Monday, August 29, 2016

It's My Choice

Last week God gave me two lessons – one in humility and a refresher course in empathy which is continuing even this morning. In last week’s blog I mentioned that God had blessed me with a friend who loves me enough to remind me that it’s not the quantity but the quality of what I do that matters and to help cement that in my mind and my heart, God gave me a good object lesson in what had to be the worst golf game I’ve had since I started swinging a club. The numbers were horrendous but I didn’t give up or throw away my clubs. Instead I thanked God for the object lesson and walked away having to ignore the numbers and truly appreciating the few quality swings and putts I managed that game. The numbers may have been bad but with help from my coach, I learned some things last week that will certainly help me in the quality of my game next week.

These last few weeks, I’ve physically felt weak and limited by pain. This has always been a bad time of year for me. With the high humidity (and soon the pollen count will be rising) I can barely breathe or move between my asthma and arthritis. Everything hurts and taking a full breath is a chore leaving me exhausted and in pain with no respite. I know that in a few weeks when the constant high humidity breaks and the pollen counts level off again, I will feel better but for many people that is not an option. I think of people like my mom who is always dealing with some level of pain between the six different painful medical conditions she lives with every day. Or my dad who has never been sick a day in his life and who has been dealing with a medical condition that has him laid up for the last month and wondering when he will once again feel good. It increases my concern and compassion for those whose lives will never return to the way they were before the crippling effects of a chronic disease took hold of them.

Here’s the part I want to keep uppermost in my mind right now. I get to choose what I learn from last week’s game and from my current health challenge. I could walk away angry and frustrated that even though I was playing for quality, the numbers didn’t show it. Or I could walk away happy to have spent a beautiful afternoon with a friend and enjoying a few good swings and incorporating some adjustments into my putting that will eventually pay off with practice. I could look at last week’s game like a bust or as skill-enhancing exercise. And just in case you think I’m just talking about golf here, this applies to anything I do in life—not just golf. I can choose to look at how a thing affects me or learn how I can use what happened to praise Jesus and share his wisdom and grace with those around me. I’m not feeling my best right now and I can choose to feel miserable and spread that misery around or I can keep my eye on the one who suffered the most for me and let him change that pain and weakness into love and compassion for others. And with the energy of that love and compassion fueling me into action, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I can bring help, hope, and maybe even a little relief to others.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Little Extraordinary Blessings

Did you ever look back on your week and say you couldn’t see God in it? It’s something I used to say quite often. People all around me were being blessed with parting-the-red-sea type miraculous answers to prayer or transfiguration-type mountaintop experiences and when asked about my “God sightings” for the week, all I could boast about was the love of family and friends or a good day at the office. Then God helped me see how ridiculous I sounded – “all” I could boast about were the normal everyday blessings – blessings that I was taking for granted which so many other people in the world would consider miraculous. The more I started appreciating the regular occurrences of these everyday miracles, the more God moments I began to see.

So today I want to share with you some of those God sightings I was blessed to recognize from this past week. First of all, at work I am so very blessed to have a solid friendship with my coworkers. Chad, Linda and I work so well together because we really do care about it other and want to help each other succeed. Not only do we share our careers, but we share our lives and I am blessed to know both of them. I am so very blessed to have pictures and knickknacks in my office (today’s blog photos) that honor God and help center my attention on him. In many places, even in this country where my religious freedom is guaranteed, I would not be able to display such obvious Christian d├ęcor.

I saw God in my personal life too. My father was in the hospital last week with a severe infection. He is now home and doing much better. God healed and is healing my father through the work and care of doctors, nurses, and modern medicine. Last week, while I was vacuuming my home, I expressed my gratitude to God for giving me a mother who frustrated me to no end when I was a kid with questions like:  Did you move the couch and vacuum under the chair? Did you take the cushions off the couch and sweep up all the crumbs? And statements like:  You didn’t move the lamp—dust the table again and this time, move the lamp. If I look in your closet, am I going to find everything that was under your bed? Why was I grateful for that? Because I had a mother who taught me how to clean my home properly and a clean home is healthy and helps make me happy and content.

And speaking of blessings of humility—God blessed me with a friend who cared enough and loved me enough to remind me that it’s not the quantity but the quality of what I do that matters. Sometimes, we can get caught up in the numbers and forget that how we do something, whether it is a golf swing, a work project, or anything we do in life. I am so grateful for the smack down I got last week reminding me of that.

At church yesterday, God blessed me again. In a congregation full of strangers, I turned around to see two familiar faces smiling at me and two other people who introduced themselves to me on the way out of the building after worship.

These may seem like every day ordinary things to anyone else but for me, they are what made the last seven days extraordinary. These moments reminded me that God is thinking about me and wanted to give me these little moments to show it. I couldn’t be any more blessed than that!
I hope you go into this week looking for the little blessings because if you look, you can’t help but see them. Don’t ask God where he is in a given moment in desperation but in expectation and you will see those little extraordinary miracles he is blessing you with all the time. That’s my plan for the week.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Do I Have to Go to Church?

About a year and a half ago, I made the decision to leave the church that God brought me to when I first became a Christian. It is a good church with good people but I felt that my ministry passion just didn’t coincide with theirs anymore and knew it was time to find a new church home. God had led me right to the doorstep and through the front doors of that place more than a decade earlier. While I was positive that God was calling me away from there, he didn’t really give me any clue as to where to go from there and that was a problem. At the same time one of my coworkers announced his plan to retire in six months’ time. Our staff had all been together for 10-12 years which is highly unusual in this day and age, even among churches. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with these dear friends while we were all still together as a staff so I started attending worship services at the church I work for. In my mind it was always a temporary respite from looking for my new church home and circumstances kept me there a year longer than I had planned but here I am again looking for that place where God wants me to invest my Sunday mornings and my ministry passion.

I’m a non-conformist woman of faith who has a difficult time with large gatherings and little use for religion. These days, it seems like churches concentrate their efforts in attracting families. Ministries are developed for children, youth and families because families give the impression of growth and a solid foundation for the future.  As a single person with no immediate family within my religious tradition, I feel like I am unimportant and unwanted before I even walk in the door. I walk alone into a roomful of people who are all sitting with their families. I sit alone. I worship alone. I walk out alone. I’d rather just stay at home and worship on my own because being alone in a crowd is the deepest kind of loneliness there is. But that isn’t what God wants. Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” God made us to be in relationship with him and with others and that includes as a community of believers who gather together in worship.

So all last week, I was trying to psych myself up to attend a worship gathering on Sunday morning but couldn’t manage even a little enthusiasm or desire. So Saturday night I turned it over to God. After all, he’s the one who convinced me to go the first time. I asked him to give me the enthusiasm and desire I couldn’t create on my own. I'd like to share with you a small part of the internal dialog I had with myself as I prayed about it.

“God wants me to go to worship because I need to go.”

“I need to go because spending time with him in this way with others is a great privilege and honor and besides, God deserves my worship and attention!”

“Maybe God wants to bless me by speaking to me through someone else’s voice today and I need to go there to hear it.”

“What if I go there and I worship God with all my heart alone in a crowd and there is no blessing?”

That's when God brought to mind Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s answer to King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:17-18: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."  And it hit me—God is glorious and he is worthy of praise. Going to a worship service isn’t about me, it’s about him. My God will bless me because that’s who he is, not because I worship him. But even if he doesn’t, I will still worship him and I will do it in a community because that’s his desire. With this new mindset in place, I set the alarm and went to bed determined to attend a community worship service in the morning.

Sunday morning came and the alarm went off. I never once thought about staying home but got myself ready and went to worship. And for the record, God did bless me and touched my heart in a most profound way. He brought an unexpected friend to the seat next to me. Someone to sing and pray with. Someone to hear the word of God with and share with in our worship of the Lord together. What a great blessing that was!

None of this is going to make next week and the weeks ahead any easier, but I've got a good foundation to build on and I know that where ever I roam, God will be there to receive my adoration. And someday, I will find myself at home in a new church community and be able to thank him for bringing me through the challenging time I'm going through now to get there.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Week After...What God Did

Last Sunday as I preparing to “preach” the message that the Holy Spirit shared with me at the New Wilmington Mission Conference, a rather mind-blowing, life altering realization came to me. Anyone who knows me knows that getting up in front of a large group of people is way out of my comfort zone. Over the years, God has given me some truly amazing revelations to share with you in my writing, but taking those revelations from the paper, through my introvert brain and out my mouth is a difficult task indeed.

If I was going to present this message in a somewhat intelligible manner, I was going to have to keep the anxiety and self-doubt at bay which unfortunately is like trying to hold the ocean back with a spoon. As I was going through my morning routine of getting ready and out the door, God and I had a frank conversation about this. Then came a moment when I was able to perfectly articulate exactly why I was feeling so anxious—God had given me beautiful words and I so desperately wanted them to be beautiful when they came out of my mouth and I just didn’t see that being possible. God’s reply—these words can only be beautiful when you speak them because I gave them to you in your own voice. (Like I said….mind-blowing!!!!)

Instantly, the anxiety and self-doubt evaporated and God’s peace and confidence filled my being. I arrived at the church a half hour early and was so calm and collected that a friend who knows me well was puzzled at my very obvious lack of anxiety and insecurity. The morning went well and the Holy Spirit did indeed share beautiful words of hope and discipleship with those in attendance.

The peace and confidence God filled me with continued throughout the day. Instead of anguishing over whether or not I did a good enough job or analyzing every moment of the morning to find the faults or thinking of things I should have said, I left it all behind at the Sanctuary door and enjoyed the rest of my day. I even forgot about it by evening. (That’s never happened!)

On Monday I received the following bible verse in my email: 
I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge.  1 Corinthians 1:4-5 (NLT)

I smiled and thanked God for the affirmation.

On Tuesday, I had some devotion time in the morning. I had just started reading 1 Corinthians and opened my bible to pick up where I left off—with chapter 2.

1  When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3  I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5  so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 (NIV)

I read the first five verses and realized why I didn’t need to worry about whether or not my words made a difference two days earlier because it was never my words or my delivery that were going to touch the hearts of those in attendance but God’s power, and he never fails.

I love how Peterson says it in The Message:  3-5 I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s Spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else.

When I got to work that morning, I found a gift left for me in the door from a friend who “saw it and thought of me.” It’s a colorful little word portrait that says:

God’s Promises
He will make you a Blessing!
He will LOVE YOU forever!
He will TAKE CARE of you!
He will Never Leave you!

Did my friend give this to me because this is what I needed to hear and know in my heart? After all, this is the very thing my friend ends us having to remind me of often. Or is it that this is the message God brings to those around me through the example of my life and faith. God has made me a blessing to family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and the occasional stranger. I have no doubt that God’s love expressed in Jesus’ sacrifice and in the presence of his Holy Spirit in my heart and my life are all the proof I need of his never ending love for me. When my whole life is turned upside down or just thrown a little off kilter, my confidence in the fact that God will take care of me is the rock I stand on and the peace in my heart that sees me through all the uncertainty. Through it all my experience is that God has never nor will he ever leave me. Even when I leave him, in my disobedience and pride, I can’t turn around without finding him right there with me.

Maybe the one thing we are supposed to teach others about God is the one thing we need to learn over and over again in our own lives. Maybe that’s the message God wants to share through us in our own voice. Every failure, every fear, every heartbreak is the start of a wonderful parable in which God shares with me and those around me the wonderful mystery of his grace and power. I don’t need to worry about what I will say or how I will say it because he is specifically speaking through me and my life to share his incredible message of love and redemption in a way that can only come from me. What an awesome thought! 

Monday, August 1, 2016

You Want Me to Do What? Part 2

As promised last week, here is the message the Spirit gave me to preach in worship yesterday. It's a little longer than my normal post and I pray you will be blessed in the reading of it. Enjoy!


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.

When we hear this familiar verse, this Great Commission, what is it we really hear? Think about it for a moment. What stands out?  If you’re like me, you heard “YOU WILL BE MY WITNESSES.” You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Wow! What an awesome responsibility.

Let’s just agree to skip past that initial hesitation that seizes all of us at one time or another when someone starts talking about our responsibility as it pertains to the Great Commission. We’re going to skip over the reasons that this verse “doesn’t apply to me” and how “my schedule is already overloaded.” In fact, we’re just going to skip right over the big guns, the ultimate conversation-ending responses – “This was only for the apostles” or “this is just for professional missionaries and ministers.” We’re also going to ignore the flip side of that coin—“that’s just not my spiritual gift.” “That’s not my calling.” Let’s assume for today that as the children and servants of a missionary God whose only objective since the fall was and is to reconcile the lost souls of the world to himself, it is our responsibility and our joy, each and every one of us, to bring hope to a broken and hurting world by sharing the Good News of the Gospel.

So all we need to do now is ask God to help us discern what our Jerusalem is? Is it our neighborhood? Our workplace? Our group of friends? Where is our Judea and Samaria? Does “the ends of the earth” mean the ethnic community down the road or perhaps it is the thousands of foreign students who come to our city to earn their degrees at one of Pittsburgh’s universities. Or maybe it means a change in culture is in store for someone.

Let’s stop here for a minute and rewind. There was a whole phrase of this verse that we skimmed past without even looking at which might make a big difference in how we understand it so let’s look at it again. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” That seems like a really important piece of information. Maybe one we need to consider before we start asking all those “where” questions.

Before I continue, I want to tell you the story of how I came to be speaking to you this morning. As you probably know, our former pastor introduced me to the New Wilmington Mission Conference many years ago. It is the highlight of my year. The worship is amazing. Digging deep into scripture and hearing firsthand from mission coworkers from around the world what God is doing in the Middle East and in South Sudan and Central Asia, for example, is informative and uplifting. I learned more about the history of the Muslim-Christian conflict in one hour last Monday than I had in all the rest of my life. As a result, I now know better how to pray for them and what to look for as God brings more and more people of Muslim background to himself in those nations. I heard about organizations that mobilize mission efforts both in aid and sharing the Good News. In one week, I was able to converse, pray, and worship with Christian brothers and sisters from 35 states and 23 different countries.
Anyway, thirty-six hours before I left for Westminster College where the Conference is held, I received an email from the Worship Committee Chair. She knew I was leaving for vacation soon but wondered if I would be able to give today’s message.  I thought about it but didn’t feel that one day would be enough time to prepare. Reluctantly, I felt I had to decline.

I arrived at the Conference early last Saturday morning even though registration wasn’t until 3pm because I was invited to join in the Concert of Prayer and Worship that the Conference Staff participates in before the delegates arrive. It was a wonderful time of worship and prayer where we pretty much prayed for everything and everybody. At one point we formed groups of six and, laying hands on each other, prayed for the Holy Spirit to come upon each and every one of us. It was a beautiful experience of prayer, peace, power, and praise.

I thought I’d put the few hours between lunch and registration to good use by writing my weekly blog which I was going to need to post soon. Something that was said in the earlier worship time had caught my attention and my fingers flew over my computer keyboard as I explored the implications on my faith and my life this new discovery made. It was as if God was speaking and I was just typing what I heard. (I am a secretary. That’s what we do.) As I began to edit, I was excited about the great insight God has shared with me and said something out loud, to myself, that I’d heard a thousand times from a pastor friend of mine. I said, “That will preach!” I paused; shook my head and muttered, “Oh.” And that’s when I email the Worship Committee Chair and told her I would be happy give today’s message.

Why did I tell you that? Because I think it speaks directly to the great pearl God revealed to me last Saturday—you will receive power WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT COMES UPON YOU! When I received the request from Dana, I didn’t ask the Holy Spirit if he was going to share his wisdom with you today through me. I asked myself, can I possibly put something together in one day and decided that I’m just not that talented. So I said no. What I didn’t take into consideration is that the Lord had already decided who he was going to share this message through and I probably should have asked him first before putting Dana through two more days of worry and frustration in trying to find someone else to speak to you today.

I’ve been attending this Mission Conference for seven years. I earned a certificate in a graduate level course—Perspectives on the World Christian Movement which is an in-depth study of Scripture and the history of God’s people in their role and purpose in the redemptive and restorative plan of our Missional God. I did a specialized word study on the Holy Spirit for several years and yet…this is the first time I ever saw this all important beginning phrase, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”

Whatever follows, we must first recognize and comprehend that the Holy Spirit is the instigator, the One with the plan, the Person in charge. The One with the authority and the power to accomplish whatever comes next. He is the actor in this verse and his action is the catalyst for what follows. If this were a spiritual grammar lesson, the Holy Spirit would be the subject of the sentence and his “coming upon us” the main verb. All the rest is a modifier, the adjectives and adverbs, if you will, that describe who the Holy Spirit is, what he does, and how he does it.

In our first reading today (John 14:8-20) just before Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them in God’s house and that he will return for his followers to bring them back with him. I think what Philip is really saying is that if Jesus could just leave something behind to help him not feel so alone, if Jesus would leave someone in charge whom he and the disciples could look to for direction, if they had some way to focus their full attention on living their lives in a way that was pleasing to God, they would feel more secure in his leaving. Jesus reminds them and us that when we know and love him we are knowing and loving the Father. He promised to send the Holy Spirit to step into that role of Holy Companion, Compass and Focal Point.

Then Jesus leaves some last minute instructions. He tells them that they know how to live a life pleasing to God. They just need to continue on doing what they’ve seen him do. And because he won’t be confined in his earthly condition, he will be available in a way he cannot be in person to enable them and us to do even more and greater things now. He gives us permission to use his authority in prayer to seek God’s provision and power in carrying on what Jesus has started. And the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in our hearts and lives will be the tangible substance of our hope and faith. When the Spirit comes upon us, the very nature of God will be in us and with us in the same inexplicable way he and the Father are in and with each other. So the Spirit who dwells in and with us will be for us a Companion and Counselor. He is the connective tissue that hold us together with a Holy God and with our brothers and sisters. He is the mind, the will, and the power of God in us and in our lives. For someone like me, that’s great news because I really don’t have confidence in my own power and abilities in this life to imitate Jesus’ example let alone do greater things in the world, my country, my state, my city or even my neighborhood.
In fact for much of my life, I have felt powerless. I tried to control everything around me to make sense of things and to avoid getting blind-sighted and hurt. But I learned that I never had control and pretending that I did only made me a fool out of control who didn’t even know it. However, the bible tells us that God IS in control. The power is his. And he is gracing us with that power in the Holy Spirit’s presence upon and within us. The kind of power the Spirit brings is revealed in a great variety of ways: the power of forgiveness, the power to heal, the power to defeat demons, and the power to speak in tongues. The power of prophecy, of prayer, and of service. His power is manifest in miracles, in dreams and visions, in reconciliation and in cooperation. The bible is full of examples of God’s limitless power and how he uses it often through the faith, words, and actions of his people.

Last week, when I saw this verse again for the first time, I began to see and understand the many ways in which I have already experienced his power as he has witnessed to the grace and redemption available in Jesus through my life and my interactions with those in my community. I’d like to share a few of those personal insights with you now.

First, prayer. Prayer is power. There is no greater power on earth. Prayer brings me (and you) into the presence of the Almighty. It lifts us up into his waiting arms. Prayer can move mountains, turn a stone heart to flesh, heal wounds, vanquish Satan and overcome temptation. Prayer changes the pray-er. Prayer is my part of God’s work in the world around me. Prayer is a privilege and it is my joy!

Service is power. Humbling myself, serving another, is my way to show God I love him. It is the means by which I can bring, in my own flawed way, God’s love and grace to others. When I do what he has equipped me to do in his name for others, amazing things happen both in those I serve and in me. God doesn’t need me to bring him food or drink but someone does—someone whom God created and whom he went to the cross for. In serving the ones he loves, I am pleasing him and making him smile.

Hope is power. Hope is a formidable weapon against the enemy. He wants us to feel hopeless because without hope, we cannot live into the new life, the clean heart, the obedient spirit that Jesus has birth in us and is nurturing to completion. Hope see victory when only defeat is evident. Hope is a bright tomorrow when today is so bleak. Hope is the restoration of our relationship with God even though we do not deserve and cannot earn it.

Love is power. Love overcomes everything—hate, frustration, fear, misunderstanding, radically differing opinions, annoying habits, quarrels, painful pasts, uncertain futures… It’s our greatest desire and yet sometimes so elusive in this world. There is no end to what love can change or conquer. Love is a heavy and often painful burden. It’s hard to perfect and even harder to ignore. Love disarms and embraces. And perhaps the most important thing to remember is that love has already won.

The Spirit is upon me and he is upon you, working through each of us individually and collectively to bring his message of grace everywhere we find ourselves to a world that desperately needs it. He’s got the power and has granted unlimited access to that power through prayer and in service, with the hope and love that comes from knowing the Risen Savior and being reconciled through him to our God.

Now that we understand that, we can ask the Spirit:  Where is our Jerusalem? Our Judea, our Samaria? How far to the ends of the earth is he going to take us to touch and restore this broken world?