Sunday, February 22, 2015

Making a Difference by Karen Shepler (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

This past week I lost a good friend.  Cathy Coyle Johns died very unexpectedly on Monday.  I was with her on the Friday before she died and she was fine.  I met Cathy about 6 years ago when we were on a silent retreat with each other in Michigan.  Now as you can imagine, you don’t get to talk much at a silent retreat, but we did share adjoining rooms at the retreat center and because of that we shared the same bathroom. 

            I remember at the end of the retreat, she asked me if I heard music during the week in my room.  I recalled that I had heard some music periodically but I thought maybe she was singing.  She said she had heard it too, but she wasn’t singing – there was just music coming from somewhere into her room. It made her happy that week.

            After that time, we saw each other every once in awhile, but then I saw her a lot during Obama’s campaign and again when she was working on the Affordable Care Act sign ups and petitions to get it to pass the House and Senate.  She worked so hard on both campaigns.  She also organized prayer vigils for victims of violence in our city, one of which was at my former church, Monroe Street United Methodist.

            And then I didn’t see her for a while.  When I asked about her, I was told that she had a very bad virus that had attacked her heart, that she was really sick and that they weren’t sure she would survive.  But she did.  And although she was weaker and believed that because of some lack of oxygen to her brain during her illness, her speech was affected, I never saw her skip a beat.  Her laugh and her spirit were spontaneous and wonderful.

            She was in a Dialogue to Change group this last six weeks and attended faithfully every session.  She was so sensitive to the needs of others; she was passionate for the poor and for those who have mental illnesses.  She was thinking of organizing some pastors and churches to get involved with a need that had surfaced, and asked Cheri and I if we would be interested in helping out.  She was an active supporter of NAMI, the group who will benefit from our production of “Next to Normal.”

            And then she was gone.  She and her husband, Brian went to pick up a puppy that was supposed to be hypoallergenic, but on their way back from Akron, Cathy went into anaphylactic shock.  Although CPR was performed on her, she had suffered a lack of oxygen to her body for too long, and after a few days on life support, the family decided it was time to let her go.  She died on Monday evening.

            When her family put the news on Facebook to let us all know, there were hundreds of comments left.  The comments ranged from shock to many words of witness to Cathy’s life and effect on others.  She touched so many lives in so many ways, and with all the work she did, she really made a difference.

            In today’s Scripture reading, we have the story of a man who was paralyzed, being brought on a pallet to see Jesus.  It’s another one of my favorite stories and I want to thank Juliette for telling it to us.  It is, after all, a story and it was told over and over after Jesus died as a witness to his power of healing and to who he was. 

            So we have this man, who is paralyzed who wants to see Jesus.  Or at least we think he does.  What we know for sure is that he was brought to the house where Jesus was speaking the word.  There were a lot of people there, and in fact, there were so many that there was no more room in the house.  People were standing outside trying to hear what Jesus was saying.  This paralyzed guy was brought to the house where Jesus was speaking by four men, friends, we suppose.  They were so intent on getting their friend to Jesus that, when they couldn’t get in the door, they went up on the roof and tore the roof off. 

            Houses in those times were made of mud, kind of like what we would call adobe.  The roofs were generally flat and made of the same mud or clay that the house was.  So, when these four friends removed the roof, you get a picture of what they went through.  They had to claw, probably with their hands, to tear out a section of the roof so that the pallet that the man was on could fit through, so that he could be lowered down into the crowd.  Are you kidding me?  Think about this.  We’re talking about a roof that was probably pretty thick – thick enough that five people could be up there with little or no effect.  These guys clawed their way through the mud, which means that those inside the house had to find themselves with dust and hunks of clay falling all around them and on top of them as the men worked.  Imagine being the owner of the house!  This man’s four friends were pretty desperate to get him to Jesus.

            And when he was finally there in front of Jesus, waiting to be healed, Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  He didn’t say, “You’re healed.”  He said, “Your sins are forgiven.”  And not only that, in verse five it says that, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.”  The paralytic didn’t do or say anything.  The four friends who carried him there did it all, and it was their faith that Jesus saw.  They made all the difference for the paralytic.  They believed that Jesus could heal him.  And Jesus responded to them.

            There have been times in my life when I’ve been or felt immobilized, paralyzed by fear, emotions, sadness, grief, chaos, depression, busyness, and any number of other things.  How about you?  Anyone here ever find yourselves just not able to think or do anything because you are so overwhelmed by what’s going on?  When I get that way, my hope and prayer is that someone will reach out to me to lift me up and give me hope that things will be okay.  Jesus can do that for me most if not all of the time.  But there are times when I’m like the little boy who was asked by his mother to go to the basement to get a can of vegetables for dinner.  He told her he didn’t want to go down there because he was afraid of the dark and the basement was dark.  She told him that he would be okay because Jesus would be with him.  His response was, “Yeah, but I need someone with skin!”

            There are times when we need someone with skin, aren’t there?  There are times when I need to be carried like the paralytic was carried to Jesus.  There are times when I forget that Jesus is even there, or that Jesus can heal me and strengthen me.  And that’s when I need someone to carry me.  Can I get an amen?

            When the four friends brought the paralytic to Jesus, his sins were forgiven.  And when his sins were forgiven, he was able to walk.  Imagine if they had gotten discouraged because they couldn’t get in the door.  Imagine if they had left, bemoaning the fact that they didn’t get there in time or that all those outsiders took up all the space.    Imagine if they hadn’t had the courage to go up on the roof and tear a hole to get their friend through.  Imagine…

            Those four friends made a difference in the life of their friend, the paralytic, and they made a difference for those who witnessed their friendship and their faith.  Jesus saw it and he responded by healing their friend.  Those who were there saw it as they felt the clay falling on their heads and watched the roof open up.

            My friend, our friend, Cathy, made a difference.  She boldly and courageously lived out her convictions about helping people and crossing the barriers between the rich and the poor and even between the rich and the middle class.  She stood with others as they attempted to work the system.  People who wrote memories about her talked about the difference she made just with her laugh, her smile, and her sense of humor.

            I’m a firm believer that each one of us can make a difference.  We don’t have to be in the spotlight or on the news to do it.  We just need to reach out and be that one in the skin for someone else.  A friend of mine, a pastor, did a walk on the streets of Cincinnati as he was getting to know his new appointment.  He talked to strangers, he visited bars and restaurants, and he sat with the homeless on the streets. He says that he asked the homeless what was the hardest part of being homeless.  He said that his or her response almost universally was, “No one looks me in the face.”  I remember that story and I always try to look those on the streets and in the shelters and in the downtown library in the eyes and talk to them.  I hope that is making a difference.

            He also spent time in the neighborhood around the church picking up trash once or twice a week.  He is white, and his church was African American.  The neighborhood was African American, so when they saw this older white guy walking around picking up trash in their neighborhood, they asked questions.  They found out he was the new pastor at the church in their area and that he was interested in bettering the community and so he was picking up trash.  Before long others joined him, and the neighborhood began to look better.  He made a difference.

            Rock is constantly helping me learn about gender identification.  He has been very patient most of the time in correcting me when I use the wrong word.  At this point, he should be just about done with me, but he persists.  He has made, and continues to make, a difference.

            I think about those of you who are teachers and parents, those who touch the lives of others in your work and in your play, and I know you make a difference.  I also know that sometimes you carry your students, your children, your co-workers, and your friends, just like the four friends carried the paralytic.  And when you do that, when we do that, we make a difference.  Many of you have brought others to church.  I see posts that you put on Facebook about the awesome worship services we have here, and you invite others to come.  Believe it or not, even if they don’t come, you have made a difference by witnessing to your faith and your faithfulness.

            I often think about the Village statement that we read every week.  Living out that statement, we can and we do make a difference.  Living lives that show patience, forgiveness and compassion has to make a difference in this world that is so fast and furious and seemingly violent and hateful in many situations.  Imagine what our world or even our community would be like if we all were able to live like that all the time!

            So today, I challenge us to make a difference.  Step up your game.  Notice those who need someone with skin to lift them up, to challenge their paralysis, to show them their worth.  Live that life of compassion, forgiveness and patience in a world that desperately needs it.  Be an instrument of hope.  Carry your friend to Jesus.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Jesus is Dazzling! By Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

    Have you ever seen anything you would describe as magical? I mean something that you simply cannot explain? I have seen a shooting star. I can’t explain that, but I know there are scientists who can explain a shooting star.

    I have seen some amazing magic shows. I am baffled by how the magician does the tricks. But I know they are tricks. If you know the magician, they can tell you the secrets behind the tricks.

    When I stand by the ocean I am filled with awe. It is almost magical.  I can’t comprehend how God created such beauty. But I suppose an oceanographer can explain most of the beauty of an ocean in scientific terms.

    But there is one thing that no one can fully explain – that is the deity of Jesus. How can Jesus be, on the one hand fully human, and on the other hand fully God? That is a mystery that we human beings really are not able to wrap our minds around.

    Today is the day in the church year that we call Transfiguration Sunday. On that first transfiguration day, three of the disciples caught a glimpse of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human and fully divine, completely holy and completely us, and they found him to be dazzling. They said that his robes were so white, that no one on earth could bleach them to be that white. They sparkled brighter than bright. Jesus was simply dazzling with glory. In that moment, they knew that he was making a connection to God, and that Jesus WAS himself fully God.

    As the scripture tells us (Mark 9:2-9 from the Message paraphrase if you’re following along from afar), Peter and James and John went with Jesus, up a high mountain and Jesus was transfigured before them. He was changed. There is really nothing in history to compare to this event. Then two figures of the Old Testament, Elijah and Moses appeared. They were talking with Jesus. They represented the law and the prophets. 

    Peter is so awestruck. He does not know what to do. So he offers to do something that Jewish people often do when something holy has happened, build a booth as a place of worship and honor for the event. He is so caught up in doing this that he comes oh so close to missing an even more break-taking event.

    God speaks - “A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”  Wow! What would it be like to hear the audible voice of God from the heavens?

    David Lose writes this of the event: “I wonder how often we …. desperately want an encounter with God – some sense that we are not alone, that there is something More than what we can see and touch – and yet in those very moments that God draws near we find ourselves afraid, unsure, and feeling suddenly very out of control” (source:

    What do you think? We want a mysterious and awe-inspiring encounter with the holy, but such a thing frightens us. So we back off. We convince ourselves it can’t really be true. We explain it away with science, or magic.

    And yet here we have this story. The disciples encountered Jesus, the holy of holies. They encountered something they could not explain: Jesus was not only a human being but he was God – fully divine. The disciples saw him in the fullness of his glory. The only way they could describe him was dazzling.

    God confirmed this was the Son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. We don’t know why he said it. Perhaps he knew others would not believe. The story was just too outlandish. But he knew that the resurrection would be so compelling that they would have to believe.

    So we have two amazing, magical stories: the transfiguration AND the resurrection. Both show us that there was something unique and God-like about Jesus.    

    So I wonder, can we allow ourselves to be awestruck like Peter, James and John? Can we decide not to worry about whether or not we can prove the transfiguration, or make sense of it? Some things are not meant to be explained, only believed. There was a day, before his death and resurrection that Jesus went up on a mountain and was so filled with his holiness that he was physically dazzling.  He was amazing, more than we can imagine.  And Peter, James, and John KNEW he was the Son of God. God spoke that truth: “This is my Son the beloved.”    

    So what difference does this story make to us? Some people say that Jesus was a great teacher, the best perhaps, but he was still just a human being. If we choose to believe this story, then we decide to believe that Jesus was more than the greatest human teacher. We believe he was God in the flesh. Jesus was THE ONE who was both fully human and fully divine.

    He knew what it was to be human, with our faults, our desires and our imperfections. AND he knew what it was to be God, with the fullness of love, the ability to forgive everything, and with the perfection that we can never fully comprehend. He was both perfect, and imperfect. Yes that is hard to wrap our minds around isn’t it. But that is the point.

    This is why the disciples were awestruck, because up on that mountain, they saw the fullness of God, with human flesh, Jesus. No one had ever seen the fullness of God before.  

    We get glimpses of God now, reflected in followers of Jesus. But they saw the fullness of God’s light and love. It’s a wonder they were not struck blind by God’s glory.

    But they went on to tell the story. Even though Jesus told them not to tell about this until after he had risen from the dead, they did eventually tell the story, because we have it recorded in scripture. They told the story of the day they saw Jesus transfigured into the fullness of God, with dazzling brightness, and they were awe-struck.

    This is the Jesus that we live our lives for. Jesus is one of a kind, the way, the truth and the life. I can’t really explain how he could be both fully human and fully God, but I trust that he is the one. And I invite you to put your trust in him. We need Jesus. We need a Saviour and Jesus is the one.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Balance by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Spinning plates is one of my favorite metaphors for my life. What could be a better image for a working mom than trying to keep several different plates spinning at the tops of poles simultaneously?

Western plate spinning usually consists of a comedy act with one performer and an assistant keeping a bunch of plates or bowls spinning at the tops of a row of poles.

Chinese plate spinning is more complex. It usually includes acrobatics or contortion and involves several performers holding several sticks at the same time, each one with a plate at the end, spinning away. 

The Guinness World Record for spinning multiple plates is held by David Spathaky, assisted by Debbie Woolley, who spun 108 plates simultaneously in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1996.

Sometimes I feel like I am spinning 108 projects and responsibilities all at one time. How about you? There’s cooking meals and doing laundry, getting my car serviced, helping kids with their homework, planning a date with my husband, paying bills, buying shoes for the kids, taking my mom to an appointment; then all the things that go into being the pastor of The Village: writing a sermon, making phone calls, visits, leading a study group, preparing to lead a study group, getting ready for meetings, going to meetings, going over financial reports, preparing the weekly email and the Sunday program; meeting with Travis to choose the music for Sunday; going to see someone in the hospital; and so on. Is that 108 plates yet? I know some of you have lives even busier than mine. 

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your life? I know you do because you tell me you do. You post on Facebook that you are overwhelmed. You scream that you need a vacation, but then you come home from a busy vacation so tired that you tell me you need a vacation to recover from your vacation. 

And don’t get me started about retired people. They are the busiest of all. Pat goes competitive skiing and goes to visit her grandchild all the time. Karen is leading dialogue groups about racism all over the city. I think she is busier now than she was before she retired. 

Jesus knew about working hard. He knew about spinning plates. Once Jesus got started with his ministry, there were people pressing in on him all the time, asking him to heal their ailments and to fix their brokenness. 

In today’s scripture, we find Jesus busy from dawn ‘till dark healing the sick and those afflicted by evil. The scripture says, he “cured their sick bodies and tormented spirits.” I think that would be exhausting work. 

And the next day they came to get him. They said, “Everybody’s looking for you.” And Jesus was ready to go. He said, “Let’s go to the rest of the villages so I can preach there also. This is why I’ve come.” Jesus never seemed to tire. He had an endless reserve of energy when it came to caring for the people. 

Ah! But that is not true. He did not have an endless reserve. Jesus may have been the Son of God, but he was also fully human. He had to fill his tank, just like we do. Right in there between the healing of one day and the rushing off to the villages to preach the next day we find some crucial information about Jesus and what kept him going.
“While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed.”

In the in-between times, Jesus took time to be alone, to rest and pray. Time alone with God was essential to Jesus. We see this pattern over and over and over again in scripture. Jesus takes a break from the crowds. He takes a break from the spinning plates to pray. The reason he does this is because he knows he needs balance in his life. Balance comes from taking time, both working for God and resting in God. 

Jesus loved to work for God. He loved to heal; he loved to preach and teach. But you can’t work all the time. He had to take some time to refuel. This is the time when he went away alone, and prayed. He rested in God and remembered God’s great love for him. He remembered that he did not have to DO anything in order to receive God’s love. He could just BE and God would love him completely. In prayer, Jesus would pour out his heart – his frustrations, his fear, and worries. And God would bring Jesus comfort and encouragement. Jesus would bring to God his empty cup and God would fill it up with living water. 

We need balance, too. This is what God does for us, too. When we step away from the 108 spinning plates, when we set aside the “to do” lists and the expectations we put on ourselves, and when we rest in God, God fills us up.

           We each need to take time to rest in God. This means we take daily time to listen to God. I suggest creating a holy space for yourself, a particular room or chair where you will sit and rest. Perhaps you light a candle to remind yourself that God is the light. Maybe you simply drink a cup of tea to allow yourself to slow down. Or you look out the window at nature and remember that God created this beautiful world as a gift for you. 

Then take a few deep breaths, and breathe in the goodness of God. Breathe in peace and breathe out the chaos of your life. Then you might read some scripture. I like to read a couple of Psalms. The Psalms are prayers so if I cannot find words to pray myself I can pray the Psalms. Or read a section from one of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. These books tell us the life of Jesus. They give us the core teaching of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Read a few verses and reflect on what the verses say to you today. Perhaps write in a journal your reflection on those verses.

Then be still and listen to God. Ask God, what do you want to say to me today? And just be still and listen.

You may hear a message and you may not, but in the listening we are opening ourselves to God, we are making space for God in our lives. We recognize that we are not alone and we don’t have to manage our lives on our own. We have a higher power who is with us. 

Ask God for what you need, and pray for others and for the world. Close by giving thanks for the blessings in your life.

These simple acts go a long way to helping us find balance in our lives. 

I can’t promise that if you pray every day your life will never get out of balance. My life gets out of balance. Things happen. Yesterday morning I got a call that my mom had fallen. She broke her hip. Today she is having surgery while I am here preaching. 

My mother was so calm about the whole thing. She literally, physically lost her balance and fell and broke her hip. But she did not lose her spiritual balance.
My mom prays every day. She sits in her rocking chair with her cup of tea, and her Large Print Upper Room Devotional Guide.  She reads a scripture, and a reflection and a prayer and then she prays for this church and for our family and for any number of people she knows who are in need. That is how she stays in balance. So when something comes along, like a broken hip, my mom is not fazed. She just said, “I’m getting old and some of my parts are wearing out.” She goes on, accepting what happens, and knowing she is in God’s care.

Prayer won’t keep us from never getting out of balance. It will happen. But I can tell you this with confidence. When you pray, it is easier to regain your balance.
We all get overwhelmed. We all find ourselves spinning plates that seem out of control. But when we pray, God helps us find our center, and it is just easier to regain our balance. When things get out of control, we take a deep breath and remember that we belong to God, and God will see us through. The spinning plates won’t win. God always wins. 

So if you do not pray every day, I invite you to join the way of Jesus and Jesus’ followers who pray. Daily prayer is a cure for the things that keep us out of balance. And if you pray every day, I encourage you to keep praying. As you know, when life brings you challenges, prayer will truly help you regain your balance.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Confident Teacher by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

     Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not born an advocate for “nonviolence” and he rarely used the term in the early days of his activism. In fact he practiced self- defense and owned guns to protect himself and his family during the early days of the civil rights movement. One of his advisors, Bayard Rustin, who came from the Christian pacifist tradition is credited with introducing Dr. King to the work of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violent resistance.

    King was inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violence and wanted to travel to India to learn more. He went to India in April 1959 at the age of 30 on a trip arranged by the Quakers. The trip deepened his commitment to non-violent resistance and to the American Civil Rights movement. In a radio address made on his last night in India he said: “"Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity” (Source: Wikipedia,,_Jr.).

    When Dr. King spoke, he spoke with authority. He was deeply grounded in the principles of non-violence which he found in the work of Gandhi and in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You cannot lead a movement such as the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King, without having a strong foundation upon which to stand. When people start coming at you from all directions, you have to be sure of who you are and what you believe. Dr. King never wavered in his convictions that all people should be treated equally regardless of the color of their skin. He never wavered in the belief that justice could be achieved by non-violent means. He spoke with authority that comes from within, authority that comes from a deep relationship with his God.

    We see this sort of authority in Jesus in our scripture for today. This story marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus and his disciples go to Capernaum. Mark writes that “When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.”

    Jesus taught as one with authority. Even though his ministry was just starting, he did not preach like a newbie. He was confident and self-assured. Because, you see, Jesus knew that he was the Son of God and Jesus preached knowing that he had the Word of God to offer the people.

    Very quickly, Jesus encounters his first conflict. A man with a disturbance in this spirit comes up and says: “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Now we don’t know if this man was demon possessed or just evil, an evil man. But here is the thing, he recognized Jesus as THE HOLY ONE OF GOD.

This man was full of evil but he knew God when he saw God. This is because Jesus was so full of confidence.

    Have you ever encountered someone or something so good, that you just know it is of God? Perhaps a beautiful scene in nature, or an act of pure generosity that you know must be motivated by love for God? You are overwhelmed by a sense of being surrounded by goodness, right? That is what happened to this demon possessed man. He saw Jesus and he knew he was in the presence of God’s goodness. But the man was so evil he did not know what to do, so he accused Jesus.

But Jesus has so much authority that Jesus just speaks to the demon, or the spirit of evil in this man and tells it to shut up: “Quiet!” Jesus says, “Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out, left, went away.

    Just like that. Jesus saved the man from the evil within him.  The people who stood by and watched were amazed. They were buzzing with curiosity, “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee as you can imagine.

    The people were amazed because they had never seen anyone with the authority that Jesus had.
    My spiritual director, Sr. Breta, has a phrase to describe what it means to speak with authority – the kind of authority that Dr. King has when he rallied the crowds around the cause for Civil Rights; and the kind of authority Jesus had that day he commanded the evil one to come out of the man. Sr. Breta tells me simply “stand in my truth”. You see when I stand in my truth, I have the confidence of Jesus. When I stand in my truth, no one can shake me, because my truth is my truth.

    For example, my truth is that I am a beloved child of God. I hope that is your truth too. So when some experience happens that might make us think we are not beloved, or when someone condemns us or excludes us and tries to make us feel as if we are unworthy, well, that is not the truth. God has spoken the truth to us. I am God’s beloved child, and so are you. We can stand in that truth with confidence.

    Jesus stood in his truth that day in the meeting place in Capernaum. A man came up who was overwhelmed by some sort of evil spirit but Jesus said, “The truth is, that force of evil does not have the last word in your life. I command the evil to leave so you can be free to be the person God created you to be.” And lo, and behold the evil was gone. The people were amazed.

    Jesus spoke the truth. None of us have to be hostage to evil in the world. We can say to evil, “Get out of my life, I am going to live for God.” This is our truth.

    So the call for today is this, it is a simple one: will you stand in your truth? Will you listen to God’s truth for you and live into that truth? When you catch yourself giving into negative thought patterns and giving into forces of evil, can you say “No, Go Away”?

    Jesus lived with confidence because he lived his life for God, centering his life in God’s way for him.   In our baptismal promises at the Village we ask you to stand up to the forces of evil in this world, in no mater what guise they present themselves.  With Jesus, you can stand in the confidence of your truth and stand up and change the world.  Amen.