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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.

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

the inspiration of others

There are moments in our lives when God uses people to inspire us and till up some of the hard soil in order to prepare us for the new growth that he is bringing about. I will never forget attending a recent homecoming event at Eastern Mennonite University and hearing the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award tell her story.

Nadine Brunk, after the prodding of doctors and friends, took an unexpected medical mission trip to Haiti. While there, the suffering of Haitian women during childbirth moved her deeply. Nadine shared a pretty staggering description of truck loads of newborns and mothers that die each week due lack of resources such as prenatal vitamins, medication for worms, antibiotics and training; specifically the training that she had. She was deeply moved with compassion for her Haitian sisters and instead of returning back to the states and settling back into her routine, she dared to ask God the question, what is you invitation to me  with the unique gifts that you have given me in this oppressive situation?

She continued to sit with the enormity of the problem, the intense pain and suffering of the women and their unborn babies. She allowed the unsettledness she experienced to open her more deeply to what God might be calling her to.

Read more

telling a new story…

Yesterday’s sermon on being an inspirational you really struck a chord with me. Harry spoke about the Genesis account of God breathing life into the dust and making humans. God made something out of nothing.

I am reading through the book of Exodus right now so I found myself reflecting on Moses. Moses was an insecure, stuttering, murder whose parents had given him away to be raised by complete strangers. He really didn’t have a great future ahead of him and he certainly wasn’t our stereo typical ideal church leader.

But… God in his mercy and grace chose to inspire Moses. He breathed life into Moses and made someone who seemed destined to be a failure into someone wonderful. God gave Moses everything he needed to be successful! Moses became a selfless leader who led Israel out of destruction, slavery and a dismal story into promised freedom giving all of the children of Israel a chance to tell a better story. There are few leaders that have ever been as great as Moses.

It strikes me that God is in the business of redeeming people and he invites us to practice this as well. Unfortunately, the church seems to fumble with this call, especially the Mennonite Church, which I love dearly. Read more

Why settle for yesterday’s manna when there is a feast today?

Recently I have been amazed at the provision of God, to meet me in times of prayer, to “tweet” me messages of encouragement when needed  and inspire me when I am feeling dry. At the same time, I am also aware that I must cultivate an awareness of this provision and an attitude of thanksgiving. God invites me to a rhythm that fosters an awareness of his provision each day.

When I arrived at work today, I met a friend who shared with me that she had been praying for our trip with our son… that we would sense God’s presence with us. I was amazed! The very thing she prayed for, we experienced in our many God tweets during our visit to the university. My heart was warmed as she shared with me the words and frequency of her prayers for our family. More manna! More to feast on!

I am reminded of how God provided manna for the children of Israel  as they wondered about the wilderness. The interesting thing about the manna is that they could only gather enough for one day. If they gathered more than what they needed, it was rotten the next morning. Sometimes, I think we spend too much time dwelling on the past or thinking about the future and miss the fresh manna for the day. Read more

Are there ladders in you life?

I woke up at my usual time to meet God this morning, with a hot cup of coffee in my favorite mug and the bathrobe my mom gave me for Christmas a couple of years back. I found myself in the story of Jacob’s Ladder… I instantly found myself humming the tune of a childhood Chorus “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”… soldiers of the cross…hmm… I am not sure I really like the idea of singing about soldiers these days as I am aware of the war and unrest that my brothers and sisters are experiencing around the world. Read more

sync your heart with God’s heart

Dwelling in the presence of God just makes us more open to the God surprises in each day. It moves us from an analytical, theological and intellectual approach  to a more experiential place where we can encounter God’s activity around us.

In Genesis 18, Abraham receives his guests in a traditional yet authentic way. He bows low to the ground not to worship them but to express his genuine receptivity to unexpected guests. His greeting says I receive you, I value you, and I respect you. We don’t really know if he recognized initially that they were indeed messengers from heaven.

I often wonder how many God encounters in my life I have all together missed due to my lack of dwelling in the presence of God. Read more