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

The Road Ahead: Saying Goodbye

Canterbury CUMC / Canterbury Center / Psalm 88:1-13

O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.

The writer of this passage of scripture knows what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night, scared and alone, and to call out to God in hopes that God might hear and respond. Maybe you know how the Psalmist feels in this passage. Maybe you’ve lost a job or experienced some kind of failure in your work, and you feel a deep sense of fear and sadness that won’t go away. Maybe you feel shame because without the job you’ve identified with for so long and so strongly, you’re not really sure who you are anymore. You may be asking: Must I let go of my security?

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.

Maybe you’ve gotten the results back from the lab and the test was positive—the worst possible outcome you could have imagined. All the dreams you took for granted—that you would watch your kids or your grandkids grow up and get married, that you would grow old with your spouse, that you would live a long and happy life—all of your old dreams suddenly torture you with the thought that you may not see these dreams become reality. You may be asking: Must I let go of my dream?

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

Maybe somebody you love with your whole heart has died. And you prayed so hard for healing, you hoped so much. You don’t understand. You just know that your life will never be the same. You may be asking: Must I let go of my heart?

You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.

Maybe you feel like you’ve failed as a parent. Things are not right between you and your child and you’re afraid of what will happen to that not-quite-grown-up version of that precious child you have loved from the start and for whom you had such great hopes. You wonder what went wrong—you wonder where you went wrong? You may be asking: Must I let go of my control?

Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah

Maybe you’ve become aware of a deep brokenness inside you. Maybe it played out in a real dramatic act—adultery, betrayal, or deceit—maybe it involved a broken promise, the pain of a compromise of your integrity, or some other implosion of the person you thought you were—and now you’re left with nothing but the brokenness. You may be asking: Must I let go of my integrity?

11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

Or maybe it’s a behavioral pattern, or a character trait inside yourself that you struggle with, and you’ve battled against it for so long—possibly how you deal with anger or fear, how you deal with jealousy or envy, or how you deal with other people—especially people who seem to have some mystical way of knowing which buttons to push to get you all stirred up. And if you keep busy or noisy or successful you can distract yourself—but when you get still, like right now, you become aware of the flaws in your self that seem to mock you. And you wonder, sometimes, will you ever be free of the shame? You may be asking: Must I let go of my personality?

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.

God—are you there? Are you listening? Do you care about me? Can you help me?

(Pause)

The Word of God for the People of God: Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: Out of your Word and into our hearts; may your Truth take root and grow until we are overwhelmed by your Love and by your Grace. Amen.

First of all, “Happy Fathers’ Day” to all the fathers here. For those of you for whom this will be the first Fathers’ Day without your dad I join with you in your emotion—not because my dad died this year but this will be my 8th Father’s Day without my dad and I miss him not because he was a perfect father but because he was MY father in his imperfect way.

We’re in a series on The Road Ahead and today we’re talking about “Saying Goodbye.” William Bridges has written on transitions and he says there are three stages we move through whenever we experience a change in our lives. The first stage is Endings, followed by the Neutral Zone, and then moving toward New Beginnings. Today we’re talking about the first stage of “endings” as we move toward a total understanding of how best to appropriate change in our lives.

We’re all familiar with endings in our lives. Some of those endings produce grief and sadness like divorce or emotional cut-off in a significant relationship, death of a loved one, loss of a job, relocation to a new community or selling a familiar home, serious illness or the onset of a permanently disabling condition. These are generally what we think of when we think of endings that result in sadness. And yet there are endings that are generally positive like retirement, graduating from high school, college, or graduate school, an “all-clear” from a lab report that marks the end of treatment, or any resolution that ends a process that has been consuming our time and attention—like the end of a project.

And yet endings are complicated because even in what we would term the negative endings there can be positive outcomes and in the positive endings there can be negative outcomes.

I chose the scripture reading for this message on endings because it has an important connection to a very important ending familiar to the Christian faith. Psalm 88 is a passage of scripture that some of the early church fathers like John Chrysostom interpreted as a prediction of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you go back through each line of the Psalm you can see some parallels with the Holy Week narrative.

I think the crucifixion of Jesus is a prime example of when what appeared to be an ending with no possible positive outcome, turned out far more positively than anyone could have ever been imagined—in spite of the fact that Jesus was telling his disciples this is what would happen all along! Don’t be too judgmental of Jesus’ disciples because they were just like us—when we’re confronted with having to let go of something we cherish or at least something that is comfortable and familiar, our inclination is to deny that anything good could come from the letting go.

My goal today is to help you understand that when confronted with changes in your life—whether you perceive those changes to be positive or negative—that consciously choosing to let go and trust in God’s redemptive power will make a dramatic difference in helping you experience transition and growth.

I’m afraid of heights. I admit it. I’m secure enough in my manhood to tell you that if I climb up a ladder at some point above eight to ten feet my legs are going to begin to shake and I’m going to cling to the ladder like I was velcroed to it! On mission trips, I’m always part of the ground crew!

With my fear of heights in mind, it’s especially significant that several years ago I went on an Outward Bound Expedition designed for adults seeking renewal in their lives. I was excited about the backpacking and the camping in the Rocky Mountains; however, there were several activities I knew were going to be a challenge for me. We didn’t do any technical climbing but we did do ascend some peaks using a bouldering technique. We didn’t have to rope in but there were some moderately difficult maneuvers along the way. Two of the summits we made were at an altitude over 12,000 feet and another was over 10,000 feet. I was surprised by how well I did as long as I didn’t spend too much time looking down.

One of the other activities I knew would be a particular challenge for me was rock climbing. For those of you who’ve never been rock climbing, it involves a near vertical wall of rock—granite in the case of our expedition in the Rockies, a special pair of shoes, a helmet, and a climbing harness you wear that is tied to a rope that is part of a pulley system through which the rope goes up to the top of the cliff and back down and is held by another person whose responsibility it is to hold onto the rope in the event you do “rock falling” instead of “rock climbing.” Here’s a word of advice—you want the person holding the other end of the rope to be someone who really likes you!

When it came my turn to climb, I approached the wall and began to look for the route I would use to make my climb. I had a great instructor who was not only knowledgeable about the outdoors but who was also one of the most caring and gentle persons I had ever met. He knew this was going to be a challenge for me and he was up for the task of coaching me. I began to make my way up the side of the wall pretty quickly because the route up the first eight to ten feet was pretty simple. Then it became a little more challenging due to the fact I was getting higher but also because rock climbing involves being able to access places in the wall of rock that serve as “steps” and “handholds” to make your way up the wall. Finding these steps and handholds becomes quite an exercise in problem solving.

At one point I was about 30 feet off the ground and although my legs were feeling kind of mushy and my fingers had tiny little cuts from gripping the sharp edges of the granite rocks, I was focusing on finding my next sequence of moves. Every sequence of moves I considered seemed beyond my reach. My instructor pointed out the route he recommended I take and I just laughed because there was no way I could stretch that far no matter how much I contorted my body.

He said, “I don’t expect you to stretch; I expect you to jump. Bend your knees slightly, push off and propel your hands towards that formation of rock that sticks out to the right of your position and once you grab it with your hands then you can swing your feet to the other formation of rock directly beneath your hands and get at least one foot secured. Be sure you let go when you jump.”

I suggested he come up there and show me! He wasn’t amused. He was focused on getting me up the wall so he continued talking me through how to do it. It probably took at least five minutes of instruction where I had him keep going over and over again how to do it and finally he said, “No more questions; it’s time.” I reviewed in my mind that I had to bend my knees and propel myself out toward that formation. Even though it would be an ever-so-brief period of time I wouldn’t have any contact with the wall I was still petrified—until… with a will I didn’t know I had, I bent my knees and I pushed off and I jumped.

Remember the part where I said you want the person holding the other end of the rope to be someone who really likes you—this is where that became really important because although this would have been a great story had I gotten my hands on that rock formation and planted my feet and then darted my way up the rest of the cliff, the reality is I missed it by a mile! I wasn’t even close!

Although my new best friend at the other end of the rope did a good job of keeping me from falling, he wasn’t able to keep me from bouncing up against the wall a couple of times as I dangled from the end of the rope with no place to secure my hands or feet. Although a little bruised and with minor cuts in a few places, I was fine on the outside—but I was even better on the inside because I learned something about me. I could do something I never thought I could. The biggest thing I learned was that as scary as it was, it felt good to let go. There was an adrenaline rush that in the instant I let go I felt fully alive.

How we let go and say goodbye in order to find growth and transition are different depending on the context of the change in our lives.

  • If you’ve lost a job and you feel like you’ve lost your identity as well as your job, then letting go may mean coming to terms with the fact that you have worth beyond what you “do.” Although you will need to find new work to support yourself and your family, how might you approach the task of finding a new job if you recognize that your identity is in the God who created you and who claims you as his child and how might this new perspective impact the kind of job you seek?
  • If your health has recently changed and you’ve received a diagnosis that frightens you, letting go may mean trusting that no matter what happens, God will be with you and you can delight that you have everything to live for—but should death result from your illness, you have everything to die for because there is a God who loves you and who will receive you into his arms.
  • If you’ve lost a loved one, I would never suggest that you let that person go from your heart—that would be cruel. But letting go in that situation might mean letting go of the idea that you will never be happy again without that person. You will always miss them and your heart will always be sad over their absence in your life but there is hope that you can someday be happy again—maybe not now but someday.
  • If you’re dealing with a rebellious child then maybe letting go will mean that you let go of the illusion that you can control anyone, including your child. It’s been asked what makes us think if God couldn’t control his children, Adam and Eve, then why should you and I think we can control our children? Letting go may mean that we make ourselves available to our rebellious child but we live within boundaries that protect our selves and the rest of the family.
  • If you’re struggling with a brokenness within your heart that has played out in some destructive way then letting go may mean figuring out why the inappropriate behavior is really more about your brokenness than it is about your behavior and seeking help in finding wholeness for your soul. If you are the one who has been betrayed or hurt, then letting go may mean extending forgiveness even if it doesn’t mean restoration of the relationship.
  • If you’ve realized that you just don’t like who you are and you really want to be a different person, then letting go may mean examining the reasons behind why you react the way you do—digging into the painful experiences of your life—the times when you felt abandoned or overwhelmed—and letting go of the past hurts that continue to sabotage your relationships. Letting go may also mean making amends to persons whom you have offended.

I believe that life is lived in stages and hopefully those stages are a continuous progression of growth and transition. As in most stage theories, although you may move back and forth between stages, you never really graduate from one stage until you’ve fully said goodbye to the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of the former stage.

As a nation we have grieved over the loss of lives at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We’ll never move beyond the stage we are in related to racism in America until we’re willing to say goodbye to some things that continue to hold us hostage to hatred and prejudice—whether the hatred and prejudice is as overt as it was in the heart and actions of a misguided young man or as covert as my own more subtle and nuanced hatred and prejudice that comes out in more socially acceptable ways—often unconsciously—but destructive nonetheless.

Much of what we must let go of as a nation and even as we struggle with the changes in our personal lives is fear-based decision-making.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18, NRSV)

Where there is love, we are empowered to let go of fear.

May God empower each of us to get a clearer picture of what we need to say goodbye to as we continue our journey of faith together.

The scripture reminds that Jesus told his disciples and us:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26, NRSV)

Jesus is talking about giving up those things that keep us tied to an old life and bending our knees, pushing off, and letting go in order to grab onto something new—something better—something that represents God’s best future for us. Even if we don’t quite make it—our God will be there to catch us and to give us a chance to keep trying until we make it.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

Uncomfortably New

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV)

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One of the memories from my childhood is going to the shoe store downtown in the small Midwestern town where I lived the first ten years of my life. The smell of the fresh leather from all the men’s shoes on display is a smell that I can still recall as if I was there. I recently bought a new pair of leather dress shoes and had them shipped to my house and when I opened the box I was immediately taken back to that old shoe store. I love the smell of new leather dress shoes.

What I also remember about new shoes from my childhood is how much I hated the fit of new dress shoes. No matter how hard I tried to be comfortable in new leather shoes, it always took a time of breaking them in before I could really enjoy them. Sometimes “new” is just uncomfortable. In the sermon for this past Sunday, I suggested that there are some steps you can take to help you increase your comfort level with the changes that come as God invites us into a new adventure of faith. Here are the six steps:

• Remember the times when God has been there for you in the past, and give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness.

• Stay curious about what new thing God might be up to that doesn’t fit the way God has worked in your life in the past.

• Be willing to live with the discomfort of the new and suspend judgment for a while.

• Identify the fears you are experiencing related to the new thing, and explore the connection of how those fears have surfaced in your past.

• Identify the growth that will be required for you to address those fears.

• Enter into the adventure God has for you with full commitment to the journey.

The funny thing about those new shoes that didn’t fit so well at first is that, after a while, they became some of the most comfortable shoes I owned. Of course, as a growing boy it didn’t take long for me to outgrow them, and so we would have to make a trip back to the shoe store and start the process all over again. Over the next three weeks, we’re going to look at the process we go through when we are faced with the inevitable changes life brings, so we’re not merely victims of change, but we’re able to master the changes of life and transition to something new and better in the long run. Join us this Sunday in Canterbury Center for The Road Ahead: Saying Goodbye which deals with the first part of the transition process known as “endings.”

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church

The Road Ahead: Up For An Adventure

Canterbury CUMC / Sanctuary / Isaiah 43:16-21

Several years ago Ann and I decided to take a trip and make it an adventure. Our plan was to drive to Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia but to make it interesting… we decided we wouldn’t drive on any interstate or eat at any franchised restaurants.  The challenge was to drive only on country roads and to eat only at local restaurants unique to the communities we drove through. Since this trip took place in the spring of the year, it required a convertible to get the full breadth of the experience and luckily we had one! Not only were we successful in staying off the interstate highways, but we also had some wonderful meals in unexpected places like a gas station. It takes courage to walk into some of the restaurants we walked into but more often than not, we were glad we did.  We got to meet some wonderful people along the way and we made a point to ask a lot of questions to get to know more about the small towns where we stopped. Because we were willing to live into the journey instead of focusing solely on the destination, we were able to have a richer and deeper experience.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us are accustomed to experiencing life or the changes life brings.  We have an end in mind and we become so focused on the destination that we pay very little attention to the journey.  If we’re grieving, we think we’ve got to get over it quickly.  Or, if we lose a relationship we often think we’ve got to find a new one immediately.  When we’re faced with changes, we think the goal is to get through the changes as fast as we can and get on to the other side where we’ll establish a new sense of stability as soon as possible.  The problem is that when we finally arrive, we have no recollection of the journey or what it took to get us there.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” —Soren Kierkegaard

So what does this have to do with the message for today and with the scripture from Isaiah?  Here’s the point of my message today:  If we’re willing to approach the changes in life as if they were an adventure, then we’re more likely to experience the new thing that God wants to do in our midst because God is always up to something new!

“Change is what happens TO us; transition is what happens WITHIN us.”
—Williams Bridges (emphasis mine)

To experience change without transition is to be a victim of the change; however, to truly benefit from the experience and come out on the other side in a much better place, we have to go through a process of transition.  We’re going to talk more about that in the next week three weeks but right now I want us to focus on the fact that in change, God is up to something new.

Isaiah was addressing the Israelites who, at the time, were being threatened by geopolitical changes around them and their survival as a nation, as the people of God, depended on how they responded to those changes, threats and challenges.

How that same fact rings true for the Christian church today as we have been inundated with reports and interpretations from the latest Pew Forum Report on the Religious Landscape in America.  Some are saying that due to the changes in our culture the future of Christianity in America is in jeopardy.  I don’t believe that things are as dire as some predict; however, at the same time, I do believe that if we’re going to faithfully embody the transformative Spirit that the church is supposed to embody then we’re going to have to approach the changes in our world, not as victims of a changing world, but as masters of change who help shape the world into the Kingdom of God.

We’re going to have to embrace the changes in our world and figure out how God is working in and through those changes to move creation toward the fulfillment of his vision where heaven is coming to earth. As Christians and as a church we’ve got to be in a constant state of transformation in order to be able to transform our world for this is the essence of what it means to have new life in Christ. It’s not that we get a new life once and we’re done—it’s that we’re constantly being renewed.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
—Romans 12:2

Let’s look at what Isaiah has to teach us about The Road Ahead and specifically about preparing us for the Adventure to which God calls us:
16 This is what the Lord says—he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, 17 who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:

Isaiah begins his proclamation—his speaking for the Lord—by saying, “This is what the Lord says…” but before he tells us what the Lord says he reminds us who the Lord is for whom he speaks:  Isaiah says this is the Lord who provided a way through the Red Sea when the Children of Israel were fleeing their captivity and slavery in Egypt—the same God who parted the sea just long enough for the Children of Israel to pass through and who, just as the Egyptian army was in the middle of what had been the Red Sea, unleashed the water and wiped out the army allowing the Israelites to flee to safety.  I know that’s not a pretty image and it’s even worse the way Isaiah takes delight in how they were “extinguished, snuffed out like a wick!”  Remember, Isaiah was a prophet and the prophets were known for their hyperbole.

The story of the parting of the Red Sea is a story that Isaiah’s listeners were most familiar with because back then, even as it is today, this story was told over and over again in Jewish households to teach and reinforce an understanding of God’s faithfulness to God’s people. It was a common refrain around many of the stories of how God saved his people that began:  “Remember when God saved us when he…” The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with a beautiful refrain of “remember, remember, and remember” because remembering connects us with God and remembering reconnects us with God when we have lost our sense of his presence. Isaiah, at first appealing to the Israelites’ sense of remembering then says something completely shocking:

18 Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”

The tradition of remembering was so strong that a statement like this could be seen as heresy.  Isaiah seemed to be saying, “I’m about to speak for God—and remember he’s the God who brought us out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea—well this God we’re remembering says it’s time to forget all that.”  What may seem like a contradiction is really Isaiah using a rhetorical technique to get people’s attention.  On the heels of saying, “Forget the former things”, he then clarifies and says, “Do not dwell on the past.”  In other words, “Don’t live in the past.”

Isaiah has a reason for making this statement because he doesn’t want remembering the former things to close the Israelites and us off to the fact that even though God has acted miraculously in the past, God still has the capacity to act miraculously in the future and so he continues speaking for God who goes on to say:

19 See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

I love the distinction Isaiah points out as he describes the “new thing” God is doing.  God is still making a way in the wilderness for his people as he has always done but Isaiah contrasts the God who made the way by making the wet area dry (as in the parting of the Red Sea) and says this time God does something new and chooses to make the dry land wet—he makes streams in the wasteland.  To my knowledge, God only parted the Red Sea once and then he went on to do something new.  We limit God when we think that God can only do things one way—and we especially limit God when we expect God to keep doing the same thing over and over again exactly as he did it before.

“As the scripture says, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived of what God has prepared for those who love him.’”
—1 Corinthians 2:9, paraphrase

If God only does what he’s always done, then this scripture would be false because we would already know what God has prepared for us—but if it this scripture is true, then God is always surprising us with the new—God is always blowing our minds!

Now here it gets a little controversial so bear with me.  Isaiah expands his thinking on what God is up to.  Instead of operating only within his chosen people, Isaiah says God is also at work among those outside of the faith.  You may be wondering where I get that idea.  I’ll come back to it.

I’m sure many of you have heard about the new sociological category referred to as the “Spiritual but not religious.” This category of people are those who see themselves as deeply spiritual, and many actually see themselves as Christian, but they have given up on organized religion. They are spiritual but not religious.

The more and more I interact with people outside the church, the more I encounter some deeply spiritual people who have a deep and abiding faith in an eclectic concept of God that is a hybrid of many different religious traditions, but often they have some profound things to teach me about the Christian faith. I hate to admit it, but sometimes they give me a unique perspective on my own faith that I never could have come to myself if I just hung out with other Christians who are deeply engaged in the church. Those of us who live only in the church are trapped by our assumptions.

This is where it gets controversial. I think Isaiah understood this phenomenon when he went on to say:

20 The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, 21 the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”

This may be a bit of a stretch with my interpretation of scripture but bear with me a moment. Isaiah references the jackals and the owls and states specifically that these wild animals honor God and the work that God is doing in their midst. The jackals and the owls are creatures of the night—they roam about in the darkness. Those of us in the church consider ourselves to be people of the light—we roam about in the light of day and we even resist darkness. Yet, Isaiah says it is these creatures of the night, dare I say these pagans, that recognize what God is up to in this world and they are blown away by the awareness of what God is doing—and they praise God for the things God is doing for us that you and I can’t even see because we don’t expect anything new!

Reality check: God is always up to something new in our lives and if we are filled with a static and institutionalized religion that can’t conceive that God would do anything new instead of being filled with a living and dynamic faith in Jesus Christ then we’re destined to have a dead and dying religion. The pagans see what God is up to and are inspired by this God of ours; but, due to our being stuck with a static image of God, many of us are missing out on the tremendous blessing of participating with God in the renewal of his creation as God.

I recognize we all have varying degrees of comfort with experiencing new things so I want to offer a few guidelines for navigating the adventurous life of faith to which we are being called in Jesus Christ:

• Remember the times when God has been there for you in the past and give thanks to God for God’s faithfulness.
• Stay curious about what new thing God might be up to that doesn’t fit the way God has worked in your life in the past.
• Be willing to live with the discomfort of the new and suspend judgment for a while.
• Identify the fears you are experiencing related to the new thing and explore the connection of how those fears have surfaced in your past.
• Identify the growth that will be required for you to address those fears.
• Enter into the adventure God has for you with full commitment to the journey.

Are you up for the adventure? Let me tell you about someone who was. My mother grew up in the Methodist church and she spent her entire life faithfully serving in a variety of roles in the church. In her 70’s, she was attending a small United Methodist Church in the community to which she and my dad moved several years earlier.  My dad died in 2007 and my mom continued to serve faithfully in her church.

For some reason, a few years ago, my mom felt she was being called to something different. I only found out about it later because in spite of the fact that she had a great spiritual adviser as a son, she chose not to discuss any of this with me. She left her church on a spiritual quest believing that God was up to something new in her life and she went to a new United Methodist church that was meeting in a local school to see if this was where God was leading her. The church was meeting in the lunchroom of this elementary school and so you can imagine how unsuitable the space was for a worship service.  It was a service more like our contemporary service in Canterbury Center and here sits this 70 some odd year old woman on a lunchroom bench designed for elementary students.

After the service was over, my mom, who had really bad knees and walked very slowly, stood in line to greet the pastor. To hear the pastor describe the experience of that day is priceless because he remembers it vividly. From his perspective, he was greeting people in the line when my mom caught his eye.  He said she stood out because she was the only grey-haired person among a sea of young adults and families who were the typical attenders at this new church.  And he said…you know that feeling you get when you know you are about to dressed down by somebody—I had that feeling because your mom had a look in her eye that was frightening. I told the pastor, “Believe me, I know that look!”

He said with each advance of the line he was dreading the confrontation more and more but finally she was right there, face-to-face, and he braced himself.  She began to speak: “The seats are uncomfortable, the music is too loud, and you shout when you get excited when you preach.” After a pause she said, “I love it and I’ll be back next week.”

As I have reflected on that story, which I did not hear until her pastor told it at her funeral in January of 2014, I have often wondered if the time she stood in line could possibly have been a tug-of-war for her heart—a wrestling with the angels where she knew God was doing something new but the pull of what she knew was also strong—and it wasn’t until the last moment that she could submit to the new.  And did she ever submit to the new!

My mom unofficially became the church’s grandmother to all the young families in the church and when she would go to the school to tutor the teachers were amazed at all the students in the school who said she was their “grandma.” She took on the responsibility of serving as the leader of the prayer ministry and after the prayer team met to pray over all the requests from the previous Sunday, she personally wrote everyone, every week, who submitted a prayer request, a beautifully hand-written and unique note to let them know their request was prayed over. This was in a church that was worshiping over one thousand people each week. She also led a small group bible study and she was there sharing the love of Christ with her small group on the Thursday night before she died unexpectedly early on a Saturday morning. God did something new in her life and she was up for the adventure.

How about you? Are you up for the adventure?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Minister of Canterbury United Methodist Church