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Sunday, October 30, 2016

October 30th, 2016: Poplar Level Church of God Sermon

I have been invited to speak at my church here in Louisville, Kentucky while we are without a pastor. I consider this to be a great privilege and appreciate the invitation from the Poplar Level Pulpit Search Committee. I worked on this for several weeks before coming up with the following.

I am a Writer
October 30th, 2016

I am a writer. I don't say that to brag or build myself up in any way; it's just a statement of fact pretty much in the same way that I said that I was a printer for forty-five years or a manager of a fast food restaurant. I've worked for years and years for other people, and now, this is what I want to do. I want to write stories. Another author that I know has told me that she had business cards printed up that had her name in the center and underneath that her title was listed as “Professional Liar”. When I asked about its meaning, she said that she makes up stories for a living, so she felt like the title was appropriate. I'm not sure that I agree that a story teller in that sense is the same thing as a liar, but it was an amusing way for her to get people to ask more about what she did.
I have been a long time reader of science fiction ever since I was in the seventh grade and discovered that the junior high school library had books about rocket ships and alien races. I was in seventh grade, for crying out loud! Why had no one told me that such a thing was even possible? I thought of the library as a place to go read stuffy reference books, look up words that I didn't know how to spell or what they meant, and marvel at 1,456 page tomes like “War and Peace”. The idea that I could find stories that might entertain my vivid imagination had never been expressed to me. It was a place where I went to check out books that I didn't want to read or much less write an analysis of for a grade.
Neil Richard Gaiman is an English author of short fiction and novels, and a winner of the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker awards. He made the statement that “Libraries are the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.” I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. We read to educate ourselves and we educate ourselves to become better human beings.
So, it was not surprising that when I got the idea that I could make up my own stories, I planned to write those kinds of stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and so many others stimulated my thoughts and enabled me to imagine other worlds and exotic locations. It was suprising to me that this was not the way things turned out.
When I first retired and began writing part time, my stories had no hint of the sci-fi genre. My first piece was a ghost story, the second was a fantasy, the third was a book of inspirational poetry, and my fourth was about the relationship between two sisters. Not a word of science fiction in the whole lot.
The common bond between the stories is that each one is about the relationships between one or more characters, and each story is a microcosm of the Christian faith.
Every story that I've written has a beginning, and it is known by anyone who sits down to put a story on paper that the first sentence of a book is very important. We live in a fast paced world, where people say, “I only have time for one book to read, and if I don't like the way you start, I will probably not read it.” So it is extremely important that the first sentence grab the reader.
Stephen King, well known writer of horror stories, stated that “an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story… it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
In my first published story, I started with the following sentence: “I am not sure when I realized that I was dead.” I would probably write that sentence a little better if I wrote it today because with time, talents improve, but it was not a bad introduction to the story I had to tell about a man who died and got left behind on this world. It was short, succinct, and made the reader want to know more about the main character, why he died, and why it took him a while to realize that he was indeed dead.
The Bible is the most amazing book in the history of mankind, and its beginning is no less gripping than any other successful book. In Genesis 1:1, it simply says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning God created...
Every job that I have ever held has been something that allowed me to take raw materials of some kind and combine them in some imaginative fashion that produced a masterpiece that is so much better than just the sum of all its parts. I've always had that inherent desire to make things, even from the time that I took some old pieces of wood in my father's garage and tried to build a steerable go-cart powered by the energy of an enthusiastic neighborhood kid hoping to earn the next turn in that cart. As I grow older, I believe that this is part of who we are as children of the Creator of the entire universe. As He created all the wonders of our existence, we have a longing to make things that we can claim for our own. It might be a lump of ground beef, a bowl of flour and eggs, and a choice selection of vegetables that we put together to make a nice juicy hamburger, or it could be several cans of ink, some aluminum printing plates, and several reams of paper to run through a press and create a beautiful color illustration. Even my very first job as a yard boy at the nearby Catholic church allowed me to take an overgrown, weed-strangled church yard and turn it into a neatly trimmed, freshly mowed work of art, at least for a fourteen year old boy. Today, it's a computer and tens of thousands of words strung together in just the right way to convey the thoughts and images of the story I want to tell.
There was a public service commercial out several years ago where a man was being shadowed by his little son as he went through his daily routine around the house. The man would grab a piece of toast and take a huge bite of it, so the little boy also grabbed a piece of toast and chomped down on it, mimicking his father. The dad would sit down on the couch crossing his right leg over his left and folding his newspaper back to work the crossword puzzle, so the little boy gets his crayon and a section of paper and mimics his father's actions, even crossing his right leg over his left in the same manner. The father would grab his jacket and sling it over his left shoulder, so the little boy, who is probably around Maddox's age would do the same thing. In the final scene, the point is made when the father pulls out a cigarette and lights it. The boy watches his father closely, and picks a stick up off the ground and puts it in his mouth, simulating a cigarette of his own.
That commercial was probably very effective in that it made people think about the fact that your kids are watching the things that you do and because of the bond between you and them, they will want to do the same things in their own lives whether those things are good or bad. I had a great relationship with my son, but that commercial even made me think about some things that I was doing that I really didn't want him picking up, so I changed a few of my habits because I felt the depth of my responsibility to be the kind of person that I thought God wanted me and my son to be.
Just like the small boy who wants to emulate the behavior of his earthly father, we want to copy our Heavenly Father's behavior and create wondrous things out of the raw materials of this life. I'm grateful that God didn't lose interest and set the creation of the universe off to one side with the intention of coming back to it someday. I personally have a box down in my basement that I brought with me from Houston full of ideas for stories and poems, some good and some bad, that never got completed. I was always coming up with a new story or idea that I wanted to share with other people, but until last year, there was only one short story that I had ever finished, and I remember being so proud of that piece.
Back then, I was at a point in my life where I relied heavily on what other people thought about me, and I depended on the comments of others to determine my own sense of self worth. You can imagine how it made me feel when I poured my heart into a short story that had deep personal meaning for me, and someone whose opinion I greatly valued dismissed the story as being derivative and something that had been done before. Even though I disagreed with that person, their words struck at my core and rendered me unable to write again for quite some time. I grew up with a complex of inferiority, and doubted everything that I did, always second guessing, always feeling inadequate, and my respected friend's comments made me question whether or not I was ever cut out to be a writer. All because someone rejected my first completed work.
When you're younger, your confidence is made up of feathers and bubbles. What doesn't blow away at the first sweeping wind, bursts in mid-air in the effort of rising higher, leaving soapy stains on the ground that represent your dreams and aspirations.
At the age of thirty, I had opened my own print shop. After about eighteen months, I had had enough and sold my interest to one of my partners for much less than it was worth. Losing that business devastated me, and I could not understand why. There wasn't a great deal of money involved, I came out of the deal on my feet and the family was fine, but I was crushed by the loss of that small business venture. I struggled over that for weeks afterwards until one day, I had an epiphany.
I realized that up until that point in my life, everything I did was to please a certain individual. More so than I had ever understood before, I felt that I had to succeed in life in order to be able to accept myself as worthy to that person. I had failed in my business attempt, and because of that failure, I felt that I had no value.
The good side of that was that as soon as I realized that I was essentially living my life for someone else, I stopped doing it. I acknowledged that I was a good person, and that God loved me, and that as long as I felt that I was living the life He wanted me to live, it didn't really matter to me what others thought. I
One of my stories is about a young woman who had soured on the world because of bad relationships as a youth. She didn't like anyone, she didn't trust anyone, and frankly had no interest in niceties and kindnesses, for she had never received any.
Then one day, she met someone who lived his life soully for others at great personal sacrifice. It took her a while, but when she finally realized what his good deeds cost him, she was transformed. The blindness she had been living in fell away and she was able to see others in a new light. As the story came to an end, she took on the mantle of this saintly man and made a tremendous sacrifice of her own for someone else.
This story represents the way that many people live. They set out in life, anxious and eager to make their marks on the world only to be slapped down at every turn by people who seem to take joy at telling us that we can't do the things we want to do, we will never be successful, we are not even worth the notice of the world. For some reason, we tend to listen to those kinds of individuals, and it crushes our spirit and keeps us from being whom God wants us to be. We live in a darkness that seldom sees the light of day.... until...

A small speck of light meekly peeks through the ebony shroud surrounding us. We almost don't notice it, but it persists, always there, always reaching out to us until one day, we reach back, timidly at first, but then with a greater effort until finally we find ourselves clawing our way towards that beacon.
We find ourselves, maybe for the very first time in our lives, in the presence of an unfaltering love that fills every pore of our being, accepts us in whatever state we are at that very moment and says “Come unto me....”

In Matthew 29:8-10, from the Berean Study Bible, it says, “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the crossroads and invite to the banquet as many as you can find. So the servants went out into the streets and gathered everyone they could find, both evil and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.…”

This is from a parable that Jesus told about a king whose son was getting married. The ruler was appropriately excited about the idea and made all of the arrangements to celebrate this joyous event with all of his friends and family. The only problem was that the honored guests didn't bother to show up at the wedding. The decorations were hung, the feast was laid out with great care, and the hall was empty. Can you imagine the hurt and disappointment he must have felt?
After a moment, the king called his servants to him and told them to go out and invite everyone they could find. They did so, bringing in enough guests to fill the banquet hall.
God extended His Kingdom to His chosen people first, but they failed to heed the warnings and admonitions of the prophets, John the Baptist, and even Jesus Christ, so He sent apostles and ministers of the Gospel out to bring in all who will hear Him. Mind you, verse 10 says, “both evil and good,” so if you have any illusions that a person has to clean up their life before they can come to Christ, I'm here to say that isn't so.

[Hold up invitations]
I have a couple of invitations with me here. This one is an invitation to the graduation of one of my youth group members when I was still their pastor. Very fancy, as you can see, with blue engraving and embossed silver lettering.
This second one is an invitation to the wedding of one of my oldest friends from Spring Woods Junior High School. This one is a simply engraved, black on cream colored card.
We all have an invitation to come to Christ. Just as you are. Right here, right now. No holding back, no reservations, just come. If He were to send out written invitations, I would imagine that they would be even simpler than my friend's wedding card. In a plain white envelope, I would find a card made of plain white material, and when I drew it out, I would see scrawled in plain block letters...
Come unto me...”
That was what my invitation read. “Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest...” At nineteen years old, I already thought I had the weight of the world upon my shoulders. I found that scripture while reading the New Testament for the first time, and a single, grateful tear dropped onto that verse, bookmarking it forever as I felt Him enter my heart for the first time.
You know, God will use anything and everything to reach out to us. Often He will do something unexpected. I started hearing about this new rock opera with the most amazing music called “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” I decided to go check it out and actually got to see the live play with one of the original troupes when they came to Houston. In it, Jesus was portrayed as a delusional teacher who went too far with his ministry. Judas is considered the one whom the playrights considered as seeing what was actually going on and tried repeatedly to get him to rise up and overthrow the Roman occupiers. He tells Jesus, “You've begun to matter more than the things you say.”
When I saw this play, it confused me. You see, I had not read the Bible yet, and I wondered if the events laid down in this Broadway play correctly depicted things in the Bible, so I bought a Bible and began reading it. It was during that reading that I accepted Christ into my heart.
I've never looked back. And I absolutely have never regretted the decision. At those times when I felt so alone that I didn't know if I could carry on, I would take a deep breath, turn my eyes inward, and there He was every single time. I honestly believe that if someone says they can't find God, they just haven't looked very hard, because I find him in the intricacy of the veins of a maple leaf, of the incredibly organized way that a mound of ants interact with each other. I find God in the cry of a tiny newborn baby and in the wrinkles in the weathered face of an elderly migrant worker. I see the working of His hands in the way the sun rises and fills the sky with the most glorious colors one could ever hope for. For me, God is everywhere and in everything that I see.

It's a wonderful story, or to be more accurate, a wonderful series of stories.
In my stories, there are smaller stories within them. In one, the main character learns that his mother has been told that she might have cancer. He rushes to her side to comfort her as she awaits the results of medical tests that have been run. Because he has been to the future, he knows that she does not have cancer, but he cannot tell her without exposing his secret time machine project. I put this in to show more about the relationship between the two characters and the internal conflict going on within the main character.
Each small story within the main story should advance the plot, revealing something about the characters involved while also pointing to the climax of the book. The Bible does this so very well. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel and the first murder, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the first kings of God's Chosen People, Daniel in the Lion's den, David, Jonathan, and Saul, the trials of Job, - Hadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, Jonah and the whale, and the lamentations of Jeremiah. So many more that I could mention. Stories of courage and conviction and an unconditional faith in the God of creation.
Everything teaches about God and points to the climax. What is the climax of the Bible? Every good book has a climax, a pivotal point in the story around which everything else is built. For me, the climax of the Bible is found in the Gospels in the telling of the birth, life, death and ressurection of Jesus Christ. Everything before that points forward to that, and everything after it points back to it.
For me, it culminated in a rich scripture that even many non-believers know. John 3:16
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The God of the universe, knowing that there was not a blood sacrifice on the face of this earth that would be sufficient to wipe away the sins of this world, came down from His throne and became a man, living a life without blemish so that He personally could become the most perfect sacrifice and shed His own blood on the cross of Calvary. ...And all you have to do is believe.
Calvary. Have you ever seen someone in a dire situation who cries out, “I need help! Somebody call the cavalry!” Only, the don't say cavalry. They say Calvary. “Somebody call the Calvary!” I used to correct them, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this mispoken phrase was actually better suited for the situation than the intended word.
Who better to call upon in a time of need than the One who shed His blood on Calvary? He did it for all of us, hoping that we would do just that. The blood of Christ and the salvation that it brings are the most precious gifts that God has ever given the world.
He's written your story, too. God has a plan for you that is far better than anything that you might come up with on your own. There have been times in my life when everything was going along just as I thought they should, but there were also times when I found myself veering off in some strange direction that made absolutely no sense to me at all. Later on, when I looked back at those times, I realized that those things were exactly what I needed at that point in my life. God was in control, despite what I thought.

All books have an ending, and the Bible is no different. The Book of Revelations is one of the most cryptic endings to a book that I have ever read. I pray for the wisdom to understand the things are revealed there. There are some things that are easily understood, though.
Right at the end of the Bible, Revelation 22:17 says the following:

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes - take the water of life without cost.

There it is again. Come unto me.... The great invitation unlike any other. Life is at stake here. Not just that painful difficult existence that we go through here on this earth, but life eternal. A gift that only the God of the universe could offer. I invite you to search your heart and soul today and if there is any small part of yourself that you have not given over to God, take a moment at the altar and empty yourself so that He may fill you with His Spirit and make you whole in accordance to His will.

(Closing song.)

In closing, I wanted offer this brief word of encouragement about current events.
In Romans 13:1 New International Version, it says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
This is a hard scripture for me, because there are times that I feel that the leadership of the country has values that are diametrically opposed to my own. My heart sinks when I hear about a new law or finding or public comment that pushes this great country a little farther away from God and the Christian values that it was founded on.
I lose sight of the big picture sometimes. I want to shake my fist and shout at the television set “No!”
But that is not what God wants us to do. Because He knows the REAL ending to the story. He knows what I cannot see. He wants me to have faith and trust in Him.
I don't know what will happen on November 8th, election day.
On November 9th, the day after the election there is one thing that I know with absolute certainty. God will still be on His throne and in control of this world.
Have faith and trust in Him....

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