Sunday, November 30, 2014

Weaving Promises: "You Are Our God" by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

When I was in high school, in West Texas, I went to a United Methodist Church that had a theology similar to that of The Village: God always loves us. Because of God’s grace, even though we do stupid things, God still keeps loving us. It does not matter what we do, God will forgive us. God’s love is constant. God just keeps giving us another chance to be in relationship. This is a reassuring theology. I have come to state it this way as a pastor: we are God’s beloved children and nothing we do can separate us from God’s desire to be in relationship with us. We always get another chance with God.
But where I grew up in West Texas, most of my friends did not go to a church like mine. I was surrounded by Southern Baptists. My best friend went to First Baptist Church in our hometown of Abilene. Even many of the United Methodist Churches had a more conservative theology than the United Methodist Church my family attended. It went something more like this: we are sinners. We must repent in order to be saved from the fires of Hell. God loves us but we must turn away from our sin or we will go to Hell. We are responsible to DO something for our salvation.
The first move is on us. Not so much emphasis on God’s grace.
Now, in my mind, there a few problems with this theological approach. For one thing, it motivates people out of fear rather than love.  It’s a very negative approach to theology.  You’d better get your act together or else God will punish you. I am pretty sure that Jesus came to show us how much God loves us, not to show us that God wants to punish us.
But another problem with that theology for me was this: when I was in high school, I did not feel like a big sinner. Okay, truth be told, I was pretty much a goody two shoes in high school. I did not do drugs and I was not sleeping around. Those are the big things the Youth Minister at First Baptist Church was preaching against. When I would go with my best friend to a worship service, or when I would wander into a United Methodist Church camp with an altar call, and they would say, “You need to turn away from your sins and turn to Jesus” I could not think of any big sins that I was committing. I wanted to be close to God, but the message they were giving did not match my life experience.
Of course, now that I am an adult, I see that we all sin. I see that if they could have been more nuanced in explaining sin, of course, I would have had a list: the sin of trying to do too much to prove that I am worthy. I committed that sin back then and still do today. Also, there was the sin of comparing myself to others and putting myself down. That is a sin because God makes each one of us beautiful in our own way and when we put ourselves down we are judging God’s creation as less than. I still do that one, too. I can be very competitive and feel like I am not as good as the person next door.  
The truth is, we have all sinned and fallen short in the eyes of God. Sin is what separates us from God. Sin is what keeps us from realizing that we are beloved children of God. The truth is, I did need to turn from my sin, but not in order to be saved from the fires of Hell. I needed to turn from my sin, so that I could grow closer to God. Because being close to God is where we want to be. It is the only place to be. We want to live in sync with God.
Well, long ago, in the time when Isaiah was working as a prophet of God, the people were buried neck deep in sin. They had turned away from God, for lots of reasons. Remember those chosen people, the ones we heard about all summer and fall, who made it to the Promised Land? Their land has now been taken over by foreign invaders. Many of them have been taken away to live in exile in a place called Babylon. And their beloved Temple in Jerusalem? The center of their religious life? It has been destroyed. They are, by the time of Isaiah, a broken and defeated people. They feel God has left them and so they have given up on God. They are blaming God for everything. They feel abandoned. And so they have turned to all sorts of sin.
That is when the prophet Isaiah comes to them. Now, let’s clear something up. A prophet is not a fortune teller. A prophet does not just predict the future out of nothing. A prophet speaks for God. A prophet looks at the situation and says, “Based on your behavior, these are the consequences. This is the road you have chosen and this is where I see you headed unless you change your ways.”
So Isaiah comes to speak to the people living in exile. But this time he prays to God on their behalf. We can only hope that they are listening:
But how angry, [God] you’ve been with us!
    We’ve sinned and kept at it so long!

    Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved?
We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated…. We dry up like autumn leaves—
    sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind.
No one prays to you
    or makes the effort to reach out to you
Because you’ve turned away from us,
    left us to stew in our sins.
Isaiah confesses the sins of the people but then he shows how the people have turned it around. They say that God has turned away from them. But God never turns away from God’s people.
This is Isaiah’s point, which he makes in the very next sentence.
8-9Still, God, you are our God…. Don’t be too angry with us, O God.
    Don’t keep a permanent account of wrongdoing.
    Keep in mind, please, we are your people—all of us.

Isaiah is speaking to God but you better believe he wants the people to listen. “You are still our God,” Isaiah says. “We are your people – all of us.” He’s begging the people to turn away from sin and turn back to God.

Do you think God needed to be reminded of that? Of course not! But the people? Yes, they needed to be reminded. They had fallen on tough times and they had fallen into sin. They had turned away from God. Just because circumstances of life became dire, they thought God had given up on them, so they gave up on God. But that is not how it works. When things get tough, that is when God is right here with us, carrying us, and weeping with us, and patiently working with us to get to the other side of the difficulty. 

Now, why do you suppose we are reading such a text during Advent, this time of waiting and watching as we prepare to celebrate Christmas? At the beginning of the text there is a theme of Advent longing. Isaiah says:

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend,
    make the mountains shudder at your presence….

Isaiah asks God to come down from heaven. It is many centuries before Jesus comes but we hear the prophet speak the longing of the people’s hearts. They want to experience the presence of God first hand. It is because they are so beaten down. They need God. Isaiah goes on to say: 

Since before time began
    no one has ever imagined,
No ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you

    who works for those who wait for God.

Isaiah is reminding the people that there is no God like their God. They have sinned and fallen away, but God works for those who wait. When we put our trust in God we will be satisfied. 

These are the advent promises. Even though we ARE a broken people who fall into sin, there is no one else like our God, who loves us and forgives us, who heals and restores us. 

God is the strong warp on which we weave the fabric of our lives. God’s warp is constant. God never wavers. 

Let me explain. You see a weaving loom in this picture right? To make a piece of fabric, you need threads going two ways. They crisscross with each other to make the strong bond of the fabric. The threads on the loom are the warp. The warp is threaded on the loom carefully so that it is strong. The yarn must be strong and usually smooth so it does not get caught up in the loom. Then the weaver weaves the threads back and forth which are the weft. The weft threads are where the creativity comes in, and the messiness.

So God is the warp – the strong part, and we are the weft, the creative and messy part. For the weft, you can play it safe and use smooth thread and get a balanced weave. Most fabric for clothing is made in this way. Or you can use nubby yarn and get a more interesting fabric. Or you can weave a pattern in the fabric. The more complicated the weave the more opportunities for mistakes, and the more opportunities for delightful creativity. If the weaver is not careful, however, the weft can get tangled or the pattern can get messed up. But the warp is always there, the same, strong and even. 

I believe God is the warp of our lives. God is the strong steady part. We weave our lives into God, sometimes we weave something beautiful. When we sin, we weave a big mess. But no matter what we weave, God is still there on the loom, never flinching. Never failing to be present and ready for us to weave the next section of fabric. 

Advent is a season to prepare our hearts to receive the gift of Jesus anew. So our Advent question is this: How does your fabric look? What blemishes are in your fabric, because you have turned away from God and turned to sin?

Sin can take many forms. Not just the big moral ones like sleeping around and being caught in addictions. When I was in high school I was too simplistic in my understanding of sin. Sin is anything that keeps you from being the person God created you to be, a beloved child of God, blessed and beautiful to behold. 

·      Self-doubt is sin;
·      Holding ourselves back out of fear is sin.
·      Trying to do too much can be sin if we have no room for Sabbath rest.
·      Holding a grudge against someone is sin because it holds us in bondage to negative thoughts and feelings; God wants us to be free.
·      Not using our gifts to our fullest potential is a sin. God gave us these gifts to use. 

What sin is in the fabric of your life? 

Now hear the good news. Whatever your sin, God forgives you and wants to give you a fresh start. The weaver, to get a fresh start, simply stuffs some tissue in the weft as a spacer, and starts a new piece of fabric. The old messed up stuff is wound around the loom and it disappears. But the warp is always there. God is always there, ready to receive us and love and make us new. So as we begin this advent season, let’s confess our sins and get started in a new life with God.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

GENEROSITY by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

We began worship today with a little drama presented by the Village ARTS Group.  The three characters in this short drama are described in this way: 

1 is a greedy, smug, self-satisfied person

2 is a fairly even person

3 is a poor, needy person who is unable to help self

Now, I’m not going to ask you to tell me which one you identify with the most, but I’d like you to think about it. Trevor played the greedy person. I think his character exemplifies our American culture. We have all been there. No matter what we have, we think we need more. We confuse wants with the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. The consumer driven culture of this country has convinced us that we are people of scarcity, that we don’t have enough, even though God tells us that we have abundant life. 

Beth’s character is described as a fairly even person. Perhaps this is you. This is a person I would call spiritually balanced. You understand that you have what you need. Given the chance you even share with others. Perhaps you went to Churchhill’s yesterday to help Stuff the Truck with food for others for Thanksgiving. Perhaps when you start thinking about Christmas you think about how you want to share with others from your abundance because you know you don’t really need anything. 

The third character is a person who is truly needy. This is someone who due to life circumstances really does not have everything they need. Perhaps they are disabled, or just can’t find a job. Perhaps they have grown up in the inner city with sub-standard schools, surrounded by gangs and pressured to give into the drug culture.  Perhaps they live in an impoverished country where there are no jobs and where there is famine. It is hard to help yourself when everyone around you is poor. Some of us have experienced this sort of neediness, but for the most part, here at The Village, compared to the rest of the world, we still enjoy abundance. Even if we are not materially wealthy, we have something for which to be thankful: good health, or friends, a job we love, and children who bring us joy. Blessings come in many forms. 

Because we are like the people in the drama and have what we need, and for the most part, even more than we need, we also have the ability to give. That is what today’s scripture is about. Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46 for those following along on the internet), we have record of Jesus’ teaching the people. He is getting pretty serious because he knows his time on earth is coming to a close. This particular passage gets a bit heavy handed. He tells them that a judgment day is coming. On that day, God will separate the people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and you want to be a sheep, not a goat. And God will invite into glory those who did this: 

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.

The people are confused because they don’t remember ever seeing Jesus hungry or homeless or sick or in prison. But he says: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

So that is what Jesus expects of us. We are to look for any person who is being overlooked or ignored, anyone who is hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering from lack of clothes. We are to look for anyone who is sick or in prison and we are to care for those people. These are real needs. And Jesus says: we have the ability to meet these needs. We have been blessed abundantly. God has blessed us generously. We have what we need and we have what THEY need to. So why on earth would we hold on to what THEY need? God has given us what THEY need so that we can be generous and share it with THEM. That is how this works. The resources that the world needs are here. They have just gotten a bit messed up in the distribution.   

Our job as followers of Jesus is to work on the redistribution. I have what I need. I have more than I need. So I share with others who need what I have. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Now, Christmas is coming soon. It’s a time when we reflect up on the love of God bursting into the world in the form of Jesus. We celebrate that love with the giving of gifts. Giving gifts is good. Giving gifts is a way to share love. But we have turned Christmas into an excuse to have a consumer frenzy, it’s already started and it will be in full force this week. Some of us will go shopping on Black Friday and buy stuff for ourselves all in the name of the Christmas holiday shopping season and stimulating the economy. Okay, fine, if we need something, let’s go buy it. Workers need jobs, I understand capitalism, I get that. 

But what else will we do, to share generously what we have with those in need? Let me give you an invitation.

But first, a quiz. Can you imagine a disease that could kill the entire populations of Lucas County, Wood, Country, Ottawa County and Sandusky County every year? Now imagine that disease is totally treatable (NO, it’s not Ebola, it’s much easier to treat than that). And what if I told you the disease were completely preventable for $10 per person. Would you spend the $10? Of course you would. To save the lives of your children and your parents, and to save your own life, you would spend $10.   Do you know what the disease is?

The disease is malaria. And in Sub-Saharan Africa there are two problems. First, there are some remote areas where the people did not know that a $10 insecticide treated bed net could save their lives. Second, in places like Sierra Leone a minimum wage worker makes about $US58  per year so it would take a full two months’ salary to buy a life-saving $10 bed net for one person in the family. 

Now, I know we cannot solve all the problems of income inequality in the world. And I know that there are lots of hurting people in this country and so sometimes Americans are prone to say, “Why are we sending money to Africa when there are so many poor people in the country?” This is why: there are not 650,000 people in the US dying every year of a disease that can be prevented with a $10 bed net. 

Just about everyone in this room, if not everyone, lives in a home with running water, flush toilets, and heat in the winter. Some of us have the luxury of air conditioning in the summer. We have food to eat. Yes some of us go to the food pantries to stretch our monthly food supply because we are living on the edge, but at least we live in a city where there are food pantries. I don’t see anyone in this room who is on the verge of dying due to malnutrition. (Look around the room.) Yes we have all clothes to wear. None of us are naked today. We may not have the best designer fashions, but really, how important is that? (GASP if you must)

Compared to people living in Sub-Saharan Africa, our lives are great. The reason we might care about the people whose children who are dying from malaria is because God cares about them. We are followers of Jesus and we want to dare to change the world. So we want to help wipe out malaria. 

TAVYG, our Totally Awesome Youth Group, and our Village Lead Team are inviting us to give to The Village Christmas Offering this year which will benefit Imagine No Malaria.  We will be part of a huge undertaking of the United Methodist Church and others to eradicate, eradicate is what I said, malaria from sub-Saharan Africa. In 2008, the United Methodist General Conference approved the Global Health Initiative, with a mandate to raise $75 million toward malaria prevention. At the time, I will confess that the goal seemed impossible to me. But we have learned, as it says in Ephesians 3:20, that “God really is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” So far we have raised more than $60 million. We have already trained 11,600 health workers in 300 hospitals, purchased 1.9 million bed nets to protect people from getting malaria. 

There are 34,000 congregations in the United Methodist Church. The goal of $75,000,000 works out to about $2200 per congregation. I believe our congregation can raise more than $2200 with our Christmas offering. And this is why we will do it.

In 2010, some of the first bed nets arrived in Bo, Sierra Leone and were taken to the smaller villages around Bo. Awhile later, workers with the Imagine No Malaria project returned to Bo. Leaders told the workers that there had been no new cases of Malaria in their villages since they received the insecticide treated bed nets. Parents were so grateful that their children were alive. You see in 2010, a child died every 30 seconds from malaria. Now, in 2014, a child is dying every 60 seconds, but a child is also living every 60 seconds – a child who would not have survived just four years ago.   We’ve cut the number of deaths in half in just a few years of our effort.

Since 2010 new congregations have sprung up in Sierra Leone and elsewhere because of the people’s response to the United Methodist Church’s commitment to health care. Did you hear that? Not only are physical lives being saved, but churches are being born because people are turning to God out of thanksgiving for the blessing of life. Churches are being born, all because some Americans who have more than we need are being generous and giving money to pay for bed nets and health care workers to teach people how important those nets are.  

People are responding to God’s love because of our generosity. When we care for the sick (or for those who could be sick) we are caring for Jesus. That is what he said, Love multiplies. Because, you see, love is meant to be shared, not held on to. 

So I want to ask you to go home today, and make a budget for your Christmas spending. And I challenge you, as I do every year, to give an equal amount to our Christmas offering as you spend on your other gifts for Christmas. That means that you either spend less on your gifts for others so that you can give an equal amount to our Christmas offering. Or you spend what you usually do, and give a matching gift to our “Imagine No Malaria” Christmas Offering. For some people on your Christmas list, you might just tell them you are making a donation in their name; they will be grateful for your generosity. They already have what they need; they don’t need you to buy them anything.  What they desire is a gift of love. 

We are blessed with what we need. We live abundantly. God is giving us an opportunity to bless others. Please pray about what you will give to our “Imagine No Malaria Christmas Offering.” When we love others, we love Jesus. It’s just that simple. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Strong Prayerful Leadership by Rosie Best (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Have you heard that joke - the one about the shortest man in the bible? His name was ‘Knee High Mya’. Okay, it’s not good. What about the one… “If you want to make God laugh, tell God YOUR plans. I know that sometimes I do that, I get the order of things completely wrong, and then I wonder why things don’t go right. However, I have also been very blessed to have many endeavors succeed, and in the main, I know that it is because I follow some principles that I have discovered from the book of Nehemiah. I love this book so much that I literally bought the sweatshirt!

I first encountered this book when I was studying at the London School of Theology. I have never forgotten it, and often return to this book when I need to regroup. When I was revisiting it this week, I remembered that, though it’s very inspirational, there are several sections which are like ‘reading the phone book’ for inspiration. I’m talking, of course, of the lists. So, before I do the scripture reading, I would like to give you a little bit of background on the book.

Nehemiah is the cupbearer to the King. He gets news from back home that the walls of Jerusalem are still down.  In fact, the walls of the city were down for many years. There has been at least one attempt to rebuild them before, but it was unsuccessful. Nehemiah, hearing the news of ‘great trouble and disgrace’ (1:3) responds by sitting down and weeping.

So a quick word on the city walls. When they are down, the whole city would be vulnerable to all enemies that might attack.  Also, in the old testament, the walls being down is seen as a disgrace.  Let’s get back to Nehemiah.

The story goes on to tell us that he fasts and prays for several days. Chapter 1: 5-11 is home to the prayer that frames what comes next in the story. The final lines of the prayer say:

“Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Now, it’s easy to read the bible without a sense of the timeline that it represents.  There is about a five month gap between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Nehemiah. There’s a long period of time between his prayer and what happens.

From Chapter 1, and Nehemiah’s response to the news of the city of Jerusalem, we understand that Nehemiah has an established relationship with God. Nehemiah is not a stranger to God. They talk, as I said, and it’s been five months that Nehemiah has been talking with God about the trouble that he sees, that the city is in shame and disgrace.

We get a sense that during that time, God has laid a plan on Nehemiah’s heart. How do I know this? Because in Chapter 2, when the king sees Nehemiah sad, he asks Nehemiah what he wants him to do about his sadness. Nehemiah answers with a detailed plan of action. So lets read that now:

During the month of Nisan in the twentieth year that Artaxerxes was king, I served him his wine, as I had done before. But this was the first time I had ever looked depressed. So the king said, “Why do you look so sad? You’re not sick. Something must be bothering you.” Even though I was frightened, I answered, “Your Majesty, I hope you live forever! I feel sad because the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and its gates have been burned down.” The king asked, “What do you want me to do?”

So, I want to stop here a moment, because that five months of prayer that Nehemiah has been living in has come to the point of fruition. The king has noticed the grief and says, “Okay, so what do you want me to do about it?” When you have an established relationship with God, you have those moments when suddenly an opportunity opens up and then it’s a great time for what I call an ARROW PRAYER. That’s a quick, “Okay, God here goes …”.

I prayed to the God who rules from heaven.

Then I told the king, “Sir, if it’s all right with you, please send me back to Judah, so that I can rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.” The queen was sitting beside the king when he asked me, “How long will it take, and when will you be back?” The king agreed to let me go, and I told him when I would return.

Now this next bit is interesting, too. Before, we heard that Nehemiah was frightened. But, I believe that because he has confidence that God has opened up the way for him, he has confidence to ask the king for a little more.

Then I asked, “Your Majesty, would you be willing to give me letters to the governors of the provinces west of the Euphrates River, so that I can travel safely to Judah? I will need timber to rebuild the gates of the fortress near the temple and more timber to construct the city wall and to build a place for me to live. And so, I would appreciate a letter to Asaph, who is in charge of the royal forest.”

I believe that in that five months when nothing is happening, God is working to prepare Nehemiah’s heart. IN THE MOMENT, there is an expression of credit: it’s God that did it!

God was good to me, and the king did everything I asked.

The king sent some army officers and cavalry troops along with me, and as I traveled through the Western Provinces, I gave the letters to the governors. 

So, out of the established relationship, God presented Nehemiah with the right time to present the plan that had been growing in him. So, because God has set this on his mind and created an opportunity for it to happen, it’s going to be plain sailing from here, right? Wrong. You ever tried to do something God told you to and had people who objected to that plan? Nehemiah did, too. Let’s continue with Nehemiah 2.

But when Sanballat from Horon and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about what had happened, they became very angry, because they didn’t want anyone to help the people of Israel.

People were angry because of what God had purposed to accomplish. Have you ever been in a situation where someone has become angry with you and you thought it meant that God was against you? So, this is a book that we can learn something about how to deal with those who oppose us, too.

Nehemiah has arrived in the city and he doesn’t just go out and start sharing his plan with everyone. He goes first and takes a good look at the devastation he is planning to transform.

Three days after arriving in Jerusalem, I got up during the night and left my house. I took some men with me, without telling anyone what I thought God wanted me to do for the city. The only animal I took was the donkey I rode on. I went through Valley Gate on the west, then south past Dragon Spring, before coming to Garbage Gate. As I rode along, I took a good look at the crumbled walls of the city and the gates that had been torn down and burned. On the east side of the city, I headed north to Fountain Gate and King’s Pool, but then the trail became too narrow for my donkey. So I went down to Kidron Valley and looked at the wall from there. Then before daylight I returned to the city through Valley Gate.

None of the city officials knew what I had in mind. And I had not even told any of the Jews—not the priests, the leaders, the officials, or any other Jews who would be helping in the work.

So, he took time to see the situation for himself.

But when I got back, I said to them, “Jerusalem is truly in a mess! The gates have been torn down and burned, and everything is in ruins. We must rebuild the city wall so that we can again take pride in our city.”

Then I told them how kind God had been and what the king had said.
Immediately, they replied, “Let’s start building now!” So they got everything ready.

People get excited about what is going to happen. But wait, where there is enthusiasm there are often naysayers.

When Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab heard about our plans, they started insulting us and saying, “Just look at you! Do you plan to rebuild the walls of the city and rebel against the king?” 

Look how the critic twisted the work that was about to be accomplished. He starts with an accurate statement, “DO YOU PLAN TO REBUILD THE WALLS OF THE CITY…” Well, Nehemiah could say YES to that, but then because there is corruption in opposition, he continues “… AND REBEL AGAINST THE KING?” Nehemiah is not distracted by this tactic. He simply answers:

I answered, “We are servants of the God who rules from heaven, and he will make our work succeed. So we will start rebuilding Jerusalem, but you have no right to any of its property, because you have had no part in its history.”

If you choose to read some more of Nehemiah, I’ll tell you to skip chapter 3 (it’s a big ol’ list), but I would recommend 4-6 for some more instances of these interactions of getting the wall built IN SPITE OF the opposition that is upon him. You’ll see more of those ‘arrow’ prayers. I particularly like that Nehemiah uses the word REMEMBER a lot.

Now, here’s the important reminder… the arrow prayers of Nehemiah aren’t the extent of the relationship – they are, I believe the shortcuts that come from a close relationship. Nehemiah constantly credits God for his work in and through Nehemiah.

Here’s the miracle of this story. The walls have been down for YEARS! But in chapter 6 we find out that in just 52 days the walls get rebuilt.  So how did it get accomplished? Well, Nehemiah sets everyone to work the section of wall that is by whomever is closest. Each person gets to be responsible for their bit of the wall. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Nehemiah faces all sorts of opposition. There are many lies told about him, and what does he do? He prays! He’s busy rebuilding a wall; he has set up everyone to build the little bit of the wall in front of them; and, so everyone is involved in reclaiming the disgrace of the city. Isn’t that what happens when you take pride in something?


So in this book, we learn of the importance of having an established relationship with God, because it is out of that relationship that God can put his plans in our heart. Out of that relationship, we then have a place we can go when we face opposition - back to God.

One version of this story reads, “Remember me, O God, when you look on them.” You don’t even have to speak out vengeance on your enemies. If God truly knows who you are, you can simply invite God to be in charge of your reputation. What a comfort!

So how does this sermon apply? Is there a situation that you are in where you don’t know how to move forward? Have you prayed? I’m not talking about a one day event, I’m talking about regularly bringing the situation before God and asking God to prepare your heart and reveal that plan that God has for the situation. I believe that when we come to God with our hearts truly open, that God either changes our heart, or establishes a plan to move forward.

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he’ll give you the desires of your hearts.” And then, of course, there is the work of the church. Each of us has a responsibility to participate in the work of the church. What is the part that God is asking you to play in the ministry or purpose of this church? Have you prayed about it? What is it, that when you hear about trouble or disgrace, you are moved to tears? Maybe this is God pulling you towards a ministry that may not even exist yet. I want to challenge you to be open to God, to allow God to move through you and open your eyes, your hands, your heart to what God wants to do in and through you.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Do You Really and Truly Choose God? by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

On Monday afternoon, around 1:30 p.m. just about a block from my kids’ school, Toledo School for the Arts, and an elementary school, a woman named Candice Rose Milligan was assaulted by three men. She remembers one of them said: “That’s a dude in a dress,” before they attacked her. You see, Candice is a transgender woman.
According to a story in the Toledo Blade: the three men approached her, made derogatory comments, and then one of the men punched her in the face, mouth, and head, according to a Toledo police report. Once she was on the ground, the other men kicked and punched her. One of them grabbed her cell phone and they fled. (Source:
The police did come and witnesses gave descriptions of the attackers. One arrest has been made but two more suspects are still at large. Candice had two surgeries including one to wire her jaw shut because it is broken. It will be wired shut for 4 to 6 weeks. She has staples on the side of her head from her forehead to below her ear.
The attack on Candice Rose Milligan was a hate crime. BRAVO, or the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization has documented 100 incidents of anti-LGBT hate crime in Ohio. (source: Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2013, BRAVO.)  During the 18 months from January 2013 to June 2014 four transwomen have been murdered in Ohio, victims of hate crimes:  Cemia Dove, Betty Skinner, and Nicole Kidd-Stergis and most recently, 28 year old Tiffany Edwards in Cincinnati. It could have been worse for Candice Milligan. She could have been number five. Mercifully, she was not. But her life was forever changed by this horrific crime.
Transgender men and women are some of the most persecuted people in our society. They are misunderstood, abused, and outcast. Aggressors think them to be easy prey.
I don’t know what the passersby did when they saw Candice being beat up. It appears that someone called the police. I hope they ran to her aid as soon as they felt safe to do so. I wish there had been someone with martial arts training who felt strong enough to take on those three men. I even wish some brave soul had stood up to those men and spoken a word of compassion for Candice, at personal risk to him or herself. I confess I don’t think I would have been brave enough to do that; but I wish I had that much courage. I would have liked to tell those men a thing or two about respect for your fellow human being, another child of God.
Here at The Village every time we baptize a baby or an adult we ask this question: "Do you accept the power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves and do you desire the freedom of new life in Christ?" We believe resisting evil, injustice and oppression is a power that God gives us in our baptism.
Here at the Village, we value every single person as a beloved child of God. No one deserves to be victimized by violence for any reason. No exceptions. I would like to think as a follower of Jesus I would put myself between a vulnerable person and an aggressor.
Certainly before those men got violent I hope I would have come to Candice’s rescue, that if I heard people making derogatory comments about a transgender person, just walking down the street, I hope I would have tried to intervene. Perhaps I could have used humor to de-escalate the situation. Perhaps I could have called those men to be their best selves and not be so full of hate and judgment, before it got violent.
When I hear someone make a racist or sexist comment I sometimes respond to them and say something like this: “We don’t talk like that around here. We treat all people with respect here. Everyone is a child of God.” Especially if it’s a friend of mine, saying something racist or sexist.  I can do the same to someone who is being disrespectful of my transgender brothers and sisters.
This is what it means to be consistently faithful. This is what it means to truly say “yes” to God and to choose to walk in the way of God. Choosing the way of God means that when someone around us is being a hater, we are not silent. We do not stand by silently and watch the oppressor oppress. We stand up to the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed.
Yes, I know it’s hard, and I have failed many times.  God never promised that being a follower of Jesus would be easy, only that being faithful would bring us blessings. It is a blessing to do the right thing and to stand up for the oppressed.
So long ago, when God’s people reached the Promised Land, Joshua said to them, “Now is the time to make a decision. God wants to be our God . . . our ONLY God.
“God has just brought us into the land that God promised to our ancestors… God handed you a land for which you did not work, towns you did not build. And here you are now living in them and eating from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.”

I love that image. They have been given all these blessings that they did not earn. They were just plopped down in front of them. We are the same way, if you think about it. We have so many blessings, so many creature comforts. Our lives are easy in so many ways compared to previous generations, compared to so many people in the world. We are blessed. We have so many things that we did not earn, they were just handed to us. We inherited this earth. It is a blessing, a gift from God. We think we own a plot of land with a house on it. We don’t own anything, the whole earth was made by God and belongs to God. We just have it on loan. 

Joshua reminds the people how blessed they are and who blessed them. Then he says to the people, “It is time to make your choice.
So now: Worship God in total commitment. Get rid of the gods your ancestors worshiped on the far side of The River (the Euphrates) and in Egypt. You, worship God.
15 “If you decide that it’s a bad thing to worship God, then choose a god you’d rather serve—and do it today. Choose one of the gods your ancestors … As for me and my family, we’ll worship God.”
16 The people answered, “We’d never forsake God! Never! 17-18 God is our God! God brought up our ancestors from Egypt and from slave conditions. …
“Count us in: We too are going to worship God.”
22 And so Joshua addressed the people: “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen God for yourselves—to worship God.”
And they said, “We are witnesses.”
24 The people [said] “We will worship God. What God says, we’ll do.”
25 Joshua completed a Covenant for the people that day there at Shechem. He made it official, spelling it out in detail.

And so the people gave their whole selves to God. No turning back. They really and truly chose God. They were all in. Joshua made a covenant for them that day at Shechem, so they would remember this promise they had made.

So what would you say to Joshua today? The question is as real for us today as it was to them so many centuries ago. Do we choose to worship God in total commitment? Will we leave behind the gods of trust in ourselves rather than trust in God? And the gods of fear or fame? Will we leave behind the gods of material wealth and self-preservation? Will we leave behind the gods that keep us away from the one true God?

Will we give ourselves wholly and completely to God? This means that when we see someone in danger, like Candice, that we will put ourselves on the line to stand up for her. Because, my friends, that is what God would do. It means that when we see a neighbor being hateful that we will have the courage to call them on their behavior because God’s way is the way of justice for all. No more minding our own business if one of God’s children is being abused. We need to stand up on behalf of the oppressed. This is what it means to be “all in” with God. We speak the truth. We stand up to all forms of evil, injustice and oppression in the world, because God gave us the power to do so in our baptism. 

Will you? Will you choose to serve God with your whole self? Let’s give our whole lives, not just part. Let’s give it all to God.