(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on September 21, 2014)
“This is no imaginary freak of the brain. The Lord has laid upon me the arduous work of selecting a suitable location for the commencement of a settlement of Friends in Oregon.” (Diary of William Hobson)
Our church began because William Hobson, a farmer from Iowa, listened to Christ and was led to this frontier town of Newberg to create a community of people who would follow Jesus. And through the years, when we’ve been at our best, it has been because we have taken the time and made the effort to keep listening to Christ.
At the second Yearly Meeting sessions in 1894, when the Friends Churches in Oregon, Washington and Idaho gathered right here in this room, John Henry Douglas spoke to a full house. 20+ years after Hobson listened and obeyed, Douglas reminded everyone that Jesus, our Lord, our leader, was still worth listening to.
“As the responsibilities are great upon us, and the circumstances surrounding us very different from the older and larger Yearly Meetings, we need to draw very near the throne of Grace, that we may find help in our time of need. We need also to be cheered and encouraged by the promises of our great Leader. The Lord has done great things for us in the past, and we may rejoice to know that no matter what the times or circumstances may be He will lead us to certain victory. I would suggest a time of earnest consecration and prayer in which all may come under the power of God, and receive wisdom from above, that the coming year may be a successful one.” (1894 Oregon Yearly Meeting Minutes)
What stands out to me in those words, spoken in this exact room 120 years ago, is this: success as a church, success in life is defined by living according to wisdom received from above. We’re crazy enough to be part of a church with a long history of believing success in life is not defined by what’s in our heads or our hearts or our strategic plans. We actually think we can receive God’s wisdom and direction.
We choose to risk listening to Christ. We choose to risk people thinking it’s “an imaginary freak of the brain.” We choose listening, even when we know that sometimes we get it wrong.
“Listening to Christ” is our vision, our distinction. Listening is our word, one that we use a lot. I like it-although I recognize it can create for some an expectation of an audible voice of God that some may not ever hear. When we use it, we mean so much more than listening with physical ears. We include as well Douglas’ picture of “a time of earnest consecration and prayer in which all may come under the power of God, and receive wisdom from above…”
We include the thoughts and nudgings that wouldn’t let Hobson go, the weight of having something “laid upon” us so strongly that we can’t let it go. We include all the acts of drawing near to God: community worship, silent prayer, journaling, solitude, walking in the outdoors, singing in the car, sitting in grieving anguish with a friend as we desperately wait for God’s presence to take away the heart-stopping loss.
We choose listening to Christ instead of what sometimes feels more satisfying: doing something, acting, taking the bull by the horns. We choose it not only because these two who founded our church said it long ago, but because John’s gospel reminds us to abide, remain, draw everything we need for life from the vine, Jesus Christ.
We choose listening because just like every muscle and nerve and organ in the body takes its cues from the brains in our heads, we, as part of the body of Christ, come alive inasmuch as we stay connected to the head, to our Leader and Lord Jesus Christ.
In Colossians, we are reminded that losing connection to the head, to Christ, is devastating. “They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Colossians 2:19, TNIV)
A connection to Christ the head…listening to Christ…this is the key.
Two people came up to me after our service last week, when we were looking at our first line of the vision statement, “a growing community.”
They were looking ahead, and they knew what I’m saying today, what Douglas and Hobson said long ago, what John’s gospel teaches us about Christ. They knew listening to Christ is the key, and so last week they each independently asked me: “Why isn’t listening to Christ first?”
It’s a good question. I said the order definitely wasn’t intended to convey importance. I explained that when we developed this 11 years ago, we were seeing the whole thing like a cycle. The reality is that we hope that people who aren’t yet intentionally listening to Christ will become a part of our community…and that by being a part of our community, they will see how we live and act and will follow our example of listening to Christ as well.
When I said that, Linda Sartwell, one of the people who had asked the question, looked at the statement again. “I like that,” she said. “When you think of it that way, you can think of listening to Christ and changing in the Spirit as the heart, the center, the most important thing we do as a community.”
I loved that! So I asked her if I could steal it for this week, which of course I just did.
Elaine and I became parents during the week of Yearly Meeting 20 years ago, in 1994.
I’m sure I was in the evening sessions on July 24, a Sunday night…but honestly, I don’t remember it. Just a few days later on Wednesday morning, I took Elaine to the hospital, and Natalie arrived late that Wednesday night.
But on Sunday, July 24, 100 years after John Henry Douglas spoke the words I quoted a little bit ago, our then superintendent Joe Gerick spoke. Earlier this week, I read the words he spoke:
“As Quakers we often like to talk about our distinctives, those characteristics that are uniquely Quaker. As I consider all our distinctives from the past to the present, for me the predominant distinctive, the crucial truth and experience that Quakers bring to evangelical Christianity is that each individual can know Jesus Christ personally and intimately.”
Then Joe went on to tease out where we will go next week when we look at the third line of our vision statement:
“We can have a communing relationship with Him where He is “in” us and we are “in” Him. It is through this “in-ness” relationship that He works in our lives to conform us to His image.” (NWYM 1994 Minutes, p. 8)
Experiencing God, communing with God, listening to Christ…this is the doorway into a living way of life instead of a rigid religion.
We were made for this! Something in our cells and souls cries out for the presence of our Maker. We all…whether we are and have been faithful and dutiful church goers our entire lives, whether we are rebels who have pushed the boundaries at every turn…we all have times where the deadness and emptiness of our lives appears for what it is, and we pay attention to the yearning inside us for connection and communion with our Creator.
Something wakes us and stirs us and we know that we were meant for so much more…so much more than the money or prestige or security, so much more than the checking off of “good girl” and “good boy” lists…so much more than doing deeds for recognition. Something opens a yawning chasm in our chest that will not be filled until Love, Infinite Love, fills it to overflowing.
“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the faces of [people]. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.” (Testament of Devotion, p. 3)
Christ spoke through those words and I have never been the same again. I don’t mean that I always live so alive, with such clarity all the time, always attentive to the Present Christ within. I wish I could say that, but I cannot.
No, I still have times of deadness and drudgery, of tiredness and tedium, of rebellion and restlessness. But I have never been the same again, because Christ, stirring to be awakened, echoed in my mind, heart and soul. I experienced the reality of Kelly’s words, and now it is out ahead of me, calling me.
We are crazy enough to be a church and a community that believes this is true! That there is a Creator God, eternity at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, pressing to birth within us. We are crazy enough to believe that this is the life we were meant to live-a life centered on listening to the living Christ who forever conquered death and despair and sin and sorrow long ago.
Because we believe this as individuals, we “do church” differently as well.
We aren’t only about implementing strategic plans, about finding programs that bring people in, about doing methods that work in other places to “grow a church.” We don’t believe that I as the lead pastor go off on a hilltop somewhere and come down with the five point plan to make us a successful church.
At each step of the way, we are together listening to Christ. In Sunday morning worship it isn’t just a message from someone up front…there is always open worship to give everyone a chance to hear directly from Christ, for anyone to share a message for the whole group. Our business meetings and our committees don’t just vote to make a decision, but do the hard work of listening together for how Christ might be leading.
One of my favorite examples of this was back in 1991. I was in seminary, but I’ve heard people talk and I’ve read the minutes of a huge decision at that time. Newberg Friends was growing, and most of the leadership-the pastors and the elders and key leaders all felt we needed to sell this aging building and build a new, bigger, more functional church building somewhere else. But rather than just doing that, they held discussion and prayer groups for anyone who wanted to come.
Over 400 people-I’m sure including some of you in this room-participated in those meetings. God led in a hugely surprising way. Almost unanimously, the groups felt God was leading us to stay right here. It didn’t make practical or economic sense. But listening to Christ led to a different path, and we listened and obeyed.
When have you been stirred or moved by an example of listening to Christ?
Do you have something like my reading of Testament of Devotion, or like that decision to stay here as a church? Do you have an example that made you be crazy enough to believe that God does speak and is worth listening to? Would you share with us today? [ASK]
What we are all getting at is the beautiful, freeing truth that we can find purpose, meaning, direction and love by listening to Christ.
Some of you shared miraculous answers to prayer-healings that gave you confidence to listen to Christ. I’m grateful for those experiences, and for how they can build our trust. But I feel like I can’t end without speaking to those of you who haven’t had those experiences, or who have prayed, but it hasn’t had a good ending. We need to hold on to this truth–I can’t let it go–that God is present, God is near…and we have to fight to let these stories not become an anxious burden for us, make us think it’s about us. What if I don’t hear? What if I miss it? What if I fail? What if I prayed wrong, what if my failure is why the world isn’t turned upside down? What if it’s my fault she didn’t get healed, or that he didn’t come back to his family?
What if you don’t have a “big” story of God at work? I love that we emphasize listening to God, but one of the downsides is that I’ll have people sit in my office in agony and angst saying they can’t hear from, that God just doesn’t speak to them, and what are they doing wrong?
So in the middle of all these big stories that are being shared I also want to just name, that for the last several months, my stories are all little, tiny stories. A text sent at the right time. A question that led to somebody sharing vulnerably. It wasn’t as lyrical and passionate as Thomas Kelly’s words, but it still was the same thing: placing myself where I’m willing to listen to the God of the universe.
I want to give us permission to celebrate the little moments of listening that might not have any result at all. That moment you turned off the radio on your commute to try and listen to Jesus, even though you don’t have any tangible result to point to. The encouragement note you sent out of obedience that never got mentioned. Our listening isn’t really measured by the results, but rather we are changed by placing ourselves in God’s presence. I choose to believe God smiles when we try!
Over time, these intentional steps open us to more of Christ…like these that Eric Muhr wrote about:
“Every other week in middle school youth group, we ask students to share prayer requests, and after each request, we ask for someone to pray aloud for what was just shared. We’re convinced that in listening to each other and praying for one another, students become more sensitive to Jesus’ heart for each of the individuals who make up our community.
In high school youth group the last two years, we frequently handed out blank index cards at the beginning of our time together, giving students an opportunity to write down whatever joys, questions or concerns they’d been carrying that week. We wanted students to get better at noticing the good, the difficult, and the confusing experiences they had each week as potential clues to what Jesus is doing in their lives.”
Find some others with whom you can try listening to Christ. Talk with Steve Fawver-he’d be glad to connect you to some others who want to do this.
And finally, if nothing else, remember this. In your anxious moments when you don’t feel God isn’t saying anything, that you’re not hearing anything–never forget that in listening to Christ, we don’t always get a message of something to do. So many times, the only message being conveyed is “I love you. I accept you. I like to be with you.”
May we, in big and small ways, experience what we were created for.
May we, in our listening to Christ, find Jesus, the dynamic Center. In the words of John Henry Douglas:
“We need also to be cheered and encouraged by the promises of our great Leader. The Lord has done great things for us in the past, and we may rejoice to know that no matter what the times or circumstances may be He will lead us to certain victory!”