Archives For God’s people

[I will keep this short so you can take time to watch a contemporary version of the book of Acts.]

Why am I following Jesus?

In a peaceful place where I can live out my faith without being persecuted, it’s read the Acts of the Apostles as events that happened a long time ago. With smartphones, and airplanes, and human rights declarations, our world can seem very different–better–superior than the hostile world that Peter and Stephen, Paul, and the rest of the first Christians lived in:

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Acts 7:58-60

They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region… And the disciples were filled with joy and the with the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:50, 52

They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city thinking he was dead. Acts 14:19

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged there were thrown into prison. Acts 16:23

This week, however, I watched a contemporary version of the book of Acts.* As I listened to the stories of Iraqi Christians who were persecuted by ISIS, I got a glimpse of a world of where people are kidnapped, killed, expelled from their homes, and beaten because of their religion.

These ordinary Christians challenge me to reflect on why I am following Jesus. Is it for comfort? Tradition? Culture? Because it makes me feel good?

They could have escaped if they had given up their faith in Jesus and converted to Islam, but they didn’t. Why did they stand firm?

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
John 6:66-69

As I listened to these believers share what happened to them and how they responded, I found myself asking:
Would I too be willing to risk death for eternal life?
Would I too forgive those who caused me to lose my job, my house, my community?
Would I too pray for those who persecuted me?

These everyday saints encourage me to say yes.

 

[*It takes just a half hour to hear what it can mean to follow Jesus in our world today.]

The following quotes are from “How to Really Love Your Grandchild” by Ross Campbell. [If you substitute ‘person’ for ‘child’, you’ll see how these principles apply not only to children, but to any person in your life.]

“The question before us is whether children fully receive the love that is there. The world throws into place many obstacles that can keep children from feeling the love they must have…A child stands in the confusion and wonders, Where is the place for me? What will happen to me? Am I loved?
…always be asking yourself these questions: Does this child feel profoundly, unconditionally loved? When and how can I express my love and support for this child again?”

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“Sydney J. Harris said, ‘Love that is not expressed in loving action does not really exist, just as talent that does not express itself in creative works does not exist; neither of these is a state of mind or feeling, but an activity, or it is a myth.’
Love is primarily active, something that must be experienced. That’s true for all of us. But it is truer for children than we can begin to imagine. Children do not think conceptually, as adults do. They don’t grasp love as an abstract idea; they grasp it as a personal experience.”

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“Children (much like the rest of us) have emotional tanks that must be filled. They need love, acceptance and security to live and function well. At regular intervals, someone must fill that tank. You and I certainly need reassurance from time to time; we cannot live without the expression of love. But we can go a bit farther and for a longer time than children. Think of a child’s tank as small, running through its “fuel” rather rapidly and needing more. Therefore, several times a day, (the child]) should receive your love in some way. A warm smile and a hug count as a trip to the emotional “filling station.” A warm, encouraging word is more fuel for their tank.”

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“The truth is that gifts, nice as they may be, are never a substitute for genuine love. They can’t fill the emotional tank in the way that eye contact, touch and focused time can do. I think it’s wonderful that God created love to be a free thing, something that anyone in the world can give. No one need ever spend a cent, yet he or she can give love lavishly and to overflowing. Emotional needs, you see, require emotional solutions. The only gift you can give (a child) that makes a difference is yourself, and that’s measured not in dollars and cents but in hours and minutes, and the genuine proof that these children matter more to us than anything else.”

From “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas:

“When we apologize, we accept responsibility for our behavior, seeking to make amends with the person who was offended. Genuine apology opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. Then we can continue to build the relationship. Without apology, the offense sits as a barrier, and the quality of the relationship is diminished. Good relationships are always marked by a willingness to apologize, forgive, and reconcile.”

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On repenting:
Another “step down the road of repentance is implementing the plan. A plan that is not implemented is like a seed that is not planted. Making the plan work requires thought and action. I have often found it helpful to write on an index card the changes I am trying to implement and to post them on the mirror where I shave in the mornings. It is a way of keeping them on the front burner of my mind. I am more likely to make the changes if I am consciously aware of what I am trying to do differently today.”

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On asking for forgiveness:
“When an offense occurs, immediately it creates an emotional barrier between two people. Until that barrier is removed, the relationship cannot go forward. An apology is an attempt to remove the barrier. If you discover that the person’s primary apology language is requesting forgiveness, then this is the surest way of removing the barrier. To that person, this is what indicates that you genuinely want to see the relationship restored.
“A second reason that requesting forgiveness is important is that it shows that you realize you have done something wrong—that you have offended the other person, intentionally or unintentionally. What you said or did may not have been morally wrong. You may even have done or said it in jest. But it offended the other person. He or she now holds it against you. It is an offense that has created a rift between the two of you. In that sense it is wrong, and requesting forgiveness is in order, especially if this is the person’s primary apology language.”

Summer comes with many benefits: more time to relax, travel, go to the beach, or simply enjoy the sunshine outside on the deck or porch or terrace or in a park. This can also mean more time to read a good book and this month I’ll be sharing a few five-star recommendations from my summer reading. I’ve called this mini round-up “Beach reading for the soul” even though the two books don’t directly address our relationship with God. Instead, they focus on our relationships with other people–which is also a key aspect of our soul. Six of the Ten Commandments, and the second great commandment of Jesus deal with how we relate to those around us. Following Jesus includes loving the people in our lives, and these two books help us as we seek to become more like Him who loves perfectly.

The first book is “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.

chapman cover

Here are a few questions that will help you decide whether you want to read this life-changing book:
*Have you ever needed to apologize to someone?
*Has someone ever needed to apologize to you?
*Have you ever apologized to someone but your apology didn’t seem to make a difference to the person?
*Has someone ever apologized to you but it didn’t seem adequate to you?
Yes? Then this is the book for you.

Following his Five Love Languages approach, Chapman and his co-author Thomas discuss five different styles of apologizing:
* “I’m sorry”
* “I was wrong”
* Restitution
* Repentance
* Asking for forgiveness

Now that you know the five styles, you might be tempted to think you don’t really need to read the book. However, as we are all aware, just because we know something doesn’t mean we put it into practice. And our knowledge tends to be me-focused. I know what works for me, and I generally think that should be true for everyone else too. I often fail to take into account that other people are wired very differently and have different needs.

That’s one reason why this book is so profound. As Chapman showed with the five love languages, if you really want to affect the other person, you need to understand how best to communicate with them. Whether you are trying to express love or trying to apologize, you can end up wondering why the other person doesn’t appreciate your efforts. It’s like talking in Chinese to someone who is fluent in Arabic. A lot will get lost in translation.

The book comes with a form you can fill in to discover your own apology language[s]. There’s also a free online version available [see link below]. I’d definitely recommend doing this. Answering the questions helped me gain greater understanding of how the different apology approaches can effect different people.

Another valuable part of the book is all the powerful real-life stories of people who have wrestled with apology and being reconciled. It’s very helpful to read how other people have struggled to deal with the hurts and offenses that are bound to come into relationships. The material also gave me fresh insight into my relationships. In one case, it prompted me to apologize to someone for what I had done decades ago. The person and I have had a great relationship for some time now, but my apology made a real difference to them and it brought us even closer.

Along with the great examples, each apology style comes with a list of specifics statements you can use when you apologize. For example:
“‘I’m sorry that I was so insensitive. I am sorry that I violated your trust. I’ve created a roadblock in our relationship that I want to remove. I understand that even after I apologize, it may take awhile for you to venture down the road of trust with me again.'”

I found having these written down in black and white was a real help. Just as we need to practice speaking a foreign language, we may have to spend some time practicing how to apologize. There’s also a very helpful list of what *not* to say when apologizing.

I read the book on the plane as I traveled to the states.

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As we flew over the ocean, I was reminded of God’s approach to forgiveness:
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:12

And outside my window was an illustration of how He loves us:

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For Your unfailing love is as high as the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Psalm 57:10

The book is an easy read. I finished it well before we landed. But I’m going to be applying it for the rest of my life. As the parable of the unmerciful servant teaches, if I am going to follow Jesus, I need to practice giving and receiving forgiveness. The book is an indispensable resource for that and I’d recommend it everyone.

Take the free online apology profile here

Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. Luke 12:1-3

Imagine you live in a small town, and you’re part of a small group from your church. One day you have a mini-retreat in someone’s home. A friend of a friend is in the area and they’ve agreed to come and speak. It’s a happy gathering. You start in the morning with some singing, maybe a little prayer. Then you study a passage from the Bible. You break for lunch and you’re just about to regroup for the afternoon session when 60 police show up at the door. There are several official vehicles parked in front of your house.

2012 7 16 students rol 063
What will the neighbors think?

The police enter, take cell phones and laptops and cameras and notebooks and Bibles. They ask lots of questions. They march all of you out into the waiting police vans, in full view of everyone on the street who is peering out the window or standing in their doorway.

2014 20 29 rol neighbors persecution 2014-10-29 003
What will the neighbors say?

The police drive you off to the local station. More people see you as you are led out of the police van and into the station. There is a man who has been caught stealing sitting on the floor. He wonders what you’ve done. The police make you wait and wait. They ask you questions. They make you wait some more. It gets late. Midnight. There are some toddlers in your group. You can’t go out to get food and no one is offering you any. You have no idea what the police will do with you. There is no yellow pages with a list of lawyers you can call. No one reads you your rights.

They ask you more questions. “Are you a Christian?” “Who do you know?” “Will you sign this piece of paper acknowledging that you are a Christian?” “Will you sign this piece of paper saying you’re not?”

At 5 AM, the police release you. They don’t drive you home. The van service was only one-way.

As soon as the corner grocery store opens, you go to buy some food. Other people are leaving to go to work and when they notice you entering the store, they stare at you.
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What will the neighbors do now?

The bolder ones [there’s always at least one in every neighborhood] asks you what happened.
What do you tell them?
Will they be surprised? “You’re a Christian?”
Will they think to themselves, “Yes, that makes sense. I knew there was something strange about her.”
Will they think, “Hmmm, is that why he is so caring?”

Some may be embarrassed for you and ignore you.
Others may shun you, and stop doing business with you.
One–an old friend–may spit on the ground as you pass.


This story is true. It–and myriad variations of it–has happened countless times in the last twenty years, in dozens of countries around the world. It continues to be true today. Search on Google for “Christians arrested in 2013” and the results are sobering.

It’s not a single region in the world. It’s not believers who were being overly zealous. It’s people like you and me–only when was the last time the police called you in for questioning? Thankfully most of us are able to practice our faith in peace. But that also makes it easy to forget that in many countries following Jesus is dangerous.

This coming Sunday has been designated as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, a time to unite in prayer “for the persecuted church in the spirit of oneness.”

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3

It’s a challenge to know how we can best respond to our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted. But praying remains a vital and unrestricted activity for all of us. You’ll find more stories, resources, and encouragement here. “Don’t stand in silence.”

One more question:
If your house was bugged, and your words were broadcast for everyone to hear, what would the neighbors think?

[edited from the archives]

I don’t think I knew much about Rich Mullins before his untimely death in 1997, except that he had a written some great songs including the contemporary praise chorus, “Our God is an Awesome God.” I was also familiar with his two-volume CD, “The World as Best as I Remember it.”

These are deeply spiritual songs that shy away from a neat, packaged faith. Mullins will ask a question without feeling the need to make up an answer for God. Things don’t always work out well, people suffer heartache and bitter disappointment. They are tempted. Sometimes they fall. Sometimes they wonder where God is.

There’s the haunting honesty of “Jacob and Two Women”:

“Jacob, he loved Rachel and Rachel, she loved him
And Leah was just there for dramatic effect
Well it’s right there in the Bible, so it must not be a sin
But it sure does seem like an awful dirty trick
And her sky is just a petal pressed in a book of a memory
Of the time he thought he loved her and they kissed
And her friends say, “Ah, he’s a devil”
But she says, “No, he is a dream”
This is the world as best as I can remember it.”

Then there’s the challenge of “Screen Door”:

“Well there’s a difference you know
Between having faith
And playing make believe
One will make you grow
The other one just make you sleep
Talk about it (yeah)
And I really think you oughta
Take a leap off of the ship
Before you claim to walk on water

Faith without works
Is like a song you can’t sing (sing)
It’s about as useless as
A screen door on a submarine

Faith comes from God and
Every word that He breathes
He lets you take it to your heart
So you can give it hands and feet
It’s gotta be active if it’s gonna be alive
You gotta put it into practice”

And there’s the confession of “Hold Me, Jesus”:

“So hold me Jesus,
Cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won’t You be my Prince of Peace

Surrender don’t come natural to me
I’d rather fight you for something
I don’t really want
Than to take what you give that I need
And I’ve beat my head against so many walls
Now I’m falling down, I’m falling on my knees”

It was songs like these, as well as joyful and playful songs, that drew me to read “Rich Mullins: A Devotional Biography: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven” by James Bryan Smith.
(the Kindle version is currently $1.99 I also have a copy to lend.)

mullins arrow

As one would expect from a devotional biography, Smith doesn’t give a comprehensive account of the facts. We do learn though what Mullins was like as a child, how his first album bombed, and how he went back to school in his 30s to get a degree in music education. But mostly, Smith looks into Mullins’ heart and tells the inside story of what fueled Mullins’ outer life.

It’s an uncomplicated but rich picture. Mullins loved the Bible, Jesus, and the church with passion. To live a simple life, he let someone else manage his finances so he wouldn’t be tempted by how much money he was making. He received a modest salary from his earnings, and gave the rest away.

Mullins also wasn’t afraid to challenge Christians but he was able to critique without being cynical or harsh. When he spoke the truth, it was with love. He focused on being centered on Jesus instead of making sure everyone else was living right.

He didn’t care about public opinion, but he did care deeply about how God viewed him. Jesus was his starting point and his ending point. But he didn’t focus on devotion to the exclusion of action–or vice versa. He managed to keep the balance between loving God and loving people.

I think what people found refreshing about Mullins was that he lived the gospel–not a Sunday School version but the real-life gospel. He was aware of his sinfulness–and his capacity to sin. At the same time he was grounded in the redeeming love of God through Jesus for those sins.

I came away from the book encouraged by Mullins’ story. My life may look very different from his, but I desire the same simple faith, childlike heart, and graceful love for people. Reading his life story helps point me in the right direction.

Why is not the question

October 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

Today I’m going to visit friends who have suffered a tragic, horrible loss. My natural instinct in these situations has been to figure out what to say. I’ve wanted to be ready to answer the awful questions of ‘why did God allow this to happen?’ and ‘how can this work out for good?’

But in the wonderful timing He uses, last week God brought several reminders my way of what His response is when someone suffers.

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It’s not neat theological answers.

It’s not the triumph of strong faith, and the victorious assurance that all is well.

It’s also not a helpless shrug of the shoulders and a murmur of ‘bad things happen to good people.’

God doesn’t come and tell us why or how. His response is much less than that, and yet so much more.

It is Emmanuel. God with us,
sitting with us,
listening to us,
crying with us.

And who is this God with us?

He is someone who suffered Himself; someone deeply and intimately, acquainted with grief.

He is someone who sees when we suffer, in the garden, on the cross. He notices, He pays attention. He does not shun us when we are broken. He does not avoid us when we are in pain.

He is someone who is alongside of us, always, forever; expressing our anguish when our hearts are too raw for words.

This is the one thing I am confident of,
in the darkest, hardest hours and months and years of our lives, the Triune God comes.
He is here, with us.

And so I will go and mourn with those who mourn;
with hope that my presence will be a reminder that they do not grieve alone.

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Who is your burden-bearer?

August 21, 2013 — 1 Comment

When I was a teenager, I spent one summer as a backpacking counselor. Every other week I helped lead a group of campers on a five-day hike in the mountains. We had to carry all our food, clothing, and equipment including tents, sleeping bags, stoves, and pots. As we packed, we scrutinized every item to make sure it was absolutely necessary.

Finally we’d be ready to go. No matter how heavy our packs felt when we hoisted them up, we were comforted by the guarantee that each day they would get lighter as we devoured the soggy sandwiches and oranges and bags of gorp and freeze-dried dinners.

Burdens in our bags
In life though, it doesn’t work that way. We always end up with more than we started with. I’m not talking about the physical stuff we acquire along the way, but the emotional burdens we end up carrying. There are the troubles we picked up as children. Others got placed in our packs without us noticing. Then as we became adults, we made a wrong turn here, a detour there, and our load grew some more.

Year after year, we trudge or skip on, managing to carry the unbearable weight. Eventually the strain begins to take its toll: blisters and sore muscles, damaged knees and bent backs. We become soldiers in the army of the walking wounded.

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*Some of us, the tough, feel-no-pains ones, have grown not to care that we are walking tilted sharply to one side, barely making forward progress.

*Some of us are complaining mightily or muttering bitterly, and with good cause. It hurts to carry 100 extra pounds of rejection and anger and sadness and disappointment.

*Some of us are suffering exquisitely. “That’s alright,” we say with a martyr’s prim smile when someone offers sympathy. “Jesus said we have to carry our cross, and this is mine to bear.”

*Some of us simply pretend our packs are empty because when we started following Jesus, we were determined to leave our burdens of sin and brokenness behind. We embraced the promise of a fresh, light start. But one day we discover that we’re not exempt either.

We realize that habits we left behind have reappeared in our bags, bigger and heavier than ever. Or we’ve let ourselves be weighed down with extra rules and regulations like the Pharisees Jesus criticized so much.

God’s view of our burdens
God does not load us up with heavy burdens. He wants to lighten our load, not weigh us down with impossible demands.
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.  I John 5:3

Jesus came to show us what keeping God’s commands looks like, the freedom and easy walking rhythm it brings to our lives. Then He offered us a pack that we can carry all the way to the end:
Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11:29-30 The Message

But God also doesn’t usually snap His fingers and make our heavy troubles disappear from our packs. His yoke may be easy, but we have accumulated a lifetime of trouble. And even when we follow Him, we never become exempt from suffering.

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God’s remedy for slogging
So are we doomed to slog on our journey of faith?
Not at all. There is so much support God makes available to us, including two key helps.

Help number one: He bears our burdens for us
Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
   who daily bears our burden
s. Psalm 68:19

Think of that–here we are lugging our huge packs of troubles and sorrows up the steep mountain path of life, and our Lord comes alongside to help us carry our load. Not just on Sundays, but every day He is ready to take the heavy items out of our packs so it will be easier for us to walk.

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The problem is I have a hard time letting go of some burdens. As much as I complain about them, when God offers to take them, I balk at surrendering them. Then there are other burdens I honestly don’t know how to give up. I pray and surrender and give them to God, and yet they find their way back into my pack.

For those burdens, I can turn to God’s second remedy.

Help number two: spread the weight around
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2

God intends us to help each other with the troubles that weigh us down. Sometimes we help by listening and giving counsel. Or praying for someone. Or giving practical help like giving a ride to someone who doesn’t have a car, or inviting someone who is new in town over for a meal.

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This mutual give-and-take lightens the load, and not just when we’re on the receiving end. Our burden of feeling useless and lonely is lifted as we serve those around us. Recently as I’ve helped someone carry their burden, I’ve noticed how much lighter I feel.

It makes me wonder if that is how God responds when we let Him carry our burdens. He’s next to us on the trail with His oversized, bottomless pack, wanting to help us. Because He cares for us, it must please Him when we put our heavy burdens in His bag.

What’s in your pack?
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As the summer draws to a close, it’s a good time to stop and reflect on our journey:

**Who has helped me carry my burdens this summer?

**What burdens has God carried for me?

And heading into the fall, it’s a good time to take stock of what is in our packs:

**What burdens of sin and brokenness do I need to give to God, replacing them with His easy yoke and His light burden?

**Whose burden can I help carry?

“Imagine the revolution if every Christian went to church wanting to bless someone and then left the church wanting to bless the world.”
Eugene Cho

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“When they said, “Let’s go to the house of God,”
my heart leaped for joy.em>
Psalm 122:1 The Message

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“When you travel the byroads of Central Russia,
you begin to understand the secrets of the pacifying Russian countryside.
It is in the churches.
They lift their belltowers, graceful, shapely, all different,
high over mundane timber and thatch,
from villages that are cutoff and invisible to each other,
they soar to the same heaven.

People were always selfish and often unkind,
but the evening chimes used to ring out,
floating over the villages, fields and woods,
reminding them that they must abandon trivial concerns of this world
and give time and thought to eternity.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

15th century French church on the way to Santiago de Compestello

15th century French church on the way to Santiago de Compestello

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“In true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace.”
Parker Palmer

It’s that time of the year when people go away on vacation. We pack up the car or our airline-approved suitcase, and head off to a cherished holiday spot or a new adventure.

Mainly I think we want to get away from it all, all the must-dos, and have-tos that weigh us down. But I confess that for me too often this getting away has included my relationship with God. In a flash, I find myself rolling through my vacation without a thought of who He is or what He’s done, or how I need Him.

a former Unitarian meeting house in Boston, now an Evangelical Covenant church

a former Unitarian meeting house in Boston, now an Evangelical Covenant church

I’m not the only one. I recently read the episode in Exodus 33 where the Israelites make a golden calf while Moses is up on the mountain having an intimate talk with the Lord. It’s stunning how quickly they abandon their pledge to ” do everything the Lord has said.” [Exodus 19:8]. Before you know it, they are handing over their gold jewelry to Aaron and sacrificing burnt offerings to a statue.

I know that pull of wanting something tangible to worship. How often I have desired to see a spectacular display of God’s power, or to see Him face to face, or to hear His voice? I want to be done with faith, and instead, I’m presented with new challenges to deal with. But God has given us ways to encounter Him through our physical senses and within a larger spiritual body, His church.

Sometimes there's a baptism or dedication to enjoy

Sometimes there’s a baptism or dedication to enjoy

As I gather with fellow pilgrims, I have a chance to come into His presence and experience the fullness of who He is. In a gym or a cathedral, in a homogeneous group or in a foreign country, in a village or a city, I have the opportunity to offer a sacrifice of praise. No matter how exotic the locale, once I step inside, I’m with my spiritual brothers and sisters.

a Jesuit mission church in predominantly Buddhist Thailand

a Jesuit mission church in predominantly Buddhist Thailand

That’s one reason why I started to make an effort to attend a worship service whenever I’m away from home. I need to join with others to praise God, and to remind myself of His path, and His love, and His provision. Otherwise, like the Israelites, I can easily forget.

Worshiping with French-speaking Africans, in an apartment on the coast of Morocco

Worshiping with French-speaking Africans, in an apartment on the coast of Morocco

It’s never easy. I have to go to the trouble of finding a church. I usually decide on very earthly grounds of convenience like when the service is, how close it is to where I’m staying, and how similar it is to my home church. Next, I have to enter a strange space, and sit down surrounded by strangers. Sometimes I’m greeted warmly. Sometimes I’m ignored. Sometimes the style of worship is so different, it’s hard for me to focus on God. Sometimes I discover a theological quirk that sets my teeth on edge. Sometimes I don’t even understand the language.

Attending the evening service of an Arabic congregation--in the United States

Attending the evening service of an Arabic congregation–in the United States

At the same time, I’ve found that these experiences are often the most memorable part of my trip. On my spiritual tour, I get a glimpse of what God is doing in other places. I’m reminded that His family is a lot bigger than my local congregation. I see the faithfulness of other believers as they show up for their weekly worship. I learn creative ways they are sharing the love of Jesus with the people around them.

a Box of Love to be filled for someone in Los Angeles

a Box of Love to be filled for someone in Los Angeles

And what about those vacation Sundays where I don’t take the trouble to gather with others and worship my gracious Father? I can take comfort in His never-ending desire to restore those who fall. The truly amazing part of the golden calf episode is how quickly God was willing to forgive the Israelites. By the next chapter, He’s renewing His covenant with them. It’s as if He wanted to model what true faithfulness looks like.

a storefront mission church in Ireland that felt amazingly like my home church in Morocco

a storefront mission church in Ireland that felt amazingly like my home church in Morocco

What about you? What’s the most memorable worship experience you’ve had away from home? I’d love to hear about it.

And if you have the pleasure of worshiping at your home church this Sunday, be on the look out for long-lost relatives to welcome!

a little country church in the hills of Virginia

a little country church in the hills of Virginia

We are Redeemed, to be the hands and feet and mouths and brains of the Body of Christ. We are sanctified, so that through and in and with and by us the whole world is brought into God’s eternal Kingdom.

Anonymous

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Don’t look for big things. . .just do small things with great love.

Mother Theresa

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The love of other people helps us to know and accept God’s love for us.
If we have not been held close to another’s heart, we are unlikely to experience God holding us in a firm embrace.
We need the palpable experience of unconditional love from another human being
to encounter the unfathomable depths of God’s abiding love.

Maureen Conroy

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“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Go and see.”

Mark 6:38

The Son of God appeared oe earth in the body, He was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures.
The believer therefore praises the Creator, the Redeemer…for the bodily presence of another believer.
The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,
for He who promised is faithful.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,
not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing,
but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:23-25

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The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. 
He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged,
for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. 
He needs his fellow believer as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In New England where I grew up, you know it’s cold when you look out the window and see frost on the grass. Here, it’s when you wake up and see your breath.

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but without central heating, a cool morning outside can make a chilly morning inside. That’s when I head to the shower. The water is heated directly by gas rather than stored in a hot water heater. That means I could take a three hour shower and never run out of hot water–not that I’ve ever tried. However there are mornings when I soak under the warm spray for a very long time, reluctant to get out. Eventually I’ll step out of the shower–and then dawdle more in the bathroom’s steamy cocoon.

I thought of that last week when a 4-person team from South Africa came for an evening of prayer. Our time together was like relaxing in a spiritual spa. The salon was filled with people sitting on our Moroccan couches which are perfectly suited to lingering.

Picture this room of wall-to-wall banquettes filled with people

Picture this room of wall-to-wall banquettes filled with people

I’m not sure how often itinerant prayer teams make the rounds in the states. Here living on the frontier, spiritually speaking, there aren’t a lot of resources. So when someone comes traveling through, we’re happy to have them share with us. Sometimes it’s preachers, but this time it was pray-ers.

The night started with each South African sharing a little about how they have been seeing God work through prayer. Then they began to go around the room and pray for people individually. Obviously this took some time. But the rest of us weren’t bored. We waited patiently, joined in prayer, chatted with those around us as if we were enjoying at evening at the local hammam [public bath]. The atmosphere was low-key without any spectacular spiritual fireworks; simply warm and restful. Even after a few hours of prayer, no one wanted to leave.

the other half of the room

the other half of the room

I wasn’t going to go for prayer but Emmanuelle nudged me. “You should go.”
“But I don’t have anything specific .”
“Neither did I, but it was really good for me.”

So I went over to one of the South Africans and she began to pray for me. I felt like I was sitting under a warm shower of God’s love, hearing blessing and encouragement and affirmation. Afterwards, I felt refreshed and uplifted. And thankful for those who were willing to travel and minister to people in this country.

As I’ve reflected on the experience, a few things have stood out.

God’s voice
We sometimes complain that God doesn’t speak audibly to us. We can become frustrated that we can’t talk to Him like we do with another person. Yet He put us in the body of Christ and when we pray for each other, we have the chance to become the voice of God into another person’s life.

That’s an awesome responsibility, and these South Africans were not novices. They had been trained [discipled if you like] in this prayer ministry. They were comfortable praying for people they knew nothing about.

Soaking prayer
Sometimes we need prayer for something specific. Those are like hammer prayers where we keep hitting the nail, and that night there were many particular requests that were prayed for. But other people, like me, were prayed for ‘just because’. I’m learning there is value in the gentle soaking of this kind of prayer, including the gift of spiritual friendship as we come before God together.

never to young to soak

never to young to soak

Soaking takes time
Another benefit of the evening was the time to relax in fellowship. Instead of rushing around on tasks and programs like Martha, we were imitating Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. Now I think Martha sometimes gets short shrift. I don’t think anyone complained about the meals she made, the clothes she washed, or the cleaning she did. But what Jesus told her is a reminder for us too. Activity is not the sum total of our life in Him, including church activity. Our spiritual busyness can keep us from receiving the refreshment He wants to give us. To set aside an entire evening is a good way to slow down.

Time to step out
Just as Mary didn’t remain at the feet of Jesus forever, the evening finally came to an end. The people from South Africa traveled back home. The rest of us entered another week at work, going on with the tasks of our lives. But we now carry with us the memories of that sweet fellowship.

11 2 10 dawn and dew 038

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring,
and My blessing on your descendants.
They will spring up like grass in a meadow,
like poplar trees by flowing streams.
Isaiah 44:3, 4

I want to thank you for the gift you’ve given to me.
Yes, I mean you.

Now, some of you may be wondering what exactly it is that you’ve given.

before the gift was given

before the gift was given

Well, you come to this website, you subscribe and follow, you read my posts, you share your thoughts in the comments or by email. And I’m thankful you take the time to stop and listen and walk with me for awhile.

Because we’re on a journey that God designed to be taken together, your companionship makes a difference to me. It’s a special gift to find kindred spirits along the way. When I sit down to reflect and write, I think of you, faithful readers. You are jewels in God’s crown, treasures in His kingdom. As James K.A. Smith put it:

…perhaps nothing is so important for our walk with the Lord as good friends.
I think God gives us good friends as sacraments—
means of grace given to us as indications of God’s presence
and conduits for our sanctification.
While “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24),
that same Friend sends us friends to help make His presence tangible and concrete.
Nothing continues the incarnation like Christian friendship.”

Along the way

Along the way

And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote as the Nazi darkness was forming in Germany, said:

“The measure with which God gives the gift of visible community is varied.
Christians who live dispersed from one another are comforted by a brief visit of another Christian,
a prayer together, and another Christian’s blessing.
Indeed, they are strengthened by letters written by the hand of other Christians.”

That’s my hope for these posts–electronic letters really–that they will encourage us all on the journey together, even if we are spread out all around the world from Oregon to Massachusetts to Switzerland to Morocco to India to Thailand and everywhere in between.

Thanks for walking with me. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey with you this coming year.

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“We must all be saved together!
Reach God together!
Appear before Him together!
We must return to our Father’s house together…
what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?”
–Charles Péguy

I’ve been reflecting more about the Holy Spirit growing fruit in us as we stay attached to Jesus.

Last month, I read through the book of Job in my Bible reading plan [note the fall is a great time to start a plan if you haven’t already]. Job is a poignant reminder that although most of the time we feel safe and secure, there are no guarantees we will never see dark days.

As Job suffered, he basically had two ways to respond. Continue Reading…

Here are some memoirs by fellow travelers that I’ve enjoyed this past year:
The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail
by Margot Starbuck
A mediation on the fatherhood of God after growing up adopted, and her search to make her velveteen rabbit faith into real faith.

The Pastor
by Eugene Peterson
Worth reading if you know a pastor [even if you aren’t married to one], this book gives a window into a faithful servant who has loved people and told God’s story

A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny
by Amy Julia Becker
The challenging and inspiring story of a Princeton grad loving her child with Down’s Syndrome

Redeemed:Stumbling Toward God, Sanity, and the Peace that Passes all Understanding
by Heather King
As I wrote last year about this book, “Through episodes and events in her life [divorce, cancer, the death of a parent], Heather King chronicles the power of Christ to take a person out of the mud and mire and set them on a rock solid foundation that can weather the harshest storms. But she doesn’t describe her transformation with a sense of personal triumph, rather with a hard-won obedience to the One who knows better than she does.”

And what will I be reading during my vacation?
Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt
by Andrea Palpant Dilley
A woman’s journey from faith to post-modern confusion and back. Dilley writes: “The divine hiddenness that once drove me from the church now brings me back to the sanctuary every Sunday. That distance seems like less of a gap and more like a gift, a space I can travel, a place where my longing draws me upward toward God.”

I love reading your comments on these reflections, especially when I share something I am struggling with. It encourages me.  As I replied to one commenter a few days ago, “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one–in fact I think being in community is something else that helps me stay on the altar.”

That reaction of mine has made me think more about how connecting with others keeps all of us from slinking away from God. Continue Reading…

For three weeks last month, I stayed in a house right along the medieval pilgrimage route, Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle [better known to Americans by the Spanish name, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela].


The summer rush was long past, but through my open window I often heard the toc toc of a staff or pole that signaled another pilgrim was coming. Every day at least a half-dozen would walk by on their way to the western edge of Spain where the body of the apostle James was said to be found in the 9th century and a shrine was later built.


Almost finished with the day’s 12 mile stretch from Moissac to Auvillar, the pilgrims would pause for a drink or look at the map or use the public toilets, before hiking up a very steep incline to spend the night in the village.


The majority looked more like hikers than what I expected pilgrims to look like. Actually I don’t know what kind of outfit I thought they should wear, just not something that looked like it came straight from the REI catalog or whatever the European equivalent of high end outdoor clothing is.

Some came on a donkey or with a horse hauling their pack [though there are companies that will transport your bags for you from one stop to another.] Others were biking the 940 mile route from Le Puy, France to Santiago, Spain.

There are four main pilgrimage routes through France, but the Le Puy route is probably the most popular. In the summer, they say 40 to 50 pilgrims pass through every day. But many who make the pilgrimage start further south, on the French border for a 30 day walk to Santiago, though you only need to walk 100 kilometers or bike 200 kilometers to get the authentic ‘I hiked the Camino’ pilgrim’s certificate.


Most of the time, I just watched the parade from my window, an observer not a participant. But one Sunday I worshipped with pilgrims at the abbey in Moissac, a major stop on the route. I often biked along a nearby stretch through farmland and along the Canal du Midi, and I did walk along the chemin for 3 miles one day. I’d like to say I undertook that journey for deeply spiritual reasons, but the truth was I was going to have lunch at a well known restaurant in the neighboring village, and without a car or public transportation, the only way to get there was on foot. How medieval.

over the river and through the woods we went
a signpost along the way told us we were going in the right direction
almost there

the earthly goal

I wasn’t much different from a lot of people who do the pilgrimage for sport or culture or purely historical interest. Almost a quarter of a million people do this pilgrimage every year, but that’s half of what it was in the 11th century. Considering the population of Europe at the time, a half million is an impressive number, even more so when you realize that the Santiago pilgrimage was not the first, but the third most popular destination at the time, behind Rome and Jerusalem.

All those medieval pilgrims not only walked to Santiago de Compostelo, but without trains or cars or planes, they had to walk all the way home as well. It was an expensive and sometimes dangerous journey, taken as a penance or for spiritual guidance or growth. Over time it became well-organized, and a travel guide was written to help pilgrims know what routes to take, where to stay and what to avoid.

a typical medieval pilgrim in a blue robe, with a wide brimmed hat, a staff, and a scallop shell, the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage

I finally saw a ‘real’ pilgrim, while I was out biking one day, complete with his hat, staff, scallop shell painted with cross, and a three-inch crucifix hanging from his backpack. Like most pilgrims I met, it was easy to strike up a conversation with him. He had started in Geneva, and was staying in homes along the way, rather than hotels.

For those who follow Jesus, there’s no requirement to go on a pilgrimage [unlike Muslims for whom making the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five obligations, as 3 million did this week]. But there is something about the idea of pilgrimage that remains appealing . You have a clearly defined goal, a clearly defined path, you get rid of the burdens and boredoms of daily life, and travel simply, following in the foot steps of others who have gone before, often in the company of others who on the same journey. I think in some ways, Le Chemin de St. Jacques has become a horizontal Mount Everest–people do it because it’s there.


But the truth is whether I walk the chemin or whether I never leave home, I’ve become a pilgrim too. The word ‘pilgrim’ comes from the Latin peregrinus which means foreigner or stranger. I’m only passing through this world as I follow Jesus home.

My spiritual ancestors who walked on the road of faith knew that:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16

Our pilgrimage to heaven is a long road. At the start it can be exciting, but after awhile, the pack begins to chafe, boots begin to rub. The initial thrill disappears. We have to endure hard times and lonely moments. There are unwelcoming villages, sour hosts, and bad weather. We start to acquire things that weigh us down and make the journey harder: possessions, worries, concerns. As the life of faith become difficult, it’s easy to think about stopping or turning around. We can forget what is waiting at the end of the journey.

Thankfully God didn’t intend for us to make the pilgrimage alone. In the company of our fellow travelers, our troubles are divided and our joys are doubled. We bear each others’ burdens and share our supplies. We remind each other of our destination as we put one weary foot after another, giving us the courage to keep on going, all the way to the end.
Happy are the people whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims way…they go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84:4,6

Enchanted August

August 31, 2011 — 3 Comments

There’s a glorious movie from the early 90s which, I’ve discovered, many people don’t know about. Enchanted April** is one of my all-time favorites, the story of 4 women who escape a dreary April in London in the 1920s and rent a villa in southern Italy, called San Salvatore. Two of them arrive at night, coming to a deserted train station in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm. Suddenly a man appears, whisks them into a carriage, and drives them on a perilous journey to the villa.

It was August instead of April, and the city was dry and dusty, not wet and soppy, but I had a similar feeling a few weeks ago when I travelled to France for a friend’s wedding. I flew to Paris, took the TGV to Poitiers, and then boarded a local train to reach a station so small and remote it didn’t rate a picture on the French train network website. From there, someone would pick me up and take me to the wedding location. But as I started my journey, I realized that was all I knew. I didn’t have a phone number for the place; I didn’t even know the street address. If no one came for me, I was going to be sunk. I had to take it on faith that I wouldn’t be forgotten and everything was going to be alright.

The little train headed out of Poitiers, filled with families returning or going on vacation. The train started to climb, through a forest, then past fields of dying sunflowers.



It soon arrived at my station and a handful of people got off and quickly dispersed into cars. The parking lot was empty. There were no stores, no pay phones. My nightmare was coming true.



There was one other man waiting but he didn’t seem to be looking for anyone. Then we exchanged glances and tentative hellos, and found out that we were both wedding guests. Each of us breathed easier. Soon the groom came to pick us up and whisked us away on a perilous journey on a narrow two lane road [driving as if he was back in Egypt where he lives].

Then we arrived at the wedding site. It felt like coming home. I only knew the groom and his family, but I soon met old unknown friends from South Africa [the bride’s country] and the Middle East and France, and the States and England.



We found our sleeping spots in one of the half dozen stone buildings on the property. It reminded me of an old song we used to sing:

“I can’t wait to see heaven

and to walk those streets of gold

I can’t wait to check into my mansion,

and get my sleeping bag unrolled.”



I slept in the “Petite Maison”

We gathered with the rest of the guests [about 60 at that point] for supper, eating on long tables.



Then some went off to worship while others pitched in to prepare the next day’s wedding feast.



The next morning, I got up early to help serve breakfast.



I joined with another new friend to cut the wildflowers other guests had collected that morning from the fields.



Then it was time for the wedding. There was something heavenly about the service, conducted at various points in English, French, and Afrikaans. The pastor pointed out how this wedding celebration was an illustration of the one that awaits us. The bride and groom had done the legal paperwork several weeks earlier in Egypt. But this was the day they were joining together in marriage–just like Jesus has taken care of the legal formalities for our entrance into the celestial wedding banquet, and we are waiting for the actual celebration.



After the bride and groom said their vows, they washed each others’ feet. I’ve seen this done many times before but it was particularly moving to see the groom and the bride kneel down on the grass in their fancy wedding clothes, and perform this humble act of service. It was a powerful illustration of what Jesus did when He washed the disciples’ feet.

At the end, the guests blessed the newly married couple.



Everyone gathered for the obligatory group photo.

Then came the amazing wedding feast–a combination of South African barbeque [with two meat courses] and French wine, cheese, and salads.

Throughout the weekend, there were so many examples of heaven:

people traveling from all over the world,

meeting strangers who were family,



the hospitality of the family friends who opened up the farm and all the buildings for a week,

everyone pitching in and doing their tasks to make the celebration



And all around us, there were fruit trees and flowers in bloom.

It was almost Eden.















No one wanted to leave, but Sunday, after a South African breakfast, people started to leave to catch trains and planes.



I got a ride back to Paris with a saint from Mali, and spent midnight in Paris…but that’s another story.

Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs.

Revelation 22:1-5 The Message

Links

Enchanted April…a must-see movie

At the age of 60, John Stott wrote:

“I was reading Leviticus 27 that day, which is about redemption prices. From it I learned that in Hebrew society “the value of a male between the ages of 20 and 60” was “50 shekels of silver”, whereas at 60 he dropped 35 shekels to a mere 15! Perhaps therefore, I thought to myself, I should regard my 60th birthday as my “Devaluation Day”. A Singaporean friend helped to rescue my sagging morale, however, by telling me that according to the Chinese a 60 year-old is worthy of added respect because he is now embarking on his sixth 12-year cycle.

Leaving aside these cultural perspectives, I sat that afternoon in my favourite nook on the Pembrokeshire cliffs and read the exhortation in Hebrews 12.1 to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”. So I prayed for grace to persevere in Christian faith, life and service, and a few months later was encouraged by the promise of Psalm 92.14 that God’s people “will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green”. May it be so!”

***
At the age of 67, John Stott reflected:

“50 years ago today, on 13 February 1938 a young man knelt at his bedside and opened the door of his heart or personality, and invited Christ to come in. I was that young man. I have now had 50 years in which to test the reality of Jesus Christ. Tonight, on my 50th spiritual birthday, I want to bear witness to him, and to the length, depth, breadth and height of his love…

When I am asked if I have any further ambition, as my life approaches its end, I answer that my overriding desire is to become more like Jesus Christ, through the transforming power of his indwelling Spirit. For that is God’s eternal purpose for us all. And when Christ comes again, in spectacular magnificence, we will at last be fully like him, for we shall see him as he is.

***
At 85, John Stott said:

Pride is without doubt the greatest temptation of Christian leaders. And I’m very well aware of the dangers of being feted and don’t enjoy it and don’t think one should enjoy it.

***
More wisdom from John Stott:

At every state of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.

***

If we truly love our neighbor,we shall without doubt tell him the good news of Jesus. But equally, if we truly love our neighbor, we shall not stop there.

***

We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather, we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?’