Monday, July 29, 2013

Just Another Missionary

This past week I attended the New Wilmington Mission Conference. It was incredible! This morning I woke up thinking of a verse from the song If I Were a Rich Man from The Fiddler on the Roof (one of my all time favorite musicals).

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I'd discuss the holy books
with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.


By these standards, I've been one of the richest people on the planet this past week. During the rest of the year, I often feel like I'm running to keep up and there is never enough time to just stop and be still in God's presence. At conference, I spent every waking moment of the past seven glorious days there through interactive bible study, hearing about what God is doing all over the world during mission hour and at table during meals talking with brothers and sisters in the faith from all over the world and then joining hundreds of believers (from young children to the young-at-heart who are in their 90s) in the worship of our God. And that was just the mornings! I had an opportunity to deepen friendships started last year and make new friends I already miss dearly. I spoke with people from California, Florida, Ohio, Malawi, China, and Iraq learning about the places they call home as they shared about the miracles God is doing there every day. I can tell you from what I heard—Our God's not dead, he's surely alive!!!!! The echo of the praise music calling out to us all over the campus as we walked to the outdoor pavilion near the lake where we worshiped twice a day is still calling in my heart. Never has the song "Surely the Presence" been so tangible for surely the presence of the Lord was in that place and I hope to carry that reality in my heart every day.

I remember in the beginning of the week confiding in a good friend that I wondered if indeed I really
did belong at that conference. After all, I'm not a missionary and know in my heart that I'm not being called to bring God's word to a foreign land. This is my fourth year at conference and I almost felt guilty being there—like I was crashing someone else's party. I'm not a missionary. I'm just a pray-er and not a very good one at that. Early in the week, I was asked the dreaded question: So what's your connection to mission? When I told this missionary to Malawi I was a pray-er, I felt like I was confessing a horrible failure to her. You know—those who can, go and those who can't, pray. Her reaction caught me off guard. She was so happy to meet me and with excitement asked me to pray for her and her husband and the work they are doing and for the people of Malawi. It's like she thought my praying would make all the difference in their mission. I guess I have to look back on those things God has been teaching me about prayer because clearly my heart hasn't gotten it yet.

God has an amazing sense of timing because I confided my feelings of unworthiness to be there to my friend just before the morning worship and less than 30 minutes later, the speaker was expounding on the scripture of the Samaritan woman at the well being the first missionary as she ran home to tell everyone she knew what Jesus had just said and done. The speaker went on to apply that to us saying that we are all missionaries right where God has placed us. When we help our elderly neighbor out with her trash, when we share with a coworker what God is doing in our lives, when we live a life of grace in our communities, we are missionaries and our mission field is right in our hometowns, our schools, our places of work, and our city streets. Where ever we are—we are God's ambassadors to the world. I keep forgetting that!

I am so very grateful to God for this conference—not only for what it does in the world but for what it does in me. It helps bring God's Word and grace to the world by preparing those God is calling to go out into the world, but also, it prepares me for my calling to pray for those who are sent and to be sent myself as a missionary back into my own little corner of the world. I'm looking forward to being able to share the wonderful things God has done in my mission field at next year's conference. I hope you will join me there.

Learn more about the conference at their website: http://www.nwmcmission.org

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Inside the Parenthesis

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
Matthew 1:21-23, NIV

This is a familiar scripture. We hear it often as part of the birth of Jesus narrative at Christmas. Before I knew Jesus, I used to think this was a perfect example of the so-called contradictory nature of the Bible. After all, Isaiah said they will call him Immanuel and then Joseph is instructed to name him Jesus. And yet this didn't seem to bother Matthew as he’s pointing out how this fulfills Isaiah's prophecy. Of course I understand now that Immanuel was not meant to be the child's name, but the man's character/position/reputation in the community. Just as you know what I mean when I describe a person as an aristocrat or perhaps a real humanitarian, so Jesus was and is Immanuel - the one and only. And of course, we know that Immanuel means "God with us" because the parenthetical information tells us so.

Did you ever really ponder the implications of the parenthetical information Matthew spells out with the definition of this particular Jewish word, Immanuel? He must have felt it important enough to use precious space on the scroll to define it, to make sure its meaning is clear for all time. If you are like me, you have a tendency to read right past the parenthetical material in books and articles without even really taking note of it. In The Message version, the parenthetical phrase has one extra word that the Spirit used to catch my attention. The Message says that Immanuel is Hebrew for "God is with us." (Italics mine)

God IS with us! Wow! How incredible is that? God is with us. No matter where we are—and we are
in some unholy places sometimes, God is with us—not to condemn us, but to save us.  (John 3:17) God is with us to guide us, protect and provide for us, to love us, forgive us and pull us from our sinfulness into his holy presence because he loves us. As I struggle with my daily life, as my faith blossoms or is just holding on by a thread, as I reach out in his mercy or shrink from my witness, God IS with me, loving me, giving me strength, and lavishing me with his grace. He's not off somewhere in the cosmos uninterested and uninvolved in my life. He chooses to be with me in this moment and forever and he will continue to work in me, his precious creation, until he is done crafting me, cultivating his holiness within me because he wants his very best for me. God is with us!

What an amazing and miraculous truth this is! And to think it comes out of four small words found inside parenthesis.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Riddle Me This

Have you ever asked yourself: Who am I and where do I belong? or  Sure I sin by accident, but what about when I do it intentionally? or  Is there really anything I can do about the worldwide or communitywide crisis de jour? Last weekend I had a series of dreams that revealed some powerful truths to me. It doesn’t matter whether you believe these dreams were God-given or if it was just my subconscious working out some things in my sleep—what came from the experience is, without doubt, Godly wisdom.

Who am I and where do I belong?
I can't look for my identity in other people. I’ve found that some of the greatest/cheesiest romantic lines in movie history really are true of God alone. Some examples: "You complete me" and "he saved me in every way a person can be saved" and "you are everything I never knew I always wanted." I've looked to so many people in my life—family, friends, boyfriends, husbands, even my son to complete me, make me whole, to give me an identity. I had to learn the hard way that my identity can only be defined by the One who created me and he created me to be a child of the Living God. I am his precious daughter, his creation, the one he went to the cross for and rose from the dead for and the one in whom his Spirit resides today. When I'm lost and confused or trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing—I just need to remind myself of who I am in Christ and ask myself, "What would a daughter of the King do in this situation" and then go do it. If I look to those around me to fill that God-sized role in my life, I'm going to find myself wandering around lost and confused and empty.

Sure I sin by accident, but what about when I do it intentionally?

Becoming a child of God doesn't make everything suddenly clear. I didn’t become instantly good or wise and I’m still going to sin. Sometimes in full deliberate willfulness, I will turn from God for no other reason than I want what I want. In the moments of conviction and repentance that follow, I tend to approach God guilt-ridden in a debasing display hoping my repentant return might elicit some small amount of God’s grace, even though I’m assured that God is anxiously waiting to welcome me into his open arms as his beloved child with an inexhaustible grace. The only decision that needs to be made in this exchange between a holy God and a repentant sinner is am I going to fall into his arms and embrace the grace and love in which he greets me or am I going to hold myself accountable by trying to redeem myself with acts of contrition in order to earn the grace God has given me freely through his own act of redemption on the cross. I can never earn that grace and yet I sometimes fall into a self-righteous trap by feeling that I must somehow work for it or suffer for my sinfulness instead of humbly accepting this immediate and truly undeserved gift and then reciprocating to it in gratitude and joy.

Is there really anything I can do about the worldwide or communitywide crisis de jour?
Prayer is the most powerful and pervasive tool and weapon on earth. There is no place prayer cannot go and no limit to God's power. There is no radar or tracking system that can detect it and the enemy has no defense against it. And yet, too often we don't think to use it because, well, it's just prayer. It's not like we are actually doing anything when we pray, right?! It's not like we're giving money towards solving the problem or using our skills to fix the situation with our own hands. Somewhere along the line of human history, we began to believe the enemy's lie that words are just words and they hold no power—like "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me." As one who has overcome decades of verbal abuse and having some experience with physical abuse, I can tell you—I would've preferred to be hit by sticks and stones. Those wounds and bruises would've disappeared in a few weeks. The wounds and bruises from "mere" words festered inside of me, eating away at me like cancer, for forty years. Words hurt and words can heal. With a word, God created light, the world, and all that lives and breathes. Words are powerful and we need to be more careful how we use them. When we use them in prayer, we are asking our Heavenly Father to utter words of healing, protection, wisdom, truth, and grace. And God will not deny our requests. I'm not saying that God doesn't call us to be good stewards of his riches by monetarily supporting the causes he has put on our hearts or by using the skills he has enabled us with to help those around us. I'm saying that prayer is just as active a response and even more necessary than our gifts of money, time, talents and skills to live our lives as God wants us to live—in communion with him according to his will and in godly relationship with those around us.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Do Our Prayers Really Move God to Act

Prayer is essential to the Christian life as a means of communication with our God and as a transformative act of obedience. Last week I shared some pictures of prayer to show what our side of the conversation looks like. Through the vision of a choir and the stories of the Canaanite woman who ran after Jesus and the four friends who brought a paralytic man to Jesus for healing, I now have a clear and powerful understanding of biblical prayer. But one question still remains to be answered: Do our prayers really move God to act?
 
Jesus answers this question with a great big yes in Matthew 7:9-11:  “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” As I meditated on this, I began to think about how I answered my child's requests and the Spirit showed me through a few of my memories how God answers my prayer requests:
 
1) Too often, as we entered the gauntlet of temptation—the "Whatever Mart" checkout line with all its last minute impulse buys display—Bryan would began an endless round of "Mom can I get..." with half the display items around us. I found some of the creative reasoning he gave for why he needed this thing or that mildly amusing but still I responded with a steady stream of "No Bryan" without even looking up from my checkbook. Why did I say no? Because he didn't really need one more shiny toy or pack of cards that he'd play with for a day, become bored with the next, and be crying for another better and newer thing the day after. I think that's why God sometimes answers no. Because what I'm asking for isn't good enough for me, his precious child. He doesn't want me to be temporarily distracted by anything that's not going to benefit me and has the possibility of diverting my attention away from something he knows is a better gift.

2) Bryan inherited his father musical talent and began learning to play the Alto Sax in fourth grade.
One day while we were at the music store buying more reeds for his instrument, he found a book containing the Star Wars movie score. He was so excited and asked if he could have it. I said yes because I thought his love for Star Wars might help him develop his musical skill. Without any prompting from me, he would do his band practice lesson after school every day and then spend extra time learning to play the Star Wars movie theme. This is the kind of better thing God is holding out for—something that molds and shapes me into the person he created me to be. Something that brings lasting joy. Something worthy of his precious child.

3) When it came to Bryan's needs, he never had to ask. Food, clothing, medicine, discipline—he lacked nothing he needed, even if he didn't particularly want it. God provides daily that which I need to live and grow strong as a child of God. Whether I want it or not—God provides.
But if God knows every word that is on our tongue before we speak it (Psalm 139:4), if God knows our needs and is eager to provide and care for us, why do we need to ask? And why, so often, answer us through the actions of those around us. Why not just make food appear when we need it like he did with the manna in the desert or cancer cells miraculously disappear like with the lepers Jesus healed with a touch? Why instead does he prompt a stranger to bring a basket of food or subject us to the whole medical community and painful treatments? Why involve us at all?

For reasons known only to God, he chooses to invite us into the work and power of his kingdom. God is always willing to bless his children and there is no doubt to his ability. But he involves us because it is part of being in relationship with him. He doesn’t need me. He wants me. He wants to know and be known by me and working together in this way for his glory is how he chooses to do that. Not only did he create us to be in relationship with him, but he created us to be partners with each other, helping each other and working together. And as we pray together, as we are obedient to the Lord's calling in our lives to support and bless each other, we are bonding as God’s family and we are transformed in a way that we couldn't be as mere spectators of God's glorious blessings.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Pictures of Prayer

When I was in high school I had the joy of singing in the choir and every year we sang “Handel’s Messiah” for our Christmas concert. (Yes, we sang songs about God at a “Christmas” concert in a public school and believe it or not, not one atheist fell over dead or was forcibly converted by our singing!) Handel wrote this oratorio containing many solos immediately followed by elaborate chorale arrangements. The solos in themselves are beautifully melodic and filled the air with words of God’s glory and grace. Then the chorale pieces continued the heart of the solo’s message in four equal and unique voices singing separately and together in a symphony of sound. Just as both the solos and the choir pieces are truly exquisite in their own unique way, God wants us to be in prayer alone and in concert with each other. Neither way is less pleasing or preferential to him as they are both sweet music to his ears.

Prayer is conversation between God and me—we talk with each other. I come to him with my questions, my fears and wounds, my needs, my sins, and he answers me, instructs me, comforts me, provides for and forgives me. As my Heavenly Father wanting to spend time with his child, he wants me to come to him with everything. One way in which we hear his part of the conversation is by reading, meditating, and embracing what he tells us in his Holy Word. Ephesians 6:18a says to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” He’s telling us that he wants us coming to him and him alone with our fears, our needs, our everything, seeking his comfort, his blessings, his healing and his grace.

In Matthew 15 we are told the story of a Canaanite woman who sought Jesus out and pleaded with him to heal her daughter. He didn’t answer her – not a word. She continued and the disciples urged him to send her away. Again he puts her off but she does not budge. Her faith in him and his ability and compassion is evident, even more so as she expresses her complete undeserved-ness of his attention. Her desperate faith moves him to act with great compassion and the immediate healing of her daughter.

What a beautiful picture of personal prayer. We don’t deserve to be in God’s presence. He would be
well within his rights as our Holy God to ignore us, to send us away in our sinful misery, but he doesn’t. His silence is merely his way of allowing me to grow into the faith he’s planted in me. He may not answer, but he is listening as I gain a greater understanding of his holiness verses my sinfulness which cultivates a much greater appreciation for his grace and blessings (which we sometimes refer to as “answered prayer”). The act of prayer, the practice of prayer, changes me to my very core. It’s me acknowledging the holiness and supremacy of God and the inexplicable grace and blessing of his love and his ceaseless desire to be in relationship with me. It’s me being wrapped in the arms of He Who Is Love and cherished by my Creator as his precious child. I can’t walk away from that without being touched and transformed by him.

Often we think of corporate prayer as a congregation reciting a pre-formed Prayer of Confession or Affirmation of Faith or the Lord’s Prayer together during worship. Perhaps your idea of corporate prayer is when everyone bows their heads while one person speaks prayer aloud and the whole group affirms it by all speaking aloud in unison “Amen” at the end. Yes, this is a picture of corporate prayer, much like a choir that sings an elaborate choral arrangement – each singer with his own distinct part which is a small piece of the larger arrangement. Only when all of the parts are combined is the music a complete and beautiful prayer.

Then there is the story in Mark 2. Jesus is teaching in a home with a crowd of people surrounding him inside and out. We are told that four friends carry a paralyzed man to this place so that the man might be healed by Jesus. When they saw they couldn’t get through the crowd to get their friend to Jesus, they carried him to the roof of the home and dug through it above the place where Jesus was teaching. These four devoted friends with their “won’t quit” attitude painstakingly lowered their broken friend to the floor at Jesus’ feet. Jesus healed this man because of his friends’ tenacious resolve to carry their friend into the holy presence of God – to put their friend within arm’s reach of the God of compassion, restoration and healing.

This is the picture of corporate prayer that holds great significance to me. When I share a prayer request or a prayer of joy with friends, family, and designated prayer warriors, it’s because I feel I need help in lifting the burden of the request to God or that more voices need to be shouting the Lord’s praises for the blessings and joy he has given. Ephesians 6:18b instructs “With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” God is telling us to pray for and with each other. We have a responsibility to our fellow man to love him as God loves him. Sharing someone’s burden, bringing them into God’s presence through prayer, lifting them up in prayer is a great honor and bonds us together as only God’s Spirit can do in us. There are times when my faith is shaken, when my spirit is confused, and my mind seems to be working against me rather than for me and I need help—I need friends to bring me to the feet of Jesus for healing and restoration because I’m not going to get there on my own. I need prayer warriors who aren’t put off by the barriers that can sometimes block my path, but are fueled by those barriers and work harder towards the goal of my healing and renewal. This is the kind of pray-er I want to be for others and I believe God is calling and teaching me to be.

May God’s blessing be abundant in your practice of prayer - both personal and corporate.