Twelve years ago, on the Second Sunday in Lent, at the church I was serving in Los Osos, California, I preached a sermon titled, “Love Took My Hand.” The sermon was based on the very familiar text of John 3:16, which reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I have subsequently preached a revised edition of this sermon in my current church in Santa Maria, California, because so many people have responded positively to its underlying message of grace and hope!
The scripture text is almost too familiar. People of all stripes think they know clearly what it means. But my approach in the sermon was to make the words of John’s gospel very personal for myself and my listeners. I wanted us to consider how God searches for us throughout our life journeys and extends to us an inexhaustible and unconditional love. Eternal life is not some far-off, distant promise of a better future — it is the reality we know when we are embraced by our Creator and trust that we are loved, right now, right here!
A few weeks after delivering that sermon twelve years ago, one of my parishioners offered the most sincere praise one can offer. He wrote a beautiful song based on his reflections on the sermon, and sang it in his rich tenor voice for our church family. He even ended up taking the song on the road. So I offer his lyrics to you for your enjoyment and blessing!
Love Took My Hand by John Kelly
Love took my hand, and led me through my childhood,
Love held me close, and calmed my childish fears.
I felt Love in my mother’s warm caresses,
And when, with love, she wiped away my tears.
I found in Love a friend who would not leave me,
Who’d stand by me whenever I might stray.
I never knew why Love was so forgiving,
I only knew that Love would find a way.
But as I grew, I thought Love was unneeded,
I felt no need for Love to lean upon,
I turned away from all that Love could give me,
I turned away, and thought that Love had gone.
But then I found that without Love I’m nothing,
I needed Love to face a world of care,
I looked for Love, and Love had never left me,
I reached for Love, and Love was always there.
Love walked with me among the sick, the homeless,
Love walked with me when pain was everywhere,
Love said to me, “Love even these, the love-less,”
Love walked with me, and taught me how to care.
And now I know that Love will never leave me,
And now I know that Love comes from above.
And I will go wherever Love may lead me,
Because I know, I know that God is Love.
Thank you, John, for these beautiful words affirming the deep and abiding love of God for us!
God bless you, my friends, with the knowledge that God is for you and with you, and that indeed God is Love!
Grace and peace, Mark
Some days, even after thirty-some years of active parish ministry, I simply don’t feel that well suited to being a pastor.
A disappointment tips the scale, and I am gripped by a growing sense of discouragement.
A loss is felt – either because people move away, because of a death, or simply as a result of the shifting landscape of peoples’ spiritual lives or family dynamics – and I grieve all over again for the way these losses tear at the fabric of community.
Life is difficult. I get it. I am a pastor, and I am well accustomed with the challenges and struggles people experience – not only those within my pastoral charge (as we Methodists refer to our flocks), but those well beyond it, in the larger community and among the circles of relationship of those I know. Yet this doesn’t lessen the impact of disappointment or loss.
“The world is my parish,” John Wesley once said. Pastors aren’t appointed to churches to be mere chaplains. We are sent among God’s people to equip them to be ministers in the world. Pastors are like personal trainers, helping others get in spiritual shape so that they can live as followers of Christ for the sake of the world. Trouble is, too often people are content to purchase a bargain gym membership and then fail to show up and work out! The church atrophies. Leadership dries up. People walk away.
I still believe that God wants to bless the whole world, no exceptions! And so I get up each morning knowing that the work is not going to be easy. My hope and desire is that my efforts for the sake of God’s realm on earth will bear fruit, but I am also realizing that I don’t control the results of anything. Not really.
I am learning to turn my work over to the Spirit of God who moves about freely in the world without regard to human borders or divisions. I am learning to release the imperfect work of my hands, my heart, my mind and my spirit, to the one wise God who is able to use even me to create a more just and compassionate world.
(c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
I’ve returned to The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church lately in an effort to better understand what it means to be in covenant with my ordained colleagues, and indeed with all baptized members of the Church. While I think I have a reasonably good understanding of the meaning of covenant, I am increasingly aware of the vastly different approaches within the Church on this matter.
As human beings we cannot help but see covenant through the lenses of our own experience of God, faith, grace, and community. In other words, the very meaning of covenant is formed within the ongoing lived experience of faith communities composed of imperfect human beings working together for the common good.
The Book of Discipline says, “Ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all Christians, especially with those whom they lead and serve in ministry” (para 303.3). This covenant is spoken of as one of “mutual care and accountability.” So there is a sense that in whatever ways the Church seeks the Reign of God, we need to purposefully exercise mutual care and accountability.
The Book of Discipline also says, “The effectiveness of the Church in mission depends on these covenantal commitments to the ministry of all Christians and the ordained ministry of the Church. Through ordination and through other offices of pastoral leadership, the Church provides for the continuation of Christ’s ministry, which has been committed to the church as a whole” (para. 303.4).
So there are covenantal commitments that we make to, with, and for one another, and these commitments are naturally tested over time. I have always understood these covenantal commitments primarily in terms of relationship – relationship with God, with my ministry partners, and with the whole Church. Throughout my thirty years of pastoral ministry in a variety of contexts these covenantal commitments have meant renegotiating relationships that continue to grow and change. I am not the same person I was when I entered ministry. My experience of God and of Church has changed. My theology has changed. The world has changed, as has the Church’s role in the world. In other words, covenantal commitments are not static, and those of us who seek to minister alongside one another must exercise grace and humility in our relationships with one another if we are to have any hope of faithfully dealing with the current discord within the Church over how we welcome LGBTQ neighbors into the Church’s life and ministry.
While I view covenantal commitments mainly in terms of relationship, I am aware of how many United Methodists view it mainly in terms of accountability. These are my sisters and brothers in Christ who see accountability as a matter of all parties agreeing to follow rules of conduct and belief as spelled out in the Book of Discipline. I admit this is true as far as it goes. We do have rules for a reason. However, no covenant relationship thrives on the basis of simply following rules. Any covenant relationship that holds the possibility of being life giving and spiritually enriching needs to be a dynamic interplay of diverse voices coming together to give glory to the One who invites all people into abundant life.
Accountability flows in more than one direction. There is a mutual accountability built into the covenant we have with one another. But do we ever hear anything about the accountability of the United Methodist Church for how it has demeaned and dismissed LGBTQ persons from openly participating in the life and ministry of the Church? Is anyone being held accountable for failing to truly recognize the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons? Is there any accountability of General Conference delegates over several decades for the discriminatory language written into church law? When the General Conference gets it wrong, are we to ignore the royal law of scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?” (James 2:8) Such love requires mercy over judgment.
According to paragraph 306 in the Book of Discipline, an order of ministry like the one to which I belong along with other ordained Elders, is “a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church.” I don’t believe that being a part of this order means surrendering my conscience and my integrity to an imperfect book that is revised by the General Conference every four years. Like all other United Methodist Christians, I seek to understand the witness of God’s grace in Scripture by means of my own experience of God, my reason’s ability to understand the many contextual voices of Scripture and to embrace new knowledge, and the historic tradition of the Church (which, for the record, includes John Wesley’s own rule-breaking for the sake of Christ’s work on earth).
I cannot with integrity simply bow to human law – for that is what the Book of Discipline is – when it violates the human dignity of LGBTQ persons. In challenging or disobeying church law I do not believe I am violating my covenant with others in my order. Indeed, I believe I am protecting covenant from the harm that is done whenever a person made in God’s image feels the sting of the Church’s rejection. I believe I am being true to my calling of continuing Christ’s ministry and welcoming to the table of grace all who seek God!
Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
A Prayer for the New Year
“Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life” ~ Ps. 23:6a
Step bravely into a new year.
Release the hurts others have done to you.
Break free of those who consistently cause you harm.
Unburden yourself of grievances you have been unable to forgive.
Give yourself wholly to the pursuit of living your life, not someone else’s.
Sink your feet into the ground of all being, where it is enough to simply be you.
Be profoundly grateful at the sheer miracle of being alive.
Taste the sweetness of divine grace that accepts you exactly as you are.
Play no one’s fool.
Seek wisdom humbly and persistently.
Refuse to placate people just to avoid conflict.
Never surrender your joy without a fight.
Run, don’t walk, toward real beauty, wherever you discover it.
Listen deeply for the still, small voice that resonates within you.
Pay attention to your feelings – they are indicators of your wellbeing.
Trust that there is an inner guide in each of us.
Forge ahead knowing you will make lots of mistakes.
Learn from them.
Throw yourself with utter abandon in the adventure of living.
Remember – goodness and kindness are following you.
Words and photo © 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
A year ago, just a few days before Christmas, my wife Dallis and I walked into a dog rescue organization “just to look.” We walked through the kennels, and in one we saw four small dogs. Three of them were jumping and barking as you might expect. The fourth one sat there quietly in the chaos and looked at us with eyes that said, “Well, are you going to let me out, or what?” We asked to see him. Then we walked him on a leash, and he didn’t seem to have a clue about that. But he was trusting and he liked to be held. So we took him home on a “trial basis” — no papers signed, no promises, no nothing! Within half-an-hour our hearts were hooked.
It had been almost a year since we lost our Pomeranian named Sadie, who died suddenly of congestive heart failure at the age of just eight years old. Our hearts were still a little tender. But Bailey entered our lives just before Christmas, much to our surprise, and helped in the healing process.
I ran across the piece below written by an unknown author that helps me to remember that the grief of loss is soothed by finding another pet to love.
Bailey was initially found wandering the streets of our city. He was in bad shape. He was held at the county shelter right up to the day before his time on earth was scheduled to expire. But the strange and wonderful serendipity of him entering our lives is that we initially thought we were “rescuing” him, and it turns out that he “rescued” us. He came into our lives right at the right time, and he makes us laugh at least once a day!
Here’s the piece titled, “A Dog’s Last Will and Testament,” author unknown. I imagine Sadie, who wasn’t all that crazy about other dogs, approving nonetheless of us finding another canine companion to share our home. Some of her toys and beds remain, and Bailey now enjoys them.
Before humans die, they write their Last Will & Testament, and give their home and all they have to those they leave behind.
If, with my paws, I could do the same, this is what I’d ask…
To a poor and lonely stray I’d give:
My happy home,
My cozy bed,
My soft pillows and all my toys,
The lap which I loved so much,
The hand that stroked my fur and the sweet voice which spoke my name.
I’d will to the sad, scared shelter dog the place I had in my human’s heart, of which there seemed no bounds.
So when I die please do not say, “I will never have a pet again, for the loss and pain is more than I can stand.” Instead, go find an unloved dog; one whose life has held no joy or hope and give MY place to him. This is the only thing I can give … the love I left behind.
I don’t normally “Reblog” someone else’s writing. I am making an exception because I want to share the unique perspective of Sharon, someone I only know through the blogging community, and yet I feel a connection with her and her family because of the transparency of her writing and photography. Her blog consistently offers a window upon the world that is full of wonder and questioning, gratitude and awe, and these are the very qualities that I try to cultivate in my own life. So please enjoy this blog post from my friend Sharon! Blessings, Mark
Originally posted on A Leaf in Springtime:
If this World were my classroom
I would greet each day as a lesson
I would treat each person as a teacher
And accept each moment as an opportunity to learn.
If this World were my classroom
I would sit very, very still
And pay close attention
So as not to miss a single thing.
With reinvigorated anticipation
I would learn
That radiant acquiescence
Is the secret to contentment.
If this World were my classroom
I would try not to run ahead in impatience
Neither be held back by my own unbelief
For I would see with new eyes.
When I gaze at the scattering stars above
The wonder that grips my soul
View original 152 more words
God who lifts up the lowly and humbles the lofty,
God who bends down to be with us in our humanity,
we pray in the name of the Child of Bethlehem
for all of the children of this vast and beautiful world.
We pray for immigrant children, street children,
neglected and abused children, at-risk children,
and children in good, stable, loving homes.
We pray for safe environments where children can be children,
with the freedom to explore their common identity
without the shadows of fear and danger hanging over them.
We pray for the safety and security of people living in places
where deep divisions exist and turmoil has taken hold.
We admit to feelings of despair and anxious thoughts
as we consider the violence on our own city streets.
We confess to a sense of helplessness and uncertainty
as we question how things will ever change for the better.
In the midst of our prayers and concerns this holy season
we come to listen anew to the wondrous story
of how you become known to us in fragile flesh,
how you enter into the very places we most fear and bring peace,
how your goodness overcomes evil and your life overcomes death.
Jesus, born in a stable under the boot of imperial rule,
lives a life in the fullness of divine grace and truth
that challenges the oppressive violence of his time.
Jesus, born to a young girl living below the poverty line,
lives a life of radical trust, deep compassion and abundant mercy.
In this holy season may we also begin to trust you more fully.
May we also resist the violent ways of the world and seek paths of peace.
May we also challenge the systems that marginalize the poor and vulnerable.
May we do more than offer charity and hand-outs.
Rather let us stretch our limited consciousness
and begin to believe in the sacred worth of each person we meet.
Let us, like Mary, seek the favor of God.
May our souls also magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior.
May we do our best to walk in the way of Jesus,
who is our life and our hope, now and always.
Words (c) 2013 Mark Lloyd Richardson
I will be sharing this Opening Prayer I wrote for our 13th Annual Ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve Service in Santa Maria, California this evening. We are the host church for this annual event involving about ten congregations. If you wish to adapt this prayer for your own use in worship, please feel welcome to do so. ~ Mark
God of all creation and Source of all life,
tonight we offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Psalm 50:14
We bring ourselves, humble and broken though we may be,
to the altar of your blessing and grace.
We bring our voices, frail and hesitant though they may be,
in joyous praise to the One who gives us a new song to sing. Psalm 40:3
We bring our gifts to the One who is awesome,
who inspires fear in the rulers of the earth. Psalm 76:11-12
We thank you for these moments we have together
to pause from the busy pace and endless noise of our lives
and simply rest in a spirit of gratitude for all you are to us.
We thank you that as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is your steadfast love toward us,
and that as far as the east is from the west,
so far do you remove our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:11-12
We thank you for your deep compassion over your creation,
and the ways in which you constantly call us back to you.
Most of all, we thank you for your Son Jesus,
who came that we might have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10
Christ is the morning star who rises in our hearts, 2 Peter 1:19
the true light which enlightens everyone. John 1:9
Christ instructs us in your holy way of love,
and invites us into that perfect love that casts out fear. 1 John 4:18
We pray this day for people and nations the world over
who need to be blessed by the bounty of your grace.
May our thanksgiving bring others closer to you,
O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Psalm 19:14
There is no other rock besides you, O Lord, Isaiah 44:8
our fortress in whom we take refuge. Psalm 18:2
So we join the multitude from every nation,
from all tribes and peoples and languages,
and all the angels standing around the throne
worshipping you and singing,
“Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Revelation 7:12
Words (c) 2013 Mark Lloyd Richardson
Life in a small town in the Pacific Northwest was grand
for a boy, playing outdoor games with neighbor children,
climbing fir trees, riding a blue Schwinn bike with pedals
I could barely reach, throwing balls over the pitched roof
of the corner house as friends waited on the other side,
hiding and seeking in our tidy little alley cul-de-sac.
My cousins lived on a nearby farm
where the barnyard was a world of fascination
complete with milking cows and squawking chickens.
I was a first grader in Miss Iva McGillivray’s class
at the Everson-Nooksack Elementary School.
I was so proud of the first and third place ribbons I won
during the fall running races on the school lawn.
Then one terrible November day,
clouds solemnly assembled on distant hills,
children scattered across school playgrounds.
President Kennedy was shot.
Later in our living room at home,
the television showed footage of the Dallas motorcade—
the commotion and screaming,
a car rushing away from the grievous scene,
faces in the crowd marked by tears, wounded by worry.
The strange firecracker sounds kept ringing in my ears,
making me dizzy and uncertain, shattering my innocence.
My mother cried, my father held a troubled look,
a pall settled over my tender years.
Words (c) 2013 Mark Lloyd Richardson