New Year, New You, Same God (a sermon)

There is a story about a preacher who used to visit a wise old violin player for wisdom and counsel. One long day the preacher decided to drop in for a word of encouragement.

“This has been a difficult day, a hard week, my old friend, what is the good news today?”

The old violinist put down his instrument, walked over to a tuning fork hanging on a cord and struck it with a sharp blow.

As the sound resonated in the room, he said "That, my friend, is the good news for today. That is the musical note 'A'. It has been ‘A’ all day today. It was 'A' all day yesterday. It will be 'A' next week and it will still be 'A' a thousand years from now."

In a world of continuous change, it is encouraging to find something that is permanent.

A lot changed last year. A year ago when 2016 was a brand new blank canvas, we had visions of prosperity and success, and hopes for more love than hate in our world.

For some last year was pretty close to that dream. For others it was anything but.

Dave Barry, in his annual “Year in Review” column described it like this; “Yes, we’ve seen some weird years. But we’ve never seen one as weird as 2016. This was the Al Yankovic of years. If years were movies, 2016 would be ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space.’ If years were relatives, 2016 would be the uncle who shows up at your Thanksgiving dinner wearing his underpants on the outside.”

Looking back, Dave’s assessment makes a lot of sense. Last year we heard of unspeakable pain and suffering overseas and right here in our own country. And as he mentions in his article, “The election last year wasn’t just bad. Not even talking about the results - it was the Worst. Election. Ever.

Before the year was over we had to confess that American race relations reached their lowest point in decades.

We learned that the Russians were involved in our election process.

For a good part of the year the economy continued to struggle.

We lost way too many artists and entertainers, the people who provided our soundtracks and our laughs and our introspection.

Clowns became a terrifying threat to several American communities.

And if that wasn’t enough to endure, in a shocking development that caused us to question our most fundamental values, Angelina and Brad broke up even though they are both physically attractive.

Those things and lots of others affected the big world. Then there was the change in our world closer to home.

Some of you began the year as in love as you’ve ever been. You couldn’t imagine a time when that significant other would not be by your side. Circumstances, stresses, emotions, confidences shifted and the thing you were sure would never end – did.

Some felt good about their lot in life. They felt secure in their job, their career path and future. Then the pink slip came, the company down-sized and things got tight.

Then there were those who received the grim diagnosis. A decision had to be made – fight or go in peace. Some continue the struggle, others have made their way to the other side. Here in our church family we came together to circle several of those who found themselves in a struggle – the struggle to pay their bills, the struggle to keep their homes, the struggle make it day-to-day and simply survive.

A lot of change happened around the world and our nation last year. A lot happened here in our state, in our city, in our neighborhoods, homes and even here in our church.

Not all of it was bad.

Our congregation has grown in large and beautiful ways these last twelve months. These days it takes a lot more time to greet and hug each other at the beginning of each church service than it used to.

We are feeding more school children, and reaching farther beyond these walls than we ever have.

Last week Marsha told us about a church in another country that is tuning in to what we are doing in our part of the world and is finding inspiration and encouragement to duplicate it, or at least emulate it to accomplish good and Godly things where they are.

Sitting right here, right now, just by being here and by living the love that Jesus taught us, we are fueling the work of God many miles away.

When last year started I was 49 years old. Somewhere along in the middle of that year I turned 50. Milestone moments like that give you good occasion to look back and reflect and remember the people who’ve come into and gone out of our lives.

But you don’t have to be very old at all to be able to look back and find once meaningful relationships which are now broken or gone. There are those people who once touched our lives with wisdom and presence and grace who are no longer with us.

Only a few weeks ago we wouldn’t have imagined that we would say goodbye to last year and hello to this one without a smile, a word of wisdom and a hug from our own Miss Hattie.

Changing times means changing seasons and sometimes that means changing relationships.

Sometimes it’s not passing from this life that forces us to let go. Sometimes it’s simply passing from our lives that causes it to be so. People come into our lives, influence us, affect us, make an impression on us and we can’t imagine their not being there. But today we wonder where they are – how they are – what they are.

As a wise preacher I know once said, “We know from experience that many of the people who grace our lives today will not be there tomorrow or next year, or perhaps, ever again. They will go away or we will go away, or life will change in such ways as to make it impossible for that relationship to remain permanent. 

We all know friends from the past who have been lost to all sorts of distance; and we remember some who just disappeared slowly and we don't know why.

There is so much about life that forces us to come to terms with temporariness, and yet deep in our souls we long for something permanent. What can we count on for stability in a world where nothing seems to stay the same? Everything and everybody keeps changing, and we change too.

The truth is there is nothing permanent in this world except the intangible.

Everything you can see or touch is subject to the maddening law of change. But in that 13th chapter of First Corinthians that Daniel read for us today Paul gives a lengthy list of things that will ultimately disappear. Some of them are rather important.

This great recitation of things that will definitely disappear ends with this sentence: "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

In truth, even two of these important graces are temporal: faith and hope. They are needed only in this present life. In the world to come faith will become knowledge and hope will be realized. Only love will remain forever. Love is the atmosphere of heaven and the nature of God. 

If you are in need of something constant and permanent - when the things in this world change - and they will – when the things or people you were certain would be here a year ago are now gone and in your past

– when you are in need of something constant and permanent in your life, know that you can find that something in the assurances and the promises, BUT ESPECIALLY THE LOVE of a God that remains the same in the midst of world of change.


renewed and refocused

This space has been quiet for a long time, several years in fact. As posts are added to this blog, I'll try to explain. If you start here and scroll back through the last several years of my words, you'll notice some pretty distinct shifts in where I was then and where I am now. I've thought a lot, read a lot, and of course prayed a lot over the last handful of years about who God is, who I am, and how I, and people like me, get to fit into the big plan God has for us. I've talked to a lot of thoughtful thinkers, terrific teachers, powerful preachers, angry agnostics and sensitive searchers. They all have a take on God and the scriptures that is purely personal to who they are, and they've left me wondering if I should be so settled in my own way of believing. So, with all of that, I've considered and reconsidered some of the things I thought I was already pretty sure about. We'll talk about some of those things here. Some of these posts will be blog posts, some will be transcripts of sermons I've delivered. I'll try to designate them as they are posted. Thanks for hanging with me. -Kenny


hi, god

Hi, God.

I should probably apologize and ask forgiveness before I do anything else. I’ve not noticed you like I should. I’m sorry. I’ve probably missed the point of a million pretty things and a thousand precious moments along the way. And I’m quite confident I’ve enjoyed a lot of goodies at your bidding without even considering how kind you are. I really am sorry – and thanks.

I wonder sometimes what kind of an influence I am. I wonder what my coworkers and my friends and especially my kids and the others I love think about you because of me. As much as I want to represent and mimic you and your approach to things, I think I do it wrong a lot. I probably owe them all an apology for being such a mishmashed example sometimes, and one to you for misrepresenting your heart. Saying out loud that I’m a Christian probably carries a whole lot more responsibility than I’ve been giving it.

I've been meaning to thank you for the cheaper car insurance. Better coverage too! Thanks!!

I’ve been a bad Republican. I don’t know if that requires a confession or not. But I mention it just in case. I’m having trouble figuring out the wealthy/needy equation. People with lots and people with little living so close to each other… I get mixed up on whose side Jesus is on. I do think though that some of your people are kinda getting distracted - making hay for horses that ain’t hungry. Not that I'd be a better Democrat. I don’t know for sure what a Tea Partier is. I'll beg your indulgence on that one.

I felt really bad the other day at church. The guy sitting about three seats down was bouncing his leg like a pogo stick. I think he was nervous. But the whole row shook and it got on my nerves. I could’a been a better worshipper, but I was being jostled. No doubt, the sermon was spot on, but I was distracted. I probably shouldn’t have, but I stared at him till he stopped – for a while. I think I made him more uncomfortable. I hope he comes back this Sunday. I'll do better. Nudge him if you will.

I said the word fool back on April first. Mom always said we shouldn’t. Wanted you to know.

Speaking of bad words, I cursed the gas prices this week. Well, it really wasn’t a curse word. But it was one I wouldn’t want Mom to hear passing my lips. I don’t know what the point was anyway. It’s not like numbers have souls. I certainly didn’t mean it as a curse on the people who rob, er’ decide what we pay. I don’t want anyone to go to hell. I don’t think anyone heard me, but when the pump stopped and the total jumped out on me like that chainsaw guy at the end of the haunted forest, I just blurted it out. I really am sorry.

I’ve had a lot of meals lately without thanking you for the bounty. So I thank you now with incredible and sincere appreciation.

I plan to wake up tomorrow. Thanks in advance for the fun, and my apologies for the mess.


god or not

"I prefer to help people of my own accord following God's individual direction rather than forced charity through the government. Those who invoke religious motives when attempting to justify the immoral redsitrabution [sic] of wealth are using the lazyiest [sic] possible argument [sic]"

I found this quote the other day on Leland's Facebook page. It was his response to a liberal friend who was trying to appeal to his religious convictions. One of them was talking, I think, about God's charity; the other about God's government.

I've been debating in my own head these same conflicting and frustrating arguments for a while now. I’ve moved a great deal from where I was, but I'm still not solidly settled on a position. There are reasons that I agree and disagree with Leland.

I can't not admit that I'm a hypocrite when it comes to personal denial. I've enjoyed nice vacations knowing there is a kid somewhere who could make a year's worth of necessities out of my week of extravagance. A mom who works the hard soil with bare feet would wince at my shoe stash. A lot of nice coats hang in my warm closet on cold, cold nights.

I've earned most of what I have. In the morning, when the alarm goes off, I get out of bed, feeling it or not, and get myself to the place that pays me to be productive. I work for my stuff, and I feel I deserve my stuff. But I also feel compelled to give as generously as I can to help meet the needs of others. I think that's the point my friend Leland was making, and it makes great sense.

There seems to be something missing though in Leland’s spirit. I absolutely do not question his commitment or relationship with God. I don’t qualify to even sit on that jury. I want to ask though, in the Scripture, which was more evidently important to Jesus Christ, caring for the poor and making sure that the hungry get to eat even a little, or protecting the wealthy and ensuring that they always have more than enough? Where did Jesus stand on political power? What was his position on keeping the government under control or in the control of the right people? Jesus Christ didn’t seem too interested in patriotic motivation or conditional compassion.

There is also the issue of the long range premise of Leland’s words. There are lots of very conservative Christians in the United States who are working incredibly hard to make sure that their idea of the teachings of the Holy Bible is the law of the land. Lawmakers who promote “family values” admit they are influenced by Judeo-Christian ideas. But if religion is no good reason for a government to be morally compassionate, then is religion a good reason for a government to be morally judicious?

"I prefer to live my life of my own accord, following God's individual direction, rather than forced morality through the government. Those who invoke religious motives when attempting to legislate moral 'family values' are using the laziest possible argument."


sacrificial couch

There's a burning couch in the middle of Euclid Avenue. That either means they couldn't find the cigarette, or the University of Kentucky basketball team did something incredibly big.

Our team is now one of only four still in the running for a national, big tourney title. Two more wins and the Wildcats will be the only Div. I team this year able to brag about winning their very last game. Nearly every kid studying at UK right now was in the single digit years of their life the last time that happened. So if anything is worthy of a good, old-fashioned, public couch burnin', this probably is.

Basketball is a near religious experience in Kentucky. During the season, wins (gratefulness) and losses (faith) make for perfect sermons. God is UK. Satan is the versus. Visiting evangelists are made aware. Church services are subject to game times from October to April. Like the crusaders, we conquer and rename cities, e.g. Catlanta, Big Blue Newark Nation, Blue Jersey, and whatever Houston ends up falling to. Restaurants are louder when we're winning. The people smile more. Benevolence increases. Jesus is thanked. And evidently, when we win the big, big games, we sacrifice furniture.

I try to be a live-and-let-live kinda guy, so I didn't give the flaming furniture a lot of scrutiny. If I'd been the parent who paid for it I might have, but otherwise I didn't think much about it. Except to wonder how the conversation went that led up to the moment of combustion.

TV Announcer Jim Nantz: "And that will do it. The Wildcats, going back to an old Kentucky home, the Final Four!

College student #1: "Yes! Yes!! YES BABY!!! We're going to Houston, baby!! Woo hoo!!! Oh my gosh!! Can you believe it?! We're going to the Final Four! We're going to Houstoooonnnn!!!"

Chest bump. High five. Chest bump. Tight hug. Awkward stare. Chest bump.

College student #2: "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! We gotta celebrate, man! We gotta par-tay!!"

College student #1: "Oh my gosh, man! Everybody's going to the street! We gotta go!"

College student #2: "This is crazy, man! We-are-gon-na-par-tay!!"

College student #1: "Hey, man! Let's do something off the hook! Get the other end."

College student #2: "What?"

College student #1: "Get the other end, man!"

College student #2: "Why?"

College student #1: "We're gonna burn it, man! Woo hoo!!"

College student #2: "What?

College student #1: "Seriously, dude. Get the other end."

College student #2: "Dude. You sure? This is Kendall's couch."

College student #1: "Kendall shoulda been here to protect it."

College student #2: "Woo hoo!! We're going to Houston, man! We're gonna par-tay!!"

Local news announcer: "Worshippers took to the streets in Lexington tonight, celebrating the Kentucky Wildcats' first NCAA Final Four appearance in thirteen years. A couch was burned in honor of the occasion. No word yet on whether it was a virgin."


for japan...

“The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty; Let all the earth rejoice, all the earth rejoice. He wraps himself in light, and darkness tries to hide. It trembles at his voice, trembles at his voice.”

These were some of the lyrics that called us to worship this past Sunday morning. We sang it, but it didn't mean much to me. I mouthed, “How great is our God! Sing with me, how great is our God! And all will see how great, how great is our God!” I wondered if I could convince a dazed and devastated Japanese to sing such a thing right now.

It was too easy - singing about the earth rejoicing and trembling and all. Is that what it was doing last Friday when it shook and rolled and killed tens of thousands of my fellow humans in and around Sendai? It was no trouble at all to turn to my pew buddies and share the Peace of Christ knowing that the calamity and turmoil in the headlines is 7,338 miles that way. In my safe place, where the air and water is clean and a meal within the hour is not if, but what, I had a hard time not feeling guilty.

I don’t think I personally know anyone who so much as lost a light bulb in Japan. Still, I wince and get a knot in my belly when I see cars and boats and all the deeply personal and sentimental pieces of people’s lives scattered among the splinters that used to be houses, and know that rodents will find some of those bodies before the recoverers do. I’ve cried or wept or sighed every single time I’ve seen a picture or a video or heard an interview – all from strangers, but still very moving.

When I was a kid I once had a Sunday school teacher who told the class that we should never question why God does what He does. I always wondered why God let drunk drivers and drug dealers and robbers do bad things and keep on living. I thought that was her point. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me then that God did earthquakes and tornadoes and blizzards and stuff. Then I got older and learned that attorneys and insurance companies (and show promoters) hold God accountable for destruction beyond man’s control.

Maybe if all the bad people in the world lived where the tsunami hit, I’d feel bad but not so bad. At least it would all seem more reasonable and give God a better image (at least among the conservatives). At least I’d feel like the evil-doers got their comeuppance – and the good, hard working, honest people were spared. But that didn’t happen.

In spite of my Sunday school teacher’s warnings, I question God about a lot of things. Sometimes it’s about the curious, like why the circle of life needs chiggers. Sometimes I ask Him why He doesn’t stop the selfish, mean people in their greed and violence. I often question His apparent lack of interest when kids and innocent people get sick and don’t survive. I always wonder why He’d let His nature, HIS nature, do angry deeds.

In Japan, when the planet stopped shaking and the ocean flowed back, the overwhelming majority of us looked on at the ugly mess from far away. A lot of us prayed, but found our meditations sprinkled with little fits of futility. Probably because we’re Christians with no answers, and that’s hard. The only thing left is for us to believe as best we can for those who can’t. So for the beautiful, precious, incredible people of Japan I sing, even in my misgivings, in honor of you.

“And age to age He stands. And time is in His hands. Beginning and the end. Beginning and the End. The Godhead, three in one. Father, Spirit, Son. The Lion and the Lamb. The Lion and the Lamb”.

Very pretty words and music by Chris Tomlin.


perfectly good trash

I use forks and spoons cause I can't throw my hands in the dishwasher and go to bed. It's likely though that nothing in my ol' Kentucky kitchen's utensil drawer is fit to land an appearance at the big William and Kate event coming up. As flatware goes, it's nice and all, but it ain't even distant kin to real silverware, and it's certainly not fit for royal occasions.

A couple of years ago I went through a little plastic ware phase - mostly because I was lazy. But I justified using and tossing a few dozen Dixie pieces cause it saved local H20and stopped the drought in East Africa. Actually, neither is hardly true. And as it turned out, it was a dumb idea.

In the meantime, I got myself some nice, fancy looking plastic spoons and forks and knives for when company came for dinner. They were pretty cool - if you didn't get too close - and if you didn't pick them up - and if your meat wasn't too tough. The pieces was coated with a really shiny silver. But this was quite obviously not real silverware. It was plastic. And every one of my friends who used it knew it was plastic. You can pay a little more for the silver version, but still all you've got is plastic.

While the reusable stuff sat ready and clean but unused, I was eating with the throw-away stuff, using it once, and, well, throwing it away. It never occurred to me that that didn't mean it was broken; that it could still feed me; that I could use it again. It may have been unconventional, but it wasn't like it was against the law or unbiblical to clean the spoon and use it again - just like new. The label told me it was disposable and useless once it got dirty. So I threw away lots of used spoons because that's what we do with used, plastic spoons.

After a while I started associating again with better spoons. In the end it was actually more economical. And I got tired, even weary of throwing away perfectly good trash.