Posts tagged ‘hope’

December 23, 2013

Learning Peace: Day 2- Beth Dotson

Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” John 14: 27 

I have waited with many who are waiting to have children.  Often this path is not full of peace.

My daughter found the pathway to peace to be a difficult one.  As they were thinking about a second child after having the first one through an IVF procedure, she asked, “Am I being selfish in pursuing this a second time? Am I trying to play God?”

God gave her peace when God spoke to her heart that in whatever direction they took, God was still in control, and that her desire to pursue God’s will was enough.  They had a second child, a beautiful boy.

After this IVF procedure they froze two embryos, so having a third procedure was not a hard decision for them. They were open to having more children. But, then they miscarried.

My daughter found herself asking, “Why?”  Finally, realizing that her question would most likely not be answered, she asked God to give her peace with the two sons He had given to her.   She says that “there came a day when God revealed to me that these two were all I needed, and I was okay.  Since then, I have realized that I need to simply pursue God more than pursuing anything else, and that is enough.”

Peace, as the world defines it, comes when life is in the order you want it to be — enough money, the right family, the right place to live, on and on, and so peace, when it seems to come, is only fleeting and shallow because life is always changing.  The world’s peace does not last.

But as I see it, the “the peace of God that transcends all understanding” can only come from knowing that we are secure in our Father’s hands, that God knows what God is doing with our lives even when we don’t have a clue, and that loving us and transforming us into looking like Jesus IS Jesus’ way.  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to humankind on whom His favor rests,” the angels say to the shepherds.

With my daughter, like so many of us who are waiting this Advent, peace is something we learn.

When life is exploding around me, I have to purpose to remember that God loves me and peace will come as I receive.  When I am covered up in insecurity and fear, I am to remember that I am God’s treasured possession and that God will not let go of me and peace will come.  When I am degrading myself, I need to learn to receive His words over me that I am the “apple of His eye” and peace will come.

One who is learning God’s peace doesn’t have an anaesthetized look, where she is bleary eyed or in denial of the rigor of life, but one who can have a holy boldness to go on (even when she is shaking within), knowing that “our momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4: 17, 18 NIV)  In essence, peace comes through relationship.

Israel only had peace from staying in relationship with Almighty God.  When they strayed from the relationship, war came, captivity came, and darkness invaded their souls.  Ironically, Jesus came during the time of “Pax Romana,” a forced military peace imposed by the Roman Empire, but their forced peace only rendered moral decay, confusion, and frantic searching.  Jesus came and brought the peace that the world could not give, the peace that comes only through being in a vital and vibrant relationship with Him.  When the angel came to Mary and told her she would become pregnant through the Holy Spirit, she said, “How can this be?” When told, “Nothing is impossible with God,” she proclaimed, “I am the LORD’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”  God’s peace gave her the strength to be the mother of the Son of God!

Our exhortation is to be like Mary saying, “May it be to me as You have said, LORD?” and as we do, as we obey, as we seek relationship with Him, peace will come.

Let us pray:

I want to stay focused on You, Jesus, not on all of those things that deprive me of the peace that You have to give to me.  Jesus, show me again and again that You are enough, and that in You, “SHALOM” will come. Amen.

BethDotsonBeth Dotson resides with her husband Danny of 42 years in Signal Mountain, TN.  She is Presbyterian and is presently working in a ministry that serves HIV clients. She loves her family dearly, has five grandchildren, plays in the outdoors in all kinds of capacities with her husband and their black lab, Zeke. Her desire for her advent is that we would wake up to its wonder and how that wonder translates into the miracle of the mundane in our lives.

December 10, 2013

Love That Groans: Day 3- Elizabeth Hagan

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” II Corinthians 4:1

I have been in labor for almost five years.

There have been ultrasounds.

There has been blood work.

There has been pain: both physical and emotional.

I feel called to motherhood. It’s as strong as the calling I felt to enter the pastorate ten years ago. It’s as strong as the calling that I felt to marry over six years ago.  But, I am still a childless mother. My bio below lists no children in our immediate family.

When I first began the journey toward motherhood, I was naïve.

After being married a year, I thought we’d start trying to have kids and then nine months later pop out a beautiful baby. I saw so many of my friends become mothers so easily. My mind and body felt strong. I saw no groaning up ahead. Why would childbirth not happen easily for me?

I had no idea the process of waiting for a baby can extend Advent after Advent, year after year.

I had no idea that labor pains sometimes can feel like the awkwardness of attending a party and being asked by a stranger “Why don’t you have children?” It’s finding your way to a polite response, though what you really want to say is “bug off.”

I had no idea that labor pains can feel like a dear friend telling you she’s pregnant with her third. It’s finding a way to say with a smile and a hug, “Congratulations!” You are happy for her, but . . .

I had no idea that I’d have to invite doctors and lawyers and friends into the process—a process that should have been all about love between my husband and me but instead became a process that included contracts, test tubes, and diagrams of the fertilization process between an egg and a sperm.

Through this painful waiting, I’ve asked God a few questions:

Where are you God when what seemed so sure fell through again?

Where are you God when I had to preach about a teenaged girl having a baby again?

Where are you when my college girlfriends gather to talk about their babies, and I have nothing to offer again?

Throughout this journey of motherhood I’ve always had a choice.

I’ve had a choice to believe that God has clothed me in the scarlet letter of infertility (and God hasn’t).

I’ve had a choice to believe that this wait is punishment for some un-confessed wrongdoing (I don’t believe it is).

I’ve had a choice to believe that I will never welcome children into our family (I still believe we will).

At this juncture of the journey I choose to believe that the desires of my heart will come to fulfillment, somehow, someway. As I continue to wait, I’ve been given the opportunity to experience God’s love at a deeper level than I ever could have imagined. Friends blessed me with deep expressions of kindness that have healed parts of me that I didn’t know were so broken. My husband and I have leaped into the certainty of “No matter what, we are going to get through this together.” And my faith has come to the other side of knowing for sure that even as this season of waiting labors on, my waiting is not in vain. God’s kingdom is coming though it is not already here.

Like Paul told the believers in Corinth, “we have this great ministry, we don’t lose heart,” God has reminded me of this time and time again. And it has been love that has carried me through this labor—love of what my heart has seen, though my eyes have not. In God’s kingdom, we groan together and wait.

Let us pray:


God, Advent can be such a hard time for those of us who are in the middle of waiting for what is to come. Help us to find your love for us even in the midst of the pains of labor that endure for the night. We pray together for your light to come. Amen.

Elizabeth is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition, a freelance writer and a social media consultant who divides her time between Arlington, VA and Oklahoma City, OK with her husband Kevin. She blogs regularly at “Preacher on the Plaza” (this site). This Advent Elizabeth is hoping for the gift of being present in the moment.

November 13, 2013

Teachers in the Philippines

There’s been a lot of talk the past couple of weeks about the Philippines, hasn’t there? From the devastating earthquake a few weeks ago to this past weekend’s destructive typhoon, it seems that the people of these islands are not getting a break. They’ve faced so many trials. It’s been almost too much to watch!

As I’ve caught up on the news and heard reports from the Feed The Children staff in the Philippines (many who have lost everything in one of these major events!), my mind has quickly gone back to the experience I shared in this country almost exactly a year ago last year.

largeOn our first Feed The Children trip to Asia, Kevin and I explored several islands with the staff (as seen to the right). We meet community members involved in Feed The Children’s programs. And as we toured, I couldn’t help but feel schooled on the fact that the perceptions I had on what “aid” looked like were all wrong.

On November 5th, I blogged this:

As I write this I find myself on a boat heading from Bohol back to Cebu (Philippines) . . . We just met a group of families on a remote island who pulled their resources together to begin a village savings and loan– where their was no bank to help give the financial resources to move the community forward.

During our visit, our delegation was allowed to observe, a shareholders meeting, a weekly occurrence, where loans were given and dividends were paid back to share holders. We learned that 10% of the money made in the project goes back to assist the children in the community. Parents said, “We want a better life for kids. We know that begins with us being good stewards of our own resources. We want to be able to do this ourselves.” Over the past year this community (where it is not commonplace to have toilets in the house or more than one pair of shoes per person) has saved over $3,500 US to reinvest in their children’s school. . . .

For now, this is what I know: most of the world is not as it seems to us from our lens of American privilege. The “have-nots” people are not less than human. Change CAN happen as resources and strong leadership are given to make it possible.

For me, I am learning that life can no longer be about “that trip” or “out there” but somehow we must find a way to integrate life in such a way that all of life is about being a member of the human family that is full of challenges, yes, but hope. We must do what we can to serve wherever we find ourselves. We must never think our privilege as an honor, but an opportunity to be in a larger community.

I’ve thought about these reflections again recently, especially as so many organizations are on the ground now in the Philippines seeking to help those in need.

I think it’s wonderful when the world comes to the aid of the vulnerable. Some crises are indeed so bad that we need help that must come from those with more resources than we have. And the commercial in me would like to tell you to give (if you feel so compelled) to Feed The Children.

But what bothers me about the news coverage and talk of the Philippines these days is it is so easily turned into an “us vs. them” appeal.

Because what is true is this: the people of the Philippines are strong. They are resilient. They will take care of each other with whatever resources they’ve got. And if we choose to help them (and I hope we all will), it is good to give from the perspective of these are my brothers and sisters in need NOT those poor and sad people out there.

We’ve got teachers who embody saving, sharing and giving all over the world. And many of those are found in the Philippines. It’s our job not only to share but to learn.

May 25, 2013

Wisdom from Children to the People of Oklahoma

Some school children in Edmond, Oklahoma wrote these notes to be put in a disaster relief box given out by Feed The Children this week. Words to live by:



May 13, 2013

Don’t Stop Dreaming

God’s Dreams for Us
Genesis 28: 10-19, Ephesians 2:14-21
Watonga Indian Baptist Church
Watonga, OK

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were confused, without direction or without prospects on the horizon for a better future?

Maybe such was a time in your life when you lost a job, fell into a conflict with a family member, or even didn’t know where your next meal came from?

Maybe it was a time when a beloved family member died? Or when one of your children was terribly sick?

Or maybe even when someone sought to speak authoritatively to you without any concern for your best interest?

I bet we could all say yes to this question—that sometime in our life, if not right now we’ve reached moments when all we wanted to do was sit in the floor and cry or just run away from everything familiar to us or even drown our sorrows in too much sleep or alcohol—because life has just felt that bad.

God, it has seemed has not been present in our lives in a way that speaks to our heart. We feel alone, abandoned, and are wandering aimlessly through our days.

So with all of this true, I tell you, you’ll like the main character in our Old Testament story today: Jacob. Jacob as we meet him in Genesis 28, is not the exalted son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, the great patriarchs of the people of Israel. He’s not in a place of greatness simply because of who his family is or because he got a huge inheritance of wealth.

No, rather, we find Jacob down and out. We find that he’s was forced to leave his land, his home, his family and we find him as verse 11 tells us in “no particular place.”

We find that Jacob is no the run without real plans for the future, alone, and without any creature comfort for protection.

In fact, if we read earlier in the story, we know that Jacob is on the hit list of his brother Esau. After Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, tricked her husband into giving Jacob, her younger son the blessing usually reserved for the oldest son, Jacob’s brother Esau is angry.

Esau says he wants Jacob dead. Rebekah, being the smart woman that she is (I know like so many of the women in this room this morning) creates a plan whereby Jacob’s father thinks it is in the best interest of Jacob to send him away for a while. (The excuse being that he needed to find a wife in the region of the country where Rebekah’s people are from).

So, with father Isaac on board with the “go find a wife in another region” plan, Jacob is sent away. No one asked Jacob if he wanted to go. He was told to go.

But, while some young adults might have loved this plan, we don’t get the idea from Jacob that he’s too excited about it. For, we know he’s never been away from home before. He’s never been on a route to the destination of Hebron before. This journey out into the great unknown was full of a lot of firsts.

But, even though from the outside this just seems like a secular story about a family drama—God is still present.

God had not forgotten the promise He’d made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.

God had not forgotten about Jacob.

God had not forgotten his love for Jacob.

So, as Jacob takes shelter for the night in what I can imagine was an open field (not much shelter really at all) laying his head on a rock for a pillow, scripture tells us that God speaks to him.

Not as God had done before through a voice or through the presence of messengers, but through a dream.

And in this dream, scripture tells us that Jacob sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching toward heaven.

As an aside it’s this juncture in scripture is where the song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” comes from. Anyone ever sang or heard of this song before? I had to look up the words—all I knew was the first line. But if you look them us too, beware: it really has nothing to do with this story.

But it wasn’t really a ladder Jacob sees. More like a ramp. For a popular part of the religious culture of Jacob’s time was the idea of ziggurats—artificial mountains built as shrines, shrines that connected things of on the earth to higher things of heaven.

We aren’t told that Jacob gets access to heaven on this ramp. Instead it serves as a sign that God comes to dwell with Jacob—to be with him where he was. Right there in the middle of nowhere.

It was an image of God saying to Jacob—“Look, you are not alone. I am with you, even here in this remote place.”

But even more than this, I believe, God is inviting Jacob to see the world as God views it, to dream alongside God.

In verse 13, my Bible reads—“there above it (meaning the ladder) stood the Lord” but many translations of this verse actually read, “There beside him.” I really want to lean into the second interpretation—that as God begins to speak directly to Jacob he is not standing over him, but standing beside him—coming close to his heart.

And saying these words: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out like the west and the east, to the north and to the south. All people on earth will be blessed.”

What powerful words! Not only was God saying to Jacob in his moment of crisis: “I see you!” but God was also making unconditional promises to him about the future of his people.

“I’m going to bless you,” God says, “No matter what. No matter how much you screw up. No matter how far you stray from me. No matter how people treat you. Or how lost you feel. I’m going to bless you.”

It was an invitation for Jacob to come and see the world as God already saw it—full of possibility, full of promise, full of hope, even when the circumstances of Jacob’s life seemed like nothing good could possibility come from them.

This past week, Kevin, my husband and I spent several days meeting with, assisting with feeding programs and shoe distributions for children in Guatemala. All of this was part of Kevin’s work for an organization based out of Oklahoma City called Feed The Children and I was just along for the ride.

One of my favorite communities we visited was in the region of Guatemala known as San Antonio Polopa among a traditional Mayan culture. Though the community struggles with having enough provisions of food and clean water and proper supplies for their children to go to school with and had every reason to shun us as “outsiders” Kevin and I, along with the rest of the team from Feed The Children were overwhelmed by the kind welcome we received. I even got a Mayan makeover while I was there, with traditional dress given to me and put on me (I can show you pictures after the service if you are interested).

But, as Kevin spoke to this group before we all ate together, as he had done many times before with different groups, he said something that struck me (especially as I had this passage of scripture on my mind). Kevin told the group of mothers and children gathered around us: “We are here today to stand in solidarity with you. Though we come from a different country, a different culture and from a different background, there is one thing we hold in common. And that is all parents want the same thing for their children. All parents want a better life for their children than they had themselves.”

And the Mayan mothers seemed to agree, as maybe the mothers in this room here in Watonga agree too. It’s only natural as Parents to dream big for your children.

You want your children to grow up and succeed at whatever they do—having better days than you ever experienced, making more money than you ever did, and living in a more comfortable living space than you. It’s part of what makes us human, to have this desire.

But, what about God, have you ever thought about what God dreams for you?

If we say that God is our Heavenly Father or Heavenly Mother . . . if we believe that God in heaven is the great Parent of us all, then what are God’s dreams for us? When God thinks about our future, what comes to God’s mind?

Taking our cues from Jacob this morning, we see that there are no limits to what God has planned for our future.

Consider again with me the language of verse 14 of Genesis chapter 28.

The LORD said to Jacob, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”

Being called “dust” doesn’t sound too bad does it? Dust is everywhere. Dust is a part of all places. Dust is the very essence of life.

But, there’s more. One Biblical commentator on this passage calls our attention to the fact that the original Hebrew word for dust was not just an generic word for dust, rather it was more like the English word “topsoil.”

Topsoil, as we know from our gardening is the best kind of soil. It’s the soil that is full of the nutrients. It’s the soil that ensures the crops’ success. It’s the soil full of the rich ingredients that the plants need within them to help them grow strong and tall. And with out the topsoil our hopes of a rich harvest are ruined.

Thus, God is telling Jacob in speaking of topsoil: “I have a dream for you. My dream is not just that you’ll have a good home. Or, that you’ll have kids one day of your own. Or that happiness will find you more than sadness does. But, rather, my dream is that you’ll be a life-restoring, life-giving pillar wherever you go. That your community will be blessed because of YOU bringing MY presence to it., the riches gift of all.”

I believe this is exactly what the apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to the church at Ephesus about God’s dreams for their lives. Saying that he prays regularly for the Ephesians, “That Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith. And [Paul] prays that [they] being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with the saints, to grasp how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

Paul wants them to know that God’s dreams for the people of this world are in fact so big that we could not even wrap our minds around them if we tried. Why? Because we serve a God, as Paul writes that is “able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask for or imagine.”

Unimaginable dreams—that’s bigger than any of us know how to speak about!

I tell you today that is hard to keep dreaming like this. It’s hard to dream at all sometimes. It’s hard to dream the more that life has beaten us down, shredded our attempted contributions to pieces. It’s hard to dream when all we want to do is throw up our hands in disbelief of the suffering that has found us in this life.

But we are called to keep dreaming, nonetheless.

The poet Langston Hughes that I like very much says this about dreams: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is broken winged bird that can’t fly.”

As people of faith, as people who are in relationship with the God of all living things, we can’t give up hope. We can’t give up dreaming. We have to allow room in our hearts to received God’s unexpected surprises of dreams in our sleep, of visions in the daytime, of words of instruction from wise ones in our community.

I am so glad I serve a God who has a plan for me, along with every living creature on this earth.

I’m so glad I serve a God who wants a brighter future not only for the children but for all of us older ones as well.

I’m so glad I serve a God who helps give me vision when I feel lost, alone or without the courage to keep dreaming anew.

I’m so glad God’s dream for all of us flow out of great love– love that is wider and longer and higher and deeper than I could ever conceive on my own.

Let’s us pledge together again on this day to invite the power of the Holy to teach us to dream anew.

Let’s dream together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dream together as children of father Jacob.

Let us on this special day of family celebration thank God that God’s dream for us our families are not over. But with God with us, the best is yet to be!


February 21, 2013

Abundant Life

plazaJesus says to his disciples: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

It’s one of those scripture passages that I’ve had in my head for years thanks to all that time spent in church.

It’s one of those scriptures that prosperity gospel types like to quote when they’re seeking to prove that what God really wants to give us is abundant wealth. Joel Osteen anyone?

It’s also one of those scripture passages that altar call preachers use to talk about “getting saved.” Oh my.

It’s a passage that conjures up visions of heaven and hell– who is going where.

I dislike it all of these uses.

Yet, lately I find myself sitting with this word “abundant” with fresh eyes, thinking about the movements in my own life and those around me too.

And this is what I think: we are scared out of our pants of the word “abundance.” We really like our poverty instead.

Of course this phrase sounds contradictory. Who doesn’t want to have something? Who doesn’t want to receive blessing? It’s rare that you meet a person in poverty who says, “I’d like to live in the slums for the rest of my life.”

But, honestly, I think so many of us do! It is often much easier being miserable than it is accepting the vulnerability of healing, especially when that healing asks our life movements to change. Because poverty is what we know. We feel comfortable with our pains, even if they are pains nonetheless. We like being left alone and no one bothering us with the challenge of asking for more.

Recently, I’ve found myself in several conversations with two camps of people. Those who have pushed through difficult times in their life toward abundance and those who are stuck in muck and just don’t want to get out.

Just yesterday, I looked a friend in the eyes who I know has worked hard to fight for her own life (even when it meant facing difficult days of doubt, depression, and even wondering how in the world she’d make it to the other side) saying, “I’m so proud of you. . . . I”m so happy for the joy that I see in you. . . . Please don’t ever stop fighting for abundance life and kick my ass if I ever stop either.” It was a moment to look back on the past and with gratitude for all that God has done.

I was in a similar conversation with another friend a couple of weeks ago who said things to me like, “I’m just don’t think my life is ever going to get better. . . . I guess I have to get used to this. . . . Nothing good in life happens to me. . . . I can’t imagine trusting people again.” And yet upon hearing these litany of words, my heart just sank. Because I knew abundant hope had been completely taken off the table for the person.

Sure, in life we are all on a journey. We go through seasons. Sometimes we must just hide in our caves for a while and be sad, angry or bitter. Sometimes these seasons of hopelessness last for a long time, even longer than we would like. And it just is what it is. And sometimes those dear ones in our life like pastors, friends, or family members hold up our hands (just as Joshua and others did for Moses in the wilderness) just have to be the ones who keep us going.

But then there comes a time when enough is a enough. A time comes when we need to look up to the hills from which comes our help. Our calling is to say yes to abundance. Our calling is to say yes to hope– even if we can’t see the way ahead clearly. Our calling is simply to receive. And in the process surround ourselves with others who can help us move in this way– for abundance is so big that often we just can’t take it in alone.

So, I ask you where are you today? And what is holding YOU back from God’s best for your life?

And, for those of you who were wondering– I had a lovely birthday yesterday. A perfect day of abundance to savor for a long time!

September 7, 2012

Who Is Really Poor?

As I’ve been back in the US this week and have been processing the trip Kevin and I shared to Malawi and Kenya last week, one of the questions/ comments I’ve heard a lot is: “Aren’t you so glad to be back? I’m sure the poverty was heartbreaking over there. You must be so relieved to be at home again so that you can get back to ‘normal’ life.”

I mean no offence to any of the wonderful people in my life here, but I really do want to say “no”.  I haven’t been relieved to be at home.  In fact, I’m grieving the passing of the experiences of last week. With many tears, Kevin and I were quite sad to leave. The work we participated in– such as serving lunch to school children in the slums (see picture) was so special. It’s the purest and most wonderful parts of this kind of work.

And while yes, there are so many perks to life in the US— water from the sink that is safe to drink, constant source of power to your home without daily interruptions, warmth and water pressure in your daily shower, well-constructed roads and city planning that makes getting from place to place easy, etc, etc—I really want to convey that being in the US is not always the end all existence. We aren’t as rich as we might think.

And this is what I know: I feel our journey took us from two rich countries to come home to a poor one.

For the true be told, when we begin to life with less as Kevin and I did last week, we realize we need less. When we converse face to face, those whom we thought we came to serve become our teachers. When we relax and enjoy life, laughter springs up even in the slums.

It’s obvious what you might be thinking. All the world statistics of East Africa tell a story of scarcity of resources. Access to clean and safe drinking water is rationed –  if present in some communities at all. Mothers die unnecessarily during childbirth. Fathers die too soon of preventable diseases. If children live to their 5th birthday, families are overwhelmed in amazement. The number of inequalities in this land are unfathomable. Cycles of poverty seem too strong to even imagine being broken (even if all the NGOs and government agencies actually worked together).

But, even with this true, there’s another story at work. And it’s a story not of poverty, but of abundance. As we spent time with the Malawians and the Kenyans, this is the richness I saw:

People share.

Smiles are warm and heartfelt.

Time is unhurried.

Simple pleasures like breaks for tea and coffee are honored.

Food is savored, not devoured.

Leftovers of all kinds are not put to waste.

Help given is received with overflowing gratitude.

Sitting from my position of privilege, it’s not that I want to overspiritualize poverty.  Rather, I want to say that in the US, I believe it is so easy to become distracted by our blessings.  We not only take them for granted, but we become consumed with them to the point of forgetting from where they came.  We forget the responsibility that comes from such great gifts. We forget to be people of blessing instead of just people with blessings.

As I continue to stick close to what my spiritual teachers taught me last week, I hope you’ll join me in thanksgiving for the great paradox of the gospel.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is more blessed to give than to receive. And, blessed are the hungry, for they will be filled.

August 28, 2012

How Are We Going to Meet These Needs?

Today, our delegation toured, observed, and participated in the work of Feed the Children Kenya in the Maparasha, a remote village community of the Masai tribe.

We saw a water sanitation project in action as women and children gathered water from a clean well instead of walking 5 km up a hill to a remote water source. We visited with school children in an early learning center who received lunch of corn and beans from Feed the Children’s distribution. (Kevin and I even got to serve the meal to the kids who came through the line with their tin bowls). We visited an AIDS education training session. We met with mothers at an nutritional seminar at the community birthing center– watching lessons on how mothers can best feed their family.

I felt proud today to be connected to the larger Feed the Children family.

However, in all of these accomplishments, there is always so much more that that just isn’t getting done because lack of resources.

Children have shoes but they are tattered and falling off their feet. Children have uniforms on, yes, but they have holes in them. Children eat lunch but the school only has a few number of bowls so everyone must eat in shifts. Yes, there is clean water from the pipes, but in dry season there’s still not enough water to go around so that water is only available two days a week.

Feed the Children like other NGOs needs more funds to support even more sustainable projects. And while many of us in theory care for the poor and want to help out, we look at our monthly budgets and say there is no way that I can give or give more. The big issue of child hunger and poverty seems too overwhelming to even try to involve ourselves in. Or if we are givers, we do so without a lot of hope that our small donations can make a difference. We have no connection to the larger human family that needs all of us to give and take.

I remembered today in all of my thinking about this a sermon illustration I used many months ago by Tony Campelo that seems to apply well here.

In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.

However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. “What?!?” we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: “We don’t need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I’ll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same.”

And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.

And it is the truth. God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish. We have the money. We really already have it. It is just up to each of us to do our part. Or in this case, give so that many more kids around the world have life’s most basic necessities.

I know I am catching more fire in me for advocacy work this week. You simply can’t see needs and not be changed in return.



July 15, 2012

Praise the Lord!

Our sermons by request series continued this week with Psalm 150. I wondered what I was going to do with this text when I first read it (as I’ve never been very good at my attempts to preach on the Psalms), but in the end I was glad for the challenge. And what a FUN service we had. Everytime the word “praise” or “blessed” was spoken in worship, the congregation was asked to play one of the percussion instruments they were given when they came into worship. It was a joyful day of living this passage together! Thanks for reading.

Let’s Praise the Lord: Psalm 150

What we say or do last often has much to say about what is most important to us, doesn’t it?

 Since our congregation hosts the community “Seven Last Words of Jesus” Good Friday service every year with several other local churches, I have found myself in the position of needing to wrap up the service, being one of the last speakers wrapping the afternoon up before the audience starts to growl back at us long-winded preachers.  As I’ve prepared these sermons the past four years, one thing I’ve noticed about these last words of Jesus is their deep significance to the larger bulk of his teaching– teaching about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus’ final words have a lot to say about who he was trying to show us to be all along, in surrender to the will of his Father in his words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And the same is true for our lives, I believe too– not just in our dying moments but in our every day “last” moments. We usually wait till the end of a conversation, till the end of a night, till the end of a service to get to those moments which speak to the identity of who we ultimately are. For example:

When we are having a conversation with a friend or family member, what is the one phrase that we usually end the conversation with if our relationship with them is strong? We say, “I love you.” Three such words powerfully express what the foundation of our connection with the other is based upon.

When we are putting our young children to bed after turning out the lights and making sure they are tucked in, what is the thing we do before we leave the room to show our love? We give them a hug or a kiss. The sheer act of physical touch conveys to our young child– even if we are not able to communicate in words to one another yet how it s we feel about them.

When we end our worship service together each Sunday before we go share coffee hour together, what is the one thing we always do together? We hold hands, form a circle and sing what? “Make Us One.”  We sing with great gusto this contemporary chorus as a tangible symbol of the unifying community the church is in our lives.

In the same way, when we read our scripture lesson for today, the 150th Psalter– or the LAST of the hymns in this great hymn book of the Hebrew scriptures, what we find, I believe is a statement about life that this book of prayers has been trying to tell us about all along.

And this is what we are told– we are told that the highest activity we can offer in our life is that of praise.  Specifically in verses 1-5, there are countless ways suggested that we might offer our praise to God.

We may praise God in God’s house. We may praise God for the goodness that we see around our lives– simply lifting up our thanksgiving to God (as we just did in the service a few moments ago) with our words.

We may use our bodies in dance as an expression of praise.

We may gather around us instruments that help us express what words simply lack.

We may beat the tambourine or the cymbals– in fact loud clashing of cymbals to simply say back to God, “I acknowledge you. I revere you. I want to know you.”  

In the end, we are told that none of us is without excuse– not even those of us who can’t carry a tune or play the drums or move our body in worship without looking like we are doing the funky chicken.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

Aimee Simple McPherson, a female pastor in the 1920s and founder of the Four Square Gospel Movement was known to say this, ” “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Why, according to the Psalmist, the only excuse you have for not praising the Lord is being out of breath!”

So take a minute and take a deep breath to remind yourself if you are still breathing . . . and as you breathe out say with me, “Praise the Lord.”

If you look closely with me at this Psalm, what you will notice is the ongoing use of a repetitive phrase at each stanza of this poem: “Praise the Lord!” In fact the word “praise” occurs 13 times in six verses which makes it important to pay attention to. . . Or better translated from Hebrew, “Hallelujah!”

If you’ve been around church for any given period of time, hallelujah is a word that you probably know. But, you might not actually know what it means. One commentator helps us out here: “To be precise, hallelu is the plural imperative of the verb hallel (“to praise”). And jah (or yah) is shorthand for the personal name of God: Yahweh. So, to put it in a Southern idiom, hallelujah means “Y’all praise Yahweh!” It is a summons not primarily to the individual reader or hearer, but to a whole community.”

Praising Yahweh a big and bold and countercultural task. We are a lot better, aren’t we, at telling those around us what wrong with our lives than what is right? Extending the virtue of praise over our entire lives is not exactly our first instinct. And because of this, praise is something, I believe that we cannot do alone.

How many of you have ever had an experience of coming to church on Sunday morning and by time you sit down, feeling like “What am I doing here? I’m really not in a mood to be spiritual this morning? I’m really not in a mood to worship God this morning? I’m really not a place to get anything out of the service?” (I promise I won’t bite if you raise your hands in affirmation).

We’ve all be there, your pastor included. There are days when I wake up on Sunday morning and as excited as I was on Friday afternoon when I finished writing my sermon about what I have to say, I’m just not feeling it on Sunday morning. I just don’t know if I can do it, to climb these stairs into the pulpit and say to you, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight and in this congregation . . .”

But, like me, I bet you’ve also had the experience of coming into the sanctuary, being surrounded by this loving community, being drawn into the rhythm of the music or the silence of the prayers and find yourself actually commuting with God, even when you didn’t think you had it in you. God has met you in community.

You could call it happenstance, but I believe that this is the power of Holy Spirit. This is the power of the Body of Christ that draws us in and helps us praise the Lord when we simply don’t have the strength to muster another word toward a God that we feel ambivalent towards. 

We end up, my friends in praise because we are not alone. We have brothers and sisters in Christ to help us, to stand with us, and to give our hearts reasons to sing when we simply do have any on our own.

Furthermore, we say “hallelujah” because we are we are asked in the imperative tense to simply do it.  And the purpose is simple: all of life is about praise. All of life will end in praise.

When I comprehend,  what I just shared with you: that all of life will end in praise, it’s a completely overwhelming statement. This seems to start to merge into the territory of the great scriptural heresy  those tv preachers land in when they tell us to:”just smile through the pain” or “everything is fine” or “don’t cry when bad things happen, don’t worry and be happy.”  And you know how I feel about tv preachers . . .

Yet, I don’t think this is a place in scripture where we have to worry that God is asking us to praise him with plastic happiness on our face.

For remember some your favorite Psalms that came before this last chapter: Psalms of lament, Psalms of frustration, Psalms of grief– places in scripture where ALL emotions are validated important to bring before God. In fact, it is the Psalms are is one of the deepest, darkest, most emotionally driven books of all scripture. Consider beloved Psalms like #13 which begins by saying, “How long oh Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” When God feels distant to us, according to the book of Psalms we are allowed to say how we feel.

Our God is not one who ever tells us not to cry or pout or wail if we need to from time to time. Our God never says hide your truest feelings from me. No, but we are told no matter what that all of life will end in praise.

Eugene Peterson, pastor, and author of the Bible paraphrase, The Message writes this about the purpose of Psalm 150:

 This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted  conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs….Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter     is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt   and believe, struggle and dance and then  struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on         our feet, applauding, “Encore! Encore!”[i]

Ultimately, in this way, I believe that Psalm 150 is a call for us remember the end of the story as we walk through whatever life brings us. It’s a call for us to struggle– through all the days of woe is me, and doubts and fears and questions– with confidence that the end of the story is taken care of. Death may be all around us but resurrection is coming. New life is coming. New possibilities are coming. New dreams are coming. God is coming.

It’s the assurance that no matter what heights we must climb and climb again and again, life’s greatest message is about hope. Hope that makes us get out of our seats and sound cymbals every now and then just as an expression of thanksgiving for the love of our God who watches over us. Hope that helps us keep walking putting one step in front of the other. Hope that helps us see the best in some of the bleak of bleak situations– resurrection always rises before our eyes. And,  all of life will end in praise of our Lord.

I don’t know where your life ends up as you begin this new week– in a place of pain, in a place of discouragement, or in joy– but no matter if you are able to shout from the rafters or you are hanging low just trying to survive to the next day, God offer you the gift of praise today and your whole life through. It’s good  news of grace.

So let’s just continue this hour to praise the Lord as we keep singing and ringing and playing and saying with our bodies, our words and our lives, “God we love you.”


[i] 1Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989), 127.

April 5, 2012

Endurance to Stand

Promise in Night: Endurance to Stand

Mark 15:1-20 with Isaiah 50:4-9

As we began our service today outside, we re-enacted together what it might have felt like to be among the crowd waving palm branches and singing the praises of “Hosanna!” We shouted praises of thanksgiving for Jesus. We hailed Jesus as king. We adored his name.  

But, as we know and as we continue to follow the story from Mark’s gospel, the shouts of praise for Jesus were not the whole story.  Jesus’ darkness would soon be upon him. Soon Jesus’ courage, determination and ultimately proclamation of his Lordship would bring about his sentencing.

This is what we need to know: Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover fully intent on continuing the mission that was set before him at the beginning of his ministry: “bringing good news to the poor and release for the captives and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Nothing was going to change about his message of this “upside down kingdom” of the first being last and the last being first on the last week . . . no matter what kind of outside pressure Jesus got to back down. 

But, as we know, none of this was really acceptable in the eyes of those who were hanging their hat on getting something really good at the end of this adventure of following Jesus.  We know the disciples scattered and denied knowing him.  

Judas, the money keeper, led the high priests to send guards to arrest him.  Peter trailed behind and say, “I do not know this man.”

And, Jesus certainly wasn’t winning him any support in the crowds either as the accusations were brought up– no one wanted to say that they knew or loved him. And though the high priests found fault with him, they had no power to sentence him to die. We see in verse 1 of chapter 15 of Mark’s gospel that the elders, teachers of the law, and the whole Sanhedrin reached a decision, “They bound Jesus and led him way and handed him over to Pilate.”

In the Roman Empire the justice system made no provisions for a trial by jury. It was up to the ruler in charge to decide how he would judge cases. Therefore, after conferring with the religious leaders who brought the charges against Jesus, Pilate, the Roman administrative official, proposed to flog Jesus for his unlawful teaching and release him. But he looked to the crowds for moral support. Not acting as Pilate expected, the crowds strongly disagreed with anything other than the ultimate punishment under Roman law.  As defiantly as Pilate said Jesus does not deserve death, the crowds demand for Barabbas’ (a convicted criminal) release and shout loudly: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

Let’s stay here at these words: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” and notice how quickly the crowds who said “Hosanna” changed their tune. We find that spiritual maturity was at an all time low in the land. Although Jesus healed the sick, helped the lame, and blessed the children, it didn’t matter. It was if they just completely forgot the belovedness of their teacher– and were caught up in the emotions of the moment. With ease, they said with their words, “Jesus, we want you gone!” It was the dark night of soul– betrayal at a corporate level! It was a moment when the suffering for Jesus went to an even deeper level.

So, what was Jesus’ promise in the night now?

If you’ve stuck with me throughout Lent, you begin thinking that in the face of the horridness of crucifixion to come, there possibly couldn’t be a promise for Jesus at this juncture! We must have run out of promises by now!

But, such is not the case when we peer into our Old Testament lesson for this morning from the book of Isaiah.  As the children of Israel continued to deal with the ongoing disappointments, frustrations and shouts of “How long O Lord?” are you going to make us wait in Babylon in exile, hope seemed lost. They basically were shouting “We want to go home!” 

Verse 6  of Isaiah 50 serves as the center piece of the Israel narrative telling us from a personal perspective what it feels like to be in the midst of a time of deep loss and pain. And though the desire to give in, give up, or simple fall under pressure arises, Israel is asked to be strong. Israel is asked to actively wait. Israel is asked to stand and move through their sufferings through resistance that is not self-seeking, but resistance that sees the bigger picture.

Verse six says, with a collective voice for Israel speaking: “I have my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”

With some consideration in mind for the trials of the life of Israel at this time, it seems odd doesn’t it that they’d be boasting of “turning the other cheek?” We might even call this weakness. But, courage comes it seems to remain in this posture, why? Because look with me at verse 7: “The LORD God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

In a nutshell, Israel remains committed to enduring the injustice in an active way– for the only way to faithfulness is to move their way through the suffering is to simply keep standing.  Why? We hear the testimony of the Lord being with them.

If we go back to our gospel for this morning, we see this promise lived out in Jesus as he stays grounded in himself– no matter who spoke ill against him. For there was no amount of shouting, no amount of mockery, no amount of  physical pain would change him or set him off course of fulfilling his mission.  With Jesus:

There would be no overt shows of power for power’s sake.

There would be no reigning down the heavenly lights to slay the captors which spoke ill of him.

There would be no dueling or “I’m better than you” contests between Jesus and his adversaries.

Jesus remained steadfast in suffering.

Do you really get this part of the story? I mean, I know I’m talking to several folks who have been in church their entire lives, but do you really get the point that Jesus could have done anything to save himself, to defend his honor to command his disciples to get their butts out of hiding and come protect him– yet he doesn’t?

If we were to sum up the actions of Jesus during this dark night of the soul, we’d have to say that he modeled for a God-fearing response to suffering as he clung to the promise of “Endurance to Stand.”

No matter what. No matter why. No matter how long. Jesus stands. Jesus faces his sufferings head on.

When we think about our own experiences, it is true, like Jesus, we all know a thing or two about situations that are unfair.

Anyone experience a back-stabbing loss lately?

Anyone experience a life-threatening illness lately?

Anyone experience the lonely nights of grief lately? I see many faces nodding back at me in affirmation.

But, while true, as we were discussing in our Wednesday night grief class recently, few of us (if any) have faced suffering to the decree that it threatened to end our life as Jesus did in this reading of our scripture this morning.   Few (if any) of us have been asked to make the choice of either our faith or our life again, as Jesus experienced. But, such has not be the case of all Christ followers throughout the centuries.

Consider the Civil Rights movement in our country over the last century and the suffering evoked for many as a result. It was a time in our history when making stands for racial equality in the name of one’s faith, easily could have cost you your life.

Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially, hundreds, then thousands, then ten thousands, of folks took stands for freedom for all, putting their own lives in danger.  But they did so not the way that their adversaries expected.  No militia formed. No battle plan of warfare was drawn. No slogans of “We really hate you, oppressive white folks” were placed on protest posters. No, a revolutionary campaign of non-violent resistance began through boycotts, marches and speeches. But, not without some push back from community leaders who thought this approach of standing tall and not backing down to fear or to violence was pointless.  Dr. King had some explaining to do. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1957, Dr. King sought to give theological perspective to simply standing strong saying:

A nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. This was always a cry that we had to set before people that our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past.[i]

And, yes, as we know from history, there was suffering to the non-violent protests for civil rights. That while yes, friendships across racial lines were formed and while, human dignity was restored to many, it wasn’t the whole story. Martin Luther King, Jr. and friends spent nights in jail. Dogs and fire hoses were directed toward school children. It led to the senseless death of four little girls in Sunday School class in Birmingham.  And the list could go on. Suffering came.  And it wasn’t pretty. We know Dr. King eventually lost his life in the fight.

Teresa of Ávila, the sixteenth century mystical writer, knew of this wrestling with life-threatening suffering.

In a particularly difficult moment of her life she was forced to cross a river while sick with fever. She raised her voice of complaint heavenward, “Lord, amid so many ills this comes on top of all the rest!” A voiced responded, “This is how I treat my friends.” “Ah, my God!” Teresa retorted, “That is why you have so few of them!”[ii]

In the same way, when we too continue to grow in our faith and walk in the footsteps of our Lord, I believe, much like Jesus, and like our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, we too will face suffering that it must to our distaste. Our suffering too will be longer. It will be more painful. It will cost us more than we ever could have imagined. It will force us to rooms filled with darkness that we’d rather overlook than deal with head on.  But, as friends of God– it doesn’t matter, suffering is just a part of the human condition, even as Jesus lived it.

But, as followers of Jesus, as we suffer, is does not come without comfort. We are given the courage to actively say “no” to what is unjust even if pain still comes. We are not asked to lose our souls in the process. We are given endurance by our Lord to stand through it and to know that even if death comes, resurrection is on its way.

Look with me again at verse 8 of Isaiah 50. The prophet speaks of the shared communion in sufferings as he writes, “Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me.”

Let us stand up together– the Lord says!

When insults are thrown against us,  we can say because of the Lord, “I’m going to stand!”

When gossip is hurled against us, we can say because of the Lord, “I’m going to stand!”

When our best friends reject us and leave us alone, we can say because of the Lord, “I’m going to stand!”

When our words of testimony at work about our faith cause others to mock us, we can say because of the Lord, “I am going to stand!”

Some may feel it is in the fine print of the Christian contract (all this business about suffering), but following Jesus is anything but safe, I must remind you! The prophecy of Isaiah puts a sharp question to its readers, “Will you identify yourself with the suffering One?”

Jesus stood and now today invites us to stand too.

Today, I ask you, will you follow this Jesus?  Will you commit to stand with him even if the night is long? Will you commit this week in a practical to go with him to the cross– all the way– even if it means taking time off of work, leaving some home chores undone or even changing some travel plans so that you can attend our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services coming up this week?

The blessedness of our promise for this  morning is that as much as we are willing to stand with Jesus, Jesus is willing to also stand with us.

So, today, let us come to this table together and share of the meal that reminds us that we are not alone, we worship the one who says to us, no matter what trials find our way, that we are not without grace to keep going. Our suffering is not useless. For, we are standing together with our Lord. Therefore, no matter what may come, no matter what may go we have this promise in our night: Jesus says to us, “I’m giving you endurance to stand with me.”


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