Saturday, December 24, 2011

Jesus: God’s Persistent Invitation to the World by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    So when my 9 year old son is watching TV or playing a video game, and I need to ask him a question, I might as well be talking to a brick wall. We have had his hearing checked on a regular basis. His hearing is just fine. But when he is focused on electronics, he cannot hear me talking.

    (move lips but don’t make sound): It’s as if I am speaking but no sound is coming out of my mouth.  (REPEAT quietly): It’s as if I am speaking but no sound is coming out of my mouth. (SHOUT):IT’S AS IF I AM SPEAKING BUT NO SOUND IS COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH.  Any other parents experiencing this?

    Sometimes I will walk over to him and get between him and the TV or the video game and say, “Are you listening to me?” And then I will give him whatever message I want to convey.  Now, this can be somewhat amusing if I’m trying to say, “It’s time to empty the trash.” We can laugh that he’s just trying to get out of doing his chores.

    Sometimes it still gets old.  This happens in much more serious conversations all the time. You need to talk with your significant other, about some concerns you are having in your relationship. You are not happy. Perhaps you have a problem, for example, about the different values you have about spending money and you think it’s time to have a serious talk. Your partner just brushes you off, in much the same way a 9 year old brushes off Mom saying it’s time to do your chores. We don’t want to have the “money talk.” It’s too stressful. And it will point to other underlying values clashes in our relationship.

    And gradually, we just shut down, and stop communicating about just about everything. They just don’t deal with things.  This breakdown in communication is what happens between God and human beings every day. Did you hear me?  Can you hear me now?

    Think about it. God is our creator, our parent, our loving Mom or Dad. God wants to be right in there, in the thick of our lives. Yes God is like a nosey parent who wants to know our business. It’s because God really does know what’s best; because God made the world and everything in it. God gives us life. God give us opportunities, and God gives us free will to make choices: good ones and bad ones.
Then God watches as we do what we will do.

    And we make mistakes. We make some dooo-zies! But We do some good things with the skills and the resources God gives us too. Some incredible wonderful things that transform our world for the better.  But this is what often happens in our life cycle. We get cut off from God.

    In the days of Mary and Joseph, lots of the people had lost their way. I imagine God feeling like a frazzled Mom at the end of the worst day, when a child won’t pull his attention away from the electronics for ANYTHING – NOT EVEN his favorite dinner and a big old hug from the mama he loves. (And most 9 year old boys really do still love hugs from their mom, don’t let them tell you they don’t.) I imagine God feeling like that with a whole planet full of children.

    In the days of Mary and Joseph, I imagine God being like someone who is living in the house with a partner but they have not felt joy together in years. They are just sharing space. They are not communicating; they are not growing old together. They are just getting old. And God is living like that in a house with a billion people.

    So about 2000 plus years ago, in the time of Mary and Joseph, and King Herod, and all those folks, God said, “Enough!”  “I have got to do something.” “I love these people. These are my children. When they listen to me, I can guide them. I can help them find peace and joy. I am their Creator; I gave them life. They are so unhappy, so lost. How did this happen? How did this happen?   You have been in a relationship before and asked that.

    “When I was working through Moses and led the people into the Promised Land those were good times. My people were finally listening to me after all those years in the wilderness. I thought we were on the right track. I felt such a connection. But now look at them. Leaders have taken over that have lost their way.”  They just don’t get it.

    And so God formed a plan.  “I will start over again with them. God specializes in new starts.  I will send my own child down there – my Son. I’ll send a baby – no one can resist loving a baby! At least not until they need a diaper change, get cranky, etc.   And in time, He will show them. He will be so gentle and wise, and so radical in His love and so clear in His call for justice that they will see me – they will remember me.”   And so that is just what God did.  God sent Jesus.

    Today, we gather, and light the “Christ Candle”  to give thanks to God, for sending Jesus to our world. We give thanks that God Jesus to Mary and Joseph and to the shepherds and the Wise Men. Because God sent Jesus to those first disciples, to those fishermen who were not always that smart: Peter, James and John, to Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, God’s message got passed through to them, and filtered down through the ages to us. From that part of the world to ours.

    Now it’s up to us. So on this Christmas, we pause and marvel at this amazing gift of God’s child, born in the midst of humanity. Can we pause, before we go open the gifts and eat too much food and watch sports, and just let this gift soak in to us?
You see this gift proves that God really wants to love us and be the guiding force in our lives. God wants to cut through the noise, and the distractions. God wants to cut through our fears and our resistance and be in relationship with us.

    Will we listen? Will we turn down whatever video games and TV’s, or other material distractions we hold onto? Will we let go of whatever bad choices we know we make that keep us from saying “yes” to God’s path for us?  You see, today, is the day.  God gives us Jesus, to change our lives.  Jesus is the only gift that matters.
All the rest is just icing on the Christmas cake.

    Will you pray with me now? And open your heart to receive God’s gift of Jesus?
God, you did your part to come to us. And now God, we are going to do our part.  We are here, ready, ready to receive your gift of Jesus.  You love made flesh in the world.  We open our hearts to receive your love in the world.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent: Resting in God’s Possibilities by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    A long, long, long time ago, an angel came to a young unmarried girl, who was part of a family that lived a simple life. They were not wealthy. They were not kings and queens. They were not part of the elite class. They were not special in any way.   The angel said, “You’re going to have a baby, and your baby will bring hope and salvation to the world. Are you ready Mary?”

    Mary was confused, she was stunned,  she was not married and was not doing the things that caused the usual human being to get pregnant. The angel explained that God would intervene in a miraculous way, and God would be the father of this one of a kind child. “How about that? Are you ready for that Mary?”  God is going to be the father of your baby.

    With a sense of calm and obedience well beyond her years, Mary said to the angel, “Here I am, your servant, let it be according to your word,”, what strength and trust.  Just like that great Beatles’ song says. LET IT BE.  There is such a sense of calm and peace to that song, isn’t there? LET IT BE.
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
When the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.

    Somehow, miraculously, Mary, knew. Mary knew in her heart, that everything would be alright. She is told that her cousin Elizabeth, who is well beyond her child bearing years, is also pregnant. Her child will grow up to be John the Baptist, the one who preaches and prepares the way for Jesus and his ministry. The angel says, such an old woman can have a baby, and Mary, can have a baby without being with a man – and here’s why, NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD.

    That’s the message of this whole story: NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD. And so, in this season, we are invited to lean into that wonderful promise.  Are you ready for that?

    Are you ready to rest in God’s possibilities? And to trust God?  Can we say to God, “Let it be”? Can we say to God to take our lives and mold them for your purposes.  Say “do something outrageous with our lives? Something we never dreamed we could do without God’s help?”

    Now, there may be something you believe God wants to do with your life individually. You may be praying, and you may hear God speaking to you about some big change God is making in your life. And if so, I encourage you to trust God, to listen to God, and to rest in God’s possibilities, and to be like Mary and put your future in God’s hands.

    But there can be more than one Christmas miracle. There can be lots of individual miracles.  As I ponder this scripture and consider the impossibilities before us, I believe God is doing something amazing with The Village right now. Right before our eyes. Right here at Christmas.

    I believe the power of God’s spirit is being born anew within us. It’s like we are a pregnant woman, just waiting to give birth.  I can give you some examples, ministry teams, a ministry plan, some new financial, unexpected support, a new band leader and new location, all signs of how we are getting ready for our ministry to be stronger, but there is something more than that.  Something intangible.   A God thing. The power of God.  The Spirit of God moving among us.

    I believe this is the question God is asking us today: will we be God’s vessels of incarnational love in the way that Mary was?  Will we be carriers of God’s love brought into the world?  You see, Mary brought Jesus into the world. Mary brought God into the world. And as she gave birth to Jesus, she brought to the world, God’s love and hope, God’s mercy and compassion.

    Now, I believe God is asking us, to give birth to Jesus in our little part of the world. WE are to bring God into the world. It’s our job now. WE are to give birth to God’s love and hope, to God’s mercy and compassion in whatever way we can right here in our little corner of the world.

    We are all God has in the world.  We are what God has to be God’s representatives We may not feel worthy. But Mary did not really feel worthy either.  She was probably about 12-13 years old, she didn’t feel ready.  And yet, in humility she stepped up to the task and said, “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.”

    And so this is God’s question to us, as we walk through this last week of Advent, in preparation for Christmas.  I don’t care how many shopping days are left.  Here’s God’s question, Are we ready?  Are we ready to give birth to Jesus? Are we ready to represent Jesus in the world?

    Are we ready to be The Village Church in Northwest Ohio? To get out there and stretch ourselves to show God’s love through community service and to invite more people to be part of our church?  We can’t just sit at our new location and wait for God to come to us.   Jesus didn’t do that.  There are hurting people out there who need to hear the word of hope for hurting people.  We know that there are hurting people because we are them.  There are the things we need to do, in order to expand the reach of our ministry: Community service and inviting other people to try The Village. We can’t just sit here and wait for them to come to us. We have to get out there and look for them. Because they are hurting, and they need God’s healing love. You know they do.
Everyone here can be part of what seems to be impossible. We want to double our impact between Christmas and Easter. Because we know that there are more people who need a community like this. The task seems impossible. But what seems impossible for humans, is always possible with God.

    You will be hearing more about the opportunities to be part of the various ministry teams. And if you want to join one, today I invite you to take out a yellow Connection Card and just put your name on it and sign up for a Ministry Team. If you want to help with community service and outreach to new people then just write Outreach on the card and we’ll direct you to Kurt and Patrick.

    Most of all, let’s pray about the possibilities. Will you pray in this last week of Advent? Let’s try this: every time we hear a Christmas song this week, let’s invite God to use us, in the way God used Mary – to bring Jesus into the world.

    I know it’s a humbling thought. But it was humbling to Mary too. So let’s pray that God will use each one of us, through the Village Church.  I think it’s easier to think about doing it together. Every time we hear a Christmas song this week, let’s pray that God will use each one of us, together, to bring Jesus into the world, Jesus’ message love and hope, mercy and compassion. We are not Mary.  But think about how scary it was for Mary.  Let’s join Mary and offer our lives to God, “Here we are God, your servants, Let it be, according to your word.” Let’s bring Jesus’ message of love and hope, compassion and mercy into a world that desperately needs it. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

“Advent: An Invitation to Come Home” By Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

     What do you want for Christmas? Maybe you have made a Christmas list for your family, because that’s what you do. You let people know about some material “stuff” that you would enjoy having, because that’s our Christmas tradition. We buy one another “stuff” on Jesus’ birthday. It’s kind of an odd tradition if you think about it. God sends God’s own child into the world and we celebrate by buying one another lots of stuff. Occasionally we buy ourselves a little something as well.  Kind of an odd tradition if you think about it. 

       Now, at places like The Village, we try to balance all that consumerism by inviting folks to keep the gift buying manageable and to remember to buy for folks who are truly in need. So we give food and money to help people who economically poor, with our Christmas Fund for the AIDS Resource Center. This seems to be compassionate way to honor the birth of God’s own son.

       But honestly, what would you really LOVE to have for Christmas? I think if I really got to the heart of the matter with many of you – you would say something like this: peace on earth, harmony in your family or relationships, to not have to live with so much worry about whatever you worry about, when you go to bed at night, when you can’t sleep. How about that? 

     Underneath all of that, we want peace for ourselves and those we love.  We want to know everything is going to be ok. I would call that “home.” We want to be in that comfortable place, where we can be ourselves, take off our shoes, sit our comfy chair, and just be ourselves, and our mom and dad will love us.   In that best home, the idealized version of home.

       That’s what that song is about – “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” The person just wants to be home, where everything is happy and comfortable and good. They are separated from family for some reason. The song was recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby during WWII and was very popular during WW II. It reflected the story of a young soldier who wanted to be home for Christmas, if only in his dreams.

     That image is powerful in itself is powerful enough. We are all seeing the stories all over the news of the soldiers coming home from Iraq. At least those soldiers will be home this year for Christmas.  And it makes us feel good.   But the song, and the idea of the song, is about more that. You see, at Christmas, many of us get to spend some time with our birth family, or our chosen family. We take some time off work and spend time with people we love. This is Christmas at its best.

     Now let me just pause here to acknowledge that I know Christmas is not like that for everyone. Christmas is not picture perfect for many of us. It is depressing and stressful for many of us, because we don’t have those families that we want to see. Or we feel like we have to spend time with folks that we really don’t want to see. I understand that. But we’ll have to deal with that another day. But I do want to acknowledge that.

      But here is the thing.  We can all be at home with Jesus on Christmas Day. We can choose to be home with Jesus for Christmas.  In that first Christmas scene.  Jesus had humble beginnings.  Born in a barn in the back of an inn.

      In our scripture for today, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist is preaching to the crowds. You see, he started his preaching ministry a few months or so, before Jesus started his ministry.  John the Baptist, started baptizing people with water and telling them to repent and turn away from their sins. But he said to them, “I’m just the opening act.” “The headliner,” meaning Jesus, “is on the way.”  The one who is coming, “He is the LIGHT. He is the one you are really waiting for.”

      John was telling them, that when Jesus comes, we can find our home with him. We can find our way to God, when we know Jesus. We can find our HOME in God, when we know Jesus. So we need to get to know this Jesus. Jesus is the one.  Where you will find that sense of peace, that place you are longing for. That sense of belonging in a family. 

       So every year at Christmas time, we have this big celebration, in order to re-tell this important story, of the baby, with humble beginnings, who would grow up to love the unlovable, and speak the truth to power, and overcome death with resurrection. That’s the baby we can be at home with. That’s the baby we want to love with our Christmas celebrations.   We want to remember Jesus to remember the one who loved the unlovable like us, who would speak to power, so we can too, the one to overcome death, so we can too.  This is why it is important to celebrate it that way, every year.

      It is now 14 days until Christmas. Yes, we can view it as 14 shopping days left. We can view it as 14 days left to cram in parties, and home decorating. And some of that stuff is fun.  I like Christmas parties and lights, and giving presents.  I would invite us, however, to consider, 14 days left to be still, and ponder the gift of Jesus – Emmanuel – God present in the world – to come into our home and live with us.

       And I would challenge us to consider how we will honor Jesus’ birthday, gift from God of Jesus. We will come and worship with our church family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Will we take time to pray that week, and open our hearts to receive Jesus anew? What does the birth of this child, your child to me, mean this year? 

       Will we give some time during Christmas week, or in the new year, to help others through some ministry of compassion – actually trusting God to change us and use us as servants?   To change ourselves through servant ministry.  Will we designate some money to help those who are even poorer than us? Because there are people in our community and our world who are poorer than us, even in Toledo, Ohio where we are pretty poor right now. And will we realize that in these acts, we are making a home with Jesus?  You see, Jesus wants to be at home in our lives. That’s why Jesus came to live on this Earth, Why God sent Jesus to live with us.

    You see, we will be home for Christmas. Our home, is with Jesus. God is sending Jesus to live with us and in us, and Jesus wants to be with us. Christmas is God’s gift to us every year – to let us receive the gift of Jesus once again. So let’s get ready. We only have two weeks left. Let’s get ready to be home for Christmas.

     Do you have your way home for Christmas?  There are lots of places to get on that journey.  If you need one, and are near Central & Monroe in Toledo, or Conant Street & the Anthony Wayne Trail this Spring, come join us at the Village.  We’re remembering an incredible gift, given to us about 2,000 years ago.  We’re gathering as a church family, where all are welcome.  Come join us, or another church family this season. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

ADVENT PROMISES by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    Back in 1997, not long after Kurt and I got married, we made a trip to Texas, my home. It was Kurt’s first trip to West Texas. His third trip West of the Mississippi River. We went to DeLeon, (don’t say it French, it’s DEE LEON) TX, population 2,433, also the smallest town Kurt says he has ever spent a night in (it’s 1/10 of the size of the prior champion in that category). He is a Big City Boy. But the trip there was the most frightening part. The flight down was not so bad. We flew from Detroit Metro to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. As I recall, that flight was uneventful. We rented a car to make the drive out Interstate 20 to my dad’s home town, where my grandparents had been living for more than seventy years. Kurt was driving and I was navigating. I grew up in West Texas. I know I-20 like an Ohioan knows the Ohio Turnpike. It all came back to me. This was my highway. I told him to slow down at Ranger hill, because it’s a speed trap. We laughed about the Dairy Queens at every exit.

    But to Kurt, this was unfamiliar territory. It was a dark, cold, rainy night. Texas was foreign soil to him. He was going to some tiny town, to meet my relatives, because my grandfather had died. He was feeling protective of his new wife and he just wanted to reach our destination. When we got to the exit for DeLeon, we turned off the Interstate and headed south, and I kid you not, the little state highway turned to dirt road. It started raining harder, and Kurt thought he had gone to the ends of the earth. “Are all the state highways in Texas dirt roads?” he asked me. It was as if he thought we were in some sort of horror movie, or gone to Hell. Remember, he’s a city boy. He had no idea where we were. He tried not to show it. But he had all these disaster scenarios playing in his head, because everything was out of his control. He was in the wilderness of small rural West Texas.

    Well of course, we got there, just fine. We got to my grandparents’ house. My aunt and uncle were there waiting for us. We had something to eat and got a warm bed to sleep in. I reminisced about all the fun summer vacations I had in that house, visiting my grandparents, and the Christmases there with family. This was the house my dad grew up in. The next day we went to the United Methodist Church where my grandmother had played the organ and my granddad was the song leader every Sunday night. I showed Kurt the pulpit where my dad preached his first sermon, and where I preached one of my first sermons. That was cool. This was home for me.

    Kurt relaxed and we had a good visit. You see, DeLeon was a home with family and with God for me. But it was wilderness for Kurt. It’s all a matter of perspective. He had never been there. He had never been there, it was far outside his familiar turf, and the road there was scary for him – literally! So he had to go there with someone he loved, and he had to have a tour of a new place, and be told, that it had good people, and that God lived there too.

    Well, this is my simple story, to help us to today’s Bible story Isaiah. You see, if you are not a Biblical scholar, then the text that was read for us today, might be pretty unfamiliar to you.  It’s poetry, written by a prophet, from another time and place. It takes some translating to make sense to us. But it’s a beautiful piece of writing and it speaks to us today, once we unpack it.

    This is the context. The people of Israel, who are God’s chosen people, have been defeated in a war. They have been taken from their country to a far off land and they are living in exile in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah is giving words of hope, because they are living in what is the wilderness to them. Listen to some of the words from Isaiah 40 again in this context:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
You see there is a promise that God stands forever. And that a highway will be made across that desert that will lead them out of exile in Babylon and back home to Israel.   Anyone been lost in the wilderness lately?  Anyone felt a little down, a little cut off from God’s love?  Feel like you are not going to get back on that highway back home?

    Highways were important in Israel. They are important to us now, but we take them for granted because they are usually so readily available. (Except for that night in West Texas, when by the way, the state highway turned to dirt because it was under construction.) Highways in Israel, back in the days that this text was written, were important trade routes between the East and the West. One particular road, The King’s Highway, connected modern Damascus to Cairo, and put Israel on the map for trading. It was a really important highway.

    These people wanted a highway back home.  They wanted a highway back to God, because they were feeling abandoned by God. I wanted a highway back home to my family because I had lost my grandfather.  They were lost. They had lost everything: their land, their homes, their culture, and their centers of religious practice. They thought that God had forgotten them. Many of you have told me you have felt like God has forgotten you. The prophet Isaiah comes to remind them: God has not forgotten you. God is coming back for you. God will care for you like a shepherd cares for his flock.

    We read these texts during Advent, because they point to Jesus. In fact, over in the New Testament, when John the Baptist is getting the people ready for Jesus, he quotes this passage from Isaiah 40 and he says that he, John, is preparing a way for Jesus.

     You see, scripture is full of God’s promises to God’s people. When we go through any of these wilderness times, and we will go through wilderness times, God reminds us that others have been there too. But God will make a highway, so that we can find our way back to God.

    When I went back to DeLeon, Texas, it was a sad time because my grandfather had died, but it was also a good time, because I connected with my family roots. My grandparents and their son, my father, loved God, and raised me to love God, and I am a pastor today, because of them. That little church in that tiny little town of 2,433 produced several pastors that went on to reach many more people in many more places. People like Kurt, who is a city boy and will never live in a town that small, are still touched by the legacy of the people in that little United Methodist Church. Going to that town was going to the wilderness for Kurt but it was going home to connect with God for me.
    Which kind of place are you in today? Are you in a wilderness time in your life? Are you looking for a highway to connect God to your life? Or are you feeling cozy and warm and right at home with God? We need some people who are at that place on the journey.  Or are you somewhere in between?  Wherever you are, remember that the promises of God are for you.  “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:8)

    Today, we are going to celebrate the promises of God in the lives of some more people. We are going to receive some new members into the community of The Village. We are going to baptize one. And then we are going to have the opportunity for all of us to remember our baptism. It’s a good way to take a step out of that wilderness if you are feeling you have been there, and take a step toward God. Because, you see, God is always ready to reconnect with us. That is a promise. God wants to be in relationship with us. Whether it’s a dirt road, or a super highway, God always wants to receive us. 

    We are going to be claiming one person today as God’s and we are going to give us all a chance to remember our baptisms.  If you are feeling alone in the wilderness, remember that God is there with you.  God never truly leaves us and God will be there if we need God. 

    If you need a place to remind you, that you are not alone in the wilderness, come join us at the Village.  We’re at the cross roads of Central & Monroe in Toledo on Sundays and coming Spring 2012 to the corner of the Anthony Wayne Trail and Conant Street in Maumee.