Sunday, February 24, 2013

WORDS OF GRACE: YES by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

       In 1975 the show “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway. I was 12 years old (feel free to do the math or just come to Pastor Cheri’s 50th Birthday Party this week). My sister who was a college student, a theater major, saw the show and bought me the cassette tape of the music as a gift. I played that little cassette tape until I wore it out. I loved the music. I was not the only one. It was the longest running show on Broadway until some little show about “cats” came along and beat it. The show was revived on Broadway in 2006 and came to Toledo a couple of weeks ago. I took my 13 year old daughter to see it and we both loved it. 
The show is the story of hopeful dancers, some young, some are getting older, who are auditioning to be in the chorus line for a Broadway show. After the first cut 17 dancers remain, and the entire show consists of the director Zach auditioning these 17 for 8 spots in the chorus line, four men & four women. But this is no ordinary audition. 

Besides having them sing and dance. He wants to hear their stories. He wants to be sure that they will be able to work together as a unit and so he wants to get to know them. And so we hear their stories, their hopes and dreams. As you can imagine, they all just want to dance. How many people go to New York from small towns across America, hoping for that big break, and never even make it to the chorus line. Some of the dancers are getting a little old for the chorus line and they are wondering what they are going to do with the rest of their lives—open a dance studio perhaps? 

We begin to hear their gut wrenching stories of why they started to dance: because their homes lives were awful and the only time they got dad’s attention was when he took her to the ballet. Everything was beautiful at the ballet. Mom and dad were not fighting at the ballet.  The shouting of Mom & Dad was not there at the dance studio.

There is one character who had a chance to be a star. She was once pulled out of the chorus line to be the star, but she could not make it, so now she is just begging the director to put her in the chorus so she can dance. She is just desperate for any job so she can dance. 

There is this song, “One” is the name of the song. It is about the star in the show they are going to put on. Because, let’s be real. No one really wants to be in the chorus line. We all want to be THE ONE, don’t we?

One singular sensation, every little step she takes
 One thrilling combination, every move that she makes
One smile and suddenly nobody else will do
You know you'll never be lonely with you-know-who
One moment in her presence and you can forget the rest
she's the one

Don’t you want to be the One?  In the finale of the show they sing about this one. Of course, none of them get to be the one because they are in the Chorus.

There can only be one “one” in the show. The rest are the chorus. But we want to be the “one” don’t we?

I mean, sure, some of us are shy, and we don’t want to be the center of attention, but don’t we all want to be the best at something? Don’t you think we all want to be the best at some little thing in the world? Like the best at playing “words with friends” or the best at fixing cars, the fastest runner on the team, or the one who cooks the most amazing dinner for your friends?

I believe that just about all of us are on search to find someone who will tell us we are the one. Or we are on a search for a way to prove we are the best. We are trying to prove we are the best at work. Or we are trying to achieve some goal so we can finally feel like we are the one at something.

The only problem is, we can never find the perfect person who will tell us we are “the one” because there are no perfect people. And when we try to be the best one at work, or achieve some goal like run a marathon, or win a contest, it is never going to be enough. Did you hear about the guys who won the lottery and celebrated by buying drugs. They did something and blew up their house. It did not work out so well for them. The truth is, there is always another contest, and always another job promotion, or another degree to earn. It never ends. Even if we get to be the one for a short time, it will not last.

There is, however, a way to prevent ourselves from getting caught up in this never ending treadmill of trying to be in the “one” in a world where we can never really be the “one.”

You see, to God, you are always the one. You are each, already the one that God created you to be.  Let me say that again, you are already the one that God created you to be.   When we are born, God has already said “yes” to us.

We don’t have to earn God’s love, or God’s approval. God has already stamped us with a big “yes” from the day we were born. Our parents may have claimed that yes for us in our baptism. We claim it again in when we make our profession of faith, when we say “yes” back to God.

Listen again to the Second Letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth (II Corinthians 1:17-22 from The Message paraphrase for those who are following along on web).
20-22 Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In Jesus, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting God’s Yes within us. By God’s Spirit God has stamped us with God’s eternal pledge—a sure beginning of what God is destined to complete.
God sent us Jesus to show us God’s “yes.” God affirms us and puts God’s “yes” inside us. You see, somewhere, deep inside, in the place that is untarnished by the world, we know that we are beloved children of our Maker. That “yes” is deep inside us. I talked last week about reclaiming the words of grace that are that are our mother tongue as people of God. “Yes” is another one of these important words.  

In the book that some of us are reading during Lent, the writer, Paul Nixon, uses the image of an election. If we were running for election, God’s vote is the only one that really counts and God always votes “YES.” This is what Paul writes: 
“God’s YES vote is not a mandate for us to go now and live any way we please.  Rather, God’s YES vote is a mandate to live as God pleases, regardless of popular opinion, even regardless of church opinion.  God’s YES vote is a mandate to live knowing that our potential in life is far beyond what we may have believed.  God’s YES vote is a mandate to feel worthy of blessing even when we know that we have blown it, even when we know that we have messed up and failed.  I am worthy of blessing, not because of how well I have lived, but because God has cast a vote for me, and declared that I am a winner.” (Mother Tongue: Immersing Yourself in the Language of Grace by Paul Nixon, copyrighted material.)
God has already declared you the winner.  

God says “yes” to us: “You are the “one” I created you to be. So go be the best ‘you’ that you can be. You don’t have to work so hard competing with the rest of the world. Just be you.” God says: “I love you. It does not matter what anyone else thinks of you. Just be the person that I made you to be.” 

The most important thing we can do in our life as followers of Jesus is to accept God’s YES for us. When we accept this yes, life is so much better. I don’t mean to say that we will not encounter sorrow or conflict. What I mean to say, is that whatever life throws us, we have the grace and strength to face it, because we know that we belong to God and we have God “yes” vote. There is so much freedom in knowing that we have God’s “yes.”  There is so much freedom in knowing we have been picked by God and are God’s YES vote. 

I want to leave you with an affirmation of God’s yes. There is a children’s song that I think you probably all know. Let’s sing it as a reminder that we are all children at heart and that the words are true for us at every age in our lives.
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong
Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me
The bible tells me so.

          Do you need a community that reminds you of God’s YES for you?  If not, and if you’re near the corner of Conant Street and The Anthony Wayne Trail, come check us out.  We’re here Sundays at 10:30 AM in the back theater at the Maumee Indoor Theater and out in the world the rest of the week.  Come join us as Dig Deep, Reach Wide, and Change the World by Following Jesus’ example. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Words of Grace: LISTEN by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Today we are starting a new series, on the language of God. The apostle Paul calls this language is our “mother tongue” -- the language put on our hearts since birth. He writes in his letter to the young church in Rome, “Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God.”

You see there is this language that we speak as followers of Jesus; it is the language of grace, the language of being alive in God. The language lives deep inside us in that place where God first created us. The language is in us, in our most natural, and pure state, before the ways of death and dead thinking and death creating actions of the world began to wear us down. You know that worn down place, don’t you?

The language of grace is God’s language, and in the next several weeks we are going to learn it together. Actually we are going to remember it, because you already know it. None of the words are unfamiliar to you. There are no unfamiliar words here.

The first word is LISTEN.  We can do nothing as followers of Jesus, if we do not first listen to God. Think about it. I know you are not all parents. But you were all children once. And you have probably all seen parents or teachers interact with children. A child is doing something perhaps running around at a restaurant. The adult says: “sit down.” The child sits down and as soon as the adult gets distracted with a conversation, what happens? The child gets right back up and starts wandering here, there, and everywhere, over by the drink machine and starts playing with it; or over to the buffet table where the plates are stacked this high. The child is just about to knock over the plates and create a huge mess when the adult runs over, picks up the child, sits the child down in the chair and says, “Listen, I told you to stay in your chair and I meant it.” 

Now, of course, the weary parent simply wants five more minutes of glorious adult conversation and another half cup of coffee while paying the bill, but parent is also genuinely trying to keep the child from getting hurt. There are hazards everywhere in the world, and parents have a desire to protect our children from those hazards.

Fast forward a few years. The child is twenty-one and it is the summer before her last year in college. She needs to make a decision. Does she go back to finish her degree, or does she take the job offer she just got? The job offer is with some friends who graduated last year. They have a start-up company and the money is sounds really good but they want her to come now and she won’t be able to finish her college education. As a parent, you hope your child will come to you for advice and LISTEN to you, because you do, after all, have some years of experience and wisdom. 

We know, don’t we, because we have all been children, that we don’t always listen to our parents and to the other, wise adults around us who might be ready to speak to us if we would listen. 

So imagine what it must be like for God.  You see, of course, God is like the super parent of all of us. God is like our father and mother all rolled into one. God is the creator of the universe. We read in Genesis that God breathed the breath of life into the first human beings. Imagine how much your parents have invested in you. Then multiply that by the biggest number you know. That is how much love and energy God has invested in each of us.

So, do you suppose, that when we are facing some hazards in our lives, or when we have big decisions to make, when we are hurting, or when we are lost, do you think that God might just hope that we might listen to what God has to say to us? 

So, of course, some of you are sitting there now saying, Cheri, Pastor Cheri, I like you and all, and I even trust you, but God has never spoken to me, and I don’t really think God is going to start speaking to me today. Well, if you do trust me, then hear me out.

If you have read much of the Bible at all, you know that there are stories throughout the Bible of people saying God spoke to them, burning bush ring a bell?  Big stone tablets sound familiar? Now, it is true that the world view at the time was different. In general, people had a much clearer sense that God was a part of the big picture. They had not gone through the Modern Era and our understandings of scientific principles. They did not understand things like gravity. They did not understand that the earth was round and that it rotates and many things that are basic to us now. They attributed everything to God. We might presume, then, that God spoke to them, in a way that God does not speak to us anymore. But I am not so sure. 

You see it really does not make sense that God would speak to people in one period in history and then that God would stop speaking to God’s people. You see, if God is a loving parent, as we believe, then doesn’t it that God would continue to want to speak with us through every generation? If fewer people seem to be hearing God’s voice in this Era compared to the time when the Bible was written, I don’t believe it is because God is speaking less. 

Perhaps they were just better listeners. And, maybe we could learn from them. Now, of course, we have people every day who say, “God told me _____,” like, “God told me to jump off a bridge” or “God told me to wear purple and that people who do not wear purple are evil.” I think most of us would probably agree that folks saying those things probably have some sort of mental illness.  But again, I don’t think a reasonable person would say, “God does not speak to us” just because a few people in mental distress get mixed up about God’s messages.

The other argument people give for not being able to hear God is this one: “How do I know it is not just me?” If I listen for God, and I think something is God, how do I know I am not just hearing the message that I want to hear?”  That I am not just hearing my own voice?

That is the trickiest part of listening for God.   So, here is what we have to do. In order to hear God, we have to practice. We have to train. If you want to be the best golfer in the world, what do you do? You play golf every day. My brother in law, now deceased, was a professional saxophone player. Do you know what he did during one season of life? He played the same song in every key every day. Talk about boring, but that is what he did to practice. People who are a success at something, are tireless in their practice and they love it.

People who hear God, pray and LISTEN for God in silence on a regular basis. They go on retreats. They sit in silence as a ritual. They wait for God to speak. If we want to hear God speak, we have to STOP, turn off our computers and our cell phones and LISTEN. 

In our scripture for today (I Kings 19:7-14 for those following along at home), the prophet Elijah, is on the run. He has been working his heart out for God. It says “he walked forty days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, to Horeb. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep.”

Then it says, the word of God came to him and asked what he was doing there and he said: “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”

“And he was told to go stand on the mountain and God would pass by.  “A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.”    

God came to Elijah in a gentle and quite whisper. Elijah was stuck, in that crook of the mountain, feeling all alone, certain that the people had all fallen away from God and they were trying to kill him. He was paralyzed with fear and doubt. But God spoke to him and told him to go anoint a new king and to anoint and to call a new prophet to work with him. 

Elijah heard God speak to him in that quite and gentle whisper. Elijah walked out of that cave, out of his fear. God gave him a new purpose in life, and Elisha to work with him. Everything started to look better once he listened to God and heard God’s message.

Now, I know that sometimes we listen, and the message does not come right away. Or the message we get is not the one we want. (That happens when we listen to our parents and other trusted friends too.) But the alternative is to try to walk through this life alone.  I don’t recommend that. And you are here today, so I think you are looking for some help.

I believe you want to hear God. I know I do.  This is how I have a pretty good idea that I hear God, and not just my own thoughts in my head: when I am silent, and I clear my head as best I can, and something comes to me that was not there before. When it is something new, I trust that it might just be from God. You see, it’s not just the same old thing I have been churning over and over in my head. I clear my mind. I still my heart, and I listen. And sometimes, in that gentle and quiet whisper, God speaks to me.

Now, the messages do not always come to me. Sometimes I sit for 10 minutes in the morning and listen, and nothing comes. Or I sit and I just can’t quiet my mind enough, and I just have to give up for that day. But, I can be sure of this, I will never hear what God has to say to me, if I do not stop long enough to listen. 

So today, let’s try together, shall we?  I’d like to teach you a simple technique for clearing your mind so you might listen for God. This comes from a wonderful teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Buddhist monk who teaches meditation or what we call mindfulness, or being in the present moment. Most of us spend much of our time living in the past or the future, but in order to listen to God it is important to be in this moment and to let go of the past and the future.

Breathe in peace (Breathe in )
Breathe out chaos (Breathe out)
This moment (Breath in)
Wonderful moment (Breathe out)
Did you feel anything?  Did you hear a voice?  The worst experience anyone had was a feeling of peace.  Give it a try from time to time.  

          Do you a place where you can practice listening to and reaching out for God?  Go find one.  There are many out there.   If you’re near the corner of Conant Street & The Trail in Maumee, come check us out some Sunday, We’re there every Sunday and out in the world the rest of the week. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Jesus’ Inaugural Message Part Two: The Crowd Turns Against Him by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Let me give a quick recap from last week, in case you were not here, or in case you have forgotten. We are at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has gone off into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer and fasting. 

He comes home to Nazareth in Galilee and goes to the local synagogue. He takes his turn, as a good Jew, to read the Holy Scripture. He reads a wonderful passage from Isaiah. 

God’s Spirit is on me;
    God has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
    recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,”
    to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

This is what we call his “inaugural message” because it kicks off his ministry. It’s great. Such inspiring words! We want to join this movement, don’t we? We want to be pardoned and set free from your burdens. Let’s go. 

Did you see that moment at the end of President Obama’s inauguration a couple of weeks ago? Just as he was about to leave the Capitol, he turned and faced the one million people on the Mall and said to those with him, “Wait, I want to get one more look. I’m not going to see this again.” Of course, it’s his last inauguration. These were his people – cheering. They had just heard a speech, they were waving flags. It was epic. 

But while I wanted to celebrate the joy of the moment with him, I had to admit his words seemed a bit ominous to me. Sure it was a great day with the parade and the balls. Michelle looked great in the red dress and all that. 

But I think he knew, that Tuesday was coming, and he would have to get back to work, and it would get ugly. He would have to face John Boehner and a Congress that won’t pass a single piece of legislation that he proposes, and a country where he gets hundreds of death threats every day. It’s not easy being a leader.

Well, guess what happens to Jesus.  As soon as he stops reading scripture and giving them the amazing news that the scripture is fulfilled just as he reads it, they start reacting. 

They say, “Wait a minute, isn’t this Joseph’s boy? The one we have known all his life?” You see no one really thinks anyone they have seen since they were a little rug rat can be all that, even if there are stories about heavenly angels and shepherds with wild tales.

And then Jesus goes and sets them off. He says, “I know a prophet is not welcome in his own town. And he begins to talk about Capernaum where he has just been. And then he talks about the work that Elijah and Elisha did. Now I had to do a little research to understand all this. But here is what it means. Elijah and Elisha did not heal their own people. They were sent to outsiders. And Capernaum was not Jesus’ home town. It was another place. What he was saying way, “I’m not going to spend all my time just here with you.” God sent me for bigger things. You’re not going to appreciate me anyway. Ouch.

Well, that was all it took. They got angry. They banished him from the village. They took him out to the edge of town and were going to throw him off the edge of a cliff and kill him, but somehow he gave them the slip and got away.

Wow!  This story is crazy, crazy. It turns on a dime.

One minute the story is all about the good news and how Jesus and the people are going to change the world together, the blind are going to see, they are going to be set free from their bondage, etc. It seems like he has the crowd in the palm of his hand, and then just like that, they want to kill him. They are DONE with Jesus and his ways. 

How can that happen so quickly? Well I started thinking about the thin line we walk with Jesus. I call it the line between the good and the hard.

You see the good is what Jesus asks us to do things that makes us feel good. And the hard is when Jesus pushes just a little too far. We get mad and we want throw him off a cliff. Or in my case, the good is when the pastor asks us to do something that makes us feel good, or when the pastor asks us to do something hard and pushes us just a little too far then we want to run her out of town. You see that’s what Methodists do – they call the Bishop and ask the Bishop for a new pastor and run the old one out of town. Bet you didn’t know you could do that.

So here is a good thing. We like it when Jesus demands equality for all people. We love that about Jesus. We can go all day with Jesus with this one. Because when someone we love is being treated unjustly we can pull out the Jesus card. No, no, no! This will not do. We are followers of Jesus and Jesus says that everyone will be treated with fairness and respect. There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, all are one in Jesus Christ, equal in the kingdom of God. This is a good thing. We like this. 

Here’s another good thing. We like it when Jesus says we need to give our time to feed hungry people. We will go down to the Food Bank next Saturday and fill 500 or 600 boxes of food for the elderly. We will feel good about ourselves. (maybe a little self-righteous; we need to be careful about that) but Jesus asks us to be caring and compassionate, even sacrificial with our time and we can do that and feel good. 

We can even give our money to help others and that is a good thing.  Now here is when a good thing, though, can become a hard thing: When Jesus asks us to give up spending money on something we “want,” not something we “need,” but something we “want.”   You know the difference between need & want, right?  We want a big, flat screen TV, we need to pay our utilities so we are warm.  

Jesus asks us to give up spending money on something we want so that we can give money for something that someone else needs – like food, or money for our Christmas offering to give education for children in Africa who won’t have any way to earn a living without education or money so that Rock and Beth have insulation in their house and aren’t cold in the winter. These are hard things. 

These are the kinds of things that get Jesus thrown off a cliff and get the pastor run out of town. How about this hard thing? Jesus said, “I’m not going to stay around my home town for long. I’m going to heal and care for the outsiders.” The implication is that this is what his followers should do. 

What person or group do you hate? Or strongly dislike? The hard thing Jesus calls us to do, is to take the high road and reach out to those people we strongly dislike, with kindness and compassion and expect nothing in return. Jesus wants us to choose to be on their team at work, and to sit with them in the break room. To share with them. 

We encourage our kids, on the playground, to look for the child who is left out and try to include that child, but how often as adults do we avoid the person who has become the social misfit because they are obnoxious and deserve to be left out?

 One of my friends told me this week that the people she finds it most difficult to love are people who call themselves Christian but do stupid things in Jesus’ name. Did you hear about the pastor this week, who got a bill at a restaurant with an 18% tip added. She wrote, “God only gets 10%, why should I give you 18%?” One of the waitresses posted the bill on line and it went viral. The waitress got fired because the pastor was embarrassed that it got posted. Of course if she had never written it then this never would have happened. How about a little more respect for servers who work really hard.  I always tip well, because I’ve never had to be a server and I never want to work that hard.   I have never known a restaurant server who got rich doing that work. 

Which leads me to the next hard thing Jesus asks us to do: have patience with one another. You know, I believe most marriages and primary relationships would last longer, if people would learn some patience, and some grace. Jesus asks us to treat one another with some grace. Rather than always thinking the worst of another human being, why not give them the benefit of the doubt? Why not be patient? But you know what? I believe if Jesus stood here and said that our lives depended on us being patient with one another, we might just throw him off the cliff? Why is that? Because it is just too hard.  People are just too annoying.  I mean Jesus was only with us for 33 years or so.   

You see, we want following Jesus to be easy. We want it to be filled with things that make us feel good. But I am here to tell you that when we do the hard things it does feel good. When we experience the generosity of someone else who helps us when we need their help, it does feel really good. When we experience someone who reaches out to us with compassion, even when we know we don’t deserve it, it does feel really good. And when we are on the receiving end of patience it feels great. Jesus asks us to do the hard things because we are his people and he knows that we can make a difference in the world, if we surrender our whole lives to him.

So my question for you is this: what is the hardest thing for you to surrender? What does Jesus ask you do to, that is the most difficult for you to do? Honestly, what makes you want to just throw Jesus off a cliff when he asks you to do it? And are you willing to give that a try, so that Jesus can use you, to make the world a better place?