It is the first week of Advent.

Time to reread the Christmas story and become familiar again with Gabriel visiting Mary, of Elizabeth becoming pregnant well past her childbearing years, of Zechariah being silenced because of his lack of faith, of Jesus being born in a stable manger, of the choir of angels singing to shepherds in the fields, of visitors bringing gifts from the East, of the dreams of Joseph, and of Mary pondering all these things in her heart.  Wow! What a story! It is Advent. Time to anticipate and prepare for Emmanuel, “God with us.”  

As Christmas approaches, we yearn to experience again the excitement, the joy, and the wonder of the baby born to humble parents, Mary and Joseph. The story of Christmas tells us of God’s dramatic way of coming to be with us, at the time and in the way, we need God the most. 

When you read the story, you recognize that courage makes this season possible.  The theme of courage comes to the surface over and over again. Over these few short days before Christmas, let’s explore the courage of the persons in the story.  This week, through LeaderCast, we looked at the Courage of Mary. Today, let’s look at the courage of Joseph. Remember the story?

Engagement

Joseph was engaged to Mary. Engagement back then was like a marriage.  It was serious business, legal and binding in nature. It could only be broken by going to the courts. So, the families of Joseph and Mary came together, signed the papers, and the engagement began. Only when they became of age, would they marry. So, to say that Joseph was engaged to Mary is significant.  

While they are engaged, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant.  Now, what is he going to do? He is a good man, a righteous man, a man who wants to do the right thing. That’s great, but what is the right thing? How do you know? Here is a businessman in the community and his fiancée is pregnant. What is he to do?

Joseph’s Options

There are several options available to Joseph. 

Seeking Approval

  • He could seek out the approval of his friends. Joseph could go to the coffee shop and ask, “What do you think I ought to do?” He could get on the phone, go to work, sit in a Sabbath school class, and tell everyone who will listen, “Did you hear about Mary? What do you think I ought to do?” 

Could you blame him for seeking approval?  We elect people to public office and remove people from positions based upon their approval ratings. What do the polls say?  Joseph could have sought out the approval of his friends. 

Making it About Himself

  • He could make it about himself. Joseph could tell his side of the story and expose Mary for being unfaithful. He could disgrace her and humiliate her. “Did you hear about Mary? Can you believe what she did to me? She seemed like such a nice girl.” 

In fact, Matthew tells us that, “Joseph, her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.” He didn’t want to humiliate her. But, quietly calling off the engagement could also mean he was saving himself from being embarrassed.

Quoting Scripture

  • He could do what the Bible says to do.  You can’t go wrong by following the Bible, because the Bible makes very clear.    

You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Men, you can quote the Bible before divorcing your wife, “If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.” It’s in the Bible. Women, do you know what the Bible says? “Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths shut.” Joseph could do just what the Bible says, “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” (Deuteronomy 22)

The Above are Not Viable Options

Now, let me be clear.  For me, these are not viable options. I mention them, not only because they were available to Joseph, but because each of them is used when you lack the courage to become vulnerable. You engage in them when you are unclear of your purpose and when you are not looking for God in the midst of your everyday living and relationships. 

Respond as a Person of Grace, Goodness, Love

  • Joseph could be who God created him to be. He has experienced God’s presence in his life.  God’s messenger visited him in a dream. He has been blessed through his study of the scriptures. He has read his Bible through the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. So, he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” 

I am amazed at the courage of Joseph.  He is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible. He lives into who God created him to be by responding as a person of grace, goodness, and love.

Again, let me be clear. When reading the Bible, you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself, you are absolutely wrong. That is not courage. It’s manipulation. 

Advent and the Courage of Joseph

Reading Through the Lens of Grace

The Bible is to be read in light of the character of God.  It is to be read through the lens of the grace, the goodness, and the love of God when you are deciding how you will respond to the people around you. 

So, what does Joseph do? He becomes vulnerable.  He steps out in courage and listens to God’s messenger.  In a dream, God says, “Go ahead and marry her. I want you to take care of her. I have chosen you to raise her boy.” God says, “Joseph, I want you to raise the baby. You feed the baby. Joseph, care for the mother. You care for the baby.” He becomes who God intends for him to be.

Every Christmas, I marvel at how this story hits the world with the force of a hint.  We want God to be God, but God wants to be a human baby in a manger. We want God to be strong so that we can be weak, but God wants to be weak so that we can be strong. 

God, in Jesus, came to earth, not to overpower, but to empower. William Sloan Coffin wrote, “He (Christ) came to provide maximum support but minimum protection. It is precisely his support that should help you stop sheltering yourself between the covers of the Bible…” 

Your Turn

So, here is what I hope you will do this Advent Season:

  1. Read the Advent/Christmas Story – Every day read part of the story.
    • Download the Advent Bible Reading Guide
    • Become familiar with each character. Put yourself in the story.
    • After reading the story or stories, ask God to help you identify those characters in your everyday life, work, and play.
  2. Reflect upon the story.
    • Throughout the day or at the end of the day, ask yourself:
      • Where do I see God in the story?  Where do I see God in my life? Do you see God in my family, my work, and/or in my community?
      • Where did the story become real for me today? Make a note to share your reflection with someone you trust, then share it.
  3. Respond in the following ways:
    • Become vulnerable.  Let God’s Word become flesh in you.  What is one thing you will do today or tomorrow that will reflect the nature of God’s grace, goodness, and love? 
    • Be courageous. Express your gratitude by specifically reaching out in some form of kindness, care, or compassion. What one thing will you do to be who God created you to be?

The Courage of Joseph

It is Advent.  The baby is not born yet; Mary is not even in labor, but it is already Christmas because of the vulnerability and the courage of Joseph. Because Joseph decided to be who God created him to be, I know that when Jesus is born, the man who will teach him, raise him, care for him, show him how to be a carpenter, take him to the synagogue, and teach him his Bible, is a good man. He is a man of God’s grace, goodness, and love. 

When you have somebody with that kind of courage, it is already Christmas. 

If God can find someone in every family, in every community, in every church who says, “I will do what is right,” it is Christmas. 

What is right?

To read the Scripture and to read the human condition in the light of the love, grace, and kindness of God. As long as there is one person in every situation, it will be Christmas. The question is whether or not you have the heart to be that person.

It is the first week of Advent.  Do you have the courage to be who God created you to be?

Advent Bible Reading Guide

Over the past several weeks I have been asking friends and colleagues, “For what are you grateful?”  

One friend thought a moment and said, “I am grateful for the paperweight on my desk.  I have had it for over 30 years.  It is an ordinary rock that has red and yellow paint splattered on it. It is not worth much, but I wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money in the world. My son was 5 years old when he made it for me in a Sunday School class. It is a symbol of his love.  

Another friend said, “I love the homemade greeting card I got from my daughter. On the front of the card, she drew a picture of the earth and wrote the words, “To the World’s Most Sweetest Mom.” Inside the card she wrote, “Happy Birthday,” then scratched through it and wrote, “Happy Mother’s Day.” She signed the card, “Love, Sarah (6 years old)” When she gave me the card, she pointed out her mistake inside and said, “Even though I made a mistake, you are the same Mom.” 

Other friends and colleagues named things like family, friends, work, relationships. One person even said, “I’m grateful for my district superintendent.”

Well, how cool is that?   

The Practice of Gratitude

As I have listened, I have learned three things about you: 

  1. You are people of gratitude.  
  2. You are most grateful for your relationships 
  3. Your gifts are valuable because of the giver of those gifts.  

I think that is genuine gratitude.  Focusing upon the giver of the gift rather than on the gift itself. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “You can gain the whole world and all the gifts in it, but without gratitude, you will miss the giver and lose your soul.” Celebrating the giver rather than the gift is the point. When you make that breakthrough, you will never be the same. That kind of gratitude will change your life.

So, let’s put our gratitude into action.  I want you to think of someone for whom you are grateful.  Someone who has brought love, joy, and gladness into your life. Someone who, because of their generosity, has changed your life. Get that person’s face in our mind and name on your lips.

Two Sides of Gratitude

Now, let me tell you about Bonnie Shepherd.  She was having surgery two weeks before Christmas. She said it was a terrible time to be in the hospital, but her husband assured her that he could take care of things at home. But she wrote, “Christmas baking, shopping, and decorating would have to wait.”

She said, “I struggled to open my eyes after sleeping for almost two days following surgery. As I became more alert, I looked around to what seemed like a Christmas floral shop.  Red poinsettias and other bouquets crowded the windowsill. A stack of cards waited to be opened. On the stand next to my bed stood a small tree decorated with ornaments my children had made.  The shelf over the sink held a dozen red roses from my parents…and a yule log with candles from our neighbor. I was overwhelmed by all the love and attention.”

That day, she watched a heavy snowfall outside the hospital window.  She began thinking about her four children. Her husband had told her that friends had brought meals and offered to care for the children. She began to imagine them bundled in their snowsuits building a backyard snowman and skating at the outdoor ice rink. Then, she thought of her son, Adam.  He had a physical disability. At age 5 he had just started walking independently. She worried about him on the ice and snow with his thin ankles. She wondered if anyone would take him for a sled ride?

More Flowers

About that time, she heard the nurse’s voice, “More flowers!”  The nurse handed her the card from the beautiful centerpiece and then made room for the bouquet among the poinsettias on the windowsill. She took more cards from her pocket and put them on the tray.  Before leaving the room, she pulled back the pale green privacy curtain between the two beds.

While Bonnie was reading her get-well cards, she heard, “Yep, I like those flowers.” It was the woman in the bed beside her.  She had pushed the curtain aside so she could see better. “Yep, I like those flowers,” she said again.

Bonnie said her roommate was a small 40-something woman with Down’s syndrome.  She had short, curly, gray hair and brown eyes. Her hospital gown hung untied around her neck, and when she moved forward it exposed her bareback.  Bonnie said she wanted to tie it for her but she was still connected to an IV. The woman stared at the flowers with childlike wonder.

Bonnie spoke to her.  “I’m Bonnie. What’s your name?”

“Ginger,” she said, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling and pressing her lips together after she spoke.  “Doc’s gonna fix my foot. I’m going to have suur-jeree tomorrow.”

Bonnie and Ginger talked until dinnertime. Ginger told her about the group home where she lived and how she wanted to get back for her Christmas party.  She never mentioned a family. Every few minutes she reminded Bonnie of her surgery scheduled for the next morning saying, “Doc’s gonna fix my foot.”   

Plans and Visitors

That evening, Bonnie had several visitors, including her son Adam. Ginger talked with everyone who entered the room, telling each of them about Bonnie’s pretty flowers.  She kept an eye on Adam. Later that evening, when everyone had gone, Ginger repeated over and over how much she liked the flowers and then she said, “I like your Adam too.”

The next morning, while Ginger was in surgery, the nurse helped Bonnie take a walk down the hall.  When she returned to her room, she noticed the contrast between the two sides of the room. Ginger’s bed was neatly made, waiting for her return.  But she had no cards, no flowers, and no visitors. Bonnie said her side of the room bloomed with flowers, and the stack of get-well cards reminded her of just how much she was loved.

No one sent Ginger flowers or cards.  Bonnie began to wonder if it was going to be that way for Adam one day.  She quickly decided that she would give Ginger something. Some of her flowers.    

Justified Guilt?

She walked to the window and picked up the red-candled centerpiece with holly sprigs.  She thought, “This would look great on our Christmas dinner table.” So, she set the piece down. What about the poinsettias? Then she thought about how much the deep-red plants would brighten the entry of her turn-of-the-century home.  And of course, she could not give away her Mom and Dad’s roses.

Bonnie said the justifications kept coming: the flowers are beginning to wilt; this friend would be offended; I really could use this when I get home. She said she could not part with anything.  So, she climbed back into bed. She calmed her guilt with a decision to call the hospital gift shop when it opened in the morning. She would order Ginger some flowers of her own.

When Ginger returned from surgery, a candy-striper brought her a small green Christmas wreath with a red bow.  She hung it on the bare white wall above Ginger’s bed. That evening, Bonnie had more visitors. Even though Ginger was recuperating from surgery, she greeted each visitor and proudly showed them her Christmas wreath.

Home In Time for Christmas

The next morning, after breakfast, the nurse returned to tell Ginger that she was going home.  “The van is on its way to pick you up.” Bonnie felt happy for Ginger. She would be home in time for her Christmas party, but Bonnie felt guilty when she remembered that the hospital gift shop would not open for two more hours.  She looked around the room at her flowers one more time.

The nurse brought the wheelchair to Ginger’s bedside.  Ginger gathered up what few things she had and pulled her coat from the hanger in the closet. Bonnie said, “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, Ginger.”  She said her words were sincere but she was feeling bad for not following through on her good intentions.

The Gift of Gratitude

The nurse helped Ginger with her coat and into the wheelchair.  Then she removed the small wreath from the nail on the wall and handed it to Ginger.  They turned toward the door to leave when Ginger said, “Wait.” Ginger stood up from her wheelchair and hobbled slowly over to Bonnie’s bed.  She reached out her hand and gently laid the small wreath in Bonnie’s lap. “Merry Christmas. You are a nice lady.” Then Ginger hugged Bonnie.

Bonnie whispered, “Thank you.”  She said she could not say anything more as she watched Ginger hobble back to the chair and out the door. She looked at the small wreath in her hands and thought, “Ginger’s only gift.  And she gave it to me.” As she looked toward Ginger’s bed, she saw, again, her side of the room was bare and empty. But as she heard the elevator doors closing, Bonnie said, “I experienced gratitude as I had never experienced it before.  I don’t think I will ever be the same.” 

Your Next Step

Now, let’s go back to the person I asked you to remember. 

  1. Get that person’s face in your mind and name on your lips
  2. Give God thanks. You are who you are today because of that person’s presence and influence. 
  3. How will you express your gratitude? make a phone call? send a text? bake cookies?  What one thing will you do to express your gratitude?
  4. Now, do it!    

By God’s grace, you express your gratitude by loving as you have been loved.  When gratitude overtakes you, you forget to be afraid. You become able to trust and you have time for the greater things in life. Once you experience and express your gratitude, you will never be the same.

 

 

Well, I have done it again. I was reflecting on the gospel lection for Sunday and I jumped ahead in the chapter. The gospel for Sunday was Luke 15:1-10. The shepherd finds the lost sheep, and comes home shouting, “Rejoice with me, my lost sheep has been found.” The woman cries to her neighbors, “Come rejoice with me, the lost coin has been found.” These are great stories.

There is enough of God’s grace for me, you, and everyone we know. Besides, the remainder of the chapter, verses 11-32, the story of the Prodigal Son, was dealt with in Lent.

But, no. I jumped to the story that was not the focus of the week. And I know why. Read more

As I write this, seven more persons have died because of a drive-by shooting spree. I just read that a woman drowned because of the negligence of a 911 dispatcher. It is unbelievable. We have had 283 mass shootings in the United States since January 1. It seems that we grow more and more callous to human need with each day.

At the risk of being offensive, “Thoughts and prayers” are not going to do it. But if it is not “thoughts and prayers” what will make the difference? What will bring an end to such evilness? What can and will bring about the changes needed for us, as human beings, to live in peace with one another and the world?

Over the past several years, you have been challenged to recognize God in your midst. You have been asked questions like, “Where have you seen God this past week?” and “Where have you experienced God recently?” I am convinced that when we experience God in our everyday lives our everyday lives change.

Being Known By God

This is what I have learned. As a child, I put on my best behavior on Sunday mornings. I dressed up for God and for the Christians around me. It never occurred to me that the church was a place to be honest. I confess that it has taken most of my life to allow myself to be known by God.

After years of ministry, God spoke through my pride, while I was reading a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 7:22 Jesus says, “…many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.”

Jesus did not say “You never knew me,” or “You never knew the Father.” I had that part down. I had preached sermons, taught Bible studies, led work teams, help build a hospital, and started schools. You get the point.

Do You Need God?

I not only did good things I was a good human being. But God’s grace gripped me when I read the commentary on Jesus words, “I never knew you.”

My goodness, me being good, was not enough. At that moment I realized that what counted was “being known” by God. My relationship with God was based upon full disclosure. Thomas Merton wrote, “We cannot find God unless we know we need God.”

Since that grace experience, I have grown to understand that my wounds, defects, and failures, are the very cracks through which grace can pass. I once read that God holds each of us by a string. When we sin, we cut the string. Then God ties it up again, making a knot, bringing us a little closer to God. Every time our sin cuts the string, God ties another knot. With each knot, God keeps drawing us closer and closer.

Changed by Grace with Transforming MissionThirsty For Grace

Once my life changed, I began to see the church differently. I began to see the church as a community of people thirsty for grace. I began to understand that as I allowed myself to become known by God I was, by God’s grace, more able to share God’s grace. As a person in need of grace, drinking from the fountain of grace, I was more able to offer the water of grace to the people who were thirsty for grace.

So, as an adult, as a “grace-filled” follower of Jesus, I look at the world through the lens of grace. I know it seems simplistic, but I am convinced that God’s grace can and will change the world.

Amazing Grace

Several years ago, Bill Moyers’ hosted a documentary on the hymn “Amazing Grace.” One segment of the film included a scene at Wembley Stadium in London where Moyers interviewed an opera singer by the name of Jessye Norman. Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, had been invited to celebrate the changes in South Africa. Jessye Norman was invited to be the closing act.

The film cuts back and forth between scenes of the unruly crowd in the stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For twelve hours groups like Guns ‘n’ Roses blasted the crowd through banks of speakers. As the crowd yelled for more curtain calls, and the rock groups obliged. Meanwhile, Jessye Norman sat in her dressing room discussing “Amazing Grace” with Moyers.

Grace is a Redemption Song

You and I know the hymn. It was written by John Newton, a coarse, cruel slave trader. He first called out to God in the midst of a storm that nearly threw him overboard. Even though he continued in the slave trade after his conversion, he gradually came to see the light. He wrote the song “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” while waiting in an African harbor for a shipment of slaves. He later became a minister and joined William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery. John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. He never lost sight of grace. When he wrote “…That saved a wretch like me,” he meant those words with all his heart.

In the film, Jessye Norman tells Bill Moyers that Newton borrowed an old tune from the slaves themselves, redeeming the song, just as he had been redeemed.

In the Company of Thousands

Finally, the time came for her to sing. A single circle of light followed Norman, an African-American woman, as she walked out on stage. She had no backup band, no musical instruments. She walked out as Jessye Norman. The crowd was restless. A few people recognized her and some shouted out for more Guns ‘n’ Roses. Others took up the cry. The scene was getting ugly.

Alone, with only her voice, Jessye Norman began to sing:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found

Was blind, but now I see.

Something remarkable happened in Wembley Stadium that night. Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent as she sang amazing grace.

By the time she sang the second verse, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved…” the soprano had the crowd in her hands.

By the time she reached the third verse, “’Tis grace has brought me safe this far, And grace will lead me home,” several thousand people in the crowd were singing with her. It was as if they were remembering words they had heard long ago.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we first begun.

Sharing Grace

Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night. She was simply a person of grace sharing grace. When grace descended, the crowd fell silent.

The world thirsts for grace. What could happen if you and I offered grace to the people who are thirsty for grace? Consider for a minute what could happen if you allowed your wounds, defects, and failures to become the cracks through which grace could pass?

What could happen if you, simply a person of grace, shared grace? I believe the world would fall silent. Do you?

As part of my discipline, I read and reflect upon the weekly lectionary texts.  This past week, I noticed something that surprised me.  The lectionary skipped Luke 13:1-5. It reads as follows:

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifice.  He (Jesus) replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.  What about those twelve people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

I was surprised because I think that scripture speaks directly to what is happening in the United Methodist Church as well as what is happening in our country.

Change Your Hearts and Lives

As I reflect upon the continual mass shootings, the blatant racism, the hurtful rhetoric, the tension within The United Methodist Church, I hear Jesus saying, “I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that to be a hard saying. I want Jesus to say something more comforting or at least more directly related to the issues.

  • When innocent people are killed while at school, shopping, attending concerts, and on the streets.
  • When racism is becoming more publicly acceptable (as if racism is something new).
  • When we fight among ourselves over who is right and just.
  • When our leaders who have been given the responsibility of moral righteousness are the ones spewing hurtful rhetoric and setting immoral agendas.
  • When the world’s climate changes as the rainforests are destroyed and the polar ice caps melt all for economic purposes…

I want my faith to protect me.  I want justice for those who are being wronged.  I want Jesus to say something more than, “…unless you change your hearts and lives…”

Try a Different Question

Yet, my United Methodist Church is caught in the same dilemma.  There are times I feel helpless.  So, I as I reflected upon the lectionary texts, I also looked at Luke 13:1-5.

This is what I hear Jesus saying. “You are not asking the right questions.  You are shocked at the wrong points.  You have located your pain, dismay, and astonishment at a different place from where I am looking.”

One of my favorite hymns is “Amazing Grace.”  At the center of our Wesleyan theology and as amazing we may say it is, I wonder if we really are amazed by grace.  I think we express more amazement over our evil acts than at God’s mercy.  We have come to the place in our religious thinking where we assume that God will be merciful; God will be kind; God will be gracious.  We’re not surprised when we experience God’s kindness.  What shocks us is seeing something bad take place.

By God’s Grace

That is why I say I hear Jesus saying, “You are asking the wrong questions.  You are asking why these events take place.  You should be asking, “By God’s grace how do I respond?” I think, you and I have become so calloused, that our hearts have become so hard, that we are no longer surprised by God’s grace but we are paralyzed to inaction because we assume God’s grace.

One of my favorite illustrations of God’s grace and the dilemma we face today in The United Methodist Church comes from R. C. Sproul.  He tells the story of one of his first teaching assignments as a college professor. He was teaching a required course for 250 college freshmen: Introduction to the Old Testament.

He said, “I was uncomfortable trying to communicate with so many students at one time. I printed in advance the requirements for the course, because I’d already learned that college students were all budding Philadelphia lawyers, and I had to dot my I’s and cross my t’s to make sure that the assignments were clearly set forth.  So, I gave them a published syllabus and told them what the requirements would be for the class.”

The assignments for the semester were three very small papers, book report type things. The first one was due at noon on September 30, the second one October 30, and the third on November 30.  He told the class he wanted the completed papers on his desk at 12:00 noon on the appointed dates unless they were physically confined to the hospital or infirmary, or there was a death in the immediate family. If the papers where not in on time they would get an F for that assignment.

Begging for Grace

Everyone said they understand the assignment.

When September 30 came around, 225 of students brought their papers in and presented them dutifully at the proper time.  Twenty-five of students in the class failed to complete the assignment. They were scared to death.  Being freshmen, they were just making the transition from high school, and they were in a posture of abject humility.

They came to the Professor and said, “Professor Sproul, please don’t give us a F for this grade!  Please give us a little more time.  Give us one more chance.  We’re so sorry.”  They begged the Professor for grace.

The professor granted them an extension and said, “But don’t let it happen again.  Remember the next assignment is due October 30, and I want the papers in on time.”

They said, “Absolutely.  They’ll be here.”

Second Chances – Again

When October 30 came around, two hundred of the students came and put their term papers on the professor’s desk.  Fifty of them assembled outside the professor’s office. They had not planned their time properly and were not prepared.  So once again they pleaded, “Professor, we didn’t budget our time properly. It’s midterm. We had so many assignments all coming at the same time. It’s homecoming. Please just give us one more chance.”

The professor, a softhearted guy, said, “Okay, I’ll give you one more chance, but don’t let it happen again.”  The students began to sing spontaneously, “We love you, Professor Sproul.  Oh yes, we do.”

That’s Not Fair

Sproul said he was the most popular professor in the school for thirty days. Because thirty days later the third paper was due.  This time 150 students came into the classroom with their papers prepared, while the other 100 came in as casual, as cavalier, as you can imagine. They didn’t have their papers, but they weren’t worried in the slightest.

The professor asked, “Hey, where are your term papers?”

They said, “Prof, don’t worry about it. We’ll have them for you in a couple of days. No sweat!”

Sproul said, at that moment, he took out his grade book and his pen and began to ask each student about his or her term paper.  “Johnson, where is your term paper?”

Johnson replied, “I don’t have it, Professor.” Sproul said he wrote an F in the book.

“Greenwood, where is your paper?”

“I don’t have it, Sir.” So, Sproul put F in the book.

Suddenly several voices cried out, “That’s not fair!”

The professor asked, “What’s not fair? Johnson, did I just hear you say that’s not fair?”

Johnson, who was furious, said, “Yes, that’s not fair.”

Professor Sproul said, “Okay, I don’t ever want to be thought of as being unfair or unjust.  So, it is justice that you want?”

Johnson, “Yes”

“Okay, If I recall, you were late the last time, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Okay, I’ll go back and change that grade to an F.”

Assuming Grace

The first time the students pleaded for mercy. And the professor said, “sure.”  The second time, they pleaded for understanding.  By the third time, not only did they begin to assume mercy, but they began to demand it. They assumed grace.

That is what we do with God. The history of our personal relationship with God is a history of grace.  You and I could not live on this planet for five minutes without God’s grace. But because God is so gracious, we take it for granted.

When the world starts falling apart, when mass shootings, blatant racism, hurtful rhetoric, and all we know is coming apart at the seams, we are astonished.

We have grown accustomed to God’s grace.

The question is, “Why has God been so God to me, to us?  And what are we going to do about it?” God’s grace is sufficient.

Read Part 1: “Is Anybody Listening?”

As I’ve been preparing to share thoughts about listening with you, I read several interesting stories. Some of them were about listening. Others were about the lack of listening.

One of those stories was about Vincent van Gogh.

Before I share what I learned by “listening” to his story, I want you to know that I draw some parallels regarding his life and the life of leaders of our congregations.

It is my hope that as you read this story you will find places to stop and to ask yourself, “Am I listening to God in and through the people around me?”

Is van Gogh a Teacher?

At age twenty-four, Vincent Van Gogh was struggling with what to do with his life.  Although he was a successful art dealer, he felt there was more he needed to do with the life God had given him.

At this point, no one seemed to question is restlessness. His brother, Theo, who seemed to know him the best, encouraged him to become an artist.  But Vincent refused his brother’s advice.  Instead, he left a promising career as an art dealer and began studying to be a teacher.

Now, please know that being a teacher was a great life decision, but for Vincent, it was the beginning of a harmful pattern.

Is van Gogh an Evangelist?

Within the year, it became apparent that Vincent would not make it through the rigorous training required of teachers. He neither had the temperament nor the talent for it.  Again, he asked his brother, Theo, for advice.  But against the encouragement of Theo, his parents, and other relatives, Vincent decided to become an evangelist.

Again, I want to say, being an evangelist would have been a great life decision, but for Vincent, it was a continuation of a harmful pattern.

Who Am I?

The pattern?

Vincent van Gogh had a difficult time receiving the counsel and coaching of others.  It seems as if he had a strange sense of who he was.  At this point in his life, as religious as he was, instead of trusting God and others with his life, he trusted only himself with himself.

He refused to listen to the people around him, particularly the people who loved him and cared about him.  No matter what his vocation, his behavior was a sign, not of spiritual maturity, but of well-masked pride and arrogance.

Am I Listening? Transforming Mission

Am I Listening?

Here is where I want you to ask yourself the question, “Am I listening to God in and through the people around me?”

Only as an example and not to be overly critical, I want to say that over my years of ministry, I have met people like Vincent van Gogh.  People who have been greatly talented and skilled for what they are doing, but who think they can maintain a personal relationship with God while avoiding the relationships of everyday human interaction.

I have heard them say, “My faith is private.  It is between me and God.”

They believed they could experience all that God had for them without receiving the love of others. Vulnerability was seen as a weakness.  They isolated themselves. Sometimes the isolation was based upon ideas of purity or hard work and at other times it was based upon spiritual superiority. I have heard them say, “I have worked hard for what I have.  I am blessed.”

Are You Listening to God?

My question is, “Are you listening to God in and through the people around you?”

A quick look at the life of Jesus might help answer the question.  Jesus intentionally chose to live and work with fallible and ordinary people.

According to the stories in the gospels, the twelve disciples were not the model of perfection.  Jesus broke with the customs of his day and allowed women into his inner circle.  Even in the home of the rich and famous, Jesus allowed Mary Magdalene to minister to him. There are many other examples of vulnerability.  He chose a lifestyle of isolation over vulnerability.

Real-Time Relationships

Van Gogh recoiled from vulnerability.  He chose to abandon all his relationships, except the one with his brother.  Even with that relationship, he refused to listen to Theo’s ongoing insights into his artistic gift.

Van Gogh rejected the counsel and coaching of church leaders regarding his service.  In his isolation, he wallowed in self-pity.  He said he wanted to live for others but all is actions proved differently.

Ultimately, his remorse brought him to the point of giving up his faith.  He became disappointed with God because God did not reward his self-denial and pure aspirations to love his fellow humans.

I find it interesting that van Gogh never considered that God did not abandon him but rather was speaking to him in and through the people who loved him and who counseled and coached him.

Let me ask you again: Are you listening to God in and through the people around you?

Is van Gogh an Artist?

Van Gogh finally found his calling as an artist.  In a particularly dark moment in his life, he wrote to Theo, “I said to myself, ‘I’ll take up my pencil again, I will take up drawing,’ and from that moment everything had changed for me.”

He finally found his calling, but in doing so, he abandoned the relationships he longed for and needed, including his relationship with God. As a result, his capacity for creating art become a curse to him instead of a blessing.

Through his artistic career, van Gogh persisted in ignoring the advice of those who cared deeply for him, leaving a trail of broken relationships.  He pursued his painting with such an obsession that he demanded people accept his terms for living and loving.  His lonely life became representative of a person misunderstood and unloved by an antagonistic culture.

Was it Art or the Heart?

One tragedy of van Gogh’s career was his refusal to listen to the guidance of others.  If he had listened to those who he could trust, he would have begun painting much earlier in life, avoiding the frustrations and pain of choosing unwisely.

But the greatest tragedy of his life was he could not love others because he was not fulfilled himself.  He would not allow God or others to meet his deepest needs.

Can you image what he could have produced had he found his dream community of artists pursuing art for the common good?

But his desire to control and manipulate the lives of others got in the way.  Van Gogh drove people away. He would not allow people to come close to him, alongside him, to help him develop his real talents and strengths.  He would not allow those closest to him to address his personality flaws, weaknesses, or poor habits.  So ultimately, it was not his art that brought him down, it was his heart.

Ask Yourself: Am I Listening?

So, here is the question, “Am I listening to God in and through the people around me?”

That is a question, not only for you as a leader but for your congregation.  Are you listening to the community in which you are located?  As local churches, we can no longer be isolated, doing our own thing, and expect the community to pay attention to us.

What would happen if we began to listen to God in and through one another and the community?

We might just find our true calling.

Are you listening?

Coming Soon!

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Send me more information about Dare to Lead and the next opportunity to participate in a workshop experience.

 

Last week when I sat down to write “The Bias Opinion,” I did not know what to write.  This week it is different. The writing still comes with pain, but this is pain that grows in my heart.

How can I be quiet when the images of children in detention centers keep flashing before my eyes, taking up residence in my thoughts, and knocking at my heart?

Children, who have been separated from parents, surrounded by strangers, confused, afraid, not knowing what will happen next.  There are children who have become abstract statistics and detached policy arguments.  Children, who have become the fodder of political debates.

How Can I Keep Quiet?

How can I be quiet when people, wanting to help children who are in need of drinking water, clean clothing, and soap, are told that their supplies cannot be accepted? The basis for the rejection is a federal mandate known as the Antideficiency Act.  Under the act, the government cannot spend any money or accept any donations other than what Congress has allocated to it. Really? Is that true?

(Spoiler Alert: Yes.)

The US Border Patrol reported to Congress that they were holding 2,081 children in detention centers. Children sleeping on concrete floors. No access to soap or showers. No access to toothbrushes or toothpaste. Inadequate food. Lord, have mercy on us! How can this happen?

Pain Intensified

As the pain intensifies in my heart, I try to make sense of such incomprehensible conditions and treatment. Oh, I hope I’m wrong but children have been used for political expediency throughout the ages. Didn’t the king of Egypt tell the Hebrew midwives when a child is born, “…if it is a boy, kill him…?” When the midwives did not obey the Pharaoh, he commanded, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile…?”1 How can little boys create such fear and anxiety?

And the one Christmas story we do not read each year is the story after the wise men from the East visit Jesus.  Wasn’t it after their visit that Herod, out of anger, ordered the death of all the children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem? There are times, even today when I can hear “Rachel weeping for her children.”

Whose Children Are They? Transforming MissionUsing Children for Political Expediency

I must confess, that doesn’t help. But isn’t it true? Children continue to be used for political expediency. Remember when World Vision, a humanitarian organization, announced a change to its hiring policy allowing people in same-sex marriages to work in its United State offices? In response, there was a group of people who rallied in protest, and within seventy-two hours, more than ten thousand children had lost their financial support from canceled World Vision sponsorships. Ten thousand children.

Then the CEO of World Vision announced the charity would reverse its decision and return to its old policy.  Children had been successfully used as bargaining chips in our culture war.

In February, as a result of the decision of the special General Conference of our United Methodist Church, several churches not only threatened to stop paying apportionments but did stop funding for projects in African countries through Global Ministries. I’m not sure who we thought we would leverage.

Digging in a Dry River Bed for Water

The first image that came to my mind was the little girl digging in a dry river bed in Nigeria. She and other children in her village would spend hours each day, digging in the sand to reach water so their families would have enough for that evening and the next morning. When I heard of the decisions to withhold apportionments, I thought of the well that Global Ministries had provided in her village.

Children, more often than not, pay the price in our attempts to leverage the system to get what we want. Even when we are acting for the right reasons, we might be doing more harm than good.

When Mark wrote, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children…,”3 he was not implying that children are perfect or that we should become more like children.  We all know that children, if given matches, can burn the house down, or given a saw, and cut the family dog in half.  No, what Mark implies is that children are vulnerable and powerless.  And Jesus says, “Let the vulnerable and powerless come to me…Let those who have nothing to offer but themselves come to me…” 

As Jesus followers, as kingdom people, we receive the vulnerable and care for the powerless.

How Can We Be Quiet?

So, as a Jesus follower, how can I be quiet?  At the border, when the children arrived with a parent or a relative, the border officials separated them. How can I be quiet? When many of the children have parents and relatives in the United States who are able and eager to care for them, yet the children remain in limbo, pawns in an ongoing battle over immigration enforcement, how can you and I be quiet?

Would it be different if they were our children?  Would we find ways to hold them, to defend them, to soothe them, and to set them free?

Peter Arnett, former CNN television reporter, tells the following story:

I was in Israel, in a small town on the West Bank, when there was an explosion. Bodies were blown through the air.  Everywhere I looked there were signs of death and destruction.  The screams of the wounded seemed to be coming from every direction.

Shortly after the explosion, a man came running up to me holding a bloodied little girl in his arms.  He pleaded with me, “Mister, I can’t get her to a hospital. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area.  No one can get in or out.  But you are the press.  You can get through.  Please, Mister! Help me get her to a hospital.  Please! If you don’t help me, she is going to die!”

I put the man and the girl in my car, got through the sealed area, and rushed to the hospital in Jerusalem.  The whole time we were traveling through the city streets, the man was pleading from the backseat, “Can you go faster, Mister? Can you go faster? I’m losing her.  I’m losing her.”

When we finally got to the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room.  Then the man and I sat in silence in the waiting area.  We were too exhausted to talk.

After a short while the doctor came out of the operating room and said, “I’m sorry.  She died.”

The man collapsed in tears.  I put my arms around his shoulders to comfort him.  Not knowing what to say, I said, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.”

The man, with a puzzled look on his face, said, “Oh, Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler.  That Palestinian was not my child.  But, Mister, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son.  There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”

So, whose children are these children in the detention camps at the border of our country?  If they aren’t our children, whose children are they?

An Invitation from Bishop Palmer

The United Methodist Church has spoken very clearly on this matter. General Conference delegates from around the world call on us to advocate for the “elimination of indefinite detention [and the] incarceration of children.” (Book of Resolutions 3281). We also stated very clearly that we “oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children. (Social Principles paragraph 162.H).

I am asking you to join me in these actions:

  1. Organize a public prayer vigil. A resource to assist you in organizing one is found on our webpage.
  2. Contact your Congressional Representatives and our two Ohio Senators. Let them know that you are a United Methodist, a follower of Christ and that the separation and detention of children is cruel and immoral. Demand they work together to find a moral solution to the care of children fleeing violence and civil unrest. Click Here.
  3. Help your children and young people draw pictures and write letters to send to members of Congress. Click Here.
  4. Join the West Ohio Immigration Network. Email Dee Stickley-Miner at  dstickley@wocumc.org

Regardless of what you and I may think or feel.  The children are not a political issue. It doesn’t matter whether you are Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Independent. As a follower of Jesus, as a Christian, it is time to speak on behalf of the children.  Whose children are they anyway?

  1. Exodus 1:15-22
  2. Matthew 2:16-18
  3. Mark 10:13-16

Additional Resource

Looking for a book to explore the stories of Scripture about migrants and the meaning of belonging in a Christian context? Here’s a book that is a part memoir and part Biblical exploration by Karen Gonzalez. The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible and the Journey to Belonging.

Karen Gonzalez immigrated to the United States from Guatemala. She explores the Biblical stories about migrants and shares her personal stories and reflections in The God Who Sees. Meet people who fled their homelands: Hagar, Jospeh, Ruth and Jesus.

Sometimes when I sit down to write “The Bias Opinion,” I do not know what to write.  Even though I have more than my share of opinions, I do not see myself as a writer.  So, often times writing comes slowly and with some pain.  Not physical pain, but the pain of not being able to express myself the way I want to in the written word.

Today is one of those days.

So, I am just going to let a couple of my thoughts and opinions flow.  Hopefully, I can and will express myself in an intelligent and Christian way that will be in service to our work together.

Where Have All the Christians Gone?

Recently, I have been reflecting on a couple of issues.  One of the issues focuses upon the condition and position of the United Methodist Church. I have been asking myself, “Where have all the Christians gone?”

Now, I know most of us say we are followers of Jesus, but, friends, we are known by our fruits.  What fruits are we producing?

 

The Church that Forms

My life and ministry have been shaped by the church. It was the church that pointed me to Jesus and taught me the Jesus way of living. The church taught me that my relationships with the people of this world are shaped and directed by my relationship with God. Those relationships when shaped by Jesus are characterized by mutual love, respect, trust, and vulnerability.

  • It was in the church that I experienced that the last are first and first are last and where those who hunger and thirst, physically, spiritually, emotionally find what is needed to be who God created them to be.
  • It was the church where I experienced that there was room at the table for everyone: regardless of economic status, whether they had positions of power or were marginalized with no one to call family or a place to call home.
  • It was in the church where I learned that the kingdom of God knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture.  It was the church that taught me that life was not about power and might but about acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

What Has Happened to the Church?

Over the past several weeks, months, even years, I have wondered “what has happened to the church where my faith was born, shaped, and nurtured?” Have we lost our focus? Have we lost our identity in Christ?

  • Where is “love one another as I have loved you” being practiced?
  • Where is “don’t use harmful words, but helpful words, the kind that builds up and provides what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you” being lived out?
  • Where has “they will know we are Christians by our love” gone?

Are we so focused upon ourselves that we no longer follow Jesus? Are we so blind that we are not aware of God expressed in the everyday, ordinary acts of love and kindness?

I have begun to think that we are like Herman, the 90-year-old gentleman who was driving down the interstate. His cell phone rang.   It was his wife.  She said, “Herman, I just heard on the news that there is a car going the wrong way on I-71. Please be careful!”

Herman answered, “It’s not just one car, Dear, it is hundreds of them!”

Tell me that is not where we are at as a church? You do know that the chief sin of a good person is thinking that your experience defines reality.  What if, like Herman, you are right in all the wrong ways?

So, what do we do?

Where You Begin Matters

For years, I assumed that the church pointed me and the world to God.  Boy, have I been naïve. What I have learned is this, if we begin with the church, the kingdom of God may or may not be recognized. But, if we begin with Jesus, the church becomes an instrument to participate in the kingdom of God.  When we begin with Jesus we can and will point people to the reminders of God’s love.

So, what do we do?

Pointing People to Jesus quote Transforming MissionPoint People to Jesus

I have been in conversation with a friend and colleague.  In our conversation, we recommitted ourselves to this: “Let’s point people to Jesus.”  That means you and I need to be related to Jesus, constantly nurturing and deepening our relationship with Jesus and with one another.

If we are going to point people to Jesus, then Jesus is to lead and we are to follow.  We must get out of the way and let Jesus have his way.

Will this be easy?

No!

It will require integrity, choosing courage over comfort, what is right over what is fun, fast, and easy.  It means practicing our values, not just professing them.

Valuing Jesus Means Encountering Jesus

If Jesus is the center of our faith, the reason for our faith, and the invitation to faith, we are saying we value Jesus.  And if we value Jesus, we need to do more than giving Jesus lip service. We need to be constantly looking for, pointing people to, and inviting people to encounter Jesus.

So, if you get frustrated, like I do, because people around you are focusing on issues, what are you doing to circle back and to focus on Jesus?  If you get frustrated when there are inconsistencies in actions, what are you doing to point out the inconsistencies? What are you doing to circle back and to attempt consistency again?

I know it is not easy. But here is where the rubber hits the road.

Growing In Grace

You and I are not perfect. The church is not perfect. But we are growing in grace. Growing in grace, God’s grace, is one of the highest, if not the highest, values we hold.  God is not finished with any of us yet. We’re on the way to becoming more like Jesus, so let’s stop getting in the way of Jesus.

Maybe the best I have to offer today is this: let’s point people to Jesus in the midst of this lousy, screwed-up, glorious community called the church, which by God’s grace is enough.

Well, I have taken all my space expressing only one opinion.  So, I’ll keep the rest of my opinions to myself until next time.  Until then, will you join me in pointing people to Jesus?

 

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Pointing People to Jesus Transforming Mission

Are you participating in Following Jesus Every Day: Galatians – Gospel of Grace daily reading plan? I am.

My participation in this study is making a difference in the way I understand the scriptures. I am learning something each day. However, this study has been more formational than informational. The daily pattern of reading, reflecting, and responding is shaping my thinking from deep within.

It might seem strange, but over the years of my ministry, I studied the scriptures more for preaching sermons and leading Bible Studies than for spiritual growth and personal maturity. I have often fallen into the category described by William Sloan Coffin, “Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost, more for support than for illumination.”

Read more

Last week, I received a call from my doctor’s office.  The voice on the line said, “Mr. Bias, it is time to schedule your next checkup.  May we schedule your appointment today?”  I wanted to say, “No,” but I knew that my regular checkup helped to keep me physically healthy.

Over the years, I have learned the same is true about effective leadership.  I have not always called them checkups, but I have regularly stopped to evaluate or to take an account of my life and actions.  For me, regular checkups are necessary for effective leadership.

At the beginning of the year, Sara Thomas introduced us to a weekly checkup called TGIF: Trust, Gratitude, Inspiration, and Faith.  She wrote, “…if all leadership begins with self-leadership, there are things that need to improve.”  She continued, “I know the impact reflection has on transformation.  If you want growth, stop and reflect.”

She proposed taking time each week to reflect upon four TGIF questions to assist in growing in faith and in developing as courageous leaders:

  1. What am I TRUSTING?
  2. For whom or what am I GRATEFUL?
  3. Who or What is INSPIRING me?
  4. How am I practicing FAITH?

So today, I am sharing with you my most recent checkup in regard to becoming a more compassionate leader.

Leadership Checkup Transforming Mission

Trust

What am I Trusting?

I am trusting my listening skills.  Over the past several weeks, I have listened closely to the needs, aspirations, and mission of our local churches.  At the same time, I have listened closely to the strengths, skills, and needs of our clergy.

I am trusting what is emerging.  In the midst of listening, what emerges is not exactly what I have in mind.  I am trusting the new things God is doing.

I am also trusting the shift in my prayer habits.  I continue to make the shift from having a prayer life to living a life of prayer.

Gratitude

For whom or what am I grateful?

I am grateful for trusted friends. I am grateful for those so close they not only love me just the way I am, but they give of themselves so I can become who God created me to be. I am grateful for the embodiment of unconditional and unselfish love in their lives. I am grateful that the love I experience in and through them encourages me to be more like Jesus.

Because I am surrounded by friends who embody such love, I am becoming a more compassionate leader.

Inspiration

 

What is inspiring me?

Most recently, the Galatians: Following Jesus Every Day reading plan. It is this habit of reading, reflecting, and responding that helps keep me focused and growing.

This past week, to hear the names of the persons participating in the study lifted in prayer was an awe-inspiring experience.

Faith

How am I practicing faith?

By God’s grace, I am working on being clear about what I think and how I act. I know that might sound strange, but I am trusting that God wants me to live in the real world.  There are times that I find it easy to “interact” with God in seclusion, where I can escape from responsibility.  I find it more difficult to follow God into the office, the community, or into relationships I cannot control.

I am practicing faith by stepping away from a fear of failure.  It is my fear of failure that keeps me from taking risks and keeps me in my comfort zone. I am also practicing my faith by not talking about success, but by stepping into the arena to participate in the possibility of success.

It’s time for A Check-up

It is nothing spectacular. But being a healthy leader allows me the opportunity to see the people around me as God sees them, to understand more who I am becoming in God’s work, and to catch a glimpse of God in and through trust and obedience.

So, how are doing with Trust, Gratitude, Inspiration, and Faith?

Church leader, it is time for your next checkup.  Are you willing to participate in it today?