John 20:19-23
May 30, 2010

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Archbishop Oscar Romero stood at a crossroads. He was paralyzed with indecision. It seemed impossible to go back, but what was the right path forward? Should he take the path of capitulation, choosing to work with a corrupt government that was sponsoring terrorist attacks against its own people? Should he stand up and speak out against the Salvadoran government, thus assuring his own assassination? The people, and especially the poor, were looking for him to do something, anything, to bring an end to the violence.1

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, El Salvador was torn by civil unrest. In many ways El Salvador was the mirror image of Nicaragua at the same time. Nicaragua had been taken over by communists, and had been a country that violently suppressed anyone who supported capitalism and democracy, especially the wealthy and moderately wealthy. In El Salvador, it was the poor who were violently suppressed, especially when they spoke up for more rights and a desire to be lifted out of poverty. Right-wing death squads were torturing and killing hundreds and thousands of innocents if they showed any sort of sympathy for leftists. Meanwhile, left-wing communist guerillas were convincing the poor to join them in their struggle to overthrow the government, and sometimes torturing and killing them when they weren’t willing to join them. The question was, how should Archbishop Oscar Romero respond, since he was the Catholic Church’s voice in El Salvador, a Catholic country? Romero never expected to be in this position.

He had been chosen archbishop of El Salvador precisely because he was an orthodox, bookish, studious bishop whom the other bishops believed would not make waves. He was expected to keep his nose out of these kinds of issues. Romero wanted the same thing. He had no interest in fomenting trouble in the country. He wanted to lead the people of El Salvador back to an orthodox Roman Catholic faith. But when he was confronted with the reality of the violence against innocents, he knew he had to do something. He knew he was called to lead the people back to God’s way, a way of love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace. But to do so might put his life in danger.

His dynamic transformation from a traditionalist, introverted, intellectual priest to a humble, activist archbishop approach came about after he toured El Salvador. He visited the sites where bodies of those executed by the death squads had been dumped. He visited men and women who had been beaten and tortured. He talked with officials from the government and with Marxist guerillas. He became fully aware that God was calling him to take a stand after an incident that revealed to him the evil afflicting El Salvador. He had negotiated the release of guerilla-held hostages after receiving promises from the Salvadoran army that they would not be mistreated. Despite these promises the guerillas (including a priest who had been supporting the guerillas), were immediately arrested. Romero also was arrested when he protested their treatment. In prison he heard the torture of the priest, and when he was released he was given the priest’s dead body.

Romero was torn. He supported neither the Marxist guerilla rebellion nor the government-sponsored violence. He felt called to lead the people to a way of peace, but how could he do it? He knew that the way of violence pursued by both sides would lead to the spiritual and material destruction of the whole country. How could he lead the people to God’s way—a way of love, justice, compassion, and unity?

Visiting the graves of victims of violence, Romero was stricken with grief. He stumbled forward along a road and then fell to his knees. He offered perhaps as profound a prayer as has ever been said: “I can’t… You must… I’m yours… Show me the way.” He was brought to the depths of humiliation by his experiences, but in those depths he found the power of humility.

Walking down the road into a poverty-stricken village nearby, he came across soldiers. They mocked him, stripped him of his clothing (sound familiar?). The poor rushed up to him and hugged his waist, embarrassed to see the partially naked archbishop being derided by the soldiers. Romero tried to quiet the people, telling them that everything was all right, and a woman replied, “But you are our voice. You speak for us.”

Romero hesitated for a moment, not knowing how to respond, and then in humility he responded in the way that Christ called him to respond: “Let us begin a celebration of the mass now. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Lord, you have created us for freedom [and the people responded “Lord, have mercy”]. Christ, you made us to live in dignity [“Christ, have mercy”]. Lord, you strengthen us in the struggle for justice [“Lord, have mercy].” Romero rooted his response in sacramental prayer.

From that moment on, Romero spoke out against the government and the guerillas. He offered the country a new way, the way of Christ, the way of peace. He refused to be silent, even though his life was threatened. He spoke out in radio addresses to the country. He preached about unity in the country and caring for everyone through his sermons. He was repeatedly warned to keep quiet, but he continued to speak. On March 23rd, 1980, he addressed the country, challenging the military to quit killing the poor and to bring justice to the country. The next day he was shot by a sniper while celebrating mass. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, he opened himself up to God at a radical level, and he received the Holy Spirit in a way that not only transformed him, but eventually the country of El Salvador. [To learn more about Oscar Romero, I encourage you to rent to film, Romero. It is a truly amazing film, and one of my favorites]

Now, I don’t want to imply that if you open up to the Holy Spirit, you’ll be shot. This is the extreme situation. What I do want to say clearly, though, is that Oscar Romero is a perfect example of how opening up to the Holy Spirit can transform our lives, and life all around us. The Spirit works in the Spirit’s ways, and the Holy Spirit of God can do amazing things, if we are willing to receive the Spirit. And Oscar Romero prayed the perfect prayer for receiving the Holy Spirit in our lives, saying, “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way.”

This is it,… this is all it takes to get the Holy Spirit to come alive in our lives. But as simple as this idea is, it is incredibly hard to do because we don’t usually want to give ourselves this much to God. As I mentioned last week, our problem is that we often say we want God in our lives, but what are we willing to give up to let God in at this level? If we are willing to work up the courage to let God in at this level, though, Oscar Romero gives us the model with these four phrases: “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way.” I want to spend the rest of this time just going over these four phrases to help you understand how to use them to bring the Spirit in more powerfully in your life.

I can’t:
Coming to God and saying, “I can’t,” is one of the most powerful ways to radically open up to God. It’s the first step because it’s the step of humility that goes against our whole nature, which is to say, “I can, and I’ll do it by myself.” Whether you know it or not, saying “I can’t” is also the 1st step of Alcoholics Anonymous, and every other addiction program. It’s the step that says, “My life is unmanageable, and I can’t do it by myself anymore.” What most people don’t know is that this first step of AA actually has Christian roots. Bill W., who founded AA, had learned the Christian belief about “metanoia,” which literally means conversion. The first step of metanoia is to realize that we cannot manage life by ourselves. The other two steps are recognizing that God seeks a better way for us, and then surrendering ourselves to God. Bill W. transferred this idea of metanoia to AA, yet it is very much a Christian idea, and one that Oscar Romero uttered as he kneeled and said, “I can’t.”

This first step of receiving the Holy Spirit is the hardest step because all of us spend our lives trying to be in control of our lives. It’s human and American nature. Why do we strive for control? Because of our egos, which lead us to say to God far too often, “I can do it myself.” Adrian van Kaam had a great way of pointing this out. He used to say that the word “ego” is an acronym meaning, “eking God out.” He’s right. This is also the step that distinguishes between people of faith and atheists. Atheists can’t say to God, “I can’t,” because they’ve eked God out. Many religious people also eke God out, but those of true faith know that the first step to receiving the Spirit was “I can’t.”

You must
Saying “You must,” is the next step of metanoia. It simply requires that we recognize that God can do what we can’t. We recognize that God not only has the power to do things we can’t, but that in God’s love God wants to do what we can’t. God wants to make our lives better and more whole.

There is a problem when people think of this step. Often people make the mistake of thinking that saying to God “You must” means doing nothing—just sitting back and sipping piƱa coladas while God does everything else. That’s not what “You must” means. “You must” means that we do our part, and God does God’s part. We still do what we need to do, but we give the results to God. We do our work, and we let God’s Spirit come in and complete what we do. We do our part and give up control of the rest.

I’m yours
Basically, “I’m yours” means surrendering to God. This is the most important step of receiving the Spirit. When we surrender, we are saying to God that in good and bad, happiness and despair, we are your’s. Most people don’t want to give themselves this completely to God, and it’s this reluctance that also keeps the Spirit out of their lives. If you look back at my sermons from the past two weeks, you’ll see how crucial surrender is. In the one story I told of an artist who recovered his passion for painting by surrendering himself to the guidance of the Spirit. Last week I told a story of a man in despair who gave himself over to the voice of God, and afterwards it led him to discover God’s voice speaking to him moment-by-moment. Surrender opens our souls to God.

Show me the way
I want to share with you an experience I had back as young teen. As a child, I used to go to a camp in New Hampshire every summer for eight weeks. During those summers we did a lot of camping and hiking up mountains. When I was thirteen, we hiked along a trail through the Pemigewassett Wilderness for a four-day, three-night trip. The first night we climbed up and over a mountain named Mt. Carrigan, and then into a river valley to camp for the night. The next morning we set out to climb Mt. Bond. Now what you need to know is that the Pemigewassett Wilderness is a vast, 45,000 acre tract of land in the White mountains of New Hampshire with few people and lots of forest and wildlife. Also, that area has some of the most unpredictable weather in the country. It is not uncommon for major storms to blow in suddenly out of nowhere.

As we started our ascent of Mt. Bond, it was a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. Climbing higher, there were a few puffy clouds, but otherwise it was clear and warm. Approaching the summit, a fog suddenly surrounded us. It was the thickest fog I have ever seen. And it was dangerous. We could see no further than tree-feet in front of us. We were above the tree line, so there was nothing there but bare rock. There were also few trail markers—only cairns (piled rocks) set about fifty yards apart. To get to our next campsite, we had to cross the rocky summit and go down the other side. We could not go back the way we had come, because if we did, we would not make it to our pick-up point two days later. We had no choice but to go forward.

The problem was that the fog was so thick that we could barely see a person standing ten feet away. How do you take 12 boys and two counselors, across a bare summit, following markers fifty yards apart, to a campsite that no one could see, especially when we could barely see each other? The counselors called us together and told us that we were facing a very dangerous time. If we got separated from the group, we could be lost in the wilderness. So they pulled out the map and compass, and marked where we were. They then lined us up in a line and told us not to get further than an arm’s length away from the person in front of us. We would move as a group from one cairn to another. At each cairn, the counselors would stop us, set their mark, and set the direction using the map. Then we would move forward. If any of us strayed, we could be lost for good.

We were literally walking blind across the summit, trusting a counselor with a map and a compass, but little else to get our bearings. It was a nerve-wracking hike that took over two hours to walk a path that normally would have taken just forty-five minutes. As campers, we had no choice but to let others discern the way as we followed.

To me, this is very much like the way it is when we ask God to “Show me the way.” So often life is like a fog. We don’t always know what the right and wrong ways are. We don’t always know what God’s will is, but if we are willing to really pay attention in the fog, God will lead us. I believe this because I’ve experienced this. I’ve discovered that whenever I really let God guide me, amazing things happen.

Let me give you an example. I don’t know whether you were here on Easter morning, but I told a story about a gangster who went from being a collector and enforcer for the mob to becoming a pastor working with kids on the streets of Pittsburgh. I know that some people loved the story, and others wondered why I told it on Easter. Let me tell you how I came to choose the story.

I did not want to tell that story at all. In fact, my whole sermon was moving in another direction. But the Monday before Easter I had finished a book I was reading, and I went to my stack of books to pick the next one to read. As I grabbed it, the pile of books fell to the floor, and one book, Left for Dead, about the mobster, rested on my foot. It had been autographed and given to me by Joe Bellante, the mob guy who had become a pastor. He had given it to me four years ago, but I had never read it. I didn’t want to read it then, either, so I put it on another pile. Later in the day, I was sitting in my chair, and reached for my drink, and knocked the book into my lap. I chuckled to myself and wondered if God was trying to tell me something. I still didn’t feel like reading it, so I put it on another pile. Thirty minutes later I again knocked the book by accident into my lap. At this point I realized that this was God showing me the way. God wanted me to tell that story. I prayed over it and sensed that this was God’s calling.

I have to tell you that I didn’t really want to use the story because I figured it would become a lightning rod for criticism, but I’m much more committed to seeking and doing God’s will than I am in protecting myself, so I started to read. You’ve just been given an insight into how I try to do my sermons. I always submit my sermons to prayer as I’m preparing them, and I ask God what God is saying to me, what God wants me to say to you, and how God wants me to say it. And I’m amazed week-by-week how often I find stories and thoughts by sheer coincidence. It happens because I try to ask God to “Show me the way” in my sermons and in so much else in my life.

Do you want God to show you the way? If so, I have three things you need to learn: Slow down—open up—grab hold. We need to slow our lives down if we’re to let God show us the way. Do you know what the biggest problem of modern life is? We are all moving too fast. And the speed at which we live life keeps God out of our lives. We have to slow down and make time for God. We also have to open up to God through our surrender and saying that we can’t, you must. And once we sense we are hearing God’s voice, we have to be willing to grab it and follow with courage. This sounds so simple, but it is hard.

The point of all this is that God’s Spirit can act in amazing ways in our lives, but we have to be willing to do what’s necessary to let it work. We have to be willing to say, “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way.”

If you come next week and are willing to say, “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way,” I’ll share with you how the Spirit can act in our lives.


The Holy Spirit and You: Passionate Patience

Acts 2:1-21
May 23, 2010

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

I want you to imagine something. Imagine that three members of this church, whom you know fairly well, came up to you one day and told you about an experience they had. One of them, Ann, said to you, “You wouldn’t believe the experience we had this past week. John, Sarah, and I gathered together the other day just to pray. For some reason we all believed that God was calling us to pray, so we did. We were in my living room praying, and all of the sudden something weird happened. A wind started blowing through the room, yet all the windows were closed. It was like something out of a Stephen Spielberg movie—papers flying all over the place, books shuffling open and shut, pictures rattling against the wall, water sloshing around in our cups.

“Then we looked at each other and we noticed that each of us had something that looked almost like a flame flickering above each of our heads. Then the strangest thing happened. I started speaking in German, and I’ve never studied German. John was speaking in Chinese, and he’s never been to China. Then Sarah opened her mouth and started speaking in some sort of language that none of us had ever heard,… but we seemed to understand it anyway. It was the most amazing experience we’ve ever had. It was the Holy Spirit”

So, what do you think of Ann after she tells you this? If you are like most modern Presbyterians you think she’s nuts, right? You certainly don’t want to go over to her house to pray anytime soon because who knows what will happen. But here’s the problem. What I just described is very similar to what happened on the day of Pentecost, on the day that the Christian Church was born. Why is it strange for people today to have that experience, but not strange for the original Christians to have it? We would think that it’s strange for a member of our church, or anyone else for that matter, to have an experience like this, but it’s the experience that 3000 original Christians had. In other words, we’re not sure what to make of an experience that lies at the very foundation of our whole faith. Isn’t that a bit odd, that we’re founded on a dramatic spiritual experience and now we think dramatic spiritual experiences are odd?

This whole account of Pentecost creates a problem. Most of us really want God in our lives—we want the Holy Spirit to act in our lives, but not if it's gonna be weird or lead to experiences like this. We've got a dilemma. We're all here because we want God in our lives, but how much do we really want God if God is going to get all freaky on us? Do you know what our problem is? We keep beckoning for God to come toward us, and then put our hand up, telling God to stay away and keep a distance.

It's the willingness to accept the whole package that separates many modern Christians from these early Christians in our passage. We want God to be in our lives, but at a distance. They wanted God to be in their lives, and as close as possible. They knew that if they accepted the Spirit into their lives, life would change. They were so passionate about wanting the Spirit in their lives that they didn’t care what happened. They just knew that something good would happen, so they waited patiently as they prayed. And the result was that they received the Holy Spirit, who really can be in our lives in every moment.

Whether you believe this or not, there is a way of being open to the Spirit that allows the Spirit to be a part of even the most minute parts of our lives. In fact, what our passage for this morning teaches us is that a major core of Christianity is the Spirit being part of every detail of our lives. We are meant to live in unity with the Spirit, and to have the Spirit be a part of everything in our lives. The question is always whether we have the passion to seek out the Spirit, and then the patience to wait for the Spirit.

Roger was a man who had this kind of passionate patience. And because of this he discovered how the Spirit could work in the details of life. Roger is French Canadian, having grown up and lived most of his life in the province of Quebec, until he moved to Ontario. He’s a man who had a steady job, provided for his family, went to church on Sundays (mass, actually, since he’s Roman Catholic), and lived a good life. He was a carpenter by trade, although he really only worked four months a year. In much of Canada it is hard to find construction work in the winter because it’s too cold to work outside. Still, he was busy enough, and successful enough, that in six months of work he made enough money to provide for his wife and nine children.

Then the economic stagnation of 1975 hit, which lasted till 1980, and it devastated him and his work. No one was building. No one needed carpenters. Roger struggled to find work. Increasingly he felt like a failure at home, becoming more distant from his wife. Eventually he did find some work, but he had to travel long distances, and thus be away from his family for long stretches. During this time his wife took up with another man, a man that Roger knew treated her poorly and his children even worse. But he felt helpless. Roger, who once had been so happy and positive, was becoming downtrodden and depressed.

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. He felt as though God had abandoned him. So one day, on one of his short trips home, he railed in his head against God. He said, “Jesus, Mary, and all you Catholic Saints people pray to, throw them in a bag and dump it. To me they don’t exist. The whole thing with religion feels like nothing but lies! Now there is nobody here but You and me, God. If You are really there, I will give you not three years, not three months, not three days—I will give you three hours to show up. If you don’t show me You are real and You are here by then, You will be dumped with the rest.”

Soon after his prayer, his wife called him to the dinner table. All nine children were there, and it was a noisy dinner as usual with food flying back and forth. Roger sat there, looking at his kids while they talked with each other, no one paying attention to him. Suddenly he heard a voice: “Go get your paper. I have something for you to write down.” Roger looked at his kids to see which one had spoken to him, but they were all talking with each other. No one was even noticed him. Then he heard the voice again, a friendly yet insistent voice that said, “Get some paper and a pencil, I have something for you to write.” Roger looked at the wall, thinking someone was behind him, but no one was there.

He got up from the table and got several sheets of paper. Then the Voice spoke again, uttering syllable by syllable in a way that made it hard for Roger to actually understand what he was writing. He wrote for three pages. He had been so busy that he didn’t even notice that the others had finished dinner. When he was done he read what he had written, and it amazed him. I can’t recite all three pages, but I can share with you this, which was the essential message:

“Three days ago you told your friend that your family never missed their three meals a day and that two-thirds of the world eats only one meal a day—sometimes one meal in three days—and still you cried you were a poor man.

“You say you don’t have a penny left to pay your bills, yet I see money in many envelopes in your drawers. Poor people don’t have that. (It turned out that this was right. Roger looked in a drawer and found envelopes filled with money that he had stashed away many years before and had forgotten).

“You are deeply hurt about your wife, and that fact is important to you. That is not important. Every day, remember, your children are very happy with you, no matter your situation. That is important.

“Know that love is the key. Everything is attached to that. Learn to love and there is no real problem anymore.

“Now, you must know that you will never be alone again. You asked Me to show Myself and I came to you. I am always here.”

Afterwards Roger found that the Voice guided him constantly. A few days later he received a call from a local hospital that needed a carpenter to do some outside work, even though it was -30 degrees outside. When he got there the person in charge of hiring said that there was nothing outside to do, but that they needed someone to do maintenance inside, and that the job was his. Once again he had full-time work, enough to care for he and his family.

The Voice has stayed with him over the years, and has guided him moment-by-moment, in a way that many of us don’t believe is possible. How has he been able to keep the Spirit speaking to him? He’s managed to form a passionate patience. He’s been passionate about seeking the Spirit that he is always asking the Spirit to guide him. But at the same time he has had the patience to wait (adapted from “The Man Who Hears the Voice,” in the book, When God Spoke to Me, by David Paul Doyle).

Roger heard the Spirit because desperation gave him passion and patience. Are you willing to form a passion for God? Are you willing to let the Spirit into your life in a way that changes your life forever—in a way that makes your life wonderful? Are you willing to have the patience to wait on the Spirit? If you are, be here next week and I'll talk with you about how to get the Spirit to be more active in the nitty-gritty of your life.


What Is Our Prayer?

John 17:1-26
May 16, 2010

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

Have you ever wondered why some prayers seem to get answered and others don’t? Why does God seem to bless some people by answering their prayers constantly, while ignoring others? You’ve certainly noticed this phenomenon among people, haven’t you? There are those who pray a lot and seem to always have prayers answered. Then there are those you’ve met who complain that they’ve prayed and prayed, and nothing happens. Why would God answer some, and not others?

Face it,… there are some people out there who just seem to live charmed lives, while others seem to struggle. Why? Does God cares more about some people than others? Does God have favorites? Why are some people’s prayers answered, while others’ aren’t?

I have a simple answer, but it may not make much sense at first. In fact, once I give you the answer, you might be tempted to tune me out because my answer goes against common Christian wisdom. The simple answer is that God doesn’t have a plan, and because God doesn’t have a plan, some prayers get answered and others don’t.

You may think you’ve understood what I’ve said, but you haven’t. Just because I’ve said that God doesn’t have a plan doesn’t mean that God is capricious or reckless. You see, while God doesn’t have a plan, God does have a purpose, and that makes all the difference. What’s the difference between a purpose and a plan? A plan is fixed and rigid, and really can’t be deviated from very much or things fall apart. For example, if you build a building, and you deviate arbitrarily from the architect’s plan, what happens to the building? It crumbles. Deviation from a plan causes everything being built to fall apart. Apply this to God. If God has a plan for everything, then what happens when we deviate from that plan? Does it cause God’s creation to crumble? Or worse, if God has a plan for everything, then does that mean that our suffering is part of God’s plan? Does God say, “This is my plan: that so-and-so will get cancer, have her dog die, and lose her job all in one year”? If this is the case, then it makes God seem somewhat cruel. Purpose is different from a plan because it says that God sets out a way of living regardless of what happens, and nothing can cause God’s purpose to crumble because God’s purpose is adaptable to anything that life throws at it.

God has a purpose, not a plan, and once you understand God’s purpose you’ll also understand why some people’s prayers are answered and others’ aren’t. Our passage for this morning is a prayer of purpose by Jesus. He is thanking the Father for allowing him to live out God’s purpose, and for giving him the disciples who have followed their purpose. Jesus is telling us that God has a purpose, not a plan. Let me take you step-by-step through the difference between the two. By the end you’ll understand not only what I mean by saying that God has a purpose, not a plan, but I think you’ll also understand how to become more open to God’s purpose in your prayers. Take a look at the chart below, because that’s our guide for this morning.

Let’s start with the basic foundation. Whether you know it or not, God has a purpose not only for everyone, but for absolutely everything. Everything has been created both out of and for God’s purpose. When it comes to each and everyone of us, we have been created out of and for God’s purpose. And our purpose is so much a part of us that it is even part of our DNA and genetic make-up. Your purpose is part of your genetic code. It’s not just some spiritual thing grafted onto your life. God endowed you with purpose.

For example, did you grow up as an athlete or did you grow up as someone interested in intellectual pursuits? Most people aren’t both, although some are. Would you tell someone who is good at reading, but not at sports, that the only thing separating her or him from being a great athlete is a lack of effort? Could Einstein have been a great athlete if he had just tried harder? No. It is obvious that he is a man who was endowed with a purpose to be a thinker, just as Mario Lemieux was endowed to be an athlete. Einstein’s and Lemieux’s DNAs were different, and each one’s laid out their purpose in life.

Just like them, we have been given a particular genetic composition that is part of our purpose, part of what God created us for. Unfortunately, we can never really say for certain what our purpose is. We can’t even capture our purpose in words. It’s too deep for that. We can’t know our purpose, yet God has still given us a task, which is to live out our purpose throughout life. The struggle is that our purpose is sensed rather than known because we can never really say what our full purpose is. So how do we live out our purpose if we don’t know what it is?

While we can’t say what our purpose is, we can say what our calling is. God gives us a purpose to live out throughout life, and to aid us along the way in living out that purpose God calls us in each phase of life and in each moment, guiding us on how to live according to our purpose. We can’t know our purpose, but we can know our calling,… if we are willing to be open to it. Our calling is God’s call to live out of our purpose in this moment, in this situation, in this phase of life. Calling is more than just a career. It is how God is calling us to be in life.

It’s hard to give you good general examples of our calling in life, but I can give you examples from my life. Going back through my life, I was called to be an athlete. Athletics were hugely important to my formation as a person in high school, college, and young adulthood. And my calling wasn’t just to athletics, but to team athletics. I never really felt comfortable in individual sports. I always gravitated to sports as part of a team. Athletics wasn’t just a particular calling. It was part of my purpose, and becoming part of a team, where I had to be willing to sacrifice and become disciplined for something greater than myself, was responding both to a calling and to my purpose.

I also had a calling to become a therapist, and so responded to my call in college by working as a probation officer intern with the Roanoke City Court System, and after college as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital with children and adolescents, as a drug and alcohol therapist, and as an individual and marital therapist. This wasn’t disconnected from my calling as an athlete. I was still working to support others and to be part of an effort to work with others to achieve something better.

I eventually was called to become a pastor. I’ve also had a calling to be a teacher, a writer, a spiritual director, a leader, a husband, a father, and so much more. Each time I’ve responded to a calling in my life that is connected to my purpose, I’ve become clearer about my purpose in life. My purpose is very much tied up in trying to help others become better than they are, both individually and collectively, to grow spiritually in faith, compassion, and wisdom. I still can’t tell you what my purpose is for sure, but I can sense when I’m living according to it or not. And each time I respond to God’s calling in my life, both in general and from moment-to-moment, I become clearer about my purpose.

Still, there is a problem. The problem is that while God creates each and every one of us with a purpose, God also gives each and every one of us complete freedom to choose whether we will follow that purpose or not. God will never force us to do God’s will, or to live the life that God created for us. Many people choose the option of creating their own path to follow. In fact, the idea that we should create our own path is now part of the American cultural wisdom: be your own person, carve your own course, do your own thing! What I’ve found over the course of my life is that often the people who leave God’s purpose behind to create their own purpose end up living difficult lives. Their lives become chaotic. Often they get caught up in addictions and persistent bad decisions. They become unhappy, and complain that nothing seems to work out for them. Yet they are determined to go their own way, and God lets them. But every once in a while someone recognizes that her or his life has become unmanageable. She or he recognizes that this path isn’t the right one, and then she or he decides to seek God’s purpose. Often the experience accompanying this return is quite dramatic. It’s what we’d call a born-again experience. When people describe their experiences, you can hear them describing a return to purpose: “I was going my own way, seeking my own course. I was drinking too much, chasing women, and trying so hard to have a good time. But I was empty inside. And then one day I discovered that God was with me, and that there was another way to live.” This is the testimony not only of someone who is born-again, but of someone who has left his own purpose to follow God’s purpose. By the way, the reason many religious people never have a born-again experience is they never strayed far from God’s purpose.

Do you know what the great thing about God’s purpose is? When you return to God’s purpose, God uses your time following your own purpose for God’s purposes. God calls the recovering addict to reach out to other addicts. God calls those who’ve lived chaotic lives to reach out to those living chaotic lives. God takes your time of following your own purpose and makes it serve God’s greater purpose. This is the difference between God having a plan and a purpose. If God only has a plan, your time following your own plan screws up God’s plan. It weakens God’s plan not only for you, but for everyone. Yet because God has a purpose, God can use even our own self-created purposes for God’s purpose.

This brings us back to prayer. Why does God seem to answer some people’s prayers more than others? My experience is that the more we are live according to God’s purposes, the more we have a connection with God, and the more we end up not only allowing God to answer our prayers, but praying for what God wants. Ultimately, the more aligned our prayers are to God’s prayers, the more we end up praying for what God wants. That’s the difference. People living according to their own purposes are so out of sync with God that there’s little connection, and even less interest in praying for what God wants. We end up praying, but it’s a prayer that asks God to do what so that we can achieve our own ends. Our prayers may be quite sincere, asking God to heal us, or to help another, but because we’re out of sync with God, the prayers have diminished power.

At the risk of keeping you just a little bit more, let me tell you about someone who sought to live according to God’s purpose, and had a dramatic change in his life because of it. I’d be surprised if you had heard the name David Schock, but he is a fairly well-known artist who paints beautiful scenes of nature and people absorbed in nature. His paintings are somewhat reminiscent, in a more colorful way, of his favorite artist, Andrew Wyeth. He studied Wyeth’s paintings as a student, and it had been his aspiration to eventually be an artist as prolific as Wyeth. It’s well worth your while to Google David Schock and look at his paintings.

Despite the beauty of his paintings, he came very close to not having a career as a painter. In the early 1980s, after studying painting in New York City, he became disillusioned. He was burned-out by the city. He found both the city and his fellow artists to be unfriendly, hard-edged, and toxic. After a time studying at the Art Student’s League and working in a gallery, he decided he couldn’t take it anymore. So he moved back home to Rhode Island to work in an art gallery. He would no longer create art, but he would appreciate it and sell it.

Over the next few years he decided to explore his faith and spirituality, and as part of this he started working on something called A Course in Miracles, which was very popular in the 1980s. This course, which mixes Christian ideas with some New Age ones, called on people to become radically open to God’s Spirit, and to listen for God’s voice in each moment. Schock had been working on this for a long time, and felt that he was getting better at hearing the Spirit’s promptings.

One particular Saturday, when he had nothing else to do, he decided to do a radical experiment in listening to the Spirit. He dedicated a whole day to it. He started in the morning, just being open and asking God to guide him. What he heard was a bit strange. He sensed a prompting: “Drive South.” “What,… drive south? What for?” All he sensed was “Drive South.” So he got in his car and started driving south on I-95. He kept asking, “Should I turn here? Turn here? What about here?” He kept sensing, “Drive South,” until he found himself in New York City. He then sensed a prompting to go to the Art Student’s League. From there he kept following these promptings, visiting his old apartment building, the pizza shop down the street, several galleries, and eventually the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each place he went to, which had felt so toxic before, became places of fond memories, forgiveness, and light.

Eventually, by 7 p.m., he started praying, asking if it was time to leave. What he heard instead was that he should return to one of the galleries he had visited earlier in the day. It seemed preposterous. He had a three-hour drive home, but he followed the promptings. The gallery was filled with people there for a special showing of the artist Jamie Wyeth, son of Andrew. Jamie wasn’t one of Schock’s favorites, but he liked his work well enough. He just couldn’t understand why he was there. Over the course of the next hour he had numerous conversations with influential New York artists and dealers, which rekindled his passion to paint. And then it happened. A man entered the room, and Schock was invited to speak to him. It was Andrew Wyeth, and Schock found himself in an amazing personal conversation with his idol, a man who rarely left his home, and even more rarely went to his own showings, let alone his son’s or anyone else’s. Schock’s passion for painting was now turned into an inferno. Schock was inspired. He was jubilant. And from there Schock rediscovered both his purpose and his calling. (Adapted from “Drive South,” in When God Spoke to Me, by David Paul Doyle).

Schock’s story is a reminder that we each have a purpose, and our callings flow out of that purpose. The question for us is a simple one: Are we living according to God’s purpose by following God’s calling?


An Adaptable Faith

Acts 11:1-18
May 2, 2010

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

I have a quiz for you to take. The quiz is on the next page. So take time for the quiz, and we’ll chat afterwards:

A Christian Quiz

1. Before Peter saw his vision of a sheet filled with many animals, what wasn’t he allowed to eat?
a. Shellfish
b. Pigs
c. Blood-pudding
d. All of the above

2. Why did Christians choose December 25th as the day to celebrate Jesus’ birth?
a. Because that’s the day on which Jesus was born—what a silly question.
b. Because no one knew the exact date, but they knew it was winter, and December 25th seemed close enough.
c. Because they adopted the same date as the Roman feast of Saturn, allowing new Christians to keep their feast celebrations.

3. Why do we call Easter “Easter?”
a. Because it celebrates the star rising in the east at Jesus’ birth.
b. Because according to tradition the empty tomb faced the east.
c. Because the date coincided the Saxon spring celebration of the goddess Oestre.

4. Why do we use Easter eggs to celebrate Easter?
a. Because the eggs are obvious symbols of the empty tomb.
b. Because eggs were easier to color than butterflies.
c. Because they adopted the practice of the ancient Zoroastrians, who painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the first day of Spring.

5. The tradition of Christmas trees came from:
a. The traditional practice of non-Christian Romans and northern European tribes to bring an evergreen into the home during winter, and sometimes to hang apples from the branches.
b. St. Boniface in 722 A.D., who cut down the Tree of Thor to show the falseness of Norse gods, and then set the tree up as a symbol of Christ.
c. Martin Luther, who wanted the tree to symbolize the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden.
d. Probably all of the above.

6. What did St. Patrick use to teach pagan Celts about God?
a. Snakes
b. Three-leaf clovers
c. Beer

7. The circle on the Celtic cross was instituted because:
a. The circle stood for the fact that God’s love has no end.
b. The Celts used the circle as a symbol of the sun and moon, which they revered.
c. St. Patrick placed a laurel wreath, symbolizing victory, around a cross to show that Christ was victorious over death.
d. Maybe all of the above, but for sure it was integrating Celtic symbols with Christian ones.

So, what answers did you get? Let’s go over them. The answer to #1 is “d. all of the above.” Before Peter had his vision, he was under the Jewish dietary laws, which meant that he could only eat animals with cloven hooves and that chewed cud (cows, goats, and sheep, but not pigs), and fish that have scales and fins, but not just one or the other (meaning that he could not eat shellfish such as lobsters, shrimp, scallops, or clams).

The answer to #2 is “c. Because they adopted the same date as the Roman feast of Saturn, allowing new Christians to keep their feast celebrations.” The answer to #3 is “c. Because the date coincided the Saxon spring celebration of the goddess Oestre.” #4 is “c. Because they adopted the practice of the ancient Zoroastrians, who painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the first day of Spring.” The answer to # 5 is “d. Probably all of the above.” The answer to #6 is “b. Three-leaf clovers.” The answer to #7 is “d. Maybe all of the above, but for sure it was integrating Celtic symbols with Christian ones.”

Did the answers surprise you? I’m guessing that many of them didn’t, but one or two probably did. This wasn’t a quiz to test your Christian knowledge. It was a quiz to reveal something about the nature of Christianity, something that the apostle Peter demonstrated in our passage. What did it reveal? It revealed just how adaptable Christianity is, and how uncomfortable that adaptability can be for us Christians. In other words, it tells us that Christianity has always been a religion of change as it adapts to its culture, despite the fact that we often think of it as a religion that rarely changes. And these changes make us uncomfortable. The adaptability of Christianity certainly was uncomfortable for Peter.

Our passage has to do with Peter dealing with an adaptation that made many early Christians really angry. He was Jewish, as were most of the original Christians. And these original Christians didn’t see their faith as a new religion. They saw it as a reform of Judaism, but one that allowed Judaism to be expanded to Gentiles (non-Jews). So when Peter started eating with Gentiles, eating Gentile food that didn’t adhere to Jewish dietary laws, they complained. Then Peter told them about his vision of seeing a sheet full of all animals, and God telling him that it was okay to eat anything, they were furious. They wanted the Gentile Christians to adhere to Jewish custom. In their minds to become Christian was to follow Jewish laws. And here Peter was telling them that this was no longer the case. He was telling them that Christianity would adapt to the Gentile world.

This incident wouldn’t be the last time Peter was embroiled in a similar controversy. Years later the apostle Paul would convince Peter that Gentiles should not be circumcised upon becoming Christian. Again, this infuriated the Jewish Christians. But both Peter and Paul were saying that Christianity had to adapt to the Gentile world. What Peter showed is something that has both vexed Christians for 2000 years, and allowed it to become the largest religion on the planet. Simply put, Christianity is an adaptable faith. Christianity has always lived in an uncomfortable tension between maintaining traditions and adapting to the surrounding culture. There have been certain periods in which not much change has taken place, but these are the exceptions. Throughout Christian history Christian practice has adapted to its surrounding culture by taking aspects of that culture and making them Christian.

Today we live in times that have demanded that Christianity change. I’ve been a pastor for 22 years, and they have been 22 years of constant change. I had a conversation five years ago with Dr. Steve Polley, our pastor of visitation. We were talking about all the changes we’ve had to make in our church over the years, and I asked him if he had to think about this kind of stuff when he was a pastor at Northmont Presbyterian Church in the North Hills during his 26 years as pastor there. He said to me, “No. We just sang the same hymns we always had, played the same anthems, preached the same kinds of sermons, and did the same kinds of things. And people came.” His church grew from about 500 to 1500 during his time there. The culture then was different. The culture didn’t change much, so the church didn’t have to change much.

We live in very different times now. The culture changes so quickly today that it’s hard to keep up. In my 22 years everything has changed. For instance, music has changed. When I started as a pastor the big thing in the Presbyterian Church (USA) was that we created a new hymnal, the blue one we use. It was hailed as a major achievement because the music in it would be better and come from a wider variety of sources. The problem was that the music in it still remained largely classically based, even if it integrated hymns from third-world cultures. The reality is that the culture has been tuning out classically based music for two generations. The hymnal completely missed the contemporary movement that has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. At Calvin Church, we recognized this shortcoming, and we created our own songbook just to catch up to where the culture was going. Of course, this creates tension. For instance, after I preached this sermon in our first service, a member told me that she had talked to a visitor who said that she wouldn’t be coming back to Calvin Church precisely because we didn’t only use our blue hymnal. For her, any contemporary music in worship was simply wrong.

In addition to music, preaching has changed. When I was coming out of seminary, the basic preaching style taught was to write out sermons in a manuscript, then to stand behind the pulpit and basically read the sermon with inflection. That’s changed. Not only in preaching, but in any kind of public presentation, the style taught is to interact with the audience, to use props such as PowerPoint slides, and to find ways of engaging people (for example by using things like,… quizzes). Also, sanctuaries have changed. Contemporary churches have moved away from creating sacred spaces like ours with stained-glass, wood, crosses, and such. New churches are built more like auditoriums or concert halls. And they specifically get rid of all religious symbolism, such as crosses. Why? I suppose that if you are trying to reach people who are uncomfortable with religion, it’s best to make your religion look non-religious. Church names have changed. You’re not supposed to name churches anymore with names out of the Bible, or using Christian language, or after great Christians of the past (such as Calvin Presbyterian Church), and you definitely aren’t supposed to put your denomination’s name in the title. Instead, the trend is to call yourself a “community” or “family” church, or better yet, to use a term that has nothing to do with anything religious. For instance, I was talking with someone this weekend who said that his son is involved in a church in Indiana called Level 13 Church. The title suggests that because buildings are never built with a 13th floor, this is a church that is willing to do what other places won’t—or something like that. Church buildings—or the lack of them—have also changed. The trend for a long time has been to not have a building at all, but to meet in schools or community buildings. In fact, there is a huge industry around kits that can be purchased by churches for easy church set-ups in temporary areas. The kit has everything you need: banners, electrical strips, temporary walls, pulpits, music stands, and more. And many churches take pride in the fact that they are so different because, unlike traditional churches, they don’t have a building.

There are also some trends that are growing right now. For example, video preaching has become popular in which satellite churches are set up in a region or around the country, and a sermon from a well-known figure is shown on Sunday instead of having a local pastor preach. There’s a church in Cranberry that does this. They meet on Sunday, but the sermon is always one that Andy Stanley, a pastor in Atlanta, preached the night before. And Stanley has satellite churches all around the country. Another trend is to have non-preaching sermons in which the sermons are nothing but large Bible-studies. The times, they are a-changing, and the question is whether or not to adapt.

I need to tell you that part of my role as pastor is to pay attention to change and to lead us to adapt, whether we or I like it or not. It’s not that I love the changes. It’s that I know that if this church is going to be here in fifty years, we have to move with the culture and do what Christianity has done for 2000 years, which is to adapt. But in the process of adapting we also have to maintain our grounding in our tradition, which is what makes this so hard. Otherwise we lose our souls. The tension between tradition and trends is very tough to live with. I’ll also tell you that our worship staff and our worship committee works hard at trying to live in the tension between holding onto where we’ve come from, while moving us to where we need to go. Something we do once a year is to visit other churches in the area that are doing unique things. Afterwards, we go out to lunch, and the basic rule I have is that we can spend the first twenty minutes criticizing the service (well, that’s reality—everyone criticizes what’s different from what they normally like), but then we get down to the serious question of asking what in the service touched us and might make a difference in our own worship services. We look for ideas to adapt our church to where the culture is.

The fact is that for years church never changed, and now it’s never the same. Why does Christianity always have to change? Why can’t people adapt to us? Some people only want tradition. They want the church to always stay the same. What they fail to realize is that what they cherish as a tradition once caused tension. For instance, do you love organ? Did you know that in the nineteenth century the introduction of the organ in worship caused many churches to split because the traditionalists saw the organ as an abomination? Why do we have to change and adapt? We have to do so because every generation changes, and God wants us to reach everyone. This is what we are told in scripture both by Jesus and by the apostle Paul.

After his resurrection, Jesus gathered the apostles and said to them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” By the way, that word “nations” is also the translation for the word Gentiles. So Jesus was saying, “Go and baptize all Gentiles…” Jesus is telling us that we are called to reach out to people who are different, and just as he adapted, we’re called to adapt.

Paul gives us an example of that adaptation when he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Paul is telling us that to reach people, he adapted himself to them. That’s the basic strategy. And that tells us why we have to be a church that adapts, even if we are completely uncomfortable doing so.

So, as a church, what are we supposed to do to adapt? Again, Peter gives us the key. Peter basically asked an essential question above all: What is God calling us to do to reach Jews and Gentiles? We are called to do the same. We are called to ask one essential question, which is, What is God calling us to do to reach not only those in our midst, but also those who aren’t? The struggle for us is in finding the right mix in our answer.