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Saturday, June 25, 2011

For the Love of Christ...

The ritual of going through the leftovers of someone's life is a mixed bag of emotion. There is the sadness of realizing traditions will end and new memories will not be made. There is also, however, some laughter and joy when a treasure is uncovered that you never knew about, or had perhaps forgotten existed.

Last night while visiting my sister-in-law she was showing us a book she had come across belonging to my father-in-law, Jim. It was a book one of the grandchildren had given him in which he could journal about his life and then someday return the book to them as a gift of treasured memories.  (Fantastic idea!)  She was reading random passages to us when she came across a great story - on how he and Peggy fell in love.

Thursday would have been their 60th wedding anniversary, had they not passed away within seven weeks of one another earlier this year.  So it seemed fitting on the day after their anniversary to read a part of their story. Jim wrote that he fell in love with Peggy on their third date, and so on that date, while driving down the road he said to her, "Peggy, I love you." To which she replied, "Yea, I've heard that before." - which sent us all into fits of giggles. How so perfectly Jim and Peggy - he the brazen romantic and she the cautious pragmatic.  He said he never asked when she had heard it before or from whom she had heard it, but I think it is obvious to all who knew them that he spent the next 60 years proving that he, above anyone else, meant it.

This life, this world, can burn us and leave us cynical to the point that when we hear of the joyous good news of Christ's love for us, all we can muster is a mild enjoyment while thinking, "Yea, I've heard that before." And yet, if we will remain cognizant to God's presence in our lives, we will no doubt learn that this time it is the real deal.  Christ does love us, he never tells us that flippantly or casually - for Christ, love is a matter of life and death.

Scripture refers to the church as the bride of Christ - which means we have moved beyond the "Yea, I've heard that before" and have accepted the true and precious love which He has offered. It is a promise not only for the corporate church but for all her individual members.  Jesus loves you! This you can know, this you can stake your life on.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Big is My God?

My cardinal and I are back in our regular afternoon spot. Me in my blue chair, he on his branch overhead, singing me an evening song. Even in the summer heat we are comfortable together in our semi-solitude as a breeze stirs the air and gathers in the smells of the neighbor's grill.  These are small things, yet they seem blissful and I am thankful for each one...for my blue chair, my cardinal, my breeze, my neighbor, my bug repellent, and my life....small things which honestly would mean nothing to me if I did not find within them, a bigger purpose.

Two weeks ago I was at another blissful spot, Lake Junaluska, getting ready to kick off the first worship service of WNCC of the UMC Annual Conference. I am one of those strange folks who actually love annual conference and usually I can't wait to get there. I can even tell you the exact moment where my joy is in that first worship service of conference, with the words "Let's stand and sing..." and the music begins and with power, might and majesty 2000+ voices belt out words proclaiming the great God we serve.  A smiles bursts from my lips, the hair on my arms stand on end and I get "Jesus bumps" at the power of that moment.  This is the Church...and she is magnificent to behold.

By the end of conference I am renewed and refreshed because I am ultimately reminded, through our worship, our sharing of stories, and yes, even our business, just how BIG and wonderful our God is. At conference we hear of God's work in transforming lives others count as lost...we hear of God's Spirit empowering small people to do bold and amazing things...we see God's love poured out, God's grace abound...we celebrate God's creation power, God's mighty acts of rescue and salvation...we remember and relive God's call upon our lives, even as we acknowledge we can't fulfill that call without God's indwelling Spirit.

And then, too soon, conference is over. We journey home and unpack our things...we are excited to get back to serving this big and awesome God we fell in love with all over again in the past week.  And then Monday comes...and with it, disappointment. I have struggled for a while to define what is lacking in most local churches today...I have named it "misguided," "lack of commitment," "selfishness," and so on...but I am beginning to see another possibility. What I believe I am witnessing is the latest in consumerism to strike the church.

If you have gone grocery shopping lately you might make note of the fact that they are charging the same amount for food yet they are packaging it in smaller quantities...or the newest thing in "healthy living" is to mini-size everything - that way you feel like you are eating less...and they can charge more.  I have watched our churches lately and now must wonder, have we mini-sized God?  I look at the American church today and I see a group of people of which the majority no longer seem to believe in an all-powerful, all-present God.  I see churches who would rather bicker over brick and mortar than spend time praying and seeking God's direction in saving lost souls. I see churches who are more interested in their own internal power struggles than in welcoming opportunities for God to reveal miracles and transform the broken and diseased. I see churches which would rather tear down and destroy a minister of God's calling, than to encourage and support them to stay true to the God who called them to serve in the first place.

Yesterday I read Psalm 106, a reminder of the wonderful and miraculous liberation of God's children...but as the story of how BIG God is unfolds- after all there is NOTHING God can't do - the author has to add "but they soon forgot his works..."  and "they forgot God, their savior, who had done great things in Egypt..."..."they grumbled"..."they provoked"..."they served idols"..."they became unclean"...  I am struck to the core by these words...Israel forgot how BIG God is...they kept getting caught up in the smallness of this world and failed to look at the largeness of God's Kingdom.

But then comes vs. 44-45..."Nevertheless he regarded their distress when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love."

On the Monday following Annual Conference I came home from work and sat down and cried. After a glorious time celebrating the BIGness of God, I came home and was faced head on with the smallness we have reduced God to in the American church. I wept and felt discouraged that we have forgotten...we are grumbling...we are provoking...we are serving other gods...we are becoming more and more unclean...we have mini-sized our great and mighty God by refusing to acknowledge and open ourselves to the power that is poured out around us.

Nevertheless God regards our distress...God remembers and shows compassion to us according to God's steadfast love.  I am not sure just how to proceed from here in my ministry - I am praying hard for God to make his power known in ways the Church can't miss and won't deny.  It is a frightening prayer...yet a necessary one. I yearn for the Church to remember who she is and, most importantly, whose she is.

As we carry out our committee meetings, bible studies, UMW, UMM, Youth, VBS, choir practices and other routine practices in our churches - let us remember God is not our mini-me....we are supposed to be God's mini-me.  We are the small ones whose power and control is limited and finite...but the God we worship is bigger and more powerful than any of us can imagine or understand. That is the God we worship and the God we can we not possibly find joyful hope and comfort in that? How can this fact not take precedence in all we do as a church?  It is time to remember!

Read Psalm 106 again...and ask yourself - How big is my God?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Song Birds and Lessons in Love

In the piedmont of North Carolina we had the pleasure of enjoying an actual spring this year. In the past few years it seems we went straight from winter to summer, 32 degrees one day and 98 degrees the next! But this year we enjoyed lazy afternoons in the backyard watching the many song birds dance the "twitterpated" dance of love we learned about in Bambi.  My favorite couple was a cardinal pair whose presence I enjoyed, for they sang to me as they courted one another...seemingly to include me as a  witness their love and attraction to one another.

We are now in to the heat of summer and I spend less time in the yard but I have noticed that only the male cardinal now keeps me company, his lover seems to have moved on, but Gabriel remains. I have named him this because I imagine that if I could speak the language of "Cardinal" I would understand he is bringing me tidings of great joy - proclamations of good news. And that reminds me of the angel Gabriel, who also came to bring good news and yet the news always started with "Do not be afraid."  Why would we ever be afraid of good news?  My husband says because every time Gabriel says this someone ends up pregnant, lol - true.  But perhaps there is a deeper truth too.

Gabriel's pronouncements are also about love, or more specifically, about the risky business of love.  When Gabriel calls us to sit and listen he is about to speak to the promise of God's love for us and the struggle for us to love God and one another unconditionally.

 "For God so loved the world that he send his Son..."  God certainly knew the risk involved in what he was about to do. There is always risk in giving our love away to another...will they return it? Will they cherish it? Will they abuse it? Will they deny it? Will they accept it unconditionally? Will they put stipulations on it? Will they misuse it? Mistreat it? Let it grow stale and unappealing?

In ministry I deal almost daily in the problems of love, or rather, the problems that occur when love is not realized as the wonderful gift it really is. I hear of parents who can't love unconditionally, of lovers who can't love faithfully, of children who can't love generously, of neighbors who can't love across the barriers of diversity. Why? Because they are afraid - what if I am disappointed? What if I am hurt? What if I am taken advantage of? What if I miss out on something better? What all boils down to the fact that we no longer want to risk love...What if we would rather not love and keep our hearts "safe" by throwing up walls of protection and defense?

What if God had done the same?

Yes, love is risky - we may be hurt by someone else's brokenness and failure, we may have to open our minds to another way of thinking - but God calls us to do it anyway...because he did the same for us. We have no doubt failed him, cheated on him, misunderstood and mistreated him in many ways and yet he keeps reaching out, he keeps calling us back.

My lovely cardinal, Gabriel, is without his previous companion, yet there he sits right now, singing to me his song of invitation, "Do not be afraid, I bring you great news...of love."  God's love...perfect and never ending.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, June 6, 2011

That's Just Who I Am

Oh how I have grown to hate those words..."That's Just Who I Am"  It would be one thing if they were words uttered by kind and generous souls who gave of themselves and spoke works of encouragement and strength to those around them...but they are never the kind of people who respond with "That's just who I am."

I hear that phrase from folks who have mastered the weapon of the tongue. Folks who in one flash of this strongest of muscles can bring even the best of us to our knees - praying for mercy and escape. No matter how hurtful and abusive they are, if called on it and told of their infliction of pain will simply say "That's just who I am...I speak my mind, I say what I feel, if you can't deal with it you can leave."  And the thing that gets me is they say this with pride and if their ability to draw blood with words is an art form to be coveted.

I have marveled at this since coming back to the church as an adult and seeing first hand the damage inflicted within churches by members who feel entitled to be rude and harsh by speaking just what is on their mind at all times. "That's just who I am so you have to take it and accept me because your a Christian." That is what amazes me about this whole attitude - those of us on the abused end of their tongue must respond with Christian understanding and love...while those on the abusive end of the tongue are allowed to say things that are hurtful, divisive, damaging and contrary to Christian behavior but feel they shouldn't be held accountable because - you guess it - that's just who they are.

We all, on occasion, fail to heed James' warning to put a bridle bit on our tongue and let our words be guided and directed by a power greater than ourselves (James 3). All Christians should feel a sense of shame in those moments, seeking forgiveness from God and from the person we have hurt. I also believe all Christians are to hold one another accountable to a more mature way to speaking with one another. We need to take care to remind one another often that the words we speak are a reflection of Christ in us. If Christ is in us our words should be filled with grace and mercy, love and peace.

If we proclaim to be a follower of Christ and yet our words are hurtful, judgmental, mean, and wound inflicting...then perhaps our defense is true - "That's just who I am" indeed proves who you are not - for you are not a person in which Christ is fully dwelling.

The words we speak to others do indeed reflect who we are...and whose we are. We will all do well to remember that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Liberating Martha

Quietly tucked away at the end of the tenth chapter of Luke's Gospel is a brief but powerful story of two sisters: Martha and Mary.  In a era where U.S. women, in many ways, seem to have been liberated from the male dominate oppression of previous times, we tend to view this story with a fist pump and a "take that Martha!"  After all, who do you think places Martha in that kitchen and told her it was her job to feed all those folks - some man right? Mary then becomes the poster child for women's rights - for she chose to do something different.

But, let's consider who really put Martha in that kitchen. When I read this story I am right there in the kitchen with Martha – not because someone else told me to be there – but because it is where I choose to be. I choose to be there because I enjoy serving people. I choose to be there because hospitality is important (the Bible says this many times!). I choose to be there because it is important to me that folks are taken care of, entertained, well fed, and content. I get this passion from the women of my family who did not see it as a burden but as a calling.

The problem comes when we realize that others don’t have this calling – AND – that there is something else we would really rather be doing. That is when the resentment builds. We get cranky and start to slam the pots around,  “Why can’t I be like the others, out there having a good time while I’m slaving away in here trying to make everyone happy!”  And there we have the truth…we – Martha – can be like the others – we simply choose not to.  All the courts and laws and constitutional amendments can liberate women but ultimately – we have to allow ourselves to choose liberation over slavery.

But wait! Isn’t service good? Didn’t Jesus call us to serve God and our neighbor? And there is the kicker of this quiet little story. If we look close we see that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha she is wrong for working away in the kitchen – he simply points out there were two choices to be made, to be in the kitchen or to sit at the feet of Jesus, and Mary chose the better way.  Not the right way…the better way.

Because of Martha’s sense of duty and self-imposed slavery to the kitchen, she had become “distracted” and taken her eyes off of the reason she was doing what she was doing – serving her master. She forgot who she served and instead made herself a slave to the wrong idol.

I am a “Martha” and I struggle daily with my sense of “obligation” and “responsibility” in serving others. What I have discovered is that if I give in completely to my “Martha” self, I will soon become distracted by the busy-ness of this life and before I know it I am overworked, cranky and snipping at folks, demanding they help me out.  All this because I have taken my eyes off of the better way – which is to sometimes take a moment to sit quietly at the feet of my savior and just listen. When I take those moments I find I am renewed and ready to let my “Martha” come back out and get back to serving those around me.

Some days, I have to remind myself to liberate “Martha” from her self-imposed slavery to ‘do it all” and instead, let “Mary” come out to play. I will not lie and say this is easy. I catch myself feeling guilty when, at the end of the day, I have no papers to show I worked – or no check list to show I visited folks. I fight the urge to defend myself when I come home and my husband says, “What did you do today?” and all I can reply is “I spent the day in prayer.” Yet, Jesus said, Mary has chosen the better way.

Liberating Martha frees us from the guilt of taking moments during a busy week to just be still and sit with God. It allows us to soak up much needed renewal and refreshment for the work and responsibility of serving God that lies ahead of us. It is, believe it or not, what makes us better servants.