Sermons

Sermons

 

First Christian Church

Gospel 101

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

The Apostle Paul's demeanor changes as he writes to this somewhat difficult congregation. Unlike the church in Philippi (Phil-lip-pee) where he is gently instructive and mostly adoring, with the church in Corinth he can be quite direct if not downright annoyed, but not all the time. In our text today we find him in the role of patient teacher. He's explaining to them the way God's Spirit works into their lives. In contemporary language it sounds like this:

What I want to talk about now is the various ways God's Spirit gets worked into our lives. This is complex and often misunderstood, but I want you to be informed and knowledgeable. Remember how you were when you didn't know God, led from one phony god to another, never knowing what you were doing, just doing it because everyone else did it? It's different in this life. God wants us to use our intelligence, to seek to understand as well as we can. (1 Corinthians 12:1-2; The Message Bible)

These opening lines describe a people who were once devoid of knowledge and experience of the Holy Spirit, and lived their lives being drawn from one religious idol to the next. They had no way to return to the presence, let alone guidance, of the Holy Spirit. In a recent online meditation Richard Rohr described the way the Holy Spirit within us acts as a “homing device:”

The God within us is like a homing device placed within us, like those found naturally in homing pigeons. No matter where they're released, they know how to find their way back home – across thousands of miles in some cases! We can think of the Holy Spirit as our interior homing device – that for all our stupidity and mistakes there is this deep internal intuition that we are the sons and daughters of God. No matter how lost we get, it keeps pointing us back “home” – to love, to connection, to meaningful relationship with Someone or something else, to soul. It's only God in us that knows God. It's God in us that loves God. It's God in us that recognizes God. That's Trinity 101.

Sometimes it's important for us to recognize that unlike the Corinthian church most of us have had an association with the Holy Spirit since very early on. This “internal intuition” as Rohr calls it has always been present and active throughout our lifetimes. I didn't officially and by public confession become a Christian until I was a young adult, but even as a budding adolescent I had a sense of God's presence. My hunch is most of you were baptized and welcomed into the Christian fold quite young.

This is not the case for the Corinthians. These are grown adults who are being introduced to a new and revolutionary religion. By revolutionary I mean their very lives are at stake when they embrace The Way as Christianity was called by the early church. This is no better illustrated in our text than when Paul tells them: “...and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3b) In effect for them to say “Jesus is Lord” is at the same time to say Caesar is not, and that was enough to get you crucified.

This contrast between the Corinthian church and ourselves is apparent to most of us, and what made the early church revolutionary was the presence of Roman dominance at the time. We now live in a culture that is “Christian” by definition, but a culture can change. Though our culture will always consider itself Christian – to be a particular kind of Christian could become increasing difficult. Cultures can change very quickly.

To cite one example is the way German culture began to change with the shame and demoralization that followed the ending of World War 1. After a decade had passed national elections were held in 1928, and in those elections the Nazi party only gained 12 seats in the Reichstag (Rike-stag). Because of it Hitler and his cronies decided to focus on the rural areas in Germany. In 1930 national elections were again held and the Nazi's went from gaining 12 seats to 107 seats in the Reichstag, and became the second most powerful political party in Germany.

This degree of success probably even surprised Hitler, and thus began one of the saddest, most indescribably evil periods in human history. The Nazi's were absolutely brilliant in there techniques of propaganda, and in effectively manipulating the minds of the German people. One example is through the use of the later writings of Martin Luther they were able to convince people that the Jews were a detrimental influence in society and needed to be brought under control.

In the final ten years of his life Martin Luther suffered from multiple health issues, and one outcome of this is he became intolerant of Jews, the Pope, and even fellow leaders in the Protestant movement. At one point he went as far as to say that Jewish synagogues should be burnt down, and he equated statements by the Pope to uncontrollable flatulence (flat-chuh-luhns). His earlier writings like the Three Treatises, and in translating the Bible into German, unified the German people because it gave them all one German dialect and everyone was reading the same Bible.

Martin Luther's influence on the German people cannot be underestimated, and even to this day he continues to impact them. But it's the later writings of a demented man suffering from countless health problems that the Nazi's circulated throughout the population. The result was a rise in antisemitism that spread through the culture, and led to the open persecution of the Jews, and eventually the death camps. Note that this cultural transformation took place within a mere two decades.

The German people continued to consider themselves Christians, and even the Nazi's did so when it served their purposes. But few Christians in Germany tried to follow in Jesus' example of radical inclusion of all peoples including the poor, sick, and racially dissimilar. One exception was pastor and theologian Dietrich (Dee-a-trish) Bonhoeffer (Bonn-hoff-er) who because of his commitment to a grace-filled Christian faith was arrested by the Nazi's in 1943 and executed in 1945. Even as his beloved Germany changed all around him he held firm to a God that loved all people.

The Apostle Paul is telling the church in Corinth that they too are being called to a radical faith when he tells them that the Holy Spirit will call them to proclaim Jesus as Lord. They know full well that such a claim is in direct opposition to Roman authority and may put them in harms way.

The other major unit of our text deals with the nature of spiritual gifts, and is an apt topic to explore as we emerge from this season of gift giving. At Christmas we exchange gifts with loved ones and friends, and these gifts are aimed at meeting the desires of the recipient. They are often designed to sooth the ego and put ourselves in good standing with them. In this sense the season of gift giving we call Christmas has an egotistical side to it. But the Apostle does not characterize the nature of spiritual gifts in this way.

We can examine Paul's theology on spiritual gifts in a two-fold manner. First the origin of the spiritual gift is not the individual it is the Spirit of God. No one can claim a spiritual gift as their own, but only in terms of what God is willing to share with us. We can create the conditions that help us to receive the gifts, but we cannot determine how or when they might be bestowed upon us. The Apostle says it like this:

God's various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; The Message Bible)

It sort of works like this: When I go golfing, and its been a few months since I've been out on the course so I'm missing it. I know when I play the best golf. I am the most consistent with my golf strokes when I'm able to forget about the condition of the golf course, the weather, and most of all my performance that day. When I let go of my egoic concerns and simply allow my mind and body to function undisturbed is when I play the best golf. A good golf game happens when I'm able to get out of the way and allow it to take place without my interference.

In the same way God's grace occurs when we effectively get out of the way and allow it to happen. It is at this point that spiritual gifts manifest themselves and are expressed through various acts of discipleship. This can include preaching, teaching, playing music, singing, praying, helping someone in need, healing abilities, wise counsel, miracles, sharing a compliment, a smile just when someone needs it. Spiritual gifts have no limit, and come in many different forms. Which brings us to the other important point Paul is making about spiritual gifts, he says:

Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! (1 Corinthians 12:7; The Message Bible)

Unlike what mostly occurs during the season of giving – spiritual gifts are for the church. They are for the up-building and continued spiritual growth of the body of Christ. This is how The Apostle Paul primarily thinks in terms of what benefits the Christian community. In our highly individualized, pull yourself up by your bootstraps society we live in we find ourselves far removed from Paul's notions of spiritual gifts for the good of the whole.

By the same token, and though the spiritual gifts are first and foremost for the up-building of the body of Christ – the church itself is in service to the world. As the Christ Child was given for all of humanity, so the church is in service to all of humanity. Jesus probably best said this when he talked about the sheep and the goats:

Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then those sheep are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' And the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:34-40; The Message Bible)

Our list of spiritual gifts we're exploring today is not the only list of spiritual gifts found in the Epistles of Paul. Another is found in his letter to the Ephesians and that list is made up of the roles we may be called to engage in. This list includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers; so lets focus on the role as evangelist. In the mainline Protestant Church of which we're a part we don't do evangelism very well. We're much better lovers and caretakers, and we sort of leave evangelism to the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Let me share a short story with you: On my afternoon walk on the day I wrote this sermon I encountered a man who'd just had the back window of his truck knocked-out. He was standing directly behind the parked truck looking at the broken window and as I passed by I said, “Looks like some vandalism has occurred.” He immediately began to vent his anger talking about 18 or 19 year old kids, and about how the act was personal because he'd caught some kids violating fishing laws and he confronted them about it. Now, he thought they were getting even.

He even suggested building a blind across the street and waiting for them to come back, because this was not the first time he had been violated. He said he wouldn't use lethal force, but might shoot paintballs at them. My training as a chaplain kicked-in and I let him continue to vent his anger knowing that that's what people first need to do to eventually reach a place a peace. They have to get in touch with their feelings and get them out, and that's what he was doing. When he finished I didn't tell him I was the pastor of the little church on the corner, nor did I tell him we would pray for him. I simply said, “I'm sorry you have to deal with this.” And as I walked away I turned and said, “Hang in there.”

I tell you this because in my 30 plus years as a minister I've had a lot of evangelism opportunities, and my first ministry at FCC Albany was visiting people who had come to church on Sunday. I feel I have a sense of when to evangelize, and when to simply be a caring presence. But to develop this sense takes practice. You have to do it and keep at it. Not everyone has been given the gift to evangelize, but we are all called to share our faith at times. That could be with family, friends, the local grocery store clerk or a perfect stranger. How you do that differs from person to person and depends upon the circumstances.

The church has a gift for you that I believe comes by the working of the Spirit. In the entryway to the sanctuary is a little box full of brand-new church calling cards. Printed on them is the name of the church, our extended church family, your pastor's name, phone number, and most important of all the website address of the church. This little card makes sharing your faith a lot easier. Because all you need to do is pull the card out and say, “This is my church and if you want to know more the website address is right there on the bottom of the card.”

Some are called to be pastor's, teachers, prophets and evangelists; others are called to be healers, musicians, treasurers, elders, trustees, secretaries, board chairs, counselors, or workers of miracles. We're all called to minister to the sick and disadvantaged, to those who are ignored and overlooked. When God calls upon you to do the work of an evangelist be sensitive and thoughtful and most of all caring, but do the work. Take a few calling cards with you today and share them with others, because we are the light that shines in the darkness.

Rev. Mitch Becker

January 16, 2022

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“It's A Group Project”

Isaiah 43:1-7

The church has been surrounded by snow and ice for the last few days, but at the outset of the writing of this sermon things are beginning to thaw out quite rapidly. It's amazing how restrictive life becomes when the cold of winter sets in, and the roads and walkways become treacherous especially for older folks like us. You might say the winter months can hold us in bondage for awhile as we wait patiently for warmer temperatures. In our sermon text for this morning the Hebrew people have been in bondage for some time by the Babylonians. In the midst of their bondage comes a word of reassurance and comfort through the prophet Isaiah.

If we jump ahead several chapters we see an apt description of the way the Hebrew nation was seen be other nations as: “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, a slave of the rulers.” (Isaiah 49:7) Undoubtedly this affected the way the Hebrew people thought of themselves leaving them with poor self-esteem. Into this identity crisis comes the word of the Lord to raise them out of the miry bog of a poor self image. The prophets purpose is made clear by looking at the verses which enclose our text:

“But now, God's Message, the God who made you in the first place, Jacob, the One who got you started, Israel: “Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you. I've called your name. You're mine” (Isaiah 43:1; The Message Bible) And it closes with: “I want them back, every last one who bears my name, every man, woman, and child Whom I created for my glory, yes, personally formed and made each one.” (Isaiah 43:7; The Message Bible)

There is a great deal God is saying about his people in those two verses including they have been created, redeemed, named, and claimed by God. It brings to mind the way the Regional Minister summed up what happened to me at the end of my ordination service. He said something to the effect of I'd been named, claimed, confirmed, endorsed, commissioned, and sent forth as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! This came at the end of a hour and a half ordination service featuring multiple speakers and various other participants.

It was as if everyone that took part in that service wanted to make sure it would remain imprinted in my mind and heart for the duration of my ministry, and so it has. God seems to be doing something of the same thing with his people through the prophet Isaiah. God wants them to understand that he has not abandoned them, and is ready and willing to help restore a viable self-image that can serve them in the days ahead.

The heart of the text which includes verses 2-6 tells to what lengths God will go to ensure the safety and well-being of his people:

When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you. When you're in rough waters, you will not go down. When you're between a rock and a hard place, it won't be a dead end – because I'm your God, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt, with rich Cush (Kush) and Seba (See-buh) thrown in! That's how much you mean to me! That's how much I love you! I'd sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you. “So don't be afraid: I'm with you. I'll round up all your scattered children, pull them in from east and west. I'll send orders north and south: 'Send them back. Return my sons from distant lands, my daughters from faraway places.' (Isaiah 43:2-6; The Message Bible)

The central part in that text captures the intensity and depth of God's love for his people and from the RSV Bible it reads: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” This is the sort of thing a people struggling with self-esteem issues need to hear. These words are an antidote to the vile, destructive messages of their captors.

Like the people of ancient Israel we too struggle with self-esteem issues because we're often too hard on ourselves, and we carry with us the “wounds of existence,” to borrow a phrase coined by Marcus Borg. We need to learn to be kind and forgiving to ourselves. Until we can do so there is not much chance we'll be able to be the compassionate people God has called us to be. To quote another great religious person in our time the Dalai Lama said, “If you do not have the capacity to love yourself, then there is simply no basis on which to build a sense of caring toward others.” And The Lord was even more direct and authoritative when he responded to one of the religion scholars:

One of the religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God's law is the most important?” Jesus said, 'Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set along side it: 'Love others as well as you love yourself.' These two commands are pegs; everything in God's law and the Prophets hangs on them. (Matthew 22:35-40; The Message Bible)

If there are any teachings of Jesus we need to grasp in both mind and heart it is this one since the caliber of our discipleship depends on following it. But in truth many, many people struggle with a poor self-image. This results not only in constant self-flagellation, but the pain and guilt are spread to family, friends, and the general public. The wounds must be healed, and one way that can happen is to allow yourself to be a conduit of healing love in the world. People accomplish this all the time, but you don't often see it on the evening news. Here's one story of someone striving toward personal redemption that I found in a Bible commentary written by Callie Plunket-Brewton:

A month or so ago, I met a man who has two names. His given name is Jeremy. He's been called “Twitch” for years. Twitch, he told me when we met, was the name he went by when he was in and out of jail before he got clean. I said that I would call him Jeremy, thinking he wouldn't want to be called a name associated with his pretty harsh past. He then said the most extraordinary thing.

He said he wanted people to keep calling him Twitch so that it would be clear to the people who had known him before he was a transformed man. He was afraid if he started to go by Jeremy people might not realize that he was the same Twitch who'd been in jail with them, used with them. He comes around pretty regularly to the homeless ministry where I sometimes serve and hangs out with our homeless guests, Many of them know him, he wants them to recognize him and to take heart that God can transform their lives, too.

This sort of sincere evangelical effort is an indicator that a genuine transformation has happen within a person. The healing love that comes with spiritual transformation begins deep within, but soon must flow outward into the world. The religious phrase that captures this phenomenon is “...my cup runneth over.” (Psalm 23:5b) When a cup is overflowing the contents naturally spill out into the surrounding area. When someone is healed from within they become generous inside and out, just like Jesus.

Our text shows us that God feels its important to help his people create a good self-image for themselves, and further to know that they are loved and cared for by God. But a good self-image is only a beginning point for those seeking spiritual maturity. We need good, strong ego boundaries before we can let them go and move on into the second-half of life as Father Rohr calls it. It is in the second half of life that we truly begin to live as we enjoy the spaciousness and all-enveloping love that comes with intimacy with God.

As we let go of our individuality, something we've worked so hard on, we begin to realize how interconnected our life has been with others. In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine ourselves separate from others, and the creation around us. Religious experiences of oneness with all things living and non-living become possible, and happen on infrequent occasions. In a recent online meditation Kate Bowler, a theologian and author, spoke of the foundation of our being that develops due to our communal reality:

It's hard to remember a deeper, comforting truth: we are built on a foundation not our own. We were born because two other people created a combination of biological matter. We went to schools where dozens and dozens of people crafted ideas and activities to construct categories in our minds. We learned skills honed by generations of craftspeople. We pray and worship with spiritual ideas refined by centuries of tradition. Almost nothing about us is original....Whether it is our parents, our teachers, mentors, friends, churches, or neighbors, people have been pouring into us. We are standing on a foundation. It should come as an incredible relief. Our only job is to build upon what we've been given, and, even then, even our gifts we can trace back to the creativity, generosity, and foresight of others. Thank God we are a group project.

To see the related and relative nature of who we've become is an important step toward waking-up to our true nature in God. It can be a stepping-stone that can eventually result in falling into the True self or child of God within us. This is what the Apostle Paul meant by being “in Christ,” and what Buddhists mean in discovering the atman (at-muhn). Jesus called it the kingdom of God within us. (Luke 17:21) This is the ultimate goal of our spiritual journey with Christ, and is what is meant when The Apostle says, “...our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” (2 Corinthians 3:18b; The Message Bible)

Lets back up for a moment to where we began with God helping his people with their self-image. This is a good and necessary starting point, but the spiritually minded disciple needs to look ahead to what is possible in Christ. God reassures the Israelite's of his love and care for them and it's what they need to hear after the poisonous, destructive treatment of their captors. We too, have suffered much abuse, some of it intentional, and much of it unintentional, but leaving us none-the-less with emotional and psychological scars.

Because of it our False self is rendered fragile, but since the False self is all we have to begin with we hold on to it in desperation. We'll do anything rather than let it go, but let it go we must to move on to greater things. Here's a few words from Father Rohr about the fragile False self:

...That's why the false self is so fragile. It's inherently insecure because it's almost entirely a creation of the mind, a social construct. It doesn't exist except in the world of perception – which is where we live most of our lives – instead of in God's Eternal Now. When you die, what dies is your false self because it never really existed to begin with. It simply lives in your thoughts and projections. It's what you want yourself to be and what you want others to think you are. It's very tied up with status symbols and reputation.

Whenever you are offended, it's usually because your self-image has not been worshiped or it has been momentarily exposed. The false self will quickly react with a vengeance to any offenses against it because all it has is it's own fragile assumptions about itself. Narcissists have a lot of asserting and defending to do, moment by moment. Don't waste much time defending your ego. The true self is untouchable, or as Paul puts it “it takes no offense.” (1 Corinthians 13:5) People who can live from the True selves are genuinely happy.

To give you a quick example of how fragile the False self is I walked into Walmart this week looking for black printer ink. I was looking for Canon 211XL in black but wasn't able to find it at Office Depot, and now I couldn't find it in Walmart. It turns out what I was really looking for is Canon 210XL since 211 is simply the designation for the colored ink. Anyway, I went to the desk to ask the clerk if there was a shortage of Canon 211XL in black ink, since a lot of things seem to be in short supply these days.

The employee at the counter was engrossed in his cell phone with his mask acting as a chin strap, and he even took the liberty of coughing while I was talking to him. As I asked him about the printer ink his eyes never left the cell phone, and his response was to tell me that I'd probably find the ink online. I said, “Thanks for the help,” but as I left I entertained a few other comments like, “I hope I didn't distract you.” Such a response would be sarcastic and judgmental, and not the higher ground a spiritually mature person would take.

My judgmental response, which I thankfully kept to myself, indicates the fragile nature of my False self. The ego is easily offended by anyone who refuses to worship it. And “worship” is an apt word to use because it indicates where the ego places itself in the universe. It literally thinks its at the center of everything that exists. In other words, it thinks it's God. So you see how “worship” is the appropriate word to use here.

Are you beginning to get a sense of just how far removed the ego or False self is from reality? Not only is it simply made up of electronic impulses in our brains, but it's central placement in the scheme of things is so far from reality that one can only characterize it as fantasy. The False self is nothing, disconnected, and going nowhere. We should be all with gleeful abandonment be trying to get rid of it, but instead we protect and defend it as if our lives depended upon it.

It turns out that what are lives truly depend upon is getting rid of this fragile, self-centered burden we carry around with us from day to day. The incident at Walmart in reality was a gift that served to reveal my own arrogance, and further demonstrated my need to seek a humility which can ground me in my God given foundation.

This foundation is what the psalmist is talking about when he says, “He stood me up on solid rock to make sure I wouldn't slip.” (Psalm 40:2b; The Message Bible) We've got to get down to the solid rock again, and that requires a spiritual transformation. What Jesus calls being born again, and The Buddha calls enlightenment or supreme enlightenment.

Like the ancient Israelite's we want to begin with a good self-image and firm ego boundaries, but to come to know the joy of the Lord these hardened ego boundaries need to be eventually given-up so the life of Spirit can freely flow through us to spill over and out into our sad and desperate world.

Rev. Mitch Becker

January 9, 2022

Port Angeles 

 

 

First Christian Church

“A Meddlesome Season”

Matthew 2:1-12

Lets begin with a short bio of the wise men or as the gospel writer calls them: The Magi. The term Magi is the plural form of “magoi” (mi-goy) from the Greek language, and they were neither kings nor wise men. They were Zoroastrian (Zoro-ass-tree-un) priests. Maybe the title “wise men” comes from their abilities to interpret dreams and understand astrology. They also had a reputation for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were the scholars, or even scientists of the day, and they had access to the Persian emperor.

Zoroastrianism (Zoro-ass-tree-un-ism) is one of the oldest religions in the world, and is still active in Iran today. Before Islam came along it was the official religion of the Persian empire. It's primary prophet like Mohammad for Islam, or Jesus for Christianity, was Zoraster (Zoro-ass-ter). Like Jesus, Zoroastrians believed Zoraster was conceived in the womb of a 15 year old Persian virgin; And like Jesus after he overcame Satan's temptations he began his ministry at age 30, and, unlike Jesus, he predicted other virgins would also give birth to divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.

The Zoroastrian priests believed they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars; And like the Jews, they were anticipating a true Savior. The gospel writer, Matthew, tells of the Zoroastrian priests following the star of Bethlehem to Jesus' birthplace. He tells us this not only to fulfill Old Testament prophecy of the virgin birth, but also of Zoroastrian virgin birth prophecies. The Gentile Magi recognize Jesus' divinity and kingship, and Matthew presents Jesus as the expected King of the Jews and Gentiles.

With this short bio it's apparent that this ancient religion that was a close neighbor to Israel, and Judaism, influenced early Christianity. The gospel writer wants the Gentile Magi to play a significant role in Bethlehem at Jesus' birth. Though over the centuries we've come to understand them as wise men or kings, as many nativity scenes portray, Matthew's audience would have understood them to be Zoroastrian priests. Finally, the Magi would have been welcomed by Matthew's audience because they were Persian and therefore seen as long-standing religious and political allies against Rome.

I want to apologize for messing with your Christmas story. By the same token I believe God messes with us all the time, and not because God's is a prankster or trickster, but because God wants us to come to know him. In order for that to happen we need to know we don't know. The best way to do that is to be shown how inadequate our present knowledge is. The old understandings need to pass away before the new knowledge can come.

One of my favorite depictions of this in the modern media comes from the movie “The Shack.” Where God the Father is referred to as “Papa.” In this particular scene Mackenzie, in the lead role, has just awaken and is lying in bed, and Papa looks in from the door of the bedroom. The difference is that up until this point Papa has been in the form of a large black woman, but now he's an Native American man. Mackenzie says, “Is that you Papa?” And Papa says, “Yes, it is.” Mackenzie replies, “Are you messing with me?” And Papa says, “Oh, always.”

That's an important theological statement and if we don't allow Papa to mess with us we'll never reach that blessed place of humility. Knowing God begins with knowing we don't know.

“The Shack” has other illustrations of the way God messes with us, but probably the best one of all comes right out of the Holy Bible. It's found in the Book of Job:

And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of the violent storm. He said: “Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you're talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers. Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you know that! Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise? And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? That was me! (Job 38:1-9a; The Message Bible)

This response that comes after 37 chapters of Job pleading with God for an audience makes it clear that God is aware of Job's central problem. Job wants mercy, but God's response suggests what Job really needs is dressing down. It brings to mind the Rolling Stones song “You Can't Always Get What You Want,” with the chorus: “You can't always get what you want, But if you try sometime you might find, You get what you need.” Job doesn't get what he wants, but he does get what he needs.

What we all want at Christmas is the peace, love, and joy the season promises. At the very least we want to be touched or moved by the season. And that best happens as a consequences of right living, and of a committed relationship with Christ. As Papa says in another scene in The Shack, “Love has a name, and he's over in the woodshed right now.” She's talking about her son Jesus. Love, peace, and joy are all products that result by following the path he set for us. The early Christians called the path The Way.

The Way does not come naturally for us, which is why we need to keep trying to understand the scriptures and praying. Jesus described it as a narrow gate, and a hard way to go, and that few find it. (Matthew 7:14) In another part of the gospel the disciples exclaim: But who can enter the kingdom of God! Jesus tells them they can't do it under their own power, but with God all things are possible. This is the key. We're not alone in our efforts to follow Jesus. The Apostle Paul said,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

In yet another scene from The Shack, Mackenzie has just finished meeting Sophia (Sophia represents wisdom in the scriptures) who has convinced him to stop passing judgment on others, and especially on God. When he returns to the shore of the lake where Jesus is waiting for him he's so anxious to return to the shack that he steps on the water of the lake to walk across it. He thinks he can walk on the water because he's just done it with Jesus prior to his meeting Sophia. But this time he can't stay on top of the water, and as his feet sinks he turns and looks at Jesus. Jesus says, “It works better when you do it with me.” And then they run across the water and back to the shack together.

Though it is Christmas the season of peace, joy and love, you may still be facing some significant challenges in your life. The season may, in fact, be magnifying the stress and fear that accompanies the challenges. At times we want God to simply take the stress and fear away, but it doesn't really work that way, and that's not what The Apostle is saying to the Philippians. The real message of the text is that when we are convinced that God is with us what can result is a peace that is hard to understand with our minds. The way Paul puts it is God's peace “transcends all understanding.”

Allow me to try to put this into words by sharing a recent religious experience I had during one of my early morning meditations. In my minds eye I saw something like a large Christmas ball. It was of a darker shade, round, of course, and embedded in the ball were many points of light. Some of the points of light were brighter than others, and they were more or less evenly distributed.

What makes this a religious experience of some importance was that the vision came with a feeling of peace and the feeling has lasted. It has endured not with the intensity of the moment, but it has lasted even to this moment. That means it came from a deep place within me, from my soul, my True self, God...the label is not important. But the enduring sense of peace is, and the spiritual experience can be explained as each point of light represented a different aspect or event in my life. Some were more significant, and therefore more brightly represented, and all were equally accepted. As if each aspect or event had its place within the whole. It was a vision of wholeness that resulted in a deep, enduring sense of peace. This is the peace of God.

When the world talks about peace its usually referring to the absence of conflict. God's peace certainly involves the absence of conflict, but it is much more. In the world it can also be the result of things being put to order. Like when a government is operating well, or a family is getting along because everyone understands what's expected of them. God's peace can also be described in this way, but its more than order. The Apostle uses the key phrase in his letter to the Philippians when he describes God's peace as “transcending all understanding.”

Transcend means to rise above or go beyond typically excepted limits. My Christmas ball vision of wholeness goes beyond my everyday experience in that I didn't reach it by my own volition. It didn't happen because I wanted it to, or I somehow willed it to happen. It happened because God decided to share the gift with me. My part was creating the conditions which allowed the gift to be shared. You might say I was awake to my inner life.

Like the season of Advent constantly shouts at us: Be alert! Stay awake! Maybe there is nothing more important for the spiritual life than to learn how to wake-up and stay that way, and in this season to do so with expectation! Here's a story that may provide insight:

Our storyteller, will call her Francis, went to an Advent service at the Assembly of God in a small mid-western town, and it was a midweek service. Sitting in one of the pews just behind her were a couple of younger folks who were remarkably chatty, and she could hear them throughout the entire service. Thankfully they were some distance from the pulpit so none of the church staff could hear them, and they just picked apart different people, and various aspects of the worship service.

For example: there was a praise band, and the drummer was someone they knew from school, and they were talking about how they didn't know this person could play an instrument, and apparently they didn't think they were very good at it since the comments they were making were all negative. They continued on like this picking apart the minister, members of the choir, and even some of the Christmas decor in the sanctuary.

 After listening to this for awhile Francis had to wonder to herself why these young people had even come to church? She thought: How can God's grace ever enter your life if you're closed off to God because of a lot of negativity and judgment. What Advent is all about is being alert and staying awake. And then Francis had a thought.

What if the God of surprises came to us as a wailing, screaming scarlet faced, Jewish baby, about six pounds, seven ounces, with flailing arms, and kicking legs, and a leather strip holding the umbilical cord, a young girl attending, and an impoverished carpenter looking on. What if this was God's way of coming into our world? Could you miss it? Do you think it could go right over your head? Francis thought, if this is the way God's going to come to us there's no way I'm going to miss it.

We're past Advent now and well on our way to Epiphany (Epiphany is January 6th), but now that we're on the road to glory how do you think you did this time around? One of our Advent devotion offerings talked about the difference between manage and manger. The question the devotion was asking was: are we being alert and attentive to the manger, and the gift contained therein. Or are we spending all our efforts and energy in trying to manage Christmas. Making sure all the decorations are on the tree, and the cards mailed, the presents wrapped, and the concerts attended. Was Christmas more about management this year, and less about the importance of the manger in our lives?

I can't answer that for you, and its not a judgment. Its simply something to ponder. Like the Apostle says, “Don't become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” (Romans 12:2a; The Message Bible) To follow Christ we have to think a lot. Not only about his teachings, but also about the way we're coping with the everyday challenges an immature culture presents. We're the spiritual grown-ups in a culture full of miserable, misbehaving children. Bringing the peace, love, and joy of Christmas into this world is no easy matter, but with God all things are possible.

I want to close out this year with a quote from my favorite theologian Richard Rohr who describes what it takes to meet the challenge of bringing peace, love, and joy into our world. In this particular quote he begins by talking about his spiritual father Saint Francis of Assisi:

Francis spent much of his time praying in solitude in nature. He practiced contemplation, or “a long loving look at the real,” which allowed him to see in a new way....This is the new self that can say excitedly with Paul, “I live no longer, not 'I' but it is Christ now living in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

In the truest sense, I am that which I am seeking. This primal communion communicates spaciousness, joy, and a quiet contentment. It is not anxious, because the essential gap between me and everything else has already been overcome. I am at home in a sacred and benevolent universe, and I do not need to prove myself to anybody, nor do I need to be “right,” nor do others have to agree with me.

Do you see how this would begin to solve many of our troubles whether in politics or the natural world? When you see the way everything comes together in yourself, or when your heart and mind are put right, then you can see God in the outside world. When the perception is from the inside out there is a genuineness to it. It's real and people sense this, and respond to it, because its what everyone is looking for whether they know it or not.

Rev. Mitch Becker

December 26, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“The Upside-Down World of God”

Micah 5:2-5a

I've been reading a book about General George McClellan who was a Civil War Union general, and in the book it says he wasn't much on taking up the offensive. What he preferred to do was lay siege to cities such as Richmond the Confederate capitol. He wasn't too successful with Richmond, but the Babylonians back in 597 BC were successful when they laid siege to Jerusalem. Verse 1 is a better place for our text to begin this morning as it creates a context for the prophets good news about a shepherd-leader given by God. Here's how it sounds:

“But for now, prepare for the worst, victim daughter! The siege is set against us. They humiliate Israel's king, slapping him around like a rag doll.” (Micah 5:1; The Message Bible) What the people were probably hoping to hear from the prophet were words about how they were going to escape their predicament. Instead, the prophet tells them the uncomfortable truth: “To prepare for the worst,” because they're surrounded by the enemy with no means of escape. Their hope probably began to diminish as the invading army set up camps outside the city walls. As their storehouses began to deplete their hope would have continued to wane. Finally, hope diminished altogether as they came to the realization they had two choices: death or surrender.

It's very difficult for Americans to understand the geographic reality of the Israelite's. We live out our life's as citizens of a superpower. Nobody messes with us, not only because of our military might, but we're also geographically removed from any threatening, hostile nations. We're separated by large ocean expanses. Not so for little Israel where two hostile nations in particular overran the country. First the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and later the Babylonians who conquered Judah the subject of our text today.

The Assyrians were especially brutal, which makes the story of Jonah remarkable in that it's about the prophet going to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh to preach a word of repentance. It seems God is concerned about the Assyrians sinful ways and wants to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Amazingly the Assyrians listen to the prophet and repent! So we have to use our imaginations to even begin to understand what life would be like under constant threat from hostile nations.

The word that comes from Micah is not assurance of a hopeful escape, but is comfort offered in the form of what will happen in the long-run. Eventually Israel will be given a shepherd-ruler who will come from an ancient, distinguished family tree. He'll provide a good and secure home, and all the world will respect him. They won't need to fear foreign oppression any longer. It will be the beginning of an age of peace with all military means abolished, and all false religious worship eliminated. But first, he tells them, you'll have to deal with the Babylonians.

It brings to mind our present predicament of a worldwide pandemic. Wouldn't we love to hear a word of escape from God. A prophetic proclamation that we won't have to suffer the pain and grief associated with COVID. The Omicron variant is on the rise, and spreading across the land. It's still not clear whether this new variant is more transmissible, or more severe than Delta, but it is clear that hospitalization is on the rise, and people are getting sick, and some dying. We're going to have to deal with this, but the good news is we don't have to do it alone. The shepherd-ruler is coming in the form of a child in a manger.

Our scripture passage today tells of the shepherd-ruler who comes from the “runt of the litter” as the Message Bible puts it. He comes from Bethlehem, and this continues a deep-rooted biblical theme. Think of the younger brothers that receive divine recognition. Jacob, Joseph, David are all the younger brothers who aren't suppose to be the chosen ones. Jacob gets the birthright and blessing, Joseph is lifted above his brothers, and David is called from the pastures to be anointed king. And like Nathanael

says early-on in the Gospel of John: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth like Bethlehem is a backwater village. No one expects much from either one of them, and this explains Nathanael's judgmental attitude which would have been shared by many. Here again we see the old biblical pattern come forward to show that the insignificant are exalted. It's a clear illustration of the upside-down way of God. One such example is a young shepherd boy from Bethlehem who grows-up to become the most beloved king in Israel's history. And a descendant of that king fulfills God's long awaited promises of deliverance, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.

In the world it is the powerful with their money and influence that is coveted by the masses, but this exaltation of the lowliest is the way God works. It is all brought into focus when a young unmarried girl sings her song which is still heard today: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) Jesus came to us two thousand years ago to give us The Way to live, practice, and eventually understand the upside-down world of God. His crucifixion is the supreme example of the way God works showing us that love is about sacrifice. But as we're told in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John:

There was once a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light. The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings to Light. He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.

These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, not sex begotten. (John 1:1-13; The Message Bible)

The Life-Light came but he was neither noticed nor wanted, and to a great degree not much has changed over the centuries. Many people will often acknowledge God, and feel there is more to life than what we see and that there may well be an intelligence behind it all. But to believe in the Word and do what he says is a whole different matter. Unless you believe and follow Jesus you're not going to find your true self. It's there already, but it's buried beneath the stories and illusions of the self we've made-up. It takes some work to get there, and many people are not willing to do the work.

Maybe I've told you this story before, but some stories bear telling again: One of my first jobs was working at Stokely Van Camps cannery in Albany, Oregon. I was 19 years old and still living at home, and cannery work is very demanding. They have to get all the beans and corn in from the fields and packaged during the summer harvest. So you work 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, and the work is physically demanding. Maybe you had such a job when you were young?

What I did for 12 hours was pulled trays of frozen corn cob from racks of twenty trays per rack and dumped the frozen cob into large cardboard bins. My shift ended in the early morning and I'd go home and try to sleep, but I couldn't because I was so physically wound-up, and it was difficult to sleep in the daytime. I tried Sleepy Time tea, but that had a limited effect, and then I saw an advertisement in the newspaper about Transcendental Meditation. That had a positive ring to it, so I drove over to Corvallis and met with a college student.

He performed a little ritual that involved some recitation of Sanskrit words of Hindu origin, a white handkerchief, and some yellow powder. Then he gave me a mantra of the words: “Sha-ring.” And I was to practice this mantra, repeating it over and over beginning out loud, and then taking it within and repeating it silently. I was to do this twice a day for 17 minutes per sitting. The next morning I began practicing Transcendental Meditation, and I did so religiously until the end of the summer, and it worked! It put me to sleep every morning, and I would awake rested and ready for another day of corn cob packing.

It was maybe five or six years later that I resumed my practice of meditation, but now it was “Chrsitianized,” and I would begin by repeating something like the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ you are the light of the world, fill my mind with your peace, and my heart with your love.” At some point I'd stop reciting words altogether and just sit in silence. Now days I simply close my eyes and on the best of days my mind goes quiet. When the mind quiets it's possible to hear God, and what God sounds like is nothing; But out of the dark silence can come a quiet strength unlike the world has to offer.

If you don't learn to quiet your mind it can drive you absolutely nuts. This is especially true during the busy, sometimes chaotic days of Advent and Christmas when we're driven by both outside and inside forces. It can all lead to a type of insanity much of the kind we're witnessing in the world today. People driven to the brink by external problems and pain all compounded by the relentless internal messages of the self-focused ego. Refuge is only a prayer away, but it's amazing how few take the time, or make the effort to create and care for such a refuge.

You may recall one of the offerings from our Advent devotional this week speaking about the possibility of Grinch moments during the Christmas season. It suggested the expectation of Christmas joy can “magnify areas in our lives where we don't feel joyful at all.” Not only can quiet meditation result in a quiet strength from God, but it also helps to open up channels that allow God's joy to flow through us. The difficulties arise when there is too much mental and emotional baggage in the way. It has to be cleared out.

On the day I wrote this sermon my afternoon walk took me through the campus of Peninsula College. While passing the library I noticed, for the first time, that the benches out front were fastened down with I-bolts and cable. There are holes drilled in the legs of the benches and cable has been run through them, and it's all secured to a bolt in the cement. It gives the appearance that stealing the benches would be difficult, though in reality if you really wanted the benches all you'd need to do is bring along some bolt cutters. What is actually created is the illusion of security that most people settle for.

Most of us live-out our days creating and using such illusions to enhance our sense of safety. In another sermon I described the illusions of safety associated with driving a car. When in reality driving a car is anything but safe. Karen and Groucho were nearly run-over by a car backing-up in a parking lot last week. Though Karen and Groucho could have been seriously injured or killed by the unaware driver, the consequences to the driver herself would have also been severe and long-lasting. Driving isn't safe.

To become spiritually grounded people who are capable of clearer, illusion free vision, we must spend time by disciplining our minds. This is difficult, and especially in the beginning where there are hurdles to jump over. Some of the hurdles include eliminating long-standing habits and addictions, slowing down lifestyles, confronting the inner demons of despair and depression, and learning to discount the cultural messages that promote addiction and other forms of mindless busyness.

In the beginning quiet meditation or any form of prayer can be especially difficult, but over time significant gains are made, and rewarding experiences will occur that encourage further practice. Father Rohr in a recent meditation lent his own encouragement with the following words:

We can't fake devotion but sometimes I do suggest we 'fake it until we make it,' as many say. We need to practice some kind of heart-opening prayer, and practice being compassionate and kind toward others. Eventually our hearts, as John Wesley said, will surely be “strangely warmed,” and no one is more surprised than we are!

This is one of the hardest things in the teaching of spirituality because we cannot manufacture devotion. It is the work of grace, but of course we have to want it, and create the conditions that allow it to happen. Anything that helps us to be less willful, less pushy, less judgmental toward others is a good place to start, because the face we turn toward ourselves is the face we turn toward the world.

He says we have to want the devotional life, but how do we acquire such spiritual desire? That question does not have a quick and easy answer because we're all so different. At the outset of this sermon I shared with you the way a devotional practice of quiet, centering prayer began with me. It came out of a practical need to get some rest between the demanding days of working at the cannery. It was only much later that the practical reason became more about a life-long search for salvation. The progression into an ever deeper spirituality was gradual always drawing me deeper into the mystery of Christ.

My hope this Christmas can best be expressed in the words of Psalm 40, and though I've quoted this recently it so well fits Advent:

I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from the deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn't slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise song to our God. More and more people are seeing this: they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God. (Psalm 40:1-3; The Message Bible)

May this troubled world find the spiritual desire to abandon itself to God.

Rev. Mitch Becker

December 19, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“An Unpopular Prophet”

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah (Zeff-ah-nye-ah) is not a popular prophet. This is mostly because the short book of three chapters is almost entirely devoted to the Day of the Lord as an event of immense pain, judgment, and generally just cleaning house. The only exceptions occur at the beginning of chapter two where it says if the people will “seek the Lord,” they may be spared unnecessary suffering, and our text for today. Maybe the best way to sum-up this book is to cite words from the Talmud (Taal-mud) where it asks the question: “What does God pray?” The Talmud, by the way, is an ancient text containing Jewish sayings, ideas, stories, and it means “teaching.”

It says in the Talmud that the Lord prays: “May my mercy overcome my wrath.” Another way of saying that is in the prayer God wants his desire for compassion to exceed his demand for justice. If you take the sheer volume of material devoted to justice in these three chapters it would appear God is giving compassion a back seat. Then again, since the book ends on a note of mercy we could consider this as God's way of saying mercy is what matters most. And the Bible does tell us that God prays. If you'll recall last week in Psalm 42 I read: “My life is God's prayer.” (Psalm 42:8b: The Message Bible)

Einstein used to employ what he called “thought experiments” to help him understand the physical universe. For example, he would visualize what it might look like to ride on a beam of light. From this, and other thought experiments, he developed the theory of relativity. So I thought we might use a similar technique and imagine what it would be like if God suddenly appeared to us. If God made his presence known what would your initial reaction be? How do you think it would make you feel, and what would you say or do in response?

This is something of what the prophet is doing with his prophetic imagination. Though most of the book is about judgment and pain, or as the prophet puts it: The Day of the Lord “will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Zephaniah 1:15-16) Actually, that last part sounds like any day during the winter in Port Angeles! But, there is also a definite element of joy. Which is why the lectionary suggests it's use on this third Sunday in Advent – the Sunday of Joy!

Our text is comprised of the last seven verses in the book, and the tone of these verses is considerably different from the rest of the book. Last Sunday I said the gospel writer, Luke, has a tendency to reverse the order of reality showing God's upside-down way of doing things. The illustration I used was Mary's song which goes: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:52) Zephaniah is doing something of the same thing when instead of judgment we get:

So sing, Daughter of Zion! Raise the rafters, Israel! Daughter Jerusalem, be happy! Celebrate! God has reversed his judgments against you, and sent your enemies off chasing their tails. From now on, God is Israel's king, in charge at the center. There's nothing to fear from evil ever again! God is present among you. (Zephaniah 3:14-15; The Message Bible)

This assurance about Israel's enemies sent: “...off chasing their tails,” would be a truly welcome message. Hostile foreign nations had conquered Israel in the past leaving the people disoriented and hurting. They were living in fear and carrying a load of shame. They needed to hear the reassuring word of their Lord.

This book was written during the reign of the King Josiah (Joe-sigh-ah) who is known as Israel's reforming monarch. In the span of his reign God's presence can be understood as unsettling. God's presence interferes in the self-centered and “disloyal to God” habits of the people. It subverts the hypocrisy, and the general lack of concern of the faithless; The result is a pledge from God the prophet interprets with these words: “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, 'The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.'” (Zephaniah 1:12)

Apparently, some people have reached the conclusion that God is indifferent to the lives of his people, therefore worship and prayer has become neither here nor there for them. But these are the very people God's presence will shake-up. The prophet puts it like this: “I'll sweep the place clean of every trace of the sex-and-religion Baal (Ball) shrines and their priests. I'll get rid of the people who sneak up to their rooftops at night to worship their star gods and goddesses; Also those who continue to worship God but cover their bases by worshiping other king-gods; Not to mention those who have dumped God altogether, no longer giving him a thought or offering a prayer.” (Zephaniah 1:4b-6; The Message Bible)

To our tender contemporary ears this language seems harsh, but have we given-in to complacency as well? Do we unknowingly worship other gods all the time claiming to worship Christ in good faith. If God intervened in our lives today what would he find? Are we ready for such an intervention, or do we, like these complacent people, feel God will do neither harm nor good?

When one sits down to read the entirety of the book it is tempting to leap to the end to enjoy the more hopeful words of our text. After all that's the message of Advent and Christmas that God is coming, and has arrived, and in this good news we celebrate! The prophet put it into these words: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst...he will renew you in his love.” (Zephaniah 3:17) Probably the reason the prophet goes to such lengths to convey the faithlessness of the people is because it gives this message of hope at the end more importance.

One of our Advent devotional stories asked the reader if they'd ever stood in total darkness where you can't see your hand in front of your face. Karen and I did so in a cave we walked through with a guide in West Virginia. There was no light pollution whatsoever, it was absolutely pitch black, and a bit scary. The story continued by asking what would happen if you lit a match? Suddenly there would be light, hope, and warmth. Just that little flame at the end of that little stick of wood would be enough to dispel the oppressive, overwhelming darkness.

Maybe this is the prophets intention by couching the assurance of God's loving presence in the midst of hypocrisy and faithlessness. The contrast between faithlessness and hope bring the more hopeful words home to us, and helps us to feel the light and warmth of God's reassuring presence. This message of hope is desperately needed in our troubled world, and the best way I know to access it is by making time for God. This can be hard to do when we're beset with problems, and being pushed and shoved by what the Apostle calls an “immature culture.”

In a recent online meditation written by Cynthia Bourgeault (boar-show) she explores the idea of mystical hope, and tells us it doesn't result from our own efforts. We can think of this mystical hope as that in which “we live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:28) as if we're swimming in a sea of God's being. Mystical hope is what we experience when we touch upon the “innermost ground” within us. Here's how she concludes the meditation:

Hope's home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this pulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us.

It is entered always and only through surrender; that is, through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to. And yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with it's own life – a quiet strength beyond anything we've ever known.

Now that may sound vague and “misty” until we relate it to our own experience. Two key points in what she has said include the capacity to surrender our illusions to what we imagine keeps us safe and secure. This then results in the ability to stay in the present moment, or to stay “attuned” to what she calls the “flow of Mercy.”

Typically, this surrender occurs when we're under severe stress due to life's hardship and challenges. Few of us have the ability to willingly let-go of our illusions, though a consistent practice of some form of quiet prayer can help us to relieve our grip when the need arises. As the Psalm tells us: “My troubles turned out for the best – they forced me to learn from your textbook.” (Psalm 119:71; The Message Bible)

We now have two groups meeting at the church that is comprised of people who are experts at surrender. Both of these groups are Narcotics Anonymous groups, one meeting on Saturday evenings, and the most recent group gathering on Wednesday evening. What has happened with these folks is their lives have fallen apart. They can no longer continue on in their addictive lifestyle because the bottom has dropped out, and if they try to continue in the same manner it will result in sickness and eventual death. Since this has become apparent to them change is now imperative, and transformation is possible.

To explore more fully what this means for them allow me to share some words from Richard Rohr:

The word “change” normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart – disruption and chaos – invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart.

The prophet earlier was describing a complacent people who are looking for ways to shore-up their comfort levels. This is not the intent of most of the people attending the Narcotics Anonymous meetings. These people are seeking significant change in their lives, though the tug and pull of addiction never completely lets-up. Another way of saying that is the ego is ever present and persistent, which is exactly why they need the 12 steps and each other. Together they serve to keep the recovering addicts on the “road to Somewhere.”

Change for the addict is mandatory just in order to survive, but the 12 steps offer more than change. They also offer the possibility of transformation. Transformation has to do with things at the soul level, or what the ancient Hebrews meant by the “heart.” In the Bible what is often meant by the “heart” is that which is below volition, feelings, and thought. For the ancient Hebrews the heart was foundational to one's being, and when it is transformed the rest of being follows suit. By that I don't mean all your psychological problems are immediately resolved with the transformation of the heart, but they will be in time. It all depends upon the severity of the psychological wounding. Some wounds take longer to heal than others.

Jesus called this type of deep transformation being “born again” or “born anew.” (John 3:3) In this respect Jesus was way ahead of Carl Jung and the existential (egs-zuh-sten-chill) philosophers. To stay with the theme of Zephaniah it becomes utterly evident that complacency and habitual practices, let alone addiction, cannot be tolerated within the framework of transformation Jesus has given us. Indeed, what we must constantly do is ignore our feelings, and intentionally move into places that challenge our comfort zones.

In the same way that Jesus invited Peter to get out of the boat and join him on the water, so we too must climb up over the railing, time and again, to move into the unknown and uncomfortable. Because it is at the border of our comfort zones that we decide if we're going to follow Christ or not. Are we going to make ourselves available to the transformation Jesus is offering us; or like the people in Zephaniah's audience are we going to choose self-satisfaction and the illusion of contentment?

It's probably of no surprise to you when I say that many people in the world are choosing self-satisfaction. To risk moving into the realm of blasphemy I would further suggest that much of the tinsel and trappings of Christmas have to do with catering, and even nurturing our illusions. This is especially true when it comes to the world of advertisement. Over and over again we see happy, content families made up of people with adoring facial expressions, but is that even remotely the case in this time of worldwide pandemic?

The truth is many families have been blown-apart by anger, distrust and grief. Into our fractured world comes the prophet Zephaniah with a word of hope and inspiration, a word of real and true comfort that can only be given by God, and Reality is not for the faint in heart. Reality with a capitol “R” is for those who are willing to get out of the boat, and walk across the water to the One waiting with open arms. Maybe now in our time of worldwide trial and tribulation there is finally real hope.

Not because people have wakened and now see what it takes to find true refuge in this life of hardship; But real hope lies in the fact that because of the terror and trials before us many people are going to be forced into changing, and required by necessity to open up to the transformation of the heart. Our hope lies in the midst of the oppressive darkness which is all around us now. When the match is lit it stands out brilliant and blazing showing us the way to salvation. The lit match is the Christ Child in the midst of the darkness. Our salvation has arrived! Emmanuel means God is with us!

Rev. Mitch Becker

December 12, 2021

Port Angeles

 

 

First Christian Church

“Wilderness & Well-Being”

Luke 3:1-6

If we stop and look at the four gospel writers it soon becomes apparent that Luke is the most historically oriented of the four; and he sometimes places his stories within the framework of the larger Roman world. For example: John is born, “...in the days of King Herod of Judea,” and Mary and Joseph head out to Bethlehem because of a census the Emperor Augustus is taking in order to more thoroughly tax the people. He is following suit in our text today, and really going all out in listing no less than seven leaders both secular and religious. In comparison John, the son of a village priest, is prophesying out in the boon-docks on the very edge of civilization; and John is a nobody, out making his case in the wilderness. Luke clearly states that it is to this nobody that, “the word of God came.”

However, John has an impressive priestly ancestry as his father Zechariah is a village priest who also performs priestly service in the Temple in Jerusalem. His mother Elizabeth is a descendant of a long line of priests beginning with Aaron. On top of this John is filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth, so this guy is born to be a prophet! Instead of serving in any conventional way, John grows strong in Spirit and heads-out into the wilderness somewhere in a region around the Jordan River. Here he is far removed from institutions, or any representation of worldly power, where he is, “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 1:77)

The wilderness in the Bible can represent a number of things. In the Book of Exodus it is a place of vulnerability and unpredictability. In this gospel it can be a place of testing and hunger, or sometimes danger and devastation, or a place where one can simply get lost and then found. What we often see in the Bible stories is it is this very place of desolation and danger that God is most likely to appear. Think of the Exodus story where God guides the Israelite's with a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night! In the Book of Deuteronomy they are fed with the manna from heaven. In this respect the wilderness is the place the people of God learn to depend on God.

A lot of people in these times of COVID are struggling in a wilderness of grief. This begins due to external circumstances, but it's effect is long-term and becomes primarily an internal matter. It is like a wilderness experience in that, it too, is a place we can learn to become dependent upon God. The ego must give way to divine influence, because it can't meet the task of survival. In this respect it gets out of the way, and God can take over and fill us with healing love.

It's a grueling process however, to reach this level of surrender, and who of us can do it willingly? In the following quote from author Tim Farrington, he talks about both grief and the dark night of the soul interchangeably:

Whether you are truly in a “dark night” or “just” grieving is a question I have come to believe is insoluble in the midst of the process. The two experiences can certainly intertwine; often the loss of a loved one exposes the superficiality of the spiritual notions we believed to be sustaining us, and challenges us to let go of them and go deeper; and the dark night, teaching us to let go of protective ideologies, often allows us to open for the first time to the nakedness of our real suffering over the death of loved ones. God uses our helplessness, and few things bring our human helplessness home more sharply and unavoidably than grief.

Just to unpack the “Dark Night of the Soul” a bit, it was first used by the Christian mystic John of the Cross and it refers to a very difficult and painful time in one's life. It could be said that due to the pandemic many people are now going through a dark night of the soul; and maybe the biggest difference between a “dark night” and grieving is that a “dark night” can be a solely internal, and an individual experience, whereas grief generally implies the loss of another, or at least of something that mattered greatly to us.

Going through a dark night, and/or grieving is not only about being brought to our knees. It also has to do with the experience of unconditional love. It is the kind of love that wakes us up to our deepest humanity. In our culture we're not encouraged to yield to this type of shattering of the heart, but that's really too bad, because its how true healing takes place, and how we discover the deep lasting peace God offers. In the piece Karen is playing for communion the closing lyrics are: “To take each moment, And live each moment, In peace eternally.” The peace God offers is forever, but it can begin now. We don't need to wait for heaven, but we do have to be spiritually courageous!

We all want to avoid grief like the plague, but because we're loving people the things and people we love, we eventually lose due to “the erosion of time, sickness, and death.” The good news is that over time we learn that the hardships life present result in renewal and redemption as we recommit our life's to God. As it says in Psalm 42:

When my soul is in the dumps. I rehearse everything I know of you, from Jordan depths to Hermon heights....Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all thorough the night! My life is God's prayer. Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God, “Why did you let me down? Why am I walking around in tears....Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God – soon I'll be praising again. He puts a smile on my face. He's my God. (Psalm 42:6-11; The Message Bible)

What comes through in the psalmist's words is he has a long-standing relationship with the Creator. When chaos strikes, he has somewhere to go. Not simply an escape into some alternative form of consciousness like drunkenness, or a drug induced stupor, but rather a different path he can take that leads to the recognition his “life is God's prayer.” What a powerful and healing statement! When our life's become God's prayer then we're as close to God as we're ever going to be on this earth. Prayer is intimacy with God, and when you become God's prayer you are in the flow of Spirit.

Lets return to the prophet and examine the purpose of his mission, which is not only to prepare the way of the Lord, but also to prepare the people to receive the Lord through repentance in the forgiveness of sins. The following words of preparation are found within our text, and they were spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! Every ditch will be filled in, every bump smoothed out, all the ruts paved over. Everyone will be there to see the parade of God's salvation.” (Isaiah 40:3-5; The Message Bible)

Isaiah was talking about the return of the exile's from Babylon, and the physical road, or the way, was a rough one, requiring a journey of considerable distance, and challenging terrain. For John the Baptist Isaiah's words are a metaphor for the spiritual journey of the followers of Christ. The Israelite's had not only been changed because of living in exile, but they were also returning to a home that had been radically changed. Isaiah is reassuring them that God will prepare for them a smooth journey back.

Not only do filled in ditches, bumps smoothed out, and ruts paved over represent a journey made more possible, but it also represents radical transformation. This is common in Luke where he'll seek out language that suggests reversal. He does it, for example, in Mary's song found in the opening chapter of the gospel: “He brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” This is a world that's been set right by being turned on it's head – not through the power of the world that people so often covet, but by the upside down power of God.

The global pandemic has resulted in a wilderness experience that can only be described as traumatic for many people. It's been going on for nearly two years, and with new variants emerging the end is not in sight. Some people hope for a new life, others want to go back to way things were, and still others can barely get through each day because their energy is so drained by grief and depression. But for the faithful, especially those of us who have a long-standing relationship with the Creator, God's promises as conveyed by the prophets tell us it is in the wilderness that God becomes most available. This is The Message of hope!

Karen and I have been watching a Netflix television show called Manifest. Something they're really quite good at is creating scenes that end as cliff-hangers. And, yes, I got this idea from our Advent devotional. Cliff-hangers leave us in suspense about what is going to happen next, and you can think of the pandemic as a cliff-hanger. We don't know what's going to happen next, but as faithful followers we can anticipate the next scene as one that will bring us closer to God. Each challenge that is presented to us holds the possibility of taking us deeper into the mystery of Christ. This way the pandemic becomes a catalyst for spiritual transformation.

This is the true goal of every Christian, to be transformed into Christ likeness. As The Apostle Paul describes the spiritual journey to the Corinthians he says: “Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are – face to face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation (the law) is recognized as obsolete. We're free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. As so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18; The Message Bible)

As we mature as Christian's we come to see that nearly everything can be a potential open-door into the Spirit. Everything, from prayer, worship, and the word, to helping the poor, doing justice, and living an ethical life, as John explains further on in our text:

It's your life that must change, not your skin. And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as 'father.' Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there – children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.

The crowd asked him, “Then what are we suppose to do?”” If you have two coats, give one away,” he said, “Do the same with your food.” Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?” He told them, “No more extortion – collect only what is required by law.” Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” he told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail – and be content with your rations.” (Luke 3:8-15; The Message Bible)

Almost everything becomes a potential door to the Spirit, but we all become weary at times. It's hard to stay on the “true road to Somewhere” as Psalm 119 puts it. In the Zoom meeting last week with Sandy Messick, our Regional Minister, and other pastor's in the region, Sandy shared with us that in her conversations with pastor's she's finding many of them growing tired. Apparently the demands of ministry in the midst of a pandemic is exhausting. This all came in the context of a question she earlier presented asking us how we find spiritual nurture in these times.

My response was: “I'm sorry that they're tired, but people have to discipline themselves to the extent they discover the energy that comes by learning to quiet your mind and connect with God's Spirit.” This got a laugh from some of the others, especially Pastor Jack over in Mount Vernon. There are some pastor's I consistently connect with, and Jack is one of them. I think he was laughing because though I said I was sorry, I didn't really mean it. What I really feel is irritation, because I keep telling people about the benefits of quiet, centering prayer, but I'm not sure anyone is listening.

Even Sandy's response was something of an apology about how she hasn't been able to get very far in her contemplative life. Another pastor shared how he has mental problems that result in an over-active mind, and that quieting his mind is exceptionally difficult. I hear what they're saying, and as Sandy further suggested, “Meditation isn't for everyone.” But I'm convinced it's for more people than are actually practicing it. The consequence of not learning how to quiet your mind is excessive and unrestrained mental activity.

Beyond that, inordinate mental activity usually results in negativity. It's no wonder that allowing our minds to do what they want becomes tiring, and generally lacks inspiration. Just focusing on negativity for a moment – what needs to happen is rather than playing up to negative thoughts, or trying to attach to them, we need to move that person or thought literally into our “heart space!” Here's what Father Rohr has to say about it:

There, surround this negativity with silence (which is much easier to do in the heart) and your pumping blood. In this place, it is almost impossible to comment, judge, create story lines, or remain antagonistic. You are in a place that does not create or feed on contraries but is the natural organ of life, embodiment, and love. Love lives and thrives in the heart space.

When he says, “does not create or feed on contraries,” he's talking about getting below the dualistic mind. The mind that operates in opposites like good and bad, right and wrong, positive and negative. The heart space gets below this mind, and the mind no longer has you entrapped. You're free of the crazy-making which is exhausting for everyone! If you want more energy then intentionally spend more time in your heart space.

I'm glad we're ending on the heart space, because the candle for the second Sunday of Advent is the candle of love. As Father Rohr says, “Love lives and thrives in the heart space.” The real question is, why don't pastor's and people intentionally spend more time there?

Rev. Mitch Becker

December 5, 2021

Port Angeles

  

First Christian Church

“The Hinge”

Luke 21:25-36

The church's lectionary calendar is cyclical where patterns repeat themselves, but we don't really think in these terms. We tend to look at things in a linear fashion where one event follows another. The reason the lectionary gives us the second half of Luke's apocalyptic account (where we can think of “apocalyptic” as pulling back the veil, to reveal the underbelly of reality; or view it as the end of the world as we know it) is that these apocalyptic passages about the end of history are necessary before we can prepare for the Christ Child and a dawning of a new age. For something new to be born something old needs to die.

This apocalyptic message from Luke looks a great deal like the one given by Mark in his gospel, and that's most likely where Luke got it. There are some subtle differences however, and what is apparent for the community Luke is writing for is they're also wondering about the timing of it all. Luke's community, like Mark's wants to know when Christ will return. Mark tends to tie these apocalyptic events in with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but Luke, who writes two decades later, doesn't seem to want to make a connection between the Temple's destruction and the end of the age.

Luke is pretty indefinite about when Jesus may return, and really offers no schedule at all. Instead Luke talks about fig trees and how they tell of summer's nearness using them as a metaphor for the signs of a coming kingdom. So the direction Luke takes is away from timing, and into the proper disposition of the church. It sounds like this in contemporary language:

But be on your guard. Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you be complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it's going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don't go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that's coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:34-36; The Message Bible)

Christians need to be actively waiting and alert. Not caught-up in excessive pleasure, or anxiety about day to day living. They can be confident that God's promises will take shape in God's good time, and rejoice in that the signs tell them of their deliverance. These events that are being described such as the changes in the sun, moon and stars, and the roaring seas are frightening, but it is the world, or the powers that be, who should worry.

One reason I say that is because the Greek word for “world” isn't the more commonly used “kosmos,” but rather “oikoumene” (Oik-co-mo-ney) which translates to mean the political and economic realm, and could signify the Roman Empire. This is who will be threatened by the coming of the Son of Man, but for the followers of Jesus it means release from the oppression and persecution they have endured by those in charge.

What this watchfulness Luke is encouraging the faithful to participate in does, is it creates a space where the mission of the church can take place. In the verses that precede our text Luke imagines what it will be like for Christ's followers. This includes being turned over to the authorities by parents and friends, hunted down, dragged through the courts, incarcerated, and some will be killed.

He describes a general hatred toward Christian's, but in all of this, and to reflect a theme in The Revelation, one is to hold fast to your faith in Christ. Regardless of whatever rumors they're hearing, or will hear in the future, they're to remain steadfast in their ministry and mission; trusting that the Lord will provide the necessary words and inspiration to live-out the gospel.

With this said lets return to a brief overview of things apocalyptic, and recognize the truth that most of us find it alien, strange. We all, from time to time, become concerned about environmental degradation, and maybe even nuclear holocaust, but few of us express a daily concern about such things. It doesn't keep us up at night. The same can be said for concern about the end of the world, and Jesus' second coming. We have other things, far closer to home, that worry and concern us. The result may be that we feel some distance from the audience Luke is addressing.

By the same token, we certainly know what it means to wait. Tom Petty sings, “Waiting is the hardest part,” and so it is, and we know the challenges that such waiting creates. On the larger scale we may be waiting for things to change on a national or global level, like an end to hunger, or the nations becoming serious about global pollution and climate change. On a smaller, more personal scale, we may be waiting on lab results, or the go-ahead for surgery, or even a local musician with news of a pianist? We may be waiting for a call from an estranged loved one, or for our grief to finally resolve itself. Whatever the case we all know the challenges that waiting can create including stress, anxiety, and even despair.

As we enter another season of Advent Luke is offering us not an escape from the stress and anxiety of waiting, but a way to change our perception of it. To change the way we see it, and therefore reduce, and in some cases remove the challenges it presents. According to the gospel writer we live between two great poles of God's activity and participation in our world. These poles can be described, as on the one hand, Christ's breaking into our world in human form, and on the other his triumph over death. These verses then serve as a hinge between Jesus' teachings and his passion.

The poles can further be described as Christ coming in his glory at the end of time, and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. This in-between time is filled with tension, but also distinguished by hope because it is the beginning and the ending of the story of the church. In this respect it is our story, and we are safe within the confines of our story. We are secure in Christ. This brings about a sense of reassurance suggested by this Psalm as we enter this season of Advent:

I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from the deep mud. He stood me up on solid rock to make sure I wouldn't slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God. More and more people are seeing this: they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God. Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God, turn your backs on the worlds “sure thing,” ignore what the world worships; the world's a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts. (Psalm 40:1-5; The Message Bible)

For all of us who are abandoning ourselves to God we can feel secure in our faith in Christ. We are free to grapple, wait, labor, and witness, to live our lives out with hope, simply because the end of the story has been revealed to us through the gospel.

Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, and in more recent times, the Christian faith has given us examples of those who've been to the mountaintop. Prophets like Moses and Isaiah, and much later Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr., have peered over into the promised land, and heard and took stock in the promises of a better future for humanity. The challenges of the present were not unendurable for them, but rather they found hope in the trials and tribulations that came their way. We, like them, can become discouraged at times, and feel overwhelmed by anxieties or fear, but we can also stand on the solid rock of Christ acknowledging the promise that our redemption is near.

Let us then, as we embrace this first Sunday of Advent, and the candle of hope, be assured that though much of the world is caught up in drinking, parties, and shopping; we the faithful embrace the hope conveyed by the gospel and Psalm 40, along with the promises of a better future proclaimed by both prophets and gospel alike. Though the world as a whole may choose unbelief or find substitutes for Christ; we his followers choose to believe. The following story tells about faith in God, and the choices we've been given:

Our storyteller once visited Israel, and found herself in Bethlehem where a Jewish man explained the Christmas story to her. The story begins in a place called Shepherd's Field which is found in southeast Bethlehem in the West Bank. This is where the birth narrative tells us the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks, and the angel announced the birth of the Christ Child to them. In more recent times there were tents put-up in the area, but now it's a housing development. Nothing sacred down there anymore.

If you're there on a cloudless night and you look over toward the city, you'll see a star shinning brightly, and it's stationary right over the buildings and houses. As the Jewish man continued he explained that this was the star that shone brightly on that Christmas night. As he was talking it was apparent that he was something of an amateur, as he was getting the two birth narratives, the stories for Matthew and Luke, all mixed up. He summed things up by saying this is how people got confused about a star being over the place Jesus was born on that night.

She quietly listened to his storytelling, and when he'd finished she said, “Well, I guess that's one perspective you can take.” Then he said something that really got her attention. He said, when he was a student the religions teachers would always explain the Bible in a couple different ways. This was also true for miracles in the Bible, as they could be explained in two different ways. He said the reason for this was if you couldn't explain it in another way, then God didn't do it.

God never tries to entrap you, and say something to the effect of: “Now you weasel, you don't have a choice!” So the weasel ends up believing, because there doesn't seem to be any options. Like the story of the wise men who return home by a different route to avoid Herod, so we of faith always have an alternative route to choose from, and, of course, some choose to not believe at all.

In the First Christian Connection this week I suggested we be sensitive to others need for God in their life's. Even if they don't know they need God, we're to live with the assumption that all people need God, and the richness that God's Spirit brings. As we live and celebrate the coming days of Advent, Christmas, and New Years with others, we need to be aware that the people we're with may be lacking in the fruits of the Spirit. We have been given the ability to minister to their need.

We celebrate this first Sunday of Advent with the candle of hope, but hope can be a tricky thing. Hope implies that we're looking to the future, but God is not in the future. God can only be found in the present, or as Father Rohr often says: “The Presence is in the present.” When we look to the future we see it with our imaginations, and when we look to the past we see that with our selective memories. Neither imagination, nor memory can give us an accurate, unqualified view of reality; in fact, much of the time it's considerably distorted! Reality with a capital “R” is always confined to the present. So what then of hope? How do we become hopeful people?

Back at the church in Lancaster we always met on Wednesday morning for some type of book study. Sometimes we watched videos, and one video really came home to me. It was made up of a group of Christians who were led by a convener, and I don't recall who the convener was, but I vividly remember one of the people in the group. She was an older lady of deep, abiding faith, and for me her faith was stunning, and it made her distinct from the rest of the group.

She said she'd recently lost her son to cancer, and that she was initially devastated by the loss, and her subsequent grief. She said she went to the funeral, all the time bemoaning the fact that children should not die before their parents. But on her way back she had an experience of the living Christ sitting right beside her; and she said she was so overwhelmed by a deep sense of peace that her grief completely subsided, and she felt comforted and cared for by God. You might say she experienced the peace that passes all understanding that the Apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 4:6)

After that she said though she still had to cope with her grief it was never the same, because she now felt cared for by God. The experience of profound peace transcended her pain. It was more foundational than the suffering she was experiencing over the loss of her son. In my view, her overall disposition in life, and her manner of processing reality became hopeful. Not that she knew what was coming next, or that she could describe in any detail events or circumstances in the future. She simply had a good feeling about whatever might occur next. She now knew that Christ was with her, and would be there for her in life or death.

I'll close with one more example of hope. I'm breaking in a new pair of shoes. I'm quite disappointed in my former pair in that the heel wore out way too quickly. That is typically the part of the shoe that wears for me, but this happened lightening fast! The way I'm breaking-in my new pair of shoes is by mostly wearing them only on my walks during the work week, and on our Saturday morning walk. That way the rest of my body can adjust to the shoes without all the muscle strain, and other bodily awkwardness that can result from new shoes.

Last Wednesday I got up to the high school and the toes of my right foot began to feel as if a blister was developing. In my imagination I saw a blister at the end of my walk, but rather than entertaining that possibility I decided on taking a more hopeful approach. After I stopped and took my foot out of the shoe to allow my toes to reposition, I continued on visualizing a blister-free foot at the end of the walk. My hopefulness allowed me to enjoy the rest of the walk, and there was no blister when I removed my shoes in the office. I didn't know how things were going to turn out. I just hoped for the best and tried to stay in the present. During Advent we hope for the best.

Rev. Mitch Becker

November 28, 2021

Port Angeles