Low-Hanging Fruit L4L.04

The WORDYoung man harvesting plums

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:1-4 (New Living Translation)

You know the drill – let’s read it again.

“Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: ‘Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.’ Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: ‘It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.’” Matthew 4:1-4 (The Message)

This season of Lent, forty days long (not counting Sundays), is a reflection of the forty days of preparation Jesus spent in the desert prior to being tested by God’s enemy. Before He even began His ministry, Jesus set Himself apart from outside influences, perhaps because He knew that His best shot against Satan would be a steady stream of God’s influence, untainted by the comforts and conveniences of the world.

By resisting the physical need to eat, Jesus was feeding His spiritual hunger at an all-you-can-eat buffet of Scriptural truth at the table of God. Truth that not only came in handy, but won the battle with evil, propelling Jesus into a whirlwind ministry of teaching and preaching that ultimately changed the world.

Jesus was starvingcan you imagine going forty days without eating? – and yet He was able to resist the low-hanging fruit of the tempter when it was offered to Him. It’s no accident that this scene unfolds at the start of His ministry, as it is in perfect parallel to the temptation of God’s first people as they stood, naked, in front of that tree in the Garden.

Low-hanging fruit is always the enemy’s Plan A. And it’s no wonder, since we (like Adam and Eve) are always so eager to take a bite.

The APP

What’s so appealing about the low-hanging fruit of the enemy, and why are we such easy targets?

Low-hanging fruit feeds our physical appetites. Just as Satan tempted Jesus to give in to His hunger, we are tempted every day to settle for the fruit we can easily reach.

Fruit we don’t have to work hard to obtain.

Fruit that is readily available.

Fruit that is temporarily satisfying.

Our appetites will always lead us into temptation, just as Adam and Eve were drawn to the fruit of the one tree in the Garden that wasn’t theirs; but we don’t have to partake.

We’re easy targets because we aren’t prepared. Jesus – Son of God, Messiah, Lord – spent forty days preparing for Satan’s testing. By denying Himself in the physical realm, Jesus was freed up to be strengthened in the spiritual realm and consequently was ready for battle when Satan appeared on the scene.

We fall to temptation again and again because we fail to take seriously our times of preparation. As long as we are satisfied with dabbling in the Word of God, we will never be satisfied with the hard-to-reach fruit of the Spirit.

If, as Jesus said, “It takes more than bread to stay alive,” then you and I must hunger for that steady stream of God’s Word if we are to allow low-hanging fruit to dangle while we stretch and reach and climb to obtain the fruit that will last.

For you, today, this may mean a fast. A day, a week, or perhaps forty days of refusing to give in to the easily-met desires of the flesh. Often we choose to give up something that is tempting to us as a token offered to the season of Lent; this is not what I’m talking about today.

What you and I most desperately need is to set ourselves apart for the purpose of being prepared – not preparing ourselves, mind you, but dedicating ourselves to being open to the preparation God provides us through His Word.

Until we take Jesus’ words to the enemy literally and choose to draw our very sustenance and spiritual nutrition from God’s Word, we cannot walk the path that Jesus walked. We cannot follow Him.

This is how Jesus’ walk began: with preparation, with temptation, with victory.

In that order.

May it be so for us today.

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Discover. Uncover. Recover. Spiritual Disciplines for the Expectant (Part Two)

ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG - A PROJECT OF THE MUSEUM O...

It’s got to be down there somewhere.

Your passion for living. Your energy for service. Your desire for the ways of The Lord. Your Christmas spirit. Buried, no doubt, under years of doing business-as-usual.

It’s a subtle shift – an almost imperceptible process – that takes a redeemed child of God from her baptismal waters to what ends up looking less like a river and more like a dried up wash in the Arizona desert. In July.

Years of stuffing the important so that we can deal with the seemingly urgent takes its toll on those of us who used to expect much from the coming of Emmanuel. Some of us truly need to find our focus and fix our eyes on Jesus, opening ourselves up to DISCOVERING God’s presence as we have never sensed Him before – that’s what we talked about last time. But others of us are yearning for something we know we already have, it’s just that its been covered by debris left over from the whirlwind of life. Unless we take disciplined measures to unearth what lies beneath, we will continue the frenzied living we’re accustomed to while our foundation gets piled over like an ancient archaeological dig (with khaki-clad university students standing by and armed with shovels).

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather do my own dig. That’s what the spiritual discipline of UNCOVER is – removing the layers to uncover the good stuff. And just like a successful dig for ancient finds, we must tread carefully so as not to damage our buried treasure.

It’s got to be down there somewhere!

Here are a few ways to begin –

UNCOVER.
We get busy and blast our way through the day as if armed with dynamite. Checking off the to-do list, shuttling children to school and high-tailing it to work (because we’re always running late). Can’t eat lunch – too busy. The only time we sit is in the car or on the couch as we doze off to the disturbingly consistent bad news on TV.

In order to UNCOVER the good stuff within, we’re going to need to schedule in some slow time. Time to ask ourselves some important, daily questions and then listen to our answers. You will need a minimum of 5 minutes near the end of the day – every day – to develop this questioning habit.

Find a quiet space (lock yourself in the bathroom if necessary).
Put these questions on your smartphone.
Read and answer each one. Journal your answers if you’re so inclined.

Daily Questions:

  1. What am I thankful for?
  2. What worked in my life today?
  3. What didn’t work today? (Relationships? Choices? Attitudes? Behaviors? Emotions?)
  4. Now that I have exposed these things to God, what comes next?
  5. Ask God to enter your life – such as it is right now – and make you better than you are.
  6. Resolve to respond to God by acting in obedience to His Spirit and His Word.

Anticipate breakthroughs and surprising discoveries as you begin your daily dig! If you would like more tools like this one, consider employing the ancient practice of Examen as you review and respond to each day.

God wants to pour on the blessings! The problem is, most of the time we treat God’s gifts like those Christmas presents that make us smile as we open them but are soon added to the pile, set upon a shelf, forgotten and collecting dust.

God’s gifts – the good stuff in our lives – aren’t just meant to be opened.
They’re meant to be used.

Take time in this busy season to UNCOVER the real present…

The PRESENCE of God in your everyday life.

Check in next week for Part Three. Until then…
Expect MUCH!

(holy) SPIT

A deaf man with a speech impediment was brought to him, and the people begged Jesus to lay his hands on the man to heal him. Jesus led him away from the crowd so they could be alone. He put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then, spitting on his own fingers, he touched the man’s tongue. Looking up to heaven, he sighed and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened!” Instantly the man could hear perfectly, and his tongue was freed so he could speak plainly! Jesus told the crowd not to tell anyone, but the more he told them not to, the more they spread the news. They were completely amazed and said again and again, “Everything he does is wonderful. He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who cannot speak.” ” Mark 7:32-37 (NLT)

Really – if there’s an apt title for this message – it’s this: (holy) SPIT.

Does that offend you? Does it make you uncomfortable? Are you bristling or shifting in your seat right now? I wonder why we react in such a way when the thing that God does, according to the scriptures, is take the raw material of our lives and make it HOLY.

Like Jesus’ holy spit.

Let’s not waste our time here today, okay? Let’s not let some words go in one ear and out the other. And let’s not waste this perfectly wonderful object lesson – Jesus’ use of spit – when what God has to teach us is as close as the moisture in our mouths.

Four things stand out to me, about God, after reading this story of Jesus’ healing of the deaf mute…

God Says it, then He does it.

God does what He says – HIS WORD IS ACTION! Jesus SAID to the deaf mute ‘BE OPENED’ and it was SO. No empty promises. No passive, pious ‘I’ll pray for you’. Jesus literally puts His money WHERE HIS MOUTH IS, and the result is HEALING and RESTORATION! So much so that the people around Him say things like:

“He’s done it all – and done it well!” (NOT – “He says such nice things!” or “He’s so smart. He knows so much!”)

Scripture is jam-packed-FULL of ACTION WORDS when it comes to the promises of God. To ward off any doubt, let’s do a quick re-cap:

God made.

He defends, feeds, frees and gives.

He lifts up, loves and protects.

He takes the side of, upholds, watches over and sustains.

He listens to and lays hands on.

He casts out and makes short work of demons, illness and fear.

He SAYS it, and then He makes it SO. That’s the S.

People are His Plan!

Look around you. What do you see? WHO do you see? Do you SEE GOD? More likely than not, you only see PEOPLE. And people, WE are God’s PLAN of ACTION! When we read Isaiah 35:4 and hear the promise “GOD IS HERE!” we can’t help but look around…

And some of us, when we look around expecting to see God, are disappointed. All we see are a bunch of broken, messed up, unholy people with issues at least as great as our own. Let’s be honest – we’re not much to look at, even in our Sunday best, even on our very best day – are we?

But God’s Plan to ACT in this world doesn’t just ‘include’ us – it RELIES on us, too! Listen to James 2:14-17 (the Message):

“Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right WORDS but never DO anything? Does merely TALKING about our faith indicate that a person really HAS it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved, and (you) say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit! (I’ll pray for you!)” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup – where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-ACTS is outrageous NONSENSE?” [caps & emphasis mine]

It’s true that God is already working in the world all around us – after all, HE IS HERE! But He is calling you and me to JOIN HIM! To get in the game! To stop wasting time on our little, human projects and join Him in HIS Kingdom-work – work that CHANGES things and makes a LASTING impact on the world! God is calling you and me to ACTION that:

Defends, feeds, lifts up and upholds.

He’s calling us to sustain, watch over, free and protect.

God is looking for givers, lovers and those who will take the side of others who are otherwise alone.

Actions that, yes, HE IS ALREADY DOING and will continue to do – with or without our participation. But people, PEOPLE ARE HIS PLAN! That’s the P.

Incarnation

Incarnation is that churchified word that simply means God-lives-here. In Christian theology, we believe the incarnation to be the embodiment of God the Father in the human form of God the Son… Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there!

God’s Plan is People, and He has made it possible for you and me to BE the Incarnation of Jesus through His living and active Spirit! God moves in to you and me and we become people who embody IN THE FLESH the PERSON of God, the Holy Spirit! This includes His personality, His power and His priorities.

When our words are just words, they make little difference to others and we have little impact on the world. It’s like Psalm 146:3-4 says: ‘Mere humans don’t have what it takes – when they die, their projects die with them.’ It’s not just ANY act/action that God is after – His ‘capital P’ Plan isn’t to sit back and watch while we each make our own ‘little p’ plans! He knows that our actions, when done apart from His Word and His Spirit, are only temporary, weak, fruitless, even impotent acts that will be buried with us when this short life is through.

God is trying to tell us today that WITHOUT THE WORD, our words are as powerful as SPIT. Yuck. Gross.

Why else would the world look at Christians and Christianity with such skepticism and negativity? The world is watching us, and when they see mere humans operating without the Word and without the Spirit, what they see is the outrageous nonsense of God-talk without God-acts.

Jesus’ words to the deaf mute are a powerful reminder that we must remain open! The degree to which we are open to this mystery of Incarnation is the degree to which we participate in God’s Plan! But you and I know from painful trial and error that human effort isn’t enough to bring about the Incarnation – what we need is a:

Transfusion of grace from God!

I had some bloodwork done recently. Often when I have blood drawn, the phlebotomist has trouble finding a good vein (fortunately it only took one stick this time). But think about it… maybe the pricks and pokes you’re feeling in your life right now are the work of the Savior, who is set on finding a good vein in you so that He can begin the life-saving TRANSFUSION of grace and forgiveness that you so desperately need.

It is only by God’s free-flowing, undeserved grace that we can be filled with the living, active Word Himself – the Word that Speaks and makes it So – the S!

And only when we’ve been connected to that flow will we be able to live into God’s Plan as God’s People – His Plan to act in ways that will heal and restore and include all people – the P!

He knows that we can’t do it on our own – God knows our track record, both personally and corporately. He’s seen our attempts and He’s watched our failures. Only Jesus Christ, alive in us – the Incarnation – makes it possible for us to participate in God’s Plan – the I!

So, why are we willing to settle for knowing the ‘right words’ but failing to live them? That’s DEAD faith, people! And when we’re dying, what we need is something we can’t supply for ourselves: we need a TRANSFUSION of life-saving, life-giving proportions! To come ALIVE with Christ, we desperately need the GRACE of God, so…

Hang in there! Let him find a good vein! Transfusion – that’s the T!

And what we’re left with is SPIT.

Saliva. We’ve all got it, right? Basic, raw material.

Yet God can take the most raw material – the least spiritual offering we’ve got – and He can make it holy. Jesus proved it – with His spit.

It doesn’t take anything special on your part, because the power comes from the Spirit of God, ALIVE in His Word! And it is Spirit-infused actions that will change the world, no matter how small they may seem to you and me.

Let God take what little you have – even if all you have to give is the moisture in your mouth – and let Him make it a blessing to others!

Share some (holy) SPIT with the last, the lost and the least – the poor, the widow, the orphan, the grieving, the outsider, the alien, the stranger, the needy, the sick, the addict, that teenager… you can fill in the blanks. YOU KNOW THE WORDS.

Now LIVE THEM.

The Pentecost Prayer Marathon (a PINK Tuesday post)

Prayers

Image by Xerones via Flickr

A number of years ago, in the midst of a season of unprecedented awareness of the power and presence of the Spirit of God, I gathered a group of women together for what became known as the Pentecost Prayer Marathon.

A marathon, as you may well know, is an endurance race that measures out to be 26.22 miles long. It has quite a history, the marathon, going back to the Battle of Marathon and the Greek soldier Pheidippides – a messenger who ran the distance from the fabled battleground to Athens in order to proclaim their victory over the enemy (in a battle which he himself had also fought). A feat which he did, as the story goes, without stopping until his pronouncement had been heard (at which time he fell down and died).

More than 500 marathons are run every year. Athletes prepare for months for this race which, for many, emerges as a defining moment of glory and achievement in a lifetime of athletic endeavors. I’m not really sure where the connection between 26.22 miles of road and a miraculous outpouring of Spirit-presence came from, but I began to wonder about what it is that drives a person to such a strenuous undertaking as the running of a marathon. I began to marvel at the dedication and intense preparation of marathon runners. I pondered the fruit of such an athletic commitment – maybe a medal? Certainly feelings of self-satisfaction!

But I am not an athlete.

No matter how hard I try, I just can’t imagine enduring the pain and maintaining the focus and discipline needed in order to run this kind of race (as much as I admire those who can and DO)!

On the other hand, I CAN appreciate the value of the LENGTH of the marathon. Yes, it is long. But it also has an END. A finish line.

I find that people (myself included) often function better with deadlines. Can you relate? When I diet, I am a maniac at following the rules! I almost NEVER cheat, because I can see the results AND I know there is an END – a goal – in sight. When faced with a huge project (say, writing curriculum for a retreat), I ALWAYS do better work as the deadline looms larger. There’s a date when this work must be presented, and the closer that event is, the more efficient I am at staying focused on it.

Anything I want to do better CAN be done better if I assign a goal or deadline to it!

This may drive one person to successfully finish a marathon, another to lose those last five pounds, and yet another to finish a project that has been pending since 1992.

Can the same be true about PRAYER? Can I be more effective and focused in prayer if I designate a sort of ‘finish line’ for it?

My hope is that you will find, as I have year in and year out, that the answer is an absolute YES! Herein lies your invitation, then, to join me in my annual marathon – my PRAYER Marathon – purposely connected to the memory of the Spirit-bath Jesus’ disciples and followers received when His promised Friend arrived on the scene, thousands of years ago.

Be mindful, though, that this marathon of prayer isn’t about ME. It isn’t about what I can do, what I think I need, or what I think is important to God. This Prayer Marathon is about the power unleashed in the lives of believers when the Holy Spirit is given room to breathe His mystery and comfort and momentum into the very lives of those who seek Him. Today.

So… here’s how it works! The Prayer Marathon begins on Saturday, May 26th at 8:00pm. It ends at 10:12pm on Sunday, May 27th (the day we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit). In case you missed the connection, the Prayer Marathon lasts for a total of 26.2 hours.

For the sake of focus, there are four stations to pass through during the Prayer Marathon. Each one is designed to help us focus on a particular area of prayer/need. Designated times are just suggestions here, so don’t get too legalistic about them! Simply use them as a guide and allow God to move you through the Marathon to the finish line – the celebration of the arrival of His Presence with us!

Prayer Station #1: 8pm on Sat. May 26th

Focus your prayers on preparing your heart to receive all that God wants to pour out in YOU! Seek scriptures that connect the work of God in His people. Include times of confession in these early prayers. Invite God to move in your heart. Ask Him to show you what a life of discipline and focus on the things He cares about might look like. Ask Him to surprise you as the Marathon unfolds!

Prayer Station #2: Dawn on Sunday morning, May 27th

Intercede on behalf of those in your family, your church and your community. Make a list of those whose needs are greater than the resources you have to meet them. Take your time and ‘download’ any/all prayer concerns or requests you might have on behalf of those you know and those you love.

Prayer Station #3: Sunset on Sunday evening, May 27th

Intercede on behalf of those in our culture, our nation and our world. Bring to God your concerns for the people who live near and far, in familiar and unfamiliar places. Use a map or globe as a tool for your prayers! Consult websites for agencies like International Justice Mission, World Vision or Wycliffe Bible Translators. Identify specific places and people groups whose issues and needs tug at your heart, and lift them up in prayer. Light a candle on their behalf. Let your prayers shine light into their darkness as only God can.

Prayer Station #4: 10:12pm on Sunday evening, May 27th

REJOICE! Revel in the faithfulness of the God whose Spirit is ever-present in THIS DAY. In THIS MOMENT! Thank Him for His promises and celebrate His presence! Take note of what this Marathon has brought your way, taking time to write down your impressions and His responses to your cries. Ask yourself: what is the ‘medal’ He wants to lay across your shoulders, now that you’ve completed this Prayer Marathon? Is it a fresh awareness? A clearer vision? A deeper passion? Pay attention to the fruit of your commitment!

If you choose to pray this marathon with me, I invite you to pray these words from Habakkuk throughout the journey. Because the rushing wind and tongues of flame didn’t just come and then go. The Spirit of God is moving still, and something in me says that this is what our prayer should be…

“Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known.” -Habakkuk 3:2a

Empowered to CREATE (a PINK Tuesday post)

Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, alabaster, ...

Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, alabaster, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had a doorstep conversation this morning with a repeat visitor from a local church. She remembered my name, and she remembered that my work includes Christian education. She didn’t come empty handed today – she came bearing a gift in the form of a book dedicated to refuting the claims of evolution. She told me that people sometimes call her crazy for believing in creation. She thought this book might be of help to me as I teach God’s Word and His ways.

She couldn’t have known that this week, in my world, the focus IS: CREATE.

I will look at the book she left for me – I’m always seeking God’s truth where it can be found – but I refuse to get caught up in defensive conversation about whose understanding of God’s work is more accurate. I’m much more interested in watching His work unfold… today.

THIS is the call of creation! To be aware of God’s ongoing handiwork and to be open to glimpses of His present activity in the people and the world around me.

And once I’m both aware and open, to choose to accept His holy invitation to join in creating a world that reflects His goodness, His glory and His constant efforts at restoring our brokenness through the real presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

You & I have been empowered by God to CREATE!

How we direct our creative energy says a lot about who we believe ourselves to BE and what we believe our God can DO.

Barefoot Ministries has created a beautiful curriculum called A World Unbroken. The faith family I live in has adopted this curriculum for the next seven weeks in an effort to find our place in God’s story – beginning at the beginning. Beginning with: CREATE.

Click here to learn more about our efforts to join in God’s continuing restoration-work: CREATE.

Pneuma & Alētheia L4L.27

File:Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Dove of the Holy Spirit.JPG

File:Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Dove of the Holy Spirit.JPG

The WORD

“But the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:23-24 (New Living Translation)

“But the time is coming and is already here, when by the power of God’s Spirit people will worship the Father as he really is, offering him the true worship that he wants. God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.” (Good News Translation)

One more time, so as not to miss the riches contained in these words of Jesus:

“But the time is coming – it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. God is sheer being itself – Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” (The Message)

Two thousand years later and we still haven’t realized that what we’re called and where we go to worship does not matter…

At least, not to God.

The APP

One year ago I spent a weekend at camp with seven middle school students – my Confirmation class from church. We immersed ourselves in Jesus – His words, His actions, His life experiences – and we ended the weekend with a service of worship.

Those of you who work with youth will agree that it takes a great deal of faith in the Spirit of God to allow teenagers to design and lead worship for adults. Something (SomeONE) told me, in my preparations for this end-of-the-year event, that I needed to trust Him and give the students lots of wiggle room as they planned to lead worship on Sunday morning, for their parents and mentors.

We began on Friday night by agreeing that we would not do anything in our worship service that wasn’t meaningful to us, and we proceeded to create a time of communal worship to reflect God’s presence and activity in each of our lives. One student wrote two prayers for worship (“God, at camp we went outside and looked at the stars. We were supposed to whisper a prayer, then we were supposed to yell a prayer. I yelled that You are so amazing!”).

Another student connected with the scriptures and found several passages that she read aloud, and we selected songs to go with each. Three students experienced God’s presence in a particular Station of the Cross, and they worked together to share not only the words of the Station, but their personal reflections and feelings about it as well. Two students remembered Jesus’ words at the last supper and shared these with us as we prepared to commune with Him over grapes and crackers. We built in time for hugs and handshakes and conversation about God’s Word, and we set aside time for a student to tell jokes (because laughing out loud made these students feel closer to God).

What emerged from their honest efforts to connect with each other in the presence of God was true, Spirit-empowered worship.

The kind of worship God seeks from you and me.

Two Greek words from this John 4 passage jump out at me as we seek to be literal today:

Pneuma – Spirit

Alētheia – Truth

No matter how sincerely we attempt to worship God from deep within ourselves – from our God-created spirit-nature – the only way we can do this is by the power of God’s Spirit. He is the influence that breathes pneuma into our otherwise physical existence.

It is only by the power of His Spirit working within us that we stand a chance of being the kind of worshipers God is actively searching for today.

Animated by the pneuma of God, we find a fluidity to our worship that simply flows from who He is into who we are, both as individuals and as a community of faith. This is what happened at camp last weekend, when we let God lead us into His presence (rather than creating a worship form and then trying to make God fit inside).

Strong’s Greek Lexicon describes the word alētheia (truth) as“that candour of mind which is free from affection, pretense, simulation, falsehood, deceit.” When we do the faithful work of separating from the influences of the fallen world we live in, we find ourselves free from the fiction that our culture exalts as truth. We find the ability to unbuckle ourselves from the simulators and strip away the obligatory social/political correctness, releasing us to enter into unadulterated worship of the God who sees our true selves and longs for us to see Him, too. As He really is.

Click here to return to the Literal 4 Lent menu.

Interested in music created in celebration of TRUTH and COMMUNITY? Check out the two-woman band, Alathea.

Swearing In (a PINK Tuesday post)

Have you ever noticed that most churches look an awful lot like a courtroom?

You’ve got the “judge’s seat” in the middle, where the altar & the cross are (because God tells us that HE IS JUDGE and will return again to judge the living and the dead). We’ve even got a “witness stand,” complete with microphone, so that the testimony can be heard by the gallery – the onlookers (the audience).

When I think about what happens inside this room – this courtroom – I have to ask the burning question…

WHERE ARE THE WITNESSES?

During a church service, we might answer that the Pastor is a witness – after all, we must value what he or she has to say because we pin a microphone on them, right?! And the readers who come forward to share the Text, they are witnesses, too. We might say that our Sunday School teachers are witnesses as well, and our nursery staff, too, because their testimony reaches into young lives as they faithfully serve in these ministries.

In church it seems that the witnesses who use this “witness stand” are the few who have been trained to do this, and yet Jesus told His disciples (who were unschooled, untrained men) “YOU are my witnesses!”

He didn’t say:

“You are the gallery. All of the action will take place up here, with a few carefully screened, carefully selected and properly indoctrinated witnesses – but that’s THEIR JOB. You just sit there and LISTEN. Don’t distract the witnesses. Take it all in. Talk about it over lunch if you like. What you DO with what they SAY is… your concern. You’re the GALLERY after all.”

No, Jesus said to His followers in Acts 1:8 that:

“YOU will be my witnesses WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT COMES.”

Thomas hadn’t been there to see Jesus OR to receive the spirit-breath that Jesus offered to the disciples in the upper room that night. He hadn’t been an eyewitness on the scene and he doubted – just as those same believing disciples had doubted when the women ran in on Easter morning, saying that Christ’s body was gone and that He was no longer dead.

Peter and the other disciples, later in the book of Acts, insist that:

“We are witnesses to these things (about Christ), AND SO IS the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

These disciples were first-hand witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, and ultimately, so was Thomas. But Jesus says we’re blessed when, even though we haven’t seen Him with our own eyes, we still believe!

We give Thomas a bad rap because his testimony wasn’t full of faith at a time when his HEART wasn’t full of the SPIRIT OF GOD – is that FAIR? Not only had the disciples in the room that night SEEN JESUS with their own eyes, but they had also RECEIVED the SPIRIT of God through Jesus! Did those disciples really believe because of what they had seen with their EYES, or was it because Jesus offered them a glimpse of the Spirit’s own testimony when He breathed Spirit-life into them? Thomas came to believe by SIGHT, but Jesus says we are blessed when we believe by the SPIRIT of God, living inside of us.

I John chapter 5 says “it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit IS the truth.” “God’s testimony is greater than man’s.” This same text says that “anyone who believes has THIS TESTIMONY in his HEART.”

This is what Jesus means when He says in Acts 1: “When the Holy Spirit comes in power, YOU WILL BE MY WITNESSES!”

So, whether we believe by SIGHT or by SPIRIT, whether by first hand knowledge of Christ resurrected or by the Holy Spirit’s first hand knowledge of Christ resurrected (which becomes YOURS when that Spirit takes up residence in YOU), WE ARE HIS WITNESSES, and our testimony is needed!

What does it mean to be a witness for Jesus today? In a courtroom, what the witness says out loud is considered “testimony”. Churchianity often simplifies this to mean the telling of your conversion story (your before & after Christ story) or the telling of the Gospel message – both which are sometimes call witnessing. But just as in a courtroom, it’s really more three-dimensional than that.

There are DIFFERENT KINDS of WITNESSES

Witnesses of FACT / LAY Witnesses

These are people who have first-hand knowledge of what has happened, and not just first-hand knowledge, but knowledge gained through the senses. These people have SEEN, HEARD, SMELLED or TOUCHED the situation (think Thomas, with his fingers touching the holes from the nails on Jesus’ body). This is the most common type of witness – someone who watched certain events happen and now re-tells the story for the benefit of others. As in law lingo, the word lay is used to indicate those who aren’t “trained” or “schooled”. The disciples were lay witnesses – unlike those in the next category.

Expert Witnesses

An Expert Witness is a specialist – someone who is educated in a certain area and testifies with respect to this area only. An expert’s experience and training positions him or her to be able to explain what has happened in light of their special knowledge, but it also prepares them to share details of what has happened ELSEWHERE in similar situations. This person can tell us what SHOULD have happened, what COULD have happened and what MAY HAPPEN in the future, in regard to their area of expertise.

In court, expert witnesses are paid for their testimony and it is commonly understood that using the right or wrong expert is often the difference between winning or losing a case. In church world, our “experts” are often the paid people, aren’t they? Those who are schooled in theology or apologetics; those who have words to explain things that some of us lay witnesses have SENSED or EXPERIENCED but often struggle to put into words.

Character Witnesses

Character witnesses are those who know the victim or know the defendant or other people involved in the case. These people usually were not present when the action took place, but they know the personality and character of those involved and can often paint a faithful picture of who a person is for others.

The need is GREAT in our world today for people who can paint a faithful picture of the character and personality of Jesus. These are the ones whose lives mirror the image of God and whose words and actions reflect the life of the Spirit that is housed inside of them. When we allow God to develop the fruit of His Spirit in our lives, we are walking, talking character witnesses of the resurrected Christ! There is nothing we can do to make this happen other than to be OPEN to the creative work of God in our lives.

Now, providing that you are a credible witness – competent to give evidence and worthy of belief – your statement as a witness can:

  • Make up for gaps in evidence
  • Add credibility to the story being re-told
  • Refute evidence of the opposing party
  • Support factual conclusions
  • Explain complex factual issues.

Be warned… being a witness is sometimes dangerous.

There are people (and powers) out there who do not want your testimony to be heard. It may be just what is needed to put them behind bars (why do you think it’s necessary to have witness protection programs?)!

In its original context, the word MARTYR meant witness. The process of bearing witness wasn’t intended to lead to death, although ancient writers like Josephus say that witnesses were routinely tortured in order to insure the disclosure of truth. During the early Christian centuries, though, the meaning of martyr was extended to include believers who were called to witness for their faith and consequently endured suffering and even death.

God doesn’t promise safety, but HIS Witness Protection Program isn’t something that is done TO YOU but done IN YOU – by placing His Spirit / His Counsel / your “Lawyer” inside of you, where no one can touch, harm or destroy His connection and support.

Ultimately, Jesus’ role was as a witness, too – a witness to the plan of a loving Father who sought to rescue and draw His children close to His heart, placing them under His protection by His ridiculously liberal Grace. With Jesus as our role model, we are in good company when we suffer for our testimony in the courtroom of the world.

Our testimony is needed in order for the whole picture to be seen clearly by the jury and the gallery of the world outside our church walls.

All of the details must be laid out for the case to be made, and every day you bear witness in the case of What’s Acceptable to the World v. Truth.

Whether you believe by SIGHT (like Thomas did) or by the Spirit of God whose testimony LIVES within the faithful, “YOU are my witnesses!” Jesus says! And not only inside our church sanctuaries, but OUT THERE! To the ends of the earth!

It is time for our stories to be told SO THAT others may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing they too may have life in His Name.

It’s time to make it official. It’s time for the Swearing In of the Witnesses.

(Let me switch roles to clerk/baliff.)

“Will all witnesses who are to give testimony in these proceedings please stand?

Place your left hand on your Bible and raise your right hand, signifying your willingness to complete the oath.

You and each of you do swear by Almighty God, the searcher of all hearts, that the evidence you are about to give this world shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, without omission, so help you God.”

So help you the faithful witness of Jesus Christ.

So help you the powerful Holy Spirit of the God Who lives inside of YOU.

Cameroon volunteers swearing in, 2006

Life Together (a PINK Tuesday post)

Life is HARD (can I get an ‘amen’?).

Life TOGETHER can be harder.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but today’s topic is DISCIPLINE.
I know – we’re as crazy about discipline as a biting toddler or a teenager whose driver’s permit is burning a hole in the wallet.

Spiritual discipline, as with parental discipline, well – it’s part of being in the FAMILY!
Those of you with children know that kids NEED their LIMITS! Children need to know where they stand and what they can and cannot do, for their safety and for their well-being. Isn’t that what the child development specialists teach – the need for ‘healthy boundaries’?

It’s as if King David had just walked out of a seminar on discipline when he wrote the words of Psalm 119, saying things to God like:
‘Teach me your commands; help me understand your rules; lead me on YOUR path because it makes ME HAPPY! I WANT to follow YOU!’

We, like David, are children in God’s family. And we come together as a family of faith looking a lot like a collection of pottery, formed by the Master’s hands.
Only, some of us are cracked.
Others, chipped.
Broken.
Maybe just a chard or a piece of something that used to hold water; that used to be whole.

We come together AS A FAMILY and we know that LIFE IS HARD.
But LIFE TOGETHER, well, sometimes that’s even HARDER.

I imagine that this is what prompted Jesus to give His followers a ‘prescription’ for how to handle conflict in the church (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus KNEW what all of us KNOW – that LIFE TOGETHER is HARD.

Any group of people can be a community. Jesus teaches us that the distinguishing factor – the MARK of togetherness in the Body of Christ – is that when we come together IN JESUS’ NAME, HE HIMSELF is here, with us! The idea here is not unlike what happened in the books of Exodus and 2 Chronicles, when the presence of God Himself came to dwell in the midst of His people. The Hebrew word for it is Shechinah, which means ‘the special presence of God’. When God Himself came down to the people, His presence (like a cloud) filled the worship space! His glory was so powerfully present that in these two stories, Moses & the priests couldn’t even enter the sanctuary because God had filled it UP with HIMSELF!

When we gather in His Name, Jesus’ own presence is like that! His glory is so complete that what we thought we were there to do is often consumed by HIS agenda, HIS direction, HIS energy, HIS PRESENCE! When Jesus comes to church, or to Bible study, or to a meeting where the common denominator in those attending IS HIS NAME, He makes our time together something OTHER THAN what we would have made it on our own.

And this is why Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 work – because when 2 or 3 believers get together in His Name, Jesus Himself is there. He fills us with His presence and we become part of what He is doing in the room. Two people who disagree CAN work things out when they both have Jesus’ Name on their lips and His Spirit in their hearts!

But this is not always the case, because sometimes we meet and we have some other name on our lips, some other presence in our hearts, like –
Jealousy. Anger. Fear. A problem or relationship or issue that we’ve allowed to take precedence over Jesus’ Name.

That’s why Jesus gives a Step 2 and a Step 3 – and even a Step 4 in our Matthew text; because even in the church, we sometimes forget why we’re here in the first place. We forget that this isn’t about me, or you, or even US. It’s about HIM.

When we make our gatherings about Jesus, His presence not only changes how we talk and what we find important enough to talk about, but His presence changes US. We’re somehow BETTER when He is here!

But Jesus’ presence goes beyond affecting our behavior toward one another. What Jesus DIDN’T DO is lay out a bunch of rules and regulations and then say, “See ya! Good luck with that!” and walk away. When the Spirit of God comes to live inside of us, He doesn’t coexist with our selfish needs and desires… HE FILLS THE TENT! And in filling us up, we’re left with the PROOF of His PRESENCE – the evidence that He is here and we belong to Him… and that evidence is: LOVE!

We might even go so far as to say:
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: and the MAIN THING IS: LOVE!

According to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, LOVE fulfills the law. LOVE is the only debt we owe to one another. When we LOVE another person as we love ourselves, we can do them no wrong. When we wring out the details and get down to the nitty gritty, ALL of the commandments can be summed up in this word: LOVE.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: and the MAIN THING IS: LOVE!
Right?

But I think that sometimes we use our incomplete understanding of LOVE as an excuse to avoid the commands of the Lord…

After all, Paul says all we have to do is love each other & it will be impossible to sin! Sounds great! Simple!

Tempting, though, to throw up the love ‘blinders’ and ignore, well, EVERYTHING ELSE.
And yet LOVE is nothing if not the manifestation of God’s real presence:
Where GOD is, LOVE is.
And where LOVE is, LIGHT SHINES.

Love’s light shining on God’s Word illuminates His teachings, His commands and His ways SO THAT we see the path clearly before us, like David prayed in Psalm 119.

God’s WAY is exposed by the light of love, and by the way – so are the obstacles and the temptations that threaten to trip us up and stop traffic on the road.

Love’s light shining in community makes us BETTER than we ARE!

And it’s BECAUSE of love that we don’t ignore the struggles we have with people. Otherwise, why would Jesus have given us tools to work through these problems with others?

As parents of earthly kids and as brothers & sisters in faith, we WANT each other to be well prepared for life, and we KNOW this means we will all make mistakes. If we’re to learn from our mistakes, well, we have to take responsibility for our part in those mistakes. In this family that is the church, when we excuse one another’s bad behavior and take on the burden of someone else’s poor decisions, we aren’t doing anyone any favors! Instead, we are called through voices like Paul’s to ‘lock in our empathy, love and understanding’ (Love & Logic) from the word ‘go’, BEFORE the consequences of our actions roll out. That way, when all is said and done, we KNOW that we are LOVED. No matter how clumsy we are. No matter how far we’ve strayed. No matter what harm may have been done.

We know – ALL of us know – that LIFE is HARD.
And let’s face it – there are times when LIFE TOGETHER IS HARDER.

But when two or three or more of us gather in Jesus’ Name, His presence can change all of that. And when we’re marked by the proof of His presence – when we are marked by LOVE – the light that shines from the Word into our lives has the power to clear up our confusion, to heal our relationships and to make us BETTER than we ARE on our own.

Now, that’s a message I don’t want to hear again.

I want to LIVE IT.

Listen to this message as recorded on Sunday, September 4, 2011: Life Together.

Faith EVOLUTION (a PINK Tuesday post)

Ichthys and Psalm23

Image via Wikipedia

This has been a season of wrapping things up for me – more so than ever before. Every year the school year ends. Every year a class of Confirmation students is welcomed into Church membership. Every year we celebrate our graduates and applaud their achievements. But this year has been different for me.

This year I am the mother of a graduate. The mother of a Confirmation student.

My children are growing up in front of me, over which I seem to have precious little control.

And this season has gotten me thinking…

It actually all started with a Confirmation class assignment. This assignment is issued every year to every student attending Confirmation at my home Church. Both first and second year students are to write a Faith Statement which is to be shared at the end of the season.

Several years ago I began to broaden the scope of the Faith Statement assignment, drawing parents and Mentors of the students into this personal exploration of faith. Now, on the final night of Confirmation class for each school year, we sit around a growing circle of chairs and take turns. We take turns sharing our faith in words that make sense to us. In words that describe the faith we claim to have today.

Sitting in this circle of faith two weeks ago, listening to the faith stories and statements and journeys of children, teenagers, young and seasoned adults, it struck me that our faith itself is anything but fixed. This was especially noticeable in the second year statements, where what was written in 2010 had to be re-written to fit the growing faith-walk of these beautiful people of God.

I noticed this in my own Faith Statement, having written one each year for four years running. I even tried to cut corners between years one and two, but I found that a mere 12 months had rendered my beliefs – touched. Touched by life. Touched by loss. Touched by knowing more and seeing more and trusting more. And I am completely convinced that until we take the time to put into writing what we think we believe, our faith evolution is overlooked. Underestimated. Neglected. Missed.

So today I issue a challenge to all of you whose faith has never been put into words that can be written out on paper and maybe, someday, read aloud to a trusted circle of friends. Because sometimes we don’t really understand what it is that we believe. We’ve never thought it out before. We’ve never had to make our case or tell our story or stand on our own two feet and pull off the Sunday morning mask.

On this PINK Tuesday, I challenge you to bare your heart and wrestle with words until what hasn’t been crossed out on the page is the truth about what you know to be true about the God who loves you more than you can fathom. I believe so strongly in this practice of the Church that I will even go first, sharing my own incomplete understanding of God and my faith evolution with you.

Brita’s Faith Statement  May 11, 2011

I believe that the God of the Bible is not only REAL, but that He has a story, He has a plan, and He has given us every opportunity to get to know Him better (through His Word, through His Spirit and through the people in whom His Spirit lives today).

While I may not completely understand everything about Him, I believe He is know-able. Not only that, but I believe that His heart’s cry is that everyone who breathes – everyone He has created – would know Him. He loves us ALL that much!

I believe that my own story – the situations and experiences in my life – fit like the pieces of a puzzle into God’s big-picture story. There are connections between my life and the work God is doing in the world! Some of these connections are things I’m aware of – relationships with people or the noticeable effects of my life on the lives of others – but many of the ways God is operating through me aren’t even KNOWN by ME!

God created me (and every person) as a unique, hand-crafted masterpiece with gifts and tools to be put to good use in the world around us. Not only that, but He has given me the energy and passion of His Holy Spirit in order to activate my gifts and motivate my actions for the good of others and for the GLORY of God!

My belief is bigger than the words I can find to express that belief to you. But that’s okay, because I don’t think God is as interested in what we SAY as He is in how we LIVE our lives in relationship to Him and to the teachings of His Word. There’s something mysterious in the way that God moves into a life and changes the heart of a person. I am different today than I was a year ago.

God has given me eyes to actually SEE Him at work in people who are genuinely seeking to know Him more, and this is a very beautiful thing. It’s what keeps me teaching and leading and participating in the life of the church. Watching people become more like Jesus IS the ‘work’ of the church! We don’t MAKE it happen, God does! But we share in the fruit of the spiritual growth of others when we choose to make God’s family OUR family. That’s why I love Confirmation so much – because it’s one of the ways that God connects our lives together in faith and calls us to actively LIVE OUT that faith as a family, united, in a world that is painfully divided.

God’s way of doing things is weird. Weird to a world whose focus is on ME and MORE. God calls me to live for HIM and OTHERS, and to be satisfied with LESS of the stuff this world thinks is so important to have, SO THAT I will have room in my life for MORE of what He is pouring into me through His generous Spirit of Life!

The scripture verse that sums this up for me and seems to be the call on my life is Psalm 116:12-16:

“What can I give back to God for the blessings He’s poured out on me?

I’ll lift high the cup of salvation – a toast to God!

I’ll pray in the name of God;

I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people.

When they arrive at the gates of death, God welcomes those who love him.

Oh, God, here I am, your servant, your faithful servant:

Set me free for your service!”

Will you do it? Will you put pen to paper and spell it all out – what you believe about the God who believes in you?

What’s in YOUR Faith Chest? (a PINK Tuesday post)

Box 1 -Wooden Chest.

Image by ~Brenda-Starr~ via Flickr

My home church has a beautiful tradition of encouraging faith development in our youngsters. At baptism, each child is presented with a meticulously hand-made wooden chest. We call them Faith Chests, and when we give them to our children we explain that they are intended to house the items of faith that they will acquire as they grow.

I was recently looking through my son’s Faith Chest, searching for a medallion with his baptism date on it. While in there, I found such a variety of faith-related things that I had to laugh out loud. Among his faith items I found…

a small New Testament (gift from VBS)

a handmade blanket (gift from the quilters at our church)

a photo frame made out of craft sticks, holding a picture of my son at VBS

a poster with faith-facts about my son, created in Sunday School

a set of home-made Resurrection Eggs

a cloth drawstring bag filled with items that tell the Passion Story

a recycled plastic bottle filled with rice and some pretty obscure objects (not really sure what the faith connection is here)…

My son’s Faith Chest contains memories and reminders of the milestones and events in his growing faith life. Things he has made. Gifts he has received. Props used to teach and tell the stories of the Bible.

My son’s Faith Chest contains the stuff that faith is made of.

And this got me thinking… If I had a Faith Chest of my own, what would be inside? Which items from my 40+ years of life would mark the events and kindle the memories of a growing faith? What have I accumulated on my journey that belongs in a keepsake like this Chest of Faith?

And my answers, well, they tell stories.

The Stuffed Lamb from high school frienemy, Robin. Robin and I were like-minded and competitive, enjoying each other’s company immensely and yet vying for the same kind of attention from pretty much the same people. What resulted was a tumultuous friendship that often got turned inside out. During one of these rinse cycles, Robin showed up at my after-school job with a beautifully wrapped gift from the only Hallmark store in town. It was a Precious Moments lamb; stuffed, soft and cuddly. She knew I loved Precious Moments. And she knew that in spite of our egos-out-of-control, I loved her, too. The lamb would definitely make it into my Faith Chest, because it reminds me that when those who know us best can love us still, that takes faith.

The Scrollwork Metal Cross from neighborhood Bible study friend, Leslie. We were both attending a neighbor’s Bible study group, which started with The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren and took on a life of its own. What began as a loosely connected group of people who knew, liked and might be related to the hostess morphed into a circle of friends whose faith grew simultaneously for all too short a time. At one point I took on leadership of the group (while what was really anticipated every week was my husband’s retelling of the Veggie Tale versions of the scriptures). I showed up for the study one night and was presented with a Pier 1 bag, handed over to me by Leslie with a smile. She had found it while shopping and it made her think of me. Dainty and sizeable, the metal cross has graced my wall ever since. Several months later I got a phone call. 40-something Leslie had died unexpectedly, after dinner one evening. The cross would belong in my Faith Chest as a picture of the beauty to be found in spontaneous acts of giving, because life is short. Why wait?

The Dead Carnation that I received, gave back to God, and then took home with me again. I walked into the sanctuary and was handed a fresh carnation. All of us were. I held it. Smelled it. Twirled it around between my fingers. At some point in the service, I was asked to let it represent an intention – something that I wanted or needed to give to God. Hmmm. I held it and smelled it and twirled it some more, and surprisingly ended up in tears. I knew what the flower had to be, and I was certain that I needed to return it to God. I laid my intentions on the altar and walked away. I gave back to God my plans for what I would be when I grew up someday. I gave them back and trusted that my sacrifice would be sweet, like that flower. Later in the evening, someone had gathered up the flower/intentions and put them in a bucket. I found mine – it was pretty distinct – and I took it home with me. A reminder that what I have – all of what I am – is a gift from God. The dead carnation would be at home in my Faith Chest because I believe God will remember the surrendered dream it represents, and because I believe His dreams for me are even more beautiful than this one would have been.

The Scrapbook given to me by my husband several Christmases ago, which served as an invitation to contact a local recording studio and have some of the songs I’ve written over the years recorded. This would be in my Faith Chest because it reminds me of the faith that my husband has in me and the value that my life’s work has in his eyes. When people have that kind of faith in you, you don’t take it for granted. You thank God for it. You thank Him for it every single day.

I could go on. I could go on and on and on.

But what I really want to know is, what’s in YOUR Faith Chest? What are the things you can touch and feel and look at and smell and taste that remind you of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going on this life-long journey of faith?

Indulge yourself in this opportunity to pack your Faith Chest full!

Full of memories of God’s work in you.

Full of connections with Him through the people in your life.

Full of opportunities captured and embraced to be all that you can be in His eyes.

Full of all the stuff our faith is made of.