This sweet little jingle bell started as a preschool craft project for one of my big three kids. It was delightful to have our littlest one put it on the tree this year!
The jingling of bells reminds me of this passage from the book of Psalms:
Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! 2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Advent, the Christian season that leads up to Christmas, begins on Sunday, December 2 this year. (It also marks the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, so Happy New Year!)
It’s easy in all of the hustle and bustle of commercialized Christmas to get caught up in being stressed out, rushing from one thing to the next.
This season, I invite you to join me in participating in an Advent photo challenge.
How it works:
Each day has a topic/keyword assigned to it. As you go through your day, try to find something that captures the essence of the keyword for you. (Example – the first word is “bells” – this could mean jingle bells, doorbells, bell curves, alarms. Be creative!)
Then post the picture on social media, with or without any explanation, using the hashtag #NWUMCAdvent. By sharing with the hashtag, we can all look up each other’s pictures and share in the challenge together!
I hope you’ll find this to be an exercise that helps you to reflect on the real meaning of Christmas this season.
This morning our Scripture passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. To give a little background: Paul is writing to a new Christian community that has a Gentile (or non-Jewish) background. As Christians, this faith community is being encouraged to stop their former pagan behavior, and to model kindness and compassion, imitating God’s forgiving and loving ways. Picking up at verse 20:
20 That is not the way you learned Christ! 21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
I know that this is Back to School time, but, as we talk about being made new this morning, I want you to go back in time with me today to the beginning of the calendar year. There are a few things you can count on seeing every January:
Exercise clothes and running shoes are going to be featured in sale ads
The gyms are pretty crowded
There will be good coupons for foods like Special K cereal and Lean Cuisine meals
Shelving and organization tools will be on sale and in demand
If you’ve had trouble keeping resolutions, no worries, you are in good company. Even in today’s passage, Paul is writing to a church that started with great resolution to live differently, but then they slipped in to old habits.
We are talking about the distinctly Wesleyan emphasis on holiness this morning. What do we mean by “holiness?”
Holiness is “the state of being holy, of having total devotion to God” Interestingly, when you Google search “holiness,” the first term that comes up is that it’s a title used to address the Pope. The second reference is to the Holiness Movement started by John Wesley, “A Christian movement emphasizing the routines and faith practices that help us grow closer to God.”
To understand it, we first need to understand a little bit of Methodist history:
Methodism became its own denomination completely by accident. John Wesley, his brother Charles and a few other Oxford college students had grown up in the church but refused to be satisfied with the shallow, superficial faith they witnessed around them. They thought people were going through the motions but missing out on the deeper faith practices.
So, longing to grow in their faith and to grow closer to God, these young men began to live an ambitious schedule:
Fasted until 3pm on Wednesdays and Fridays
Took Holy Communion once a week
Studied and discussed the Greek New Testament and theology each evening
Visited prisoners and the sick
Systematically reviewed their lives
Studied the Bible, prayed and worshipped together
Even in the 1700s, this was unusual behavior! What was even more remarkable was that this small group held each other accountable to stay on track. Their changes in behavior didn’t go unnoticed. They were teased about it, called names like “Bible Moths” “Holy Club” “Sacramentarians” and, the one that stuck, “Methodists”
Here’s what John Wesley said about it in his sermon “The Character of a Methodist”
“I say those who are called Methodists; for, let it be well observed, that this is not a name which they take to themselves, but one fixed upon them by way of reproach, without their approbation or consent. It was first given to three or four young men at Oxford, by a student of Christ Church; either in allusion to the ancient sect of Physicians so called, from their teaching, that almost all diseases might be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise, or from their observing a more regular method of study and behavior than was usual with those of their age and station.”
This group of young Christians did not set out to break away from the Church. What they wanted more than anything was to see renewal within the church.
As we go through renewal here, it’s also my prayer that as a community we will move to deeper relationship with God.
I don’t know about you, but I can see where the Wesleys were coming from. Having grown up in the church, I’ve sometimes felt like the Church was getting distracted and missing out on its main mission to develop Christ followers.
There are practices that I have done that have brought me closer to God. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, it’s beautiful.
When I take the time for silence, prayer, Bible study, quiet walks in nature, retreats…there is a sense of peace that’s hard to fully explain.
You know that holy feeling when we all sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve? Those special, sacred moments when you can sense that the Holy is happening?
That’s what it feels like to do the practices that bring personal holiness, the things that bring you closer to God.
So how do we get there?
To grow in our faith you can really look at our church’s mission statement. (Love God, Love Neighbor, Make Disciples)
There are several practices you can make part of your daily living that will draw you closer to “Love God.” You are in church & participating in regular worship is one of those practices (keep it up!) Bible study, fasting, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and deepening your knowledge for God are other faith practices.
Loving Neighbor is another way we grow closer to God. A very Methodist practice would be to find ways to respond to human needs and work for justice in our communities.
As we move along the path toward becoming perfect in our love for God, eventually our inner thoughts and motives line up with God’s.
So why aren’t we there yet?
I believe there is a temptation to look at this new faith beginning in the same way as we too often look at New Year’s resolutions. You know what I mean? We can start off with the best of intentions –
I’m going to church every Sunday
I’m joining a Bible study or Sunday School class
I’m volunteering at the Salvation Army, Arlington Life Shelter, Arlington Urban Ministries, Arlington Charities….or even better, I’m now going to volunteer to help out with the youth or the children’s ministry
I’ll pray every day…I’ll read my Bible every morning.
I’m even tithing.
And we may even start off strong.
Until we don’t. We somehow fall off the discipleship wagon – sleeping in preempts church and Bible reading, you miss a study, you forget to pray. You pick up or take back up habits and addictions and all of the things you swore to yourself you wouldn’t do now that you’re a better Christian person….
Before you know it, you might not even recognize how you got where you are, exactly how far away you fell from where you hoped to be as a Christ follower.
And at this point, you’re tempted to totally give up. Or you beat yourself up and tell yourself stories like “I’ll never be able to do it.” You tell yourself lies like “Oh well, I’ll just mess up again. Why bother trying?” or “I won’t ever have enough time.” Or “I’ll get back to that next week.”
Instead of these lies, you need to hear some truth here.
God has a better plan for you. And God loves you. But you don’t get to waste all the gifts God has given you because it’s more comfortable to believe all of these lies.
I’d like to draw your attention to the stained glass up to your left, the one with the butterfly.
That butterfly, like all butterflies, was once a caterpillar.
Caterpillars are pretty spectacular. I mean, few things creepily crawl along in a garden like a caterpillar. But if a caterpillar stops there, just comfortably creeping along…we all will miss out on what the caterpillar is meant to become.
Please, if you hear nothing else this morning, hear this:
You – and you alone – with the help of the Holy Spirit at work are responsible for who you become and how you grow in holiness.
To become the best you you can be, you have to really commit to the hard work of change. And like any change – think diet or exercise – it takes time and commitment to build up muscles and habits.
Imagine you have made the resolution to train for running a marathon. (stick with me, non runners!)
You make this great decision & you even begin to tell your friends and family about it.
They are genuinely excited for you & full of encouragement. Everyone knows it will be a lot of work to train for a marathon, but everyone believes you are capable.
In order to prepare for the big race, you join a marathon training club and go to a training session designed for potential marathon runners. There is an amazing motivational speaker. She’s really top notch and knows her stuff. The convention has an air of excitement about the marathon – you can practically feel it. They’ve hired a cover band that plays songs like “Born to Run,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and “We are the Champions” so well, you even picture yourself leading a few races. The training is great – you are really motivated.
At the end of the training, you are invited to come back next week to hear the training again.
At the end of the next week’s training, you’re invited to come back again…
All of this motivation and training is helpful, but you need much more than this in order to physically prepare for a marathon.
And, so it is with faith and this Wesleyan idea of “personal holiness.”
When it comes to growing spiritually, I can stand up here and list off all of the practices you could do to grow closer to God…you can mediate, alleviate, and try not to hate…but only you have control over your life.
So you try some of the practices. Maybe you will try 40 different things and 2 will be meaningful and the rest won’t resonate. You’ll have seasons where you fail or forget or avoid…that’s all part of how the journey works.
But like the caterpillar…like the marathoner…you keep on training in spite of the times you make mistakes.
And you can even choose to celebrate your small victories, knowing that sometimes you’ll leap forward and sometimes you’ll inch forward… but you can just celebrate that the movement is forward.
My challenge for you is that you will select 1 or 2 practices that you will resolve to try this week. Think of them now.
Picture who you will share them with, perhaps in the connection time after this service or during Sunday school, so you can hold one another accountable.
Which brings us back to our Scripture.
Paul was writing to a group that was excited about being Christ followers but still struggling with temptations to fall into behaviors they shouldn’t be doing. We’ve all been there.
Be encouraged in knowing you are not alone in the falling to temptations, but also know you are called to move forward, “to put away your former way of life, your old self… and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. – Ephesians 2:4-10
(Followed Scripture reading with the above video “Grace” from Igniter Media)
I love that: “God has us right where God wants us – to shower us with God’s grace.”
As a mom, I can only imagine what fun it was for those boys to get the assignment to cover themselves in mud first thing in the morning! And how beautiful to go from that moment of knowing they are in big, big trouble, to realizing they were forgiven, loved, and baptized in grace.
You are saved by God’s grace.
One of the privileges of being a pastor is the gift of making hospital visits. As members of our congregation, friends and family are in the hospital, I get to visit with patients, listen for a while, and pray with them.
Sometimes I get called in to rooms of people who are not part of our church.
Several months ago was one of those occasions. I came to visit a patient named Steve before he faced a serious heart surgery. Steve had been in and out of the hospital several years with health issues, and this surgery was a final medical effort to help him. This particular surgery was risky, and Steve was given about a 50% chance of surviving the procedure. (pause)
While there are classes in Pastoral Care in seminary, nothing really prepares you for what to say in these moments. What would you say? I don’t know the “right answer,” but here is what I said.
As I met with Steve in this sacred, pre-surgery space, Steve was very quiet. I could sense that Steve had been spending a lot of time reflecting on his prognosis, on his life and on his choices. I asked him how he was doing, what he was thinking. What I learned was that Steve had made some questionable choices throughout his years and lived kind of a wild life. He struggled with various addictions and hurt a lot of people. Because of his choices, he was estranged from his fairly religious family. He had been rejected from his church and from his family for decades.
What I learned as Steve was possibly facing the end of his life, was that he was afraid he had done so many bad things in his life, was so far away from God, that he really believed there was no way he could be forgiven.
He believed he had just messed up too much to be saved. For Steve, this was a message that was reinforced by the church he grew up in, a church that labeled him a “sinner” and kicked him out of the faith. Maybe there have been times when you felt like that too.
As I sat with this man who had been suffering for so long, it struck me in our conversation how important the messages we teach as a church are, and the amount of emotional and spiritual damage we can do with a harmful, judgmental theology.
I have been United Methodist my entire life. I’m curious, are there any others in this room who would consider themselves lifelong United Methodists?
If my grandmother were still alive, she would tell you that I was “born Methodist.” I tell you this upfront because it’s probably fair for you to know that United Methodism runs deep for me. My aunt and uncle were United Methodist pastors. United Methodism is the lens through which I see the world. It is how I have always experienced and processed my faith.
And, maybe it sounds corny, or maybe it’s what you’d expect from a pastor, but I love being United Methodist.
I am telling you this first because, in the interest of transparency, you need to know that you are not about to get a three week sermon series on United Methodism from an unbiased source.
Just the same, as a pastor, some of the questions I hear often are: “What does it even mean to be United Methodist?” “How is it different than other types of churches?” “If we are all Christians, why does it matter?” Those are fair questions.
In the next three weeks I hope to share with you some of the most meaningful distinctive characteristics of United Methodism. I believe that our Wesleyan theology (called that because Methodism’s founder was John Wesley) is powerful and beautiful. I also have seen the pain and damage that even well-meaning churches can do to people labeled as sinners.
Today I will talk about our unique understanding of Wesleyan Grace – in particular the three-fold kind of grace that John Wesley called prevenient, justifying and sanctifying (Hang in there! I’ll explain those words as we go along).
My encounter with Steve made me appreciate the theology of grace I’ve always learned about – the knowledge that God’s grace is available for me no matter how messed up I might find myself. I tried my best to share this grace with Steve…and I am so thankful for that heritage of hope, and the blessed assurance that comes from experiencing God’s grace.
Like the kids in the video that opened this message, like Steve, sometimes we may feel like we have gotten ourselves in such a mess that we are beyond redemption. And that’s where grace steps in.
So what is Grace?
Grace is the love and mercy that God gives us because God wants us to have it, not because we have earned it.
It is an undeserved gift and loving action from God through the Holy Spirit. Because God loves us so much, God wants us to experience God’s grace.
John Wesley preached about different types of Grace.
The first type of Grace Wesley called Prevenient Grace, or literally, “the grace that comes before” we are even aware of it. It’s a term most people don’t know, but it just means all of the ways in which God comes into our lives before our conversion.
God is actively present in our entire lives, whether or not we even notice.
Imagine God has the gift of grace just sitting there, ready for us to notice it. We have the option of refusing to accept the gift, but it’s still there waiting for our discovery.
Prevenient grace has a way of preparing you to respond to God when the time is right. Before you even realize God’s grace for you, you may have a sense of how to choose good over evil. God is actively seeking you, wooing you to notice the gift.
Prevenient grace looks like a longing for God in our lives.
In my faith journey, I mentioned that I was “born Methodist.” This means I was baptized as a small child, I grew up going to church and Sunday school. Even though I was going through all of these practices to prepare me, I wasn’t fully aware of God’s grace, or of the importance of that Grace in my life.
We have a tradition in our church of baptizing infants, and this practice is a great illustration of prevenient grace. In infant baptism, we recognize the grace that God has for the baptized, even though the child may not yet understand. The grace is already there.
In the video, it’s the patient dad figure with the garden hose waiting to be noticed.
The second type of Wesleyan grace is “Justifying Grace.” With Justifying grace, or justification, we realize that our sins are forgiven and we can have a restored relationship with God. Everyone’s experience is different, you can think of this as the moment or moments when you realized that Christ’s love for you is real and, in response, you began to live differently.
This can be a grace experienced over a lifetime, or a grace that happens in a sudden moment. With justifying grace, we face a time of conversion or a new beginning in our relationship with God.
In my faith story, I point to a moment at a Christian rock concert when I was 14 years old as my key moment of justifying grace. Although I had the gift of learning about God’s grace my entire life, up until that point I was being prepared for a moment when I would have said “I accepted Christ.” It was a change of heart that was prompted by grace and guided by the Holy Spirit.
In John Wesley’s story, he was raised in a Christian family and had been around church his entire life. His moment of justification was on May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London when he felt his heart strangely warmed and sensed that he was saved through the Holy Spirit.
In the lives of many, justifying grace happens without all the fanfare – it’s a sense of assurance that God loves you, forgives you and leads you to transformation…to a sense of healing and wholeness.
In the video, it’s the precious moment when the kids realize they are not going to be punished for their mischief. They are forgiven and loved.
Have you experienced this kind of grace? When did you first know that Christ was real in your life?
Finally, the third type of Wesleyan grace is called sanctifying grace.
The word “sanctify” means to make something holy, set apart. It means to make something clean.
How it works is this:
Once we realize that God’s grace is a gift to us, once we accept that gift and are convinced to turn our ways toward Christ, we enter the lifelong process of sanctification. In simpler terms, once we know and experience God’s grace, we begin the process of learning to be more like Jesus. This is the ongoing experience of God’s graciousness transforming us into who God intends us to be.
There is so much good news in the theology of Grace. Grace means we are all welcome here. No matter what kind of messiness has taken you away from God, God’s grace is for you. We have the opportunity to grow together in our faith, learning together what it means to be Christ followers.
Today in our Back to Grace series, explored John Wesley’s view of Grace, including prevenient grace (the grace that comes before we realize it), justifying grace (the grace that happens when we are justified or converted), and sanctifying grace (the grace that we experience over a lifetime of growing in the faith.)
In the next two Sundays, we will take a closer look at personal and social holiness, the faith practices we can do in response to God’s grace in order to become more like Christ.
We all come in to this space on different parts of our faith journey. You may have always known about God’s love for you, God’s gift of grace and forgiveness for you. Or you may be in a place where you have been deeply wounded, you not only have felt rejected by the Church but you’re even rejecting yourself….keeping yourself from accepting God’s gift of grace.
There may be someone in here this morning who finds they are feeling lost and hurt like Steve I visited in the hospital. If you find yourself in a place of pain, needing to know God’s grace and forgiveness, I want you to really hear these words:
You are forgiven. You can find hope in knowing God’s grace is here for you. You are forgiven.
On the other hand, if you’re in this place and you really are feeling okay, blessed even, I would like to take this message in to a slightly different direction. This morning we have focused on God’s grace for us. Made in the image of God, we are called to accept God’s grace and then, in turn, extend grace to one another. I have a prayer and a challenge for you:
As we move forward as a community of grace, prayerfully seek out those who need to know God’s grace.
Who are your neighbors who desperately need to know about the hope and grace you have found?
Who do you need to invite to know God’s love for them?
My prayer is that each of us can be like the dad in the video. Get out the hose and shower others with God’s grace through your actions.
That is a relaunched vision I would love to see. Amen.
Will you pray with me?
God of grace,
We thank you for being a God who calls out to us, laying down the groundwork so we can discover the love and forgiveness, grace and acceptance you have always had for us. Open our hearts to realize who it is in our lives who needs to experience some of your grace. We pray for our friends and neighbors who are missing out on knowing the love you have for each of us. God, please forgive us when we neglect to show grace to one another, or refuse to even give our own self some grace. Soften our hearts toward all of your children. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Consider:
How have you experienced God’s grace in your own life?
This is the pastoral prayer I gave on Sunday (Father’s Day) in response to current crises along our borders. I offer this as a prayer to share with people of faith everywhere, for truly we should lament the suffering of others, and ask for mercy for the silent ways we unwittingly cause harm. Based on Psalm 130:
Out of the depths we cry to you, O GOD.
God, hear our voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of our supplications!
This morning we are celebrating the love that fathers have for their children, and the never-ending love you have for us, your children.
We remember the special times we may have had with fathers in our midst – our earthly fathers and people who have come alongside to serve as role models and guides to us.
We struggle in our hearts and in our churches to know the truth of what is happening to other fathers and mothers and their children along the borders of our country: Open our hearts to the voices of the world.
We confess that too often the church has been little more than a silent witness to evil deeds: We have prayed without protest, and without action for justice. As we remain silent, we have been made complicit in the cries of the hurting. Lord, have mercy upon us.
We wait for God, our souls waits, and in God’s word we hope;
In the midst of our lament we may give thanks – for pastors and laity who have raised courageous voices; for humanitarian groups who have come to the aid of others, for people who continue to bear witness to the Gospel under intense pressure and fear, for public officials who have challenged unjust policies risking reputation and career. The Gospel witness has not been completely silenced, and we are grateful.
Our soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning, More than those who watch for the morning, we wait.
Today we call for humility and courage to accept the futility of our current path. Today we cry out for creativity to seek new paths of peacemaking and hospitality.
O People, hope in GOD!
May we join protest to prayer, support ministries of compassion, and cast off the fear that has made us feel helpless in the face of injustice. May we return again to the way of Jesus. May heartbreak end and cries be transformed to the harmonies of justice and the melodies of peace.
For with GOD there is steadfast love, and great power to redeem.
For this we yearn, for this we pray, and toward this end we rededicate ourselves as children of a loving God who gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and welcome to the stranger.
O GOD, redeem your People from all iniquities, as we pray for your kingdom to come on earth as it heaven praying as Jesus taught, saying, “Our Father….”.
With the addition of a last minute emergency resolution, the 2018 Central Texas Annual Conference closed its items of business with a response to the proposed tent cities for migrant children. By voice vote, the delegation overwhelmingly supports the following response:
“Central Texas Annual Conference Response to Proposed Tent Cities for Migrant Children
Whereas Bishop Mike McKee expressed grave concerns in Sunday evening’s worship for the separation of children from parents at our borders
Whereas Bishop Mike Lowry has also called for immigration reform
Whereas the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and other news organizations have just reported a plan to house migrant children, separated from their parents, in tent cities near El Paso.
Therefore, be it resolved that the Central Texas Annual Conference states our opposition to this inhumane treatment of God’s most vulnerable persons – children.
Be it further resolved that the delegates of the Central Texas Annual Conference affirm the value of all persons and support the humane treatment of all vulnerable persons.
Jerrilyn Woodard-Entrekin, Lay Delegate from First United Methodist Church of Arlington”
I am partial to this handwritten, quickly drafted response because I was able to witness youth and young adults discussing its writing before it was presented to the larger body. The author of the response, Jerrilyn Woodard-Entrekin, wrote it during the conference between morning break and lunch, knowing she did not have much time.
Jerrilyn graciously allowed youth leaders to get a preview of the draft, and they discussed the importance of the response with youth over lunch. Appropriately, this timely discussion was over lunch in the back room of World Cup Cafe in Waco, Texas, at a table of Central Texas Youth and young adults. How beautiful is it to consider that these young people were surrounded by a fair trade market full of items that offer dignity and a living wage to people from around the world!
I love that it was discussed as a teachable moment youth and young adults – not the “church of the future,” but the church of the now. I love that it was discussed over a meal in a restaurant that helps develop dignity for “all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God.” I love that the author did not hesitate to do God’s work, but instead submitted a handwritten response quickly photocopied and distributed after lunch.
Let there be no confusion, separating small children from their parents and housing them indefinitely in tent cities/detention centers will traumatize and harm the most vulnerable. As people of faith – as moms and dads, as people of compassion and understanding, as people obligated to offer mercy to the the least, as people who have ever loved children – we have an obligation to speak out for the protection of the most vulnerable.
The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the Church, and I am hopeful for our future. God is good, y’all.
On April 29th, our congregation wrapped up the Healthy Church Initiative weekend. After our consulting team’s four prescriptions were read (including the one that could mean I will begin preaching regularly), we were walking out the door. A church member caught me on the way out and said offhandedly, “Well, I guess we’re going to get to know you a lot better.”
Oh. I’d considered how my work schedule would be impacted by the change, but I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes, I imagine as I write sermons and share bits from my life from here and there, you will get to know me better.
I went home and shared that comment with my husband that night over dinner, and his reaction was great: “Oh yes, they’ll definitely get to know more about you…and if I mess anything up they’ll probably hear about me, and they’ll get to know stories about the kids. Every time one of us messes up or says something funny, you’ll be thinking, “oh, that’ll preach.”” (I may or may not have already threatened one of my kids that he was about to become a sermon illustration…)
So I’m not so sure how I feel about all that sharing. I’m pretty introverted, but most of my family is not. I know that my bigger kids are a little mortified about their lives being exposed from the pulpit.
But that did get me to thinking… What is it about sharing about our personal lives that made us so uncomfortable? Why did we all have basically the same reaction?
We will take a look at what it means to be known, what keeps us from wanting to be known, and what it means for us as a community of faith to know one another.
Today’s Psalm reading, Psalm 139, is one of my favorite passages of Scripture – it’s my go-to passage for my art and prayer workshops. As I move through the sermon this morning, I invite you to open to the Scripture in a Bible or the New Living Translation version on your smartphone so you can follow along.
What does it mean to be known?
Psalm 139 begins with Verse 1: “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.”
There are a couple of ways to look at this word. It’s pretty common today to be satisfied with being “known” in the sense that people know your name, your image, they recognize you.
Instagram as a career
In fact, I learned recently that some people have made a lucrative career just out of being “Instagram known.” Instagram is a social media application that allows you to post and share photos. Like other social media, you can follow your favorite Instagrammers to see their latest posts & people can follow you back. The app keeps track of how many followers you have. You know you’re a cool kid if you have more people following you than you are following.
If you’re a professional Instagrammer though, you can capitalize on having a high number of followers. People who have more than 100,000 followers are considered “macro influencers” by savvy marketers and are often paid by companies to visit their businesses and post about it.
Once these influencers get into the range of about 400-500K followers, they can make something like $3-6K for a single sponsored post. This is one way of being known – in the sense of being famous or recognizable.
But what you are seeing in the photos isn’t even real. What you don’t see is the effort behind the photo. They are seated at tables with ideal lighting. There may be strategically placed beautiful people in the shots trying to make the venue look cool without looking like it was a staged photo. People may even come with their own makeup and lighting crew, use a professional photographer, then airbrush the photo to create that perfect Instagram moment the brands want.
So, we live in a culture permeated with the pressure to project our best images out to the world. This pressure has always been around (consider even Adam and Eve tried to pull one over on God), but Social media in general has intensified the pressure and given us a platform for choosing what images we share – including the humble-brag highlights of our weeks peppered with a few carefully filtered pictures of the food we eat. Through this lens, we live in to these roles as caricatures rather than sharing our true character. Your likeness… your image… is made known rather than your character.
It is really easy to live our lives in this safe, superficial mode of relating to one another. The problem is – if we live our lives at this level, we are missing out on the essential part of being in community in one another.
There is a different meaning of the word “known”
The Psalm continues: “You know my thoughts even when I’m far away…You know what I’m going to say even before I say it, O Lord…such knowledge is too wonderful for me; too great for me to understand.”
There is a different meaning of the word “known” that deep down we all long for. It’s a messier, more vulnerable kind of being known that goes much deeper. It requires a willingness to let people in to see your junk, to let people know your struggles, your sin patterns, and even your heartaches.
This kind of being known requires that we risk rejection, recognize our worthiness, and put forth the effort.
Fear of rejection
A primary fear that keeps things superficial is a fear of rejection. We don’t let people get to know us because we are afraid they will discover something about us that they won’t like and they may reject us.
Even clergy writing sermons are tempted to keep sermons safe and unobjectionable because of the fear that people will leave the church if their toes get stepped on. (for the record, you don’t have to always agree with what I say in my sermons, but please don’t reject me….)
Sense of unworthiness
A second fear that keeps us from being known is a fear of being unworthy. It is tempting to believe at times that you are somehow not worthy of being known and loved by others. I love how this Psalm reminds us that each of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful (or marvelous) are God’s works.” God’s character goes into the creation of every person. When you feel worthless, or even begin to hate yourself, you can remember that God’s spirit is ready and willing to work within you.
You are worth knowing. Every person with whom you lock eyes is also worth knowing.
A third barrier to knowing one another is that we are just too busy to put forth the effort. With so much to do all the time, it’s a lot easier to just be friendly than to really be in community. Honestly, it’s a lot of work to get to the point that you are really known. Just think of how we greet each other with niceties like “How are you?” “Fine, you?” It takes more work to think about how you really might be feeling, and even more work and risk to share that information with other people.
To really get to know one another takes time, listening, and sharing life with one another. It’s easier and quicker to make sweeping assumptions about how other people are based on the boxes we put people in like politics, race, gender and education, than it is to really get to know one another as fellow human beings.
The question to consider is, which fears and excuses are you willing to give up in order to risk being known?
What does it mean that God knows us so well?
How well God knows us
How well does God know us? God knows us completely. God has examined our hearts and knows everything about us. God knows us in minute detail, God knows the number of hairs on our head. As the Psalmist reminds us, God is inescapable and always with us, even in our dark and secret places.
God has been with us from the very beginning, since before we were even knit together in our mother’s wombs. God is never going to abandon us.
God is a faithful & trustworthy knower
Although God knows us completely with a knowledge that is “too wonderful” for us to comprehend…God still abides with us and loves us.
What we can learn from this is: God is a faithful and trustworthy knower.
God also wants to be completely known by us. John Wesley preached on a concept he called “spiritual respiration” or breathing. Just as we must have breath in order to live, we must have God as part of our existence in order to be spiritually alive. A challenge with this is that, unlike breathing, to be in relationship with God takes conscious effort on our part. We can grow to a point of deep community with God through developing habits like regular prayer, Scripture study, and life in Christian community. We can grow to a point of deep community with one another through developing habits like praying for one another, studying Scripture together, and working toward really knowing and understanding each other.
Words of hope and a Call to action
As people of faith, we are also called to grow to a point of deep community with the all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Rev. Joseph Nader reminded us last week, we each have unique and important gifts and talents to bring to the Body of Christ. As a community, we need to know one another and to allow ourselves to be known. As a group of people with diverse views on a lot of subjects, we have a beautiful opportunity to model healthy Christian community. I challenge you to take someone out to lunch and get to know one another. It’s worth the risk. And as we move forward as a faith community no matter the results of today’s vote, we can have full confidence that God is present even as we venture in to uncharted territory.* My prayer for each of us is that we be willing to see the image of God in one another.
Let us pray:
O Lord who searches and knows us, we praise you for your constant presence and love in our lives. We are reminded today that there is no darkness we can encounter, no circumstance we can face, no place we may venture, no choice we may make that can separate us from your complete, all-encompassing love for us. Help us to lean into remembering that you, God, are always with us. Help us to risk getting to know one another so that we can be the kind of people who are known for how we love you, love one another, and strive to be your disciples. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
What key takeaways do you have from this message? What keeps you from being known by others? Who do you know that needs to hear this message?
Not too many years ago, I was struggling to find my sense of identity. Much to my surprise, I uncovered a wellspring of joy when I was given the opportunity to put a paintbrush in my hand. I fell in love again with painting and creating, and the process helped me to discover my way in ministry. There is something soothing, healing and empowering that can be found in the act of creation. For me, a path to lightness and health was uncovered through art. What a joy it is to be in a ministry that allows me a space to use my gifts and talents – I now have the privilege of guiding others on this journey through “Mission and Art Workshops.”
For the last few weeks, it has been a joy to lead weekly art workshops in our local Salvation Army shelter. The shelter is a haven for families, and many of the residents have also found themselves to be in dark places, struggling to find their own identities.
Each resident’s story is different, and I hope to get to learn the stories in time. Many of the women here are homeless because they have fled unhealthy relationships, domestic violence. The shelter creates a safe place to land temporarily as these parents begin to rediscover their individual senses of identity.
This is where the “Mission and Art” ministry steps in. As we gather together, we share small stories about our lives and get to know one another. We pray, read Scripture and create. We talk about really important things and we laugh about silly things. It is a sacred space for women to gather. So far we have played with mixed media art, acrylics, and watercolor painting.
The rules are simple here:
Accept that you are an artist. We were all created in the image of a creative God – we are each inherently creative!
Have fun and play.
Be kind to yourself and others. No criticizing words for your own artwork or for others allowed.
Do art for the process. Know that you will create whatever you were meant to create here – and that is enough. There are no mistakes, no mess-ups, no perfection allowed.
It is my prayer that through our times of creating art together, the women of this shelter will enjoy moments of celebrating their innate creativity and enjoying one another’s company. May the work be empowering, healing and stepping toward wholeness.
Here are a few examples of the beauty that is being created here:
If you have been inspired by this post and would like to learn more about the Mission and Art ministry, feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Be blessed today!
I don’t know about you, but I can’t even bring myself to look at the newsfeed today. I have seen enough to know that the news cycle is devastating. This morning my sweet husband told me all I needed to know to know that this will be a news cycle filled with heartbreak, pain, theories, hurt, blame, politicizing and brokenness. There will be images of the aftermath, biographies of the deceased. Today’s cycle will be inevitably be followed with posts of division, conspiracy theories, differing political arguments about gun control, violence, mental illness, and more finger pointing. My soul can’t take this today.
Instead, I humbly offer to you 7 soul care practices you might need today:
Avoid the media/your newsfeed for a while. I understand the temptation to try to understand how something so unspeakable could happen. There is a primal need to understand evil and understand threats to our well-being. But taking in too much bad news will inevitably hurt your soul. I am hanging on to these words from Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.”
Go for a walk. Take time to enjoy nature and to appreciate the beauty around you. Where do you recognize beauty? Is it the sunshine? flowers? birds? breeze? Take a deep breath and enjoy this, never taking it for granted. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Consider the goodness of God. When facing evil, it may be tempting to forget the goodness of God. What is it that you know about God to still be true? God is still good, God is still love, God is never leaving nor forsaking you. “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
Spend time with a friend or with family. This is a good moment to call a friend to talk to them. Eat a meal together. Just be around people who care about you. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
Give and receive hugs. This would be a good day to give hugs to people. We need physical comfort and care. Be sure to hug your loved ones today. “Let us love one another.”
Pray. Maybe this should be the first one on a list for soul care because prayer is essential for your soul’s wellbeing. Don’t just post that your “thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” spend time quietly devoted to prayer. Pray for peace, pray for comfort, pray for an end to senseless violence. Pray continuously. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Work for justice and mercy. We might not be able to help in the specific situation today, we do not have the power to undo the evil that has already happened, but we can find small ways to work for justice and mercy in the places around us. “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I wish I could end this post with an explanation about why bad things happen to good people. I wish I could explain why evil exists. I just don’t know the answers, but I do know that we will be okay. We can have hope for the future. We need to hang on to that hope today…and we need to love one another.
Who needs to hear a message of hope from you today?
This week I retreated to a camp in Glen Rose, Texas, for three days of spiritual retreat. Going on a minimum 3 day spiritual retreat is a requirement for my ordination in the United Methodist Church. I had a lot of flexibility on how the retreat itself would go.
1. It is relatively easy to be silent when you’re by yourself, but it is a challenge to be around people without feeling pressured to say something. For most of my time away, I was on the camp by myself. I went for a long walks, I hiked through the forest, I spent time creating art and reading. I was quiet.
In the silence, I was able to rest. I was able to just be, just listen. I noticed things I might have overlooked – the smell of dew in the morning, the sound of deer as they scamper away, even the sound of a bird’s wings flapping. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired.
On the few occasions I walked in to town, people were friendly and I felt compelled to speak. The person I talked to the longest, an elderly man in an antique store, seemed lonely. While a vow of silence seems like a noble idea, sometimes small talk is a compassionate act.
2. Sometimes I have to consciously choose to feel safe. One of the hardest parts about being by myself, especially as a petite female, was getting over feeling anxious about possible dangers. I had to let that fear go in order to feel at peace. The fears of unknown dangers, especially while walking alone at night in the dark, cluttered up my thoughts.
Once I made the conscious choice that I was going to feel safe, I could enjoy nature fully. I was able to pray and sing like no one could hear me. It was only then that I could fully experience God’s presence.
I think it’s worth mentioning that living in a culture that feels dangerous even if the dangers are not real makes spirituality more difficult. When I walk alone at night, a part of my brain is constantly on the lookout for possible attacks, alert for sudden movements around the corner. I cannot be the only woman who feels this way. It’s a bit heartbreaking to have to choose to feel safe. My hope is that by mentioning it we can all work together for more peace, working to create a culture of safety. (Maybe you were expecting me to learn something more profound, and I did learn other things – I spent a lot of time reading, studying, writing and creating. There will be more blog posts to come.)
“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. ” 2 Timothy 1:7