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sacrificeshoes2003

It takes a little practice…

“Practicing the Presence” can sometimes seem like an elusive thing. Often, that is because we have certain expectations about the outcome… what the divine will look like in our lives. Other times, it is because there is no real formula for success. It is more about practice than perfection. For some of us that is a challenging thought… especially if we want to measure results.

Practicing the presence is more about desire, inquisitiveness and grace. We practice certain spiritual rituals such as prayer, dwelling in scripture, and contemplation because we believe that God is present and we long to notice and experience the grace of the moment when our longing is unexpectedly filled by God’s love.

As I ponder the very peculiar story of Moses and the burning bush, I am struck with three important practices: Read more

the empty chair

It’s. All. About. Love.

Who doesn’t love to hear the parable of the prodigal son? Or the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin? We love hearing these stories about God’s immense love for us and being reminded of our value as children of God. But there’s the rub. These stories are not necessarily about us. They are about the other. We have all grown up loving these wonderful stories about God’s love but we rarely take into account the context of these three wonderful parables:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1-2.

During the time of Jesus, there was a vibrant renewal movement going on among the Pharisees, Sadducees and Teachers of the Law. It involved a rigorous keeping of “every jot and tittle” of the law. They were especially focused on the rituals of table fellowship following strict dietary codes, ritual cleansing and purity laws as well as eating with only those who were “pure” like them. It is important for us to remember the play of words for Luke in this context. “Pharisees and teachers of the law” were a part of this Torah and Table renewal. “Tax collectors and sinners” refers to all who were not rigorously observing these table rituals, Jews included. So you can imagine just how unnerving it was for this influential teacher of the law, son of God, Jesus to eat and drink with sinners.

Marcus Borg in his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time writes,

“The open table fellowship of Jesus was thus perceived to be a challenge to the purity system. And it was: the meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. The ethos of compassion led to an inclusive table fellowship, just as the ethos of purity led to a closed fellowship.”

So imagine with me for a moment this earthy, radical, young and influential Jewish rabbi Jesus sitting around a table with those people… you know those people who aren’t keeping the law, people who made you unclean. You know, those people who make us feel uncomfortable,who aren’t like us. Right? Anyway they are laughing and eating and drinking at the same table as Jesus. They are rubbing shoulders with him! Jesus is teaching them, loving them, affirming them but most of all he is including them in this new kingdom of God.

Now imagine with me, a group of people in the background, they are whispering in hushed voices about the company that Jesus is keeping. How could this prophet keep company with the likes of these people? Doesn’t he know that they don’t obey the law of the scriptures? Doesn’t he know that they are making him unclean and not fit to worship or teach in the temple? What will other churches think if he keeps letting people like that come to Bible studies?

Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence in our Christian communities.

Churches spend more energy in dark corners worrying about who’s in and who’s out, arguing about the rules and those people, rather than focusing their energy and resources on actually loving people.

Richard Rohr recently wrote in his recent blog entry, “learning to love”,

“Jesus became someone to actually imitate and not just to collectively worship. Believe it or not, this has hardly ever been the norm or practice of most Christians. We preferred Sunday morning worship services and arguing about how to conduct them or prohibiting each other from attending “heretical” church services. God must just cry.”  – Richard Rohr

So overhearing their murmuring, Jesus responds to these Pharisees and naysayers with three parables. Each parable tells us something of Jesus and his love for the other… those people.

In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus wants us to remember that the one sheep that wondered away from the flock because he couldn’t hear or chose to ignore the shepherd’s voice is as important to the good shepherd as the other 99 sheep who were faithfully following their masters voice and commands.

Now to tease this out you have to remember the audience. The 99 sheep who were keeping the commandments were of course, the Pharisees. Their life was committed to keeping all of the commandments, observing all of the purity rituals, making all of the appropriate sacrifices… and because of that, they felt protected. They were in the flock. They were secure.

But the good shepherd does something just crazy! He leaves all of those obedient ones and runs after the one sheep who, for whatever the reason, is not obeying the shepherds voice. And when he finds the sheep he beats him and punishes him and gives him what he deserves! Good on him.

No, he puts the sheep on his shoulders and carries him home. He calls his friends together and says rejoice with me!

Similarly, in the second parable, the widow loses a precious coin. She looks all over the house trying to find it. Who among us hasn’t lost something precious to us only to desperately try to find it? We put microchips in our pets, find our phone apps so we can locate our cell phones when they’re missing. When we recover those precious things there is genuine joy, relief and celebration. How much more rejoicing in heaven will there be over one lost soul that finds its way back into the loving arms of Jesus?

You see, Jesus is saying two things here:

  1. All of humanity belongs to God. We are all created by God. We are all loved. We are all valuable to God… so valuable that God will go to all extremes to recover what belongs to him.
  2. People are more important than rules.

Have you ever wondered why we get so hung up on the rules and place such importance on them? They give us a false sense of safety. If we are following all the rules well then, we’re good when it comes to God and well, he must really love us! Subsequently, all of those others who are not keeping God’s commands, well they are wrong. They are out. God doesn’t love them as much as he loves us.

This is the rub for the Pharisees in Luke chapter 15. Jesus sums it all up for them at the end of the prodigal son story… you may remember the son goes out and squanders all of the inheritance while the older brother remains at home… working hard…. Keeping all of the rules. When the younger son finally returns home the father throws a huge feast, killing the fatted calf reserved for the most extravagant occasions. The older son is nowhere to be found. The father goes out to find the older son… you know… the Pharisee… sulking because it isn’t fair. The father should love him more for being obedient. Its just human nature.

But notice what Father says in the parable:

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Jesus tells this parable so that they can understand. The inclusion of others doesn’t exclude them! It brings the kingdom of God a little closer. Luke retells this story to remind the church to rejoice over the recovery of life and the inclusion of the other. We are to make room at the table!

Jesus told his disciples in John 13:

 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35

 You see my friends, it’s all about love. It’s the one thing that we need to get right as the church. It’s the power of God’s love that wins, that melts the hardest heart, that consoles the loneliest heart, that restores the heart that is broken.

 

 

the dusty road…

Untitled

A note about one of my illustrations: I was heavily influenced by Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis and drew heavily upon his chapter on the dust of the Rabbi as one of my illustrations. I will italicize that section.

Many of you now that I recently returned from a two-week vacation and I want to tell you this morning that I went away feeling a little tired and burnt out. I went away telling God that I really needed to hear from him and that I needed guidance and direction for our church. So a week goes by and I hear nothing… and in fact I was getting a little discouraged… maybe even a little agitated with God for not speaking to me.  But then, two days into the second week, while I was sleeping, God woke me up in the early morning with a whisper. It was poignantly audible;  something that does not happen to me everyday, but I definitely recognized that it was from God. And he said one word: Discipleship. Needless to say, I woke up and went into the other room so I wouldn’t wake up Harry and I began to pray and reflect about this one word. And in that moment, our last year together as a church seeking to become more Jesus filled, the many conversations I have been having with you about education, programming, sermon series, all the amazing kids we have here, and all the amazing youth we have here came into focus. And I realized that God was calling us to not only become better disciples, but to also zealously make disciples right here in our church and in our community.

It’s a long story to say that I tossed out the window all of my plans of preaching this Lent and went with what God was putting on my heart: discipleship. So for the rest of the Lenten and Easter Season, we will be focusing on the Gospel of Mark with the goal of unpacking this word and call to discipleship… and what better way to do that than begin this morning with the calling of the disciples.

Turn with me in your Bibles to Mark 1 14. After Jesus was baptized and filled with the spirit earlier in the chapter, and after he had fasted and prayed 40 days in the wilderness and faced temptation, he goes into Galilee and begins preaching this important message: “The time has come,” he said, “the kingdom is near. Repent and believe the good news!” What does it mean that the kingdom is near? What does it mean to repent? And what is the good news? Well, Mark seems to be answering this with the story of the calling of the first disciples. Read more

For my friends at Harrisonburg First Church of the Brethren… the sermon we missed twice in a row.

Since I missed preaching this sermon twice in a row, I thought I would share a few important excerpts with you. It is my prayer that God will somehow use these thoughts on paper to prepare us for our spiritual journey during Lent. Blessings, Pastor Beth

easy access

Today’s story is about John the Baptist whois also preparing the way for the new thing that God wants to do through his Son Jesus Christ. Even though we typically look at this passage during Advent, I think it is fitting that we prepare for our Lenten journey by looking at this text in Mark. It is interesting that the gospel of Mark begins here and skips over all of the traditional birth stories by “cutting to the chase” with John the Baptist. If we look more closely at this text, we can get some clues on how we can ready ourselves for the new things that God desires to do through Jesus Christ in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

The story opens in Mark chapter 1 with this crazy guy john crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It is important to remember that Israel had been waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah for well over 500 years. In fact, those 500 years are known as the time of silence. It was a time when people weren’t hearing anything from God through the prophets. Nothing seemed to be happening at all. I am pretty sure that most people had become disinterested, disenchanted and even skeptical about the Messiah’s coming. But now, imagine with me. 500 years later this guy appears all dressed up in some really strange clothes and eating even more strange food. His message? Take heart! The time has finally come! This promised Messiah is about to break into our world and accomplish all of the things we have been waiting for.

I find a real affinity with this story because that is what I sense is going on here at our Church. I believe that the Spirit of God is saying the same thing to us: Take heart! You have been waiting for so long and now I am going to break in and do something among you greater than anything you can think or imagine!

Have you ever wondered why John was in the wilderness to proclaim such an important message? Why not in the temple, or in the town square or at the very least, the top of a mountain? Instead, Jon leads them into the wilderness: a place of solitude, a place where no one would really be able to hear. And yet the scripture tells us that the people came out in droves, multitudes, to hear the message.

John prepared the way for Jesus’s ministry by leading the Israelites into a place where they were familiar with the way God speaks and where God had made himself known in the past. They stayed there until Jesus appeared on the scene. The Israelites recognized the wilderness was a historic place where God met them, spoke to them, and revealed himself to them just as he did in the Exodus. It was also a spiritual place where they were open to guidance from God. By leading them away from the chaos and confusion of the city, John brought them into the place where they were truly receptive to God’s activity; a place where they could listen.

Many of us have special places in our lives where we know that God can get through to us as well as unique ways in which God speaks to us. Perhaps we have dreams, hear his voice, read scripture or journal. Maybe we find God in nature, riding a bike or on a long commute to work. Maybe we find God through worship or through the times of listening in prayer. These are all similar to the wilderness for the Israelites.

During Lent, Christians have a tradition or spiritual practice of giving something up. In a way, that’s like making space for God. So if you are thinking about giving something up for Lent, I want to challenge you to give up something that makes a space for you to meet God. Maybe it is skipping a meal or coffee so that you can listen to God. Maybe it is skipping your favorite TV show so that you can read your Bible. Be creative, but make space. Prepare the way for him. Frequent that place often. Give God the space to speak and move in your life.

Another interesting way we can prepare the way that we see from John the Baptist are these really strange clothes he is wearing and the bugs that he seems to be eating. Don’t worry; I am not encouraging you to eat bugs! And by the way, these are not carob pods or fruit from a special tree. These were actual bugs, or locusts, that were ritually clean for poor persons who could not afford to buy the more expensive meats that were acceptable for the Jewish diet. By eating the same food and dressing in this way, John is actively aligning himself with barrenness of his time. He identified the place of the deepest spiritual and physical need… the very place where Jesus will come and bless and heal. His clothing and diet are a symbol of his rejection of the religious and socially elite and an embracing of the spiritually and physically impoverished.

We can also prepare the way of the Lord, not by eating bugs, but by opening our eyes to the barren places of our times; to the homeless, the spiritually impoverished, the troubled teen whose life can only be redeemed by the shedding of innocent blood in a shopping mall, the latch- key kids in our own community, even some of our friends and family. Jesus’s ministry was characterized by eating and drinking with sinners and ministering to the poor. Of all the places Christ could have chosen to live, of all the people he could have eaten with and fellowshipped with, he was always with the down and out, the outcast, the poor in Spirit and the sinner. If you were living in the time of Jesus, that was where you could find him.

I believe that is still true today. If we want to see where God is active and moving, if we want to be in the place and setting that Jesus may very well show up, we need to find the place of the greatest spiritual and physical need and linger there.

One thing that blesses me so much about our church is that we have a lot of that going on!! We feed people at the Salvation Army meals every Tuesday night, we open our doors to the community every Wednesday evening, children and youth are coming to our church and not only hearing about Jesus but some of them are having the only hot cooked meal they will have that week. If you haven’t experienced the ministry that is going on here at this church on a Wednesday night, let me tell you that Jesus is present! Just walk into the Jr. High youth meeting and talk with some of the wonderful youth that Abe is hauling over in his car each week. Or poke your head into one of Heidi’s class room and see all of the children. Let me tell you, you will find Jesus working there!

Sharon Helbert was visiting with me in my office this week and shared with me how each year, rather than giving something up for Lent, she actually adds a spiritual practice for Lent. So here’s my challenge to you this Lenten season. Do you want to prepare the way for what God has for us at First Church? Do you want to meet Jesus? Try adding the spiritual practice of serving on a Wednesday Night! Casey made an announcement last Sunday in church that Heidi needs more volunteers. Why not make that your spiritual practice for Lent? Or maybe the fellowship committee needs help with food prep, clean up or service. Why not talk to Julie Kramer about serving as your Lenten practice?

Friends, that is preparing the way for Jesus to show up in your life! And as we look together at the book of Mark and what it means to follow Jesus and be his disciples, we will see the places he invites them and us to come and see, and experience the kingdom of God.

We all know that living together as the body of Christ is important, but if we are so inwardly focused that we miss the barren places where God desires to dwell, we may miss the appearance of Jesus because according to the Gospel of Mark, that is where Jesus showed up… in the desert place… in the barren place… in the place of need. We need to take heart, align ourselves with the need around us, and join God in the new life that he desires to bring. How will we align our resources and vision with the needs of our community and world? Do you still have your puzzle piece from several weeks ago? Maybe that’s the piece of the puzzle that we’re missing and need here at First Church.

Finally, we need to begin this journey by examining our own barrenness. John calls the people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of their consecration to God and their belief in the Messiah’s coming. Jesus came into this world first and foremost to save us from our own selves, the spiritual bondage that keeps us and the rest of the world from being all that God intended us to be. It is difficult to dare to look into the deepest, darkest parts of our own souls.

Have you ever noticed when we have had a good snow or ice storm, where the last places to melt are? (You should have had plenty of opportunities to do that this week) They are always in the shade. Hard ice always forms in the dark places and they are the last places where the warmth of the sun can penetrate. So it is with our souls. It is not until we bring our sins into the light of the son, that we experience the melting of our hardness and the washing away of the things that bind us.

Where are the places in our own lives that need the breath of God blown into them? What are the dark areas where God desires to shine the healing light of his presence? Are we allowing God to see those places? Are we allowing ourselves to acknowledge those places? Do we really believe that God can turn those barren places into something fruitful? That is the true beginning of our spiritual journey this Lenten season; Opening those places to God’s coming. In doing so, we are opening ourselves to the power of Jesus.

 

 

 

sacrifices and offerings and tithes…oh my!

widows-miteWhen  our church began a sermon series a few Sundays ago, I shared about the significant correlation between a church’s spiritual health and the health of a church’s giving by using the example of giving as a spiritual thermometer. Our giving says something about our faith and our relationship with God. The story of the widow’s mite is about just that. In it, we are able to observe several types of giving: offerings, sacrifices and the more elusive tithe that is not mentioned directly but implied in the context. All three are different ways of giving and have different meanings and purposes in the life of the church.

We find Jesus in Luke chapter 21 teaching in the temple where we have this small but significant scene play out. Before the story begins, he is addressing hypocrisy among the teachers of the law. He accuses them of taking advantage of the widows’ finances while at the same time praying lengthy prayers that were designed to impress people who were desperately seeking God.  He is teaching the disciples in the temple courts where all of this is playing out. In fact, there is a collection box within earshot of where they are gathered. As each person drops their offering into the box, the amount is likely announced out loud and recorded in the temple books.

As this happens, a widow, one of the ones who had been taken advantage of by the corrupt teachers of the law, walks up and drops her two coins into the box and they hear the announcement: 2 mites. That would be the smallest amount possible. It would be as if we put all of our offerings up on the projection screen for everyone to see and by our name would be 2 pennies while everyone else was giving an impressive amount. In some ways, it was demeaning for this widow as her offering was less impressive than that of the rich teachers of the law. But Jesus looks deep into her heart and recognizes that it was a sacrifice. She had given everything she had.

In the story, persons were lined up giving their offerings publicly. It is likely that the offerings were going to the poor. Though we don’t know their hearts, it seems that Jesus thought that the teachers of the law and pharisees might have been giving for show given the context and Jesus’ response to it.  It is important to note that An offering is different from a tithe in that it is given over and above the tithe. That is why we use the word offering. There are many reasons to give offerings in the Old Testament but sometimes it is given just because. Not out of obedience, not out of a sense of call, but usually out of thanksgiving or abundance. It is what we call, free will.

Now you would think that Jesus would have been thrilled. Right? But he is not. There is an underlying issue that has plagued the children of God since their formation in Exodus. They have neglected to give their tithe and have lived off the obedience of the poor who were faithful in tithing. You might remember that they were sent into exile and punished. Well, this is one of the reasons; equal to idolatry. You can see that very clearly in the book of Jeremiah.

The most famous text we have about tithing is found in Malachi 3:

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me.

 Tithing was a part of the law that had been established since the formation of Israel. It was required of them to give a tenth part. That is where the word tithe comes from. It was a tenth of everything they had. And that was to be the first tenth not what was left over. God blessed them with everything they had, money, shelter, land, gifts and talents etc.  God has given us everything in the earth and asked us to be stewards of that gift. The one thing God asks in return is that we give the first tenth back to him. And that wasn’t just money. It was everything, land, produce, lambs, cows, time, children etc.

Leviticus 27:30-33 says this:

“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”

 Now the tithe was used mainly for three purposes: temple upkeep, supporting the Levites who were the priestly line that ran the temple, and feeding the poor who were among them.

Over time, the wealthy persons, teachers of the law and Pharisees began to withhold the tithe and pretend as if they were giving the whole thing. That just seems kind of silly doesn’t it? As if we can hide from God? But then again, we have been hiding from God since the beginning of time. That’s why God says in Malachi that they were robbing him. They were not giving back to God what belonged to God.

One thing I think we misunderstand about the tithe is that God intended tithing to be an instrument of grace and trust in our lives. Not a penalty or interest we have to repay. It was part of the covenant God made with his children to love and provide for them.

In his article that appeared in Leadership Journal, John Ortberg says this about tithing:

Tithing is a vehicle of Grace

Tithing is God’s way of creating generous people

Tithing points to our faith that everything comes from God

Tithing is like training wheels- meant to give you a good start but not intended for the tour de france.

Tithing is not the last word in generosity – it’s the first word.

For these reasons God says in Malachi chapter 3:10

“Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

 In other words, God wants us to trust him; trust that he is able to provide us with what we need for each day. Tithing is a matter of trust, faith and obedience

Getting back to the parable, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak to this problem of neglecting the tithe by honoring the two coins of the widow. You see, the public offering given by the rich for show was actually an abomination to God because they were robbing God of his tithe and dropping money into this collection so they appeared to be in good standing with God in public.

The widow, by contrast gave over and above the tithe, and above an offering, she gave a sacrifice; everything she had.

A sacrifice is something very different. It is a response to a call God is placing in our lives to give sacrificially to a cause for the kingdom. Again, it’s not just money. It can be our time, talents, homes, gifts, and any thing else you can think of. It is called a sacrifice because it costs us something.

You may recall the radical giving in the 2 chapter of Acts when the people were selling their land and giving everything they had. This was a sacrifice… not a tithe and not an offering. They were doing this because the Holy Spirit was leading them to sacrifice everything they had to get the resurrection message of Jesus Christ out. They assumed he was coming back soon, but it would take many, many years. Their sacrifices are why we are here today. They were called to a great task of sharing the good news in a radical way and God blessed them and us because of it.

The widow was moved by the spirit to give everything she had. This is the highest from of giving because it demonstrates obedience, faith, trust, and a profound love for God. It is not something that happens everyday, but it should happen at some point in our lives.

Jesus wants to teach his disciples that this kind of giving is not about the amount, but about the heart. Little did they know that Jesus would soon show them what true sacrifice looked like: he would give his life for the salvation of all humankind: out of obedience, faith, trust and a profound love for the Father.

As followers of Christ, we are called to give in all of these ways: tithes, offerings, and sacrifices because at the heart of our faith is the greatest gift of all.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

May we be moved by the spirit of such a generous God.

Ways to practice:

1. Pick one of these scriptures and read it at the beginning and ending of each day. In what ways do the words challenge you to live differently?

Luke 6:38 – “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

2 Corinthians 9:7 – “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

 

 

2. Take a brief survey of your life… notice the times you have given in these 3 ways: tithes, offerings, sacrifices. How was your life impacted or enriched? Share your story with someone else as a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

 

3. Prayerfully ask God to show you if he is calling you to step out in faith in one of these areas of giving? Try responding to what the Holy Spirit shows you. Keep a journal of what happens when you give. Keep it for years to come so that you can return to it for encouragement.

 

 

 

Sabbath and Gratitude

As I reflect on what it means to cultivate gratitude and a generous heart as a spiritual practice, I am reminded of the importance of keeping the Sabbath. I found this blog I wrote a few years back that really captures my thoughts about this integral connection. It was a good reminder and I wanted to share it with you.

I have recently noticed that the more I practice keeping the Sabbath, the more I experience gratitude for the things that I have. Why, you may ask? I think, in part, it is due to the slowing down long enough to notice what I have;  long enough to take in the smallest things like a double rainbow that stretches across the sky after a thunderstorm, a flock of geese flying over my head in perfect formation, the hydrangea vine that bloomed for the first time since I moved into my current house, the sound of teenage guys laughing in the basement, the funny way my cat looks at me when he wants me to rub his tummy…

I have also noticed that when life is busy and I am unable to keep the Sabbath, I quickly become  unsettled. This unsettledness leads to a sense of loss, emptiness and longing. It soon moves to an unconscious striving to do,  fill, acquire, or accomplish something that will ultimately make me feel better. Missing the Sabbath drives me toward a kind of vortex that  sucks me into another way of being and drives me further and further away from a place of deep spiritual satisfaction. It literally sucks all of the resources and creative energy out of me and as each day and week passes, I find it harder and harder to slow down. I find myself feeling less and less fulfilled and consequently, less grateful and less generous.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day apart in silence and reflection at a local retreat center. As I sat in one of my favorite chairs to pray, I noticed that a painting was propped up on the floor in the corner facing me. I was captivated instantly… it seemed like a watercolor of a remote Italian village… along the sea. you could see its reflection in the background… but in the foreground, there was a little boat tied to a rock in a little cove surrounded by white flowers… gardenias I imagined at the time. I found myself reminiscing of our years spent in Sicily and soon became aware of a longing, an aching, even, to return.

Was I ever really cognizant of what I had in those beautiful years there? Had I taken the time to savor the beauty of the people, the land and the food? My mind was soon interrupted by the daunting thought of now… My scripture reading for that morning had been Psalm 16… Verse 6 reads “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance”. The invitation? Take it all in and receive God’s blessings that are all around, even the blessing of memory… savor the now.

Sabbath is a time of savoring what has been given; rejoicing in what God has provided. It changes things.

the longing

oh how I would love
to sit
in a boat
skimming smooth water
anchored
among fragrant flowers

to breathe
warm salt air
with hints of gardenia

to see the village behind me
that pauses
sleepily
for a moment
in the reflection
of quiet waters

to be rocked
gently
in the presence
of day

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Playing with God

Just before I fell asleep last night, I told God that I was looking forward to our visit together the next day. I love to wake up early in the morning, drink coffee, read, and spend quality time in centering prayer. Perhaps it was this genuine enthusiasm that prevented me from finally falling to sleep at a respectable hour.  Or perhaps it was a sense that God was already stirring something in my spirit. Either way, this anticipation kept me awake long enough for me to recheck my alarm clock that faithfully told me that my alarm would ring 5 hours and 39 minutes from then. It would be hard to wake up at 5:30 the next day.

Sure enough, the startling sound of my cell phone awakened me exactly 5 hours and 39 minutes from the time I had checked it last night and amazingly, I jumped out of the bed before I had even turned it off. I put on my favorite bathrobe, brewed a cup of coffee for myself and made my way to my favorite couch. I read, pondered and then spent some time in centering prayer.

This time of prayer left me with the most unusual vision which I fully intended to blog about today… but as I began to put it into words, it came out as two poems:

Part 1
hopping, skipping, cartwheeling
across the beach
in my bridal gown
with the Groom
the earth is a trampoline
the sand under our feet
is as playful as the first snow
and yet
the sea is so calm and big
it soothes my soul
we fall into the sand
laughing
we make snow angels together
we look up into the heavens
and I wonder
before I ask, the Groom says
enjoy this thing
I am doing
this thing your heart has been longing for
we resume
our cartwheels, skipping, hopping
jumping
but the sea catches my eye
and I stop
to ponder its vastness
what am I to do?
I ask
He says in a gentle but probing voice,
play with me…
play with me

Part 2
It has been so long since I last played
I think I forgot how
there is a lifting in my soul
a memory flickers
of innocent times
sitting in the grass
and I remember
a place in me
of carefree rest
wonder
enchantment
play…
play with me, He says

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.”

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.