Doctors found a tumor growing on the front edge of my spine just below my heart in the spring of 1991. My surgeon warned that waiting until summer was dangerous and that I should schedule surgery soon. I took a week to prepare. I called an attorney and signed a will. I contacted a handful of people and said, “I love you.” As best I could, I got ready for the possibility of waking up from surgery paralyzed or dead.
The whole experience developed as one best-case scenario after another. The tumor was benign, my spine was undamaged, my body recovered fully, and I became a better person – more kind, generous, sincere.
The influence of my experience expressed itself in surprising ways while I was still in the hospital. Two pastor friends came to visit. They noticed Robert Schuller was preaching on television. I was a sophisticated intellectual in those days and they joked that I must be on strong drugs to watch the pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. “No!” I said. “He’s really good.” I then repeated the gist of his sermon with enthusiasm.
I had never considered Robert Schuller a serious representative of God, but something about my brush with mortality opened my eyes to seeing what I had missed before. I leapt from feeling superior to being a fan all at once.
My secretary came to visit and I told her that I loved her. She objected that I was just on drugs. Later, after I returned to work, I told her that I loved her and it had nothing to do with drugs. She had been kind to me from the very beginning. And, during my surgery, she had been incredibly thoughtful to come and sit with my father so that he would not be waiting alone. I loved her for her kindness to me.
I like me best when I am sincere. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sincere as proceeding from or characterized by genuine feelings; free from pretense or deceit. One of the best ways I know to be in touch with genuine feelings is to search for the good in myself, in others, and in situations. Not the bad. Not what is an easy target of criticism. The good.
Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia invited me to preach on 27 December 2015. My topic was Living as God’s Children based upon Colossians 3:12-14. Here is a link to video of the 21-minute sermon: https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=23F7331101B1C7F%21141
My wife led a Call to Worship earlier in the service that was based upon how we have been reading responsively to each other at night lately. It reflects in written form where I was coming from in my sermon…
Call to Worship:
Leader: O God, complete the work you have begun in us.
People: Release through us a flow of mercy and gentleness that will bring water where there is dessert,
Leader: healing where there is hurt,
People: peace where there is violence,
Leader: beauty where there is ugliness,
People: justice where there is brokenness,
Leader: beginnings where there are dead-ends.
People: Waken in us gratitude for our lives,
Leader: love for every living thing,
People: joy in what is human and holy,
Leader: praise for you.
People: Renew our faith that you are God beyond our grasp but within our reach;
Leader: past our knowing but within our searching;
People: disturber of the assured,
Leader: assurer of the disturbed;
People: destroyer of illusions,
Leader: creator of dreams;
People, source of silence and music,
Leader: O Keeper of Promises, Composer of Grace,
People: grant us prayer in our hearts,
Leader: trust at our core,
People: songs for our journey, and a sense of your Kingdom.
Leader: And all the people said,
Adapted from Waken in Me Gratitude for My Life by Ted Loder: Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle
The in-patient hospice where our friend was dying returned him to home care this past week because his pain became more manageable. My wife and I were shocked. Our friend’s son and daughter were with him when we arrived at the daughter’s home to visit today. We watched them manage his desire to get out of bed and go to the bathroom every 5 minutes, his agreeing to eat something and then stopping after taking one bite of Jell-O, his throwing the covers off one minute and then saying he was cold and letting them tuck the covers around his frail body again a minute later. When he fell asleep briefly, they told us how wonderful we were to come visit every week. We have been coming to visit every week for the past year or so that our friend has been sick and, more recently, dying. However, here is what I was thinking: You guys are going to heaven for this! Nothing you have ever done before in your life matters. Your father is dying in your home and you are there nursing him through thousands of terrible hours. You are the righteous of Matthew 25: “’Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ “The righteous will then answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!’
American Bible Society, The Holy Bible: The Good News Translation, 2nd ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1992), Mt 25:34–40.
Oakhurst, as a faith community, is committed to breaking down the boundaries that limit the expressions of grace individually and communally. This commitment has moved the community repeatedly over the past 30 years to risk our security to expand our vision of what God, through us as a community, can accomplish.
Our understanding and practice of stewardship has joined a long list of world views that we have turned upside down. Stewardship for us is wisely using the resources of time, energy, talent, and money to give meaning and life to our passionate belief that we are not here by chance. It is not by chance that our definition of stewardship does not include meeting a church budget.
We have refused to accept self-imposed limitations that build walls against the threatening other, whether it is women in leadership, sexual orientation, race, or physical disability. Likewise, we refuse to limit ourselves by the fear of not having enough, and resorting to the traditional approach of yearly begging under the guise of stewardship.
As a church community we approach stewardship by identifying throughout the year what ministries and activities engage the passion of the congregation and build community; among ourselves, within the local community in which we live, and within the world community. From this starting point we are intentional in communicating what is being accomplished, how our activities are expressing God’s grace, and the availability of resources to accomplish what we set out to accomplish. If what we do has value, and there is passion behind that value, the resources will be available.
We stand against the tide of 21st century America that reduces life to material symbols, along with all the attendant fears and anxieties of always needing more. The major part of our lives are spent working, and those hours of real living and breathing are replaced with an abstraction of worth expressed in pieces of paper money or electronic digits in a financial institution’s electronic spreadsheet.
Stewardship within this community is a stand against such dehumanizing abstractions. It is consciously using all aspects of our lives; money, talent and energy, to create great worth, the worth of a community and a life that is a conduit for grace. We know that the needs of daily living create demands and pressures. But we also know that breaking down walls and boundaries through grace is a life experienced in full.
Leader: In the beginning the Seed already existed, and the Seed was with God.
People: Through it God made all things, nothing in all creation was made without it.
Leader: The Seed came to life and lives among us.
People: We have seen its fruits, those received as God’s creation.
Leader: Out of the fullness of these fruits, we have all received a seed.
People: It is time to share the seeds of Life.
Led by Luis Carlos Chasbar Marrero, who, with his wife Daylins Rufin Pardo, pastors Alamar Baptist Church in Cuba. The Call to Worship at Oakhurst Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia on July 20, 2014 was printed in Spanish with the text above as the English translation.
Translating the word logos from the first chapter of John’s Gospel as seed was new to me and opens a new door to understanding Jesus and the life of God’s kingdom. This is a Call to Worship worthy of quiet meditation.
O God of Every Nation is a prayer that appears as Hymn #289 in the book we use at my church.
The author, William Watkins Reid (1923-2007), served in World War II as a medic and concluded his time in uniform as a prisoner of war. He won a hymn contest with the text in 1958.
O God of every nation, of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation with your almighty hand.
Where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us and heal our strife-torn world.
From search for wealth and power and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower destruction through the night,
from pride of race and station and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation, eternal God, we pray.
Lord, strengthen those who labor that all may find release
from fear of rattling saber, from dread of war’s increase;
when hope and courage falter, your still small voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter, your servants under-gird.
Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign
and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.
I may have heard this hymn in church a hundred times over the years because I was born in 1957, but today it became my prayer. I need to pray it every day for a while. Will you join me?