Sunday, February 26, 2012

God’s Blessing: Seeing the Small Picture Within the Big Picture by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    The first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells great sweeping stories of the history of God’s relationship with God’s chosen people, the people of Israel. In one section of the story, it begins with God making a promise to Abraham.  But first God makes a demand of Abraham and his wife Sarah. God tells them (Genesis Chapter 15 for those following along on the internet):  "Leave your country, your family, and your father's home for a land that I will show you.

 2-3 I'll make you a great nation
      and bless you.

   All the families of the Earth
      will be blessed through you."

God promises great blessing, and so Abraham and Sarah put their trust in God, and set out on a journey with God to find a new home.

    Then we get to the passage of scripture that Kristen read for us today. This is one of those great visual images of scripture. They paint this picture. God says: "Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You're going to have a big family, Abram!"

    That’s quite a promise that God tells Abraham, dream big. Because you see, he is 75 years old by this time, and he no heir.  Having children, sons especially, was so very important in those days. And Abraham and Sarah have no child. And then God comes along and says they will have as many children and grandchildren and great grandchildren as there are stars in the sky. And God says: “I am leading you to a new home and there I will bless you.”  Do you think Abraham thinks God is a little crazy?

    So if you read the book of Genesis, you will see that God makes good on those promises. Sarah does indeed have a child, when she is well up in years. Abraham is the father of many sons, who become the 12 tribes of Israel.

    So, because Abraham and Sarah were faithful and listened to God, they left their homeland, and went out on a journey with God into a new land. These are our  ancestors in the faith. They built strong relationships with God. They were blessed, and their blessings are our blessings, We have their roots in those people.

    Well today, in our series on the book Life of the Beloved, our theme is “Blessing.” We are blessed. Today is our last day in this building, and I want to give us a chance to reflect on blessing, and what it means to be a community that celebrate blessing. You see, the story of Abraham and Sarah, and God’s promise to give them descendents as many as there are stars in the sky speaks to us too.

    As a new church, I believe God makes that promise to us. I believe God says to us, that if we are faithful, our ministry will touch lives with that same impact. We are coming up on three years of being a church. We have already seen some people come here and go. Sometimes it’s hard to see people go. I need to tell you that it’s just the nature of Church in the 21st century. Some people come to our church for a season, and then they move on. Of course we want to hold on to more people longer, when we can. But sometimes circumstances just mean that people aren’t going to stay with us forever.

     I want to invite us to see that even when people come through this place for a short time, they can be touched by this ministry and blessed. And you just never know how God will use them, and you never know what impact this community has had on them. Just think about how you have been blessed by being here. And even if some circumstance took you out of Toledo tomorrow, you would take with you the blessing of The Village, with you?

    So I’d like to tell you a story about how blessings come back to us.   Thirteen years ago this summer I met a young boy at a block watch party in our neighborhood. I was passing out information about the free summer lunch program at our church and I invited him to come. He was about to enter the 6th grade at the time, at Glenwood Elementary School. Our family had just moved to the Old West End so I could be the pastor of Central United Methodist Church, a 100 year old inner city congregation with about 28 people in worship, about half of them gay and lesbian.

    Central was a site for the summer feeding program for children in the central city who might need a free lunch in the summer. I had only been on the job a couple of weeks, as pastor, when one day the cook for the summer food program did not show up for work, and I found myself in the basement fellowship hall trying to fix lunch for 60 kids. Oh yes, and it was my day off, so I had no child care for  Becca, age two months there with me in her baby stroller. You can imagine it was quite a sight.

    This young man shows up with his smiling face and offers to take care of my baby while I cook. I’m a bit skeptical because I don’t know this kid, but I am desperate, so I let him push her stroller around the fellowship hall while I cook. On that day, our family friendship was born. Over the years he has mowed our grass, (and weaseled way too much money out of us for that service, I might add), joined us for dinner, stopped by our house on Christmas morning for the stocking Santa left at our house, and he even went to Cleveland the next summer with the folks from Central United Methodist Church when we went to a rally to speak out for the full inclusion of LGBT folks in the life of the UMC. I had to call his mom, a single mom who did not attend our church, when he signed up to go on that trip. He was only about 14 at the time. I said, “Now ma’am, do you understand what kind of church we are and that we are going to a national church meeting for a little peaceful demonstration?” She laughed and said, “Yes Pastor Cheri, I know you are good folks, and I told my son he can go anywhere he wants to go with you.”

    Some of you will recognize Travis Williams in this picture. He’s 24 years old now, and he runs our Village Kids program. You see, he still has a knack with children. But life has not been necessarily easy for Travis. He graduated from Scott High School. And even though he grew up in the Old West End, which can be a rough neighborhood for many, he stayed out of the gangs and he stayed away from drugs. But it’s a tough road out there right now for a young African American man without much money, and only a high school diploma from a low performing public school district. He would like to go to college and he has a dream of running his own day care center. But right now the only job he has is this very part time job at The Village. Over the past 13 years Travis has drifted in and out of our lives. He would come to Central United Methodist now and then, he attended worship very little. Our family went years at a time without seeing him, but he would always show back up.

    The recently when we needed a Village Kids leader, I thought of him because I had heard he was working at a day care center. He is doing a great job.   The Walters family is here, right now, because of how at home their kids felt.

    And as I work with him each week to plan his lesson for the kids, I am reminded of a mission with Native Americans I learned about in New Mexico many years ago. There was an anglo couple that went to live in New Mexico at the edge of a reservation and they started a Christian ministry by having vacation Bible School with the children of a particular Indian tribe. About 25 years later, they had built up a church, with leaders in it. Those adult leaders had been children that had gone to their Vacation Bible School. Visiting that Christian mission in Prewitt, NM and visiting that elderly couple that had spent their whole life working there, reminded me that growing a ministry takes time. Sometimes, it takes a whole generation of work to build a ministry. 

    When I look at this picture of Travis and my daughter Rebecca, I am beginning to see the seeds of a generation of ministry coming to fruition from my work as a pastor here in Toledo.

    Travis was one of the seeds planted at my last church and his ministry is coming to fruition, here, now with The Village Kids ministry. Thirteen years ago, I NEVER EVER in my wildest dreams when I met Travis 13 years ago, and let him push Becca’s baby stroller around the basement of that church fellowship hall, could have dreamed that he would be leading our Village Kids ministry now.

    So when I look at some of the people in our ministry now, some of the people who have already walked through these doors, even those who have moved on, I wonder, what might God do with some of us to change the world?

    I’ll tell you about one. Many of you know Edie. On the first day we opened for public worship in this space, in October of 2009, Edie showed up. At the time, Edie was mostly living as Ed, then, but she knew that she was ready to become Edie. She walked right up to me after that first worship service and said to me, “I read in the paper that you are a pastor who includes LGBT people in your church. Do you really mean it when you say you want to include transgender people? Because we need a church in Toledo that will really welcome us. And we need to start a support group for Trans people in NW Ohio, because there isn’t one.”

    I told Edie, who looked more like Ed that day, that I did not have much experience with transgender folks. Most of my experience thus far had been with gay and lesbian people. But that if she was willing to be patient with the fact that I would probably make some unintentional blunders, that yes, of course, it would be my privilege to be her pastor and yes, we would help start a support group here at The Village. And that’s what we did. One of our first ministries here at The Village was the NW Ohio Transgender support group that had more than 25 people at its first monthly meeting here back in 2010.

    Now some of you have probably noticed that Edie has not been here much the past few months. You might be concerned that she has left our church. When people leave our church, it might make us feel like we have done something wrong, like we have failed them. Maybe they have gone to another church because they don’t like something about this church. This could not be farther from the truth. I asked Edie to write a letter to explain what The Village means to her and why she is not here much anymore, and I’d like to read it to you:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

To my friends and family at The Village,
As the Time draws near for The Village to leave its residence at Monroe and Central and move to the Maumee Indoor Theater, I want to explain my absence. I hope that this letter of explanation will reassure those that feel or think that I have totally left The Village that I have not!

Slightly over two years ago, I was searching and struggling to find a community for my faith, to be accepted and allow me to praise our Creator. The Village was that answer. As time moved forward, through the assistance of The Village, I was able to feel accepted and guided to form the Transgender Support Group, become a charter member to form the UCC GenderFold Action Alliance (for the transgender) and then to sit with the UCC LGBT Coalition to rewrite the educational material for the ONA process to include the Transgender.

All of these things took place as I was struggling with my other personal issues, divorce and transitioning. It was the strength that I received from the community at The Village that saw me through those times. Approximately 6 months of attending The Village I had a conversation with Pastor Cheri and informed her that it had been placed on my heart that I would not remain there for ever. That God’s plan for me had just begun and the Village is where I was to only plant my roots. I was not sure where or when I would be going but I knew that in time I would branch out. That time has come.

This last fall I became aware of the Sylvania UCC starting into training to become ONA certified with the National UCC Church. God guided and supplied me with a means to become involved in that process. I had to make a hard decision prior to Christmas to physically walk away from The Village and the community I knew so well and become active with a new community at Sylvania. I felt this was necessary to help them accomplish their goals and be able to be all inclusive to people. I have since been approached to become a member there, while knowing my ties with The Village.

I have declined and explained to them the same thing I told Pastor Cheri. The difference for Sylvania is that my roots still, and always will, belong to The Village and they are just a portion of the vine I am to create for God’s service.

The work that I am to do was started and reassured while at The Village. I know there is possibly more that I could do at here but it is also in my heart that the “COMMUNITY” I left is strong enough to maintain the soil that my roots are planted in and allow me to thrive in Gods service where ever I am. I will always look to The Village and call it “HOME”!

Let me be an example and challenge the members of my Village family, while maintaining the soil, plant your seed so it can sprout into a form of service for our Lord and allow it to grow and mature, where ever!

In Gods Love and Grace,

    You see, she can’t stay here with us. There are other churches that need to understand what it takes to be a welcoming church to transgender persons. They can only do that when a transgender person of faith, like Edie, is willing to walk with them, and tell her story, to challenge them and love them. It would be too easy for Edie just to stay here with us and love and be loved. She has a higher calling. And we gave her the strength to go live out that calling.  I wanted her to be here today, but she needs to be the one leading the Children’s Message at Sylvania.  So she sent that letter.

    God said to Abraham: “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You're going to have a big family, Abram!"  And God made a covenant to be their God if they would be God’s people.

    I can see that God is already blessing us the way God blessed Abraham and Sarah. We are part of that covenant. Travis Williams grew up in one of God’s churches and now comes here to bless our children. Edie found her way here, and now this infant church sends her out from The Village to bless others because of the strength we have given her.

    I see the way God blesses our community every week. I see the way you care for one another, and seek to be a blessing to the greater world out there. We have been a blessing in this location, and we will be a blessing in our next location in Maumee too. We are blessed, just like Abraham and Sarah because we put our trust in God.

    Now I would like to give you a chance to give thanks for the blessings you have experienced with The Village. We are having a little party today to celebrate the ministry that we have birthed in this space, as we prepare to move to our new space, so I’d like to give you a chance to share your favorite memories of blessings. Would anyone like to share a memory of a favorite experience, or give thanks for a blessing of The Village community?

    Cindy shared the blessing of our music and how much it has meant to her.  Rock shared how she thought this was a crazy church, except Betty calling her, connecting with her and inviting her back.  Then she knew she had a church. She said “ I’ve been truly blessed by everyone here”.

    Terri shared how she had met Tianda & Bea at work, had retired and never expected to see them again, but found them here.  She went to check out her Brother Allen’s church family and found hers.  We feed the hungry every month now, thanks to the Village (and the Village does thanks to Allen and Terri).

    Patrick shared how he found God again, having been alienated from religion and now is happy to be back.  Graham found us as a fluke, having been a member of another faith community, but being a part of a group who needed space, checked us out.  Having tried the Village, he thought this was a crazy place, but a place where everyone was never more accepted.  And found himself a part of that community and is excited to be a part of our new home.  The whole world should be like the Village.

    Shelly shared how she never had gone to a church by herself and the first thing someone did was hug her.  The Village has gotten her through a tough year.  Teresa celebrated how in a very short time she and her partner have found a new home and family.  A great big family is what Rock added.  Russell shared how the people, the hugs and the community helped him find himself and the Lord again. Amy grew up in a very Lutheran home.  She was afraid to be a part of a liberal church.  But again, strangers hugged her, welcomed her, let her put herself out there, vulnerable to share who she was, and found a home.

    As we closed, Cheri reminded us all how we all were out there without the Village. We were adrift, going through the motions, not experiencing the deep joy of God.  There are many more people out there who need this.  Who don’t have church home, a family like this.  They need a place like ours.  And they are out there, waiting for an invitation.  Continue to pray about who might need this blessing. 

    Are you out there, looking for a home like this?  Do wait for one of us to find you in the real world.  We are out there looking for you.  But you can find us yourself.  We were at the corner of Monroe and Central, but next Sunday we will be at the corner of Conant Street and the Anthony Wayne Trail, in the Maumee Indoor Theater, at 10:30.  Come join us, we’ve got God’s love, acceptance, caring to share and we want to empower you to go out and share that with us in our world. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Turning to God by Cheri Holdridge

    So, it finally happened. It was bound to.  I finally lost my marbles. Literally.
This afternoon I was setting up for this service.  I was over in the kitchen area, getting out the box of candles and other stuff and I dropped a box, and this big glass cylindrical vase in which we keep clear glass marbles went crashing to the floor. All these marbles sprawled ALL over the Village kitchen floor. I had to pick up every one of them. EVERY ONE OF THEM.

    And I just kept thinking: “Yep, I’ve lost my marbles.”  You see, I’ve been a little stressed lately.  As you know, our church is moving to a new location next week. That would be enough. But we are also trying to do a big launch in 6 weeks at Easter time so that folks who have not heard of us will know who we are, so I have to help us get that ready.

     And well, you know, today is Ash Wednesday, so it’s Lent and all. That is a busy time ANYWAY, for a pastor.  But on top of all that, my daughter Becca, who goes to the Arts school downtown is in her first big production at the Toledo Repertory Theater and guess when the show is? Yep! You guessed it! This weekend. The same weekend The Village is moving!

    Do you ever have a week like this?  Yeah. I know you do.  Oh, not the SAME week.
You deal with your own lists of craziness.  Health problems.  Working two jobs to make ends meet.  Maybe you have adult children and older parents who need you. Maybe they should not, but you have gotten into a pattern of doing it anyway.

    We could talk about boundaries all day, but it is what it is.  Some of this stress, much of it, we bring on ourselves. We could set better boundaries. And we try, and some days we do better than others. Some of it’s just life. We have crazy busy lives.

    But THEN, we come to today. ASH WEDNESDAY.  And the Church says: STOP.
The season of Lent, in essence, is a gift that says, “Stop and take a breath.”  Lent is an invitation to slow down and turn our attention to God.

    You see, during Lent, we prepare ourselves to remember the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. We remember that he died in order to show us how much God loves us.  Suddenly, my little struggles and inconveniences here on earth seem to pale by comparison.

    So I spilt some marbles on the floor today and had to get down on my hands and knees to clean them up. So that slowed me down. So, my daughter’s rehearsal went an hour over time TWO NIGHTS in a row this week. And I missed my book club. In the grand scheme of things, was that such a big deal, really?

    Jesus died on the cross to show us how to love each other. I think I can miss my book club so my daughter can have this experience that means so much to her. Sometimes we just need to take a breath and put things in perspective.

    So I was talking to my 12 year old daughter yesterday, and trying to help her understand about the season of Lent is about. She said, “I think for Lent I’m going to give up brushing my teeth.”   “No,” I said, “That is not an option.”  “Well,” she said, “Then I’ll give up doing my weekend homework on Sunday night. I’m going to do it on Friday when I get home from school.”

    Hmmm. I thought. Well that is something I would like her to do. But it is not really a sacrifice in the same way that giving up some food that you love is a sacrifice. What to do with this?  I thought a moment, and I said, “Well usually we give up something up for Lent, or take on some new practice,  because it frees up space in our lives for God, or points our attention toward God. Do you suppose that on Sunday nights, when you are so grateful that you do not have homework to do, you might say a little prayer, giving thanks to God for the blessing that you got your homework done early?”

    She got a big smile on her face: “Yeah, of course,” she said.  “Well, then,” I said, “That sounds like a great Lenten discipline.” “And in fact, you could pray and ask God for the strength to persevere in your commitment so that when you come home on Friday and you want to slack off, God can help you have the strength to do the think that right now you are saying you know you want to do.”

    I think Becca is on to something with her idea of a new sort of Lenten discipline.  The idea, after all, is to use this season, to take on some new practice, or to empty ourselves of something in order to make space for God. It’s all about becoming more of the person we want to be, with God’s help. She is tired of facing every Sun night, not having her homework done. She wants to be a follower of Jesus. She wants to be the person God created her to be. So why not put the two things together?

    Now, Jesus, he had a much more daunting task leading up to Easter. He had to face the powers and principalities of the world. They accused him of setting himself up to be King of the Jews and they crucified him on the cross for his actions of radical love.

    God asks us, on the other hand, to use these six weeks, to take on some practice to dig deeper in our spiritual life.  We might decide to deepen your spiritual practice of:

Prayer each day

Bible study each day

Read Henri Nouwen’s book Compassion and join the on line conversation

Give a larger portion of your money or your time to help those who are poor or marginalized in our community

Visit someone who is lonely; or write a handwritten letter each week to someone

Mend a broken relationship, with God’s help, that can be a spiritual practice too

Start Spiritual Direction with our Spiritual Director

Make plans to go on a Spiritual Retreat

Fast from something; the thing you give up, is a signal that points you to your hunger for God.

All of these examples are part of the Christian tradition of this season of Lent, of “Turning to God.”

    But let me warn you: when we turn to God, we need to be cautious. That’s why I put this yellow caution tape around our worship table tonight. You see, when we turn to God, we have to be willing to let God change our lives.

    I, for one, believe that when we open ourselves to God, we always open ourselves to change for the good. But change can be hard. Sometimes it feels like it gets worse before it gets better. But when we turn our lives over to God, and truly say to God, that we are ready to line up our lives with God’s desires for us, then we have to let go, and really follow the path God sets out for us.

    As we sing now, let’s consider whether we are really ready to turn to God. Let’s invite God to take our lives, and mold us and transform us into the people God wants us to be.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

We Are All Broken by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    In two weeks, we will have a new home together. We are moving to the Mammee Indoor Theater. The time since we made this decision has gone really quickly, hasn’t it? We started weekly worship here in October of 2009, a little over 2 years ago. This is the place it all started. We will always remember this as our first home. I’m a little sad about leaving. I’m excited about our plans for our new home in Mammee so I’m reminded of a phrase we have used around here before: joy and sorrow live together. I’m feeling some joy and some sorrow as we make this transition together.

    So I think it’s important for us to reflect, as a community, on who we are during this move. Church for us is not about a building.  We will never own a building.  Church is not about bricks and mortar.  We will not fight about what color the carpet will be, etc. 

    You will recall if you have been in worship for the past couple of weeks that we are basing our worship series on the book by Henri Nouwen called Life of the Beloved. You see, here at The Village, we understand that we are God’s beloved children, and we are living as God’s beloved children. That is our reason for being a church.

    We are seeking to be a beloved community – a community of hope for broken people out there, like us, who wander into our community looking for God. They are just like every one of us. Our t shirts tell our story: “No perfect people allowed.” One of our newer members, Jodi, was telling me yesterday that wearing the shirt has caused her to engage in many conversations with people. They love her shirt and they ask her about it, and then she tells them about this new church that she has found for her family.

    A critical part of being God’s beloved community, is this. We understand that people are not perfect. People are hurting. People have made mistakes. People have done bad things. People have had bad things happen to them, people have made mistakes, and they are looking for hope and healing. God is the source of that hope and healing. And in this community we can live that out with one another. But it means we have to be real with each other. People need authenticity. They don’t want churches filled with plastic people who are all pretending that everything is perfect. Show them a church that is fake and they will run screaming into the night.

    Our friend, Rock, tells me that when she first came to The Village she went home and told a friend that she found this church where the people really seem to genuinely care about one another, but she figured we all went home and yelled at our partners and cheated on our taxes.  Rock is kind of cynical.   She said we could not really be for real. But over time, she decided we are for real. Not perfect, but real, an authentic community where we can all be who we really are.

    So let’s take a look at today’s scripture and see what Jesus has to teach us about what his vision is for the “Beloved Community” of his followers. First, we’ll see what a group of religious folks of his day thought was good and proper. Now, in their defense, they were following the law of Moses. (1John 8:1-11 from The Message translation for those following along from the Net):

 1-2 Jesus went across to Mount Olives, but he was soon back in the Temple again. Swarms of people came to him. He sat down and taught them. 3-6The religion scholars and Pharisees led in a woman who had been caught in an act of adultery. They stood her in plain sight of everyone and said, "Teacher, this woman was caught red-handed in the act of adultery. Moses, in the Law, gives orders to stone such persons. What do you say?" They were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating so they could bring charges against him.

 6-8Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, "The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone." Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.

 9-10Hearing that, they walked away, one after another, beginning with the oldest. The woman was left alone. Jesus stood up and spoke to her. "Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?"  11"No one, Master."  "Neither do I," said Jesus. "Go on your way. From now on, don't sin."

    So here is what happened: Jesus modeled a new way of being community. In the Old Way, you judge a sinner, have no grace, put her to death.  In the New Way, have some grace, consider the reality that we all sin, treat your sister or brother with some love; give an opportunity for healing.  Decide if you are really perfect and blameless before God.  Are you loving and kind and generous and forgiving when you are slighted?  If so, go forward with your judging.  But if you have faults, then give some of the grace you get. 

    Now, we don’t know what happens next in the story.  I would so love to know what happens next in the story, wouldn’t you? Because you know that someone in that crowd had sympathy for the woman and wanted to reach out to her, right? Perhaps another woman who had made the same mistake? Or maybe the woman’s best friend from childhood who wanted to hear her side of things, but was forbidden from talking to her because of the rules of the day? But perhaps another person, who had also been touched by the healing love of Jesus, snuck over to her house later than day, and over a cup of tea (or whatever they drank in those days) they had a good cry, and some healing began. Isn’t that what Jesus would want?  Isn’t it the beloved community.   And don’t even get me started about how little power a woman had in that society anyway and where was the man in this story? But we don’t go there today.

    Henri Nouwen, in the Life of the Beloved, has some good words for the woman in the story, and for us, when we get caught up in our own human brokenness and sorrow. He encourages two responses. First, he says, we should just face our brokenness squarely and befriend it, “step toward it” and “embrace our brokenness” (p. 75). 

    He talks about being with a friend who realized that his marriage was over. Henri went to visit this friend. No words can fix the brokenness in this sort of situation, but the presence of a friend with us, can provide some healing. In seminary, we call this the ministry of presence. There is power in being present without trying to fix someone, recognizing that a situation can’t be fixed, but we just have to sit with someone in the pain and let them know they are not alone. Henri wrote about a friend going through a divorce and how Henri was there with him and that all his friend could do was “stand in [his] pain and grow strong through it” (p. 77).  Have you ever watched someone stand in their pain and just be strong as they grow through it?

    It’s not so hard to say to someone, when something good happens, that this is a blessing from God. That is easy.  This is the hard thing, writes Nouwen: “Didn’t you know that we all have to suffer and thus enter into our glory?” (p. 77)  He goes on to say that “Real care means the willingness to help each other in making our brokenness into the gateway to joy” (p. 78)

    So he invites us, and challenges us to embrace our pain and lean into it.   Here’s the thing, no one gets through life without pain.  Then he says, the second thing we can do, is to “Put it under a blessing” (p. 78). This is really a stretch for us, but try to hang in here with me.

    He says “Our brokenness is often so frightening to face because we live it under the curse. Living our brokenness under the curse means that we experience our pain as a confirmation of our negative feelings about ourselves. It is like saying, ‘ I always knew that I was useless or worthless, and now I am sure or it because of what is happening’” (p. 78).

    So when we are living as Beloved Children of God, and being the Beloved Community, our call is to pull our brokenness out from under the shadow of the curse and into the light of blessing. This is not an easy task. It takes some spiritual muscle. This is why we need this community to help us.

    The world is much more likely to support us in our self-rejection than in our self-love. But God is calling us to self-love and self-acceptance and that is the voice we want to listen to.   Remember that a few weeks ago we talked about listening to God’s voice of love and acceptance.
We need to do everything we can to allow God’s blessing to touch our brokenness. Gradually, (Nouwen writes), “the brokenness will come to be seen as an opening toward the full acceptance of ourselves as the Beloved” (p.80).

    Twelve Step programs know this process quite well. Addictions make us slaves but when we confess our dependencies and express our trust in a higher power, then we can be set free.  When bring it out into the open, the source of our suffering becomes the source of our hope. We put our brokenness under a blessing (p 80).

    I see us, at The Village, being this kind of community for one another. I see us sharing our brokenness and encouraging one another. We offer grace to one another. But we can always do better.   That’s why we have to come back every week. 

    You see the question is this, do we embrace our brokenness and put it under a blessing, in a way that we can move on with God’s healing, or do we just get stuck in that mess of brokenness, never to break out?   Ever see anyone get stuck in their brokenness?  Ever been their yourself?  Held your own pity party?

    Being the beloved community for one another, means that we call one another out, from sorrow to joy. Yes, joy and sorrow live together. This means we don’t hide from our sorrow, but it also means that we don’t stay there. We live as God’s people of hope and joy.

    For the woman in the Bible story, there was a second chance at life, literally. She could have been stoned to death. But she lived. She had a choice then. She could live as a condemned woman, an outcast, who had been shamed by her community. She could have lived as a broken woman for the rest of her days. Or she could have chosen to put her brokenness under a blessing, and live with the joy of having her life restored. She could have decided to wake up every day thankful that she is alive, and to live every day to the fullest. I hope she became the most passionate evangelist for Jesus on the planet. I mean, what a story she had to tell: “My life was saved because Jesus forgave me, and told the other people in my village to forgive me. We need to live as broken people who know that we are all forgiven!” What a message! 

    So, my friends, what will be our message? In two weeks, we are moving to a new home. A new home gives us a chance to get some new attention from a new crowd of people. Folks are going to be watching us, and asking, “What’s up with The Village Church? Who are these people and what do they have to offer me?”

    What will we tell them?  I hope we will tell them this:   We are part of God’s beloved community. We know we are broken, just like you. There is no secret we are broken, but joy and sorrow live together. So we will walk with you through your brokenness. We invite you to face your brokenness, and put it under a blessing. Let God turn your sorrow into joy.

    We have an amazing community here, and there are other people out there in Mammee and across NW Ohio and SE Michigan who are waiting to be part of our beloved Village community. Let’s get ready to be a part of God’s beloved community with them! Amen.

“Chosen” by Rosie Best (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    It’s really lovely to be with you today, when Cheri asked me if I would come and preach I felt honored to be CHOSEN to step in. Then she told me it was because she was going to be in Florida this week, and I tried not to be jealous!

    Last week Cheri was talking about the book, Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen. She spoke about what it means to be the Beloved, the subject of that book. I hadn’t read this book before preparing for today, and I found it really helpful in understanding something that I believe all of us need to understand. It was helpful to me in a dry place, but more on that later…

    Nouwen uses the analogy of the communion to talk about what it means to be BELOVED. In the communion service, the pastor or priest will take the bread and wine and they are TAKEN, BLESSED, BROKEN and then SHARED. If we are to understand what it means to be BELOVED, then we have to understand that God has done the same thing with us… Cheri in the rest of the series is going to talk about the other aspects of this, but for today, we are going to concentrate on the idea of being TAKEN.

    When God gets a hold on our lives, we are taken… all of us. It’s essential for us to know this in a very deep place in our lives. It’s kind of hard to relate to the idea of being TAKEN or chosen , so Nouwen immediately uses, what he considers a warmer way of thinking of this: “As children of God, we are God’s chosen ones.” (51)

    In Kenneth Grahame’s book, The Wind in the Willows there is a beautiful chapter called Dulce Domum (chapter 5). It tells the story of Mole, who steps out of his house for the first time.  After a long adventure, he suddenly realizes he is close to home and recognizing it as a place long forgotten. I believe that in this way, we have a sense of God’s truth in our inner being… and that sometimes we feel so very far away from God that we feel flooded with despair … Today is about reclaiming our chosen-ness and about coming home… Having that realness of being chosen to be close to God.

    CHOSEN  You have been CHOSEN…

    There are, of course, circumstances where we’d rather not be chosen – a Tax audit, or as the subject for a bully, for example. That isn’t the kind of chosen I mean.  The Scooter Store & AARP haven chosen me for spam emails and I don’t really want that.   It’s the being picked out of a crowd chosen. That is an idea that most of us like. It brings with it the idea of being special… of being something… of being unique… of being wanted. Somehow, being chosen can help us get through the humdrum of daily life… I want to show you a cartoon (and we did in worship but can’t on the net due to copyright issues) that I came across just after I knew I was going to be speaking on this subject.  But in it’s three frames, a rabbit is at a computer working when it asks “God all I do is sit behind a computer all day.  Surely my life has some greater purpose than this.  A light comes down from heaven, centered on the rabbit, followed by the trumpets of heaven. 

    Oh boy, isn’t that sometimes how the day to day existence seems to be… we are going about our day… maybe thinking, “I’d rather sandpaper my armpits than put up with this!” and we hope, pray, yearn for the heavens to open up, and the trumpet to proclaim that what we are doing MATTERS! We want to feel special! Loved! Chosen!

    Okay, so I want to acknowledge that the cartoon came from and that the third frame isn’t the last frame… There’s one more, where the booming voice of God announces “Actually . . . No - This is not for you”.   Please tell me I am not the only one who worries that this is what the real answer is going to be!

    CHOSEN… it’s not a trick. God has chosen us and that doesn’t change.   Let me tell you I believe that God does not make junk.

    I need to tell a personal story here. I came to this country in 1993 and joined a church in town. I was a Youth Pastor and Children’s minister for several years. I was loved! I was considered to be an intelligent, caring, enthusiastic, and creative member of the team. Then after nine years, something changed. All my life been looking to marry a 6’4” Rugby playing Prince, shining armor and trusty steed optional, however, I had started working at a local school and I met a 5’3” Jewish American Princess and I finally understood what it meant to lose your heart to someone! I wasn’t planning to be gay, I didn’t want to be gay… but sometimes GAY happens!

    Suddenly the church, which shall remain nameless, forgot everything about me, and as quick as you could say, “Oh no she di’nt!” I was no longer chosen… in fact I was asked to never step foot in the church again. It was a very GRACELESS act.
Some of you can relate to being unchosen…

    Cheri talked last week about parents who get excited about children being born. I’m the youngest of 5 children. My parents decided they were done with children when they had a daughter. Unfortunately she came in at number 4. I was described as “the shakings of the poke.” The “unexpected package,” the “surprise.” For all these words, you can begin, if you are a sensitive child, to think… unwanted, in the way, taking up space…

    Some of you can relate to being unwanted.  Let me it clear, I am not trying to shame my family.  I am an actor and director. One of the great things that people describe about theatre is the great feeling of family, community, standing in the spotlight feeling special. I wish this were the only story. But for every moment of the special feelings… Theatre is a world that can be spoiled by petty dramas, divas, and the rejection, of running to see when the cast list goes up with all the excitement of I did great in the audition, only to find that you got the role of TREE #17… AGAIN!!!!  Or understudy as someone cried out in worship.

     You can feel pretty dejected, and rejected when that happens. Even getting the lead doesn’t protect you from trouble… then you have to deal with the looks from others who think, “She didn’t deserve that role,” “He’s just the teacher’s favorite!” “She must think she’s all that.”

    Some of you can relate to being rejected…  But this isn’t Debbie Downer does the gospel. This is GOOD NEWS. YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN! Part of the mystery is this (quoting Nouwen):  “When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one, and it chooses without making anyone else excluded” (54)

    Hours could be spent telling stories of the lack… but the Gospel… or Good News is that we don’t have to live in the bad place anymore. This truth is in each and every moment we live and we have a choice to embrace this truth with every single ounce of our being…

    I don’t know what your story is… I know that there are many voices around you that would try to minimize who you are, or undermine your creativeness, or tell you that you are useless, worthless… fill in the gap with your favorite things that pull you down…

    It’s not the truth about who you REALLY are. YOU ARE CHOSEN!  You can let any number of people try to tell you who you are… BUT YOU ARE CHOSEN!

    God is about reclaiming what has been beaten, abused, rejected and outcast. God is about healing the broken hearted. Building up, restoring, recreating…and setting you free into what you are created to be.

    Nouwen has an action plan to help you embrace this reality.

·    Unmask the lies: Start believing the truth about you. Reject all things that diminish who you are. Expose those lies. Don’t give into the voices of doubt and destructiveness. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly.” You have to live in the truth - embrace your God-given dignity and chosen-ness. When I was really struggling to make this a reality in my life, several years ago, someone challenged me to ‘live’ in Ephesians 1-3 and to rewrite it as a personal letter to me from God. This is why I chose the scripture for today.
·    Surround yourself with Truth: Look for people and places where truth is spoken and where you are reminded of who you are called to be.  The Church I was at before was not going to do that.  They were not going to set me free.  Because I was kicked out, I discovered what it was to be me.  God is like that.  God doesn’t cast you out, God uses that show you what God already knew about you.
·    Celebrate your chosen-ness: Maintain an attitude of Gratitude. Live in thanks when truth is spoke, say “thank you” when someone acknowledges who you truly are. 

    You have been chosen, but you have a power to choose. You are chosen, and you can choose to live by these guidelines or not. I pray that you will. “Our lives are unique stones in the mosaic of human existence – priceless and irreplaceable.”   Or you can slough things off. 

    Each of us has had those experiences with the Church.  As the old saying goes “Jesus I love you, but I can’t stand your wife”.  You see the Church is called the bride of Jesus. There are so many who have been hurt and blinded by the church.   But there are places like The Village where this is something is being challenged, where people are trying to change this.  And I salute you for this.  This is a struggle for many.

    So, for today, I am going to invite you to make a choice in the right direction… If this has been a struggle of yours, or if you just want to be reminded today of the place you have as one of God’s chosen, then I am going to invite you to step forward for a blessing… by making the mark of the cross and affirming that you are God’s chosen.

    Do you have a place where you feel like this?  A group of friends and believers who affirm you?  If not, look, these places are out here.  If you are near the corner of Monroe & Central in Toledo through February, or The Anthony Wayne Trail and Conant Street in Maumee thereafter, come join us.   We believe you are chosen by God for something amazing and we’ll try to help you figure out what that is.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

“We Are Beloved” by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    If I could choose to name one writer whose books most profoundly affected my spiritual life as a young pastor in my first ten years of ministry the answer would be easy: Henri Nouwen. He was still alive when I started reading his books in the early  1990’s. He died in 1996. He wrote an astounding 40 books during his life. One was an amazing book called “Beyond the Mirror.” He had an experience where he came close to death, and reflected on the intensity of that experience.

    In another book, “Inner Voice of Love,” he revealed his own clinical depression and showed his vulnerabilities. It was something you don’t often see: the human side of one of your spiritual giants. I’ve dealt with depression in my life, but not to that level.  It was amazing to see this level of vulnerability shown by such a spiritual giant.

    In other books he talks about how after he spent years as a prestigious University professor, he chose to live in a L’Arche community in Toronto. There are  130 of these communities around the world where people with developmental disabilities live with those who care for them. This life of a pastoral servant gave him the most joy as he lived out his faith in the simple daily tasks of being a care giver to some of God’s most misunderstood children.

    My favorite book of Henri Nouwen’s is this tiny little book that, for me, summarizes his understanding of the relationship between us and God. In fact this book sums up the core of my own theology and here it is in five words: we are God’s beloved children. The book is called “Life of the Beloved”. Henri wrote it at the request of a Jewish secular friend, living in New York City.

    The friend said to Henri:  “Why don’t you write something for me and my friends?. . . You have something to say, but you keep saying it to people who least need to hear it. . . What about us young, ambitious secular men and women wondering what life is about after all?” (p. 16-17). So Henri Nouwen wrote “Life of the Beloved”  as a way to try to engage non-religious people into the idea that God loves them, and wants to be an active part of their lives.

    The book is written to be a sort of spiritual primer, an invitation to the Christian life, if you will. It is a good book for anyone of us who want to take a deep breath, and get to the core of who we are and who God is.   And who we are in relationship to God.

    So we’re going to focus our worship on it, for the next six weeks. You might want to pick up a copy and read it.

    Henri Nouwen says that living the life of the beloved begins with recognizing the voices in our lives. Voices are powerful.  Just think about this for a moment. We know that babies can hear the voices of their parents in the womb. Even before we are born, we can hear the voices of those around us. So the parents in the home, preparing for our birth, are the voices most familiar to us once we are born: the mother who carries us, and whatever parent is living in the home and whose voice we hear. That’s why crazy excited birth parents talk to the tummy of a pregnant woman, singing songs, reading favorite books, saying sweet soothing words, and telling silly stories. We want the child to be born, feeling welcome, and hearing our familiar voices, and having warm and fuzzy feelings. We want the child to know our voice.

    We want the child to feel beloved.  The story of Jesus’ ministry begins with a voice. We heard this story in our scripture for today (Mark 1: 9-11 if you’re following along on the Net).

    In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Would you like this kind of dramatic sign for you? 

    God’s voice was heard when Jesus was baptized. Not just any voice: THE VOICE. The voice of God saying: you are my beloved child. I have got to believe that Jesus carried that voice with him throughout the next three years of his ministry. What do you think?

    When people were challenging his authority, and questioning his actions and his motives, do you think he might have paused to remember that voice? On the day of his baptism the heavens opened and God’s voice said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”        

    You know sometimes the voice of the world tells us one thing, but God tells us we are beloved children. I think we would do well to listen to God!  But we don’t, do we?

    What voices do you choose to listen to?

    From the time we are children, we all hear voices, don’t we?

    They are those human voices of judgment and criticism.

    The loudest voices of all become those of self-rejection.
    What are some of those voices you have been listening to all of your life?

You’re not smart enough.

You’re not pretty enough, or good looking enough.

You will never amount to anything.

You don’t have enough money.
You screwed up.

No one likes you.

You come from a bad family.

You’re black, brown, gay, transgender, slow, disabled, divorced, adopted, you’re different.

    We all listen to those voices and we internalize that negativity.  But we don’t have to.

    There is another voice!  There is another voice!  The soft gentle voice, the bold courageous voice of God deep inside and here’s what it says:   you are beloved child!

    You don’t have to give in to self rejection any more.  Every one of us has people in our lives that have encouraged us. We have people who have loved us. You have people who have told you that you are important to them, people who have told you that you matter. You have experienced the joy of knowing that someone values you. You have heard that voice that says you are beloved.

    But for some reason, it is so much easier for us to listen to the one human voice that say we are worthless, than to a hundred human voices that say we are important. And we think to ourselves, if that person who says they love me, could really see everything about me, the worst side of me, would they really still love me?  They would walk away if they really knew me.

    And so, Henri Nouwen writes, we continue on this eternal quest for something that will make us feel whole: some book, some fitness program, some perfect life partner, a great job, anything that will make us feel worthy. The compulsiveness keeps us busy, but it just keeps us moving toward burn out.  It moves us towards spiritual death. Let me say that again, This is the way to spiritual death.

    We “don’t have to kill ourselves” (p. 30), because We are the Beloved. This is the simple truth.  That voice of acceptance is the only voice we need to listen to.
God says, “I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and I care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child” (p 31).

    Nouwen writes: “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper” (p. 31).

    Friends this is why Jesus came: to show us to this well.  So often, we just stumble around listening to that voice of criticism and judgment. But we choose to listen to it.  God is standing here ready to speak in that soft tender voice: “It’s ok, you are my child. I made you, and I love you. I know every hair of your head, every mistake you have made and I know every mistake you will make, and I still love you. I just want to be in relationship with you. Don’t turn your back on me.” That’s what God says.

    Will you say “yes” to this life and “yes” to this voice? When the voices of self-rejection start getting louder, will you tell them to “hush, go away” so you can hear God’s voice? Because, you see, we get to choose.  And God wants us to choose this life – the life of being the beloved. We are God’s beloved children! Remember this promise. Claim this promise. Live this promise.  We are God’s beloved children.

    Now, I want to share with you the words of a person I had the pleasure of crossing the spiritual journey of, several years ago.  Morgan Guyton and my journeys crossed paths about 12 years ago.  We walked together for awhile and he is now doing incredible things himself.  But just this week he shared on his blog what hearing this kind of message did for him.  If you want to read more, here is a link to the blog -

    And, if you do not have a faith community where you hear that voice of God telling you that you too are a beloved child of God, go out and look.  We are not the only one, believe me.  But if you find yourself near the corner of Monroe & Central in Toledo right now, or Maumee on the corner of Conant Street and the Trail in March, come join us. We try to remind each other of that voice as often as we can and spread that out in our world.