Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Big Things

The Big Things
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 27, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 9: 46-48
Proverbs 13: 22

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

As we kick off Bible School this week, I wanted to do a couple of things this morning. The first thing that I want to do is put into perspective what we are doing this week; what it's all about, why it's important, why I'm so proud that so many of us have decided to volunteer their time, for what will be a tiring and fulfilling week. I want to rally the troops and make people excited about the week ahead, and hopefully inspire us toward some extra energy for the road ahead this week, because we are going to need it. The last time that DeAnna and I worked a VBS was a couple of years ago, Coralee was just one year old, and she wasn't the only one who needed a nap every day, but it is and was so worth it. The Old and New Testament passages seek to put it all into perspective. This proverb states exactly what we are going to do, the gift we are giving these kids. . ..
22 A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,
but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous. [1]

That is what we are doing, we are leaving our inheritance, we are passing on the love of Jesus Christ to a new generation, and there is no more important thing. A few years ago, before we started the Children's initiative here, I used this New Testament passage, because in it Jesus shows us what we need to be truly great:
46 And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” [2]

 How simple a thing, and yet it is the definition of greatness. . . simply receiving a child in Jesus' name, and it just so also rings true that a good man is one who leaves an inheritance. . . passes on what he has been blessed with, giving it forward to the next generation, creating that foundation, that nest egg, that gift of the truth on which to build life. It would be easy for us here to simply continue on. . . to focus on ourselves, to keep our church, to be our church, to do as we have always done, to decide that the kids these days just aren't interested anymore, and that their parents just don't care like parents used to. . . take stock in past attempts, past energy that fizzled, all the times that this church has tried, had big hopes, worked hard, and just couldn't sustain it. It would be easy to just focus on the little things that we do, and forget about the big things, the things that make us good, and make us great. It's funny how things that are big, the big things like welcoming a child seem little, and the little things like budgets and committees, and logistics seem so big. It is so easy to get lost in the little.
I saw this week, and I don't bring it up for political reasons, even though so many have, I don't think it has anything to do with the President, but rather our culture. Did you hear the story about the woman who was having a baby and wasn't allowed to cross the road to get to the hospital because the President's motorcade was due to arrive in 15 minutes and they'd already closed the street. They brought nurses across the street to her, they tried to make her comfortable, but they put her in a holding pattern to wait because procedures had to be followed. The little things had gotten to be so big, that the big things didn't matter. . . no one had the common sense anymore to realize the difference, to see that the rules paled in scope and size to a vulnerable woman in need. There was such an easy thing that someone could do, but no one did it. It's a Good Samaritan parable situation. All those religious professionals were going down the street, passed by the man lying, dying in the ditch, because they thought where they were going was the big thing, and that the man in need was small in comparison. That's what that story is about. . . . and that's what our week this week is about. . . at least for us.
And it's good to keep it in perspective because it will be easy to let the little get to be big. It will be easy to get bogged down in the details. . . it will be easy to get upset by personality conflicts. . . it will be easy to lose ourselves in the petty squabbling. . . that one kid who just doesn't get it, or doesn't care, or acts up. . . or that lesson plan that just doesn't seem to work. . .that curriculum piece that just seems so cheesy, the game that's confusing, the craft that completely falls apart. . . all that is going to happen, but that's all little. . . and it's so little that it could happen more than once, maybe even more than once a day, but it's little because it pales in comparison to what is big, what it's all about, and that is building relationships.
That's what we are doing: building relationships. . . it's what church is, and does best. We are sharing experience, sharing time, living parallel with each other, well not parallel because we are going to grow closer, we may even just intersect. . . but that's what we are doing. We're sharing experience together with each other. We're going to depend on one another, we'll have to trust each other, we'll have to believe that the other, our partner, our colleague, our friend has the same goal we do, and is doing his or her best, even, and especially when the way they are doing things  may be a little different than the way we would do it. That will happen, but we are all on the same team, and each little conflict that arises actually helps us achieve our goal, when our goal is growing closer together in relationship. It'll happen, we'll be telling stories from this week for years, there will be things that happen that will bring us closer together. There always is when people work like we're going to work. It's that little secret, because it's just the byproduct of the work, but it's as meaningful as that real goal, which is building relationships with these kids.
Yes we're also going to be building relationships with the kids we serve. It is so important, it is the main goal. These kids aren't going to remember the lesson plan that was a little bit cheesy, they aren't going to remember that the game was confusing, they aren't going to remember the fact that their craft just wouldn't stick together, and look right, but they are going to remember you. They are going to remember your smile, and energy, the unique style that you have that is the perfection of your personality, the way you made what was confusing work, the way you supported them in their craft that just wouldn't go right, the way you were patient as they tried and tried, they are going to remember most of all that you are there, and that you care. All the rest of it will fall out of their memory faster than you can imagine, but that time won't, those moments won't, that relationship being started, are those seeds, and hopefully we can plant some, I know we will plant some, but hopefully we can cultivate relationships with these kids that go beyond this week. Hopefully we can begin new friendships that will deepen our lives and deepen our church, and we do it all for the glory of God.
At the center piece of all these goals, what we are doing is building relationships, loving our neighbors, caring for the children, because in so doing we are serving God, we are cultivating our relationship with him, and helping others do the same. It's a noble thing, a beautiful thing, a mystical thing, a thing that has been going on since God separated the waters and said let there be light, when God created the world and created human beings, he did so through love, and the way to get closer to God is to love. Loving so basic, so foundational to what it is to be human, it's so easy to mistake such things for being trivial, for being small, for being little, and insignificant, but these are the big things, these are what really matters. If we can keep our focus here, this week will be a success, by any definition, it will be a success.
And that brings me to the second thing I want to do this morning, and it is the planting of some seeds. We have an important road to walk here in the next few months and years. We believe that God has important things to do here at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, that He is not done with us by any measure. We are heading forward into new territory, and much of what I will be preaching about and for in the next few months has to do with setting a vision for this church, coming up with a plan to make that vision a reality, building up support and calling folks to action, and then working hard and working together, not to manage the decline of this church, because God doesn't call us to such things, but to follow God's leadership into a new birth of energy here.
As a good Calvinist, I am a firm believer in Providence. I believe that we have all been called here, that God is working through and in us, that there is no such thing as coincidence, just God's plan being shown to us in the world we live in, and so I don't think it is an accident that our theme for the Week is "Workshop of Wonders" and that it has to do with building with God, Imagining, planning, crafting, building, working with God and with each other. We'll teach it to the kids this week, and there is no better way to learn than to teach. . . I hope that as we teach and inspire our kids, as we sing the songs, as we hear the stories, as we teach these amazing lessons, we also take to heart what is being taught to us, listen closely, and allow ourselves to apply the promises of God here.
This week we'll be teaching the story of Esther. . . looking at the amazing wonders that God sees when he sees us, the plans he has for us that are even beyond our imagination. . . we'll be looking at the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra. . . . showing how God builds out of the ashes. . . We'll look at the parable of the mustard seed, how even from small beginnings the truth grows rapidly and out of control when planted. .. . we'll look at the feeding of the 5000, God's miracles being put to use, in real necessary and practical ways. . . and finally we'll look at the Road to Emmaus, being able to recognize what it is like to walk with God, that the blessings that flow, the truth, the promise, are here all around us, have always been and will always be.
That is our week. Come be apart of it. . . help. . . volunteer, and most importantly pray for us. . . yes the little things are the big things. Pray that God is filling us with his spirit, pray that relationships get build, pray that seeds get planted, pray that we get inspired by the miracles God is working in us, and pray that God is truly glorified by our love. And then next Sunday, we'll have the kids here, hopefully all of them, we'll sing the songs, we'll be blessed by their participation in worship, we'll break bread together, and we'll see that the pattern just keeps on repeating itself. . . and in that pattern we'll come to know again that God is love, and can do marvelous things. .. to his glory I pray. . .Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Pr 13:22). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Lk 9:46). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Where There is. . .

Where There Is. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 20, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
James 3: 13-18

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.[1]

I tell you it is nice to be back. Vacation was great though. It is always nice to get away and change up the routine. Do new things. It was an eventful trip. I finished the trifecta of ministry. I had long since done baptisms and have done a few funerals, but during the course of vacation I got to do my first wedding, which was just awesome. It was extra special because the groom is one of my closest friends, and it was great because I hadn't seen him in a long time, so the reunion was nice. The ceremony was fun too, it was at the beach in Hilton Head. . . . long trip, though, but since it was outside and at the beach I wore this robe, but with flip flops. I sang a song that I had written a few years back, "Each Grain of Sand" and that was cool, and then I gave the wedding homily, and this was probably the coolest part for me. I wrote it for my friend, he has been through a lot in the last few years, and so I wanted there the homily to reflect that darkness and light, that light shining through the darkness, that God bringing light in those darkest of places, And I also decided to make it that much more personal by using some quotes and allusions from one of our favorite song writers, Robert Earl Keen. I ended up weaving in 30 throughout the homily. . . I had the idea the night before. . . I was listening to his music, and I was struck by how each song just worked. I thought of my friend in some of those hard moments listening and it pulling him out. So that was cool, it created levels of understanding. Some people liked the homily and completely missed that extra meaning. But the coolest part was afterward, because I shared it on the internet, afterwards, and sent it to Robert Earl Keen himself, and he shared it. He wrote to me, how much he loved it, and how creative he thought it was. I was busting, because this is one of my heroes reading my work, sharing it, and therefore allowing it to reach a much wider audience: almost 600 people in just five day. People from all over the country, some commenting, and thanking me, it was awesome. So that was a personal high of the trip.
The rest of the trip was fun too, mostly routine, walking on the beach, playing and swimming with the girls, midday nap, trying to figure out what to have for dinner, then dinner, beach again after dinner, girls staying up too late, bed, then do it over and over again, rinse and repeat. Intermixed there was a lot of time to think, a lot of time to read, when I could keep my eyes open. . . sometimes that was the hardest. . . the sun, and those girls can run  you ragged, but one other aspect of life there at the beach is DeAnna's father watching the news 24 -  7. And it seemed like the news over the last three weeks just kept getting worse and worse. Maybe that is always the case when the news is on. I know that if all you do is watch the news, you'll have a very warped sense of reality, a really bleak outlook on the world, and you'll be constantly looking ahead to the next hour when they are finally going to show you how to protect yourself. Isn't that the case. . . the how to protect yourself segment is always an hour away, but some how you make it, you survive the extra time without that precious knowledge. Somehow we make it through. But there did seem to be a lot of bad stuff going on the last few weeks. Craziness and lawlessness at our borders, missiles, retaliation, and invasion in Israel and Gaza, surrounded by protests and division over who is to blame, and who is justified, and who is right, and who is wrong. Then planes being shot down. . .  again missiles . . . again who is to blame? Why? What? What's next? These are all very fragile and delicate situations, pushing to a head a world on the edge, putting to the test all of the systems we've put into place. .  . and who knows what it all means, and where we go from here. You could find many words to describe it all, but "disorder and wickedness" surely fits. And that is a phrase from our passage from today. James writes in his epistle: "
16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind." The message puts it "Things fall apart and every one ends up at everyone's throats"

I've noticed in my studying of James lately, that he really has a knack for getting to the bottom of issues and putting it all on the line, getting right to the business. Isn't it interesting though what is going on here. Envy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and wickedness, to things falling apart. . . Is envy then our problem? I think we certainly are in a spot where there is disorder and maybe you could call it wickedness, people are certainly divided and at each other's throats,. . . if not yet. . . it does seem like more is on the horizon, but definitely things seem to be falling apart. . .  and envy is certainly all around us. Class envy, race envy, privilege envy, gender envy, and of course personal envy, and it goes both ways, all ways, everyone seems to have a gripe a complaint, a wish to be someone else. Many people are reinventing themselves, looking toward celebrities, wanting their lives, and often without the struggle the work involved, people see eachother's things, but cannot put themselves in each other's shoes, seeing the other's point of view, understanding where they are coming from, and it all goes from there. Envy is a powerful thing, but is it on the rise? I heard someone say, one of those talking heads on that 24 - 7 news that was always on the TV upstairs. . . I overheard him saying that it used to be about keeping up with the Joneses, but now its about pulling down the Joneses to your level. . . I wondered when I heard that, is the first concept any better? They are both rooted in envy. So is envy on the rise at all, or just a state of the human condition, ever present. In the disorder and division, the connection is already there.
If you think about it, it makes sense. . . the connection between envy and disorder. Think about it, what is envy? It's when you desire what someone else has. And then  you could easily say that, if God is the definition of order, bringing light from darkness, holding back the chaos, bringing order, and is also the giver of all gifts, all things, then looking at what someone else has, what God has given someone else would be a challenge to the order that God has made. I found the poem in the prayer of preparation by Mary Lamb, entitled, "Envy"
This rose-tree is not made to bear
The violet blue, nor lily fair,
Nor the sweet mignionet:
And if this tree were discontent,
Or wished to change its natural bent,
It all in vain would fret.

And should it fret, you would suppose
It ne’er had seen its own red rose,
Nor after gentle shower
Had ever smelled its rose’s scent,
Or it could ne’er be discontent
With its own pretty flower.

Like such a blind and senseless tree
As I’ve imagined this to be,
All envious persons are:
With care and culture all may find
Some pretty flower in their own mind,
Some talent that is rare.

It's there right, blindness to our own gifts, a lack of gratitude for the gifts that we have been given. Is envy then something that we can overcome, or are we destined to have disorder and things falling apart, a world at each other's throats. The epistle of James is about life transformation. He is suggesting that people can change, that they should change, and that faith should be the catalyst for such a change. If you really believe that God has done for us all that we say we do, it should change the way we see the world, see other people, and see ourselves, but that if it doesn't then that faith is dead. But is envy just a part of being human. I saw this first hand while on vacation, too. We took Coralee to see Maleficent. . . she loved it, but Clara didn't get to go, so she went shopping with Nana, and when they came to pick us up, Clara had a new Ariel Barbie doll. Coralee went nuts. . . her gratitude for going to the movie, her special privilege was over and she had tunnel vision for what Clara had and she didn't have. Then it was reversed later in the trip, Coralee got sick with Strep and Swimmer's ear, and since she went to the doctor's we got her a special treat too, and of course Clara flipped. You have to wonder, could something be done, how can we teach people not to be envious, especially since it starts at such an early age. . . some people believe that one way to do it is to just make everything equal, give them both a doll, then they won't need to be at each other's throats. . . some may think, well just don't give them anything, then they won't be at each other's throats. . . or some may think just give them more and more, constantly, then they will get over it. None of it really works though, it just multiplies, shifts, and in some cases makes it totally worse, it is just treating the symptoms of the disease, but ignoring the disease. Now take that same principle and make it not about a doll, but about privilege, income, class. . . etc. and you have a world in turmoil with no one knowing how to stem the tide, things falling apart, and people at each other’s throats.
James would suggest that the answer begins with faith, but cannot end there. Faith, believing that God created the world, that God redeemed the world, and that God provides for the world, believing that should make us feel grateful, gratitude for what we do have, what we have been given, what we have not earned. It should, but does it? Are we still comparing a gift of a movie with the barbie doll, are we wishing that we were sick so we could get the treat that someone else has? Faith has to become alive within us, when we see that what we have been given is substantial, and that it is enough, we may get better, but I still don't know the answer to teach my kids, just to keep working at it, and I don't really know the trick to teach myself, just to keep working at it. But one thing is sure, envy is something we need to work on, and often we find we would rather treat the symptoms of it than cure the disease. I pray that God can give us the answers and the cure, perhaps he already has, we just need to take the medicine, even if we don't get the spoonful of sugar to go with it.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jas 3:13-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Each Grain of Sand

Each Grain of Sand
Peter T. Atkinson

God knows every star in the sky
Each grain of sand on the beach
He controls the waves and the tide
And the wind blowin’ free
Every tiny detail with care
He causes to be
With love he gives love
Letting us all truly see

That God will be with you two on this day
And every step you’ll make on your way
He’ll hold your new life in the palm of his hand
This same God who knows each grain of sand

We search in this life
For love, hope, and for faith
He gives us people and partners
To lighten our everyday
Friends are forever
Though way leads on to way
And when we finally find true love
We stop to thank God and we pray

Repeat Chorus

The road will be rocky
With no clear end in sight
You’ll have hard times
You surely won’t win every fight
But remember this day
And your love when things get tight
And know one who knows you
Looks down on you from on high

Repeat Chorus

For Love

For Love
A Wedding Homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
for Chris Dowdy and Cathleen Schneeberger
July 11, 2014
at Hilton Head, South Carolina
John 1: 1-5

Let us pray:
Almighty God,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
And in your loving name we pray. . . Amen

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

From the very first day of the existence of this Earth, when God divided the waters from the waters, when the Spirit was flying over the waters, right before God said let there be light, there was darkness. . . and that is all there was. . . and God. . . and on that first day God brought the light from the darkness, and God has been making the light from the darkness every day since, and such is what life is: a cycle of darkness and light, but what we testify to today is that God's hands are in both, and Love is.  Love leads us from darkness to light. Love redeems us, from darkness to light. Love shapes our darkness, carrying us through it, and brings us to light, and this is the world. It is a long road and it goes on forever[1], the road goes on and on, rolling hard, rolling fast, rolling by, and it is of darkness and light, for such is the mysterious Way of Love, and it is such a long, long way to ride just to hear her say your name when you reach the other side, and you find the one that you won't ever leave again.
Because long before then,  when the darkness falls, and kindness fails, and you feel that you are living on the Dark Side of the World. . . when you are on the outside of the first Hello and the last goodnight good bye. . . When you are wondering what you did to deserve this, wondering if you committed some dreadful selfish crime that  you are still paying for, and so now you're dying of thirst, and in the travelling storm, enveloping all around you, and as you go down that dusty trail, there's just not a drop of rain, and the broken end of love is all you think there is. . . and your eyes start to get used to the darkness, because you think that darkness is all there is, until you get to the point, running with the night, where you can no longer even recognize the darkness and all that exists are just shades of gray. . . and the world tells you to accept it, for that's the way it goes around here, yes that's the way the wild wind blows, and so you've reached the point of no return. . . wondering forever who'll be looking out for you, because it's time and  you're gonna start giving in. Hey what can I do? The gravitational forces are just against me, and I'm going nowhere. It's like I'm standing out on the beach and the storm is coming, and I have only two choices in that statistical anomalous choice between getting struck by lightning and or just heading into the water to face the sharks, and at this point both choices seem strangely appealing.
It is at that point where the dawn breaks, God says let there be light, and it is. . . and in that darkest night, when it is the darkest, the coldest night of winter, and you are about to start giving in, that God brings something into your life, and you see a bigger piece of sky, and it all begins again. Something, but more often someone. . . and they become a light to you, and you become a light to them, and in the gathering light, love comes in, it comes walking in. . . and you wanna know more, you wanna be more, and everything changes, and for a moment, you stop, you challenge what you had been taught by the darkness, you think it over one time, and you believe again in love. That's what the Christian story is. It's what the life story is, and often, so often it mirrors our love stories. At the right time, in the right place, it all just comes together. . . and it feels good feeling good again, and you want to share that love, you want to show the world. Love becomes not just something that saved you, but something that you do, something that you share, and the world is better for it. And you look back at  your life up to this point, every twist and every turn, every scar, every heartbreak, and you look into the hope in each child's eyes in this new family, and you say without reservation. . . I did it all for love my friends, for love I did it all, and everyone here present today can look at the two of you, and your beautiful new and perfect family, and see the testimony, see the proof, see the love light in your eyes, and feel it reflected in our own faith, hope, and dreams. . . this is the power of what love does, this is the world that God makes and remakes, and this is the world saved by the love that is the very fabric of it all. . . What I really mean. . . is I'm glad that I've been here. . . I'm glad that all of these people are here. . . for even though love is a word we don't often throw around, we recognize it when we see it and it sheds new life.
And so now let's let God do His work in binding together this new family. . . Chris, Cathleen are you ready. . .
Chris, Cathleen, since it is your intention to marry,
Join your right hands, and with promises
bind yourselves to each other as husband and wife.

[1] Each italicized phrase comes from a Robert Earl Keen song title or lyric

Friday, July 4, 2014

My Country's Free to Be

My Country's Free to Be
Tune: My Country 'tis of Thee (God Save the Queen)

My country's free to be 
What we decide you see
We get to choose
Whether we care or not
About the tyrant's lot
Our leaders sold and bought
To win or lose

And what we choose today
No matter what we say
Does have a price
And though we like to think
We're never on the brink
That consequences shrink
Like melting ice

But when the rent is due
We'll pay both me and you
All things have cost
Each choice we choose to make
Each road we choose to take
Though the rough winds do shake
No hope is lost

For hope there always is
When providence is His
And so we sing
That with each rising sun
We've only just begun
For when his will is done
Freedom will ring

By Rev. Peter T. Atkinson