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Throw Your Net to the Other Side

4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. John 21:4-6 (NIV)

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Eighteen months ago, during a lectio divina exercise on John 21 in group spiritual direction, God said to me that I had been fishing from the wrong side of the boat. I fought with God a while over that, because I didn’t like what that could mean. I tried shifting that word to my church, where I had been heavily involved doing ministry, that we should focus our efforts differently. But eventually, three months later, it was clear to me that I needed to move my family and my ministry to a new church.

That change was painful, for me, for my family, and for the church family we were leaving. Despite knowing with every cell in my body that this was right, it hurt. I had invested so much, and so deeply, in the life of that church. I had taught, led, preached, sung, guided, and built friendships that will last a lifetime.

So we moved our family, to a church where I had served as a volunteer, an  intern during seminary, and on staff for a while. Our son had attended preschool there, and my husband had attended with me in early days of our relationship, and again after I had retired from pastoral staff at Fremont Baptist and we were between churches. It is a far different experience than the church from which we came.

After two months, I was offered a job back on the staff, and was given the opportunity to support the types of ministries with which I feel great passion – Christian formation ministries. And here’s the thing, this weekend I had the privilege of seeing nearly 400 people in the church draw closer to God through the work of the Spirit, in an prayer conference that I had a big part of envisioning and making happen. And I walked into Sunday school this morning, and guess what was the scripture we studied? Yep, John 21.

I had noticed the amazing experience we had over the weekend, but God wanted to make sure I connected it with those instructions, to fish on the other side of the boat. Hallelujah and amen.

In our former church, the “catch” I was pulling in was small, and not just because it was a smaller church. But when I started fishing on the other side of the boat, where Jesus told me, the abundance of God’s blessing is so evident. Following God’s leading, the effect I can have to bring people closer to Jesus is so much greater, even than what I could have imagined.Thank you, Lord Jesus.

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Danger: God At Work

Recently, I have been confronted time and again with the idea that the work that God is doing in me is not always visible. It is, in fact, at times imperceptible even to myself. As a person who likes to feel like I am accomplishing something demonstrable, this leaves me with an interesting conundrum to ponder – what’s going on when it feels like nothing is going on? Is God still working?

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, says, “What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’ Your own subjective experience of the prayer may be that nothing happened… But in the depths of your being, in fact, plenty has been going on, and things are quietly but firmly being rearranged” (page 6).

Now, I love rearranging. There was a time in my life when I would rearrange my bedroom weekly – enjoying the freshness of a new organization, a new system to work out, a new way of doing things. I loved seeing the possibilities and making it happen. Those first few times I’d leave and then walk back into my room after I’d rearranged gave me a thrill of freshness, newness, and a slight sense of surprise. I would do the same for my house now, except that I live with two change-averse people for whom rearranging can be scary or just plain confusing – so I try to keep my rearranging in check.

Perhaps this is why the idea of God rearranging my heart is so appealing to me. I want to be growing in love and faith and obedience to God, but I don’t always see it happening. Sometimes it seems like nothing is going on, even though I am trying to be faithful to the spiritual disciplines which are supposed to carry me forward into new spiritual territory. I’m not becoming like those saints and hermits, for whom prayer, silence, and solitude have been the bread and water of their spiritual existence. I still struggle to focus my mind on God in the midst of the daily chaos or crises of life. I fail in my attempts to love my neighbor when they say something that is particularly nasty or hurtful and I get defensive and want to lash back at them. That doesn’t feel like a heart that is surrendered to God.

But then I am reminded that God’s artistry is as subtle as the gentle transitions in a rainbow. When you look at a rainbow, you can see its distinct colors so clearly and brilliantly. But look closer and you will notice there is no clear break when one color becomes another – the colors are so gradient that they melt into one another seamlessly. I’d like to think that is how God’s artistry is working in me – that the changes, when seen from distance (looking back upon?) will be clear and brilliant, even though up-close they may not be distinct enough to recognize the difference.

There are times when it is very clear that God has been at work, reconstructing, rehabilitating, and renewing my heart to be more in line with His purposes. I wish all times could be like that. My husband – the sole income-earner in our household – recently was laid-off. As he is searching for a job, I am distinctly aware of how God has been teaching me to rely on Him. I’m not stressed about my husband finding a job in this high-unemployment market, because I can sense God orchestrating our lives in a way that is constructing a new picture, a new way of being, a rearrangement of the furniture of our lives. I can see how the colors are changing, even though I cannot see what the color will be.

For times like these, I am grateful. But I am also reminded of the months and years that have gone before, during which I could not see God’s hand molding my heart. And I am grateful for those as well, because I know that God is at work, even though I’d much rather be able to see the results.

 

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I Want to Be A Kumquat Tree

The following is a poem I wrote during an extended period of silence with God. The text that inspired this is John 15. 

I Want to Be A Kumquat Tree

Those cute little fruit

smiling down on me.

I want to be a kumquat tree.

A little bit of lemon

A little lime

Orange to make the world go round.

Tough outer layer,

A burst of juice,

Sweetness in the middle of bitter.

Always connected to my trunk

and root dug deep.

Branches reach out to gather sun,

Bud, then flower, then fruit does grow.

Branches that are weak fall off

or pruned by gentle hand.

The fruit grows heavy, dipping branch low,

For little hands to pluck,

and eat,

and delight in.

I want to be a kumquat tree.

Bitter rind reminds us of the sorrows of life.

Tough, it surrounds us, pith and peel.

But inner core is sweet and rich

A flavorful, thirst-quenching burst.

This is the sweetness,

The unique spray of joy,

That only God’s fruit deploys.

I want to be a kumquat tree.

Carefully pruned and kept,

So that the fruit that comes from my branch

Will squirt Jesus juice with every bite.

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My Muse

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When I was a senior in college, considering where I should go after graduation, one of my options was the Pacific Northwest. I remember a conversation in the hallway of the Religious Studies department at Westmont, with Dr. Robert Gundry. He told me about the stunning view of Mount Rainier from the Seattle area. He described how this mountain rises to over 14,000′ elevation from Seattle’s barely-above-sea level, and towers over the region. He told me of seeing it ringed with clouds. He described how you would never know it’s there, for months on end, until one day the clouds clear away and the mountain is there, stunning in its brilliance. I took this photo of Mount Rainier in 2008 on a family camping trip. It is truly an amazingly beautiful – and dangerous – place. 

For me, Mount Rainier has been my muse since the day I first drove into the Pacific Northwest. I call him my muse, because he has been a beacon – a constant reminder – of how God is always present and active, but not always visible. On those days I see Mount Rainier peeking out of the clouds, I am reminded once again that God has been there – right there – even in times when it feels like God is absent. Just like there are days (many!) that the Mountain seems absent – when the clouds conceal. 

But that is not all that reminds me of God when I look to Mount Rainier. Rainier is absolutely stunning, but there is a lurking danger beneath. You cannot take the mountain lightly. In order to reach the summit, you must diligently prepare and take care in your approach and descent. To go to that altitude requires conditioning. The paths are steep and treacherous at times. The snow fields deceptive. The threat of avalanche is constant. And there is the constant knowledge that this is a living volcano, the blast from which could destroy hundreds of acres of homes, towns, and cities. You cannot take the mountain lightly.

And so with God. I don’t mean to suggest that God is as arbitrary as an avalanche or a volcanic eruption, but it definitely takes conditioning and preparation if you want to grow closer. Everyone can experience the beauty (or if you want a churchy term, “glory”) of God. But growing closer, getting to know God better, becoming more likened to the image of Christ, requires spiritual conditioning. 

Hebrews 5 says,

11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” 

Notice how the author of Hebrews talks about training – trying to become Christlike without spiritual training is like trying to climb Mount Rainier without physical training. Hebrews again speaks of our spiritual life as a race (Hebrews 12:1b “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,”), a theme that Paul also uses consistently in his writings (cf. 1 Cor 9:24, Gal 2:2, and Gal 5:7).  

What are you doing to prepare yourself for the race? How are you conditioning yourself for the hike to the summit? If you don’t have a plan, start reading. And I mean read the Bible. You don’t need a seminary degree to hear God’s voice through the Word. Approach the text with expectation that God will meet you there.

If daily Bible study is already part of your life, add something new. The traditional spiritual disciplines are a set of well-used, proven methods for spiritual conditioning. Find one that fits you, and incorporate it into your life. Or find one that is a challenge, and try it a few times. If you want some ideas, feel free to email me (link on my “About Me” page), or comment on this post so we can start a dialog. 

There are days – sometimes months on end – that it seems like God is distant and unconcerned. But I still prepare myself to draw closer to God, knowing that It’s not that God has gone somewhere, it’s that my life has clouded God over, obscuring my view. And so I condition myself. I practice spiritual disciplines. 

Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not suggesting that salvation requires anything but acceptance of the gift given to us. Like I said – the beauty of God is for everyone. But God wants more than glancing admiration… God wants a relationship with you. And relationships take work. Like climbing a mountain. 

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And suddenly, Christmas

For months we wait

With bated breath

For this special day to arrive.

We wonder,

We plan,

As hope unfurls and blooms.

But this day,

This special day,

It comes like birth pangs

Not unexpected,

But suddenly, from nowhere.

 

May your labors on this day

Become joys tomorrow.

Feast and gift to share.

For on this day

Many years ago

A gift – THE gift

Came forth in such pangs.

Wrapped with great care,

In swaddle and swath,

Brought joy – JOY!

To mother, to Father

For all of humanity.

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From Exile to Immanuel

For many years, the concept of “Immanuel” – God with us – has been the cornerstone of my personal advent reflections. This idea that God would debase himself to take on human form in the shape of an infant is mind-boggling. To go from the All-knowing, All-powerful, All-good Creator of the universe, to a squalling, completely helpless baby lying in a dirty manger – it takes your breath away if you think about it for long. 

This year, the focus of my personal advent has been the idea of Jesus coming as the answer to the exile of His people. Although the Jews were living in the land that had been given to their forefathers, they still had a pronounced sense of being in exile. They were under foreign rule – the Romans extracting high price from their conquered subjects. The Jews were still looking forward to that time when the Messiah would come and restore them to their rightful place among nations – sovereignty. Their savior would be a battlefield general, who would rise up an army to wipe the Romans from their land. They were looking for another Joshua.

Instead they got this little baby, completely dependent upon his mother’s care. A baby born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, who became an itinerant preacher, teacher, and healer. He did some shocking things, surprising in their audacity and the claim that lay behind them. He died at the hands of the Romans (at the behest of the Jewish leaders who had taken a distinct dislike to his tendency to call them out of their comfortable self-righteousness). This? This is the Messiah? The one who will save? What happened to exile?

What many of the Jews didn’t understand was that God came, not to rescue them from the political exile in which they found their country, but to deliver them from the spiritual exile that their false idols (and yes, even the Law can become a false idol) had created. There was no more opportunity to walk in the Garden with their Creator, because they had besmirched themselves to the point that God’s holiness couldn’t have them near. They had to use rigorous rituals and specially-anointed priests in order to communicate with the God of their forefathers. Sitting on a mountain like Moses, or hearing the voice of God like the prophets – these were stories from the past. Idolatry had sent the people into such a spiritual exile from which they were completely incapable of freeing themselves.

And so, a baby came. Immanuel into exile. This baby, who took upon himself all the sins of the world to make it possible for us to come before the Creator ourselves. This rabbi, whose very presence was an affront to the Temple hierarchy, taught us not only how to live, but gave us the reason and impetus for connection with God. This man, crucified as a criminal, and yet death held no power over him. He conquered death with our collective sins on his shoulders. Because of this little, helpless baby, we can have relationship with the Lord of All. 

That is love. 

God wasn’t looking to set up a new religion. God wasn’t trying to reconnect the exiles to the land they had lost. God was saving the nations from their exile of the heart. God’s heart chases after each one of our own; and we live this refrain – O come, o come, Immanuel. 

We live in exile, too. But we don’t have to. As we come to recognize the amazing gift of God With Us – of God’s deep desire for relationship with us – that is when our exile is ended. We have been saved from exile by faith in Jesus Christ. 

Amen and amen. 

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A Sabbath from Being Indispensable

I so readily fall prey to the all-too-human compulsion to be indispensable. I want to be needed, to have my contribution be valued, to be someone people look up to as a leader, a wise person, a good friend. My primary leadership mantra has always been to raise up leaders to come after you who can do the job better – but it is oh so hard when I want to be the savior, the one who figured it out and made things happen, the one who is indispensable. It’s so much safer to be the one who can do it all, to whom people come to fill all sorts of needs.

But I have failed on all fronts. And that massive, horrendous failure has left me feeling feeling worthless and hopeless, All I want to do is crawl into a cave, lick my wounds, and growl at anyone who tries to poke their head in to check on me. And this is what I have been doing.

But the funny thing is – I found Jesus sitting in that cave, waiting for me. I found Him waiting to wipe my tears, to embrace me in his love and grace, to listen to my tantrums. And once we made it through that process, He is there to reassure me that my worth has nothing to do with my work. I am indispensable because of who He created me to be, not what I can do.

This year is my Sabbath from doing. I am taking a rest from “ministry,” from leadership, from DOING STUFF. I am focusing on the now, resting in God’s promises, and attempting to experience this year-long sabbath with “rhythms, intentionality, and expectation” (Sabbath Keeping, Lynne Baab, page 102).

Seeing this time as a time to let my field lie fallow has been energizing for me. Instead of feeling guilty because I am not using the gifts that God has given to me, I am enjoying the process of resting. Is it because there is still that part inside of me that wants to be useful, and knowing that this time of silence is temporary makes it bearable? Perhaps there is some of that – but I am truly enjoying the peacefulness of being that field, used to exhaustion and now sitting, allowing the Spirit to shower it (me!!) with love, grace, and encouragement in preparation for the next season of growing.

And I notice – I’m not cowering in my cave any more. I am indispensable – to God. Is it enough? In the depth of my heart, I know it is enough. I will likely still go through times when I feel like I need to DO STUFF, but I hope I will do it with a spirit of ministry – love and grace – and not from trying to be in control of what people think of me.

“…on the Sabbath [year] we deliberately remember that we have ceased trying to be God and instead have put our lives back into his control.” (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Marva Dawn, page 76, brackets mine)