Sunday, April 6, 2014

Wilderness and Gardens

Mount of Olives (Turner April 2011)
32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want."
--Mark 14:32-36

Today our Wilderness Sermon Series took us to the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus.  I didn’t have time to talk much about it, but gardens are usually the polar opposite of wilderness.  Gardens are tended with painstaking care.  They usually have borders and are characterized by order.  Gardens are lush.  By contrast, in Scripture, the wilderness is barren.  By definition, wilderness is untamed, wild, and characterized by chaos.  Yet, Jesus experienced wilderness in the middle of a garden.
In Gethsemane, Jesus endured agony.  He prayed so hard he was sweating blood.  In English, the NRSV translates it that Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated,” but the Greek word is stronger.  Ekthambeo means “terrified.”  Jesus was scared to death of what the next 24 hours would hold for him, so in anguish he prayed to God that the cup of suffering might pass.  
There was silence from heaven.  The Father did not answer the prayer of the Son.  
There is some solace in Jesus’ experience.  In those times when we feel alone, forgotten or forsaken, in times when it feels like our prayers are not being heard much less answered, in times when we are terrified, Jesus has been there, done that and has the T-shirt.  The T-shirt reads, “Wilderness Expert.”  Jesus has walked in our shoes, experienced our desolation , suffering, and grief.  He has come to rescue us from it.

 Although we didn’t have time this morning, I do want to share one more thing about Gethsemane.  We always call it the Garden of Gethsemane, but really only one gospel tells us that Jesus is in a garden.  They all tell us that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray.  They all tell us that the place was called “olive press,” or Gethsemane, but only the Gospel of John says that the place Jesus prayed was a garden.  Why would John think that detail so much more important than Matthew, Mark, or Luke?
Incidentally, John is also the only gospel writer who tells us that Jesus’ tomb is in a garden. 
What is John’s preoccupation with gardens?  John thinks these garden details are important because he sees a connection.  There’s a connection between what happens in those gardens (the Garden of Gethsemane and the garden tomb of Jesus) and something that happened in another garden.  
If you remember, the whole Gospel of John begins with these words: “In the beginning…”  Of course, that is an echo from the Creation story in the Book of Genesis.  There in Genesis, when God began Creation, God place Adam and Eve in a garden.  
In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve one commandment: “You can eat of any tree in this garden, just don’t eat of the tree at the middle of the garden.”  
You know the story.  The serpent came and tempted Adam and Eve, and they fell prey to that temptation.  With their actions, they said to God, “Hey, we’re going to do what we want to do, not what God wants us to do.”  In other words, “God, not your will but my will be done.”  And there was a price to be paid for that disobedience.  The price was the curse--slavery to sin and death.  
Fast-forward to another garden near an olive press.  Some have said that an equally grave temptation is taking place in this garden.  It is often called “the last temptation of Christ.”  You might remember when Jesus first started his ministry he went out into the desert for 40 days to be tempted by the devil.  
Each time out in the desert, Jesus resisted.  He won.  And, at the end of the three temptations, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the devil left Jesus until a more “opportune time.”  
Well, if there’s every been an opportune time, the Garden of Gethsemane is it.  Jesus is scared to death, sprawled out on the ground, sweating bullets, his heart tearing in two, praying, “Father, please, if there is any other way...Let’s go to Plan B...I don’t want to do this...Father, let this cup of suffering pass from me.” 
Jesus didn’t want to do it, but there wasn’t any other way.  
There’s the connection to Eden.  In Eden Adam and Eve say to God, “Not your will but mine be done.”  The results were catastrophic.  But, in Gethsemane, Jesus reverses Adam’s prayer and disobedience with trusting obedience, “Not my will but Yours be done.”  
What happens in a garden at Gethsemane has everything to do with what happened in a garden at Eden.  Then, that great reversal was completed in a tomb in another garden in Jerusalem when death was swallowed up.

Thankful for Gardens,

Pastor Michael

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What's Love Got To Do With It?

34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
--John 13:34-35

Not long ago, I had a conversation with one of my parishioners who is a real estate agent.  I said, “How’s the real estate business these days?  Are things picking up for you?”
His response surprised me.  He said, “Pastor Michael, things never really slowed down for me.  Right now, I don’t have enough houses to show.  I can’t keep enough inventory.  Lately, I hate the thing that has been driving my business, but business is good.”
“You hate the thing that is driving business?  What do you mean?”
“Well, lately I’ve had a lot of business because of divorce, because all of a sudden you have two people who need to sell their one house and buy two.  That has brought me a lot of business.”
I understand why he said he hated it.  It’s sad.  As I said on Sunday: Sometimes divorce is inevitable, but we all know how painful it can be.  Even if we haven’t been through it ourselves, we have family members who have.  I don’t know of many families that have been left untouched by it in one way or another.  And, it always leaves a wake of brokenness and pain.  Nobody goes into marriage hoping for that.  It was reflection on this real estate agent conversation that gave birth to our series Made To Last.  
Yesterday, we began by  looking closely at what Jesus says in John 13.  Disclaimer: The context of this passage is not marriage relationships.  Jesus is not speaking to married couples.  He’s talking to his disciples.  In fact, these were some of Jesus’ parting words to his closest friends at the Last Supper just hours before he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  
It was there that Jesus gave them a new commandment.  As we learned on Sunday, the Greek word kainos can mean “new,” but it can also mean “unprecedented, uncommon, unheard of.”  Jesus is giving his disciples a new, unprecedented commandment: Love one another.
Most of the time, when our culture talks about love, we’re talking about an emotion.  Particularly, when we talk about the love between husband and wife, we talk about passion, chemistry.  Love as a noun.  Love as a feeling.
But, Jesus doesn’t speak of love that way.  Instead, Jesus calls love a command.  You can’t command feelings.  But, according to Jesus, you can command love.  Jesus commands us to love one another when it is easy and when it is terribly difficult.  Jesus commands us to love even when we don’t feel very loving.  
If Jesus demands that kind of love of us for brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ, how much more should we obey his command when the “one another” is the one with whom we have promised to spend a lifetime?  We are called to, commanded to, in the words of Andy Stanley, make love a verb! That is the foundation for a relationship that is made to last.

After the sermon, someone said to me, “In your sermon, you said, ‘Sometimes divorce is inevitable.’  I don’t think divorce is ever inevitable.” 
I didn’t know exactly what to say in that moment.  I could see her point.  After all, we believe in the Resurrection.  If our God would reach into a dark tomb, after three days of death, and bring forth life, then there’s no telling what God might do with our relationships, no matter how hopeless they may appear.  Especially, when we obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another in action.
And, yet there are times when one spouse seems absolutely intent on not doing that.  The other might try as hard as he or she can, might give 100% toward making the marriage work, might do everything conceivable to make love a verb, but if there is no reciprocation, ever, for years, can see some inevitability.  
Or, there are times when one spouse is abusive and the abuse does nothing but spiral downward.  Nobody should remain in that type of situation.
So, having had some time to reflect, if I had another shot to respond, it might be like this, “I don’t think any relationship is hopeless if both parties are willing to work, to make love a verb.  The same God who breathed life into a pile of dust and vivified a valley of dry bones and wrested life from a tomb in Jerusalem is still at work in the world.  Still, in the broken world in which we live where committed spouses don’t have the power to force uncommitted spouses to love against their will and where violence is often perpetrated against the ones closest to us, I will have to stand by my statement that “Sometimes divorce is inevitable.”  
But, that’s no excuse to neglect Jesus’ commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Trying To Make Love A Verb,

Pastor Michael

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Positive Provocation

24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
--Hebrews 10:24-25

At the outset of the sermon on Sunday at Advent UMC, I stated my goal: To convince everyone who is not currently a part of a small group (Sunday school class, home group, or small group Bible study) to take a leap of faith and find a group to join.  The reason?  Because growth happens in groups.  Spiritual growth happens as we connect to God and each other in community focused on the study of Scripture and prayer.  With that in mind, we turned to the book of Hebrews and the author’s admonition to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  
Again, provocation generally has a negative connotation, but here in Hebrews we are encouraged toward positive provocation, provocation to love and good deeds.  
Left to our own devices, we usually choose to maintain the status quo.  This is true in many areas of our lives--our fitness level, our bad habits, our spiritual lives, etc.--which is why we need each other.  We need trusted friends to walk this journey with us, hold our hands occasionally, pick us up when we get down, pray for us--especially when we can’t pray ourselves.  Occasionally, we need someone to challenge us and jar us out of a faith rut.  We all need a group to help “provoke us to love and good deeds.” 
So, who in your life provokes you to love and good deeds? Do you have a group that is encouraging you, spurring you on, praying for you? Do you have people in your life, trusted friends, who are fostering growth in your relationship with Jesus?  Are you provoked?  
Growth happens in groups.

Positively provoked,
Pastor Michael

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I recently saw a picture of a Facebook friend whose family went whitewater rafting.  It was one of those action shots, in the middle of a rapid, snapped at the precise moment when it seemed everyone in the raft was caught with mouth and eyes wide open, rapt in a strange mix of exhilaration and fear.  
I recognized the expression.  It’s been years ago now, but I’ve been rafting on the New River in West Virginia, which has Class IV and Class V rapids (or, as my five-year-old would call them, “mack daddy” rapids).  For five hours, the people on my raft did the best we could do to navigate the whitewater, but we often felt anxious, fearful, and afraid of what was just beyond our sight--a white-knuckled loss of control.  
My suspicion is that we have all felt that way in our lives, regardless of whether or not we were on a raft at the time.  Many of life’s circumstances can produce this kind of anxiety and angst.  Grief.  The unknown.  Change.
As a congregation, Advent has experienced all of the above over the last few years and months.  There have been significant changes in pastors and staff: Beloved pastors moving on to new areas of service, deeply loved staff members leaving, new pastors and staff arriving.  Grief.  The unknown.  Change.  
In fact, we have just welcomed a new Associate Pastor, Laura-Allen Kerlin, and have two search committees in place right now.  (Names of those serving on these committees will be listed in an update from SPRC in the E-news.  Please pray for them.)  Those search committees are working to fill vacant positions on our staff: Director of Music Ministries and Director of Children’s Ministry.
Significant change.
In times of significant change, I always find it helpful to focus on the things that are NOT changing to offer a sense of stability and calm.  Most importantly, Advent’s DNA is not changing.  What is Advent’s DNA?  
First, at our core, we are a church that is passionate about worship.  Worship is the heartbeat of the church, and we are proud to offer God our best in two different styles of worship (traditional and contemporary).  Due to space constraints, these services take place at three different times.  However, even though we worship at three different times in two different styles, we are one church with one mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our focus on excellence in each of our worship styles will not change.
A key part of our DNA is our emphasis on youth and children.  Advent has a proud history of excellence in growing and shaping young people into servant-leaders in God’s church.  We don’t believe that children and youth are tomorrow’s church leaders.  We believe that they are today’s church leaders.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for such is the Kingdom of God.”  As a congregation, we have been blessed with many young families including lots of children and youth.  Their formation as disciples of Jesus will always be a focal point for our faith family.  
Missions is vital to our identity as a congregation.  For Methodists throughout history, faith and action have been inextricably linked.  It is not enough to simply tell people that God loves them; Jesus has called us to show and share God’s love with the world.  Advent is and will continue to be a leader in reaching outside our walls to be in ministry with the people to whom Jesus ministered--the least, last, and lost. 
Another Wesleyan/Methodist emphasis that is integral to our congregation is on spiritual growth.  In keeping with Scripture, our founder, John Wesley, thought that Christians should never be satisfied in our faith journeys.  Instead, he thought that we should gather with others in small groups, study Scripture, pray together, and always seek to grow closer to Christ.  Sunday school and small groups (Disciple Bible Study, Christian Believer, etc.) have always been important at Advent, and they will continue to be.
There are many other things that are not changing, but, from my ten months as your pastor, I have discerned these to be essential to who we are as a congregation.  These core parts of our identity will continue to shape us long into the future.
As I think back to my time on the New River, there was one key to my sense of ease, one thing that gave me comfort: our guide.  We had an experienced guide on our raft, someone who had navigated those waters thousands of times, someone who knew what he was doing.  
We, too, have a guide.  No matter what pastors are appointed to serve Advent, no matter which staff members come and go, our Guide is the Holy Spirit.  That means we are in good hands and can navigate any water.

Pastor Michael

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Be A Quitter at Being Bitter

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
--Ephesians 4:31-32

 It was a powerful sound--snapping sticks popping like popcorn in each service at Advent UMC on Sunday, symbolic of the bonds of bitterness breaking with the first steps of forgiveness.  Bitterness can certainly hold us hostage, but it was truly awe-inspiring to see so many people make a conscious decision to be a quitter at being bitter.
I talked with one person today who took the two broken pieces of his bitterness board, drilled holes in them, and put them on his keychain as a reminder that the bonds of bitterness have been broken.  
Many were inspired by Ann Gale’s story of forgiveness following the murder of her best friend and her children.  Compared to what Ann has forgiven, the hurts done to me by others seem rather pedestrian and insignificant.  Ann’s magnanimity was inspiring to me.
However, there were things that I wanted to share about forgiveness that time simply would not allow.  So, I want to share them here in brief outline.  In particular, I want to share some things that forgiveness is NOT: 
  1. Optional--Jesus is pretty clear on this matter: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”--Matthew 6:14-15
  2. Saying it’s okay--forgiving somebody is very different from saying that what they did is okay.  Heather and I have taught our children that when they apologize to each other for wrongs, the offended party should never say, “It’s okay.”  Instead, they say, “It’s not okay, but I forgive you.” 
  3. Forgetting--Forgiveness is harder than forgetting.  It would be a lot easier to take a blow to the head and get amnesia, than to remember how you have been hurt and choose to forgive anyway.  Forgiveness is remembering the pain and choosing to let go anyway.
  4. Reconciliation--There are some people who are so toxic that they have hurt you over and over and over again.  You have to forgive them.  But, sometimes, out of self-preservation, the relationship cannot be restored to the place it was before.
  5. Easy--This is a no-brainer.  Forgiveness is difficult.  It is oftentimes a process, a journey.  There may be many times along the way when you think you have forgiven something only to have it resurface at inopportune times.  Sometimes we have to wake up every morning, make a conscious effort to let go again, pray for our offender, and choose to push beyond it.  There is nothing easy about forgiveness, but, it frees us from the bonds of bitterness. 

Working at Being a Quitter at Being Bitter,
Pastor Michael

Thursday, February 28, 2013


14 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.
--Hebrews 12:14-15

 By far, my most read blog post ever was “Further Thoughts on Fourth Grade Forgiveness.”  As the title indicates, it was about forgiving others and its popularity, I think, is indicative of the struggle we can sometimes have with this onerous challenge given us by Jesus. 
Forgiveness is something we all long to receive, but begrudgingly give.  We love to garner grace, but dole out justice.  Plus, when we’ve been hurt badly, holding a grudge certainly beats holding our hurts.
The problem is that, if we hold grudges long enough, they have a way of morphing on us.  Grudges become bitterness.  Bitterness spreads in our souls like kudzu.  It doesn’t take long before we are overcome and enslaved to it and it drains the joy from our lives. 
This Sunday at Advent, we will continue our Hostage series by continuing our Lenten look at the ties that can bind us.  We will look to Scripture and the life of Jesus to discover what forgiveness is, what it isn’t, and how to break the bonds of bitterness.  I hope to see you there.  Invite a friend!

Trying to break the bonds of bitterness,
Pastor Michael

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why Ask Why? (Part 2)

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.   14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
--Psalm 22:1-2; 14-16

 Sunday we began our Why? series.  “Why?” is a question on many people’s minds.  Why?  God, why?  Why this?  Why now?  Why me?  Why my children?  Why cancer?  Why an earthquake?  Why a car accident?  Why an innocent baby?  Why so much suffering?  Why so much pain?  Why?  God, why? 
Growing up, I often heard that you shouldn’t ask why, that “questioning God” was somehow off limits.  You know what I wondered when I was taught that?  Why?  Can God not handle our questions?  Does the God of the Universe not understand when we get angry and want to know why?  
On Sunday, part of what we did was look at some reasons, I think, it’s okay to ask why.  So, let’s review.  Why Ask Why?
  1. People of faith always have--All throughout Scripture are stories of people who suffered terrible tragedies and pain.  Time and again, they asked why.  The Psalmist in Psalm 22, prays, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Did you know that 70% of the psalms are psalms of lament?  The Book of Psalms is Israel’s prayer book, and 70% of them are psalms of lament where the psalmist prays to God, “God, where are you?  It feels like I’m all alone down here.  God, why are staying so far from me?  God, why?”  If Israel’s prayer book is composed of prayers like that, I think it’s okay to question, and cry out to God that way too.  There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations.  Guess what’s in that?  That’s right.  Laments.  Complaints to God.  Honest, authentic relationship with God requires honest, authentic prayer.  Job and his friends questioned why Job’s fate had befallen him.  He was a good and upright man, yet he suffered tremendously.  Why?  That was the question they repeatedly asked.  Jesus, even asked why.  From the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God why?”  See, God desires an authentic relationship with us.  God doesn’t want us to hide stuff from him, why to keep from hurting his feelings?  
  2. That brings me to the second thing: God is big enough to handle our little questions--This is the God of the universe we’re talking about here.  God created everything there is.  By the power of the divine voice, this world was spoken into existence.  God just said, “Let there be light,” and there was.  I doubt that our questions will threaten God.
  3. Third, God’s not going to be threatened by our anger, either.  And, let’s face it: Why is a question we generally ask out of anger and a place of deep pain and grief. It’s not often you hear somebody say, “God, why did you let me land this great job?  I don’t deserve it.  God, why would you let this happen to me?”  Just doesn’t happen.  Why is a question we ask in the midst of our anger.  And that’s okay.  
  4. Since Sunday I thought of a fourth reason: “Why?” is a faith question.  You don’t bother asking why unless you believe there is some sort of an answer.  You don’t bother asking, “Why God?” unless you believe in God.  So, at its core, “why?” is a question asked in faith.
So, the overwhelming weight of Scripture suggests that “Why?” is a perfectly natural question to ask, especially in times of pain, sorrow, and grief.
The answer?  Well, that’s a good bit tougher. 

Looking forward to this Sunday,
Pastor Michael