Posts

Why I want to be a player in the cosmic drama

In the midst of teetering economies, droughts in Africa, and the grief stricken city of Oslo, we may wonder how we as Christians can contribute anything of significance in God’s cosmic plans for the earth. How can Pastor Harry’s suggestion of focusing 400 hours even begin to make a dent? And yet, I am reminded time and time again through scripture that this great God we serve, the very God who stretched the stars across the heavens, chooses to include us in his plans and purposes. Nestled in the opening verses of John 1, in tandem with the creation account and the coming of the Messiah, we find a poignant example of this powerful truth.

Based on outward appearances, he doesn’t seem like a voice that anyone would listen to… this John, with camel skins on… preaching alone in some remote Judean wilderness. Yet, somehow, he has tuned in on the movement of God in his day, and by the prompting of the Spirit has begun pointing others toward the coming of the long awaited Messiah. There are others as well, such as Rahab, who in spite of being a prostitute and a pagan, was able to hone in on the Spirit of God at work in the spies that came to her village. Or, Queen Esther, who through the prompting of her uncle, recognized that God had placed her in that very place to intervene on God’s behalf and save an entire people. Come to think of it, the great players in the Biblical story were all asking how their seemingly insignificant lives could intersect and contribute to the unfolding cosmic plans of God in their times.

I wonder how many of God’s people are asking the questions of how their unique lives could intersect with God’s cosmic purposes? I fear that most of our North American Christianity asks different kinds of questions; questions of personal growth, self – fulfillment, spiritual satisfaction, etc. Our defining question is focused more on how we can get ahead spiritually… a fusion of our North American culture and religious expression. Our worship services are riddled with how our spiritual needs and preferences will be met and our Christian book stores chocked full of self-help books.

I long to be involved with the movement of God in my time… I long for my life to intersect with God’s plan of bringing healing and hope to the world. I believe the world is tired of hearing our religious arguments… I believe that the church is still divided by dissentions and factions that render us ineffective and drain us of our creative energy and potential that God wants to use. The world is literally starving for the people of God to rise up from the ashes and demonstrate that the power, love and healing of God is still at work even in the most difficult times and the most remote places.


It begins with us selflessly asking God how we can intersect with what HE IS DOING and joining… even if it seems insignificant. Eugene Peterson in his devotional book, “A Year with Jesus” invites us to pray in this way:

“By your Word, God, the heavens were created; and by that same word I am addressed. What is going on in the heavens and in my home are equally your interest. Make the connection in my faith between your grand purposes and your specific involvement in my life. Amen.”

So you want to be missional?

For some time now, I have reflected deeply on what it means to encourage the church to become more missional. I am reminded of a parable that Jesus shared in Luke 14, “”Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it?” The problem I see with the call for churches to become more missional is that while the idea of getting more involved with our local communities, opening our churches, having more members or leading persons into a relationship with God is very exciting and appealing, I am not sure that we are fully aware of how that will impact us with both blessings and challenges.

I am not a huge fan of the word missional because for me, once missionary in Sicily for ten years, it doesn’t necessarily communicate what I feel we need to work at as church. While I value the rich discussion, discernment and education that has emerged over the past decade around this, I have come to a place of believing that perhaps talking about the practice of hospitality may be more helpful.


When I speak of hospitality, I am not so much referring to the idea of sharing a meal or opening our homes in the traditional way we tend to interpret the word. Michelle Herschberger in her book, “A Christian View of Hospitality: Expecting Surprises” redefines hospitality in a way that gives us a helpful way to reflect on our spiritual readiness for the stranger. She writes, “(Hospitality) is a choice. We choose to reject suspicion as the first reaction to a stranger. We choose to minister along side of others rather than to them. We choose to let go of some of our own control when we meet strangers and when we interact with those we’ve known for years. We choose to expect surprises from strangers – good surprises that come from God.” (P. 31)

I believe that hospitality, in this sense, postures us to truly receive the gift of the stranger into our churches in a way that promotes mutuality, creativity, freedom, respect and shalom. I am reminded of the sinful woman in Luke chapter 7 who learns that Jesus was dining in a Pharisee’s home. She innocently, ignorantly or knowingly crosses all respectable boundaries and barges into the dinner party with an unforgettable act of worship; an alabaster jar of perfume to be poured over the feet of Jesus. This act of pure, selfless worship infuriated all around the table… did she not know her place? Did Jesus not know her place? The loving response of Jesus that evening demonstrates that kind of hospitality as he received the gift of the stranger. In what could have been an awkward moment, mutual respect, mutual surprises and gifts, mutual love and forgiveness, and shalom were discovered and celebrated.

The love of God is generative… it changes things… and as we open our churches to the stranger bearing new gifts and new expressions of love and worship, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready for whatever shape that may take. Because there is potential of deep hurt and injustice if we resist. Imagine what could have happened in the story with out Jesus demonstrating acceptance, love and hospitality. I think that maybe we need to ask these kinds of questions before we decide to become more missional, because being missional will stretch us beyond our human capabilities. But if we are willing to give a little, we the church will be blessed with a rich, variety of beautiful family members who bring unique contributions to the kingdom of God.

Beautiful things…

Recently a high school student in our congregation introduced me to a new song, “Beautiful Things” to use in one of our worship services. Ever since I heard the song, I have continued to sing and repeat a line of the song over and over to myself… “You make beautiful things out of the dust…” Yes, it does remind me of God creating Adam out of the dust in the creation account, but the power of those words touch something much deeper in me.

I am reminded of Rahab the prostitute who selflessly protected Joshuah and his men… risking her life for someone who knew the most high God. In return, Joshuah gave her a scarlet chord which would save her life when the city was overtaken. How interesting that her life was then woven into the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1… she was one of the grandmothers of Jesus. God makes beautiful things out of the dust…

I am currently planning a service around the story of Rahab and a friend of mine who is preaching that Sunday highlighted yet another dimension in the story. Rahab is the only female mentioned as a hero in the great faith hall of fame in the book of Hebrews. She also wondered inquisitively what prompted the New Testament writers to include Rahab in such a radical way…

After I read my friend’s email, I could hardly sleep that night as the question and the words of the song invaded my heart and mind… it is as if the writers wanted to remind us that God makes beautiful things out of the dust… He delights in using what we may deem as unusable. Sin, background, qualifications, good-standing, race, gender and even religious background do not limit God in how he might use us… in fact it seems that dust makes a very good medium for God to use for the most beautiful creations.

This gives me such hope and life. In the past, I have felt so hurt by the church at times… because I didn’t have the right last name , because of my gender, or the fact that my father had taken his own life. I was often excluded from using my gifts in ministry because I wasn’t “ready”… when in reality, I think it was more likely that they weren’t ready for me. How heart breaking that along the way the church has lost the message of God making beautiful things out of dust.

When did we start deciding who is in and who is out? When did the church start requiring that people behave a certain way before they could belong? It seems to me that the birth of the church in Acts was all about the movement of the Spirit empowering the most unlikely candidates to minister… breaking all kinds of religious rules. Did we forget that our biblical story includes a beautiful heritage of murderers, prostitutes, sexually abused persons, foreigners, pagans, women, men, eunuchs and children? I don’t know about you… but I feel closer to a God who delights in making beautiful things out of the dust because that is my story.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves as the church if we are really ready for the beautiful things God desires to bring forth… if we are… we might just experience something spectacular…

Here are the words and a link to the song:

Beautiful things

All this pain…
I wonder if I’ll ever
Find my way
I wonder if
My life could really change
at all?

All this earth…
Could all that is lost
ever be found
Could a garden come up
from this ground
at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust

All around
Hope is springing up
from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being
Found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new You are making me new
You make me new You are making me new

© worshiptogether.com songs (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)
Lisa Gungor | Michael Gungor

For all my pastor friends and colleagues out there…


God…
what makes people like ourselves
follow this strange sensation
we describe as “call”
how is it
these resilient seeds
find a way to sprout
even in the most hostile environment?

we marvel as we watch
others
like ourselves
plunge
into the deep waters…
of church and ministry
with eyes wide open
and sometimes not

it is mystery
in its fullest sense
to watch
your resurrection power
breathe life
into our tired bodies
week after week, day after day

the thrill
of soaring to the undiscovered places
of your presence
and the sobering descent
into the depths
of uncertainty
and loneliness
keep this strange journey
perfectly balanced
in total dependency
on you

you who calls
you who gives rest
you who gives and takes away
so much power
and yet
you share graciously
with little co-laborers
who said
yes

What are you running towards?

Recently, I took the time to reread the Easter texts and allow them to sink in more deeply. During Holy week, I often enter the story from a worship planning perspective thinking about how I might aid the congregation in entering the story.

That day, as many pastors often do the week after Easter, I was feeling tired and worn out… I recognized that I, too, needed to personally enter into the resurrection story. So, I reread the text in Matthew 28.

I wasn’t aware that I was practicing Lectio Divina at the time, but as I read through the resurrection account about the women going to the tomb to find it empty and hearing the news from the angels that Jesus was not there, but had risen… a verse began to shimmer. “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

I immediately recognized the shimmer… God’s spirit highlighting something important for me… “Afraid yet filled with joy”. Wow… that was exactly what my heart was feeling… God was more aware of my internal state than I was.

God has been at work in me for a while freeing me from some painful memories and experiences that bind me and inviting me into a new reality, a new freedom and a new way of being. Sometimes these changes can be very scary… even when we know God is leading us toward resurrection.

As I read the scripture and prayerfully listened to God, I became aware that I was afraid to leave behind what was familiar even though it was keeping me in pain and bondage. I was afraid and yet filled with joy as I began to run toward the resurrection experience to which God was inviting me.

As I write this morning… I am aware that many of us share this experience. What freedom to name and sit with our fears and our hopefulness before our God. How comforting to know that our God is present enough in our lives to know the inward journey that needs to be tended to before we are even aware of it ourselves.

It’s Monday

It’s Monday… the festivities of Easter have come and gone… we remembered together the significance of Christ’s resurrection… we sang Hallelujah’s and feasted our eyes upon majestic colors and easter flowers… our ears are still ringing with resurrection songs… but what difference will it make today?

This was the topic of the yesterday’s sermon… what does the resurrection really mean and how does it change the way I will live?

A Prayer for Easter Monday

let life spring forth
into busy tomorrow
bringing resurrection fragrance
to stacks of papers
books
technology
piled too high
on my desk

that waits
to lure me
into
pre-ordered tasks
of calculated
productivity

let the empty tomb
surprise
my waking
with mystery
on the first day
of my weekly
agenda
already chocked full

let spaciousness
and freedom
inspire
prayers
like the chubby bird
perched on a branch
bursting
with vibrant green buds
singing

a practice to remember…

Tonight, many of us will meet together to practice remembering the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples before his death on the cross. Some traditions will host love feasts, foot washing services and communion while others will simply take time to fellowship over a meal and remember together the significance of the events that took place so long ago.

This ritual, though very diverse, is rich with multi-sensory ways to engage more deeply into the words Jesus shared with the disciples gathered around the table. We touch the bread that represents the body of Christ… the white color reminds us of the Lamb of God, without blemish, who took away all sin from the world. We recall that Jesus willingly broke the bread and gave thanks for what it was and what it was to become. He invited the disciples to eat it… to fully take in and digest that his body would be broken for them. He would become the bread of life so that we may all have life.

He invites us to remember.

We feel the weight of the cup… the very cup that Jesus agonized over in the garden later that evening. The cup he said, is the blood of the New Covenant. We see the deep red fruit of the vine and it becomes a poignant reminder of Christ’s precious blood poured out for the world… We taste the warmth of God’s healing and salvation as we drink from the cup and remember.

We continue this practice because Jesus encouraged his disciples to remember and recall the significance of the things he said as often as they would eat the bread and drink the cup. It was to be a truly contemplative moment… a moment to more fully awaken every part of ourselves, every God given sense that we have , to the depth of Christ’s love for us.

Tonight, as we engage in this prayerful act of remembrance, may we slow down and take it all in. May we become aware of each sensory message that the bread and the cup hold for us. As our feet are being washed, may we be reminded and touched by God’s care for us… and may all of these things produce a soul felt “Thanks be to God” welling up from the depths of our being.

some thoughts on relinquishing

A few years ago, I found myself going through a very dry time in my ministry. I found myself feeling tired, burnout, uncreative, and a little calloused. I was scheduled to spend a weekend at a local retreat center for prayer and reflection… this was not what I wanted to do… I really didn’t want to pray or reflect… they both seemed too draining and depressing at the time. Since the weekend was already prepaid, I reluctantly packed my bags and headed out.

I wouldn’t exactly describe my attitude as being “spiritual” or “reflective”. In fact, I was there because I felt like I had to be. As I walked the grounds of this magnificent place, I couldn’t even muster up the energy to say a prayer for the weekend. In fact, I resented feeling like I had to pray for the weekend. But finally, I mustered up enough energy to say a simple two word prayer: “Find me”.

I didn’t have the energy to seek God so I relinquished my time, my sense of responsibility to make the retreat meaningful, and my own helplessness to God by saying, “Find me, God”. That was it.

I will never forget how God met me that weekend. When I relinquished into God hands how I ought to be refreshed and how I ought to pray, God met me in a profound way… the way I needed to be met but didn’t know it. I came away from that time a changed person with a renewed sense of God’s profound love for me. I can say, that I will never be the same again.

While I was there, I wrote simple song that captured my prayer and God’s answer:

Draw me
ever deeper
ever nearer
Lord, to you

Find me
ever waiting
in the secret place
for you

For your love rushes through me
and awakens
the deepest strains of songs
not yet sung
you purge my soul
with tender, healing
spirit hands of love

Sing to me
in the quiet place
let you’re love
find me there

Call me
to be one with you
and give me grace
to see

That your love rushes through me
and awakens
the deepest strains of songs
not yet sung
you purge my soul
with tender, healing
spirit hands of love

Three practices that can help us through a dark night experience

I remember a particularly difficult time in Italy when Harry and I were the janitors, the building and grounds committee, the Sunday school teachers, the nursery, the counselors, teachers and preachers for the small community of new believers that were being formed at Termini Immerse, Italy. (Talk about an overwhelming job description!) I had three lively children at that time at the exciting ages of 2, 4 and 7. Each Sunday when the time for preaching came, I would take all of the children out with me into the next room for Sunday school. On a good Sunday, we could have as many as 15 kids. Harry would get to preaching… a long time… and I would be over in this room in my high heeled shoes and Sunday best which was an important part of the culture… teaching SS class in another language… with 15 children ranging from 1-13 somehow hoping that what I had to say would interest them. I used a flannelgraph which one of my kids would take the characters off each time I put them up there, interrupting my thoughts that I was working on so hard in Italian… with my youngest either clinging to my dress or on my hip or someone else’s baby on my hip… in a room that echoed terribly with marble floors and which you could hear every sound in the next room and vice versa… no heat and no air-conditioning… you are getting the picture right? I was completely and totally overwhelmed and this happened every single Sunday. And… every single Sunday I would go home after church, crawl into my bed and cry.  Even though I believed that God had called us to Italy, and I believed that we were pursuing God’s will for us, I felt like a miserable failure. I was lonely, completely overwhelmed and I really just wanted to go home. That was a dark, dark time for me. I must admit that there were times when I felt so overwhelmed, that I didn’t really care if I was pursuing God or not.

Even Jesus didn’t feel like pursuing God that night in the Garden. In Matthew 26 verse 36 we see that Jesus has celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and he has gone to the garden to pray. He tells Peter and that his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Have you ever paused to consider just that sentence… How dark that night truly was for our Jesus? So when we find ourselves in difficult times or in a dark night experience we can learn from our Savior who has walked through the darkest of nights.

There are three practical things that we can learn in this story.

(1. Don’t go to the garden alone…

The first thing we can do when we find ourselves in a Gethsemane experience is invite persons to companion us. Jesus invites three of the disciples, Peter, James and John to be with him. As Christians, I think this can be hard for us at times. We want everyone to think we are doing great, or we don’t want to cause anyone trouble, but Jesus, openly names his feeling of sorrow to the point of death to his disciples and allows them to surround him and be with him during the most difficult time in his life. When we invite our brothers and sisters in the Lord to companion us, it is as if we were inviting God to companion us because we believe that we have the very presence of God, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us.

(2. We can pray honest prayers

Sometimes, I think we pray pretend prayers with God because we are afraid that somehow our anger, disbelief and sorrow will keep God from hearing our prayers. But nothing could be further from the truth. God made us with a full array of emotions… we really can’t hide that from God. If we look at Matthew 26:38 we see that Jesus overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, falls on his face and says, My Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me…

(3. Relinquish our power into the hands of God.

The third thing we can learn from Jesus is that there will come a time in all of our lives when we do things that we really don’t want to do… even when we know it is right.  When we find ourselves in a very dark hour, it is good to relinquish the outcome and control into the hands of God. Jesus, himself, says inverse 38… not my will but thy will, O God.

Jesus was God incarnate, so it is a little different for us. But I think there comes a time when we need to fall on our face and simply let God be God. That requires us to fully relinquish any claim we might have to controlling our lives. It is a little bit like jumping off the diving board at the deep end of the pool for the first time and trusting that our parents will catch us.

There will come a time when all of us will have to do this in the impending hours before our death. But, I believe that this relinquishing should become a practice for us. In a very real way we do that when we practice the Sabbath. When we cease for a day, we are saying in a very real way, God, you are the Creator and I am simply the created. I relinquish my desire and drivenness to pursue more and work more. I trust that you are able to come to my aid. I trust that your will and your power are enough for me.

When the going gets tough

I think that we as Christians skip over the immense pain and suffering that Jesus experienced the week leading up to his death. Though there are many stories in between, we tend to move from the shouting Hosannas in church on Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Yes, many of us do have a Maundy Thursday meal and even a Good Friday service… but we rarely live with the Gethsemane experience for any length of time.

Immediately following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with the crowds cheering and blessing him, Jesus enters into a very dark week. He goes into the temple only to be heart broken and angered by the disrespect and corruption of his father’s house… it should be a place of prayer but instead, it had become a place of deceit, bribery and corruption. Humanity truly needed a savior and he was fully aware of what the price would be.

The following day he was harassed by the chief priests and teachers of the law. They questioned his motives behind his actions. They wondered who gave Jesus the authority to behave the way he did. They threatened him and ridiculed him with poignant hatred, “Who do you think you are?”

The next day, one of his closest friends agreed to betray him and hand him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver… the common price of a slave. Perhaps Jesus could have anticipated this from someone else, but one of his own?

The heaviness of what was to come must have been heavy on his heart as he celebrated his last passover meal with the persons he had lived with, taught and loved intensely for the past several years, his disciples.

It was in this immense, dark place that Jesus found himself struggling to pursue God in the garden.

We may never have a week like that of Jesus, but many of us do enter into dark and difficult times. We all experience deep disappointment, despair, loneliness, dread, heart brokenness, depression, anxiety… you can fill in the blanks. The question is, what will we do in that dark place?

Jesus pursues God even when he doesn’t want to do what is being asked of him. He surrounds himself with persons who will help him, he prays and waits for God’s assistance, and he relinquishes his desire and control over the situation.

When we find ourselves in difficult times or in a dark night experience we can learn from our Savior who has walked through the darkest of nights. We can share our struggle with one or two close friends, we can sit and pray our laments honestly in God’s presence, and we can relinquish our brokenness and darkness before God knowing that only God can deliver us.

It is comforting to know from the Gospel of Luke that angels of light came to Jesus’ after he prayed. God didn’t take the cup away from Jesus. He would still drink from the cup of death and suffering, but God did come to his aid in the dark night.

What then are we to do? Try to muster up enough strength to take a few baby steps toward others and God and then wait for him to find us.