Christmas in July! Celebrations… NOT Lamentations

MERRY CHRISTMAS - BERLINER MAUER 1980

MERRY CHRISTMAS – BERLINER MAUER 1980 (Photo credit: m.joedicke)

For as long as I can remember, I have found myself among circles of friends during the Christmas season, lamenting over how far we have strayed from a faithful celebration of the birth of Christ.

Materialism.

Entitlement.

The embarrassing-to-admit but altogether too familiar art of one-upmanship.

Obligation.

Panic-induced shopping.

And a steady stream of post-holiday thank you’s in the form of credit card bills.

This past Christmas, after partaking in many such conversations, I decided to be proactive in creating a Christmas of celebration for my family and friends rather than once again defaulting to the culture’s best effort at mass-producing joy that can only, really, come from meeting the Christ child Himself.

What struck me about this past year’s laments is how easily we have played into the hand of the mainstream, and how loudly we protest after the fact. Some of us need to be reminded – I need to be reminded! – that becoming a victim of the business of Christmas is a choice.

So this year, I choose a different route to the manger!

One that honors tradition without bowing the knee to retail-bullying.

One that embraces fun and giving without breaking the bank.

One that engages more of me than just my schedule and my pocketbook.

One that celebrates Jesus at every turn – telling the story of redemption and God-With-Us instead of another tedious narrative about how hard it is to find a gift for so-and-so and how another stressful holiday gathering might just be what pushes us over the edge.

You can expect Christmas in July posts to be short and practical. Ideas and snippets intended to plant the seeds of intentional celebration in your head and on your to-do list now… while there is still time left to see it through.

I hope you will engage and share your ideas with us as well! Use the comment option to add your own inspiration and encouragement for the rest of us. Together we can make Christmas 2013 a faith-filled celebration of God’s creative Presence here with us!

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12×12 Challenge (begins December 26th!)

Twelve!

With New Years’ resolution time just around the corner, some of us are thinking about trying something new.

Our annual resolutions, whether formally made or attempted under the radar, are usually about making improvements. Positive changes. Reversing the negatives. Increasing willpower. Minimizing the guilt that we create from months and years of living beneath our potential. Trying harder to do what we think needs to be done better. Sound familiar?

Before you make your resolutions for 2013 (or before you choose not to), consider joining in the Pink Shoes Ministries 12×12 Challenge!

  • Romans Chapter 12
  • 12 Versions
  • 12 Days
  • 12 Minutes each day
  • 12 Words to carry with you into the coming New Year

The 12×12 Challenge begins December 26th and runs through January 6thEpiphany.

The 12 Days of Christmas.

Epiphany marks the arrival of the wise men – faithful seekers of the One sent from God. Upon finding Him, they bowed and worshipped, gave gifts and celebrated that their journey had brought them face to face with the child who was born to be King. Those moments with Jesus must have been made sweeter by the passion of these travelers – pilgrims of promise and vision. And light.

The word Epiphany means:

Sudden realization.

A sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence.

‘Ordinary but striking…’ This is what the 12×12 Challenge is about. Taking the ordinary – our ordinary, everyday lives – and watching God appear in sudden and striking ways. Epiphany also means:

Appearance of [God]. The manifestation of a divine being.

Your participation in the 12×12 Challenge, should you choose to engage, will result in Epiphany because that’s what happens when you offer your time, your focus, your thoughts and energy to the only One Who can make the ordinary into something (or someone) extraordinary.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of watching God-potential being wasted. I’ve seen too many gifted believers settle for something other than God’s best for him or her. Apathy, fear and a lack of gutsy teaching from the Word is keeping many Christians from stepping out in risky faith on a daily basis, and I for one can’t take it anymore!

You may not be able to commit to resolutions for an entire year, but you CAN commit to 12 DAYS.

You might not have time to attend a Bible study, but you CAN study here, with us.

You may be skeptical about your ability to understand God’s Word, but you WILL hear Him speak through Romans chapter 12.

Are you up to the Challenge?!

Check back here daily, from December 26th through January 6th for:

  • A daily reading of Romans chapter 12 (from a different version of Scripture each day)
  • A word or phrase to think about, meditate on, carry with you through the day (based on the teaching found in Romans 12)
  • A prayer for personal Epiphany in light of the word for the day.

The 12×12 Challenge is about exposure. Exposure to the Light (think: wise men & star). Exposure to the Word (think: face to face with Jesus).

The 12 minutes you spend during the 12 Days of Christmas to read Romans chapter 12 twelve times will be loaves and fishes to our God Who is able to multiply and maximize the ordinary in often sudden, always striking ways. Let His Word work on you, creating energy for God’s best to be accomplished in you in the coming New Year!

See you on Wednesday!

Discover. Uncover. Recover. Spiritual Disciplines for the Expectant

Glass icicle, through a magnifying glass

Glass icicle, through a magnifying glass (Photo credit: miletbaker)

Contrary to popular belief and common practice, shopping is not a spiritual discipline.

Even if this comes as no great surprise to you, in this season of commerce (even in Christian circles) what we DO tends to outweigh what we SAY about Christmas. We may SAY that it’s all about Jesus – His birth, the Incarnation, the arrival of God on the scene – but what we DO when we spend our precious time and resources at the mall sends a crystal clear message to a world full of skeptics…

Believers are no different than everybody else.

Our unremarkable witness to heaven’s advent here on earth has me concerned today (maybe because I shop-till-I-drop with the best of ’em), yet I’m confident that I am not alone in yearning for a different way to celebrate Christmas this year. It may be December 11th, but it’s not too late – it’s NEVER too late! – for us to steep ourselves in the very real presence of God (vs. the very real distractions of the season).

For those of us who are expecting MUCH of this holiday – and of every day during which we choose to celebrate Emmanuel – I’d like to propose the adoption of three spiritual disciplines. Three ways to keep our focus on the One who is God EVERY DAY – 365/24/7. Three ways to prop open the book of our lives for the Author’s eyes to see. No more cover-ups. No more propaganda. No more societal sell-outs.

Three Spiritual Disciplines for the Expectant. Today we consider the first of these:

DISCOVER.

The spiritually expectant are watching for God to show up. Looking for signs of His presence. Fully expecting to SEE HIM here! The spiritual discipline of DISCOVER is for seekers only, requiring not only that we pay attention and both recognize and celebrate the times and places where God is with us, but that we actively seek Him out. In the world around us, yes, but also in His Word.

Those of us who wish to DISCOVER the realities of God are invited to sink ourselves into the pages of scripture, where God can ALWAYS be seen and heard!

  • Choose a word to focus on for the rest of Advent. Make it something that matters to you right now. Need help? Think power, light, promise or energy.
  • Look up the definition of your word in a dictionary and write it down. Be sure to include any synonyms or antonyms for your chosen word.
  • Open a concordance (or check out the online study tools at blueletterbible.org) and look up your chosen word. Write down every scripture reference that contains that word. How about your synonyms? Look those up in the concordance as well, and add those references to your list of scripture texts.
  • Over the next couple of weeks, look up all of the scripture references you’ve identified. Read each one, then read it again. Write down the ones that trigger questions or thoughts or ‘aha’ moments. Make notes about these trigger texts as you read and meditate on them throughout the day.
  • As you read to DISCOVER, ask yourself questions like these:
  1. How is my understanding of the word I’ve chosen changing or growing as I study it?
  2. How can this new understanding of my chosen word strengthen my faith journey?
  3. What can I do in response to this new understanding of my word/God’s Word?

Let’s choose to DISCOVER new meaning and create new energy for Advent! I hope you’ll take time to share your word with me (mine, in case you were wondering, is: buy). And be sure to check back on Friday for the second Spiritual Discipline for the Expectant: UNCOVER.

Until then Expect MUCH!

Expect MUCH? (a PINK Tuesday post)

advent

advent (Photo credit: Pleuntje)

With the season of Advent in full swing, the question that keeps surfacing for me is this: What am I expecting?

I’m afraid that many of us, if we’re honest, would answer that question like this:

  • I’m expecting to gain back the five pounds I lost last summer.
  • I’m expecting some tedious holiday gatherings that I’m too busy to really enjoy.
  • I’m expecting a monstrous Visa bill in January, once all of the holiday ‘cheer’ is over.

In other words, many of us aren’t expecting much from Christmas this year. It’s easy to fall into expectations built on Christmases past, and we’ve all experienced some whoppers, haven’t we? This season of comfort and joy is so often hijacked by stress and consumerism, to the detriment of those who really are seeking the Christ child – we just get distracted along the way. Caught up in these tangents, it’s easy to lower our expectations of Christmas to the standard being set by a commercially-driven world where the fondest memories we create are tied to how closely our shopping list matched the heart’s desire of our family and friends.

Psalm 31:24 might be just the cheer we need this season, in order to raise our expectations to the level of God’s great provision:

“Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up. Expect God to get here soon.” (The Message)

Expect God to get here soon? Really?! Is that what we are supposed to expect the next 21 days to deliver? Not presents? Not parties? Not a few days off from work? This isn’t at all what the world around us is expecting! From all evidence and signs, the world expects a potluck and a pile of toys for Christmas…

What would we DO if God were actually to arrive – and soon?!

In Ancient Rome it was customary for a young woman after marriage to wear a snug-fitting band of some rigid material – gold or brass – around her neck. Often nicely adorned, as jewelry, this necklace was both ornamental and diagnostic. Borne of an old wives’ tale, the understanding was that once pregnant, the necklace would become tight to the point of discomfort. Removing the necklace, then, was a tell-tale sign that she was expecting. It was her public birth announcement, you might say. A sign of her coming joy. An evidence of her new family’s ongoing journey of creation. An invitation for others to join her in anticipation of new life, which she expected to be here – soon.

Believers, it’s high time we remove our chokers and consider the ways that our lives are ‘showing’ the anticipated glory of God! Like an expectant mother, you and I are called into this season of Advent by God’s promise of new life, great light and a future full of hope!

Yes, things are bleak in the dark world around us. Yes, people are missing the point once again. Yes, expectations are low as we enter into another Christmas season.

But BE BRAVE!

BE STRONG!

DON’T GIVE UP!

EXPECT GOD TO GET HERE SOON!

What eager, young mommy-to-be tries to cover up her coming joy? Let it show – let HIM show!

Expect MUCH!

NEEDING… Gracefully (a PINK Tuesday post)

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It’s PINK Tuesday! Last week we explored, from a Christian perspective, ways in which our faith and resources might be given as gifts to those in need. We established the importance of BOUNDARIES, we discussed the temptation to buy into GUILT, we learned that it is our RESPONSIBILITY to know how God has shaped us to serve Him in this world, and we decided that God intends for us to SHARE THE JOY of service with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

As surely as we need to know God’s instructions for how to HELP others, our circumstances necessitate an equally compelling need to know what God has to say about HOW we are to NEED.

  • How are we to BE in this world when we aren’t equipped with excess and overflow?
  • What do the Scriptures teach us regarding the role of the needy in this world?
  • Is it possible to be full of grace and full of need at the same time?

I don’t have all of the answers, but I invite YOU into the conversation because our answers to these questions matter in light of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

I’m aware that some of us are approaching this topic feeling as if it doesn’t really apply. Not to us personally, anyways. Never having felt the pangs of intense hunger or the bone-chill that comes from spending night after night on the ground, many of us have boiled this idea of NEED down to one that looks a bit like us / them. Before we can move fully into this discussion, we’ve got to hear God’s words from Revelation 3:17:

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

God proceeds to express His displeasure with our attitudes of entitlement, calling for repentance, because when we think we’ve got every worldly base covered, we are most assuredly wrong. Our earthly riches constitute exactly nothing of value in God’s economy, which is what Jesus talks about when He reminds us that our real treasure is stored in heaven. This reminder, then, is not to be taken lightly. WE ARE ALL IN NEED of what ONLY GOD CAN PROVIDE. We really are all in the very same boat.

That being said, let’s take a look at some of things we can learn about NEEDING WELL from the Word of God and the experiences of God’s people.

BE IN RELATIONSHIP  Much of the friction we feel when we’re in need of something that others might provide comes from our lack of connection with those who have the resources. In other words, when we ask for help from people we don’t know, they can have no idea who we are or whether our expressed need is genuine. What we become to them is a ‘case’, a ‘number’, or a ‘project’ for them to choose whether or not to participate in. IT SHOULDN’T BE THIS WAY, but you and I both know that even in Christian circles, help for the needy is much more likely to be given when the one in need is someone we already know.

Being in relationship with others should not, however, be a sort of bargaining chip that we use in order to get what we need from people. Being part of a church family or small study or fellowship group is part of God’s plan for His people! He calls us to yoke our lives together with His people in order for His Kingdom to be seen on this earth; and in order to participate in His Kingdom, we must be participating in Kingdom relationships like these. THIS is where God’s help most often comes from, as He teaches us to take care of one another, beginning with those who are closest to us in His family.

EXPRESS the NEED  Pride, fear of judgment, embarrassment and shame are tempting excuses for us to use when we’re in need. Excuses for not making our needs known among God’s people with whom we are in relationship. We are ALL called to be transparent in the family of God, making our needs known as well as making our overflow visible within the circles of our families and friends.

Beautiful children of God in our country fail every day to have their most basic needs met because they fear the judgment of their ‘Christian’ friends. What we’ve done to the church to keep our own needy from expressing their needs has got to break the heart of God. Still, when we are facing needs that overwhelm our own resources and ability to provide, we must get over ourselves enough to approach our brothers and sisters who can help. Our failure to let others know what we need frustrates God’s system of balancing need with plenty. We can’t expect to receive help from others when they don’t know what we need.

RESPECT BOUNDARIES  Last week on Pink Tuesday we dealt with the need for boundaries. As those in need, it is critical that we respect the boundaries of those from whom we seek help. No one person can provide for every single one of our needs, even if that would make our lives easier! We must be sensitive to what our helpers can and cannot do, and be willing to do the leg-work of putting together the right team of help in order to not cross the boundary lines of others.

To do this well requires that we do our homework! Some of our needs will be met most efficiently by utilizing help found in the community, or through organizations whose goal is to meet specific types of needs. Yes, it’s more work for us, but finding the right help from the best sources is our responsibility when we’re in need.

EXPRESS GRATITUDE  It may sound like a small thing, but saying ‘Thank You’ is never a waste of our time. Writing a card or an email of thanks to a friend or church family member who has come to our aid ought to be the NORM for all of us, not the exception. Just as helping others is a natural extension of our life in Christ, sharing our gratefulness ought to be a given as well. We may be called to help all people, but I guarantee that it’s a greater joy and feels like so much less work to help those who have a grateful heart.

BE DRAWN CLOSER TO GOD  God’s heart is clearly bent toward the poor, the suffering, the lonely and the outcast. Scripture repeats this theme over and over and OVER AGAIN! We are called, as believers, to champion the cause of the least of these, and when we find ourselves one of the least of these, we need to remember that in our need we find ourselves closer to the heart of God.

In this place of need that we find ourselves in, we become part of God’s work in the lives of His followers in a very specific way; we become part of the Great Opportunity given to the church. What the church will choose to do in light of the opportunity that our need presents is not up to us, but no matter how Christians respond to our need, rest assured that God’s response is ALWAYS love. He will ALWAYS draw nearer to us in our need.

LET’S REMEMBER OUR PLACE  We like to be all black and white about this subject of need, don’t we? We’re either RICH or NEEDY. One of the ‘Haves’ or the ‘Have-Nots.’  The truth is, though, that even in our times of greatest need, we still have something that is needed by others. God has gifted every single one of us with the ability to meet another’s need. Maybe not a financial need. Maybe not a need that requires an investment of time that we don’t have. But even in our times of need, we have something to give back to the Kingdom of God. Let’s not allow our need to create a mentality that says we have nothing of value to give. How many times have you heard missionaries say that they traveled across the world to meet some great need, yet they returned having received more from those they helped than they could possibly have given?

BE CONTENT  Finally, there’s this matter that Paul speaks of in Philippians chapter 4, about being content no matter the circumstance:

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:12-13)

Some of the most needy people you will meet aren’t even poor – they are actually rich, but they don’t know it because they aren’t content with what they have.

May we, as the family of Christ, be willing to let go of the value our society places on ‘keeping up with the Jones’s,’ choosing instead to be content with what we have. Knowing, as Paul reminds in Phil. 4:19, that “God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Overwhelmed by NEED: Help Well

What’s a conscientious Christian to do in the midst of OVERWHELMING NEED? When the people whose lives intersect with ours have needs that threaten to consume the time/energy/generosity of everyone around them, how can we remain true to the call of Christ (and help them) without burning out or wanting to run away?

I suspect that no one is immune to the needs of others. We all live, work and interact with needy, hurting people who are looking for help, comfort and healing in a painfully broken world. Whether the need we bump into is rooted in economic factors, health and aging issues or situational agony, we as Christians sense a call to action that can leave us feeling confused, guilty and overwhelmed.

I have watched as groups work to respond to such overwhelming needs as families whose income has been affected due to job loss, aging adults whose independence is threatened by disease and mental decline, individuals whose personal trauma gets in the way of healthy interaction with others, and people who are ashamed of and feel stuck in their past history or uncomfortable present reality. Sometimes the needs presented by just one person in a group or family are so intense that the rest of us, caring and loving as we try to be, find our desire and ability to help that person dwindling to the point of inaction.

When it hurts us to help them, there has to be another way.

No matter if today finds you IN NEED or NEEDING TO HELP others, Paul speaks to your situation in 2 Corinthians chapter 8. Paul encourages us to remember that we are “shoulder to shoulder with [each other] all the way, [our] surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching [our] deficit.” In the end, says Paul, we come out even.

For today, we may be on the surplus side of life, so that our plenty can supply for our brothers and sisters in need. But the reality is that tomorrow may bring a shift of the scales, leaving us in need of what our brothers and sisters now have to give. We’re all in this together – some days we are able to GIVE, while other days are marked only by our desperate forms of NEED. Either way, God’s plan provides for balance, which means that we have to LEARN both how to HELP WELL (today’s topic) and NEED WELL (next week).

HELPING WELL

Do What You CAN! Paul encouraged the church at Corinth to commit to caring for the needy among them, but he added this critical point (a point the church today often misses):

“Once the commitment is clear, you do what you can, not what you can’t.” (2 Cor. 8:11 The Message)

YOUR effectiveness in the lives of others can only be maximized by doing what you CAN in a given situation. The problem most of us end up facing is that we dive head-first into helping others, making commitments to them that we are not equipped to fulfill. Whether those commitments are of our TIME, MONEY, EXPERTISE or ENERGY, if we commit out of a passion to help no matter what, we are likely to drown in our own good intentions.

For believers to truly be effective in the lives of others, we must begin by knowing ourselves! It is our responsibility as members of the body of Christ to recognize our own spiritual gifts, talents and abilities. We MUST know what it is that we CAN GIVE before we stick out our neck to offer help that others so desperately need. There are many useful tools to help us find our ‘fit’ in the Kingdom work of God, including Spiritual Gifts Inventories (click below for more on this topic):

https://pinkshoesministries.wordpress.com/category/spiritual-gifts/

Pastor Rick Warren talks about the importance of knowing your SHAPE in order to actively participate with God in this world:

  • S piritual Gifts
  • H eart
  • A bilities
  • P ersonality
  • E xperiences

Check out Pastor Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, to find out more about your SHAPE for service to others! (If your small group is interested, Zondervan publishes a curriculum called “Doing Life Together” that digs into this and other topics from Warren’s book.)

OVERFLOW Another first-step for us in helping others is to seriously consider what our OVERFLOW is. In other words, what do you have an EXCESS of? Is it TIME, MONEY, SPACE in your home, ROOM in your heart? You can’t give what you don’t have! Knowing your overflow directly affects the ways you reach out to others by creating boundaries for you to work within (keeping you healthy and increasing the chances that you’ll have something left to give the NEXT person who reaches out to you for help).

TRIGGERS Some of us aren’t likely to reach out and help because we feel that what we have to give is too little. When presented with an enormous need, we shrink back because there is no way our resources could seemingly make a dent in that person’s situation. Or, so we think. God knew this would be an issue for us, so He addressed it early on, in the book of Deuteronomy:

“When you happen on someone who’s in trouble or needs help among your people with whom you live in this land that GOD, your God, is giving you, don’t look the other way pretending you don’t see him. Don’t keep a tight grip on your purse. No. Look at him, open your purse, lend whatever and as much as he needs… Give freely and spontaneously. Don’t have a stingy heart. The way you handle matters like this triggers GOD, your God’s, blessing in everything you do, all your work and ventures. There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.” (Deut. 15:7-8, 10-11 The Message)

What God is saying to us is that our actions toward helping those in need, however small, trigger something in HIM! A BLESSING! On everything you do! God chooses to multiply our every heart-felt effort to help, no matter how small it may seem on the surface. What a tragedy for all of us when believers withhold assistance because we’re afraid it won’t be enough. Let’s face it – it probably isn’t going to be enough! But God can bridge the gap between what we have and what they need, providing the difference in ways we can’t even imagine. Yet if we allow our stingy hearts their way, God’s blessing isn’t triggered. At least not by us.

Faithfully (& Firmly) DRAW BOUNDARIES It’s no secret that our health and well-being, both physically and spiritually, relies on boundaries. No one person, no matter how motivated or gifted, can be all things to all people! God knew this, and He explains it to us by providing the human body as an illustration to help us understand that we are each just a PART of what He can do in this world, or in the life of a struggling brother or sister. (Check out Paul’s description of the Body of Christ in I Corinthians chapter 12.) It’s almost impossible for us to draw healthy boundaries, however, until we understand our SHAPE for service – how we ‘fit’ into His Body on earth.

PAY ATTENTION Once we’re armed with the knowledge of our gifts and abilities, God will lead us into acting (or NOT acting) in specific ways on behalf of others. In order to follow His lead, believers must cultivate an ear for the guiding voice of the Holy Spirit. To effectively serve in the Kingdom of God, you and I must pay attention to the Spirit’s prompts – those which compel us to MOVE, and those which compel us to WAIT. Faithfully leaning into Scripture helps us to hear His voice, which in turn helps to shape the scope and sequence of our ministry toward others.

BEWARE of GUILT! Many of us wrestle with feelings of guilt when it comes to deciding who to help and how much help to give. How many times have you not done something that you thought you ‘should’ do, only to feel badly about it later? I’m here to tell you that GOD does not produce GUILT! There is nothing that I have found in God’s Word that says He will guilt you into doing what you cannot do, or that He will punish you with guilt in any circumstance.

Guilt is real don’t get me wrong but it doesn’t come from God. Don’t let your misunderstanding of guilt keep you from following God’s leading in your life. Trust Him to do the right thing by and in you and leave the rest in His hands.

SHARE the JOY! Helping to meet the needs of others is a REAL JOY for the people of God! Maybe you haven’t thought of it quite like this before, but when we try to do more than we’re equipped to follow through with, we rob others of the opportunity to join in God’s work, too. You might have a friend, for instance, who cannot drive and whose medical needs and physical limitations are intense and many. You have a car, and you have Tuesdays free. Do what you CAN for your friend on Tuesdays, and let others know what your friend needs the rest of the week. Together there’s a really good chance that your group can meet most of her needs, but in case there’s still a gap, be willing to suggest alternatives.

KNOW your community and its resources (or know someone else who does)! CONNECT your friend with services and organizations whose focus IS MEETING that very need! Spread the joy around, so that no one is burdened with work that was never theirs to do.

Next week on PINK Tuesday we’ll consider what it looks like to NEED WELL. I’ll see you back here on my absolutely, positively FAVORITE DAY of the week!

The (lesser-known) Spiritual Discipline of Defragmentation

Defragmentation

Defragmentation (Photo credit: jmehre)

Along with a dozen beautiful believers-under-construction, I am re-reading the classic ‘Celebration of Discipline‘ by Richard Foster. Clearly an oxymoron to the spiritually faint of heart, Foster makes a strong case for placing the words ‘Celebration’ and ‘Discipline’ into the same sentence. Week after week my small group of women comes together to wrestle with the possibility that the result of a disciplined life might really be something worth celebrating.

According to Foster, “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.”

He goes on to say that “By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace.” It is in the act of laying bare our wounded hearts that God’s best work begins and we find ourselves on the path to reconstruction and restoration. “We must always remember,” says Foster, “that the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where change can occur. This is the way of disciplined grace.”

This is also the way, by the way, of the lesser-known Spiritual Discipline of Defragmentation.

You’ve probably heard of the classic Disciplines – things like prayer, study, service and worship. Words that have in many circles become so churchified that they have essentially lost their meaning and, consequently, their practice has ebbed as well. Perhaps it’s time for a more culturally relevant illustration in making a case for the benefit of focusing our attention more purposefully on God.

According to Beth Bartlett at eHow.com:

Defragmentation, also known as defragging, is a process that takes all the file fragments scattered across a computer’s hard drive and rejoins the multiple pieces of each file into one area. This can speed up your computer, save you time and extend the life of your hard drive. Defragging can be a lengthy process, but it is an essential part of regular computer maintenance.

The definition begs the question: does this sound like you? Does your inner-life contain fragments of thoughts, memories, ideas, plans, lists, activities and schedules? Are your relationships and priorities scattered across your mind and heart in the form of pieces – a little bit here, a little bit there?

One predictable side effect of life is fragmentation, and women know as well as anyone what years of multi-tasking can do to the most well-intentioned follower of Christ.

We know we need to change. We feel the need to change. We really WANT to change! But until we let go of our desire to CONTROL the change we need the most, we haven’t got a chance.

Enter… the Spiritual Discipline of Defragmentation.

You may have taken your computer through the process of defragging, so let’s start there – with what we know. To defrag your system, you access your computer’s control panel and select the ‘defragment your computer‘ option. There’s a great visual provided by most computers when you opt to ‘analyze’ your computer before defragging. After a few minutes, your computer will show you what your hard drive looks like – in full color – with bits and pieces here and there throughout the drive.

Disorganized. Inefficient. Hard to navigate. Time consuming. So you take the next step and you click ‘defragment‘ and the magical process begins. You sit there. Watching. Waiting. Knowing that good work is being done. Knowing that this is out of your control now. The computer is doing its work and soon a new picture will display, with bits and pieces that have been rearranged and put back together in a way that makes much more sense and much better use of your system.

Wow! What an amazing tool!

In the spiritual life, your head and your heart are your operating system – your ‘hard drive’ in techie terms. The Spiritual Discipline of Defragmentation requires that you open up your control panel and give that control to the Operator – the One who knows how you run best. The One who created you! Let Him show you how the bits and pieces of your life are scattered and disorganized. Allow Him to analyze your true state and to make His case for the defragmentation of YOU!

The next step is actually your FINAL step, and that is to make the click. Choose to begin the process. Put yourself on the path where real change can occur. Opt for the system tool that will result in a healthier you. It’s true that Spiritual Defragmentation can be a lengthy process, but it is an essential part of regular spiritual maintenance.

YOU choose to undergo Defragmentation by giving God access to every last bit of you through focused, quiet time – but the work isn’t actually yours. You sit there. Watching. Waiting. Knowing that good work is being done. Knowing that this is out of your control now. God Himself is doing His work and soon a new image will be displayed in you, with bits and pieces that have been rearranged and put back together in such a way that YOU look more like JESUS.

Wow! What an amazing God!

9 1/2 mph

Jesus prayed for His disciples:

“Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and I are one.” John 17:11b

How hard is it for people to be “one” – completely unified in heart and mind? Is Jesus praying an IMPOSSIBLE prayer? We can look around the world and see MANY examples of disunity and disagreement; in fact, most of us needn’t look any further than our own families to see just how difficult it is for people to become “one”.

Take marriage…

God ordained for the two to become one in marriage, but the divorce rate in America sits between 41-73%, depending on whether we’re talking first, second or third marriages. (http://www.divorcerate.org/)  If TWO people fail more often than they succeed at creating unity between them, how in the world can we even HOPE to see the church “become one” in mind and spirit?!

A few passages before this prayer in John’s gospel, Jesus told His disciples:

“This is what I want you to do: Ask the Father for whatever is in keeping with the things I’ve revealed to you. Ask in my Name, according to my will, and he’ll most certainly give it to you.”  John 16:23-24

I have to believe that Jesus wouldn’t lift up idle prayers that He knew full well would not be answerable by God. He was one with God – His Father! He already KNEW what God desired for these followers of His. Jesus had to be praying for unity and one-ness among us, knowing that such a thing could be achieved with God.

In a world where even Christians can’t agree, however, don’t you have to ask yourself whether Jesus was crazy to talk about unity as if it could ever really happen?

I took a trip to San Francisco last weekend with my family, to enjoy the company of our former exchange student, Sue. In the midst of a whirlwind tour of the Bay, among the crowds of tourists and slightly annoyed locals, God gave me a surprising glimpse of this idea of “oneness”…

And it starts with a CAR. YOU, behind the wheel of a car. What KIND of car it is doesn’t matter, because in America it’s about what that car REPRESENTS –INDEPENDENCE, FREEDOM OF CHOICE, and CONTROL.

At the end of each school year we celebrate those who are completing 12 years of education. This milestone is often misinterpreted as an ENDING – a celebration of something that is now OVER – rather than a celebration of the journey as it CONTINUES in a new and different FORM. Many grads can’t resist the temptation to jump into their “cars” and drive AWAY – doing their own thing now that they’ve “graduated” – and let’s face it: ALL OF US know the THRILL of being captain of our own ship, even if the ‘ship’ says Chevrolet or Honda on the bumper!

Christians tend to live their spiritual lives the way Americans live their daily lives – we jump in the car, we go where we want and need to go WHEN we want and need to go there, and then we go home. All of us going in different directions, at different times, on different routes, based on what suits us best. Very little NEED for ‘unity’ in a world like ours where we’ve all invested in our own independence – our own “wheels.”

Enter, now, the San Francisco Cable Car. Have you have been to San Francisco and taken a ride on one of these? You know, then, as one of the Cable Car operators told some passengers sitting near me, that this is NOT to be confused with a TRAM or a TROLLEY! Though they may LOOK a lot the same on the outside, a Cable Car is vastly different in the way that it WORKS…

First of all, a Cable Car does not have its own POWER source. There is no motor inside, and on its own, it’s nothing more than a cool looking car that isn’t going ANYWHERE anytime soon.

Secondly, a Cable Car runs on a specific path. This route was pre-determined when the tracks were put in place and there aren’t options like “hang a left at the next block” unless the track already goes that way. You might say this track is narrow, and there is no doubt as to where it leads.

Also, a Cable Car has lots of room for different kinds of passengers. You can sit inside if you don’t want to be windblown or get wet when it’s raining. You can stand in the back and have a great view of what’s behind, or sit in front to see what’s coming up ahead. People on the sides enjoy the open air and can experience the city as it goes by, and frequent stops allow new people to jump on and others to climb off, because we still have that choice – even on a Cable Car – don’t we? There is a limit to the number of passengers at one time, though, because the car won’t operate correctly with too much weight or too many bodies on board.

So – what makes a Cable Car move? Where is the POWER if not in the car itself? This was the coolest thing for me – walking across the street, over the tracks, and hearing the steady hum of the cable moving underneath! That cable is ALWAYS in motion. When a Cable Car is stopped, it’s because the car has become disconnected from the cable, but the cable itself DOES NOT STOP. When the car is moving, it’s because it is connected to the cable.

Now, there are multiple cars in various locations on any given route, but the moment one of those cars connects to the cable, it is going the SAME SPEED as every OTHER car along the path. This is because the cable itself is always moving at 9 ½ miles per hour. You can’t have a “fast” car or a “slower” car on this route – the cable keeps things steady and reliable, and the speed of the cable is always the same.

As you might expect, it takes a trained operator to run a Cable Car – someone who knows the mechanics of connecting the car itself to the cable in order for it to move. There are multiple levers to manage, and it looked to me like it took some STRENGTH to do this job! Especially on the steep San Francisco streets.

Cable Cars share the road with other traffic, too. There were cars zipping around all over the streets where the tracks were laid, honking at the Cable Cars while going their own speed, their own way…

And it was HERE where a vision of ACHIEVABLE UNITY among Jesus’ followers appeared to me, in terms like this…

We need to realize that there are AUTHENTIC Cable Cars & authentic families of faith. They don’t just LOOK LIKE the “real thing”, but they are genuine both in DESIGN and FUNCTION.

An authentic Cable Car, like the authentic Christian Church, has no power in itself. Only when connected to the steady cable, to the power of the Living God, can there be any movement or progress made.

The Cable Car designer laid the tracks, and there is no doubt as to where they lead. You can be sure that ‘wide is the road that leads to destruction’, but if you want to take THAT route, you’re going to need to step OFF of the Cable Car and get into your Ford, because WE who are onboard KNOW WHERE WE ARE GOING!

There is more than one Cable Car on the tracks and more than one Church on the block, traveling the same route. A variety of people are in each car, and sometimes they come & sometimes they GO. Sometimes they switch cars. But we’re still on the same path as long as we GET INTO THE CAR!

You can only fit so many bodies into the Cable Car before the car (& the operator!) get stressed. There are limits for safety and limits for proper function of the car… and of the Church.

If a Cable Car stops its forward progress, it’s because the operator and passengers made the decision to stop. The cable keeps going, and so does God.

Every car connected to the cable will go the same speed, full speed ahead, at 9 ½ mph. That’s the speed of the cable. No one can boast that their car is faster and covering more ground, or that their car is slower, allowing more passengers to jump on. God – like the cable – remains the same.

Trained operators are needed on the Cable Cars and in the church. It’s not that they know MORE than the passengers, but their function is to keep a strong connection with the power source, so that the car can move and the people aboard can be themselves – passengers on a journey together, powered and directed by a Designer who knows, though it may sound crazy, that WITH HIM, ALL of His people actually can be ONE.

the SO WHAT? NOW WHAT? Bible Study

The study translation Bible 2009

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been around the block.

When it comes to studying the Bible, I’ve made my way through this method and that format, using these tools and those materials. I’ve studied with the help of this translation and that paraphrase. I’ve considered his detailed commentary and her in-depth workbook

After all, if you’re like me and you take God’s Word seriously, you’ll go around the block again and again for even a GLIMPSE of His truth in those sacred pages.

I’m beginning to wonder, though, if all of our methods for studying and approaching the scriptures can’t be summed up in two painfully simple (but potentially loaded) questions:

SO WHAT?

NOW WHAT?

SO WHAT? I’ve just read this story in the Bible – SO WHAT? What’s the big deal? What difference does it make? Why does it matter that Jesus said this (or that David did that)? Seriously – what’s the big whoop?

How many times have you read a biblical text and failed to think about the reason those words were written? How often do you open and close your Bible without pausing to consider why that passage on this day?

‘SO WHAT?’ is an invitation to dig down to the crux of the matter, to the root of the text, deep into the heart of a God whose words are important enough to have endured thousands of years in order to be spoken into your life today. It may not be the most scholarly approach to the study of God’s words, but ‘SO WHAT?’ cuts through the Christian-ese and pretense to usher you into an honest assessment of the impact of scripture on a very real YOU in a very real world. If we cannot figure out the ‘SO WHAT?’ there is simply no point in moving forward to the ‘NOW WHAT?’

Yet it is the ‘NOW WHAT?’ that separates the spiritual tweens from the wise and devoted gray-hairs in the Kingdom of God! It’s the discipline of asking God to move you from the classroom of Bible study into the internship of “doing the Word” (James 1:22) that determines whether your efforts at learning will ultimately bear fruit or die fruitless – its growth tragically stunted inside of your head.

NOW WHAT? Asks the question that the faint of heart will avoid at all costs.

NOW WHAT? Forces the hand to be played and the play to be made.

NOW WHAT? Puts skin on the bones of a passive faith, bringing Jesus to life again and again in our love-starved, faith-starved world.

NOW WHAT?’ is the question that burns Spirit-fire within the believer whose curiosity cannot be quenched. For if we faithfully ask the question, we have no choice but to join the Author in His work as it is being written on the pages of the lives all around us.

To ask ‘NOW WHAT?’ is to drink deeply of the living water offered by the Savior, and then to take buckets of that very same Water to dehydrated souls, wherever they live.

No study of the Bible is complete without the ‘NOW WHAT?’

Because the Word of God is not passive, but ALIVE with the power of the resurrected Christ! ACTIVE with the movement of the living Spirit of God!

The SO WHAT? NOW WHAT? Bible Study will cramp your style, make you look like a fool, get underneath your skin and make you squirm.

Doesn’t that sound GREAT?! I’m in!

Now what?

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