God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.

God Created YOU

We are launching into a trilogy series called “Chosen.”

Part One: Running to You

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July 8th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God Created You.

July 17th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us just as we are.

July 24th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us FOR something.

Part Two: Choosing You

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July 31st – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to follow Jesus.

August 7th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to step out.

August 14th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to be restored.

Part Three: Chosen to Act

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August 21st – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to share the Good News.

August 28th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to bring light.

September 4th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to love the world.

Psalm 139

The Inescapable God

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

This passage is titled “The Inescapable God.”

inəˈskāpəb(ə)l/

adjective

adjective: inescapable

  1. unable to be avoided or denied.
synonyms: unavoidable, inevitable, unpreventable, ineluctable, inexorable;

assured,sure, certain, guaranteed;

necessary, required, compulsory, mandatory;

rareineludible

“meeting the future in-laws is inescapable”

Meeting the future in-laws is definitely inescapable and I’m glad that I have good ones.  God’s love is unavoidable, compulsory, unpreventable….Do you find comfort in this or discomfort?  It sort of depends on how you see God or the nature of God.  If you see God as an all loving, omnipresent (all present), and omnipotent (all knowing) that’s our strength and our shield and a very present help in times of trouble, you are comforted by this Psalm.  You realize that even though God knows all you’ve done and said and the things you’ve hidden away and the deepest recesses of your heart, God loves you anyway.  Jesus scatters your sins from the east to the west and they’re not held against you anymore by grace alone.  Christ is the victor over all evil and injustice in this world and we work with the Holy Spirit to bring God’s kingdom to earth.  If your view of God is a task-master, one that checks off like Santa if you do this naughty thing, or that, or if you simply don’t trust God because what you see God doing in the world seems so unfair, unjust, and unfathomable, then you have an entirely different picture of who God is.  Scriptures abound painting with  all kinds of different strokes about the nature of God, but if you take the full picture, the full painting, you begin to see that God is longing for us to return home.  Just like the father in the familiar prodigal sermon.  God’s longing for us to come home so that God can throw a party just as the father did in the story.

This points to what United Methodists call prevenient grace.  God woos us to God’s self, even before we knew, even before we are aware of it.  God seeks each of us out to have a relationship with God.  God calls us where we are, in all of the mire and muck of sin, and as Jeremiah 18:1-4 says, “18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”  God, as the potter, has the power to make all things new.  As Isaiah 64:8 says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  God creates each of us and calls us each by name.  God cares about each of us.  God seeks the heart of each of us.  To give us hope and a future.

8th grade was a very difficult year for me.  My dad was a United Methodist pastor so we moved the summer before my eighth grade year.  The exact wrong time to move if you’re a 5 foot 11 ½ inch girl and none of the guys at your school had hit their growth spurt yet.  I grew to this height in seventh grade, but we had been in the Hartsville schools for 7 years, but when we moved to Cheraw I was fresh meat.  My nicknames abounded that year:  giraffe, Olive Oil, stick.  They made fun of me for my long fingers and after a dance where some people had gone through my purse, I went home crying and being oh so dramatic and yelling at the top of my lungs to my parents, “I hate this town and everyone in it!”  I wanted to go “home” to Hartsville.  I felt out of place and wanted my old friends, old church and the familiar status quo.  Have you ever felt like an outsider?  That you didn’t belong?  Like Dorothy did you realize there’s no place like home.  It’s easy for adolescents to feel that way.  To hope that some day they will find a place where they fit.  As a teenager I always searched for this mythical home.  Even writing about it when I was 17 in a poem titled “My “Ganny’s.”

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This place has been my haven, through life’s many storms

A constant place of refuge, where things are close and warm

It’s seen my tears, it’s seen my smiles, and it’s picked me up each time

The one place that has never changed in the journey of my life

When I have felt lost – no real “home” – and confused

Or when I thought my heart was broken and my soul had been stripped bare

I go through life as a little child trying to keep on her disguise

But in these walls my face lights up for this is where my strength and hope lies

Things are brighter, life more precious, feelings really matter

Here I find my true self, amidst the family’s chatter

This place is not a castle, a mansion, or a dream

What makes it great is not itself but the things that are unseen

The simple words full of wisdom, lack of pretense, and genuine love for people and each other

Are the things I admire and respect about my grandfather and grandmother

Although I can’t say I have the pleasure of living here from day to day

This place is my strength and my rock and in my heart it will stay

A place given from God to me, to help me light my way

A place where I can dance and sing, a secret hiding place

Everyone needs a refuge, a place to feel free and loved

There’s always a light, open door, some chocolate cake and a hug

People need a “Ganny’s” to escape our stress-filled world

A home that shows the love and grace of Jesus Christ our Lord

Everyone should have a safe space, where they can simply be.  Simply relax.  Simply to take off the armor we sometimes carry around in our day to day lives.  Whether it is a societal shield or a learned behavior, to protect us from further wounding or to hide our hurt.  Why do we remember only the negative things years later, but we forget the praises in a heartbeat?  Why do we carry around our wounds?  When the great God of the Universe created us and calls us for a purpose.  God created YOU.  God created Me.  With all of our persnicketies and peculiarities.

We have to LET IT GO, as Elsa sings, or as Taylor Swift sings, SHAKE IT OFF.  We have to stop all of the negative tapes in our heads that we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy, we’re not strong enough, we’re not….enough.  Because that’s just Satan trying to keep us silent and feeling bad about ourselves.  Our baggage is the stuff we carry; the stuff we can’t shake.  At times, we carry it so long it becomes a part of us.  We begin repeating it in our heads in our litany of why we can’t do something.  It holds us back.  It holds us down.  It enslaves us, keep us in bondage, preventing us from being who God truly wants us to be.  Who God truly created us to be.  It can either be mistakes we’ve made or things that we’ve been subjected to be others.  Nevertheless, it’s a pain festering inside of us, an open festering wound. It’s time to let go and let God.  That’s where the healing begins.

It’s time to lay them all down at the feet of Jesus and he can play new words on the tape players of our hearts.

You are chosen.

You are beloved.

You are my beautiful creation.

You don’t have to DO anything to have my love.  You don’t have to BE anything to have my love.  I’m your home.  The place you belong is is resting in my love and grace.  You can hang out there forever.

If you’ve been carrying around these wounds, this baggage inside – take a moment and consider freedom from those things.  If you know someone carrying around this baggage, pray for them and that God will give you the courage and the words to ask them to lay their fears, worries, tapes, baggage at the feet of Jesus.

I’m reminded of the words from Paul encouraging Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-10.  “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear.  God wants to take away our burdens.  God wants to be our refuge.  A very present help in times of trouble.  Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.  Tell them Whose you are and rest in that.  I know what I’m saying is easier said than done.  Some of us hold tight to our woundings like familiar, old security blankets.  Ask God to work on that with you.  God created your inmost thoughts, God knows everything about you, and God desires to give you abundant life in Christ.  Not a half life.

We cannot love our neighbors with God’s agape love until we first love ourselves with God’s agape love.  That sacrificial love that is exemplified as Christ dying for our sins.  So whatever your burdens are….Whatever separates you from feeling the love of God….ask God to reveal it to you….whatever baggage you carry with you….ask God to free you from it in Jesus’ name.  As Mother Teresa says, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can live your life radiating that love.”  I want us all to radiate the love of God.  I’m praying as it says in Micah that we all seek to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Aberjhani, in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow says, “Love is our most unifying and empowering common spiritual denominator. The more we ignore its potential to bring greater balance and deeper meaning to human existence, the more likely we are to continue to define history as one long inglorious record of man’s inhumanity to man.”

I will tell you if you let go and let God in, God doesn’t promise to take the pain away, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, God doesn’t promise you will not be challenged and face all that the world throws at you, but God promises to be with you.  In Psalm 139:18, “I come to the end – I am still with you.”  These are the words of David, but they could express the emotion and commitment of Martin Luther King Jr. as well. The “end” nearly came sooner than later.

The year was 1968. The place: Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley is living at Graceland with his wife Priscilla and newborn daughter Lisa Marie, and is enjoying the Grammy he has just won for his second gospel album, “How Great Thou Art.” In the minds of many, he is “The King.”

Another King comes to town on April 3, 1968. Several death threats have been directed at King, and tension is high, but he feels that it is important to press ahead and speak at a rally on behalf of the sanitation workers. In the course of this address, he tells the story of an earlier attempt on his life, one that brought him perilously close to death. According to Ralph Abernathy, his friend and successor, Martin Luther King stood up that night and just “preached out” his fear.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood, that’s the end of you.

It came out in The New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. [Some time] after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade taken out, they allowed me to move around … and to read the mail that had come in from all over the states and the world. Kind letters had come in. I read a few, but one I will never forget. I had received telegrams from the president and vice president, but I have forgotten what those messages said. I received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I forgot what was said.

But there was another letter that came from a young girl at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I will never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I [too] am happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

In his autobiography he wrote, “If I demonstrated unusual calm during the attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace.”

He died the next day after giving that speech in Memphis.  In the course of his life, Martin Luther King walked through many dangers, toils and snares, but through it all he knew that God was walking with him. He had the very same faith as the writer of Psalm 139, the ancient poet who said to the Lord, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

After this week of unspeakable tragedy in our nation, “sides” being picked in our offices, homes and especially on social media, and children being afraid to go outside and play in their yards, we can draw comfort from the knowledge that God made each and every one of us, God is with each and every one of us, and God works all things together for God for those who love God.  God was with those who were shot, God was with the people at the rally in Dallas, God is with the ones that are recovering, God is with their families, God is with each of us as we grapple with the who’s, why’s, and how’s, as we explain such events to our children. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

I will close with this prayer that Beth A. Richardson wrote after the awful tragedy and deadly violence in Orlando.

The news is bad.
We are outraged and horrified.
We are shocked and afraid.
We are overwhelmed and numb.
How many more times will we awake to such news?

Some of us sit in front of the television,
Search the internet for stories,
Watch, listen for something
That will help make sense,
That will soothe or comfort,
That will bring order back again.

Some of us can’t bear the words, the images.
The press conferences and scrolling news feeds
Freeze our brains, our hearts, our guts.

Some of us pray.
Some of us escape.
Some of us rage.
Some of us cry.

God, have mercy on our world.
Have mercy on the powerless and the powerful.
Have mercy on the first responders and those in ministry to the brokenhearted.
Have mercy on the victims, their families, their friends.

Sit with us in our terror, our sadness, our hopelessness.
And let us hold the space for others as we
Sit or cry, light candles or pray,
In solidarity, in hope, in love.
Amen.

You are chosen.  God created you in God’s image.  God created all of us in the image of God and freely forgives us no matter the baggage, no matter the doubt, no matter what.  You are loved.  Don’t let anyone or anything wrestle that fact away from you.  You are a beloved child of God, a fearfully and wonderfully made creation.  May we all feel , after this particularly hard week, God’s tangible love for each of us that calls us to a new, higher way, when we will all journey home.

Epiphany – Connecting Back to the Source

ImageI had an epiphany last night.  And yes, I know that we are on the cusp of Advent not Epiphany.  But, in the midst of talking to my mom on the phone last night about some recent feedback from an evaluation and my overall tiredness lately, I began to realize some of the habits or rhythms that I’ve been unconsciously leaving out.

I’ve generally been really good about reading the Upper Room daily devotional that gets sent to my email box in the morning.  I’ve also generally been okay at reading other religious/devotional/pastoral/thought-provoking materials or at the very least reading along with several small groups at Wesley so that I’m getting fed spiritually.  It took me until last night to realize, oh yeah, you haven’t even signed up for the Upper Room on your new email address.  I’ve been at this new job for close to five months and I’m just now realizing that I completely blanked on signing up for my daily devotional to be sent to my new inbox.

That’s pretty telling.

And I honestly didn’t even realize it.  It didn’t cross my mind until last night.

As we start new jobs, new projects, new paths and as we enter into a season that often looks a lot more like Black Friday with the rush, bustle, mayhem, and angst than the arrival of our Savior into the world, may we remember, may we know, may we connect, may we take time to explore this Advent season anew and afresh.

May God open our eyes to some of our disconnect.  May we realize when we’re drawing from the Source or when we’re just running on fumes.  May we see and know and feel God’s rhythm in our bones as we go about our day to day resting in God’s love, strength, patience and wisdom and not our own will, arrogance, or seeming energy.

I am grateful for a God who loves me even when I’m spinning my wheels.  I am grateful for the Spirit who leads and guides and gives us the nudges and awakening when we need it.  I am grateful for the inspiration of Christ to show us how we are to live, bringing God’s kingdom to earth.  

Just a couple things that have been speaking to me this morning:

This morning’s Upper Room Devotional: http://devotional.upperroom.org/devotionals/2012-11-30 – Very appropriately asking “Am I walking in the Lord’s light, and am I projecting that light into the world?”

Three songs that have stood out this morning – Brandon Heath’s “You Are My King,” Group 1 Crew’s “His Kind of Love,” and TobyMac’s “Get Back Up.”

Random?

The Sunflower Enoch planted as a seed last year!
In one of the devotions I read this past week the focus verse was 1 Corinthians 3:6, “Paul wrote, “I planted, Appolos watered, but God gave the growth.”

When we hear this, do we think about the different roles in the body of Christ and that sometimes we only walk with people for a season?  Or do we see it as a cop out to sometimes not give it our all, because it’s really up to God?  Do we lift up verses like these when things are going really successfully with our ministries or the things we’re involved with?  Or do we see it as being random that sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t?

So is the emphasis on the growth or on the fact that it’s not all about us?

Probably a little of both.

God can bring growth sometimes even in spite of us.  The Spirit can move in mighty ways and can multiply things ten fold.  The Spirit can also move in mighty ways in the smallest of the smallest of small groups, class meetings, or covenant groups.  To me, this growth isn’t just talking about numbers, but fruit.  And fruitfulness isn’t just determined in the nuts and bolts of the bottom liine, but also in the tangible ways we’re in mission in communities, we show love to the least of these, we practice radical hospitality.

I also appreciate that it’s not all on us.  That makes me feel better in the transition seasons or the times when we’re running a little on empty. Then again, I don’t want my trust and faith in God and God’s power to make me complacent or for me to think well, God’s going to do great things here, I just sit back with my arms behind my head and lounge.  That’s the thing.  It’s not all random.  There are times of planting and watering.  We may not always see the planting and watering and we may not always feel like we’re doing all that much planting and watering, but God is bringing the growth.  And sometimes this growth isn’t in the people around us that we’re serving, but often and hopefully that growth is also in us.

May we trust and know that God is working in us and through us and around us.  May we continue to press forward and keep moving in the passion and ministry that God has given us.  May we know that we’re not in this alone but there are people surrounding us and working alongside us.  And may we know that God’s got this – not that we’re going to be a bunch of slackers or that we’re going to think that we’re God’s gift to the world – but it all flows back to the Source – God.

Renew, Restore, Uphold

As we continue through our Lenten journey, looking towards Holy Week – these verses are a challenge, a promise and a prayer. “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. . . . Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” – Psalm 51:10, 12

The sentences above was my facebook status this morning.  The passage came from the online Upper Room readings this morning.  I don’t know about you, but I needed to hear them.  It is so easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life and all of the things that “have” to get done, that at least for me, the things that I treasure sometimes get pushed aside.  There’s only so long that we can spin like tops like in Inception without completely stopping and getting skewed.  

I think some of us see God as the One that keeps the top spinning.  We see God as the strength to get us through the next thing and the next and the next.  This time of year when there’s just a month left in the semester, in many ways I cling to that image of God giving us the strength, perseverance, and grace to keep moving and going and completing the things that we need to complete and remembering the things we need to remember.  

For some of us, it’s harder to see God as the One that sometimes is this one to stop the top mid-spin.  If you’re in the middle of dancing to a good song or jamming in your car, you don’t want the song to suddenly go off either by someone changing the channel or an emergency test or you arriving at your location.  Sometimes though it takes this sometimes awkward pause to wake us up to realize that we’ve been running on our own steam and in our own self-centeredness and self-involvement and that we haven’t connected to the One who sustains us in awhile.

It’s not that we haven’t been doing what we need to do.  It’s not that I haven’t gone to worship or small group or done the “minister” stuff, but no matter how long the to do list is and no matter how many directions our minds are pulled in whether in worry or day dreaming or whatever, sometimes we need to press the pause button and reconnect with the One who is providing us with the music.

My prayer for myself and each of us is that if we’re speeding through this Lenten journey and we’re thinking we’re in the home stretch, that we’re just as attentive now to God’s leading as we were when we started this journey on Ash Wednesday.  My hope is that we’re just as committed, disciplined and awakened to God’s joy and presence now as when we first believed.  May God speak to us in clear and powerful ways and may we have ears to listen and hearts ready to receive.  May our lives be renewed and restored, and may we trust that God will uphold us today, tomorrow and forevermore!

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This is a true outside of Wesley where I've gotten to watch some persevering green silk worms slowly and surely make their way. May we fit into God's rhythm the same way.

What do people see?

Do you ever wonder what people think when they see you?  I’m not completely just talking about visual judgments here, but the whole shebang.  It’s just funny to me to think about how we are each perceived and how close to the mark that is.

One of the students and I walked over to the campus Starbucks earlier today to talk about seminary and candidacy and all that is wonderful and crazy about heading into ministry in the United Methodist Church.  It was a fun conversation and I’m excited about his journey.  What was funny to me is that one of the folks we met along the way, that I know pretty well, didn’t even speak to me or seem to recognize me.  Now, I must say, that since there’s no meetings today and I’m not anticipating having to look too terribly nice, I’m in jeans and a short sleeved shirt with no make up.  You could call this one of my uniforms.  What is hilarious is that when I’m dressed nicely with my make up on, I’m recognized immediately, but in my “natural” state, not so much. Now there are pros and cons about being recognized and pros and cons about blending in.  I just think it’s funny to think about.

I mentioned this to some of the students at lunch and one very nicely and graciously and probably a little untruthfully, said – “What?  You look exactly the same.”  God bless the young.  We were having some conversation about the upcoming school year and getting ready for Welcome Week and the first few weeks of classes and how we need to plan and prepare and get rocking this summer so that we show the very best of Winthrop Wesley those first few weeks. In other words, we’re going to put on our nice clothes and make up and rock this thing.  Or as my Ganny would say, we’re going to put our “face” on.  Thinking about it – it’s the truth.  When do I clean up and make sure everything looks nice – when someone’s coming over, when there’s a board meeting, at the beginning of the school year.  When do we put out fresh pine straw and make sure the outside of the building looks good – Orientations and the beginning of the school year.  When do I actually consider wearing a suit or ironing that dress – Annual Conference, a district meeting, or some other professional gathering. When do our congregations particular dress up – Easter, Christmas, graduation, the big days. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with celebrating or dressing up for dinner or actually using the fine china every now and then.  (Come to think of it – we have NEVER used ours and that is a sad, sad thing.  Maybe we should plan a big dinner sometime soon or at least use the stuff.  I don’t know why we even registered for those tea cups.  My Lord.)  Reality is that I think sometimes we need those occasions or deadlines to get geared up and do something.  Although I know that I need to exercise more and stop eating all of these delicious cookies from Lell’s, I also keep thinking to myself – I’ll start tomorrow or maybe one day when I get a bike and ride it to work or maybe before bathing suit season.  And yet, we’re at bathing suit season and I’m thinking, I don’t really have to wear a bathing suit, right?  Or maybe I can scratch the bikini this year and actually go for the “Mom” suit.  (You know the kind I’m talking about, don’t even try to deny it.)  Sometimes without an imminent deadline, we languish where we are and don’t make the extra effort to get our “stuff” together. So as much as I in some ways don’t like being recognized and it’s nice not to be “seen” all the time, it’s also a good reminder that we’ve got to keep it moving and keep it flowing not just on the high traffic, big deal, main event kind of times, but maybe at least a trickle of keeping it hospitable, welcoming, genuine and open all the time.  You never know whose going to walk into your congregation at what time or who you’re going to welcome to your door.  You don’t know if today’s going to be the day at Starbucks that you meet someone that is going to rock your socks off and be that missing piece to some ministry idea or ministry team or whatever for your congregation.  I’m not saying we’re not authentic – and I’m certainly not saying that I’m going to suddenly dress up for Wesley each day, but I am saying that we’ve got to be aware of what the world sees.  We’ve got to be aware of how we’re perceived.  We’ve got to be aware of the image that we create.

While at lunch there were three professors in the restaurant with us and one of them who comes to our Faculty-Staff lunches looked over and smiled and waved as the students and I were discussing Nicaragua and the upcoming school year.  That’s what I want these folks to see – students engaged and excited and brainstorming – not just about their schoolwork or their majors but also about their vocational journeys, their worlds – all the fun and mess and real life.  We want the world to see all of who we are – not just the Sunday morning shiny with the great hair, outfit, and full face, but also the struggles, the tears, the frustrations and everything in between. So the challenge – put our best foot forward – true – but be real.  What is your image of yourself?  What do you think the world sees?  What do you think God sees?  How are we called to be in the world?  Do we need a big fancy event to throw on some nice clothes or use the good china?  Who or what has helped to define how you see yourself?

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”  – Parker Palmer

Psalm 139

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm. 1 You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Elections are Coming, My Friends…

Sitting in the chiropractor’s chair, well “laying” and “table” are more like it – I was talking to him about just getting back from Student Forum Sunday night and then leaving again for Annual Conference next Tuesday.  He asked if I frequently travel like this and I said not really, just on school breaks and throughout the summer, but I guess that is a lot more than just not really.  So number one – as pastors I don’t think we realize how busy we are and how strange we look to the outside world.  And number two – have you ever tried to explain Annual Conference to someone?  Much less, that this is a big election year.

So for those that are United Methodist and haven’t been to Annual Conference on an election year and to bore the rest of you to tears, every 4 years each Annual Conference (Central Conference) elects delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.  Every four years those delegates then go and represent their lovely people and vote on various and sundry things like budgets, foci, resolutions and bishops.  Sounds fun, right?  As someone I talked to recently wisely said, if you don’t like going to your district meetings or sitting in the sessions for Annual Conference, you won’t like General Conference.

Each conference only gets so many delegates that they can send.  Half of these are clergy and half of these are laity.  So what are some important things to think about when electing delegates and deciding who to vote for?  It’s such a wide range and I guess it depends on what your motivations are for your votes.  This will be my first time to vote since I wasn’t ordained until 2007.  I am super pumped which probably makes me a way over excited nerd.  I’m looking for people that have a good handle on both the intimate issues that affect congregations (and within congregations I’m not just talking about local churches but extension ministries, etc.) as well as the broader strokes of what’s happening in our general church and agencies.  I want people that know what’s at stake and the underlying issues and not just what sounds good.  Does that make sense?  So I’d like these folks to be pretty educated.  And very awesomely there is now a course that people can take called “Exploring General Conference.”  I’m not throwing around the “experience” word here to indicate that I want us to elect only people that have been before.  Not even.  But I am saying that we need folks that are actively engaged in the conversation of our denomination and who are actively leading and shaping and learning and discovering.

I also think that it’s very important to represent all of the diversity of our conferences.  I have several young clergy friends that are tweeting from various annual conferences right now and hearing how their elections are going has been both fascinating and eye-opening.  One of them the lovely (@MegEdmondson) tweeted: #txac clergy:  the YOUNGEST clergy elected has GRANDCHILDREN.”*  That’s kind of a big deal.  So yes, we need to pay attention to all of the diversity that we encompass – race, gender, age, type of ministry, etc.  I know I’m probably leaving things out of that list but it wasn’t meant to be all encompassing but merely to point out that we need a multitude of voices at the table.  If we believe in the “future” of our church as its “young people” then as both laity and clergy, we need to take that into consideration when we’re voting.  Not saying that people that are out of the young adult bracket can’t be strong and amazing advocates for youth and young adults, but there is a different perspective and issues at stake.

I’m one of those weird people that like the full tapestry that is our United Methodist Church.  As crazy as it may be with a gaggle of voices at the table, that’s what can make it awesome in the midst.  Like a family, we sometimes can shout over each other and stick our fingers in our ears, but if we’re committed to this crazy family of ours, we’ll take the time to sit beside each other and share a cookie or two and actually have some dialogue.  (Yes, the cookies offered during the breaks are essential I think to General Conference!)  So yes, part of my voting decision is going to be based on how people stand on some of the missional, theological, societal, and practical issues facing our denomination.  We’re talking a lot about the Call to Action and indicators and metrics and all that jazz, but we’ve also got to talk from a place of Hope and Spirit and Renewal and Revival.  Can’t we live in a world of both/and and not continue in the either/or?  Can’t we work our butts off and be faithful in our calling while also following the leading of the Spirit that is sometimes (actually I would say rarely) not all about numbers or statistics?  Maybe it’s a chicken and egg idea, but somehow I think that if we are following the moving of the Spirit and we are being intentional in continuing to up the ante and be in ministry doing as Wesley says, “all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” then the fruit or the numbers or the metrics will come.  And maybe they or a great conference or a wonderful sharing of ideas or a Spirit-filled conversation or retreat of renewal will give us the motivation and inspiration we need to keep stepping forward in faith.

So here’s what I say – before we go to Annual Conference – may we pray for the delegation that we are electing – both lay and clergy.  May we all pray for discernment as we cast our votes.  May those that aren’t voting be in prayer for a delegation that will fully encompass all that is the United Methodist Church and all of the beautiful work in progress that is.

We need to not just be in prayer for the delegates that we will elect, but for the delegates being elected across the connection.  None of us hold the speaking stick alone or keep the megaphone in hand.  This wave needs to continue over the next few weeks as we are in prayer for all of our leaders elected and the conferences that are electing them.

You’ve now read what’s important to me in voting and how intentionally I think we need to take these elections.  What do you think?  What helps make your choices about who to elect?  What are the critical issues you see in the UMC right now?  What would your ideal delegation look like?

* They have now elected a young clergyperson!  Yay!  Also to note that Josh Hale (@expatminister) said that they wisely started a pre-balloting prayer from the words of Acts 2:42 – “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”  I hope that this year’s Annual Conference isn’t all about elections, but it’s also about our learning, sharing, fellowship, sharing in the body of Christ together, and being church with one another.  Looking forward to it!