Helium, God, and the Church


Most of us want as little of God as possible.
    We don’t want to admit it of course, but God scares us.  My friend Brian Baer once read a meditation in our Sunday school class called “Just a cup of God please.”  It said that God is prepared to pour out blessings on us through a fountain the size of Niagara Falls.  But we come prepared to collect it in a tea cup because we’re afraid of what God might do with us if we had more.
    The other day I saw a yard sale sign with balloons attached to it but the balloons had been there too long.  Instead of floating, they just sort of hung there.
Lifeless. 
    As I drove by, it occurred to me that our churches are a lot like that.  We are like a balloon.  We are a vessel that takes its shape by being filled with the Spirit of God.  The more of him we contain, the more we begin to take the shape that he intends for us, the more we look like what God intends for us to look.
But to get there, we have to be stretched.
    Balloons aren’t useful unless they are stretched.  Until they are stretched, and dangerously close to bursting, they do not, they cannot, do the thing that they are intended to do.  If they aren’t stretched, they just hang there… lifeless.  
That’s exactly how many of us are.  We want God to come into the church, but too much of God frightens us.  
Being stretched is hard.
It scares us.
    We’re afraid of what might happen if we allow too much of God to come into our lives.  When balloons are too full they fly away or they burst.  We’ve read the stories in the Bible.  When God fills people up, scary things happen.  Life feels like it’s out of control.  Lives are changed.  God asks people to do things they’ve never done before.
Like helium in a balloon, when God comes in we get stretched.
    But if a balloon isn’t stretched by the helium in it, there isn’t enough to overcome the effects of gravity that is pulling it down and it just hangs there.  Lifeless.
    Likewise, even though it might feel safer, when there isn’t enough God in us to stretch us, then there isn’t enough of God to overcome the evil in the world that drags us down.  Without enough of God in the church, we look just like every other human organization. 
We don’t have enough God in us to take his shape.
I know that it’s scary.
Being stretched is uncomfortable.
Being filled with God feels dangerous (and it is).
But if we aren’t filled with enough God to really stretch us…
                  …we will never fly.

—————————————————————————————————

To receive email notification for updates to the Crossfusion blog, click here.

One Small Act Can Change the World


    Every day we make thousands of choices.  We go to the grocery store. We choose to stop at a traffic light.  Some decisions are so small that we don’t give them a second thought, but even the smallest of choices can make a world of difference.
    Captain Edward Smith chose to ignore warnings about ice in the path of the Titanic.  That one decision changed everything.
    In 1955, a seamstress at a local department store was riding the bus to work.  As the bus filled, she refused to give up her seat to another customer.  It seems like such a small thing, but with that one small choice, Rosa Parks changed the course of civil rights and American history.
    In 1989 a column of tanks descended on Tiananmen Square to crush the ongoing student.  As they did, one man stepped in front of the lead tank.  By doing so, he compelled the driver of the tank to choose.  Because of one man, the entire column of tanks came to a halt. Photographs of that moment appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.  With one act of defiance, one man captures the imagination of the world.
    Last week (April 9, 2014), a student armed with knives entered the high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania and attacked other students and a security guard.  Amid the mayhem, Nate Scimio, a student and one of the wounded, reached out and pulled the nearest fire alarm.  His quick thinking is saved lives and helped to evacuate the school.
    Even the most simple and mundane choices have the power to make a gigantic difference.  This is exactly what we find in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Two of Jesus’ friends are asked to do something so remarkably simple that we are stunned to discover how important their contribution becomes. 
Jesus tells his friends to go into town, find a donkey that he knows is there, untie it, and bring it back. 
How much easier could that be?
    What Jesus did was like asking someone to pick up a prescription.  We’ve already phoned ahead, we already know that it’s ready, all they have to do is show up, get it, and bring it back. 
And yet, as simple as it is, the task that these followers perform is significant.
    As simple as it was, the disciples did as they were asked.  As simple as it was, this act makes it possible for Jesus to arrive the way that the Kings of Israel had arrived.  One small choice transforms an ordinary arrival into an historic event. 
I want you to imagine what that might look like in your life.
Because God is the architect of our lives, he already has the big things all planned out. 
    God doesn’t ask us to build a multi-national pharmaceutical conglomerate, but simply to pick up a prescription.    Go, get it, and come back.
    A story, originally told by Loren Eiseley, tells of a man walking along a beach the night after an enormous storm.  The beach was littered with starfish which had been washed ashore and as he walked, the man came across a child who was picking up starfish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea.  After watching the child for some time the man said, “Why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. There are thousands of them.  You can’t begin to make a difference!”
    But after thinking about it for a moment, the child continued to throw starfish back into the ocean.  Each time saying, “I made a difference to thatone… I made a difference to that one…”
    Before God asks you to do something big, I can guarantee that God will ask you to do something small.  Be ready.  Do not hesitate because the thing that God asks is small. 
In the hands of God, one small act can change the world.
    Volunteer an hour of your time to visit someone who is lonely.  Buy an extra can of food for someone that is hungry.   
Smile.  A kind word or a friendly face can change the course of an entire day.   
Donate blood.  
Cry with a friend, or offer a shoulder to cry on.   
Share Jesus with a neighbor.   
Take a casserole to a neighbor who has health problems.   
    Offer to watch the children of a young family that can’t afford a baby sitter.  This may sound small, but others did this for us when our children were small and trust me, this was a generous and amazing gift.   
    Invite a single friend to dinner.  Did you know that for singles away from home, as well as for widows and widowers, family holidays like Christmas and Easter are the hardest to get through?  What’s one more chair at the table?   
    Buy a box of diapers or a can of formula for a single parent.  Do you know how expensive that stuff can be?  
Offer to wash an elderly neighbor’s car or shovel their walk in the winter.
You can make a difference but you have to do something.
One.
Small.
Thing.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make a big difference.
But in the hands of God, one small act can change the world.

We *Are* Making a Difference


    I have friends who like to say that the world would be better off without the church.  Today, 2,400,000 Africans would disagree with them.  If it had not been for the United Methodist Church (and her partners) many of those 2.4 million people, most of them children…

…would be dead.
    In 2010, children in sub-Saharan Africa were dying from malaria at a rate of one every 30 seconds.  Today that rate has dropped to one every 60 seconds.  The difference?  Our church’s campaign to eliminate malaria.  In 2008, we had “Nothing but Nets” which partnered with the NBA as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Then in 2010 this effort became “Imagine No Malaria.”  Imagine No Malaria still has the support of the Gates Foundation but also the World Health Organization, The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the United Nations Foundation.  Since 2008, The United Methodist Church has raised $40 million dollars toward our goal of $75 million.  Together, we have distributed 1.2 million insecticide treated bed nets and trained 5400 community health workers to distribute bed nets, train families in their use, and track usage rates.  The results are obvious.  In the last three years we have reduced the childhood death rate (from malaria) by half.
    Why us?  Why is the church important if the NBA, Bill Gates, the UN, and these other big names are already involved?  Is it just because eleven million United Methodists can raise money?  That is undeniably a part of it, but helping the poor has been a part of our United Methodist DNA from the very beginning.  For 200 years we have built and maintained hospitals and schools all across the continent of Africa.  When this project was conceived, everyone knew that while Americans can often be generous, and some are great at publicity, someone had to be the “boots on the ground.”  United Methodists were already there, all across the continent of Africa.  Over two centuries we have built relationships with governments, leaders and decision makers in many of those nations and we established a reputation as being genuinely interested in the welfare of their people, as well as trustworthy.
    Of course, we can’t rest yet.  The job isn’t done.  We haven’t reached our goals and one child every sixty seconds is still way too many.  The goal of Imagine No Malaria is the total elimination and eradication of malaria from the face of the earth.  That’s a long way off, but we’re headed in the right direction.
    I don’t pretend that United Methodists have a monopoly on compassion.  Clearly our story is just one of many.  Imagine No Malaria is just one way, that one church, is making a difference.  And so, to all those who think we would be better off without the church, I say this:
The people of Africa would like to disagree with you…
…because today their children are not dead.

A Letter to Sugar Grove Church


   This week I mailed a letter to the church where I attended while I was away at college more than twenty years ago.  Although I attended Ohio Northern University for six years, I attended Sugar Grove United Methodist Church for only two or three.  I tried other churches and I tried not going to church at all for a while.  Nothing felt right.  Some churches were just cold and no one talked to me.  The big Methodist church downtown was friendly enough but the pastor was a pacifist and I was in the military so it was often awkward.  Finally, I found Sugar Grove.  My welcome there was a little unexpected.  Sugar Grove was several miles outside of town in the middle of miles and miles of wheat and corn.  No students attended Sugar Grove nor did any professors or university staff… just farmers and local folks.  Nevertheless, that is where I was made to feel right at home and a part of the family.  Even though I haven’t had any contact with the good folks from Sugar Grove for a very long time, I wanted to let them know that I will be ordained in June and that they had a part in God’s unfolding plan.  Below are some excerpts from my letter.
Sugar Grove United Methodist Church                                                                                  

Ada, Ohio 45810

Greetings to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, from John Partridge, a student you might remember from long ago.

Many years ago, sometime around 1986, I first visited your church at Sugar Grove.  I had been a student since 1982 and, although I had attended many of the churches in town, I had never felt particularly at home in any of them.  I don’t remember whether I came just to give it a try or at the invitation of Don Spar, but the latter is more likely.  In any case, I remember Don telling me that if I wasn’t going home for Easter that year, his mother insisted that I come to church with them, and then follow them home for Easter dinner.  I also clearly remember, after church, seeing an older man, make eye contact from me from the other side of the sanctuary and make his way to me, weaving his way through the maze of pews, just so he could shake my hand and welcome me to Sugar Grove.  I knew that I was, finally, at home.

Whenever I share my call to ministry story, or tell others of what the church has meant to me in my journey, I often share stories about Sugar Grove.  Sugar Grove has always been a part of my story and a part of my call to ministry.  I thought I would write to let you know about my upcoming ordination, because chances are, none of you knew.

I am not sure that there is anyone at Sugar Grove that remembers me, and that’s okay, but I know who you are and what you have meant to me.  Your faithfulness to the message of Jesus Christ is, and always will be, a part of my story.  May God richly bless each one of you and your ministry.  I hope that you will remember that no matter your size, every day you are a part of a thousand stories that you might never hear on this side of eternity.  Never forget that every day you are making a difference in the lives of others just like you made a difference to me.

I hope that Sugar Grove United Methodist Church will always continue to love like Jesus.
….
 
Sugar Grove isn’t unique.  I have known other small country churches that were more loving and more welcoming than other, larger, urban and suburban churches. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

No matter who you are… 

Love like Jesus.

                                    
 

Westboro is NOT Winsome

    I have probably mentioned this before, but the folks from Westboro Baptist Church really burn my cookies.  Last night at our youth group meeting we watched a segment of Adam Hamilton’s “When Christians Get it Wrong” and were discussing how well-meaning church people often chase unbelievers away from the church instead of attracting them.  When I was much younger, we were always taught that the Christian faith should be “winsome.”  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but from the way it was used, it sounded as if it ought to be something that looked and sounded attractive.  According to the American Heritage online dictionary it does, in fact, mean charming. 

The followers of Jesus Christ are called upon to tell the world about the Good News of reconciliation, that God has done everything possible to repair our relationship with him and to demonstrate his love for us.  I have to think that demonstrating respect and love for others, for their religion, for their opinions, for their culture and for their existence would have to be the first step in doing that.  Showing up at a child’s funeral or anywhere else with signs that say “God Hates Fags,” “God Killed Your Sons,” or worst of all, “God Is Your Enemy” is definitely going in completely the wrong direction.  First of all these statements tell unbelievers that the church is out of touch and that it is full of bigoted idiots that have no desire (or ability) to understand their situation.  Worse than that, these things are all lies.  There is nothing in scripture that could lead someone to believe that God hates you or that God is your enemy.  the whole point of scripture, especially the message of the Gospel, is entirely the opposite, that God loves you more than you can know.

That doesn’t meant that God is making any compromises about things that he considers wrong, but that a message of love cannot be communicated by being hateful and hurtful.  In his book, When Christians Get it Wrong, Adam Hamilton, correctly, points to the Apostle Paul.  I have used Paul as an example for years, and so have many others.  Paul was a Pharisee.  He was incredibly well educated.  He had studied under some of the most noted Rabbis in history.  Paul knew sin and he wasn’t afraid to point out the sins of others.  Paul had often warned the churches of the evils of idol worship, particularly in those places under the influence of the Romans and Greeks (which we, pretty much everywhere), but that isn’t how he started a conversation with people who actually worshiped idols.  When Paul visited Athens, a city full of idols and temples of numerous false gods and goddesses, Luke tells us that “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  Even so, Paul didn’t launch into a tirade about how evil they all were.  He went into the synagogue and and into the marketplace reasoned with the people. His reasoning was sound enough that he was asked to go to Mars Hill and explain his views further and even there, he didn’t condemn them.  Instead, Paul said:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)

Paul began by expressing his admiration for their care in pursuing the truth even though their worship of idols distressed him.  No one will believe you if you tell them you love them while you are beating them over the head.  Telling someone that God hates them is not winsome… or loving. 

It’s just wrong.

Jesus to the World

    As we begin the month of April, end the season of Lent, celebrate Easter, and begin the season of resurrection, I hope that we will take the time to remember.  During Lent we were often asked to remember.  We were asked to remember our sin, to remember Jesus trial, conviction, brutal beatings, crucifixion and ultimate humiliation and death on the cross.  But this is different.  As we celebrate spring and begin the season of resurrection, our focus changes.  Now, instead of recalling the darkness, we change our focus to the light.  All these things are good news.  We remember that Jesus said he would be “lifted up” just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert.  We remember that Jesus’ death on the cross was the act that saved us, it was his sacrifice, his acceptance of a punishment that rightly belonged to us.  But as amazing has his sacrifice was (and is), the story would be horribly tragic if it had ended there and that is why our focus now shifts.  
    Now, we shift our attention to the end of the story, or more correctly, to the beginning of the new story.  As we celebrate the coming of spring we remember that the trees that once looked dead burst forth in new growth.  We remember that the spring flowers that died last summer rise again from the earth and display their beauty to the world.  In the same way, we remember that Easter is a story of a new beginning.  Jesus took our punishment for sin when he died on the cross, but in three days what was once dead burst from the earth, rose again, and returned to life.  It was through the resurrection that we know that God approved of Christ’s sacrifice.  It was through the resurrection that we know that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, and it is through the resurrection that we know that a new age has begun.  At the moment of resurrection we discover the end of the Passion story and the end of the Gospels but we also find the beginning of God’s new covenant with his people.  It is at the moment of resurrection that we begin to anticipate the future work of the body of Christ and the creation of the church as we know it.
    Lent and Easter, the Passion and the Resurrection, are two sides of one whole.  During Lent we remember what Christ has done for us.  At Easter we celebrate his victory over death and our invitation to eternal life but there is more to it than that.  Easter is the end of the Gospel story and near the end of Jesus’ time on earth but it is just the beginning of ourstory, the story of the church and ourmission.  Easter begins a turning point of history when Christ prepares his followers to take up his cross, to assume his mission on earth as their mission and to truly become the hands and feet of Jesus.  The celebration of Easter is not only a call to remember and not only a call to follow Jesus Christ, but it is a call to be Jesus to the world.
On Easter Sunday we will shout, “He is risen!” but as we do so we will hear the risen Christ calling to us to take up his cross and to carry on with the work that he began.
Will we answer his call?
Will we beJesus to the world around us?
.