Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Stranger but No Stranger, part 2

One of the most incredible things about Jesus is that he was such a good listener. He cared about the person who was speaking with him, the person requesting something from him or touching him as though he or she was the only person in the world.

This recently struck me while reading through the Gospel of John, I notice how much time and intentional caring conversation Jesus has with people. In John 4, Jesus cared deeply for the woman who was a Samaritan. No "respectable" Jewish man would have had such a conversation (4:9). He talked with her as though what she was saying was significant. He entertained her novice theologizing (4:8-25). He honored her by listening to her. Jesus speaks the truth to her as though she was a person with dignity. She needed the truth and she deserved the truth. When he reveals to her that he is the Messiah, she is shocked (4:26). I can imagine that she thought, "why would he be talking to me?" or "why would he sit there and allow me ask such silly questions?" or "how could he know my past, see past my past, and still want to be in conversation with me?"

Jesus had such compassion. He was not aloof to human suffering. He saw that there were circumstances that cause alienation. It seems as though he understood that there is suffering that is caused by human stupidity and rejection of the things of God. And, on the other hand, there is suffering that is not a direct result of any one particular sin. Maybe, he would have summed it up the way one of my preacher friends here says, "it is a beautiful and broken world." Jesus would add, "repent, for the kingdom of God is right here, right now and is available for you to enter."

Jesus was not a stranger to suffering, to feelings of loneliness, or anger. To imagine him as a man with low affect is inaccurate. Human emotions were part of his life. Though emotions were a part of his life, Jesus was not held hostage by emotions. He was a stranger to the game-playing, maneuvering, and spinning the truth. He was a stranger to things like guilt trips and manipulation and bribery. As he fully trusted in the Father, he didn't have to resort to these things. He could experience human emotions without allowing them to hold him hostage. He was free from being mastered by them because he was intimately connected with the One who sent him. He was free to care and show compassion without having to be validated or even have the love reciprocated.

With reverence, joy, humility, and delight I recognize that this is the Master that I follow. I gladly bow and worship this One.With the words of O Holy Night! verse two, I sing: "The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, in all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is not stranger. Behold your King, before him lowly bend!"

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Stranger but No Stranger

This time of year is full. For us, it is full of planning and traveling. Sometimes, we travel by plane and sometimes by car. Regardless of the mode of transportation, it always seems as though we spend more time in transit than actually settled in one place. None of this is new to us because we have chosen to live at a distance from family most of our lives. This choice puzzles many of our friends and family.

The desert southwest used to feel so familiar to me. Now, I feel mostly like a stranger. This place has a beauty that is hard to explain, but those who live here know it. The way we describe it often includes food. Our celebrating centers around New Mexican dishes: tamales, posole, Chimayo corn pudding, and guacamole. All of these must include green chilies, however it is acceptable to include some red as well if one is trying to be kind and include those who like red chilies.

If I cannot be in New Mexico for Christmas, I still try to prepare some New Mexican cuisine. The green chilies in the can are not bad, but they are not the same either. We have made posole in Kentucky and it is just fine. We have made tamales with students and labored to bring the taste of home to those who share our love for such flavors.

The miracle that we remember and celebrate during this time of year is that the One through whom all things came into being traveled the distance between earth and heaven...between human and divine....welcoming the strangeness of not just coming into flesh, but also the strangeness of giving up infinity for our limitations. The Gospel according to John elaborates this mystery and miracle.

"He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...He was in the world, and the world did not know him. He came to what was his won, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth...From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace...No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:2-5; 10-14; 16-18).

The incarnation, what C.S. Lewis rightly calls the greatest miracle of Christianity, is that the Father's heart is now incredibly accessible to us. We accept this as reality because we know a grace and truth that is radically different than any other. If we are open to this mystery of God being made known to us in the manger, as an infant, we can surely see the power available to us in the every day challenges of life.

This is a glorious mystery. To say it is a mystery does not mean, however, that we cannot know it. We can now know the Father's heart. We can read, listen with our hearts, and rehearse the reality of Christ-Jesus-"a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

We rehearse it when we enter places, spaces, and circumstances that are difficult or strange. We can accept and know Him in, beyond, and through strangers -  even if the strangest among us are family and should be those who are most familiar. For me, it seems I hear an invitation to reimagine how my interactions with those who are both stranger and family can be filled with grace and truth. If this glorious mystery of God-with-us is real and true, then how is being made real and true in me and in my words and actions during these days?

The mystery remains: Is the miracle and mystery of Christmas - God come to us in flesh and blood - to show us that we too can share in this, a living reality for us? Is the strange and wondrous bridge between the human and divine welcomed and accepted in your traveling, celebrating, stretching, and gathering this season?  

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Lived Experience: Please, Lord Help the Bleeding Stop!

My wrists were sore almost to the point of giving out. I had already been transcribing the life story of this dear woman for fifteen hours. The tears were forming, again. If I paused the transcribing at this point, I would never make my goal. This story was too painful to continue. This particular woman had been pushed to the margins by those in power. The people who were given the responsibility to care for her soul were neglecting that responsibility. It was their job to to encourage her in her ministry and they had failed miserably. There were many occasions when they made sure she knew that she was not welcome in their "club." The story that had me in tears on this occasion featured her being publicly humiliated by one such person in authority at a gathering of ministry colleagues.

I knew that it was important for me to do this work, but I just could not continue at that moment. This was the trail of my thought and laments:

WOW, this is harder than I thought it would be!

Much harder!

I would rather be getting a root canal than be listening and imagining the pain of all of these women!

Please, Lord, help the bleeding stop!

The transcribing had come to a screeching halt for a couple of weeks. As I was praying about my lack of progress, I started to cry again. Through the tears and laments above, I was sorting through all of the pain that I had felt during similar meetings. I faced the fact that because of my own wounds, I was being asked to sit with these stories and show honor to those who have been hurt by the church. Denial can only last so long. The gentle whisper in my mind and spirit assured me of a crucial truth as I cried out, "Please, Lord, help the bleeding stop!" It was the Heavenly Father giving me the power through partnering with Him to hear these excruciating stories. When we know that we have been heard,when the one listening to us is loving us through listening, healing comes rushing in.

May it begin with me?!

This work was good and was necessary and was extremely hard.

This idea about gathering stories of female pastors had first occurred to me long before I thought that I might research them. I was attending a Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy conference where women in ministry from many denominations gather to encourage and enrich one another. There were four or five women in a row telling me their stories. These stories included such pain. Before this, I assumed that I may be the only one in the world who was told by a best friend: "You are an apostate! Women preaching is of the devil!" I thought that I may have been the only one who had sat across the table from a denominational official and heard the words: "Maybe you should find another denomination!" There was a consistent thread of being marginalized even in these denominations that, at least in theory, affirm women in all levels of church leadership. The stories tell of a different reality.

This is what I found as I researched the lived experience of female pastors: good, bad, and ugly responses to them as they followed their call in the church. I found women who were filled with passion and compassion, they were strong and tenacious, and they had persevered in ministry in spite of the fact that most of them had considered leaving the denomination.

The truth is that listening to such stories either in an official capacity as a researcher or in the capacity of fellow female pastor, is hard. I was given the gift of comfort that day as I prayed, I remembered that listening is an act of love. I am given the ability to sit and listen because the One who created me is a good listener. I have the best listening coach on earth. God is especially quick at hearing cries of those suffering under injustice. It is this God that "heard their groaning" and remembered the covenant (Exodus 2:23-24). It is this God who "is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth" (Psalm 145:18-19). The Lord assures us that when we humbly cry out to him and share our cares, we will know His presence (Isaiah 58:9 and 1 Peter 5:7).

God is near to all who call on him. 
God listens and we listen.

My hope is that the stories that I listened to, transcribed, and researched would help change the minds and hearts of people. The stories shared are not intended to be all-inclusive, rather they represent the types of challenges and barriers female pastors encounter in their every day life. It is my prayer that the church will be a good listener. The documentary "Lived Experience" is based on my research and there has been a significant seed pledge by the denomination for about half of the cost. I would love for you to consider giving toward this project. Will you prayerfully consider if you are being called to contribute in order to make this a reality? If you're interested in making a financial gift, it can be made at FMCUSA website designated for the strategic implementation, with "Lived Experience Documentary" in the comment box (https://give.fmcusa.org/donation/strategy-implementation).

Will you lean in, uncross your arms, and look into the eyes of your sisters in Christ and listen? Are you ready to hear your pastor's story, your ministry colleague's story, and your co-laborer in Christ's story?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Easy Yoke

I'm intrigued by how many of us make vacation - time away from our normal day-to-day life - so stressful. This morning I woke up at 3:30 a.m. in order to catch a 6:30 flight back home from a wonderful time away seeing family. There were A LOT of people at the airport, sending their checked bags down the conveyor belt, taking their laptops out of the bag, taking off their belts and shoes to go through the security check points. A few of those families were clearly going somewhere sunny to enjoy a few days at the beach. The flights to sunnier climates were packed. Our flight to Cincinnati had 9 people on it! Unbelievable, but glorious!

If we are learning from Jesus how to live our lives, we will be talking with Him as we plan our vacations and as we wait in those miserable security lines. Jesus tells us  "Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Next time you get stressed out at this or other small, medium, or large details regarding that perfect vacation, instead of indulging thoughts of chaos, crowds, crash landings, running out of food (or worse yet, coffee!), lost luggage, etc... simple check to see the look on the One to whom you are yoked.

Can you get a vision of the smile and delight on your creators face? Can you push pause on the conveyor belt of crazy thoughts and simply enjoy being in the company of the One (Father-Son-Holy Spirit) who has you in the palm of His hand? (If all of this seems impossible to think and visual, consider reading, meditating on or memorizing some of Psalms, such as Psalm 18, 31, 63, 95, 121 and soon enough, your thoughts of who God is will expand and it will become more natural to think such thoughts.)

This video is a short one of Dallas Willard teaching on the easy yoke. Enjoy!


Monday, June 05, 2017

Give us this day our daily work (part 4)

As I have said previously, work is a gift from God and is best understood to be that which we do in partnership with God to bring about good in the world. Indeed, one of the challenges that we face with work is over-estimating our contribution to our with-God partnership. We may be tempted to over-work which may indicate that we think that the world is going to fall apart if we do not do our part. Notice that over-work may indicate that we really do not think that God can do a good job managing the universe (insert "the office," "the shop," "the kitchen," "the church" for whatever sphere you oversee).

Respect for work properly defined means respecting the limitations of work. God instructs the Hebrew people (and us) that they are to work six days and rest one day. This is the pattern and rhythm of life prescribed by God in scripture (see Exodus 20, Numbers 23 and Deuteronomy 5). It is a command along with being just good old plain common sense. The Hebrew people had been slaves for generations. They could have easily grown to believe that their identity was based on that which they produced. This is not God's way.

Our identity is tied to our Heavenly Father. It is possible to live in conversation and communion with the One who promises to care for birds and begonias and even us (Matthew 5:25-34). When we learn the good and beautiful way of Jesus, we notice that worrying and defining ourselves by the results of our work are simply not our way anymore. We can live in the easy yoke with Father-Son-Holy Spirit and there we will find a rhythm of work and rest that is truly life-giving and life-sustaining.

Our daily work is restored to us as the gift that it was intended when we acknowledge that it cannot own us. All of this comes from God. God created us to work and rest. How is it that we have so much trouble with this? Is it so hard to trust that God, in whatever time and in whatever way, will bring about good from our work? Is it hard for us to accept the gift of this rhythm of work and rest because we are not totally convinced that God is generous and joyous and gives good things to those who ask?

"Because we do not rest, we lose our way....We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom. We miss the joy and love born of effortless delight." Wayne Muller, Sabbath. Also other good books about the subject: Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn and Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab.

Also, click the link below to hear-see an incredible sermon by Ray Hammond at EpicChurch Buffalo. We were visiting the church on the day he preached it. There are some very practical tools that may help you start this practice if you feel like a beginner.


Thursday, June 01, 2017

Give us this day our daily work (part 3)

The reality of God - Father, Son, and Spirit - Trinity as the most beautiful and mysterious and foundational community has been sinking into my mind recently. God created everything not because there was a lack of something, but because of the fullness of life within His being. For instance, the three plates on my kitchen wall represent the Trinity - the full life of God - extending beyond self. My husband and I get the rare privilege during these few weeks when our students are gone to have a meal with just the two of us. Meals with only us requires only two plates. We enjoy the presence of a third, or twenty five as was the case last week. We do this kind of sharing because we enjoy the company of others. We do not invite people over for dinner so that they are indebted to us. We give out of our abundance.

The third plate that hangs in my kitchen reminds me that God's life in the Trinity is full and abundant and overflowing. The Trinity is the ultimate extension of hospitality.

Jesus, the Son, made manifest the reality of God in human existence. While he was living among us humans, he was fully human. He did normal things we do including work. He had apprenticed himself to his father so that meant that he was a carpenter. His craftsmanship was good, however, I'm sure that when he first began, he made mistakes in measuring or cutting.

"Remember that you always measure twice and cut once!" I can just hear the words of his father. It is fun to imagine all of the things that Jesus made in his shop. His mind and his hands equally engaged in the task in front of him while at the same time engaging with God through prayer. I can imagine that as Jesus cut the wood, he would have been giving glory to God. I'm sure he was asking that the fullness of the Trinitarian life be made tangible and beautiful to the senses of those who would sit at the table he was making. The table represents communication and communion with others. I'm imagining that the energy Jesus put into making a dining room table would allow the many others that ate around it to see that God does provide and that God is good.

The communion of the Trinity is all over the place in the Gospel of John. Jesus addresses his disciples regarding his departure. They did not understand that he was going nor did they get why he must go. The dwelling place that Jesus promised these believers that he was preparing for them had very little to do with a physical location (John 14:1-2). In the heart of the Trinity, the dinner table was being prepared and all of them and all of us were being sent invitations. This communication and communion with the Trinity is now open and available for all of us.

This kind of relationship is not reserved for mystics or ascetics or those in monasteries or at altars at summer church camp. It is not reserved for pastors or for those who have studies scripture or who have fancy theological degrees. It is open for anyone who wants it. I'm sure that there is plenty of Triniarian fellowship among "the religious" but this fellowship was never intended to be contained in those place. It overwhelms me how accessible Trinitarian fellowship is to me right here in my ordinary life. I do not have to be in some special facility to speak with Him. It is shocking to me that I can know, not simply "feel," that reality right here....wherever here is and whatever this is that I am doing.

Finally, the section entitled Entering the Ordinary (page 14) in the Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes:  (he is addressing how Jesus entered into ordinary life and ordinary work and that this was God's way of arranging the delivery of His life to us) "If he were to come today as he did then, he could carry out his mission through most any decent and useful occupation. He could be a clerk or accountant in a hardware store, a computer repairman, a banker, an editor, doctor, waiter, teacher, farmhand, lab technician, or construction worker. He could run a housecleaning service or repair automobiles (and at one time Dallas included in this list a lady who owns a flower shop). In other words, if he were to come today he could very well do what you do. He could very well live in your apartment or house, hold down your job, have your education and life prospects, and live within your family, surroundings, and time. None of this would be the least hindrance to the eternal kind of life that was his nature and becomes available to us through him. Our human life, it turns out, is not destroyed by God's life but is fulfilled in it and in it alone."

Next time you are tempted to minimize how interested God is in your daily existence, come back to this thought: Trinitarian fellowship is available and the invitation has your name on it. "Come and Dine at the Master's table."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Give us this day our daily work (part 2)

It is Monday and Mondays get such a bad rap! This complaining that we do about Mondays is tied to this lie that we maintain that work is drudgery. However, work is not drudgery. Sometimes it may feel like drudgery for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that we need an attitude adjustment and correct thinking about work.

What if we were to speak the truth about Mondays? Here is my list of things that are true about this day for me:

  • I said YES to too much last week. I was tired, perhaps exhausted is a better term because I got myself into a position that was not good.
  • I have not been sleeping well or enough (part of this is due to the first item on this list and part of it has to do with anxiety and lack of trust that God has my back)
  • I procrastinate tasks that frustrate me. I put them in that paperwork stack and forget about them until, on days like this, I have to confront them and somehow deal with unpleasant or mundane details. (Notice that I am actually spending my time blogging and not really confronting the stack;) 
  • Details such as these can exhaust me.

How can I learn the truth about work today with all of these realities? What would it take for me to see work as good, as a gift from God, and as what I do in partnership with God to bring about good in our world?

As I talk with God about all of these details, I often hear his encouragement to hold onto things loosely. I do what I can and release all other matters into His tender care. For instance, I listen to His voice in, through, and beyond the requests that others make of me. God helps me discern those tasks that I am inclined to say YES to in a hurry to either please someone else or to rescue them from poor planning on their part. As I listen for His voice, I may also discern that there are tasks that I am inclined to say NO to in a hurry from fear or because I want to make life difficult for the one asking. If a particular task does not fit into either of these categories, then I will ask God to show me whether that particular thing is really mine to do. If it is something that I am happy to do and have time to do, then I ask God to show me what it looks like for me to do that task in partnership with Him. If imagining the task and the process is easy and if it will bring glory to God, at that point, I say YES.

If I find in retrospect, like this last week, that I have accidentally said YES to too many things, then I realize that even in the midst of no sleep and chaos, God has a way of bringing good. In the midst of too many tasks, I pray without ceasing and rely heavily on the power of God to fill in all the holes left by my busyness. I also remember during these times that asking for help from others is not a sign of weakness, but a good way to include others in partnering with God. They may not even be aware that you are inviting them into seeing what God is able to do with those who let them have it all.

A final thought is that Monday is a fresh day brimming with ways to partner with God. Like any other day, we can use it as a day to reboot. We have the power to prioritizing our tasks in life. We can begin the week by asking God to show us what we need to see in our work. We can be honest with God about that which is not going the way we had hoped. We can invite His care into our lists of tasks, into our e-mail correspondence, and into our meetings with others. Monday = a day to meet God in our work.

Give us this day our daily work (part 1)

Imagine the tallest pile of paperwork that you have ever seen on your own desk. If you hate paperwork piles and systematically deal with paperwork as to prevent such things, maybe you can imagine the paperwork pile on the desk of a co-worker.

This one afternoon in March almost ten years ago I had a breakthrough. The paperwork pile was at an all time high. It was the very end of the month which meant that the dreaded and inevitable e-mail would be in my end box. "Please turn in your monthly stats, I am waiting on them." The sender of the e-mail had also caught me as I tried to slither past her desk as I was entering the office complex. I saw the look on her face and I heard it in her voice. That look on that day was the beginning of a breakthrough in my thinking, attitude, and operating regarding work.

On my co-workers face I saw that I was causing more than a simple inconvenience. I began to imagine all of the ways that my late paperwork would impact her life. She often stayed very late and came in very early. She was not in good health and that meant that a lack of rest might cause sickness. Her hours away from work were spent with her teenage and young adult children. Turning in my paperwork late would mean that she would have to sacrifice that precious time with family. Instead of that smile that she offered me as I passed her desk, there would be a look of disappointment or maybe even a snarl.

The stack of paperwork had to be done. It was drudgery! My mind was flooded with questions: How in the world could I do it all in the two hours before it was time to leave for the day? How in the world could I survive two straight hours of paperwork and remain sane? I was desperate, so I prayed.

Praying about paperwork had scarcely crossed my mind before. Even then, it seemed strange to me. It seemed strange to pray for paperwork and it seemed strange to me at that time that I had never really considered praying about paperwork before.

During this season of my life, I was learning a lot about how to live in responsive obedience to Jesus in all arena's of my life. It was clear that I had a lot to learn. I felt like a beginner in the discipleship process when I had often perceived myself as anything but that. In fact, I had made a decision to follow Jesus almost twenty years prior. God called me into the ministry. I studied the Bible in the original languages and had graduated from college and seminary. All of this, along with fifteen years of serving as a pastor and in other various ministry roles, and now, in my everyday walking with Jesus life I felt like I was in kindergarten again.

Jesus welcomed the children and challenged his grown men disciples that "unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." It is a humbling place to be: kindergarten at age thirty five. It was sometimes a painfully stretching and clunky process, but I was assured day by day that my living Lord was with me and in me. He was my teacher in everything.

Praying for my work, starting with this pile of paperwork was difficult at first. I prayed about how difficult it was. I pleaded with God, "Please, show me why praying for this paperwork is so difficult." I also asked God to show me how Jesus would do my job if he were me.

In my imagination, I tried to get a visual of Jesus doing my work. AHA! That was it. At the core of this trouble with paperwork was this subtle lie that I bought (and probably, unknowingly perpetuated). I really didn't think Jesus would do my work. It was too small. It was too insignificant. It was too secular. Having been a professional Christian for years, I had bought the lie that work that was not overtly Christian was not Jesus' kind of work.

Prior to this breakthrough, I would not have admitted that I thought my work was too small and too secular to be a Jesus sort of job. However, that idea had ruled my thinking and had been spoiling my attitude about my work. This thought was a lie. The reason I was having trouble praying for my paperwork was that I thought somehow it remained outside the realm of the kingdom of God.

The truth is that work is good because it was instituted by God. In Genesis 1:26-31, it states that both the man and woman were created to tend the earth. We are given work to do with our whole beings. Work was a gift to the first humans and their work was to bless the created world that God had made. Fundamentally, work brings good to the others. It is necessary, but not intended to be a drudgery. Notice that there is no mention of human sweat coming from work until after sin enters the world. Drudgery at work is often what we feel when we do not embrace work as a gift. It is also our attitude when we see it as somehow outside of what God is doing in the world.

The daily nature of work reminds us that when Jesus was instructing his disciples about prayer, he places right in the middle a request for daily bread. It is a reminder that we all are dependent on our good Father to give us what we need. God designed our daily work to bring blessing and good to the world. We do our work as responsive obedient children.

We do our work for Jesus, in the manner of Jesus, with Jesus' resources, and for his glory. This is precisely what Paul means by this exhortation in Colossians 3:17: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

(This is a draft of that which was published by Light & Life magazine, May, 2017. I'm posting it here for those of you who want to read stuff that I right who do not generally get the magazine. I would recommend getting it, though, it is an excellent magazine and I am super excited to be published there. It can be found online at: http://fmcusa.org/lightandlifemag/give-us-this-day-our-daily-work/
In addition, I'm going to continue to write about this subject so being able to trace the thread will be helpful.)