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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

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

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.

It’s Monday

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

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

A Prayer for Easter Monday

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

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

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

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

completion

Since Harry and I have been exploring the meaning and benefits of the Sabbath over the past several months, I find myself drawn to the significance of Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb.

Just as God created the heavens and the earth and then rested because it was good and complete… God’s love for creation and humanity were made complete when Jesus died on the cross… nothing more could ever be added to God’s final expression t of love to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It was complete. Once again, the Son of God rested, hidden in the tomb, waiting for the dawn of a new day. Read more

some thoughts on relinquishing

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

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

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

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

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

Draw me
ever deeper
ever nearer
Lord, to you

Find me
ever waiting
in the secret place
for you

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

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

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

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

Waiting with Jesus

As Holy Week draws near, I find myself sitting with Matthew 26:36-53. Jesus has celebrated the passover meal with his disciples and he has gone to the garden to pray. He tells Peter and that his soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death… and he invites  him to stay  and keep watch.

It intrigues me that Jesus needed community in those final moments. He extended the invitation to three of his disciples and friends to companion him during one of the most difficult and intimate times in his life. How were they to companion? By simply being prayerfully present.

He leaves them there to go and plead with God… If it is possible may this cup be taken from me… only to return and find that the Peter and the other have fallen asleep. How is it that they could so easily abandon their Lord and friend at such a crucial time in his life? Jesus’ question to them reflects the same incredulity, “Could you not keep watch with me one hour?”

We may gawk a little at the notion that the disciple were not able to stay awake and pray for Jesus at such a significant moment. Truth be told, for many of us, it is hard to manage  to keep watch for an hour during good and normal times. And yet, it seems that God invites us to keep watch for his presence and prayerful about fresh revelation.

Jesus continues to work among us here on earth inviting us to companion him… sometimes we get to do some really exciting and wonderful things. But other times, more often than not, he invite us to join him by simply being prayerfully present. I am not sure things have changed too much for us over the years… most of us find ourselves sleeping, both literally and figuratively.

How are you keeping watch?

today’s invitation?

As I strained and struggled this morning to glean some thoughtful meditation from my readings and prayer, one small, unsettling invitation came, cease and rest. This is not an easy thing for me being a type A personality… driven to perfection and accomplishing the next great thing life may bring.

As I spent time in centering prayer, I noticed the invitation to the quiet meadows of Psalm 23… a favorite meeting place for me and God… and yet it was so difficult for me to stop this morning… to allow myself to fully absorb the presence and provision of God… to let myself off the hook for a moment and fall into the presence of God.

In some ways it can be like the first time you jump off the diving board as a child… there is usually a parent or trusted person waiting for you in the deep water of the pool… but you are the only one who can trust enough to step off the security of knowing where you are and controlling how you are.

Todays holds many things that need to be done, thoughts of tasks not yet accomplished, ghosts of shortcomings and mishaps. Yet, God invites me to be still and breathe deeply his life giving presence. That is enough.

The Invitation

fall back
into soft green meadows
fresh
with promised spring
let the sun’s warmth
seep
into the cold places
restrained and hidden
from day

let the lungs
expand
with life’s air
pure
clean

breathe deeply
the song
heaven sings
inviting
little me
into
the Creator’s
rest