Monday, July 27, 2015

Lighting Up the Nations

Last week I had the privilege of gathering in worship and fellowship with 800 of my closest friends at the 110th New Wilmington Mission Conference many of which I met for the very first time. Our theme verse for this year was Isaiah 49:6b: I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. I heard from and met people from all over the world and the news is good—God is lighting up the darkness in every corner of the world with his love and grace through every day ordinary people just like you and me.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing rise to 15 new separate nations and opening up new lines of communication between the west and the east. Sometime after this, an 11-year old girl from Nebraska took it upon herself to send a letter and bible to a man named VJ in one of those new countries. He was an atheist as was generations of his family before him. But I sat in awe of God’s amazing grace as VJ told of how he found in that bible the answers to questions he had been asking for years. He became a Christian and later a minister. He and his wife are now lights to God’s grace in Central Asia in a predominantly Muslim community. It seems like such a small act of faith, but oh the light that little girl shed into a dark place because in her innocence she thought it might make a difference to send a bible across the ocean.

Picture taken by Chris Juengel
I had the joy of doing my very first “mission” project ever! I joined 150 of my friends in packing meals to be sent to children all over the world who wouldn’t have food otherwise. Altogether, we packed over 20,600 meals in an hour! Imagine what we could have done if we had two hours!!! I remember being very tired after lunch and we were going to have to wait another hour before the packing was to begin. I wanted to go back to my room and take a nap and started coming up with excuses why I could blow off the mission project…it’s really meant for the kids to do. I’ve already helped out with the conference in other ways. I gave money towards the project—that was my contribution. Thank God my friends kept me accountable and we all went together to do our bit. The most touching moment during that whole experience was when the organizer was giving us instructions on what we were going to do. He told us he was going to count to three and we were to clap. 1, 2, 3, clap. 1, 2, 3, clap. 1, 2, 3, clap. 1, 2, 3, clap. He did this four times. I thought he was trying to make sure he had everyone’s attention before giving the instructions (you know, the way teachers do… clap once, clap twice, clap three times until everyone is clapping with them.) Then he said, “Every time you clapped, someone died from hunger or hunger related illness. Then he stated that some astronomical number of people were going to die today because of hunger even though there is enough food in the world right now for every person to have four pounds of food each. Then he said that half of that astronomical number would be children under the age of six. As he said this I happened to be looking at my friend’s 5-year old granddaughter who was standing across from me and let me tell you, I would have packed all day if it meant we could turn that unbelievable, unforgivable, excessive number into 0.

Every year I go there knowing that God is going to speak a message to me that I might not hear so clearly in the hurried, distracted, overextended life I usually wake up to every morning. I’ve been praying for God to turn the dispassionate, unengaging, distant attitude I’ve had in our relationship into the vibrant, unquenchable passion that’s been missing for too long. It used to be that every Thursday night I spent the evening in prayer and meditation as I devoured Scripture. God was speaking to me in those evenings in a way that was so personal, so compelling that we would talk about it all week long (in prayer). I wanted to know more, learn all I could about him and how I could be the person he created me to be. We had long talks about so many things. But not now.

Now, I can’t think of anything to say. I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember the last time I opened my bible with any regularity. I abandoned my studies. Every time I felt guilty about it or frustrated with myself for being lazy, every time I tried to produce in myself a desire or passion for God, I’d go out and buy another Christian living book, devotional, or themed bible and set them on my bookshelf to walk past later. I’m not saying that I stopped believing or living my faith. I’m saying that I stopped caring about it. And I really didn’t like that about me.

What God told me last week at conference is that he has never left me and he is working in and through me always. I’m right where he knew I would be all along. He has called me to be a light where I am emotionally, physically, and mentally. I don’t have to supply the light—he does that! I just have to shine it around me as best I can. I am a light to God’s grace in who I am as a person and in the way I interact with those around me but God has also specifically equipped me to be a light of comfort and hope among the grieving. There is no doubt of that. And he has called me to do that in a way I never would have thought of on my own so I know the idea came from him and not me. With his help, I know I can do it, but I hesitate. I’m always second guessing what I think I know God has called me to be and do. Even when I’m sure, there is a hesitation of doubt lying beneath the surface. In a moment of insecurity and doubt on Thursday, I told God I wanted a sign and he answered my prayer by allowing me to spend a little time in the very darkness of grief that he created me to be a light in. In this way he has renewed in me a sense of urgency and dedication for the work he has called me to.

That other stuff—the issues in our relationship. They still exist. That’s how amazing God is. He is blessing me with renewal and passion before I’ve cleaned up my act! I know what I have to do. I’ve got to read my bible and talk to God today and repeat it again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. If I want the relationship, I’m going to have to do the work. All I needed to do was to recognize that and make the firm decision to do it because the result of a closer relationship with God is worth the work.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Biker's Wave

This week I saw something for the first time that I’ve witnessed hundreds of times before in my life. I was driving on a two-lane highway for at least 8 miles through farm country in front of a man on a motorcycle. Apparently this route is taken by motorcyclists with great frequency because I saw several signs along the way warning me to watch out for motorcycles. The signs were not wrong because I passed at least 20 bikers going the other way. At one point, I glanced in my rearview mirror and noticed the biker behind me lift his hand in acknowledgment, waving at the biker passing in the opposite lane and the other biker waving back. It caught my attention. Every single time an oncoming biker passed, they acknowledged each other with a slight wave.

I see bikers do this all the time when I’m driving around my own community, but I never really consciously saw it until I saw it repeated 20 times in a relatively short distance. It got me to thinking. Bikers do this all the time. I’ve never seen two motorcyclists pass each other when they didn’t do this. And it doesn’t matter what brand of bike they are riding, how they’re dressed, or how decked out their bike is. Even though they have never met, there is a bond between them that compels them to greet each other, ignoring the differences because, after all, they are bikers together in a world of four-wheeled vehicle drivers who act like they own the road.

I started thinking about what the world would be like if those who call themselves Christians behaved a little more like the bikers I saw today. We have the strongest common bond there is –Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and yet we spend too much time comparing and finding fault with each other’s dogma and doctrines and not enough time acknowledging and treating each other as equals and even less time working together to spread God’s love, care, and gospel of grace and forgiveness. In God’s eyes, we are family but we treat each other like rivals. Too many of us devote our time dissecting one another’s religion, pointing out their “faulty” interpretations; their “misguided” civil, moral, and scriptural focus; and their “foreign” traditions and worship styles instead of examining our own hearts, seeking God’s will in our lives and stepping out of our comfort zone to follow Christ. God created each of us uniquely diverse. It stands to reason that we would bring that diversity to our relationship with God and in our worship of God. Like a light shining through an exquisite gem with many facets, we are meant to reflect God’s glory into the world around us. If we would only stop insisting ours is the only correct facet to view God’s majesty and grace through, the world would be overcome with the sparkling reflections of his glory shining all around them.

I was raised in a different religious tradition than the one God has me in today and for a long time, I was one of those people always comparing where my new religious tradition was right and my childhood one was wrong. My whole family remains faithful to Jesus in that religious tradition, so I had a very good reason for rising above my “nitpicking” judgmental comparisons and finding a way to see the beauty of their traditions, beliefs and practices. Over time, the Lord showed me that when we stopped comparing what we believe, how we worship, and our differing interpretations of certain scriptures and instead shared how God was working in us and through us and encouraged each other in our individual discipleships, we were choosing to focus on our common bond and were then able to appreciate each other even though we didn’t see eye to eye some things. It’s not easy sometimes. They say some things that make my insides scream, “That’s so wrong!!!” and I’m sure I do the same thing to them but we choose to love each other while respecting our differences. What I hope the world around us sees in us is our mutual love for God even among our differences.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Four Men and a Witness

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

I’m going to share the stories of four men of God whose witness I experience this past week, two in the ministry and two lay persons. I want to start out saying that I recognize that these stories are not analogous and are related in no way other than they made an impression on me this past week.

The first man is a professional minister who, having a heart attack, went to the local emergency room and had two stents inserted the following day. I spoke with him several times over those 48 hours. He was always in good spirits and at peace in the Lord through the whole experience—all the time praising God for his mercy and presence in the whole situation from beginning to end.

The second professional minister shared a meal with me. Over the three hour meal, he proceeded to widen the gap between his perceived superiority and my apparent inferiority by smugly exposing my ignorance of Greek philosophers and historical figures in church history and in American history. He could have taught me so much about Scripture and we could have shared how God was working in our lives. Instead, I was the focus and repository for all his animosity for the religion God has guided me to. I went home feeling battered and wounded.

The other two men whose witness caught my attention came to me via radio. A man had called into the Christian radio station to tell of how the Spirit had convicted him while listening to the radio station the day before to make right a sin he committed over thirty years ago when he stole items from the other man’s vehicle. He went to this man, admitted his theft and asked forgiveness offering the man $500 to atone for his sin against him. This second man gazed upon the first with “the face of Christ” (as described by the first man) and told him that he could make up for the theft by donating the money to the radio ministry (which he did).

In most of these men, I saw the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I witnessed the grace of Jesus flowing through them right to me and I was uplifted. I wanted God's presence in my life the way I saw it in theirs. It got me to thinking once again about the witness I am giving to the Lord Jesus Christ in my life and in daily interactions.

When I’m short on time and having to wait in a long line, when I know I'm right and the store employee is still telling me that the store won't refund my money, when a man in the auto shop treats me like an idiot or takes advantage of my automotive ignorance to oversell and overcharge me, when I’m in a gathering with someone whose political or religious views make my blood boil….what is the witness I am giving to them? Because I am giving a witness whether I mean to or not. Am I trying to prove my worth, my importance, and my righteousness while hiding behind God’s name or am I showing them God’s grace and peace in action in my life? Am I showing through my example, my attitude, and my interactions with them something that will draw them to Jesus or push them away?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Treasures on Earth and In Heaven

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of my life…not in a bad way. I’m at the age now when a responsible person planning for the future writes a will, buys life insurance, and sock away extra money in the retirement fund. I was talking with my mother about the trouble I’m having with making my will. Even if I had anything of value, I have no spouse or children or grandchildren to inherit. The only thing I could think of that is worth anything at all (sentimentally) is the memory quilt I made of my son in the year following his death. Assuming my mother proceeds me in death—who cares about a quilt you can’t use filled with pictures and memories of someone most people I know never met besides maybe my brothers and one quilt doesn’t divide between two men who live in two different states. And what about my nieces and nephews? What could I possibly leave them?

While considering all of this, my grandmother came to mind. My mother’s mom never had much and what little she had she spent on her nine children, twenty-four grandchildren, and at least one great grandchild. But I think she left behind for all of us the most important thing a person can give a loved one. She left behind joyous memories of time spent together and she left behind the most incredible witness of child-like faith I’ve ever known. Even though I don’t particularly agree with her religion, I admire and hope to imitate in my own life her deep, genuine love for the Lord.

Couldn’t I leave my loved ones joyous memories and a witness of my own? We all leave a witness of our character when we leave this life behind. That's what they talk about at the wake and at every family gathering afterwards. What kind of witness am I leaving for those I will leave behind? I hope it is one of integrity, encouragement, laughter, hope and faith. These are the treasures I’ve been given in my life with the Lord which I want to share with others in my daily living and it is the inheritance I hope to leave with my loved ones when I go home to the Lord. These are the kinds of treasures I think Jesus was referring to in Matthew 6:19-21. These things cannot be destroyed, broken, or stolen. These are the treasures that dull and fall flat when sin entangles me and these are the precious treasures that the Lord is refining in me every day. What if every time I live within the bounds of my integrity despite temptation, encourage others, share in their laughter or grief, or give hope in the living out of my faith in Christ, I am storing up those intangible yet priceless treasures in heaven which will be given back to me two or ten or one hundredfold by Jesus himself?

All of a sudden, I feel very rich.