Stories From the Lake: Storm Chaser

“Stories From the Lake: Storm Chaser” / Mark 4:35-41 / Sermon July 26, 2015

Do you recall the single time that you would characterize as the time you were the most afraid? Maybe as a child you were afraid of the dark or as a teenager you remember the time you had to tell your parents about a math test you failed. As we age our fears get a little more complex and so maybe it was the time when you were told there was “something” on an x-ray or in the results of a blood test that required further testing. Or maybe it was the time you and your spouse felt so distant that you wondered if your marriage was going to last. Or you were in a crowded place and all of sudden you realized your child was not right there with you. Or it could have been a time when there were systematic layoffs at work and with each passing week your fears and anxiety grew more intense. We’ve all had experiences that have shaken us to the core and left us feeling vulnerable and afraid.

Our bodies are wired to sense threats and once they do, a series of physiological responses are set in motion designed to help us address these threats. Our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us to either flee from the threat or fight it off. What’s interesting is that our bodies are not able to detect the difference between real threats and perceived threats so our bodies respond in exactly the same way in both situations. Often what we call stress is really the manifestation of our bodies’ response to the perceived fears we have about our lives.

In the gospel lesson for today we find the disciples in an in-between time like we talked about several weeks ago. They were still relatively new to their role as disciples or followers of Jesus Christ—especially the role of being in Jesus’ inner circle. They liked most of what they saw about this man but they were still confused by some of what Jesus said and did. I’m sure there were friends and family who were concerned about where all of this was going and some friends may have even gone as far as cautioning the disciples about not taking this man, Jesus, too seriously because the new reality he was teaching about probably wasn’t going to turn out as positively as the disciples were imagining it would.

Leading up to our story from the lake for today, Jesus is standing on the lakeshore and teaching parables to the curious crowds who had gathered to hear him.

“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (Mark 4:33-34, NRSV)

1-teaching-the-people-39554-wallpaperIn other words, after Jesus taught the crowds, he would break down his teaching for the disciples in hopes they would understand the parables at a deeper level—the only problem was they still weren’t grasping the meaning and significance of Jesus’ words. They were operating out of an old mindset—an old paradigm—and hear this, Jesus’ teachings then and now can only be understood from a new frame of thinking—a constant and continual renewing of the mind as Paul would later describe it in Romans 12:2. If the Bible is the living word of God, and I believe it is, then every time we approach scripture we must come with an open heart and an open mind, not assuming we will find the same thing we found before, but with an expectation that our ever-developing ability to understand the mind of God will cause us to see things we never saw before.

After a long day of teaching, Jesus is ready for a break and so he invites the disciples to get into their boats and to go across Lake Gennesaret to the other side. If we’re not careful, we might miss what’s really happening here. Up until this point in Mark’s gospel, through Chapters 1 through 3 and most of the way through Chapter 4, Jesus’ ministry has been with the Jews. The disciples were well aware that Jesus’ invitation for them to “go over to the other side” was a provocative and daring invitation, for the “other side” was where the Gentiles, the non-Jews, the pagans, the “unclean” people lived. The disciples knew this could mean trouble. Verse 36 says this:

“And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.” (Mark 4:36, NRSV)

“…Just as he was.” That seems like a strange phrase. Fred Craddock, one of my professors, explains the phrase this way:

“Just as he was” meant that when Jesus got in the boat he was “whipped down, bedraggled, hungry, bent over already half asleep . . . no time to clean up, freshen up, dress up, change clothes . . . He’s worn out.” (Collected Sermons, 117)

And the small armada of fishing vessels makes it way toward a forbidden and formidable destination. What would be waiting for them on the other side? What violence might befall them at the hands of the pagans? Was this journey to the other side really a good idea? In the midst of this emotional turmoil, Jesus settles deep into the stern of the boat and falls asleep.

Since at least four of the disciples were seasoned fisherman, I’m sure everyone fell into a routine pattern in the boat that would get them moving toward their destination. Beyond the usual commands and communication, I imagine their conversation eventually moved in another direction. I’m sure they recalled some of the things Jesus said, first to the crowds, and then in the private tutoring sessions with them. Then, it was probably Peter who raised the question about the elephant in the room or maybe the whale in the boat—this whole idea of going to other side and what was Jesus thinking—was he even thinking? And then it happened. The emotional turmoil became manifest in meteorological turmoil.

As quickly and as startling as the invitation came for them to go the other side, with equal suddenness, a “great gale arose” and water was splashing over the sides of the boat. The weight of the water pushed the vessel lower into the water resulting in even more waves washing into the boat, nearly swamping it. Amazingly, Jesus remained asleep, oblivious to all of this even though the noise of the wind, the crashing of the waves, and the shouting of the disciples should have surely awakened him. The situation was dire and so the disciples woke Jesus, issuing a word of condemnation, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Of course he cared! The disciples saw Jesus healing the sick and proclaiming that a new order where the poor were as well off as the rich was coming into being. Everything Jesus had done up to that point was a demonstration of the fact the Jesus cares about hurting people. Sometimes in fear and frustration we say hurtful and condescending things that we wouldn’t otherwise say.

We assume that the disciples woke Jesus in order for him to perform a miracle. Is it possible they just needed another hand to help bail the water out of the boat? Healing people and saving people from gale force winds at sea are two different situations entirely. Is it possible they still had no idea about who this man Jesus really was?

“[Jesus] woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.“ (Mark 4:39, NRSV)

Almost as quickly as it started, it stopped. Everything went silent—falling into eerie nothingness—what Mark described as “dead calm.” It is into this silence that resembles death that Jesus speaks:

“He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mark 4:40, NRSV)

Michael Lindvall makes an interesting observation. He says:

“It is important to note that Jesus never says, ‘There is nothing to be afraid of.’ The Galilean storm was doubtless indeed fearsome, as are the ‘wind and waves’ that threaten us. Rather, Jesus asks, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Michael L. Lindvall in Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1, Propers 3-16, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, p. 166)

In 1633, Rembrandt depicted this story from the lake in a work, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and he captured the chaos of the moment. Among the disciples there are different reactions: Three of the men are actively engaged in maintaining the functioning of the boat. Others are more passive as if they are merely victims of the storm. One even seems to be sea sick hanging his head over the side of the boat.   A couple of the disciples appear to be angry with Jesus. They are probably the ones asking Jesus if he even cares that they are perishing. And yet, there is one disciple who is kneeling almost invisibly in the dark at Jesus’ feet. Whoever this disciple is, Rembrandt painted a vague halo around his head as if to demonstrate the saintliness of this disciple who was able to hold onto his faith in Jesus in the midst of the storm. I wish I could be that disciple but sometimes I’m afraid and filled with worry. Sometimes I’m more like the angry disciples who lash out at Jesus.

Recall the time you thought of earlier when I asked you about the time you were the most afraid in your life. The truth of the matter is you survived whatever caused that fear in the first place. You are here today, not because you weren’t afraid, but because somehow you made it through the storm. God was with you in that storm whether you realized it or not.

Lindvall continues:

“The hard truth is that fearsome things are very real: isolation, pain, illness, meaninglessness, rejection, losing one’s job, money problems, failure, illness, and death. As we grow in faith, we come to understand that even though such fearsome things are very real, they do not have the last word. They do not have ultimate power over us, because reigning over this world of fearsome things is a God who is mightier than they.” (Michael L. Lindvall in Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1, Propers 3-16, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, p. 166)

If you are facing a situation right now that generates a sense of fear in your heart or mind, then hold onto the truth there is a God who reigns over this world of fearsome things and this God is mightier than anything you will ever face. Don’t deny the fear; however, don’t deny that whatever you are facing God will be with you. You don’t have to face your situation alone.

There is one more interesting observation about Rembrandt’s painting. You would expect there to be 13 people in the boat counting the 12 disciples and Jesus; however, if you look closely there are 14 people. The 14th person is wearing a blue cloak and a reddish 17th century hat. He’s holding onto the rigging and instead of looking at Jesus or even the storm at sea, he’s looking at us. Although there may have been some narcissism in Rembrandt’s self-portrayal, at the same time, it’s a reminder that there are always at least two points of view—the first is where we view the storm itself, and the second viewpoint is where we’re able to see ourselves in the midst of the storm but also everything else going on around the storm. It is then that we might be able to more clearly see Jesus for who he is and know that no matter what, he’s got this—we’re going to be okay. Faith is that second perspective.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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On Storms and Saviors

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? —Mark 4:38b (NRSV)

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There have been times in my life when it felt like God was far away and totally disconnected from what was going on in my life. No matter how much I called out to God, the emptiness I felt from God’s silence weighed on my chest like a ton of bricks. I could hardly breathe, and the only thing that sustained me was my stubbornness to show God that I could get by “just fine” without him.

Was God really silent? Did God really not care? Had God abandoned me? I’m sure the disciples were asking similar questions when they were struggling to maintain control of their boat as it was caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus, seemingly unaware, slept soundly in the stern of the boat. They woke him and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus rebuked the wind and it died down, and then he declared amazement at the disciples’ lack of faith.

In my own experience, when it seemed that Jesus was asleep instead of tending to my urgent needs, it often took time and retrospection to see that God was, in fact, being very attentive to my situation. The distance I felt was more the result of my wanting God to respond differently to my need than the way he chose to respond, so I kept waiting for the answer I would have preferred. Is it possible that Jesus was confident in the disciples’ ability to weather the storm on their own and so he could rest easily in the stern of the boat trusting in his followers to keep him safe?

BreneBrown_As parents, we often want to protect our children from any difficult situation, and we will go to great lengths to keep them from feeling discomfort of any sort, much less, actually feeling any pain; so why wouldn’t Jesus demonstrate the same care for us? Brené Brown (shown to the left) is a professor, social worker, and researcher who says the best thing we can teach our children is that they were made for striving. Rather than save them from every difficulty and thwart their development, we need to encourage our children to face their difficult situations with confidence so they can learn how resilient they really are and then be able to deal effectively with almost any situation.

Of course Jesus cared about the disciples’ wellbeing. His response was not the calloused response we might think; rather, his response was of a loving guardian who knew, no matter what, the disciples were going to be okay. When you’re facing a storm, you can trust that God will not abandon you. Trust God’s perspective on the situation, and if it seems like he’s not concerned at all, then maybe it’s a sign that you can relax and ride out the storm.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Go Fish

“Go Fish” / Canterbury CUMC / July 19, 2015

Rick Jervis, a journalist from Austin TX posted this story in USA Today last Sunday night:

“Feet dangling in murky water, lights low, nothing between you and the water but a rubber inner tube. Then that famous ostinato of bass notes begins. Daaaa dum. Daaaa dum. You can’t help but think: Is this really a good idea? Really?

 

“I joined about 750 people Saturday night to watch the classic movie, Jaws, on a giant blowup screen while floating in tubes in a man-made lake…

 

“An earlier screening in June sold out within two hours. Saturday’s 750 tickets (at $40 each) sold out within six hours and spawned a waiting list of 2,700 hopefuls…”

Most of us are familiar with the movie Jaws.  Since its release in 1975, it has become part of the American psyche.  It launched the career of Steven Spielberg as a director and is credited with creating the concept of the summer blockbuster. Of course, it has also added to our paranoia around getting in the water, spawned Shark Week on cable television, and made all too real the terror experienced by those who have unfortunately ended up the victims of a shark attack, as has been the case in recent weeks.

Jervis continues:

“As the lights dimmed, I pushed off on my inner tube and floated into position near the screen. ‘It’s only a movie,’ I repeated to myself, as the ostinato ramped up and the shark took its first victim.”

 

“Just in case, I lifted my feet onto the tube.”

(http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/07/12/jaws-on-water-drafthouse-austin-weird/30046223/)

jaws_635722979745822622-jaws3I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want to watch Jaws while sitting in an inner tube on a lake at night.  Every little nibble on my feet would send me into a panic!

As Drew and I begin this new sermon series on Stories from the Lake, we wanted to make some connections in scripture with some of the common summertime experiences we have. Today we’re talking about fishing.  Most of us would not classify the movie Jaws as a movie about fishing because although fishermen and a fishing boat play a prominent role in the movie, in the end, it’s all about the shark.  But it is an epic tale in which a heroic character has to overcome obstacles, including the protagonist shark, to save the good people of Amity from this evil that seeks to destroy them for good.

With as little literary fanfare as Mark uses to begin his gospel, (after all, he skips the Christmas story and goes right to John the Baptist in the wilderness), it would be hard to equate the calling of the disciples with the same epic flair characteristic of the hero’s journey in the movie Jaws; but, at the same time, these fishermen that Jesus called were being invited to join Jesus on a journey that would ultimately change human history.  They were unlikely heroes, and indeed, they often acted counter to the hero’s role as they allowed their fears to overwhelm them.  And still—Jesus chose them.  Let’s dig in to the scripture:

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God…” (Mark 1:14, NRSV)

Mark is able to demonstrate such an economy of words in his writing but in his usual style there is so much in this short little verse.  John the Baptist was the precursor to the Messiah and his arrest was a turning point in the progression of the advent of the Kingdom of God. Mark seizes this point and uses it as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry positioning it as the next step in the forward movement of the Kingdom of God.  From the start, according to Mark, Jesus is proclaiming a message that is good news to those who will hear.

“[Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God] and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:15, NRSV)

What would have been good news for the people of Jesus’ day? Here it is: The time you’ve been waiting for has arrived.  In spite of the Roman occupation and its intrusive demands on God’s people, God has decided it’s time for him to come near and begin to sort everything out.  All you have to do is believe.

Lamar Williamson, a seminary professor and author, gives us this story/analogy about how we might identify with what the sense of expectancy a 1st Century Jew would have felt:

In a crowded airline terminal, hundreds of persons are scurrying in dozens of directions. Above the steady buzz of noise a voice booms through a loudspeaker, [announcing that a flight to New York will be boarding soon at Gate 23]. Some people, of course, never hear the announcement and continue on their way [because they work in one of the shops in the airport and therefore, are not there to travel]. Others hear it but, having reservations on another flight, pay no attention. Some, however, who want to go to New York and who have been [eagerly] awaiting such an announcement, look up expectantly, [re-check] their ticket for the flight number, gather their baggage, [and] set out with urgency for gate 23. (Mark: Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching, John Knox Press, 1983, p. 43)

CastingNetsFor those whose hearts are attuned with a longing for what Jesus can bring, the message is heard loud and clear. And this is the good news that Jesus was broadcasting in his travels throughout Galilee when he first encountered Simon Peter and Andrew. Their attentiveness to Jesus and their response to him seem to indicate they were eagerly awaiting this news.

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  (Mark 1:16-18, NRSV)

Again, Mark’s economy of words is amazing as he packs so much meaning in just a few sentences. Walking along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus observes Simon and Andrew, two brothers, casting nets. Without any lead up or preliminary small talk, Jesus issues a command for them to follow him and he says he will make them fish for people. That command seems a little harsh and presumptuous.

Ted Smith notes that,

“A literal translation [of ‘I will make you fish for people’] might read, ‘Follow me, and I will make you to become fishers for people.’ There is a world of difference between ‘I will make you fish’ and ‘I will make you to become fishers.’  ‘I will make you fish’ gives us one more activity to work into our date books. But ‘I will make you to become fishers’?  That promises a whole new life.” (Ted A. Smith in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors)

Another thing that strikes me is that when Jesus issues the command, Simon and Andrew make no verbal response. Mark merely states, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” If you’ve studied Simon Peter much, he always had something to say and so his immediately walking away from his life’s work is somewhat out of character.

Then Jesus continues walking along the shoreline and verse 19 picks up:

“As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”  (Mark 1:19-20, NRSV)

Once again, James and John, two brothers working with their father, Zebedee, receive the invitation from Jesus and without questioning or comment immediately joined with Jesus leaving their father with the hired hands on the boat.

Mark quoted Jesus in the beginning of the passage as saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Mark seemed to be saying the kingdom of God was immediately present in the person of Jesus and that is why the fishermen could respond immediately.  They weren’t responding to a command, they were responding to an experience of God’s nearness in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said an appropriate response to hearing the good news that God’s kingdom is near is to repent—a word we have translated from the Greek word metanoeo (pronounced met-an-o-eh’-o) that literally means to “change one’s mind.” So when the four fishermen responded to Jesus’ invitation, it was an invitation not as much to a new career, but to a new way of thinking that would change their lives.

So what does this have to do with you and me?  Whether we recognize him or not Jesus is continuously coming to us in the midst of our lives and extending an invitation for us to follow him.  I know what you’re thinking—walking away from your day job is not an option—and if that’s what it takes to follow Jesus then you’ll have nothing to do with it.  But that’s not what it takes for everyone.

Here’s the requirement to become a follower of Jesus Christ: When you decide to respond to Jesus’ call to follow him the response that he desires most is a willingness on your part to do whatever he asks. It’s important to note that Jesus didn’t ask everyone to leave their nets that day.  Zebedee didn’t leave his nets; nor did the hired hands who worked with him. There is evidence that Zebedee continued in the commercial fishing business as follower of Jesus Christ.

You see, the invitation of Jesus is not to change your life as you currently know it; it is to change the way you think about the life you are living and begin to understand it from a different perspective.  Sometimes this leads to a radical change in your circumstances, but more often than not, it leads to a change in your thinking that ultimately changes how you choose to live your life. You do the same kind of work and play—but you do it with a different intention—a different mindset—a different purpose.

Is it possible that when we come forward to take communion, that in some ways it’s like watching Jaws lying on an inner tube in a lake at night? We know the story. We know what to expect. We’ve experienced this before. But putting ourselves closer in touch with the context of the story can be a little frightening. Remember, immediately following the Last Supper the disciples had to face the test of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.

So imagine with me, when the bread and the juice are extended to you this morning, you are not here in the chapel but you are at work or at home or wherever you are when you do what you would describe as your vocation, and in extending the elements to you Jesus says, “Follow me and I will take you on an epic journey of faith.”  What are you feeling? What fears or excitement rise within you?  But most importantly, how will you respond?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Re-Creating on the Lake

“The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, ‘Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.’ For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.” —Mark 6:31

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For three years, I was the pastor of a small United Methodist Church on the backwater of Lake Martin in Coosa County. A lot of my members were life-long residents of the area whose family roots went back before there was even a lake. Yet, other members were relative newcomers to the area who had moved into the area to retire on the lake. And then we had our regular visitors who would show up almost every Sunday, but only for about three months during the summer. We often had better worship attendance during the summer than we did any other time of the year. Not once did I think about the pastors of their churches who must have missed seeing their church members. Is it fair to say that I now know how those pastors must have felt?!

I certainly don’t raise this point to make anybody feel guilty about being at the lake or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, I think it is wonderful that many of us have the opportunity to get away and re-create, which is the real purpose of recreation. Practicing Sabbath is a spiritual discipline that is not just about worshiping God but also about withdrawing to reflect on the important aspects of our lives—our relationship with God, our other relationships, our vocation, and the hopes and dreams we have for our lives. This is a process of renewal that prepares us for having an even greater impact in the world.

Drew Clayton and I are starting a new sermon series this Sunday called “Stories from the Lake.” The series from the Gospel of Mark focuses on four different stories in the life of Jesus that take place around the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Gennesaret. The four stories cover the calling of the disciples, Jesus calming the storm, Jesus walking on water, and finally the feeding of the four thousand. In two of the stories, Jesus instructs his disciples to “get into the boat” in order to get away from the crowds. In each of these stories the purpose of getting away is so the disciples will be prepared to serve when it’s time to serve.

Enjoy your re-creation, and let it be a catalyst for preparing you to serve with new energy and a renewed sense of purpose.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Making It Real

“Making It Real” / Canterbury CUMC / Ephesians 1:3-14

I like the way Leonard Sweet, a United Methodist seminary professor and preacher, often greets a congregation. He begins with, “Good morning Saints!” to which everyone replies… “Good morning!” And then he says, “Good morning Sinners!” to which only a few stunned people sheepishly reply… “Good morning.” And then he says, “Good, I’m glad we’re all here!”

Isn’t it true that we are all a paradoxical mix of both Saint and Sinner? We can be certain that the person here who is the worst among us, by whatever means that is determined, is capable of doing good and noble things and probably has done so on many occasions. But we can also be certain that the person here who is the best among us, again by whatever means that is determined, is capable of doing horrible and selfish things and may have, on occasion, done so and hoped no one saw them do it.

Our scripture lesson for today is about holiness and how we become holy. When we think about holiness in terms of human behavior, then none of us could ever be considered holy because our human condition is one that is susceptible to self-serving that leads to sin. However, if we can think of holiness as a state of being that is tied less to what we do and more to who we are—which is what God intends—then there is hope for us.

This may be hard to conceptualize, but our identity is more than just “what we do.” Let me try to explain. When I think about who I am I may immediately think about the fact that I am one of the ministers at Canterbury United Methodist Church and therefore, I could describe myself as a pastor because that is what I do. I pastor; therefore, I am a pastor. But that is not all of who I am because there is so much more to me. I am Lee and Shirley’s son. I am Ann’s husband. I am Andrew and Adam’s father and I am Isabel’s stepfather. I am brother and brother-in-law. I am friend. I am uncle. Have I mentioned the most important thing about me yet? I am Pappy to Addyson!

Do you see a trend? I am more defined by my relationships than I am by what I do. What I do won’t last but who I am in relationship is eternal. Let’s not underestimate the importance of what I do because I have to take responsibility for my actions; however, in the proper order of things, what I do flows out of who I am—out of my “being-ness.” I think it’s imperative that we come to terms with the fact that we are human “beings” and NOT human “doings.”

And that’s why Paul, or whoever the author is of the letter to the Ephesians, can make such a bold statement as he does in verses 3 and 4 of our reading:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:3-4, NRSV)

We are NOT holy and blameless because we are able to do holy things 100% of the time nor because we are able to keep from doing bad things—we are holy and blameless because we are in a relationship with a God who loves us and who has the power to make us holy and blameless in spite of what we do. Our holiness and blamelessness is a gift from God designed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

JacobWrestlingJacob is one of God’s special projects we read about in Genesis. He was a con man who was always willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever he wanted—whether it was from his brother, his father, and even his father-in-law. Everything seemed to work out for him in spite of the fact that he lived life looking over his shoulder to be sure the folks he cheated weren’t after him.

Fred Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors, describes an incident in Jacob’s life that illustrates my point about how our holiness is a gift from God. Buechner describes a time when God appeared to Jacob in a dream. In the dream, God tells Jacob that the land he is on will become his land and his descendants will establish a great nation on that ground. Basically, God is rewarding Jacob in spite of his unworthiness. And then God says, ‘Behold I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’

Now you would think that God would be calling Jacob to task for his deceitfulness but instead God treats him like a king. I’ll let Buechner sum it up in his own words:

“It wasn’t Holy Hell that God gave him, in other words, but Holy Heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular…

Buechner is reminding us that it all starts with God’s love but then, Buechner also says there is a response on our part that follows. Buechner continues:

Another part of the lesson was that, luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are but because of who he is. ‘ It’s on the house’ is one way of saying it and ‘it’s by grace’ is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel but the many times great grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.” (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, Harper & Row, New York, 1979, pp. 57-58)

If, in fact, God is in the business of turning sinners into saints, how does God do it? How can we make the experience of holiness and blamelessness real in our lives? Countless books have been written by far greater theological minds than mine to answer this question but at the end of the day, the best answer I can come up with is a simple one: God chooses to love us into holiness and even when we fall short, God makes up the difference with grace. In other words, what we could not do for ourselves, God did for us out of love. This is the basic understanding of the theological concept of grace.

John Wesley taught that there are three experiences of God’s grace: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace. Together, these three experiences of grace form a way of seeing and experiencing the Christian life as an ongoing, dynamic process that takes us from being far from God and moving us successively closer and closer to God the more we receive God’s grace. Grace is always at work when God is doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves—even when we don’t deserve it.

So God invites us into relationship with him through prevenient grace; God forgives our sins and gives us a new start through justifying grace; and, God empowers us with his grace to grow more and more in the image of Christ through sanctifying grace.

Here’s the catch: God will always do God’s part; but God will never do our part. In Ephesians 2, we get a picture of how we experience the gift of salvation:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)

When we break down these verses we begin to see that we are “saved by grace,” which is God doing for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves; but there is also a second part that is equally as important where it says we are saved “through faith.” Faith is our response to the gift of God. We must believe that God can save us and then that act of faith on our part activates the gift of salvation. In other words, we participate with God in our own salvation; we co-operate with God in our own salvation—we operate alongside God in our salvation.

When it comes to our sanctification, we also get to cooperate with God in the transformation that it takes to become holy and blameless. God will provide his Spirit to enable us to grow in our faith; however, we must activate that gift through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, study, service, fasting, solitude, and a whole host of other disciplines. These disciplines help us “practice” being more and more like Jesus and through practicing these disciplines God is able to transform our hearts into the image of Christ.

Sometimes we resist God and we deny the holiness God desires for us. We erect barriers between God and us. God will not cross those barriers without an invitation. Yet, God is constantly calling out to us in subtle ways and inviting us into the grace-filled life where we can develop a deeper and abiding holiness. Holiness can be real in your life if you are willing to receive the gift of God’s grace and see what it can do in transforming you more and more into the image in which you were created.

NoWonderTheyCallHimtheSaviorMax Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and Christina, a mother and her teenage daughter living in a poor Brazilian village. Christina, like many teenagers, dreamed of a more exciting life in the big city. She’d had enough of the one-room shack with a pallet on the floor for her bed. She knew something better awaited her if she could only get away.

So one morning Christina ran away. Her mother was frantic because she knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter. Maria quickly packed to go find Christina because she had a pretty good idea of where she went.

On her way to the bus stop, Maria went to a drugstore to do one last thing in preparation for her journey. She sat in one of those little photo booths and spent all the money she could on photos of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro.

Maria knew Christina had no money and this made her vulnerable to people who would try to take advantage of her. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place a young woman in dire straits might end up. At each place Maria left her picture—taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a pay phone. On the back of each photo she wrote a note.

It wasn’t too long before Maria ran out of pictures and she had to return home. She cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village. She regretted that she couldn’t stay until she found her daughter and could bring her home.

Several weeks later in Rio de Janeiro, Christina was coming down the stairs of a cheap hotel, feeling tired and much older than her actual years would indicate. Her eyes no longer danced with youthful innocence but reflected the pain and fears of a broken life. Like the prodigal son in the Bible, a thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for the security of the pallet on the floor of her one room shack. And yet the little village seemed too far away. And even if she could make it back—after all she had done—could her mother still love her?

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, something caught her eye. There on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes filled with tears and her throat tightened as she walked over to the mirror and removed the small photo. Written on the back were these words: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.”

We can come up with a list of a thousand reasons why God shouldn’t love us—and most of those things will be about what we have done or failed to do; however, God’s love isn’t about what we’ve done—it’s about what he’s willing to do for us. God desires to pour into our lives whatever measure of grace we need to redirect our lives and put us on a trajectory that will strengthen every relationship we have and that will help us have a significantly more positive impact on our world. All it takes is a willingness on our part to activate that grace with a “yes” to God. Will you say “yes” and will you then share that with someone who can mentor you spiritually? This church is filled with people who said “yes” to God and who are willing to come alongside you in your journey. God will be there as well to help you grow into someone far more than you could ever be without him. Make it real. Say “yes.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Holy & Blameless

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:3-4, NRSV) 

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I’ve never really thought of myself as holy. I’m a good person. I tithe. I pay my taxes. I attend church and even preach sermons. I obey most traffic laws. I’m a pretty decent guy. But holy? I don’t think so. Holy seems like an adjective reserved for people who have more “spiritual” mojo than I do.

I’ve never really thought of myself as blameless either although I occasionally have that human addiction of deflecting responsibility for my own actions and trying to find someone else to blame when things don’t go the way I want them to or according to my sense of fairness. Yet, for the most part, I own the fact that I am not perfect, and I often fail to be the person God created me to be.

So, in Ephesians where it says God chose to make us holy and blameless even before the world was founded, I find myself perplexed and wondering how can this be? How about you? Do you feel holy and blameless?

I think we’re conditioned to think of ourselves in less than positive terms lest someone think we’re arrogant or prideful, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. The Bible cautions against this numerous times. However, when we look at the verses above more closely, we see it’s not our goodness or our piety that makes us holy and blameless. We are made holy and blameless “in Christ.”

To be holy literally means to be “set apart.” We are set apart for the specific purpose of living more fully in relationship with God and not just to be more pious. God extends an invitation to all of us to be set apart so that we might receive “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” that enables us to be holy through our connection to Christ.

Like so much in our relationship with God, our holiness and blamelessness is a gift that God chooses to give us; however, in our receiving that gift, we are transformed and we mystically and miraculously become more holy and without blame.

In All-Together worship this week in the Sanctuary, we’re going to explore how to make the reality of God’s gift of holiness to us more real. I’m looking forward to our time together.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

The Road Ahead: Are We There Yet?

Canterbury CUMC / All-together in Canterbury Center / Revelation 21:1-6a

Here we are on the last leg of our journey through transitions. We started with the invitation to the adventure, then we addressed saying “goodbye” with the endings that bring a chapter of our lives to a close, we tried to take in the scenery along our spiritual and emotional journey and grow through the neutral zone, and finally, we ask, “Are we there yet?  Have we reached the time of new beginnings?”

We arrive at new beginnings from a variety of experiences.  Sometimes we arrive through circumstances completely out of our control, we’ve been forced to leave someone, something, or somewhere behind and through the journey of grief we have moved into new territory.  Through the death of a loved one, divorce or other loss of a relationship, financial difficulty, loss of a job, loss of a dream, or loss of health we’ve been on a journey whose outcome wasn’t clear but we find ourselves at a new beginning.

Still at other times, we haven’t been forced at all—we’ve determined that in order to grow we’ve come to the end of something on our own terms and we’re reaching forward with a sense of purpose and accomplishment for the next stage of our life and development.  This could be through marriage, deciding to start a family or having another child, staying at home to parent our children, changing careers, being proactive about losing weight or quitting smoking, joining a twelve-step recovery group, chasing a life-long dream, retiring, or a host of other life-changing pursuits.

Whatever the changes are in our lives that lead to new beginnings, we are confronted with new territory for which there is always some degree of uncertainty about whether we’re going to be successful in the new situation.  What’s interesting to me is that the original meaning of the word “success” is simply, “whatever comes next.”  Although that meaning is considered archaic, at the same time we see remnants of that meaning when we talk about someone who is a successor who is simply the next person to take on a job or responsibility.

I don’t want to minimize the significance of transitions because they are more than just the next thing; however, at the same time, there is some comfort in knowing we can always count on there being a “next thing.” Beyond that, I think there is another step where we can choose not to just experience the “next thing”; but to experience a “better thing” for having gone through the journey. Here’s what I mean:

 I believe the destination we seek in any transition is transformation.

Anything less is missing an opportunity to grow. Through any transition, there is both the challenge and the possibility to move to another level of development.

The scripture reading for today from Revelation 21 is a description of a new beginning that John, the writer, was crafting as a way of encouraging the faithful followers of Jesus Christ in spite of their persecution and alienation by the Roman government. He was casting a vision of what was possible.  This passage embodies something I believe very strongly:

Our primary goal as followers of Jesus Christ is to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition in the here and now.  The Kingdom of God is both a future reality (“thy kingdom come”) and a present reality (“thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”).  It is our responsibility to work daily to transform the present reality into more and more the essence of the Kingdom of God through faithful obedience to Jesus Christ and his call upon our lives.

John, the author of our scripture for today, has a vision for what the “Kingdom of God here and now” would look like.  He says:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  (Revelation 21:1, NRSV)

At first this appears to be nothing more than escapism where John just wants to avoid the current reality of his suffering. We can identify with that. There are times where we would just prefer to pick up and leave and find a new place where we can begin again without the hassle of our current reality. This was a dominant religious view during the fundamentalist revival of the 19th century where so many of the songs were about heaven and how great it was going to be when we got there. The prevailing message was, “Don’t worry about life here right now. Endure whatever you have to because Heaven awaits you.” But in John’s vision, what is really taking place is a transformation of the old into something new. If his vision were a reality, the old ways of persecution and repression would give way to a new order.

John’s reference to the “sea” is a common biblical reference denoting “chaos” and so John is declaring that the confusion and chaos of the current suffering of his fellow Christians would also disappear in this new order. John continues in verse 2:

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2, NRSV)

Just so there’s no mistaking from where the new heaven and the new earth will come, John specifically states that it is God who will take the final step in erasing the line between earth and heaven.  Like the waves on the seashore continuously shaping the beach, the waves of heaven will wash over earth reshaping the order of things in the same manner.  Furthermore, these waves from heaven will be as welcome as the groom is to the bride who makes his way toward her for the two to become one.  Then in verse 3:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…’” (Revelation 21:3, NRSV)

In this verse John envisions God declaring the union to be complete.  God will be at home among God’s people and we will be at home with God—there will be no separation between God and us, and there will be no separation between us and every other person on earth because no matter the differences we had before, we will be united in the power and the presence of God who lives and reigns over all.  As a result, John says in verse 4:

“’[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:4, NRSV)

John reminds us that death, the threshold we currently have to pass through to live with God, will be destroyed and we will no longer need to despair with tears or mourning because they will become as unnecessary as death itself. Then verse 5 says:

“And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” (Revelation 21:5, NRSV)

God says, “John, you better write this down word-for-word because it’s very important… I am making all things new. I’m not just making some things new, but I’m making all things new!”

Some of you know Ann and I are doing some renovations on the house we bought in Highland Park.  Right now we’re in the midst of working on renovating the infrastructure of the house including all new electrical.  Of course, things lead to things, and so it’s not just the wiring, then it’s repairing or replacing the fixtures, and then it’s repairing the plaster walls where they had to break open the wall to run wiring, and then there’s painting, and who knows what’s next but it seems like it’s never going to end!

We’re just renovating a house, but John says God is renovating all creation with a grand design of heaven and earth becoming one.  I can’t imagine what it would take to renovate all of creation! I hope God’s sub-contractors are able to deliver quicker results than mine!  Even God’s renovation project is ongoing and it’s been in process since its creation.  Then in the beginning of verse 6 we read:

“[God] said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’” (Revelation 21:6a, NRSV)

And then, all of a sudden, it’s like God says, “Voilà—it’s done—simple as that—the job is complete. Since I began this work of creation, I know how to end it; however, the ending is really just another beginning of something better.  Now let’s get on with living the abundant life for which I created you.”

Isn’t that usually how the new beginnings come to us. When we’ve lost a loved one, although the grief never really goes away, there still comes a mysterious and unannounced turning point where we realize that we’re still alive and there’s so much more life to live and the one we’ve lost would be okay with us picking up the pieces of who we are and forging ahead into whatever is next.

When we get married, all the uncertainty about the first date, the courtship, the engagement; the joy and the frustration of the wedding planning, the expense, the pre-marriage counseling, the nerves at the altar; these are all but forgotten when we are positively overwhelmed with the sense of the new life that we’re beginning with someone we love.

When a baby is born, the months of preparation, the nausea, the lower back pain, the countless visits to the obstetrician, and even the pain of labor itself (so I am told!) seem to lose significance at the sight of the tiny miracle we are holding in our arms. The new beginning doesn’t minimize the struggle but it emphasizes the necessary journey to our newfound joy.

John paints a vision in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth and I’m sure his fellow believers were both inspired by that vision but probably also found themselves asking, “Are we there yet?  What’s taking so long?  Has God abandoned us?”

When we’re in a dark season in our lives, when we’re struggling for something to hope in, for something to believe in, and we feel as if we’re never going to come out of it, if we are able to continue the journey believing that God is right alongside us in this painful experience, then often when we least expect it, the break through comes.  It’s as if God says, “Voilà—it’s done—simple as that—the job is complete.  Since I created you, I know how to sustain you through the necessary endings and the wilderness journeys of your life; however, the endings are really just another beginning of something better I have in store for you.  Now you can get on with living the abundant life for which I created you.”

The journey from the neutral zone into the new beginning is not something for which we can plan or schedule; much less control the outcome.  The journey to the new beginning always seems to go on too long.  We often wonder if God has abandoned us.  We ask, “Are we there yet?”  But when it finally comes, it is a gift.  It is often a surprise.  And it is often not what we expected.  But with that unexpected and unexplained new beginning comes a chance to grow and become something more than we could have ever been apart from the journey.

I believe the destination we seek in any transition is transformation.

With each new beginning the journey also begins again.  Are we there yet?  For now, yes; however, before too long we’ll start the journey again for life is a succession of endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings.  That’s what transformation is:  A constant journey of spiritual and emotional development.

One of my favorite prayers a simple one that states:  “O God of new beginnings and second chances, here I am…again!”

It was the year 1738, and John Wesley, an Anglican priest and leader of a group of devout Christians referred to as Methodists because of their strict adherence to spiritual disciplines as a method for living, was in deep despair.  He had recently returned form a missionary venture in the colony of Georgia in America and things had not gone well.  He was there to minister to the natives referred to as the Indians and his evangelism efforts met with little success.  He had some difficulty with a relationship with a woman he loved but could not bring himself to tell her so, and she found another more forthright gentleman to marry. John Wesley made the mistake of denying her communion the next time she came forward to receive the sacrament and that wasn’t received well by her well-connected relatives.  Thus, Wesley had to leave Georgia rapidly and it felt as if his whole life was falling apart.  He went back home to London feeling lost and isolated from God and others.  Then one evening, he found himself at a Bible study being led by the Moravians, another pietistic religious group with whom Wesley had spent time.  And then, it happened:

“In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This was a new beginning for Wesley that would alter the Methodist revival for years to come and some scholars credit Wesley’s influence as reforming 18th Century England. The expansion of Methodism into America has also had a profound impact on our society.  It all started unexpectedly out of a deep and dark time in Wesley’s life and the impact continues today.

As we gather for Holy Communion we have an opportunity for a new beginning.  Wesley believed that we could even experience salvation for the first time in receiving the sacrament. So as you come, maybe your prayer will be, “O God of new beginnings and second chances, here I am…again!”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Symbols and Interpretation

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8, NRSV)

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There has been a lot of energy around two events that dominated the news last week: 1) the meaning and place of the Confederate battle flag in American culture and, 2) the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that asserted that people of the same gender have the constitutional right to marry in the United States.

If you are like me, I suspect you have gravitated towards those articles and blogs that align with your views. What’s been more challenging is reading articles and blog posts with a perspective different than my own. William Isaacs says, “Dialogue is the art of thinking together.” Think with me on these things and even if you disagree then let’s perfect the art of thinking together. I welcome the opportunity and the challenge.

1) The cross was a symbol of derision and shame that represented the ultimate persecution of the enemies of Rome and was the form of execution used on Jesus Christ and other followers of the Way. Although it was a symbol of terror, Christians through the centuries have redeemed that symbol and many of us wear a cross around our necks as a reminder of the salvation that is ours because of the love and grace exemplified by Jesus on the cross.

In spite of what it meant during the Civil War, following the war the Confederate battle flag became a symbol that represented the crusade against persons who were African-American and any attempts by the federal government to afford them equal rights. The flag was a common sight at the scene where innocent black lives were taken. It seems to me that if the Confederate battle flag is to be redeemed, then those who suffered persecution under its previous symbolic power and their descendants are the only ones who can redeem it. Let’s think together on this.

2) Some agree and others disagree with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional grounds and on biblical grounds. Both the U.S. Constitution and the Holy Bible are open to interpretation, and that is why there is disagreement on what each says about this issue. Not being a legal scholar, I’ll leave interpretation of the Constitution up to those more qualified. Having studied the Bible as an academic discipline as well as a spiritual discipline, I recognize the perspective I take has a large influence on how I read and interpret the text. Your perspective impacts your interpretation as well. Just as the Supreme Court was narrowly divided on this issue with a 5-4 vote, I suspect our congregation is divided as well. As your pastor, I will minister to the “5” as well as to the “4.” I will listen to those of you who are somewhere in between (would that be the “dash”?) and dialogue with you as you try to discern a deeper understanding of the will of God. We can think and dialogue around this important issue together. All I ask is that each of us holds our positions humbly. That seems like the right way to me. What do you think?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

The Road Ahead: Taking In The Scenery

Canterbury CUMC / All-together in the Sanctuary / Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Today we’re in the third part of our series on The Road Ahead and we’re talking about Taking in the Scenery. In this series we’re using the metaphor of a journey and last week we talked about saying “goodbye” in terms of letting go of those things that hold us back. Next week we’ll talk about the destination in terms of the new beginnings in our lives. Today we’re going to talk about the time in-between—the part of the trip between “where we’ve been” and “where we’ll be.” We’ll focus on the behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives we gain by taking in the scenery—by not just rushing through but by experiencing the fullness of the journey.

The-Byrds-Turn-Turn-TurnThe scripture reading for today is probably familiar to many of us not only because of it’s place among the Wisdom literature of the Bible; but also because Pete Seeger put the King James Version of this passage to music in 1962 in the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season) that was later made famous by the folk/rock band The Byrds in 1965.

Both in the scripture and in the song a series of contrasting life events are presented that characterize major experiences of our existence. We get so caught up in each of the polarities that we often miss that there is a lot that happens in between the contrasting events. For instance,

“…a time to be born, and a time to die;…” (Ecclesiastes 3:2a)

Although there is a time to be born and although there is a time to die, there is more to our lives that happens in between that determines the quality of our lives. Or…

“…a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;…” (Ecclesiastes 3:2b)

Those of you who garden know that there is a considerable span of time between when we plant and when we harvest. It is in this season of the in-between time that there is a lot going on—some of it visible, but a lot of it invisible to the eye.

Likewise, when we experience major changes in our lives and we find ourselves in-between what “was” and what “will be”, there is a lot going on that is both visible and invisible—but all of the joy as well as the struggles are important for our growth.

William Bridges in his work on transitions, calls this in-between time the neutral zone and he describes it this way:

“…that apparently empty in-between time when… invisibly inside you, the transformation is going on. Everything feels as though it is up for grabs and you don’t quite know who you are or how you’re supposed to behave, so this feels like a meaningless time. But it is actually a very important time. During your time in the neutral zone, you are receiving signals and cues—if only you could decipher them!—as to what you need to become for the next stage of your [life]. And, unless you disrupt it by trying to rush through the neutral zone quickly, you are slowly being transformed into the person you need to be to move forward in your life.” —William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, 2004, pp. 80-81

Bridges helps us understand that avoidance of the spiritual and emotional work of the in-between time leaves so many things unresolved that will potentially lead to problems down the line. How many people have we seen who have gone through the end of a bad relationship and who fail to work fully through the issues that led to the demise of the old relationship who end up in another relationship that largely resembles the old relationship? We must fully enter into the experience of the neutral zone if we’re to successfully grow through any season of change in our lives and have any chance of moving beyond our circumstances and establishing a better life for ourselves and for others.

The American futurist, Marilyn Ferguson describes our aversion to the neutral zone this way:

linus“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…. It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.” —Marilyn Ferguson

Another way to think of the neutral zone or the in-between time is as liminal space. Richard Rohr describes liminal space this way:

“’ Limina’ is the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. Liminal space, therefore, is a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun. Think of Israel in the desert, Joseph in the pit, Jonah in the belly, the three Marys tending the tomb.” — Richard Rohr (emphasis mine, See more at: http://sojo.net/magazine/january-february-2002/grieving-sacred-space#sthash.SYPF849G.dpuf)

In addition to the biblical examples Rohr give, I also think of Jesus’ temptation experience at the beginning of his ministry as an example of liminal space. The entire story can be found in Matthew 4:1-11 but let’s just explore the first three verses:

 4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came…

When we put this passage in context, just before the temptation story, Jesus was baptized and he heard the voice of God speaking words of affirmation. Then, according to Matthew, the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness for the purpose of being tempted and where the devil would try to destroy God’s words of affirmation for his Son. I see this journey into the wilderness as a ritual journey for preparing Jesus for his public ministry—a vision quest of sorts.

Jesus completed a forty day fast and he obviously would have been hungry and weak. Then, Matthew says, “the tempter came.” When we find ourselves in the liminal space of transitions we’re often in a vulnerable place like Jesus was at the end of his fast. Our defenses may be down, our resolve may be lessened, our thinking may not be clear, and we may be exhausted from the struggle. It is in the wilderness of our lives, in the liminal space, the doubts about ourselves and the fears that threaten our ability to move forward come to taunt us like the devil in the temptation story.

Some of us here today are struggling with those familiar doubts that play like recorded messages in our heads that tell us, “you’re a failure”; or “you’re no good”; or “you’re weak”; or “you’re pathetic”; or “why can’t you be more like so-and-so.” No amount of success seems to be able to eradicate those messages. I apologize if those messages are so ingrained in your sense of self that just by mentioning them I have caused an ache in the pit of your stomach.

Some of us here today are struggling with those familiar fears that pop up like a road block that say “don’t bite off more than you can chew”; or “you won’t be able to take care of your self”; or “the world is too big for you”; or maybe “you just need to be satisfied with the way things are.”

The doubts and fears are natural when we’re in the in-between time because in order to move through the neutral zone we’re going to have to grow beyond our current capacity. And I’m here to tell you a different message about yourself—that, “you can grow stronger”—“you are up to the task”—“you are worthy of the journey”—“you can become the person it will take for the next leg of your journey”—but this is only possible when we confront our doubts and fears and do the hard work of processing the experiences of our lives through critical reflection—by seeking what is really true about who we are and whose we are. This takes time! This takes patience! When we rush through this phase of our development we often substitute short-term solutions at the sacrifice of long-term healthy spiritual and emotional development.

The three temptations the devil presented to Jesus were about short-circuiting the will of God with quick solutions. Jesus withstood the temptation because he knew there were no easy and quick answers to the struggles of his wilderness journey—those answers would have to be worked out over time—and the answers would even challenge him to grow in order for him to be able to fulfill the mission for which he came to live among us.

Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew says:

“The devil is but another name for our impatience. We want bread, we want to force God’s hand to rescue us, we want peace—and we want all this now.” —Stanley Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 55)

“The devil is but another name for our impatience.” Often the struggle of the neutral zone is that we want God to fix everything in our lives as soon as possible and with as little change on our part required. We want to take the interstate to personal wholeness and holiness instead of taking in the scenery along the journey—a journey where we’re moving slowly enough to see and reflect on our experiences, our attitudes, our behaviors, and the impact of our decisions on ourselves and on others.

On our journey we want to bypass the small towns where there are picnic tables in the small grove of trees where we could have stopped for a while to eat a meal slowly and where we could have stretched out on a blanket and reflected on the journey thus far, the experiences along the way, our deepest longings and our greatest hopes for our future; where we might have learned something new about the myriad ways our insecurity has caused us to sabotage what we really want in life. Instead, we stop quickly at the nearest interstate exit and pop into a convenience store and while we’re filling up the car we’re also filling up our stomachs with empty calories and things we don’t need—as if those things will remove the emptiness we feel in our rushed existence.

It takes time to peel back the layers of pretense and projection and to reach that deepest place within—a place some have referred to as our “secret heart.” The secret heart is where our deepest hurts and hopes lie together, mingled with the “stuff” that we have allowed into our lives—the stuff that matters mixed in with the stuff that doesn’t matter—and we’re continually challenged to sort through and to learn the difference. It is in our secret hearts where God desires to meet us. It is in those places of seeking and searching that God is most available to us. And yet, “the devil is but another name for our impatience.”

There was a period in my life when I was in the neutral zone for almost three years and it was paradoxically three of the most painful years of my life but also three of the most meaningful years of my life. Towards the end of the first year of that spiritual journey, I went on a backpacking trip into the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with a friend of mine. I have often experienced the wilderness to be a thin place where the lines between heaven and earth are blurred and God’s presence is felt more powerfully and I went seeking healing.

On the third day of the trip, I was pretty exhausted because the trail was steep and not well maintained and I spent a lot of time and energy climbing over boulders that had been washed onto the trail by mudslides or crouching to pass under rhododendron branches that had been blown over by the wind. Whenever I would stumble or fall or when my backpack would become tangled in the branches I would get angry and then I tried to figure out with whom I was angry.

We were trying to get to a campsite near a vista where we would watch the sunrise the next morning. At about 8 pm as darkness was falling, we still had about two miles to go and we debated stopping there or going on. There would be no moonlight to help guide us. Still, we decided to go on. I put my headlamp on and told my buddy to go on ahead and I would meet him at the campsite later. I needed some time alone.

After an initial steady climb, the trail followed along a ridge that led out to a gap where we would camp for the night. The ridgeline was grassy and the trail was a dirt path about 12 inches wide. I angled the beam of my headlamp to about two feet in front of me and I slowly hiked my way toward camp.

It may have been God’s voice or it may have been mine, but a voice told me to turn off my headlamp. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see a thing. I stood there waiting for my eyes to adjust when, before me, the path took on the appearance of a long, black ribbon that was winding its way through the woods. I couldn’t “see” the path with my eyes, but I could almost “feel” the path in my heart. I moved forward slowly putting one foot in front of the other until my steps took on a slow, steady rhythm.

As I walked, I began to think about the shadowy ribbon that was guiding me deeper into the night and how I had put my faith in that ribbon to get me where I needed to go and I thought how I needed a similar guide to help me go deeper into the interior of my life—my shadow self—my hidden self—into my secret heart. I was both anxious and yet, unafraid.

The deeper I went into the darkness of the woods that night, the deeper I felt called to name the darkness inside of me—to name the thoughts and feelings of anger I struggled with, the self-defeating behaviors that sabotaged my relationships, the constant desire to find someone else to blame for my emptiness, the pain and brokenness I refused to acknowledge for fear that it would overwhelm me. As I named each expression of darkness inside of me and owned my role in creating that darkness, I felt God coming nearer and nearer to me to help me on my journey.

We confess our sins not because God needs to hear our confession; we confess our sins so in naming them they will lose power over us and then we will be able to draw closer to God.

Did God lead me into that wilderness experience like the Spirit led Jesus into his wilderness experience? Of that I can’t be sure. But I am certain that wherever our journey takes us, if we’re willing to experience the fullness of the journey, God is willing to meet us there and is willing to extend his love and grace.

You may be facing a particularly difficult neutral zone—a journey that you would prefer to avoid because you know there’s going to be a lot of pain involved the deeper you go; however, let me encourage you to stick with it because you can do this and because you deserve the life that God has to offer beyond this experience. The journey into the neutral zone will help you get in touch with the deepest place within you, that place known as your secret heart—and remember… it is in our secret heart where God desires to meet us. When you are finally able to meet God there, you’ll be prepared for the new beginning that God has in store. And that’s what we’re going to talk about next week!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Living In Between

“There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”
(Romans 5:3-5, The Message)

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Last Sunday, I shared a little about my Outward Bound adventure. Another part of that experience was a 24-hour period in which I was totally alone in the wilderness with only water, a sleeping bag, rain gear, a tarp to make a lean-to, and my journal. Flashlights, watches, and books were not allowed. Once the sun went down, seeing would be limited as the moon would be waxing leaving only a small crescent.

It was cold. I was hungry. It was getting dark. I could hear creatures moving about in the darkness—maybe a moose, or a deer, or a rabbit, or an owl, or maybe a grizzly bear! I felt vulnerable. All I could do was sit there in the darkness and wait either for sleep to come or for the sun to rise. Finally, a sense of peace came over me as the noises took on some ordinariness and my eyes began to see slightly better in the dim light. I began to experience the darkness not as my enemy but as a friend; for in the darkness, I had to begin to deal with the noises in my heart and the darkness in my soul that were keeping me from experiencing all that God had in store for me.

This week in worship we’re continuing our series on The Road Ahead and I’m going to be dealing with the topic of “Taking in the Scenery.” The most inspiring journeys are the ones where we’re able to experience the view all along the way. In William Bridge’s work on transition, he talks about the stage described as the neutral zone. It’s the in-between time when what “was” is no longer and what “is to be” is not yet. It’s a journey that is best taken slowly so we don’t miss any of the “views.” On my 24-hour solo expedition it wasn’t an outward expedition like mountain climbing or rock climbing that meant the most to me—it was an internal expedition where I was trying to discover more about the interior of my life—the area known as the
heart or the soul.

Working on the interior of our lives can be a daunting task. I hope as we worship together on Sunday we’ll be able to learn how to navigate the in-between time that ultimately leads to the fulfillment of God’s dream for our lives.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church