Category Archives: Faith

Embracing ourselves as God’s masterpieces requires a bit of faith

Being a Christian with Anxiety

Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  Today has enough troubles of its own.  (Mt. 6:34)

I know I’ve read this verse no fewer than a few dozen times.  I’ve preached it, exegeted it, and read it again and again.  It’s one of my top 5 favorites, just dangling there at the end of chapter 6 in Matthew, tacked onto that whole passage about not worrying, that God feeds the birds of the fields and makes the lilies look far more spectacular than even Solomon in all his royal finery.  Up until recently, that’s all it was – a part of that greater whole passage.  Then I started thinking about anxiety itself, and I realized this verse says so much more than merely, “Don’t worry.”

Back in May, I was diagnosed with anxiety, and not being a huge fan of pharmaceuticals as a first line of attack, I resolved to try non-pharma treatments:  Counseling, yoga, and meditation/mindfulness.  It’s gone well.  Really well.  Not only are these treatments working fabulously, but I also have a new tribe at church that’s walking this journey with me.  In fact, this is the first Advent season in many where I have been calm and settled in my spirit, heart, and mind.

A few weeks ago, I was thinking about the very nature of anxiety.  It’s not like depression or schizophrenia which have distinct physiological etiologies.  Anxiety truly is all in the mind.  Or, rather, it’s caused by how we think.  Even people who don’t have anxiety feel anxious from time to time.  We always feel anxious about what’s going to happen, about some future event.  We almost never feel anxious about anything going on in the present, nor do we feel anxious about what happened in the past.  Nope, it’s always the future, because the future is a great unknown.  We can work ourselves into a right fine state fretting about something down the road.

Earlier this month, I had my big holiday selling event, and I needed sales to be good.  At nearly zero hour, I found out that the coordinator had made some changes out of her benevolence that felt threatening to this goal I had.  My anxiety shot straight up.  In fact, I woke up during the night before the show worrying about the show.  Then, when I arrived at the venue, still fretting some, all that anxiety disappeared.  The event was in that moment; it was no longer a future event.  At that point, my focus was on setting up.

Part of the treatment for anxiety is exercising mindfulness, being in the moment.  Whether it’s while actively meditating, practicing yoga, or doing some mundane chore, being present to the moment reduces anxiety.  Why?  It is in those moments where we are existing.  We aren’t present in the worry-causing moment two weeks from now or that paycheck from now, we’re present in this “now.”

Finally, Matthew 6:34 made perfectly good sense from a very practical standpoint.  This verse is nestled in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an excellent treatise on living the Kingdom life daily.  As part of that theme, Jesus is saying, “Be mindfully in this moment.”  We cannot deal with the whole rest of Kingdom living if we’re stressing about something that hasn’t even happened, yet.  Having the full life Jesus desires for us means not allowing anxiety to suck the joy from it.  It also means not worrying about what will happen tomorrow or next week or next month when there is Kingdom work that has to happen today, even if that just looks like having a simply good day of showing love and compassion to one other person.

Sometimes it’s really hard being a Christian with undiagnosed anxiety.  Well-meaning people will say, “Just pray about it more.  Oh.  You still have it?  Pray harder or with more faith.”  Who are they to judge another’s faith?  Others will say, “Take it to the cross and leave it there.”  Where is that in the Bible?  And do they think I want to take all that inner turmoil back with me after my time “at the cross”?  Heck no!  It just followed me like one of the neighborhood cats tends to.  People want to judge those who are struggling, because they don’t know how to be present, so instead of helping ease the burden of dealing with psychological issues, they heap on an unhealthy load of judgment and guilt.  My husband and I found a small group at church who are safe, non-judgmental, and vulnerable themselves.  This has made being a Christian with anxiety much easier to handle, because I have a tribe who loves and supports me.

Having anxiety is especially tough during Advent with all there is to do.  Besides the decorating and the work-work, there is everything else with the expectation it needs to be perfect.  The cookies should look just so.  The house should be cleaned up nicely.  The cards need to go out at just the right time.  Oh yeah.  And in addition to all this, there are children to teach, parties to attend or chauffeur said children to, caroling, and spending time together as a family.  (Time?  What time???  Don’t they know I still have so much to do?  These cards won’t address and mail themselves!)

Something different happened this year as I reflected on today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, whose theme is Peace.  For the past many years, peace was something I wished I could have during Advent.  It didn’t matter what sorts of good things I had going on or how blessed I was/am, I felt stressed, frazzled, and overwhelmed trying to get everything done.  My anthem was Amy Grant’s “I Need a Silent Night,” and Christmas Eve service was my attempt at grabbing an hour of peace – surrounded by getting the family fed and everyone out the door on the front end and playing Santa on the back end.  The only thing I was looking forward to about Christmas was having it behind me, which was a totally horrid way of feeling about it, because Christmas was such a beautiful, special part of my life growing up.  I think it was last year, I compared Advent to planning a wedding – a whole lot of work and stress that’s over in mere hours.

Ironically, because of the pastor-friend who first named what was possibly causing the tic in my facial muscles, we won’t be worshiping at her church tomorrow night for Christmas Eve service.  I don’t need to go to church to find that hour of peace; I have found it all month long.  With it came its close companions of the Advent season – Hope, Joy, Love, and Anticipation.  In fact, I’m so loving being in this place that I wish Advent could last just a little bit longer, to drag out that expectation just a wee bit more.

What did my Advent Love look like?  It looked like longer hugs shared with friends and stockists.  It looked like money in Salvation Army buckets.  It looked like text messages, emails, and verbal exchanges where I check in on people and also tell them how much they mean to me.

My Advent Peace has been in yoga.  It’s been in walks at sunset.  It’s been in walks around the beautifully decorated town square.  It’s been in this moment of baking, this moment of looking at decorations, this moment of playing on NORAD, this moment of watching mushy, romantic Christmas movies with my daughters, and it’s been in this quiet moment under the couple’s cocoon of coziness with a cat curled up against my back.

My Advent Joy has bubbled all month long.  At my last counseling appointment, my counselor said, “You look calm.”  I laughed and said, “I don’t feel calm.  I feel effervescent, excited, eager.”  That joy reached its zenith (so far) on the day of the Winter Solstice.  It was unseasonably warm, nice enough to tolerate being barefoot for a bit.  I went outside in a tee-shirt and lounging pants to do some grounding.  As I stood in tadasana, bare feet feeling the cool, damp earth, I looked up at the gorgeous blue sky and a laugh just bubbled out.  I haven’t felt this type of spontaneous joy during Advent in probably sixteen years or more.

And my Advent Hope?  That this feeling will last.  I nearly cried with joy while singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” at my friend’s church.  It was a Lovefeast service, which harkened back to Christmas Eve traditions and warm memories in the city where we used to live.  Tears of joy are something new for me for Advent.  This feeling simply must last, because once the tree is down and the decorations are stored away in the garage, the real Christmas Kingdom work begins, and I really don’t have time for anxiety to steal my joy, my energy, or my focus.

Merry Christmas, from our family to yours!

 

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My Bad Attitude

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  The tree is trimmed and lit, candles are making their ways to windows, Christmas music plays, and we’re whiling away many a cold, wet hour huddled under blankets as we stream Christmas movies (the mushier, the better).  In other parts of the state, snow has fallen – inches in some places, feet in others.  Lots of people down here were hoping for a snowy morning, but while I hate the rain, I’m happy putting snow days off for another month or so.

Church this morning was a given.  We went to Sunday school and worship.  It was as we were sitting in the sanctuary that I started noticing my attitude was off.  I felt disgruntled about many variables.  There is the woman in the choir who talks like being at church is the most important thing in the world yet doesn’t make her children attend, and when they do, they’re in their phones, talking, giggling, and disrupting worship for those around them.  There was my disappointment that the music minister didn’t follow my suggestion of putting the lyrics to the praise songs in the bulletin to make it easier for the smaller people (e.g., children) in the congregation who can’t see the screen for all the taller people.  Isn’t worship, Advent worship in particular, supposed to be inclusive?

If you’ve been following this blog for longer than a minute, you know that I have two children, one of whom is a teen.  Trust me when I say, I know bad attitudes.  I have no problem calling the kids out when they’re dishing ‘tude.  So, when I was sporting my own bad attitude, it was only fair of me to own it.  When my teen asked during the prelude what was wrong, I whispered, “I’m having attitude problems today.”

In the midst of Advent, we think that we should have the purest attitudes of love, joy, hope, and peace.  We are supposed to be all about “Goodwill to all people” and sharing the good news of Jesus’ birth.  Yet, sometimes, our attitudes aren’t quite in line with these messages.  Lines are long, people can’t drive, and the gingerbread cookies make you recite that popular line from preschool:  “Taste counts, looks don’t.”  I often think, What if it were as simple as that night over two thousand years ago instead of this craziness we’ve made it?  Even paring down on the commercialism doesn’t particularly help.  There are still activities and parties, and there is still time spent with people you only see once a year – and maybe that’s too much.

It’s OK to have an attitude that’s a bit off.  Pay that place a visit, but don’t live there.  Name what is causing the bad attitude and release it with grace for yourself.  Then, once that ugly, unpleasant attitude has disappeared into the winter wind, fill yourself with goodness.  Find peace within yourself.  Seek joy in all the blessings God has given you.  Love people – family, friends, enemies, strangers, people like you, and people quite different from you.  And embrace the hope and anticipation of the season.  It reminds us that a baby really does change everything.

Finding Home When You’re Far From Home

Or, The God Thing

Our family went to church this morning. In the midst of our evacuation, we had gone to church our first Sunday in exile; just keeping up with the normalcy and routine of Sunday morning worship helped us feel more settled.

When my teen was researching the material for her speech on refugees and immigrants last winter, she learned about a member of a church a couple of hours from ours who had been detained, arrested, and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In the course of preparing her speech, she corresponded by email with two of the man’s pastors. When I discovered how close the church is to our temporary home, I suggested we attend worship there.

Our first worship service there made me thank God that we evacuated, because that worship time filled my empty, stressed-out heart and soul. The people at this church were the friendliest I’ve ever encountered at a church. As I was chatting with this lady or that one, a woman about my age came up. I recognized her instantly as a classmate from Divinity School. She was sitting with another couple from school and her husband was on the pew in front of her. It was like a mini-reunion – five of us from school all sitting in a cluster.

The pastor got up to preach. She was on week two of a series based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship out of the book of Mark. Bonhoeffer is my favorite theologian, and this book has a challenging theme. The message bothered me, challenged me, convicted me. Pastor Lauren talked about being willing to go against the law of the land for the sake of the Kingdom, for the greater good of showing mercy to the persecuted. It was, in a word, perfect.

M and I met the associate pastor with whom she’d emailed, as well as the senior pastor. I found out that one of my husband’s former customers is still a member there and active in the church. It’s always good finding out that kind people are faring well. My younger daughter has the unique ability to make friends wherever she goes, and she has the unique ability to befriend even little boys who are still firmly entrenched in the “girls have cooties” stage of life.

Around mid-week, we discovered that our period of exile was coming to an end. Along with firm plans to return home came plans for the weekend. There was a much different mindset at that point. No longer was it a matter of indefinite waiting and wondering. Now it was about having fun for the weekend. It came as no surprise when H, my younger daughter, asked if we could go back to “that church” this Sunday because she liked the preaching. That was a no-brainer; of course.

At this point in our evacuation, we truly miss home. We are frustrated by how cut off we are. We are frustrated by there being a need for willing hands to work and our inability to lend ours to help those who’ve suffered much worse than we have. We yearn to sleep in our own beds on our own pillows. We crave the routine of home – the Wednesday trash pickup, services at our own church, M’s and my nightly streaming of House and Gilmore Girls.

Today is Sunday. We got up and dressed for church, returning to Greenwood Forest Baptist. I can’t speak for my husband or daughters, but my reasons for going were pretty self-centered – to receive the benefits of a great communal worship experience and to hear a word from the Lord. No sooner had we sat down when my gaze landed on a lady in the front row, a lady from our home church, one we’d gotten to know when she was in college and a part of our church’s college ministry. H was off socializing. I grabbed Mary’s hand and said, “Come on.”

She asked, “Why?”

I replied, “Look at the front row.” She instantly recognized Jazzmone.

Picture of friends

Jazzmone and me

It was about this time that the lady happened to spot us as I’m half dragging my teen down the aisle. We embraced, my younger daughter joining us for an enthusiastic, tearful, joyful group hug. We’d found home.

This is where the God moment happened. As the four of us were standing at the front of the church in full view of everyone in the sanctuary, Jazzmone shared that her heart had been burdened for home. The road conditions have prevented her from getting home to her family, friends, and our church, and she missed home. She missed all that was home for her, including the people from home. As we embraced, she found home.

Jazzmone had just messaged me a few weeks ago about how much she missed the girls and exclaiming over how much they’d grown since our paths had parted. She had kid-sat the girls on a few occasions and had formed bonds with them then.

I went to church today to get something for myself. Instead, I gave something far more precious to Jazzmone. Happiness filled her heart probably even more than it filled mine. Sometimes we find ourselves in less-than-desirable situations, and sometimes it’s because God is going to use us to touch someone else.

Post Script: We arrived home the day after I keyed these words. Our home was undamaged and our property survived unscathed (though our grape trellis and fig tree look a bit sad). We left my husband’s parents’ house with the excitement of knowing the interstate was open to 13 miles before our exit, so the journey home wouldn’t take much longer than usual. As I stopped for gas, a notification came in informing me that the interstate was completely open all the way to its east-bound end. It is good to be home, and we still have many reasons to be grateful, just as we did throughout our entire evacuation.

Evacuation

The storm was barreling toward us at 17 miles per hour. A week ago this moment, my older daughter and I were enjoying the beginning of a peaceful, blissful weekend of bonding. We were ignorant of any of the storms in the Atlantic, let alone their potential impact on us. As I learned of the looming hurricane halfway into our trip, I started texting my husband with plans and thoughts. With the promise of Hurricane Florence slamming straight into the coast of the Carolinas at significant strength, there was much to do, so much to plan.

Early in the week, we vacillated in indecision. Do we evacuate? Do we stay? My in-laws agreed to let us use their home; they have an unfinished room that’s perfect for our cats. I wanted us to be safe, but I also wanted to stay hunkered down in our own home. Regardless, with the amount of flooding the meteorologists were predicting with this storm, we had to secure our most precious things.

This is the point where the reality got real. Over 1,500 square feet of living and storage space containing old furniture, cherished furniture, technological stuff, collectibles, pictures, jewelry, clothes, books, and toys – all the detritus of daily life in a family of four people and three cats. Yet, we could only take what we could fit into two vehicles alongside of seven warm bodies. With care, I gathered up photographs and albums, lovingly placing them in zip-closed bags. Framed family photos went into bags and then into drawers in chests on the upper floor. My fine jewelry came with us.

We each packed clothes for a week. We brought DVDs for entertainment and books to read. I grabbed my two favorite stuffed animals. My younger daughter brought a few magnets from our fridge and a book of Disney stories I’d had when I was a child. My teen brought a couple of books and her journal. My husband brought the necessities and his jewelry – his wedding band and a necklace I gave him when we were dating that he never wears. We brought food and water; the food would have gone bad at home when the power went out and even inland, there’s the risk of power outages with the winds from the outer band of the hurricane. It was remarkable to me what we brought with us, or, more like, didn’t bring. My older made sure she brought every bit of her new clothes, makeup, and jewelry. But neither daughter brought her cleats, shin guards, or ball; neither my husband nor I brought our billiards cues or fishing rods.

Even amidst the planning and preparation, there was still vacillation. My husband felt strongly about staying. My gut said it’d be safer to go. At that point, the hurricane was expected to hit as a category 3 or 4 and linger at the coast for 24-36 hours before weakening and moving west. The announcement of a mandatory evacuation settled the matter for us.

With mere hours to get everything together and move out, we pulled together to get things done. None of us had ever dealt with an evacuation before. Frankly, I was scared, my anxiety level nearly to the point that I was having trouble thinking and focusing. At the same time, everyone was looking to me to lead them in the preparations, to tell them what needed to be done and direct them to do it. What happens when the leader can’t lead?

We made it out. My husband had some minor car trouble – and he was the one with the cats. Traffic was fairly light, many people from Down East fleeing the coming storm; however, we were at the tail end of the evacuees. We arrived at my in-laws’ house in the evening. My mother-in-law had texted with “warnings,” I guess you’d call them. “We turn off the cable when we’re gone, so there’s no wifi.” Ouch, but OK. We can get 4G on our phones and have movies, games, books, and school for our entertainment pleasure. “The hot water heater is on vacation mode, so there’s no hot water.” With her guidance, we took care of that problem. (Can’t wash dishes with cold water.)

Once we arrived, got the cats settled, and started winding down, it was time to reflect. We had to leave our home suddenly because our lives were at stake. It was scary leaving, not knowing what would await us when we returned. It was also kind of scary going. Sure, we knew we were going to a lovely home that would be stocked in necessities and easily accessible to several shopping opportunities. We didn’t know, however, how the cats would be. We didn’t know what weather conditions secondary to the storm we’d face. Even now, drowsy from the rain and a delicious dinner, able to get updates on our town, our region, and many of our friends, the anxiety still churns in my gut as I wonder what we’ll face when we return. We don’t even know when we will get to return; earlier today, our town manager issued a curfew, and parts of the interstate between here and home are flooded. Our county’s emergency manager has said it could be weeks before residents from parts of the county will be able to make it back home.

Whatever must it be like for those who are strange people in a strange land? What happens when dangerous circumstances force you to leave the only home you’ve ever known to seek shelter and refuge in a new place, bringing only what you can carry?

This is the reality for thousands of people. We hustled all day before driving a couple of hours to get here. Refugees travel over hundreds of miles, mostly on foot or by rickety cart. What if we’d traveled all that way only to be met with hostility and getting turned away at the door with nowhere else to go but back to the danger? The refugees do. Nevermind that they have a legal right to seek asylum in our country; Ronald Reagan made that a law early in his administration. After giving up everything they know, refugees face cruel, hateful treatment and the hostilities of a suspicious people who believe that people of color, especially those hailing from the Middle East or Latin America, are evil, bad, lazy, and dangerous.

Being unplanned sojourners for a while is an unnerving experience. We were able to put some plans in place, but the reality remains that, while we’re here, we are unable to take care of our businesses like we need to. We have just the money that was available to us when we left. Such is the case for those who come here seeking refugee from other lands.

It’s time for us to extend the hospitality to refugees that my in-laws and so many others extended to us evacuees fleeing from the hurricane. Rules are fine and good; everyone has the right to set boundaries on their own property. Nations have rules as well, and as long as refugees are willing to follow the simple rules that make a society function well, there’s no reason to block them from finding a place to find shelter and to make a new home.

Be Like Little Children

Vacation Bible School has started, and my teen is lead teacher of the 4- and 5-year-olds.  She doesn’t understand why none of the youth jumped at the opportunity to lead them.  Sure, they’re wild, noisy, and hyper, but that’s how kids this age are supposed to be.  They’re also silly, lovable, and enthusiastic.  And for whatever reason, my teen just perfectly grooves with them.  She was telling me about one little boy, a member of the church, who’s cute as can be.  She said, “He’s really ADHD.”

I said, “We never diagnosed ADHD in kids younger than 3rd grade.  God designed y’all to be hyper and not sit still for hours at a time when you’re little.”

My younger daughter who’s 8 piped up from the back seat, “Jesus said for little children to come to him, and he accepts them when they’re hyper, too.”

Let’s visit this for a bit.  Jesus bids his disciples quite a few times to allow the little children to come to him.  He also holds little children up as examples of faithfulness.  We are to be like little children.

What would that look like for our lives of discipleship?

We’d be lovable.  Little children accept and love people, no matter what.  At the same time, they’re open to receiving love and care, too.  They can be amazing caregivers, and they are pretty good about allowing others to care for them when necessary.  In allowing others to care for us, we’re giving them the opportunity to live out their own faith in servitude.

We’d be enthusiastic.  Whether it’s dinosaurs or a new doll or a trip to the beach, children are exuberantly happy about those things or events.  What would our lives look like if we enthusiastically proclaimed, “I love Jesus!” or said with so much joy, “Let me tell you what our pastor said Sunday.  It was so good!”

We’d be silly.  I’m not talking clown-silly or immature-silly.  I’m talking twirling-with-excitement silly or dancing-in-the-streets silly, all because we have this amazing gift of complete love and acceptance.  We as Christ-followers should have so much joy that it spills over into silliness.  So many believers think that such expressions of joy are unholy, maybe even blasphemous or sinful.  I know someone who I met after she accepted Christ as her Savior.  She’s one of the most dour, unhappy, unsmiling people I’ve ever met.  Someone who knew her before her conversion told me that she used to be a lot more fun to be around before she became a Christian.  What’s up with that?  Sure, our behaviors and attitudes need to change once we start following Jesus, but we should still be people that others wish to be around.

As anyone who’s been around little kids knows, it’s not all silly giggle fits and hugs.  Sometimes it’s tantrums and tired crankies.  Sometimes it’s stubborn refusals to eat what we serve them or to do what we ask.  Sometimes it’s fights with siblings and breaking the lovely (???) vase your husband’s aunt gave you as a wedding present (though, is that really that much of a loss?).  Many times, it’s streaking through the house (quite literally for my wannabe nudist younger daughter) and climbing over the backs of furniture.  Any minute, you expect to see someone swinging from the lighting fixture over the kitchen table.  Whew!  Remember how exhausting those days were?

We have our adult equivalent to those things.  We get tired and irritable and pitch a hissy fit when too many things are going wrong.  We fight with our spouses (or siblings, friends, or that obnoxious drunk neighbor).  And in a fit of pique, we may even accidentally-on-purpose annihilate the tacky serving bowl from a person we don’t remember.

But you know what’s cool?  The Jesus who loves and welcomes little children, the Jesus who practically gathers them up to come over for a story, a blessing, and a hug, even with their stubbornness, hyperactivity, and tantrum-throwing, does the same for us.  He makes it more adult:  “Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest.”  The same welcoming embrace that Jesus offers little children is ours as well.  But we have to go.  Jesus bids the children come, and he calls us adults to come, too.  He calls us to bring our pride, our stubbornness, our bad attitudes, and our issues to him and to trade those things in for peace and comfort, for living water and eternal life, for unconditional love and acceptance.

So, what’s it gonna be?  Why not shed a few layers of uptight adultness and wrap ourselves in some exuberant, joyful child-of-God-hood?  I feel lighter and happier already.

Do you want to know more about how to get Jesus’ peace?  Drop a comment below, and I’ll share with you how that can be yours.  The grace is free, but it is costly, because we still have to answer the summons.

 

Being Counter Church Cultural

We believers hear it often:  We must be counter-cultural.  We’re not supposed to follow the popular culture; we’re called to be different.  The problem is, our churches are increasingly co-opting to the popular culture.

First seeker churches burst onto the scene.  Seeker churches can be beneficial starting points for those seeking to know more about the Christian faith.  However, these churches rely greatly on brewing up some neurochemicals to stir people up and not so much on the power of the Holy Spirit.  Those young in the faith don’t have the knowledge and experience to discern between the two.  The worship experience might get some oxytocin going, making worshipers feel deeply emotional.  Think about how you feel when you see baby animals or hear a sad story.  That’s oxy.  Worshipers might feel excited, particularly in response to the drums and guitars.  That’s caused by endorphins.  Certain worship experiences cause people’s brains to produce cortisol and adrenaline, making them feel scared, worried, or fearful.  Hellfire & brimstone preachers rely on those chemicals for “conversions.”  Whatever the emotion is, many believers who are young in the faith interpret these chemical responses as the moving and working of the Spirit.

Alongside seeker churches came what we know today as contemporary Christian music, and this music is a crucial part of many worship services around the world.  (Funny to note here…  When I was a teen, Bill Gaither was considered a contemporary music artist.  Now his songs are in our hymnal.)  We used to attend a worship service that features contemporary Christian music.  I enjoyed the worship experience, but I didn’t always enjoy the music, yet I couldn’t figure out why not.  Then I started focusing on the words.  They were very seldom about God at all.  They were about us.  We were the objects of our worship songs.  I recently looked up the lyrics to “I Can Only Imagine,” which is very hot right now.  If the incidences of the ratio of references to “myself” versus references to Jesus/God indicate their relative importance, then I am more than twice as important as the Messiah (46:20).

A lady I know once shared an incident that happened to her.  She accidentally pulled out in front of a car.  Who hasn’t done this?  Right?  The driver of the other car blew her horn at her.  Who hasn’t also done this?  The teacher remarked, “I thought, How horrible to spend your life being so unforgiving!”  I thought, How horrible to live your life being so judgmental!  The teacher genuinely felt that she was the wronged party and the other driver was an awful person for blowing her horn at her.  But this isn’t the Jesus way.  We’re not called to judge others based on one moment of their lives.  We’re not called to think we’re so much better than others.  To do that makes us no better than the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke’s gospel, self-aggrandizing because of our righteousness and missing the cries for mercy from people around us.

Being self-centered is the world’s way of being.  Being Christ-centered is God’s way of being.  Judging others is the world’s way of being.  Showing mercy is God’s way of being.  Increasingly, the things I see at church are very worldly.  That leader who uses manipulative tactics to get people to help or to draw people to the church.  That’s worldly.  The worship music that talks about us is worldly.  The cliques and exclusive social groups that prevail in every church are worldly.  Clapping for the “entertainers” is worldly.  Oh, sure, people say they’re praising God with their clapping, but if that’s the case, why aren’t they “praising God” when the offering plates go back to the front of the church or after the sermon by one of those preachers who couldn’t preach to save his life?

We have attempted to make the church counter-cultural, but instead, we’ve made the church completely cultural, just with a little God talk thrown in.  I guess that God-talk is supposed to make us stand out?  I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.  Thing is, Jesus pretty much never talked about being in church.  He stated that Peter would be the rock on which Jesus would build his church, but that was it.  Jesus did church.  Jesus went to where the people were and entered into their lives.  Jesus didn’t sit in the same building with the same familiar faces week after week.  Jesus went to people where they were, people who often were different – from a different region, Gentile as opposed to Jewish, diseased as opposed to well.  We are called to do likewise.

When our church experiences are truly Christ-centered, Bible-based, and ministry-focused in deed as well as word, then we’ll be truly counter-cultural.  When we dissolve cliques and factions within the church, then we will be separate from the world and stand out from it.  When our worship once more is all about God and not about us, then we will experience revival.  Then and only then will church once more be transformative in the lives of all who enter therein.

 

A Prayer for Christmas Eve^2

Thank you, God…

Thank you for rowdy days and silent nights.

Thank you for peace, though, with two girls alternately fighting, squealing, laughing, and giggling, it’s not terribly peaceful.  There’s peace in my heart, nonetheless.

Thank you for that fall two years ago.  It was a great lesson for my family in all I do, both expensive and invaluable.

Thank you that I seldom have to ask them to work with me anymore.  Thank you that they take that initiative.

As I read and soaked in a not-warm-enough bath and my older came in to talk to me – then apologized and left – thank you that she’s here and excited about the helpful thing she’d done for her sister.

Thank you for time this Advent – time to spend with friends, time to bless people around us, time to hang out with my family, time to play games on the Santa Trackers.

Thank you for all those Jesus moments, especially in the random words of my daughters as they speak the love of you for us.

Thank you for movies that make us cry as they remind us of what’s truly important this season and every season – that You became flesh and dwelt among us, that you love even the smallest and imperfect of us, the importance of putting our fellow humans over our material gain, the importance of family, the wealth found in friends.

Simply put…  Thank you, God.

Where My Loyalties Lie

In the beginning, God created men and women in God’s image.  That’s according to Genesis 1, anyway.  In Genesis 2, a slightly different account, we’re told that God formed the man out of the dust of the ground, then God made the animals.  However, from these animals, no suitable helpmate was available to Adam.  So, short version, God created the woman.

This man and this woman were created to be in relationship with God.  Second to that, the man and the woman were created to be in relationship with each other.  They were family.  Out of this relationship, they had children; the Bible records the names of three boys, though I surmise that that’s not an exhaustive list.  The first couple multiplied and expanded their family.

Skip down several generations and about ten chapters, and we meet Abram.  Abram was an old man of 75, married to Sarai, and they were unfortunately childless.  God called Abram into covenant, a covenant which would extend to all of Abram’s descendents.  Abram and Sarai received new names and the promise of a child.  This small family grew – and would grow exponentially.

Three more generations, and the family of Abraham has grown exponentially, with his son Isaac bringing two sons, and Jacob having twelve sons and a daughter.  For his faithfulness, he received a new name:  Israel.  They acknowledged “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” but otherwise, this god had no name.  The descendants of Jacob would be called in Hebrew ben-Y’isra’el, which means literally, “the sons of Israel,” but which refers to all descendants of Jacob.

Four hundred years went by.  The Israelites had moved from Canaan to Goshen, a fertile land under the purview of Egypt.  There they grew and flourished to the point where the Pharoah considered them a viable threat and enslaved them.  Four hundred years of just acknowledging the god of their fathers.  They worshiped at altars, but there was no true worshiping assembly.

After the Exodus, the Lord delivered through Moses detailed how-to instructions for worship, including everything from when, what, and how much to sacrifice.  The sacrifices were all given in gratitude for what the Lord had done, not as a bribe to make God do what they wanted God to do.  (This was different from the pagan deity worship practices.)  Even through the desert wanderings, the Israelites didn’t worship as a community as we understand it, but what is clear is that they are still a huge family – all descended from one ancestor – with separate, individual tribal, clan, and family units.

It would be another millennium (plus a few hundred years) before the church as we know it was established.  The church as a mash-up of people from different backgrounds, different families, and different beliefs wouldn’t emerge until the first century A.D.

The church is a vital part of the believer’s life, and corporate worship is a beautiful part of that life.  I feel bereft of something if I miss more than one Sunday of worship.  However, true to the original design, we were created first to be with God, and second to be in our families.  Someone from our church tried to lay a guilt-trip on me for skipping something at church in order to take my daughters home so they could have dinner with their waiting dad – and so we could be together as a family for the first time that entire day.  We were not created to be a part of an institution; we were created to be a part of our families.

And the church is an institution.  Early in our marriage, Peter and I both spent many Sunday afternoons helping out at our small church and engaged in various local ministry projects.  The problem was, between my two jobs and his job, we barely had any time together the other six days of the week.  We thought we were being “holy” by spending all this time at church, but in reality, we were damaging one of the best gifts God had given us and were failing to be good stewards of that gift.

When someone wants people – whether individuals, parts of families, or whole families – to give up family time for time at church, then the church starts taking on cult-like qualities.  Cults desire their members to sacrifice family loyalty for loyalty to the cult and the leader.  I refuse to go there.  If I have a choice between being home with all my family or at church with just part of it, then I’ll choose to be with my whole family every.  Single.  Time.  Sunday mornings are the exception; if Hubby is sick, then I’m perfectly fine taking the girls to church without him, and vice versa if I’m sick.  But any other time…  At the end of a long day of working and teaching, when all I want is to complete the 35-minute drive home, hug my hubby, and eat dinner, then no.  My first loyalty is to God.  My second loyalty is to my family.  Everything else comes after that.

God in the Box

Our new pastor (he’s a HUGE improvement over the last one) is starting a sermon series on boxes, and he began with talking about the boxes in which we put God.  This led to my affirming his outside-the-box thinking, evident both in his resume and the things I heard about him from a shared Div school professor, and sharing my own thoughts about why we put God in a box.  I’d like to share those with you.

The church (local) and the Church (ecumenical) are the most popular God boxes today.  The God in the box is the God we can control, letting God out when we need God.  For the last 2000 years, the Church has been afraid to allow God outside the box (OTB), because they can’t control that God, nor can they control the populace with God.  Brother Bruno was tortured and torched by the Catholic Church in the 16th century for daring to think and teach that God was too infinite to be contained.  Since God invites us into relationship, when God is out of our boxes, then we must step outside the box to be with God, to close the gap.  When we do so, we start seeing the broken; the hurt; the impoverished; the incarcerated; the sick; and all the other “leasts of these,” and that is uncomfortable to us.  The Spirit compels us to be present to these folks, though.  It feels safer just to stay inside our cozy, predictable little boxes.

Box o' God

The safest God is the one who stays in the box.

I challenge you as I often challenge myself to step outside the box.  It’s not at all crowded out here, so there’s lots of breathing room.  There is a lot of room to grow in faith, too, because God resides here – outside where the broken are – and we are free to take our brokenness outside our God-boxes to heal and be healed.

 

Sara’s Psalm #2

I originally wrote this 1 December 2001.  There was probably a late night communion with God on the beach involved.

Lord, you made each star.  You make the seas, and you made the sand.

You made each creature that flies through the air, that swims in the sea, and that crawls on the beach.

And you made me.

 

Lord, you set each star in place.  You know the exact coordinates of each one, its name and its age.

And Lord, you know the ocean.  You know every grain of sand and bit of salt in the sea.

You know every creature that lives in the sea, from the smallest microorganism to the largest whale; you know every plant in the sea:  The algae and the seaweed.

You know every grain of sand on the beach.  I cannot count the grains of sand in one handful, yet you, Lord, know not only how many grains of sand are on the beach, but where each one came from.

You know how it was made, and if it came from a hurricane, a bird, a crab, or a bulldozer moving sand from one place to another.  Or even if that grain of sand has been here all along.

And you know me.

 

Lord, you know when each star is going to burn out and when a new star will take its place, and this is your plan.

You know which wave will be the next to crash on the beach.  You have ordered the changing of the tides and the ripple of the waves.

I look out at the ocean, and I cannot see all the waves on the horizon.  I see the waves close to shore and think I know which one will crash first, only to be proven wrong.

I see my life, Lord, and I cannot see what is on the horizon, but you do, and you have a plan for what is there.

I see my life close up, thinking I know what is going to happen next, but often do not.

Just as you have a plan for the stars, the seas, and the sand, you also have a plan for me.

Help me to yield to your plan for my life, Lord, remembering not to worry about tomorrow, but to deal with today.

Help me also to see your plan for my life.  My heart is willing, but my mind keeps worrying and wondering.  Bring comfort to my mind, and help it to accept what my heart already knows.