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Synesthetic Worship


SynesthesiaIsaiah 6:1-8

When Carol Crane was a child in first grade, she mystified
her teacher and her classmates when she wondered aloud why the number five,
displayed in a row of other numbers above the chalkboard was yellow, when it should
be green.

Her question didn’t make any sense to the teacher and was vaguely disturbing.
So Carol learned to keep her mouth shut about such things. She didn’t know then
that there were others like her for whom the ringing of a doorbell resembled a
series of triangles, or a dog bark seemed like a circle with dots around it.

Today, Carol knows that she is gifted (or cursed?) with synesthesia
(sin-es-thee-sia), a condition that affects about 1 in 25,000 persons.
Synesthetes are people who can actually see sounds, smell colors and taste
shapes. When a synesthete hears the sound of a truck backing up, making a
beep-beep-beep sound, he or she might see the beeps as a series of red dots. In
a string of numbers, the 5’s may be experienced as a different color from the
2’s. Circles smell different from squares, and sour foods sound different from
sweet foods.

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Eat This Book

 

Eating Book 1Revelation 10:1-11

So, the
first question that comes to mind when I read this text from Revelation is this: What
does a book taste like? Well, if you ever get lost in a Land Rover in the
middle of the desert in Dubai, you might get to find out.

See, Land
Rover knows that getting stuck in the desert is a pretty serious situation,
which is why every vehicle comes with a desert survival manual in the glove
box—a book that talks about everything from making shelter to finding food and
water out there in the wasteland.

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Prayer: The Base Camp of the Christian Life

2-everest-base-campA few years ago I was at a retreat for pastors where we were
asked to draw a timeline of our spiritual lives, charting the ups and downs of
all the things that we had experienced so far. When I looked at mine I noticed
some significant peaks and valleys—times when I felt that spiritual “high” when
I was at church camp, for example, or when I was being ordained, and times when
the valleys were deep, like dealing with grief or loss. Others in the group
showed similar kinds of timelines and we joked that they kind of looked like
EKGs—something useful for monitoring our spiritual health.

The other thing that this chart reminded me of, however, had
to do with mountain climbing, which is also all about peaks and valleys. I was
really into rock climbing a few years ago and so I read a ton of stuff on high
altitude climbing, like stories about climbing Mount Everest, for example. Jon
Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which
was about a tragic 1996 expedition on the highest mountain in the world was
fascinating to me and a real reminder that failure to pay attention to
conditions and make good decisions on ascents and descents can have dire
consequences.

If you know anything about high altitude climbing, you know
that before any ascent can be made the climbers have to spend a considerable
amount of time at a base camp part-way up the mountain. Base camp is where you
rest, prepare your gear, and begin to get acclimated to the altitude because,
as we know out here in Colorado, you can’t just go from sea level to 14,000
feet without some serious physical issues, like altitude sickness.

Barr Camp on Pike’s Peak was established as a kind of base
camp rest stop for those going up and down the mountain. Flatlanders might
spend a night or two at Barr Camp before attempting to summit the peak.

People who climb Mount Everest at 29,029 feet need to spend
weeks at base camp before they can even think about summiting the world’s
tallest mountain. There, altitude sickness pales in comparison to hypoxia or a
serious deprivation of oxygen that kills a number of unprepared climbers on
Everest each year. Without significant time at base camp, the ups and downs are
just too severe.

It occurred to me that the same thing is true of our own
lives. If our lives over time are a series of ups and downs, sometimes very
steep ascents and descents, then we, too, are subject to a kind of spiritual
hypoxia. We may be unprepared for the sudden highs of success or mountain top
experiences, or the sudden lows of things like a devastating diagnosis of an
illness or the loss of someone we love or unexpected unemployment. Even the
regular pace of our lives these days can leave us breathless trying to figure
out how to manage our work, our relationships, and our faith on a daily basis.

How do we manage all that and how do we catch our breath?
Well, I think it’s about establishing a kind of spiritual base camp in our
lives—a place and space of time where we stop in the midst of the up and down
and breathe deeply of our relationship with God. I want to suggest this morning
that regular prayer is that base camp experience with God that we need in order
to live a balanced life.

When I look at Jesus’ own prayer life, I think it’s
interesting that he often withdrew and went up on a mountain to pray and
commune with God at the most critical times in his life and ministry. Today’s
text reveals that Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the night in prayer
before choosing his disciples and then leading them back down the mountain into
ministry. In Scripture, mountains are often the place where God’s revelation
takes place, and Jesus seems to retreat to the mountains often before a big up
or down in his life. Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus went to the summit, just
out to the mountain—maybe as a base camp!

Jesus does this at other times as well. John tells us that
after the feeding of the five thousand, a peak experience, Jesus realized that
the crowd was “about to take him by force and make him king.” They wanted to
put him in the rarified air of royalty, but Jesus instead “withdrew again to
the mountain by himself.” He was not dazzled by what climbers call “summit
fever”—the desire to get to the top at all costs. Instead, he knew that his
strength and mission came into clear focus at base camp, where he could commune
with God in prayer.

Later, when Jesus is confronted with the specter of the
cross looming in front of him on Good Friday, he withdraws to the Garden of
Gethesemane, at the base of the Mount of Olives, to pray to God and wrestle
with the choice between his will and the Father’s will. It would have been very
easy for Jesus to have gotten up and walked down the Kidron Valley and escaped safely
into the desert, but the depth of his relationship with the Father, expressed
through the regular connection of prayer, enabled him to face the deepest
spiritual valley we can imagine.

For Jesus, prayer was the foundational practice that
connected him to the Father. He taught his disciples to pray so that they, too,
could have that same relationship with God. He understood prayer to be a
dialogue—not just a list of requests to God (because, after all, God already
knows what you need before you need it), but also listening to God and living
in God’s love. Prayer was then and is now the basic discipline of the Christian
life—our base camp practice, if you will.

John Wesley once wrote that prayer is “the grand means of
drawing near to God.”  He
understood the Christian faith at its core as a life lived in relationship with
God through Jesus Christ and the way that relationship is maintained is
primarily through prayer. Throughout Christian history, some of the wisest
spiritual leaders have often called prayer a kind of “spiritual breathing”—as
necessary and as vital to the life of the Spirit as our own breath is to our
physical lives. Without regular prayer, without that regular base camp
acclimatization that adjusts our spiritual breathing, we become hypoxic and our
spiritual lives become wheezy and weak. We might even go so far to say that
lack of prayer is the usual the cause of spiritual death!

We begin this series with the practice of prayer because it
is in many ways the most important and, yet, often the least practiced of the
spiritual disciplines. We know we need to pray, but we don’t often do it unless
we’re starving for breath as we plunge up and down on the timeline of life.

I know that my own life reflects this. When I have been
diligent in regular prayer, I am much better able to put the highs and lows in
perspective, knowing that God is with me regardless. I have seen others who are
regular in their prayer life who have weathered horrific circumstances with
great faith. At the same time, however, there have been long periods in my life
when I haven’t been praying because I’m too busy riding the ups and downs like
a rollercoaster. When that base camp discipline goes away, I feel more and more
out of control.

So, how do we maintain a regular base camp discipline of
prayer? I want to give you a couple of suggestions this morning that have been
helpful to me and, hopefully, will give you some ideas for establishing or
energizing your own daily life of prayer.

The first suggestion I have is to find a way that works for you. When I was a kid I was taught a
somewhat rigid way of praying, using a formula and a particular posture. Head
bowed, eyes closed, hands folded. 
I used to feel really guilty that my mind would wander when I closed my
eyes or that I’d get sleepy. I figured this was a sign of spiritual inadequacy,
so I tried to avoid it so I wouldn’t feel guilty!

But over the years I’ve learned that there are as many ways
to prayer as there are people. Each of us is wired differently. I am a reader
and writer, for example, so for me I know that prayers are most effective when
I can read them or write them. The psalms, for example, were the prayer book of
ancient Israel, and I read at least one every day. The psalms reveal people who
were praying at the highest highs and lowest lows of their lives, and the more
I read them and pray them, the more those words become part of me and express
my deepest feelings to God. I found that monastic spirituality is all about
praying the psalms, which fascinated me and gave me a whole new perspective on
prayer. I don’t have to come up with the words, some one already has.

In addition to reading the psalms and a Scripture for the
day (which we’ll turn to next week), I also read a devotional book. Right now
I’m using A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader,
which has daily readings of quotes from John Wesley on the topic of the week
(this week is the sovereignty of God, for example). I tend to switch them
around a lot. I’ve put some examples out in the Great Room to look over as
examples of the kinds of things you might consider using in your own base camp
time.

When I want to use my own words, however, that’s when I turn
to my journal. This is a discipline that I have engaged in off and on over the
years, but these days I’m finding it absolutely vital. When I write my prayers
and express to God my ups and downs, I find myself drawing closer to him. When
I write out what’s going on in my life I get the sense that God is right there
with me. When I start the day with a renewed awareness of God, I find it much
easier to “pray without ceasing” as Paul encourages us.

I have my base camp time in the morning after the kids have
gone to school. We have started a discipline, however, of praying together as a
family before they leave, using prayers in this book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. The closing prayer
is one we always say together in unison: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go
with you, wherever he may send you. May he guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm. May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders
he has shown you. May he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.”
We all have it memorized now and use it as our benediction before starting the
day.

There are lots of ways you can pray. Some will like the
discipline of silence and meditation, others will gravitate toward other means.
We want to offer you a variety of resources that can help you get started,
including our online daily devotional that Joe is putting together. Whatever
you do, I want to invite you to make it a habit to build some base camp time with
God into your day.  What will you do this week to invest in your relationship with God?

The second suggestion I have for you today is to recognize
that prayer not only focuses us inward
with God but also outward toward others whom God loves
.. As we cultivate
our relationship with God, God will reveal to us those around us who are in
need–not only of our prayers but our love, support, and compassion. Like we
said last week, the primary fruit of Christian faith is agape love:
unconditional, sacrificial love for God and for others, even those with whom we
have difficulty.

Every week here in worship we gather prayer requests from
the congregation for people who are dealing with illness and grief, and rightly
so. The book of James tells us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick,
and the Lord will raise them up…the prayer of the righteous is powerful and
effective” (5:15-16). We pray over all those concerns and invite you to do so
as well.

I want to also add that we pray especially for those with
whom we are struggling. Think of those who may be your enemies, those who rub
you the wrong way, those who you would rather avoid. It’s virtually impossible
to continue to hate someone you are praying for! We are called not only to pray
for those we love, but those who are hard to love. The more we do so, the more
we begin to change our perspective. This week we saw how powerful hatred can be
as destruction took place at embassies around the world. What would happen if
instead of advocating for retaliation, we instead chose pray for those who do
these things. That’s a different perspective.

Indeed, that’s what prayer does. When we enter that base
camp with God, God changes our perspective. The closer we draw to him the more
we begin to see the world and our neighbors as he does. We begin to understand
that we are not the product of our highest highs and lowest lows, but rather
God’s beloved children with whom he will walk no matter the ups and downs of
circumstance. May we not be hypoxic Christians but rather faithful disciples
who breathe deep of God’s love every day!

You know I find it fascinating that the base camp on Mount
Everest is surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags. I obviously don’t see faith the
way that Buddhists do, but this says something about our human need to
pray—whether it is with a flag, or a book, or whatever. We know we cannot
manage the up and down of life without it. Jesus knew this and wants to show us
how we can be at prayer with God—not as an offering to some abstract deity, but
as a deep and abiding personal relationship.

 

 

 

The Almost Christian


Almost-thereMark 12:28-34

When I was a kid we used to take long car trips to my
grandparents’ place several times a year. While it was only about an hour and a
half drive, to my sisters and me it was an eternity. I remember my youngest
sister was the most impatient and just about every time we got in the car she
had the same exchange with mom. “Are we there yet?” she’d ask. “Almost there,”
said mom. “But I wanna be there,” my
sister would whine.

Almost there. When I got a little older and started to
understand the concept of time and distance a little better, I used to chuckle
because mom’s “almost there” could mean anything from 5 minutes way to an hour
and 5 minutes. “Almost there” was always relative.

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The Jesus Way

Way and not the wayJeremiah 6:16-21; John 14:1-14

As most of you know, this spring and summer I was a delegate to two denominational conferences—our United Methodist General Conference, a worldwide gathering in Tampa, and the Western Jurisdiction Conference which took place in San Diego (I know, two terrible places to go for conferences, right?).

While at these conferences, delegates heard disturbing news about the United Methodist Church. Here are some of the numbers:

  • Over the last five years, membership in the UMC in the United States has declined 5.3% (424,000 members)
  • Worship attendance has declined by 8.7% over the last five years (291,600 less on an average Sunday than five years ago)
  • Baptisms and confirmations of children and youth have declined by 21% over the same period. 
  • Only 15% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are considered to be "highly vital," a designation which is marked by:
  1. Effective pastoral leadership
  2. Multiple small groups and programs for adults, children, and youth
  3. Worship that connects across generations
  4. A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership 

The vast majority (85%) of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. do not meet these criteria for vitality.

The upshot of all this, according to the report, is that in 25 years our denomination will no longer have children and youth in our churches, and in 50 years we will no longer exist if the current trends are not reversed. 

That’s some pretty sobering news for the UMC. The General Conferences response to that was to do, well, nothing. Two weeks and $1500 a minute of discussion led to know significant changes or initiatives for changing the church’s focus. The denomination’s logo was plastered over everything from banners to mugs to t-shirts: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But it’s pretty clear that we’ve forgotten how to do that.

I’m pleased to report that our congregation is part of the 15% (some may debate the pastoral leadership part, however). Our average attendance has grown by 20% in the last year. We confirmed 20 youth this spring, and our membership is over 600. Those are good signs that we are bucking the trend. But even with those good numbers, I really believe that congregational “vitality” is less about the numbers than it is about the outcomes.

A few years ago I attended a conference at Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area – one of the biggest churches in the country. They have 21,000 in average attendance each week (we would be a Sunday School class!). By all the metrics they would seem to be wildly successful. A couple of years ago, though, the church’s leadership began to wonder whether their large numbers of people were actually having their lives changed, growing deeper in their relationship with Christ and their love and service toward others.

They engaged in an internal self-study called Reveal which showed that even though large numbers of people attended the church, few reported a significant change in their spiritual attitudes (love for God and others) and spiritual behaviors (evangelism, tithing, etc.).

What they discovered, however, is that there is really a spiritual continuum along which people tend to move, and the deeper one grows in relationship to Christ the more their attitudes and behaviors change to reflect Christ. That makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: no one moves along that continuum unless they are invited to do so, and no one moves along that continuum unless there is a disciplined process to help them get there one step at a time.

The bottom line? Disciples of Jesus aren’t formed by accident or osmosis. You can’t be formed into a disciple of Jesus in just one hour a week, no matter how dynamic the worship service is (and Willow Creek has smoke, lights, and escalators!). Disciples get made because the church makes disciple-making its number one priority. The more disciples that get made, the more the church reflects Christ, and the more the church reflects Christ, the more impact it will have for Christ’s kingdom in their communities.

The irony is that Methodism was born as a disciple-making reform movement in the larger Anglican church, which was dealing with the same complacency and decline that we see in our own denomination. John and Charles Wesley developed and employed an intentional method for making disciples in small groups where people could receive instruction, support, and encouragement for moving deeper in their love for God and their commitment to the way of Christ.

It’s clear, though, that Methodism has lost this way and the only solution to revival is to recapture a laser-like focus on making disciples—disciples who are following, living, and teaching the Jesus way. And, you know, I think Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church can be a catalyst at the forefront of that revival. Over the next several weeks I am going to show you how I think that can happen—a vision that God is laying on my heart and the hearts of others to get back to our core mission of making disciples!

To begin, then, I think it’s important that we establish a framework for understanding what a disciple of Jesus is all about. Jesus established the process when he called his own disciples, gathering them around himself for three years, teaching them, challenging them, encouraging them, correcting them, and demonstrating to them how the power of God would come from God through Jesus to them and then from them to others.

Jesus was and is the Word of God made flesh, as John tells us in chapter 1, and through him we learn what it means to be fully human and fully in relationship with God. Through him we also learn what it means to be a disciple and carry out the mission of God in the world. Through him we learn what God is like and how we might become more like him. Genesis 1, the first book of the Bible, tells us how we were made in the image of God. We tarnished that image through sin. Jesus shows us how we can reclaim that image again and reflect God’s glory to the world.

Jesus invited those first disciples into his life with the simple invitation, “Follow me.” I think it’s interesting that they dropped their nets or got up from the tax collector’s table to follow him without asking at that point, “Where are you going?” It was an invitation to be a disciple who is “on the way” somewhere—to be on a journey.

The whole biblical narrative is a traveling story. God calls Abraham to go on a journey from his homeland to a distant place where God’s promise awaits him. Moses is called to lead his people on a journey from slavery to promise. Israel travels in exile to Babylon, far from home, where God teaches them a new way of living. The Bible is always inviting people to be “on the way” and in Jewish wisdom tradition, the “way” or “path” is the lifestyle of the person who lives under God’s wisdom. Proverbs 2:6-9, for example, talks God’s wisdom “guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones” who will “understand righteousness, justice, and equity, every good path.” Our Old Testament lesson today from Jeremiah taps into this tradition, where true “rest” for the soul is only found by walking on the “ancient path,” the “good way.” To be with God is to be “on the way.”

Of course, there is also another “way.” Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.” God’s way is always contrasted with our way in Scripture. It’s right there in our Old Testament lesson, too, where Jeremiah calls the people to take the good way, God’s way, the ancient path, but the people say, “We will not walk in it.” A key biblical question is always this: Which way will you walk? God’s way or my way?

During my morning devotions I have been reading a wonderful little book by the 20th century missionary E. Stanley Jones, and one of his statements really grabbed me one day on vacation. He wrote,

“All of life becomes a choice between the Way and not-the-way. That applies to individuals and nations—the smallest and the largest. There are no exceptions anywhere.” The way of God vs. our way, which is not-the-way. Indeed, says Jones, God’s way is the way we were made to walk in the beginning. “The Christian way is the natural way—the way we were made to live,” he says. “Sin is unnatural. Yes, it is the customary but not the natural. If it were, we would bloom under it. Do we? On the contrary, sin is sand in the machinery.”

 One of the major problems in our churches is that we’ve comprised the Way with not-the-way. Our churches have bought into the consumerism of the culture, the sexual ethics of the culture. Christians have merged the Jesus way with the Republican way or the Democratic way to the point that the Jesus way often has no correlation to the way outlined in Scripture. It’s no wonder our denomination is in trouble. We’re not on the way.

Jesus leads his disciples on a very specific way that is natural to him and invites them to see it as natural for them, too. He lives it right in front of them, but now, as he departs, they wonder how they will be able to continue to live that way, God’s way. Jesus does not mince his words. There is his way and not-the-way.

That’s when Jesus gives us this famous sentence in John 14:6. “How do we know the way?” Thomas asks. He is asking about geography. Jesus says, “I am the way, and [I] am the truth, and [I] am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is talking about the way of being, the way of God. I am the way to God the Father’s way, I am the way to God’s truth, I am the way to God’s life. If you know me, you will know him. If you follow my way, you will be following his way.

To be a disciple is to be one on the way to the Father through Jesus. Too often Christians have assumed that what Jesus is saying here is about the way to heaven, but the context reveals that it’s much deeper than that. Jesus is revealing to them the way to the very heart of God, a relationship with God that is life-giving to them and, through them, life-giving to others not just in the future, but in the present. You want to know God, to see God, to do the work of God? You must follow the Jesus way. There is no other.

It’s interesting, though, that Jesus doesn’t just say that he is the “way;” he is also the “truth” and the “life.” Len Sweet argues that what Jesus is doing here is giving his disciples a natural progression for continuing on the way: first, belonging (the way), then believing (the truth) and then behaving (the life). This is reflected in the life of Jesus’ first disciples gathered around that table. First, they were invited by Jesus to belong to his traveling entourage, then Jesus taught them the truth about himself and about God’s kingdom, then he sent them out to live his life until his return, being his Body for the world.

Notice that this is a process, a continuum, an intentional movement for making disciples!

Eugene Peterson explains it this way: “The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.” Belief in the Person of Jesus is always tied to acting in the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus without the person of Jesus quickly becomes one philosophy among many, while the person of Jesus without the way of Jesus turns him merely into a religious icon. And yet, this division is what’s happening in the Church today. We have lost the way and the truth that leads to life.

John Wesley would have been appalled at this. His expressed his greatest fear for the church:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wesley’s fear has become realized. It’s going to take a revival to change that.

Wesley was the one who called the early Methodists to live what he called a “practical divinity”—a marriage of piety and compassion, word and service, belief in Jesus with the works of Jesus. Ken Collins, a Wesley scholar, says that Wesley had a “conjunctive theology” that was more both/and than either/or. It’s the same theology of Jesus who never separated faith from action.

My friends, if we want to know the heart of God, if we want to do anything for his kingdom, this is what we need to recapture—to be on the way of discipleship, the way of Christ. We’ll talk a little bit next week about how Wesley did this and how we will be working at it here at TLUMC. The future of our church lies in the DNA of our past—not just our Wesleyan past, but in the very framework Jesus gave his disciples around the table. We’ll talk about that some more next week as we look at the Methodist way of making disciples.

For now, though, the question I want you to be thinking about over the next few weeks is this: Are you on the Jesus way? Are you learning the Jesus truth? Are you living the Jesus life? What drives the rhythm of your life?

We’re going to be giving you some opportunities to reflect on this over the next several weeks. This week you’ll receive a mailing outlining our fall campaign, which is designed to help you take steps on the way to faithful discipleship. The six markers of prayer, Bible reading, worship, witnessing, financial giving, and service aren’t the ends of discipleship, but they are some of the means. When we take Jesus’ invitation to follow seriously, these are the ways we take the steps. I urge you to look that over this week and think about the next steps that Jesus is calling you to take in your life.

This Saturday, Joe and I will be sharing some detail about a vision for TLUMC to become a focused, disciple-making church in the Wesleyan tradition. Want to show you the way that we think Jesus is calling us to be on the way. We’ll meet from 8:00 to noon, maybe not that long, but we want to give you a chance to hear and respond. At least come for breakfast served by UMM! We have a chance to be part of a fresh a movement of God and I hope you are excited about what God is up to here. I’ll also be sharing some of this next Sunday if you’re unable to make it on Saturday.

You know, the name of the first Christian church in the book of Acts was called, “The Way.” That may not be our name, but may it be our passion as Christ’s church here at Tri-Lakes. Let us be a church on the way!