From a Distance (an Afterthought)

Bavarian Countryside

Bavarian Countryside

‘Not another church!’

You might expect these words from a teenager on holiday in Europe, but not from me. Not from the mom whose 9-to-5 (make that 24/7) revolves around the Church – the Body of Christ.

Nevertheless, after walking dutifully through gothic and ornate church building after church building, these words may have been muttered a time or two – by me – on my family’s recent European vacation.

Almost always grandiose, sometimes crossing the line into garish, the gold-gilded altars of centuries-old church buildings hit me – a follower of a Jewish carpenter – as something of an affront to the message of the Gospel…

Which is, as I understand it, Jesus Saves. Not the church building. Not tradition and ritual. Not the relics we bless and call holy.

Jesus. Saves. Period.     Right?

So as I found myself seated on a train for seven hours, diverted by rising flood waters on my last full day in Europe, it was no surprise to find myself watching churches go by. Village after village paraded past the train window. Each and every one – every single one – sported a church building of some era past. A spire or a cross that stood higher than every other structure in town. Never mind how small or large these communities were – they all had, at their center, a church.

After awhile, ‘not another church’ began to sound more like – ‘hmmm… another church.’

Whether 50 or 150 years ago, these communities were built around the church. Physically, but also experientially, with the heart of the town being the building where its people gathered – the place where they all belonged.

At the center of their life together was the church, and even from a distance they could find their way home because the spire of the village church marked the spot.

Last weekend, flying into the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I was overcome with a nostalgic wave as the plane broke through the clouds and the Minnesota terrain came into view. I remembered summer vacations and years of family road trips through this area, en route to our family homestead in the north.

As the plane descended, what looked like a steel mushroom caught my eye. And then another. Pretty soon I was able to read the words on each water tower – elevated high above the township whose name was boldly painted on the side. While not physically the center of town, these towers hold the resource that allows life to go on, day after day, for the families who do life in these communities.

Driving in to work today, my eyes scanned the landscape of my own home town…

Nope. No spires. No elevated crosses in the sky.

Not even a water tower (which actually makes me nervous and got me wondering… where does our water come from?).

This town that I live in is typical of today, and its center isn’t the church. Not even a towering water tank announces that you are here.

Feeling kind of sad as I walked out of Safeway with my morning java, I realized that the center of many an American town is its movie theater. The mall. Starbucks. Can it be that entertainment and retail are the heartbeat of America – the center of our communities? The gathering places in our towns?

Traffic was crazy this morning, with road closures that altered my route to the church. Sitting at a red light, I turned and caught a glimpse of a giant white rooftop – attached to a building that I have driven past nearly every single day that I have lived in this Arizona town. From a distance, this place looks something like an ark. It houses everything from hockey games to Christian concerts, cage fighting to high school graduations.

A building where, even as I write, thousands of people are gathered inside – and thousands more sit in the hot July sun on lawn chairs among a sea of fire and rescue vehicles – because there isn’t enough room for everyone within its walls.

Never mind that those assembled aren’t all from around here – they are a community nonetheless. A family gathering to lean on each other and to share in their losses and to take care of their own… who take care of us.

I have to ask myself – and yes, I’m asking you – whether we prefer museums disguised as churches or churches in camouflage and in the trenches of real life – taking real risks for real people in real time.

When community is built from the stuff of real life and from the depths of real love, you’ll find no bold print name on the tower overhead, but what is held inside is the sweetest, cleanest, most refreshing Water you can imagine. Perfect for quenching thirst and drowning fires in the deserts of our lives.

From a distance, those country churches and city cathedrals look really good, yet most sit half-empty on Sunday mornings.

From a distance it’s clear that those Minnesota water towers serve a purpose, but the words on the outside matter so much less than the Water to be found within.

When Sunday morning just isn’t enough and we tire of the labels on the towers we erect, what is a community to do when tragedy strikes? Can the vestiges of faith and the salt of the earth be combined to make a hockey rink holy?

You bet they can. You bet God can! But you’d better come in a little closer…

You’re never going to experience it from a distance.

Written with great respect for those who serve our communities and in honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

A Legacy of ACTION L4L.30

The WORDHealthy_feet

“Jesus Prays For His Disciples: ‘I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.’” John 17:6-10 (New International Version)

There is practically no part of the Gospels more revealing of the heart and mission of Jesus than this prayer for His followers, as found in John chapter 17. As has been our Lenten discipline, let’s hear these words of Jesus again, through the paraphrase of The Message:

“I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me. They were yours in the first place; then you gave them to me, and they have now done what you said. They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that everything you gave me is firsthand from you, for the message you gave me, I gave them, and they took it and were convinced that I came from you. They believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I’m not praying for the God-rejecting world but for those you gave me, for they are yours by right. Everything mine is yours, and yours mine, and my life is on display in them.”

The APP

The forty days of Lent are nearly over.

Tomorrow we remember the words Jesus spoke over His last supper with friends.

On Friday we will commemorate the sacrificial death of our Savior, Jesus.

And on this day we complete our Literal 4 Lent adventure, looking forward to the resurrection celebration that is about to explode onto the scene, in our churches and in our hearts, come Sunday.

Jesus has provided the perfect words of summary for us in this prayer poured out on behalf of those whose lives had blossomed in concert with His own years of ministry on the earth. As Jesus speaks to His Father on behalf of His students, we can’t help but catch a glimpse of the legacy being left behind. A legacy marked by words like:

Revealed. Obeyed. Now they know. Gave and accepted. Knew with certainty. Believed. Done what you said. Firsthand. Convinced.

All of these are ways the Messiah chose to describe His work with His disciples to His Father. And all of these words indicate Jesus’ pleasure at the responses and activity of those who were closest to Him.

Not only is Jesus saying that His followers finally ‘got it,’ leaving His words as an endorsement of their future ministry in the world, but He is summing up His own work as well. And in the summary we find a legacy worth embracing, continuing, and one day, leaving behind – just as Jesus did.

This legacy of Jesus is not a legacy of opinions, ideas or bullet points.

Jesus didn’t just leave behind for His followers a legacy of good memories and amazing stories, to be told and re-told for generations to come.

Jesus didn’t pass along material items of worth, to be guarded and regarded as treasure throughout the centuries.

No, Jesus’ legacy to us is a legacy of ACTION. A legacy of revelation and obedience, knowing and accepting, giving and believing, convincing and DOING.

This prayer of Jesus reveals that He knew full well He had completed His mission. He did what He was sent to do.

His mission was to prepare us to complete OURS.

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The Sacred Discipline of Stubbornness L4L.22

Hand on her hip

Image by quinn.anya via Flickr

The WORD

‘One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”

Then the Lord said, “Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?”’ Luke 18:1-8 (New Living Translation)

It almost sounds as if Jesus is coaching us to be persistent to the point of annoying when it comes to our prayers for justice…

‘Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’ He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice – otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black and blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”’ (The Message)

Now, there’s a weighty question… How much of that kind of persistent, stubborn faith will Jesus find on the earth when He returns?

The APP

During this Lenten season we have made a concentrated effort to take Jesus’ teaching literally. This isn’t always how we read the words of Jesus – for the purpose of actually doing what He says – and this is one of those texts that is easy to pay lip service to, but not so easy to put into practice.

First of all, I have to admit that I have a hard time comparing our righteous God to a sleazy judge. They have nothing in common! The judge in Jesus’ story is cold, hard-hearted and uncaring. The only reason he even gives the widow a second glance is because she won’t get off his back; her unrelenting pleas getting underneath his skin to the point that he would do anything to shut her up!

This story makes me squirm a bit, but maybe that’s the point.

Maybe I’m squirming because this idea of God-as-Judge is one that stretches my understanding of who God is and what that consequently says about me.

Maybe I’m squirming because I’ve been bugged to the point of annoyance by people who, like the widow, just won’t back off or let go.

Maybe I’m squirming because, if I understand what Jesus is saying here, I don’t qualify as one who has persistent faith if that faith is measured by my relentlessness in prayer for the relief and justice of others.

I haven’t fully developed the sacred discipline of stubbornness.

In fact, I still see stubbornness of any kind as a character flaw.

And I’m so self-focused! When I do pray consistently for something that I’m passionate about, how many times is that a passion for justice to be rendered or for people to be released from the tyranny of their enemies?

There is an organization I’ve recently become more aware of that is seemingly built upon these very words of Jesus. International Justice Mission ‘seeks to make public justice systems work for victims of abuse and oppression who urgently need the protection of the law.’  This is their mission. They are a non-sectarian Christian organization staffed with lawyers and advocates and prayer warriors whose hearts are in a constant posture of prayer on behalf of those whose lives are consumed by others.

Sex trafficking. Forced labor slavery. Illegal property seizure. Police brutality. Sexual violence.

Justice for the victims of these criminal activities is the mission of IJM. But it isn’t just the organization’s mission that has captured my attention today: it’s the people who work there.

‘In preparation for the day ahead, IJM employees begin work with 30 minutes of silence and solitude. Then, at 11:00 a.m., employees gather daily to pray corporately for the needs of our clients and the work we are seeking to accomplish.’

Every day. Every employee. An entire organization of faith-filled believers who are developing the sacred discipline of stubbornness.

Not only do they pray for the justice of others, but they follow up those prayers with feet on the pavement – entering courtrooms, approaching judges and relentlessly pursuing the protection of the widows and the children and the elderly and the outcast. Using every legal means available by which to achieve justice for the least of these. Enabled by a just and righteous God who has promised to stick up for them and not to drag His holy feet.

Jesus says that we should pray consistently and never, ever give up on God. Why? Because God comes to our rescue. Quickly.

Our faithful, stubborn prayers do not fall on deaf ears.

We need to jump all over that promise, my friends!

It could literally change our lives.

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Can You Keep a Secret? L4L.16

BEST FRIENDS

Image by JohnGoode via Flickr

The WORD

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-6 (New International Version)

Try reading this text again, this time replacing the word ‘hypocrite’ with ‘pretender.’

This word ‘hypocrite can also be translated as ‘stage player’ or ‘actor.’

It’s almost as if Jesus is grooming a team of covert operatives for the Kingdom! By teaching His followers to give in secret and pray in secret, the appropriate follow-up question from this text appears to be,

“Can YOU keep a secret?”

The APP

There’s a troubling little word that surfaces in religious circles and is often seen as a negative: Piety.

Wikipedia defines piety in these terms:

‘Piety can be either genuine, in that it springs from spiritual piety, or false, in that it is an attempt to exhibit the signs of piety for their own sake, or for some other reason, (such as propitiation or public esteem).’

What Jesus is describing to His listeners in Matthew 6 is the false kind of piety that is staged by someone who seeks public recognition for what ought to be a private expression of faithful commitment between Father and child. When they put themselves and their deeds on display, Jesus tells us that these thespians are rewarded with the attention they seek. What they fail to receive, however, is the reward of a God who is looking for secret-keepers, not exhibitionists, to participate in the work of His Kingdom.

Now, it’s important to note that the secret-keeping Jesus is advocating here is NOT a secret society kind of hush-hush that makes insiders and outsiders in a cliquish sort of way. Rather, it’s as if Jesus is asking whether our personal connection with God Himself is, well… real.

Really real.

Are we doing what we do for God only, or for what we stand to gain from appearing to be connected with Him?

It’s also as if Jesus is asking “Can you keep a secret” – not FROM ME, but WITH ME?

Is there anything quite as intimate as a secret shared? Whether between BFF’s (ask your daughter what that means), lovers or close family friends, a secret shared between us has the power to knit our lives together in ways that nothing else really can.

In this context, what if prayers were like pillow talk? Those quiet, intensely intimate discussions shared in private places, beyond the meddling eyes of the watching world. Maybe this is what Jesus meant by praying behind closed doors.

When we are in love or so connected to another that we find ourselves doing everything in light of that relationship, the most important thing for me to do is to make you happy! When what matters to YOU matters to me SO MUCH that I want nothing more than to see you have your heart’s desire, I’ve figured out what it means to practice secret giving. No one else needs to see what I’m doing. In fact, no one else will probably understand the value of what I’m doing! Only you. I do it all for you.

The question, “Can you keep a secret?” has implications for those of us who seek to live off-stage in a world full of performers. The way we answer this question answers a host of other questions as well; questions like:

Can I trust you?

Is our relationship as valued in your eyes as it is in mine?

Can I show myself to you? Can I reveal more of myself to you?

Do you value what I value?

Do I matter to you?

Quite literally, may our answer to these questions be a resounding “YES” today!

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K.I.S.S. L4L.10

Keeping it Simple

Image by mike cogh via Flickr

The WORD

‘Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple. And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave. If you’re not welcomed, not listened to, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.’” Mark 6:6b-11 (The Message)

The disciples of Jesus had been walking in His dust for awhile now, paying attention to His teachings and learning how to be like their Rabbi. Now it was time for them to put on their sandals and walk in His footsteps. Let’s read their commissioning and instructions again, in the New International Version:

Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions:

‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.’”

This had to be an exhilarating AND anxious time for the followers of Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus thought they were ready to do what He did! The chicks were ready to leave the nest! Try out their wings! Go on a field trip!

On the other hand, Jesus wasn’t going with them. What if they were met with a demon that wouldn’t leave, or a sickness that wouldn’t be healed? What if people questioned their authority or snubbed their witness, saying that they were only wanna-be-ministers (after all, they were fishermen and tax collectors by trade)?

At once they had to feel energized and empowered, inadequate and concerned. Did Jesus really know what He was doing?

Religious tradition has always dictated the procedures by which ministers are prepared and approved. Some are based in Scripture. Some are the ideas of men. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Jesus set the precedent with these students of the Gospel – a precedent we would do well to pay attention to.

The APP

He’s the BOSS!

The authority by which men and women are called into ministry belongs to God alone. In this story of preparing, commissioning and sending, we can identify four qualifications of a minister of Christ. He/She must be:

  1. Filled with the Spirit’s authority and power
  2. Called to this particular work
  3. Instructed in the nuances of this particular work
  4. Commissioned to GO as a witness, testifying to the Gospel and grace of God.

Are you surprised? Where does it say I need to attend Bible College? Don’t I need an M.Div. behind my name? Isn’t there an internship program I need to sign up for? What about the certificate that should be hanging on my wall?

Who does the filling? God does, through His Spirit.

Who does the calling? God does.

Who does the instructing? God does. In the case of the Twelve, it was Jesus – the Word become flesh. In our case? The Spirit & the Word.

Who does the commissioning? God does. As it was with the Twelve, He’s the only One who can know when we’re ready to GO.

Let Him Bring Home the Bacon!

One of the names of God from Scripture is Jehovah Jireh – The God Who Provides (or, literally, The Lord Who Will See To It). Jesus’ instructions to His inner circle set them up to see first-hand that God will meet all of their physical needs while they minister in His Name. Food? He’ll take care of it. Money? You won’t need it. Extra clothing? Unnecessary. If you have a need, it will be met. Because God is just that good.

K.I.S.S.

Keep It Simple, Sister! (Well, that may not be exactly the way you remember it, but you get the idea.)

Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve weren’t very complicated, were they? Not much room for guess-work. Not much room for confusion. The call to ministry – any area of ministry if it comes from God, is almost always going to be simpler than we thought it would be.

The parameters set by Jesus for this ministry experience were short and sweet:

  • You have authority.
  • Carry a stick.
  • Wear sandals.
  • Stay in the first place that makes sense.
  • If people listen, keep talking.
  • If people don’t listen, walk away and don’t look back.

It’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ youth group could mess this one up! We, on the other hand, make it SO COMPLICATED… Don’t you see that if the details of our ministry boggle our minds, maybe it’s because that ministry is OURS, not GOD’S?

No Drama Queens, Please

Rejection smacks. It hurts! It stings! And it often brings out the worst in us.

Jesus says, don’t take it personally. It isn’t about you. It’s not your concern. Do your best. Speak the truth. That’s your mission – leave it at that.

  • If they listen, stay.
  • If they don’t listen, leave.

No tears, no heavy sigh, no big scene. No Drama Queens, please.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some pretty intense theater in the church; some painfully complex ministries; some extremely ‘fat’ program budgets; some terribly bossy followers.

Is it any wonder that what we do instead fails to heal bodies, send demons packing and restore the spirits of the broken?

If we believe that Jesus’ way is best, I don’t understand why we continue to do life (and ministry) our way.

Do you?

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Religious Lace L4L.03

Royal Lace detail

Image via WikipediaThe WORD

The WORD

“…Don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.” Matthew 5:33-37 (The Message)

Today, let’s read the text again. This time in the Good News Translation:

“You have also heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not break your promise, but do what you have vowed to the Lord to do.’ But now I tell you: do not use any vow when you make a promise. Do not swear by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by earth, for it is the resting place for his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not even swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. Just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – anything else you say comes from the Evil One.”

Lace is pretty. Lace can really dress up a table or fancy up a dress. I’m always awed by the meticulous detail of a really fine lace – not being artistic, I just can’t imagine the time and patience it must take in order to create by hand a perfectly designed and symmetrical piece of lace!

The thing about lace, though, is that it isn’t necessary. Doilies, tablecloths, dresses – all can be made from a simpler, more functional fabric. And the thing about our talk is that religious lace isn’t necessary, either. Everything we need to say – from promises to prayers, answers to questions and thinking out loud – can be said in a simpler, more functional way. Jesus appears to be telling us that dressing up our speech, whether it’s to sound more religious or make our words seem more important, isn’t just manipulative and wrong… it’s also EVIL. (Think cheesy, gaudy, polyester lace and run away!)

There’s something else to be noted about lace. Compared to the more practical fabric options, real lace is expensive! We pay dearly, sometimes, for the opportunity to display such finery. (This is, after all, the reason we might choose lace, isn’t it?)

Displaying religious lace, whether spoken or unspoken, is also always costly. And at the expense of what – our witness to the watching world? Our relationship with the Author of creation? Our effectiveness in the Kingdom of God? It’s a head-scratcher, really. Why would we try to embellish something that is already simple, functional and practical – like a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?

The APP

Most women like to talk (at least, that’s what men will tell you). There are days when I talk so much that my jaw gets tired and my throat feels thick and swollen (I’m sorry if you’ve seen me on those days)! While our many words may on some days serve a purpose, I am quite sure there are many times when what comes out of our mouths seems pretty lacy.

Pretty showy.

Pretty ostentatious.

Pretty unnecessary.

Pretty gaudy.

On this Day Three of our Literal 4 Lent experiment, why not make a concerted effort to let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no,’ and see what happens? One predictable by-product of this literal application of Jesus’ teaching is that, because we won’t be speaking so much, we may HEAR much more than we usually do.

This discipline of resisting the urge to over-speak may even end up being spiritual money-in-the-bank, as we choose to dress up in the less costly/more practical fabric of truth, leaving the lace-gilded versions on the rack where they belong.

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