Mark Twain said that if he’d had more time, he would have said less. Quite a self-reflection don’t you think? Do you ever reflect this way on your own life? We do tend to be our own worst critic. Our own self-feedback may not always be the healthiest. The truth is, we may not be great at receiving feedback from others either. We call it constructive criticism but often that’s just the veil of judgment. Even so, feedback is important if we’re going to grow, change, shift, adapt, improve, succeed. In many ways, we’ve become oversensitive to receiving feedback. Representative-elect, Dan Crenshaw, of the 2nd District in Texas and former Navy Seal officer, lost his right eye to an improvised explosive device while serving our country. He continued to serve even after that injury. Most recently he was mocked on Saturday Night Live as Pete Davidson made fun of several politicians. Many were outraged. Crenshaw, a Navy Seal who had experienced the chaos and injury (of all kinds) of war had been through harder things than a comic’s mockery. Crenshaw was invited onto SNL the following week where he and Davidson did a bit together, bridging the difference in a light-hearted way, honoring veterans who have served faithfully and sharing a need to forgive, heal and move forward together. Crenshaw said, “I try hard not to offend others and try even harder not to be offended.” Not bad advice and maybe some helpful feedback for you and me to remember.
Feedback. Are you up for some today? This sort of advice may be what you first think of when it comes to feedback. Certainly, as we in the throes of this Open Mic series, feedback has a technological connotation. If you get a microphone turned up too loud or in front of the wrong speaker or amplifier, a deafening screech has been known to be sounded. A ‘hot mic’ we might say when that ear-piercing sound is made. Nothing pleasant about it whatsoever. But we’re not really talking about that kind of feedback today either though we are playing on that idea given the nature of our series. Instead, I’m taking some liberties with the two words that are the basis of the word feedback. Feed and back. In this series on gratitude, I’m wondering how we’ve been fed – our minds, our stomachs, our souls – and how, in turn, we might feed back.
With the gratitude for all we are, all we’ve experienced, all we have, how will we feed back – how might we give back to God, to our neighbors, to the church? Someone surely comes to mind when you think of a person who has done this well, faithfully, with deep gratitude. Our own Mary Magee, member of our Stewardship Team responsible for this current series and campaign, described those generous people in a beautiful way. She said, “They opened their hearts to help others and they helped others to open their hearts.” That’s this feeding back we’re hoping to embody as people of faith. The Apostle Paul had the same hopes for the early churches he helped start. What an exciting season in the life of the church. Talk about grass-roots. Jesus is resurrected and now it’s game on. Life was forever different and the likes of Paul stepped into the role of church planter, ministry entrepreneur, creator of the community of faith designed to contain the hopes of the world.
The passage from Acts that is our focus today is Paul’s farewell to many he nurtured along the way. These were people with whom he shed blood, sweat, and tears for the sake of the Gospel. They believed in it so. They were moved by Jesus. They were committed to the cause. And they gave everything they had to propel the church into the future. Paul knew the infection of the world was not far away. He lived among the pain every day. Through the entire motif of this pericope from Acts, runs this dominant feeling of an affection as deep as the heart itself. That feeling should be in every church for when love dies in any church the work of Christ cannot do other than wither.
Daniel Grothe, pastor in Colorado and friend of a friend, wrote of this love-amid-the-pain-of-life this week. He said, “One of my friends is walking through the Valley of the Shadow. As I was listening to him share his heart this morning, and when the appropriate amount of silence had settled over us, this came out of me: “You have permission to live the most difficult days of your life in the safety of our presence.” Grothe said, “That is the summary of Christian community. We all need that permission from each other, permission to be where we are.” This is love run deep. This is church. After giving the first part of his adulthood to the persecution of the church, Paul had given the second part of his adulthood to building the loving Body of Christ. You can imagine Paul’s turn to Jerusalem at this point was bittersweet. He was with his people. They built love. They had some great pot luck dinners and built a few Habitat Houses. And the baptisms… the BAPTISMS! My, people were coming to faith left and right. Why would he leave? And beyond being comfortable, he knew he was risking it all to leave. He would not be received well in Jerusalem. In fact, he says it well in this loving farewell to his posse: “There is another urgency before me now. I feel compelled to go to Jerusalem. I’m completely in the dark about what will happen when I get there. I do know that it won’t be any picnic, for the Holy Spirit has let me know repeatedly and clearly that there are hard times and imprisonment ahead. But that matters little. What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God.”
He couldn’t settle to just stay and be fed and enjoy the high life of faith in that community. He was called to give forward… to feed back from the enormity of the meal he’d feasted on with those Christians. If you read forward a way you see the beauty of Paul’s send off. Listen to the words: “Then Paul went down on his knees, all of them kneeling with him, and prayed. And then a river of tears. Much clinging to Paul, not wanting to let him go. They knew they would never see him again – he had told them quite plainly. The pain cut deep. Then, bravely, they walked him down to the ship.” Parting is such sweet sorrow. His friends probably went into town after seeing Paul off and rented a Rage Room for an hour. (You heard about those? Rage Rooms. It’s a BYOB situation – bring your own breakables. You rent a room for an hour or so, bring your breakables and then just smash all your stuff. That’s it. Tulsa’s first Rage Room opened in August near 51st and Mingo. It’s called Smash Something. You can break anything from an Xbox to a smart phone. “It’s fun to break stuff,” said the owner. “There’s a lot of stress and anger in the world. It’s nice to have a way to blow off some steam.” Cost is $15-30 per session. But I digress.)
Paul departs. He is grateful for what he’s shared with that Christian community, but his course is forward. He’s got to share forward that gratitude with more who are seeking faith. He must keep feeding back. What is your course forward? How are you feeding back, giving of yourself to the faith that has given you new life? Are you giving forward? A friend said to me this week, “I always prayed I could live well enough until my kids were adults. But then I made it and realized I couldn’t stop there. Now I’ve got grandkids to care about.” In this life of faith, there is no end-game. It’s the course. The journey. The faithful next step to a new view where the next faithful step can be seen more clearly. This is Paul’s sentiment – “I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord… to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” When you find that truest meaning of your life… that deepest conviction of your purpose… it must lead you forward. And such a path can only be taken with gratitude. Are you on such a path?
Much of the time we are either distracted by the chaos around us or unintentional in our attention to God’s guidance. But don’t give up when you can’t feel it on the inside. Daniel Grothe noted this about the long journey we’re on. “The life of faith is the life where the saints learn to play the long game with each other. If we do it right,” he says, “the seasons of bottoming out in grief and overwhelming despair do not have to be seen as final but can be seen as stops along the way.” The biblical greats wobbled and fell and had moments of complacency, but they didn’t stay there. They rose. They re-focused. They saw the course forward – and typically only when they remembered gratitude; when they recalled where they had been and who Christ had become for them. They couldn’t help themselves but to press forward and give faithfully. They opened their hearts to help others and then helped others to open their hearts. Isn’t this what we are about as a church family? I don’t know about you, but I hear a lot of stories from the world that are designed to discourage us. They are designed to create fear and a push to create an isolated life where you’re skeptical of your neighbor and always bowl alone. But then I speak to you… I run into you… I meet with you… I pray with you… I give of my time and talent and resource alongside of you and a wholly other life story emerges. A life with pain, sure, but a life that is pushing forward with purpose; a life that is singing a song that is worth getting stuck in your soul. Can you hear that soul song now? Is it in you? It’s glorious. It’s glorious, in part, because of the pain.
In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami reflects on why runners spend so much time and energy on long distance runs like some of our folks running the Route 66 Marathon downtown right now. He says, “It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get a feeling, through this process, of really being alive.” Paul was surely a runner – he used race imagery so often. But he knew he had to keep running. He couldn’t rest on his laurels. He couldn’t grow complacent. He was only really alive when he was gratefully living out the call on his life.
It’s Thanksgiving Sunday. We’re counting blessings and living gratitude. I’m grateful for all who will make a pledge today to support the ministry we’ll share in 2019. May our gifts be sign and symbol of our gratitude and our clarity of course – that we are pressing forward together, not out of obligation, but out of faith… out of commitment to the long game of the saints. It speaks to the words of the Persian poet, Hafiz, who said, “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth, “You owe me.” Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” We have opportunity day after day, year after year to show the world what a grateful love like that can do. We can light up the whole sky… the entirety of the earth… with the glory of Christ. Your gifts matter. So do mine. It’s our feed back… our gifts forward. This is our time for we never know what time we have.
Kirk Cousins is the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. In front of his home, in between a few shrubs, stands a curious tower. It’s about four feet tall, filled to the top with stones. Inspired décor you ask? Well… sort of. “It’s there,” he says, “to remind me how brief life is and how important the time we have here is.” Okay. But why the tower of stones? “It’s a little morbid,” he admits, “but it’s a tool my Bible teacher taught me in high school.” The stones were inspired by the Psalm his teacher shared with him that says, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Cousins said, “It’s about making a deposit in people’s lives in a way that matters.” We only have so many days. The quarterback transformed that verse into a visual reminder: 720 stones. He calculated what he considered a feasible number of years he had left given his health and history, measured that time in months and came up with 720 months left in his life Lord willing. “Every month I’m going to take out a stone,” he said, “put it in my pocket and think: ‘Once this month is over, this is gone. You can’t get it back.’” Cousins was going to be intentional about how he spent the time he had left… wanting to stay the course of his faith, his call to live generously, in pursuit of his life’s purpose. Carrying each stone reminds him to be less selfish and more giving to others because, in the end, he says, “It’s not going to be about what I did for myself, but what I did for others.” So he pulls a stone and he asks the question, “What impact am I making, not only today, but for eternity?” This was Paul’s waking question.
And so, my friends… what is your waking question? Does it have anything to do with feeding back; about giving forward? It’s worth a thought. It fact, it’s worth more than a thought. It’s worth a life… lived open before God… free to pursue the dream of your calling in Christ. Which leads us to finish with the same question that started this whole series in the first place. Your life is an Open Mic… what will you say?
 A friend shared Grothe’s Face Book post with me this week which is what is quoted in this message. Grothe is on staff at New Life Church in Colorado. http://www.newlifechurch.org/staff
 This piece was shared in Rob Bell’s “Drops Like Stars.” Harper One. 2009. Pg. 46.