Posts Tagged truth

Walk Out and Look Up: Rev. Susan Sparks

Today, I’d like to share the secret to life.

Where might I have found this great wisdom?

Oprah? No.
Dr. Phil? Nope.
Tik Tok? Definitely not.

No, I found this great wisdom by doing something very simple: walking out and looking up at the winter trees.

How could trees—let alone dead, lifeless, winter trees—hold the secret to life?

In order to grasp this great truth, the first thing we need to do is to get off our human high horse. We aren’t all that, especially when you compare us to the world of trees.

Trees have lived longer than we have. In fact, trees are the oldest living organisms on the planet. Trees, mold, and jellyfish are older than human history. The oldest tree is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California that scientists date as around 5000 years old. That is Tigris and Euphrates, early Mesopotamia, Bronze Age stuff. Its name, appropriately, is Methuselah.

Trees are also smarter than we are. In the book, The Hidden Life of Trees German forester Peter Wohlleben shares some astonishing discoveries. He talks about trees as social beings and explains how they actually communicate with each other, give warnings to other trees in the forest, share food through their root systems with their own species, and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. Why? Because one lone tree is vulnerable, but a forest offers strength and safety. In short, trees nourish community.

If only human beings could learn that simple lesson.

At least the writers of the Bible realized the importance of trees. In fact, there are three things the Bible mentions more than anything else: God, people, and trees. The Bible speaks of the great cedars of Lebanon and tells how Moses used acacia wood for the ark of the covenant. Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree, and Jesus’ followers are described as oaks of righteousness. David crafted his musical instruments from the wood of a fir tree. A branch from the olive tree signified safety after the flood. A tree formed the wooden manger, and a tree formed the cross.

Trees are an intimate part of the holy narrative, but they’re even more than that because out of all creation, God chose trees for self-revelation. We see this in the beautiful passage Isaiah 41:19-20, where God recognizes the suffering of the people and offers them a sign: “I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this.”

God chose trees—the myrtle and the olive, the fir and the cypress—to reveal God’s self, making trees the sacred keepers of holy wisdom.

This brings us back to the secret of life, which, in my humble opinion, is to be found in trees. Specifically, it’s in winter trees.

The day I walked out to look up at the trees was dim and dreary. The trees, leafless and bare, formed an almost lace-like pattern against the gray winter sky. To a brief passerby, they probably appeared lifeless, dead even.

I think we all know how that feels. Sometimes everything in life can feel and look bare and brittle, lifeless, even dead. However, there is way more going on under the surface than we realize.

Consider those bare winter trees. Inside their seemingly dead branches and trunks, a magical transformation is happening. Months before, in the fall, the trees dropped their green leaves in order to conserve water and centralize and focus their energy. I think of a tree in this stage as being like a sprinter in a quiet, motionless crouch before a race. All energies and focus are drawn down into that moment before the runner springs into action. What appears in winter to be a quiet time of death for those trees is, in fact, the combustion engine of life.

We always think of the season of spring as the beginning of life, but in fact, spring is not the beginning. It’s the manifestation of the transformation happening inside those great trees right now, in the winter.

In writing about wintering trees, the author Katherine May explains, “The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms . . . It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly.”

We see the same pattern in human life. William Bridges in his book, Transitions talks about the passages of life, such as those that take place in a job, a relationship, a move, or another life change. He explains that all transitions are composed of three things: (1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning.

The ending is when we let go of the old. The neutral zone is that time of unknowing when we listen, focus, think, and wait. Then, eventually, the new beginning gleams forth. The key is that it all starts with an ending.

The problem is that unlike trees, we humans tend to fight this truth. We want to focus only on the new beginning. We think that to figure out our plan, to make our choices, we’ve got to get going. If we aren’t producing something, who are we? Endings are seen as unpleasant, and the neutral zone is seen as unproductive. It’s also scary.

When we’re in the neutral zone, we stand bare, like the trees in winter. It’s a time when we can no longer hide our truth behind our agendas, lists, or busyness. Who are we without our leaves? We humans hate asking that, but vulnerability is the place of greatest beauty.

There is a tiny, wonderful book called Trees at Leisure written in 1916 by Anna Botsford Comstock. In it, she talks about the beauty of winter trees: “In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it.”

The true secret to life lies in the deep wisdom of trees, the place where God chose to reveal God’s self. The trees know that spring is not where life is truly generated. Transformation takes place in winter—that time of ending, that quiet neutral zone, that gap that exists when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully formed.

What parts of your life feel like those bare, brittle, lifeless branches? Who are you without your leaves?

While life can sometimes look and feel like a tree in winter, remember that there is more going on under the surface than we realize. Like the energy humming inside those trees, there are unseen things happening within us. We are changing, churning, transforming inside.

If you doubt that, just walk outside and look up.

While it may feel like loss, while we ourselves may feel lost, winter is simply a time when our energies are gathered deep into our souls, waiting like a sprinter in a crouch ready to spring into new life.

Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, put it best: “If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown . . . We are battered, but bolder; worn, but wiser . . . If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We already are.”

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A Say Something Nice Reminder

A Say Something Nice Reminder

I was reminded today of how important our Say Something Movement has become in ways that I could not have imagined or anticipated. A member of a different faith group often wears her Say Something Nice button pined to her sleeve when she is feeling down or is facing a difficult situation. She says that the button often opens a conversation with others and that the other person inquires as to how she or he can participate.

She explains that all that is required is to say something nice, upbeat or encouraging to whomever she/he is speaking with or simply to not say anything negative about another person or religious group. Her affirmation is certainly a boost to me. Our national demeanor has become so much more hostile and abrasive than when we started the movement seventeen years ago.

Far too much of bad behavior is blamed on the pandemic. The pandemic has given people the cover they need to be rude and to say things that tend to ignite the rage in others. The art of politeness is given very little attention. We have forgotten that it is possible for us to disagree with each other without becoming angry. If your idea is better than my idea I want to hear it, but that entails my listening to you. Listening is by far the most important communication skill. Unfortunately it is also the least taught of those skills.

There is a wonderful story recorded in the Gospel of John. (18:38 NIV) When Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilot, Pilot asks Jesus ,”What is truth?” Before Jesus can answer, Pilot walks out of the room onto the terrace. He does not want to hear the answer. Many of us are afflicted by the Pontius Pilot Listening Syndrome. We don’t want to hear the truth.

I usually start wearing my Say Something Nice button near the actual date of celebration on June first every year, but thanks to my friend I am going to begin wearing it year round.

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“Jesus Is Truth,” Thomas Tells Chautauqua Audience – Mary Lee Talbot

Chautauqua Daily – July 30, 2021

“My mentor, Michael Charles Leff, said people are looking for a universal definition of the
truth. People want truth to be true at all times, in all places. Truth should be solid, faithful in all cases,” said the Rev. Frank A. Thomas. “In-stead, what we live is preferred truth.”

Thomas preached at the 9 a.m. Thursday worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “What is Truth?” The Scripture reading was John 18:33-38a.
Truth, as described by Leff, lives at the macro level. Thomas told the congregation, “We have the audacity to live our preferred truth at our specific, personal level. What
is our personal truth? It is living in a way that is different from universal truth; it is the truth we speak.”
The founding documents of the United States say that “all men are created equal,” but the nation has lived a preferred truth — that not everyone is equal, Thomas said.

Thomas told the story of Jesus’ arrest and his trials before Annas, Caiaphas and Pilate. Pilate wanted the Jewish leaders to try Jesus by their own law, but they reminded him that they did not have the power to execute Jesus. When Pilate asked Jesus directly, “Are you the King of
the Jews?” Jesus asked him, “Is this your own idea or did others tell you this?” Jesus asserted that his kingdom wasnot of this world, and Pilate replied, “So you are a king.”
“You have said it,” answered Jesus. Jesus said the reason he came into the world was to
testify to the truth. Pilate then asked his famous question: “What is truth?” Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, and wanted to let him go — but the community leaders would
not allow him to do so. Thomas asked the congregation, “What holds everything
together? What can you bet your life on? What gives you hope for your whole life?” This is the question of a baby crying for its bottle, young people feeling the power of a first kiss, a single person looking for a life partner, people facing infertility, cancer and death, he said.
In these situations, Thomas said, people do not speak ex cathedra, from the chair of truth, but from their preferred truth.

“This is a dangerous thing to say in a post-truth era. What we live is our preferred truth; what we speak is aspirational,” Thomas said. He illustrated this idea with the book How to Slowly Kill
Yourself and Others in America, a collection of essays by Kiese Laymon. One night, Laymon was having dinner with a friend who told him that he was the kind of person he claimed to
despise. The friend spoke the truth to Laymon — that he mangled the possibility of radical friendship with others. Laymon defended himself to his friend. However, when Laymon got home, he realized for the first time that he had been slowly killing himself and others close to him — by killing the love he was offered, and killing his body with his lifestyle. “He was living his preferred truth when his family was
screaming that he was running into disaster,” Thomas said. “We are all more like the people we despise than we would like to admit.” He told the congregation, “We use the lens of preferred
truth, and if we accept it, then we block the truth. If we believe that white skin and culture is more valuable than Black skin and culture, we block the truth. We say that Black people liked slavery and block the truth. We say that we Christianized Black people and block the truth. We made up the boogeyman of critical race theory and blocked the truth. We blot out the truth.” Thomas said that someone he loved broke his heart, because she kept trying to tell him the truth but he
could not hear. “She had to scream in pain,” he said. “She was saying my behavior was killing her. While I was preaching the love and mercy of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone,
my lifestyle was killing her.” He continued, “There is universal truth, but we live our
preferred truth in our behavior. It is only when we face our fear that we come upon the true truth. I had been killing people that I loved with my lifestyle. If I can’t face that
truth, how will I face Pilate’s question?” Thomas searched in many places to find truth: as a
philosophy major, a scholar of Afrocentric life, in seminary, in the church, in counseling. “I could find degrees of truth, but not rest for my soul.” As a child, Thomas lived in a neighborhood that was
experiencing white flight. An elderly woman, Mrs. Earl, did not leave the neighborhood, but taught Sunday school to the Black children. “The church had a gym, and in order to play basketball,
you had to go to Sunday school,” Thomas said, “She gave me my first Bible, and she said, ‘Truth is a person and his name is Jesus.’ Truth is a person and his name is Jesus.
Jesus is truth, not preferred truth.” Thomas continued, “She gave me the ability to face the
truths I was running from. Like Pilate, I examined Jesus thoroughly, and I have lived with him for almost 50 years. I find no fault in Jesus. Amen.”

The Rev. Paul Womack presided. The Rev. Steven Sim mons, a retired teacher of preaching and homiletics at the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, read the Scripture. The prelude was “Alla breve,” from Trio Sonatain C, by Johann Joachim Quantz, performed by the Motet
Consort: Barbara Hois, flute; Debbie Grohman, clarinet; and Willie La Favor, piano. Members of the Motet Choir sang “Come My Way,” with music by Harold Friedell and words by George Herbert. Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacob sen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music, played an improvisation for the postlude. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services and chap

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For Struggling Millennials, 14 Christmas Truths – Ethics Daily

Matt Sapp
Posted: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 5:34 am

For Struggling Millennials, 14 Christmas Truths | Matt Sapp, Millennials, Christmas, Evangelism, Discipleship

Christmas is an especially challenging time for the church to connect with millennials, Sapp writes.

Research suggests that trust in the church is rapidly declining, and that millennials – roughly those in their 20s and early 30s – have trouble connecting to church today.

They don’t feel free to ask real questions and express real doubt in our faith communities, and they don’t bring the same familiarity with the Bible and basic Christian beliefs that we could expect from earlier generations.

I happen to be at the upper limit of the millennial generation, so when people are talking about millennials, they’re talking about me, my friends and the people with whom I grew up and went to school.

Christmas is an especially challenging time for the church to connect with millennials.

So many of us have known the basic truths of the Christmas story since we were toddlers that we don’t quite know how to approach millennials who are searching for truth at Christmas and are grappling with what the Christmas story really means for the first time

What they want is honesty, transparency and a willingness to speak openly about both our doubts and our faith experiences.

They need the space to discover for themselves that the stories of our faith don’t always make rational sense, but that there’s good reason to believe them anyway.

So, here’s the truth about Christmas:

  1. We do not have an eyewitness account of Jesus’ birth. Two of the four gospels (Mark and John) don’t mention it, unless you also count John 1:14, which says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
  2. The accounts of Jesus’ birth were written long after Jesus died by people with a bias toward the faith.
  3. We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, although it almost certainly was not on Dec. 25.
  4. The wise men didn’t show up at the manger with the angels and the shepherds. In fact, in the only account that mentions them (Matthew), the star they were following led them to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem.
  5. The virgin birth – that is, that Jesus is the son of Mary and of God, not the biological son of Joseph – is central to the gospel message and church tradition. Yes, it’s hard both to understand and to believe.
  6. It’s OK to have doubts.
  7. Details about how, when and where Jesus was born – and who was or was not present – are not the central components of our faith.
  8. Finally, the gospel accounts were not written as historical narratives and wouldn’t pass modern standards for historical accuracy.

But, Christmas and the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth are important to believers and to the Christian story because they teach us several truths about God.

  1. God has a plan for our salvation and intends to take an active role in it. The story of our redemption begins at Christmas with God’s action, not our own.
  2. God is alive and active in our world. The incarnation, God in skin and bones, teaches that God is near and present and tactile and active and caring and with us.
  3. God understands the human condition. In Jesus, God knows what it’s like to walk around down here on earth. To love, hurt, laugh and cry. To be lonely and sad. To be overflowing with energy and hope and excitement. To disagree with friends and family. To lose someone you love.
  4. Jesus is for everyone. He’s for shepherds in Judea, scholars from the east and everyone in between. God is willing to be born into a feeding trough to communicate that everyone has a place in the story. No one is too humble and lowly or great and exalted for God.
  5. God gives himself to us as a gift. In Jesus, God was born to us. And everyone who heard about it was excited and amazed.
  6. God is love. In the gift of Jesus as Teacher, Savior, Messiah and Lord, we have new evidence of God’s love and great reason to celebrate.

So, what do we tell my millennial friends about Christmas? We tell them the truths in the story. And we tell them we believe because the truths of Christmas are born out in the rest of the story.

What we learn about God at Christmas is confirmed and reinforced through Jesus’ life and ministry, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through the individual experiences of Christians across the centuries and all over the world.

We also tell them that the truth about Christmas is confirmed through our own experiences.

That’s what I’d like to tell my millennial friends. But I also know that sometimes, when they walk into church with all kinds of questions and doubts swirling in their heads, they just want someone to smile at them and say, “Merry Christmas.”

Matt Sapp is the minister of congregational life at Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared on Wieuca Road’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @MattPSapp.


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