Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Heart Songs

We went to our older son's band concert last night. One moment to brag, and then I'll get on with it. He played in three of the bands -- both 7th and 8th grade (as a 7th grader) and in the jazz band. He also won an Outstanding Band member award.

The band director for our middle school bands is a great teacher. Some of the parents got together and nominated him for the Teacher of the Year award. The winner of this award hasn't yet been announced, but in order to say "thank you" for all of the extra hard work that this teacher does, the jazz band parents contributed to a gift certificate for him (under the grand planning of our own Anita). Vinny stood up last night and thanked Mr. Kerr, and gave him the gift. What happened after that was truly stupendous. All three bands, and the entire section of bleachers with all of the family members stood up and applauded. Gratitude filled the room. Wow. Once it died down, Mr. Kerr stood at the microphone and thanked everyone. He told the room that he couldn't do what he does without great kids and their great parents. Humility and class -- I hope he wins the award.

As we listened to them play their instruments last night, and as I think about it this morning, I am reminded how important it is to the sound that the band makes that every section of instruments sounds different. Hopefully, everyone plays either the same notes or ones which harmonize, and at the same pace, but the resulting music itself would be very flat indeed if each child played the same instrument on the same note. It would be loud, but it would not have any of the depth or fullness that the cooperative sound has.

Its a well-worn analogy, isn't it? Tired and overused. I think the reason that this particular analogy -- a band with many instruments, making music -- is that everyone recognizes the truth of it. We all agree with this kind of metaphor. We all understand that everyone has a different gift, and that together, we can make beautiful music.

Why is it then that we cannot accept that we all have different needs?

Our church is working its way through the Natural Church Development process. As part of this effort, we have a coach from a different church who comes in and helps us to implement the necessary steps to achieve our goal. Our coach is Dr. Randy Flanagan. He was running a focus group the other night, and was discussing how different people like different kinds of music in church. He said, "We all have a different heart song." Wow. This is so true, and doesn't just apply to our musical tastes, does it?

We all have different heart songs.

If we believe that God equips us all with different gifts, and that we all sing different notes in life, then why doesn't it follow in that kind of logic, that we all have different needs in worship? How could we ever say that one way -- traditional, contemporay, praise -- is better than the others?

We all have different heart songs.

There is a church in Lexington -- it's United Methodist -- that doesn't do different types of services at different times. They offer several services, but each one is identical. Their theory (which is better explained at this link) is that they will offer some of every type of worship at every time period so as to avoid dividing their congregation into segments. I don't know if this is the answer or not, but I think there might be some wisdom in this. At least in this kind of setting, we would all have the opportunities to experience everything -- maybe our heart songs might be heard in surprising ways, when we least expect it. I kind of think that this system might also make us all more accepting of those who have different needs than us.

We all have different heart songs.

I think that the acceptance of this statement -- that we all have different heart songs -- leads us to one of our real missions. When we can down-grade our own needs and upgrade the needs of others, then we are loving them. It is an act of love to say to someone with your actions, "I don't like praise music, but I know that it brings the Word of God into your life, so, if necessary, I'll not only listen to it, I'll even sing it for you." When we can get to that point, the kind of music won't even matter. It will be our heart songs that are creating the worship.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Waiting to be fed

I fell asleep on the couch last night. This is always a mistake, especially when both S and I fall asleep in the family room watching TV. We don't wake up until 1:00 in the morning, and are immediately reminded that the joints of a 42 year old are not the same as the joints of a 22 year old.

Anyway, last night a dream woke me up, and I remember it enough that I'm still thinking of it today. I know it is a product of all of the thoughts I've been having lately about church, but it was interesting to me what my brain did with my rambles.

I was in church -- not my church, because the basement area looked different. It was a social hall with an attached commercial style kitchen. The kitchen and the social hall were connected by a door and by a window. The window, which was small -- only about 2 feet x 2 feet -- was used to pass filled plates from the kitchen to the social hall.

Someone -- someone who had made a terrible mistake -- had put me in charge of a dinner. The meal was ready -- lasagna and salad, but nothing was happening. I went out to the social hall to check on arrangements. The tables, which were round, were set up in the room. A group of men was standing in the room, far away from the kitchen, having a meeting. They were older, dressed in very nice suits, looking stern and forbidding. I went up to the head of this group and told him that dinner was ready -- we needed to get these people served. He just frowned.

I turned around to go back into the kitchen and saw of a line of people standing at the window. The line was winding its way around the wall of the social hall. All of these people were waiting for dinner.

Back into the kitchen I went, trying to get it all organized. There was plenty of help in the kitchen. The food was ready, but no one was doing anything. "All of these people are in line; we need to fill up the plates." Nothing.

I woke up and said, "Yuk. Somebody made me cook at church." Nightmare.

Seriously, I do find it interesting what came together in my dream.

We have all this food, we have all the help we need, we have the means to make it happen, and yet here we stand with a line of people waiting to be fed. As I've thought about this dream today, it doesn't remind me of real food, but instead of metaphorical bread -- we have it in abundance -- the Word of God for the people of God. We just need to give it to the people who are hungry for it.

Monday, May 29, 2006

A Little Rant

I'm going to rant. Just a little. It's an extra post, and it's my blog, so I can rant if I want to. So there.

Anyway, G went to a birthday party last night -- a sleep over. Seven or so boys were invited to bring wheeled instruments -- skateboards -- and come to spend the night. The invitation said that the party would be over "whenever you want to pick them up." Now, I'm a mom, and I know that they didn't really mean that. So this morning, we called their house at 11:00, thinking that that would have given the boys time to wake up (since they probably wouldn't have slept at all). S told G that he would be by at 11:30 to pick him up -- be ready in half an hour. At that time, all seven boys were still at the party and no other parents had called to arrange for pick up.

Apparently right after we called, a parent arrived who picked up three of the boys, and two more (who lived close by) left to walk home. That left G and the host, plus his parents at the house. The house is near Norway (which means nothing to you unless you live in town, but it is a busy through street). We live a few miles from their house. G called us to tell us that everyone had left, so we went ahead and left home to go get him. Before we arrived, we got another call. He was at Berry Hill house, which is a craft store on Norway, with his sleeping bag and backpack, waiting for us to pick him up. It was an empty parking lot, in front of a closed business, on a busy street.

Between the time we talked to him the first time, and after the other boys were either picked up or walked home, the parents came in and asked if the host (birthday boy) was ready to leave. G felt uncomfortable, so he told he parents he was going to go ahead and go. He left their house, rode his skateboard down the sidewalk along Norway to the Berry Hill parking lot.

Is it just me, or is this irresponsible? Am I overprotective? I know that G could have made a better choice and told the parents that we were on the way to pick him up instead of just leaving, but he's 12. I can't imagine as a parent just allowing a 12 year old to leave and not see him safely back with his parents.

Rant rant rant.

Memorial Day

I remember my grandparents
George and Lucille.
My memories of them are dim and faded,
seen through a fog of childhood.
Pieces of papyrus,
a fragment here or there.
I remember visiting them
with my father.
She would mail me knitted Barbie clothes
I can see her, in my mind,
doing embroidering,
even before I knew what it was.
Could my need to create,
to work with my hands,
be a gift passed on from her?
When I was seven,
their lives ended,
when a young man
twisted, disturbed,
set fire to their house.
What I only realized last week,
was that at the age of about 37,
my father lost both his parents.

I remember my grandmother.
Lillian Beatrice.
I remember her as tall
even though she was only 5'4".
She held herself tall.
She was born with a hole in her heart.
Which made her seem frail, weak.
But isn't it a sign of a life of strength,
to live 51 years with a damaged heart?
To survive science-fiction inspired surgery,
to repair the problem?
Open heart surgery in 1968.
To live through the loss of three babies?
Her body was weak,
but she was not.
The doctors told her that her heart had enlarged,
to try to compensate for its challenge.
I can believe it.
She loved everyone.
She even loved my cousin.
As addicted and lost as he is,
he still knows that our grandmother
loved him.
She died when fluid overpowered her lungs.
Congestive heart failure.
Her heart was not a failure.
It was a triumph.

I remember my grandfather.
William Henry.
He always seemed big to me.
Manly. Giant.
He worked in coal mines
and then in construction.
He was intimidating.
He yelled (at the world, not at me),
and cussed.
He smoked, until he gave them up,
in a bargain with God,
to try to save the life of his wife.
I remember arguing with him one day
(discussion -- not hurtful fighting)
over whether women should work in coal mines.
"She's taking a man's job."
"If she has the job, it's a woman's job."
I'm not sure he completely understood me,
but that's OK.
I remember the surprise of finding out
that he used trigonometry in his job.
I remember him falling to his knees in grief,
over the loss of my grandmother.
He liked trains and watches.
He like flea markets.
His father lived to be almost 100,
until he was hit by a car.
My grandfather should have lived a long life,
but coal dust, emphysema, asthma and
cigarette smoke,
gave birth to cancer.
The second time it killed him.
The last time I saw him
was at my wedding.
It's a gift to have that memory.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Grace and Good Works

I received a gift today at church. Pastor Joe was teaching our Sunday school class, discussing the origins on the compilation and translation of the Old and New Testaments. This was a spin off from the DaVinci Code movie discussions. As he discussed Greek translations, he said that those translating the Greek New Testament were able to refer to translations being made of the famous philosophers -- Aristotle, etc. Although the content of the two literature sources were very different, the words used were the same. Except for one. The word agape hadn't been defined until Jesus defined it.

Wow. Of course, Joe meant defined as "Agape means...." But that phrase, "Agape wasn't defined until Jesus defined it" is full of such wonderful, layered meaning. Unconditional love wasn't defined until Jesus defined it. Until Jesus demonstrated it. Until Jesus literally gave his life so that we would understand it.

Yes, I'm still thinking about grace. Yes, eventually I'll move on to something else, but I still have thoughts on this topic, inspired from Yancey's book. (My shopping list of notes is six pages long). A few more quotes from Yancey's book:

"Grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us."
"Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more."
"Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less."
"God loves us anyhow."

Think about the scripture used in yesterday's post.

Matthew 7:21-23:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

It sounds to me that "many" were saying that they had worked very hard to receive God's grace. Jesus was telling them that all of that didn't earn them grace.

I can understand that. I can say that I believe that God's grace is a gift, not earned by what we do. And then I read something like this:

From James 2:14-26, verse 17: In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

The reconciliation of the idea that we cannot earn grace, and the idea that we must show good works, has always been something of a paradox for me. Especially when you throw in the sheep and goats story from Matthew 25:31-46. It is precisely this disconnect -- this sheep and goat mentality -- that blocks, at times, my ability to believe that God's love in unconditional -- that grace is a gift -- that it is sufficient for our salvation.

I liked the chapter in the book about loopholes, and I think that the last paragraphs address this conundrum.

What is our motivation for good works? If they are not our path to God's love, then why do we do them? Yancey says our motivation for "being good" is gratitude. We first start with the experience of unconditional love -- agape -- grace. Then "we strive for holiness not to make God love us, but because he already does."

When we are loved, we don't treat the other person in a loving way in order to earn love. We already have it. We treat the other person well because we love him. Our "good works" toward that person is the fruit of our love.

In the same way, I think, our good works are the fruit of our relationship with God. We don't do them in order to earn God's love. Because of grace, there is nothing that we can do to make God love us more or less -- he already loves us perfectly. So in gratitude for that grace -- in response to that grace -- as a fruit of that grace, we feed the poor, visit the sick, love our neighbor. We do it out of gratitude to God.

Those good works are the outward evidence of our faith. So when James says that "faith without works is dead," I wonder if he means that if the faith has no fruit -- no evidence -- then it is hard for him to believe that the person has actually experienced grace at all.

Image: From this site

Menu for tonight: Chicken breasts marinated in lemon and lime juices, olive oil, rosemary and garlic, grilled outside, grilled corn on the cob, pasta with basil pesto, tomato and mozzarella salad and cantaloupe. Must go upstairs and help with dinner now.

Saturday, May 27, 2006


I’ve been putting off writing this post – not because I didn’t want to, but because I wanted to get it right. It seems important in my thoughts lately. I’m still working through thoughts of grace as tickled in my brain by Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.

Let’s start with a quote:

Nancy Mairs partakes of communion because she is “fainting from severe hypoglycemia of the soul.”

My grandmother wouldn’t participate in communion for years because she had hard feelings about someone, and wasn’t willing to let the feelings go. She felt that she had to be free of sins like this in order to take communion. That’s why I like the quote above. It seems so much more true to me – that communion is open to sinners – those suffering from “hypoglycemia of the soul” rather than those who have already been satisfied.

Another quote or two:

We cannot find him unless we know we need him – Thomas Merton
“…imperfection is the prerequisite for grace. Light only gets in through the cracks.” -- P Yancey
“Guilt exposes a longing for grace.” P Yancey

When you think about it, this makes sense. We are not aware the gift of grace unless we become aware that we need it. Until we “long” for it, our longing built from an awareness of the need of it, we will not approach God to receive it.

Maybe I’m on the wrong track. You’ll see in this post that I have more questions than thoughts.

Then this one from Jeff the Methodist (who is quoting an email):

There is no union with God without transformation. Paradoxically, the person who has struggled with personal transformation and become psychologically stronger is the person who can be empty and receptive before God. This vulnerability is an act of strength, since we no longer need to hold tightly to a false self that protects us from our inner pain and fears. We are free at last.

I am reminded of something I once read that said that we often cannot receive a gift from God because our hands are too full. Do we put up a false front with God? When we aren’t honest with ourselves and aren’t honest with God, are we holding on so tightly to pride, a sense of self-righteousness, a sense of control, that our hands are too full to receive grace? Do fear and anger become so important that we won’t exchange them for grace?

Yancey also says that Alcoholics Anonymous runs of two principles: radical honesty and radical dependence. Is there a lesson to be learned from that?

What does it mean when one of the quotes above says that vulnerability is an act of strength? Does it mean that this transformation -- this letting go of what we hold on to instead of grace – is very difficult and requires strength? Or that the process of transformation produces a kind of strength. Or that in our vulnerability, the gift of grace gives us strength? See, questions.

And if we see the link between forgiveness and grace – God’s forgiveness being an act of grace, then could it be when we fail to be forgiving – when we hold on tightly to that which keeps us from God – when we are so convinced that we are able to stand before God on our own, that we aren’t even aware of our own need for grace, that we fail to receive it.

Could that somehow be linked to the line in the Lord’s Prayer – Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us? For as we fail to forgive, we hold on to that which is keeping us from God. We fail to reach for forgiveness ourselves, and thus our unforgiving nature prevents God from reaching us with forgiveness and grace. It isn’t so much that God will refuse us forgiveness when we aren’t forgiving, it’s that we won’t reach for forgiveness from God – grace from God, when our hands are so full of our own lack of forgiveness.

Then, this from Matthew 7:21-23:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

Yancey (yes, again with Yancey – I have a whole shopping list of Yancey thoughts, remember?) says something here that I never thought of. One of our main tasks is to make ourselves known to God. A relationship with God must be based on full disclosure – the masks must come off. Compare that to verse 23: “I never knew you: depart from me, you evildoers.”

Still with me?

God has done many things to make himself known to us. We must also make ourselves known to God. It’s not a test of what we are doing – full disclosure is not a litmus test for salvation. I’m hearing in all these quotes and thoughts pulled together, that grace is a gift that we will only receive – only reach for – if we know we need it. If our hands are so full that we can’t receive the gift, then we must transform ourselves – letting go of that which we hold on to tightly – so that we can face God honestly – no masks.

Think of this – how intimate would a relationship be between a husband and wife if they didn’t really know each other? If the relationship were full of pretense? My husband knows me better than anyone else, and vice versa, I think. That is the basis of an intimate relationship.

So, transformation leads to freedom to know God, to be aware of a need for grace and to receive it. OK.

How do we do that?

“The power of grace is different: unworldly, transforming, supernatural.” P Yancey

Through grace?

I meant for that thought to be the last one in this post, for it is my main question – How do we do that? How do I do that? So I packed up my computer, turned off my lights, and left work. I got into the car, turned on the radio. This is what was playing:

But you see the real me
Hiding in my skin, broken from within
Unveil me completely
I'm loosening my grasp
There's no need to mask my frailty
Cause you see the real me

It’s the chorus from the song “The Real Me” by Natalie Grant.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Habit of Faith

This is an extra -- something I found this evening. I just ripped it right off from Methodist Corner, but I will thank Allen McGraw for posting such a great quote:

From Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

Now Faith…is the art of holding on to things your reason ‘has once accepted, in
spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason
takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in
which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had
moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your
moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such
a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods where they get off, you can
never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature
dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the
state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

Our Unique Offering

I had a "work friend" once who was a Presbyterian – I only mention the denomination because it’s important to the story that she felt that she had an affiliation with a church. Her church was a small one, and I think it may be the one her parents attended. She told me she didn’t go very often because she felt that her lifestyle (my word, not hers) wasn’t good enough for church, and she wasn’t ready to change it.

Off of my Yancey Grace notes grocery list, here are a few quotes:

If grace is amazing, why don’t Christians show more of it?”
What are we doing to spread the aroma of grace in the world rather than the stench of ungrace?”
A church should exist to offer “grace on tap.”

I was interested in the idea that Christianity is the only religion which believes that God’s love is unconditional. Our unique offering to the world is the grace of God’s unconditional love, and yet so often we don’t offer the world the one gift that only Christians can offer.

I don’t blog very often about politics. Have I ever blogged about politics? I notice at times that when politics become the subject of a blog, grace leaves. It isn’t that we can’t talk about government or politics in a “grace-filled” way – it’s that we often just do not. In the fervor of being “right” (meaning correct), we loose sight of being loving.

What is even more disturbing to me is when we have the same attitude – one of ungrace – about our faith. How is it that we can throw hate at people in support of a God of grace? Doesn’t it seem to be at contrary purposes?

My younger son has received lots of anti-smoking education at his school (and home). He’s learned how unhealthy it is for the smoker and his companions. He’s started holding his breath around smokers (which often proves to be an interesting test of endurance). What most disturbs me is when he says, “I hate smokers.” How is it that hating smoking can turn into hating the smoker?

I read a discussion the other day about Calvinism versus Arminianism. I don’t even know what Calvinism and Arminianism are, but I gathered from the discussion that it is the debate as whether our salvation depends on man’s will or God’s will. The discussion in the post and in the comments turned nasty, with people arguing their viewpoints – each convinced that the Bible supported his interpretation. The whole time I was reading it, I kept wondering if any of it were really important. I don’t mean salvation – I mean the labeling of people’s beliefs. Isn’t it enough to love God and love each other and then leave the rest up to God himself – who will understand it much more than I could – much more than I am ever expected to. Is the label so important that we would exchange grace in defense of the argument?

I don’t mean that we should always agree, or that we shouldn’t try to express our beliefs. One of the great joys of fellowship is that pull and tug of discussion – each working with the other to grow in the faith. When we approach it with grace it becomes a learning experience. When we approach it with ungrace, it becomes disconnected with what we are trying to do in the first place.

Do we offer grace-on-tap in our churches? Blog/smog, let’s get down to brass tacks. Do we welcome sinners? Would my friend feel the touch of grace in my church? I have found enough grace there myself to believe that she would also.

One point Yancey makes is that we are able to recognize our own shortcomings, our own sins, and love ourselves anyway (usually). One of the gifts of grace we receive from God is that we are able to recognize the sins of others, and love them anyway. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (MT 22:39b)

So, if I were to add to yesterday’s Grace list, I might add today:

On tap
Loving others as we love ourselves
An unnatural response
A God-given response

Note: Yes, I know. From yesterday’s post copy-write should have been copyright. I kept wondering why my spell check was rejecting it, and then I realized it this morning.

Speaking of churches: I was at our local Emmaus gathering this month and ran into someone I haven’t seen in about 18 years. We sat a while and talked. She asked me what church I attended. I told her, and mentioned that I had been there for about 26 years. “Do you like it?” she asked.

Image: Sky across the street from our house.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Amazing Grace

I just finished reading What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey. First, I must say that I recommend it. It’s one of those books, that as I read it, I found that I was nodding and saying to myself, “Yes, that’s right – that’s what God meant it to be.” I also would stop and tell myself, “Well, ouch.” Good book. If you are ever sitting in a library, or a doctor’s office, or someone else’s house, and see this book lying round, and have only 10 minutes or so to read from it, then turn to page 49 and read the retelling of the Prodigal Son story that begins on that page. The end of that story, of a daughter lost and then returning, is the very definition of grace.

That all being said, I must confess that I am a nerd. I took notes. I was reading this book, and phrases, sentences, stories, ideas just kept flying at me from the pages (and that was only the first chapter) so I started writing them down. I have several pages of grocery store style lists of thoughts gleaned from his book. (You know – grocery store list paper – skinny and long). I thought about a blog entry of just a transcription of my list, but decided that might be too close to a copy-write violation (like a preview of a movie that has all the good scenes). Want my list? I’ll send it, but I probably shouldn’t publish it on the internet.

That being said (all this being said, and no meat yet), I think that many of the thoughts on my list are going to appear in the next few days in blog entries. I don’t feel nearly qualified to write a series of entries about grace, but when has lack of qualification stopped me?

I think grace is one of those “church” words that we hear all the time but couldn’t really define if asked. Yancey says he didn’t want to dissect grace, like a frog, and kill it in the process. His book is full of stories and illustrations that paint a picture of grace. As I look at my grocery story list, I see words that kind of make up a definition:

Costs everything for the one who gives it.
Is free
No strings
Very difficult to understand
Gift, not achievement
Billows up
Shockingly personal

The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, who has a very interested life story (found here). He was the captain of a slave trading ship, who eventually became a minister. When he says, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that sav’d a wretch like me,” he was speaking of himself.

When I was in high school, I started attending the church that I still attend today. Our youth group sponsored our church’s tape ministry at the time, and every week a friend and I would take a cassette tape of the service to two particular shut-ins of our church. Twice a year – at Christmas and at Easter – the entire youth group would spend the day driving around Huntington, visiting every shut in who was part of the tape ministry. During Christmas visits, we would always sing Silent Night. At Easter, the song was Amazing Grace. At every house, nursery home and apartment building, we sang that song over and over. When the day started, I didn’t know the words. At the end of the day, I knew them by heart – in more ways than one. Those two years in my life were when I changed from someone who attended church very rarely to someone who came every week. Special times, and that hymn still holds special meaning for me today.

(If you are a parent or are someone who works with youth, let me scare you for a moment – we did this in our own cars, driving around, following each other (or getting lost) – no vans, no transportation except our own. That’s how we did all of our off-site events. And yes, one day one of our youth was involved in a car accident during transportation to an event.)

Image note: Photos are of a bird S found in a nest in our crabapple tree. It has nothing to do with the post except to say, "Hey, look, I got a picture of a bird actually in a nest. I still would like to capture images of the bluebird that keeps appearing in our back yard (never gonna happen) and one of Dave's (wood)pecker.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

God's Rooms

I was looking around Locust and Honey's Weekly Roundup of blogs, and found an entry on Everyday Theology about locking the church building. I really don't want to get into a discussion of whether the church building ought to be locked or not -- maybe in another post.

As I read that post, I thought of a Mission in the Carmel area of California. We were on a bus tour of the Monterey / Carmel area of the state during a visit to San Francisco. Almost as an afterthought, the bus driver stopped at this mission. We had maybe 15 minutes to walk around -- probably even less time than that. I walked into the church as we rushed through. Someone was playing something on the organ -- practice, perhaps. Have you ever walked into a room and felt the presence of God? Is there something about the dedication of a "sanctuary" to the purpose of worshipping God that "paints" it with God's presence? When I walked into the Mission, I could almost feel a tangible essence of God. I wasn't expecting it, but I remember it even now -- several years later.

When we did the prayer vigil at church over the weekend of Holy Week, the chapel, which was set aside those few hours for prayer, seemed to me to become a Holy spot. Am I just imagining it, or can a space feel like God is breathing in it?

Sometimes when I walk into our Sanctuary, when everything is quiet and empty, it feels like a Holy Place.

I know that God can be encountered anywhere. I know that God walks with us each day, in every location. I know that I do not need to be in "church" to pray or to "commune" with God. In fact, my car is a particular place that I often find God. Even so, the front seat of my car doesn't seem to be a particularly Holy place most of the time. (Maybe if it were a Mercedes?)

Is it just the architecture that makes the Sanctuary seem like a dwelling place of God? Habit (since that is where I worship each Sunday?) Is it the decorations -- the pews, the altar, the chancel rail?

Or is it true that certain Holy places seem to become sponges of God's spirit? That sometimes the walls of a chapel can seem to drip with God? That the air in a room dedicated to the worship of God can hold the weight of God?

Am I imagining it? Or does God make habit of indwelling in particular places?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

No Secrets

Summer is almost here, and S and I are beginning to look at our “outside spaces,” planning improvements and grill menus. Last weekend we planted begonias and herbs plus added some mulch to a few beds. We decided our porch furniture could use a face-lift. While we were at Wal-Mart buying volcano ingredients (doesn’t everyone buy volcano ingredients at Wal-Mart?) we checked out the porch furniture cushions.

All of the porch furniture cushions were hanging on a wall in the gardening section. The ones we wanted were hanging very high. Now, you must understand that my husband is 6’4”, and is not used to having items be too high for him to reach (it is really a rare occurrence), so after determining that he couldn’t get them down, he went off to find someone who could. His hard work yielded three people who couldn’t help us, and we were about ready to decide that sitting on the bare chairs might be less painful than buying cushions. A new person, apparently sent by one of the “helpless” people, came by, saw the problem, frowned at us for wanting to buy cushions in the first place, and then left to go get the “lift.”

He returned, riding an eight foot tall (?) motorized lift. It barely made it through the doorway and into the aisles. I so very much wanted to laugh at the man, but this was obviously “the way it must be done.” Is there not a simpler way to lift cushions (that way less than a couple of pounds, I’m sure) of a hook than an eight-foot tall, motorized lift? Like maybe a two-foot step ladder? A long pole with a hook on the end? A stepstool?

I do that sometimes – make things SO COMPLICATED, when, really, simple would get the job done so much more easily.

I really like email. Anyone who knows me knows that I like email. With email, I can speak to 100 people at a time, all across the state. I can ask someone a question at midnight when he/she is probably sleeping (and I should be sleeping). During a ten minute break at work, I can send out messages to all of the people I need to talk to, and then go back to work. I can’t do any of that with a phone.

One day I was trying to work out some details of a couple of projects with our church secretary. Emails were going back and forth at an alarming rate. We were both obviously sitting at our desks, speaking through the keyboards. Finally I laughed at myself, and picked up the phone to talk to her – so much more simple and effective. Sometimes we miss the easy answer because we are so caught up in what seems usual or routine.

In Sunday school this Sunday we were talking about the DaVinci Code. That lead to a discussion of gnosticism. Joe spoke of how Gnostics often believes that they had a “secret knowledge” that would lead to salvation. We also discussed how some people or even churches have that belief today – that they hold a “secret” key to salvation that no one else has.

God went to some pretty long-lengths to make sure that His plan for our salvation was not secret. Why do some people continue to insist that they DO hold a secret key or belief?

We talked in Sunday school that there are people who like to feel that God has shared a special knowledge with them – it makes them feel important or powerful. (As an aside, I was watching Leno last night, and he told a joke about an evangelist who said, “God was speaking to me, and if I heard him right…” Leno said, “God was speaking to you, and you weren’t listening well enough to know if you got it right? Shouldn’t you have been paying more attention?”)

Setting aside the power issues involved, if someone came up to you and told you that he held the secret to salvation, and that he would share it with you, wouldn’t you be tempted to accept the CERTAINTY of that? Here’s your pass card; step right in.

We sometimes overlook the simple truth of “Jesus love me, this I know” because we have a need to make everything more complicated. We want a key or a password. We want the certainty of salvation that we believe that would provide. I’m not saying that grace is easy – it isn’t. In fact, it is the simplicity of it that makes it so hard.

If God loved you so much to die for you, then what is your response? It isn’t easy, but it is simple. No passwords or keycards. No IDs or special knowledge. Just truth. Grace is a gift, and we so often don’t believe that it is.

Image: Remember the sunset pictures from this post? When I turned around from taking the photo, the bank, which is mirrored, was reflecting the sunset. The image above is the sunset reflected in mirrors (which is why the sun is backwards).

Monday, May 22, 2006

Random Thoughts

I have one son sitting on the couch doing homework. He seems incapable of tackling this project without whining -- can you tell I can't wait until summer? Anyway, I don't seem to be able to string five thoughts together under one cohesive theme. Lots of thoughts today are floating around in my head. If I had carried a notebook around today, I would have written down the following:
  • I made my younger son smile today because I made a pterodactyl fly. We had to build a volcano for school this weekend, and he decorated the surrounding environment with dinosaurs and trees. Last night we couldn't figure out how to made the winged dinosaur fly -- before S and I went to bed last night I wired that critter up in the air, soaring above the landscape. J was very happy this morning.
  • The minister at a funeral I attended today explained Jesus as the Way by saying that Jesus doesn't show us the path, he takes us by the hand and leads us. I'm sure I have it wrong -- I'm not phrasing it right at all -- but I really liked the image.
  • Joe won two awards at a golf tournament. I didn't ask anything else, but S did. Joe did not share further. I'm doubtful.
  • Play it where it lies. Words to live by.
  • I would have missed the beauty of a church if S hadn't told me to look up.
  • G was telling me a story today -- I don't even remember what is was, but his animation tickled me. I told him, "You know, I really enjoy you." That made him smile; I should do that more often.
  • I don't know how my tiny baby has grown to be the young man that he is, but this evening he was inducted into the Honor Society.
  • The ideals of the National Junior Honor Society are character, scholarship, leadership, service, and citizenship. More words to live by.
  • Just when I'm feeling so smug, having raised such great boys, they throw food at each other in the restaurant at dinner.
  • I'm no good at homework after 8:00. I'm really bad at it at 10:18.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Peter's Prayer

VBS theme #4: Gifts

I had planned to write today about the many gifts that God gives to us, but my plans changed after today's sermon. It was entitled Gifts of the Spirit. Joe did a monologue as Peter, talking about the Gentile Pentecost. I was struck by how much Peter had to adapt to the changes God was demanding of him and to the responsibilities God had given him. I had never thought how difficult it must have been for Peter to accept that God's gifts were for everyone -- not just the Jews, and yet Peter is convinced by the dream he has. He answers the call of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, and goes to tell his stories to a group of gentiles.

I wondered, as I sat here tonight, what Peter might have prayed that night, after the Spirit was poured out on the gentiles. The poem below is Peter's Prayer, following the occurrences in Acts 10:44-48.

Thanks to Joe for many of the images and thoughts in this poem, especially the phrase "Beyond my belief," which is a direct quote from Joe. I had also never considered, prior to Joe's sermon today, how frightening it must have been for Peter, a fisherman, to take on so many responsibilities, or how difficult it must have been to speak to Cornelius, a Roman, after Peter's experience in the Garden and at the crucifixion.

Acts 10

Peter's Prayer

My friend, my father, hear me.
I am overwhelmed.
It is all beyond my understanding.

My world has been turned backwards.
All of my assumption, my safe habits,
are lost.
You have taken them,
replacing them with the unfamiliar.
What was once unclean is now claimed.
It is beyond my belief.

I miss you.
I miss our conversations.
I miss the certainty that came from asking questions.
Sometimes I'm not sure if I can carry this burden.
Then, just when I think I understand,
You turn the world upside down.
Like you did today.

I am only a fisherman,
and yet you have me speaking to thousands of people.
What if what I tell them is wrong?
Help me to know what to say,
and how to say it.

I confess that the last person I wanted to speak to today
was a Roman.
I saw what they did to you.
I could go my whole life and never see another one again.
And yet you sent him to me.
You demanded that I move beyond my hatred,
Move beyond my loathing,
And treat him as a brother.
It was beyond my capability.

And yet you showed me what I had to do,
so I did it.
And I was witness to your spirit
being poured out on those I considered unclean.
Unclean no more.
Claimed by you.
It was beyond my imagination.

I was loved
beyond my worth.
I was forgiven
beyond my deserving.
I was trusted
beyond my ability.
I have been blessed with grace
beyond my belief.

So I will follow you
where ever you lead me.
To the end of my life,
and beyond.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Heroes Say Yes

VBS theme #3: Called to be God's heroes -- Light unto the nations -- Traits of God's heroes.

As I began thinking about this theme today, the biblical stories of people like Moses, Abraham, Samson, Mary and Paul came to mind. Called by God. They weren't perfect people, and each one had his or her flaws, but they became God's heroes.

Then, this afternoon, we went with our Sunday school class to see the DaVinci Code (more about that later). One of the MANY previews that was shown prior to the movie was for World Trade Center. Setting aside the question of whether I'm ready for movies centered around September 11 or not, while I was watching this preview, I was taken back to memories of that day. There is one scene in the preview where a Port Authority policeman (played by Nicolas Cage) is telling those under this command that they need to evacuate the building. He asks for volunteers. Several men step forward and say "Yes."

Heroes. That's what they are. Heroes are people who say, "Yes."

They aren't perfect like Superman. They aren't rich and famous like Tiger Woods. They are simply and wonderfully people who say "Yes" when they are called by God.

"Will you go into a burning building that has been struck by a jet in order to evacuate people and hopefully save their lives?"


Will you join Teach America and go to an underserved, undertaught part of the country to be a teacher?


Will you join a mission work team to help people recover from a hurricane?


Will you teach Sunday school? Watch children in the nursery? Sing in the choir?


If you notice, at no point do any of these questions ask if you are a really good public speaker.(Moses wasn't) Experienced. (Mary wasn't) Faultless (Paul definitely wasn't). Intelligent (I don't think Samson was). From a well-known family (Abraham wasn't).

God equips us for our mission and then asks us to go. God's heroes are those who say, "Yes." Thank God for them.

On anther topic, we did see the movie The DaVinci Code. All who attended thought it was good. I was especially impressed by a conversation at the end. Skip this part, because it is a Spoiler, if you don't want to read it prior to seeing the movie.

Robert is talking to Sophie, and he tells her, "It all comes down to what you believe. Why does it have to be that he was either human or divine. Why can't the human be divine?"

I don't have the quote exactly right, but the meaning is there, I think. And Amen. It all DOES come down to what we believe. We don't believe that he was only human or only divine. One of the great mysteries of our faith is that we believe he was BOTH human AND divine.

That conversation wasn't in the book, but I liked it.

Images: All taken near 1st Street at sunset today. The last one is the sunset reflected off S's car. Heroes say "yes" to reflecting God's light onto the world.

Friday, May 19, 2006


John 8: 1-11; Luke 23:33-34

As he sat in the temple, teaching,
The Pharisees brought him a test.
She was a woman who had sinned.
A woman who had committed adultery.
By the law, she should have been stoned.
Killed for her sin.
Killed by her sin.

What would he do?
Ignore God’s law?
Ignore the law of the Romans?

“Whichever one of you has committed no sin.
Whichever one of you is without sin,
May throw the first stone.”

One by one, they all walked away.
Each, burdened by his own sin,
They dropped their stones
Which thudded to the ground,
A testament to their own failings.
Perhaps one of them had shared her sin?
None of them were blameless.

“Go, and do not sin again.”
So she turned, and left.
Recreated by the work of God.

Later, they nailed him to a cross.
The earth groaned; the sky turned black.
He said, “Father, forgive them.
They do not know what they are doing.”
He died.
He died a horrible, tortured death,
In payment for sins he did not commit.

I stand at the foot of the cross,
And each day, I turn.
Recreated by the work of God.

Thanks to Lewis Smedes, as quoted by Philip Yancey, for the image of forgiveness as re-creation. Thanks to Jeff the Methodist's comment linking that to Jesus' last words.

Image: Honeysuckle on the VA hill. Notice how the light changes it.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The peace of the struggle

VBS Theme #2: God speaking to us through our conscience -- wrong steps Does anybody besides me think that our VBS themes are a little broad?

Anyway, as I was thinking about this one today, I was reminded of the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Of course, when I went to pick it off the bookshelf this evening, the book wasn't where it was supposed to be. Consequently, I know that I'm going to get some of this wrong.

C.S. Lewis says "First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in." We have a basic sense of right and wrong, and even in different cultures, the basics of this belief are the same.

This "theme" for VBS states that God is speaking to us through our conscience. I'm not sure that I agree with that, or maybe I think that what we want to call conscience is really this "awareness" of God that Lewis is talking about. Does God speak to us through our conscience? Or through His spirit?

It's interesting to me that on the day when I'm thinking about conscience and wrong steps, the topic of the sermon at Common Grounds was the gift of peace. I remember years ago -- BC (before children) -- an older lady that I had known for years, even before I started coming to our church, and who is a member of our church, said to me, "But you know, real peace comes from God." I just nodded my head and said something like, "Yes." Witty, aren't I? I remember thinking that I had no idea what she was talking about. It's taken me years to even get an inkling of what she was talking about.

There is a peace, though, in feeling that your decisions are leading you down a path that God wants you to take. There is also, oddly enough, a sense of "unpeace" (I just made that up) when one is taking wrong steps.

Years ago -- again, BC -- our church started the Bethel Bible program. It began with a teacher's class. This class was designed to teach church members how to be teachers in the program. I felt like I should join the class. I just had this nagging feeling that I should be walking down that path, but the class started, and I didn't join it. About a year later, a second teacher's class started. Again with the nagging feeling, and that time I listened. Joining that Bethel teacher's class started me on the path I travel now as an adult Sunday school teacher. I can in no way mare how much I've learned as a teacher. I KNOW that this is one of the things that I am supposed to be doing.

I mentioned in a previous post that at the end of last year I resigned my chairmanship of the committee that I had been working with for several years. It was a decision that I had thought about for a year, and when I made it, I felt comfortable with it. And yet, once I had done it, I could find absolutely no peace with it. I think it was a wrong step.

One night, while I continued to struggle with that decision, I was out walking the dog. S was out of town; it was just Molly (our beagle) and me, walking in the dark. Finally, I asked myself, "What would happen if I kept the job?" I think that may have been the first time I ever understood what she had meant by peace. I called S while I was walking, "What if I kept it? What if I stayed as chairman?" The next morning I emailed Joe. It was the first time I had felt peaceful with the decision since I had resigned in the fall. Luckily, I had been able to retrace my steps.

God walks with us, and works with us as we make our decisions in life. Sometimes it's a struggle. Sometimes it feels like wrestling. It doesn't sound very peaceful, but the fruit of the struggle is peace -- a gift from God. In the end, aren't we glad? The opposite of a God who will wrestle with us is a God who is disinterested. Which would we rather have?

Extra: I found this quote this evening, peeking around on the internet -- From the Holocaust museum in Washington -- Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.

Image: Meet Brigadoon, my favorite rose bush. It will bloom for us for a week or two, and then bugs will devour it until September, when one or two more buds will appear. Alternatively, I'll asphyxiate myself while spraying it with bug spray, and it will bloom for three weeks prior to being devoured.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I'm involved in a community -- five church -- committee to design and implement a Vacation Bible School program for the members of our churches. The chosen theme is "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." The DCE of one of the other churches is writing the program. So far we have nightly themes. I thought for my own edification, I would take each of those themes and expand it into a blog post -- my thoughts on each one.

The first night's theme is, "Doing the Right Thing -- Forgiveness -- biblically based decision making principles." That's a little broad for a blog entry, so let's narrow it to Forgiveness.

I mentioned before that I'm reading "What's So Amazing About Grace." Before reading this book, I never really connected forgiveness to grace. That sounds strange, doesn't it? Why wouldn't I connect them? I do see an immediate connection between God forgiving us, and God's grace, but never thought of the idea of human forgiveness being a gift of grace from one human to another. Taking a closer look at forgiveness, with the "Why Forgive" chapter of Yancey's book striking "chords," here are some thoughts:

  • According to Yancey, the most common Greek word for forgiveness means to release, to hurl away, to free yourself. I like that image. The first person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving. That person is released from resentment -- literally meaning "to feel again." Forgivness allows the person who does the forgiving to move beyond the pain of resentment.
  • Yancey compared forgiveness to "spriritual surgery" using a quote from Lewis Smedes.
    When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from his wrongful act. You recreate him. One moment you identify him ineracdicably as the person who did you wrong. The next moment you change that identity. He is remade in your memory.
  • When you hear the word "recreate" doesn't it bring to mind God? God creates -- he created all of us. In order for us to "recreate" someone, doesn't it make sense that we need God's assistance? Moving away from resentment is an unnatural act. We are able to forgive, with God's help, when we wouldn't be able to undertake this "recreation" without His help.
  • Often, forgiveness isn't an instant occurance. Sometimes it is gradual -- something we work on each day. In the book Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, the main character, Jamie, had been trying to find a way to explain forgiveness to his daughter.
    How to tell her in words, then, what he had learned himself by pain and grace? That only by forgiveness could she forget -- and that forgiveness was not a single act, but a matter of constant practice. (emphasis mine)

I wonder sometimes if we get so caught up in the words "Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those that trespass against us," that we come to think of forgiveness as a test -- something that we are commanded to do. When we fail; when forgiveness is so hard that we can't possibly accomplish it, we blame ourselves. What we need to remember is that while forgiveness is hard, we are not called to do it on our own. We try to do it all in one big gulp, and when we aren't able to do that, we feel guilty.

Forgiveness is a gift of grace from God. He forgives us for our many sins, and he offers us the grace necessary to forgive others. He doesn't command us to forgive as a test of our faith, but instead as a means of freedom. He'll help us to do it, and His help isn't a one time event; it's an all you can eat buffet. Grace in abundance.

Image: Bridge in Ritter Park -- I thought a bridge was a good symbol of forgiveness and grace.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Did he get any on me?

I’ve debated the use of the following analogy all day (arguing with yourself is tiring), but if you’re reading it, then I must have decided to post it, so buckle your seat belts. This one’s kind of gross.

A few years back, we were driving down Route 60. We knew G wasn’t feeling top notch, but we really didn’t know that he felt as bad as he did. All of a sudden we hear from the back seat, “I’m going to be sick.” Every parent’s ickiest nightmare – a child sick in the car. S pulls over, trying to make it to Go Mart and the men’s restroom. Needless to say, we didn’t make it. Poor G was sick – everywhere. All over inside of the car. S pulls over, and we try to start “clean up and recovery” of child, seat, backpack, floor…. S is working hard, trying to no be sick himself, when he looks at me, and says, “Did he get any on me?”

I still remember to this day that S was wearing a navy blue sport coat. G, unintentionally, had seemed to aim for his father’s shoulder, and the entire back of that sport covered was covered. “Did he get any on me?”

“Oh, honey – everywhere.”

God reigns grace down on us all the time, and sometimes I think we walk around covered in it, but completely unaware of it. (Please don’t leave me comments telling me that I shouldn’t compare grace to vomit – I know the analogy has huge limitations, but stick with me).

Why is it that we are unaware of God’s presence in our lives? Of God’s grace working through us? Of God’s love for us when it is all over us, covering us. Why isn’t it obvious to us?

I don’t know the answer, but here are a more questions:

  1. We sometimes (I sometimes) have a very poor opinion of our talents and gifts. We don’t think that what we offer can possibly be good enough, can actually impact other people’s lives, could in any way be used by God as a tool to further His purposes. Why is it that we feel that way when God has given us our gifts in the first place? Do we think God’s gifts come from Big Lots? Are they “seconds?” Why is it that we sometimes think that what we have been given isn’t “good enough?”
  2. Fred Rogers had a theory that the space between himself and the person he was trying to reach was “Holy Ground.” He believed that God would take the best we could offer and would transform it to meet the needs of His children. Do we (I) sometimes forget that God is active in the space between us? I’ve mentioned before the Prayer Vigil at our church during Lent this year. As that project was starting to get off the ground, I had real doubts that it would be successful – that it would move at all beyond mediocre. I wondered if there would be anyone interested in participating at all. I prayed that it would work. I tried to give it my best effort, and I know that other people in our church did the same. Why am I surprised that it DID work? Why did I forget that God works in the spaces between us to transform what is offered into what is needed?
  3. Are we so busy sometimes that we miss God? Are we so caught up in the details of our religion that we miss the object of our faith? When you read through the prophets of the Old Testament, I think you can’t help but come away with feeling that God was FRUSTRATED with his creation. I got the feeling that God was standing in the midst of His people, yelling, “If you would just listen! If you would only focus on me, you’ll notice that I’m standing right here with you!” We can loose our God-focus sometimes in the midst of scheduling volunteers, choosing just the right color of paint, arguing with each other, and complaining about the condition of the bathrooms. All of these items need to be given attention, but must that attention be paid at the cost of our ability to know that God is with us?
  4. Do we have so poor of an opinion of ourselves that we doubt that God would choose to work through us at all? I think God is the one who came up with the idea of the Prayer Vigil, and then pushed me to get it started. Why did it take me so long to believe that God would be interested enough in me, or trust me enough to try to work through me to do His will? Do we all feel that way sometimes?
Isn’t it sad sometimes to think that we are standing in the downpour of God’s grace, and we’re missing it? We’re not trying to avoid it, but we are instead completely unaware that we are getting wet at all?

Aside: Thanks to Locusts and Honey for choosing the He Needs to be Closer post as the Best of the Methodist Blogosphere last week. I mention it because – well – it is exciting for me and also because I doubted that the post was going to speak to anyone but me. It was special to me because it was inspired by Chuck…see, perfect example of what I am talking about in this post – me doubting that God will be working in the spaces between us.

Isn't that a limitation?

I haven't written my main post for the day yet; I'm still arguing with myself as to what it will be about. I do have a story from a meeting I just left that I thought was worth a "mini-extra-post."

I just left our bi-monthly (if that means twice a month, and not every two months) Research Conference. These meetings are more than just presentations; they are meant to be presentations with discussions -- the merits of a proposed study, the implications of findings -- one person presents, and then the group contributes thoughts and ideas. Anyway, a doctor not from our "group" was presenting a proposed clinical study to our doctors (we'll call them attendings) and specialists-in-training (fellows). After the presentation, we probably spent 45 minutes in discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the proposed research. This is a clinical study -- not my area -- so I didn't contribute much until the end of the talk. Near the end of the discussion, the following conversation occured:

Me: Your study only involves men. Do you see that as a limitation of your study?
Presenter: No. (He then proceeds to tell me that the relationship between diabetes and cardiac events in older women is confusing, and that women are protected from cardiac events in their younger years, so really, he didn't need to include them.)
The fellows and attendings go on to tell him that he is wrong in his assumptions.
Me: Can you apply your findings from only male patients to female patients?
Presenter: No.
Me: Then it is a limitation, isn't it?
Presenter: Yes.

How is it that a person can think that the gender bias of choosing only male patients for a study does not present a limitation to how the results can be used when he knows that he can only apply any conclusions he draws to only half of the population?

I was glad that our attending doctors and fellows tried to correct his misconceptions. One even stopped the conversation later, and returned to the topic, telling him that modern studies include both men and women, and that his study would be strengthened by the inclusion of women.

Although he (the presenter) kind of lost me all together when he called all people over the age of 45 "elderly."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Looking Inside the Tent

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire occurs early in the film. Harry, Hermione, and the Weasleys are going to the World Quidditch Cup Match (or something like that). They arrive at the “campgrounds” and come upon the Wesley’s tent. It is small. Very small. Pup tent small. Harry stands looking at it, wondering how the whole Weasley family, Hermione and he are going to get into the tiny thing, much less spend any time in it together. All of the others just lift the tent flap, and go in without hesitation. Harry finally follows. Inside, he finds a gigantic room (relative to tents, that is) with beautiful rugs, tables, chairs, furniture, curtains – opulence and wonder. I wish I could adequately describe the look on his face when he says, “I love magic!”

A friend of my mother makes this kind of candy – it looks like glass of different color. She doesn’t flavor it as you would expect, however. Red candy might be lemon flavored. Green is probably cherry, purple would be mint and yellow would be cinnamon.

And then there’s this story that I found on a blog.

Harry could have looked at the tent, so small and unassuming, and gone home, thinking that “This just won’t work.” He would have missed a great adventure. People who don’t like mint candy would pass over the green pieces, knowing that purple would be safe. The office manager in Douglasville, Georgia could have just spread the news that an escort service had started business down the road.

How often do we do this? How often do we make judgements with little or no information? What do we pre-judge?

  • Children – I do this bunches. We think we know what our children are going to say or do, so we stop them ahead of time. We don’t let them ask questions; we curb their actions since we already know what they want or need. Sometimes we do; sometimes we’re (I’m) wrong.
  • Ideas – How often do I say something negative about an idea someone else has because I think, from looking at it, that it won’t work? That’s we’ve either tried it before, or have an expectation of how it will work out, so that we veto it before it even has a chance. We think it might be too much work, or that no one will be interested in participating, so we put on the brakes.
  • People – You know this happens, and so do I. I do it, and I bet you do, too. We judge people by the way they look, the way they walk, what they wear, what they drive, where they live, and how much they weigh, without ever “opening the tent flap” to see what’s behind the façade. We know ahead of time what older people, younger people, women, men, children, people of different races, countries and religions are going to say, do, how they will act, and what they believe – or what we think they should say, do , act and believe – before we hear a word or see a movement from them.
Often, we never stop to be amazed, the way Harry was amazed, by the works of God. We turn a blind eye, stop listening, or just walk away from the tent, sure that we know the next step, the next outcome. We often never give God a chance to “show His stuff.” We don’t take the time to believe that children are also on a faith journey. We stop believing that God can work through our plans, turning our so-so events into God-transformed surprises. We forget that each of us is made in God’s image, so we stop looking for the God-reflection in other people, convinced that the presuppositions which we project onto them is the truth.

Image: Fog on the VA hill hiding the valley behind the hospital.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Of Reading and Habits

I mentioned before that my goal is to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. If you watch the sidebar, you'll notice that I'm keeping track. I decided that I needed some accountability in this endeavor, or it would never get finished. Hence the tracking bars -- amount read versus goal.

This week I finished the Old Testament. When we were in our Emmaus Reunion group this Saturday, I brought this up. That discussion kind of solidified my thoughts about this process -- well, solidified them from liquid to jello. Thoughts:
  • The Bible I bought for this project was designed to be read in 90 days -- 12 pages at a time. I tried this for about a week, and didn't like it. I know others have tried it, and found it appealing, but I felt like the Bible was speeding by, with no time for digestion. Because of that, and because 12 pages a day meant that I had to start reading at 6am, I switched to 6 pages a day. This has worked better in some ways. It is a more realistic chunk for me to handle. I can get up at 6:15 to start reading (and I like those extra 15 minutes of sleep). Half the number of pages per day reduces that rushed problem that I had.
  • Even with only 6 pages a day, I still sometimes, at the end of the 20 minutes, feel like I'm not sure what I've read. My eyes have moved over all the words, but sometimes the focus is lost.
  • On the positive side, I've read parts of the Bible that I avoided before. I'm still amazed that I remember Job so well. It really made an impression on me. I was dreading reading it, but found that it had something to say to me.
  • The Psalms rushed by in fast forward motion. Reading them like this meant that I had no time to savor them at all. The Psalms deserve a more careful reading.
  • I had a habit, when I started this, of blogging about something that I had read once a week. This was helpful, in that it made me keep watch -- to find something that really got me thinking. As I moved into the prophets, I feel out of this routine. I wonder if that means that I lost that discipline, or if it means that the prophets didn't get me thinking as much. Hopefully in the New Testamant, I'll be able to return to that kind of text of the week blogging.

Am I glad I'm doing it this way? Yes. I'll have read the whole thing by the time I'm done in July, and that can't be a bad thing. Would I pick up the Bible and read it again just like this immediately? No.

On a positive note, this "habit" of getting up early to read has accomplished just that -- established a habit. I'm already thinking about what's next. I like this time, set aside, to read. I'm excited to pick something else like this "straight-read-through" to tackle next. In addition, I try to finish my 20 minutes with prayer. It's not much, but it is a few minutes to habitually pray each morning (weekdays, anyway) that I wasn't giving to God before. I use it to focus on particular prayer requests. When I say, "Please know that you are in my prayers," now I have a specific and habitual time that this can happen.

I'm anxious to see how this kind of reading works with the New Testament (which starts tomorrow).

Image: Did you know that poplar trees bloom? The yellow poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, is blooming right now, and the photo is of one of its flowers, next to our parking lot at the VA. I like it, because it is so unexpected.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

As pleasing as baking bread

After the track meet last week, we stopped at Johnny's on Route 60 for pizza with the team. None of us were very hungry, so we left with over half a pizza. Since S's car was full of boys and lightbulb paraphernalia, I got the pizza. Not wanting to smell it all the way home, I put it in the truck. Doesn't everyone keep their pizza in their trunk?

So the next morning, I open the garage door, step into the garage, and -- well, you guessed it -- eau-de-pizza. Pizza smell everywhere. It permeated the garage and filled up my car. It took a couple of days for it to finally be gone.

Have you ever stood near the corner of Washington Avenue and Fourteenth Street West? On that corner is Heiner's Bakery. I had lunch in the west end on Friday, and just stood there, enjoying the smell of baking bread carried through the air. Fantastic (Much better than pizza!)!

During the Emmaus hour of the prayer vigil, Linda asked God to make His presence so known during the Easter service that it would be (and I may have the wording of this wrong) like a fragrance in the sanctuary.

And then today I found this verse from 2 Corinthians 2:

For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. (NIV; Verse 15)

What does it mean to be the "aroma of Christ?"

  1. Smell is difficult to ignore. We can close our eyes to avoid seeing something, or easily avoid the taste of something. Put your hands over your ears to ignore a sound and to keep your hands from touching something. If we try to avoid a smell, we have to stop breathing. Living and breathing is linked to smell. We need to convince people that knowing God is linked to true life.
  2. We can differentiate about 10,000 different smells. Our smell "resolution" is very high. If we pay attention, we can notice all of the different aromas of God. If we are careful, we can represent to people all aspects of God.
  3. People recall smells with 65% accuracy after a year; we can make God unforgettable to people if we try.
  4. We can smell "directionally." Isn't that a strange concept? But when you think about it, it only means that we can detect the source of an odor. By being the aroma of Christ, we can lead people to God.

I think I'm probably stretching the metaphor a bit, but when you stand near the bakery, and think how the smell of baking bread can envelope you, then Linda's prayer makes a whole lot of sense. May God's presence be as noticable as the aroma of baking bread, and may we be the aroma of Christ to those around us.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Pray for whom?

I’m reading What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey (link in sidebar). It was sitting on S’s bookshelf since he had read it with his Wednesday morning group, so I borrowed it. I’m about halfway through, and I would definitely recommend this book.

Reading it today, I had one of those “Ah hah; why didn’t I ever think of that” moments. Consider this scripture:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That’s very difficult to do. I have a feeling that sometimes, when we do it, we are motivated by the desire to have our “enemy” not be an enemy anymore. For example, if someone is an enemy at work, I might pray for that person’s heart to be changed, so that he is no longer my enemy (and thus my life will be made happier). It is a motivation for prayer (and that can’t be bad) but it is a rather self-centered motivation.

Yancey quotes Dietrick Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was persecuted under Nazi Germany (so his enemy was horrible – much more horrific than anything I have ever faced). He wrote:

Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God. Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them…We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves.
Wow. Several things jumped out at me:

  1. “We go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God” – Yancey makes the point that this kind of act is extraordinary – unnatural – undeserved – unmerited – unfair. It is also extremely difficult. But, and here’s the catch – doesn’t it ring true? Doesn’t it sound like what Christ was talking about?
  2. We are not promised that by praying for our enemy, we will then be treated better by that enemy. Sometimes I think that we pray awhile for our enemy, the enemy does not change his treatment of us, so we give up. If we agree with Bonhoeffer, then we shouldn’t be praying for our own selfish motives, but instead we should pray for our enemies for the benefit of the enemy, and because it is what God commands. We do this all the time for our friends. When someone is ill, we pray for healing. We pray for the benefit of the one who is sick. It is certainly more of a challenge to do it for an enemy (to say the least). Actually, Bonhoeffer says that the enemy will continue to “despitefully use and persecute us.” He says it is a certainty.
  3. “We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves” We are praying for our enemy because we are called to love our enemies. The prayer is to be an act of love, substituting our voice for the one who is unable or unwilling to pray for himself. We are saying to God, “This person will not come before you, or will not pray this particular prayer, so I come to you to pray it for him.” We are doing it not in spite of being persecuted, but as a response to the persecution. The prayer may not make the persecution stop, and if it does not, then the need for the prayer is intensified.
Yancey tells a story of an incident in Northern Ireland. A bomb went off in Belfast, burying many people in the rubble, including a man named Gordon Wilson and his 20-year-old daughter. She died. “Speaking from his hospital bed, Wilson said, ‘I have lost my daughter, but I bear no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back to life. I shall pray, tonight and every night, that God will forgive them’”

It’s a good thing that faith is a journey, and that God is patient enough to travel it with us. I am not sure at all that I would be able to pray for an enemy in this manner. I guess that’s the point, though, isn’t it? We can’t, but with God’s grace, there is hope that we can. Gordon Wilson was able to do so.

Images: Pansies at Chili's this evening (Don't fajitas and margaritas sound like a good Friday evening?) I should have mentioned yesterday that the newspaper clipping tool (read "toy) can be found at this site.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

He needs to be closer

A man hid in an alley, trying to sleep between a trashcan and the wall of a building. He ignored the scuttle of rats and the stink of the garbage as best he could. It was important that no one find him; if they found him, he would go to prison.

It was evening, but the summer light filtered into his alley, casting shadows that loomed over him. He had tried to sleep; when the light was gone, he would go, traveling to another hiding place in the dark.

Trying to occupy himself, he picked up the newspaper that had been thrown into the trashcan. It was yesterday’s news, but the man wasn’t choosy. The headline on the front page read, “Local Pastor Killed.”

If you cannot read the newspaper article, click here for a text version. The article is part of the story.

The man threw the newspaper back into the trash can in disgust. He was the “unknown assailant.”

Three years later, the same man lay in a hospital bed in a different city, far from where he had once killed a man. He had cancer, and he knew that he would soon die. ‘A fitting end to a horrible life,’ he thought to himself. One wrist was handcuffed to the bed railing, a testament to the fact that the police had, in fact, apprehended their suspect.

The nurse, who stood beside his bed, changing his IV bag, asked him, “How are you feeling this evening?”

“Half dead,” he said.

She checked his pulse and made notes in his chart. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No. Nothing.”

She turned to leave, and then stopped on her way out the door. Coming back to the bed, she said, “He loves you still, you know. Even you.”

He saw the small gold cross she wore, dangling from a tiny chain around her neck. “Not me.”

She took hold of his wrist again, and leaned toward him, intent to deliver a message that she wasn’t sure he would even hear. “Yes, you – You are forgiven for what you have done, and He loves you.” The man shook his head, saying nothing. The nurse left, unsure why she had even spoken of God to the man.

The man didn’t sleep that night. His body was filled with pain. He kept thinking about what the nurse had said. He remembered that his grandmother had always told him that God loved him; he had believed her then, but no longer did. How could it be possible that God could love him? It wasn’t. Was it?

He and God wrestled through the night, and in the morning, when a different nurse came in to check on him, she found that he had died.

The man stood in the entrance of a huge, bright space. Inside was warmth, incredible golden light and joy. He took one step in, unable to stop himself, but went no further.

Charles Michaels, the man he had killed, approached him. “Al,” he said, “you need to get closer.”

“I don’t deserve to be any closer than this. I’ll be fine here.”

Charles shook his head, smiled, and draped an arm around Al’s shoulders. “Closer,” he said.

Other people stood in the space, facing its center. When they saw who was coming, they stepped aside, making room, making a path for Al to travel. Al and Charles worked their way closer, Al always reluctant, Charles always insistent. The people he passed could be heard to say, “Closer. He needs to be closer.”

Finally, he was standing on the front row of heaven, face to face with God. He sank to his knees, and mumbled, “I don’t deserve to be here. I shouldn’t be here at all, but I can stay in the back. All of these other people should have this honor.”

God said, “You missed knowing me in your life. We only had a few hours together. All of these people know that you need to be close to me now.”

This image of heaven was inspired by something that Dr.Charles Echols once told me. He believed that in heaven, the saints surrounding God would step back, so that those who had not known Him for very long could approach. Those who had lived long with the knowledge of God’s grace would step away from God to allow those new to God to learn of His light, for they would need to be closer.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Just what is the plan?

We went to the Country Track meet championship this evening. Which means -- YEA -- that track is over. Not that I'm glad, or anything. G's team came in 4th (out of 5 teams -- frown), but his shuttle hurdle relay team got second by a hair and third in 4 x 200 relay. This was his team's fastest shuttle hurdle relay time ever, so that's good, too.

We stopped with the team at Johnny's on the way home to celebrate the end of the season a really good season. I've been tossing ideas for a post around in my head today, but hadn't settled on one yet. All of the parents were sitting together, talking, when one of them, who is a track parent, but also a teacher, told a story of an event that had happened to her at school this year. I won't go into the details, but it was very stressful and just horrible for her. In the middle of these six weeks or so, someone told her, "God has a reason for giving you this cross to bear." She responded, "Well, it's getting really heavy." She went on to explain to us that without God she wouldn't have gotten through what happened. Without God, she wouldn't have been able to continue to teach through the turmoil, and to stand up for what she believed was right.

I've heard people make comments like this women's "friend," and I just don't understand it. I'm positive that comments like this are meant to be a comfort, but I think what I would hear, if this were said to me, would be, "I know this burden is heavy, and is weighing you down, but you should be glad that God (who is your Father, has your best interests at heart, and loves you like no other) has a plan. I know you feel crushed by this weight, but take heart, God is doing it to you." Comfort? No!

I think we want to find comfort in the idea that God is in control. I do believe that He is, but maybe not in the way that is implied in this woman's comment. When the world is crazy, makes no sense, and seems chaotic (who am I kidding -- is chaotic), we think that we would be comforted by the idea that God is moving the chess pieces. We want to know that God can see a "master plan" when we feel like there is no plan.

There is a plan, I believe. First I want to tell you what I think the plan is NOT. God did not place this burden on this teacher -- an angry, difficult to handle parent did. It's awful; it's horrible, and it's not the way that God planned for it to be. I don't understand how the burden could be made to feel lighter with the knowledge that God has placed it there. He didn't.

God's plan is seen in the rest of the teacher's comments -- she wouldn't have gotten through it as well as she did if it hadn't been for God. That's the plan. God is with us through the horrible, awful things that happen to us. He's with us when the burdens are placed there by other people, and he's even with us when there is no one to blame at all. His plan was (and is) to get her through it. It's grace; it's a gift; and it's a comfort.

Image: Another track meet sky (although not tonight -- this is a Kentucky sky)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ch Ch Ch Changes

I read a post yesterday on Locust and Honey. John is wondering why, in his church, the United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men groups seem to appeal only to those women and men (respectively) who are over the age of 45 to 50, even though his church has younger members.

In our church, I feel as if that statement could be made about the UMW, but not our UMM. What is the difference? I feel that the UMW program in our church appeals to older women because the group structure has not adapted to the changing lifestyles of younger women (and for a few years, I’ll still be in that under 45 age group). A few years ago, I was graciously invited to a circle meeting by two or three different women. I couldn’t go then, but I think even that circle has begun meeting during the day. That works for women who work at home, or who are retired, but not for me (and the many women like me, who work outside the home).

I want to expand the question. Why is it that programs within the church fail to adapt to change. This could apply to many church programs, not (by far) only to the UMW.

  1. Could it be that those who coordinate a program, or are part of a program, are not completely honest with themselves? I’m listening to a book on CD called Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Galbodon. The husband and wife pair (main characters) have the following discussion:
    “You promised me honesty,” I (Clara) said, “but are you quite sure you’re being honest with yourself? You weren’t baiting Tom Christe just because he challenges you?”

    He stopped, his eyes clear and unguarded a few inches from mine. He lifted a hand and cupped the side of my face, his palm warm on my skin. “There are only two people in this world to whom I would never lie, Sassenach.” He said softly, “You’re one of them, and I’m the other.” He kissed me gently on the forehead then leaned past me and blew out the lamp. “Mind,” his voice came from the darkness, and I saw his tall form silhouetted against the faint oblong of light from the doorway as he straightened up, “I could be fooled, but I wouldn’t be doing it on purpose.”
    Do we fool ourselves into thinking a program is successful?
  2. If a program is meeting the needs of a group a people, how do we walk the line between rejuvenating it so that it can meet the needs of more people while at the same time allowing the program to continue to meet the needs of those who are already a part of it?
  3. Do coordinators sometimes fail to continually rejuvenate a program because they don’t know how? Perhaps they don’t have the skills or gifts necessary to continually reshape what they already know into something that they don’t yet understand.
  4. Are we sometimes afraid to take the risk? Tradition is sometimes comforting, and change is often frightening.
  5. Does there come a time when we have failed so often that we really believe that what we have is the best that can be done?
The UMM group in our church was non-existent. It had died. A few years ago it was reborn and now appeals to young fathers and seasoned grandfathers. This group does not allow what is “expected” of a men’s group to define what they do – they paint, do yardwork, build habitat houses, raise money for service projects, cook and serve meals. Next month they are catering a wedding.

Is it possible that sometimes the only way for something to be reborn is for it first to die? Is it sometimes so difficult to change that we must wait for eventual death in order for resurrection?

Image: A building across from Pullman Square that is obviously undergoing Restoration -- and has a sign to prove it just in case you can't tell.