Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 28, 2016

Easter In A Graveyard

(The following post is the manuscript from a sermon I gave yesterday at a community Easter sunrise service that was held at a local cemetery.  It is based on John 20:11-18.)

A couple of years ago, in the middle of singing triumphant hymns about Christ’s resurrection at an Easter service, one of our ushers handed me a stack of prayer cards. As I read through these prayer requests with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” in the background, I experienced a troubling dissonance in my heart.

“Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!” “Please pray for a 18 month old girl who is struggling to gain weight and breathe properly because of Cystic Fibrosis.”

“Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!” “Please pray for my nephew who is back in rehab for alcohol abuse.”

“Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!” “Pray for my husband who is out of work and is struggling with a deep depression.”

“Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!” “The Melcher family requests prayer for the Pearson family, who lost their 2 year old in a tragic accident last Monday.”

It was this card that broke me. Tears began to well up in my eyes. The pain of life interrupted the hope of Easter. The contrast between the triumph of resurrection and the reality of brokenness in our world was hard to reconcile.

Easter can be a hard day for those who are in a season of grief. A friend of mine told me that she hasn’t been able to attend Easter Sunday since her husband passed away a couple of years ago. It is too hard. The celebration of resurrection seems premature when you are walking through the shadow of death.

Perhaps some of you can relate. This Easter Sunday we stand in a graveyard.  It is a place where some of our loved ones are buried. It is a place that reminds us of the pain of loss.

Yet, it is precisely in this kind of place where the first Easter happens. Easter does not take place in a large cathedral. Easter is not accompanied with a brass section belting out triumphant tunes. Easter does not happen around a bountiful dinner table full of family and food. No, Easter takes place in a graveyard next to a grieving woman named Mary.

Mary is not unlike my friend who finds it hard to go to church on Easter. Mary is so clouded by grief that she is unable to see the signs of resurrection that are right in front of her. The trauma of Jesus’ death on the cross and the pain of losing her beloved friend and teacher have cast a shadow of despair that is so dark that she initially mistakes Jesus for a gardener.

I wonder if that might describe us as well. Perhaps the pain we have witnessed has made it hard for us to see any signs of God. Perhaps tears have clouded our vision. Perhaps disappointment has made us reluctant to hope. Perhaps doubt prevents us from even trying to look for God anymore.

If you find yourself in this place you are not alone. This is the exact context where the first Easter happens. This is where Mary finds herself on that first Easter Sunday.

Flower Cross 2014Yet, Mary does not remain in despair. As the story unfolds something changes. This grieving woman ends up leaving the graveyard with a renewed hope and a renewed purpose in life. Easter intersects with her grief and leaves her transformed.  So what happened?  What brought about the change?

Part of the change is the result of Mary’s receptivity.  I think it is helpful to notice that Mary does not prematurely leave the graveyard. While the other disciples return to their homes after seeing the empty tomb, Mary stays behind and weeps.  Then, when asked what she is searching for, Mary says, “they have taken my Lord.”  Despite witnessing the crucifixion, she is still referring to Jesus as her Lord.   This suggests that she has not completely given up hope.

Mary is also given space by Jesus to work through her grief and name her reality. She is asked, “Why are you weeping? What are you looking for?” These questions are not to be understood as a rebuke. No, these questions are rooted in compassion. Mary is given space to name her grief and come to terms with her reality.

Chris Rice writes, “To the extent that our lament is shallow, our hope will be shallow.” Before Mary can encounter hope she needs to first acknowledge her pain.   By staying with her grief and wrestling through her confusion she has placed herself in a position of receptivity. She is actively seeking God and trying to make sense of her circumstances.

This is part of her the process of healing, but it is not the main part of it. Receptivity isn’t helpful if there is nothing to receive.  No, the transformation that takes part in Mary’s life is not solely about what she does but what God does.

With great grace and great love Jesus has come in search of Mary.   The grace of Easter Sunday is that Jesus has come in search of the very people who earlier in the week had abandoned him in his time of need.  Jesus has come for his disciples.  He has come for Mary. The breakthrough that happens in her life is when she hears him call her name. As she hears Jesus’ tender voice of love she sees the risen Christ.

Thomas Long tells the story of a woman he knows named Mary Ann Bird (1). Mary Ann had a rough childhood. She was born with a cleft palate and had lopsided feet. As such, she was often the target of ridicule from kids at school.

One year she had a school teacher named Miss Leonard. At the beginning of the year teachers were required to administer a hearing test. Kids would come forward and the teacher would whisper something into their ear. It was often a simple phrase – perhaps a comment about the weather, or an observation about something in the classroom.

Mary Ann had some hearing problems and she was understandably anxious about this test. However, when it was her turn, Miss Leonard whispered in her ear, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.”

This was one of those life-changing moments for Mary Ann. A word of compassion cut through her despair and grief. Her teacher had called her by name and spoke a word of love to her.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear we will encounter the signs of beauty, truth and grace that are around us. We see signposts to God’s love and power in the kindness of people like Miss Leonard. We also see signposts to God’s grace and power in creation.

A few weeks back I was talking with a friend who is close to death. We were wrestling with the mystery of what lies beyond the grave. When death is imminent the question about eternity becomes more than a theological exercise. Doubt about the possibility of resurrection is common. In the midst of that doubt we reflected on this observation from Frederick Buechner:

“Once before out of the abyss of the unborn, the uncreated, the not-yet, you and I who from all eternity had been nothing became something. Out of non-being we emerged into being. And what Jesus promises is resurrection, which means that once again this miracle will happen, and out of death will come another realm of life. Not because by our nature there is part of us that does not die, but because by God’s nature he will not let even death separate us from him finally.

Because he loves us. In love he made us and in love he will mend us. In love he will have us his true children before he is through, and in order to do that, one life is not enough, God knows.” – Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Buechner suggests that the miracle of this life is ample proof of the possibility of resurrection. When we doubt the possibility of miracles we ought to consider the miracle we are already experiencing.  Perhaps creation is in itself a signpost to the hope of resurrection.

This text invites us to remain open and receptive to the signs of hope that surround us. Perhaps one practice you might consider this Easter season is to end your day by taking note of the signs of beauty, truth and goodness you have encountered throughout the day.  Jesuit priest James Martin writes that when he started to incorporate this practice into his life he began to realize how “beautiful his yesterdays were.” When he takes time to look and listen for signs of God’s presence and goodness he realizes how many signs of resurrection are around him.

I believe that God continues to meet us in the graveyards of life. Just as he came in search of Mary he comes in search of us.  In a world full of pain and heartbreak it is easy for us to miss the signs of hope in our midst. The Easter story invites us to not leave the graveyard prematurely. We are invited to wait, look, and listen for the signs of resurrection.  We are invited to listen to the still small voice of God that calls each of us by name.

(1) I came across this story from Scott Hozee at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-day-c/?term=Easter)

Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 24, 2016

Preaching At Our Community Easter Sunrise Service

Hi Everyone,

This sunday I will be preaching at an Easter sunrise service at 7:00 a.m. at Steele Chapel.  I’ll be offering some thoughts on John 20:1-18 where Mary encounters Jesus in the midst of her grief.

I know a lot of people who struggle with Easter sunday.  I have a friend who has struggled to attend Easter services since her husband died a few years back.  That is why I appreciate John’s account of the resurrection.  His simple, earthy retelling of the resurrection reminds us that Easter is meant to intersect with our grief.  Easter doesn’t take place in decked out cathedrals with loud brass sections.  Easter doesn’t take place around a dinner table full of family and food.  No, the first Easter takes place in a graveyard next to a grieving woman.  I can’t think of a better place to celebrate Easter than at the chapel at our local cemetery.

This will be an Easter service where you can come as you are.  My prayer is that it will be a time where we might discover the signs of hope and resurrection that are present in the midst of our broken world.

Steele Chapel is located at 5050 Mt Solo Rd, Longview, WA 98632.  This will be a short service that will last about 30-40 minutes. Hope you can join us!

Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 14, 2016

A Franciscan Benediction

Last night we hosted our Syrian Refugee event with guests speakers Hazar Jaber and Miles Gilchrist.  Thanks to everyone who showed up.  We had a packed house with standing room only.   After the event people asked if I could post a link to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) so that they might be able to donate some funds to this organization.  Hazar has been actively involved in this organization and explained how they are uniquely positioned to get help to people in Syria.  SAMS is actively trying to provide healthcare for people caught in the crossfire of the ongoing civil war.  Here is the link: https://www.sams-usa.net/foundation/

Secondly, many of you asked if I could post a copy of the Franciscan benediction I used to end the evening.   Here are the words.

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.
Amen.

Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 27, 2016

Taizé Service This Sunday

Hi Everyone,

Tomorrow evening (Feb 28), we will be hosting our quarterly Taizé contemplative prayer service.  If you are in town and could use a quiet space for prayer and worship be sure to join us.  The service begins at 6:30pm in the Gebert Chapel.

Slide1

“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” John 19:25-27

John and Mary must have felt helpless as they stood there watching Jesus hang on the cross.   There was nothing they could do.  Jesus, the one they hoped would be the messiah, had been unjustly accused and was now being brutally tortured in front of their eyes.

We also to bear witness to deep problems and injustices in our world.  Last week I came across an article in a recent issue of Time magazine about the Syrian refugee crisis and I could barely look at the pictures.  The situation seems so irredeemable and complicated.

The problems we read about in the news or encounter in our community can have a paralyzing effect on us.  Yesterday I had two different conversations with friends who were overwhelmed by the problem of poverty in our community.  When we take the wide angle view of the problems in our community and our world we can feel helpless.

What strikes me is how Jesus speaks into this situation.  In the midst of the chaos of the cross, and in the face of deep injustice and torture, Jesus says to John, “here is your mother,” and to Mary, “here is your son.” In a recent sermon on this text, Pastor John suggested that Jesus is calling us to respond to the deep problems of our world with small acts of love.  Jesus invites us to replace the wide angle lens with a telephoto lens.  Instead of being paralyzed by the big picture, Jesus invites us to focus in on the small ways we can make the world a better place.  John and Mary cannot put an end to the injustice and the torture of the cross but they can choose to love and support each other.

As we journey with Jesus to the cross this lenten season, I want to invite you to be aware of the small ways you can promote love and shalom in the midst of a broken and fearful world.  Not all of us are positioned to make a major impact on large world problems, but we can do something.

I also want to invite you to make a small difference in Syrian refugee crisis. On the evening of Sunday March 13th we will be hosting a local Syrian couple Hazar Jaber and her husband Hani.   Hani and Hazar run Happy Kids Dentistry in Longview.  Out of a deep love and concern for their native country, they have been using their gifts to advocate for and serve the refugees of the Syrian civil war.  They have led medical missions to the refugee camps in Jordan and continue to devote time raising awareness and funds for this ongoing crisis.

The devastating headlines coming out of Syria can have a paralyzing effect.  The civil war is complex and the suffering of those caught in the crossfire is extreme.   We know the need is great, but it is difficult to know how we can help.  Perhaps, though, one of the ways we can make a difference is by simply taking the time to listen to Hazar and Hani’s story.

This week Hazar wrote me the following note:

I just came back from SAMs ( Syrian American medical society) meeting with mixed emotions.  On one hand seeing the suffering of people and children is nerve racking, on the other hand seeing people from all over the world and faiths trying to help them is uplifting. I am on my way back as we speak, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to come and talk to your group  . . . My goal is to educate and show people ways to get involved. So I want to thank you for allowing me the opportunity.

 

Hosting an evening to raise awareness for the crisis doesn’t seem like a big thing; however, I was reminded that this small act of solidarity does mean something to Hazar.  In the midst of this huge crisis the simple act of caring enough to listen to our Syrian neighbors is important.

We are going to meet in the chapel on March 13th at 6:30pm.  Hazar is going to bring some Syrian desserts and coffee, I’ll offer a short meditation on Jesus’ heart for refugees, and then Hazar will talk with us about the Syrian refugee situation and how we might be able to help in small ways.  Our own Mike Bartlett might take some time to share about his participation in a recent medical mission trip to the refugee camps in Jordan. I hope you can join us!

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 10, 2016

A Guide To A Meaningful Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent.  Lent is a season in the life of the church that marks the 40 days that lead up to Easter. Historically, Lent has been a time when many people return to the various practices of the Christian faith. We do this not as an obligation or as a means of earning God’s love; instead, these practices are ways to focus on God, experience freedom from unhealthy attachments, stand in solidarity with the poor, and journey with Jesus to the cross.  The following resource provides you with some suggestions for how you might make this season a meaningful time of spiritual renewal. 

Prepare:

 Take some time to reflect on this guide and write out how you want to approach this season. Intentionality is key. I’d encourage you to write out what you intend to do this Lent or put things on your calendar.  You can also prepare for the season by setting up visual symbols at home or work. Ideas:

  • Wear a cross
  • Set out a candle to be lit during meals or during prayer time.
  • Put out an open bible on your coffee table.

Pray:

Consider setting aside a time each day to pray and meditate on scripture. Ideas:

  • Choose a gospel and read a section of it each day during Lent. Other appropriate texts for Lent include the minor prophets or Exodus 1-20.
  • Listen to the daily podcast: pray-as-you-go.org
  • Take a one-day prayer retreat.  I have a guide you can use if you’d like to borrow one.

 Fast:

Fasting is about restoring life-giving limits. It is a spiritual practice that aims to set us free from idolatry and addiction and help us remember God and remember the poor. Ideas:

  • Try out a media fast one day a week where you go without cell phones, T.V., and Internet.
  • Eat a simpler diet in order to stand in solidarity with the poor. For example you might give up eating seconds at meals, or eat a diet of beans and rice one day a week. 
  • Give something up for the entire Lenten season
  • Give up breakfast and lunch on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday

Feast:

Traditionally, Sundays are considered feast days during Lent and do not count towards the 40 days. Take Sundays to break your fast and celebrate God’s goodness and mercy. Perhaps you might invite friends over for a feast.  Practicing feast days in the midst of the Lenten fast helps restore a helpful balance in our spiritual life.

Give:

While lent is often talked about as a time to give things up, Isaiah 58 reminds us that the fast God desires is for us to actively pursue justice for those in need. How might you reach out? Ideas:

  • Donate 5 items to charity
  • Volunteer at a non-profit
  • Abstain from a luxury item and use those funds to support a charity.
  • Consider supporting the Syrian refugee crisis this year. We will be hosting a local couple from Syria on March 13 to raise awareness about the crisis

Journey With Others:
This Lent I am going to be leading a group that will work through Chris Seay’s Lenten devotional, A Place At The Table: 40 days of solidarity with the poor.  We are going to begin on Wednesday Feb. 17 in the journey room following simple suplace-at-the-tablepper.  This devotional leads us through the story of Exodus. As we follow the Israelites through their journey of liberation from oppression we will explore what our own journey of liberation looks like, and how we are called to stand in solidarity with others who are suffering in our world.  If you can’t join us on Wednesday I have some extra copies of this resource in my office.

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 3, 2016

“What Does This Mean?” The Art of Spiritual Discernment

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:12-13

This past Sunday I preached on the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost.  The text ends by highlight two different responses to the events of Pentecost.  Some people are skeptical while others are perplexed yet open to discerning what is happening.

How would you have responded if you were there on that day of Pentecost?  Would you be in the middle of the action declaring the works of God, would you be skeptical, or would you be somewhere in between – amazed but perplexed?

It is important to note that the skeptics are religious insiders.  The text says they are “devout Jews.” This reminds us that it is not uncommon for those of us who are religious insiders to struggle with skepticism.  This has certainly been something I have struggled with in my life.

Our skepticism may be rooted in a number of things.  Perhaps we are disillusioned with God because it has been a long time since we have sensed that he is at work.  Perhaps we are distrustful of spiritual experiences because we have encountered religious leaders or institutions that have manipulated people with an inauthentic spirituality.   Perhaps we are more influenced by our secular culture then we realize.  Dallas Willard suggests that our souls are “soaked with secularity,” even if we claim to be Christians.  We, too, privilege naturalistic or scientific explanations for the big questions about life.  Our reflex might be to say, “it must be kalua in the morning coffee” in response to the events of Pentecost. Or, perhaps, we are simply fearful of opening ourselves up to the work of the Spirit.  There is something out of control about what happens on Pentecost.  If we can rationalize what is happening we can regain control.

While some respond with skepticism, others respond in a different way.  Many of these devout Jews were “amazed but perplexed,” and proceed to ask “what does this mean?”  The second response could be labeled, “discerning openness.”  The opposite of skepticism is not a blind faith.  No, the other response modeled to us in our text is to be honest about our questions and proceed to discern what God is up to.  This group of people do not have it all figured out, but they do not prematurely close the door on God either.  They seek to discern what is going on.

In fact, the second chapter of Acts devotes twice as much space to the interpretation of the events of Pentecost as the description of the events.  The disciples take time to help people discern what God is up to.

telecommunication-tower-1201015To outline the discernment process, I thought I would borrow a metaphor from one of my professors.   Imagine for a moment that there are two radio frequencies that you can tune into.   One station is WGOD, and represents things that are from God.  The other station is WSIN, and represents things that are not from God.   What is the content you would encounter while tuning into WGOD and WSIN? Second, what effect or impact would this content have on you?

The content of WGOD will have a number of markers.  First, it will be very scriptural.  This is the criteria by which Peter discerns the work of the spirit at Pentecost.  In response to the question, “what does this mean?” he connects the events of Pentecost to the story of scripture.  He quotes the book of Joel and the Psalms in order to explain that what they are experiencing is what the prophets expected would happen.  Second, the content of WGOD will more generally line up with the character and the ways of God.  In Acts 2:11, the bystanders say that they hear the disciples, “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongue.”  The words that are spoken point people to God.  The same thing could be said for the actions and experiences that people encounter.  People of different nations are being unified, many experience a liberating conviction of sin, and forgiveness and mercy is proclaimed.  Lastly, the content of WGOD will be personalized.  After Pentecost people are invited to deal with their own issues rather than focus on what everybody else should do.  In vs 38 it many respond by asking, “what should we do?”

The content of WSIN, by contrast, will be quite different.  Scripture will often be used but it will be taken out of context.  Proof texts will trump the overarching story of scripture.  Furthermore, what is done, said, or experienced will clearly contradict the ways of God.  There will be no mercy, broad condemnation, division, and shame.  Lastly, the message will be externalized.  People will come away from the experience focusing the problems and shortcomings of others rather than themselves.

The effect of the content will also be different.  After tuning into WGOD a person will demonstrate the fruit of the spirit.  This will be manifested both emotionally and behaviorally.  Paul says that our encounter with the Spirit will be marked by feelings of love, joy, and peace.  It will also result in behavior marked by patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.   We see the fruit of the spirit take place in Acts 2.  Many people repent, they are generous with their resources, there is an increased commitment to pursue God, and hospitality is shown to those outside the community.

The effect of tuning in to WSIN, by contrast, will produce the fruit of the flesh.  Rather than peace, joy and love, there will be anger, worry, discouragement, and hopelessness.  We may find ourselves despising others and our faith will be deflated.

I find it helpful for us to have some guidelines for the discernment process.  Often our conversations about what God is doing or saying are very vague and undefined.  The danger in this is that we may attribute to God things that are not really from him.  Perhaps this lack of clarity is the reason for our skepticism. Perhaps these insights might encourage us to maintain a posture of discerning openness to the work of God in our life!

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 25, 2016

Desert Wisdom

 

51pu38SmbvL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_One of components of my major research paper this term is an assessment of the desert fathers approach to spiritual formation.  Beginning in the third century, numerous Christ followers left urban centers and moved to the desert to pursue a very a rigorous life of spiritual formation and prayer.  This was partly in response to the legalization of Christianity after the conversion of Constantine.  During the first two centuries of Christianity, discipleship was very costly and counter-cultural.  When it became an acceptable part of culture, however, discipleship started to become nominal and watered down.

What I thought I would do this week is include a collection of stories and sayings from the desert that have impacted me during this course of study.   Perhaps some of these stories may encourage you in your journey of faith.

“When Macarius was living in Egypt, one day he came across a man who had brought a donkey to his cell and was stealing his possessions. As though he was a passer-by who did not live there, he went up to the thief and helped him to load the beast and sent him peaceably on his way, saying to himself, ‘We brought nothing into this world (1 Tim. 6:7) but the Lord gave; as he willed, so it is done: blessed be the Lord in all things.”

“Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.”Abba Poemen

“Passions work in four stages – first in the heart; secondly, in the face; thirdly in words; fourthly, it is essential not to render evil for evil in deeds. If you can purify your heart, passion will not come into your expression; but if it comes into your face, take care not to speak; but if you do speak, cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil.” Abba Poemen

“It was said of Anthony that one day he was relaxing with the brothers outside the cell when a hunter came by and rebuked him.  Anthony said, ‘Bend your bow and shoot an arrow’, and he did so.  ‘Bend it again and shoot another’, and he did – and again and again.  The hunter said, ‘Father, if I keep my bow always stretched it will break.’ ‘So it is with the monk’, replied Anthony; ‘if we push ourselves beyond measure we will break; it is right for us from time to time to relax our efforts.” Anthony the Great

“The desire for possessions is dangerous and terrible, knowing no satiety; it drives the soul which it controls to the heights of evil. Therefore let us drive it away vigorously from the beginning.” Isidore of Pelusia

“It is dangerous for one to teach who has not been trained in the practical life. It is like someone who has an unsound house and receives guests; he will cause harm by the collapse of the dwelling. In the same way, those who have not first built themselves up destroy those who come to them. For they may summon them to salvation by their words, but by their evil conduct they injure even more those who follow them.”Amma Syncletica

This story illustrates the slow process of spiritual formation and the measured use of words: “A monk once came to Basil of Caesarea and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’; and Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’; and the monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back, and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me’: and he said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’; and the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also.”

Just for fun – the award for the weirdest advice I came across in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers goes to Abba Poemen who says: “How can we acquire the fear of God when our belly is full of cheese and preserved foods?”

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 11, 2016

Signposts To God: An Epiphany Reflection

(The following is the manuscript from a reflection I gave at our annual Epiphany luncheon.)

James has a toy nativity set that we put up every Christmas. It’s not a delicate decoration but a durable toy – a “Play School Little People’s Nativity,” to be precise.

It is the kind of toy that can withstand the full contact play of a three-year old boy. Yes, I have discovered that it is age three when testosterone kicks in to high gear for boys. As such, James’ toys have a tendency to fly across the room and get mixed up with other sets of toys.  So it was not uncommon to find odd guests showing up at the nativity scene this Christmas . Sometimes Thomas The Train paid a visit to the manger. At other times the wind up dinosaur from Toy Story intermingled with Mary and Joseph. Toys that didn’t seem to fit in the nativity scene were there anyway.

wpid-1115_Orthodox_Nativity_Adoration_of_the_Magi_icon_CappadociaI think the story of the wise men in Matthew 2 would have created a similar image for the first readers of Matthew’s gospel.  These wise men are unlikely guests at the manger.  They were astrologers from the far east. To the Jewish people they were outsiders. Many looked down upon this class of people, considering them to be idolaters and pagans.

Matthew is making an important point by highlighting their presence. Right from the outset of the gospel we discover that Jesus has come with good news for all people. His kingdom is going to have room for those who were considered inferior, sinful, foreign, or pagan.

There is an important message here, I think, for those of us who are religious insiders. The story of the wise men invites us to be hospitable people – a people that make room for those who are considered “other,” or “inferior.”  This story has implications for mission and ministry.

Yet, I think it also speaks to our own journey of faith as Christians. The more time I spent with this story, the more I realized how much we have in common with these visitors. They not only represent those outside the religious establishment, they also represent us. The three wise men represent all of us who are searching for something deeper.

By worldly standards these wise men actually had a lot going for them. They had wealth and financial stability. In their own culture they were esteemed and considered wise.  Yet, despite all of these things they had going for them, they were still searching for something more.

I wonder if this might be true of us as well.   Despite being well off by worldly standards, I suspect that some of us feel a sense of emptiness.  Our culture has defined happiness in terms of materialism, but many of us are discovering that that this does not answer the deeper longings of the human heart.

And despite being religious and attending church, perhaps some of us feel spiritually depleted. Maybe it has been a while since you have had an epiphany – a recognition of God’s significance in your life. Perhaps God seems distant.

Where do we look when we are searching for more? How does epiphany happen?

For the wise men, the journey to Jesus is aided by a number of things. First they notice a star. There is a signpost to God right in the natural order of things. You could call this “natural revelation.”

Perhaps this is one ways that God breaks through to us as well.  Maybe this story is inviting us to notice again the miracle we are living in. When I was up at Julie’s grandparents cabin this summer I unplugged for the week. There was no phone or internet. And as I spent hours of the day out in nature I was reminded again of the tenderness and beauty of the world. There are signposts to God all around us.

But there is more.   Natural revelation only gets the wise men so far. They end up lost in Jerusalem. In a meeting with Herod, scribes and teachers are invited to give some guidance to unresolved questions.  These scribes turn to the scriptures to point the way to Bethlehem.  The next element of epiphany, then, is “biblical revelation.” It is through the ancient scriptures that they discover a path to Christ.

Perhaps this will aid our journey to God as well.  This story invites us to immerse ourselves again in the living word of scripture.

But the real epiphany, the life changing epiphany takes place when they are in the actual presence of Christ.   They follow the signposts of nature and scripture to the manger where they have a first hand encounter with Jesus. It is in this moment that the text says that they fall down on their face to worship him. This could be called “experiential revelation.” They discovered Christ on an experiential level. They no longer had just heard about him, or read about him, they encountered him for themselves.

Karl Rahner writes, “knowing God is more important than knowing about God.” The scriptures remind us that Christ is not simply an idea to figure out but a being to interact with.   A true epiphany, a true revelation of God is more than just an intellectual journey – it is a relational and experiential journey.

When I was in college I had things backwards. I was full of questions and doubts about God so I tried to figure things out by reading a lot of books. I was on an intellectual quest to get all my questions answered.  I was trying to be a “wise man.”  But the turning point, the epiphany moment  that helped me reconnect with God did not happen solely through an intellectual process. It happened when I decided to step out in faith and begin attending church again even though I didn’t have it all figured out. It was during worship at a local church that I discovered God on a personal and experiential level.   Sure, there was still a place to love God with my mind, and wrestle through questions at an intellectual level; however, I realized that many of the answers come as we begin relating to God personally through the practices of prayer and worship.

Friends, the story of Epiphany reminds us that Christ desires to reveal himself to the world. So look for the signposts that are around us.  Look for God in nature, look for God in scripture, and look for God to show up personally as you worship him.

Then we can start to talk about mission and ministry.  Epiphany precedes mission.  As God reveals himself to us and captures our heart, perhaps we will then become part of the way he reveals himself to others. Perhaps we will, as Paul says in Philippians, “shine like stars in the sky.”

As Christ reveals himself to us may we then reveal his love to all of those who have been told that they do not belong at the manger.  May we, in effect, become the star that leads others to Bethlehem.

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 3, 2016

How Change Happens: Thoughts For A New Year

January is often met with an ambitious agenda. Seeing the New Year as an opportunity for a fresh start, we set goals and make resolutions. Yet, we are often haunted by a not so successful track record of making changes in our life. By now we have discovered that our will-power is limited.

One of the themes that have emerged from my study in spiritual formation this year is that change happens indirectly. We cannot simply try and change a bad habit by direct effort. No, change requires a much deeper process.

The Apostle Paul prefers the word “training” over “trying.” In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul draws on a metaphor from athletics to describe our journey of discipleship. He writes:

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

If I wanted to run a marathon this year I couldn’t just go out and try and do it. But I could train for it. I could find a coach or a mentor, learn about how to get in shape, find friends who would keep me accountable and run with me, and begin to follow a running schedule that would slowly work me up to 26.2 miles. In the same way, spiritual growth happens indirectly. I can’t simply just try and be a good person. But I could train for it! I could immerse myself in the scriptures, find people to keep me accountable, and incorporate some intentional practices in my life that would get me in touch with God.

Of course, there is something different about spiritual growth than physical growth. The good news we read about in scripture is that God meet us in this journey and he equips and guides us. So the pursuit of growth is not solely up to me. Our role, however, is to find ways to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.

Before we start training, however, we need a vision.  In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about the motivation athletes have to go through rigorous training. They want to get a crown. He then suggests that we too should rediscover the vision of what we stand to gain by following Christ. Without a vision we will struggle to continue on with our training.  We need a vision that is big enough to sustain us through the difficulties we face along the way.

Jesus speaks of this in the parable of the field and the pearl (Matthew 13). He says, “the kingdom of the heavens is like where something of extreme value is concealed in a field. Someone discovers it and quickly covers it up again. Overflowing with joyous excitement he pulls together everything he has, sells it all, and buys the field.” In this parable the person is willing to make huge sacrifices to buy the field because he knows there is something significant to be gained.

If we are honest, I think we sometimes lose the vision of what we stand to gain by giving our lives to the pursuit of discipleship. Dallas Willard writes, “One of the things that has most obstructed the path of discipleship in our Christian culture today is this idea that it will be a terribly difficult thing that will certainly ruin your life!” If this is the case then there will be little commitment to pursue God fully.

Before we set out to change, then, we need to recover the vision of what life with God is really about. In one of our sessions on the Divine Conspiracy this fall we spent time making a list of what we stand to gain by following Christ. It was quite a list! We named things like peace, purpose, communion with God, community, freedom, integrity, love, direction and so on.

Willard suggests that instead of talking about the “cost of discipleship,” we should talk about the “cost of non-discipleship.” He writes, “nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, non-disicpleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”

It is only when we have recovered this vision of what life with God means that we can move on to the discipleship process. Once we have regained a vision we are then motivated to make an intention to follow Jesus, and to then employ a method that helps us grow closer to him.

Perhaps, then, as we approach a new year, we might not jump straight to making goals and resolutions about our spiritual life. Perhaps we might begin this year be rediscovering a vision of what life with God is really all about. Andy Stanley writes that “vision leaks, it doesn’t have a natural adhesive.” In other words, we need to recover a vision of God regularly because we lose sight of God easily. As we approach a new year, perhaps you might reflect on this question – “what do I stand to gain by giving my life fully to Jesus?”

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