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Called to Fail for God

What do we make of our mistakes?

by Roger Paynter

   I want to suggest today that we are called to be stewards of our failures and mistakes, more than being consumed with the fact that we made them in the first place.

   The issue is not our innocence, it’s not even our guilt. The issue with which we must deal, indeed, with which we do deal, is not innocence or guilt…but rather:  What we do with our mistakes and how we manage our failures. What do we make of our failures?

   It’s pretty hard to hear the word “steward” and not immediately associate it with the church stewardship campaign. We “rightly” remind ourselves that the way we manage our money in God’s eyes is critical to our growth in faith, and we are to be stewards of what we have been given. Likewise, we are also reminded about being stewards of our gifts and stewards of our time.  All true!

   But I think the Bible insists on a much broader usage…I think the Bible insists that we are stewards of all of life itself, every part of life, every experience of life, every dimension of life. That life is “on loan” and we are appointed to be “caretakers” of this life that we have been given…even more…I think scripture suggests that HOW we manage this gift of life is the very critical basis on the issue of how we will be judged or how we are being judged.

   So, did you get a little “chill” when I used the word “judged”? It’s not one we use around here very often! Maybe that’s too bad because it’s a word that is filled with all kinds of negative images of course. We think of that Final Day when we are called to stand before the High Court of the Almighty to answer for all of our sins of every day.

   But I think Judgment Day is a bit of a “caricature”…I think, instead, that judgment IS an important concept, but I think it is used more in scripture as a word that means “discernment.”

   The judgment of God is more like a series of quizzes or a “course in wisdom” than it is a “one-shot”, “make it or break it” exam, in which you either get into graduate school or you don’t. As John Claypool once wrote, it’s more like the judging that’s done at a flower show than a “penalty” image that is rendered in a court room. Judgment in scripture happens consequentially, sequentially, and not so much finally.

   I repeat:  we are called to be stewards of our failures and mistakes, more than being consumed with the fact that we made them in the first place.

   The judgment is, “What do we do with what has happened to us?” That’s the process of discernment for growth. If the Bible understands stewardship as involving all of life, then surely we are to be stewards of our mistakes and failures as well.

   Even more, I want to suggest that those mistakes and failures can be sacramental for us. That is, rather than something to be hidden or denied or repressed or “covered up” or lied about…they can become instead “vehicles of grace”, which is what a sacrament is…a means by which we encounter the graciousness of God.

   Carlyle Marney is a former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas. Look at what he had to say on “innocence.” “It’s too late to worry about innocence. We can’t pretend to innocence. None of us is innocent. That’s never been the true issue, though we certainly have sought to hide behind a kind of trumped-up, religiously sticky aire of innocence that never existed anyway.”

   The issue is not our innocence, it’s not even our guilt, the issue with which we must deal, indeed, with which we do deal, is not innocence or guilt…but rather…what we do with our mistakes and how we manage our failures. What do we make of our failures?

   That, I would suggest, is why repentance is such a persistent and recurring theme in scripture. After all, what IS repentance if it is not a reappraisal of our mistakes, in order to therefore go forward? The very word, “repent” simply means “to turn” and that implies what? A new direction!!! And that means that we have to move on from where we have been, rather than to remain stuck in one place, which is what we so often do.

   In the Inferno, Dante says that “Hell is the place where we are stuck…hell is being stuck.” Do you know that feeling of being stuck? We know that feeling! But here is what Dante also says, “The minute we recognize that we are stuck, we are not.” The minute we recognize that we are no longer stuck, we begin to make the tiniest movement in our soul which is what repentance is all about.

   So here’s a good definition of repentance: repentance is beginning to make movement out of our own personal hell. Thus, if we get absorbed in a misdirection, or a mistake or a very grievous sin…if we hang on to it with all the strength that guilt will most certainly give us, then we are neither repenting nor living…we are stuck. We are instead, dying…drowning in our own failures…doomed, probably, to repeat them over and over and over again as we continually beat ourselves up for having made them in the first place. I see this time and again in people I talk with…it’s as if people need to continue destructive patterns of living in order to confirm to themselves that they are, indeed, as lousy as they truly think they are. “SEE. See this is who I am. I’m the kind of person who does this kind of stupid thing!”

   I am not saying that repentance isn’t being sorry for what we’ve done…it does mean that…it’s just that it is so much more than that. Genuine repentance is an energizing force…it frees us to move on, no matter how much others want to continue to punish us…it allows us to start fresh. It is about “feeling sorry”…about being genuinely remorseful. I think our culture has a very difficult time being remorseful.

   It is about absorbing the depths of your failure, of your action, of your sin, but it is far, far more than just remorse…or feeling sorry. It is about owning the failure, the sin, the mistake in a way that it becomes a great teacher to us.  For, if we are willing to look at it honestly in the eye…if we are willing to truly embrace the fact that we EACH have a shadow side…if we own that this shadow truly belongs to each of us (which means, to acknowledge what Marney is saying, “None of us is innocent”)…if we see this as one piece, but ONLY one piece of news about who we are…then we will make this amazing discovery.

   Here’s the discovery: that each failure, each mistake, each sin contains within it, the very real possibility of becoming a vehicle of grace to our lives…of leading us into the empowering presence of God who re-creates everyday.

   This is still the Epiphany season and the text is always the story of the Wise Men and I think that story ends with one of the most hopeful lines in all of scripture… “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned home by another way.”

   Indeed, this is what true repentance promises…that, having encountered Christ, we go home by another way. We no longer take the same old road…the one that we have traveled on for so very, very long…we no longer travel the one that has grown so monotonous to us that we no longer truly “see” what is around us, but we just pass the miles and pass the days and pass the hours.

   Repentance is about an energizing experience of the Spirit that takes us on a different road. It’s about allowing that attitude or that event that demanded repentance, to become now a great guide. Repentance is about allowing room enough, space enough, time enough that we have the opportunity to become a steward of our failure. That is, one who begins to manage it differently.

   The three passages that we read today are all about Call…but more than that, they are all about people who were failures. Peter, Petros, the Rock, who blusters and pontificates and becomes a coward and betrayer. Paul, who writes so beautifully at times and with such confidence, also writes, “Oh, those things I know not to do, I do…and those things I know to do, I do not do…oh, wretched man that I am.” I read that text every January 1st! And the main one, from Isaiah contains that poignant line for this day… “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” I wonder, was he young when he wrote that? Was he just experiencing the first harsh realities of life? Or, more likely, was he older, looking back now on a lifetime of work and wondering aloud, “What good did I do with my life? What difference did my life make? Has my life really counted?”

   The words that come up in my mind are despair…or vanity…or frustration…or failure…what teacher hasn’t felt that? What disciple of Jesus hasn’t said, “I can’t see that this discipleship thing really makes any difference…I can’t see that the church makes any difference…I try to be ethical in my business dealings and I get stabbed in the back.” I have labored in vain…I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. What parent doesn’t ache when a child goes far astray from our values? I have labored in vain…I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. What person, downsized by a corporation, or cut out by a hostile takeover…or eliminated by the greed of the owners, doesn’t know the emotional content of Isaiah’s words when he writes, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”

   Failure, frustration, the temptation to despair, our own mistakes, what life throws at us…these are all harsh realities of living and they tempt us to cynicism or detachment or perpetual anger. Somehow, we think those are the responses that will keep us from being hurt in the future…which is exactly opposite of what is true. Those are the responses that harden our soul and keep us always hurting. Yet, I hope you heard what else I read; the prophet does not leave it there. He begins with the Lament, but he pushes on to a great affirmation. I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity. Yet, yet, surely my cause is with the Lord who remains with me. And the Lord says to him, from that perspective you will shine.

   Doesn’t it amaze you that all the writers of the New Testament retain all the stories of failure when they put together the New Testament and the story of Jesus and the story of the church? Especially about Peter and Paul, the main two guys outside of Jesus? Here they are in all their raw humanity…they could have edited all this out…but everything is in there…it’s just there! It’s like they were watching TMZ television…there it is!! Peter, having publicly denied Jesus…how did that get in the story, and in several different places? Yet, Jesus saying to him, “Take care of  my sheep.” And  Paul, 

struggling and struggling and struggling and finally says, “What I’ve learned is, it’s only when I’m weak that I discover the strength of God.”

   Out of frustration for Isaiah comes trust. Out of weakness for Paul, comes strength. Out of failure for Peter, comes mercy. They are all stewards of what they inflicted upon themselves and what life inflicted upon them. They allowed their darkest experiences to become a “Means to mercy”, to become a sacramental gift…offering all of it, ALL of it, to the very One who creates mercy and new life…even Jesus Christ.

   Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist tells the story of an Egyptian tomb that was opened and inside was found a portion of a tree. Imbedded in the wood of that tree was a tiny seed. Out of curiosity, the scientist took the seed and planted it and after 3000 years of being in that tomb, embedded in that wood, the seed grew and became a substantial tree. It had missed its chance to grow in Ancient Egypt …but given another chance, the strength of life buried within it, with the help of someone else, caused it to blossom.

   In every sin…in every loss…in every grief…in every disappointment…in every failure…in every mistake…in every difficult moment of life, there lies deeply embedded in that event the seed of hope…and it waits to be planted, watered by the mercy of Christ, leading to the graciousness of new life.

Thanks be to God for the gift of repentance.

Thanks be to God for the sacrament of failure.

Thanks be to God for the nurturing power of mercy.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Roger Paynter preached this sermon to the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas on January 10, 2010. The scripture texts for this sermon are I Cor. 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, Matthew 2:12, and Isaiah 49:1-7. Dr. Paynter has served FBC Austin for more than 16 years. You are warmly invited to worship with the church whenever you are in the area, and you can hear Dr. Paynter preach anytime on the church web site: www.fbcaustin.org. Just select Media and download a sermon.

Control Myth

God is in control, but God is not controlling.

by Peter James

We like to be in control. We want to be masters of our fate and captains of our destiny. Go ahead–just try to pry the remote control from our hands.

We like to control our environment. Our language gives us away. We talk about mind control, birth control, pest control, gun control. If we can control our environment and the people in that environment, nothing can happen unless we want it to happen.

The aftermath of hurricane Isabel clogged the gutters of my house, which resulted in water in the basement. I determined to take matters into my own hands, so I borrowed my neighbor’s extension ladder to unclog the gutters. As I was about to climb the ladder to the second floor gutters, Chris and I engaged in a spirited discussion. She wanted to hire someone to unclog the gutters, while I insisted on doing it myself. Could it have been a control issue?

Our family cat is named Eve, which is most appropriate, given that today’s lesson is from Genesis. Eve is an affectionate cat, on her terms, of course. She enjoyed having the family around for the summer months. Now that our kids are away at school, Eve is annoyed there is no one at home during the day to give her the attention she has come to expect. So Eve has decided to express her displeasure. When she sees Chris and me preparing for work in the morning, she foregoes her litter box and leaves deposits, shall we say, on the living room floor, in the most conspicuous area of the room. My veterinarian tells me this is normal cat behavior. Intuition tells me Eve wants total control of our household.

Do you ever battle over the thermostat in your home? Perhaps it’s not merely about room temperature, perhaps it’s also a control issue.

You decide to dine out one evening. Some people not only want to dictate the choice of restaurant, but also which table you will occupy, not to mention your choice of appetizer.

One dictionary definition of control is a person who exerts an excessive or dominating influence over someone else. Using contemporary jargon, we would say some people are control freaks. Some people have an incessant need to be in charge. They cannot let go.

There is a hair product on the market called "Control Freak Shampoo." Bed Head Products advertises its shampoo with the line, "Forget the frizz, stomp the curl, control your freakin’ hair."

I suspect dictators, cult leaders and mob bosses are not the only ones who qualify as control freaks. Many of us are obsessive about our need for control.

Dr. Les Parrot is professor of Clinical Psychology at Seattle Pacific University, and a self- confessed control freak. In his book Control Freak, Parrott speaks about anxiety as the fuel that powers the engine of control. Our fear of failure in raising well-adjusted children leads to excessive control. Our fear of failure in the workplace can generate a dominating personality with coworkers.

Perhaps I am making too much of people who are control freaks. Some of us, given our temperaments, are far more susceptible to being controlled. We let other people control us. You may decide it’s easier in the short run to allow people to control us than it is to challenge their authority.

Let me insert an important qualifier here. Some measure of control is desirable in our lives. One of the fruits of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament is the virtue of self-control (Galatians 5:23). There is no inherent virtue in being out of control. We need some measure of self-control over our emotions, finances and use of time. Problems surface when we become obsessive and compulsive about our need for control.

The book of Genesis is one of the most misunderstood books in antiquity. It is much maligned these days from radical feminists who take issue with the assertion that Eve is fashioned from Adam’s rib, which to them implies subordination. We don’t have time to explore this issue thoroughly, but I commend what a 12th century priest, Peter Lombard, said on this subject. "Eve is taken, not from Adam’s feet, to be his slave, nor from his head to be his Lord, but from his side, to be his partner." Man and woman are created side-by-side, as partners in community and family.

Another group of people who dismiss Genesis are strict evolutionists who scoff at the seven-day or seven-epic timetable of creation. In the debate over creation-evolution, we are missing the point entirely. The focus of Genesis is not how God made the world. If the point was to show how God made the world, Genesis would have been written in a far different manner. How God made the world is not Genesis’ central concern. The primary interest of Genesis is why God made the world. We are created to reflect God’s image and likeness. We are made to live in intimate relationship with God our Creator.

Two Sundays ago, I preached from this creation story. Our focus in Genesis 2 was two representative trees God planted in the Garden of Eden, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I asked the question, "Why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden if He didn’t want us to eat from it?"

As I said that Sunday, God established one tree off limits to remind us that we are creatures. God drew a line in the sand, telling us that we can be a lot of things in this world, but being the Creator is not one of them.

God placed two trees in the garden to demonstrate that Adam, Eve and their progeny are free persons. We can choose to eat from the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One gives life, while the other brings death, which in the Bible is separation from God.

In Genesis 3, the serpent suggests to Eve, "You will not die [when you eat this forbidden fruit], you will become like God." It’s a tempting thought to be like God. So Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and discover, to their everlasting horror, that they do not become Godlike. They become painfully aware of their own humanity. For the first time, they become ashamed of their nakedness and attempt to hide from each other and God.

Genesis affirms God’s sovereignty. We are not in control. If last weekend taught us anything, it’s the vivid reminder that we are not in control of our environment. Despite all our sophisticated technology, we were rather small and puny in the face of hurricane Isabel. I don’t believe for a moment God sent this hurricane to show us who’s boss, but let nature be our teacher here. We are not really in control. We just think we’re in control.

God is in control. Now, let’s be perfectly clear, God is not controlling. God does not control our every move. God doesn’t have control issues. God’s control produces guidance and direction for our lives.

Why do we resist obeying God, if obedience produces abundant living? Perhaps we don’t like being told what to do. We prize our autonomy.

In truth, we don’t control much of anything. There is only the illusion of control. There was a time in my life when I thought I controlled my health. I exercised regularly, ate the right foods and got enough sleep. I felt in control. Then, earlier this year, as I shared with you, I had a bout with skin cancer. I learned real fast I am not in control of my life.

There was a time in my life when I thought I controlled my children. I determined what time they awoke for school and when they would go to bed. As their father, my job was to help guide them to make appropriate choices. Now that one is in college in Pennsylvania and the other is in campus ministry in Italy, I know that I don’t really control my kids. There is only the illusion of control.

"I’m in control" is one of the most arrogant myths of a secular culture. There is no control, only the illusion of control.

Faith is letting go of this need to control other people and situations. Faith is entrusting our lives to God to guide and direct us in ways that are best for us. God does not control every little facet of our lives. In reality, God gives our lives back to us, guiding and directing us in choices we make with our lives.

A man was hiking up a mountain. After a long climb, he was almost to the top, when he came to a ridge that stood in the way of reaching the summit. As he attempted to navigate this ridge, his foot gave way and he began to fall. He reached out to grab hold of a branch that was growing out of the side of the mountain, which broke his fall. There he was, hands gripped around this flimsy branch, holding on for dear life. What a horrifying predicament, his body dangling in space, several hundred feet above the ground, trying to keep himself from falling. He could not bear to look down, it was just too frightening. When he looked up, he couldn’t see over the ridge, yet he knew he must be close enough to the top of the mountain for anyone who might be there to hear him. So he yelled out, "Anyone up there? Help! Help! Please, help me. Please, anyone… help me! Is there anyone up there?!"

Then he heard a voice, "I am here!" Desperate, the man answered, "Who are you…can you help me?" The voice came back, "I am God. Let go of the branch so I can help you." There was a moment of silence, then the man cried out, "Is there anyone else up there?"

It’s not easy to let go of control. There is something in us that fiercely desires to maintain control over our lives.

We’ve got to let go and loosen our grip. What happens when you grip a baseball bat or golf club too tightly? Instead of gaining control, you actually lose control. The proper technique is to exert some control, but not too much control. We hold a club or racket, not with a clenched fist, but with a relaxed grip. It’s possible to hold onto something so tight that we squeeze the very life out of it.

Our youth choir is coming forward to sing the song, "God is working. God is working even now. Though we often don’t know just how, God is working. Though you cannot see and you can’t quite understand, remember God is still in control. God is working even now."

Where do you need to relinquish control? Is it your obsessive need to control other people or the circumstances in your life? We’re not really in control, there is only the illusion of control. Stop trying to control everything. Loosen your grip. Let go and let God.

Reverend Peter G. James is the senior pastor of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is based on Genesis 3. Visit their web site for more inspirational thoughts: www.viennapres.org

What are Friends For? 

"When Jesus saw their faith...." 

by Dean K. Thompson

As we read the beginning chapter of Mark's gospel, we discover that Jesus experiences an initial surge of overwhelming popularity. Someone has called this "the Galilean spring."1 It is short-lived, however. Quickly, Jesus encounters a rapid-fire series of controversies. Suddenly, we hear criticism after criticism after criticism regarding Sabbath rules, fasting, eating with sinners, forgiving sins, and blasphemy of all things. Indeed, in the legalistic religious culture of Jesus' day, blasphemy is at the top of the list of felonies, and this is the ultimate rub.

In Mark’s gospel we find the story of the four friends letting down their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus. We hear Jesus tell the paralytic "your sins are forgiven." Then, he heals the immobilized man. And what amazes the crowd is the healing. "We have never seen anything like this," they gush.

But what amazes the ultra-legalistic religious observers is the alleged blasphemy. I mean, there are lots of healers canvassing the region, but only God has the power and authority to forgive sins. We’re talking blasphemy!

Moreover, in this one dynamic encounter with the nameless paralytic who gets by with a little help from his friends, Jesus is sensitively, even miraculously, putting two aspects of life back together, two aspects of life that have been tragically and foolishly separated: the spiritual condition of the person and the physical condition of the person.

This is totally unexpected by all who observe Jesus' encounter with the paralytic. That is, folks are quite unready for Jesus' revolutionary theology ¾ for Jesus' revolutionary manner of forgiving and healing with, yes, Godlike authority. To be sure, Mark's theology in this passage breaks up all predictable theology. Thus, Mark wants to help us to break up the soil of our own predictable theology.

Many of you remember Mark’s story from your own childhood Sunday School days. I once did a finger painting of this scene in Vacation Bible School. A "mobile unit," comprised of four caring friends, transports an immobilized friend, as someone has described, "into the transforming presence and healing power of Christ."2 The crowd is so thick, the four friends dig a hole. They dig a hole in the roof and lower their comrade through the hole and into the presence and power of Jesus.

Then, amazingly, Mark records these words about the incident: "When Jesus saw their faith," he forgave the paralytic and healed him. Their faith, not necessarily the paralyzed man's own faith; their faith prompted the forgiveness and the miracle of new life and new health.

Why? Because we who follow Jesus are supposed to carry other people who can't follow on their own. Indeed, we who follow Jesus are meant even to believe for other people who can't believe or won't believe or are too broken down to believe. I mean, carrying others and even believing for others is a curious part of what it means to follow Jesus as disciples.

No, today we're not dealing with the paralytic's faith. Today, we're dealing with the faith of the paralytic's friends. As my own friend Bob Dunham at the University Presbyterian Church at Chapel Hill reminds us, "We all know persons whose quiet yet substantial witness to their faith has had a profound impact on the lives of those around them." Dunham goes on to say that we, all of us, have friends who are paralyzed in many other ways.3

So, after the Sunday service, the man mumbled these words to me at the door. "Pastor, I’ve lost my faith. I can’t say the creed anymore." "Don’t quit showing up," I said. "We’ll say it for you." "All right," he said. "All right, then."

I once had a parishioner back in Pasadena, California. He was a beloved Caltech professor, a world-class astronomer who lay dying of AIDS. His wonderful family had included several Presbyterian missionaries to China. Until the sad time came when he could no longer be moved from the house, he would sit in his car, there in the Hollywood Hills with his parents, and listen to our Sunday morning worship service on the radio. He couldn't pick it up inside the house.

When they learned of his illness, his 88-year-old mother and 92-year-old father came out to Pasadena from Rochester, Minnesota, and nursed him heroically until he died. And, before he died, he gave me permission to share his story.

"What do you believe?" he asked me. "Tell me what you believe," he urged me, as he lay dying.

Among other things, I shared this confession. "I believe in the resurrection of the person to everlasting life with Christ and God's people beyond death. I believe that death and evil do not have the last say. I believe that life and love have the last say. I believe in the great company of heaven. I believe that to know God now is to know God forever. I believe that we come from God. I believe that we are with God in this life. And I believe that we go to God when we die; and all is well. I believe that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms,’" I confessed to Alan.

"Good God, I wish I could believe that," he said. "But I am so weak. I am just too weak to believe," he told me.

"I'll tell you what," I said. "I'm strong right now. I'm real strong right now. Lean on my belief. Let my belief carry you. I'll believe for you."

"Yes," he said. "Yes."

A couple of years later, a friend of mine went through the horror of seeing her own small child hit and killed by an automobile. I baptized that precious little boy before the family moved to New Hampshire. Well, the grieving mother telephoned me, and she told me that she had lost her faith and she didn’t know what to do about it. She had lost her faith, maybe forever.

And, suddenly, I found myself telling her the story of my friend, Alan the astronomer, the dying AIDS patient. And when I got to the place where I responded to his doubt and unbelief by saying, "I’m strong right now. . . Lean on my belief. . . I’ll believe for you," she said: "Yes. Believe for me too. Please believe for me."

"I will," I said. "I will, until you get your strength back. I will until you develop scar tissue on the gaping wound in your heart."

Yes, "when Jesus saw their faith," he forgave the paralytic and healed him. Yes, sometimes the only way we can possibly make it is through the love, care and support of others who carry us, touch us, even catch us, and lift us to Christ in prayer and in actions.

When Jesus saw their faith. Listen to my friend Bob. Listen to his testimony about this strange faith phenomenon from Mark’s gospel. "I had a conversation last spring with my mother-in-law, Ruby, as she was beginning to slide more dramatically into the morass of Alzheimer’s. She had not been sleeping well, was worn out, and so the conversation was disconnected in many ways, and it was hard to say for whom it was more difficult. In those days she was remembering her childhood, and she thought I was her brother. She kept saying the same thing over and over again; it was 'Groundhog Day' without the humor. Sensing Ruby's weariness after a while, I took her by the hand. 'Maybe we could have a prayer together,' I said. And she looked at me plaintively and said, 'I'd like that, but I don't remember how to do it.' And so I said, 'Then how about if I do it for both of us?' And as I prayed, she drifted off to sleep. Healing, in the sense of recovery of mind and identity, does not seem to be in the cards for Ruby. Yet, once delivered into the presence of Christ, who is to know when healing takes place or how? Annie Dillard once said, 'I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.' Sometimes, I suspect, that's the best we can do for others, too."4

Yes one day, two centuries ago, four strong believers carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus. And yes, as I look around myself, I see folks who are paralyzed in so many ways. Sooner or later, we, all of us, qualify as the living wounded. We all have wounds in our hearts.

And "when Jesus saw their faith," he forgave and healed the paralyzed one who had been carried to him by friends. Yes, today, with Mark of old, we praise God for faithful, caring friends and loved ones who have the strength and the good will to put their arms around us and to transport us into the presence and power of Jesus.

And yes, please look around you today, and in the coming days, weeks and years of your own life journey. Where do you fit in? And please, I beg you, never, never forget this miraculous message. Every single time you pass the communion elements to the person next to you, you are serving as a priest (a potential healer) to your neighbor.

And please, I beg you, never, never forget this miraculous message. Every time you say the creed, it is always quite possible that you are saying it also for the person standing next to you, the person whose faith is too weak to get the words out. This is what Randy Taylor used to call our "declaration of interdependence,"5 in other words, the priesthood of all believers.

Where do you fit into Mark 2:1-12? Well, I’ll tell you this. None of you in this seminary chapel, or reading this message, got here all on your own. Somebody paid for you to get where you are today. Somebody prayed for you to get here. You got here on somebody’s else’s back, on somebody else’s shoulders. You got here today because somebody once carried you to church. You got here today because somebody once prayed you to church. You got here today because somebody once told you about Jesus and carried you to Jesus. I tell you, no one comes to Christ without a witness!

Question. Who are those precious ones whose faith once lifted you up, and carried you to Jesus, and delivered you to this Seminary? Shut your eyes, and lift them up to the Lord in prayer, right now.

Question. By God’s grace, who are those precious ones you have carried and brought to Christ on the wings and prayers of your own strong faith? Lift them up to the Lord in prayer, right now.

Question. Who are those precious ones for whom your heart presently worries – those you would love to let lean on your own faith? Lift them up to Christ, right now.

And when Jesus sees your faith, he will heal, he will forgive, he will work miracles, he will perform the unimaginable – and he will stand with you, come hell or high water.

Yes, look around today and all the days of your pilgrimage. Where do you fit into this parable? Where do you fit in?

Are you carrying somebody? Are you being carried?


Lord, we believe. Please help our unbelief. Amen.

This inauguration message of the former president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, was delivered on September 10, 2004 by Reverend Dr. Dean K. Thompson. The message is based on Mark 2: 1-12. For more information on the seminary or Dr. Thompson, visit the seminary's web site: www.lpts.edu


1) I believe someone used this phrase at the annual meeting of The Moveable Feast in 1991.

2) See Douglas R. Loving, "Twice healed," Christian Century, February 2-9, 2000, 117.

3) Robert Dunham, in a paper at The Moveable Feast, Stony Point, New York, January 2000.

4) Ibid.

5) I think I first heard this phrase used by J. Randolph Taylor.


A Future and a Hope

"Pursue the healing of the city, for in its healing will be your healing."

by Johanna Bos


Sisters and brothers in Christ: Jeremiah has written a letter. That prophet of self-examination, of pained exclamations of loss and despair, speaks to a despairing community that has seen all it loved and believed in go down the drain of war and chaos. The disaster has happened, the doomsayers have been proven correct; they who had invested their hopes in the promises of God are in a shambles, they have been cut down and dragged off, their trust is broken, their city destroyed, their sanctuary a rubble; they have been driven out of the place in which they had invested so many of their dreams across the centuries.

Jeremiah’s grieving words have taken on a life of their own, when he cried "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? Oh, that my head were water and my eye a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night, for the ruin of my poor people." (8:22-9:1)

You and I, living here in safety (here Seminary, here in Louisville, here in our religious institutions), here in the U.S., are not in the same situation as the Judeans of the sixth century B.C.E. We do not face the same disarray, the same loss or deprivation, and only some of us have known the full reality of war as a conquered and brutalized nation. In some way we are looking in on something unknown. And yet, in spite of dissimilarities, we also find connections.

Though not in exile, not yet, not driven from our homes, not yet, we are as an institution, as a community, as a country in enough disarray and the rumors of war are not so far removed from us, as we remember the rubble of the World Trade Towers, as we stare daily at the names of the fallen in Iraq and see behind them the shadows of the unnamed, uncounted, victims of violence in the same region where ancient Judah was exiled. 

Jeremiah 29:1-14

1. And these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah, the prophet, sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile and to the priests and to the prophets and to all the people taken into exile by Nebuchadnetsar from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2.(This was) after the departure of King Jechoniah, and the queen-mother with the eunuchs, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, together with the craftsmen and the smiths, from Jerusalem. 3. He sent it by the hand of Elasah, the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah, the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah, the king of Judah, had sent to king Nebuchadnetsar of Babylon, to Babylon. 
It said:

4. So says the Holy One, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5. Build houses and take up residence, plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 6. Take wives and bear sons and daughters and take for your sons wives and give your daughters to husbands and they shall bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not dwindle. 7. And pursue the healing of the city where I exiled you and say prayers on its behalf to the Holy God, for in its healing will be your healing.

8. For so says the Holy One, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let them beguile you, your prophets and your diviners who are among you, and do not listen to their dreams that they dream. 9. For it is a lie they prophesy in my name; I did not send them.

10. For so says the Holy God: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed, will I visit you and I will fulfill to you my promise (lit. My words of goodness) to bring you back to this place. 11. For I myself know the plans that I plan about you, plans for healing and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12. And you will call me and walk and pray to me and I will listen to you. 13. And you will seek me and find, for you will pursue me with your whole heart. 14. And I will be found by you, says the Holy God, and I will bring you back from captivity and gather you from all the peoples and all the places where I banished you - says the Holy God - and I will bring you back to the place from where I exiled you.

Babylon has taken on echoes of its own in our time.

In our nation and our churches we face fierce disagreements over who is in and who is out, who will make it and who will be "left behind," who has the right interpretation of God’s word and who is wrong. There is clamor and disturbance and violence among us. In our own Seminary we have gone through a period of destabilization and trauma. Though not a group in exile, not as a country, or institutions, or a school, we are in disarray, engaged in a profound struggle for the soul of our most beloved institutions.

In the midst of the chaos and despair, voices raise themselves. Such voices are always ready to sound in the midst of the community; they are voices of sage advice, of counsel, of wisdom, of promise. They may say that "God is with us," that it may seem bad but we just need to stay the course and all will be well. The voices preach comfort and restoration, peace in disaster, victory in conflict, and in general the human community is usually ready to listen to them. They were ready to do so in Jeremiah’s day and we are ready to do so today. We are ready to have everything we mismanaged set to rights soon, preferably by a mysterious power we call God, preferably without much of our participation or input. We will stand on the promises, lean on the everlasting arms and all will be well.

So Jeremiah writes his letter and the text sets the letter first of all and emphatically in the context of its reality, the exile, the fact of it and the place of it. In the first seven verses the most often repeated word is that of "exile." Next, the place of exile, Babylon, gets strong emphasis and finally the place they have come from, Jerusalem. The first lines have as last word either Babylon or Jerusalem and reiterate the sequence "from Jerusalem to Babylon." The echoes of "exile, exile, exile resound through this introduction – "from Jerusalem to Babylon, Babylon, Babylon." This is the reality that the exiles must face, will there be any hope for survival and restoration.

Facing reality is a difficult and unpleasant task. For if we look reality in the face, where will we be? If we confront our pain and despair, surely it will overwhelm us! Now, in Jeremiah’s day, the voices that called for a quick fix, a smooth and fast restoration and a return to things as they were, are called liars. "Do not let them beguile…etc. It is a lie they prophesy in my name, I did not send them." (v.9). Pretending that all is well when it is not and will not soon be is lying. Well, then we will give the word to Jeremiah that grand master of wailing for he will surely know how to give words to grief.

But Jeremiah is capable of speaking an unexpected word, for the first counsel he gives is to build. "Build houses, and take up residence;" create families and keep them going. "Multiply there and do not dwindle." In other words, the people are to carry on with their task of being a community, which in those days meant especially safeguarding the production of offspring. With some translating from Jeremiah’s context to our own, it means that a community in disarray must first do what it can to keep itself going, to be productive and to be there, to carry on and carry forth as best as it can. Well, we can perhaps live with that. Painful the reality may be, but may be we can just do that. Hold on and carry on for the time being.

Much more difficult and challenging are the final words of this counsel, for Jeremiah puts a sting in the tail of this part of his letter:

Do all this, he says, work for your own prosperity and "pursue the healing of the city," "for in its healing will be your healing." Pursue the healing, the well-being, the shalom of the city.

Well sure, the city was always of concern to God and should be of concern to the community – but wait a minute! What city is Jeremiah talking about? Just in case, they would misunderstand it is spelled out for them: the city where I exiled you. Good heavens! This is not Jerusalem, this altogether the wrong city! It is the city of exile, Babylon, the hostile city, the city of the enemy, the conqueror. Yet, it too is a part of God’s plans for healing.

The city stands for the larger human community, the political and social context in which we find ourselves, which we may view as hostile or benevolent. It doesn’t matter really. Pursue its well-being the prophet says, for your lives are a part of it, and it is a part of you. Involve yourselves wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm in all the projects that benefit the common good. To this end, the people that call themselves God’s people, were always called, are always called. For God has an eye, from the beginning and into the future, for the well-being of the creation. It was never just about the people of Israel, or the people of Judah, about Jews or Christians. It is never only about us; it is about the entire world that moves and lives—for which God has good in mind, and in that wide context it is also about each of us.

After giving this counsel and the declaration about the liars, Jeremiah, in God’s name, makes an announcement. And here we arrive at the heart of this letter, for Jeremiah too makes promises that all will be well. "I myself, says the Holy God, I myself know the plans I plan about you, plans for healing and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

I first heard this verse a while ago when I was visiting with the session of a large church in our denomination. The session was making an attempt to see its way through a predicament facing the congregation, to take one step closer to being a community concerned with the welfare of all its members with integrity and courage and faithfulness. Before we began our day of biblical reflection and conversation together, one of the ministers read a portion of this text including verse 11, and I was moved to the depths of my being by this vision of God.

"I myself," says God, "I myself know the plans I plan concerning you, plans for healing and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

As I heard these words I pictured God, while we were doing our planning and deliberating, painstakingly doing a deliberating and planning of God’s own. Like a mother who watches her wayward brood go its own way, running off in directions for ruin and wrong, ...but she sits and ponders the future and plans patiently what will bring the child back, what will lead to its healing and restoration – so God sits and deliberates, painfully, patiently, watching us go off in the wrong directions, in our God-given freedom taking one wrong turn after another – and God sits there brooding like a mother, perhaps even as helpless as a mother with a heart burning with love, for God’s intentions for us are always for shalom, for healing and not for destruction.

The central word of the verse is that for plans, mahshevot in Hebrew, repeated three times in the short sentence. Plans, or deliberations, is a word that reverberates with meaning in Scripture. When the Genesis stories describe the repugnance God experienced in reviewing what had become of the creation, the text has it that "God saw the evil of humanity was great on the earth and that all the imagination of the deliberations of their heart was only evil all the day. And God was sorry to have made humanity on the earth and it grieved God to the heart.......for the earth was filled with violence." In this way the Bible presents a God whose "deliberations" implacably oppose human deliberations of violence: God is for shalom, healing, human’s from evil/ruin (ra’ah in Hebrew).

In Isaiah 55 the same dichotomy is posed. God’s deliberations are those of forgiveness and a joyful homecoming, including even those guilty of wrongdoing and wicked planning, in the wideness of God’s mercy.

"Let the wicked forsake their way
and the troublemakers their deliberations
let them return to the Holy God who will have deep compassion
and to our God who will abundantly pardon.
For not are my deliberations as your deliberations 
and your ways are not my ways – says the Holy One

For as high as the sky is above the earth
so high are my ways above your ways
and my deliberations above your deliberations."

The entire Scripture witnesses to a God whose plans for the creation are for shalom, healing, against human violence and destructive impulses. For shalom God created the world, for shalom God appointed Israel, for healing God sent Christ into the world.

In the letter of Jeremiah, the purpose of God’s plans is stated as follows: "to give you a future and a hope." The word for future literally means something that comes after—comes after. The issue is that there is something that will come after, that God has planned for them a future and a hope, something worth waiting for; that it will not all end here in chaos in Jerusalem and in homelessness and grief in Babylon.

It is so tempting in view of the knowledge that God has such good plans for us, that God had such good plans for Judah—would bring them back after seventy years—it is so tempting to rest in this hope and to sink into dreams of religious fantasies. All will be well in the end. God will take care of everything. Is there not an announcement that God will bring the exiles back?

Unfortunately, that is not the gist of the letter of Jeremiah or indeed of the entire Scripture, for it asks us to align our plans with God’s plans, our deliberations with God’s deliberations. First, we face up to the direness of our reality, personal and communal and we say, "O.K., this is the way it is; this is life; this chaos, this loss, this deprivation, that shortcoming, this burden and that besetting worry." Broken-ness is the mark of it. This is it! In the mist of these realities we align our plans with God’s plans, for healing and life, not for death and destruction, and we carry on with our task, with the work to which we have been called in the places where we have been planted.

The last verse of the section we read repeats the phrase "I will bring you back." Interestingly, this bringing back does not take place until the people are already on the way "and you will call me, and walk, and pray to me and.....you will seek me and find, for you will pursue me." The people’s return to Jerusalem is, of course, intended as a literal return to their home. But, more profoundly, this return is always a coming to God, in whose presence the realities of our time become bearable and the future something to look forward to. While we walk and carry on for the healing of our communities and the creation, we are together on our way to our true home with God.


Dr. Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos is a professor of Bible and Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. She delivered this message in the LPTS Caldwell Chapel on October 1, 2004. For more information visit the seminary web site: www.lpts.edu

What is Your Passion? 

"By God's choice, you are beloved." 

by Lucy Marsden Hottle

Are you curious about the title "What is Your Passion? Those of you who have attended the sexuality discussion at the Messiah Divorce Recovery Workshop might think I will be expanding on what can happen after a couple spends 300 hours together. Those people will be disappointed!

When I ask "What is Your Passion?" I am asking you to look within yourself and discover the driving force in your life-being. Everyone has this "passion" within: this motivating force, this idea which draws one’s attention and focuses the mind.

In my years of ministry I have seen this "passion" take as many shapes as the variety of people possessing them. There is a man in Chicago who felt the need of the scores of people who were forced to drive damaged and unreliable cars because they couldn’t afford to repair them. He had a gift for automotives, so he, with the help of his church, formed a Car Repair Ministry. It is active today.

There was a man in Messiah Methodist who did nothing for 12 years but come to church every Sunday and sit in the pew. He refused to participate or lead any other activity in the church -- though he was often asked. We ministers call such people "Pew Potatoes" If he were simply watching television he would be a "Couch Potato," but since he attended church regularly, he was a "Pew Potato." After the service one day I approached him to try to discover his passion. I asked him this: "If you could do anything you liked for this congregation, what would you do?" "I would provide them with a Bookstore right here in the church," he replied immediately. And with help from the church, he did!

This Passion completes something within each person, and it provides the world with a gift which is not available any other way. This passion is the idea and activity which absorbs a person’s thoughts and motivates their behavior -- if it is acknowledged and allowed to express itself through this individual. Each of us must discover and activate the passion within us or we will not be complete and others in the world will never experience the value and joy our passion would bring to them. Each of us is unique. Each of us has a unique vision. Each of our gifts is unique. Our Passion is like no other!

God places this treasure in each of us. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God says, "I know the plans I have for you: to prosper you and give you a future." I believe that the passion that drives the life force is the Holy Spirit entering our lives.

I heard a minister once say that he had found in his years of ministry that it was not important to continually remind people of their failures and sins. But he found that people cannot be reminded often enough that their GOD LOVES THEM WITH AN EVERLASTING LOVE. God loves each of us just as we are. He put this "crazy notion" we call our passion into our hearts and minds for us to develop in our own unique way. It is His plan for us to discover and act on this driving force.

How do we discover that special plan that God has for us? We can ask Him. We can search ourselves -- our gifts, our interests, our dreams. We can ask our friends. Patronage is one of the most valuable benefits of working with others of like mind. If we associate with someone who is "following their passion," especially if it is similar to our own, they can help us discover, develop and use our gifts. They will encourage us to realize our vision.

We must know that we are loved before we can understand how much we have to give others -- and how special our gifts are. Faith introduces us to the idea that we are loved: "Belovedness" is God’s Passionate Gift to us.

Lucy Marsden Hottle was a pastor at Messiah Methodist Church in 1997 when she delivered this address to a singles event. She is now a pastor of a Methodist church in Richmond, Virginia.


Believing in life is like believing in springtime.

by Ben Campbell

    The bright red tulip opens her pursed lips to display a color basket filled with sun. The daffodils blare their yellow trumpets confidently in the light. Blue, blue pansies smile in groups in the cheaper seats. Sharp-petalled white stars of Bethlehem are sprinkled like spring snow on the grass green carpet. 
    It is a scene of primary colors. The blue sky is freshly painted. White clouds migrate in the light. Strong branches exercise evergreen in the gusty spring winds. A flight of Canada geese announces its passage overhead, just as the coal trains have called out all winter long at the foot of the hill in the night. A transient flock of cedar waxwings finds a holly berry picnic midway in its longer journey north. 
    Everyone knows the earth is coming to life. 
    This is the order of creation. This is what was intended, and what will be. 
The awakening of springtime is a decisive metaphor for the human spirit. 
What will be today is hidden, as hidden as springtime a month ago. At that time, you would not have known this time was coming. You could not have imagined it, had you not seen it before. 
    If someone had told you of it, you would have had no reason to believe them. Looking at the ground, how could you imagine a tulip or a daffodil stirring in the sunlight? Standing in the damp cold of February, how could you conjure up the balmy windy brightness of this March day? 


    Believing in life is like believing in springtime. 
When you are looking at winter, there is no evidence to support a belief in primary colors and sunshine, blue sky and spring breezes. There is only the experience of springtimes past. When you are looking at death, there is no current evidence to support a belief in life. There is only the experience of past resurrections. 
    To believe in God is, first and last, to believe in life. If you say you believe in God, and you do not believe in life, the being whom you have represented as god in your psyche is not the God we are talking about. This particular person we are describing is the God of the springtime. 
    Believing in God and life is, however, often as difficult as believing in the springtime in the middle of winter. 


    It is difficult to believe in life in your own spirit. Somehow, without explanation or obvious cause, the inner eye can become darkened. It is as if a shade were pulled down across the window, or as if someone forgot to turn on the light in the room. The most essential light of all seems to be extinguished, and even the day immediately ahead bears no possibility. Sometimes this occurs because life deals you a stunning blow -- death, or cancer, or failure, or disaster. But sometimes it occurs inexplicably in the midst of good times. There are influences which push you toward the inner wintertime, but there is no certain cause and effect relationship. 
    There, when the eye of the soul becomes darkened, hope and faith lie under the ground, unknown even to the beholder. Hopeful as you have been in the past, you are overcome with death and darkness. 
    This is not to be overplayed. The lifeforce ebbs and flows. Day follows night which follows day. But it is also not to be underestimated. The despair which often tinges the most ordinary of days has an effect which we must recognize if we wish to find life. It stops us from seeing possibility to the degree we need to see it. 


    We may recover -- we usually do recover -- from our despair. But our recovery seldom reaches to the places it needs to go. For we are in the business of finding the springtime in the strongholds of winter, and for that effort, we must have bright eyes indeed. 
    We are in the business of looking at apparently healthy brothers and sisters, immobilized by the deceptions of wealth, fear, possessions, and success, and believing that they can find the hope that exists only in committing themselves to the city and its people. We are in the business of looking at young men and women whose despair and pain is written all over their behavior and their situation, and believing that they can blossom in the garden of life as surely as the daffodil in this spring sunshine. We are in the business of looking at churches which seem fully occupied in singing the songs of life without believing in the community, and believing fully that they will be re-infected with the life in the songs they sing. We are in the business of looking at business leaders and politicians who claim the words of life and hope for self-serving purposes, and knowing that a life of genuine life-giving self-sacrifice is only a morning away. 
I have seen death. Cancer. Coffins. Violence. Destruction. Cynicism. Lying. Betrayal. And massive, massive indifference to the tragic lives we expect others to live in the midst of our affluence. I have sung songs when the tune seemed to come nowhere near my heart. I have looked out on a day once filled with hope and wondered where the sunshine went. 
    But I have also seen the springtime awaken. It is as inexorable and unexpected and unhoped for and impossible as life after death. It is also the full-time business in which God, the God of both the universe and of our metropolitan city, is engaged. As surely as it has arrived here in March of 2004, so also it will arrive in individuals and communities this very same year. Do not fail to see it because of the shutting down of your expectations. Even if this should be the last year of your life, this is a year to see the glory of God in the resurrection of his people. 
And even if it is not to be the last year of your life, it is a year which can truly be full of more than you dreamed a week ago. 

Ben Campbell is the pastoral director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical group dedicated to praying for the city of Richmond since 1866. This article was originally published in the April 2004 edition of the Richmond Hill newsletter. 

Note to speakers: The articles that appear on this web site are gifts from the writers. Do not use any part of the articles, humor or stories without the author's written permission. Contact them through this web site. A web site filled with thoughts and stories that can be used for material is www.desperatepreachers.com 

Creative Potential

Before we experience God as Redeemer, we encounter God as Creator.

by Peter James

How often do we think of God’s creativity? We speak of God as sovereign power and divine love, but what about God as a creative artist? God is first portrayed in the Bible as one who creates. The opening line of the Bible so much as says so. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Before we experience God as Redeemer, we encounter God as Creator.

God delights in creating beasts of the field, birds of the air and fish in the sea and pronouncing them good. God creates everything out of nothing–ex nihilo. God imagined crocodiles and aardvarks before any existed. God imagined sunsets without ever having seen one. God imagined sexual reproduction before there were bodies (now that’s what I call abstract art!).

Genesis describes creation as a series of six days (the word "day" in Hebrew can refer either to a 24-hour period or a longer epic of time). Each day builds upon the next. We begin with the creation of light and darkness on the first day and progress through successive days of God making heaven, earth and sea. Finally, on the climactic sixth day, "God creates man in his image. In the image of God he creates them, male and female he creates them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

The book of Genesis is much maligned these days, given the vigorous debate over evolution. The purpose of Genesis is not to explain how God made the world. If the purpose of Genesis was to explain how God made the world, it would have been written differently. The Bible, strictly speaking, is not a science book. It doesn’t attempt to answer how God made the world. Rather, the Bible, as a religious book, concerns itself with a far different question: that of why God made the world. Genesis’ central concern is not how, but why God made the world.

To be created in God’s image means we have ability to know God. Of all the things God has made, we are given the unique capacity to love God.

We are also created to serve God. "Till the earth and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Adam is given the special honor of naming all of God’s creatures (2:19).

We are co-creators with God. "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth. Eve is given special distinction as the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20).

Each Sunday, I pronounce the same benediction: "Love the Lord and love the people; serve the Lord and serve the people." Our creation in God’s image means we are called to love and serve the Lord.

Creativity is the natural endowment of our Creator. Creativity is one of God’s good gifts to us.

In 1926, J. R. R. Tolkien was sitting in his study at Oxford University correcting a students’ papers. For some unknown reason, one student had turned in a blank paper. When Tolkien came to it, he picked up his pen and wrote on the page, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," thus launching one of the most remarkable literary careers of the 20th century. You may know this verse as the opening line of Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings. On being asked why he wrote on the student’s paper, Tolkien remarked, "It just popped into my head."

Perhaps it’s really not all that surprising that this thought flashed into Tolkien’s mind. God fashioned us to be creative. We have the ability to create because that’s the way God made us.

Larry Walker decided to see his neighborhood from a new perspective. So he bought 45 weather balloons from an army surplus store. He then strapped himself to a lawn chair and had friends inflate the weather balloons with helium and tie them to the chair. He packed a six-pack of beer, along with a BB gun, figuring he would shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.

Larry assumed the balloons would reach a height of 100 feet into the air, but he was caught off guard when his lawn chair soared to 10,000 feet into the sky, right into the flight pattern of the Los Angeles (LAX) airport. Then, too afraid to shoot any of the balloons, Larry stayed aloft for the next two hours, forcing the airport to shut down its air space, causing delays in flights all over the country. Eventually, Larry was rescued.

You’ve got to hand it to Larry; he was creative. But creativity all by itself doesn’t cut it. Creativity must be channeled and offered to God to be redemptive.

People can use their creative capacity for good or evil. The same creativity that inspired Beethoven’s 5th symphony also concocted the plan to bring down the World Trade Center. Creativity in the hands of one produced the Sistine Chapel, in other hands, Auschwitz.

One of the common misconceptions about creativity is that it’s limited to a few. "I’m just not creative," some people say. We imagine two types of people in this world, creative and non-creative people.

Creativity is a universal, God-given ability. God lavishes creativity on everyone, not just the gifted and talented.

When we hear the word creativity, we commonly think of artisans: actors, musicians, writers and poets. But people can also express creativity through imaginative problem-solving and inventive business solutions. "Thinking outside the box" we call it. Parents express creativity with children, gardeners express creativity with soil, cooks express creativity with food and writers express creativity with words. Come to think of it, every situation calls for creativity.

In 1968, researcher George Land administered a creativity test used by NASA to select innovative engineers and scientists to 1,600 5-year-olds. He then retested these same children at ages 10 and 15. The test results were staggering. Ninety-eight percent of five-year-old children registered genius-level creativity, 30 percent at the 10th year and 12 percent at 15 years of age. The same test given to 280,000 adults placed their genius creativity level at only two percent. In his book, Breakpoint and Beyond, Land concluded that non-creative behavior is learned.

Picasso once said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."

Creativity doesn’t necessarily decline with age. Many retirees find the retirement years fertile ground for creativity. Grandma Moses was still painting at 100, George Bernard Shaw was still writing plays at 94 and Picasso was still painting at 89. Albert Schweitzer directed a hospital in Africa at 89, Winston Churchill wrote a four-volume work of the History of English Speaking Peoples at 82, Ben Franklin was working on the U.S. Constitution at 81 and George Burns won his first academy award at 80.

Serve creatively is the fifth personal covenant of what it means to follow God's leadership. A disciple prays daily, worships weekly, studies regularly, lives faithfully and serves creatively.

We ask every officer ordained to leadership in this church, "Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?" Creativity is a prerequisite for the way officers lead this church.

The leadership in this church in the last few years has made an intentional shift in the way we view our task in leading this church. We want to increasingly become a permission-giving church where people have freedom to exercise their God-given creative gifts rather than a controlling church where every ministry has to be tightly regulated. We want to foster ministry that emerges from the bottom up by members who see it as their calling to serve God creatively rather than generated from the top down, where everything has to be approved by a standardized authority. Leadership’s role is to set vision for our church. We want to measure everything we do by the core value of making disciples for Jesus Christ.

If you have a passion for doing something, ask yourself whether it fits with our core value of becoming a disciple-making church? If so, then find others to join you in this endeavor and go for it. If that sounds like anarchy, remember it’s leadership’s job to hold us accountable to disciple-making.

Ministry happens whenever people share a similar interest or passion and offer it to God. Let me offer a few examples to prove the point.

Mothers of Young Children was started years ago by a few new moms whose families lived far away and who wanted to discover how to integrate faith into their work, homes and families. This ministry wasn’t started by a board or committee; it was initiated by four or five women who wanted to become disciples in home and marketplace. I know this to be true because my wife Chris is one of them! This ministry has now grown to eleven mothers’ groups in our church.

The Russian Medical Fund, supported by our church, sends used medical equipment to substandard Russian hospitals. It was conceived by a woman who remembered putting coins into her One Great Hour of Sharing cardboard bank as a child. When she learned this money went to support needy families, she decided, right then and there, she was going to find a way as an adult to keep the giving going. After graduate school and learning Russian, it came to her. Why not send used medical equipment to Russia? This ministry was started, not from a board or committee, but from one little girl’s resolve.

I learned this week about a motorcycle club that Willow Creek Church, outside Chicago, sponsors called Cruisin’ Creekers. These bikers share a common passion for riding. Talk about a sub-culture that needs the good news of Jesus Christ! The verse listed on their web site caught my eye: "Go into the highways and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (Luke 14:23).

Ask yourself, where does your passion meet the unmet needs of this world? Who does your heart burst for? How can you use your God-given creativity to meet the unmet needs of the world? Creativity can bring joy to your life, blessings to other people and glory to our Creator.

This article was first used as a sermon, "Fifth Covenant: Serve Creatively," based on Genesis 1: 26-32 on February 8, 2004 at Vienna Presbyterian Church, where the Reverend Dr. Peter G. James has served as pastor for more than 25 years. For more information visit the church web site: www.viennapres.org

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