Posts Tagged ‘timothy’

mistake-pano_13891Mistakes are natural. Not only are they natural, they are faithful.

We live in a world in which perfection is seen as a noble goal. We strive to achieve the perfect body, the perfect look. We hold our relationships and families and marriages up to models of perfection. We look for the perfect job. We putter away at the perfect house. We want our lives to be perfect.

And yet, it is mistakes, not perfection, that are natural. I would even go so far to say that they are downright faithful.

In many ways, this seems like it might be counter to the very idea of God. After all, God is perfection. If we are God’s beloved, shouldn’t we try to live perfect lives to give that same glory back to God? Each Sunday at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, our worship service begins with us confessing the wrongs we have done, the omissions we have made. Doesn’t that point to the idea of “getting it right” the next time, of moving away from imperfection toward perfection?

To a point, yes…and yet, here’s the irony: if we set perfection as the goal, we have already failed.

Perfection is, simply put, just not possible. We are, by nature, imperfect beings. And even if we achieve the highest of heights, we are dissatisfied with where we are, looking to those who stand on even higher ground, coveting their levels of success. What we don’t realize is that those models of perfection are doing the exact same thing to those who tower over them!

Those whom we perceive as perfect are often deeply aware how elusive that perfection actually is. And because of that, they are prone to self-loathing, the sense that they are frauds, fakes, on the verge of being “outed” for who and what they really are.

When perfection becomes everything we pursue, we have given ourselves over to false idols. And that’s not just problematic; it’s downright dangerous. It’s dangerous because it causes us to judge the imperfections of ourselves and of others, and thus to judge us and them as well. And that, simply put, is not our place.

Mistakes are not only natural. They are faithful.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians in our lesson today, he is well aware of their imperfection. He has done battle both in person and from afar trying to heal and mend the conflicts that seem to mark the community. But rather than this driving Paul to give up on Corinth, he instead finds a way to take it and point everything back to God.

Writing of some setbacks he and Timothy have recently faced, Paul writes that they are afflicted, but not crushed. They are persecuted, but not alone. It is though he knows that some might point to his suffering, his failings, in order to suggest that he is simply faithless. And that’s when Paul pulls it all together: “We always carry the death of Jesus within us so that the life of Jesus is seen within us.”

In other words, Jesus’ suffering gives redemptive purposes to Paul’s suffering. And it is Jesus’ resurrection that emerged from crucifixion that gives hope to mortal beings. If we are to call ourselves Christians, disciples, followers of Christ, then what we do make of the fact that Jesus’ body was tortured unto death? If we are looking for models of perfection, Jesus suddenly does not fit the bill.

Not that we are supposed to be Jesus. That’s Jesus’ job, not ours. Our job is to find purpose in his suffering so that our imperfection, our mistakes, rather than pointing away from God might actually point toward holiness.

Mistakes are not only natural. They are faithful.

Thomas Edison once said of the early attempts to make a lightbulb, “I haven’t failed; I just found a thousand ways it won’t work.”

It is critical that we give ourselves space to make mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn what doesn’t work so that we can focus on what does. If we close ourselves off to the risk of mistakes, we also close ourselves off to the possibility of growth. And whatever the case, growth must always be a part of our faith, lest we think we have it all figured out already.

One of the things that struck me almost immediately at Oglethorpe Presbyterian was our willingness to try new things – not simply because they were “new”, but because we knew that it’s where we can discover the surprises of faith.

I remember my first weekend at Oglethorpe in 2005. The day before the first Sunday of Advent, I found the Minnichs and Kellys were decorating the sanctuary.

The pulpit, at the time, was right in the middle of the chancel. That’s not at all unusual in churches. And yet, to me, a new pastor in a new position, it struck me as sending the wrong message: that the preacher is central to worship. The table of fellowship belongs at the center; the cross absolutely has centrality. The preacher? The preacher, at best, speaks into that space. I asked them if they thought it would be OK to move the pulpit to one side of the chancel or the other. They agreed, and helped me move it.

Now, I have to admit, that when I came in Sunday morning, someone had moved the pulpit back to the center. I never did find out how that happened, but in the end, the pulpit ended up staying on the piano side of the chancel for a few years. We then looked more carefully at the space and realized how imbalanced the space was, with everything crowded on one side and the other virtually empty. So the pulpit moved over here. And that’s where it has been for a few years now.

Those of you with keen eyesight may notice that I don’t spend a lot of time in that pulpit. And that, too, was a change for me – it was not one that came naturally. Rather, it grew out of conversations with members of the community. I’ll be the first to admit that there is comfort in the pulpit. It gives you something solid to hold onto. It gives you something to hide behind, too, which is part of the problem, because it becomes a barrier.

I’m not sure how long I have been preaching from the floor of the sanctuary – probably just over two years. In the context of my years in ministry, it is a new innovation, and one that I likely would not have sought out on my own. In stepping out, in trying something new, I discovered my own surprise of faith.

These kinds of changes may not seem all that significant, but they matter! And they can only come in the context of a community where it’s OK to make mistakes. I remember my first Christmas Eve service where we decided to try a new hymn. It’s a really good piece, one with an easy melody and a call and response rhythm. It tanked. And everyone knew it, too! So rather than pretend like it went well, as everyone was sitting back down, I said something like, “Well, that happened.” I could only do that in a church where it is OK to try new stuff; because trying risks failure. And where it is OK to fail, grace abounds!

That is why mistakes are the stuff of faith! That is why we start each worship service with confession and forgiveness, not to beat ourselves up, but to remind ourselves that God wants us to try, knowing that we are not going to get it right all the time! It’s as though grace is tightrope walker’s safety net. Because it’s there, we can step out boldly. God’s got this, and God’s got us!

Paul writes about it this way: “We hold this treasure in clay jars to make it clear that this is God’s extraordinary power, not ours.” In other words, we are vessels of God’s glory – not because we are perfect; in fact, not even in spite of our imperfection, but because of it! The fact that we are flawed, mistake-prone creatures is one of the most powerful witnesses we make to the world: this glory, this grace, this mercy that we share, it was never ours to begin with! It is simply something we have received that we pass along. It’s why watering cans have holes. They don’t hoard the water, but pour it out in order to share its life-giving power!

Leonard Cohen, the songwriter, puts it this way “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And, I would add, that is also how the light gets out.

Friends, you have a precious gift here! It is a treasure of God’s glory, held within the fragility of a clay jar. May your mistakes, your cracks, your imperfections, become holy places where God’s grace can shine into our lives. May they also be the paths for light to shine upon a world that so desperately needs to find its way.



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20101108-082626.jpgIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

I have told the story before of my friend Fr. Thomas, the Greek Orthodox priest. We got to know him when we moved in as his neighbors during our time in Palestine. If you were going to craft a caricature of a Greek Orthodox priest you wouldn’t end up with someone as magnificent as Fr. Thomas. Everywhere he went, he wore his black robe and black hat. His grayish white beard flowed down onto his chest, and his long hair in back was tied up in a ponytail.

Fr. Thomas was never quite sure what to do with us Presbyterians. We weren’t Catholics, which was a plus in his book, but we were Protestants, which had historically had little to do with the Orthodox church. Over time, he learned to trust us. One Friday, I rode with him down to Tubas, a little village to the south of the one in which we lived. The 50 or so Christians there lived among 17,000 Muslims.

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for a car, Fr. Thomas turned toward me: “You Protestants.” I waited for the accusation that came next. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?” I paused, thinking about how Protestants had distanced themselves from Rome, probably throwing out some practices because of guilt by association, and I decided I had more to learn by listening than talking.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “These three fingers represent the unity of God in Trinity! And these two are the humanity and divinity of Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary! He is True God from True God, descended to be one of us. He rose again, sits on the right hand, and will come again.”

“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple…”

We are better in community than we are on our own.

Today we mark Trinity Sunday. In 2016, the Trinity can come across as one of those archaic philosophies that might have made sense back in 325 but not anymore. We are monotheists, but believe that God is in three persons? Jesus is God, and also God’s Son? Let’s just skip all the complications and boil it down to “try and be nice to others.”

Let’s be honest. Christian faith comes with a series of challenges. First, we claim to find eternal meaning in a collection of books written almost 2000 years ago, intended for a Middle Eastern sheep-herding, olive harvesting people. Second, we are guided by doctrines like incarnation and the Trinity that grew out of ancient Greek philosophical notions about life, the universe, and everything. And third, we live in a culture that runs counter to our faith – especially among those whom we would consider our fellow adherents, treating Christianity as a national tribe of self-defense rather than a sacrificial way of selflessness to a world in need. Why bother?

Because we are better in community than we are on our own.

Look. The Trinity, as a doctrine, might seem like impenetrable philosophical gymnastics. God is Father, God is Son, God is Spirit. Father is, and isn’t, Son; Son is, and isn’t, Spirit. Spirit is, and isn’t, Father. Three, and One. It’s like steam, water, and ice. Or like idea, word, and breath. Or like one finger with three segments. Does any of this help? And if it does, does it help us to understand something about God, or what it means to have faith in that God?

If nothing else, here’s what I hope the Trinity suggests to us today: the essence of God is community. God is one. There is no god but God. And that same God, the source of all that was, is, and will be, is expressed in the community of Trinity. The Father needs the Son. The Son needs the Spirit. The Spirit needs the Father. They all need each other for their holiness to be made real.

And what that means for us, those of us who want to reflect the character of God that we know and love, is that we are meant to be in community; because we are better in community than we are on our own.

When Paul and Timothy write to the church in Corinth in our lesson this morning, it is the sense of being knit together as people of faith that emerges in their writing. Paul and Timothy know that the Corinthians are suffering, a suffering that Paul and Timothy empathize with and even share in. In that suffering, they write, they are connected to the suffering of Jesus himself.

One summer, I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital outside of Chicago. I visited one day with a young woman who had come in because of a nasty infection, only to get another one at the hospital. In abject pain and sleepless nights, she looked up on the wall and saw what was on every room in the hospital: Jesus on the cross. It was as though, she told me, Jesus was saying to her, “I know your pain. Your pain is my pain.” And being joined with Jesus’ suffering, she said, gave her great comfort and strength to endure.

As Paul and Timothy tell the Corinthians, it is the prayers of the Corinthians that give Paul and Timothy hope and perseverance. We are better in community than we are on our own.

This is why we form churches and worship together and serve together and become members – to be in community, to strengthen, challenge, and grow our faith in Christ.

We are better in community than we are on our own.

The Orthodox liturgy Fr. Thomas celebrates is a complicated liturgical dance. From the intricate clothing to the detailed instruments, everything tied into Scripture and theology – perhaps nothing more than the Eucharistic bread.

The bread itself bears a stamp that is baked into it. There is the shape of the cross, with “Christ is Victory” written three times down the middle. As the priest prepared the bread for the liturgy, he takes a golden knife in the shape of a spear, piercing the bread, carefully taking out a piece, and placing it on a plate, under a tent of sorts. This represents the grotto in which the Christ child was born.

The priest then takes the piece of Christ-bread and mixed into the chalice of wine, the body and blood coming together. He then cuts pieces of bread for the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, the prophets and angels, the disciples, apostles and saints of the church, and mixes them into the cup. Then, as members of the congregation come forward to whisper their prayer requests to him, he cuts out pieces for each of them, mixing those into the wine.

Finally, the congregation processes forward, as the priest spoon-feeds the communion mixture to each of them. Much like the prophet Isaiah’s lips were purified with the burning coal, so the members of the congregation are being purified, the spoon representing the tongs that held the coal.

In other words, in communion, Orthodox Christians are united with this whole stretch of God’s salvation history: stretching back to creation, through Noah and the flood, sweeping through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, into the birth of Jesus, his ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection, catching up Paul and Timothy and the Corinthians, and on into the present day, with hope for what is to come. All of this is done in community: the sufferings and joys alike united in that cup, and shared by all who are there, bearing one another in grief and celebration, all of it tied back into Jesus himself, the one who lived life out of death, redemption out of suffering, hope out of despair.

And that’s what we do today at this table. In form, it looks very different from what Fr. Thomas brings to his people. There is no spear, no spoon, no grotto. What we do have is bread and cup. And as we share in these things, we do them together, because we are better in community than we are on our own.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Have you ever lost anything?

I mean anything: your car keys, your wallet, your glasses when they’re perched on your head (or on your nose)…What does it feel like in that moment when you realize you don’t know where you put that thing that you so desperately need?

If this resonates with you, then there’s a product especially designed for you! It’s called the Key Ringer. Maybe you’ve seen something like it in the in-flight magazine? You can attach them to your key ring, your remote control, your pets (I suppose). And if you can’t find one of them, you just push the correct button on the Key Ringer and it beeps for you. But what happens, I wonder, if you can’t find the Key Ringer? Do you put a Key Ringer on that?

When Elizabeth and I lived in Chicago, we had a similar problem, but on a larger scale. We would lose our car. It’s not as absurd as it sounds. We lived in a third floor apartment of a building that didn’t have its own parking. And so we would be forced to find street-side parking. We had very little control over where that would be. Sometimes we could put the car right in front of the building; other times, we would be three to four blocks away. And it was a challenge to remember where we had parked, especially if the other one had driven the car last. So we came up with a solution: we made a simple map of a five block radius and put it by the front door. Whenever we got home, we would erase the last “x” and put a new one marking where the car was.

The system was genius in its simplicity. And it worked pretty well, most of the time. But just like with the Key Ringer, there was one flaw in the plan: we had to remember to put the “x” in the right spot. Good times.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling of losing something. And that’s probably where most of us connect with the two parables in Luke. And no matter how small that thing might be in the grand scheme of things, we can easily lose perspective and go a little nuts trying to find it. You know what they say, it’s always in the last place you look! Do you know why that’s true? Because there’s no need to look after you’ve found it!

The implication of these parables, however, is a little broader than dealing with things we might lose around the house. What is intended, of course, is an understanding of what God desires for the world: that no one is too small or insignificant, and that every effort should be made in finding them.

Which brings us to our theme above. We’re spending this week and next answering two very different questions. This week, the question is, “Why do evangelism?” It’s straight out of the Unbinding the Heart book study that we’re doing as a congregation. And next week, we’ll be looking at its flipside: “Why not do evangelism?”

If we’re honest, the second question is much easier for most of us to answer. It’s clear that the word “evangelism” has developed a bad reputation that seems almost irreparable. It has become equated with a certain worldview or political agenda or an approach that is usually pushy or arrogant. We run into examples everywhere. Perhaps you were like me this past week and thought about this as that pastor down in Florida took center stage with his little stunt. “That’s not Christianity,” we say reflexively. But do we really know what to do about it? And does anyone really believe us if we say it out loud? The counter examples, from churches large and small, from Christians on the fringe and in the mainstream, are simply overwhelming.

It’s like being in this incredibly large dysfunctional family. We may disapprove when that distant cousin falls in the punch bowl at the family reunion; unfortunately for us, we’re still related.

So what about this first question? Why should we do evangelism? Perhaps the answer is related to this negative image that Christianity has cultivated over the centuries. When we are wringing our hands and wondering what we can do in the face of the absurdity of national and international headlines, maybe it is evangelism, literally the sharing of “good news”, that offers something we can actually do.

We Presbyterians have our own problems with evangelism. We simply don’t have the practice. Take the Presbyterian Hymnal, for example. In the back, there are all these cool reference sections. Under the topical reference, there’s no mention of  “evangelism” at all. No wonder we run screaming from the “e-word”. Not only do we not know how to talk about it; we don’t even know how to sing about it.

It reminds me of the church that had just re-organized and, for the first time ever, had an evangelism committee. No one was willing to volunteer as chair, so they drew straws and one poor fellow got the short one. He was very nervous, especially at the prospect of a new strategy they were going to try in their community, which was making door-to-door visits in the neighborhood. His pastor, trying to comfort him, said, “If you spend a few moments in prayer before you knock on the door, that will certainly help.”

The next month, the committee met. And the chair came up to the pastor and said, “Thanks so much for your advice! It worked like a charm!”

The pastor was thrilled. And as the meeting began, the pastor asked the chair to share this good news with everyone else there, so they might hear a living example of how prayer changes lives. “Well,” he replied, “Prayer works! Every house I came to, I prayed that the people wouldn’t be home, and they weren’t!”

There are those people who have a gift for talking to complete strangers about faith. My hunch is that there are not many of them reading this right now.

So let’s turn back to this lesson of the lost coin and the lost sheep. If we approach these two parables with that question “Why do evangelism”, the answer is pretty straightforward: “We do evangelism because Jesus tells us to do it.” Great. Easy enough, right? Should we proceed to the benediction? Or are we waiting for the hymnal to catch up with Jesus first, and then we’ll follow suite?

The truth is that, if this is the question we take to the parables, we get the answer that reinforces what we already think in the first place. The shepherd abandons the ninety-nine sheep to find this one wanderer; the woman manically searches all night long for a coin that she misplaced in the first place. If this question becomes our approach to the parable, then our interpretation ends up with some version of this: we’re the shepherd, or the woman, and our job is to go and find those figurative lost sheep and coins and make sure they know about Jesus, the true shepherd.

Do you want to know how to make somebody mad? Just tell them that you think they’re “lost” and that you’re there to help them get found.

It’s worth remembering at this point this one simple thought: evangelism begins with relationship. The coin belonged to the woman; she wasn’t trying to find someone else’s money. The same thing with the sheep. The shepherd went looking for his own; it was his, one that recognized the sound of his voice. And the third parable in this series, the one that follows these two, is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which begins, “There was a man who had two sons”; not two people he didn’t know. There are no complete strangers here. There is relationship long before there is any talk of being lost or found.

Faithful evangelism must begin with relationship; otherwise it’s rooted in the wrong thing. Ultimately, we have no control over someone else’s faith. What we can control is the reason we are in a relationship with this person in the first place.

Do we love and respect them, even if they have a sense of purpose and meaning that is very different from our own?

Where much evangelism falls short is when the relationship exists solely for the purpose of putting another check in the box, our box, because someone has made their commitment to Jesus. If that’s the reason for the relationship, then if we can’t persuade them that they are lost, the relationship comes to an end. And that’s not relationship as God intended. Our relationships with one another ought to mirror God’s relationship with us.

After all, these parables are images of the kingdom of God. They illustrate what the world would look like if it more resembled God’s desire for us. We’re not the shepherd; we’re the sheep. We may not like to admit it, but we’re the ones that lost track of time, ignored the shepherd’s voice, got distracted by a butterfly or the lure of a greener pasture, and wandered away. And God is the shepherd who came looking for us, found us, and carried us back home.

We’re not the woman; we’re the coin. We rolled under the table until we got stuck in a crack in the floorboards, and that seemed like a good enough place to be in the end. And God is the woman who stayed up all night until we were safely back in her care.

This is the take away from these parables. We have no right to tell anyone that they are lost unless we recognize that we, ourselves, are lost. And by virtue of being lost, we are living examples of God’s relentless pursuit: it is the same God in Jesus Christ that ate with sinners and challenged those of his time and those of us today and those who will come after us to do the same.

We can see that relentless pursuit in our the  reading from 1st Timothy as well. As the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, he was about as lost as one can be: a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. He was there and essentially licensed the murder of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. And it was for this very reason, not in spite of it, that Paul knows the healing power of mercy.

Paul knows what it means to be found, because he recognizes before all else that he was deeply, deeply lost. And he is willing to literally give his life so that others, too, may recognize that God is pursuing them relentlessly and that this same grace of being found is theirs as well.

There are those of you reading this that resonate with Paul’s story very well. We are lost; or we know that we once were and easily can be again. Addiction has taken hold; our priorities are out of whack; we have passion, but we know that it’s for the things that do not make glad the heart of God. If so, then my hope is that this community might be a place to be found. There is much more conversation to have; and this might be the first step. If you want to talk, you can always contact me.

There are also those of you reading this who bristle at the very suggestion that our lives might look anything like Paul’s. We think we’re doing a pretty good job. And any implication that we were, or are, lost is nothing short of an insult. If so, then there is the distinct possibility that we might be more lost than we are able to recognize.

But as an exercise, let’s change the question for a moment, just get that negative “e-word” out of it. Let’s try this on for size: Can you think of a time in your life when your faith has made a difference? Was there a time of loss or transition, of deep grief or celebration, a moment of question or doubt or uncertainty, a time that faith became real for the first time, or real again but in a totally different way? These are the moments that faith finds us; and so often we have no idea that we were even lost to begin with. And if faith remains unreal to us, if it sounds like a “good idea in theory” with no practical reality for us, then we are really more lost than we might think we are.

The truth is that the world is full of lost people who have no clue that they are lost. Our lives and relationships are full of people who are lost and don’t even know it. And we care about these people not because we have something that they don’t, but because we ourselves continue to get lost again and again and again, like Paul, and know that God comes to our rescue again and again and again.

So why do evangelism? We do evangelism because we have been pursued and found, and it has made all the difference in our lives. And we cannot help but tell that story with all whom we love: not in a way that judges, or excludes, or offers advice from “on high”, but as the story of fellow strugglers who still don’t have it figured out but have the guts to admit it.

Evangelism is not an intellectual exercise in apologetics or debate or argument. Instead, it’s the journey of the shepherd that is willing to walk in the footsteps of the ones who go astray, to see what they see, to know what they know, and yet to have the wisdom to recognize that it is God who pursues and finds us.

This is the good news we share! Amen.

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