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Matthew Gilley didn’t find himself in church all that often. Even as recently as a year ago, he was hesitant to enter the doors of a sanctuary. On Sundays in 2013 however, you can find him in the pulpit of FUMC Jarrell.
One doesn’t become a minister overnight, and Gilley’s rapid progression is rooted in a life long struggle with faith.
“I had no concept of who Jesus was. I had a Bible, but I had no idea of the significance of it,” Gilley said of his youth. “My family moved around 30 plus times before I hit high school. Finally, my junior year I lived in the same place for two and half years and started to meet people. They went to church and I started to go with them. We went to church Sunday school and then church and then another event Sunday night. We went to Bible studies on Wednesday night and on Thursdays we went to a Baptist church that had a contemporary service. We did church.”
Conflicts and staff changes eventually led to Gilley and his friends abandoning their church, and he wouldn’t return for years.
“During my senior year of high school, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. That really changed me. When I was finally starting to understand God and grow with him, I became confused. I turned my confusion into anger. It was easier to hate God than to try and figure it all out.”
Gilley is a self-proclaimed ‘mamma’s boy.’ As a promising student heading to college after graduation, the future looked bright before he received news of his mother’s illness. Even though, his college was only seven miles from home, he found it difficult to visit home and see his mother sick.
“The strongest person I had ever seen … to see her not be able to get up in the morning and not be able to walk … that was tough on me,” Gilley said. “Finally I buried myself so much into school and work that I burned myself out and lost my scholarship.”
Gilley left school and joined the Army.
“Through all this, I still believed in God, but I defiantly did not trust him.”
Gilley’s mother went into remission, but she wasn’t healthy for long. After three years, the cancer came back.
“I had to watch it all over again. I was doing well in the Army, but I still didn’t feel like I was where I wanted to be,” Gilley said. “I was deployed to Iraq while my mom was fighting breast cancer. I left for Iraq fully expecting that would be the last time I saw my mom.”
Gilley returned home for an R&R visit four and a half months into the deployment and saw that his mother’s condition had deteriorated.
He went back to Iraq for another month and received a letter informing him that the cancer had spread to his mother’s brain. The Army allowed him to return home to care for her. After spending many sleepless nights and days at his mother’s side, she exhaled for the last time. Gilley began calling relatives and handling preparations. The busyness did not allow him to process and grieve.
“I was back in Iraq … a week after she passed. Trying to cope with the loss of my mom while in a war zone was rough. I had very few distractions,” Gilley said. “Once I got over the sadness, it turned to anger. My anger was turned at God.”
Gilley was fed up with how his life was going.
“Finally, I sat down one day and thought ‘I keep saying two things over and over again. The happiest times of my life are one: the times when I’m on the dance floor because I love it, and two: my junior year of high school when I was in church,’” Gilley said. “It finally dawned on me. My relationships weren’t working out because I was focusing on the wrong relationships. I needed that relationship with God and I needed to find trust in him.”
Gilley committed to read the entire New Testament in one month. In his reading he discovered answers to questions he had about faith he never even thought ask.
“I had this horrible idea in my head that I had to prepare myself to come to church. How could I be around the people doing good when I still don’t have it figured out for myself,” he said. “But, we aren’t going to become perfect overnight. That’s the whole point. We are going to struggle, but it is the trusts
in God that he wills see us through it. Because of Jesus’ death we are forgiven of our sins. ì
Gilley finally decided to return to church. The NEXT young adult group at FUMC Killeen rallied around their new friend. Angel Lono discovered Gilley’s love for country music and dancing. Soon, the entire NEXT group was accompanying Gilley to country concerts at Schoepfs barbeque.
Involvement in church was not enough for Gilley. He felt like he was supposed to do something more.
While attending the NEXT Sunday School class, he often felt like he should speak up in the discussion. The thought of speaking in class scared him.
“Sitting at home one night, finally I sat down, flipped through the Bible … and something said stop on Jeremiah. Seeing God call Jeremiah to speak for him and do more for him. Jeremiah thought God was crazy, and he wasn’t the right guy,” Gilley said. “That’s when I realized God wants me to speak for him.
That’s when I heard my call to ministry.”
Gilley started his eager pursuit to ministry with more personal research and lay speaking classes. He took a Go Preach class where people were impressed by the same message he was nervous to share. Gilley also began taking classes to finish his bachelor’s degree, all while continuing to serve in the military.
“The call scared me. What do I do? How do I prepare for this? Trust God. Start on that path and He will let me know what the path is.”
Then another call came – this time on the telephone. United Methodist Church South District Superintendent Rankin Koch called him with a new opportunity. The First United Methodist Church in Jarrell was in search of a part time pastor. Koch thought Gilley was a prime candidate for the position.
“Well, I’m not going to say no,” Gilley told Koch. “I’m open to it.”
Gilley was approved and became the pastor at FUMC Jarrell. Gilley did not share their confidence in himself, but he had trust in God. The very trust he used to lack so desperately.
“Am I really ready for this?” Gilley asked. “The week that I got the phone call and told yes was exactly one year from the time I decided to fix my relationship with God.”
His first Sunday preaching at Jarrell was only his second time preaching in front of a congregation, and Gilley was understandably nervous.
“The moment I said good morning, calm came over me. I was relaxed. I wasn’t nervous. I felt like I had done this forever. I have done public speaking for 10 plus years, and I am always nervous, but this time, I was calm.”
The church in Jarrell is thriving and growing as Gilley pastors. Despite serving full time in the military, Gilley is devoted to his church. Jarrell takes pride in its high school basketball teams, and often you can find Gilley in the bleachers, alongside his new community rooting on the students.
“When you get up there and see that you are touching people, it’s a weird feeling,” Gilley said. “Maybe this is the right place. This is what God called me to do. I had to trust God, and when I finally trusted God and had faith that he would see me through, he showed me the path and has walked me down it. I had to take that first step. I had to put faith in Him that He was going to do it, and He did it.”
Happy Belated Valentine’s Day!
I wanted to start off today and tell you about my brother. Stefan picture I asked my mom for a recent photo of him and she sent me this. I think its alarmingly appropriate for Valentine’s day.
Now my brother, Stefan is eleven years old. This year was the first Valentine’s day for him that actually kind of meant something beyond sharing candy at school. My brother is helplessly in love. In fact, last time I saw him, he told me that this new love interest of his, Shayla, had become his girlfriend.
“Wow that’s a big deal Stefan. Does Shayla, like being your girlfriend?” I asked him.
“Well, she doesn’t really know she’s my girlfriend, but she is.”
Turns out Stefan has really only ever said one or two nervous words to this mysterious blonde who shares a math class with him. But man, to him, that is love. Not to me though. Love takes time. Love is a relationship. A journey. I can give anybody flowers on February 14, but when I give flowers to Brittany, my fiancée, it means something more. I could pick out her favorite flowers and colors and buy her favorite candy and meet her at her work, because I know her. And I have no problem showing that. She made me steak for dinner on Valentines… she knows me too.
I wanted to look at a love story in the bible today, though you probably have never thought of it as one before. This isn’t the story of romantic love, but something deeper. This is love story between a lost creature and a redeeming creator. It’s a story of the unconditional love of Christ, and the fallable love of humanity. I’ll be doing something a little different with this story, as, like our relationships, this one takes time to develop. In the gospel of John we meet a man named Nicodemus and he pops up three times in the story. In between his apperances all kinds of things happen to Jesus and his disciples. So I’ll be telling his story in three parts, with different parts of the service happening in between. Turn with me to John 3. Starting in Verse 1. I’m standing here at this door, because the first encounter occurs at a meeting after dark.
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. The Pharisees are those guys who are always fighting with Jesus and trying to get him in trouble. And he was a LEADER of the Jews. That’s the like equivalent to being on our city council and all our church committees combined. Nicodemus was a powerful man. We also know that Jesus tends to run into trouble with the people Nicodemus associates with. He comes to Jesus at night, you know, when it’s best to be sneaky, and he seeks him out. He desires audience with Jesus – someone who his peers want nothing to do with, and he certainly doesn’t want them to know. And asks a question: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus respects Jesus, and knows he’s from God… but still doesn’t understand who he is.
So Jesus tries to explain his whole teaching by saying, to see the kingdom of God, one must be born from “Above.” The greek word used here for ‘above.’ also means again. Some translations say ‘again’ and some say ‘above.’ Most, choose in between the two to try and make it clear. But Jesus’ word aren’t clear. Still, Nicodemus doesn’t even consider the possibility of Jesus meaning “above” over “again.” He quickly points out how silly it is to be physically born again. I was 8 pounds when I was born. I am just a tad bit more than 8 pounds now. You can’t just be a newborn again – Jodi –who’s due date it today! Will tell you, birthing the baby once is quite enough. And he’s right, in his way of thinking. But totally wrong about what Jesus is trying to say. So Jesus tries another metaphor – Water and Spirit. Sure water is a physical word – in their culture water was often associate with physical birth too, but spirit … clearly Jesus is talking about something, well, spiritual. But the greek word for spirit – pneuma – could mean wind too. So Nicodemus misses it again. His own preconceived definition of terms and misconceptions are bound too tightly to be understood.
I relate to Nicodemus here, I really do. The more I grow and learn in my faith, the more I see that when I think I have Jesus or religion all figured out, I’m a off. And it’s hard to shake whatever your experience with pain or the church has done how you think about God. The history of the church and those claiming Christ isn’t particularly gleaming all the time. It’s hard not to come to Jesus without everything the culture around us has told us.
So Jesus rebukes him. Aren’t you a teacher and you don’t understand?? Ouch. And then he gives a lesson best summed up by the verse you probably know by heart. His discussion to Nicodemus gives us the most quoted verse of our faith: For God so loved the world he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him won’t perish. That’s the simple and yet complex statement of faith we have our kids memorize. You can’t compact the gospel any more tightly than that. So what happens next?? Does Nicodemus jump for joy and finally get it and leave everything to follow Christ. Aha! The truth has come! What happens? Well, I don’t know. Silence. The story moves on and the Nicodemus episode is over. Relationships can take time.
So as you read John, you are cruising through and Jesus is doing all these super sweet miracles and teachings. And we get to chapter three, and there in passing, in our friend Nicodemus. If the gospel of John was a TV show like LOST at this point in the story we would need that guy with the raspy voice to say “Previously, on John” and fill us in with what has been happening. Turn with me to chapter 7 verse 45. Right before we pick up the story, Jesus was in a dialog with the crowd about who he was. The crowd comes to realize that Jesus is the son of God, and the temple police are amazed by him too. but the Jewish leaders are not convinced
45 Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” 46 The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” 47 Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? 48 Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?49 But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus[q] before, and who was one of them, asked, 51 “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”
Here’s Nicodemus. Obviously, he still has his role with the Pharisees, so whatever happened to him back in chapter 3 hasn’t seemed to change his life too drastically. The Pharisees basically say: “these simple people may believe him, but none of us smarter, wiser, more influential people do. We are the ones that matter.” Here you want Nicodemus to stand up and shout: “I believe him! And I’m a leader!” But that’s not quite what happens. When his peers attack Jesus, Nicodemus simply asks them to have a trail for Jesus before they convict him. This is basic human rights: Before you condemn someone, you at least hear their case. We see he isn’t ready to side with Jesus, but he wants to at least let Jesus defend himself. John reminds us that Nicodemus is the one that visited Jesus, and he is the one that stands against the Pharisees. Well, you would think they would at least take Nicodemus ‘ point into consideration, but instead, they hurl insults at him. Can’t attack the argument? Attack the arguer. In the boil of their unreasonable anger, they say a prophet can’t come from Galiee (even though 2 Kings specifically says Jonah is from there).
When I was a freshman high school I had a crush on a girl. Now this girl was just the sweetest, smartest, 9th grader around. But she wasn’t one of the cool kids. I wanted to be her boyfriend. I mean, in 9th grade you gotta start thinking about your future, right? But I didn’t want to be dating an uncool girl. So she became my “Secret girlfriend.” We would chat on AOL instant messenger and go to each others houses. When we where hanging out, we had a great time. But at school, I kept my distance. No acknowledgment.
I feel terrible about this to this day. I was jerk.
When we see how Nicodemus and Jesus so far in both chapter 3 and 7, I wonder if his relationship to him is similar to mine was with my secret girlfriend. Jesus is Rabbi and teacher when his friends aren’t around. But not so in public. Yet, I think John includes this passing mention of Nicodemus, to remind us – the story it isn’t over. It’s as if he’s saying “I know I left you hanging with that Nicodemus thing back at the end of Chapter 3, but I haven’t forget. He still exists. And he is at least a little different now than the other Pharisees.
As I was laying out this message, I thought of how we have mentions of birth in chapter 3, and now Nicodemus is standing up to his peers – albeit shakily. My cousin Zoe is 9 months old. It’s taken every day of those 9 months to go from being born to standing, and even now, she can’t do it by herself. Eventually she will walk and run and, most likely, get into all kinds of trouble too. But now she is just trying to stand.
And then more silence from John on Nicodemus. Jesus’s ministry continues and now, as we turn to take the elements of the table, and know what comes next in the story: The death of Christ, remember Nicodemus – what was going with him during all that.
Just come up and read:
“38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
Never has “After these things,” meant more. After these things, the death of Christ – The brutal killing of the lamb – yeah, after those things, Joseph comes to bury the body and he has some help. Nicodemus. Remember, he’s the one who came at night. Carrying spices that weigh 100roman pounds. 100 roman pounds translates to about 75 of ours. That’s not something to be glossed over. Remember the path Jesus took He starts right in town with Pilate, and then they have him take his cross to Golgotha. Jews can’t be around dead bodies, so there this place isn’t right in the city. He had to walk a little ways. And Nicodemus did too. Carrying all those spices. Remember, Nicodemus, the one who came at night all the way back in chapter three. He was the one Jesus told about being born. Remember, in chapter 7, when he stands up to his Pharisees – Timid Nicodemus, just learning about birth and trying to stand. 12 chapters later: he walks. And he bears a heavy load.
So why 75 pounds of spices? What’s the significance? Everything. You see, that huge use of excess wasn’t just normal burial customs. In the Hebrew Bible, we only see that amount of spice being used to bury a king. Nicodemus, once afraid to even be seen talking to Jesus, walks straight through town in front of everyone. Lugging what acts as a sign that says “Jesus is King.”
I did bring my fiancée flowers on Valentines day. If you ever have bought flowers in say, May, and then bought flowers around February 14, you know there is a little bit of a price difference. And what good are flowers? They die. Fast. And you can’t change your oil with flowers. You can’t eat them or learn from them. They are just fleeting pretty things. You know why we love flowers? Because they are fleeting and beautiful. Practicality isn’t the issue at hand when you love someone. Is it a waste of money to buy flowers for my fiancée at triple price on Valentines day? Not at all. I love her, so I do things that show it. I wanted to just meet her in the parking lot of her work to give her my gift, but she wanted me to come inside. Having me hand her flowers in front of everyone around her mattered to her. It made it more special. There is nothing secret about our relationship. Nothing secret about how I feel about her.
I don’t know where you are with your walk with Christ. Maybe you are in chapter 3 – skeptical and not understanding this whole Jesus thing. Maybe you are chapter 7 – you know Jesus, and he has changed you, but you don’t look all that different. Maybe you love Christ, but no one sees it. You love to spend time with him in solitude, but where is the PDA? Having a secret relationship, well that’s not much of a relationship at all. Or maybe you are chapter 19. Lugging through town a sign that says I love Jesus. Does the way you live, look like Nicodemus, taking care of the soon to be risen Lord? Nicodemus buries Jesus as a King, and he rises from the grave his savior.
My brother Stefan thinks he has a girlfriend, but she has no idea he even likes her. Jesus and everyone else knew EXACTLY how Nicodemus felt about him, as he walked to cross with 70 pounds of spices.
What does your relationship with Jesus, look like to everyone else? What do your coworkers, friends, and the people that follow you on twitter know? What does your relationship to Jesus look like to him?
I was born to a single mother and raised by her with the help of my grandparents. I have two aunts just 9 and 12 years older than me. With my grandpa always gone as a trucker, I was surrounded by women.
Trust me, I know way too many lyrics to musicals and I can explain the difference between foundation and concealer. My mom was nothing like what you see on Teen Mom, or any other reality show. She gave up being young and carefree to be a mother. She didn’t even date until I was 8. She started dating my stepdad, at first, all I knew about him was he was the reason my mom would be on the phone while I shouted at her to tuck me in and read me a story. But this man soon appeared in life and started playing Stratego and Mario with me. We played catch and made silly bathroom jokes that I couldn’t make with the girls in my family. After they had been together about a year, the army stationed him in Germany. We went there to visit during a frosty November, and, while we were there, he dropped to one knee and asked my mom to be his wife, and me to be his son.
I just got engaged last week and I am beyond excited about it. I’m ready to be a newlywed and just live life in the honeymoon stage. But my dad didn’t get a traditional honeymoon stage. He went from a bachelor to being the father of a chubby, nerdy, and awkwardly tall nine year old. All three of us lit the unity candle at the wedding ceremony, but I didn’t have much to offer to the relationship. But my dad loved me anyway. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to burden a new marriage with a 9 year old that won’t fall asleep because of jet lag, homesickness, and too much mountain dew. But for the first time, I knew what it meant to have a dad. And I got the first real glimpse of the kind of love Jesus demonstrated by coming to earth.
Scripture tells about why Jesus came as a baby in Bethlehem,
Turn with me to Philippians 2, and we are going to look at verses 5-11. Paul is writing to the church he founded in Philippi, and encouraging them to live in the example Christ set. What follows here is a hymn, so take notice of the poetry as we read it. Jewish poetry, which Paul would have been very familiar with as the Hebrew Scripture is riddled with it, instead of rhyming, holds its form with repetitions, wordplay, and contrast. So as we read, think of this as reading poetry, or the lyrics to a song.
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.
Paul introduces Jesus to the reader as being in the FORM of GOD. His very essence and nature is God. The Greeks and Romans in Philippi where raised on myths of gods who were selfish abusers of power. They exploited their position for their own wealth or pleasure, and disregarded the consequences. The word we translate as “exploit” could also be “snatching.” The Romans in Philippi are used to stories of the beautiful gods tormenting humans on a whim. Bickering gods where out to promote themselves and trample anyone else. No doubt, the Philippines saw that abuse of power happening not just in their mythology, but in their society too. Times haven’t really changed.
The first contrast in the poem is the audiences expectation of how a god would act. But Christ never exploited his power as God, because God, our one and only God, is nothing like the cheap imitations of the myths. Instead of snatching and acting selfishly, he EMPTIES himself. The greek there, kenosis, means just that. Pouring out – what you would do with a glass of water, and it’s something Christ CHOOSES to do to himself. He decides to descend into humanity.
A commentator writes that “For him, equality with God meant giving up privileges, emptying himself, serving as a slave, spending himself, obeying God, and dying a slave’s death on a cross. Being equal to God meant making himself nothing and giving rather than getting, and his giving of himself revealed the true nature and love of God.”
He emptied himself by taking the form of a slave. Here is the paradox of what Christmas is about. God, supreme, timeless, and impervious to change or pain or death, choose to leave behind his throne and take on the form of dirty, smelling humankind. The word here “slave” is sometimes translated servant, but slave is best. You see, a slave has no rights. And Christ chooses to empty himself to become the suffering.
In Genesis 1, the poet describes God creating the heavens and the earth with purpose and order and beauty. The Hebrew word “bara” is what we translate as create, but this word was reserved solely for acts of divine creation. He speaks things into being with his words alone. It’s even been suggested that when you pronounce the word in Hebrew, BARA, the word its self-will sounds like breath. Christ, whose very breath can BARA, create, takes on the smelly breathe of humanity.
We don’t understand emptying of one’s self. We live in a world of fear, and violence, and greed, and selfishness. When there is trouble, we instinctually flee. When it comes to life and death, we go into fight or flight mode. Jesus had every opportunity to see the problem of sin in the world, and flee. He could send a flood, and grieve again over the sins of his creation. But that’s not what he did. Instead of exploiting his equality with God, he grabbed at sins of humanity. He emptied himself, and went into the darkness. He joined us, as a slave, and gave his life for us. He chose this. He humbled himself, in the, mysterious incarnation, by becoming obedient to the point of death,
“even death on a cross.”
But the poem isn’t over. Another contrast. He defeats death. He is exalted. In his obedience and becoming a man, he sets a precedent for the resurrection of the dead, and now he is exalted so that everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord.
Jesus came to earth. He is fully God, and we was born as a baby. Humanity, wandering in darkness and pain and sin, is delivered by one of their own.
A church father wrote “His son took on my limbs, was conceived and born of a virgin, bearing all the attributes of men, and though He is the Lord of all He became a servant to undertake in one body the burdens of all. He who dwelt on high took the likeness of a slave, though he was reigning as God with the likeness of God, in company with His regal Father. He took on the likeness of a slave, and destroyed that guilt by which man of old was a slave to punishment and death. Bearing the form of slave, the Lord became our flesh and restored His servant to freedom, so that through Christ’s plundering of the earthly Adam on the cross, my heavenly form might return to me.
This beautiful hymn isn’t just Paul using a letter as a place to develop his theology. Notice how he starts it: Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.
I’m not God, how can I empty myself? We don’t crucify anymore, how do I humble myself and obey?
As I was preparing for this, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut
Dawn Hochsprung was the principal at Sandy Hook elementary. She loved her students. When a gunman forced his way into her school to harm children, she left safety and ran at him. She gave her life, because she loved those kids. Hochsprung’s cousin, told Good morning America that, “My only hope is that the gunman actually had a little bit of fear knowing this 5-foot-2-inch raging bull was coming at him, that he had a little bit of fear in his eyes that knowing that someone like Dawn was going to come after him because he was trying to hurt her students,” she said. “She was so vibrant and so full of life and I want people to know that she was a hero.”
Why did Hochsprung do what she did? Why did my dad take on the burden of a child and raise him as his own? Why did Christ, God himself, pour himself out to be a slave and face death at the hands of his own creation?
Love. And it’s that love that surrounds you now. It’s with the same love that encourages you to look to Christ’s life as a model for your own. And it is that love that begs you to humble yourself, exploit nothing, and embrace giving.
This hymn so beautiful describes the mystery of the incarnation and the theology that we hold on to as Christians. Understanding Christmas and why we celebrate is really important. We light the advent wreaths and sing the songs. We can recite this hymn and the creeds that profess our faith. But Paul isn’t telling us to just know how to defend our faith or explain the trinity. He doesn’t want to just make sure we say “Merry Christmas” to store clerks and set up our nativity. He calls us to imitate in ourselves and as a community, the very attitude and character that had God himself, choosing to descend into darkness. We are called to act and live and unite in a way that demonstrates these truths we hold in our heart. And that starts in your everyday activities and interactions.
I don’t know what it was like for my dad to be a newlywed with a ten-year-old. But I am so grateful he did it.
I just shot 4 videos of my friends Kirk Baxley, Nick Arbuckle, Jonathan Bautista and crew performing song of their songs. We set this up in a little living room/foyer area of a apartment complex. None of the instruments are plugged in and all the audio is coming from microphones catching everything from the room. I had a blast with these and I think they turned out really nice. A new video will be coming out once a week for 4 weeks as we lead up to the release of their EP – Cold as a Stone.
I got to meet Pops last week. He is church member at FUMC Killeen, and we sat down in his home and talked for about an hour and a half. It was so tough to condense his story into under 6 min for our Sojourn service. I am glad to now call Pops my friend.
-Harold Best, Unceasing Worship
I felt like a bowl-cut sporting eight-year-old when I saw that Disney bought Lucasfilm. Star Wars 7, 8 & 9 are coming to a galaxy near you.
My mom took me each opening night when the movies were re-released in 1997. I still have my school notebook where I recorded my daily sentences. The page with ‘I saw Return of the Jedi last night’ scribbled across is marked with a Death Star sticker.
I can’t imagine what is going on in Hollywood. A generation of directors, writers, cameramen and sound technicians fell in love with film in 1977. They saw Luke turn off his targeting computer and fire his proton torpedos into the Death Star. They where captivated by Chewie in the garbage masher and Darth Vader’s booming voice. And at some point, they decided they wanted to make movies when they grew up.
When director J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) heard the news, he told Entertainment Weekly, “Part of me? Thrilled. Part of me? Terrified. Most of me? Thrillified.”
Whoever is involved in the next set of Star Wars movies will have a chance to use whatever skill and passion they have honed over their careers to share part of a story they love deeply. What I would give to be a part of it myself.
But why are we so anxious about Star Wars, when there is a story much bigger and more personal story for all of us? The rights for it didn’t cost $4 billion; they were given to us in a direct command of Christ.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), Jesus says. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (28:20).”
When we create, do we do so with the same attention to detail and quality that we would if we were working on Star Wars? How about when we plan worship? What we create isn’t merely following in the footsteps of Lucas. We are to follow in the footsteps of the Creator.
As Christians we are tasked to be storytellers. It’s the story of the incomprehensible God, author of beauty. It’s the story of Jesus Christ who took on humanity to save it. The story of your life and the human experience It’s the story of 2,000 years of church history. It’s the story John Donne, Mozart, Michaelangelo, and C.S. Lewis all participated in sharing.
Go create. We have been charged to use beauty, love, and truth to the story of the God of beauty, love and truth.
That gets me thrillified.
I woke up on Christmas morning too early. The stars in the German sky glided through my skylight, illuminating my bare feet as they met the bristled carpet. On every Christmas morning preceding this one, I woke up my teenage aunts first. We stampeded down the basement stairs to wake up my grandparents in a joyous leap. None of them where with me now, and my Mom and Jim hadn’t discussed the protocol for waking up.
Ten-year-olds are never as quiet as they think they are. Already at 130 pounds, there was little stealth to in my voyage from my bedroom to the bathroom. Even presents and stockings full of candy had to wait for needs of my bladder. I purposely let the toilet seat clank down after I finished. The loud smack of plastic and porcelain acted a movie set clapper. Christmas Morning – scene one, take one. Action! I headed down the hall.
I decided to wait in the kitchen. I had ten years experience as a kid. Jim had only been a father and husband about five months. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Morning pumpkin,” my mom said as she opened her bedroom door. “Merry Christmas.”
She was on strict orders not to call me that, or any other type of vegetable, fruit or desert, within 3 miles of other living (or dead) creatures. Christmas is a special occasion, so I let it slide.
We moved to Germany after the wedding because Jim, my stepdad, was stationed there with the Army. I didn’t know what the German word for pumpkin was, but Mom wasn’t allowed to call me that either.
She turned on the stove and coffee pot, and pulled a carton of eggs from the fridge. I tried my best to hide my annoyance as I sat at the table. French toast or omelets, unlike my bladder, should not get in the way of presents.
There was no sign of Jim.
My grandpa always took forever to get upstairs for Christmas. It was the only day of the year he used his camera equipment, and I think he spent the other 364 mornings hiding the lens and batteries all over the house. Jim was taking an equally long time to emerge this morning. Maybe he was flying a tripod or flash bulb across the Atlantic for my grandparents.
Jim stepped out of the bedroom just as mom was pulling the last of the bacon out of the sizzling skillet. He was freshly shaved and dressed in jeans and a polo. His priorities were way off.
We all walked into the living room to snatch up our overflowing stockings. Candy and a Gameboy game spilled out over the red felt with my name stitched across. I guessed it was Pokemon. A copy of Woodworking Magazine and Consumer Reports peeked out of my Dad’s stocking. My mom’s stocking sat beside ours, empty as the Easter grave.
Maybe Jim and I thought the Holy Spirit would fill it like Mary’s womb. It was Christmas, after all.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” my Dad said, clearly distraught. As newlyweds, Mom and Jim went out of their way to be sweet to each other.
She told us it was fine and that we should open our presents. The breakfast had cooled and she trudged to the kitchen to divvy it out onto plates. I looked at Jim.
It’s hard to describe the relationship between a father and son that was as old as a goldfish. We were still adjusting to our new roles and each other. He even thought baseball was better with a designated hitter – a deal breaker in my opinion. But we had one big thing in common We both loved my mom more than anything in the world. And we both let her down.
In Germany, nothing is open after 5 p.m. on a work day. There was zero chance we could run to the store on Christmas to make some purchases, and Santa had already flown over our sooty tile roof. The tar on the highway would have taken the day off if it wasn’t stuck there. I grabbed Mom’s stocking and ran back into my parent’s bedroom with Jim.
I don’t know what Mom did after we disappeared in the back. But she was sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee and magazine when we came back. She immediately set both down.
Her stocking burst of crudely wrapped objects. Her brush, hair caught in the bristles, poked out of folded and wrinkled Christmas paper and truant tape. She laughed as she unwrapped a half-full bottle of shampoo. She pretended to be surprised by finding her own jewelry resting on the candy we plucked out of our stash.
“I picked that out,” I said as she pulled a damp loofah from her ornamental sock. “Dad paid for it though.”
Mom’s stocking was filled to the brim every year after that – my Dad and I made sure of that (he more so than I). He learned how to be a better husband, and I learned how to be a son. Not just to Mom, but to my Dad.
My big toe poked out of the end of my dilapidated leather shoe. I didn’t care. Today was a day to celebrate, and I would be getting new shoes soon enough. 1934 was going to be my year.
I opened the door to the liquor store and it creaked with age. I hadn’t spent much time in Greenville yet, but on Monday I’d be starting my job. The Public Works of Art project was commissioning painters all over the country to capture the landscapes of America. I always loved to paint, but I never expected brushes and color to pay me a cent again – not after everything fell apart. I would have sold my palette for some pork trimmings just 6 months ago. No one would have made that trade.
Now, I could afford brandy.
Bottles lined wooden shelves, but even the sparkle of the Carolina sun on the green and brown glass couldn’t distract from the enormity of the man behind the counter. “Afternoon, sir,” he said distantly. His lower lip was packed with chewing tobacco.
“Good day. I’m here to buy a brandy worth celebrating with,” I said, hoping my cheery demeanor would influence the salesman. “Can you help me Mr. …”
“Jackson,” he said. “And it’s nice to hear someone is celebrating these days. It’s tough times. I think we have a bottle or two that will fit your needs.”
Jackson stepped out from behind the counter, his shirtsleeves straining from the size of his arms. His face, though cracked and hard from time, looked too kind to belong to a man this large. And too sad. He looked down at my feet.
“I apologize for my dress,” I said, anticipating any remark he might have made. “I was without work for quite some time. But I have found an opportunity, and I have money to buy both drink and new footwear.”
“It’s good to hear you have found work. I have too many customers who can’t afford clothes for their kids,” Jackson said, alternating his glances between me and the shelves. “Plus, I never put much weight in a man’s shoes.”
His lips curled and hinted at a smirk. I recognized him.
“You’re Shoeless Joe Jackson!” I accidentally shouted. I was overcome to meet someone I had seen so many times as a boy. “You used to play for the …”
“The ‘Black’ Sox?” Joe interrupted me. He was clearly disappointed to be recognized.
Shoeless Joe was my father’s favorite ballplayer when I was young. He hit .408 as a rookie – a batting average that would have led the league in almost every year but the one he hit it in. They used to call his glove, ‘the place where triples go to die.’ But that’s not what people remembered. It wasn’t the first thing I thought of either.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean stir anything up. It’s just, I’m from Chicago. I loved watching you play. I’ve never seen anyone hit as good as you.”
“Then you never saw Ty Cobb,” Jackson said, softened some by my statements. “I appreciate you talking about how I played. Most people seem to forget that.”
In 1919, the Chicago White Sox, led by Jackson, where the clear favorites to win the World Series. Anyone betting against them would have been a fool. That’s exactly what a certain circle of gamblers counted on. Players salaries were decided by the owners, and the White Sox where barely making enough to support themselves. They all worked other jobs during the offseason. Industry was growing all over the country, and baseball was another good to be sold by financial kings. When gamblers promised some of the Sox a bit of the profits, several players where willing to throw the games. The Sox lost the series, but they didn’t get away with it. Eight players were banned from baseball, including Joe.
“I hit .375 in that series. Set the World Series record for hits. The grand jury acquitted me,” Jackson said like he was repeating a memorized Bible verse. He held a bottle of whiskey in his hand familiarly. “But I agreed to fix the series. That’s bad enough.”
Jackson’s coarse hands gripped each bottle he investigated on the shelves. He wiped his hands on his coveralls after handling bottle of Kentucky bourbon that must not have been sealed. He scrubbed his palms against the fabric over and over.
“Lefty Williams was in on the fix, but we decided we where going to try to win anyway. No one was gonna give us money,” Joe said. “Then Lefty got home, and the crooks had his wife at gunpoint. I would have pitched at the bleachers, if I was him.”
“I don’t think it was fair Mr. Jackson,” I said. “I never did.”
“Neither is life,” he said. “I just lost my job a few years before everyone else did, and I’m doing ok. I never even learned to read or write.”
Joe handed me a bottle as I pulled my wallet from my pocket.
“You know, in 1920, this country decided alcohol was evil,” Joe said, still looking at the label he couldn’t read. “After the amendment last year, I opened this shop.”
“Sometimes people realize they were wrong,” I said. “Time has a way of adjusting to things. The right usually prevails in the end.”
But sometimes it doesn’t.
I left the shop unsure of which bottle I needed to open next. I used the walk home to choose between the brandy and my paint.
The mountain stands above the seas, and all I do is climb. I lust to span the atmosphere; to seek him and to find. I long to kiss the wispy lips embrace the arms of cloud. My skin is cracked; my eyes are strained, yet I am just a mound. The mountain knows a higher truth I've never learned on earth. The deluge; dark, dispensing walls; illuminates my curse. I'll search in texts and scrolls of men, chase every phrase I find; The mountain stands above the seas stillness, peace divine.