Sunday, September 17, 2017

Peace and Passion

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..." (Galatians 5:22-23)

I am looking at this list and I am thinking, "Peace... now that would be nice." I have visions of a blissful, carefree existence that will then allow me to be loving, joyful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. How could I not be?

Of course this has absolutely nothing to do with the picture the Bible paints. Follow Christ and you may be persecuted, beaten, stoned or killed. At the very least, Christ guarantees that we will have trouble in this world. Where is the peace in that? But He goes on to say, "... Take heart for I have overcome the world... in Me you will have peace." (John 16:32-33)

How can trouble and peace be in the same statement? Only if Christ is in there, too.

The peace that comes from faith is the peace that comes from trusting Christ. And that is fundamentally different from the peace that comes from not giving a damn. Not caring what is happening around me, being oblivious to trouble or pretending that none of it has anything to do with me is not Christ's peace. It is the devil's way of making me ineffective.

In Christ's world, peace and passion are not mutually exclusive.

The ostrich is known for two things: it is the only bird that cannot fly and its defense mechanism is to  run in circles and stick its head in the sand. That does not make it one of God's more impressive creatures in my book. Christians who cannot (or will not) do what they are designed to do and who deal with trouble by hiding from it, aren't all that impressive either.

For years now I have felt that my job was to wash feet and serve others. I focused on my work at hospice and thought that I was stepping up for my faith in might ways. Trouble? What trouble? As long as I share my faith and do God's work, somebody else can deal with the world's trouble. How is that any different from the ostrich sticking its head in the sand - except that my halo won't fit? Am I on my way to becoming an unimpressive and ineffective Christian?

If you call my husband fat and lazy, if you tell me my children and stupid and ugly, would I just sit there and say nothing? Well... let me just tell you: my husband looks like George Clooney and works 70 hours a week; my sons are brilliant and handsome and awe-inspiring - and if you ever say anything like that again, you have a picked a fight you will not win.

So where is this passion when they tell me that God wants a wall, for example? Where is this passion when they tell me that being an evangelical stands for any number of political views? Well...  let me just tell you: God hates walls, He despises everything they stand for, and being an evangelical by definition means standing for the gospel and nothing else! So there, how's that for passion?

There comes a time when we have to stand up for our faith. There comes a time when being Christ's love means looking up from washing feet and loudly proclaiming His truth. There comes a time for defending the gospel even if it means defending it against fellow believers. For me that time is now.

Christ has overcome the world, but He has put me squarely in it. I am not after being an impressive Christian, but heaven help me if I ever become an ineffective one!

And do you know the strangest thing: I feel more at peace now than I have in months.











Friday, September 8, 2017

Short Line - Big Difference

Much of the Bible is familiar to me now. I have read most of it, I have studied some of it, and I find myself dabbling in familiar and calm waters. All very pleasant until one line, one single word at times, makes me sit up straight and take notice.

Latest example: Acts 4:34. This is the story of the early church. This is the story of a handful of fishermen taking what they had learned and translating it into a movement that would change the world. It is still changing the world.

There is much to be said about the struggles of this early church. Persecution from the outside, organizational issues on the inside, and a radical message on top of it. Peter must have thought of quitting more than once.

But now listen to this one, short line describing this church: "There was not a needy person among them." Not because they let only the rich and successful join. Not because they thought that if you are poor you deserve to be so get used to it. Oh no, there was not a needy person among them because they cared. Can't make it simpler than that, can you? "Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common." (Acts 4:32)

Fight the image in your head of a hippy commune in the 60s. That is not what the early church looked like and it is not what this verse is teaching. Christ's church then ran on active caring. It is exactly what His church should run on today.

Can your church say that? Do you not have a needy person among you? Can I say that about my church, my family, my circle of friends, the community I live in?

As a church, as Christ's ambassadors and His stewards until He returns, this is the one thing we are called to do: active caring in His name. And until there is not one needy person among us, our work is not done.

I have heard it said that this verse only applies to the church itself. We take care of our own. Apart from the fact that this is the most unloving and unchristian attitude, the challenge still holds: in our churches, among our body of believers, is there not a single needy person? Even if we think that climbing over a homeless person on our way to Sunday service is okay, can we really say that once inside we are all taken care of?

The other loophole is the term needy. Needy of what? Money, food, shelter, support, guidance, encouragement, prayer? In case of doubt, I go broad in my definitions. And the answer is: all of it. Signing a check does not take the place of physical presence. Physical presence does not fill hungry stomachs if you show up without food. All of it!

The early church was persecuted to the point of death. The early church grew to include all nationalities, cultures, races, languages and religious backgrounds in the shortest of time. The early church had to battle false teachers, opponents within the church, greed and deceit. And yet they got this right. They cared. They embodied Christ's love. And because of that, they grew as a movement. So what is our excuse? What issues do we face today that they didn't face then? Why isn't our movement growing? And why in God's name do we not seem to care?

The book of Acts is the story of Christ's church. It is our story, we are in the middle of writing it. What it will say about us is entirely in our control... it will reflect what is in our hearts. It is the record of how we act as a church. And how we act as a church determines how we grow as a church.

Incidentally, I am convinced that how I act as a believer determines how I will grow as a believer. No hiding behind abstracts, this is about me, my faith and how I am willing to live it. It is about my contribution to the book of Acts.






Friday, August 4, 2017

Change is in the Air

Change is in the air, just as I have comfortably settled into my new routine. A bit of work, a bit of hospice, a bit of study, a bit of family and plenty of time with my husband. I don't see the need to change a thing, really.

But then I watch the health care debate, I read every article and study on aging and palliative care, I look at the numbers of what is coming our way and my comfortable routine goes out the window. Now is not the time to sit back.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul writes, "But we were gentle with you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. ... we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us." (1 Thessalonians 7 and 8)

How very sweet. This is how I like to think of myself in hospice. Living the gospel, full of love and compassion, taking care of others, giving all I have to give. My halo is glowing, can you tell?

It is time for a reality check. Even with all of God's love to give, I am only one person loving only one or two patients at a time. Not even a drop in the ocean, a negligible contribution to a massive issue. I need to step it up, I need to find a way to multiply if I want to make the least bit of difference.

Paul continues to write, "... like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God..."

I think of this as the next logical step. I need to find others who will join me on this path. There will always be patients for me to love, but there should also be fellow warriors for me to care for, equip, encourage and challenge. Only then will I, we, make a difference.

My first thought was to ask my church to help me build a ministry. When that did not go as smoothly and efficiently as I thought it would, I thought that maybe I should start my own not-for profit. But that did not go smoothly and efficiently either, partly because I was scared and saw more obstacles than opportunities.

Frustrating times, let me tell you. I knew exactly what God wanted from me... you'd think the execution was easy. And it would have been, if my focus had been right. But there was entirely too much  "I" and "me" and "my" in the plan, and I very clearly needed to be humbled and refocused before He could put me to work.

So now listen to this: My church is splitting off into regional pastoral outposts. Because, wouldn't you know, caring for thousands of people from an institutional distance is hard to do. And guess who has been asked to be part of the Caring Ministry? Guess who has been asked to multiply her passion by sharing it with others? TaDa! As soon as I realized that I was getting nowhere on my own, as soon as I was frustrated enough to say to Christ "Fine then, YOU do it" things fell into place.

I have always said that my walk with Christ has to be uphill. And uphill it will be. This is completely new territory for me and some nights I wake up in a cold sweat thinking, "What on earth have you done!?"

The answer, of course, is simple: I am doing what I believe needs to be done. Better yet, I am doing what I believe God wants me to do. I am climbing the hill in obedience and in the knowledge that I will be closer to Him up there. That is all there is to it.

Hospice makes it very, very clear that I alone will never be enough. Christ makes that clear throughout the New Testament. "Apart from Me you can do nothing," He says. But how awesome is His offer to fill in the gaps! How awesome is His promise to  be there right beside me! Together we can do all things. You just watch.





Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Theory meets Christ

The Sadducees along with the Pharisees made up the ruling class of Israel at the time of Christ. They were aristocrats, powerful, wealthy, educated and proud. And Christ fought with them constantly. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in life after death. In Mark 12:18-27 they constructed this complicated and long-winded theoretical scenario to challenge Christ (and I paraphrase): The law says that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother and have children with her on his brother's behalf. So what if a man has seven brothers - not two or three, but seven - he marries a woman and dies without having children. Brother 1 takes over but he too dies without having children, brother 2 steps up, and on and on it goes until this poor woman has been married to and has outlived all seven brothers. Finally she dies (and who can blame her), but now what? If they all meet in heaven, who is she then married to?

Talk about convoluted!

Jesus listens to all of this and says, "Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?" (Mark 12:24)

Remember that the Sadducees were the smart guys. They studied Scripture for a living.

I, too, study Scripture for a living, in the truest sense of the word. I don't get payed for it, but it is what I do. I dig, I search, I ask, I pray, I write. And most of the time I feel pretty good about myself. But then I pull out old prayers (I write those down too) and I can literally hear Christ say, "Well, the reason you took a wrong turn there was because you clearly did not know Scripture nor the power of God." Ouch.

Financial trouble? Health concerns? Identity crisis? Crisis of Faith?
Disillusioned? Frustrated? Scared?

Christ knows that I feel all these things - but He wishes that I didn't. He wishes that somewhere along the line I would finally and instinctively and without any doubt know Scripture and the power of God. No more convoluted "what if's," no more theory that crumbles under the pressures of real life.

Every educator will tell you that the best way to know and understand a concept is to actively practice it. That is why we do long-division and multiplication tables in second grade. As a hobby-theologian, I will tell you the same thing: the best way to know the concept of God's power and the power of His Word is to practice it. "Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (James 1:22)

Theory meets Christ. I have come to that point. I know Scripture, I know the power of God. I know exactly what God demands of me. Not practicing what God is teaching me would be blatant disobedience... and who wants to go there? It is bad enough to have Christ say, "You are wrong because you do not know Scripture and the power of God." Far worse is it to have Him say, "You know Scripture, you know exactly what I am asking of you but you decide not to do it. And now you are deceiving yourself trying to deceive Me." Double-Ouch.

Remember the multiplication tables? That is how easy all of this truly is. Don't think Einstein when you hear the word theory. Think 2 x 2 = 4. Knowing Scripture, knowing the power of God, doing what He tells you to do and watching your life be transformed is not that hard. All you have to do is practice. That is where theory meets Christ.







Monday, June 26, 2017

Working Faith

The book of James is one of my favorite books in the entire Bible. And that is one of the few areas Martin Luther and I disagree. He did not care for the book of James, so much so that the supposedly considered omitting it altogether from his newly translated Bible. He didn't, but I can see why he was worried. James' apparent focus on works versus faith can easily be misconstrued to be in stark contrast with Jesus' free and unearned gift of salvation. The church in the Middle Ages had given believers so many hoops to jump through to catch a glimpse of God... a glimpse only, lest they get too close and too bold. Luther countered the church by letting God speak directly to believers, in their own language and without man corrupting His Word. God's grace alone, available to all - that was Luther's message.

Fascinating, I know. But it isn't even close to what this blogpost is going to be about.

James says things like "I will show you my faith through my works" (verse 2:18) and "for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead" (verse 2:26). It does make one squirm a little, doesn't it?

Not to water this down or shift focus, but there is a second, equally challenging way of looking at this: How about we look at this from God's perspective?

The trick to a living, working faith is seeing God work in my life. And God does work in my life, all the time. What if God says, "Faith without seeing My work for you is dead" - now there's a thought. I am not one of the more literal Christians who are offended if you wish them good luck or if you exclaim "what a coincidence". Call it what you want, to me luck is God's blessing and coincidence is God's providence. It is not what you call it, the question is do you see it?

Faith can't consume me if I don't see God at every turn. God is not an abstract being I sing songs to on Sunday mornings. He is not a mystical figure I read about in Scripture. God is real, He is all around me and if I don't see Him, my faith will remain the theoretical concept that James warns about. Faith and work go together. I do God's work because of my faith - and I see God's work because of it.

And not just if things go well. Seeing God in a blessing is the easy part. God is in the good, the bad and the ugly. See Him in all three, give thanks for all three, trust Him in all three and you will have a working faith in every sense of the word.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Words, Words, Words

John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."

Man may not be an island, but I am feeling very much like one. The isolated, desolate, unwelcoming kind, not the kind with the white beaches, crystal blue waters and iced piƱa coladas.

I don't recognize the continent I am supposed to be a piece of... be it my country, my church, my fellow islanders. Everywhere I turn, mine fields are waiting, everybody I meet is on guard and ready to pounce. The tone is harsh, the rules of combat brutal. Take no prisoners, you are either with me or against me, compromise is a sign of weakness, compassion has become an unpatriotic sentiment.

I am right up there with the best of them, I am never not angry these days. And this is with me limiting mainstream news coverage to the headlines of major, international outlets - once a day only. I am completely off social media, I drive my car in radio silence and my TV intake these days is Father Brown on PBS. No kidding. And still I am angry. It is like poisonous gas; it finds a way in and it eats you up from the inside out. Maybe being an island isn't such a bad idea after all...

If it wasn't for Christ's nagging voice: "I told you to make disciples of all nations, not to build a tiki bar on an island somewhere. By all means, leave your TV and radio off, read only the comics in the newspaper and stay away from Facebook and Twitter, but this island thing just will not work! Now more than ever, put yourself out there. Don't talk,  don't argue, just be... be My love, be My hope, be My peace... be Me!"

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for hiding behind man-made rules and activities to appear holy when in fact their hearts are as far from God as they can be. (Mark 7:6-8) Religious activism versus true faith. Like the pumper sticker: "Jesus is coming, look busy!" Max Lucado has a field day with that in his study 'The Gospel of Mark'. Questions like "What do you do to appear holy?" or "What is wrong with measuring spirituality by outward actions?"

Wouldn't you know it, these questions make me angry.

Not every busy Christian is a hypocrite! And if there ever was a time to be an active Christian, this is it. We are drowning in words. Vile, ignorant, incomprehensible hate speeches countered by believers' appeals to remember and live the gospel. "Words, words, words, I am sick of words!" Eliza Doolittle says that in My Fair Lady. From John Donne to Alan Jay Lerner, who says I am not well-versed?

I agree with her: I am sick of words. I ask God to do so much for me, it cannot be that all I do for Him is talk. And that does not make me a hypocrite; an island, maybe, but not a hypocrite.

"a bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench" (Isaiah 42:3). I am all out of words. All I have are two strong hands and a faintly burning wick. It is all I need. It is all any of us need.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Witness

In Christian lingo the terms "to share the gospel" and "to witness" are often used interchangeably. This has always confused me, being my literal and analytical self. Per definition, a witness is somebody who has seen an event, can testify to the truth of the event and serves as proof that the event actually took place. If you witness an accident, you saw what happened, you can explain what happened and you can attest to the accident as a true event rather than hearsay.

In that sense I have no problem with the apostles witnessing for Christ. They were there, they saw Jesus prove His deity over and over again. And it is not just a chosen handful who can make that claim. The Bible is full of witnesses to the ministry of Christ all the way to His crucifixion and resurrection.

I believe every word they said. From David to Isaiah to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and countless others, their witness is good enough for me. But that is my faith, not personal observation - and while my life is full of proof that Christ is at work in me, that still doesn't make me a witness. It makes me a believer. If you want a witness account of my faith, you'll have to ask the people around me. They are the ones who should see Christ in me. I have no proof that the Bible account of Jesus is true. I wasn't there. But if I live my faith the way Christ demands me to, my life will the proof of His existence to anyone willing to look. And that puts a whole new spin on the often used and abused term "to witness". It is a call to action above all else.

The book of Acts gives a clear example of what faith like that should look like: Peter and John had just healed the lame beggar in front of the temple and were arrested for it. They were dragged before the Council and asked to explain themselves... which they did by sharing the gospel as witnesses in the true sense. This is Peter and John we are talking about, if anybody personally knew Jesus Christ it was those two.

"Now when they (the rulers and elders and scribes) saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition." (Acts 4:13-14)

Peter and John did something that was completely out of character: not only did they heal a man, they then stood in front of the Pharisees (the smart guys) and boldly held their own despite their lack of education and training. It had the Council members speechless. Why? Because for all intents and purposes, this should not be. Illiterate fishermen are not supposed to deliver eloquent speeches.

Peter and John were clearly identified as followers of Jesus both because they had physically been with Him and because they were now testifying for Him. They made none of this about themselves.

And finally they had their proof standing right next to them. The healed beggar was right there for all to see. No wonder there was nothing to say in opposition, who could argue with the facts?

If I want my life to be a witness of my faith, this is my blueprint:

1. do something that I could or would never do out of my own steam
2. give Christ all the credit for doing it
3. have my "proof' ready for all to see

I have heard people with speech impediments deliver the most amazing sermons. I have seen my boys as small children serve the poor in Ecuador without speaking a word of Spanish. I have seen rich men humble themselves to scrub floors and I have seen poor men stand up courageously to remind the church of its call to love. I am a witness to all of that. My prayer is that you are a witness of my faith. Do you look at me and see Christ in action? Are you amazed and ask yourself "how does she do that day after day?" Is the proof of my faith standing right next to me, so to speak? If not, I am failing miserably. No blogpost, no sermon, no Bible study can take the place of faith in action. They are just words, and words without living proof will not convince anyone, nor should they.

The closest I come to giving others a chance to witness my faith is hospice. If it was up to me, I would have quit years ago. I give Christ all the credit and there is no question in anybody's mind why I keep showing up. And nobody can argue with the value of the work that I do, death affects all of us and it scares most of us. Even so, this is just the beginning.

My walk with Christ has to be uphill. It has to push and challenge me, it has to make me grow and it has to change the world around me more so today than it did yesterday. There is more to come, I can feel it. Peter did not stop with the healing of one man. In fact, Peter did not stop until the day he died and by then he had truly changed the world for Christ. Don't let it be said that I set my goals too low.