Fearfully and Wonderfully

Today, I wrote the devotional for a health and wellness challenge group I’m participating in on Facebook. Here is what I shared:

13 For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts;
  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
  Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
  intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
  all the days that were formed for me, 
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139:13-16

Let’s take a moment and consider a truth that is among the easiest to forget: You, child of God, are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Designer who knows every part of your body and every breath you will take. God created you with intention, on purpose, and God did not produce anything defective or unuseful.

Your body, the one you are maybe hoping to improve or restore to health, was fearfully and wonderfully made by your Creator. You have one body and you should absolutely seek to be as healthy as possible to honor God. But your body, even just as it is, is God-made.

Your inner self, which probably frustrates you a good bit as you struggle to control your thoughts or actions, as you carry around burdens of sin and despair, is seen by God. You should absolutely seek to repent of your sins and bring your burdens to God, but the God who always sees what is inside of you loves you with an unshakable love even still.

The book of your life, which you might sometimes believe seems boring or mundane to everyone else, was written by God. You should definitely seek to live the best story possible, but know that God is the one with the pen in hand, and your story matters in God’s Kingdom.

There is a whole industry built around making you feel like there is something wrong with your body and your life and that you (without their products) are not enough. As you seek to be healthy–body, mind, spirit, and strength–give thanks to the God who made you in a fearfully wonderful way.

 

The Miracle Worker and the Generous Child

JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287 [retrieved April 25, 2016].
JESUS MAFA. Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287 [retrieved April 25, 2016].
[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

If you’re here on Wednesday nights, you know that there are usually several children here. Some of them are the children of our church families who you are also likely to see on Sunday mornings. But we also, on Wednesday nights, have several of our after school program kids who stay for dinner. They can do this because Mary Royalty, one of our children’s ministry assistants, and Dorothy Jourdan, a high student, agree to stay for the hour in between the time that after school club ends and Wednesday night dinners begin. For that night each week we can feed children dinner, and we can also include our after school kids in our children’s choir rehearsal and provide some Christian formation.

On a Wednesday night this past fall, Carolyn Dorsey was here at our church. She was sharing about the Sadie Sunshine chapter of Crochet for Cancer. She had brought with her a large sample of the items she and her team members around the world make and that she mails to hospitals and patients, and these sample hats and prayer shawls, and prayer squares were displayed creatively on a table near the lectern.

If you’re here early enough on Wednesday night, you also know there’s a bit of a procession when the kids can finally leave the gym and come to the fellowship hall. When there is a special guest with a table display set up, things get exciting pretty quickly. The children race to be the first one to look at the items on display. So on the night of Ms. Dorsey’s visit, at five minutes til six, her table was swarmed by elementary and preschool aged children wanting to look at the bright display of knitted and crocheted items.

One little girl, age nine, looked at the display before her. She’s smart and a good reader, so she began reading some of the descriptions out loud. I listened to her analyze the contents of various bags and read the tag on one of them. Suddenly, her jaw dropped and her smile disappeared. “Wait,” she said. “Kids get cancer?” I let the question hang in the air, until she directed it to me. “Ms. Becky, kids get cancer?” She asked me. So I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye and I told her some quick version of the answer that yes they do and yes that’s sad and yes we should pray for them and their families….and then in the mix of getting ready for dinner, I hurried to break up an argument about how many cookies constitute one dessert.

A couple of moments later, I looked down to see the nine year-old girl standing beside me, holding out a dollar bill. Confused, I asked her what it was for. “Kids get cancer,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen anymore. Give it to the lady so she can help them.” Now, without letting you into personal family matters I will just mention that to a lot nine year-olds, a dollar is only a fraction of what the tooth fairy brings or a small part of the week’s allowance or the amount they can make by taking out the trash at home…but to my young friend, it was a pretty big chunk of money and not something she would usually be carrying—in fact, she told me it was all the money she had with her. And I will tell you that we took that money to Carolyn and she was grateful for the child’s gift offered so honestly and purely to her work. And I have no doubt Carolyn used that dollar to send a fun hat to a child suffering from a dreadful disease and that our little friend was a partner in bringing some joy to the child who received it.

Today’s gospel reading starts in the middle of a tense moment in the life of Christ. Chapter six starts with the words: “After this…” After what? Well, in chapter five Jesus heals a man—restores health after 38 years of illness—38 years! that’s the length of my entire lifetime. And then, of course it was the Sabbath, so instead of celebrating the restoration of a man who had most likely, and understandably, given up by now that he would ever be healthy again, the religious leaders attacked with questions and accusations. It’s after this, John 5 tells us, that the leaders began to rally for Jesus’ death. Chapter 5 ends with Jesus making his case about his relationship with God and the ministry he was called to do…and then chapter 6 begins with an escape attempt—first across the sea and then up into the mountains.

But the crowd is persistent. They have seen Jesus heal—the sick man in chapter 5, others before him. They want to be with Jesus. And oh, compassionate Jesus realizes that no doubt this devoted, persistent crowd is hungry—they’ve walked around a sea, they’ve walked up into the mountains to be with him. With them, they carried children on their backs and in their arms, and I imagine some carried sick relatives they were hoping Jesus would touch.

Now Jesus is a teacher, and so he asks a question of his students: “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?”

This is an interesting question. And in it, there is something implied that perhaps the disciples were not expecting. Jesus is implying that it is the disciple’s task—and his task, he says “we”—to provide food for the crowd.

Now notice—Jesus doesn’t ask HOW will we buy bread. He asks WHERE will we buy bread.

Philip however, responds as though Jesus asked HOW. “Jesus have you seen the crowd? We could catch and sell fish for six months and still not have enough money to feed this crowd well.”

Now obviously some conversations are missing here. I imagine that Jesus instructed his disciples to find something for the crowd to eat, as he does in other Gospel accounts of the feeding of the multitudes, sending the disciples on a mission to survey the crowd, perhaps.

Philip comes back with something—“I got a kid with a lunch box! Five barley loaves, two fish.”

And then he adds a sentence that tells us that rather than being just plain hopeful, he was feeling a bit skeptical—“but what are they among so many people?”

And then you know how the miracle goes—the people sit down (in other gospels we’re told that they were organized a bit), Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish, and people ate as much as they wanted to eat with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare.

All because Jesus is the worker of miracles…and because a boy shared his lunch.

Now, I want to talk about this little boy. The other gospels do not mention him and I am not really sure why because it seems like an interesting part of the story, at least to me, but I might be biased since I tend to find most children to be mostly interesting most of the time.

This boy, mentioned here in John 6, helps us remember 3 really important things about offering our gifts in ministry as we are called to partner with Jesus.

First, the child present here was generous with what he had to offer. It had been a long day, he had taken a long walk, and he was no doubt as hungry as the rest of the crowd. Sure, you might believe that he was coerced into offering his food to the task at hand, but I know children and I know that they are often eager and trusting with their gifts, so I believe he offered his lunch with open hands and a willing heart, much like my little friend offered her dollar to Carolyn’s ministry.

In our human condition, especially as we get older and more cynical, we are much more likely to clench our fists and hold onto whatever good gifts we have—for fear of what? That there really isn’t enough to go around? That if we let it go, it might benefit the wrong person? That it might not be appreciated or valued in the hands of another?

But in the face of our fears and unwilling hearts, Scripture tells us a different story. In James, we read that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Psalm 24 reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it! In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul reminds us that we’ve been given a trust and the opportunity to be faithful with what we’ve been given. Nothing we have actually belongs to us—it all is God’s anyway. You can’t take it with you, you can’t even secure most of it completely—ask anyone whose home has burned down or who has lost money on a sure thing investment. Every good thing we have comes from God and we are entrusted with it. To take God’s generosity and hoard it for ourselves is not what we are called to do. Be shrewd and careful, yes; be good stewards, yes; but hold onto it for selfish gain? Never our calling as disciples.

Second, the child saw value in what he had to offer. Not only did he offer his lunch with generosity, but he offered it with childlike faith that it was a useful gift. There were, no doubt, some adults in the crowd who had pieces of food in their bags…but it’s a child who offers up his lunch. As adults, whether we are among the crowd or among the disciples, we tend to downplay our own gifts and potential offerings. Too little, too small, too tarnished, too mediocre, etc. We look at the size of the problem and we make the determination that what we have is not enough…or not good enough. Not this child! This child saw his lunch as a viable solution—otherwise, he wouldn’t have offered it. Where others saw scarcity, the boy saw the potential for abundance. The beautiful thing about children is that they believe that their dollar…or their lunch…or whatever gift they are holding out matters and is worthy.

In the Church and in our lives, we often doubt the goodness of the gifts we have to offer. We’re more like Andrew who wonders how the boy’s lunch could possibly be valuable to Jesus in the face of such a perceived shortage. The need is too great…I don’t have enough…what I have isn’t very good…these are all the things that we’ve learned to tell ourselves.

But what if we were to have faith like a child? What if we trusted that in Jesus’ hands, our gifts would be enough? Or that us + Jesus is always bigger than any problem faced?

Here’s a third thing to notice here: Jesus found a partner in the little boy. Because the little boy was generous to share, and because the boy believed he had something to offer Jesus and the crowd, Jesus called him into ministry. It strikes me that if we look in Scripture, we would be hard-pressed to find any instances of God not partnering with people. From Noah to Abraham to Moses to the judges and the prophets and even some of the kings…to Mary, John the Baptist…

And this little boy! If Jesus had wanted to, he could have called down bread from heaven—I believe that he could have. But not only did he invite the disciples into partnership in addressing the crowd’s hunger, but he used the gift of bread and fish, offered by small hands, to feed the multitude.

And Church—we are called into partnership with Jesus as well. Jesus is still asking “where are we going to get bread to feed these people?”or “from where will the resources come so clean water can become the norm in the developing world?”or “who will carry and share the gospel to the ends of the earth?” or even “who will love this one neighbor no one is loving?”

Well…I’m convinced that these resources are found among the Body of Christ. We each have God-given gifts. We are blessed to overflowing—so many resources and abilities and creative solutions and talents are present in this room…and in the Church worldwide.

May we open our hands in generosity, refusing to hoard the gifts of God…may we boldly offer what we have been given, refusing to believe that it’s not enough…and may we recognize the opportunities we have around us to share in ministry with Jesus, the one who can always make a way in hard or impossible situations thanks be to God!

The Narrative

If there’s something I have learned from watching politicians and various media sources during my adult life it is this: how you tell the story changes how people understand events. The narrative that is presented determines a lot about how people will react and respond. News agencies can tell a story in a way that creates sympathy for one entity and disdain for another…or they can spin it completely the other way! Agencies determine which story they want to tell and they share and highlight the pictures, facts, and anecdotes that tell that particular story. You can flip to another news channel to see a different telling, usually.

For my Spiritual Formation Group this past August, I read a book by Donald Miller called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned To Live A Better Story. It wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it did get me doing some thinking about story and about inviting the people around me to live a better story, even as I try to live the best story too. It has me thinking a lot about how my story will be told and how people will understand my life’s purpose through that telling.

image1The Psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 139 reminds me of this:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well. 
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.

Psalm 139:13-16

God and I are writing a story together and we have been for 36 years. Oh, I reach out and bat at the pen sometimes because I’d rather something different be written. And sometimes I go off script and make a mess of things. Sometimes a tragedy appears on the page and needs to be navigated. And sometimes other people, even people I love, change the story for the worse.

This world is a broken place and we are all in it making decisions. Some decisions are for the better and create hope and love, and some decisions hurt others and change their stories in a tragic way.

I don’t always have control over my story, but I can always choose how I react to the events that happen and I can often choose how my story is told. My actions and attitudes will determine the narrative.

That narrative could be “Look at the terrible things that happened in her life and what a mess it is. She deserves to be angry and depressed. How is she supposed to deal with that? It’s no wonder she’s having trouble.”

or

That narrative could be “Look how she overcame when she was faced with terrible circumstances! She dealt with the bad choices of others by trusting God and living her story in the best way. She’s strong and  inspires others!”

(Forgive the slight amount of hyperbole in the above examples.)

If MSNBC and Fox News can do it, so can we. We don’t always get to choose the story we’re telling, but we can always choose the way we tell it and teach others to tell it.

And I have to believe that no matter how the world (or the main character) jostles the author’s pen, God will continue writing until all of those unexpected plot points turn into the very best ending eventually.

Why You Should Take Your Daughter To Zumba…

Photo Credit: Nibby Priest (taken in Church Fellowship Hall)
Photo Credit: Nibby Priest (taken in Church Fellowship Hall)

(…or any group fitness class.)

You probably know that for the last one and a half years, I’ve been participating in Zumba classes that are held at Presbyterian Church in downtown Henderson KY. Three instructors teach in the gym at the church on Mondays (5:30 p.m.), Tuesdays (5:30 and 6:35 p.m.) and Saturdays (9:00 a.m.).

Almost all of the participants are women. Many are mothers. Some bring their children with them to Zumba. Sometimes the kids play in an attached classroom, but sometimes they watch or participate in the class. The instructors are very gracious, and I think it’s great when kids are there.

Yes, it’s great because they are exercising and kids exercising is a “win.” Yes, it’s great because they are learning some basis dance moves (cha cha, mambo, salsa, single single double). But it’s also great because they are seeing something they don’t get to see everywhere: women of all ages and body types, of all abilities and inabilities doing something fun and healthy.

We worry about daughters in our society. The media available to them is often full of air-brushed and plastic body parts. We worry that they’ll try to obtain something that’s impossible–the perfection that only comes with personal trainers, personal chefs, personal plastic surgeons and Photoshop.

In my Zumba classes on Tuesday night (I took 1.5 classes on Tuesday), there were several children present. At one point, there was a part of a song where we were all facing the north wall of the gym and shaking it. I mean, that’s the instruction: face that wall and shake it out. Bodies of all types, created by God and beautiful in each one’s own way, shook and moved. Young and old, short and tall, thin and curvy, full of energy and exhausted after a day at work or at home. Women, who got up that morning and themselves may have looked in the mirror and made a face because what they saw was not the impossible perfection they wished the were seeing, were smiling and shaking and laughing and encouraging each other.

When you take your daughter to Zumba, she gets a different message than the traditional media gives. She sees real bodies,none of them completely alike, being strong and healthy. She sees real women, some of whom she may look like when she grows up, doing something fun and energetic. She learns that “normal” isn’t airbrushed, and “perfect” isn’t impossible. She sees that “healthy” involves laughter, that “strong” can mean trying something new and that no body moves exactly the same way.

When you take your daughter to Zumba, she may just be learning to love her own body. And that’s truly a “win.”

A Meeting, A Miracle and A Messiah: Sermon on John 9

El Greco "Healing of the Man Born Blind"
El Greco “Healing of the Man Born Blind”

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at Presbyterian Church in Henderson, KY.

Where have you witnessed God at work? Every summer, as you may know, we join with three other churches in town for Vacation Bible School. Our theme, Scriptures and activities are always different from the years before, but one thread that runs through every VBS for the last several years are the “God Sightings.” We ask kids every day to go home and watch for God at work. We give them a visual reminder of some sort to help them in this task (sometimes a bracelet that says “Watch For God!”).

Here’s one thing we’re teaching (and learning ourselves) by doing this: if you are watching for God, you will most certainly see God. If you will seek God, you will find God. I remember growing up that my mom had a coffee mug—for some reason I seem to think it came in a floral arrangement—but either way, it said “Expect A Miracle.”

When we live in expectation of miracles, we see the miraculous around us.

The man in our story today, however, was not watching for a miracle. In fact, he wasn’t physically watching for anything and he had probably been taught over time not to expect anything miraculous, either.

JOHN 9:1-3

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Here we are in John 9. If we understand John to be happening chronologically, the following things have already happened: The calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night, Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus feeding the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, Jesus dealing with the situation involving the woman who was accused of committing adultery and was about to be stoned, and Jesus causing chapter after chapter of division and trouble among his disciples and among religious leaders. His teachings were hard and often hard to understand without further investigation and he certainly was not afraid of being called a heretic. He wasn’t trying to make friends or start a revolution. Jesus was doing the work of God and inviting people to take a risk and work with him.

So when we get to chapter 9, and the disciples turn an unsuspecting man into an object lesson, we should not be surprised at how it goes.

Hey, Jesus, here’s a guy who was born blind. Who sinned? Him or his parents?

The cultural belief was this: something bad happened to you? Must be because someone sinned. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Now, one who owns the entire canon of Scripture might point out that actually the Old and New Testaments are full of words that counter this belief, but either way, this was still embraced by the people of Jesus’ day.

The fact that the man was born blind seems to be universally understood in this passage, so I do wonder how the disciples thought it could be because of the man’s own sin. The sin that God knew the man would commit before he was born? That just makes my head hurt.

“Neither,” says Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Wait, what? This man has lived his whole life without his sight, which in ancient Palestine was a trial in itself—he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a family, he couldn’t participate in religious life—just so God could be glorified in him? How is that just or good? He’s spent his whole life on the outskirts just so Jesus could heal him today?

Yes.

I don’t like the answer Jesus gives, but I trust in God’s sovereignty. And I know that I’ve certainly seen God glorified in painful or difficult or unfair circumstances in my own life and in the lives of people I love.

Right now, this man is an unwitting object lesson, but he’s about to experience a miracle.

JOHN 9:4-7a

We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). 

This lesson is fun to teach to kids. Jesus heals a guy with spit and dirt. Did you ever wonder why? We have lots of instances of Jesus simply touching people or declaring them healed without even touching him. Why did Jesus make mud?

It’s the Sabbath. The teaching is clear: kneading on the Sabbath—even kneading spit into dirt—is not allowed. Jesus is being clear: I’m healing on the Sabbath. Right before he mixed up the dirt, he told them why:

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” What Jesus is doing is time-sensitive.

What about the man who is at the center of the object lesson? Here he is, minding his own business, going about his usual day and all of a sudden, he’s surrounded by a group of people who talk about him like he’s not there and all of a sudden someone puts spitty mud on his eyes.

It’s a moment that changes his whole life and he wasn’t even watching for it. Literally. Or figuratively.

JOHN 9:7b-12

Then the man went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

The man is healed. He returns to the place where he used to sit and beg and can see it for the first time. Can you imagine what that must be like? I can’t. It must have been incredibly overwhelming. He doesn’t really get to enjoy the experience completely because his neighbors want answers first from each other: are you sure this is the same guy? and then from him:  “But how were your eyes opened?”

JOHN 9:13-34

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

This should have been the happiest moment of the man’s life. He doesn’t know how it happened, he hasn’t seen the man who performed the work, but he knows this: I was blind, now I see. It must be because God had a hand in it.

The Pharisees are one thing—we know they have a reputation for being skeptical, for trying to trip up Jesus at every pass, for driving out people who challenge their stance. But his parents? His own parents who have known him as long as he’s been alive, who raised him in his blindness, who had surely agonized over what his life would be like without sight…

His own parents reject him too, all because they fear that their church will throw them out if they accept him.

And then this man is tossed aside by his neighbors, his family and his church. In their failure to watch for a God who is much bigger than they have expected, they dismiss the possibility of a miracle rather than having to move their lines and consider that one has happened.

JOHN 9:35-38

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

John 9 is a long chapter, but if you hang on this far you read the most beautiful part of it.

The man has no idea what Jesus looks like. Jesus has healed him, has given him a reason for hope, has given him a bright future and the man can’t recognize him when he bumps into him.

It was no accident he ran into Jesus, for Jesus heard what was happening and went to find him. What a mix of emotions the man, whose name we never know, must be. Joy for having sight restored. Anger and sadness for being rejected by all of the people who have ever mattered in his life.

Jesus, who has crowds following him everywhere he goes, went looking for just one guy–a guy he had already helped! When no one else wanted to stand with this man, when no one else wanted to acknowledge him or what this dramatic change in his life really meant, Jesus was there. This one person mattered to Jesus.

No gimmicks, no steps to salvation, no scare tactics. A simple question: Do you believe? A simple answer: Lord, I believe. Jesus’ miracle has changed this man forever…and gotten him exiled from his religious community. But he can see! And he is befriended by Jesus! And he devotes himself to his new Lord through worship.

But Jesus has one last word about sight and watching for God at work:

JOHN 9:39-41

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Jesus uses a miracle involving physical sight to teach about spiritual sight. He turns the wisdom of the time on its ear, as Jesus often does.

To those who refused to consider the greatness of God or the possibility that God could be working here and now, Jesus says:

When you were blind, you were without sin. But now that you can see, and still choose to reject me, your sin remains.

The Pharisees, the neighbors, the man’s parents: they were so concerned about their understanding, their own place, their own teachings that they missed seeing God. They missed a miracle!

What about us? Do we ever do that?

Yes, I do. I have a feeling we all do.

When we close our eyes and hold onto our viewpoints and affiliations, we miss seeing God at work.

When we put other people into columns and categories, we do the same to God.

When we would rather be right than ask questions or seek answers we don’t know, we miss the chance for God to mold us.

When we refuse to seek God outside of the boundaries we’ve set up ourselves, we will likely not find God in unexpected places. Which is where miracles usually happen.

Our Scriptures teach that you and I are created in God’s own image…yet sometimes it seem like we’re trying to make God in our image. We’d rather have a God who is like us. Who believes what we believe. Who hates the people we hate. Who respects the boundaries we’ve set. Like this man’s teachers, neighbors and family, we miss the point. We miss the miracle.

When we ask kids at Vacation Bible School to watch for God, we give them a way to record their God Sightings. Each day, they bring them to VBS and share them with their small groups. As we hear each other’s testimonies, one thing becomes clear: God works in big things and small things. Things I never thought of as miraculous or done by God’s hand are illuminated for me as a five year-old sees God at work in his grandmother fixing his favorite meal for supper or an eleven year-old recognizes God working in a conflict she’s had with her best friend. A seven year-old sees that God is present with her uncle who is battling cancer and a teenage crew leader gives thanks for the beautiful clouds God created.

When we open our eyes, we can see. We should see.

Watch for God! Amen.

A Tale Of Two Banquets

Written by Becky Durham

(This is the sermon I will preach this morning, March 3, at Presbyterian Church of Henderson, KY.  This parable is based on Proverbs 9. At the end of the sermon is an adapted version of Isaiah 55:1-9. )

The Icon Of Sophia
The Icon Of Sophia

On the top of a high hill, there stood a large house. It had been built so long ago, no one could remember what the hill had looked like before it appeared, except for Sophia, the builder of the home. She remembered the hill the hour before she had carefully begun constructing her residence on its summit. It was sturdy, stone. The large porch on the front of the home had seven columns that stood strong and tall and supported the structure. It was not the biggest or grandest house anyone had ever seen, but it was quaint and inviting even still.

Sophia lived in the house with her husband, Justin. She could remember what the land had once been—fertile and lush with a river that flowed through the valley. Now, not much of that beautiful land still existed. The river had all but dried up and the people of the valley were hungry. The sun shined harshly and the vegetation could hardly survive.  From her porch, Sophia could look down and see the suffering and the need of the people living in the land. It troubled her and she looked daily for ways she could help make their lives better.

From her porch, Sophia could also lift her eyes and look at the hill directly across the valley. On that hill, stood another house, large and decadent and trimmed with gold. The home belonged to Anoia.  Anoia had not built her own home. Rather she had found some of the more desperate people living in the valley and had promised them food, water and money to construct it for her. She was beautiful and cunning and good at making promises, whether she planned to keep them or not. They had expertly completed the work, but Anoia had tricked them and managed to pay them much less for their labor than they had been promised.

Anoia’s land contained the source for the stream that had once flowed below. She had successfully diverted the water, stopping almost all of its flow to the town, and was able to enjoy all she needed—for drinking, for showering, for laundry. Her garden grew so fantastically, there was no way for her or her household to eat all of the food it produced.

Anoia was a good secret-keeper, however. She’d walk through the city square and speak to the townspeople. “Oh, it’s terrible this year, isn’t it?” She would ask a hungry woman buying her ration of flour at the market. “I wonder if we’ll get some rain so our garden might grow!”  Anoia would then buy her own ration, even though she didn’t actually need it. “Oh, my, I just don’t know how I’ll have the energy to get back up the hill,” Anoia would complain.

At her home, Sophia was excited. She had managed, after years of learning and trial and error, to grow enough food in her small garden to have the first sizeable harvest since the drought had come.

As she showed her husband around the garden, she had an idea.

“I want to have a banquet,” Sophia said. “I want to invite the townspeople to come and to share this harvest!”

Sophia shared her idea with some of her friends. The owner of the vineyard had been employing some of Sophia’s techniques with her grapes and was experiencing a generous harvest herself. She offered Sophia wine to serve at the table.

The cattle farmer had been sharing some of Sophia’s land for years. She had allowed him to create a small pasture for his decreased herd and the cattle had been enjoying the best grass they had in some time. He offered her milk and meat to serve at the banquet table.

Together, they created invitations.

“This is what I want them to say,” Sophia said. “Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! Come and take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free! Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will eat the finest food.”

Sophia took the invitations to the city square, where she and her friends distributed them to everyone in the town.

“Come visit me!” Sophia would exclaim. “Come and eat my food and drink the wine I’ve been given! Come share my table and bless me with your company!”

One man growled, “Food and wine? This is surely another trap. This lady is just like Anoia.”

The owner of the vineyard began to speak up against the man and correct him, but Sophia tugged on her friend’s arm. “Don’t bother. He wants to hate us. It won’t do any good.”

Sophia handed some invitations to children that had gathered in the square.

“We can come to the banquet?” A seven year-old girl with red curls asked in disbelief.

“Of course you can,” Sophia told her. “You are welcome in my home. Bring your friends!”

There was a blind man, begging at the gate of the city. Sophia took his hands in hers and placed in them an invitation. “This says you should come to my house for dinner,” She told him. “I’ll send my friend to take you there.”

“Lady,” The blind man said. “I don’t know you, but your voice is kind. I will come to your banquet.”

Anoia caught wind of Sophia’s plans to host a feast. “How dare she!” Anoia wailed. “My house is larger and finer and my table is bigger.”

So, not to be outdone, Anoia began to create her own invitations. “Come into my home,” she told the townspeople as she handed them out. “My home is more elegant, grander than Sophia’s. Come enjoy what my table has to offer you!”

Among themselves, the townspeople began discussing which invitation was better.

“Sophia is so kind and trustworthy,” one argued.

“But Anoia is rich! Look up on that hill at her beautiful home! Surely the best food and entertainment will be found with her.” Another pointed out.

“Anoia is a fraud and a liar,” one man warned. “You’ll only regret the time you spend with her.”

The arguments continued, but the townspeople began to choose which hill they would climb that night.

At home, Sophia prepared for the banquet. She set the table with her finest linens and best dishes. She used the produce she had grown and the meat and the milk and the wine she’d been given to create a feast fit for royalty.

At 7:00 sharp, the doorbell began ringing and Sophia welcomed the townspeople who had responded to the invitation into her home.

The little girl with curly red hair was there, along with her brother. The blind man begging at the city gate had come, escorted by the cattle farmer who had gone into town to bring him. The seats at the long table filled up with people hungry for the feast that Sophia had prepared.

The people in attendance marveled at the delicious offerings and there was eating and laughter and dancing well into the night.

Across the valley on the opposing hill, at Anoia’s home, the doorbell rang as well. A majority of the townspeople had determined that the better choice was to join her for dinner and had come to the large house trimmed in gold, hoping for the most elegant of banquets. Their hostess had been dressed well and had spoken seductively in the city center. Surely it would be her home that would offer the best entertainment and food.

The guests led into the dark dining room were expecting to find wine, milk, bread, meat and vegetables.

What they found instead, was a sparsely covered table and an unkind hostess.

The townspeople looked at each other, filled obviously with regret. It was too late reverse their decision—they had missed the dinner at Sophia’s to come here instead.

As children of God, we have gifts. We can graciously and openly share our gifts with a world in need or we can squirrel them away for our own benefit. We can buy into the idea that it’s better to be number one or we can seek ways to make another’s life better.

As children of God, we make a choice every day. We can attend the banquet thrown by wisdom or the buffet offered by folly. From a distance, the second will often look more exciting and lavish, but as we get closer to being truly wise we can see that Wisdom’s feast will always be more filing.

As God’s children, we are invited to living water, offered freely, flowing abundantly, able to meet every need that we have. Yet so often, we’re lured instead by the ponds and pools of our earthly lives filled with fleeting riches and temporary happiness.

As children of God, we’re invited to a table. This table is simple, topped with ordinary elements or bread and of juice. Yet, when we come to this table together we commune with God almighty, the creator of heaven, the creator of earth who sacrificed his only son so that we may commune one day at a banquet table set in God’s own Kingdom.

Are you thirsty? Come to the water.

Are you without money? Come buy and eat.

Do not spend your money for that which is not bread,
   do not labor for that which does not satisfy.
Listen carefully, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
Incline your ear, and come;
   listen, so that you may live.
God will make with you an everlasting covenant,

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   has glorified you. 
Seek and find the Lord,
   call upon God who is near; 
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, and find mercy,
   and to our God, who will pardon. 
For God’s thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are God’s ways your ways. 
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are God’s ways higher than your ways,
   and God’s thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55 adapted)

Photo A Day for Lent: Injustice

IMG_3019

Look! Here are some jelly beans! A pile for you and a pile for your best friend. The one on the left is yours!

All right?

If you’re under the age of ten, you probably did not just say “all right.” If you are under the age of ten, you probably said something like, “Wait, why does my BFF get more jelly beans? That’s not fair!”

Children have an incredible ability to spot injustice. They keep careful track to make sure that everyone gets the same treatment or exactly the same amount. When I get snacks ready for the  after school club kids (all in elementary school), I know one thing: I better make plates or bowls or cups that have EXACTLY THE SAME AMOUNT or I’ll be hearing “Why did she get more animal crackers? That’s not fair!” all afternoon.

One thing that I’ve noticed, though, is that our sensitivity to injustice and unfairness seems to fade as we grow older. I don’t have to count out or measure the youth group lunch components with the same diligence. I know that as long as it’s close enough, no one will care.

By the time we reach adulthood, we tend to just operate with the understanding that life isn’t fair and you take what you get. It seems that we may even develop a bit of apathy toward injustice.

You got more jelly beans than I did? Well, you win some you lose some.

Some people are paid less money for doing the exact same work? That’s the way it goes sometimes.

The coffee grower doesn’t make a fair wage? That’s too bad, but really, there’s not much I can do about it.

He worked hard to earn his Eagle award but Boy Scouts of America won’t give it to him because he’s gay? Well, they’re a private non-profit, so I guess it’s up to them.

Approximately 5,000 children die each day because they don’t have clean water? That reminds me to be thankful for what I have, I guess.

There are more people in slavery in the world today than at any point in history (27 million-ish)? Wow, that’s awful to hear, but what could I do to fix such a big problem?

Injustice exists in many forms, big and small in our world. Yes, it’s awful. Yes, it’s overwhelming to hear about all the different ways people are treated unfairly and without dignity.

But you can do something. There are  places in your life that you can make small changes that impact people who are treated unjustly. You can’t do everything, but you can do something.

Check out Everyday Justice for some ideas about how to get started.

See the original post about this photo project–it’s not too late to take some pictures!

#NaNoWriMo Report

nano novel stats day 30

Today is day 30 of #NaNoWriMo. I’ve written just over 31,000 words.

I knew when I started that there was really no way I could make 50,000 words without pulling late nights, early mornings and neglecting family time. So on November 1, when I started, I actually would not have predicted I would write 31,000 words because I knew going in that I was not going to forsake sleep or family for this challenge.

Over in my sidebar, you can see how my daily progress went. If the square is green, it means I wrote 1,667 words that day. If it’s yellow, it means I wrote a good chunk of those words. If it’s orange, it means I wrote a few words but not many. Red means I didn’t even log in that day. Red means the Fall Retreat, family time at ChristThanksmas, etc. Red actually means I did not write today and I don’t regret it because I was doing other things.

It was fun to do and I plan to keep working on my nano novel. I have fallen in love with my characters and I kind of like what I’m writing.

“When do you start making money?” My husband has quipped all month.

Not this month! I’m okay with that.

#NaNoWriMo

Generic-180x180

I’ve always wanted to participate in National Novel Writing Month.

For 7 years, I’ve said “Maybe I can do that next year.”

November’s too busy for me to be trying to write 1,700 words a day. 1,700 words a day for a novel that I’ll probably never let you read.

1,700 words I’ll write daily just for me because I love to write and I love to write fiction.

My plot-line is kind of silly, my characters need some developing, I’m changing my mind about the major arc of my story, but the point of NaNoWriMo is just to write. The goal is 50,000 words, not necessarily 50,000 PUBLISHABLE words.

So, anyway, my username is beckydurham. I’m at 2,149 words as of the publishing of this blog. I’ve spent 2 hours creating fiction.

It’s a fun, fast way to spend 2 hours!

Hey, blog friends: are any of you doing NaNoWriMo?

Words

StonesPerhaps the biggest lie we learn in childhood is “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

We all know that words often hurt way more than sticks and stones. I can remember clearly many instances in my life when someone tossed a careless criticism or and intentionally harmful word my way. Some of these instances still sting or make me cringe or wince as I remember how painful they were for me.

I’ve heard it said that it takes ten kind words to erase or balance the damage done by one harsh word of criticism. I know that for myself this is definitely true.

I’m sometimes careless with my words and I know that you are too. It’s human. For some of us, words leave our mouths before we have a chance to think them through. For some of us, words become a weapon when we’re hurt by someone else. For some of us, words are a way to make ourselves feel superior and others feel stupid.

In the past week:

A fourteen year-old girl in a neighboring community has taken her own life because of harsh, cruel words that came from bullies.

Ann Coulter used the “R” word in a display of gross ignorance.

A child I love was brought to tears because of a careless joke an adult told to make other people in the room laugh.

In the past week:

A child I love smiled toothlessly (and joyfully) when an adult told him that he was a good basketball player.

Two fifth grade girls exchanged compliments of each others’ artwork and both of them felt good about their talents.

I received an encouraging note from a friend that restored confidence I was beginning to lose in a project I’m attempting.

Words matter.

It’s a time in our country where people are choosing sides and it seems to be accepted and okay for adults to belittle and berate each other in the name of politics. The commercials are ugly. The news commentary is ugly. The posts on social media are ugly.

Remember two things:

1. Your children are paying attention to what you are saying. You’re making fun of the governor or the president? Your children are watching. You’re making generalizations about a political party? Your children heard that. You speak unkindly to the person who brings your food or lie to a friend on the phone? Your children noticed. You’ve criticized your child’s teacher or a leader in your church? Your children learn from the way you speak to and about others.

2. Your words have incredible power to build up or tear down. Choose them carefully and when in doubt, keep quiet.

“Before you speak ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, it is true, does it improve upon the silence?”

― Shirdi Sai Baba