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the dusty road…

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A note about one of my illustrations: I was heavily influenced by Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis and drew heavily upon his chapter on the dust of the Rabbi as one of my illustrations. I will italicize that section.

Many of you now that I recently returned from a two-week vacation and I want to tell you this morning that I went away feeling a little tired and burnt out. I went away telling God that I really needed to hear from him and that I needed guidance and direction for our church. So a week goes by and I hear nothing… and in fact I was getting a little discouraged… maybe even a little agitated with God for not speaking to me.  But then, two days into the second week, while I was sleeping, God woke me up in the early morning with a whisper. It was poignantly audible;  something that does not happen to me everyday, but I definitely recognized that it was from God. And he said one word: Discipleship. Needless to say, I woke up and went into the other room so I wouldn’t wake up Harry and I began to pray and reflect about this one word. And in that moment, our last year together as a church seeking to become more Jesus filled, the many conversations I have been having with you about education, programming, sermon series, all the amazing kids we have here, and all the amazing youth we have here came into focus. And I realized that God was calling us to not only become better disciples, but to also zealously make disciples right here in our church and in our community.

It’s a long story to say that I tossed out the window all of my plans of preaching this Lent and went with what God was putting on my heart: discipleship. So for the rest of the Lenten and Easter Season, we will be focusing on the Gospel of Mark with the goal of unpacking this word and call to discipleship… and what better way to do that than begin this morning with the calling of the disciples.

Turn with me in your Bibles to Mark 1 14. After Jesus was baptized and filled with the spirit earlier in the chapter, and after he had fasted and prayed 40 days in the wilderness and faced temptation, he goes into Galilee and begins preaching this important message: “The time has come,” he said, “the kingdom is near. Repent and believe the good news!” What does it mean that the kingdom is near? What does it mean to repent? And what is the good news? Well, Mark seems to be answering this with the story of the calling of the first disciples. Read more

the grace of giving

bubbaIn May of 2000, I lost someone very dear to me… my stepfather, Daddy Bill. He died about three weeks before we returned from Italy. Daddy Bill was in a very real sense my father… he provided security, stability and love for me as a teenager desperately needing a father. One thing I loved about Daddy Bill was that he always had a dog… and he loved his dog very much… Bubba was his name. He was a yellow lab… very big, very loving, very smart and very, very loyal. When I returned home from Italy, I found Bubba depressed. He was lying on the floor and would not get up and move. The vet had decided that if he didn’t make an improvement, Bubba would have to be put to sleep. So I decided to take him back home with me to the farm and try to love him and nurse him back to health. After all, that’s what my stepfather had done for me. Our family extended hospitality to Bubba and were mostly blessed (other than when he had big mistakes that big old dogs make… but we won’t go there) He actually lived for another 5 years. He brought us joy and love while at the same time blessing us with the opportunity to show love and appreciation to Daddy Bill by caring for something that he loved very much.

In essence, that is what giving is all about. It has has to come from a place of deep identity and gratitude to God.  If we are honest with each other, there really is no earthly reason for us to just give away our hard earned money, time and energy away. The only real reason for us to do something that crazy is because we genuinely love God and are grateful for all that God has done for us. 

So how do we make the move from a worldly view of giving to a kingdom view? We do it because of our gratitude for the grace and love that God has shown us. You know, my dog Bubba was very large and as any of you who have had a lab know, they shed something terrible. I had to clean up the floors after him often. I even had to change my clothes before I could leave the house because I was always covered in white dog hair. He was old and had frequent accidents as I mentioned earlier that Harry or I would have to clean up. His special dog food sometimes cost more than our people food. We almost needed pet insurance to afford some of his medication for arthritis. Extending hospitality and being generous to Bubba came at a cost. But I have to tell you that I never regretted my decision to take him in, because I was motivated completely by the love of my Daddy Bill, my stepfather, who had shown such love and grace to me. Doing something that I knew would please him was enough motivation for me.

The spiritual discipline of giving can only come from that place; an awareness of God’s lavish love, grace and provision for us and a deep trust that if we were to ever need anything from our father in heaven that He would do the same thing for us. Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth says this, “But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Ways to Practice:

  1. Take some time and remember times in your life that you were keenly aware of God’s presence and provision. Perhaps there were times that you felt special care from other people. Try making a list of all of the God moments and grace filled moments you have experienced in your life. Ponder how much of those things you actually earned? Allow yourself to be filled with gratitude to God. Try thinking of a way to express that gratitude in some measurable way. Notice how that makes you feel and how it strengthens your love and appreciation for God.
  2. Try giving a thanksgiving offering to church or an organization that helps others just because; not out of obligation but for the grace of giving. Notice the ways in which that kind of giving forms you.
  3. Try doing a random act of kindness trusting in God’s ability to multiply the gift.

Sabbath and Gratitude

As I reflect on what it means to cultivate gratitude and a generous heart as a spiritual practice, I am reminded of the importance of keeping the Sabbath. I found this blog I wrote a few years back that really captures my thoughts about this integral connection. It was a good reminder and I wanted to share it with you.

I have recently noticed that the more I practice keeping the Sabbath, the more I experience gratitude for the things that I have. Why, you may ask? I think, in part, it is due to the slowing down long enough to notice what I have;  long enough to take in the smallest things like a double rainbow that stretches across the sky after a thunderstorm, a flock of geese flying over my head in perfect formation, the hydrangea vine that bloomed for the first time since I moved into my current house, the sound of teenage guys laughing in the basement, the funny way my cat looks at me when he wants me to rub his tummy…

I have also noticed that when life is busy and I am unable to keep the Sabbath, I quickly become  unsettled. This unsettledness leads to a sense of loss, emptiness and longing. It soon moves to an unconscious striving to do,  fill, acquire, or accomplish something that will ultimately make me feel better. Missing the Sabbath drives me toward a kind of vortex that  sucks me into another way of being and drives me further and further away from a place of deep spiritual satisfaction. It literally sucks all of the resources and creative energy out of me and as each day and week passes, I find it harder and harder to slow down. I find myself feeling less and less fulfilled and consequently, less grateful and less generous.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day apart in silence and reflection at a local retreat center. As I sat in one of my favorite chairs to pray, I noticed that a painting was propped up on the floor in the corner facing me. I was captivated instantly… it seemed like a watercolor of a remote Italian village… along the sea. you could see its reflection in the background… but in the foreground, there was a little boat tied to a rock in a little cove surrounded by white flowers… gardenias I imagined at the time. I found myself reminiscing of our years spent in Sicily and soon became aware of a longing, an aching, even, to return.

Was I ever really cognizant of what I had in those beautiful years there? Had I taken the time to savor the beauty of the people, the land and the food? My mind was soon interrupted by the daunting thought of now… My scripture reading for that morning had been Psalm 16… Verse 6 reads “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance”. The invitation? Take it all in and receive God’s blessings that are all around, even the blessing of memory… savor the now.

Sabbath is a time of savoring what has been given; rejoicing in what God has provided. It changes things.

the longing

oh how I would love
to sit
in a boat
skimming smooth water
anchored
among fragrant flowers

to breathe
warm salt air
with hints of gardenia

to see the village behind me
that pauses
sleepily
for a moment
in the reflection
of quiet waters

to be rocked
gently
in the presence
of day

Beautiful things…

Recently a high school student in our congregation introduced me to a new song, “Beautiful Things” to use in one of our worship services. Ever since I heard the song, I have continued to sing and repeat a line of the song over and over to myself… “You make beautiful things out of the dust…” Yes, it does remind me of God creating Adam out of the dust in the creation account, but the power of those words touch something much deeper in me.

I am reminded of Rahab the prostitute who selflessly protected Joshuah and his men… risking her life for someone who knew the most high God. In return, Joshuah gave her a scarlet chord which would save her life when the city was overtaken. How interesting that her life was then woven into the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1… she was one of the grandmothers of Jesus. God makes beautiful things out of the dust…

I am currently planning a service around the story of Rahab and a friend of mine who is preaching that Sunday highlighted yet another dimension in the story. Rahab is the only female mentioned as a hero in the great faith hall of fame in the book of Hebrews. She also wondered inquisitively what prompted the New Testament writers to include Rahab in such a radical way…

After I read my friend’s email, I could hardly sleep that night as the question and the words of the song invaded my heart and mind… it is as if the writers wanted to remind us that God makes beautiful things out of the dust… He delights in using what we may deem as unusable. Sin, background, qualifications, good-standing, race, gender and even religious background do not limit God in how he might use us… in fact it seems that dust makes a very good medium for God to use for the most beautiful creations.

This gives me such hope and life. In the past, I have felt so hurt by the church at times… because I didn’t have the right last name , because of my gender, or the fact that my father had taken his own life. I was often excluded from using my gifts in ministry because I wasn’t “ready”… when in reality, I think it was more likely that they weren’t ready for me. How heart breaking that along the way the church has lost the message of God making beautiful things out of dust.

When did we start deciding who is in and who is out? When did the church start requiring that people behave a certain way before they could belong? It seems to me that the birth of the church in Acts was all about the movement of the Spirit empowering the most unlikely candidates to minister… breaking all kinds of religious rules. Did we forget that our biblical story includes a beautiful heritage of murderers, prostitutes, sexually abused persons, foreigners, pagans, women, men, eunuchs and children? I don’t know about you… but I feel closer to a God who delights in making beautiful things out of the dust because that is my story.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves as the church if we are really ready for the beautiful things God desires to bring forth… if we are… we might just experience something spectacular…

Here are the words and a link to the song:

Beautiful things

All this pain…
I wonder if I’ll ever
Find my way
I wonder if
My life could really change
at all?

All this earth…
Could all that is lost
ever be found
Could a garden come up
from this ground
at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust

All around
Hope is springing up
from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being
Found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new You are making me new
You make me new You are making me new

© worshiptogether.com songs (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing)
Lisa Gungor | Michael Gungor

For all my pastor friends and colleagues out there…


God…
what makes people like ourselves
follow this strange sensation
we describe as “call”
how is it
these resilient seeds
find a way to sprout
even in the most hostile environment?

we marvel as we watch
others
like ourselves
plunge
into the deep waters…
of church and ministry
with eyes wide open
and sometimes not

it is mystery
in its fullest sense
to watch
your resurrection power
breathe life
into our tired bodies
week after week, day after day

the thrill
of soaring to the undiscovered places
of your presence
and the sobering descent
into the depths
of uncertainty
and loneliness
keep this strange journey
perfectly balanced
in total dependency
on you

you who calls
you who gives rest
you who gives and takes away
so much power
and yet
you share graciously
with little co-laborers
who said
yes

worshiping a God who engages all of our senses…

As I read in Exodus this morning, I was struck with the details that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai for constructing the Tent of Meeting. He included a variety of woods, jewels, gold, purple yarns and colored fabrics … worship was to be a sensory feast.

There were to be spices and oils to engage the sense of smell, bells to awaken the ears, fabrics to touch and images that would tell the eyes something of the Holy of Holies. I was especially struck by the details in the Ark of the Covenant. The box was to be constructed of Acadia wood and then covered with gold. At each end, would be a Cherub with their wings pointing upwards toward the sky.

As I read the words and imagined these cherub pointing upward, I began to think of God and the heavenly realms. I marveled at God’s purposefulness in engaging the senses that he has given us. These senses, though very useful to us throughout the day, served another purpose. They are also to be doorways into God’s presence.

We have all smelled a familiar perfume that reminded us of a favorite person or felt delight when we slid into clean sheets of a freshly made bed and felt cared for. All of these can lead us to a prayerful place… all of these can awaken us to God’s presence and care.

As I write this, I hear the birds chirping outside of my window. I am reminded that God has given me another day… I am also reminded that spring is here because the birds sing louder as the weather grows warmer. My heart is warmed and  I am suddenly filled with hopefulness and gratitude. I have been awakened to God’s presence and invited to linger…

O to be fully awakened
into the now
with the rush
of a pregnant moment;
God coming near

to take it in
like the red breasted bird
that has momentarily left its perch
and flown down into the meadow

to be near
the passing of the holy one
to drink it in
the way spring grass
welcomes the morning dew
absorbing it
into the deep parts
to be swayed
by the wind of God’s passing
the way strong trees
circum
to the breeze

more thoughts on the gift of time

One of the reasons I feel we misunderstand and misuse our time is because we do not view it as a gift. We generally move from day to day with the assumption that there will be another. The consequences? We move from activity to activity, meeting to meeting, shopping spree to movie night, barely able to take it all in. We can easily fall into a sort of stupor where we are kind of sleepwalking through our days, entranced by the ticking of our watches and how our culture defines our day. All the while, we are never fully awakened to the gift at hand, one more day in the presence of God. Read more

Some thoughts on the gift of time

It is always intriguing to me when the various streams from which I am reading all come together in one congruent message. For the past several weeks, I have been reading about the gift of time… each new day… how we receive it… how we perceive it.

It began as I was reading Eat, Pray and Love… the author reminisces about her time spent in Italy and the beautiful way Italians relish each day and especially the sheer beauty of doing nothing, “Bel far niente”. I literally laughed out loud as I read it because having lived there for ten years, I knew exactly what she was describing in her book. At the same time, I saw, perhaps for the first time, the beauty in what I had learned from my Italian brothers and sisters. Read more

Practicing the Sabbath… yielding for God’s provision

Practicing the Sabbath continues to be a life-giving practice for Harry and I. Admittedly, we have had to make some adjustments along the way. For several weeks now, we needed to change the day of the week due to previously scheduled events on Saturdays. So, we decided to make our Sabbath during this time from Thursday evening at sundown until Friday evening at sundown.

This week was especially difficult for me as I had tasks, sermons, rehearsals and extra services pile up and leave me feeling breathless. Read more

What does it mean to be playful?

As I continue my practice of prayer, Jesus continues to invite me to play. Recently as I prayed through Psalm 23, I noticed that in my time of centering prayer, Jesus was with me in the green grass by the still waters. It was a beautiful place. Instantly I saw that we were moving around a lot… I was a child, which I often am when I see myself with Jesus. He was happy, turning around and around with me in his arms; tossing me up towards the sun. His smile was warm and there was great delight in his eyes and we skipped through the meadows by the still waters.

“What are you doing, Jesus?” my thought interrupted my prayer…”I thought we were supposed to be resting?” I inquired.

“We are playing…”

“Oh… is that what this is” the thought took my breath away. Jesus was gently, playfully reminding me of his invitation to play. I realized in a brief moment that I didn’t even recognize that that is what we were doing… because I am so serious sometimes… and because somehow in my spirituality there is no room for this playful Jesus who keeps showing up. Read more