Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #14: They will know we are Christians by our love . . .

John 13:34-35
34 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
Back in the 70s, we used to sing a folk-type song called, "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love."  We sang it at youth group, and we sang it in the mountains, sitting around campfires.  Once a youth group event got cancelled because of rain and we gathered in our basement, sat in a circle on the floor, and sang the song.  If you click on the link, you'll get the Jars of Clay version, which is far better than the monotone song we used to sing.

After we sang that song, we usually followed it with "Give Me Oil in My Lamp," another youth group favorite from the 1970s.  We added verses to this very repetitious song, and instead of just "Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning, keep me burning till the break of day."

Here are some of the verses I remember right off the top of my head:
  • Give me gas for my Ford, keep my trucking for the Lord . . . 
  • Give me hot sauce for my taco, let me witness in Morocco . . . 
  • Give me beans for my burrito, let me witness really neat-o . . . 
If you are from the 70s, I imagine you can share some verses I never even heard of.  I welcome them.  

The day we sang in my basement, we also sang California Dreamin'.  We liked the Beach Boys, and sunshine in California seemed preferable to snow and rain in Colorado.  I think an argument can be made for the spirituality of sunshine, but this is neither the time nor the place.  

My point is, we really didn't think about the lyrics, and we should have.  We didn't think about what it means to really love one another, and sometimes we weren't even kind to each other.  Lots of kids, myself included, felt totally left out.  And I don't think any of us knew that the song was based on something Jesus said.  

A new command I give to you.  Love one another.

Love.  Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
Love sacrifices.  Love submits.  Love includes.  Love forgives.  Love serves.

Love doesn't gossip.  It doesn't talk about what so-and-so did last night, last week.  It doesn't judge.  It doesn't hold grudges.

Love shares.  And by this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.

The converse is also true.  If we don't love one another, if we don't treat each other with love, we're not really following Jesus.  Certainly, we aren't obeying his commands.

In 1 John 1, John talks about what it means if we don't love one another, and the words aren't pretty.

7 Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. 8 Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining. 
9 If anyone claims, “I am living in the light,” but hates a Christian brother or sister,t that person is still living in darkness. 10 Anyone who loves another brother or sistert is living in the light and does not cause others to stumble. 11 But anyone who hates another brother or sister is still living and walking in darkness. Such a person does not know the way to go, having been blinded by the darkness.
 If we want the light of Jesus to shine through us, if we want to follow him, if we want to obey his commandments, we will love one another.  When we don't obey him, when we don't actively love one another, we aren't following him, and no light lives through us.  We walk in darkness, and we may not even realize it.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #13: The Foot Washing

John 13:2-5, 12-15
The evening meal was in progress . . . [and Jesus] gotup from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them.  "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet."
This passage from Scripture inspires Christians everywhere to wash other people's feet, a practice I generally avoid.  In fact, if I even think there will be a foot washing, I don't go to the event.  I'm not sure Jesus meant that we should literally wash one another's feet, and I'm not big on symbolism.

A couple of years ago, some friends and I escaped to a lake for our own private women's retreat.  We had a great time talking, playing games, reading, and enjoying the beauty of the lake.  And then, on the last morning, as we sat outside, looking at the glistening water,  one of the women excused herself, and when she came back with a basin and a towel, she announced she was going to wash our feet.

Another friend politely declined and went inside.  Since there were only four of us, I didn't want to make my friend with the towel feel uncomfortable, and so I stuck around.

This was my first "food washing."  As my friend washed my feet, I thought about how odd it was to have her touching my feet.  No pedicure.  Sloppy toenails.  Do my feet smell bad?  I didn't know what to say.

And then I thought about her heart to serve me.  To serve all of us. I thought about her willingness to humble herself before me.  Before all of us.  And I thought about her willingness to kneel awkwardly before me.  Before all of us.  And touch our feet.

And finally I thought about how Peter and the other disciples must have felt as Jesus knelt before each of them, on the floor, washing their feet, drying their feet.  I mean, they know he's God.  They know he is the master.  They call him Lord.  And yet, here he is, humbling himself before them, touching their feet.

And then I understood what Jesus is asking us to do.  Or at least I got a little better picture of what that might look like in our world.  And it has nothing to do with feet.

It has everything to do with humility.  With being willing to feel awkward as we offer service.  With doing the unexpected for others.  With caring for others, making ourselves nothing.  Choosing to serve and do even the most menial tasks.  Even if we think we're beyond those tasks.

And it also has to do with allowing others to come alongside us and serve when they offer.

Incidentally, I don't fault my friend who declined the foot washing.  Remember, I wanted to do the same thing, and if somebody offered to literally wash my feet again, I would probably want to find a way out of the experience.

On the other hand, I'm glad I felt too awkward to decline on that summer morning.  I would have missed this glimpse into the heart of Jesus.

And what else would I have written about today? 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #12: Death Leads to Life

John 12:23-28

23 Jesus replied, “Now the time has come for the Son of Mant to enter into his glory. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.25 Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.26 Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.27 “Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came!28 Father, bring glory to your name.”

Sometimes I pray with people at the altar after church.  You never know what you'll get to pray with people about.  Migraines.  Marriage problems.  A son or daughter who has stopped going to church.

A few years back I prayed with a woman who had lung cancer.  Of course we prayed for healing, but a greater concern at that moment was how to tell her husband that she didn't want to receive prayer and supernatural treatments from a Native-American healer.  And her greatest concern was that her husband and her sons would choose to follow Christ.  I prayed with her, for wisdom, for God's intervention in their family, and for healing.  I continued to pray for her as God brought her to mind and as I saw her name on the prayer list.

Over the years, as her battle with cancer continued, and as it appeared that she would lose this battle unless God intervened, her primary concern was her husband and boys.

At the funeral, her husband and her three boys stood arm in arm and worshiped God.  Two neighborhood girls who needed a family stood next to them and worshiped with them.  They are now part of the family.

A friend of mine reflected over this story on Saturday.  She has only known the husband since his wife's death.  I only knew the wife, and only because of that chance prayer encounter.

I shared my end of the story and rejoiced that the wife's most cherished prayer request had been answered, and I said, "It's kind of like the wife gave her life for her husband and for her boys."  My friend agreed.  "It's exactly like that," she said.

She gave up her life, which was temporary anyway, and in exchange, her family experiences the joy of knowing Jesus, now and for eternity.

And while I know she wanted to live, to spend more time with her husband, to watch her boys become men, I know she wanted her husband and sons to know God even more.

And I think most of us don't always get it.  Or at least I don't always get it.

Some years ago, and I think I've shared this story before so forgive me if you've already heard it, I fasted and prayed for my son Jason.  This was the beginning of our desperate cry for God to intervene in his life.  And I heard a little voice in the back of my head, asking, "Would you give your life for him?"  It was such a bizarre thought that I set it aside, not even thinking this was God asking me to think about something new.  Honestly, I didn't even want to consider an answer.

Several times, in the next few days, that thought popped back in my head. "Would you give your life for Jason?"

Finally I answered, speaking directly to God.

"That's not even a fair question.  And the answer is no.  Not unless I have a guarantee that it will make a difference.  Not unless I know he will turn his life over to you."

I knew I was reluctant to even make that concession.  Honestly, I want to live.

And this is when I knew it really was God speaking to me all along.  The voice said, "I gave my life for Jason. I love him more than you do."

The thing is, Jesus gave his life for all of us.  Without any guarantees.  He knew that some of us would receive his gift of life through his death, and some of us would reject it.

But he did it joyfully because "unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone.  But its death will produce many new kernels--a plentiful harvest of new lives."

When Jesus dies, his death produces new life.  When we choose to receive the gift of life through his death, we become part of that plentiful harvest of new lives.

I'm so used to this concept that it's easy to read this and move on.  Remember, I had a hard time saying I would die for my son.  This choice to die isn't easy for Jesus either, and he confesses that his "soul is deeply troubled."  Still he doesn't ask his Father to change the plan, to rescue him.  No, he says, "This is the reason I came.  I came to die so that you can have life."

He asks us to follow him.  "Those who love their life in this world will lose it.  Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.  Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me, because my servants must be where I am."

In case there's any question about what Jesus means in this passage, we read something similar in Philippians 3:.  Speaking of the importance of knowing Christ, Paul says, "I want to know Christ.  I want to know the power of his resurrection and I want to share in his suffering.  I want to become like him in his death."

We follow Jesus into death.  Sometimes figuratively, dying to our own desires and our own choices, and sometimes literally, like the woman at the beginning of this blog post.  And as we follow Jesus, God is glorified.  As we follow Jesus, new life is born. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #11: The Slippery Slope

John 11:45-48  Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus when they saw [him raise Lazarus from the dead]. But some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high councilttogether. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”

Are you kidding me?  Only some of the people who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead believe in him? Yeah, and the rest were so upset that they went to tell the Pharisees, the ones who wanted to kill Jesus.

What were they thinking?  How many times do they see a formerly dead guy walk out of a tomb?

And get this, the Pharisees don't praise God.  They don't question whether or not the report is true.  They conclude, "Man, this guy really can do a lot of very cool impossible stuff."   That doesn't prompt them to change their minds and say, "Wow.  Maybe this guy really is who he says he is."  No, instead they worry about what will happen if he keeps on doing cool impossible stuff.

They say, "If we don't stop him now, pretty soon everyone will believe he's God.  And then the Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our nation."

Talk about a slippery slope.  Who says one thing will lead to another?  What if Jesus actually is God?  (And for the record, I believe he is.)

There's no prayer.  There's no seeking God to find out what he wants.  There's no asking the Almighty One whether or not Jesus actually is the one sent to redeem Israel.  No.  Even though they're already living in an occupied country, even though their king is chosen by the Romans and not by them, even though they have to compromise certain aspects of faith in order to please the occupying forces, the Pharisees want to keep what they've got and they don't want to risk having it taken it away.

It doesn't matter what God wants.

And I know it's not from the book of John, but this story very much reminds me of something Jesus told his disciples, recorded in the ninth chapter of Luke.
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.And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?
Sometimes I think I'm more like a Pharisee than I want to admit.  Sometimes, instead of looking to Jesus, at his glory, at his plans, I try to hang on to whatever I've got right now.  Sometimes, instead of asking God what he wants, I chase after the things I want.

In giving up my life, my plans, my stuff--in surrendering them to Jesus--somehow I save them.  It doesn't make sense, but it's true.  And even if for some reason I don't see God move right away, what benefit will I have if I save everything that matters to me, but lose what matters for eternity?  

Mapping the Present - How did you get here and where are you headed?

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and had a very hard time getting back to sleep.  Before we went to bed, Duane set the thermostat in the hotel room and asked me if 69 would be too warm.  Let's just say I should have said yes.

Instead of sleeping, I had a lot of time to think about things.  I thought about the introduction to my thesis, what I need to do with what I've already written.  I thought about the literature review, the section that goes over the history of religion on the web internet churches and what other academics have said in the last 15 years.  I thought about how happy I am to be in school, teaching, researching, and writing.  And I then started thinking about what got me here.

I probably wouldn't write about this at all except that when I started reading Mark Batterson's Soulprint this morning, he started talking about the same thing.  How do we get from point A to point B, where God wants us to get.  Sometimes we feel like we're sitting on the sidelines, and sometimes it takes a long time to actually do the things we want to do.  Sometimes along the way we develop skills we don't think we'll ever need.  And those are the skills that actually help us do what we want.  But sometimes we get frustrated.  As Batterson says, "You know you have a destiny to fulfill, but the elapsed time causes you to second-guess yourself" (27).

And so after I read that, I decided to go ahead and map out how I got where I am.  Incidentally I haven't arrived yet.  I'm not exactly sure where I'll end up, but I've got a good idea.  Right now it's more about the journey.

I hope if you're reading this, you'll begin thinking about your own unique journey, where you've been, and where God wants to you go.  (By the way, I recommend Batterson's book.  You can get a copy from Amazon just by clicking on the Soulprint link.)

  • One of the first steps in my journey actually looked like a step backwards.  I got frustrated with God, frustrated with people, and started asking myself if being a Christian and going to church was really worth it.  Those thoughts scared me.  If God isn't real, then what?  We changed churches, found Newbreak (then Canyon View) and I started reading the Bible.  I pored over Scripture and because it didn't always make sense, I kept a journal.  I wrote down verses, paraphrased them in my own words, focused on the importance of specific words, and then thought about how these verses applied to my own life.  I didn't know it at the time, but it turns out that this is a major part of rhetorical analysis.
  • A couple years later, I discovered home school debate.  Immediately I though to myself that Kirsten should be a debater.  At that time, San Diego had no debate clubs, and fortunately I didn't have to start one.  A friend happened to have been a communications major started one, and I jumped on board.  Kirsten and I loved debate.  All the research, all the logic, all the writing.  Exposure to debate exposed to me to rhetorical principles for the very first time.  And it allowed me to work with high school students, critiquing their cases, encouraging them to develop strong arguments.  I love teaching.  I love encouraging students.
  • Probably five years after that, our worship leader held the very first worship retreat and challenged every team member to live creatively.  I attended a Easter service planning meeting, and accidentally volunteered to write an Easter drama.  The first draft, a biblical drama, was incredibly bad.  I was so humiliated to write something so terrible that I sat on the bathroom floor and sobbed.  And then I wrote something else.  Something totally out of the box.  Something that I hoped would appeal to a new audience, not of church people, but of people who only attend church on Easter.  Pastor Mike liked it and then I started babbling on about a Scripture passage that I thought would go well with the sermon.  When I realized I was going on and on, I stopped myself and apologized, joking that I like to write sermons in my spare time.  Pastor Mike laughed and asked, "Really?"
A few days later, he called me up and asked if I wanted to meet him at his office to go over some ideas about the sermon for Easter.  We worked on the outline and he asked if I might like to do that more often.  After a few months, this was a weekly event and then Sara Zeller joined us.  Together, we worked with Pastor Mike and developed creative elements to throw into sermons.  This opportunity allowed me to work with Mike to craft messages with specific goals.  How do we word interrogative questions?  What passages do we choose?  What connotations do words have?  How do we prompt listeners to respond?

I worked with Mike for nearly three years as a volunteer and then a year as his assignment.  I got to research what other churches do, with creative elements, with multi-site, with sermons.  I got to study the Bible with Mike and explore various passages in-depth, learning strategies of communication, what works and what doesn't work quite as well.

I felt like I was doing exactly what I was made for.  Except for sometimes I wished I was following and researching my own ideas, writing the way I wanted to write.

One day I felt the Holy Spirit tell me, "This is the last sermon series you're going to work on."  And then it was over.

  • After that I worked for Robert and moved into the business/HR side of ministry, working for Robert.  I focused on other types of communication.  Writing giving letters.  Writing business memos.  Writing a staff handbook.  
As long as I was writing, as long as I was researching new things, I loved my job.  But when duties       required administration, copying, filing, scheduling etc., I didn't like it quite so much.  And over time, the job required more and more of the things I didn't like and fewer and fewer of the things I love.  And so one day I scrolled through master's programs at SDSU, looking for something exciting, something to offer hope to a very bored woman, and I discovered the rhetoric program that would allow me to teach writing at the college level, a program that included all the things I loved.

  • Before that, though, one more thing happened.  My dad died.  There's something about death that reminds us that, well, we don't live forever.  It made me want to seize life and do the things I love instead of the things that I don't love.  It made me want to chase after something new, something that makes me me.  It made me want to write and teach and do research, all the things I love doing.  I knew my dad would be happy.  He would want me to do this.  

  • Oh, and then I changed jobs again and worked only 20 hours per week.  And then I got laid off altogether.  I felt devalued and rejected.  And I cried buckets.  And then God took care of the details and all I do is teach and write and research.  

So about ten years passed from the time I discovered debate and the time I applied for grad school, along with many disappointments, crushing defeats, and rejections.  I didn't include all of the disappointments.  That's a long time.  

Sometimes I wish I had gone after my dream right away and skipped all the parts I don't like.  

But without those things, I don't think I get here.  At least not with the same skills or the same desire to do well.  I don't think I have the same courage or the same confidence.   

And so I'm grateful for all the "giving letters" I wrote, all the memos, all the procedural sheets.  They prepared me to write things I actually enjoy writing.  I'm grateful for all the dinners I catered and the relationships I developed with people from multiple ministries.  That taught me to network.  And I'm grateful for the monotonous chores that I hated.  They made me want to find something else.  

I'm grateful that I didn't get to keep working for Pastor Mike, because if I had, I would never have had the energy to write.  And I would never have gotten bored and I would never have gone back to school and I would never have gotten to teach.  

One more quote from Batterson, and this is a good one.
God wants you to get where God wants you to go more than you want to get where God wants you to go.  So take a deep breath, enjoy the journey, and know that God will get you there when you're ready to get there.  Your current frustration will be cause for future celebration if you hang in there long enough.  So don't give up! (28)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To write or not to write lesson plans . . .

I'm not saying that I don't have talents and skills as a teacher.  It's just that I'm a much better teacher when I spend time reading the Bible and praying in the morning.  Then I'm relying less on my strength and my skills than I am on God's strength and his empowerment.

The thing is, the more I teach, the more I forget this basic rule of life that applies to pretty much all areas of my life.  I'm much more efficient when I walk with God as I do whatever I do throughout my day, when I spend time with him and make him my focus at the beginning of the day.

Yesterday morning, I ran out of time.  I had put together a fabulous Valentine's dinner on Monday night, and we had a really lovely time with friends.  But shopping and cleaning the house and chopping vegetables took pretty much the whole day, and I didn't get my lesson plans done.  At least not adequately.

And on Tuesday morning I felt exhausted.  Even though I woke up at 5:00, I moved slowly and I had to make a choice.  Read my Bible and pray--or make lesson plans.

I could hear the Holy Spirit speaking to me.  "Make time for me.  I'll take care of the rest."

And then I worked on lesson plans.  I really didn't get enough done--or maybe I was too tired--the reason doesn't matter.  I did a lousy job leading students through the discussion.  I got stuck on a controversial topic. I walked away feeling defeated.

I felt so defeated that I got on the elevator to go down, but it went up, and I walked down the hallway on the third floor before I realized I had gotten turned around.

I've seen this basic rule of life played out when leading small groups, when having tense discussions with family, at work, in social situations, so I'll repeat it.

I'm much more efficient when I walk with God as I do whatever I do throughout my day, when I spend time with him and make him my focus at the beginning of the day.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #10: Jesus wept.

Sunday School teacher:  What's the shortest verse in the Bible?
Sunday School attendee:  "Jesus wept."

And that's how I learned this verse.
Honestly, that's all there was to it.

Okay, maybe the teacher provided some context, but I don't think so.  It was all about trivia, and for years I totally missed the profundity of those two words.

Jesus spent his days surrounded by people.  They followed him everywhere.  Some of them hoped for a miracle.  Some of them liked to see sparks fly when he crossed paths with the Pharisees.  Whether he giving sight to blind men, telling lame men to walk, handing out bread, or telling church leaders that their father is the devil, they were sure to see something entertaining.

Some of these people "believed" but kept their belief quiet.  Others followed him openly and risked offending Jewish leaders.  Of these, he chose twelve disciples.  A few more became close friends.

Two sisters and a brother, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus fell into that category.  He used their home as a resting place when he passed through Bethany.  He ate their and sometimes he taught there.

And so when Lazarus got super sick, Martha sent a messenger to get Jesus.  After all, Jesus healed people all the time.  Why wouldn't he make a special trip to heal a close friend?

But instead of heading to Bethany, about a two-day trip, Jesus dismisses the messenger, saying, "Not to worry.  Lazarus isn't going to die.  This sickness is about giving glory to God."  And so, even though he really loves Lazarus, he decides to wait two days before heading to Bethany.

As usual, Jesus speaks in riddles and metaphors.  He says, "Okay, we're heading back.  Lazarus is asleep, and I'm going to go wake him up."

And his disciples, who are more than a little worried that someone will try to kill Jesus when he gets to Bethany, ask, "Why do you need to wake him up if he's sleeping?  Won't he wake up on his own?"

And Jesus responds, "When I say sleeping, I mean dead.  And because I love you, I'm glad he's dead because now you're going to really believe."

Sure enough, when they get there, Lazarus has been dead for four days.  Mary and Martha are beside themselves.  Mary's too upset to leave the house, but Martha goes to meet Jesus as he approaches the house, and she tells him, "If you had been here, Jesus, Lazarus would be fine.  This wouldn't have happened."

I think we can interpret this phrase, "Why didn't you come?  You've healed all kinds of people, people who don't even believe in you, people who don't even know who you are, and yet you didn't heal Lazarus.  You spoke three words, and the Roman centurion's servant got healed.  You didn't even have to go to his house.  You could have done that for us.  We're your friends!  Why didn't you do something?"

And I think we feel like this sometimes when Jesus doesn't come through for us.

But Jesus doesn't rebuke her.  He listens.  And then she says, maybe because she remembers that Jesus has raised the dead before, "Even now, Jesus, you can do anything.  God will give you whatever you ask for."

She hopes, but she's afraid to ask, that maybe something else can be done.  But Lazarus is dead, and she saw him die, and it's just too impossible to expect that Jesus will intervene.

Martha's grief is overwhelming.  She's talking so fast she can't even think straight, and Jesus gently says, "Your brother will live again."

And she says, "Yeah, I know.  In the last days, we'll all live again after the resurrection.  But it's so hard . . ."

And Jesus boldly declares, "I am the resurrection and the life.  Anyone who believes in me will live again, even after he dies. Everyone who lives in me will never ever die.  Do you believe this, Martha?"

I've heard these words so many times that I automatically think about Jesus own resurrection.  But basically, Jesus hasn't said, "I'm going to raise your brother from the dead right now."  He just says, Lazarus will live again, and Martha thinks it will happen in the last days.

And even though Martha mourns the loss of her brother, even though she believes Jesus could have prevented his death, even though she carries profound disappointment, she loves Jesus so much that she states, "Yes, I do believe all of this.  I believe you are the Messiah.  I believe that God sent you here."

And now Jesus asks Martha to get Mary.  He wants to see her.  And when Mary leaves the house quickly, the mourners from Jerusalem follow her because they think she's headed to the grave to cry and they want to watch.  In our world, we keep death at a distance, but death and life merge in this culture.  We might be in our twenties or thirties before anyone we're close to dies, but it's not that way for them.  They see death every day.

And when Mary sees Jesus, she falls at his feet and wails, "Where were you?  You could have saved my brother!"

And when Jesus sees her crying, when he sees her pain, he feels her pain with her.  The Bible tells he is moved in his spirit and is deeply troubled.  He asks the people to show him where Lazarus has been laid, and then he cries.  Jesus weeps.

I can't go to a funeral without crying.  Even if I don't know the person very well, I have to take tissue.  I cry for the family, cry for their loss, cry for their new life without the person who is now dead.

This is kind of like that, only Jesus is God.  And in this, we see God's heart of love and compassion for us.  He sees our pain, our disappointment, even our anger at the circumstances of life.  More than that, he feels our pain.  He understands us.

Jesus knows that in a few minutes, he will raise Lazarus from the dead, and so he knows it will all be okay in the end, but he doesn't say, "Don't worry, be happy.  It's all good--or at least it will be."  He doesn't say, "Hey.  Don't give it a second thought.  You know, all things work out together for good for those who love God . . ."

Instead he weeps. He knows us.  He loves us.  He weeps with us.

He weeps with us when we face the death of someone we love.
He weeps with us when we panic because of an illness.
He weeps with us when we lose our jobs and we don't know what God's going to do next.
He weeps with us when we wonder if our marriage will ever get better--or when we walk through divorce.
He weeps with us when our children rebel and we wonder what we've done wrong.  

Jesus knows what's going to happen next.  He sees the pieces and how they fall together.  He sees the resurrection, and he sees life.  But he knows we don't see clearly yet.  All we see is death.  And so he weeps.

We learn a lot about Jesus in these two words.
And we learn a lot about how we should treat other people.  

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #9: You are my disciples IF . . .

Lots of people believed Jesus.  At least for a while.  As long as he healed and gave out free bread.  As long as they hoped he might overthrow the Romans and establish Israel as the greatest nation in the region.

But that wasn't Jesus' plan.  And ultimately the people, many of whom used to believe in him, many of whom called out, "Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," yelled "Crucify him" instead.

It's funny.  Saying we believe in Jesus doesn't necessarily mean we want to serve him or follow him or obey him.

Jesus tells those who believe in him, "You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.  And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."  (John 8:31)

We are truly his disciples, or followers, when we remain faithful to what Jesus says.  When we pay attention to what he says, reading the Bible, listening to biblical teaching, praying, listening to promptings of the Holy Spirit.  When we love others.  When we show compassion to people we know--and people we don't know.  When we encounter annoying people.  When we forgive.

There's so much more.  We can never live up to everything Jesus says, but that's not the point.  We're learning every day to follow his teachings, to love, and to be like him.

Faithfulness to his teachings means we don't dismiss them when they're inconvenient.  When we feel like our rights have been violated.  When we think life's not fair.  When we don't feel like listening because we would rather live life our own way.

Jesus teachings contain Truth.  The kind of Truth that is always true.  Perspective that enlightens and liberates.  That frees us from captivity to anger and bitterness and fear.  That frees us from sin.

It's not enough just to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It's not enough to believe that he died for our sins and rose again.  Jesus wants us to follow him.  To hold faithfully to his teachings, to reflect those teachings in our lives.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #8: Light

Sometimes Duane and I drink "Sleepytime Tea" right before we go to bed.  I don't know if it actually makes us sleepy, and I'm not sure I really like the way it tastes, but the hot brew makes me feel all warm and cozy.  A few weeks ago I made two cups and started to walk from the kitchen upstairs to our room when Duane turned out the lights.  The living room downstairs went completely dark and I literally couldn't see where I was going.  Although I do prefer to see where I'm going, it's not that big of a deal. I can find the stairs, and I can walk up stairs without light.  And so I kept going.  This was not a great idea.

We had been puppy-sitting Cheddar and Duane had put the baby gate up to block the stairs.  It's hard to explain  what happened, but suffice it to say that I stepped on the baby gate, it started sliding, taking me with it, sliding down about three stairs.  I couldn't stop myself because both hands had mugs of hot steaming tea which I didn't want to spill on the carpet.  I also did not want to burn myself or break the mugs, which are my favorites.  And so I held them high, as level as possible, as my body began sliding down the stairs, on top of the baby gate.

It may have looked funny, but fortunately no one could see.  The lights were out.  I did scream, and Duane came running.  It was too late.  Despite my best efforts, the carpet and my pajamas were wet.   And I overextended natural range of motion in my right shoulder.  Several weeks later, it still hurts a little bit.

Duane turned on the lights and moved the baby gate.  We walked upstairs and drank the rest of the tea.

And I really do have a point.  Without light, we're all walking in the dark.  We can't see where we're going.  As long as things are familiar, this may not bother us.  Remember, I would have made it upstairs just fine if the baby gate had been put away.  But honestly, sometimes people leave things on the stairs so I could have tripped on something else.  I knew I would be fine--unless I ran into something I did not anticipate.  Which I did.  I'm lucky nothing worse happened.

We need the light.

Metaphorically--and prophetically--Isaiah speaks of Jesus when he says
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.  
John tells us in chapter 1 that Jesus' life brings light to everyone.  He says, "The light shines in darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it."

Light clarifies.  Light lets us see where we're going.  Light gives us new perspective on the way we experience life.  Who doesn't want light?

Remember, I didn't think I needed it.  I thought I could get from here to there without vision.
Remember, I was glad no one could see me.  I looked ridiculous.

Jesus says,
Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light.  It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.  (John 11:9-10)
Literally and metaphorically, we need the light.  We need the light so we don't fall down, literally or metaphorically.  We never know what surprises lie in store.  Physically, light helps us to avoid obstacles.  Metaphorically, the light (Jesus) gives us new perspective on obstacles that get in our way.  Sometimes we hear the Holy Spirit telling us not to speak or to take a different course of action.

Sometimes we don't even realize that we've lost the light.  Think about when the sun starts going down.  We may not notice the encroaching darkness.  Until someone turns on the light.  Suddenly we can see more clearly.  Or we start out including Jesus in our plans, praying, talking to him, reading his word, and then we get busy and don't even realize that our hearts have drifted away from the light and into encroaching darkness.

Who doesn't want light?

Speaking of himself, Jesus says,
God's light came into the world, but the people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.  All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed.  But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.  (3:19-21)
And so some people want to hide not just embarrassing accidents, like my fall up the stairs, holding two mugs as steadily as possible, but also questionable deeds.  Things they don't want others to know about.

In John 8, Jesus declares,
I am the light of the world.  If you follow me, you won't have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.  
I want to follow Jesus.  I want him to lead me out of darkness.  I don't want to fall down.  I don't want to trip on the obstacles that get in the way of living a full joyous life.

It's just that sometimes I feel like darkness surrounds me, and that darkness overwhelms me.  I can't see where to go next.  I can't see the future.

Where is Jesus?  Where is the light he promises?
My faith falters in the darkness.  I begin to doubt everything I know, about God, about Jesus, about what he says.

At that point, I have to continue to trust in the light.  This is the faith part.  And I know it seems backward.  I know it doesn't seem fair.  I just don't know what else to say.

Trust in the light.  Know that when the light dawns, and you can see what's happening, you'll see that the light has been with you all alone.

Jesus says, "Trust in the light while there's still time.  Trust in the light and you'll become children of the light."  (12:36)

I want to be a child of God.  I want to be a child of the light.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #7: Where is that man and who is he anyway?

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic--on the level of with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell.  You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Jesus is a hard guy to figure out.  I mean, who is this guy who goes around blasting the religious establishment,  heals lepers and Samaritans, and hangs out with so-called sinners?

He says God sent him, that he comes from heaven.  He claims he is the Son of Man.  He claims he is the one they have all been waiting for.

But is he really?  Everyone wants the free food he hangs out at large gatherings.  Sick people definitely want him to heal them.  Blind people hope to see.  So he must be good, right?  It's not good to ask too many questions.

At the Feast of Tabernacles, people looked for Jesus, and since they can't find him, they talk about him instead.  Quietly.  Just in case the Pharisees are listening.

He's a good man, they say.
He can't possibly be a good man--he's lying when he says he comes from God.
Wow! He knows lots of stuff.
That's because he's demon possessed.
Maybe he's a Prophet.
Maybe he's the Messiah, the one who's going to deliver us from the Romans.

Who does Jesus say he is?

  • I am the good shepherd.
  • I am the light of the world. 
  • I am the bread of life.
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life.
  • I am the resurrection and the life.
And what does he say about himself?  
  • I am from my Father--he sent me.  
  • Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.  
  • I'm going back to the one who sent me.  
  • Streams of living water flow from within me.  
  • I am from above.
  • If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.  
  • Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.  

 But this is all academic.  We can study what Jesus says all day long, for several days, all year long, and at some point, we have to figure it out.  Who is Jesus?

Is he God?  Really?  Is he our deliverer?  Our healer?  Does he speak words of truth that come directly from God?  Or he is, as C.S. Lewis so aptly puts it, a madman "on the level of with a man who says he is a poached egg"?

If he's God, if God really sent him, we need to pay close attention to what he says and follow him carefully.

If he's not, then there's no use pretending that he's a good man.  Clearly he's crazy or worse. 

Monday, February 7, 2011


I loved Pastor Darrel's sermon this weekend.  First, I thought he did a great job.  But more than that, his topic--authenticity--speaks loudly to me.

I am the woman who likes to look as if she has everything together.  I put this in the present tense because although my behavior may not reflect this, I'm afraid I could go back to that place very easily.  Sort of like those 12-step programs where addicts who have been clean for ten years still identify themselves as addicts.

At any rate, in the old days, I didn't want people to see my weaknesses so I kept a healthy distance from my friends.  And for a long time, I didn't make a lot of effort to get to know new people because they might get a glimpse of my true self.

I shared my faults--once I had fixed them.

And I'm sure that people knew I wasn't perfect.  After all, no one is perfect.  I just didn't want anyone to know my flaws.

Secretly I criticized myself brutally.  I could never be good enough and so I didn't take a lot of risks for fear of failure.

And my criticisms extended to other people.  Not able to give myself grace, I couldn't give grace to others either.  On the surface, I was "nice."  I had been taught if I couldn't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all.  That didn't stop me from judging.

And I just assumed people would just me too if they really knew me.

Basically, I had no authenticity.  You could also say I lacked love.

I've just finished reading Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer, so the ideas from the book still swirl through my mind, connecting with Pastor Darrel's sermon.

Spencer writes:
I love outbursts of honesty.
If you are a typical adult, you live most of your life in a world of carefully contrived presentations and controlled expressions.  You say hundreds of things you don't mean, and you understand that others do the same.  "How are things?" "Great! How about you?" "Oh, I can't complain.  Hey, let's get together some time."  "Sure, that would be great."  
Social conventions, corporate culture, and the customs of casual human relationships all require that we sacrifice a good deal of honesty.  We're expected to smile, nod, and utter glib and meaningless comments every day.  If you choose to undermine this social contract, you will stand out, and you'll pay the price for doing so.   From Jesus to Martin Luther King Jr. to artists such as Woody Guthrie and Derek Webb, honesty that gives the lie to the conspiracy of pretense is a risky ride.   
This might explain the appeal that religion still holds for so many people.  Religion provides a blanket of insulation for those who are happy to go along with the superficial social conventions.  Religion tells us how to act and what to say at life's difficult moments.  Religion often provides a script of polite, stoic, pious, and acceptable behavior to insert into moments of great questioning, pain, and disappointment.  You don't know what to say? Just read the card, and we'll all get through this skit called life.  (162-163).
The thing is, there isn't much "life" when you live like that.  There isn't much connection to other people.  And at some point, you'll shut down and accept that this is all there is, or you'll begin living a secret life that offers a little excitement, or you'll get serious about being honest and authentic.

After shutting down for a few years, I got serious about my God questions. I got serious about honesty and authenticity--with God.

And as I grew in my authenticity with God, I felt God urge me to start a women's small group.  I looked at the group as a Bible study and focused primarily on content, but over time I began to see that in order to help women know God, I needed to get to know them.  And in order to know them, they needed to share authentically.  And for them to feel safe sharing authentically, I needed to share authentically.

What a round about way to honesty!

I found out that my weaknesses and my struggles are more powerful in helping people meet God than any Bible teaching I can ever share.  Granted, I look at these struggles through the light of God's Word, but it's the story that makes the Scripture true.

Spencer claims that the "life of faith ought to be marked by walking in the light of honesty.  It's particularly strange when we talk about the realities of sin, confession, repentance, and the cross but whitewash it all in favor of the nice face of socially accepted, domesticated religion" (188).

We can't live out our faith unless we quit pretending, unless we learn to live authentically.  The problem is that authenticity is messy.  Lives are messy.  We risk being judged.  We risk being rejected by people who don't understand us.  We risk conflict.

We gain authentic friends.  We gain true fellowship.  We gain life and love.  We gain connection to other Christ followers.  When we experience God's love and grace through other people, we learn to give that love and grace away.  Spencer observes that
Christians, no matter what their big struggles are, have a commonality in Jesus Christ and the gospel.  We're sinners saved by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone.  Our commonality invites us to be distinctively ourselves.  Jesus creates a community with honest spirituality, with no reason to adopt a false persona to protect ourselves.  We all fit in what Jesus offers us in the gospel.  We are free to be real, honest, and vulnerable.  (167)
Authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability allow us to see we are not alone in our struggles or our sin.

More than that, once we see we are not alone, we challenge each other, encourage one another, and pray for one another.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Blogging for Books - Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

Last December I sat in the drop-in tutor office at San Diego State, waiting for students to come in to ask for help.  In a three-hour block of time, I usually see two or three students, and the rest of the time I grade papers, do homework, check facebook, and read email, most of which is junk.  (I enter a lot of contests.)

One email in particular was very interesting.  Multnomah Press offers free books to bloggers.  All I have to do is promise to write a review and they will send me a free book.  I can get another one after I post the review on their website.  Wow.

Sadly, it took me six weeks to finish the book and start the review, but I also celebrated Christmas, went on vacation, and planned a curriculum.  I would like to say all my time has been constructive, but that would be a lie.

At any rate, here I am.

The book I chose was:  Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality by Michael Spencer.

As an aside, it turns out that Spencer started a blog, which became wildly successful, which led him to publish this book.  And it also turns out that Spencer passed away from cancer right before the book was released.

I chose this book because Spencer asks a question I ask all the time.  Why do people leave the church?  Why do people who grow up in church quit going?  Why do people who start going quit going?  Why do people just walk away?

He begins with a few examples.  A young woman in search of spirituality discovered that people her age don't share her spiritual hunger.  They also don't seem to care that she is there. For them, church is about having fun.  Including making huge messes in a restaurant where she worked and then not leaving tips.

I know people who leave for those reasons.  No one reaches out to them.  Talks to them.  Church seems like an exclusive country club they can't get an invitation to.

Spencer notes that others feel politically marginalized.  They don't identify themselves as Republications, but apparently Jesus loves the United States more than any other country.  And he's a Republican.  Or he would be if he could register to vote.  And he loves free markets.  The freer the better.

And I know people who leave for this reason too.  They say that Jesus cares as much about feeding the poor as he does about saving unborn babies from abortion.  And they note that free market capitalism often takes advantage of the poor, who Jesus loved.

But these are not the focus of Mere Churchianity.  These are simply example of a failure to promote what Spencer calls "Jesus-shaped spirituality."

He argues that Jesus is largely missing from our churches.  Instead of focusing on who Jesus is and what he says, we focus on what our churches say.  He claims that "North American Christianity may have the distinction of having promised more of God and delivered less of God than any single act on the stage of church history" (62).

These are bold claims, and Spencer provides multiple examples that illustrate these claims.  I've been in church my entire life, and I see it over and over.  We judge people who are different than we are.  It's difficult to be authentic and transparent, about addictions, struggles with marriage, rebellious children, doubts, and failures to live anything less than a totally "victorious Christian life."

Spencer observes that churches promise friendship and love.
We think everyone else has those friendships.  And yet, we may find ourselves lonely.
We get afraid that if anyone knew us, really knew us, they would be disappointed.

He suggests it is easier to get involved in ministries and events than it is to truly seek God.  It's easier to jump into church-shaped spirituality than undergo the radical and often difficult life-church with Jesus-shaped spirituality.

And so, Spencer claims, people walk away from church.  Disappointed.  Tired of the hype.  Churches promise a lot.  And rarely deliver.  Most of these people still desire God.  They still want to know Jesus.  But the Church of Jesus Christ has failed to be a place to find him.

Spencer urges people to seek Jesus.  And to find spiritual community.  In the church or out of it.

I know people who leave for exactly these reasons.  But I know more that leave because life is hard.  Because life is busy and seeking God is hard.  I watch them come back, broken, longing for God's presence, longing for spiritual community.  They've tried it on their own, and they find that it does work.  For better or worse, we need each other.

Some of them never come back.

And so I see Spencer's book as a challenge to the Church of Jesus Christ, a reminder to keep Jesus at the forefront of all we do as a church as well as a challenge to let Jesus shape the way we do church.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Random Conversations (you never know who's listening)

I grew up in church and Sunday School.  I attended vacation Bible school (fondly known as VBS to church people) at least once every summer.  And starting about age 10, I always went to church camp during vacation.  

We didn't always read the Bible, but we sure learned a lot of stories.  And did a lot of Bible crafts.  It was fun really, although I suppose it might sound a little boring to some people.  

I'll admit that we skipped a lot of stories that frankly make teachers feel uncomfortable.  Like, I never heard the story about Jael and how she smashed a tent peg into a guy's head.  And I never heard the story about one of David's sons raping one of David's daughters.  And we never talked about Song of Solomon.  (I think Duane and I celebrated about ten years of marriage before I read that one.)

At any rate, skipping stories about sex or seemingly gratuitous violence means that teachers tell other stories multiple times.  Like the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people.  The story is pretty remarkable, really, but it's so familiar to me that I forget not everyone knows these stories.  

And I'm learning that I shouldn't assume anything.  

Today, for example, my friend Amy Hall and her boys brought food to the Santee Food Bank.  Amy and her boys are community volunteers extraordinaire.  I mean, Amy raises more money for her school and the community of Tierrasanta than anybody I know.  Plus she volunteers at her kids' school and works full time and volunteers for hospitality and children's ministry.  I don't know how she does it.  

But that's not my point.  

As part of a Boy Scouts project, Amy's sons collected food for the food bank.  And she had them study the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people.  I must say, this is a very appropriate story for a food drive.  They brought the food to the food bank today, and Duane gave the boys a tour of the food bank.  While they were there, they began telling Duane that they had studied the story.  They didn't get into a lot of detail, but one of the boys excitedly remarked that this story was actually recorded in three of the gospels.  Duane responded, saying that underscores the fact that it actually happened.  Three entirely different people recorded the story.  And then Duane commented that he wondered what all those people were thinking, leaving home without lunch.  

Now, Duane and the boys were still in the food bank during this conversation, and quite a few volunteers were working.  And listening to the conversation.  The food bank is on the church property, but it's not run by the church, and not all of these volunteers go to church.  Or know church stories.  

One volunteer asked another about the story--he'd heard about it before, but didn't really know what happened.  And the volunteer he asked didn't know so she sent the guy to Duane.  And Duane got to tell the whole story, including how much Jesus loved the people then, and how much he loves people now.  

And I think this underscores the idea that we can share our stories--and God's stories--randomly, all the time.  And we never know who's listening in.  And we never know how the stories will impact the listeners.  We never know if they know God.  Or they know God's story.  And we never know how God will use our stories.  

But we do know that he can't use them if we don't tell them.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reflections from the book of John #6: Crazy. Just crazy.

John 6:53-54 “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. 54 But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day." 

Really?  Really?  Honestly, I know Jesus uses symbols and metaphors, but those words make Jesus sound like he's advocating cannibalism.  

It's just that Jesus' symbols usually make more sense.  In John 1, John describes Jesus as "the Word," and although this sounds a little vague at first, it makes sense after you think about.  Later, John describes Jesus as the "light of the world," and Jesus uses those exact words.  And no, Jesus isn't actually a candle or a light bulb, but his presence clarifies things.  It's like someone turns the light on in your life.  

He's a little less obvious when he tells Nicodemus that he has to be born again, Nicodemus interprets the words literally.  As if he has to enter into his mother again and go through the birth process a second time.  If you think about that in literal terms, it's just weird.  And maybe a little gross.  

And when Jesus offers the woman at the well "living water," he isn't actually going to pour a drink for her.  He's offering her something to satisfy other thirsts in her life, like her longing for forgiveness, her longing to know God, her longing for peace.  Even the "bread of life," isn't so bad--until Jesus starting talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  

I don't really get it.  Not totally.  I mean, obviously, bread nourishes our bodies, providing strength and satisfying hunger.  As we draw close him, Jesus nourishes our souls, providing spiritual strength and satisfying our longings.  

Blood? It's life.  
I think.  

And at that point, my explanations just sort of break down.  We're not literally eating Jesus.  We consume him metaphorically.  And I don't know how to explain that.  Normally when I don't understand things, I can just move on, but like I said before, these words sound crazy.  

I think sometimes we get so used to the symbols and the metaphors that we don't even think about the literal comparisons.  And we don't recognize how confusing this use of language can be.  We're so used to some of these words, that we don't realize how crazy they sound. 

It's no wonder a bunch of his followers freaked out and said, "Yeah, Jesus.  No thanks."  

Sometimes Jesus says crazy things we don't understand.  And sometimes he says crazy things we do understand.  Like when he tells his disciples that he's going to die and come back to life.  Or when he says that those who love their life in this world will lose it, but those who don't care about their lives in this world will find eternal life.  

But back to John 6.  When some of the people start complaining about what Jesus says, he makes it even harder.  He says, "You think this is bad?  What's going to happen when you see me go back up to heaven?  And by the way, nothing you can do will earn you God's approval.  Human effort accomplishes nothing.  God's Spirit gives life.  And my words offer spirit and they offer life."  

And so the people start leaving.  

Jesus turns to his disciples and asks, "What about you?  Are you going to take off too?"

And Peter says what they're all thinking.  "No matter how crazy things sound sometimes, where else would we go?  You alone have the words of life.  We don't always understand you, but we know you.  You are life.  You are One we've been waiting for."

And I think I understand.  Once you've spent time with Jesus, once you get to know him, once you experience his love on a personal level, it's hard to walk away.  There's nothing like him.  

He's the exact representation of the invisible God.  He radiates God's glory and expresses his character in every way.  He's God.  

And I say it all the time, but I want to say it again.  We must pay much closer attention, therefore, to what Jesus says, even when we don't understand it and even when it sounds crazy/  We must pay attention and follow him.  Or we will drift away.