Lesson from a 3rd Grader

Yesterday I made my weekly trek to South Euless Elementary Schoolsouth euless 2where I mentor a couple of boys.  One of them is in 3rd grade, the other in 6th.  This week, I met only with the 3rd grader.

As usual, I checked in on social media. This time, I checked in with this statement: “What will I learn from a 3rd grader today?”

And my bluff was called. So, what did I learn from a 3rd grader yesterday?

That I don’t always communicate what I intend to communicate, and that if I don’t pay attention, I’ll miss something.

He and I have been meeting together over lunch most of this school year. Each time, he seems eager to sit down with me and start talking.

I learned early on that we are better off if I don’t force the conversation where I want it to go.  When I do, I quickly sound like just another older person dispensing advice and wisdom.  I know this because I see it in his eyes, and I hear it as he gently mocks me.  Sometimes he’ll parrot my words back to me. Sometimes he just says, at increased volume, “You tell me that every week!”

I don’t believe I do tell him the same think every week, but if I argue with him about that, then I’ve lost the battle for relationship before I’ve even started.

It is a challenge for a 52 year old to meet a 3rd grader on his own terms, but if I want this child to respect my experience and the wisdom and insight I’ve gained along the way, I owe it to him to try my best.

We only have 30 minutes together each week. Sometimes this will be filled with significant conversation. Sometimes it will be mostly his making faces at his friends at other tables.

But he still looks forward to my meeting him at lunch. That’s something I’ll take any day of the week.

Lesson from a 3rd Grader

Measuring the Love of God (Book Review)

I want to know what love is! I mean, who doesn’t want to know what love is?  Love is a word offered to describe anythingOord - Uncontrolling Love from one’s preference for food to the foundation of an eternal relationship.

I have recently read a book which provocatively suggests we reconsider common understandings of love, and Thomas Jay Oord does not mean the kind of love one means when one says “I love fish tacos.”

He means the kind of love understood in the statement “God is love.”

For Christians, and likely for many other people of faith, God’s love is the benchmark, the standard by which all other accounts of love are measured.

As with any other standard, this benchmark deserves to be reconsidered from time to time. Don’t hate on me for the reference to Subway here; the claim made to a sandwich being a foot long is analogous to any other and every other claim that anyone makes.

The Uncontrolling Love of God is Oord’s newest book, and, I think, worth the read. I read it as a follow up and deeper fleshing out of the position he stakes out in The Nature of Love, a Theolgy.  I reviewed this book here.

In The Nature of Love, we are introduced to the premise that God’s love is kenotic in nature. Kenotic means self-emptying; Christians know the idea primarily from the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2, where, in verse 7, it says that Jesus “emptied himself….” Oord suggests that kenosis has come, of late, to explain how Jesus revealed God’s nature, rather than as Jesus showing God’s nature.

Oord argues that kenosis, “self-giving, other-empowering love,” is God’s nature.

In that previous review, I shared that what I found most refreshing in this understanding was the freedom it offered from our bent to circumscribe God by our own philosophical limits and parameters.  We have, for instance, swallowed whole claims that God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, though these are philosophical categories rather than biblical ones.

In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord deepens and strengthens his argument with an account of providence.

How and when does God act?  How and when, and especially why(!), does God not act?

Sadly, Christians are too often left with some version or another of this:thenamiracleoccurs

He opens with a variety of tragedies that are next to impossible to explain without making God out to be calloused, indifferent, conniving, or sometimes downright evil. If, that is, God is all powerful and indeed, in active control of everything; sitting outside the universe directing things, as it were.

Oord offers another account of providence; and it is one that fits better with prevailing scientific understandings of the way the world works.  There are, in fact, “random, chance, and accidental” events. Science recognizes this. I appreciate Oord’s presentation of current science in language that I can grasp, though I haven’t taken a single science course since 1980. There

Oord summarizes his position, called Essential Kenosis, with this statement:

God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control.

Kenosis, self-emptying, other-empowering love, is the essential nature of God.  Because this is so, we can identify things God cannot do: God cannot foreknow or prevent evil.control, God cannot coerce creatures to conform to certain behavior. Because this love is God’s essence, God does not, and cannot, override free choices of creatures.

Oord’s account of providence is at least as coherent as any account I know.  He presents several others and engages them fairly, though the serious thinker would consider a longer, denser engagement with each helpful.

I found The Uncontrolling Love of God an accessible and readable yet academic presentation.  I believe any Christian would fare better in engaging the culture around him or her having read Oord’s newest book. After all, our categories and the ways we measure them deserves a fresh look every now and again.

The Uncontrolling Love of God can be pre-ordered here.

Here is a video with more about the book.

Measuring the Love of God (Book Review)

Praise for Inefficiency

A Smart Car pulled up next to me at a red light on my way to work this morning.

On the other side of the road, I noticed the normal variety of vehicles, mostly with one occupant each, making their way to the normal variety of places.

The Smart Car got me thinking about efficiency.  While we have 2 small children, a two-seater is not a great choice for us. So I think, as I drive my 10 year old car that gets pretty good mileage, about the possibilities of an electric car or a hybrid.

When it comes to cars, some of us are all about efficiency.

For almost 5 years, Rachel and I shared one car.  While it wasn’t the most fuel efficient car available, it was paid for and did pretty well with gas.  We also learned, while sharing a car, to maximize the value of each trip we took.

Because we are all about efficiency.

These last few mornings I’ve been opening windows throughout the house to invite cooler air inside.  I think doing so will lower our need for air-conditioning when the afternoon reaches the mid 90s. Our house is pretty well insulated and we shop for the lowest electricity rates we can find.

Because we are all about efficiency.

But then this morning I read Deuteronomy 24. I am rethinking efficiency.

God’s people are told not to be all about efficiency.  Part of the way they were (we are) to help take care of the “widow, the orphan, and the immigrant,” is to refuse to be all about efficiency.

The agrarian people of God were commanded in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 intentionally not to harvest their fields as efficiently as possible.

“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”

I think included in this call toward inefficiency is an opportunity to develop trust.  As we learn to trust God (remember; this command comes from the God who has delivered the people from slavery and is leading them to the Promised Land) we learn to see life as a blessing from God.

The more we come to understand life as a blessing from God, the easier it will be, I believe, to learn to live within our means. Living within our means enables us to become more generous.

May you see today as a blessing from the God who has – or who will – deliver you, and may you learn to live inefficiently in response!

Praise for Inefficiency

Vision Check

Sermon preached Sunday, August 30, 2015 at Euless First United Methodist Church

Can you see the future from here?

What does it look like?

Which direction should we look?

Some of us, as we age, do a whole lot more looking behind us than in front of us.  It is tempting; we know the past, we’ve been there before!  Things look familiar.

Yet, we have to admit, the farther they get behind us, the harder it is to focus. The distant past gets to looking real good – so we say things like “back in the day…” or “remember when…” or even “kids these days…”

Maybe it’s just a matter of getting older, but it seems like I hear more lamenting about the present and the future than I used to.

But the future is where we are going, so we may as well face it, and prepare for it.

To move forward, we have to look back.  The past, all that is behind us, has played a role in making us who we are today. It has shaped us for better and for worse.  This Church has a long, rich history that will affect – that we want to affect – where we go from here.

Cars are equipped with mirrors for a reason; the safest driving forward includes checking your mirrors regularly.  But the mirrors make up only a small part of what you see as you drive forward.

So, let’s look back, and let’s look forward.  

Euless First United Methodist Church was founded in 1876. Since you don’t remember 1876 here’s a bit of an historical snapshot of the year this church was founded.

U.S. Grant was President. Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for an invention he called the telephone. (patent #174,466)  The Transcontinental Express reached San Francisco on June 4, 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left New York. Texas A & M opened for classes on Sept. 4.

In 1876, the year this church was founded, the Dow Jones Industrial Average didn’t even exist.

Well, the Dow Jones exists now, doesn’t it?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened this past Monday to a drop of more than one thousand points.

To be fair, markets around the world dropped, too.  UK, down almost 5%. Japan, down 4.5%. You get the idea.

The stock market is not the economy, and the economy isn’t the stock market, but Monday told us all one thing, at least: there is a lot of uncertainty to go around.

How are you with uncertainty?

How are you with certainty?

We’ve been reminded this week that life is uncertainty.  Even if you are completely, absolutely, 100% confident that your faith in Christ has locked down your eternal guarantee of God’s favor and presence, It is very likely that you don’t always feel this way.

Certainty of the head does not equal certainty of the heart.

For that matter, I have found that, over time, what once counted as certainty might, a few years later, be considered, upon reflection, naivete.  Or maybe youthful exuberance.

Because there are these stages throughout life when you change, or shift.   Don’t you remember that time when you got back together with your parents as a young adult and realized they weren’t out of touch anymore?  As Mark Twain put it:

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

And that’s just in your early 20s. I don’t know about you, but when I pause and reflect, I’ve had several of these shifts. Enough, I suppose, to worry or frustrate my parents. Except that, as I get older, I realize that parents go through their own shifts as well.

So, while we can complain about, and lament about change, I suppose even the way we lament about change changes.

And we move forward, into the future.  Sorry, but I can’t help this: time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future. And it is dragging us along with it.

Maybe you can imagine how God’s people felt, then, when Jeremiah wrote these words to them:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Like us, they knew their past. Like us, they didn’t know their future.

They knew they were God’s people – God’s chosen people – chosen to share the good news of God’s intent to bless all humanity, even all creation, through them.  

We know we are God’s people, chosen to share the good news of God’s intent to bless all humanity, even all of creation, don’t we?

This is why our mission is to try to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Unless we follow Jesus, we are not living faithfully as God’s people. Our living faithfully as God’s people is necessary for us to be part of what God wants to do and is doing in the world.

Last week we looked at the end of Luke chapter 9, which was a concentrated dose of what following Jesus means. This week, we pick up the story right after that.  Jesus sent out 72 “others” – this is above and beyond the 12 – to go in pairs ahead of them.  They were sent, like we are sent, to prepare the way for Jesus.

Let’s face it: you and I don’t “bring Jesus” to people.  One of the things we learn as we go out into mission – whether on mission trips or in service to the school, or the Food Pantry, is that God is already at work in the lives of other people!

As we learn to follow Jesus better and better, we also begin to realize so many ways that God is already at work in the world around us, and that God invites us to come be a part of what God is already doing!

In the Jeremiah reading, the prophet and God are encouraging the people to develop an attitude h  of blessing toward Babylon.  Toward their captors – the ones who came into their land and hauled them off into exile.

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

Sometimes a church can get its focus off of the bigger picture and begin to worry about itself. This would be an easy time for us to fall into this trap. Airport Freeway is going to be widened, and that’s taking some of our land, including our playground and our oldest building. The Main St. bridge could be closed for as much as a year and a half. Our sanctuary was struck by lightning and we haven’t been able to use it for 17 weeks. Attendance, and therefore giving, have both been down for the past four months.

This would be an easy time to circle the wagons, and start to worry about us.

And yet, We’ve been here since 1876.  We have been through more challenging times than this, and we will face more challenging times in the future.  What are we to do in challenging times?  “Promote the welfare of the city.”

We have taken great steps into South Euless Elementary over the past few years, but there is so much more to be done!  So many students in our area would go home after school to empty houses or apartments, that they don’t go home – many of them go to the library or rec. center. How could we help those facilities handle so many kids – and how can we help so many kids know that they are not alone?

There are many single parent households around us – and there are projected to be more in 5 years than there are now.  There are also more grandparents raising their grandkids than there were 20 years ago, and this number, too, is likely to rise.  Some of you are raising grandkids!  What kinds of things can we do to to promote the welfare of these folks who have step up to try to raise children as well as they can?

We have 50,000 square feet of building space here, that has been built and paid for by you all and the 139 years of Euless Methodists before you. (did you know our entire indebtedness is only $30,000?)  How can we make this space available to those around us and promote the welfare of our city?

What things can we be doing – on our property, and off it, inside our buildings and miles away, that will promote the welfare of the city?  The vows we take at baptism – and renew at each new baptism we witness, remind us that God calls us to promote the welfare of the city.  For some, stepping out there seems too risky for now.  Fair enough.  Can we all at least agree that promoting the welfare of the city as a church requires more from every one of us than merely occupying a pew on Sunday morning?  Where and how is God calling you to be involved?

The kicker, to me, of the Jeremiah passage is the “your future depends on its welfare” line.

We had an 7 person team meeting with a consultant for 6 consecutive weeks.  On top of the 3 hour meetings we had each week, we had homework. One week our homework was to interview people from the surrounding community – city leaders and people who just live and work around here.  When asked what they knew of our church, too many of them knew only that we had a Preschool and a Food Pantry.

Our future as a Church depends on the welfare of our city!

Can you imagine the conversations that happened in that Woodlawn Grange Hall 139 years ago?  What kinds of things do you think the early Methodist and Presbyterian congregations had then?  What were the issues they faced?  How much uncertainty do you think they felt toward the future?

The Grange organization, by the way, was a national fraternal organization “that encourage[d] families to band together to promote the economic and political well-being of the community and agriculture.”

The Woodlawn Grange helped us get started. That was across Main Street from where we are now.  Did you just picture 7-11 or a Chinese restaurant that used to be a Taco Bell?  Or the Euless Lumber Company?

We moved over to the east side of Main Street in 1891.  124 years ago.  Perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to the Grange for getting us started.  Perhaps we owe God a debt of gratitude for leading us to this city at this point in time.

To whom do you owe a debt of gratitude for who you have become?

We do well to look forward by first looking back, but also by maintaining an attitude of gratitude.

If we are to follow Jesus faithfully into the future, we really must stay aware of all we have to be thankful for! We will need the energy and raised spirit that gratitude brings because “the harvest is bigger than you can imagine,” Jesus says, “but there are few workers.”

If we stopped there it might seem like Jesus intends to overwhelm his followers. I don’t believe Jesus ever intends to overwhelm his followers because he is trustworthy and offers all the support and resources that are needed for what he calls us to do. Paul wrote in bringing 1 Thessalonians to a close that “The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.”

What Jesus tells these 72, I believe he tells us:  basically, it is this: establish relationships, build trust with the people you go to.  You can’t make them trust you, you can’t make them like you, but I think Jesus agrees with Paul here, where in Romans 12:18 he says, “ If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”

It seems like we are sometimes looking to be offended.

Hear these words of Jesus again:

Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ (Luke 10:5-9)

and even if they don’t accept you, welcome you, agree with you, Jesus says this:

Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’ I assure you that Sodom will be better off on Judgment Day than that city.

We enter a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We pray for a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We promote the welfare of a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We do this because our future depends on its welfare.

This is why we have adopted these Mission, Vision, and Purpose statements as a Church:

Mission: Euless First United Methodist Church’s mission is to follow Jesus Christ a bit better today than yesterday. Through these efforts we develop a relationship with Christ and thus transform people, their lives, our community and the world.

Vision: Our vision is to be a community of God’s love and grace so that the larger community and world see God by our actions and outreach.

Purpose: We seek to follow Jesus better by moving people from knowing God, to growing in relationship with God, to going forth with God to serve others, and finally, glowing for God by witnessing to their faith to others.

Our desire, intent, and plan are to follow God into the future that God is setting before us. Our mission, vision, and purpose can help us become, perhaps, an MVP on God’s team.

Next year we celebrate 140 years as a congregation.  We face the future with uncertainty and certainty.  Uncertainty in that we don’t know what the stock market or the economy will do; we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

But we have certainty in that, as the old song goes, “we know who holds” tomorrow.

And God, our God, the one who holds tomorrow, calls us to pray for and promote the welfare of the city to which God has sent us.

To God be the glory for the next 140 years!

Vision Check

The Challenge of Discernment

One Monday I heard both of these claims:

  • First, someone shared the exciting news of a special ministry event in which he had participated.  What made it so exciting, he said, was that “Satan was trying to stop us at every turn.”  He went on to describe a long strings of challenges and threats to the success of the event.  The team, with God’s help, overcame all the challenges, and had a wonderful, blessed time!
  • Then, less than 2 hours later, another man shared that he had been learning the lesson of discernment from this fabulous Christian book.  To sum it up, one can discern one is on track to follow God’s will as obstacles are overcome through seeking counsel, logic, wisdom, and God. The lowering of obstacles is a sure sign of God’s will!

So, which is it?  Do you know you are on the right track when Satan is throwing obstacles in your way, or when God is providing an obstacle-free path to follow.

Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices
Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices

Call me cynical, but the answer is obvious.  We discern we are following God’s will, or the right way, when we do what we have determined we will do. If obstacles arise, we ask God to overcome Satan. If obstacles don’t arise, we assume, I suppose, God has already overcome Satan.

The Christian tendency is to turn to “Biblical Principles” to direct discernment.  You know as well as I do that given enough time and practice at ‘spin,’ almost anything can be made to sound like a “Biblical Principle.”  Let’s face it: for years, slavery was accepted as a “Biblical Principle”!

What has your experience been in your quest for discernment?  Have you moved beyond finding the proper steps to under gird your own will? If so, how?

The Challenge of Discernment