Saturday, December 18, 2010

Risky Business

“I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth.”
                                                                                                Matthew 25:25

Fear of failure inhibits growth and success. When I read this familiar parable about the master who doles out his assets among three of his servants, I usually focus on the need to use the gifts God gives me for his glory. Yet, this time, I read it with the idea that it’s a parable instead about taking risks.

The servants who received multiple bags of silver (or talents, depending on your translation) took chances with their master’s assets. They could have failed, and in fact, they may have had failures along the way as they doubled what the master had given them. As we currently go through a down economy, most of us can relate to making investments that end up failing.

In this parable, we don’t get to hear about how these two servants invested their master’s assets. We might be shocked at the risks these two servants took and the failures they encountered. Having the responsibility and taking chances likely was stressful for them at times, but their willingness to put themselves at risk paid off.

However, the servant who buried what he was given was able to pass the time while his master was away with no stress. He could go about his business as usual, living comfortably in his normal routine because he did not take any chances with what the master had given him. He played it safe, but was not commended for doing so!

To consider this as a parable about taking risks shows me that Jesus is teaching us that risk-free living is not the Master’s desire for us. It is only in risking failure that we can receive the affirmation of the Master. It is only in risking everything that we can gain everything. As Jesus says in Matthew 16:25: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”

God took a huge risk when he came to earth as flesh and blood to live among us as one of us. The birth of Jesus is so much more than a sweet story about a young couple who has a baby in a stable. It is the ultimate in-breaking of Immanuel, God with us. Just as God gave everything for us, we are called to give everything to him, to give up our right to ourselves and take risks with all he has given us, which is everything we have. What will seem as a failure in the eyes of the world will be commended by our Master.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Being A Way-Preparer

"John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say, 'Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.'"
                                                                                                    Matthew 11:10

Jesus says the above words about John the Baptist when John is in jail. It's not always easy being one who prepares the way of the Lord. It is truly risky business. There are countless examples of missionaries, prophets and others who, in their effort to prepare the way for Christ have ended up in prison or been killed. Being the one who prepares the way is likely to be an unrewarded mission and others may think the effort was in vain. Yet God uses people in ways we may never know this side of heaven.

We are all way-preparers. But what way are we preparing? What message are we declaring--the message of the Good News, or the message of our culture? 

In this season of Advent and in every season, I pray that I am one who prepares the way of the Lord, not the way of the world. I hope that when others look back on my life they will see that my labor has made the path straight. This road construction project requires perseverance, and may even appear hopeless at times. Yet, always, God has the master plan, and even if I don't know that a way has been prepared, God does.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Giving Up

I am becoming more and more convinced that my life is not what Christ wants it to be. It's not that I think I'm a bad person; I just see more and more incompatibility between Jesus' teachings and the culture in which I live, including the church.

I'm reading the book Radical by David Platt. It is the latest in what must not be a coincidental series of books I've read that continue to challenge my lifestyle and the comfortable faith I've lived with for most of my life. I just don't believe God put me (or any of us) on earth simply to go to work, raise a family, volunteer in church or community activities, then retire and travel, play golf, etc. As I think about the way many of us, self included, have lived as Christians, it's little wonder that the church in America is declining!

Yet in countries where one can be tortured or killed for being a Christian, the church is growing. What truth do they know that we are missing? Could it be that the only faith worth having is one worth dying for? A faith worth sacrificing everything so that Christ will be proclaimed and people will be transformed?

I am growing less and less comfortable with my comfortable lifestyle. I don't think God sent Jesus to earth to be sacrificed so that I could squander his blessings to me on a big house, expensive cars, clothes, jewelry or electronics while others are starving to death. I'm beginning to think that Jesus really meant it when he said that unless I give up everything I own, I cannot be his disciple. Will I?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

God and Money

I think the last straw was hearing a church carillon playing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Why is it that even in the church, where the birth of Christ should be proclaimed, we have gotten caught up in the excesses of our culture at this time of year? I am not advocating that we have no celebration, but shouldn’t our first priority as Christians be to proclaim the birth of Christ, who came to earth, wholly human and wholly divine, to give himself for us?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am facilitating a discussion of The Advent Conspiracy. The authors suggest that many Christians believe it is possible to worship God and money. They point out that the Israelites tried this when they first settled the Promised Land. They saw the gods that their neighbors worshipped and figured what would it hurt to offer some sacrifices to Baal as well as to God. Might as well cover all your bases, right? While it sounds good in theory, God was not pleased.

I wonder if he is pleased with us and our rampant consumerism. Maybe we aren’t offering sacrifices to Baal, but I bet there were more church members out at 4:00 a.m. on Black Friday standing in line to get a bargain than there are at any Easter Sunrise Service!

And speaking of bargains, have you ever thought about what those bargains cost the producers of what we purchase? We are so immersed in our consumer culture that I’m afraid we are blind to what we have become and to the way our lifestyles affect others. Do our hearts break when we get dressed in the morning? I don’t think about how each piece of clothing was made by people who may be laboring in horrific conditions so I can buy at bargain prices. I spend more on an evening’s entertainment (I’m talking about a movie, not a Broadway show) than others have to live on for a month or more.

Imagine what could be done for others with what we spend on vacations. And we act as if we are entitled to do it. “It’s my money after all. I earned it. I can spend it any way I want.” We forget that it is all a gift from God; none of it really belongs to us. Do we have the right to do whatever we want with our money and call ourselves Christians while others are starving to death, often in the very places we visit on our cruise ships and airplanes.

I am feeling the tug between what the culture says is okay and what Christ teaches. Maybe these thoughts are extreme. Maybe I’m an extremist for voicing them. But God is pretty extreme. I can’t think of much that is more extreme than sending Jesus to earth as a helpless baby, who then grew up and did something really extreme—dying for my sin on a cross.

If it is extreme to put the needs of others ahead of my wants, as Jesus did, then maybe we should all be extremists.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Recently I was part of a small group study using the book Saint Benedict on the Freeway by Corinne Ware. Thinking about the way Benedictines pray at certain times of the day has inspired me to infuse more of my day with set times for prayer. Beginning that practice with the season of Advent seems especially relevant, because I really want this Advent season to be one of waiting and watching for God.

I’ve been wondering why it is that I am so  deliberate in my individual preparation for Easter Sunday through the season of Lent, but during Advent my preparation for the birth of Jesus is haphazard. In Lent I add in spiritual disciplines to crowd out some of the worldly activities that otherwise fill my time. I consider regularly the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross and how my sinfulness caused his suffering. Lent becomes for me a season of contemplation and interior preparation.

Why shouldn’t Advent bring the same attentiveness? My preparation for the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, is often all exterior. I clean and cook and shop and socialize. I prepare my home for guests but I fail to prepare my heart for the most important Guest of all.

I am part of a group that is studying the Advent Conspiracy. In the video we watched last night, a person who had participated in Advent Conspiracy for a couple of years spoke of how she had previously found her joy in the shopping and crowds, but she now makes space for Jesus to come and dwell within her heart and it has changed the source of her joy and how she prepares for Christmas.

My desire for this Advent season is to make the time, through regular times for prayer during each day, for Jesus to come and dwell within me. I want my heart to be a stable prepared for him, and I want to wait and watch for him to come and be born anew in me.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Be Still

View of the lake at Sumatanga
Photo by Blake Kendrick

The pile of leaves I have to rake out of the seat of my swing tells me it's been too long since I sat in my backyard and just allowed myself to be still. One of my resolutions to myself upon returning from the Academy for Spiritual Formation this week is to be outside more, so here I am, armed with a cup of cinnamon apple tea, my journal and a pen. Between the busy wrens and the daredevil squirrels, there is enough action to keep me from becoming restless. And even if the creatures weren't stirring, the leaves lit up by the sun give me a palette of fall color to enjoy. 

Nature draws me closer to God, and this was made evident to me at Camp Sumatanga last week when I was at Academy. Fall is a wonderful time to be outside, and I soaked it up every chance I could while I was there last week.

So while it may seem frivolous to some that I pause my life to venture outside and just be, I know that this is a practice that feeds my soul, a spiritual discipline that is vital to my life in Christ.

I am blessed to have a place at my house to soak up God's creation, yet even if I didn't I know I could find some place of refuge where my heart could express its love to God. I know that even as much as I enjoy this time, God enjoys it more, for his desire is for me to desire him, to choose to spend time basking in his glorious presence, undistracted by what the world says is necessary. Is this the thing that Mary found, sitting at the feet of Jesus?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bad Yeast

"Watch out!" Jesus warned them. "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn't brought any bread.

The disciples are so much like us. We argue and fret over the most trivial things while Christ is trying to get us to pat attention to things of eternal significance. We argue over the color of carpet or whether it's appropriate to bless animals, while people are hungry and hurting in the community around us and around the world.

The disciples were fretting about missing a meal while Jesus was concerned about teachings that freed others from the oppressive rules of the religious leaders. We fret over budgets while Jesus tells us to trust him to provide all we need. We argue about whether to sprinkle or dunk when baptizing when Jesus would have us preach his word to those who are lost. We debate the theology of infant baptism while children suffer abuse in our own communities. We complain if something is changed in the order of worship while others are dying for worshiping Christ. We criticize how our youth dress for church instead of being thankful that they are there to worship God.

And what does Jesus tell us? Maybe we need to beware the yeast we are spreading, the bad yeast that poisons our churches and harms the cause of Christ in our world.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Some Thoughts on Being Present in the Present Moment

Have you ever thought about the fact that God sees you exactly as you are right now? Not as you were in the past, but how you are in this moment. This became real for me recently, as I heard a friend’s  life story. I’ve known this person for a couple of years, and what I know is that this person is kind, creative and one whose life is a testimony to a strong faith in Christ. This friend is a joy to be around. Upon hearing this friend’s life story, I realized that what I knew was the present. This person’s past was quite different.

As I thought about what I had heard, I realized that living in the present also means loving in the present. I believe this is what God does. Just as I know this friend in the present, God knows me in the present. What I’ve done in the past, for good or bad, is not the way God sees me. It is as if God is meeting me for the first time at this very moment, just as I am right now.

How would my relationships with others be different if I saw them only as they were right now, if all memory of the past was gone? This is not an easy thing to do. It means that if a person hurt me or someone I love in the past, I am not to remember it, nor am I to be more pleasantly disposed to one who has been kind to me in the past. If God keeps no record of our wrongs, should I also strive to do likewise?

If I treat others as if I just met them, I will be courteous to them, because I would never be rude to someone I just met. If I make this a habit, then not only will I treat others in a more Christlike way, I will also be different as I practice hospitality and the absence of being influenced by prior interactions or knowledge of another. In that way, I will be more fully present in the present moment, not only to the person in front of me, but also to God.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reckless Behavior

To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.
                                                                   Matthew 13:12

When what I listen to is something other than God's word taught by Jesus, whether it is the culture's message or the message of false prophets (such as those who say diseases or natural disasters are God's way of punishing sin), these messages do not spring forth from the unfailing love of God. A few verses later in Matthew, Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying: "For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes--so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them."

When I don't act out of love, my heart becomes hardened and understanding of Jesus' teachings fades away, drowned out by the voices of hate and selfishness that are so much easier to hear and obey. It is much more appealing to hear messages from society and from false prophets that elevate us while condemning others, that make us feel it's okay to hold onto our wealth instead of redistributing it to those who desparately need it, that focus our attention on celebrities and consumerisim instead of the massive exploitation others endure so that our consurmerism addiction can be satisfied.

This week, it seems I have been surrounded by those whose messages contradict the teachings of Jesus. I have spent much time looking inward to see where I am living by the messages of my culture instead of the message of Jesus. The more I read Jesus' teachings, the more I realize that his message of unwavering, infinite, unconditional love is countercultural, a threat to the values and structures of power we craft to make our lives comfortable. Thus, it is easier to say I won't give to the person I see begging because he might be a con artist than to take a chance and give him something. I justify myself by saying I am being a "good steward" even though Jesus said to give to those who ask (Matthew 5:42). In justifying my behavior, I fail to trust God to provide sufficient resourses to me so that I might be able to give more abundantly. God is obviously reckless in his generosity, because I see how recklessly generous he has been to me. Could it be that he expects me to be that recklessly generous to others? Could it be that I am really supposed to live a life that exudes the love of Christ, the reckless, lay-it-all-on-the-line love that Jesus modeled instead of the measured, safe, take-care-of-myself life that our society advocates?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Right Agenda

"Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath!"
                                                                           Matthew 12:12

It seems rather obvious to me that it is a good thing to do good things on the Sabbath, but Jesus had plenty of run-ins with the Pharisees because he healed on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were consumed with paying attention to the law, but Jesus was more inclined to pay attention to people. I know I am often guilty of being more focused on agendas and structure than observing the needs of people around me. In this way, I am more like the Pharisees than I would like to admit.

Structure and order are good until they become the goal of my life. When I fail to attend to the needs of others because doing so is not part of my day's agenda, I have made my agenda my god. In the parable of the good samaritan, this is likely what the priest did when he passed by without helping the man who was robbed and beaten by bandits. He probably had people expecting him at a certain time and to take the time to help the injured man would cause him to be late. The expectations of others and my own desire to meet those can take precedence over God's plans for me if I am overly focused on my agenda.

I must ask myself--is my concern for meeting the expectations of others driven by my love for them or is it driven by my own desire for approval? Is my motivation to glorfy God or to be praised by people? Catherine of Siena observed that all evil is rooted in self-love, so it's useful for me to examine my motives in meeting the expectations of others.

I need to consider if my service to others is motivated by my love for them or by love for myself. If I seek recognition and approval for what I do, even if my feelings are hurt when I am not thanked, then my service is not a response to my love for God and for others, but is only a way to feed my ego. If this is the case, my service does not honor God. Others may be helped, but the cause of Christ is not furthered when lack of appreciation bothers me. If I am motivated out of the overflowing love I have for God, it won't matter if anyone even knows what service I've rendered. My only desire will be that Christ is glorified and others feel God's love through me. It doesn't even matter that the recipient of my service is ungrateful if I am acting out of love for that person.

I hope I can remember that when my feelings are hurt because my actions have not been appreciated my motives for service are not what they should be. I want to be one who can serve motivated only by my love for Christ and others. That's an agenda worth having!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blessing By The Animals

Next Saturday, our church is having its first ever Blessing of the Animals. I will be out of town and regret that I will miss it, but it has me thinking about animals and what they mean to us and to God. I like that God, our Creator, spent so much time crafting each type of animal and giving each one its own unique characteristics and personality. Genesis 1 tells us that God created the animals and observed that this endeavor was good.

Jesus tells us how much God cares for animals in Matthew 10:20 when he says God knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground. Jesus uses the animals as an example to us in the Sermon on the Mount, observing that the birds trust God to feed them (something we seem to be unable to do even though we like to think we are smarter than birds).

God rebukes Jonah for his lack of compassion for both the people and the animals of Ninevah, when he tells Jonah: “But Ninevah has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” God’s compassion to the people and animals of Ninevah is the result of the people and animals fasting and wearing garments of mourning.

Psalm 84:3 says that the sparrow and swallow both have a home near God’s altar. I am glad to know that God enjoys the birds as much as I do, and I look forward to joining them one day near his altar! And while so many Psalms command us to praise God, the last verse of the last Psalm, Psalm 150, says “Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord!” While we have to be told time and time again to praise God, everything else that breathes only has to be told once!

Animals do seem to praise their Creator much more freely than we do. As I write this, I am listening to mockingbirds, cardinals, chickadees, Canada geese, a barking dog, and a chipmunk. On such a beautiful fall day, they are singing their praises to God while I sit silent. It’s interesting that while we have been given stewardship over the animals, they are our example of how to praise God!

I am grateful for their example of how to praise God, for their example of living authentically as God created them with no guile or agendas, and for the unconditional love we receive from those animals that live within our homes as pets. For us to bless the animals is only to return to them and to God a small portion of the abundant blessings they give to us. Every day we are blessed by the animals in ways we may not even yet realize. How fitting that we acknowledge their blessings to us by blessing them!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Good Message, Bad Motivation

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in Heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.     
                                 Matthew 5:44-45

Jesus makes it clear that I am to treat all people, even those who count themselves as my enemies, the same—loving them and praying for them. Because Jesus put this instruction in terms of God’s evenhandedness with all of us makes it clear that I also am not to make any distinction among people; the just and the unjust are to be loved by me as they are by God.

So what Jesus is really saying to me is that I am not to have enemies. I can’t control what others think about me, or if they view me as an enemy, but I can control how I feel about others and how I treat them, and according to Jesus, I am to treat all people with love.

There’s a sign in front of a church I drive by almost daily that says: “Love your enemies. It will mess with their heads.” The idea of loving your enemies is good, but the implied motivation behind it is wrong. If I really love my enemies, then they aren’t my enemies and I won’t have any desire to mess with their heads. To want to do that shows vindictiveness that is incompatible with love.

There is no compatibility between Jesus’ way of love and the way society encourages me to look out for myself and not allow another to get the better of me. I simply cannot put my agenda first, but must always act out of love for Jesus and love for others. Anything that encourages me otherwise (even if the message is in front of a church) should be avoided at all costs.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Growing Season

I recently returned from a trip with my husband, Jim, to Destin, Florida. To get there from Macon involves a long ride through South Georgia farmland. As we rode past field after field of cotton, Jim told me that cotton is a difficult crop to grow because the growing season is quite long, creating many opportunities for something to go wrong that damages or ruins the crop.

I thought about that in relation to my life as I attempt to follow Christ. From the outside looking in, one would think that the longer you do it, the easier it gets. With many things we do in life this is true, but I find that, like the cotton crop, the longer I’ve been on this journey of discipleship, the more I am aware of the ways I fall short in living a Christlike life.

In Luke 8:4-15, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows seed in his field. Some never gets in the ground; some grows, but quickly dies because it grows among rocks. Other seed grows, but gets choked out by plants around it and some seed falls on good soil and produces a bountiful crop. Whenever I’ve read that parable, I don’t visualize a long wait to see what happens to the various seeds. I expect it to be like the radishes in my garden—I plant the seed and within four or five days, I see little green leaves sprouting up. Radishes are the closest thing I’ve found to instant gratification plants!

I wonder if others read this parable like I do and think that once the word is sown in good soil and begins to grow (and grow quickly) everything is wonderful. Maybe I should think of that seed as cotton, or maybe a better example is a tree—something that grows over a long period of time and is subjected to many conditions like drought, flood, heat, cold, disease and bugs. My journey of discipleship has occurred over a long period of time, and hopefully will continue for many more years, but I am realizing that it is a journey from which I never arrive this side of heaven. It is difficult at times and easy at times. There are many days I travel in darkness, unable to feel the presence of God, but there are also days in which I bask in his light. If I think of my discipleship enduring a variety of conditions like a long-lived plant does, 

I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:45: For [God] gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. There will be continual challenges to faithful living, and I expect there will be many who wonder why I even continue on such a journey. I may wonder the same thing myself at times.
The growing season for discipleship is lifelong and requires me to be patient and persistent if I want to grow into Christ’s image. Like the cotton crop, I will face many obstacles to growth, but if I will send my roots deep into Christ’s word and remain there, Jesus will be with me to help me weather whatever conditions threaten my ability to be faithful. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Those People

Against you, and you alone, have I sinned.”
                This verse from Psalm 51 was part of our Sunday school discussion today. David wrote this Psalm after being confronted about having committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranging to have her husband killed. We considered why David says that his sin is only against God, since others suffered the consequences of his sinful behavior.

                That’s an interesting question, and as I’ve mulled over it, I wonder if it’s easier for me to excuse my sinful behavior when it’s against another person rather than against God. Consider for a moment what David did. He saw Bathsheba taking a bath one afternoon, has her brought to the palace and then slept with her. He could have excused he behavior by saying she should not have been bathing in view of the palace, or that she should have refused to come to the palace or refused to sleep with him once she was there. At the time of Uriah’s death he offered an excuse, claiming it was a consequence of battle. But when David was confronted with his sin, he made no excuses, recognizing that it was sin against God.

                In a similar vein, I can excuse my ability to help others by blaming others for my failure to act. This really hit me during a conversation about some of the ongoing problems in our community and beyond. I can say it’s the government’s fault, it’s the school’s fault, it’s the parents’ fault, or that “those people” should get a job, go to school, stop having babies, etc. You get the idea. As long as I can find someone else to be responsible, I don’t have to be.

                Like Lee Corso on College Gameday, Jesus tells me, “Not so fast, my friend,” saying that whenever I have not helped one of “those people” (he calls them “the least of these”) I have not helped him. He puts a different face on “those people.” He puts HIS face on them. Suddenly, it’s a lot harder for me to dismiss the unwed mother, the homeless man, the teenager with attitude, the deadbeat dad, and all the others I conveniently refer to as “those people,” because each one of those people IS Jesus Christ to me. His face is on them. If I don’t see it, it’s my fault, not theirs.

                I’m running out of places to point fingers, because every time I point, I see the face of Christ, and he shows up in people I’d rather not see him among, because that means I should be among them as well, serving them without judging or making excuses. The problems in my community and in the world are no longer somebody else’s problems. They are mine. I am responsible because I claim to follow Christ and following him means that I am to live with him and serve him, and he is here, looking back at me in every face I see. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fan or Follower?

Is it enough to be a good person who believes in Jesus Christ, attends church regularly, does some volunteer work, and gives some money to charity? Does this qualify me as a Christian? I have been wrestling with such questions lately.

1 Corinthians 13, hailed as the “Love chapter” and read at many weddings, should not make me feel all warm and fuzzy. It’s a rather challenging and uncomfortable chapter. In the first verses, Paul is basically saying that doing stuff, even dramatic stuff like moving mountains and giving everything I own away to the poor, doesn’t count for anything unless I do it because I love others. He goes on to say that if I love, then I should be completely other-focused, never irritable, and not concerned if others take advantage of me. That’s a pretty tall order, and even among those of us who call ourselves Christians, it’s behavior we don’t see very often. I get mad at others, look down on others, and get my nose out of joint if I don’t get my way—and all within this community that is supposed to be the body of Christ. Ouch!

I wonder if Paul might have put it differently if he were writing today. Maybe he would have talked about how I feed the poor during the day at Macon Outreach, but don’t invite them to our church dinners. Maybe he would tell me to ditch all the committee meetings I attend and instead, go sit in the park and talk to, no, befriend someone who is down on his or her luck. Maybe he would simply say that if I am not on good terms with a fellow church member (or anyone else for that matter) I am just a fan of Jesus, not a follower.

Discipleship is not about making Jesus fit into what is comfortable for me. It’s about me being willing to become uncomfortable with what is deemed acceptable in our culture (and sometimes even in the church) and motivated to be different for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Following Jesus is risky business. I have to get in the game, get hurt, and give my all. Being a fan means I can sit comfortably on the sidelines and cheer. But the risk of following is worth the reward of knowing Christ intimately and being transformed by him. I pray I have the faith and courage to be a follower.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Words That Kill

One morning this week, while reading Mark 15:12-21, verse 16 caught my attention: The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters (called the Praetorium) and called out the entire regiment. Jesus has been tried before Pilate, and the soldiers now have time to have some sick fun with Jesus before his crucifixion. So that no one misses out on the “fun” they gather the entire regiment. I had not noticed that detail in previous readings of this passage. Did all the soldiers who were called up want to be there? Did they all enjoy mocking Jesus? Or were there those who were uncomfortable with the events but failed to speak up? And then, I found myself among them, the events of an earlier day flooding my mind.

I was with friends when some of them began talking about local news and politics. Displeasure with the actions of some of our leaders was expressed, accompanied by derogatory remarks. It certainly wasn’t any worse than what you hear in the media, but I don’t think anyone commenting would have made such remarks to the leaders’ faces. While I didn’t engage in the conversation, I said nothing to discourage it. Reading about the treatment of Jesus at the hands of the Roman soldiers, I realized that I was no better than they were. My silence did nothing to remedy the situation, just as their silence did nothing to end the abuse of Jesus.

We are told in Genesis that we are created in the image of God. Therefore, when I speak ill of another, I am speaking ill of God. When I mock another, I am mocking God. No wonder Jesus says these words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:22)

Cursing God was a big deal according to Jewish law, but Jesus reminds me that when I say ugly words about another human being it is no different than saying the same thing about God! Notice that Jesus didn’t limit this to certain people—so I don’t get a free pass to criticize those of other denominations, or no denominations, or even non-Christians.

However, should I be able to muster up the courage to speak up in defense of the person or group being criticized, whatever I say must be said in the spirit of love and gentleness, otherwise, I run the risk of murdering the offender, becoming an offender myself. Speaking the truth in love is not an easy task! Shane Claiborne, in The Irresistible Revolution  puts it this way: “When we look through the eyes of Jesus, we see new things in people. In the murderers, we see our own hatred. In the addicts, we see our own addictions. In the saints, we catch glimpses of our own holiness. We can see our own brokenness, our own violence, our own ability to destroy, and we can see our own sacredness, our own capacity to love and forgive. When we realize that we are both wretched and beautiful, we are freed up to see others the same way.”

If I can look through the eyes of Jesus, I can see God in others and in myself, and maybe, just maybe, I can honor and love God in them and in myself, and in so doing, not only begin to act more Christ-like but also begin to see the Kingdom of God in the world right now.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


If expectations were rocks, I’d have a sack so full, it would be straining at the seams! Sadly, it’s not the expectations of others that fill my sack, but my own expectations of myself. I overcommit and overschedule. I tell myself to go slow while at the same time adding another item to my to-do list. I expect to get things right and get things done—perfectly (or close to it) and on time.

Thankfully, God’s expectations of me are not as demanding. I’ve been preparing this week’s Sunday school lesson, and it is reminding me of that. Psalm 103 puts it in perspective: For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust. My own unrealistic expectations and resulting failures are met by God, not with condemnation, but with grace and love.

God is not into finger pointing and guilt trips. While we in our weakness make ourselves and others feel guilty and inadequate about shortcomings and failures, God never does. Jesus’ sacrifice proves that God is a God of grace, not guilt. Guilt separates us from God, causing us to focus on our unworthiness instead of the infinite, unending love God has for us. God is so in love with us that nothing we do can separate us from his love. Nothing.

I don’t think I should abuse God’s love by saying it doesn’t matter how poorly I follow the example of Jesus. A healthy awareness of my “dustiness” is a good thing, but not as a club to beat myself up with. That’s the reason for repentance and God’s forgiveness. Out of my gratitude for that forgiveness, I want to turn away from those behaviors that are incongruent with what I say I believe, yet always with the knowledge that growing in Christlikeness is a lifelong journey—a journey full of stumbling on the rocks of expectations.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Think Small

One of the lessons I brought home from my most recent week at the Academy for Spiritual Formation was to think small. Roberta Bondi reminded us that overcoming the behaviors that separate us from God takes time, a LONG time. In fact, we'll spend our whole lifetimes overcoming the things that separate us from God. This is something I really struggle with because I want to be different instantly, and I also want to do grand and glorious things for God.

For me to be content with small changes and small efforts is a test of faithfulness. Over the past week or so, I've felt God's message for me is that I need to persevere and pay attention to how he is at work in me and in the world. I have made some changes in my life to mitigate how my lifestyle choices oppress God's creation and my fellow creatures (human and otherwise), yet I know that I need to do more and I struggle to remain patient with myself as I make these changes. I am trying to celebrate the changes I've made, such as recycling, minimizing the use of disposable items and not purchasing meat raised inhumanely. The list of other changes I want to make is long, but beating myself up over those things not yet done is neither encouraging nor helpful.

I've just started reading Shane Claiborne's book, The Irresistable Revolution. Something he said in the introduction encourages me in my effort to think small: ". . . we live in a world that has lost its appreciation for small things. We live in a world that wants things bigger and bigger. We want to supersize our fries, sodas, and church buildings. But amid all the supersizing, many of us feel God is doing something new, something small and subtle. This thing Jesus called the kingdom of God is emerging across the globe in the most unexpected places, a gentle whisper amid the chaos." 

I realize that my own bias toward big, sweeping change is a product of the world I've been living in. Thinking small is countercultural, but it is consistent with the way Jesus did ministry. Yes, he fed two huge groups and made wine for a large wedding party, but most of his ministry was one on one, person to person. And he is still at work in the world, mostly in small ways. As I attempt to think small, I hope I will be more aware of the gentle whisper of God instead of being overwhelmed by the chaos.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Clearing the Field

For years, I have struggled to simplify my life. The desire is always there, but the results never quite measure up to the goal. It can get pretty discouraging, but I’ve become inspired by a bit of wisdom I learned from one of the desert fathers. This Abba told a discouraged brother a story about a man whose land was overgrown with brambles and weeds. The man sent his son to clear the land, but the son was discouraged and instead of working, he lay down and slept. This happened day after day. When the father asked the son how the work was progressing, the son replied that he was so discouraged about the size of the task that he could not make himself begin. The father told him that if he would only clear the place where he slept each day, he would eventually get the entire field cleared.

This story can apply to so many things in our lives. The brother who first heard the story was discouraged because his prayer life was not where he wanted it to be. But for me, it’s the clutter of my life—both physical and mental—that discourages me. So I am beginning to clear a small patch each day, and instead of looking at what remains undone, I am focusing on the small daily improvements I observe.

This process is forcing me to be patient with myself, not something that comes easily to me. But as I work at being patient with myself, I am discovering that I am becoming more patient with others. We all have our own “fields” to clear and field-clearing takes much time. Thankfully, God is patient with us all. The Old Testament is largely one big story of God’s patience with the people of Israel, who often spent more time sleeping in their “field”, or even sowing more weeds in it, than they did in clearing it! Their inability to get it right and God’s great patience with them encourages me.

There is still a lot of clutter in my life, but I am clearing a small amount of it daily. And I am grateful for the encouragement I get from the Abba’s story and from God, who inspires me with these words: Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin. (Zechariah 4:10) 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dirty Windows

It seems to me that I grow more aware of my own sinfulness the more I seek to know God better. Just a few years ago, I felt quite content in my "goodness," but now, it feels like I am constantly recognizing how inadequate I am. Yet this recognition is not a "beat yourself up" kind of recognition, just the realization that I have far to go in the process of living into the image of God.

I move between sadness over my propensity to fall short and rejoicing that God is showing me more of myself, warts and all. I really like the way Brian McLaren describes it in Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. In describing the ancient threefold way of purgation, illumination and unification, he uses an example I can understand. He talks about entering an abandoned and boarded-up house. First you have to remove the boards and clean up the windows. Once you do, you realize how dirty the place really is.

So I rejoice that the boards and grime are off the windows to my soul, because that was a big job in itself, and if I'm not attentive, the grime will once again prevent me from seeing the next part of the clean-up process. In acknowledging the filth within, I have made some progress in overcoming pride, so I am now better able to see how I really am on the inside. But just as the windows of my house need regular cleaning, I have to be vigilant against allowing pride to gunk up the view into my soul. And, just as cleaning the windows of my house leaves me with sore muscles, there is pain involved in recognizing just how much pride has blinded me to seeing my true nature. I am grateful that God doesn't leave me dirty!

Purify my from my sins, and I will be clean;
   wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
                                                  Psalm 51:7

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ripe Fruit

My garden is reminding me that fruitfulness is a process, one with stages that must happen in a particular order. Jim and I have looked for weeks for some fruitfulness from our tomato plants. We started them from seeds, and they have grown into nice plants, with lots of blooms, but no tomatoes. We finally spotted some marble-sized green tomatoes last week.

As a Christian, I am called to bear fruit. Paul even describes some of the fruit I am to bear in Galatians 5. Yet, just like the fruit in my garden, there is a progression that is necessary for me to be fruitful. First of all, the seed of God’s word must land in the right soil. In other words, I must be receptive. I have to want to hear God’s word for me. Seeds must get the right amounts of water and sunlight and have the right temperature to grow in. Likewise, I have to be watered and nourished by regular and daily Bible reading and devotional time. I have to be around others who encourage my growth as they are growing themselves. I need to be in worship regularly and in an attitude of expectancy and attentiveness. If I do these things with discipline and regularity, fruit will begin to appear.

The fruit I’ve seen on my tomato plants is not yet ready to eat. If I picked the tomatoes now, they would be hard and sour. If I go out to serve before God has prepared me, I will also be hard and sour. I will resent serving, viewing it as an obligation rather than a gift of love. There have been times when my attitude while serving was like my green tomatoes. I served, but I did not exhibit any love, joy or gentleness! I was self-focused and more interested in my own self-promotion than in serving Christ. I needed more time to grow and I needed to receive my nourishment from the body of Christ.

When my tomatoes are ripe, three things can happen to them. I can pick them and eat them. They can fall off the plant and the seeds can make more plants. Or they can remain attached to the plant until they rot. The least desirable option for a tomato is to cling to the plant until it is completely useless. If it falls to the ground, at least it will produce seed, which will produce more plants for a greater harvest. If it is picked and eaten, it provides sustenance and strength to the one who eats it.

It is here that the comparison of my spiritual life with a tomato makes me uncomfortable. For me to be fruitful, I can’t just stay ensconced in the church. If I do that, I will eventually rot and be useless fruit. Fruitfulness for me as a Christian involves letting go and surrendering to God’s will for me. His will could be that I remain close to the plant while producing seeds. Or his will could be that I am consumed for the sake of others. Both require my surrender, my obedience. God chooses the nature and type of service. My role is to be spiritually ready and joyfully obedient—ripe, juicy and sweet for God!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Loving God's Image

All that God creates is holy--set apart for him, to bring glory to him, to point to him. I often fail to see it, and to live up to my own holiness, but that does not change God's intent. How would my thoughts change if I were to view all that God created as holy--not just trees and sky and oceans but also mosquitoes and pigeons and skunks--and people, all people. For we, above all created things, are created in the image of God.

Before I let that go to my head, I must ask myself--does it show? When others look at me, do they see God's image? I expect it is much less visible than I would like it to be. I wonder if others would be better able to see God's image in me if I were able to see his image in each person I encounter, not just the ones I like, who treat me with kindness, but those who are rude, who don't believe what I believe, who break laws, who don't speak my language, who don't have the same moral values that I have. My personal opinions and biases must be overcome by the Christ in me if I am to see the Christ in others.

Where is it hardest for me to see the image of God in another? Is it in the poor, the rich, the illegal immigrant, the Muslim, the Christian, the liberal, the conservative, the persecuted, the persecutor? I am reading To Pray and To Love by Roberta Bondi. She examines the writings of the early monastics on prayer. She relates that the early monastics believed that being made in the image of God meant that we cannot see anyone or anything else as it truly is without seeing as God sees, which is through the lens of love.

She makes the point that we tend to separate reason from emotion, as though reason implies objectivity and truth, while emotion implies subjectivity and bias that are not reflective of truth. Emotion takes into account the individual circumstances of a situation, while reason does not allow for nonconforming reality.

Yet, if God is love, and God is Truth, then love is also Truth, and thus, we cannot know the truth without seeing the person and the situation through eyes of love. Reasoning would have stoned the woman caught in adultery, but love gave her another chance. Reason would have healed only the leper who was grateful, but love healed the ungrateful nine as well. Reason would have condemned those who killed, but love advocated for them to be forgiven.

Is there room for love, for seeing each other in God's image, in the political structures of our land? In the midst of campaign season, can we see God's image in every candidate? Heck, is there room for love, for seeing each other in God's image, in our churches? Or are we so consumed with reason that we have forgotten how to love?

Sunday, July 4, 2010


"To want nothing is the only possible freedom." -- Matthew Fox

As a child I learned this sentence from the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. These rights and others are important to us as Americans.

We are, all of us, loved by God, not because of anything we have done, or not done, but simply because he created us. He shows his love for us in many ways, but the ultimate way he showed his love for us, for all humanity, was when he came to earth as one of us to live among us and die for us. As a Christian, I am free because Jesus gave himself for me, using his freedom to secure mine. 

If it really is true that I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, how I choose to exercise those rights says a lot about who is lord of my life. If I exercise my right to live, be at liberty (not subject to anything or anyone), and pursue my own happiness, I am lord of my own life, a very American point of view. But my own self-absorption means I am not really free after all, for I am subject to my own drive for self-preservation and self-promotion. My attention is focused on securing my own safety and health, on guarding my rights so that no one takes advantage of me, and on pursuing my own happiness. The more tightly I cling to my rights, the less free I am. I am shackled to my obsession with myself.

True freedom is the freedom to be and to have nothing myself, clinging only to God and finding all my sustenance in him who created me. It is the freedom to give myself completely and totally to others because I love so much the One who created them and me. For me to be truly free, I put my need for my rights aside for the sake of others. I seek those rights for others by laying them aside for myself. Then I can live lightly, unencumbered by the need to preserve myself. When it no longer matters if I have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for myself, then I am truly free.

"Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus
who though he was by nature God
did not consider being equal to God
   a thing to be clung to,
but emptied himself
taking the nature of a slave
and became as humans are
and being as all humans are
he was humbler yet
even to accepting death
death on a cross."       Philippians 2:5

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tending the Vines

Lately, one of the pleasures my husband and I have shared is tending the melon vines in our garden. We erected a trellis for them to grow on, but they constantly require training to get them to grow on it. Their little tendrils reach out and cling to whatever they find--a piece of straw, a weed, or another part of themselves--but generally not the trellis! So each evening, we go out and gently pull them away from whatever they have seen fit to grasp, and instead wrap their curly feelers around the trellis. We want them to grow upward, but without our guidance, they just seem to go whatever way they choose.

In the same way, I think God works with me, unclenching my hand from the attachments that keep me from growing upward into him and his purpose for me. (Attachments are the compulsive conditions that rob us of our freedom. They can be material items or habits such as overwork, racism, or even spiritual practices that have become obsessions for us). I am grateful for the way his is pruning me, pulling me away from attachments that keep me from clinging to him, and training me to hold on to him instead. I have to let go of the weeds and straw in my life if I am going to cling to God.

Sometimes it's easy for me to let go, because he has prepared me in advance by showing me his better way, but other times I'm not ready to let go of the attachments. Yet even when I resist, God loves me too much to leave me where I am. He may gently apply pressure or he may more forcefully remove my grasp from whatever is keeping me from him, just as I sometimes must break a tendril off my melon vine when it is clinging so tightly to the wrong thing. When such changes are happening in me, I have a hard time seeing God's purpose in it all, but that's when I just need to abide. For while he may have torn me away from something I am attached to, he does not abandon me, but invites me ever more to cling to him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Going All In

The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) says a lot about how we often approach the church today. It seems they wanted the form of Christian life without the function, the appearance without the reality, the community without the commitment. Like them, we want to participate, but we want to hold back. We want to give something, but we don't want to give everything. We don't want to be totally committed to Christ. We want Spirit and status, Christ and comfort, God and glory. We want to be sprinkled in his blood, not dunked in discipleship.

Being like Jesus is just too radical for most of us. We are grateful that he went to the cross for us, but we don't easily accept that his sacrifice for us is the example of how we are to sacrifice ourselves for others. I might be willing to put aside my own self-interest for the sake of my closest family and friends, but I'm not too enthusiastic about sacrificing my interests for the person who mistreats me or for a complete stranger.

Whenever I keep silent on issues of justice for appearances sake, I am standing in opposition to Christ. When I claim to be devoted, but put conditions on my generosity, I am not living a life of love for others. When I am committed to self-preservation, I strip Jesus' sacrifice of all its meaning for me. I can't just dip my toe in the Christian life. I'm either all in or all out. I can't have it both ways.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

All God's Creatures

Then the Lord said . . . "But Ninevah has more than 120,000 people living is spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn't I feel sorry for such a great city?"             Jonah 4:11

Last year, one of my New Year's resolutions was to be a more socially and environmentally conscious consumer. It's a daunting task, because so much of what we purchase exploits some part of God's creation. One place where I've made progress (if you don't count eating out) is with the purchase of meat products. When I saw the news clips of "downer cows" being prodded along with the blades of forklift trucks at a slaughterhouse in California a couple of years ago, I resolved to purchase fewer meat products and, as much as possible, purchase only products from animals that were allowed to live their lives as God intended.

This past Thursday, I participated in a viewing of the movie "Food, Inc." One of the most profound points presented in the movie was that when animal processing facilities treat the animals inhumanely, they generally treat the workers that way too. I suppose that isn't such a surprise. If you can't look at a cow or pig or chicken as a fellow creature, it's a pretty good chance you won't see people that way either.

God may have given us dominion over the animals, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean that we get the right to treat them inhumanely any more than we have the right to treat the people who work in the processing plants that way. Jesus told us how much God cares for the animals. Matthew 10:29 says, "What is the price of two sparrows--one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." What must God think about chickens that spend their entire lives in complete darkness, that never get to see the sunlight and cannot run around and scratch like chickens do, because they are shot full of drugs to make them grow faster and out of proportion, and their legs cannot carry their weight.

What God created is good. I am ashamed for my part in destroying my fellow creatures. As a Christian, I cannot turn away from this inhumanity.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Spiritual Doldrums

Lately, I feel as though my spiritual engine is stuck in neutral. It reminds me of what happens when I'm traveling and using my GPS and there are no turns or exits or recalculating--just one long stretch of sameness. I have not felt alone or abandoned by God, but neither have I been the recipient of an unexpected revelation as I read scripture or pray or contemplate. Earlier this week, I read a devotional message that talked about looking for the secret joys of God, so I decided to take on the challenge.

With my secret joy radar turned on, I experienced the joy of driving down the road and seeing a yard filled with yellow flowers (others might have called them weeds, but since God made them, I chose to look at them differently). I watched a wren hop all over our patio table, inspecting everything on it. I savored the smell and taste of a freshly-brewed cup of coffee. I was awed by the huge thunderheads in the afternoon sky.

A friend of mine is in Swaziland right now and has set up a blog that allows us to keep up with her. When I logged on yesterday to read her first posts, I noticed a sentence she had written: What a glorious day. It was then that I connected the secret joys I had observed with my spiritual doldrums and realized that this day was truly a glorious day. Every day can be a glorious day--it just requires that I approach it with an attitude of expectancy, and an openness to see what God has already put before me. What a glorious day! What a glorious God!