Sunday, October 23, 2011

What are you doing HERE?

Isaiah 6:1-8
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.
2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.
3 And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

In a television program I watch, there is an episode in which the minister stood up before the congregation. It was a vast sanctuary -- but it was almost empty. The minister looked out upon all of the empty seats and surveyed the 4 lonely people in the congregation -- one young man, and three elderly women.

The minister begins to speak.

"I give thanks to God that there are at least a handful of us who have made the effort to come to worship, who have come to feed on the Word of God, and who don't believe that God is less important than the football game on television."

Suddenly, the young man in the back pew jumps up. "Oh no, I forgot about the football game." And with that he runs out of the sanctuary.

I look around and wonder, don't we have anything better to do right now than to come to worship service?

There are chores to be done at home, books to read, movies to see, games to watch, and web sites to surf. What motivates us to abandon the television and postpone a visit to the mall in order to worship?

I suspect that for some, the answer is "habit." And to tell the truth, not all habits are bad -- although we tend to speak in terms of good habits as discipline. Study habits, proper exercise routines, and good financial management and budgeting are all good habits -- good self discipline. And attending worship is a good spiritual habit. Some of us are here because it is our habit.

But there is something lacking in that answer, because some time earlier in our lives, we didn't come to worship out of habit. We had to make the decision that this was a discipline we wanted to follow. Why did we make that decision?

Others of us may come to worship because we are struggling with God. We are grieving or we are hurting. We are lost, or we are lonely. And our attendance at worship is part of our search for answers.

Still others may be here against our will. You come here because your parents make you and they are bigger than you are.

Or your wife made you come – maybe she’s bigger than you are.

Or maybe your wife made you come here and if you want your life to go smoothly over the next day or two, giving into her about coming to worship is the thing to do.

The story is told of a man who was enjoying a pleasant sleep in bed when his wife suddenly yanked the covers off the bed and announced, “Time to get up and get ready to go to church.”

Meekly, the man told his wife, “I don’t wanna go to church today. Just let me stay here and sleep in this one day.”

Without any compassion, his wife looked at him and said, “Look Bozo, you have to go to church today. You’re the pastor.”

By the way, that is NOT an autobiographical story.

Why come to worship?

Our Scripture Lesson from Isaiah is a great place to look for answers to these questions. For the past 3 thousand years, worship has found its basis in this chapter.

No matter how we change worship from generation to generation, we tend to gravitate back to the sequence that we find in Isaiah. In fact, much of our own order of our worship is based in part on this 6th chapter of Isaiah.

Worship begins with praise and adoration…
“Holy, Holy, Holy!”

Then moves to an awareness of our own sinfulness…
“Woe is me, I am a person of unclean lips.”

Confession leads to an assurance of God’s Grace…
“Your guilt is taken away.”

Then there is the proclamation of the Word and the sending forth into the world…

“Here I am, send me!”

But Isaiah does not just give us an order of worship. His experience gives us some important principles for worship.

First, true worship is not an escape from reality. It is something that happens in the midst of life.

Isaiah begins this passage with an interesting statement. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”

It’s like saying, “In the year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I worshipped God.

In the year that Kennedy was assassinated, I worshipped God.

In the year the World Trade Center was attacked, I worshipped God.

In the year that I was married, in the year that my son was born, in the year my friend died, in the middle of life, in the midst of experiences good and bad, I was worshipping the Lord.

Worship in the Sanctuary can never be oblivious to what is happening out there.

Why do we worship God? It is not to escape life out there, it is to deal with life out there.

If you want your worship inside the Sanctuary to be true worship, then you bring in with you all of the baggage of what is happening out in the world.

In the Old Testament Psalms, one writer said (Ps 86:6-7), “Hear my prayer, O LORD; listen to my cry for mercy. In the day of my trouble I will call to you, for you will answer me.”

It is a natural part of worship to bring with you the concerns of your life. We gather here and we bring in the fears of life, the worries of our family, the concerns of the world and we lift them up in prayer, and we seek God’s comfort and guidance.

Why do we worship God?

Did we come because our parents made us? Or our wife nagged us? Or because we didn’t have anything else to do?

No. We are here to worship because our lives are so full of concerns and issues that we have to have someplace to take them.

That is the first principle of worship -- True worship is not an escape from reality. It is something that happens in the midst of life.

The second principle for worship is that true worship focuses on God.

This is where many of us make a mistake.

We assume that worship focuses on us.

I’ve heard many times people talk about how they are struggling in their worship life because they aren’t being fed. Have you ever heard anyone say that? “I’m not being fed. I’m not getting anything out of worship. I’m not being nurtured by worship. I don’t get a blessing out of worship.”

Well, that is a legitimate question with some people, but what concerns me is that I never, ever hear people say anything about whether or not God is being blessed in the worship service.

I never hear anyone concerned about whether or not GOD is enjoying worship.

Why do we worship?

We worship so that WE can get something out of the experience, but we also ought to worship PRIMARILY so that GOD can get something out of it.

And until God gets something out of our worship, we never will. Until God is blessed by our worship, we won’t be blessed.

All too often, we treat worship as something that is supposed to entertain us. But it isn’t. What is most important is that God enjoy the worship experience. We are here to worship HIM. We are here to bless HIM.

In Isaiah, the prophet goes to the Temple, and he says “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” It is the presence of God that fills the worship. One of the principles of worship is that true worship always focuses on God.

Another principle of worship is this -- true worship always begins with an awareness of God’s holiness.

We’ve lost something of that in our worship services. There was a time when people were so aware of this aspect of worship that the very churches themselves were being constructed in ways that emphasized the awesomeness of God. It is difficult to walk into one of the cathedrals of Europe built centuries ago without feeling awe and wonder. The quiet, the slight aroma of incense or candles, the artistry of stained glass windows and classical music moves one to acknowledge awe and wonder.

In recent years, theology and worship have emphasized the personal nature of God, the love God, and joy of God to such a degree that for some reason we’ve forgotten that our God is also an awesome God. We have almost reformed God into a “little buddy” or someone to pal around with. We have forgotten that God is such an awesome and holy God that to be in His presence is to be filled with wonder.

When Moses was aware of God’s presence in the burning bush, Moses was overwhelmed.

When Jacob had a dream of a staircase or ladder to heaven, he woke up and was afraid, because he said, “Surely the Lord is present and I didn’t know it.” And the Bible says he was filled with awe.

Time and again, when people are aware of the presence of God, the Bible describes the experience as one filled with awe and even fear.

Why do we worship God? Because He is holy, and His holiness demands our attention.

It is one of the principles of worship that true worship must begin with an awareness of God’s holiness.

Another principle of worship is that true worship helps us understand ourselves and our shortcomings and to seek God’s forgiveness.

In Isaiah, the heavenly beings sing, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." And immediately, the prophet cries out, “Woe to me!” And he speaks of his own sinfulness.

You cannot come into the presence of God without becoming aware of God’s holiness, and without becoming aware of our own unholiness.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said (Rom 3:23), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As people who have fallen short of the glory of God, it is impossible to approach his presence without being aware of our own shortcomings and sins.

That is why in our worship, a prayer of confession is always present. And what happens after our prayer of confession?

The answer is in your bulletin in the order of worship. The Assurance of God’s Grace.

Our confession always results in God’s forgiveness. In Isaiah, the prophet becomes aware of the holiness of God, which moves him to become aware of his own sinfulness and to admit that sin. That confession leads to the free forgiveness of sins. In Isaiah the heavenly being symbolically takes a hot coal and touches the lips of the prophet as a gesture that declares his sins are forgiven.

In one of John’s New Testament letters, (I Jn 1:8-9), we are told, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our faults, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness.”

Why do we worship? One reason is to be able to experience that forgiveness. We need to hear the same message the Prophet Isaiah heard. “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

Let me suggest one more principle of worship – true worship makes a difference in our lives.

One of the main reasons why we worship is so that our lives will be different. And the difference should be in terms of service. Worship at its best, always motivates the worshipper to roll up the sleeves and to get to work.

There is a sense in which worship and service must go hand in hand. In the Christian life, one cannot have worship without service to follow.

In our Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Isaiah is in the Temple worshipping God. He hears the call to worship, with angels singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

He is moved to confess his sins, which is followed by the assurance of his pardon.

He hears the word of God proclaimed, hearing the voice of God saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"

And what follows then is the service.

The work.

The rolling up of sleeves and the reaching out to others.

In the Scripture lesson, the Prophet said, "Here am I. Send me!"

True worship will always result in service. We cannot enter the sanctuary to worship, without departing into the world to serve.

So, why are we here? Why did we come to worship today? We came in here, in part, to be challenged to do something out there.

So the question for us today not why do we worship? Or why do we come to church today when there are other things we could be doing?

The real question is what will we do when we leave this place of worship.

For the prophet Isaiah, he was sent out to speak a message to the people.

But what are we sent out to do?

What is God calling you to do this week?

Who is it in your life that you need to love a little more?

Who is it in your community that you need to reach out to a little harder?

Who is it that you know of who is not coming to worship who should be invited to come here to Chapel by the Sea?

Are we working at God’s Table? Are we signing up for Habitat for Humanity? Are we helping with the youth programs?

We started this morning by asking the question, “Why are we in worship?”

Forget about that question – the more important question is “what now?” What happens when you leave worship?

Copyright 2011, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.
Sermons are available online and can be found by visiting

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Joy of God's Forgiveness

Psalm 51:1-19

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar.


John 8:1-11

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."


My son came home from school one day to catch me on the telephone.

When my son realized that I was talking with his teacher, he became very anxious.

I hung up the telephone and my son immediately said, “Who was that?”

“That was Mr. Brown,” I said very somberly. “Your teacher.”

“Why were you talking with my teacher?”

“He was telling me some things that were going on at school.”

“What things?”

“Well son, I don’t have time to talk about them now. I have to go visit someone in the hospital. But I promise you we’re going to have a loooong talk when I get home.” And then I headed for the door and just as I was about to walk out, I turned to my son, his face pale, and I said, “When I get home, if you confess to all you’ve been up to, then I promise things will go a lot easier.”

Then I closed the door and headed off to the hospital, and I was gone a long time.

When I got home my son was sitting in the living room waiting for me.

He could not confess fast enough.

He told me about everything!

And as I promised, the punishment was not too severe, but he made a commitment to me that he would never, ever do those things again.

And as far as I know, he didn’t.

I did not have the heart to tell him that what prompted my son’s teacher to call me was that he was inviting all of the parents to an open house.

But, on the other hand I always knew my son was up to mischief at school and needed to confess SOMETHING.

Most of us have something to confess.

And for many of us, what we need to confess is something serious.

Billy Graham once reported that he had spoken with a psychologist who had claimed that more than half of the people in mental hospitals could be released if they could find a way to experience forgiveness. Whatever problems they were having with mental health, this psychologist claimed that their problems were so heavily compounded by a bad conscience that they simply could not find a road to health and recovery. What they needed was a healing that could bring them relief from the guilt and pressures under which they lived.

Our Old Testament reading for this morning was written by a man who had an intimate knowledge of guilt and the need for forgiveness. The author of this reading -- Psalm 51-- was King David, and it was written after a prophet named Nathan had uncovered a double sin that David had tried to keep secret -- adultery and murder.

The way all of this had come about was that David had been on his roof one evening.

In ancient times, roofs were flat and they were often used like we would use a porch or patio. Perhaps David was up there to be alone -- to think about the war that his army was fighting in some distant city. Or perhaps he was thinking of some of the other problems of state. Or perhaps he was simply doing what many of us do when we sit on our porches or patios -- relaxing after a difficult day at work.

At any rate, David soon became aware that he could see--not too far off in the distance -- a woman bathing. She was beautiful. So much so that David could not forget about her. The next day, he asked about her and learned that her name was Bathsheba, and that her husband Uriah, was in David's own army, and away in battle.

David sent for Bathsheba and the two had an adulterous affair. As a result, Bathsheba became pregnant.

King David realized he had done something terrible. He was guilty of a terrible and dishonorable thing, so what did he do to handle his guilt?

Cover up!

Isn't that just like a politician? Isn't that just like all of us?

David sent word for Uriah to come home from battle, pretending that he wanted him to give an official report from the battle front. In reality, he hoped that Uriah would spend the night at home with his wife while in Jerusalem. When the child was born, Uriah would accept it as his own. But Uriah was a soldier and his commitment was such that during wartime, he would only sleep with the other soldiers.

The cover up didn’t work, so David took another step.

This is often the case. We make a mistake. We need relief from our guilt. But we find ourselves getting deeper and deeper, much more so than we ever intended to go.

To cover up his sin, David ordered Uriah back into battle. And then David ordered one of his military leaders to arrange for Uriah to be killed in the battle. And the order was carried out. And Uriah died.

Finally, the king was safe. He could relax. Eventually Bathsheba and David were married and the child was born. But that didn’t last long.

A prophet named Nathan learned about David's actions. He approached the king and in a very skillful way, confronted the king about his terrible deeds.

Suddenly David knew his secret sin was no longer hidden. He had been caught. I dare say that all of us here have lived through that moment, and shared with David the feeling he felt then.

A student cheating on a test, caught by the watchful eye of a teacher.

A wife, cheating in her marriage, caught by the husband.

A respected businessman caught by the IRS for lies he told on his tax forms.

A friend caught by another betraying a trust.

In small ways and large, we have ALL have felt the agony of being found out. Of being caught. David was caught. He felt the agony. He felt the pain of realizing his cover up had failed to hide the ugly truth. And then he felt the need to confess his sin to God.

Which is what he should have done in the beginning. It is the one thing that brings healing. We make mistakes. But we should not waste time trying to cover them up, or trying to un-do the mistake. The mistake is there. The sin is there. Confession is what we need to do. Admit the mistake. Own up to what we have done.

Psalm 51, the Scripture reading for this morning, is a poem written by David that expressed his prayer of Confession after being confronted by Nathan. Through this prayer David experienced the relief of forgiveness.

How can we experience and know that we are forgiven?

By examining this psalm and the historical background of King David we see that there are certain steps in receiving forgiveness.

Confession of our sin is the first step.

Confession is vital, but it is probably absolutely contrary to our nature.

When I was a teenager, I briefly took up the habit of smoking cigarettes. One day when my mother and father were supposed to be gone for the entire day, I sat down to light up a cigarette, and when I was about half way through it, my Dad walked in. “What are you doing? Are you smoking?”

Now I have always thought fast on my feet, so with smoke coming out of my mouth I looked at Dad and asked, “Who? Me?”

The last thing I wanted to do was to admit that I was smoking, even though I was sitting alone in a smoke filled room holding a cigarette.

Now you can laugh at that, but we see grown men and women doing the same thing on the television news every day. Caught red handed, they still deny, deny and deny.

No one, by nature, likes to confess.

But if healing is to come to your soul, that is where we begin.

That is where David finally started to find healing.

As long as David covered up his sin, he could not experience forgiveness -- He had to come to the point where he could confess his sin to God.

You want to experience the joy of forgiveness? Step one is confession. Step two is asking God for mercy.

David admitted his mistake to God. In the Psalm, he said, "Against You and you only have I sinned." Of course, others had been hurt. Bathsheba had lost her reputation and her husband. Uriah had been killed. David had abused the power of his public office and so the trust of the people had been violated. And the infant who had been born as a result of this affair eventually died as an infant.

Nevertheless, David said to God, "Against you and you only have I sinned." For David saw that a sin against another of God's children is a sin against God, and that ultimately any wrong doing is an insult to the love of God.

More than anything else, it is God's love that has been wounded the most. It is God's grace that has been injured.

Therefore if you want to experience the joy of forgiveness, you must first confess your sin TO God, and you must then ask GOD for mercy.

Many people do not experience the joy of forgiveness and freedom from guilt because they believe that God OWES his Children his forgiveness. They believe that they DESERVE God's mercy.

David knew better than this. What sin deserve is justice -- punishment.

Historian Shelby Foote likes to tell a story about an incident that occurred during the Civil War. A very young Soldier has been caught trying to dessert. He enters the tent of General Robert E. Lee himself. The soldier is obviously frightened and Lee tries to put him at ease. "Don't worry son," the General Says, You'll find Justice here."

To which the young solder replies, "That's what I'm afraid of sir."

Our sin deserves justice. Punishment. But what we NEED is mercy. And we need to understand that this mercy that we need is a gift of God, not an obligation of God. It is a gift of God offered to us because he loves us.

And so to experience relief from guilt and to know the joy of forgiveness, first we must confess our sins to God, and secondly, ask for mercy.

Step three is to change.

In the Psalm, David said, "Restore to me the joy of salvation, and then I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will be converted."

He was thinking in terms of how he would be changed by forgiveness, how he would then go out and convert others toward God.

In our New Testament lesson, Jesus forgives a woman, who like David, has been caught in the act of adultery. She is about to stoned. Rescued by Jesus and forgiven by him, he tells her, "Go and sin no more."

For forgiveness to take root, it has to be accompanied by a change in ones lifestyle. One of the dangerous patterns that sometimes exist in a family structure is the tendency in some to forgive too freely without any real expectation of change.

Does it do any good for a wife to forgive a husband for an adulterous affair, but then NOT to expect the husband to change?

Is it right to forgive someone who has been abusive to another person without expecting an end to the abuse?

To forgive, without an expectation that there will be a change, does not do anything positive. On the contrary, it simply enables the person to continue the destructive pattern.

Forgiveness makes no demand upon the past. You can't change the past.

But it places a heavy demand on the future. There has to be a change.

We need relief.

We need God's forgiveness.

We find it by confessing our sin to God, asking God for mercy, and then, in the words of Jesus, going and sinning no more.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh

All rights reserved.

Sermons are available online and can be found by visiting www.Pittendreigh.NET

Sunday, October 09, 2011

"It Is Well With My Soul"

Isaiah 66:10-13
"Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance."
For this is what the LORD says: "I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." (NIV)

Philippians 4:4-11
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. (NIV)

I can’t believe God almighty, in the Lord’s infinite wisdom, allowed this church to get struck by lightning.

But it happened.

And in God’s divine sense of humor, the damages amounted to $24 LESS than our insurance deductible.

The electronics in the organ were damaged.

The fire alarm was damaged.

And most aggravating, the Internet went off line. Now you would think that of all the damages, the loss of the Internet would be the one that was the least of our worries, but it turned out to be the most frustrating.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t check for the latest news, it was email from church members I couldn’t retrieve. The church database and directory was offline. And more than that, because of the way the Internet and the computers operate, when we lost the Internet, we also lost the ability to access computer files. Our computers could not communicate with the printers. The printer didn’t want to print more than 20 pages of anything.

We put up with this for a few weeks, and then came a couple of weeks ago when we had to put out not only the bulletin, but the newsletter as well. Try as we might, we couldn’t get the computer to communicate with the printer and finally our secretary Maryann took the newsletter files to her own home, used her own computer, ran off the master newsletter copy on her own computer, took a pair of scissors and literally cut and pasted everything, had to bring it back to the office, and even then there was a team of volunteers waiting – ever so patiently and graciously - for us to finish everything up so they could fold and stuff the newsletters for mailing.

It was an awful week. Filled with anxiety and stress.

And I got to the point that I was ready to quit Chapel by the Sea and become a Forest Ranger, an astronaut, an ice cream truck driver, or cowboy. There were times when I wanted to do those things when I grew up. Maybe now is the time.

And then just the other day it was time for me to work on today’s sermon, and since we had repairmen working on my computer one more and hopeful one last time, I had to come into the sanctuary and use the laptop computer in the media center where the sound and projectors are operated.

I’m sitting there in a dark sanctuary and I look up the Scripture for today’s sermon, and there is Paul in Philippians saying, “Do not be anxious about anything, but with prayer and thanksgiving present your petitions to God…I have learned to be content in any and every situation… Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Like that’s easy to do…

Well, we’ve all been there.

There are times when nothing seems to go right and in spite of what the choir sang a few minutes ago, “It is not well with my soul.”

In the television show THE MIDDLE, a middle class family is struggling through the years of raising three children. The wife of the family, Frankie Heck, reaches her breaking point. The oldest teenager keeps putting his dirty tennis shoes on the kitchen counter, the teenage daughter won’t get out of the shower leaving the mother to shower by using the kitchen sink sprayer, the youngest son gets into some junk mail catalogs and starts ordering junk over the telephone. Later in the day she comes home, sits down on the sofa to watch her television show, and finds a bag of chips open and laying on the sofa. And the bag is practically empty.

“I just bought these,” she shouts out, and then starts eating the tiny pieces left at the bottom of the bag.

And then her daughter comes in, looks at her mother in horror and tells her that one of the kids has put his toe nail clippings in that bag.

Mom rushes to the kitchen sink and begins to clean her mouth out with dishwasher liquid and SOS pads, and then declares, “I’ve had it, I’m out of here!”

And she leaves.

She walks out the door.

One of the kids finally breaks the silence by asking, “Are Moms allowed to do that?”

The mother goes home to her own mother who tells her, “Every woman eventually reaches the point where you have to leave the house, get in the car, drive across the state line, check into the Holiday Inn, and watch all three Smokey and the Bandit movies until you cannot stand Burt Reynolds and you finally go back home.”

There are times when it is not well with our soul.

One of the books I used to read to my son when he was a child was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”

The first page starts off this way, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

But we’ve all been there.

Bad days.

Bad weeks.

Bad months.

For all of us there are times when it has not been well with our souls.

You go to work to find that you no longer have a job.

You get a telephone call and learn that your best friend has died.

Your doctor tells you the very worst news imaginable.

You go to pay your bills and you have to decide – do I pay the mortgage this month, or do I pay the medical bills.

Bad days.

Bad weeks.

Bad times.

For all of us there are times when it has not been well with our souls.

And then you read in Philippians and there is Paul saying, “I have learned to be content in any and every situation… Rejoice in the Lord always.”

That’s hard to do.

It’s not easy.

But notice, Paul did not say, “I have been given the gift of being content in all situations.” He didn’t imply that it had come suddenly or immediately. He said “I have learned to be content.”

Learning is a process. It is often a painful one. It is often a long one. And it is always incomplete in that you can always learn more.

For example. My father taught me how to change the oil in my car. The first time I did it, I made a mess with the drive way – got oil all over the place. The second time, I did better. The third time it came a little easier. Now, decades later I know exactly how to change the oil in a car.

You get behind the driver’s seat and drive to Jiffy Lube.

OK, maybe that’s not a good example – but the point is that anything we do well in life, we do because we went through a learning process. Learning takes time. It takes practice.

And when Paul said, “I have learned to be content…” he was telling us that it had been a long process for him.

If you want to be able to rejoice in all situations, even those difficult times, you don’t learn it very quickly. It takes time.

The choir sang the anthem a few moments ago, “It is Well With My Soul.”

I love than hymn. It’s not a peppy hymn. It’s not what I would call a joyous toe-tapper.

But the words are so true and it reflects a sincere hymn of someone who has been through difficult times.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul!
There is a story behind this hymn.

It was written by a man named Horatio Spafford over a century ago. He lived a life that was at times filled with awful tragedy.

His only son died in 1871 at the age of four.

Shortly after that the city he was living in suffered a great fire – you know it as the great Chicago fire. It left him and his family financially destroyed. It took a long time to recover.

When he was finally back on his feet again, the family decided to take a vacation – one of those “dream vacations” of a life time. They were headed for Europe, and of course at that time the only way to get there was by sailing the Atlantic Ocean.

Horatio’s business forced him to stay behind and catch a later ship, but he encouraged his wife and four daughters to go on ahead as planned, and he would catch up later.

Tragically, the ship collided with another vessel and both ships quickly sank.

The mother and the four girls survived the collision and were thrown into the sea. The mother tried to keep the girls afloat, but they drowned, and only their mother survived.

Back in Chicago, Horatio received news of his children’s deaths.

He immediately sailed for Europe to be with his wife and during the voyage, the captain of the ship he was sailing on called him to the bridge. Pointing to the chart, the captain told him that they were just passing the spot where the ship with his family had gone down.

Many of us, in such a situation, would have been filled with grief and anger.

But as Horatio walked the deck in his sorrow, his faith was all that sustained him. He was overtaken by a feeling of peace that was beyond his understanding as he thought about how he would see his daughters again in heaven. As he watched the waves rolling on the ocean he recalled the words of our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah, "For thus says the Lord, I will extend peace to her like a river..." and wrote the words that have come down to us as one of our most enduring hymns:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul!

Sometimes things are not well with our souls. But with faith, we can learn the art of that sacred peace that passes all understanding. It is not always a gift given in an instant – it is more often a skill that is slowly nurtured and developed until at last you can say, as did Paul, I “have learned to be content in all situations.”

In May, 1996, I had just moved to Miami and was still living in a temporary apartment that was full of unopened boxes when I received a call from a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. He wanted me to make a pastoral visit to some of his parishioners who were in a hotel in Miami.

The day before, Value Jet flight 592 had taken off from Miami on its way to Atlanta. Moments after takeoff the jet crashed.

The two or three witnesses who had been fishing in the Everglades at the time said the plane didn’t just crash, it nose dived head on into the Everglades. They knew exactly where the plane had gone down and when rescue helicopters arrived, they found nothing but fuel floating on top of the water. The plane going hundreds of miles per hour had pretty much disintigrated when it hit the concrete-like layer of coral rock under the shallow waters of the Everglades. There were no survivors, and not to be overly graphic, but there were no real bodies left to recover.

One of the families of a victim was Presbyterian and their pastor called on me to visit the family, who had, like all the other families, gathered in a hotel in Miami. Their son was returning home from his first semester at the University of Miami. He was going home for Mother’s Day.

The mother was so deep in grief. She was unable to eat anything at all, but she said that she thought that if I would serve the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, she might be able to eat the bread and drink from the cup.

So I brought my portable Communion kit to a hotel room, and we sat around and I began the simple service.

“The Lord Jesus Christ, on the night of his arrest, took bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, ‘take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.’ And in the same way after supper he took the cup and said, ‘drink from it, all of you.’”

And the mother took the bread and ate it.

She took the cup and drank it.

And others joined us.

And then I joined this family and other families for the evening update. The workers from the crash site met with all of the survivor families twice each day. They very delicately and gently went through the latest news from the search process.

It was, as the children’s book would say, “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

At one point, the mother whose son died on his way to celebrate mother’s day with her said, “I’ll never again know joy.”

Over the next few days, I met with that family daily frequently. And so many times she said, “I’ll never again know joy.”

Years later I received a letter from her.

“Dear Dr. Pittendreigh, I never thanked you for coming and being with us during our darkest hour. Recovering from our son’s death was a long and hard process. The days were filled with pain. The nights were often sleepless. You brought us the Lord’s Supper in our hotel room, and every time we celebrate that Sacrament in our church here in Tennessee, I think back on that day. I have learned through this God’s love for us was so great, he gave up his only child. I take comfort in knowing that God has experienced what I experienced, that God has felt sorrow, and that God has felt pain. And with each time I take Communion, I feel a little more love and joy, and a little less pain. I have even learned to know joy once again.”

And then she quoted Philippians, “I have learned what the Bible means when it says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I shared that story a few years later. By that time I was no longer serving a church in Miami, but was in Atlanta. One of the people in the congregation that day was a nurse named Priscilla and after the worship service she came up to me and said, “I need to share something with you. At the door of my home is a frame, and whenever I leave the house, what’s in that frame reminds me how precious life is. No matter what happens in the hospital with equipment, or cost overruns, or staff problems, or the day to day drama that happens in every work place, that frame helps me keep everything in perspective."

Priscilla went onto say that a few years ago she was having to leave Atlanta every few days to visit her mother who was at the end of her life. Priscilla said, "She didn’t even know who I was any more, and she had become very difficult. After one visit, I was so tired and so angry. I’d had it with my mother and I just couldn’t go on any more. I packed my bags and promised I’d never come back. She was going to die and I just didn’t want anything to do with it.

“I got to the airport and just as I was about to board the plane a nurse from hospice called. My mother had a heart attack and was not expected to live through the night. I was told that if I wanted to be with my Mom in her last hours, I needed to come back to the hospice.
“I left the airport, and got into a cab and rode back to the hospice, and all the way all I could think of was having to spend money on another ticket home.

“Mom died within the hour, and as I was leaving hospice for the last time, walking through the lobby, people were gathered around a television watching the news. Value Jet 592 had just crashed in the Everglades. That was the flight I missed a couple of hours earlier. I was ten minutes away from boarding the plane. I have that unused ticket on the door of my house, it’s in a frame, and beneath it, a quotation from Philippians:

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Copyright 2011, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.
Sermons are available online and can be found by visiting www.Pittendreigh.NET

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Our Treasures

Philippians 3:4-14
4 If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:
5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ
9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul is writing to the Philippians and in his letter he talks about his system of values.
What is the most valuable possession you own?
What do you value in your life?

Years ago, I read in one of Ann Landers' columns an interesting story about a woman who had married a tightwad. This man married a real skinflint and she could never get any thing out him -- not even an extra quarter. He controlled every little bit of money in the household. And he would take his money and put 20% of all of the money he earned, and save it.

But he would save it by putting it under his mattress, because he did not trust banks.
Whenever the woman would ask for money from her husband, he would refuse, and would insist that the money was going to come in handy in their old age.

When the man was 60 years old, he was diagnosed as having cancer. Toward the end, he made his wife promise, in the presence of his brothers, that she would take the money he had stashed under the mattress and put it into his coffin so he could buy his way into heaven if he had to.
They all knew he was a little odd, but this was clearly a crazy request. But sure enough, the wife made the promise.

Then, when the man died, the first thing she did was to take the money to the bank and deposit it in a new account.

But she found a way to honor her promise.

The first check she wrote was for the full amount -- $300,000. She made it payable to cash, so that anyone could cash it, and then -- right before the burial -- she very quietly put it in her dead husband's casket. Let's see him cash that check.

She had the best of both worlds – honoring her husband’s request, and yet also having the ability to spend the money in that account.

We all value the strangest things. We go through life being told, "You can't take it with you," but this man sure tried.

What do you value? What commitments have you made with your life?

In 1923, nine of the world's most successful financiers met at Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel. Financially, they literally "held the world by the tail" -- anything that money could buy was within their grasp -- they were rich -- rich -- rich! Listen to their names and the high position each held:

1. Charles M. Schwab, not related to the Charles Schwab of the famous stock firm, but the president of the largest steel company.
2. Samuel Insull, the president of the largest electric utility company.
3. Howard Hopson, the president of the largest gas company.
4. Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange.

And on down the line. Each person a CEO of a great company, or a person who held enormous wealth and power.

A tremendously impressive group. But let's look at what happened to them a few years later, after the famous Wall Street Crash, the Depression, and World War II.
Twenty five years later, you'd find that
1. Charles Schwab was forced into bankruptcy and lived the last five years before his death on borrowed money.
2. Samuel Insull not only died in a foreign land, a fugitive from justice, but was penniless.
3. Howard Hopson was insane.
4. Richard Whitney had just been released from Sing Sing prison.

And on down the line. Many were poor, some had died, and several had died at their own hands.
Still impressed with this group? A vast amount of talent and potential went down the drain with these men. What happened?

Their lives were out of balance!

They valued the wrong things. They committed themselves to the wrong things of life. What do you value?

It is said that about 200 years ago, the tomb of the great bishop of Europe was opened. The sight the workmen saw was startling. There was his body in a sitting position, clothed in the most elaborate of kingly garments, with a scepter in his bony hand. On his knee lay the Holy Scriptures, with a cold, lifeless finger pointing to Mark 8:36: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

What do you value? That is an important question, because if you value the wrong things, you lose meaning to your life. You lose your very soul.

Paul's life, on the other hand, is in perfect balance and harmony, because he knows what he should value. He knows what he needs to be committed to.

Not the money.

Not the fine home.

Not the car.

Not the CD player.

Not the clothing.

Paul said, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.
For Paul, nothing was more important than Christ.

Most of us think of Christ as important to our lives. But for most of us, Christ is NOT the most important aspect of our lives.

But for Paul, he said everything else in life was rubbish compared to knowing and following Christ.

Sometimes it takes a crisis in our lives for us to think about what is important -- really important -- in our lives.

Fred Craddock tells a story about friends of his who were missionaries to China many years ago. At one point all missionaries were being forced out of the country. Fred Craddock's friends were told they had 24 hours to leave. Each adult missionary would be allowed to take with them 400 pounds of luggage, but nothing more.

So the missionaries began to ask themselves, what is it that we value? What are those things that are most important to us?

The typewriter? No. Too heavy and too easily replaced.

The vase that has been in the family for generations? Yes. Pack that.

The family photos? Sure.

The candlesticks the church had given them in honor of their work? Hard to say. They mean a lot, but they are so heavy. Set them aside, we'll decide later.

Finally, they had their luggage. Each adult missionary had packed 400 pounds each. They had measured and remeasured and they had left no room for error.

They got to the boat docks and they were being checked out by the authorities when one of the Chinese officials said, "Did we not explain this to you? The 400 pounds includes your children."
So much for the candlesticks, the vase that belonged to great grandmother and many of the other items they thought they had valued.

In the moment of the crisis it had become clear what they really valued most.

We live in an age that seems to value all of the wrong things.

We put great value on the home, but not on the family within the home.

We take time for golf, but not for Christ.

We want to be served by others, but we've forgotten how to be servants of God.

We really don't know what we value most.

There is a point in the Gospels when people are ready to make a commitment to Christ, but Christ turns them away.

Why? Because to be committed to Christ is an all or nothing experience.

You can't make half a commitment to Christ.

It is all or nothing. Because God's commitment to us, was all and total.
In Luke's Gospel, (Luke 9:57-62), Jesus encounters a man who says; "I will follow you wherever you go."

Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

"He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family." Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

I think we all value Christ; otherwise we would not be here today.

We have a commitment to Christ.

But how deep is our commitment?

We cannot follow Christ with half of our heart.

We cannot be half way committed to him.

Christ himself rejected such followers, telling them that it was better for them not to follow at all, if they could not follow all of the way.

What do you value?

If you do not value Christ above all things,
if you have not committed yourself to Christ above all things,
then you have no commitment to Christ at all. Your life is out of balance.

It is an easy thing to value Christ.

It is a difficult thing to value him above all other things in our lives.

How can that be possible?

Tom Long is a friend of mine who served a church in Georgia as a pastor. A man came into his office he hadn't seen in years. A high school buddy he'd lost track of.

Tom greeted his friend with open arms. The laughed and talked about old times. They talked about this. They talked about that. And finally, they talked about IT.

Tom's friend said, "You know I'd heard you'd become a minister, so I thought I'd look you up. I really need to talk to someone about my life. I don't seem to value anything. Nothing is important to me. And that bothers me. I've been thinking about it, and I've come to the conclusion that my problem is that I'm not committed to anything.

Tom told me that he had just written a stewardship sermon, and he was tempted to preach it to his friend right then and there. "You better believe your life won't count for anything, so you'd better get your life in order and find something to be committed to." But then, it dawned on Tom that this might not be the right approach. He looked at his friend and said, "I hear you saying you don't believe you are committed to anything. I'm wondering if what you're really feeling is, 'no one is committed to you.'"

Paul was not committed to anything, until he learned how committed Christ was to him.
Paul is in the midst of a crisis. He is in prison. He is writing a letter to the Philippians and he says, "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him."

Christ is fully committed to us.

Therefore we need to be -- we are able to be -- fully committed to him.

Most of us are not.

We value our CD collection, we value our car, and we value our home.

And we value Christ -- but He is way down the list of priorities. There are things in our lives that are more important than Christ.

Which is sad, because Christ is so fully committed to us.

The Apostle John wrote in his letter (I John 4:18-19), "We love because he first loved us."
Elsewhere, John says, (I John 4:10), "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

What do you value?

What are you committed to?

Before you answer that question, you need to know how deeply committed God is to you.

What does God value?


What is God committed to?


The most familiar text in the entire Bible comes from John 3:16, where it says, "God so loved the world that He gave his only son so that whoever believed in him would not perish, but have eternal life."

God did not wait for you to commit to him.

He made that commitment to us long ago.

And for Paul, his commitment comes as a result of knowing that God values him.

And for John, his commitment comes as a result of knowing that God loves him.

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2011All Rights Reserved