Still plodding along

Well, back in December I mused about starting another self-published book – not a novel, like my first book, but a collection of essays – some rewritten from favorite sermons I’ve preached, others taken from content on the blog, others original to the book.

I have not forgotten this – I open up the file every now and then and tinker with it. I need to buckle down and set myself a schedule. I did do something today that I should have done to begin with – I set the project up as a master document in LibreOffice, so that I can more easily work on and organize the individual essays as I see fit. This should make things a lot easier, and it makes the project a little less intimidating.

I have thought about calling the book “Spiritual Secrets of the Frisbee®,” after one of the essays, based on content I used both for a sermon and for a devotional at Mountain T.O.P. I need to check with a college friend of mine who’s an intellectual property attorney and see if I can do this, and if so, what sort of disclaimers I need to include so that the Wham-O people are satisfied. I am afraid that the Wham-O people might want me to include the word “disc,” as in “Frisbee® disc,” and that just wouldn’t read the same. Of course, maybe another title will occur to me between now and whenever I finish working on the thing.

I guess self-publishing is the ultimate act of hubris. I’m not Bible scholar or even an ordained minister. Who’s going to be interested in my not-so-deep spiritual insights? But I like the way the book has been going so far, and publish-on-demand means one can, for better or worse, self-publish with very little risk. It also means that many people can and do self-publish, which makes it harder to get noticed.

join me on the mountain

A few years ago, I started writing a post about Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry (AIM) program and it turned into a series of posts. Since then, when I’ve encouraged people to go to AIM, I’ve just linked to those posts.

But that series – and I’m still proud of it – was kind of, well, wordy. Once you start me talking, or writing, about AIM, it’s sort of hard to get me to shut up.

So here, just for the sake of doing it, is a shorter version.

Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project), a ministry which I served for a total of 12 (non-consecutive) years as a board member, celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015. Mountain T.O.P. was founded by a United Methodist church, and because of that it has some administrative ties to the United Methodist Church, but it’s completely interdenominational in its program, and has drawn volunteers from a variety of different denominational background ever since the first camp in 1975. Mountain T.O.P. is best known for a program that takes church youth groups as volunteers, but I got involved through AIM. It’s a passion for me. I’ve been pretty much every year since 1993 except for a few years in the 2000s when the dates of my foreign mission trips conflicted with the program.

A short-term mission trip is different from the work you do in your local church and community. The two aren’t in competition with one another; each can enhance the other. Jesus told the disciples they would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s good to explore different cultures and different types of need. It’s also good to get away and live in Christian community in a way that differs from what we’re able to do in the workaday world.

AIM operates in Grundy County, on the Cumberland Plateau, which has both unique assets and challenges, including economic struggles that go back for generations.

AIM has both week-long events during the summer and weekend events during the fall, but I’m going to talk about the former because it’s the nearest and dearest to my heart, and because I think the level of community and friendship you find in the week-long event is a different thing from what you can find in a weekend.

There will be three week-long camps this summer. At each of the three camps, each individual visitor has a choice between two different forms of service. One of them is always home repair, and the other one has to do with helping children and youth from the remote mountain communities. Here, in a nutshell, are the programs:

Major Home Repair (all 3 weeks)

Teams of about six people go and do home repair work for a deserving Grundy County family. The projects run the gamut. This program is open to, and commonly includes, men and women of every skill level. Whether you’re a professional contractor or have never picked up a hammer, you will be welcome and needed. The teams are put together on Sunday of a camp week in such a way that each team contains a balance of gender, age and experience level. You may find yourself learning new skills of which you wouldn’t have thought yourself capable.

The home repair projects are ongoing – other volunteers have worked on them before your team, and still other volunteers will take up wherever you left off.

Summer Plus (June 21-27)

This is what first attracted me to AIM, and it’s the program I’ve done most often. Volunteers conduct enrichment workshops for teenagers from the mountain. You can volunteer to teach, and even suggest a subject, or you can just work in a support role. We pick up the teenagers each morning and drop them off each afternoon. Teens take one workshop before lunch and a different workshop after lunch. Past workshops have included cooking, tennis, creative writing, drama, photography, juggling, Pinterest-inspired crafts, self-defense, basic car care, and on and on. If you can teach a few basic skills over an 8-hour period ( ~2 hours a day Monday through Thursday, with a much briefer wrapup session and a presentation for the parents on Friday), it’s fair game for a Summer Plus workshop.

Kaleidoscope (June 7-13)

Similar in format to Summer Plus, but focused on the arts and meant to serve elementary-age special needs children. “Special needs” is broadly defined and can include anything from disabilities to ADHD to a crappy home situation. As with Summer Plus, we need both people willing to teach and people working to support the program. In Kaleidoscope, the kids take the same workshop every morning but they rotate through workshops in the afternoon, so if you were a teacher you would need to develop two different lesson plans – a four-day plan for your primary group in the mornings, and a single-day plan which you would give four different times, to four different groups of kids, in the afternoon.

My ideal summer is to get to go to AIM twice, so that I can do both Summer Plus and Kaleidoscope. I’ve done that several times in the past, although I won’t get to do it that way this year.

Quest (July 5-11)

This is the newest of the four programs, and the only one in which I’ve never participated. Like Summer Plus, this serves teens from the mountain – but it’s focused on adventure activities like rappelling, rafting and a ropes course. Adult volunteers work in a support role. Adults are free to participate alongside the kids but are also free to skip any individual activity that they don’t feel comfortable doing.

Camp community at AIM

AIM events are held at Cumberland Pines, Mountain T.O.P.’s base of operations between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County. Adults stay, two to a room, in Bradford Cabin (formerly known as Friends Cabin), which was specifically built for the adult ministry and has amenities like air conditioning.

The camp community has a morning devotion and breakfast before heading out their separate ways – home repair teams to their sites, and the volunteers for that week’s youth program to pick up kids and bring them back to camp.

In the evening, we come back together for dinner, and then have sharing (a time to talk about the day’s experiences) and a brief, colorful and participatory time of worship.

The sense of Christian community that forms through a week in camp has led to some special friendships which I’ve treasured and maintained for years.

To mark the ministry’s 40th anniversary, AIM is shooting for attendance of 40 for each of the three camp weeks. I would dearly love to be able to introduce some friends to this ministry, which has meant so much to me over the past 22 years. If you’re at all interested, please either contact me or go to

blue like jazz

I am going to be teaching a new Sunday School class starting later this month at First United Methodist Church. This is being referred to as a young adult class, since I think some of the people who aren’t currently in classes fit into that demographic, but it’s actually open to anyone who wants to attend. We aren’t actively trying to poach anyone from existing classes.

Rev. Lanita Monroe announced from the pulpit a few weeks back that she was looking for people for several different Sunday School classes, including a young adult class. I’d been feeling burned out, for a variety of reasons, with Sunday School, and I’d been missing it more and more often lately. I now think that might have been a God thing. But we’ll see.

I’m re-reading Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which I’d used with a previous, now-defunct class and which I’ve chosen to start out this new  class. It’s one of my favorite books, and one I hope will lend itself to some good discussion. But that will depend on who we actually have in the class.

We’ll also need to find someone I can rely on to take over the class on occasion, since I’ll still get called on as a lay speaker from time to time.

“Blue Like Jazz” isn’t like most other Christian books you’ve read before. (It has a cuss word!) It’s not really a narrative, even though it was turned into a movie (more about that in a second). But there are some sort of storylines to it, involving some time Miller, who was already a college graduate, spent auditing classes at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which is considered one of the most-secular, least religion-friendly campuses in the nation. But it’s not really a story of Don versus The Atheists; it’s more a story of Don versus Himself, as he struggles to find his own faith, somewhere between the church he was raised in and the secularism that surrounds him. It’s also the story of Don finding a community of friends who hold each other accountable.

I still remember how I came to read the book. Christianity Today excerpted a chapter from it, in which Don and his circle of Christian friends try to decide what to do about Reed College’s Ren Fayre, an annual festival famous for its debauchery. They ended up building a confession booth – but festival-goers who wandered into the booth were shocked when it was Don and his friends doing the confessing. You really have to read the full story.

This Sunday, I’m going to take the chance to go hear my father preach at Mt. Lebanon UMC before the new class starts.

Oh, about that movie: I haven’t seen it yet. I started watching it one night, while I had Netflix, but I got interrupted and never went back. This is ironic for two reasons. As I said, the book is one of my favorites. And the director of the movie was Steve Taylor. Remember Steve Taylor? The musician I was so thrilled to see performing live in November?

As I said, the movie puts a narrative to a book that doesn’t really have one. It also fictionalizes the story somewhat. In real life, Don Miller was a college graduate by the time he started hanging around Reed College. But the movie version of Don is a fresh-faced college student escaping from a fundamentalist upbringing.

Maybe if the class gels, and people enjoy the book, we can have a party and watch the movie together.


Each year about this time, the Mountain T.O.P. ministry holds a celebration at its headquarters and base camp, Cumberland Pines, between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County.

The event serves several purposes. About three-quarters of those in attendance are twenty-somethings who’ve been part of the Mountain T.O.P. summer staff in the past few years. Many of the individual camp staffs become quite close, and this is a great chance for them to reconnect. I love hearing the little squeals every few minutes from the women as some new person enters the room, to big hugs and laughter.

InstagramCapture_1d781efc-6c93-4e1c-9092-f28ce24f0de3Old fogeys are allowed to attend as well: current and former board members, Adults In Ministry campers and other friends of the ministry. I’m a former board member, an AIM camper and (I hope) a friend of the ministry. It’s a reunion for us as well, and tonight I got to see good friends like Jan Schilling, Sonja Goold, Ray Jones, Bob Willems, Reed and Deeda Bradford, and more. (I even got to see Sandy Hayostek, who I actually know through a LEAMIS trip – I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a Mountain T.O.P. event with her before.)

Finally, the event serves as the introduction of Mountain T.O.P.’s theme for the year. Each year, the ministry chooses a theme scripture and accompanying slogan, which is made into a logo. The logo appears on T-shirts, banners and preparation materials, and it’s also used as a theme for various worship services and devotions at camp events.

10903823_10203343271808331_3047647520528749390_oThis year’s theme is “Overwhelmed.” (I stole this photo from Sonja’s Facebook feed; don’t think she’ll mind.) The theme scripture is Psalm 42, and the inspiration was a song by Big Daddy Weave. (I wasn’t familiar either.)

As Mountain T.O.P.’s executive director, Rev. Ed Simmons, pointed out, the Psalm itself sounds more like lament than praise. But if you look closely, you realize it’s also about allowing the love of God to overwhelm us when we feel overwhelmed by trouble.

Of course, this year the theme logo will also have to share some of the spotlight with another logo – one we haven’t gotten to see yet. Ed said preparations are still being made for a special logo to celebrate Mountain T.O.P.’s 40th anniversary this year.

Tonight, though, was all about the theme reveal.

Dinner was poppy seed chicken – a Mountain T.O.P. staple for pretty much all of the ministry’s 40-year history, well before I got involved in 1993.

The e-mail invitation had suggested that we wear vintage Mountain T.O.P. T-shirts, although not everyone noticed it. I wore my all-time favorite Mountain T.O.P. shirt. I bought it during my very first AIM camp in 1993, although I think the shirt was actually from a year or two before that.

All in all, a very nice evening, and well worth the drive to and from Altamont.

book update

I am still working, off and on, on the possible self-published book I mused about a few weeks back. For those of you who missed it, I’m toying with taking some pre-existing material like sermons, adding some newly-written material, and self-publishing a book of sort of essays and devotions. I want to at least try putting it together and seeing if it seems like something anyone else would be interested in reading.

And I would use the same avenues I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel, so there’d be little upfront expense.

I’ve picked out a few sermons that I want to turn into essays – and that’s more challenging than it sounds. I have taken down a long essay on faith that I used to have on this site so that I can adapt big chunks of it for inclusion. And I’ve come up with some ideas for original material that I want to work on as well.

A couple of things I’ve worked on are a little too rambliing, and I need to figure out what to do about them. But there are things I’m proud of that I think would work well in print.

I’m in no hurry, but I want to keep working on it so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Your daily word

DAB logoIt’s around the time of year for me to make my annual plug for the Daily Audio Bible, which I’ve followed for several years.

We sometimes have a bad habit as Christians of sticking to only our favorite warm-and-fuzzy Bible passages, and not making any attempt to understand the passages that bore us or, even worse, make us uncomfortable. A focused plan for going through the whole Bible forces us to address the whole Bible – which isn’t always easy or pleasant. Sometimes it raises questions and forces you to turn to your pastor, or to commentators or authors whom you trust, for clarification. Sometimes, you still aren’t sure what to believe. But I think it’s vitally important for us to confront the Bible and meet it head-on.

There are, of course, numerous Bible-through-the-year reading plans, such as the excellent one developed by Discipleship Journal magazine, which you can download here. There are also many Bible-on-CD products, generally with stentorian voices chewing on the holy scenery.

DAB is different from either of these. It’s a daily podcast – you can listen on your computer, use any podcast-catching software or RSS feed reader to subscribe, or download official DAB apps on your phone or tablet.

Brian Hardin, based in Spring Hill, takes you through the Bible in a year’s time. Each day there’s an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a reading from Psalms and a reading from Proverbs. All of the readings proceed in chronological order – that is, the Old Testament readings start with Genesis on January 1 and wrap up with Malachi on December 31; the New Testament starts with Matthew on January 1 and ends with Revelation on December 31. Psalms is actually repeated twice over the course of the year.

Brian’s reading style is friendly and conversational, not like a performance. They don’t just repeat the same tape from year to year; even though the schedule is the same from year to year, each day’s reading is recorded fresh before it’s released. If Brian is sick or otherwise unable to record and post that day’s podcast, his wife Jill steps in. (The two of them also read Song of Solomon as a dialogue each year, which is kind of sweet.)

The version of the Bible used rotates each week – this is actually one part of the podcast I’d change if I could. Some of the translations are great, but a few of the paraphrases are gimmicky and distracting. A few years ago, when a special edition of the NIV was published based around the DAB schedule, Brian proposed using just the NIV that year so that people could follow along in the printed version. But I was outvoted by other DAB listeners, who apparently like the rotating versions.

The normal schedule for the podcast runs like this: Brian introduces the podcast, then does the readings. If he’s getting into a new book of the Bible, he makes a few introductory remarks about that book prior to starting it. Usually, after he’s given all four readings, he makes a few brief remarks about one of them. His remarks generally strive to be non-denominational, but the context he provides can sometimes be helpful, especially in the case of difficult passages. You can always use this as a jumping-off point for your own research, or conversation with a friend or clergy member.

Then he talks briefly about the DAB community, his upcoming speaking engagements, retreats, or trips to the Holy Land. Then, the podcast concludes by playing prayer requests received (by voicemail) on a 24-hour prayer line. Occasionally, maybe once a week, the announcements and prayer requests are replaced by a song appropriate to that day’s readings.

If all you want is the Bible reading itself, you can turn away as soon as it’s finished. Or you can listen to the reading plus Brian’s remarks and prayer, or you can listen to the whole episode. It’s completely up to you. The amount of time you spend each day depends on how much you listen to.

DAB tries to encourage a sense of community, although I admit I haven’t been too active in it. In addition to the recorded prayer requests, there are various message forums at the DAB web site. There are also a few other podcasts you can subscribe to at the site, including a daily Bible podcast for kids, a daily podcast with just Proverbs, and versions of the DAB in multiple languages.

I’ve found the DAB to be helpful, and I think some of you might too. Thursday would be an excellent time to jump in and try it out, just to see if you like it.

book proposal

I am toying with doing another self-published book.

This would not be a novel, like my Bad Self-Published Novel. Instead, it would be a book of essays and devotions, including both new material and a few of my favorite sermons updated and rewritten for the printed page.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think I have another novel in me. I started on National Novel Writing Month this year, but the particular framework I had took a left turn and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

But this morning, as I was sitting in church listening to the beautiful music of our choir’s Christmas cantata, something started me thinking about this idea. I’ve flirted with it in the past, but never really gotten very far with it. But after I got home from church and ate lunch, I pulled out one of my favorite sermons – about the spiritual secrets of the Frisbee — and started rewriting it.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

72 plus me

The honest truth is, when the letter first came inviting lay speakers and lay leaders to participate in something called “72+U” training, I was not at all clear what it was all about – even after reading the letter. But it sounded like something that would fit in with the educational requirements for me to continue as a certified lay speaker, and besides, it can be fun to go to district and conference events and meet United Methodists from other communities.

So I signed up online, and I put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone else from Bedford County was interested in carpooling to Nashville. I was Facebook friends with Jim Overcast, a very active – and very connectional, to use the church’s term – United Methodist, but I’d really never had much actual contact with him. So riding together turned out to be a chance for us to connect as well.

The training event was originally scheduled for the Tennessee Conference offices, just off I-24 at the Harding Place exit. But strong advance registration numbers resulted in a change of venue, to Hillcrest United Methodist Church. The wonderful Ruthan Patient, director of lay speaking for the Murfreesboro District, was also there, and the three of us sat together. I saw several other friends and acquaintances as well.

This event was actually training-for-the-trainers. Each of us who completed the training today received a notebook and DVDs which we can use to teach the 72+U curriculum in local churches – our own, or any others that might want or need the training. The curriculum can be taught in large group or small group settings, either as a single-day event or split up over four weekly sessions. It could be used as four weeks of Sunday School lessons, or four weeks of Wednesday night programming, or you could put on a day-long training as a regional event to bring in people from smaller churches that don’t hold the training on their own.

So, what is 72+U exactly? It’s an initiative of the Tennessee Conference (which represents United Methodist churches in Middle Tennessee) and the Memphis Conference (churches in West Tennessee). The name comes from Luke 10, in which Jesus commissions 72 disciples and sends them out in ministry. The curriculum has to do with equipping and motivating local church members for ministry, mission and outreach, in keeping with our conference’s mission to “discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that offer Jesus Christ to a hurting world, one neighborhood at a time.”

The 72+U curriculum has been carefully developed and researched to implement a variety of educational principles and techniques, with a lot of participation from the students. There are different versions of the curriculum tweaked for large group and small group settings.

I really enjoyed today’s training, and hope I get a chance to teach the 72+U curriculum. The district superintendents will get a list of today’s participants, so it’s possible we’ll be called on (and we’re also free to set something up on our own). The Murfreesboro District is already looking at holding its own training-for-the-trainers event similar to the one today, and Ruthan said that Jim and I would each be asked to be a part of putting that on when it happens.

All in all, it was an enjoyable day. At one point, we did a “scavenger hunt” in which we were tasked to find various things in our 72+U curriculum notebooks. I was one of the winners, and so I brought home a very attractive-looking box of fine Belgian chocolates. I decided the best use for this would be to put it in First UMC’s annual bazaar tomorrow, so I dropped it by the church on my way home.

I did, however, get to enjoy a bag of custom-printed M&Ms (you can order those online) which they’d printed up for the event, with slogans such as “GOD IS CALLING,” “72+U” and “BE ONE OF THE 72.” Each of us got a little bag of them.


Just over the horizon

Lynchburg First UMC
Oct. 5, 2014

Philippians 3:4b-14 (CEB)

4 … If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.
10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Many centuries ago, men thought that if you sailed far enough in any direction, you’d fall off the edge of the earth. Some of us were taught that people still believed that in Columbus’ day, and that part of Columbus’ heroism was that he believed the Earth was round and proved the naysayers wrong.
Columbus had great courage and initiative as an explorer, but you can’t give him any credit for the idea that the world was round. The educated people of Columbus’ day were already agreed on that fact, and had been for centuries.
Columbus did have one view that was in opposition to the scholars of the day – he thought the Earth was much smaller in diameter. Columbus thought that Japan was only 2,400 miles west of Spain – it’s actually more than 10,000 miles. That’s why Columbus thought he could sail to Asia in only a couple of months.
But Columbus was wrong – and the scholars of the day, using a figure that dated as far back as the third century B.C., were right. The big round Earth was much larger than Columbus believed it was, and if it had not been for the unknown continents of North and South America standing in the way, Columbus and his men would probably have perished. They would never have made it all the way to Japan, much less India, with the provisions they had on board.

Even though educated people have known the earth was round since hunderds of years before Jesus was born, there have been other people in many eras and cultures who have believed the myth of a flat Earth.
There’s a wonderful, low-budget South African movie from the 1980s called “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The movie actually has several different plots, all of which come together in the end, but the most famous plot of the movie tells the story of a remote tribe of bushmen, with no exposure to civilization or the outside world. This tribe encounters a strange and, to them, magical object which has been dropped into their village by a crop duster in an open cockpit biplane flying overhead. We recognize the object as an old-fashioned glass Coca-Cola bottle, but the bushmen have never seen anything like it, and assume it’s been dropped by the gods from heaven as some sort of gift.
At first, they’re amazed by this gift from the gods. It’s the hardest object they’ve ever touched, and they can use it to pulverize grain or vegetables. It does strange and interesting things to the light. It even makes a funny noise when you blow across the top of it.
But the trouble is, this special object is the only thing the village has ever had that there was only one of. They start fighting over it. The bottle causes them to experience greed, jealousy and violence, as the members of the tribe fight over this gift from the gods.
The tribal elders decide the bottle is evil and should be thrown off the edge of the Earth. So they send one of their tribesmen to do just that. After some misadventures over the course of the movie, he discovers a huge canyon, with the far side of the canyon hidden by mist and clouds. Our hero assumes the cliff on which he’s standing must be the edge of the earth, and so he throws the Coke bottle into the canyon – a happy ending for a very funny movie.
The Jewish leaders of Paul’s day thought that obedience to God’s law was a destination. And they thought, like the innocent bushman from “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” that they had arrived at that destination.
Paul had been one of those Jewish leaders, secure in his own piety and holiness. In this morning’s passage, he states his credentials.
Paul was a Jew by birth. That’s why he points out that he was circumcised on the eighth day. There were converts to the Jewish faith, who were circumcised at the time of their conversion. But the eighth day, as an infant, was when a natural-born Jew was circumcised.
Paul was not only a Jew, he was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. Now, if you think back to the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament, Joseph and Benjamin were special to their father Jacob because they were the sons of Rachel, the more favored of Jacob’s two wives. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah first. Jacob tended to favor Rachel and Rachel’s sons.
The tribe of Benjamin was the tribe that produced Saul, Israel’s first king. It’s possible that Saul of Tarsus’s parents named him in tribute to King Saul, who was respected even though his reign ended badly. So the tribe of Benjamin had a royal history.
David did not come from the tribe of Benjamin, but the tribe supported him as king, and was the only tribe other than Judah which remained faithful to David’s grandson Rehoboam when the land of Israel divided into northern and southern kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin continued to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and thought of themselves as the true heirs of the Jewish faith, while the northern kingdom had to worship elsewhere.
Paul’s status as a member of the tribe of Benjamin connected him to Israelite history. The commentator William Barclay says that Paul boasting of being part of the tribe of Benjamin was a little like the people who boast that their family came over on the Mayflower, or the people who can trace their ancestors back to the time of the American Revolution.

Paul also says that he is a “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” This is not the same thing as just saying that he’s a Jew. What Paul is saying is that he knows and can use the Hebrew language, and can therefore read the Hebrew scriptures, as his parents did before him.
As the Jews became dispersed, many of them adopted the language of wherever they ended up living and some lost their ability to read, write, or speak the Hebrew tongue. But in order to be considered truly pious, you still had to be able to read the scriptures. Even though Paul was from Tarsus, a Gentile city, he and his parents before him had been careful to keep up their use of the Hebrew tongue, which is how Paul was able to read and understand the scriptures.
Lastly, of course, Paul could claim to have been a Pharisee. Now, today we remember the Pharisees as the opponents of Jesus. But for Jews in Paul’s day, the Pharisees were respected, admired, paragons of the faith. The Pharisees not only obeyed the laws of Moses, they obeyed a very detailed set of intepretations of the laws of Moses, interpretations that – as Jesus pointed out several times – went farther than what God had originally intended when those laws were given to Moses. The Pharisees believed that they were doing everything God expected of them and more. They thought they had achieved piety by their strict and complete obedience to the law.
Paul, when he was Saul, believed himself to be blameless – and, before his conversion, he thought that his persecution of the Christian church was one more feather in his cap, just more proof of his holiness and obedience.
But this isn’t Saul of Tarsus speaking – it’s Paul the Apostle. And the things he once considered his greatest assets he’s now written off as losses – distractions and delusions which kept him from seeing the truth about who he really was and about who God really is.
This reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:10-14 (CEB):

10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

The good things the Pharisee did weren’t bad in and of themselves. Fasting can be a good thing. Tithing is certainly a good thing. The laws that God gave to Moses were good, designed to bring the people of Israel together and reinforce their identity as God’s chosen people. They were meant to be helpful. But for the Pharisee, those good things had become obstacles. The laws of Moses, and the many layers of rules and regulations which the Pharisees had built on top of the Mosaic law, had stopped being ways to please God and had become ways for the Pharisee to feel superior to others.
Paul – Saul – had been the same way. His assets as a pious Jew had become liabilities, because they prevented him from seeing his own sin. You can’t repent if you don’t think you have anything to repent of.
Paul had to become like the sinner in that parable – he had to realize that his assets were worth nothing in comparison to the debt he owed. On the road to Damascus, Paul got that realization. Now, years later, he tells the Philippians that he has lost everything – but he realizes the things he lost were worthless, and he describes them with the Greek word skubala – which the Common English Bible describes, somewhat cryptically, as “sewer trash.” Some translations simply use the word “garbage.” But Paul was using much stronger language, and it would have been heard that way by the people of Philippi. A better translation, according to some sources, would be “feces,” or maybe even a more shocking word that it would be inappropriate for me to use here.

When compared to the amazing grace offered by Jesus, when compared to a real relationship with the creator of the universe, the fake holiness that Paul had enjoyed as a Pharisee was as worthless as something you flush down the toilet.
Christianity requires that we realize our own sin, our own need for forgiveness. Christianity requires that we be broken, like that tax collector in Jesus’ parable, throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
Paul says, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.”
Paul recognizes that he would never be able to achieve righteousness through his own efforts. He must trust in the righteousness purchased for him through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But God does not want us to stop there.
Paul says “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.”
Christianity is a relationship. It is an ongoing process of knowing Christ and participating in Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
There was a heresy in Paul’s time which today’s scholars call antinomianism. It was the belief that, once you were saved through grace, that was the end of it; you could at that point willfully commit any sin you wanted and go forward doing anything and everything, and it would not matter, because you’d been forgiven.
But that’s not Paul’s understanding. He believes that his righteousness is part of a relationship, part of knowing Christ, and therefore it requires our ongoing participation.
“It’s not that I have already reached this goal,” writes Paul, “or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”

People once thought the edge of the Earth was a destination, someplace you could get to. In reality, of course, the edge of the Earth is just the horizon – and no matter how far you go, you can never, ever get to the horizon. In fact, when it comes to our relationship with God, the further we go, the more we understand our own shortcomings, and the more we realize how far we are from true perfection.
John Wesley used the word “perfection” to describe Christians, and this is sometimes misunderstood. Wesley knew better than to claim that he or any other Christian was without sin. He understood only too well this ongoing voyage, this never-ending trip toward the horizon. His use of “perfection” referred to a change in the Christian’s basic motivation. Wesley said that Christian perfection meant having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
Our Christian walk is just that – a walk. It requires us to keep moving. There may be detours or delays, but if we’re truly in relationship with Christ that will keep us moving forward. Like Columbus, we may not wind up the exact place we thought was our destination. But like Columbus, we may find it’s someplace even better than our imagination.
We can’t boast about what we’ve accomplished, but we have to continue in our grateful response to the amazing gift God has given us.

It’s not a brag if you can back it up

Mt. Lebanon UMC
Cannon UMC
September 28, 2014

Philippians 2:1-13 (CEB)
2 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

The Roman colony of Philippi was located right on the border between Europe and Asia, at a sort of strategic break in the hills which meant that it was the simplest and most natural route for travel. In its past, it had also been the home of gold and silver mines. Those mines had long since been exhausted by the time of the early Christian church, but the combination of the wealth from those mines and the strategic location made Philippi a powerful center for business and trade.
We read about Paul’s visit to Philippi in the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and Silas baptized a woman named Lydia who became a strong supporter of Paul’s. They cast a demon out of a slave girl who was working for her masters as a fortune-teller, and the girl’s masters had Paul and Silas thrown into jail, where their chains were released by an earthquake, giving them the opportunity to preach to the jailer and his family.
Of all the churches that Paul started or preached in, Philippi was particularly near and dear to his heart. Paul had a policy of not taking support from the churches where he preached, but he accepted a gift of support from Philippi that the church there sent to him after he’d moved on.

That gift had been sent by way of a Philippian named Epaphroditus, and the messenger stayed on to travel with Paul and help him with his work.
But now Epaphroditus was having some health problems, and Paul used him as a messenger once more, sending him home with thanks for services well-rendered. It was Epaphroditus who delivered Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Paul has little in the way of direct criticism for the Philippians, and the letter is more about warnings of what to avoid than it is about criticism. In today’s passage, Paul warns the Philippians against disunity.
The great Bible commentator William Barclay, to whom I turn just about every time I write a sermon, points out that disunity is actually a danger for almost every healthy church. After all, in a healthy church, people care about what’s going on. People are passionate. In a dying church, people just sort of coast along, but in a healthy church, people have ideas and initiative and people want to make sure everything is right. And that sometimes leads to differences of opinion. That leads to people getting on each other’s nerves.
I’ve been in a play the past two weekends. A play is an enterprise where you have to have a lot of trust, a lot of cooperation. One of the first things my drama teacher, Miss Jan Hall, taught us when I was a freshman in high school was the importance of trusting your fellow actors. We did trust exercises, the type of thing where you close your eyes and fall backward and trust the person behind you to catch you.
But actors sometimes have difference of opinion, with the director or with each other. One person thinks a scene should be played bigger and louder, and another person thinks it should be softer and more emotional. It’s all a part of the process.
Our country was built by men who disagreed passionately with each other. If you know anything about our constitutional convention, you know that there were some men, and some states, who wanted a strong central government, and others who wanted states’ rights. There were some who wanted to copy the British system of government, and some who wanted something completely new.

Each of these men cared very deeply, and each had the best interests of the country in mind, but they had very different ideas about what the problems were, and very different ideas about how to solve them.
In the days of the early church, there were a lot of passionate, new converts. This was still the first generation of the Christian faith, and as such there was a lot of potential for disagreement and disunity. Now, disagreement isn’t a bad thing, but disunity is. The early church had debates over all sorts of things – about the nature of the trinity, for example, or about what was expected of gentile converts to the faith as compared to the original Christians from the Jewish tradition.
But Paul wanted to make sure that his friends in Philippi didn’t let disagreement turn into disunity. It was critically important, especially in an age when Christians were persecuted and sometimes had to fear for their lives, that the church remain united.
So Paul advises them to avoid the types of attitudes that can drive a church apart. “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes,” he writes, “but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
Boy, that’s hard to do sometimes. Nowadays, we know we’re supposed to help others, or at least give lip service to helping others, and to higher purposes, but at a deeper level so many of our actions and attitudes are driven by selfishness. We want what we want. We cling to the things we have, we covet the things we don’t have, we want attention or we want to be left alone, and we find some way to justify what we want by making it seem like it’s in some higher good.
There are different kinds of selfish purposes. There’s greed, of course, the desire for money or possessions. We’re a more materialistic society now than ever before. Everyone wants the fanciest car or the latest electronic gadget. If only I could win the Powerball, everything would be great. I could quit my job and buy a nice house and go to all those places in Europe I’ve always wanted to see.

Apple recently introduced a new smartwatch that ties in with your iPhone and does all sorts of fun and useful things. The watch starts at $349, but it will come in several editions, including an 18-karat gold edition with a sapphire watch face that will cost $5,000. And there are people who will pay that, just to have the gold Apple Watch.
But greed isn’t the only kind of selfishness. There’s also a lust for power. Some people could care less whether they have money as long as they’re in charge. In fact, they’ll gladly exchange money for power. And that’s a kind of selfishness that surely popped up in some of those early churches, and continues to pop up in churches today. At some churches, you have the person who puts the biggest check in the offering plate each week and who believes that entitles them to make all the decisions. You have churches where the preacher is fighting the church council, or where one committee is fighting another, just to see who can get control and call the shots.
There’s also a selfishness for what Barclay calls “personal prestige.” Some people may not want money or power but they want to recognized, acknowledged, paid respect to. I’ve been guilty of all three of these kinds of selfishness, but I think this may sometimes be my weak spot. I get annoyed in situations where I think I deserve a little respect and I don’t get it. And that’s just as un-Christian an attitude as wanting money or power.
Paul knew that selfishness could drive the church at Philippi apart, and so he wants to warn them against it. He calls for them to “with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” And then he points out the ultimate example of humility.
Depending on what translation of the Bible you’re reading, you may notice that, starting with verse 6, the layout looks a little different. The first few verses are written as prose, but the passage starting with verse 6 is written in the form of a poem or a hymn. Scholars can tell such things by looking at the way the passage reads in its original language. This was both a hymn of praise to Jesus, and a word of example to the Philippians:
“Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
“But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
“When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.”

There’s an old saying that’s been attributed, in several different forms, to several different speakers over the years. Walt Whitman said, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”
Dizzy Dean said “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”
Muhammad Ali said “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
But the example here is of God the son, the all-knowing, all-powerful, infinite and eternal lord of the Universe, making himself humble, taking on the form of a human being.
There’s a lot of interesting commentary about the Greek words used in this original passage. The Greek language, of course, is quite a rich one, and there are cases where the Greek language has several different words to express different nuances of something that has to get by with only one word in English. We’ve all heard the example of the three different Greek words that get translated as “love” in English – philos, eros and agape. Each one describes a different type of love.
Well, there are several different Greek words for “to be” and several different Greek words for “form,” and the Bible scholars tell us that the Greek words in this passage stress that Jesus had the very essence of God. At this time, the early church was still struggling to understand the concept of the Trinity, but Paul clearly states that Jesus is of the form and essence of God. And yet, Jesus, a person of the holy Trinity, was willing to give up that nature, to empty himself and take on the form of a human being, even of a helpless infant.
That’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around, but it’s important for us to understand, and it’s a powerful lesson for all of us in humility.
Paul writes that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great 20th Century pastor and theologian, who was part of a resistance movement in Germany and who was eventually put to death for being connected to a plot against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It’s a fascinating and dramatic story of a man who had both a deep understanding of Christianity and the courage and opportunity to put it into practice. I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Eric Metaxas.
The day that Bonhoeffer was executed, a physician at the prison, H. Fisher-Huellstrung, had no idea at the time who Bonhoeffer was or what he’d been accused of. But he was amazed at Bonhoeffer’s attitude in the face of death. Here’s what the doctor wrote about it, some years later:
“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners were taken from their cells and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
It’s remarkable to hear stories like that of humble men and women, but of course Jesus’ humility in the face of death is of an entirely different nature, something it’s different for us to even imagine.
Jesus triumphed over adversity, and his triumph has made it possible for us to triumph as well. That hymn, or poem, that Paul is writing ends this way:

“Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the foundational statement of the Christian faith. No matter what our disagreements or differences, no matter what our denomination or style of worship, no matter whether we gather in fear in someone’s basement or whether we gather in style in a grand cathedral, the one thing that we all have in common is that simple acknowledgement: “Jesus is Lord.”
That acknoweldgement, of course, requires the very humility about which we’ve been talking. When Jesus is lifted up, we are put in our proper places. When our focus is on Jesus, we human beings are all equals, brothers and sisters in Christ.
So Paul, after his hymn about Jesus’s sacrifice and glory, returns to giving advice and encouragement to the Philippians:
“Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”
God enables us to want God’s purposes, and God enables us to live out those purposes. We can’t do it on our own, and that keeps us humble. We have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We are bold in our faith but humble in our knowledge of our own weakness and selfishness.

And that humility keeps our focus on Jesus and helps to preserve unity in the church, whether “the church” means a local congregation or the worldwide community of Christians. We may meet in different places, we may have different understandings of what the Bible says, but we are united in the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.”