Wednesday, August 31, 2022
Having returned from Ohio, I now sit at my desk and think. My morning walk did little to distract me from serious consideration. . . This was a good weekend, a necessary weekend, and yet one filled with emotion as it ended.
Driving to Ohio on Friday, through torrents of rain in West Virginia and darkness in Ohio, I could feel the fatigue gripping my mind. I would make it safely to Norwalk, but I knew that a good night's sleep would not fully restore me. This trip was not a vacation but a mission trip.
I did not know what to expect as I walked in Jennifer's childhood house for the first time in over 11 years. But whatever I thought I would experience, I was completely wrong. It was quiet and a bit dark--that was normal. Closing the door, I heard the hum of an oxygen machine vibrating away and I saw Jennifer looking down at her father in his chair with a look of empathy on her face. Emma stood over Jennifer's shoulder and matched her gaze.
The deep baritone voice of Don Eikleberry was all we heard.
For the next three days we listened to him tell stories. He laughed and cried; we laughed and cried. Then on Monday it was time to go home and so I said good-bye. Don was still with us as left but his health was worsening.
As of today, he waits to meet his new Savior. As I drove home alone with Jennifer and Emma following me, I wondered about the God who suffers. . . Bonhoeffer, in his Letters and Papers from Prison wrote:
"The Bible directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. For the God of the Bible. . . conquers power and space in the world by his weakness."
Much has been written over the years wondering if God suffers with us or if God stands above or away from humanity while we suffer. Men and women much smarter than I have debated the issue back and forth and drawn their own well articulated conclusions on the topic. As I drove back to South Carolina, I affirmed that I felt the presence of a 'suffering God"--a God who dwells with us-- in the room. Regardless of how that pain is defined, experienced, or felt, God experiences it with us, I believe.
And because of this fact, I can trace a line of God's presence with my family. As I spoke with Don yesterday and reassured him that Hospice and other services were on the way for him and for Rosie (Jennifer's mother), I knew God was there. I wonder how a "suffering God" might help you and those you love today?
Thursday, August 25, 2022
What is the responsibility of the Church?
Now if there was ever a more wide-open question, I don't know what it is. . . Consider the responsibility of the Church of Jesus Christ? What are we called to do? To whom are we called to go? How does Jesus define the mission of His Church in the scriptures?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question over the past couple weeks, and as I have thought about the question, God has given me some instruction and teaching.
Normally we would affirm that our mission is starts with our relationship with God. We are called to spend time with God. Read the Bible. Pray. Consider what the lessons of scripture mean for us moving forward. Then after we consider each lesson for a bit, we return to God and seek more answers and more learning. It is a cycle that we live into--and it is a true cycle.
But are we called for more?
Well you might then respond that we are called to be with the sick, the wounded, the grieving. Perhaps you would tell me that our mission is to remind each of these individuals and families that God is with them closely and intimately. We are called to pray with and for them. We are called to bring them the Word of God as a tool to remind them that God never leaves or forsakes His people. And again, that is true also.
But again, is there more that we called to as the Church?
I just finished reading an article by Melissa Florer-Bixler. At the end of her article she says this to us as we wonder what the mission of the church is:
"Church is the place where people have chosen one another's mess. People are complicated and lovely. They disappoint us, then exceed our expectations. We long for one another, and we come up empty. It is messy, this [Christian] life."
God calls us to dwell with each other when the dwelling is neat and tidy, and when the conversation ends and we feel blessed. But we are also called to dwell with each other when life is messy, dusty, confusing and the answers to our struggles do not come forward. When the diagnosis is not good and the prognosis is even worse--God wants us to dwell in that space with our community.
When we pray and our prayers are answered in ways that make us scratch our heads, and when answers come quickly--God wants us to dwell in that place together as the Church. For as we dwell together in these messy places we find the sacredness of what it means to be the Church.
I wonder what messy place God could be sending you to right now?
Tuesday, August 23, 2022
As far back as my first D.Min. class I heard a familiar sentiment taking shape. My colleagues and classmates expressed it as did most of the instructors. And before I tell you what that sentiment is, let me say that none of them are wrong in their hopeful aspiration. Ministry is based on this idea in many ways and forms. Here is that sentiment:
Things will be better in the future.
I heard those words from so many people. But they would say it differently. . . "When I graduate I will be able to make a difference," one person said. Another told me, "This work will help me fix my church's struggles. I can finally put words to what's wrong." A few brave souls even said, "I will be a better Christian when I'm done."
Now don't get me wrong, I had a similar sentiment--a first--as I think most Christians would have.
We possess this feeling that the future will be better. Even if we cannot articulate how the future will be better, we hope for it. We trust in it. Dr. Roger Owens assigned us the book: Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, and it helped reshape my mind. As I read the book, and am now re-reading it, I find the idea of a vague, better, future to be incorrect.
Midway through the book the author offers us this idea:
"The future doesn't take form irrationally, even though it feels that way. The future comes from where we are now. It materializes from the actions, values, and beliefs we're practicing now. . . If we want a different future, we have to take responsibility for what we are doing in the present."
While you could conclude that the author is speaking about social change only, she actually addresses how the church can be present and caring for its local community right now. She speaks about how that 'today's presence' will lead all of us together into a new, richer, presence with God.
Sure I can, and I do, worry about what will happen in the church and world in the next year(s). But rather than dwell on that, and let that concern dictate how I attempt to live faithfully with God, what if God asks me to make a small change in how I life today and speak with people today? Perhaps that small change could lead me into a new path that invites creativity and is based on hope and it could also reshape our future?
Notice where you are now, who God is putting before you today, and let that revelation shape how you live out your faith.
Monday, August 22, 2022
As you might recognize, I have been spending some time considering how we care for one another both as the church corporately and individuals personally. I have talked about the impulse to care in Sunday school and I wondered about when that impulse is felt, how we choose to respond. Do we act quickly? Decisively? Biblically?
Where is God in our desire to care and how quickly does the Holy Spirit speak to our hearts before we choose to act and care for someone?
Part of the care that I have been reflecting upon, and perhaps a large portion of it, involves a ministry of presence and a ministry of touch--a ministry of holding hands. Marcia A. Owens and Samuel Wells in the book, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, offer us these words to help shape this dynamic:
"All words of ministry in the wake of [pain and violence] emerge from a relationship based on being present in silence and overcoming fear through touch." (Emphasis in original text).
Silence and touch. When I have been with someone who is in pain, and regardless of how that pain is named or felt, silence and touch are often the best way to care for that person. Being still and holding the hand of a friend can be just as profound of an experience as praying with them.
In the rest of the chapter Owens and Wells speak about a process of caring for one another that is less service-based and more present, more still, more dwelling with. Part of the presence they are speaking about is a willingness to abide with the other person. AS we abide we grant that person space for the acknowledgment and solidarity that they need. Here is an example that they provide for the reader:
"I am allowing this pain, I'm not pushing it away. It is mine; this is as it is. This is. And I'm not going to move away from it. I'm going to allow it to hurt. I'm going to feel my hurt."
In the church we love to care for one another. We appreciate finding ways to dwell with the other person and take pride in how we hear the Holy Spirit speak to us and call us onward. It is a blessing certainly that I feel is active at Bethesda. This is part of who we are and who we long to be in Christ Jesus.
But notice what happens when we still our voices, hold the hand of a loved one or friend, and help them to affirm in their own way, "I hurt." It is powerful and it can be transformational.
I wonder if there is someone in your day who you could be present for in this way? I wonder how their relationship with God could be nurtured if you took Wells and Owens' advice in how to care for them?
Thursday, August 18, 2022
I wonder if you would consider your heart with me for a moment. . .
This morning my devotional app shared a reading from Ezekiel with me. They are words that I am familiar with; words I have heard before. But right in the middle the narrator of this morning's devotions pauses and she asks us to consider our hearts together.
Ezekiel writes these words:
"And I will give you a new heart,
and I will be put a new spirit in you.
I will take out your stony,
stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart." (Ezekiel 36:26 NLT).
As I listened to the soft music playing in the background, the narrator invited us to be still before the Lord and consider a stony heart and a tender heart.
So I want you to consider the stone heart?
It is heavy. Solid. Un-moldable. I imagine if my heart was stone that it would feel heavy to carry around in my chest; a burden I am forced to lug around and one I cannot be freed from. The edges of the stone are rough, and in their roughness, the stone can slip from my grip or cut the fingers that carry it. I wouldn't like to have a stone heart.
What does that say spiritually to you about your own heart or the times when your heart has felt like stone? . . .
Now in contrast I wonder about the tender, responsive, fleshly heart that the Lord promises to give you and me as recorded in Ezekiel? It is living. Easy to carry. Flexible. While stones are not alive, a tender heart is alive and it beats/pumps life from God to us, and by extension to the world.
It is understandable that our hearts today feel stone-like. The world has bruised and beaten the church's heart under the heavy weight of division and judgment. But today notice your own heart. Notice if it feels hard like a stone or soft and tender like flesh.
Perhaps you and God could find a way together to move away from practices and choices that harden the heart and back toward health and well-being?
Wednesday, August 17, 2022
It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but I am happy that I am there. Let me explain. . .
Over the course of a few months (perhaps years) I have modified my Apple News Feed into a direction that I want--a direction that supports me. Now don't get me wrong, I have not created a silo or an echo chamber that supports and sustains my beliefs only. Instead, through a painstaking process I have accepted, and rejected, certain types of stories from certain writers and companies.
This has made all the difference.
Do problems still exist in the world? Yes, or course they do!
But my choice of how to digest and accept the news has helped me greatly as I seek to be faithful to God. As part of that choice, I regularly read stories and accounts of people helping each other rather than dividing and separating.
You see I believe, as I read God's word, that the solution to our problems is not a blanket statement or policy. It is not a political agenda or direction or candidate as it is also not a set of harsh judgments or choices that are applied across culture.
As I read, and I as I think and pray, I join Margaret Wheatley in thinking that we, as the Body of Christ, can be the solution to our problems because we are always better together.
"People are the solution to the problems that confront us. Technology is not the solution, although it can help. We are the solution--we as generous, open-hearted people who want to use our creativity and caring on behalf of others. . . nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals who can go it alone."
I wonder today how you might be asked by God to help heal and restore the world around you? What would it look like to become the solution for another person rather than be part of the social machine that divides?
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
I just returned to the office from visiting a sick member of the church. This person's health is not well and I am grateful that this church has spent so much time praying for healing and restoration. This is part of my calling that blesses me. To be able to sit with folks and remind them of how closely God comes to us in all seasons of our lives is a cherished part of my call.
Sitting back down at my desk I opened the book I am reading. Half way down the page, was the following statement that spoke to my soul. The words are so simple, so easy, and yet so convicting at the same time--for I know that I do not practice what I read often enough.
Margaret Wheatley offers us the following words:
"We promise ourselves everything except each other."
What a profound statement. While visiting the sick member of the church all that I could offer was what I had in that moment. . . Certainly I have theologically-trained knowledge to offer anyone who I encounter--and I know there is a time and place for that. I could offer stories of God's restoration found in the scriptures and testified to in the life of the Body of Christ--that to is appropriate at times. Both are necessary and I have done both before.
But what was needed most today was just neither.
Instead 'presence' was needed. Presence was all that mattered as I walked into that room. I walked into the room, held the hand of my church member, and spoke with their family, presence was all that I carried in with me. Now I know someone will say 'well you carried God too'--and they would be right at some level.
The family today didn't need an advocate or a sounding-board to talk about their suffering. They needed presence. I showed up and that mattered so much to them. I wonder what might happen in your life if, and when, you choose to follow Margaret's advice and 'promise' to offer yourself to another person? I wonder how the encounter might be different?
Thursday, August 11, 2022
Do we have to have the answer? I understand that we want to have an answer, we might think that 'answering-finding' is part of our faith practice. But does God require us to have all the answers to the questions that the community is asking?
I thought about this question as I read the following story from the Desert Fathers:
"Certain of the brethren said to Abba Anthony: We would like you to tell us some words, by which we may be saved. Then the elder said: You have heard the Scriptures, they ought to be enough for you. But they said: We want to hear something also from you Father.
The elder answered them: You have heard the Lord say: If a man strikes you on the left cheek, show him also the other one. They said to him: This we cannot do.
He said to them: If you can't turn the other cheek, at least take it patiently on the one of them. They replied: We can't do that either.
He said: If you cannot even do that, at least do not go striking others more than you would like them to strike you. They said: We cannot do this either. Then the elder said to his disciple: Go cook up some food for these brethren for they are very weak. . . If you cannot even do this, how can I help you?"
If you noticed in the story no concrete answer was offered. Instead Abba Anthony reflected back onto the people a position of presence and relational submission. When they could not practice what Jesus taught them directly, he instructed them to dwell with others and care for them.
Perhaps that is the answer to my first question--the one about needing to have all the answers. I wonder if today what is necessary from God is that you don't offer anything except your presence? I wonder how just showing up today could be the balm another person needs to heal and could help them find the necessary space to grow?
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
I wonder, do you feel tranquil today? Peaceful? Is there a sense of a deeper spiritual strength that holds you together?
While on the surface I suspect that most people would affirm that 'yes' they feel tranquil, peaceful, and strong. But right now, as you read this, as you sit at home, or quietly in a public space, would you agree? Do you feel those emotions right now?
I suspect that a vast majority of the Christians today do not feel this way. I suspect that we are anxious about much, worried and harried about nearly everything. While on Sunday we confess that we depend and rely upon Christ alone, those words, while easy to confess, and hard to live out.
So today I offer you the words of Evelyn Underhill. While reflecting on the work of St. John of the Cross she writes these words for every soul that feels itself pressed upon by the local culture:
"All our action. . . must be peaceful, gentle, and strong. That suggests, doesn't it? an immense depth, and an invulnerable steadiness as the soul's abiding temper; a depth and a steadiness which comes from the fact that our small action is now part of the total action of God, whose Spirit. . . 'works always in tranquility.' Fuss and feverishness, anxiety, intensity, intolerance, instability, pessimism. . . every kind of hurry and worry--these are signs of the self-made and self-acting soul.
Tranquility, gentleness, and strength, carry us through the changes of weather, the ups and downs of the route, the varied surface of the road; the inequalities of family life, emotional and professional disappointments, the sudden intervention of bad fortune or bad health. This is the imprint of the Spirit on the souls that surrendered to His great action."
God's Spirit is a gift for each of us. It is a gift that helps remind us how the Holy Spirit can be a steading force in our lives. For any Christian who reaches out to God when the hustle and struggle of the day becomes too much will find God offering them something wonderful.
If you feel that tranquility, peace, and strength are far off, I wonder what might happen as you read Evelyn's words and reach back out to God?
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
I want to share with you a prayer that I read this morning from theologian Kate Bowler. As she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, Kate confronted two things: her failing body and the God who is always with her. She wrote about her struggles and named how it felt to be weak and worn. I hope that as you read and consider her prayer that you will find places of resonance in it. I hope you will notice where God's voice speaks to you through Kate's struggle.
"But God [you know] what it’s like to live in flesh. . . . If God too lived in a body, then God knows the ache of growing pains and the feeling of goosebumps on a brisk day and the comfort of a warm embrace. He felt the gurgle of a hungry stomach and the annoying prick of a splinter after a day of hard work. He wept over the death of a friend. Ours is a God who sneezed and rubbed His eyes when He was sleepy. Ours is a God who knew longing, heartbreak, excitement, frustration—the full range of what it means to be human . . . [and] live in a body.
So when my own body drags me down, when my muscles ache, when my worries keep me up at night, when my fear for the future leaves me motionless, when I feel lonely and exhausted and burdened, I do not worship a God who is far off.
This is a God who knows my humanity inside and out. God has counted every hair on my head (Matthew 10:30) and bottled up every tear I have shed (Psalm 56:8). Not simply because the Word formed us (Genesis 1:27), knit us together in our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13), was there from the very beginning . . . but because God wore our skin."
It can feel like God does not empathize with you; He does not feel as you feel. Your theological mind can confess that God is above the daily struggles of human life--and in part you are correct. But you are also incorrect in that assumption. For God knows, and God feels, exactly how you feel right now. Jesus has been there.
God knows, and God feels, the pains and anxieties that stalk you and the wounds that still sting you. While temptation exists to believe you walk this path alone God is beside you in this time and space.
I wonder what this prayer says to you? I wonder what it reminds you of and how it asks you to progress with God at your side?
Monday, August 8, 2022
Being part of the Body of Christ means being part of an ever-growing community who share a common mission from God. Regardless of how the Body constitutes itself, or how its culture takes shape, or even how it feels called to respond to the local culture, the church must participate in the on-going work of Christ with the rest of Creation.
We are not passive; we are not called to sit on the sidelines and comment on the culture of the day from a judgmental position. We live in it the world and as such we have a mission to fulfill.
As I thought about that mission today and how it can take shape for us, I read something Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that I want to share with you. She says:
"Every created thing was fraught with divine possibilities; wasn't that what he [Christ Jesus] was telling them? Every ho-hum detail of their days was a bread crumb leading them into the presence of God, if they would just pick up the trail and follow."
Like I said, we are all part of the Body of Christ and as such we have the chance to find the bread crumbs from Jesus that lead us into a deeper communion and participation in his work. We have the call to join him in speaking God's word.
But as I re-read Barbara's words and think about them, I find a challenge also present that we cannot ignore. This is a challenge related to time. Will you take the time, practice diligence, and look for this spiritual bread crumbs? There is a lot of distraction in the world around us; a great deal to call us away from God. I wonder how today you might make room to look for God?
Perhaps take some time right now to look at the 'ho-hum' things of the day. They might just be a gift from God?
Thursday, August 4, 2022
Last night as Sweet Caroline's was a wonderful time in so many ways. I could spend all day commenting on how the evening was a joy and blessing.
On a personal note it was a blessing to see Emma playing with The Sounds of Grace. When I was across the room, as far away from her as possible and greeting a group of members, I could hear Emma singing with the band. Her voice was distinguishable from the others and I felt a tinge of pride as her father. This band has been such a blessing to her and one that I cannot express clearly enough.
As the evening progressed I continually counted members and friends of the church who came to supper and stayed to hear the band. I stopped counting at 50 and I am sure I missed some. It was wonderful to talk with so many people who love God and each other.
It was amazing that when my knee and feet were sore from walking around and spending a moment with church members, to have them come to me and love upon me. They encouraged me to sit down and then we talked together.
Of course the food was great and it was good to sit with Jennifer and Emma for a nice dinner and know that we are among friends and extended family. On and on I could go, but today I wan to offer just one conclusion that I think we should meditate upon. . .
The Body of Christ longs to be together.
That's it. Case closed.
As I watched families greet on another, as they laughed and 'poked' each other in love, I could see genuine care in their actions. Even though I could not hear what they talked about across the room, the feelings of acceptance, friendship, faith, and community spoke for themselves. By creating a way to gather in a public space, outside of the sanctuary, the church came and they cared for each other.
So my question is: If the body of Christ wants to be together, then what little thing can you do today that helps foster community and creates a way for you to be with others?
All we did in preparation for the evening was call the restaurant and ask if we could play some music on a Wednesday night that worked for them. The band practiced and picked their material. We put a few advertisements on Facebook and through email, but really we just asked people to come be together. . . And they came. The church always comes when they can be together.
Maybe this is choice can be duplicated over and over again both inside, and outside, the church?
Wednesday, August 3, 2022
Tonight we have a special evening planned. The Sounds of Grace are playing at Sweet Carolines. It will be an evening of food, fellowship, and community building. I am very excited about this and hope to see a great crowd gather in support of The Sounds of Grace.
The entire concept of the evening was a simple idea, and yet in its simplicity a deeper modeled behavior is displayed for our community. As I through about the evening, and how the idea grew, I thought of the words of Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im.
"Studies show that the higher the standards of biblical teaching, the longer people remain engaged. Today's seekers are seeking depth. They won't interrupt a fine Sunday morning of sleeping in to attend a church that serves up shallowness, at least not for long."
Like I said, this was a simple idea: let's gather together to eat, and while we eat, we can support a ministry of the church that we believe in. But behind this idea, a deeper biblical truth was living. From my experience a deep biblical truth can live in most of what we do--if we are willing to engage the text consistently. And so this becomes my question for you today?
If the community at-large responds well to a deeper biblical truth being lived out before them by the church, then what are you doing that helps support God's truth that lives in you? Maybe take some time today and consider this. . .
Monday, August 1, 2022
It is a beautiful morning here in York, SC; the type of morning that asks for a walk. And so I was happy to oblige. I put my things down in my office, turned the AC on so that it would be cool when I was done, and left for my walk.
This morning my prayer app offered me a musical rendition of the prayer of St Teresa. The singer's voice was beautiful and the words of the prayer brought me into God's presence gently. The gentle breeze from the west cooled my face as I walked around the church grounds.
As I finished my walk the words of St. Teresa's prayer were still fresh in my heart. She said:
"Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing frighten you,
all things will pass away.
God never changes;
patience obtains all things,
whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
let nothing frighten you,
all things will pass away.
God never changes;
patience obtains all things,
whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
It was that final phrase: "God alone suffices" that lived in my heart as I sat down at my desk and began to think through the week that lies ahead for me. Like you, I will be busy. . . But in hectic and franticness that you and I will face today, I wonder: does your life prove that "God alone suffices?"
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