Out of My Mind

By Rev. Dr. Dyton L. Owen

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Surprised by Grace

September 19, 2021

Picture the scene: Jesus had been invited to dinner by some of the most prestigious and most influential leaders in town.  But, it was not really a social courtesy; it was more of an investigation.  They would quiz him about where he was coming from and what his plans were.  They were checking him out!  And then, just after the salad course was served, a young woman enters the room unannounced, drops to her knees at the feet of Jesus, weeping so hard she used her tears to wash Jesus’ feet. Then, wiped them with her hair.

 

I can just see the Pharisees, jaws dropped to the floor, eyes as big as saucers; gasps can be heard among them as they witness what they consider to be a most egregious social faux pas.  What do you think was going through their minds?  The woman was of questionable reputation.  Men of good reputation would never allow this.  But those Pharisees…they’re like a lot of good, long-time church-going folks who are quick to judge known sinners while being blind to their own sins.

 

Sound familiar?  Why is it that we refuse to look at ourselves with the same eyes of judgement as we use to look at others?

 

But this woman had a great appreciation for Jesus because she was keenly aware of the immoral life she has lived.  She was overcome by the forgiveness Jesus offered her.  So, there she was, her hair wet with tears, washing the feet of Jesus in an act of pure worship and gratitude.

               

Two very different responses to Jesus.  With whom do you most identify?  The religious moralists who felt they were right with God by their outward appearances.  Or with a sinful, broken woman who knew she deserved God’s judgement, but was surprised by God’s grace?

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September 12, 2021

Worship is the number one priority in the Church.  Every Sunday, we hope and pray that worship will be the most meaningful event of every person’s week, a place for people – believers and non-believers, both – to get their spiritual batteries recharged, and find a reconnection with God.

 

Soren Kierkegaard – one of my favorite philosophers – lived in the 19th century.  This Danish thinker once clarified the most common misconception about worship, using the analogy of a drama.  His words are fitting still today: “When we come to worship God, we generally feel as though the preacher and other ministers are the performers and God is the subject of the performance, and we as the congregation are merely the audience…but this is a terrible misunderstanding of worship.”

 

Kierkegaard is describing a consumer-oriented approach, focused more on what we can “get out of worship” rather than what we come to give in worship.  Kierkegaard went on to say “Authentic Christian worship is just the opposite” of a drama.  “….  We, the congregation, are the performers.  The preacher and other ministers are the directors of the performance and God is the audience.”

 

Worship has never been about you or me.  Hymns, readings, liturgies, are never chosen or written with you or me in mind. Everything is done with God in mind. God is the only focus of our worship. It is an act of gratitude.  It is misguided, self-centered, and cannot be called “worship” if we lose sight of this one fact: worship is all about God, not us.

 

Next Sunday (and every Sunday after), try Kierkegaard’s perspective.  It just might make worship more meaningful for you.

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August 29, 2021

Let me tell you a story.

 

There is an ancient story about a young girl who walked through a meadow and saw a butterfly impaled on a thorn.  Carefully, she released the butterfly, which started to fly away.  But then, it came back and changed into a fairy.  “For your kindness,” she told the young girl, “I will grant you your fondest wish.”

The little girl thought for a moment and answered, “I want to be happy.”  The fairy leaned toward her, whispered in her ear and then suddenly vanished.

               

As the girl grew, no on in all the land was happier than she.  Whenever anyone asked her for the secret to her happiness, she would only smile and say, “I listened to a good fairy.”

When she became old, the neighbors were afraid the wonderful secret might die with her.  “Tell us,” they begged.  “Tell us what the fairy said.”  The lovely old lady simply smiled and said, “She told me that everyone, no matter how secure they seem, has need of me.”

               

Perhaps this is the secret to finding fulfillment in day-to-day living.  Dr. Hans Selye, the acknowledged “father of stress,” studied the effects of stress on people and observed that stress is reduces when people try to win the gratitude of others.  Selye rephrased the biblical quote “Love your neighbor as yourself” into his own person code: “Earn your neighbor’s love.”  Rather than trying to accumulate more money or power, he suggests we acquire good will by helping others.  “Hoard good will,” he advices, “and your house will be a storehouse of happiness.”

 

Making ourselves indispensable means making others look good.  The famous orchestra conductor/author/composer Leonard Bernstein was once asked to name the most difficult instrument to play.  He responded with quick wit: “Second fiddle.”

 

So, hoard good will; earn your neighbor’s love.  Happiness is not acquired by pursuit; happiness ensues. 

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August 22, 2021

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Jacob and the Jabbok – the time when Jacob “wrestled with God.” It’s one of my favorites because it is my story. And it’s probably your story as well.

 

There are times in everyone’s life when a dark moment must come: perhaps it is a lab report that confirms your worst fear; or the day an accident leaves you paralyzed. When all our dreams lay crumbled around us, we are so much like Jacob – down in the dirt, wrestling with God.

 

What good could possibly come from wrestling with God? What do we expect to happen? Jacob’s story gives us an answer.

 

Sometimes, the biggest need in the life of faith is the name God correctly and reduce God to some false notion. But most of the time, the greatest need is not to name God, but to name ourselves; to decide who we will be in relation to God. Jacob came away from his battle with God with a better name: “Israel,” which means “the faithful struggler.” When you and I struggle with God, we come away with a new name; and I hope it is “faithful struggler” because that is who Jesus calls us to be: faithful during struggle.

 

But you and I might also come away with a limp or a scar. Sometimes we lose something in our fight with God. And that’s alright. It may be those innocent childhood perceptions of God; or it may be those quick and easy answers to hard questions about faith. It may even be that the battle shakes your whole understanding of God right down to the foundations, and you may have to start all over. But remember this about limps or scars: they are marks of meaning. And when we wrestle with God we may come away with a limp, but God can use those marks to make us more aware of those who need to hear the good news, or to experience love.

 

Finally, when we wrestle with God, we can expect a solid hope. There was a day – much later – when One stood among friends and said, “Touch my scars, Thomas.” Touch and see that the scars are not the final word about your life. The final words are “resurrection” and “hope.”

 

The very place we struggle can become for you and me, like Jacob, the setting for salvation. The “sun rose upon him” as he moved on…and he lifted his eyes to deal with the old struggles of life in a new way.

 

Whatever may die in our struggles with God, remember that God not only waves us from our yesterdays, God calls us into tomorrow.

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August 16, 2021

As a pastor, over the years, I have become increasingly focused on the appearance and atmosphere of the churches I have served.  It is always my concern every day of the week that we, Chapel Hill UMC, practice “radical hospitality” to anyone and everyone who walks through the doors of our church.  I am constantly trying to think of ways that will help us radiate love and welcoming.

 

Dr. Paul Brand, author of one of the most fascinating books I have ever read – Fearfully and Wonderfully Made – wrote, “The atmosphere in a church will, skin-like, reveal the substance underneath.”  I believe that with my whole heart!

 

The skin of our bodies, Dr. Brand makes clear, is an incredible piece of work.  It is much like a thermostat that helps our bodies regulate a comfortable temperature.  When we fall ill and have a fever, touching the hot skin is often the first sign of the illness.  Our skin regularly tells us what is going on underneath.

 

As Dr. Brand asks, when the world around us looks at the Church as the Body of Christ, what do they see?  What is its appearance?  How does I feel?  When we as Christian people are being given the “once-over,” do people see our love for Jesus, our joy at being followers of Jesus, our patience and kindness, our faithfulness and self-control?  We often judge others by what we see of them – their outward appearance – in hopes that we will see something that reveals what really lies below.

 

The world around the Body of Christ – the Church – is doing the same thing.  Others are looking at us and drawing a picture of Jesus from what they see and experience in us.  And that can be a frightening and convicting thought!

 

What sort of picture of Jesus are we giving to the world?  Do people look at Chapel Hill UMC and see something other than the face of Jesus?  Or do they look at us and see Jesus reflected in us?

 

Brand was correct: the atmosphere of a church will, skin-like, reveal the substance underneath.  Let’s take care of how our church appears to the community around us; we just may be making the most important statement of our life together!

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August 8, 2021

Visiting my grandparents in Tennessee was one of my favorite childhood experiences and memories.  My maternal grandparents owned a cotton farm in the western part of the state.  They also raised a few cattle and tended a couple of huge gardens.  As a young boy, I remember helping my grandfather, Papa, work the cotton fields and the gardens: weeding, chopping cotton, picking the fruits and vegetables.

 

One summer, Papa went to the garden to plow a new section in which he would plant a few rows of potatoes.  First, he went to the “little red house – an old sharecroppers house that came with the farm when he bought it – where he kept most of his gardening equipment and tools.  There, he got out his old gas-powered tiller, filled it with gas and was getting ready to begin tilling.

 

Eager as I was, I quickly asked Papa if I could till the new spot.  Now, Papa was a gracious and loving man who was always willing to let his grandkids try their hand at something on the farm, even if it was at his expense.  So, he allowed me my try.  But, before I got the tiller through the garden gate, Papa, told me, “Whatever you do, don’t look back as you till.  You’ll lose sight of where you’re goin’.”

 

“Don’t worry!” I replied.  “I can handle this!”

 

But I was wrong.  You know it is. You tell a child not to do something, you can rest assured he will do it anyway. 

 

About halfway down the lane I was tilling, I decided to look back to see how I had done.  And, just as Papa said, I lost sight of where I was going.  The tiller jerked to the left and I plowed up a good piece of his strawberry patch.  I was ashamed, embarrassed, and scared.  “What would Papa do?” I wondered to myself.

 

That incident brings to mind the words of Jesus: “No one who put a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” When we are about the work of building up the Kingdom, you and I cannot afford to allow the past to dictate where we shall go or what we shall do.  Constantly looking back makes us lose sight of what lies ahead.  Dwelling in what was, forces us to forfeit what is yet to come.  Tomorrow’s potential is always greater than yesterday’s failures or accomplishments.

 

But what if we do look back?  What will happen if we lose sight of the way God has laid out before us?  What will God do?  I’m convinced that God will react much the same way my grandfather did that day I plowed up his strawberries.  God will not become angry when he sees our remorse; rather, God will put his arm around our shoulders, put our hands back on the plow, and gently say to us “Here you go.  Let’s try that again.”

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August 1, 2021

Someone once said, “Being yourself is the easiest thing to do.  The most difficult thing is to be what others want you to be.”  There may be some truth to that.

I think one of the greatest insults to God is allowing ourselves to become what others want us to be.  Each of us is unique.  We are originals; no one else is quite like us.  Each of us has a God-given destiny waiting for us to claim.  To ignore that future, or fail to claim it, is to deny our uniqueness and potential for greatness.

Too many folks are simply too proud to admit they need God; too egotistical to believe they need God’s guidance in life; and maybe too close-minded to think God even exists.  They believe they can become something other than what God created them to be.  And maybe they can.  But ultimately, they pay the price for not claiming their own God-given gifts and trying to become something other than what God intended.

Even the Church can fall victim to this way of thinking.  If a church tries to become something it is not – tries to become like another church with all its ministries and activities and small groups – instead of claiming its own ministry where they are, the result is often failure, disillusionment, and loss of vision and hope.

 

But the good news is that anyone – any church – can fulfill their ministry if only they would claim their gifts and abilities given to them by God, and share them with the world around them.

So, it is true that the greatest temptation is to be someone other than what God created you to be.  True also is the statement that the easiest thing is to be yourself – just as God created you to be.  The most difficult – and the most tragic thing – is to be something or someone other than who you are.

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July 25, 2021

When I was growing up, I read – as did millions of people – Corrie Ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place. I was fascinated by what I read and wanted to learn more. Then, the movie came out. I can remember Dad taking me to see the movie and then patiently answering all my questions.


I was so enthralled with the story and the history behind it, I hoped I would someday actually meet Corrie Ten Boom and/or hear her speak. As luck would have it, she made an appearance in Tulsa when we were living there. Dad took me. And as I listened to her speak, I sat spellbound. The stories she told were amazing to me. I couldn’t believe all she said, but Dad assured me the stories were true. One thing I remember her talking about was the incident in her life that taught her to be thankful in all things.


It was during World War II. Corrie and her sister Betsy had harbored Jewish people in their homes. Soon, both Corrie and Betsy were arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in Ravensbruck Camp.  Their barracks was extremely overcrowded and infested with all sorts of vermin, including fleas.


One morning, during a clandestine Bible study, the prisoners in that barracks read in a tattered, smuggled-in Bible 1 Thessalonians 5 – Paul’s reminder to be thankful in all things. Betsy said to Corrie, “Corrie, we’ve got to give thanks for these barracks and even the fleas.”


Corrie replied, “No way am I going to give thanks for fleas!”


But Betsy was persuasive, and eventually they did thank God even for the fleas. During the months that followed, they found their barracks was left relatively untouched by the guards during their imprisonment and they could do Bible study, talk openly and even pray. It was their only place of refuge. Months later they learned the guards never entered that barracks for one reason: the fleas!


You and I often complain about whatever it is that drives us crazy. Everyone does. But if we take the time to consider what good God might bring from it, we will soon learn the value of giving thanks in all things.

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July 18, 2021

Human beings tend to be people pleasers. In general, we don’t want to do anything or say anything that would cause distress or “rock the boat.” So, instead of risking an upset, we say or do nothing. It’s easier, we say, to just maintain the status quo. It is “nicer,” we convince ourselves, to remain where we are than to risk move forward.

 

But I have been convinced over the years, that peace and progress are often incompatible. In other words, if you want to keep the peace, do nothing that would move forward because moving forward will upset someone.

On the other hand, if you want to progress, expect the peace to be unsettled. Again, you will upset someone. The fact is, we cannot please everyone, even though everyone expects to be “pleased.” But buying into the idea that we can – and should – make everyone happy is a losing battle. Such thinking holds us hostage to small-mindedness and fear. And it holds us hostage to those who are displeased. “Peace mongers” (those who seek peace at the expense of progress) often cause stagnation in a church – or any organization - because they do not want to risk upsetting anyone or anything. They are often controlling, attempting to stop any sort of progress so that no one gets upset and people (especially themselves!) remain comfortable. Therefore, they do all they can to sabotage any forward movement.

 

Look at Jesus’ own ministry. At no time did Jesus allow anyone to keep him from advancing his work for the Kingdom. Many tried to stop him, many tried to “keep the peace,” many tried to convince Jesus to maintain the status quo. But Jesus knew better. He knew that peace and progress cannot live together. And he let nothing and no one stand in his way...even if it meant losing a follower. He kept his eye on the larger picture (which is impossible for “peace-mongers”), and let that picture guide his every step, until the goal had been attained.

 

I thank God Jesus did not let those who wanted to keep the peace stand in the way of his mission...else our salvation would have been forfeited. I am thankful that Jesus kept pressing onward, even in the face of stiff opposition.

Ask yourself, “Where do I stand? Do I stand for peace at all cost? Or do I work for progress toward the goal God has set before us?”

 

You cannot have it both ways.

Rev. Dr. Dyton L. Owen was born and raised in Oklahoma. He began preaching in the church at the age of 20, while he was still in college. Dyton has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma City University and his Masters of Divinity from the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. He completed a Doctor of Ministry in Theology and Worship at Northern Seminary/Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies.