February 28 Reflections

St. Francis of Assisi was born into a very wealthy family in 1181 in Italy. He grew up as a spoiled child living extravagantly and wildly. It was always expected that he would enter the family business when he settled down. As a young man he went off to fight in a war. He was captured and put in prison. While there awaiting the ransom, his dad would pay he had dreams and visions where God was speaking to him about his life.  When he was released the community expected him now to enter the business. He did not. St. Francis instead sought to live a life of poverty and simplicity. He resisted the pressure from family and the community to go into the textile business.

Martin Luther King resisted the forces of white supremacy/privilege in the United States and fought for a just system of equality where all people created in the image of God are equal. He resisted by non-violent protest. Resistance is the refusal to accept or comply with something. St. Francis of Assisi resisted the pressure of the family and community and went the way Abba wanted him to go. Martin Luther King and others resisted the racism that was rampant in our country and went the way of Abba in seeking to change a system that was opposed to the way of Abba.

Jesus consistently resisted the demands and pressure of family, friends, community, religious institutions, and government to live into the will and way of Abba. And calls his followers to do the same.

For me the hardest part of living in the will and way of Abba for my life is to resist the pressure of well-meaning  and some not so well-meaning church people throughout the years who believe that a pastor has to dress a certain way…think a certain way…walk and talk a certain way…eat and drink a certain way…read certain books ( which by the way I like to read novels written by real people about real life…very seldom “Christian Books”)…listen to certain music (yes I like rock and roll, remember I grew up in the 60’s)…hold certain viewpoints…belong to a particular political party (I still remember being chastised for being at the democratic caucuses with my son, which very few would have known because I don’t make a big deal out of it but because the local newspaper took a picture and put it on the front page of the paper, well everyone knew). I realized early on that I would literally go crazy if I thought I had to live my life according to all the church folks whose ideas are myriad. Living in the will and way of Abba, being a follower of Jesus, the human face of Abba, and being led by the Holy Spirit is the only way through the maze of expectations and pressures. Jesus calls us to resist conforming to human demands if it means walking away from the will and way of Abba. We are going to be attentive to his voice and what he is saying this week in Matthew 10:34-39. Other passages to read Luke 14:16-24 and Acts 11:1-18.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



February 21 Reflections

“You are crazy!” “You are going to hurt yourself!” “Aren’t you afraid in the winter?” These are words and questions that I hear when people find out I run in the winter. Now I do admit that maybe I am a little crazy to head out the door when it says the wind chill is 39 degrees below zero (in fact it is the coldest wind chill that I have run in). Whenever the conversations come up about winter running the answer that I generally if not always give is that it is all about attentiveness. Attentiveness generally means paying close attention to something. It means being fully present in the moment…being aware…being mindful…looking freshly at what might be familiar. In other words, in winter running, it is all about awareness; especially the condition of the roads, the weather, and watching for people in vehicles who can’t imagine there is someone out running, even though I am lit up like a Christmas tree.

Attentiveness is important in all aspects of life. Our spirituality requires attentiveness. Growth in the awareness of God’s love and grace just doesn’t happen, you need to make yourself available. Notice I did not say work harder. It is not by working harder that we grow in the grace of God. Sometimes the wisdom of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland is something for us to heed, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Resting…waiting…mindful…awareness…available…expectancy…wakeful…fresh eyes…present in the moment…listening…these are the words of spiritual attentiveness. It is not about reading the Bible through three times in a year. Or spending hour upon hour on your knees in prayer every day. Or attending eighteen bible studies. It is about being attentive to the One at the center of it all. To shut out the voices of the world and simply listen to Abba’s voice and heartbeat in you.

We are going to think about this on Sunday as we look together at the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. During the season of Lent we are going to think about listening to Jesus or being attentive to him. Martha was worried about many things; Mary was concentrating on the one thing needful. I admit that for much of my life I was caught up in try harder, work harder, more activity to hopefully impress Abba that he would actually love me. That is shame. And probably a lot of pride. Hey, look at me working 70 hours a week for you Abba. If others weren’t impressed at least I impressed myself. I often was banging pots and pans like Martha and wondering why others were not like me. I awake now in the morning knowing I am Abba’s child…Abba loves me…Abba delights in me. A guiding principle for me is “I will consistently rest deeper in Abba’s love for me, not work harder while living wholeheartedly for him.” I seek to be attentive to that truth and live in that way. Some passages to read for Sunday: Luke10:38-42; Psalm 46; Matthew 11:28-30.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



February 14 Reflections

Think back in your life. Have you ever been accused of something that you did not do? An accusation is a charge or claim against you that you have done something wrong or illegal. When I was in college, I was at one point working 40 hours a week plus taking full time classes. I would not recommend that to anyone, but it was a time requiring me to do both. I was busy. Philosophy of Aesthetics and History of Theology were two of the classes that I was taking. Both required a ten-page paper for the final. In the classes I had come across a common thread in the theologian Jonathan Edwards. I reasoned why not write one paper for both classes. So, I did. The Philosophy and Theology of Beauty in Jonathan Edwards writings. Now I know you all are thinking that would have been a page turner…right? I completed it. Turned it in to both classes. Proud of myself for being so efficient. What I came to realize is that you cannot do that. Academia calls that cheating. I was accused of cheating. At first, I defended myself with the busyness of my life…full time job…full load as a student.  I was not aware that this was cheating. I apologized I guess for being naïve. The professors agreed I was clueless and allowed me to choose to write another paper for one class. But the moment of accusation led me immediately to want to defend myself.

I know there have been instances in my life when I still do this. An accusation is made…I immediately go to defending myself…justifying myself. A better way that I am growing into is to define myself, not defend myself. Listen to what the accusation is. Try to understand exactly what it is. In the college case above I was not listening at the start I was defending myself trying to justify what I did. A defining response could have been: “One of the guiding principles in my life is honesty. I was not aware that this was considered cheating. I would like to make this right. What can I do?” In the face of accusation…define do not defend trying to justify your existence.

This coming Sunday we are going to study Jesus’ response to accusations by his family and the religious teachers. His family accused him of “being out of his mind” (ok let’s be honest how many of us haven’t thought now and then that someone in our family is a little crazy) and the religious leaders accused him of “being possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons.” We are going to watch as Jesus defines and does not defend or justify. All the while teaching some powerful truths, helping us to understand what to do in the face of accusations. Some passages to read before Sunday: Mark 3:20-35; Psalm 109:1-5; Psalm 109:21-31; Luke 23:6-12.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



February 7 Reflections

I want to share with you a personal story and reflection this week. A month or so ago as I was reflecting on my life during a Faithwalking module, which happened to be the same time I was considering the opportunity to go to Maurice Reformed Church, I realized I liked taking me along wherever I went. Before you think I have gone off the deep end let me explain. For most of my life I wanted to show up as somebody else, other than the person I really was. I always thought others were smarter, more charismatic, more handsome, witty, just simply more dynamic. I showed up as sorry old me.

Out of that unhappiness, I and I think many others, move. For me after being in a church awhile it was time to move on. People realized I had no miracle to perform. I was not going to cure cancer or bring a revival that would shake the rafters. So many times, it was out of tiredness that I left. I was tired of them. They were tired of me. Go to another church, where the same cycle would go on. The biggest problem I took along. Me. Because in fact I was tired of me. I really did not like taking me along. I really wanted to leave him at the other church and show up as a completely different person. But the self I did not care for that much always came along.

I do not think I am that strange. I see this quite often. The person who changes jobs fifteen times in twelve years. The church hopper who goes to the latest “greatest show on earth.” The person who tries relationship after relationship never quite finding the right one, when they believe if the person really knew them, they would flee. Often it is not the “new place” rather the old self showing up with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that makes one leave for greener pastures.

Abba has done a transforming work of grace in my heart so that now I can truly say, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace is not without effect in me.” (I Corinthians 15:10) I am Abba’s child. Abba loves me. Abba delights in me. The true, real me, not some made up painted, masked version of someone I think I must be. That self-acceptance, that came from accepting my acceptance, has changed everything. So much so that now I like taking me along. Not because I am perfect, or dynamic, or making the cover of some magazine, but because Abba made the real me, gifted the real me, loves the real me and delights in the real me. I can be my true self and deny the false self.

We are going to consider this on Sunday as we think about living into our true selves and denying our false selves. Some passages to read: Luke 14:25-35; Mark 8:34-38; Psalm 8.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



January 31 Reflections

A significant piece of my making the decision to stay at First Reformed and not take the position at Maurice Reformed Church was the reality of the last three churches that I have left. In each of those situations major crises and breakups occurred after I left for another position. I realize that it is not totally my fault that these breakups occurred, but I have wondered what led to this. There are common pieces in some of them but totally different causes in others. I think a piece that I play is that I tend to overfunction. Go way beyond a reasonable job description. The problem is this if I overfunction it allows others to underfunction. Then when I leave who takes up the slack of my overfunctioning. And who comes next might not do this, in fact might not do any of the things that I thought so important. So, I want to show up differently in these next years to provide health that sustain a time that I might leave, and new chapter begins. As I reflected during the time of decision making and the time since there are three things that I believe are vital for long term sustainable health.

#1: Embed grace in the Body of Believers. This means that the principle of “there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, there is nothing I can do to make God love me less, God loves me in this moment as much as it is possible for an infinite God to love” would be embedded in the hearts of people at First Reformed. With grace embedded choosing to live in certain ways would ensue acceptance would prevail not judgmentalism; celebration of gifts not shaming would be the catalyst for ministry; encouragement not a critical spirit would lighten the climate; openness to the Holy Spirit instead of close-minded norms would be present; we would choose relationships over rules. These are just a few examples.

#2: Strengthen Leadership. Strong leaders are needed for any organization to thrive and grow. Leadership does not mean dominance…or bossing people around…or getting my way. Leadership is about people being firm in their identity and knowing the mission that the church is seeking to live into. Then to lead in that way despite sabotage or resistance. That is why it is so important to use Jesus as our model. We have been looking at this together on Sunday mornings. Jesus knew who he was and what he was called to do. No one could deter him from that mission.  

#3: Learn from our past…live in the present…with an eye to God’s preferred future. Any organization that has been around for a long time could default to living in the past and spend all their time thinking about the good old days. Any organization that does that as their guiding principle will fold up and die. I believe that churches that do this will cease to be the living breathing body of Christ and be turned into a museum, where once there was life. The Good News does not change, but we must adapt to the present day and present it in a way that speaks into the hearts and lives of those far from God.

These are three things that I want to explore with you in the years ahead as we anticipate what God has in store for us. This coming Sunday we are going to think together about continuing to live out our mission in the face of sabotage and resistance as we see the crowds want Jesus to do something other than what he was called to do. Maybe it happens in your life as well. People, even well-meaning people, say “do this” or “do that” and you know it is not you and what you are called to do. Some passages to read: Luke 4:38-44; Psalm 33; Mark 1:35-39.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



January 24 Reflections

Rejection. Probably all of us have experienced this from time to time.  It hurts. Rejection occurs when a person or group of people excludes an individual and refuses to acknowledge them or accept them. You do not get invited to a party that it feels like everyone else does. The person whom you thought was a friend walks away from you when you go through a hard time. You are the most qualified candidate for a position but someone else is chosen.  You are a little different from the conventional norms and people simply do not accept you. When rejected it is easy to feel, well, like a reject. Before you think you are a reject you need to be reminded that you are in good company. Probably the most rejected person in history is Jesus.

At his baptism Jesus was affirmed in his identity, “You are my Son, I love you, I delight in you.”  His identity was not based on what he did, what people said about him or what he had. The devil tempted him in these three areas, but Jesus responded with trust of the Father, believing his identity was intact, as he began his work as the Messiah. Following the temptations Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth. He knew his identity. He knew the mission he had received from the Father. He went to the synagogue. At first people were praising his work, healing, and teachings. Then he began to challenge them and their narrow thinking. At first it says, “everyone praised him” “all spoke well of him and were amazed at his words.” It ends with “all the people were furious” and “wanted to throw him off a cliff.” Jesus knew his identity and his mission. He spoke it clearly challenging the people; not giving into the temptation to find his identity in what people said about him. The temptation did not end with the devil in the wilderness. He immediately had to face it in his hometown.

Jesus did not try to change the people. He challenged them. He spoke the truth about his identity. He did not cower in fear. Jesus did not allow them to change him. Years ago, when I was working on my Doctoral project/dissertation I came across the writings of Edwin Friedman a specialist in Bowen Family Systems theory. One of the phrases that he used often was, “Your goal going into any situation is not to try and change people, rather the goal is to not allow them to change you.” The purpose is to live out your identity with the gifts you have been given to further the Kingdom of God. People may reject you, as they did Jesus, but you will know the deep pleasure of living out who Abba says you are, which is the deepest satisfaction of all and the reason you are here on earth. WE are going to think about this on Sunday as we look at the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth. Some passages to read: Luke 4:14-30; Isaiah 61:1-2.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn 



January 17 Reflections

I think that there are two mistakes we can make about Satan, demons, and devils. One is like the beliefs of Ginger who literally sees a demon behind every bush. Whether it is the temptation to eat too many donuts, or bad hair Satan is responsible. If I am suffering a physical sickness it is Satan. If I drop a hammer on my foot it is Satan. If I trip and fall it is Satan. Everything is Satan. When around Ginger you wonder if God is sovereign or not. On the other hand, is Bob who says he does not believe in the ancient mythology of demons and Satan. After all, we live in 2021, not ancient Babylon. With all the advances of science we know that they do not exist. I believe both are errors.

C.S. Lewis put it like this, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (that is the devils) are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist (Bob above) or a magician (Ginger above) with the same delight.” In other words, in both cases Satan wins. Satan and demons win when all you can do is think about them and they win if you believe it is ancient mythology. 

In this week’s text Satan tries to sabotage Jesus from following his identity and mission. Satan directly confronts Jesus about his identity as a son of Abba, loved and delighted in. He wants to move him away from his identity and his mission to save the world from sin. Satan also seeks to sabotage us by using other people, world views, cultural stimulus to move us away from our identity and God’s dream for us in the world. Satan tempts us to find our identity in what we do…what people say about us…or what we have. Our identity is that we are sons and daughters of Abba, loved and delighted in. Satan even though in reality is the prince of darkness, masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), seeking to sabotage your true identity by making what you do, what people say about you and what you have really attractive and the desirable realities of life. How do we stay grounded in our true identity? We are going to think about this on Sunday as we watch and listen as Jesus faces the temptations of Satan…and remains true to who he is.

Some passages to possibly read: Matthew 4:1-11Ephesians 6:10-18; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



January 10 Reflections

If I were to ask you the question right now, “Do you believe that God likes you and delights in you?” … how would you respond? My experience is that most people who call themselves Christians hesitate when asked that question. Because I am not asking do you believe God loves you because theologically God has to love you.  I am asking if you believe God delights in you being born and likes you for who you are. I think for most the idea of God liking and delighting in us seems “too much” for some reason. God maybe tolerates us in our humanity. Or maybe is ready to judge us constantly because we are such mess ups.  Or maybe does not even remember us because there are so many people. But to delight in us…like us? I do not know.

Brennan Manning in his book, Abba’s Child, tells one of his favorite stories about a priest from Detroit named Edward Farrell who went on his two-week summer vacation to Ireland. His one living uncle was about to celebrate his 80th birthday. On the day of celebration, the priest and his uncle got up before dawn and dressed in silence. They took a long walk and stopped to watch the sunrise, standing side by side with no words exchanged and staring straight at the rising sun. Suddenly the uncle turned and went skipping down the road. He was radiant, beaming, smiling from ear to ear.  

His nephew said, “Uncle Seamus, you look really happy.”

         “I am, lad.”

         “Want to tell me why?”

         His eighty-year-old uncle replied, “Yes, you see, my Abba is very fond of me.”

What if you could respond with a gut level honesty to the question, “Do you believe that God likes you and delights in you?  By saying, “Oh yes, I believe that my Abba is very fond of me.” I think you receive a calm tenderness filling your soul, to know you are not only loved, but delighted in. This coming Sunday we are going to be thinking about identity. Who are you at the core of your being? Most of the time when we think of identity, we think of three things: What do you do? What do people think of you? What do you have? The truth is these are all false premises to build your identity on. How about trying this on: I am a child of God; loved by God; and delighted in by God. By looking at the baptism of Jesus and the proclamation made over his life we are going to think about our identity as well. Some passages to read: Matthew 3:13-17; John 1:29-34; and Zephaniah 3:17.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn 



January 3 Reflections

2021 is here! 2020 has been a memorable year! Some would like to forget the memory; others thrived and grew during the hard thing of COVID-19 and all the ramifications. It has changed the way we look at so many things. I know for my own work, I never dreamed I would be preaching to an empty church. I had fears and nightmares at times through the years that nobody would show, simply because I was not enough, but not because the Governor recommended no in person worship. Also, pastoral calls by telephone have become the norm and wearing a mask at times is an issue. 2020 was also the year I decided to stay at First Reformed instead of taking a new assignment as Transitional Minister in another congregation. Some have suggested, when I was in the waiting time of deciding, why go when you can take it easy here and somewhat slide toward retirement. I am not sure I know what retirement is nor do I really comprehend “take it easy.” Both of those sound quite frankly unpleasing. I know my guiding principle is rest deeper not work harder, but that does not mean slide out. Resting deeper for me means living wholeheartedly for Jesus, not resting on my own abilities or strength.

So here we are…2021. One of the reasons I was led to stay is the ongoing work of embedding grace and health in the life of a congregation. I long for and envision a place where grace is the atmosphere we breathe and is so embedded in the life of the congregation that it literally is our DNA.  Grace…not shame, or a critical spirit, or judgmentalism, or condemning attitude, or wardens of a prison of the soul, joyless no laughter environment. Grace breathes life…freedom…joy…laughter…encouragement…hope. Grace is embedded by becoming emotionally mature which ironically comes through grace filled living. This sounds like a circular argument but it so true: when grace is experienced in our souls, we make healthy strides towards emotionally maturity, which then begins to embed itself not only in individual lives but then spreads into a group such as a church.

The first series of sermons for 2021 is titled, “Defining Moments of Grace.” By looking at the life and teaching of Jesus we are going to explore together what it means to be self-defined in a healthy way that leads to emotionally healthy living. Using Jesus as our guide, teacher, and source of power, we are going to think about defining moments in our lives that offer the opportunity for grace filled growth.  Notice I said opportunity. We have a choice. We can choose emotional immaturity. Quite frankly growth is hard work, but so satisfying.

We are going to begin by looking at the story of Jesus as a 12-year-old boy in the temple. He defines himself separate from his parents by saying “I.” When we believe that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us more or less and that God loves us in this moment as much as it is possible for an infinite God to love we become emotionally capable of saying “I.” This is who I am. This is who I am not. This is what I believe God is calling and gifting me to do. This is what I will do. This is what I will not do. Then allowing others the freedom to do the same thing. This is going to be fun! Some passages to read for this week: Luke 2:41-52; John 5:19-30.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn



December 25 Reflections

Barry Switzer served as head football coach at the University of Oklahoma for sixteen years and coached the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL for four years. He is one of very few coaches who have won a national title in college football and the Super Bowl in the NFL. He grew up in hard circumstances. His dad was a bootlegger who spent time in prison. Both of his parents died in tragic circumstances. Anything that Switzer earned was through hard work; nothing was given to him. As a coach he always looked for the kid who had nothing but desired to play football and be a better man.  When asked about this he said in one of his many funny but right on quotes, “I don’t want the player who was born on third base but acts like he hit a triple.” Barry Switzer always related better to scrappy players who grew up poor like him, than to the rich and privileged.

Jesus created and owned the entire universe. Yet, he chose to be born in the dugout. God, yet gave up all that privilege to come to earth out of humble love for you and me. He was God yet humbled himself. “Jesus had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim any privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death-the worst kind of death at that-a crucifixion.” (Philippians 2:6-8, The Message)

Jesus was not born nor did he grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Humanly speaking he had no status, no privilege, no wealth; after all he was from Nazareth and “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) He was literally born in a barn where donkeys stayed while their owners spent the night at the inn. He had no cradle or bed, just a feeding trough…a manger. He did not act like he was born on third base but went through life acting like he hit a triple. Humility marked his life, beginning to end.

I can relate to God because of Jesus. I can connect with Jesus. He never had it easy, even though he could have. Especially I think this week that because he was born in difficulty, I know that he will be with me in my difficult circumstances. Jesus understands. If he had been born in a palace surrounded by royalty I could not relate.  But he was born in a barn with donkeys around and the first to show up were shepherds, the nobodies of that time. Jesus understands difficulty. He lived it. Because of that I know he is with me in my difficulties. We are going to think about that on Christmas Day. Some passages to read: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-7; Philippians 2:5-11.

Grace upon Grace,

Verlyn