Monday, October 24, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Humble Strength

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Humble Strength"
Luke 18: 9-14; 2 Timothy 4: 6-18
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
- Luke 18: 9-14

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
- 2 Timothy 4: 6-18

Jesus met people where they were in the ordinary spaces of life. As Jesus was walking towards the costly grace that awaited him in Jerusalem, Jesus read the human landscape around him. Jesus knew what was in everyone’s heart (John 2:25), all that is good and faithful and our contradictions too. So Jesus offers a parable of two men which points to the truth about God even as he points to the truth about the human heart.

On this side of the cross we give the Pharisees a bad reputation but in Jesus’ time they were considered faithful interpreters of God’s Law. Their role was to guide the people in God’s ways. And they set ritual boundaries to maintain their religious purity. Pharisees were seen in the temple on a regular basis in regards to their role in society.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was considered at odds with God’s Law. Jewish tradition forbade this occupation. Collecting taxes was perceived to be dishonest and impure. Tax collectors were rarely seen in the temple as they were considered outcasts in Jewish culture.

What is so surprising about Jesus’ parable is the prayer which these two men utter in the temple. In the first century mouths would have gaped to hear the Pharisee utter a prayer up to God in self-righteousness. Chins would have hit the floor to hear the tax collector, standing along the temple margins, utter a prayer in dismay for God’s mercy and forgiveness and then to actually receive it.[1]

Jesus not only reveals the contradictions within each of the men and in society, but he reveals God is moved by a heart that recognizes one’s need for God. You see, God is not moved by prideful attitudes of how closely we walk the narrow and straight path, or how many check marks we have on the ‘How to be Faithful’ list. Boasting of our faithfulness denies God’s work within us. God is always the One to take the first step in our lives.

If we exalt ourselves with our works and we devalue others with an attitude of contempt then we have missed the mark of being a student of Scripture, of being a follower of God, of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. We have missed the mark because we have failed to look inward and consider what is common to every human being: no matter what our pasts or present holds, we have all fallen short of God’s glory.

Neil White had a comfortable life in Oxford, Mississippi. He was a family man with a wife and two young children. He was a generous giver to his church. He was a journalist and a successful magazine publisher. In 1993 he was charged with a federal crime of bank fraud. Neil was thirty-three years old. He had transferred $750,000 of checks from one bank account to another to keep his business afloat. Neil was sentenced to serve eighteen months in a minimum security prison in Carville, Louisiana.

The prison was twenty miles south of Baton Rouge and had formerly been a federal medical facility for over one hundred years for patients with Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy. In 1993 this federal prison was nested in the medical center which still held 130 beds in use for these patients who had become outcasts losing their families, homes, and any dignity or quality of life.

Neil’s eighteen month sentence at Carville was a defining moment; so much so that he wrote his memoir entitled, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.” When he arrived at Carville he made some quick judgments about the patients with leprosy. He recalled, “[He] didn’t want to breathe the air, or accidentally brush up against one of them, or get close enough that the infection could reach out, take hold in [his] body, and turn [him] into a horror.”[2]

The patients and prison inmates crossed paths in designated areas of the facility. One day Neil met Ella. She was an older African American woman in a wheel chair. Ella had been quarantined at Carville since elementary school. She had lost her legs as a result of leprosy. As Neil listened to Ella’s words more than his inner judgement, he began to see a woman who was kind and had a gentle spirit. The more Neil talked with Ella the more he forgot about her disease. Their conversations began to shift Neil’s perceptions. Living as an outcast in solidarity “with the victims of leprosy” truly became a sanctuary of mercy, change, and hope.[3]

As time passed, Neil talked with a number of the patients and inmates. The journalist within him set out to listen to their life stories as he began to process his own. Neil’s biggest questions were considering how those eighteen months should change him and how he could return home to face all the people he had wronged. He had lost everything – his marriage, his children, his job, his reputation. Prior to his arrest Neil had always been a man who sought to be praised for his accomplishments and pride had gotten the best of him.

One day Neil asked Ella, “Ella, how do people change?”
She replied, “Hard to do. Hard to do.” Ella hesitated.
Neil tried to prod her asking her what she was thinking.
“Keep meddlin,” Ella said.
Neil responded, “I don’t want to interview anyone else.”
“Maybe you been asking the wrong folks,” Ella replied.
Neil recalled he had talked with Father Reynolds, Reverend Ray, Sister Margie, every interesting inmate and dozens of leper patients. Ella had thought of someone else who could offer insight. So Neil asked who that would be.
Ella leaned forward and in her soft voice said, “Your own self.”

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God calls us to look inside ourselves and consider the contradictions between our faithfulness and waywardness. Inner reflection is faith’s motivation towards change for God desires truth in our inward being (Psalm 51:6). Our confessions are always individual and communal, two sides of one coin.

What are the contradictions between faithfulness and dismay that you see within yourself and more broadly? The text asks us to consider this question. I have been pondering that question for myself. As a broken human being, a woman, a mother, and a pastor I feel the gravity of Jesus’ parable in light of this political season. I know I am not the only one dismayed.

I am dismayed as I wrestle with my own judgments. I am dismayed with the self-righteous rhetoric that has completely devalued women, minorities, interfaith groups, and the social graces of democracy. I am dismayed with the self-righteous rhetoric that has carelessly named groups of people as deplorable. I am dismayed with the ways we as a nation are quick to dehumanize any candidate. I am dismayed when we judge and label one another for the diverse lenses of faith that we interpret political issues through. We do all need to make decisions regarding who to vote for and why. But we must also decide how to model and teach our children and the younger generations the virtues of disagreement with regards to respect and dignity.

Every institution in our world, country, community and even the Church is tainted by sin. While our elections of national, state, and local leaders are important, there is no one perfect political party or candidate which will be the savior for all our problems. At the end of the day every candidate is a child of God. They are men and women who are broken and who need God’s mercy just like the Pharisee and tax collector did; just like you and I do.

It is worth repeating that God is still sovereign and Jesus Christ is still the only Savior we need. But Jesus was the only one worthy to speak of his righteousness, yet he never would boast of his perfect obedience to God. “Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself - made himself of no value like an outcast, taking the form of a slave, being born of human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by fully recognizing his reliance upon God and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Even Christ recognized his need for God’s mercy therefore we are to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). As disciples we are called to follow Christ’s example. At the end of the day there is only one thing that matters. And that one thing is to recognize our common need for God’s mercy in our lives. It is the core truth of what it means to walk as a disciple. The path of faith is designed to take each step fully depending upon God.

God’s mercy was on the loose in the temple, it is on the loose for those who feel like Pharisees, tax collectors, and outcasts, and it is on the loose even in our lives today. God’s mercy proclaims that nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy finds us and redeems us when we are honest with ourselves and the world around us. Mercy triumphs over judgment. But it takes faithfulness to be honest and faithfulness is not about perfection; it never has been.

Faithfulness is having the courage to daily interview ourselves about what needs to change within our hearts while claiming our need for God’s mercy to re-write our stories again and again. Faithfulness is meeting our sisters and brothers on the intersections of life and seeing our common brokenness through the lenses of mercy and grace. That kind of faithfulness is what humble strength looks like.

May we go out empowered to take the next steps as a disciple and never settle for less than that.

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

Sources Referenced:

Art image, "Jesus in Gethsemane," by He Qi
[1] Alyce Mckenzie, “Parables for Today” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 57-58.
[2] Neil White, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 19.
[3] Neil White, p. 78.
[4] Neil White, pp. 190-191.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Wrestling with God

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Wrestling With God"
Genesis 32: 22-31; 2 Timothy 3: 10-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016

The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
- Genesis 32: 22-31

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3: 10-17

Whether Jacob knew it or not, he was about to face his limits. This plays out quite artistically in the Hebrew language which our English translations do not capture. Jacob (ya’aqov) approached the Jabbok River (yabboq) and there another wrestled him (ye’abeq). Do you hear the play on words?

The limits drawn around and throughout Jacob’s story were lines connected by a life of struggle. From the time Jacob and his twin brother Esau were in Rebekah’s womb they struggled and caused her great discord. They were two nations divided in her womb (Gen 25:22-23). Jacob’s name means “supplanter” or one who uses force or scheming to take another’s place. And Jacob indeed was a schemer and manipulator.

Jacob deceived Esau to sell his birthright for a cup of soup (Genesis 25: 29-34). Jacob deceived his father Isaac to receive the patriarch’s final blessing which enraged Esau enough to want to kill his brother (Genesis 27). After Jacob left home to make a life for himself, he continued to scheme and deceived his father-in-law Laban to profit himself at Laban’s expense (Genesis 30: 37-43). It’s an understatement to say that Jacob lived his life as a man on the run.

Despite the ways Jacob sought what benefited him, God continued to pursue Jacob. God met Jacob in a dream with a promise to bless him as God has once blessed Abraham. But God also instructed Jacob to return to his home with the assurance that God would be with Jacob and would not leave him until God had done what God had promised (Genesis 28:13-15).

Something within Jacob was not content with all that was estranged, divided, and unresolved in his life. So Jacob, his family, and his livestock set out to follow God’s direction home to meet his brother Esau. On the way Jacob encountered God’s messengers to share that Esau was indeed coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men in his company.

Only here do we see Jacob utter a prayer to God, “O God of my Father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and your kindred and I will do you good,’ I am too small for the least of your steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother” (Genesis 32: 9-11).

Hoping to appease his brother and find favor, Jacob sent his family and livestock across the river to meet Esau. And now Jacob is left alone as the night presses in. He comes face to face with his own limitations and there another wrestled with Jacob. This other is a spiritual presence that we read to be a divine messenger or angel of God. They grapple in the dust through the night.

But notice that Jacob does not initiate the wrestling match. It is this divine being. I cannot help but wonder if this angel was trying to create an opportunity for Jacob to wrestle with the culmination of his life in a constructive way? Jacob was preparing to face the biggest conflict of his life and it brought Jacob great anxiety and uncertainty to do this. He did not know what would happen on the other side of that river.

He was at the most vulnerable point of his life. By wrestling with the angel, Jacob was grappling with his own self and all that was unfinished. It is a hard thing to face the worries, fears, uncertainties, and conflicts in life head on. Any of one of us would probably rather turn around and run from them. Isn’t it easier to cut off these areas of life rather than dealing with them?

Remember Jacob had prayed that God would deliver him through this ordeal of facing his greatest challenge. If Jacob truly wanted deliverance he could not avoid facing this struggle. Jacob could not go around it. He could only go through it. And God promised to be with him and to do Jacob good.

Wrestling gives us an image of God fighting for Jacob as Abraham’s grandson exerts all of his physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Once Jacob’s energy is spent he is freed to let go of all the loose ends of his life and to let God begin the process of reconciliation.

I also wonder if the angel wrestled with Jacob to bring him to a place of humility. Jacob had always grabbed the heels of opportunity to benefit himself over and against his own family. In order for God to fulfill the blessing promised, Jacob would need to grapple with this new experience to learn the virtue of humility. Jacob would need to see the limits of his own pride in the face of God’s steadfast love and strength.

And so wrestling also portrays an image of God fighting Jacob’s “stubbornness and pride.”[1] As soon as the angel strikes Jacob on the hip socket, Jacob begins to feel the effects of humility and he is forever changed by the struggle.

As darkness began to give way to the rise of a new day, Jacob knew something about God’s deliverance that he did not know before. God would not let go of Jacob in order to do something powerful in Jacob’s life. And so Jacob asks the angel to bless him. He receives the new name of Israel for he had striven with God and with humans and had endured. And yet we know that Israel – God’s chosen people – continued to struggle with God throughout the generations of our shared history.

Jacob’s story – Israel’s story is indeed our story. For we continue to wrestle with God and all that life holds.

We fight with our fears and being vulnerable with God.
We are challenged by family dynamics and strained relationships.
We struggle to find a sense of who were are within all our imperfections and weaknesses.
We wrestle with all that we have done and left undone.
We grapple with the ways God’s Word speaks to life issues, injustice, and concerns.
We weigh the costs of what we have sacrificed to find meaning in life.

No matter what we struggle with I think we are all searching to find something that will bring a sense of peace. We feel the ways that struggling with ourselves pulls us apart and we long to feel the effects of reconciliation.

So hear this encouraging word - do not fear the struggle. Do not fear the struggle because the most important part of it is to show up in an effort to be made whole. We see this truth in Jacob, in countless other stories in Scripture, and in Christ’s faithfulness of sacrificial love to struggle for us on the cross in order that we be made whole in the promise of resurrection.

Showing up to face our limits is an opportunity for us to draw near to our Creator. It is a space to be real with the One who knows the full depths of all we question, doubt, and endure. God honors our efforts to show up trusting God will deliver us. God will fight for us as we grow in our commitment as a disciple. God will also interrupt our lives in an effort to humble us and loosen the grip of our own self-will.

Whether God is fighting for us or God is fighting against our stubborn pride, we too experience God’s blessing if we will just let go and let God. God continues to pursue us in an effort to work through all that is standing in the way of empowering you and me for every good work in this gift of faith.

I encourage you to be strong and courageous to engage the struggles in life for the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go. And because of that we will be forever changed by our struggling, again and again. It is a humbling experience for sure. The only things we have to lose are those things in our hearts and minds that God is trying to shake loose from our lives. There is no life experience that is wasted upon God for God can use it all to teach us, heal us, and empower us to cross our limitations into God’s promises of a new day and a newly resurrected life.

To wrestle with God proclaims that no matter what our struggle entails – no matter how overwhelming it seems – no matter how vulnerable we are – God does indeed enter into the struggle with us. God never lets us go. God desires to strengthen us through our human weakness so that God’s power of redemption and reconciliation might be revealed.

May we take the next step of a disciple and never forget that truth of the gospel.

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

Sources Referenced:

Art Image "Jacob Wrestles with God," by Jack Baumgartner
[1] D. W. Cotter, “Berit Olam: Genesis” (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 246.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Endurance

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Endurance"
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2: 1-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. - Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.

Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
- 2 Timothy 2: 1-13

He was reflecting back upon his life. Paul’s life had significantly changed since his first letter to young Timothy. He had become imprisoned. There was a lot of time to think in that small space confined by bars and chains. Paul knew about hardships. There was a day he inflicted great hardship upon the early Christians known as the followers of The Way. It still amazes me how God worked through this Jewish Pharisee, a zealous interpreter of God’s Law, to become the biggest proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God turned Paul around 180 degrees to preach, teach, and live out the gift of grace in powerful ways that impact us today.

But this calling upon Paul’s life was not easy by any means. He continued to endure hardships and sufferings. He was stoned in the street. He was imprisoned many times. His life was threatened. He lived through a treacherous shipwreck. He also stood in solidarity with his church plants who were experiencing hard times, conflict, and even persecution. Through all of his life experiences and through all he endured, Paul was empowered to speak a word of hope into the hard and gritty places of life.

To the church in Corinth he shared, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful – he will not let you be tested beyond your strength but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

To the Apostle Peter – the one who not only denied Christ on that Good Friday but was redeemed to be the rock of the early church – Paul shared, “Support your faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, and mutual affection with love” (2 Peter 1:6).

And to the church in Rome, whom he did not meet face to face, Paul assured them saying, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:3

Paul, the patriarch of the apostles, reflects upon the hardships he has shared throughout his ministry and he considers passing along a good word of encouragement to young Timothy. You see, Paul is shaping Timothy to go in the bold assurance of faith to continue his ministry. And Paul knows the secret to endurance.

To endure we must be strong in the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 2:1). This is not an inner strength from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. This is a passive strength we receive by fully relying on God’s grace. Nothing more fully reveals this than Christ’s own vulnerability and faithful obedience to God. We see the power of God’s grace pour out from the cross and empty tomb. It is a strength that girds us with the assurance that nothing, no hardship, and not even death itself can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord.

Paul knows that enduring through any kind of trial in life requires hard work. It takes a lot of physical, emotional, and spiritual stamina to not become completely paralyzed by the chaos that presses in on us. It takes stamina of faith to keep our eyes lifted up beyond our circumstances towards the hope that God promises. Remember that hope does not disappoint because God promises to guide our every step by the Spirit so that we may overcome.

As Paul sits alone in that prison cell he is reminded of the strength that comes through communal support. We share in sufferings as co-sufferers for we know Christ lived in solidarity with our human brokenness. And so the body of Christ continues to live in solidarity with those who are suffering. We are called to bear up one another with mutual affection in love. We are not meant to navigate our hardships alone, for we are tethered by relationships with God and one another. That tether is our lifeline.

Amanda Lindhout has one of the most compelling stories of endurance I have ever come by. She first shared her story in her memoir, “A House in the Sky,” and now she speaks across the world to share her story of endurance, forgiveness, and hope.

Amanda grew up in a broken home in Alberta, Canada. She and her brother would go dumpster diving for treasures others threw away. They would also gather up empty glass bottles to collect the deposits for money. It was on Amanda’s regular trips to the local Thrift Store that she came across National Geographic magazines for twenty-five cents apiece. A whole new world opened up to her between the cover’s yellow lines. Amanda’s plan was to move on to a better life where relationships were not bruised by alcohol and abuse and neighborhood kids didn’t call her dirty or poor. She endured a lot in her childhood and youth and her maturity envisioned a better life.

At the age of nineteen Amanda found a job waiting tables at an upscale restaurant. She saved all her tip money for months on end. And then multiple times a year she would break her rhythm of working to buy plane tickets to travel the world. For nearly seven years she traveled to forty-seven countries. Amanda said this felt called to go and see the world. Each trip was like a revelation. She says it was better than a classroom and church. Over the course of her travels she became a journalist and did free-lance photography.

But her endurance for adventure completely changed gears when she entered Somalia, the most dangerous country in the world.

Amanda and her travel colleague were kidnapped and held in captivity for 460 days. The conditions of their imprisonment were extreme. Not only did Amanda struggle to physically and emotionally deal with the isolation, confinement, starvation, and violence, but she also spiritually struggled with the “life she had led which brought her there.”[1]

What helped Amanda endure was the house in the sky. Day by day she envisioned walking into a doorway of protection, and then stairs which led to rooms. The rooms were filled with the good memories of her life, family, and travels. The house in the sky soon became full of simple gifts of gratitude. The house in the sky was Amanda’s lifeline that empowered her to endure the darkest days of her life by looking towards hope and even forgiving her captors.

She says, “Now I pray many times in a day, and for me now my prayers are very, very different. They’re more like a statement of gratitude for everything that I have, for my freedom now, for the ability to experience the beauty of the world again. I’m really profoundly grateful for that, and I think it’s really important to express that.”

Part of discovering our capacity to endure is not having the option to quit but choosing to take the next step forward. It is making a decision to live every day. We may wish many times over that we never had to know just how strong we are, but life does not work that way. Faith does not work that way in which we are shielded from tests and trials. Each of us will face hard things in life. Sometimes we choose the challenges to endure – like an organized race, a triathlon, or a century bike ride. It can be fun to see what we are made of. It is important to consider what makes us feel fully alive even as the chaos ensues around us.

But life can certainly be like a roller coaster that we did not willingly agree to ride on. Life unfolds in such a way that many times we cannot anticipate what lies ahead. On our best days you and I might seem perfectly fine and pulled together on the outside, but on the inside we are crumbling as we quietly search for the strength to move forward through our circumstances.

Discovering this virtue of endurance is relying on God’s grace as we bear up in God’s strength. Endurance requires us to lean into a deeper trust of God, engage the struggle to reach towards the promise of God’s hope, and to hold onto our lifeline of relationships. Even in the midst of our trials, sufferings, and doubts this gift of faith gives us the sure footing and traction to take the next step and rise above our circumstances. We rise because of who God is and God’s steadfast love and promised presence are bigger than anything we are trying to endure.

A few weeks ago I came across a devotional reading that will not leave me. You and I are all quietly searching for the strength to overcome some obstacle, some mountain.

Relax in [God’s] everlasting arms. Your weakness is an opportunity to grow strong in awareness of [God’s] Almighty presence. When your energy fails you – when you think you cannot endure one minute longer – do not look inward and lament the lack you find there. Look to [God and God’s] sufficiency.[2]

The secret to discovering endurance is not looking inward to what we lack but looking upward to be made strong in the grace of Jesus Christ. Strength is looking into Christ’s own vulnerability for he was willing to live and to die in solidarity with our sufferings so that we might know God’s resurrection power. That is our gospel.

May you and I take the next step of a disciple to discover endurance and to be built up in God's strength.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Amanda Lindhout, “A House in the Sky” (New York: Scribner, 2013), p. 340.
[2] Sarah Young, “Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 282.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Rekindling the Gift

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Rekindling the Gift"
2 Timothy 1: 1-14 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
World Communion Sunday
October 2, 2016

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
- 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

Everyone knew her as Mimi. And if you were invited into her home she quickly became your Mimi too. Mimi’s gift was hospitality. She loved to make things special for others. If you needed a safe place to stay for just one night or even two weeks, she opened her spare bedroom and home for you. If you were recovering from a hospital visit, she would be at your front door with a casserole. If she heard that you had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving, then a place was set at her table for you. There was always room for an extra seat at Mimi’s table!

When Mimi’s car was in the driveway, her door was always open because she wanted folks to drop by. Mimi wanted people to come inside, and tell her about what was going on in life.

One day I was at Mimi’s house. As I sat at her table I noticed her Bible sitting open-faced on the kitchen counter. It was worn and written through and highlighted. And she had such a gift not just helping others feel welcomed, but she prayed for each one that sat at her table. Sometimes she would pray with a person who needed some encouragement, right then and there. Other times she would pray by herself for those whom God placed in her presence.

Mimi had open hands, an open heart, and she was always ready to listen. Her smile brightened up the most dreary day. But more than anything – her loving presence, her sage wisdom and her deep faith gave you renewed hope in the world. We all learned something special from Mimi about the ways God weaves faith and love through the ordinary and broken places of life.

The Apostle Paul says that Timothy had a Mimi too. Her name was Lois. And Paul remembers those cherished conversations that Timothy had shared about his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. Paul recalls the sincere faith he had seen in Timothy for these women made such an impression upon him. The faith Timothy’s family had modeled for him was authentic and genuine with a wholeheartedness to serve the Lord with grace and compassion.

As Paul’s words paint a picture of a true gift being shared through at least three generations, we can hear how important faith, hope and love are within Timothy’s family - the connection of faith, the hope found in relationships, and God’s love as it is received and extended. And Paul knows how important these are in order for God to weave the threads of faith into the fabric of our daily lives. So Paul reminds Timothy to rekindle the gift of God that is within him.

I love Paul’s tender words as a spiritual mentor to young Timothy and to us. These words encourage us to remember the stories that have been passed down through our family, through friends, through our Mimi’s and through our spiritual ancestors in Scripture. For these stories remind us of a divine love that will never let us go. God’s love gives us a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline in the midst of our angst and tears for a broken world.

In order to feel that strength of identity, purpose and hope we, too, need to rekindle the gift. We need to fan the flames and allow the Spirit to breathe new life into the embers of our faith. The hope is for us to rekindle the gift not just to regain God’s strength in our times of weakness, but also to continue sharing the gift of faith through open hands and hearts with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr was moved by the notion of tables as a place to encounter love and hospitality. As he considered the ways that encouragement and inspiration flow from a table much like a kitchen table, he could not help but remember the power which comes from the Lord’s Table to nurture us.

In 1933 Dr. Kerr served as pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Together with the church’s Stewardship team, Dr. Kerr envisioned World Communion Sunday. The vision was to bring churches together around the Lord’s Table as a reminder of the connection that holds us all by those three threads of faith, hope, and love.

Dr. Kerr’s son, Dr. Donald Craig Kerr (also a Presbyterian minister), shared that back in the early 1930’s no one really gave it a lot of thought. But that all changed when World War Two began. He said “It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion Sunday symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

What began as a Presbyterian tradition was adopted through the National Council of Churches and is observed globally across denominational lines.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. It is observed annually on the first Sunday in October. It is on this day that Christians across the world gather as God says, “Welcome to My House.”

God’s House is a safe place to find rest for our weary spirits. God’s hospitality embraces us so that we may experience God’s abundant mercy in our time of need. In the center of God’s House is a big Table where there is always room to pull up another chair. There is always a feast ready at the Table where plates are heaping with God’s grace and the cups are filled with compassion. And let me tell you, God’s grace tastes so good!

This feast nourishes and encourages us as we remember the stories of God walking beside God’s people.

God – like a mother hen who wraps her warm and protective wings around her brood of chicks to guide them by the right road.

God – like a father who is filled with nothing less than compassion, forgiveness, and second chances when his daughters and sons come home from the wayward journeys of life.

God – like a wounded healer who knows the scars on our knees and our hearts and tenderly mends our broken places both inside and out.

There is room at this Table to share our stories today of all the good we celebrate in the world and of all that burdens us. And at this Table God draws near to us with sighs too deep for words. God prays for us to strengthen us by the life, ministry, and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. God rekindles the embers of this gift of faith by breathing the Holy Spirit upon us, in us and among us so that we may experience new life.

At this Table we are reminded that we are blessed by the ties of faith, hope, and love which bind us together globally as one great family of faith. God created us to be tethered by relationships with God and one another through this gift of faith. As our spirits mature and grow we find hope in the relationships that shape us into a beloved community.

Our passion for God’s Love is strengthened each time we receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. And from this Table we are sent out into the world to share God’s hospitality. We do that by joining God in this holy work of loving one another as God already loves us, for if we do this everyone will know that we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34-35).

So welcome to God’s House. Let us take the next steps of a disciple as we rekindle this amazing gift by telling the story of God’s Love once again…for God’s story is rewriting ours as we see and taste God’s amazing grace.

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Generosity

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Generosity"
1Timothy 6: 6-19 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
- Psalm 146

When we read the landscape of everyday life, it is hard to be a disciple. There is so much that competes for our attention. We are so easily distracted to take our eyes off the trail Jesus is blazing ahead of us. Paul is writing to young Timothy and gives him some encouragement on staying focused not just as a leader in the church but also as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Listen to Paul’s words (1 Timothy 6: 6-19) according to the paraphrase in The Message, by Eugene Peterson:

6-8A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.
9-10 But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they will self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.
11-12 But you, Timothy, man of God: Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses.
13-16 I’m charging you before the life-giving God and before Christ, who took his stand before Pontius Pilate and didn’t give an inch: Keep this command to the letter, and don’t slack off. Our Master, Jesus Christ, is on his way. He’ll show up right on time, his arrival guaranteed by the Blessed and Undisputed Ruler, High King, High God. He’s the only one death can’t touch, his light so bright no one can get close. He’s never been seen by human eyes—human eyes can’t take him in! Honor to him, and eternal rule! Oh, yes.
17-19 Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.

The human story has not changed a lot over the course of history. Comfort is sought over being content with the basics of life. Money is perceived to bring happiness. Status is a prized possession.

While Paul speaks how money can corrupt when it is misused or abused, it is actually a symptom of a larger issue within our history. That issue is a story that is threaded by the fabric of fear – the fear of not having enough, the fear of not being enough, and the fear of not being in control. Fear deceives us to trust ourselves more than God. Fear tells us we need to take care of ourselves first and foremost. And Paul wants Timothy to flip the script. “Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy” (verse 11).

Paul wants Timothy to remember that the trail Jesus is blazing ahead of him is solid ground. If we blaze our own trail it is paved with idolatry because human nature puts other things before God. But the trail Jesus is blazing has a foundation laid with God’s generosity and it is a worthy path for us to follow. The most basic level of God’s generosity is revealed through love. “And we know love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The psalmist reveals God’s generous love in that God is our Helper and hope, the Maker of heaven and earth, and the Keeper and Giver of faith (Psalm 146: 5-6). God shows what love looks like in executing justice to the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, setting the prisoner free, opening the eyes of the blind, and lifting up those who are bowed down – particularly the stranger, the orphan, the widow (Psalm 146: 7-9).

God’s generous love stands beside us and pushes against that fear of not having enough. God’s generous love gives us identity and purpose and reminds us that as a child of God we are loved. We are already enough. God’s generous love meets us where we are and provides our every need to affirm that God is still in control and is worthy to be trusted.

I need that reminder this week because we live in a world with a lot of fear. There are additional pressures as tensions rise across our country and throughout the world. The political and racial tensions are high as distrust and fear are tearing apart the unity in our communities. We ask ourselves how are we to faithfully respond?

There are additional concerns for our children as life unfolds in real time on cell phones and social media. The interwebs have become places of virtual violence with graphic images and words that attack rather than build up. We wonder how to guide our children to make right choices with digital communication. We have to look at ourselves and how we are modeling that too.

There are additional questions as we all consider what kind of world do we want to live in? We pray for the brokenness of our world where it seems that corruption, mistrust and fear reign higher than God’s ways. Some days it leaves us all feeling quite small and helpless. And we really wonder how is God leading us to take the next right step?

The writer of Hebrews speaks loudly to me this week. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one not therefore abandon that confidence of yours, it brings a great reward. For you need endurance so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” (Hebrews 10: 23-25, 35-36).

Today it is imperative for the twenty-first century disciple to follow that trail Jesus is blazing for it is marked with God’s will. Scripture shows us the heart of God’s will is generosity. God’s generosity is bold. In the Greek, that word ‘generosity’ holds a powerful image of being ready to reach out with open hands. Those hands search for ways to give an offering of intrinsic good. They reach out with God’s purposes in mind. Clenched fists learn to be open for the sake of creating a beloved community. This is how the hands of our Creator are shaping us to be as disciples.

I am always amazed how children and youth lead us in life lessons. Our young ones teach us rich gems of wisdom.

Just over a month ago a five year old boy was pulled from a demolished building in Allepo, Syria – a place marred by civil war. His name is Omran Daqneesh and his picture caused the world to sit with bated breath. Omran sat in an ambulance covered in grey dust and blood, sitting in silence and shock, as chaos churned around him.

And just a few days ago a six year old boy named Alex from New York wrote the most generous words to our president. Alex’s wisdom shines bright hope in our broken world.

Dear President Obama,

Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]?

Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.

Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!

In a world where money deceives, wars rage, politics attack, and racial tensions rise – just imagine the healing and unity that could come about if we all modeled Alex’s generosity. And yet Alex’s vision of generosity is already among us but we must open our eyes to see it. We must commit ourselves to open our hands and hearts to tirelessly work for it.

Generosity is a virtue God cultivates within us in order to join God in this holy work of reconciling the world. It is necessary for us to be united in generosity to follow Jesus’ call.

Generosity is as simple as giving someone different than you a hand shake, a hug, or even a warm welcome to recognize our common humanity. It is an act of humility that sacrifices something of self for the sake of including and connecting others to the whole. Generosity chooses to be kind instead of insisting to be right or prideful. This virtue of a disciple offers gifts to build God’s kingdom with our financial treasures, our time, our actions, and our words. Generosity flips the script from focusing on what benefits us to what benefits the whole of God’s coming kingdom.

We know what God’s generosity looks like through God’s Word, through Christ’s sacrificial love, and through examples like Alex. As we continue to learn about generosity we are called to go and do likewise. We are to do good, to be rich in good works, and be ready to share. Generosity empowers us to grasp the truest essence of life.

We feel a sense of God’s pleasure and purpose in life when we share the riches of God’s kingdom with others. In these difficult times that we are experiencing consider how God’s Spirit may be nudging you and me to be a little more generous.

Send a card to someone going through a difficult time and include a Bible verse of encouragement. Schedule a coffee date with someone who shares a different political perspective and commit to listen to one another without judgment but to gain new insights on shared concerns. Plan to meet someone for lunch of a different ethnicity or race to listen to their perspective on life in this tense time. Say thank you to a woman or man in uniform who serves our community. Help your children and grandchildren to reflect on generosity. Ask them who they helped at school or on the playground. Prayerfully consider how you might share your resources to partner with God in ministry here and beyond.

May we take the next steps of a disciple to go after God and provoke one another to love and good deeds. May the Spirit open our hands and hearts to practice extravagant generosity.

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Prayer

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Prayer"
Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1; 1Timothy 2: 1-7 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’
(‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’)
‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
- Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all —this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
- 1 Timothy 2: 1-7

I remember the first time I began to learn about prayer. I was thirty years old and sitting in my first adult Bible study. The group was made of women from a variety of denominations, ages, and stages of life. These women were a wellspring of faith to learn from. The leader had such a presence of grace and wisdom about her. She was a person that anyone would quickly recognize as having those deep roots of faith. She would always reserve the last twenty or thirty minutes of our time together for prayer. The more the relationships and trust grew, the more the women would share about seeing God in the everyday as well as asking for God’s guidance in specific situations for specific people and themselves.

After the requests were made, the leader always led us in a time to quietly rest in God’s presence. And slowly, one by one, random voices would raise specific prayers for each woman by name and any situation mentioned. Some prayers were very short and simple. Some weaved their prayers with the words of Scripture from our study. Some prayed in silence because it was too much to say the words out loud (that was me back then). But listening to those women pray taught me so much. They gave me a foundation to keep building upon. Those women taught me that prayer is a centering source in the well of God’s grace.

Paul says in his first letter to Timothy that the goal of prayer is a centering one. Prayer empowers us to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2). Prayer is a regular pause that composes our hearts and minds to free us from outward distractions. Prayer provides a sense of peace as we experience stillness and steadiness due to God calming our inner chaos of life. A life of prayer cultivates godliness as we develop an inner response to a life of faith. A life of prayer shapes our dignity – our moral and spiritual character - as others see outer evidence of God at work in us.

This mark of being a disciple inspires others and it reveals that God’s grace is creating something remarkable in you and me. The remarkable thing is a heart that is on fire for God.

John Calvin once drew a picture of the essence of faith. It was a hand with a burning heart in the center of the palm. His words describing this spiritual tattoo, if you will, were, “My heart I give to you, O God, promptly and sincerely.” Calvin had an urgent gratitude to draw near to God daily in prayer for God is the ultimate source of life in which we plug ourselves into. For Calvin it was imperative to create space for God to breathe new life into the embers of our faith to fan the fire and our passion to live for God.

One day last week I craved a window of time to just be quiet and still. Each morning in my devotional time I play some instrumental music on Pandora (online music website) as I read that day’s devotional entry and the accompanying Scriptures. Just as I opened my book, “Be Thou My Vision” played. It was a real God moment as I felt compelled to just close my eyes to be still and quiet. As the words came to my mind it felt like God’s Spirit was praying those very lyrics over me. When the song finished I read the devotion’s Scripture, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

What comforting words for a disciple. And then the previous verse caught my eye. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). As I sat in the stillness of contemplating God’s Word, the Spirit was reminding to lean into a deeper trust of the Rabbi and what he is teaching us. That trust composes us so that we are not overwhelmed by the chaos. That trust guards our hearts from being troubled as we are steadied by God’s strength. To be regularly quiet in God’s presence allows us to follow Jesus one step at a time and one prayer at a time so that God may be our vision.

Jesus taught the disciples to follow God’s vision of prayer by his example and word. Jesus would retreat often from the daily grind to center himself in the well of God’s grace (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16; 6:12). Jesus prayed with gratitude and deep trust that God is always ready to listen and work in our lives in order that God’s glory would be revealed (John 11: 41-42). Jesus advised to never pray for show but to create a space set apart to connect with God (Matthew 6: 5-6). Jesus taught the importance of interceding for people and situations that break God’s heart (Matthew 25:31-40). Jesus urged the disciples to pray for and about obstructions to God’s kingdom, be it for strained relationships needing forgiveness (Mark 11:25) or those who persecute Christ followers (Matthew 5:44). Jesus knew that apart from God we can do nothing therefore a disciple must abide in God daily to lead a fruitful life (John 15:5).

Paul shares what a fruitful prayer life looks like in the steps of a disciple. He raises five marks for us to tap into.

1. Make room for the Holy Spirit to open your heart in gratitude. As you enter God’s presence be spiritually still. Do not talk. Just listen. Allow God’s Spirit to slowly open your heart and mind to what you are grateful for. Even on the worst day there will always be some blessing, some glimpse of God’s faithfulness that we might tell God, “Thank you.”

2. Pray for those close to you. Share with God your joys and concerns for your family, friends, and community. We are connected in a web of relationships. Pray for the connections that need nurturing. Pray for the relationships that are strained, conflicted, and need to be mended by forgiveness. Pray for the needs of your loved ones and your beloved community. These prayers are our supplications as we ask God to supply these physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs as they fall in line with God’s vision of kingdom living.

3. Pray for those in authority and leadership. Scripture urges us to pray for our leaders in high positions. That includes our President, military, our senators, our House Representatives, governor, mayor, and council men and women. We pray for our leaders who help our local community - our sheriff, police and fire departments. We pray for school teachers as they open our children to imagine and think critically. And we pray for our spiritual leaders – our councils and elders and ministers who walk with us in faith to help God transform the world.

4. Pray for the weak. God’s Word guides us to become more spiritually aware to what breaks God’s heart. Just as Jeremiah wept for his people who were oppressed, it is right for us to lament and pray for our sisters and brothers who are unable to protect themselves – those who are threatened by war and violence, those who have lost hope because of injustice, those who are sick, mentally ill, poor, and homeless. These prayers are global and communal. They are our prayers of intercession as we ask God to intercede. We not only pray and trust that God is already present in these hard places of life. We also pray and listen for God to direct us in how we might be the body of Christ and work with God to bring justice, peace, healing, and love.

5. Pray for yourself. I think sometimes this is the hardest prayer to lift to God. As the Holy Spirit opens and touches the quiet places of our hearts, it is challenging to allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable with God. You might ask, ‘If God knows everything, do I really need to talk with God about this or that situation in my life? I don’t know if I can say that out loud to God.’ The answer is yes. We should tell God everything. God’s greatest desire is to have an intimate relationship with you and me. And while it takes some time to build enough trust to lay our hearts bare to anyone, God is worthy.

So tell God about your day – your personal joys and your worries. Tell God what is weighing on you, what you are angry and bitter about in your life, and what you are wrestling with. Tell God your frustrations and complaints. God can handle it all. Give it to God in prayer and then take the time to listen.

As you listen for God pay attention to the whispers of the Spirit. God speaks to us in the contemplation of Scripture as we glean new insights. God speaks to us through our emotions, through conversations with others, and out in the wonders of creation. Pay attention to the spiritual nudges as God seeks to guide us in godliness and dignity.

Prayer is an ongoing conversation with God. It is also a two-way street for us to both listen and talk with God. As we think about those five marks of a rich and balanced prayer life, it is not about changing God’s mind or changing situations or changing the people we are praying for. Prayer changes us. It allows our spirits to be shaped as we ask God to be our vision, our best thought, our strength, and the light in our life.

As you reflect upon your own prayer life consider the 5 marks of prayer. Which one(s) seem out of balance? How might your feed your spiritual appetite so that it is more balanced and satisfying?

As you think about your prayer life where are you most comfortable connecting to God? You may have a special room in the house or in a tranquil garden where you settle in and quiet yourself in prayer. Maybe your spiritual house is on the move as you run or walk and talk with God as an old friend. You might enter God's presence when you're driving alone in the car as you let Jesus take the wheel. You might cultivate prayer while doing tasks in the kitchen, home, or yard. Prayer is not always about being physically still. Prayer is holy work as we strive to communicate with God in meaningful ways. Just as we make communication a priority in any significant relationship, we do so with God too.

As you and I take the next steps of a disciple consider how you might strengthen this discipline of prayer. Explore different ways to contemplate the mystery of being in God’s presence to grow in relationship with our Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Prayer is a centering source for us to experience the well of God’s grace in the joys, challenges, and broken hallelujahs of life. So come to the well often to drink this life giving water and rekindle your passion for God.

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Live by Example PRAYER GUIDE

Steps of a Disciple: Live by Example (Luke 15: 1-10; 1Timothy 1: 12-17)

As we seek to grow in the steps of a disciple, read through the biblical texts and pray through one question each day.

Luke 15: 1-10; 1Timothy 1: 12-17

1. This week pray for the Spirit to open your eyes to a deeper awareness of our connections to the body of Christ.

2. Remember who you see on a regular basis at church. Pray for them.

3. Consider who you have not seen in a while. Pray about someone who may be losing a connection with the body of Christ because of an outstanding circumstance.

4. Pray for those who are lonely or and have fallen on hard times. How might God be encouraging you to reach out to them with genuine care?

5. Ask God to help you widen the circle of Christ’s grace and compassion. Who might you invite to Van Wyck Presbyterian Church to grow in relationship with God and community?