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More than enough

abundanceIt is said that giving is the spiritual thermometer of the church. A healthy congregation will experience healthy giving because it is tied directly to our understanding of God and our relationship to him. And yet, it seems to be a difficult topic for us to talk about.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Walter Brueggemann share on the topic of money and giving. I was profoundly impacted by his words and have continued to mull over the implications of all that I learned. At the core of his teaching was a powerful truth from Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Take a few moments to ponder that statement of faith. It is truly a powerful confession of faith. Let it sink in. Now, ponder this question… who do you think the world belongs to? Is this confession your confession? Because if it is, I want to challenge you to think abut some of the implications:.

As Christians, we believe that the earth is the God’s creation. Everything in it is a gift to us from God… even life itself. I like to think of it in this way: Our days and the things we fill our days with are on loan from God. He is the landlord and we are the tenants of this beautiful world we live in.

Genesis chapter 1:27-30 says this: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”

This is where the term stewardship comes from. God’s intention and purpose in creating us was to be stewards to the earth with all its blessings that has been given to us. The word literally means “An official person who has been appointed to look over someone else’s property. We are God’s stewards. “Stewarship is God’s way of raising people, not man’s way of raising money.”(Willmer Smith)

We are called to live as people of the Doxology… you know, the song we sing after every offering? Praise God from whom all blessings flow. What we have and what we have earned is a blessing from God… he has given us the resources, talents, gifts, and tools we need to thrive on this earth. This is our worshipful response to the many blessings God has given us: that we live our lives in a way that point to the God who is the giver of blessing.

Maybe you are struggling to feel like you are experiencing any type of blessing in your life. That’s ok. We all struggle with feeling like that at different times in our lives.  Too often we have a distorted view of what blessing is. But the biblical definition of blessing is  the divine gift of provision for and support of life. Most of us can say that we are blessed.

I have had the privilege of worshipping in many countries in my life time and this seems to be a difficult one for us Americans. It is always a humbling experience to worship with persons in a less privileged culture and watch their joy and zeal as they dance to the offering plate and give whatever they might have that day be it a fish they caught, a chicken, a couple of coins or whatever else they could give. They were grateful to be alive and excited to express that gratitude to God.

We worship the Lord of the Sabbath. You may remember the story of the Exodus? When the children roamed around in the wilderness for 40 years? Those 40 years were not years we not a waste of time. God’s sole purpose of the perfect number of years was to form a Sabbath people.

Early on in the process, the children of Israel began to grumble about not having enough, in particular not having enough to eat. And so God sends manna from heaven and quail for the children of Israel. But there were important instructions that went alone with it. They were only to gather what they needed for that day. Of course there were some that we enterprising who decided to go ahead and get extra so they wouldn’t have to work so hard the next day or maybe fear that there wouldn’t be enough. The next day, they awoke to find that it was rotten.  God wanted this people he was forming to know… to know… that He alone was their provider.

However, on the sixth day before the Sabbath, they could gather what they needed for that day of worship and rest. Miraculously it did not rot and they had enough; more than enough. The Sabbath was created to remind the children of Israel that they had more than enough. They could depend on God to provide everything they needed each day. God was forming his people to be a people of abundance and not a people of scarcity.

Perhaps you know someone that lived through the depression? It was really hard for people to change from a life of scarcity to a life of abundance. For years, my grandmother saved odd little things because she was living out of that story, a story of need and scarcity. It is not easily done. But that is what God was working at with the children of Israel. That is the story that God intends for us: to live of a life of abundance because we have a God that creates, provides and sustains.

Don’t get me wrong here… this is not about the prosperity Gospel or anything like that. This is about the Creator who gives life itself and offers us the sustenance both spiritual and physical. With that comes the call to be careful stewards of the wondrous creation. (That would require another series of blogs to talk about)

So when we exercise the spiritual discipline of giving we are exercising some core beliefs about God’s identity and our identity.

When we give we are essentially growing in these important areas of our faith:

  1. We are reaffirming our belief that God is the creator and giver of life.
  2. We acknowledge our dependence on God as provider above and beyond all other means of provision on this earth.
  3. We open ourselves to experience and excercise  the freedom God as given us from the slavery of money and scarcity.

Here are some ways you can practice these powerful truths:

  1. Try keeping a gratitude journal each day. Simply jot down the little blessings in your or day that might go unnoticed. At the end of the day take time to thank God for each thing on your list… it doesn’t need to be complicated and simple thanks to God will work!
  2. Try helping a stranger this week… by opening a door, smiling, being polite, paying a compliment. Notice how that makes you feel… how it shapes you… how it empowers you to be a giver instead of a taker. That is living out of a place of abundance. Share what you learn about your experience with a friend or family member.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

We can, we will, we are… a sermon about the real meaning of Pentecost, Part 2

Peter continues this “first sermon” by telling the story of Jesus with power and authority. He tells of his crucifixion and his resurrection. And in verse 36 with a new assurance and power he says, “Let all Israel be assured of this; God has made this Jesus…

This Jesus who was also a half breed, a mix breed… this Jesus who was also from Galilee, who was both God and man, whose great grandmother was a prostitute and great grandfather a king… not just any king but King David himself… he was part Moabite… and part Jew. This seemingly imperfect vessel was indeed the Lamb of God. And you, Peter says, crucified him.

When the people heard that message… they were cut to the heart. Why? I believe they recognized that they had been so narrow minded and had boxed the image of the Messiah in so neat and tidy that they missed it completely. Not only that, but they were so threatened by this Jesus who ate and drank with sinners, that they had shut him down completely. They decided that this Galilean who claimed to be the son of God was so blasphemous that they killed them. In that moment painful recognition, they cried out and said, what then are we to do?

Peter says with a great deal of mercy and grace that only the spirit can give, “Repent, be Baptized and Be filled with the Spirit.”  What does that mean for us today?

Repent: We need to be sorry about our past mistakes and sins; allow ourselves to acknowledge where we have fallen short. We need to be sorry about a critical spirit, or putting God in a box, or the times we tried to put a lid on what God was doing because it scared us or made us feel uneasy. But feeling sorry is not enough; we also need to consciously choose to take another direction with our hearts, minds and lives toward God.

Be Baptized: Perhaps most of us have experienced baptism, but we can realign ourselves with this new vision of the kingdom that is being formed… we can commit ourselves fully to the new movements of God in our lives for the good of his kingdom.

And be filled: Be filled with the promised Holy Spirit that enables  ordinary people like us to do extraordinary things for God’s kingdom. Let us proclaim together with our lives and our words with conviction and certainty as God’s children: We can, we will, we are, the future. Thanks be to God.

We can, we will, we are… a sermon about the real meaning of Pentecost, Part 1

Recently, Harry and I had the privilege of watching our youngest son graduate from High School. We watched attentively as bright eyed students from all over the world gathered on the stage full of joy for the season that was now coming to an end, but also full of questions and even some fear about what the future might hold for them. One of the highlights for us was the service of dedication on the Friday night before when we heard students as well as teachers reflect on their journey together over the past   several years. During that time our son and members of the campus choir performed a song that he had written for the class “I don’t know what the future holds but I know who holds the future…” it was extremely moving to hear our children sing those powerful words about their future. My favorite part, that has really stuck with me over the past several weeks, is the bridge they repeated several times…”we can, we will, we are… the future…” It is only through the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to confess such an extraordinary direction for our future.

In many ways, the story of Acts chapter 2 unfolds in a very similar way. Jesus’ followers have gathered together in Jerusalem in a room to pray and wait; having just said goodbye to Jesus their teacher and friend and not knowing what the future might hold but now believing that Jesus, the risen Lord, indeed holds their future. You may ask why these Galileans gathered in Jerusalem and how did so many others from so many different nations end up in that same place when the Holy Spirit came…Well, it fell during one of the three largest feasts in the Jewish faith, the Feast of Weeks where they would make a pilgrimage from wherever they were to bring a first fruits offering to the Lord. Later it also became a time in which they celebrated the giving of Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. You have to marvel at God’s timing in all of this.

So here they were with their eyes wide open, wondering what the future might hold and seeking God’s face, when all of a sudden the wind begins to blow violently and tongues of fire come down from the heavens and rest upon the tops of their heads! The promised gift of the spirit has arrived with sound effects and all! Leaving no doubt in the disciples mind that something significant was taking place! The church’s mission can and would take place…. They would continue this ministry that Jesus began. In very real ways, the Holy Spirit was saying to this group of faithful followers, you can, you will, you are!

And so they begin to speak in tongues… but not the tongues of Angels that Paul speaks of in the Epistles. Instead, they begin to declare the wonders of God in a way that everyone could hear in their own tongue. Remember now the list of nations present: “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs.”  And the nations who were represented exclaim in chapter 2 verse 11, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! Amazed and perplexed, they ask one another, “What does this mean?”

What does this mean? If you note verse 7, they say… “aren’t all of these men who are speaking from Galilee?” Here is the part I think we miss in the story… I think that they weren’t as amazed at the the message that was being proclaimed in their own tongue as they were at the messenger. Let me explain.

Galilee represented a crossroads of cultures, peoples, racial and cultural mixtures… they were mixed breeds who were rejected by both Gentiles and Jews. Phillip Yancey in his book, “The Jesus I never knew” writes this, “Galilee got little respect from the rest of the country. It was the farthest province from Jerusalem and the most backward culturally. Rabbinic literature of the time portrays Galileans as bumpkins, fodder for ethnic jokes. Galileans who learned Hebrew pronounced it so crudely that they were not called upon to read Torah in other synagogues. Speaking the common language of Aramaic in a slipshod way was a telltale sign of Galilean roots.” You may recall Nathanial saying to Phillip’s claim to have found the Messiah in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”… which was by the way, a small village of Galilee…

In order to understand better, we need to think about who Galileans might be in our culture and time… Who do we view as fodder for ethnic jokes? In my day, it was dumb blonds and Pollock jokes. You may also remember prejudice statements about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender as a subject of coarse joking. The messages that I received about my own identity were staggering… that somehow I was less intelligent and less capable of accomplishing anything because of my hair color and gender. Today I am reminded of our Mexican immigrant brothers and sisters who are treated less than human because they are seen as half breeds.

But I am not sure that we have to reach that far… we here in our church are somewhat of a mix breed… well… you have two pastors who aren’t from Mennonite Background… we aren’t from quality stock with the last name Jarrett… we have Haitians and Ethiopians, Kenyans and Hispanics… we have people with tattoos and earrings… people who like traditional worship and people who like contemporary worship, young and old, democrats and republicans. We are, a veritable mix breed; a cultural melting pot. The message of Pentecost is also the same for us. The Spirit is reminding us also through the story that…we can, we will, we are… in spite of our brokenness, diversity and limitations.

Perhaps Peter, once a fisherman now transformed into a preacher, displays it best when he rises  full of the power of the Spirit and begins to preach the first sermon to the first church. He quotes the words spoken by the prophet Joel, “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…” All People! This is what the whole of scripture has been pointing towards… what all of creation has been groaning for… that all people… Galileans, Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free, eunuchs, both men and women, are worthy vessels of the Spirit of God. The message is clear… this mix breed of people that God has gathered for God’s self will continue the ministry of Jesus and proclaim with power the good and redemptive news of the Gospel; that everyone, yes everyone, who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  We can, we will, we are… the future of the kingdom of God!

To be continued…

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

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.

Some thoughts on the gift of time

It is always intriguing to me when the various streams from which I am reading all come together in one congruent message. For the past several weeks, I have been reading about the gift of time… each new day… how we receive it… how we perceive it.

It began as I was reading Eat, Pray and Love… the author reminisces about her time spent in Italy and the beautiful way Italians relish each day and especially the sheer beauty of doing nothing, “Bel far niente”. I literally laughed out loud as I read it because having lived there for ten years, I knew exactly what she was describing in her book. At the same time, I saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty in what I had learned from my Italian brothers and sisters. Read more

The spirituality of words…

The creative work of expressing my spiritual insights and longings into words has become a meaningful spiritual practice for me over the past several years. It began with a prayer journal that I sporadically kept written in pen and pencil. It then evolved into something more freeing and creative, poetry.

It seems that I feel more free to express myself in a form that is basically limitless. It doesn’t need to have proper punctuation, capital letters or even make literal sense. I find this especially freeing when I want to write about spiritual things… which can be so abstract. My poetry tends to be as much about the visual aspect  as the choice of words. I like for the verses to look the way I feel about what I am writing.

Writing has become a form of prayer for me:

words
a mere human
invention
clumsily strung together
describing
the mystery
God
unfolding
around me
in me
yet
unleashing the power
of memory
stories
of the Holy One
and
me

“Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, until I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who come”

Psalm 71:17-18

Should blogging be added to the list of classic spiritual disciplines?

Recently, I have heard the comment that  perhaps blogging takes away from the pastoral role… that maybe if the pastor spent less time typing away at the computer, they would have more time to… You can imagine all the things one could say to finish the sentence.

For me, as a pastor, blogging has become somewhat of a spiritual discipline. It is one of the ways that I practice the Presence. Because I don’t have time to do it during the day, I choose to wake up earlier. So, in the wee hours of the morning with coffee in hand, I begin to search my soul for what has inspired me during the week or month. You could even go as far to say that it is a form of an Examen.

Because Harry and I have chosen to blog about our practicing the presence, I do not blog until I have spent time in centering prayer and meditating on scripture. I begin my time with God each morning by naming the persons in my life and in my congregation that are needing healing or guidance from God, then I move to thanksgiving for the persons in my life and congregation who have inspired me or co-labored with me recently.

During this time, I practice noticing in prayer and in reading what inspires me to blog. I find great inspiration and creativity in blogging each day. I also find it personally inspiring to read again and again the things that stirred my soul and drew me into deeper understanding of who I am as a child of God .

One of the practices that I value as a pastor is beginning any meeting or rehearsal with a time of centering ourselves in God’s presence. Before I began my adventures in blogging, I would read from various books and devotionals but now, I use my blog as my own resource for devotionals and prayer times with members of the congregation. I find that it fosters transparency and intimacy between myself and the persons I am working with or leading.

I am convinced that blogging keeps me accountable, keeps me focused on the spirit’s movement and helps me to stay refreshed spiritually. All of these are qualities that foster a healthy spiritual life for persons in ministry or anyone for that matter.

Journaling has long been accepted as a spiritual discipline… perhaps we need to add blogging to the list.

A prayer for those who feel caged…

Over the past years, I have become increasingly aware of my own “caging” experience. Sometimes, circumstances and people unknowingly squelched my sensitive spirit. There were other times where I, unknowingly, entered the cage, wounded and afraid, thinking that it would some how keep me safe. Still other times, persons in my life were uncomfortable with me and needed to place me there.

It can be overwhelming to wake up one day and find that for too long you have been living in a cage. You wonder if the wings you have been given can take flight. Yet, you long for the freedom to soar into the places yet to be discovered. Here is my prayer…

Uncage the bird
before the floods come
engulfing its song
into endless night waters
let the holy breeze
give flight
to its wings
that it may soar
into the place
of endless days
where Light
dispels
the great sadness
that held its heart
captive
for too long

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint”     Isaiah 40:28-31