Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Do you know an Undercover Boss?

I love “Undercover Boss”! 


Because it tells me about Jesus.

What?? I didn't think it was a religious show! 

It’s not, but I think of it as a modern-day example of what it was like for Jesus to come to earth to live with us; and it teaches us about grace.

Let me begin again.  “Undercover Boss” is a weekly TV show that “follows high-level corporate executives as they slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own companies. Each week, a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their corporation.” (From http://www.cbs.com/shows/undercover_boss/about/)  When the show debuted a few years ago I didn't think I would like it because I don’t like to watch people being embarrassed on purpose for all to see (think “Candid Camera”).  But when I watched, I was amazed at what I learned.

If you have seen this show, you know the basics:  the executive or “boss” goes to several different locations under the guise of being a contestant on a reality show.  The “boss” tries to learn the various jobs that the front line employees do (and usually fails miserably…).  At the end of the show, the executive reveals his or her real identity to the employees he’s worked with and they usually feel very embarrassed (and mentally review how they've treated this person!).  The executive explains to each employee how well he or she has done and then gives an amazing and generous gift to the employees that is a complete surprise.

I have come to call this show my “Road to Emmaus” show.  Jesus left his “corner office” in heaven to see what the “front-line workers” were doing.  He spent time learning about what it’s like to live on earth, how to do what the “boss” wants us to do.  Finally, he walked along the road with his companions, the “front-line workers,” who didn't recognize him, learning about what had been happening recently (his own death and resurrection!).  When he finally revealed himself to his companions, they were blessed.

Like some parables that Jesus told, this show is not meant to be detail-for-detail like Jesus’ life.  Many if not most don’t line up, but it's the overall picture I've learned from.

What I see in this show is a weekly example of grace.  From the recipients’ point of view, they didn't deserve the amazing gift that their boss is bestowing on them.  They just work hard every day, trying to do their best and provide for their family.  To have someone (a person perceived as much more important than they) come along and pay their mortgage or give them a raise or promote them to a more responsible position or mentor them in their career is a totally new experience and to them unexpected and undeserved.

It is hard to receive grace that we feel we don’t deserve.  And usually harder when we know we can never pay back the giver.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Taking or Following?

In November, my introduction to this topic of the worship service began this way:

Do you see that there is a certain flow, a certain direction to the movement?  Coming in, receiving, and going back out changed.  It’s kind of like a hospital, a restaurant, or even a gas station.  We come in with a need, we receive what is offered (healing, nourishment, a fill-up for the car), and we go out again, strengthened to continue our life.  The purpose of this order in our worship service is basically the same: we come to church needing to know God, we receive the Word, we worship, and we go back out into the world strengthened, knowing God better and ready to serve Him.

We have come a long way over the months as we looked at the worship service, from coming to worship God as we are, to hearing His word proclaimed in a variety of ways, to responding in love, faith, and renewed commitment!  We came in with a need, we received what was offered, and now we are ready to go out again, strengthened—and known by God!—to continue our life.  We are ready to see how we can take our renewed hearts and spirits out into the world to share with others.

In the Presbyterian Book of Order, this final movement is called “Bearing and Following the Word into the World.”  First, we take (bear) the word (Word) with us out into the world, the word that we have received during the proclamation.  During the service, the Word begins to hide itself in our hearts and minds and spirits, like a seed, so that we must carry it out with us. What are some specific ways we can express during the service to show that we intend to integrate this Word into our daily life?

To sing a hymn of going into the world is the most basic way that almost everyone does this in almost every church.  We can also be asked to make an act of commitment to discipleship such as being reminded of our Christian education opportunities following the service or the small groups that meet each week.  What are other ways you think of?

But we also follow the word (Word) out into the world. The Word goes before us and leads us as we go.  During the worship service, this is a time to recognize those leaving our fellowship for further education, national service, or career change.  It can be a time of commissioning those who are following the leading of Jesus to go into the world to do short- or long-term missionary service or for those who have been led to get involved with specific corporate and/or personal acts of evangelism, compassion, justice, reconciliation, and peacemaking.

The service concludes then with a formal dismissal which may include a charge to the people to go into the world in the name of Christ.  It includes words of blessing, using a Trinitarian benediction or other words from Scripture, such as the benediction in 2 Cor. 13:14:  May “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”  This is one that I use most often.

I hope that you have begun to see that as we understand how and why we order our weekly worship service the way we do, it begins to inform our personal spiritual formation and inspires us to acts of service for each other and our community.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What is Your Response?

We’ve made our way through two movements of a worship service so far: Gathering around the Word in which we come as we are and receive the opportunity to be called to worship and to clear and cleanse our minds and hearts, receiving forgiveness; and Proclaiming the Word, as we hear the word read, sung, enacted and opened to our minds, hearts, and spirits through a sermon in some form.

Now, that we have heard the word and been moved by its power to change our lives, we are ready to Respond to the Word.

Our Presbyterian Book of Order says that, “The response to the proclamation of the Word is expressed in an affirmation of faith and commitment.” 

There are many ways that we can affirm our faith in God and here are a few:  the congregation can sing a hymn or other type of musical response declaring our continuing faith in God; we could say or sing one of the creeds, such as the Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed.  This is also a place where the choir could sing an anthem.

The congregation may also renew and express their commitment to God.  There are many ways to do that: by receiving of new members at this time; by the ordination and installation of church officers (elders and deacons); and by the commissioning for service in the church (i.e., Sunday School teachers for children and adults) and to the church around the world (i.e., sending members and friends to the mission field, whether long- or short-term).  Our faith in and continuing commitment to God may also be expressed through prayer and intercession, for each other in our local church and for the Church in general, those in distress around the world, and in our nation, state, and local communities. 

Our most common and frequent way to express our commitment is through the offering.  The thought is that when we hear God’s word proclaimed we are so moved by faith and trust that we want to offer to God our resources and ourselves so that His work might be done. 

There is a separate movement that occurs periodically in our service that can be considered part of the Response to the Word, called Sealing in the Word. It includes our two sacraments: baptism (including reaffirming the commitments made at baptism) and the Lord’s Supper.  These are also ways of expressing and renewing our faith and commitment.  They are in a different category, however, because they involve more than just us.  While the parents may present their child for baptism (or others may present themselves), God is doing the work of enfolding us into His family by His grace.  We respond to God’s call by presenting ourselves or our children but God does the work.  Similarly with the Lord’s Supper; as we come forward in response to God’s drawing us with His love, He renews His presence in our hearts and spirits as we take the bread and cup, His body and blood.

Looking back, as we have come to worship God as we are, to hear His word proclaimed and to respond in love, faith, and renewed commitment, we are now ready to see how we can take our renewed hearts and spirits out into the world to share with others.  We’ll take a look at that next time!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Main Course: Proclaiming the Word

In my recent entry of November 26, I wrote about the way we are invited into God’s presence as we begin worship.  What is the purpose of having the Confession and the Assurance of Pardon early in the service?  Why do we have a call to worship?  For the last few weeks when you’ve come to church, have you paid attention to how the call to worship and the hymns or praise songs affect your heart and spirit as you begin the prayer of confession and then receive the assurance of pardon?  I hope that your mind, heart, and spirit were cleansed as you gathered around and prepared to hear the word and meet God. 

With that time of invitation and preparation, we are now opened to receiving the Word—which happens in the next movement: “Proclaiming the Word.”  We have finished with the “appetizers” (that which enhances our appetite) and it’s on to the main course!  In the Reformed tradition, “Proclaiming the Word” could be seen as the primary reason we even come to church!

While gathering around the word appears to be more oriented to what the congregation does, proclaiming the word seems to be what the preacher does—or is it?  Let’s take a look…

In the Presbyterian Book of Order there are many suggestions of how to Proclaim the Word, all or some of which may be included in this movement.  First, as preparation for the reading, proclaiming, and hearing of God’s Word (and as a bridge between gathering and proclaiming), a prayer may be spoken or sung seeking the illumination of the Holy Spirit

Next is the time when the Worship Leader may read the Scripture lessons suitable of the day or the lesson may be read by the congregation responsively, antiphonally, or in unison.  Often, the Worship Leader reads one selection and the preacher (usually the pastor) reads the one introducing the sermon.

Psalms or anthems, and other musical forms or artistic expression which proclaim or interpret the Scripture lessons or their themes, may be included with the reading lessons.  A wonderful choir, Praise team, soloists and other musicians may share in this aspect of proclaiming the word!  Have you ever considered doing a dramatic skit or reading in order to proclaim the word?  Children can be part of this when they hear the pastor’s children’s stories.  What other ways might the word be proclaimed in our midst? There is an infinite variety of ways that the arts can be incorporated here in this movement!

If none of these other elements happened, I know we would need to hear the Word as interpreted in a sermon preached by the pastor (or other designated preacher).  The sermon may take on forms other than the typical sermon to which we’ve become accustomed (after being authorized by the session and the pastor).  What are some of the different ways you’ve experienced? Usually the proclamation concludes with a prayer but could also close with a time of rejoicing and praise.  It is appropriate here to call the people to discipleship, to challenge them to incorporate into their lives what they have just heard.

Wow—how do we respond to all this?  That is what we will look at in the next installment!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

“Living Life to the Fullest”

How often have you heard the expression, “living life to the fullest”?

I hear it a lotAnd when I hear it I think I know what it means, but as I think about it more, I wonder, do I really know what it means?

It is said as an encouragement to “get off the couch” and “live life to the fullest!”  “Get the biggest bang for the buck!”  It is said after someone has died:  “She really lived life to the fullest!”  A while ago I saw a question posted on Facebook asking “If you could sum up what being healthy means to you in five words or less, what would you say?” and one post said, “Living life to the fullest!”

Usually when I hear that expression, it is connected to people who go skydiving or live on their own island or backpack around Europe (or the world!) or go bungee-jumping at an advanced age.  These people seem to have a lot of money and no job they need to show up for every day.  So what about me?  I don’t even like skydiving or bungee-jumping or extreme sports of any kind.  I don’t have a lot of money and I have responsibilities here and now that I can’t abandon to go traveling around the world.  Does that mean I can’t live life to the fullest?

Then I got to thinking, what about people in India or Africa or Haiti?  Or the people in the poorest parts of the USA?  Can they live life to the fullest?  There is no way they can do any of the things I’ve mentioned!  They don’t always have enough food to eat or a dry place to sleep or clean water to drink—what about them?

And what about someone like Mother Teresa—could she have “lived life to the fullest”?

So doesn’t this beg the question, “What is life to the fullest?”

Didn’t Jesus say something about that? 

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 

Another translation puts it this way:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 

If we have abundant life, life to the full, does it matter what our circumstances are?  Can we be in Africa or Haiti or India and still live life to the fullest?  Can we still lead a quiet life and have it be “to the fullest”?  Can someone wheelchair-bound or otherwise challenged live life to the fullest?

What if they had a relationship with Jesus?

Do you? Are you living life to the fullest?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Crash Helmets in Church?

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
[Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982]

I love this quote!  Well, maybe not every word but definitely the middle part:

“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Wow!  What would that be like? Would we be able to handle it?  Would we experience this as pure power or would we experience God’s love?  Both?  Why don’t we experience this?

Something to think about…

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gathering Together

When we arrive at church on a Sunday morning, we don’t always feel ready to worship God, let alone even come into his presence!  Sometimes we are hurried and frazzled, having rushed to get ourselves and/or our children up, fed, dressed and in the car on time!  It can be challenging to feel prepared to meet God!

So the church provides a time of preparation, a time to ready our mind, heart and spirit to worship. 

Worship begins in “Gathering around the Word.”  In some churches, when people arrive they greet one another and there is an air of celebration and festivity.  In others, when people enter they sit quietly in prayer to prepare their hearts.  As the congregation is called together, the “gathering” elements include congregational announcements; a call to worship; a prayer of adoration or praise; a call to and prayer of confession; and an assurance of pardon.  Any of these elements can be done through the spoken word or through song.

But why this order?  Let’s see if I can illustrate.  One of my favorite television shows has been “Undercover Boss.”  If you haven’t seen it, this is the premise: the CEO of a large national company goes undercover to try the entry level jobs in his company to see how things are going and to get in touch with the workers.  These workers don’t know that the person working beside them is The Boss, so they feel free to say what they do or don’t like about working for this company and suggest how the company could improve.  At the show’s end, these employees are called to the company headquarters to evaluate this “new” co-worker.  But in reality, this is when The Boss reveals his true identity.  When the worker understands who this really is, one of the first things he or she says or thinks (you can tell by the red face!) is “Oh no! What did I say or do?? Will I be fired?”  After the worker and The Boss talk for a bit, The Boss proceeds to give this worker a gift, whether a promotion or raise, a spot on a national committee to improve some aspect of the company, or a financial gift to assist with their or their children’s schooling, for example.

For me, this is the perfect picture of the purpose of Gathering around the Word.  As we hear the call to worship and the prayers of praise and adoration which reveal to us the glory of who God is and what he has done, we begin to feel the full impact of what it means that God is with us.  And what do we say or think?  “Oh no! What did I do or say that God didn’t like???”  This is the time for confession

But confession is not the end—the good news is that God gives us a gift too: the gift of forgiveness through his Son Jesus!  He does not count our sins and misdeeds against us!  We are assured of his pardon.

And with that, our mind, heart, and spirit have been cleansed and are open to receiving the Word—which happens in the next movement: “Proclaiming the Word.”  For the next few weeks when you come to church, pay attention to how the call to worship and the hymns or praise songs affect your heart and spirit as you begin the prayer of confession and then receive the assurance of pardon.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Worship Service: “A Suggested Order”

Have you come to church one Sunday morning and wondered “Why do we always have confession at the beginning of the service?” or “Why do some people think the offering should come after the sermon?”  Well, you’ve come to the right place!  This is the first of a series of short articles, to be published in my church’s monthly newsletter, to answer those and other questions about why we do what we do during our worship service.

Since I am part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) I will be referencing our Presbyterian Book of Order.  It suggests five areas or “movements” in a worship service:

gathering around the Word;
proclaiming the Word;
responding to the Word;
the sealing of the Word; and
bearing and following the Word into the world. 

In my next several entries, I will look at what goes into each movement and what they accomplish in our mind, our heart, and our spirit.

Do you see that there is a certain flow, a certain direction to the movement?  Coming in, receiving, and going back out changed.  It’s kind of like a hospital, a restaurant, or even a gas station.  We come in with a need, we receive what is offered (healing, nourishment, a fill-up for the car), and we go out again, strengthened to continue our life.  The purpose of this order in our worship service is basically the same: we come to church needing to know God, we encounter and receive the Word, we worship, and we go back out into the world strengthened, knowing God better and ready to serve Him.  

In my next entry I’ll look at the first movement: “Gathering around the Word.”

Friday, August 27, 2010

Who, Me?

Jeremiah is not a book that many pastors preach from on a regular basis. I did a couple of weeks ago, and I found some wonderful ideas for us today. Let me make a couple of observations from Jeremiah 1:4-10, the call of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah grew up, the son of a priest, and from a long line of priests. He lived in Anathoth, a town that was all priests and their families. So I imagine he grew up thinking (assuming!) that he would follow in the family footsteps by becoming a priest himself. Many people from all different time periods assume they will go into the family business, some because their parents have talked about it and some, well, just because. But one day, Jeremiah got a call from the LORD who said, “I have known you even before you were conceived and from that time on, I chose you and appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” Wow! What a change from the plan! Just like Zechariah when he told the people gathered around him, that his son’s name should be John, he went counter to what was expected, counter to family tradition: no one in his family was named John!

I might also think that Jeremiah was being prepared by his father and even preparing himself to be a priest throughout his life. Now here he was in his early 20s, possibly getting ready to begin his ministry and the LORD speaks to him and tells him about these new plans. What is Jeremiah’s reply? “I am too young and I am not a good speaker!” In other words, “I am not the right choice; I am not qualified!”

None of this is a hindrance to the LORD God! The LORD replies to Jeremiah,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” (Jer. 1:7–8 NRSV)

The Lord said, “It’s not a problem that you are only a boy and that you think you are not qualified. You just need to go where I send you and say what I tell you. And no need to be afraid because I will be with you and will rescue you when there is trouble.”

So two (of several) things I see in this passage are: first, sometimes God has a different direction for us than the one we have for ourselves; and second, all we have to do is respond to God’s call; he will tell us where he wants us to go and what he wants us to say. We don’t have to be qualified!

Jesus has chosen us: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:16; italics mine).

Paul says we don’t have to be qualified: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5; italics mine).

We don’t have any excuses any more—and we have the love and power of God going with us when we follow him. Thanks be to God!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Longing and Calling

Recently, I read again in the gospel of Mark the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52). Bartimaeus is sitting in the street when he hears that Jesus will be coming along. So, he begins to call out to Jesus. When Jesus passes by, the people around Bartimaeus tell him to be quiet and not to call out to Jesus and bother him. But Bartimaeus doesn’t let that stop him. He keeps calling out all the more, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” I wonder how much I let myself be quieted by others and stop calling out to Jesus. It’s probably more that I shut myself up; self-censoring. I need to keep calling out to Jesus to (at the very least!) have mercy on me and my blindness. Bartimaeus was ready with a specific answer for Jesus when He asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said: “I want to see.” Do I have a specific answer when Jesus asks that of me? Do you?

Monday, April 26, 2010


I have just finished delivering a series of three sermons at the church my husband and I attend. What a privilege! But it was also a lot of work… I’ve begun to understand the necessity of a pastor’s living into the text he/she is going to preach, to truly experience its meaning before being able to encourage others to take it into their heart and make it part of their life. It’s a slow process; it takes time to hear the Holy Spirit speaking into my life, helping me understand the meaning he has for me in these particular words.

The process reminds me of how I shop sometimes. I get it in my head that there is something I need to buy, a pair of shoes for example, and I know generally what I want. So I keep my eyes open. Whenever I am near a shoe store I go in and take a look around to see if they have what I think I am looking for. Not this one? I keep looking. Not in a hurry, not frenzied (at least not yet), just seeing what’s available that might fit what I’m looking for. Eventually, I find the right pair of shoes and buy them. To someone shopping with me, it may look like an impulse buy, but they don’t know that I have been living with the idea of those shoes for quite a while, constantly looking, thinking, reevaluating my idea until I find the answer to my shoe needs.

Preparing just one or even a series of sermons seems to be a lot like this. I know the passage on which I will be preaching and I read it many times. But I also meditate on it; I roll it around in my mind and heart, looking for and beginning to savor its meaning. The meaning begins to come clearer the more I interact with it—thinking, praying, reading, listening. Just like my looking for my shoes, this can’t necessarily be accomplished in a week! I need to live with my “shoe concept” for a while before I find it!

This is ideal. I know that it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes I never find the right shoes and I just need to buy them now because I need the shoes now. But as far as it is in my power, I want to be able to shop, that is to read, to meditate, to study and to let the words (and Word) of the passage sink into my heart and spirit before I need to put fingers to keyboard.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Waiting and Rowing

Several months ago, one of my first entries was called “What Do We Do?” about waiting. I said that while we are waiting we need to be doing what God wants us to do, which is the work of God. And what is the work of God? John 6:29 said this: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Simple, but not always easy. When we think of waiting, usually we are looking ahead, to the future but not necessarily seeing clearly. Then I wrote, “Maybe what God wants is that whatever we choose to do, we do it with a believing heart, a heart that trusts God, that he is working through us….” So from this perspective we are moving forward toward what we can’t see.

This morning I read a short article by Skip Moen passed along to me by a friend. This article addresses waiting from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moen puts it this way:

“…if you are Hebrew, the future is ‘behind’ you. You are in the row boat, your back to the direction you wish to travel, looking at where you have already been. Your future is behind you. Your hope is what you cannot see. But your true line of travel comes from alignment with the past, what you can see, where you have already been. If you want to wait on the Lord, you must keep rowing in alignment with His past actions. Waiting is not floating. It is rowing. So, sit down and row. Be active in your waiting. Secure what lies behind you by putting your oars in the water in line with God’s wake.”

Anyone who has rowed a small boat knows that you pick a spot on the horizon that you are facing and keep that in front of you. That helps you keep the boat aimed at the right place on the other shore. As you guide by that landmark in front of you, you know you will get to the spot on the other side without having to turn around and look constantly for the right place to land.

Aren't we are looking at two sides of the same coin here, so to speak? Believing in “the one he has sent” involves knowing who he is, and from this side of the cross, we can only know who he is by looking back at his life through the Scriptures, both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. We can keep moving toward the future as we align our movement with what we know of the faithfulness and power and goodness of God. We will get to where he wants us because we will know him better.

“If you want to wait on the Lord, you must keep rowing in alignment with his past actions.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where Have I Been?

“Thoughts on Theology, Ministry, and the Arts.” I’m finding that’s a taller order than it seems! But I’m not giving up on it.

I haven’t written in a while because I haven’t known what to write. It seems like life has taken up a lot of my time and thoughts—but isn’t that what theology and ministry is about? Life? Where does Jesus meet us when life gets too hard—or too easy, or too full, or too empty, or too confusing, or too stressful, or too fast, or too slow? These are the times that test us (me) because that’s when I lose sight of Jesus. And when I lose sight of Jesus I don’t think theologically; I think selfishly, usually. According to dictionary.com, “theological” means “based upon the nature and will of God as revealed to humans.” I forget about how the nature of God and the will of God need to encompass and direct my life and I take over, trying to protect and defend what I think is essential.

So how does one think theologically? To me thinking theologically is about looking at life from God’s point of view. Where is God in this situation? What has he already started here? Where do I fit in with what he has already started? Obviously, one can only answer those questions specifically when there is a specific situation as a frame of reference. Thinking theologically means that I need to take myself out of the center and look at life—my life and life in general—with God at the center.

Doing that consistently is another part of our life-long relationship with Jesus. He keeps working in our hearts and minds as we keep welcoming him in.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Motivation to Change

"You and I need to find out what, in the name of Christ, is big enough to move us forward and overcome our own barriers to change. It may be our spiritual gift; it may be forgiveness; it may be our new identity in Christ, it may be a missionary call... whatever it is, real transformation isn't going to happen until we are in its grip. For Christ, it was 'the joy set before him' that compelled him to endure the cross and its shame (Hebrews 12:2).

What will it be for you that will transform you so much that it affects what you do and say? What will it be for me?"

I read this entry Monday morning in a daily devotional email I receive from John Fischer. It really got me thinking because I can sometimes find it challenging to move forward especially when the way forward is not very clear. It got me thinking about how God guides us--or me in particular. In the past he has given me a push with a lost job or with a lost relationship. Sometimes it has been with a need in a church I'm attending or someone asking me to participate in a ministry at the church.

Then later in the day I listened to the daily installment from another great meditational website called "Pray As You Go". The reading was 1 John 3:21-4:1 (I've included it here from The Message but it was read from the NIV). They were talking about our desires and why we act or don't act on them. In this selection John talks about testing the spirits and being bold before God when our hearts do not condemn us. He mentions that God gives us what we ask for if we obey his commandments and love one another. One of the questions for mulling over was: how do we test the spirits when we get an urge or desire? How do we know that this desire is from God or not?

What an interesting juxtaposition, interesting that I would receive these two thoughts on the same day. First, I am asked to consider what gets me growing; what will it take to get me going in a direction that is positive and beneficial and growing with God; and at the same time asking how will we know that this "push" is of the Spirit? I've been wondering about this a lot because I am waiting for God to call me to a church to serve as a pastor. The desire is there and I believe it is from the Spirit, but when things don't happen on the time-table I expect, I begin to wonder. Is this really of the Spirit or did my desire just overwhelm me?

The "secret" comes in 3:22 of John's letter. He says that we "receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him." If we are living in his light and in his love, we will receive whatever we ask from God because we are living in sync with his will. If we are doing what he asks us to do, our desires are going to be in line with his. That sounds so simple, but it is not; it is the whole Christian life.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

Every year I look forward to New Year’s. To me, it means a fresh start; I can, as it were, wipe the slate clean and start new with the things I know I should be doing. With a big, obvious, starting-over date like this it is a bit easier to make up one’s mind to get started with a new routine or habit. Like getting enough exercise or reading the Bible every day and completing it in a year; like making a plan to pray every day or maybe more than one specific time a day.

In a way, every day is a type of New Year. Our slate is wiped clean every day. Actually, it has been wiped clean once and for all; we just have to remember to avail ourselves of that fact. As we keep enjoying God, talking with him and worshiping him every day, we keep becoming more like him each day. Even if (when!) we fall short of that, when we are disobedient and do the things that go against God’s wishes, he is still forgiving and our slate will be wiped clean at that moment.

So I hope everyone will remember that they have a clean start every day. We don't have to wait for the New Year to roll around.

As 2010 appears on the horizon, I wish you an amazing new year full of love and growth in Him!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blessed are the Pure in Heart…

For the last few weeks I have been in a small group that has been studying the Beatitudes. Recently we were discussing this verse: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). What does it mean to be “pure in heart” and what does it mean to “see God”?

Initially, it brought to mind my blog entry from back in September when I wrote about God speaking to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” from Exodus. Was Moses pure in heart and that’s why he was able to see God?

Then I also remembered some of my thoughts about weeds in our gardens. How can we be pure in heart with so many weeds trying to distract us? Do we get rid of the weeds once and forever? Or do we pull thorns up as they come up? Does it make a difference?

I realized that it relates to David as well. Acts says that God “testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do’” (Acts 13:22). But did he? Didn’t he do many sinful things? In another group we have been looking at 1 Samuel, and our most recent study considered Saul. In chapter 15 Saul was told by God through Samuel to wipe out all the Amalekites: the king, all the men, women, children, and servants, as well as all the animals. Saul chose not to follow through with the exact plan that God told him to do; he chose to alter that plan to fit his own specifications. Saul chose to let the king live and he kept some of the animals alive in order to sacrifice them to God. The main problem with that choice is that he never took responsibility for it. When Samuel confronted Saul, saying “Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?” (15:19) Saul replied, “But I did obey the Lord… I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag the king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder….” (15:20). Not only did he not take responsibility for not completely obeying the Lord, but he didn’t even recognize that he had been disobedient!

In contrast, David recognized that he had sinned against God, took responsibility for having done wrong, and confessed them to God. In that sense he was pure in heart and he saw God. He recognized God’s movement in his life and in the world, and his relationship with God grew. Look at all the psalms he wrote: ones expressing sorrow over having done wrong (see Psalm 51); ones delighting in the Lord and in his power and mercy (see Psalm 37); and expressing praise and thankfulness (see Psalm 103).

So, pure in heart is not perfection; it is keeping “short accounts” with God, always keeping in touch with him, and letting the Holy Spirit work in your—and my!—spirit to lead us into a closer relationship and desire to follow him.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hide and Seek

(This is a short devotional I wrote for the Advent Devotional guide my church publishes every year. We use the daily Scripture texts from The Book of Common Prayer, and my selection is for Sunday, December 20, 2009.)

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ ” Genesis 3:8, 9

When we played “hide and seek” as kids, the whole point of the game was to not be found. We wanted the “seeker” to take a long time to find us; we wanted to win the game by being the last one found. On the other hand, we also didn’t want to go too long without being found—we didn’t want the others to forget about us! We didn’t (and still don’t) want to be abandoned!

Sometimes, not only as children but also as adults, we hide because we are afraid. Maybe we’ve done something to make someone mad, to upset someone, and we are afraid of how they’ll react—we don’t want to be yelled at or punished! Maybe I know I’ve done something wrong, and I’m afraid something bad is going to happen as a result. In these verses in Genesis, “the man and his wife,” Adam and Eve, know they have done something wrong (see Gen. 3:7) and they are afraid because they listened to the serpent. They aren’t sure what’s going to happen to them.

Today, we can take comfort in the fact that God is still looking for us; he’s still pursuing us. It’s not that he doesn’t know where we are, but rather that he wants us to come to him, to reveal ourselves to him so that we can have a relationship with him again. At this Christmas season we remember that God is actively seeking us because he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to pursue us, to reveal God himself to us, to clear the way for us back to a relationship with God. Let’s celebrate his seeking us still.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Do You Have Weeds in Your Garden?

One of my favorite parables is the one about the Sower and the Four Soils (Mark 4:1-20). It is a parable that captures our imagination with its sights (the Sower scattering the seed, the vast field with the varieties of soil), sounds (the wind blowing, the birds calling, the seeds falling on the ground), textures (the seeds, the dirt), even tastes.

The Sower goes out one day and scatters seed in the field; and the seed falls on four types of soil: the hard-packed path; the shallow soil with rocks; the soil filled with thorns and weeds; and the good soil that produces an abundant crop. As Jesus explains, the seed is the Word of God and the four types of soil are four different conditions of our hearts. Our hearts being in different conditions of receptivity take in the seed in different ways.

I know I have experienced some of each type of soil in my heart, sometimes in succession, sometimes all at once. There are times when my heart is like the hard-packed soil of the path. Whatever it is, I’ve heard it enough times and I become hardened so that when God speaks to me, nothing gets through. What God has said gets ignored and nothing grows. There are times when I hear the Word and I get excited about it, but when I need to live it out, that situation becomes more challenging than anticipated and the little plant wilts. Sometimes, I let my responsibilities overwhelm me. I focus more on how I am going to get everything done instead of praying and asking God to guide me and show me ways that I never would have dreamed up myself; the good word that I’ve heard and the ministry God has asked me to do gets choked out by my worry, and any fruit produced is pretty shriveled and dry. And finally, there are the times when everything goes just right: I hear the Word, the soil of my heart is well-turned and soft, ready to receive the seed; the Holy Spirit does all the feeding and watering necessary, and a good crop is produced.

My observation has been that an awful lot of Christians are like the third soil in the parable, the soil filled with the thorns and weeds that choke the seed which never gets a chance to really take hold and grow. We are choked by the cares and responsibilities of our lives. As adults, we have our jobs that take a lot out of us each day; we have to make sure the bills get paid, that our children get to school and do well and stay out of all the trouble it’s possible to get into these days; we have to keep up with the car payments and the boat payments and the mortgage payments for our home (maybe even a vacation home or time-share). We have to get our children to soccer practice, swimming lessons, ballet lessons, piano lessons, after-school tutoring to help get them into the right college—and none of that is free, either. We have so many things going that we don’t have time or space to let the seed planted in our hearts grow. There is lots of noise and distractions; there are so many things competing for our time and attention—sometimes they are legitimate things—that we just seem to let God, who is forgiving and understanding, wait while we “stand him up.”

I find that so many Christians don’t take (make?) the time to read let alone study the Bible. It has been said a lot but the Bible is truly a love letter from God to us, intended to draw us, the readers, to the Writer. If we ignored our spouse, our children, or our friends as much as we ignore God we would be pretty alone in the world! We all need to ask the Sower to weed our gardens, to turn over the soil, so that it will be soft and ready to receive the good seed which will then produce the fruit that the world needs.

And he will do it!

Monday, October 12, 2009


I’ve just finished reading a book by Gordon MacDonald called Who Stole My Church? A very thought-provoking book! I ordered it on the recommendation of Bryan Burton on his blog in an entry posted in August. The description on the back cover of the books says: “Who Stole My Church? is a fictional story that reflects the all-too-real situation of many church communities today, where loyal and long-standing members can feel pushed aside by the new demands of evangelism in the twenty-first century.” I was intrigued because I have felt this way sometimes.

The focus of the book is a journey with a group of “loyal and long-standing members” in their fifties and up as they discuss with the pastor their fears and concerns about the changes happening in the church. Music changes; technological changes; changes in the style of dress; all this is happening a little too fast for some of these folks. This group makes some great progress in understanding change and why the younger people want to make these changes, and the book handles that well. It does address the topic of helping the younger worship team to understand why these “long-standing members” are resistant to change and how to address their “worship needs” but I wish it had been developed a little more.

Change in the church is necessary. The church needs to speak in a language common to its surroundings. If I moved to France, I would enjoy myself and have more success in understanding and working within the culture if I learned to speak French. In the same way the church needs to learn the language of the people around it. Just as some of the vocabulary of the French language changes periodically, so the vocabulary of the church needs to change periodically. Not completely, and certainly not the message, but as the culture around us changes we need to be able to modify our language and communicate the message of Jesus.

It’s not that I object to change, but change is a process, not an overnight event with no preparation or explanation. It seems to me that pastors and leaders need to talk about change a lot with the congregation ahead of time, planting seeds in the minds and hearts of the people so they might be ready for the change when it happens. Changing the course of a church is more like steering a cruise ship rather than a ski boat. Churches can’t turn on a dime, especially if you don’t want it to tip over! Many churches desire to be intergenerational and to be that, the leadership must be considerate of all the generations.

Often, the solution to this need for change is to have two services with completely different styles (i.e. “traditional” with organ and hymns and “contemporary” with guitar and praise songs). I have found that having two different services generally does not encourage unity, but could easily promote a feeling of “us and them” (us vs. them?). This may often mean that if I’m not able to attend the service I prefer on a particular Sunday, I have an easy excuse for just not going at all because I don’t like the style of the other service. Having two services that are the same enables (and encourages) members of the congregation to attend either service. There is more likelihood then that the church has one unified congregation rather than two (possibly) competing ones.

This may instigate a big discussion about music styles and use of technology (i.e. Whose style takes precedence which week? Isn’t that just going to create a service that isn’t “satisfying” or worshipful to anyone? etc.), but my suggestion is that the teaching from the pastor and leaders over the years promote understanding and acceptance of change; consideration, kindness, thoughtfulness, and acceptance must be shown to all members of the Body of Christ, both young and old.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Face to Face

The other morning I read a devotional about Moses and God by Mark Roberts, the senior director of Laity Lodge. The verse being discussed is Exodus 33:11:

Inside the Tent of Meeting, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting.

The phrase describing how the Lord spoke to Moses—“face to face, as one speaks to a friend”—caught my attention. It highlights the intimate quality of the conversation between God and Moses, not that Moses could literally see the face of God. That is certainly what I long for! I want to have that intimate conversation with God, not necessarily literally face to face, but certainly with that confidence and trust and openness. The idea of meeting God and having a conversation as one speaks to a friend certainly feels more welcoming to me than coming before a teacher or a judge or the King of the Universe! I feel more relaxed when I pray if I think of God as a friend; it helps release the feeling of being judged or criticized, that I will find out all the things I have done wrong recently. Definitely, God is not our “buddy”—God is still “God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” but God wants us to come to him without fear and experience his love for us. Psalm27:8 says it this way: “When You said, ‘Seek my face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek’” (NASB).

When I speak to a friend face to face and not just over the phone or by email, I do that because I want to have time to find out about my friend, how she’s doing, how she’s feeling. I want to spend time with that friend, not shopping, not reading, not watching a movie, but finding out what is going on in my friend’s life. I want to be able to pay attention to my friend and have a good conversation with my friend. To think that God, the Lord of the universe, “Creator of all that is seen and unseen,” might want to speak to me face to face! And didn’t he, in the form of Jesus?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Do We Do?

Waiting. We usually don’t like to do it, even when we know what is at the end of that waiting time. But that seems to be most of our Christian lives. We live our lives waiting for God to do something. We wait for him to answer our prayers. We wait for him to make the world better. We wait for him to show us who we are supposed to marry or what job or career we are supposed to have or what house we are supposed to buy. We’re always wondering what we are supposed to do.

Even the disciples asked Jesus that question. In the Gospel of John, Jesus had just fed the Five Thousand and walked across the lake to the other side when the disciples discovered him. When they asked him how he got here, he responded,

“I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:26-27)

He is saying here that the people following him are here because they are looking for something to eat; they are looking for immediate gratification. They don’t realize that he just fed 5,000 people (at least!) with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They just know they got something to eat: “You ate the loaves and had your fill.”

Jesus goes on to say that they should look beyond the food that spoils; they should look to the bigger picture, to what “endures to eternal life.” That really confused them! If you don’t think we should work for food that spoils, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28) They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what it is. Isn’t that what we ask when we are waiting? “OK God, what do you want me to do? I can’t just sit here!”

Look what Jesus says: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). What?? Is that all?? All I have to do is believe? What does that mean? Do I just sit around all day saying, “I believe in God, I believe in God”? I want to know what to do! Maybe what God wants is that whatever we choose to do, we do it with a believing heart, a heart that trusts God, that he is working in us and through us, and that his will is being done as long as we do it trusting in his power and love.

So maybe we are supposed to be who God wants us to be and the doing will come as a result. Then maybe it will seem less like waiting.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Being Focused

“I dare not urge you to your Cross. But He, more powerfully, speaks within you and me, to our truest selves, in our truest moments, and disquiets us with the world’s needs. By inner persuasions He draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing his burdens in us. And He gives us the royal blindness of faith, and the seeing eye of a sensitized soul, and the grace of unflinching obedience. Then we see that nothing matters, and that everything matters, and that this my task matters for me and for my fellow men and for Eternity.”

—Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

This is the opening quote in a lesson from a small group Bible study I've been leading on Heart Renewal. This particular lesson is called “The Renewal of Focus.”

I wonder if this quote is what inspired Frederick Buechner to say (and I’m paraphrasing) that our calling is where our deepest desires coincide with the world’s deepest needs; that’s what I hear Thomas Kelly saying here. God disturbs our comfort and complacency, the deep part of our hearts, with the world’s needs. When we are feeling uncomfortable, for example, seeing children, not only in Africa, but in our own hometowns, not having enough to eat, we should pay attention to that inner voice. When we feel unhappy or concerned that a particular group of people, for example, artists or women or singles, aren’t being treated well, especially by the church, we should pay attention to that inner discomfort.

It is not just our being disquieted or disturbed by the world’s needs. The very next sentence says that “He draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing his burdens in us.” I love that idea! They really aren’t our burdens, are they? They are God’s burdens that He is willing to share with us. It reminds me of Ephesians 2:10 which says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (NASB). If we let Him, God will let us in on the work He wants done. He knows the situation and has prepared it and us to meet up—that is, if we are willing to let God lead us.

I have been using the word “we” here a lot, and I very definitely include myself in that we. I also need to keep my own focus on God, on the disturbances He puts in my heart, and on following the way He leads.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Holy Discontent

I’ve been leading a women’s Bible Study at the church my husband and I attend in Redmond, WA. It’s not a complicated study nor does it appear very deep when one first looks through the guide itself. It is a study called Heart Renewal: Finding Spiritual Refreshment (currently out of print). Initially I thought it would be a “light” study, one that the women could benefit from without necessarily putting a lot into. It utilizes texts from various places in the Bible rather than going through one book, so it just didn’t seem like it would be that taxing. With lots of other summer activities, I wanted to “lure” the women to this study by promising them it wouldn’t be that hard—what about “refreshment” doesn’t sound light and easy??

To a certain extent that has been true. There are only ten to twelve questions that can be answered in 45 minutes or less. But they are not just surface questions. They open up little slits in your soul to let in the Holy Spirit who goes to work in His own stealth way.

The introductory study in the guide is called “Holy Discontent,” a look at Hannah and how she responded to her unhappiness at being barren (1 Samuel 1:1-20; 2:1-10). The quote at the beginning of the study is from a book by George MacDonald. The first sentence intrigued me:

“Of all things let us avoid the false refuge of a weary collapse, a hopeless yielding to things as they are.”

Can’t you just feel the weight of that on your shoulders? “… a hopeless yielding to things as they are.” It seems like so many people feel that way nowadays. We feel powerless to change things; we can even feel that our situation is just plain, old hopeless. But here is a woman who had had enough. Elkanah’s other wife had lots of children and Hannah had none. The other wife was always making fun of Hannah and pointing out to her that she was not carrying out her “wifely duties” so she had very little worth to society at that point. The sad part is that Hannah endured this provoking for many years; and she would endure it to the point of tears.

Until one day. Hannah had finally had enough. When she and her family went to the temple to make the ritual sacrifices, she took her unhappiness, her discontent, to God. The Bible says, “In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.” She didn’t let her discontent fester any more. She finally took it to God and asked Him to do something!

In the end, God met her in her unhappiness. He provided her with a son, who she promised to dedicate to the service of the Lord. When he was born she named him Samuel. He became a prophet, the one who eventually identified David to become the king of Israel. His line is where Jesus came from. Imagine if she had been content to be harassed and just lived her life in bitterness?

“However,” you may say, “I have been discontent and prayed to the Lord about my situation and nothing has changed! What about me?” You’re in good company! Paul had the same issue. In his second letter to the Corinthians he says with some hindsight,

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me…. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Just because we ask doesn’t mean that our prayer will be answered the way we want it to be answered. What God wants more than anything is that we come to Him with our discontent; we don’t let it sit and make us more and more bitter. He wants us to be in relationship with Him, not off in a corner crying by ourselves! Hannah and Paul had it right. They were both very unhappy with the way things were in their lives. But they went to the Father and told Him how unhappy they were, and God remedied the situation by bringing them closer to Himself. Hannah was given the son she wanted, but Paul was not relieved of that thorn in the flesh. But he was drawn into a deeper relationship with God the Father.

If you’re discontent, talk to the Father!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is Blogging for Me?

Blogs. They are everywhere. I myself am a faithful follower of many blogs. So when I started thinking, “Is blogging for me?” I wondered if I had anything to add to the blogging world. It feels pretty daunting: Where do I start? What do I say? What do I even think that is important enough to share?

Theological observations, musings, and reflections are what I intend to contribute. In preparing to be a pastor, in the end I hope I am following in Eugene Peterson’s footsteps, who said, as he spoke to an audience in Seattle, “I wrote not to tell anyone anything, but to discover how to work with a congregation. I wrote to find out how to be a pastor.” I’m writing to discover what I think and how that connects with and influences what I do.

I love the arts, and that will certainly be included in this blog, musings on the arts, theology, spirituality, following Jesus.

So there it is. I hope you’ll join me on what will be for me an “adventure of discovery.” I hope it will be for you as well.