Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Healing Grief"

            This Sunday, November 1st, is “All Saints Day,” the day traditionally set aside to remember and give thanks for friends and loved ones who have died this year—or, in years past.  In the historical Church, these departed friends and loved ones were referred to as “saints.”  In our worship services at Christ United Methodist Church, we will recognize and commemorate  our “saints” by ringing a bell after we lift up the name of each departed friend or loved one.  As part of our All Saints Day service, I will focus on the grieving process that we experience when we lose someone to death and how that grieving process can bring healing.

            The scriptural reading that I have chosen for our worship service is the 23rd Psalm.  Down through the ages, to persons living at many different times, from very different cultures, and speaking very different languages, the words of the 23rd Psalm have been a special source of strength and comfort at times in loss and grief. 
            This beloved Psalm begins with a simple confession:  “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  In the ancient world of the psalmist, kings were understood to serve as shepherds of their constituents.  So, by declaring that God is his shepherd, the psalmist professes his loyalty to God and his intention to live under God’s Reign.

The kings were responsible for stewardship of the land, while also taking responsibility for the flourishing and well-being of their subjects.  Thus, the psalmist continues with this metaphor when he proclaims that God “maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters” (vs. 2).  Just as the sheep trust their shepherd to find pastures with green grass for nourishment and plenty of water for drinking, so also the psalmist trusts God to provide life and security for those persons who are faithful.  In verse 3, the psalmist says that God “restoreth my soul.”  In other words, the psalmist is saying that “God keeps me alive.”
              In verse 4, the psalmist continues by noting that even in the most life threatening situations, God is with us and we have nothing to fear.  The shepherd’s rod and staff, which are used to herd and drive the sheep in the right direction, are re-assuring for the psalmist because these shepherd’s tools indicate that God is guiding us and keeping us safe from the hazards of the road, which seem to be all around us.

In verses 5-6, the final two verses of the psalm, the metaphor shifts from portraying God as the protective, caring shepherd to an image of God as the gracious host. 
            In verse 5, God prepares a table for the psalmist, “in the presence of mine enemies.”  The tone and confidence of the overall psalm suggests that the table is laden with a sumptuous feast which God has prepared.  And, indeed, the psalmist’s cup is filled to overflowing.  This image of a rich and extravagant feast is reinforced by a rich oil which is used to anoint the psalmist’s head, just as we might luxuriously rub lotion on our bodies--or anoint our bodies with perfume.  The phrase, “in the presence of mine enemies,” indicates that the psalmist is confident that he feasts under God’s protection and that God will keep him safe and secure.

The psalm concludes in verse 6 with the observation that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and that God the ever-gracious host will welcome the psalmist to stay in God’s house forever.
             We frequently associate the 23rd Psalm with funerals and its words have always offered comfort and healing to those who grieve from a loss.  Yet, note that the redemptive and healing power of this psalm for those who grieve rests on four core theological convictions about God:

1.      God reigns as ruler.  Despite our losses and griefs, God is ultimately in control.

2.      God is a loving and gracious God who provides good things for those who are faithful.  This graciousness of God is depicted in both metaphors.  In the image of the shepherd, God provides green grass and cool water for the sheep.  In the image of the banquet host, God spreads a sumptuous table with plenty of food and drink.  Further, those who are faithful to God are cleansed and anointed with rich oil.

3.      God provides protection and security from all that threatens us with harm.  Again, this is depicted in both the shepherd and host images of who God is.  As the shepherd, God’s rod and staff keep the sheep safe from wandering where it is unsafe.  As the gracious host, God can prepare the luxurious table in the presence of the psalmist’s enemies because God offers protection against any harm that the enemies may wish to inflict.

4.      Even in the face of death and loss, all will be well through God’s care and protection.  As verse 6 says so eloquently, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
              This beloved psalm strongly underscores our conviction that ultimately we receive healing from our griefs and losses through God.  Yet, I will suggest in my sermon that God invites us as Christians to enter into a junior partnership as co-healers for those around us when they experience profound loss.  In other words, I will propose that part of discipleship is to serve as co-healers for those who grieve.

Of course, before we can serve as co-healers, we must first understand what grief is and what the mechanics of grieving are.  As it turns out, we can observe several stages of grief through which persons usually go.  Although there are different ways to categorize these stages of grief, in my sermon I will focus on and develop the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross five-stage model for understanding grief.  With the help of Andrea Ruiz, a trained and licensed counselor, we will describe these five steps and suggest methods for promoting healing at each of these stages.  The five stages are:

a.       Denial and Isolation
b.      Anger
c.       Bargaining
d.      Depression
e.       Acceptance
            Come, join us this Sunday (November 1st), as we commemorate our deceased loved ones on All Saints Day, and also explore how we can be co-healers with God for those living loved ones who grieve deaths and other major losses.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

"Leadership and Spirituality"

         This Sunday (October 25th) I will conclude my six-sermon series on “Christian Leadership.”  Recall that throughout this series, I have encouraged us to broaden our conventional understanding of leadership. 
Instead of thinking of leadership as the sole privilege of the “person in charge,” I have suggested that we look for leadership opportunities in the many different roles that we have.  For instance, leadership should include the role of parents with their children; the role of older siblings with their younger brothers and sisters; the role of schoolchildren on the playground or the classroom; the way we conduct ourselves at work; the way we treat our neighbors; the way we treat those who are marginalized and suffer from a lack of housing, food, or medical care; and the way in which we engage other members of society.  When we broaden our view of leadership to include the possibilities that exist in our various roles and relationships, then it is clear that God calls all of us to be leaders much of the time in our various roles. 
As we conclude this series on leadership, there are two remaining topics which need to addressed:
1.      Coping with the sometimes overwhelming challenges of Christian leadership and the persistent fears that we are inadequate to meet those challenges.

2.      Recognizing and embracing the possibilities that Christian leadership presents for spiritual growth.
To address these two remaining topics, I have chosen Isaiah 6:  1-8 as my foundational scripture this week.  This passage contains the story of how Isaiah was called to become a prophetic leader of the Hebrew people.  This passage has remarkable parallels with similar scriptural passages that describe how God other leaders, including Moss (Exodus 3:1 –4:17), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1: 4-10), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1-3).  Together, with these and other scriptures, Isaiah 6: 1-8  forms a special genre of Biblical literature, called “vocation” or “call” passages. 
In his analysis of Isaiah 1-39, the biblical scholar Gene Tucker notes: 
“Since prophets in Israel had no ‘official’ standing comparable to that of, for example, priests, their right to speak in the name of the Lord was open to question.  The vocation reports were their responses to such challenges.  They [prophets] were not only entitled but also compelled to speak because God had called them to do so; they had not sought their role [as prophets], but it had been thrust upon them.”[i]
Isaiah experiences his call in the form of a vision.  In this vision, Isaiah finds himself in a strange place with unreal, six-winged creatures, which he calls “seraphs.” 
As the vision unfolds, Isaiah orients himself and realizes that he is in the Holy Temple in God’s awesome presence.  When Isaiah begins to fully appreciate where he is—and, whom he is with—he becomes overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy.  Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost [dead], for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (v. 5)
But, Isaiah is not dead.  One of the seraphs flies to him with a burning goal from the altar.  The seraph touches the burning goal to Isaiah’s mouth.  This act has the effect of purifying Isaiah, as the seraph explains when it says:  “Now that this [burning coal] has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (v. 7)
Just then, Isaiah hears the voice of God, saying:  “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”  Now, that Isaiah has been prepared through the purification by the burning coal, he willing volunteers to become God’s prophet, as he says:  “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8)
Just as Isaiah felt overwhelmed, so also most of us, at one point or another, feel overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy when it comes to being a Christian leader:
a.       As elected church leaders, we may feel overwhelmed by our inadequacies when faced with difficult challenges in leading a committee, work group, or entire congregation.

b.      As parents and grandparents, we may feel overwhelmed by the complexities of leading our children and grandchildren through the challenges posed by contemporary American culture.

c.       As neighbors or employees, we may feel completely overwhelmed by a difficult neighbor or co-worker whom it seems is impossible to please.
Isaiah overcame his feelings of inadequacy when he was purified by the seraph.  For Isaiah this purification with the burning coal gave him confidence that he was not acting alone.  Instead, Isaiah recognized that he was acting on behalf of God, as God’s servant.  God would use Isaiah the servant as a channel for God’s own message and God’s own actions.  When Isaiah discerned that he was not alone in his role as a prophetic leader, then his feelings of inadequacy for the task evaporated into thin air.
            In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul uses a different metaphor to express the same conviction; that God is working with us and through us.  In 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in earthen jars, so that it may be made clear [to us] that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  Regardless of how overwhelming our feelings of inadequacy in the face of leadership challenges, this despair will surely evaporate into thin air, when we decide that, instead of relying solely on our own abilities, we will trust God to work through us as Christian leaders.
            Similarly, when we open ourselves as Christian leaders to God, then Christian leadership becomes an avenue through which we experience an authentic spirituality.  Human persons are constituted by this fascinating synergy of different dimensions which converge within us, playing off of and interacting with each other.  These dimensions include the physical, the rational, the emotional, the social, and the spiritual.  By spiritual, I mean that dimension of who we are that strives for relationship and connection with the Divine.  I believe that God intends for us to enter into a growing relationship with the Divine, which draws us into a closer and closer and more intimate connection.  However, human persons do not necessarily grow closer to God.  Our shortcomings and guilt may block our ability to enter into relationship with the Divine.
            In Isaiah’s vision, he verbalizes his feelings of guilt so powerfully when he exclaims, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips. …”  Yet, this despair and inadequacy brought on by his sense of guilt and unworthiness also presents an obstacle in Isaiah’s relationship with the Divine.  His purification through the seraph’s burning coal not only purifies and prepares him for prophetic leadership, it also opens and enhances the spiritual dimension of his very being.
            In the spiritual dimension of leadership, our commitment as Christian leaders should facilitate spiritual growth – and (vice versa) our spiritual growth as Christians should inform and enhance our leadership.  That is to say, when we provide Christian leadership through our roles and relationships, that leadership experience should also help us to grow spiritually closer to the Divine.  There’s a synergy here.
            Come, join us this Sunday (October 25th), as we conclude our exploration of Christian leadership by exploring the spiritual dimension of leadership.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Gene Tucker, “Commentary on Isaiah 1-39,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, 2002, accessed on CD-ROM.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Successful Failing"

            We continue our exploration of “Christian Leadership” this Sunday, October 18th, by focusing on how good leaders think about failure. 

            Failure is an integral part of life.  Regardless of how hard we try; regardless of how smart we are; regardless of how well prepared we are, all of us experience failures throughout our lives.  And yet, even though it is inevitable, most of us try to avoid failure as much as possible. 

            Failure can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, failure can be very negative.  Afterall, failure frequently comes with dire consequences that we would prefer to avoid.  Even worse is the fear of failure.  Many people allow their fear of failure to grow and grow, until it takes over their lives.  An unchecked fear of failure can become paralyzing.  We can become so dominated by this fear that we are afraid to step out and try something new.  We become so afraid that we are going to fail that we never take a chance; never make an investment; or never seek to grow.  We become imprisoned by our own fears of failure.

            On the other hand, failure can be very positive.  Sometimes we can learn and grow from our failures.  There is a story about Thomas Edison, which illustrates this point.  Edison and his associates were trying to develop a better battery.  After 9,000 attempts which all failed, one of his associates said, in frustration:  “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work … you haven’t been able to get any results?” 
Edison, with a smile on his face, replied:  “Results! Why, man, I have a gotten a lot of results!  I know several thousand things that won’t work!”[i]  We can learn, mature, and grow from our failures.  At the same time, the fear of failure can also be positive, if it motivates us to try our hardest at whatever we are doing.
The Apostle Peter provides an excellent case-study in how to rebound from failures, learn from these failures, and then succeed in the future.  The four gospels paint an interesting portrait of the type of person that Peter was.  He was a talkative extrovert, who was very positive and optimistic.  Peter was clearly a natural leader, who quickly became the spokesman for Jesus’ band of disciples.  Jesus, himself, came to recognize Peter’s leadership skills.  In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is.  Almost immediately, speaking for all of the disciples, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).  Jesus is impressed with Peter’s insight and he tells Peter that he will become a leader of the early Church (vv. 17-19).
Yet for all of his strengths, Peter also has a very serious personality flaw:  Peter is just incredibly impetuous; he is always putting his foot in his mouth.  This occurs several times in the gospels, but perhaps the most serious instance occurs on the night in which Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried, and condemned to death.  During his last moments alone with his disciples and followers, Jesus tries to prepare them for what is about to happen.  Peter impetuously interrupts Jesus and says, “Lord…I will lay down my life for you.” 
With what I imagine was great sadness, Jesus rebukes Peter:  “Will you lay down your life for me?  Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows twice [at dawn], you will have denied me three times.”  (John 13:  36-38)  Of course, that is exactly what happened.  Later that night, while Jesus is being questioned by the authorities, Peter decides to warm himself by a nearby fire.  It is there that he does, indeed, deny Jesus in three separate conversations with different persons. 
That threefold denial of Jesus represents a major failure by Peter.  He fails as a leader of the disciples and other followers of Jesus.  Even worse, Peter fails to keep his promise of ultimate loyalty to Jesus. 
The next day, Jesus is crucified and buried, but three days later, on Easter morning, Jesus is resurrected.  Following his resurrection, the four gospels record many different instances in which the resurrected Christ appears to different followers.  One of those instances occurs at sunrise by the shores of the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee.  After spending the night fishing in their boats, the disciples see Jesus on the beach.  When they come ashore, they find that Jesus is preparing a breakfast of fish and bread for them.  Jesus invites them to come and eat.  Essentially Jesus and the disciples have an early morning fish fry on the beach.
When the breakfast is over, Jesus turns to Peter and confronts him about his threefold denial.  Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  Can you imagine how utterly awful Peter must have felt?  Here he was, the acknowledged leader of the other disciples; a leadership role that Jesus had confirmed.  Yet, of all the disciples, Peter is the one who had denied Jesus over and over and over—three times. 
Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
To which Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.”
This exchange is repeated twice again, for a total of three times—corresponding to the three times that Peter had denied Christ.  Each time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, and each time Peter is told to care for Christ’s sheep. 
It is important to recognize that Jesus does not reject Peter because Peter had made this awful mistake.  Instead, Christ offers Peter an opportunity for atonement and healing.  Then, in calling upon Peter to care for his sheep, Jesus encourages Peter to resume the leadership role that he has had among the disciples.  (See John 21: 1-17)
After Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, Peter becomes one of the strong, visionary leaders of the early Church.  At Pentecost, when Christ’s followers receive the Holy Spirit, it is Peter who takes the lead by preaching the first Christian sermon, which results in the conversion of 3,000 people. (See Acts 2.)  Later, when the early Church leaders meet in Jerusalem to decide whether non-Jews can be included in the Church, Peter is one of the visionary leaders who argues persuasively for welcoming everyone who seeks to follow Christ.  (See Acts 15:  6-29.)
To summarize, Peter learned from his disastrous failure and grew to become a powerful, visionary leader in the early Church.
            As Christians, we believe that God has given each of us a unique portfolio of special gifts and talents, which we can use to make a real difference in the world and to establish and build God’s Kingdom.  We can make the world a better place by using our special gifts and talents at home, at work or school, and in our community.  Gathered together as the church, God calls us to this work of Kingdom building, collectively using our gifts and talents, through service and witness. 
Whether as individuals or collectively as the Church, God does not intend for us to be paralyzed by fear of failure.  Actually, doing nothing because we fear failure is evidence of an acute lack of faith.  God calls upon us—both as individuals and as churches—to step out in faith, trusting that God will provide.  Will we sometimes fail?  Of course, we will experience failures.  But, failure can become important building stones for success in the future.  We can learn and grow and mature from our failures.  This is just as true for churches as it is for individual persons.
Come, join us this Sunday (October 18th), as we continue our exploration of Christian leadership by learning about successful failing.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Reported by the Quote Investigator.  See, downloaded 15 May 2014.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

"The Joy of Empowering Others"

What is the single greatest challenge facing the Church
in the Twenty-first Century?

            Many Christian thinkers believe that the biggest challenge facing the Church is competent, visionary, passionate leadership—by both laity and clergy.  After a brief hiatus for World Communion Sunday last week, I am resuming my six-part sermon series exploring “Christian Leadership.”  The first three messages were previously given in September, with the second three messages coming over the next three Sunday’s in October.  The final three leadership topics will explore the following areas:

1.      October 11                  “The Joy of Empowering Others”
                    2.      October 18                  “Successful Failing”
3.      October 25                  “Leadership and Spirituality”
Our focus this week is the opportunities provided in leadership to empower others. 
In his book, Power Analysis of a Congregation, Roy Oswald points out that there are two diametrically opposed attitudes towards power.  Some people see power as a “zero-sum game,” meaning that there is a limited amount of power available to go around.  From this perspective, in order to be a powerful person, I must hold on to and hoard all the power for myself.  If I seek to empower others, then I must give away some of my power and I will become weak and disempowered.  Oswald calls this view a “poverty thinking” attitude towards power.  By contrast, there is a second, alternative perspective on power, which Oswald terms “abundance thinking.”  This alternative perspective sees power as a generative phenomenon, in which, “the more I empower others, the more powerful everyone in my system is, and the more powerful I become”.  In other words, power begets more power—for everyone.
In a previous sermon in this series, I suggested that Christ calls upon us to take the “abundance attitude” towards the power in our lives.  That is, we should look for opportunities to empower those within our network of family, friends, and acquaintances.  Christian leaders should find an authentic joy in empowering and equipping others so that they are more empowered and experience the fulfillment that comes from developing and utilizing their God-given gifts to make their own unique contribution towards establishing God’s Reign on earth.
Our scripture this weekend comes from Romans 12:  1-8.  Early in this passage in verse 3, Paul cautions against over-thinking our own contributions and abilities to the work of Christ.  He writes, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”  From here Paul moves to a discussion of the diversity of different talents, abilities, and expertise that exist within the unity of the Church.
To illustrate his point, Paul adopts the metaphor of the human body.  Although the body is a single unity, it is comprised of many different parts with very diverse abilities and functions.  Paul writes:  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (vv. 4-5).
Paul uses this metaphor of the human body, with its many parts and their multiple functions, to describe the diversity of abilities that various people bring to the work and ministry of the church.  In verses 6-8, he lifts up and celebrates 7 distinct spiritual gifts as examples of the various abilities and talents that God gives us:  prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting (preaching), giving, leadership, and compassionate care. 
Really good leaders are able to discern special talents and abilities in those whom they lead, and effective leaders help those whom they lead to claim and begin using these special talents and abilities.  Finally, effective leaders find genuine joy in empowering those whom they lead.
In my first sermon, which began this series on Christian Leadership, I suggested that we need to broaden our understanding of leadership beyond most conventional assumptions.  I suggested that we re-focus Christian Leadership, so that it applied to a wide variety of contexts and circumstances—both within the church and beyond the church walls.  For me, Christian Leadership should include roles and relationships, such as the role of parents; the role of schoolchildren on the playground; the way we conduct ourselves at our jobs, as neighbors, as members of society.  At various times, all of us are thrust in positions, where we can become Christian Leaders, who take delight in empowering those whom we lead.
I believe there are a variety of different methods and avenues for empowering those whom we lead.  Empowering others may include:
1.      Encouragement
2.      Advising
3.      Modeling
4.      Complementing
5.      Constructive critiquing
6.      Simply listening, without judging
7.      Allowing someone to try something their way, even though you know they will fail
8.      Helping those we lead to discern and learn from their failures
9.      Helping people to recognize and claim their strengths and improvements
10.  Sharing our own struggles and failures with those whom we are trying to lead; that is, being vulnerable
Come, join us this Sunday (October 11th), as we resume this fascinating exploration of Christian leadership.  Our church, Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.