Why Do We Avoid Silence?

The prophet urges us, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20).  The Psalmist invites us to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The Lord showed Elijah and us that to sense his presence and hear his message we need to be quiet and listen for God’s  “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).

With so many diversions and distractions, silence is a rare experience for many of us. This is sad, because silence allows us to hear God and open our hearts to God. Silence allows us to honestly examine ourselves in the presence of God. Do we take enough time in church meetings and Sunday morning gatherings for wordless worship, quiet reflection and prayer?

Ministry and even worship services can actually provide diversions and distraction to elude encountering God. This is sad, because our external activities in the world should derive from our intimacy with God. The life of Jesus illustrates a pattern of taking time away from teaching and healing, and seeking significant time to be with God (Luke 5:16; Mark 1:35). This provided him with the inner strength to deal with the outward pressures imposed by both those who opposed him and those who depended on him.

Silence helps us refocus on God, and it energizes our ministry. When we turn to God in silence during our daily activities, we become more conscious of God in the routines of everyday life. When we set aside time in our schedules for silence, we walk and talk with God. When we take time in church meetings for silent prayer, we better discern the difference between Christian activities and serving in Christ’s name. When we come ten minutes early for a worship gathering and sit in silence, worship becomes more of an encounter.

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Why do We Hesitate?

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. – Matthew 28:17

Hesitation provides time to think about a situation, gather information and weigh the facts. Maybe the choice really matters to you. Maybe  hesitation is a warning that you’re about to make the wrong decision. This is not the same as hesitating until an opportunity is lost or we lose sight of a God given vision.

Why do we hesitate? The answer requires serious examination of our hearts:

Do we prefer privacy over loving accountability? God has called us into relationships that pull us out of doubt and hesitation: spiritual conversation, mutual prayer and healthy accountability. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment”(Proverbs 18:1).

Can we discern between faith and fear? Sometimes fear protects us from dangerous things. Other times fear eaves us making no decision at all.  God gives us wisdom to decide between the necessary risks of faith and the appropriate cautions of wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

Do we prefer comfort over commitments? We grow comfortable with our routines. Many believers have had to push themselves to return to church services because they’d grown comfortable with their no-commute, no-prep Sunday mornings at home. Or they could just do whatever they wanted on the weekend and watch a recorded service later.

There are many reasons why we hesitate, so let’s diagnose our hearts. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” We’re all masters at mental maneuvering, and our hesitations often flow from unexamined thoughts and feelings. 

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Conflict Resolution: It’s Not All About Me

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” Matthew 18:15

Do you ever avoid resolving conflict? It’s uncomfortable. We experience fear and anger. When we experience pain in a relationship, we think trying to resolve it can create more pain. When we choose to see conflict resolution as a negative experience, we try to protect ourselves and avoid it. When we do approach the person, we can vent, describe how we have been hurt and maybe even be right. Notice how we have made conflict all about us. Instead of seeing conflict resolution only as a way of alleviating our pain, think of it as an act of love for the offender. 

“God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict…,”

When preparing for that difficult conversation (not email or social media) ask: Why is this relationship important to me? What value do I see in this person? How does God see them? Perhaps most important: what do I want for this person? Forgiveness? Reconciliation? Freedom from anger? For them to reach their full potential in Christ?

Conflict resolution is not all about you.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

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Should We Complain to God?

Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Exodus 5:22

We live in a world that breeds discontent. We are bombarded with the message that to be happy we need more things, fewer wrinkles and better vacations. We also live in a world of sin, violence, sickness and death.

Jesus calls us to constant prayer (Luke 11:9-10), but what about our complaints?

James Tissot’s Moses and the Burning Bush

There are numerous biblical references to believers like Job, David and Moses complaining to God in the midst of their troubles and suffering. Despite his worries and doubts, Moses obeyed God. He fails in his first attempt to lead God’s people out of slavery, and things only get worse. Out of despair he complains to God. Is that a sign of discontent and a lack of faith? Or are complaints a part of a relationship with God?

Consider the Psalms of lament – prayers and songs that show us how to express our pain to God in a context of worship.

In these laments the authors pour out to God their sorrow (Psalm 137), anger (Psalm 140), fear (Psalm 69), confusion (Psalm 102), disappointment (Psalm 74), and depression (Psalm 88).

God anticipates that we will experience pain, so he gives us language to express it in prayer and worship. We can do this privately, like David did when he wrote Psalm 142 (1 Samuel 22), and we can do this corporately, like the people of Israel did when they sang Psalm 142.

Psalms of lament remind us that God does not expect for us to always experience prosperity. They also model for us how to complain in a way that honors God.

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God Burns Without Burning Us Up

“Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up” (Exodus 3:2–3).

At the end of last week’s message, Moses was living in a place of exile and failure. He was a murderer, and he was rejected both by the Egyptians and by the Israelites. He fled to Midian, far away. He is living as an alien in the foreign land.

Orrente, Pedro; Moses and the Burning Bush; National Trust, Kingston Lacy; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/moses-and-the-burning-bush-100550

There is a bush fire on the mountain which catches Moses’ attention. The bush is burning, but is not consumed. When we first read the story of the burning bush, we see it as a way that God attracts Moses’ attention so that God and can speak to him. But the burning bush is more than a plot device. It shows us the God of Scripture who is a fire that does not consume.

God shows his presence. In Genesis 15:17, God sealed his covenant with Abram by passing through the animal sacrifice as “a smoking firepot with a blazing torch.”  During the Israelites’ exit from Egypt, the Lord would appear “by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night” (Exodus 13:22).

God purifies us. God is a refiner who brings his people “through the fire” in order to “refine them as silver is refined” (Zechariah 13:9). Fire is a purifying agent in people’s lives. In Proverbs 17:3, “The crucible is for refining silver and the smelter of gold, but the one who purifies hearts by fire is the LORD.” This is the fire that burns but does not consume.

God calls people to service. In the book of Acts God reveals himself as fires that do not consume: the flames which appear above the heads of each of the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The flames cause them to burn with passion – with love for God and for others.

God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush on Mount Sinai to get his attention and to call him to ministry. For biblical authors, when God appeared as fire he was showing His presence, purifying power, and protection over his people.

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Hollywood Moses v. The Real Moses

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. – Hebrews 11:24-25

This Sunday Huntingtown United Methodist Church is beginning a church wide study on Moses: Following God into the Unfamiliar. Whenever I read stories about Moses, I can’t help but remember Ben Kingsley’s Moses, the animated Prince of Egypt, and The Ten Commandments, my favorite.

I grew up being fascinated by Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments every Easter. I still love it, even though it takes artistic license with the story, including Moses. Comparing and contrasting the Moses of the Bible with the Moses in the movie makes for some excellent table discussions Here are a few examples:

An Egyptian princess named Nefertari appears throughout the first half of the movie.  She and Moses have an interesting palace romance, but she does not appear in any Jewish literature. In Exodus, Moses gets married to Zipporah, a Midianite whom he saves by a well.

Charlton Heston was a classically-trained orator, but the Old Testament says that Moses had a speech impediment. This was one of his fears when God sent him back to Egypt. Moses had to relay all of his messages through his brother, Aaron.

In the movie Moses descends from the mountain with hair highlights from the Mount Sinai salon. There is no reference to Moses’ hair color, but we do read that his face glowed after being in the presence of God. It was scary enough that people kept their distance from him. 

Moses was a son of a Jewish slave growing up alongside Egyptian royalty. Maybe, like DeMille, I’m stretching my imagination to fill in some gaps, but I don’t think so. I imagine the younger Moses as a looked down upon outsider who lacked confidence and self esteem. He likely was educated and had military training and experience. Despite its artistic license, the The Ten Commandments does remind us that Moses’ upbringing in an Egyptian palace, good and bad experiences, prepared him for the calling he receives from God.

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Waking Up: Reflections on The Matrix

“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14].

Even if you have not seen The Matrix, hopefully you will still understand the point of this post: We are adjusting to a world of change.

 I have difficulty enjoying new movies these days, so often I dust off precious gems from the past. Occasionally I notice new details and gain new insights when watching old movies. One such movie is the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix.

Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a computer hacker who senses that something isn’t right in the world and seeks the Matrix. He meets Morpheus, who shows it to him. The Matrix, as it turns out, is a program that has been feeding images directly into Neo’s consciousness, creating a computer-generated world designed by machines.

“Welcome to the real world,” Morpheus says when he rescues Neo from his imprisonment in the Matrix.  His eyes hurt and muscles are atrophied, because he has never used them. He has spent his entire existence in a pod, hooked up in a system of cords and hoses, being harvested for energy. His world of streets, workplaces and relationships was never real. He was not a computer programmer who attended discos, but a slave to oppressive machines in a post apocalyptic world. When Neo learns this, the truth is more than he can bear and he vomits on the floor.

It’s not easy adjusting to a new reality, which is what many of us are doing during this pandemic.

Like Neo in The Matrix, churches are experiencing a disorientation and reorientation. The world we once lived in is different from the world we live in now. Close church families are scattered. Reliable ministries are struggling to find servants. New conflicts arise, while old ones re-emerge. Like Neo, we have a host of unanswered questions and a sense of being lost. As Morpheus puts it, we “feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

Christians notice that the film sees Neo as a Christ figure. A man refers to Neo as his own “savior, his personal Jesus Christ.” After meeting Morpheus, Neo is told that he’s “the One” they have been waiting for to liberate humans. Near the end of the movie Neo comes back to life after being killed by agents, the guardians of the Matrix. He discovers his powers and realizes his mission to liberate others and defeat the Matrix. In a rapidly changing world, we have a Savior.

The opening scene in the film sums up what the movie is all is about, and is perhaps the most important message to churches. Neo is asleep in front of his computer, and on the screen it says: “Wake up, Neo.” Neo’s new reality required a rigorous process of adjustment. He shred his old certainties and asked tough questions about his new reality. He used abilities he had never used. He discovered gifts he didn’t know he had. Churches who wake up to their new reality must follow a similar process. 

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Sin, Forgiveness and Transformation in a Conflicted Church

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9

We are all unique, We have different perspectives, desires, and priorities. These can be beneficial to us, our congregation and our ministry teams. They can stimulate productive dialogue and encourage creativity. We can appreciate the diversity of God’s people. We can fellowship and serve with people who see things differently from us (Romans 14:1-13). Or they can produce unhealthy conflict.

Pentecost painting (Jyoti Sahi, India)

Unhealthy conflicts in the church show us our need for God’s grace. The worst of human nature can emerge in our conflicts. Our broken humanity can contribute to, or be the source of conflict. We react, and devote energy into defending our position. As James 4:1-2 teaches, not all conflicts are beneficial. Sinful attitudes, motives, and behaviors lead to and grow out of conflict.

Unhealthy conflicts result in broken relationships and unconfessed sins. Dietrich Bonheoffer said that our life together as Christians involves our confession of sins to one another. Scripture urges us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). Jesus urged taught his disciples to declare the good news of God’s forgiveness to one another (John 20:22-23). These can be powerful means of grace to those in need of healing consolation, and reconciliation.

God transforms us in our conflicts. Approach someone whose words and actions have offended us. Patiently listen and try to understand one another. Pray for and with one another. Do these with a genuine desire for healing and reconciliation. When we do these things we can be the mouthpiece of Christ, who alone can bind and loose our sins (Matthew 18:15-20). We will discover our own need for repentance and confession. Someone’s rough edges can serve as an unlikely means of our spiritual growth.

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80 Year Old Methodist Rules That Can Save Churches 

  1. “…doing no harm, avoiding evil of every kind…”
  2. “…doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible to all.” 

The early Methodists were well known for small groups of people who helped one another grow in Christ, by offering one another encouragement and support. They were little churches, and their life together was guided by John Wesley’s General Rules. 

With the emphasis on the individual and the deterioration of community in the world, it is easy to see these simple rules as only applying to individuals. However, our personal relationship with Christ should always support the church family’s life together. The General Rules can help believers orient both their individual and corporate lives toward Christ.

Methodist Class Meeting

Our need for community is constantly threatened by self-centeredness.  Churches have never been without controllers, dissenters, and faction builders.  The Church must take care that it is not killing community through divisiveness, pride, criticism, and selfishness.  Those who create such confusion in the body of  Christ should consider Wesley’s first General Rule to “do no harm.”

Just as the threat to community is self-centeredness, the vital builder of community is other-centeredness.  The second General Rule tells us to do every possible good to all persons.  Practical concern for the homeless, the orphan, the widow, and the social outcast exemplifies this principle.  This kind of corporate spirituality goes against our fallen instincts for isolation, self-gratification and control.  But the greatest experiences of joy take place when we are serving and sharing our lives with others.  Our personal relationship with Christ is expressed in the ways we love and serve the people around us.  

A congregation’s effectiveness depends on how clearly its members understand their purpose, and hold themselves accountable to that purpose.  By evaluating their work in light of the General Rules, they can measure their contribution to building the body of Christ and serving Christ in the world.  This corporate accountability would serve to keep the church’s work and the personal relationships of its members focused on its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. If we do not seek to walk as Jesus walked, we weaken and ultimately break our covenant relationship with God and with each other. 

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Embarrasing Texts, Careless Speech

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. – Ephesians 4:29

This Sunday I am continuing a sermon series on peacemaking. Intentional or not, many conflicts begin with words. We have to be attentive to our words, including our texts. I’ve had some awkward moments with texting.

Claude-Guy Halle, “The Deliverance of St. Paul and St. Barnabas”

One reason we now call cell phones smart phones must be how they help us text. The auto complete feature spares us the cumbersome task of typing entire words and sentences. Instead, it finishes them for us. Auto text suggests one or two word replies to an incoming text. Auto correct is handy when we don’t use proper spelling or grammar. 

These are helpful features, but they can create problems. I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t keep a watchful eye on my phone, I risk sending humorous, ridiculous or embarrassing messages:

A few years ago my mother in law’s dog unexpectedly died while she was visiting. I texted a trustee asking if it was okay to bury my mother in law in the back yard. Fortunately the intended message was clear.

A parishioner invited me to lunch one day. I responded to his text by explaining that I couldn’t because I was imbalanced. I meant to say I was unavailable. A friend texted that he was at his mother’s funeral. Because of auto text, I inappropriately replied “That’s great!”

These are examples of what can happen when we don’t pay careful attention to what we are communicating. Perhaps they also teach a broader lesson: We must be very attentive to the words we say (or text) and how they are received. Regardless of our intentions, words can have a lingering affect: We can build someone up with our words just as easily as we can tear them down. Proverbs 18:21 reminds us not to underestimate the power of our words:

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

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