supper
5. Small group meetings: classes and bands
6. Love Feasts; Watch Nights; Covenant Service

The classes, bands, select bands and personal interviews were the chief means used by the early Methodists to give a regular account of their spiritual state and progress in the Christian life.

John and Charles Wesley, the Methodist preachers and the class leaders became spiritual directors and models for the application of Biblical principles to everyday life. Wesley's collection of sermons, letters and tracts, and similar works of other Methodist leaders, catalogs and demonstrates this practice.

We’ve been discussing the three, primary, private Means of Grace from Wesley's model while at the same time, joining together in a class meeting format. The principle of life transference has long been neglected yet it is much needed for the church. A growing number of both clergy and laity are seeking to understand and practice this within the Church through spiritual direction, which is what I’m currently working on over the next few years.

But without a structure, an understanding of how we grow, the means by which we grow and help in the growth, then it becomes more clear, I think, why we’re not maturing, why we’re not experiencing.  And so I want to leave you consider one more quote of Mr. Wesley's, one which goes right to the point behind these methods and the effects of a rule of life...
Settle this in your heart, that the opus operatum, the mere work done, profiteth nothing; that there is no power to save, but in the Spirit of God, no merit, but in the blood of Christ; that, consequently, even what God ordains, conveys no grace to the soul, if you trust not in Him alone. On the other hand, he that does truly trust in Him, cannot fall short of the grace of God, even though he were cut off from every outward ordinance, though he were shut up in the centre of the earth.
How you will grow is up to you, but it is my place to help guide and offer some direction on the journey. And today I’d like to offer you some time to consider your own Rule Of Life - how you will grow in grace.

Download the MP3 of Methods of Spiritual Maturity part 4: Fasting and the Rule of Life at Mediafire!

This is the final part of this four part teaching series.  The other entries are under "Methods" in the search feature or simply scroll down.  I pray you found these helpful and encouraging.  Please feel free to post any thoughts or questions you might have!  Don't turn the dial too far, there is more to come in the future!

Works Cited:

Further Recommended Reading on Principle of Accountability from Allan Coppedge

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