Posts tagged ‘grace’

March 16, 2012

Living in Lent

Lent is already half-way over and is anyone dragging like me? The days of self-reflection and self-discipline seem like too much at junctures like today when I’m ready to throw in the towel and just say, “What’s the point?”

I haven’t been able to keep a Lenten discipline for several years now, but I’m hoping this year will be different. Not just for the sake of saying I’ve kept it, but because I know it is good for me. Really good in fact.

For the past couple Lents, I’ve pledged to start something new like adding more exercise into my life, and have found myself failing miserably.  While the guilt of not doing what I said seemed to nag deeply in me, nothing changed. I’ve not be a great example maker in the practice of being self-focused during this 40 day (or 46 day if you count the Sundays) period of preparation of Easter.

But, feeling some new gusto this year, I opted to go back to the traditional “give something up” practice for Lent again. As I thought of what I might choose to do, I tried to be more intentional than in the past. What impulsive habit could I give up? What could I withhold that might actually make me think about the larger purpose of Lent altogether?

I chose to give up Diet Coke.

Seems simple enough, of course. Almost comparable to the popular “I’m giving up chocolate” for Lent idea.  But, for me, it’s not. 

Giving up Diet Coke, as a non-coffee drinker, is helping me understand how dependant I was on caffeine to get through the day. Giving up Diet Coke is helping me make more intentional choices altogether with my eating. Giving up Diet Coke, I know is making my kidneys happy with me as my water consumption has hit a life-time high since Lent began. Today I am really craving soda I’m tired of drinking water ALL the time. I really can’t wait for Lent to be over. I’m ready for the “normal” patterns of life and enjoyment to return.

But for those of us on  this Lenten journey together as a people of faith, we’re not to the finish line yet. Palm Sunday is still more two weeks away. Now is the time when the “joy” of the discipline really kicks in. What might this season be seekign to teach us?

Of course, living in Lent is greater than drinking or not drinking soda, giving up chocolate or fasting on Fridays– it is about Jesus and spending this set a part time growing closer to him. I always tell my congregation who about this time start asking for “more joyful music” or “less depressing scriptures” that we must stay the course if we want the joy of Easter to be ours.

For this reason, I appreciate the wisdom of this word from the current pope– though I may disagree with him on many social issues– I hear such grace in this description of the season:

“Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life… Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters.” – Pope Benedict XVI

So, as we all keep living Lent– even if we’ve already fallen off the discipline wagon and are preparing to get back on– let seek truth with the time of Lent we have left. Truth about ourselves and ultimately truth then about God. I know it will all be worth it soon enough!

February 28, 2012

God Calls Us to Live in the New

Guest blogger: Jayme Cloninger

On February 19, Washington Plaza Baptist participated in the Baptist Women in Ministry’s Martha Stearns Marshall day of preaching by inviting Jayme Cloninger to preach, a recent college grad who is a friend of Pastor Elizabeth.

Jayme currently serves as a human rights advocate for the Enough Project on the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign in Washington DC. Jayme grew up as a small town girl in Denver, North Carolina, where her heart for global missions and social justice grew in her involvement with local community development work and her three trips to South Africa. After attending Samford University in Birmingham, AL (where Pastor Elizabeth also attended), Jayme followed her passion and vision for faith and human rights to help mobilize the faith community and grassroots efforts to influence US Foreign Policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jayme is thinking of going to seminary sometime in the near future.

I’m proud to share her sermon here! I know you will be blessed as you keep reading. We all think Jayme has a bright future in ministry ahead!


Thank you for sharing your Sunday morning with me and for this opportunity to participate in a declaration of truth found in Isaiah 43. As Pastor Elizabeth mentioned, in honor of Martha Stearns, a pioneer for women in ministry from the second half of the eighteenth century, this month, Baptist Women in Ministry are inviting young women to preach a sermon at a local Baptist church. And so, here I am, a young female, giving my first sermon. A place I never thought I would ever be.

I grew up in a traditional home, where I was homeschooled for all 12 years, and attended a pretty conservative Southern-Baptist church. Jokingly, I often refer to myself as a recovering home school evangelical.

For my parents, homeschooling was an opportunity for them to raise their children with a “godly education.” As a result, my faith is very much interwoven with my love for academia. Education and faith were seen as two tools for breaking generational sins. Both my parents come from broken homes with alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, poverty and so much more. Higher education was not an option when the reality of life called them to care for their younger siblings. And so, when the time came for them to raise their own children, they looked to faith and education as the gateway to redeeming the generational sins that have for too long tainted our family history.

Reconciliation for a broken past and hope for a better future are two things both my parents eagerly seek after from the Lord. In telling my mom that I would be speaking from Isaiah 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me when she  immediately began to recite the verse from memory, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Following the promise recited, my mother asked, “Jayme, did you not know that Isaiah 43 is my favorite chapter in the Bible? Did you not know that I pray those words for our family everyday and have done so for thirty years?” I couldn’t hold back my tears. In that moment, chills ran down my spine, for I could truly sense the Lord’s renewing spirit in not only my life, but also in the life and story of my family.

As with each of you, my story will continually evolve, a fluid journey of past, present and future. When we look at our past circumstances, we often get caught up in over-analyzing what was, in the hope of creating a solution for the present that will allow us to avoid the same bad situation in the future. In doing so, we allow our past circumstances to define our current situation.

Now, let me pause here and ask a question: Do we really want to be a people who orient our lives according to the past? Is that the hope that we have?

This is where we find the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. A people who allow their former transgressions to determine their lack of present hope, blinding them to the faithfulness of God.  Here Yahweh calls out the promise of deliverance in saying, “I am about to do a new thing.”

The Lord declares that “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In the present moment of despair and exile, God reminds His people of his continual faithfulness. For the presence of God never left, it was continually in the midst of exile and despair.  

If the truth of God’s faithfulness and redemption was true for the people of Israel in their dark season of defeat and captivity under Babylon, how much truer are those words for you and I in our present season in life?

God calls on Israel to adopt a new way of life. A way of life that is not bound by their sins or their transgressions. As the Lord moves through history, from the story of Israel, we witness hope come to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Thankfully, with the life of Christ we can actually experience the new. For as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This new creation, this new way of life is a life redeemed. A life bound no longer by death, but by a resurrection.

This morning, I would like to spend the rest of our time together discussing what it truly means to live in the new, to live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ.

Such a conversation is timely with the transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, and for those who has participated in the sermon series God Calls, and the study on spiritual gifts. As you have walked through Epiphany, you have wrestled with its practical implications for your individual lives. This season of Epiphany has been a time for us to celebrate the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

Pastor Elizabeth has walked with you through a large discussion on how God calls each one of us to live out the gifts God has given us. I to have been on this journey with you. Reading and following Pastor Elizabeth’s blog and having numerous follow-up conversations with her and other friends. In the initial sermon on God Calls, we reflected on what it means to care for oneself, and how to glorify God with our bodies as agents of service and love.

From the story of Jonah, we learn that God Calls you and I to “those people.” God commissions you in love and deed to care for all people.

In the study of the Spiritual Gifts and the sermon on God Calls you to Listen when No One Is, we see the life of Samuel and how the Lord developed in his heart the ability to listen keenly to the Spirit and to use his spiritual gifts for the Kingdom. Here we are challenged to use our Spiritual gifts, as did Samuel, to bless others.

In the previous two sermons, there has been an underlying theme of renewal. As Pastor Elizabeth pointed out, with both Israel and our present lives, “because God was God– the ruler of all, the Lord of all, the Creator of all things, even in exile, even in these undesirable circumstances— there is a call for renewal. A call to begin to consider anew the most troubling circumstances in light of who God was and is.”

So what does it actually look like for each of us to live in the new, even in the midst of our own moments of exile?

We may be surprised by the answer.

As God parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, in their second exodus, God promises to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” The water in the wilderness is God’s faithfullness to continually redeem and make all things new. God is not bound by the previous exodus to usher in a new act of salvation. As God did for Israel, God will surprise us with his ways for redeeming our past and present.

As did Israel, we often fall victim to our own works to live out the new. Our problem solving skills not only burn us out, but as we read in Isaiah 43, we end up burdening God with our self-attempts at righteousness. We often miss the core of experiencing the new, connecting with the eternal.

As Paul Tillich put it,There is something that does not age, something that is always old and always new at the same time, because it is eternal. That which creates the new is that which is beyond old and beyond new, the Eternal.”

In The Shaking of the Foundations, Tillich continues to explain that with the life of Christ, we now have the opportunity to live a life that represents the very thing that transcends the old and the new. Love.

Through the mystery of Christ we are revealed a new kind of love, a love brought through self-expenditure. A love that took on our human nature to overcome our transgressions.

In living out this new, we have each been equipped to carry out this love for the edification of the body of Christ and the service of the Kingdom. With your study of the spiritual gifts, you may now realize that you are a perceiver, server, teacher, encourager, giver, ruler or been given the gift of mercy. May this love become the revelation of the new in our lives.

It is easy for us to talk about using our gifts as we sit in a church and have room to reflect on their meaning. But what happens when we are back in our moment of exile? Our moment of defeat?

As someone who is an advocate for justice and human rights, I daily seek solutions to broken situations within our society. I serve as a community organizer for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide and crimes against humanity organization. Specifically, I focus on the conflict in eastern Congo, a place known to be the home of worst war since World War 2, claiming over 6 million lives. It’s a conflict perpetuated by a corrupt government, struggle over natural resources, where rebel group control and battle the different mines and in attacking other local mining communities, use rape as a weapon of war.

For me, as someone who is far removed from the conflict and who works inside the beltway to make Congo a priority for US Federal Government, I daily battle with the cynicism that there is no hope for Congo.

I started this job in June of 2011, and in the first half of my time at Enough, I was overwhelmed by the history and situation of Congo. When you think you have a solution to a problem, you usually will cause another.

After about six months, I began to finally meet a lot of the Congolese diaspora community here in the United States, opening the door for new friendships to be cultivated. These relationships give me hope.

The Congolese community mobilize themselves around practical solutions for the crisis in their own country. Despite not being able to directly care for their friends and family in Congo, they are using their time here in the US to raise awareness and pressure the US Government to take stronger action on Congo. The diaspora model for us what it means to live in the new, advocating for hope and peace, in the midst of the worst trials and moments of exile.

Just as the Triune God advocated for the freedom of Israel in exile, and his deliverance through Christ, so too are we to advocate for hope and justice in the midst of our community’s darkest season in life. In our new creation, we are to model the same love Christ has lavished us with. For Paul continues to write in 1 Corinthians 5, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

As ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the tools to live out the new and to advocate for God’s continual redemption in and through the world. Adam Taylor, the director of advocacy for World Vision, writes in his book, Mobilizing Hope, “God has made us for a profound purpose. When we sit on our gifts or make a litany of excuses for why we aren’t prepared or able, we block the manifest glory of God that is within us. Trying to tackle injustice based on our limited abilities means playing small. Instead we must tap into the renewing power of faith to overcome the barriers that get in the way of transformed nonconformism.”

And so, I pray that as you transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, that the eyes of your hearts will be opened to the power of the spirit in your life to equip you to live in the New. To live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ. For as Tillich eloquently said, “Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age; it removes guilt and curse. It is working even today toward new creation. It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history. But it is not completely hidden to those who are grasped by its reality. “Do you not perceive it?” asks the prophet. Do we not perceive it?

September 18, 2011

Amazing Grace

When most preachers sit with Matthew 20:1-16, as was the gospel reading for this morning, or at least as I was taught this passage as a child, it all went back to getting into heaven on practical terms. All you had to do, I learned, was to pray a salvation prayer and you were in the “I’m Christian and going to heaven club.” For, even if you prayed the sinners prayer on your death-bed on the last hour or if you prayed the prayer as young child, it was all the same to God.  God was ready to receive you no matter when you came home.

And, while this is all well and good, I think such an interpretation can easily lead to shallow faith. I think the Christian life is more than a call to get saved, and so I was eager to find other gems in this text. And, the theme of “grace” kept coming back to me.

I had questions like: how might this passage want to teach us about something altogether different about life in God’s kingdom? How might grace come in and in its unhurried way mess everything we’ve come to know about “The American Dream?” Might the idea of the “American Dream” have to die if we are to live in the kingdom of heaven?

What most caught my attention about this text is that at the end of the day, each worker is given the same wage, a denarius, which was known at the time as a fair wage for what each worker needed to live on. More than minimum wage, a denarius was a living wage.  It’s a passage that calls our attention to justice: in the household of God, we can’t mistreat those who are “late to the game” so that we get ahead. And we can’t take more than we need if we want others to simply live.

But whether you want to apply this passage to economics (which seems appropriate to do these days as our national leaders debate cutting spending to help the poor in an effort to give the rich more) or not the message of grace is all the same.

Grace in God’s eyes is giving us exactly what we need, even when we didn’t work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it and especially when we didn’t work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it.  For, the message of grace works both ways– to those of us who began laboring in the fields in the morning and those who got to the vineyard late in the afternoon. In grace, God asks both of us to lift up our heads and receive our provisions
for each day, trusting that it will be enough.

The statements that you and I often make like: “Look at me, I’m so good: I did this today. I earned my promotion. I signed up on E-harmony and through my hard work of submitting to the process I found Mrs. Right. After studying for three years and sacrificing the needs of my family, I earned my master’s degree” doesn’t seem to line up at all with the gospel’s idea of grace.

I don’t know if you are like me, but when I think of grace, I often think of examples of the “big” stuff in life. Grace, as being in the right place at the right time to meet the right someone. Grace, as not getting hurt in a car accident when I could have been killed. Grace, as deserving to get a ticket for speeding down I-66 but the cop pulling over the guy behind me.

Grace exists then as the classic definition of unmerited favor, but often goes back to “all about me.” What about those people who don’t show up at the right place at the right time and meet that special someone? About those persons who have almost identical car accidents to us and are tragically  killed instead of sparred? What about the unlucky guy who get the speeding ticket?

But there is something about this passage that helps us get away from grace as what we most like to view it as– getting saved from unfavorable results that we would not want, to understanding grace as being given ENOUGH for what we need along with everyone else.

If you think about it, there is a lot of energy you and I spend hoping we’ve done just the right things, hoping to have enough money for retirement, hoping that our contributions to the world are enough to be agreeable with the man upstairs when we get upstairs, but what centered more of our energy in grace? What would our church look like if grace came first? How might we as long-term members of our faith communities respond differently to newcomers who make no promises of sticking around for a long time, giving a tithe or volunteering to teach something? How might we love differently?

But the thing is about grace is that it truly frees us. It frees us from rushing to and from what is next.  It frees us from feeling guilty all the time because of our bad choices. It frees us from feeling anxious about our good choices hoping they got us enough heavenly brownie points. And, I think as a church, grace might free us to love more extravagantly just as God has loved us– loving others expecting nothing in return other than the love to simply be received.

One pastor puts it like this, “When we are working for a reward (to get up the ladder), we are always wondering if we are good enough, looking for clues to see if God accepts us, looking for human approval and praise when we can’t hear from God. We are perpetually trapped. . . . Why climb the stairway to heaven when God takes us right to the top floor in an elevator?”

As an aside, I know we, at Washington Plaza, don’t have that actual elevator at the church that we are all dreaming about and might not for a while– grace is in no hurry on this project it seems– but I do know we serve a God who has promised and will in abundant grace give us as individuals and as a congregation ENOUGH of what we need for this day.

So, if we are willing to be on such a journey, there is one thing I know for sure, and that is, that the ladders we’ve constructed and seemingly need from God to feel secure are going to have to fall away. Instead, the invitation is to simply hold out our hands and receive while we stand shoulder to shoulder to those in whom we least expect are receiving just the same.

Now doesn’t this sound different now: “Amazing grace, how sweet, the sound that saved a wretch like me . . .?”

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