Friday, December 30, 2011

Ode to My Church

The very reasons that I love my church are probably the same ones that would make others go running for the hills. You see, we are a rowdy bunch. We are a motley crew. If you happened to stumble in our doors on a Sunday morning (or any other day of the week for that matter), you might think you had walked into a football game instead of a worship service.

At times we hoot and holler and cheer. Children run through the hallways and bounce off the pews. We have literally had fist-fights in the parking lot. (That last part is not something to be proud of, but it's the truth.) It's not to say we don't worship when we get together, but it may look somewhat different than the traditional puritanical version of church you might have in mind.

We are addicts at all stages of recovery. We are the fatherless, motherless, orphans. We are homeless, destitute. We are single mothers, single fathers. We are the guilty, the imprisoned. We are the unwanted, the forgotten, the misunderstood. We are the poor, the jobless, the helpless. We are the mentally, physically, spiritually challenged. I say 'we' because we are a body. We are one.

We are the humble, whose acknowledgement of the fact that we deserve nothing only helps us bask in the glow of God's grace, mercy and blessings all the more.
We are the broken who have learned that there's not enough glue in the whole world to put us back to together and no matter how much mending we do there are still plenty of rough edges.
We are the down and out who've hit rock bottom and understand that the only place left for us is in the Father's arms.

We have hurt each other and been hurt, but we don't walk away. We have poured ourselves out and been re-paid with evil, but we don't give up. We have turned our backs on those who have done good to us, betrayed them, but they still wait for us. Why? Because we are a body.

We are different, diverse, disparate. We do not hide behind a shiny veneer of smiles and perfect lives, and I'm glad. Because when we come together it all makes sense. God feels real and He is close. And I see Him all around, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. The longer I stick around, the more I see Him, popping up to surprise me where I didn't think He could be found.

On a typical Sunday morning I could find myself surrounded by four or five children that are not my own, each trying to talk to me, sit in my lap, or otherwise disrupt the service. They are not 'distractions.' They are God's messengers to me of a world in need of love, attention, affection.

That is my church. That is the body. You are invited into it as well. By all means, come as you are, but by God's grace, don't stay that way.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas: The Season of My Discontent?

I love Christmas. It's probably my favorite time of year. It inspires me like almost nothing else (I've already written two published children's books on the subject and have two others at varying stages.) And yet, as much as I love it, it is also one of the seasons of my greatest discontent. Not discontent over the things I don't have or the gifts I won't get, but discontent with myself.

Every year when Christmas comes I find myself thinking about all the things I'd like to do differently or better. All the moments that slipped away. All the ways I'd like to be more faithful, more trusting, more given over to love my Savior with reckless abandon. Somehow I become focused on all the ways that I have fallen short. All the selfishness that still fills my heart. Often, I become plagued by guilt.

But I suppose that's exactly why Jesus was born. To save sinners like me. Christmas is all about the fact that man's attempts to make himself right with God, to clear his conscience, would never be enough. That only God's plan would be effective.

So as I think about the baby boy born in a manger, I can't help but praise God and be filled with hope. Like the shepherds and wise men, I want to bow down in worship and adoration of the One who came because He understood I'd never be good enough in my own merits. No matter how hard I tried.

On Christmas I celebrate that all of my failures, mistakes, messes and moments of missing the mark, have been swallowed up by the greatest LOVE the world has ever known.
Every other gift I could ever receive pales in comparison.

And so like Zechariah, I rejoice, saying:
Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited his people and redeemed them.
(Luke 1:68)

Along with Mary, I proclaim:
Oh, how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and now generation after generation will call me blessed. For he, the Mighty One, is holy, and he has done great things for me. (Luke 1:46-49)

I celebrate the fact that "because of God's tender mercy, the light from heaven has broken upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace." (Luke 1:78-79)

Light for my darkness, life where there was once death, and peace for my troubled heart and mind. These are the precious gifts of Christmas that fill me with JOY!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sneaking in the Blessing

Advent is a time of year of big miracles wrapped in tiny packages. It is a time of finding the blessing in the least expected of places. It is a time for practicing what Mother Teresa said -- "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

Today it seems like everyone is only interested in the next big thing. Our houses get bigger. Our cars get bigger (please tell me why someone other than a soldier needs to drive a Hummer?) Our plans, hopes and goals get bigger and bigger.

And while my God is a BIG God, it never ceases to amaze me how He works in small ways. Seemingly insignificant ways. The kind of ways that if you blink, it's quite likely you will miss them. It's not to say that He doesn't work in the big ways too, for He certainly does, but I think some of His best gifts are the small ones.

Look at God's gift of the Messiah to the world. He could have made that quite the show. Lit up the skies with fireworks, scores of angels singing, trumpets blaring, clouds parting as Christ strode onto the scene blazing like fire, so radiant people would have had to shield their eyes.

Instead He sent a tiny baby. Born to two insignificant teenagers. In a lowly village that nobody thought much of. That was how God announced His greatest gift to mankind. Quietly. Humbly. Without fanfare. Without panache.

In fact, it's almost as though God tried to sneak him into the world. Undetected. I suppose that's the only way Christ could have ever understood what it means to truly be human. Despite his proclamations that he was the son of God, nobody believed him, I mean, really believed him. Even those closest to him showed by their actions after his death that they thought he was gone forever. Had he come with fanfare right from the beginning, the story would have been quite different, and Christ would never had the chance to experience what it means to take on human flesh, with all of its struggles, temptations, doubts and worry.

I like the idea of God sneaking His greatest gift into the world, initially revealing His intentions only to the lowly shepherds and an obscure group of foreigners from the east. I think it's this same thing that I love about my job as a storyteller -- the ability to sneak meaning into someone's life. Each story contains its own kernel of truth, and I don't have to say, "And the moral of the story is. . ." for each person to discover it. Somehow the story sneaks it's way in to the listener's heart, meeting them right where they are.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say that God is sneaky or deceptive. He's not. His intention for all mankind to know Christ is clear. Only He didn't go about it in the most obvious of manners. He started small. Very small. You couldn't have gone much smaller if you'd tried.

Today I see so many people, myself including, waiting for the big things or else thinking that what I do needs to have a big impact. And yet, big things always start small. And if we are so busy waiting on big, we miss out on seeing all the good small things we can do. All the small ways we can experience God. And when we make room for the small things, somehow it's as if our hearts grow bigger.

It reminds me of the Grinch and his heart that was "two sizes too small." Until he met little Cindy Lou Who. And almost against his will he opened his heart to this one little child, not to all of Whoville but just to her. And once he let her in, it was almost as if a snowball effect occurred, and he couldn't help but let in the others, and all of a sudden his heart grew three sizes that day.

Our God is a God of the big things, but He is also a God of the small things. If He knows every hair on our head, every tear that we cry, how could He not be? When I get bogged down by the "big picture," the best thing I can do is stop and look at the small picture. See the smile of one of the children at my church and hold their small hand. Admire and laugh at the way my dog's ears stand on end. Lay my head on my husband's chest at night and hear his heart beating and feel the rhythm of his breath.

God has blessed me with many small things, tucking meaning into each and every one. But how easily I miss the majesty and marvel of it, consumed as I am by the big things. He is also given me many small things to do. And if I could get my mind off of the big things I want to do and just start doing the small ones He wants me to do, maybe He could accomplish infinitely more than all I could ask for or imagine. And maybe, just maybe He would sneak so much joy into my life that my heart would grow three sizes.

"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you. . ." (Micah 5:2)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Easy Yokes and Light Burdens

It's another one of those days where the best laid plans of mice and men don't seem the best after all. And thus, it's another one of those days where I need to learn to trust. Not to panic, but to trust. Sometimes it seems that there is a fine line between trusting God and doing my part. We talk about waiting on God, but sometimes what we are really doing is just waiting when we should be putting our faith into action while we wait.

Well, that point aside, as I've been learning about trust over the last few weeks, these verses from Matthew 11:28-30 came to my mind. The verses say:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I remember thinking to myself before, "What is Jesus talking about here? How can He call His yoke easy and His burden light? His yoke took Him to the cross. Where's the lightness in that? And yet, I have quoted this verse often enough with the understanding that when we are weary, stressed, down-trodden, frustrated, incapable, over-worked, etc, etc, that we can bring all of that to Jesus, and He will help us through, and yet the idea of His yoke being easy and His burden light didn't totally click for me.

And then I began to see it in a new light -- in light of His trust in God. I believe that what Jesus was trying to say was that His yoke was easy and His burden light because He trusted completely in the Father. Even though unimaginable suffering stood before Him -- in the form of betrayal, rejection and physical pain -- His faith in the Father remained unshakable. He could face each day in peace and rest because He had turned everything over to God. He wasn't holding onto any part of His life. No longer trying to do things His way. Just walking in faithful obedience -- and trusting God for the rest, come what may.

I am most often weary and burdened when I try to do things in my own strength. When Jesus puts His yoke upon me, it's as if He's saying, "Trust in the Father as much as I do, and together we will pull this load."

But in our way of doing things, we tend to yoke ourselves to the world instead of to Christ. We turn to the things of this world to give us peace and rest, and instead of helping us, they end up pulling us in the opposition direction, making us more weary and heavy-laden.

It is humility that allows us to trust in God, and Jesus was the ultimate example of humility. As long as we remain of the mind that we can do it all on our own, we will never have the rest for our souls that Jesus speaks of. Jesus also describes himself as gentle. Some translations say "meek." When I looked up the definition for meek in the dictionary, I found this.

Meek = Quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive.

A quiet spirit is one that is capable of listening to another. Submission has garnered a negative connotation in many people's books, but there is a difference between forced submission and submission that is freely given. And when we serve others with an attitude of submission, we will discover that it can be one of the greatest sources of joy in this life. Christ had submitted himself to God the Father. He understood that this was the only way to have rest and peace.

Trusting in God is the only path to finding rest for our souls. In the midst of all of his difficulties, Jesus had peace because He knew He trusted everything to the Father. He had put aside worry and doubt and a path based on our own efforts and was trying to point us to a much simpler path of trust.

What if every time something happened that rocked our world or pulled the chair out from under us or just really bugged us or that made us say, "This is not how I planned it," . . . what if at that moment we just whispered, "I trust you God. I trust YOU."

And what if we really did trust Him? Maybe then we could understand what He meant by finding rest for our souls. Maybe then we could have peace.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Trust Fall of Faith

Have you ever done one of those trust falls before? The kind where you stand with your body as stiff and straight as a board then fall backwards while hoping that the people behind you will catch you? I've been doing them since I was about 9 years old in my early acting classes.

We started easy with trust circles. Standing in the center of a tight circle of fellow actors, I'd fall forward or backward and get pushed gently around the circle. Once I'd gone around once, the circle would take a step backwards. This would be repeated until the falling was a little further each time. Trust was built up gradually.

But the scariest trust fall I ever did was while leading a mission team in Appalachia. We were staying at a camp that had a low ropes course for team building. One of the stations was a trust fall where you stood on a platform which had to have been at least 15 feet tall and fell backwards into the awaiting arms of your teammates. Quite a rush! (But maybe more so when I was standing at the bottom, hoping and praying that I and my team -- mostly made up of scrawny middle-schoolers -- would be able to catch some of the other members who weighed 250+ pounds.)

At any rate, this week it occurred to me that my faith in God should be like that trust fall. I should trust God so much that wherever I go, whatever I do, I have full confidence that His arms will be ready for me. Unfortunately, my trust is not always so complete. I want to sneak a peek behind me as if to say, "Are you really there God? Do you really plan to catch me?" Chalk this up to my limited ability to trust in God's promises.

On other occasions, I want to throw an arm back and catch myself. Chalk this up to my sense of self-sufficiency and my need to be in control. I'm only willing to fall a little ways, only willing to feel slightly uncomfortable, before I think I need to take over again. Essentially, I'm telling God, "I trust you only so far." When things start to get unpredictable, that's when my ability to fall back with reckless abandon seems to be disturbed. And yet, that is when I most need to do it.

For awhile now I have found myself confused and overwhelmed. Unduly stressed by a particular situation in my life and understanding that much of the stress has been self-imposed, due to my lack of trust in God and my tendency to try to micro-manage things instead of allowing them to happen. This epiphany was confirmed this week when I opened my Bible and randomly landed on Psalm 125 which begins with these words --

1 Those who trust in the Lord are as secure as Mount Zion;
they will not be defeated but will endure forever.
2 Just as the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever.

Secure. That comes from trusting God. Trusting in myself only leaves me assailed by doubts and speculations.

Surrounded. By God. Both now and forever. That reminded me of those trust circles from my early days. No matter which way I fall, God will be there. He surrounds me on all sides. There is no-where that I can fall that He won't catch me.

The trick is not to fear. Not to doubt. Not to give in to the temptation that I need to control things. Not to try to take over. Not to consider the circumstances as greater than Him. God is in control and His loving arms will not let me fall. And there is a great peace and sense of release in that.

So, Lord, no matter what happens, give me the grace to TRUST in YOU!

The Busy Excuse

If I had to choose the one Bible story that resonates most with me it would have to be the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42. Martha is the dutiful older sister, hurriedly trying to make the preparations necessary to have Jesus in her home. I imagine she was cooking, cleaning, setting the table, etc, all while her younger sister, Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus, refusing to give her a hand.

I am Martha in the story. I am a busy-body. I am always doing something. And when I'm not, I'm probably thinking about what needs to be done. And like Martha, there have certainly been times in my life when I have 'rebuked' the Marys of the world -- wondering how they can just sit there watching while I (and the other Marthas) do all the work.

We live in a society that elevates the Marthas of the world. A world that ascribes value to busyness in all its forms and which measures our worth based upon it. The busier you are, the more important you are, or so it would seem. Those of us who are the Marthas of this world often think that we need to be doing everything. In our homes, workplaces, communities, the world. We may be bent on making a difference in every possible way, and thus, consider our busyness synonymous with our service to God.

However, what if we've only convinced ourselves of this? What if, in fact, our busyness is nothing but an attempt to keep ourselves from the feet of God? To avoid going into His presence? What if we create more and more work for ourselves because we don't know how to be still, we don't know how to listen, and we are afraid to try? What if we only theoretically believe that our value as people comes to us from what Christ has done for us, and instead practice a way of life that makes it dependent on all that we are able to accomplish?

My pastor has a quote which he often shares that goes a little something like this.
A man with an excuse to God will never have an experience of God."

What if Martha's busyness was an excuse? What if her to-do list was nothing more than an attempt to stay out of Jesus' presence? What if all of her noble attempts at "service" were merely evasion tactics? What if I am guilty of the same?

When Martha rebukes her sister, she is actually rebuking Jesus and His values. She says, in essence, "Hello! Jesus! Aren't you paying attention? Don't you see how I'm working my butt of while my lazy sister is just sitting here? Why don't you tell her to get up and do something?!"

But Jesus responds with an answer that reveals to Martha the condition of her own heart. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

What happens when all that you have to "do" is taken from you? What happens when all of your accomplishments or your ability to accomplish things slip away? What then? Who will you be and where will your value come from?

Mary knew how to rest in the Lord. She knew how to draw all of her peace, joy, strength and worth from being still in His presence. She did not need a long to-do list or a string of tasks completed to feel accomplished. She did not have an excuse to God, and therefore, she had an experience of Him.

Marthas of the world, let's take note. And by God's grace, let's sit down and choose what is better. Let's rest at the feet of the One whose love and grace cannot be taken away from us.