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, “ 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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