Monday, September 29, 2014

Priorities in My Busy-ness

"We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully." Romans 12:6-8

As I consider the blur of this past week which has been one of the busiest weeks of the year for me, I wondered at first—did I have time to do anything that God could use to teach me? I'm not a center-stage type of person and I'm okay with that because God created me to be a helper and I enjoy that role immensely. I admit that I occasionally feel overlooked when I'm left out of public acknowledgement, but I try to thank God in those times for the lesson in humility it provides.

I'm a listener. If you need to say something, I'm there to listen. I will listen to your joys, concerns, woes and triumphs. I'm an encourager. I know that every individual has insecurities and I'm there to bolster you and walk through the deep of it with you. I'm a woman of prayer. I can't offer much in the way of solutions, but I know who can and I bring those needs to God faithfully on your behalf. As I review my week, I see many moments, despite being so busy, where I have helped, listened, encouraged and prayed. I've also taken a significant amount of time out this week to study God's Word and the writings of great theologians—I'm taking a theology course which has given back to me the joy of focused study of God and his love for the world.

This week could have been very different. I could have turned people down who needed my help because I had too much to do and no one would have blamed me. I could have cut conversations short explaining that I had too much work to do to listen and my friends and family would have understood. I could have sent some away with only a half-hearted attempt at encouragement and had more time to do my work. I could have easily convinced myself that God knew and could have taken care of the stuff I prayed about without my praying. I could have studied less, once again claiming the enormity of the work I had to do last week, but I didn't and I thank God for that.

At the end of the week, I could have been justified having pride in a job well done but that would have been a temporary, superficial joy. Instead, I was faithful to the Lord in sharing the gifts he has given me. At the end of the week, all my work was done, God had been glorified, I made a difference in people's live (even if it was only a little ripple of kindness), and I know God more intimately. What a fantastic week! I guess the lesson I learned is to seek God’s kingdom first and foremost and let the rest take care of itself. I’m not saying you should ignore your responsibilities, but to remember that in the list of priorities, they are still second to glorifying God with our whole heart, mind, and soul in word and deed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

French Hem Gospel

I’ve been quilting for 20 years now and sewing even longer. I learned to sew in middle school and got my first sewing machine 25 years ago. I’ve made stuffed rabbits, doll clothes, costumes, clothes for myself, bible covers, tote bags, wall hangings, baby gifts, and quilts. Even with all my experience, I still make sure I reread the directions before I start, measure twice and cut once, and check to make sure I have my right sides together before I sew the seam so I don’t have to rip the stitching out. I hate ripping out the seam – it’s not fun and if I’m not very careful while ripping, I could rip right through the fabric making that piece unusable.

This weekend, I made a couple of pillow cases using a French hem. I’ve never used this technique before. It’s often used with delicate fabrics to prevent unraveling ends and provides a clean, finished, professional look to the project. To do this stitch, I had to go against everything I’ve learned in my 25 plus years of experience and sew my seams with the wrong sides facing each other. As I sewed, every part of me was screaming…NO! Stop! This isn’t right and you’re going to have to rip out all this stitching! I had to remind myself the whole time I ran the stitch that the pattern explicitly calls for me to do it this way—even if it is completely backwards.

As I was putting the finishing touches on my project pieces, it occurred to me that God’s way is like a French seam when it comes to life. Think about it. Jesus and God’s Word (the expert and the pattern) tell us we are to love our enemy and bless those who do evil against us. We are to visit the sick and imprisoned. We are supposed to give at least 10% of our earnings to God through charity. That all sounds just a little backwards, doesn’t it?

Why would I love someone who hates me? And while we all admire people like Mother Theresa who spent her life caring for the lepers and HIV/AIDS victims in India and Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, both of whom went to West Africa to help Ebola victims and contracted the disease themselves—which of us would really leave behind everything to join them? Let’s talk about visiting the murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and the Bernie Madoffs of the world in prison. Prison is a scary place and they deserve to be there. Besides, what is there to talk about with people like that? And who in their right mind would do anything good to someone who has hurt them or worse? And 10%! Is God serious? I work hard for what I earn and I don’t have a lot of wiggle room in my budget to begin with.

But God is serious about all of it. It looks wrong. It’s certainly counter-cultural and some of it just isn’t safe, but God knows what he’s talking about and when we do what he says and follow his lead, we experience what God has promised in his Word—salvation, reconciliation with God, joy of serving others, and the peace and freedom that comes from loving the Lord above all else.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Education, Affirmation, and Determination

Last week I experienced how affirmation inspires determination. A couple of years ago, I learned of a course called “Perspectives on the Worldwide Christian Movement” at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. It sparked my interest. But there were lots of reasons why I couldn’t take it: 1) I couldn’t afford the course fee, 2) I couldn’t drive to the unfamiliar area that was an hour away for the weekly classes, and 3) I didn’t think I was capable of doing the work. The next year, I received a personal invitation from a woman who thought I might enjoy the class. Again, it was too expensive, too far to drive and doubted my abilities. This year, when the information went out about the course, it was still too expensive, but being held right in my neighborhood and my curiosity and desire to take the course was beginning to override my doubts, but more importantly, I really felt like this is what God wanted me to do.

Even though I was going to struggle to pay for the course, my biggest concern was still my ability to do the work. I never went to college (I took a few basic entry level courses twenty years ago) and this course is offered to seminary students towards their degrees. I was concerned about whether I am intelligent enough to do the work. So I was a little nervous when I walked in the door Monday night for the first class. That’s when God surprised me with a special blessing. When I went to pay for the class and pick up my books, I was told I was “paid,” my balance was $0. The woman even showed me on her computer screen telling me that those who had paid were in black and those that owed were in red and my line was black. After checking to rule out computer error, I was told that God has arranged for someone to pay my class fee for me. Wow! God is so good!

As I worked through the readings and study guide and answered the review questions this week, I was thanking God for my anonymous benefactor for the two beautiful gifts I received: 1) the financial gift that made it possible for me to attend without over-stressing my budget and 2) the knowledge that this someone has faith in me that I’m capable of doing the work and backed it up with the course fee. There were several times this week when I wondered if I took on more than I’m capable of and then I remembered that this person, whoever they are, believes in me and I kept pushing through. And I know that for the next fourteen weeks, every time I face a challenge, whether it is insecurity or finding the time to do the work, I have the blessing of this special affirmation to push me to take one more step, read one more page, and answer one more question. It’s amazing what we can do when we realize that God believes in us and sometimes he lets us know it in a tangible way.

Monday, September 8, 2014

As Much As It Depends on You...Live At Peace

My second marriage was only six months along and we were still all learning to get along and be a family at the time of my son’s death. As you might expect, my husband and my son were having a difficult time interacting with each other and I often felt stuck in the middle. One of the greatest gifts (besides redemption) God gave me was a last phone call with my son a few hours before the accident. We had all been on each other’s nerves the night before and Bryan and I reconciled in that short five minute conversation that ended with both of us saying “I love you” to each other. This memory always takes me immediately to Ephesians 4:26-27—In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. It’s so easy to let little differences get out of hand and in the way of living a life that honors the Lord. When I think about how that phone conversation could have gone, I thank the Lord. We could have continued arguing and three hours later I would have a regret in my heart I couldn’t have lived with.

Two years later, on a late summer Thursday evening, my husband came in the house after mowing the grass, sat me down on the couch and told me he didn’t want to be married to me anymore. The days and weeks that followed were unbearable. I had just given my life to the Lord the year before and now this man I vowed to share my whole life with was divorcing me. I was devastated and at times wanted him to know the pain he was causing me, but instead I prayed that God would help me show unconditional love and forgiveness to him. My husband was not a believer and I knew that how I treated him would be a reflection of the God I served. My first real courageous act of love for Jesus and my last act of love for my husband was to do my best to show him a glimpse of God’s undeserved grace and forgiveness.

It was during this time that a pastor friend of mine gave me a prescription for handling relationships—Romans 12:9-21
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

From my experience I can tell you that this isn’t easy to do. It’s impossible sometimes…for me, but not for God. To live out this kind of love, I need God to live in and change my heart. I need to keep reading this “prescription for life” and saying it until God’s definition of relationship is etched on my brain and engrained in my lifestyle. And I need to do it not because if I don’t, it might be too late tomorrow but because it is God’s command and his way. I know that I’m not always going to succeed at living in harmony with everyone. However, if I really try to live at peace with others and they refuse, I haven’t failed. I only fail when I refuse to try. God’s way is simple—Love God and love others. It’s not easy, but it is simple. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

I'm a Witness

Until recently, I've had a sheltered, extremely limited worldview and I've been secure in my decision to remain separated from the world around me...until now. Some might say I've elevated shutting out the world around me to an art form. I don't watch or read the news (too depressing), and I go to great lengths to avoid anything where I will be forced to meet people. However, God has been helping me to see that my worldview is too limiting for him and for me. While I support mission in my heart, in prayer, and with resources, I've never stepped out in faith, even in something as easy as serving at a shelter because that would force me out of my comfortable sheltered existence. I justify this to myself and others with a list of reasonable explanations: 

  • My health won't permit it (mission trips)
  • I'm not qualified or I don't know how and wouldn't know where to begin
  • I can't afford to miss work
  • I get panic attacks when driving in unfamiliar areas, so I can’t go
  • I need to be available just in case my mother needs me so I can't commit to anything right now
  • I don't have that kind of time
  • I'm an introvert and it's not in my God-given personality to be that outgoing
  • That’s not my calling. I'm a helper. I'm the one who does the unseen work so that others who are better and greater can do what needs to be done.
I also have several excuses ready for why I don't talk to people about Jesus in my own neighborhood and community:
  • I don't want to offend anyone.
  • I'm willing, but spirituality never really comes up in the conversation. If God wanted me to say something, the other person would just ask me a spiritual question directly.
  • I'm likely to say the wrong thing and push someone further away from God.
  • You've got to have a relationship with someone before you earn the right to talk to them about Jesus and I don’t have any relationships outside of the few people I know who are already in ministry.

But God has been working on softening my heart and I have to tell you that those excuses no longer seem...reasonable.

Yesterday, I listened as a man of God and missionary, shared God's Plan A (and there is no plan b) for spreading his glory and his message of grace throughout the whole earth—through his disciples' witness. Or more to the point, through the witness of each and every person who calls him Lord and that includes me. My missionary friend shared that he has met many "Hearers" in his four years in a foreign land, but few go past the passivity of hearing. He explained that listening requires an act of will on the part of the Hearer. They show their intention by being attentive and as a "Listener" respond to and obey, becoming a Follower (disciple). 

Discipleship is a way of life in which we continuously respond to and obey Jesus (or at least try). My missionary friend, in expounding on the life and discipleship of Peter, helped me to see that witnessing to the world is just as much my call as it was the call of the first disciples. Peter didn't know who Jesus was at first. He didn't know Jesus was the Son of God, the Savior of the world when he dropped his nets that first day on the shore. Peter had been a hearer who became a listener who heard an invitation and responded, becoming a follower (disciple). He spent time with Jesus and was changed by it through years of discipleship. It was only after two years in the continual presence of our Lord that the Father revealed Jesus' true nature to Peter. As a follower, he became a witness to the glory of Jesus, and in sharing his experience of Jesus with others, they became hearers who listened and obeyed, becoming disciples who witnessed. 

Peter was a passionate, impetuous man who sometimes got it wrong. His faith journey was marked with some of the same potholes mine is and he tripped over and even fell in a few of the same ones I do. Peter's call to ministry was the same as mine...hear, listen, follow, and witness to the community, the nation, and the world. Witnessing is not for the few, the elite, the specially-trained super Christian—it is the privilege and duty of every follower of Christ.

The most encouraging thing my missionary friend said was that going up to a stranger and starting a spiritual conversation is intimidating and it scares him. Here is this guy who is so obviously called to be the voice of God in a foreign land--he's an intelligent, successful business man, an extrovert with a good sense of humor and a humble heart for God, and let's not leave out the fact that both his parents are pastors—he is certainly qualified and able to be a missionary in distant land, more so than me for sure. And he needs to rely on God's grace, wisdom, and providence just as much as I do when sharing with others about Jesus. All of a sudden, all my excuses, reasonable explanations and objections were laughable even to me. 

Me being a witness to my neighborhood, my community, and the world is not a new understanding for me. I’ve been dancing around it for some time trying to find a way to limit it to my comfort zone, but I just can’t do that anymore. (Relax Mom, I’m not packing up and moving to some third world county next week to be a missionary.) I don't know what it means. It’s just that I can’t ignore God’s call anymore to completely surrender. Maybe the life I live will look very similar to the one I’m living now or maybe it will be completely different. I’m not going to change overnight and God’s got a lot of work to do in my heart and mind to teach and lead me to be the witness discipleship demands. But now that I’ve heard and am listening, I want to and hope to consistently respond, "Jesus, show me the world in a new way and how I am to be your witness in it."

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally. Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: "God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I'll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age." Matthew 28:16-20 (The Message)

When they were together for the last time they asked, "Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?" He told them, "You don't get to know the time. Timing is the Father's business. What you'll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world." Acts 1:6-8 (The Message)