Road to Adoption: Checking in after one Year

 

We went on vacation last week :)

IMG_4185 This was our first as a family. (Because no, I’m not counting that time we took our Black kids to the White Mountains.)

We went to Syracuse NY for the Vineyard East Regional Conference, a gathering of Vineyard Church leaders from Maine to Pennsylvania. The difference in these two experiences was a good reminder of how far we’ve come.

Last year at this time, the kids had just moved in with us. They were stressed and overwhelmed, struggling mightily to make the best of a situation they never asked for. They called us Steve & Trish, they submitted to hugs but didn’t reciprocate, they had no trouble expressing the many and varied ways we sucked. The list of things they hated included meeting new people, having new experiences, and my cooking. In other words, most parts of most days. Don’t even get me started about running errands or driving anywhere in the car. There were times they both just pulled blankets over their heads in the back seat just to get some space to process their fury.  I moved my toothbrush out of the downstairs bathroom after finding it coated with soap.

I think what saved us in those early days was what we’d learned from other foster & adoptive parents: to IGNORE the part of us that wanted to say, “Oh honey, I know you’re hurting…what will make better???”  Because the truth is, they didn’t know. They were in new territory, and needed us to help them map the land. So we doubled down on high structure & high nurture.

Steve and I gave endless hugs and words of appreciation and affirmation. We complimented toenail growth and praised deodorant application. We ate dinner together every night, even though it was quiet and angry and awkward. We kept the refrigerator STOCKED. They may not have liked all the food, there was a lot of it.

At the same time, the kids were expected to look good when they got dressed, not wear clothes with stains or rips, brush their teeth & shower daily, make their beds, and do the few chores we could dream up with excellence and without complaining. We gave them a script to follow for when they meet people (because people happen), and just ignored their “Oh it’s going to be AWFUL/I don’t want to go!” complaints when we left the house until they more or less learned that if something was planned, it wasn’t getting un-planned. They detoxed from high-fructose corn syrup and the dream that we’d swing through 7-ll to pick up dinner. They had early bedtimes, almost no tv, and quickly learned that there was just no way either of them was going to play songs in our car or our kitchen about what some girl was going to do to some boy after they left the club.

These were not the boundaries I would have predicted if you’d asked me about my parenting before The  Cherubs arrived. I’m not against TV or music or even junk food. But we learned that these were the boundaries our kids needed, and so we build these rules like scaffolding around them to give them something secure to hold onto.

I don’t think I realized until this vacation how much this scaffolding WORKED.

I am in awe.

This year, our kids have just started calling us Dad & Mom. They hug us back and ask for affection. We have family jokes and things we laugh about. They’re still nervous about meeting new people, but have learned that meeting new people is ALWAYS awkward, no matter who you are, so they don’t take personally. They more or less tolerate my cooking. (Honestly I think we now just eat a bunch of healthy-ish food none of us really like, but we’re doing so much better than before that it seems like a win).

And in the days leading up to our vacation, they DIDN’T obsess about going to a big conference filled with people they don’t know. Instead, they chose a couple of good things to focus on: that we’d promised them McDonalds the first time we did a really long car ride, and that Auntie Gwen & their friends Grace & Sam would be there at the conference, too. They repeated these two things again and again, creating a narrative of excitement instead of fear. It was amazing.

When we arrived, the hotel had a pool…and a basketball court (GOD BLESS YOU Residence IMG_4172Inn Syracuse for that basketball court!!!)  At the conference, there was a teen/youth track the kids could follow so they weren’t with the grown ups the whole time (GOD BLESS YOU Syracuse Vineyard for the teen/youth/get-away-from-your-parents-and-have-your-own-experience-track!!!).  By the end of the first night, they asked, “Can we come again next year?” And by the end of the week they didn’t want to leave.

It was one of the best weeks we’ve had as a family.

I’m sharing this because Jen Hatmaker shared a similar then vs. now story on her blog last year that saved my sanity when I was deep in the trenches and feeling like I didn’t have what it takes. It’s been taken down, so I thought I’d post my own version to pay it forward, to cheer on all of you who are in this situation right now, or considering foster care/adoption.

You should consider foster care/adoption. I’m not sure anything in my life has gone on such a speedy track of growth and transformation. These kids are amazing. It has taken more than Steve & I thought we had, and there have been some white knuckled nights and long, frustrated days. I’ll admit that there was a season where the checkout guy at our local beer & wine store knew us REALLY well, because we were there A LOT.

But this kind of transformation in just over a year? It’s worth it. Some adoptions take longer to find the sweet spot; this isn’t a one-timeline-fits-all endeavor. But the wins are pretty huge when they come.

IMG_4217

Our traveling tribe from Greenhouse Mission Vineyard Church.

Teaching The Cherubs About Faith

Once Steve & I met The Cherubs, we began thinking about how to teach them about faith. About Jesus, specifically, and the Bible, and why these things matter so much to us that we’ve built our lives around them.

The first step, we thought, was to find a church, one that would (hopefully) become a spiritual home for us as a newly formed family.  So we started visiting on Sundays.

The first church we visited had a kids’ curriculum based on a Jesus who taught morality: things like, Don’t be a bully and Be nice to people in need. Our kids seemed to have picked up on those lessons already, so we kept looking.

The second place we went looked so impressive as we walked in. The building was enormous – there was a 3 story fountain in the foyer. But beyond that, we loved how diverse it was. It reminded us of our life back in Cambridge, and how when people don’t look alike, you get to figure out what you have in common based on who you actually are. It’s a pretty cool way to live.

A volunteer proudly led us to the WING of the building that housed their youth/young adult program.  It was jaw-dropping. In the class for 5th graders, there was (I’m not even kidding) a 20-something guy doing a hula-hoop by the door, greeting the kids as they walked in. Behind him there were video screens with games on them, foosball and ping-pong tables, and an arts corner that could rival any classroom at RISD. Down the hall was the space for the junior high & high school kids, only this wasn’t a class, it was a cafe. Dim lighting, giant couches, more video games, pool tables. I felt like we’d fast forwarded ahead 6 or 7 years and were now touring colleges.

But when we left that day, we knew that church wasn’t for us, either. We don’t want to teach our kids that church is primarily entertainment, or that the main value is whether or not they’re having fun.

While I’d prefer that The Cherubs not hate church, I don’t really care if they love it.

This is, I suspect, because I grew up Catholic. In Catholic church, NOBODY CARES if the kids are enjoying themselves. Or the adults, for that matter. The whole point of Mass is that it’s not about you, it’s about Jesus, and we are all there to receive something from Him we need and cannot get any other way. So in every Catholic church you will see toddlers running toy cars across the pews, middle schoolers squirming and zoning out, and high schoolers trying not to get caught staring at the cute guy or girl three rows up.  And as they play and zone and oggle, they absorb information about God. Some of it might be the specific message of the day (although I remember very little of that – I needed ten years of Protestant Bible study before I could even understand what was going on at Mass). But there’s also a sense of priority – that faith matters enough to invest an hour a week, even if it’s boring, and a sense of belonging – you are part of the family of God, and when the sh*t hits the fan in your life, you know where God lives. Even if you’ve never connected with Him there before, you have a place to start now.

That’s what happened for both Steve and me: When we sensed God speaking to us about taking Jesus seriously, we had a starting point.

I think there’s a lot to this. So for the past few months (after we visited a third church that had all the kids DANCE in front of the whole congregation to a song our kids had never heard before) we’ve been doing church at home, here in our living room. It’s been fantastic. The Cherubs are relieved. Sometimes on long drives we listen to podcast sermons from a church we love in Hawaii, led by friends of ours who used to live up here. (We’ve listened to so many of these that the Cherubs now consider Pastor Jordan their friend, too, and #2 Cherub wanted to hit him up for a magazine subscription in last week’s school fundraising debacle.)

***

As we teach the Cherubs about faith, we try to give them spiritual tools they can use right now. (For example, #2 Cherub has a big event at school today and asked us all to pray.) But more than that, we’re trying to situate them within the larger faith, a larger family, and a larger way of seeing what is possible and what Jesus offers that they cannot get anywhere else.

As with most things, the results are mixed. Yesterday, I had this conversation:

Cherub: My throat hurts!

Me: Aw…can I pray for you right now?

Cherub: (rolls eyes) It doesn’t hurt THAT much.

But just a week ago, I when Steve was home sick, that same Cherub blurted, “Please God, heal Steve!” Now, the motivation was that she needed Steve’s help with something later, but still, I’m excited that they’re picking up on the truth that when there’s nothing WE can do, there’s still a lot God can do. They’ve seen us do this, and so they’re trying it out.

It’s not what we expected, but it’s what God is doing, so we’re going with it.

I’m learning that our kids are picking up more about life with Jesus from watching us live it than from anything else they encounter.  So I’m trying to live it BIG, so they get to see all the ways it plays out- the impossibilities and possibilities it offers – and why it means so much.

And in this, I’m holding on to this vision of church – A place where we connect with Jesus, are encouraged & challenged in our mission, get pushed into absurd situations that could only be orchestrated by God, and get to see miracles as a result. Where people whose faith we admire help fill in the gaps we’re unsure about, just as we help them do the same.

Easier said than done, I know. I guess what I’m saying is this: don’t settle for a foosball table & an earnest kid with a hula hoop, if that feels like “not what I’d hoped for but I guess it’s good enough.” It might be enough – bless that hula guy! But if it isn’t for you, trust that feeling.

***

A few weeks ago, when a friend asked me how it feels to finally have children after so many years of praying, I told her this:

I see now that when God comes through, it doesn’t feel like you’re settling. I don’t feel like I’ve settled. I feel 100% like these precious Cherubs are THE KIDS I’m supposed to raise. I’m astonished that life can feel this good.

The same applies to wanting a great marriage, or meaningful work…or a church family that feels like home, where you and the ones you love (along with a few you’re not so crazy about) absorb and try out what it means to be Jesus-ey. A place where we and realize that the gifts and promises are for us, too. If any area of life right now feels like you’re settling, then God is not done yet.

Love for Accidental Saints

I know I rave about books a lot here – I tend towards the jazz hands side on the review scale of life (Which is essentially: Ballet = “I found this to be a quiet, but important, read;” Modern Dance = “this book is weird;” Jazz Hands = “OMIGOSH I WANT TO HAND THIS TO YOU PERSONALLY RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE!!!”) This tendency leaves me feeling a bit like The Girl Who Cried Wolf right now, because Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People is ALL the dances: it’s the important, weird book I want to hand to you personally right this very minute. I can imagine some part of it appealing to you, no matter who you are.

UnknownMy favorite chapter is called “The Lame.” In it, Bolz-Weber describes how, as she wrote her first book, her editor pushed her to describe why she’d been such a pissed off kid – how she’d suffered from an autoimmune disorder that caused her eyes to bulge out of her face so far that her eyelids could not even close.

“Absolutely not,” Bolz-Weber replied.  Then she tells us about what she learned as she wrote it:

“Of all the inelegant things I wrote about myself in that book,” she says now, “–publicly admitting imagesto drug use, alcoholism, deceit, sexual indiscretion, misanthropy, and pretending to be a hero–the pain and alienation of my childhood was the one thing that made me think, If I tell this, I may die. If I show the encasing under the tattoos, no one will again believe that I am cool.”

Writing this made her realize: it was never the people attracted to her “cool” persona who stayed at her church. It was the ones drawn to the bug-eyed kid she used to be, the with no friends who ate her lunch alone in middle school.

I read that and wrote in the margins: “They’re not drawn to her cool or her uncool. They’re drawn to the path between the two. She’s transformed.”  

I’m not sure I’ve seen a better collection of real stories of transformation walked out in daily life. If you need encouragement that it’s possible (even if you’re pretty sure that YOU’RE fine, but know all these OTHER PEOPLE who could use some transformation) read this. You’ll want to cry when you’re done, but in a good way, because you’ve been reminded that all the things are possible.

 

Book Review: Searching for Sunday

511Xwfec5PLThis might be the most growth I’ve seen in a memoirist from one book to another. In Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans (author of the somewhat snarky takedown of Fundamentalist Christianity, A Year of Biblical Womanhood), offers a heartfelt and achingly honest account of her attempts to reconcile her longing for a faith community with the disappointment so many people find there.  One gets the sense that Held dug deep for this one, and the results are profound. She resists the temptation to simply cast stones at Evangelicalism, and instead focuses on a few communities trying to build something transformative and honest in the name of Jesus. Not every question is answered, and she doesn’t offer herself as an authority on the quest for faith. This is truly the account of one pilgrim. I’m so glad I read it and I look forward to what comes next for her. I hope she continues in this vein, because it’s a rich one.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Faith Community Talk: Be Healed

We had a really encouraging morning.  THAT DOG did not eat the communion bread (despite an impressive attempt), and we prayed for God to heal each of us…then watched, rather stunned, as God answered our prayers – two bad cases of congestion, GONE.  Not everyone we prayed for was healed (yet?) but this felt like a pretty great start.  Here’s the talk:

*** 

Sometimes I don’t know how strongly I believe something until I hear someone else emphatically declare that the opposite is true.  This is how I realized how sure I am that Jesus heals people today.

I was at a writers’ conference a few years ago, and an author was speaking about her new book where she described her ministry to the homeless and hungry in the Bay Area of California. She sees a lot of suffering in her work, and I think someone asked her something like, “How do you help people bring those needs before God?” 

I don’t remember the precise words of her answer, but it was something about how God sends people to fill needs, and how we all need to become those people. And then she added, “I have a lot of people ask me to pray for them when they’re sick. And I don’t pray for them to be healed. I pray that God bring them peace.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I was INCENSED by this answer, reacting far out of proportion to what she’d said.  But I was troubled that she tell a hundred or so people that this was the proper Christian approach to sickness and prayer.  When the talk was over, it took me about an hour to process why this had hit me so hard.

Part of my reaction was that I’d SEEN God heal people in response to prayer; I’d witnessed it firsthand. God didn’t often use me that way (although he had on one occasion, and several times when I was part of a group praying for someone).  But also, as I thought about the Bible, it seemed bizarre to think that God wouldn’t want us to pray for people to be physically healed. It’s what God’s representatives DID in the New Testament.  It went hand-in-hand with proclaiming the Good News of Jesus. It was part of how they conveyed the message of how Jesus changed everything about the relationship between Heaven and Earth.

In that moment I realized that believing that God heals in response to prayer is very much a part of what it means to me to be a Christian.

That said, I did absolutely nothing about it…for years.  I prayed for a few people here and there. But then I had my faith kicked in a bit by some prayers that weren’t answered, and so I kind of stopped trying. I was like one of those little kids who can’t ride a bike right away and so gives up ever riding and just decides it’s not for them.

***

Today we’re going to pray for healing.  God told me to do this after last Sunday, as I was getting ready for bed. I sensed God nudging me to read Mark 16.  I opened my Bible to see that this is the final chapter of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life.   Right in the middle, Jesus gives these departing instructions to his Apostles:

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.

I sensed that it was a direction for this Sunday’s gathering, so I fished around for some specifics:

  • I always try to incorporate Jesus’ basic message of “believe and be saved” into my talks, so I didn’t think this was the direction God was giving me.
  • I was not going to import snakes or ask people to drink poison. (I think these are more, “If you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in this sort of predicament, faith in Jesus helps” instructions, rather than “Pursue this to prove you believe” forms of worship, although it would make for quite a gathering…)
  • When I looked at the final line – and they will lay their hands on sick people and they will get well – and I got this excited feeling inside, like when you get really good news.

So that’s what we’re going to do.

To do this, it helps to have some sense of why we might believe such an unlikely thing is possible; why we’d spend time on this, rather than say, praying for peace or the ability to bear up well under adversity.  Also,  I find that the best way to work up the courage to try something is to hear stories about others who have tried before me. And when I do this, I want to know two things:

  1. What made them think this was a good idea?
  2. How did it go when they did it?

I’ve spent this week immersed in stories of modern-day people who do this regularly. For example:

  • I re-read Miracle Work by Jordan Seng, who was a pastor in our former church and now runs a church with a powerful healing ministry in Hawaii where, about once a month, they hold a service that is all about praying for sick people.
  • I read a book by Heidi Baker, a woman who runs an enormous home for former orphans in Mozambique, who tells of how she felt like she should pray for blind people, so she just started going up to any blind person she could find and offering to pray for them, until it worked and God restored their sight restored. I’ve heard Heidi speak several times and have friends who work with her in Mozambique. I feel like she and Jordan are credible witnesses to this happening now, today.

I spent some time thinking back to an experience I had with praying for physical healing. I was at a faith-based gathering. The guy running the event asked everyone who needed healing to line up, and then the rest of us were asked to go to them, ask what they needed prayer for, and then pray for them to be healed. I had NO FAITH that I could do this, so I went up to a friend of mine who was asking for prayer because I could admit to her that I was not any good at this and she should get someone else to pray for her for real after.  She just smiled and nodded, and said she was suffering from TMJ. I put my hand on her jaw and said something like, “Be healed in Jesus’ name.”  And she was.

I don’t know if this was a big deal for her – she’d never mentioned TMJ to me before, so maybe it was just a mild annoyance. But it was a huge deal for me, especially because I played NO ROLE in it happening, other than just going along with the program. This further solidified my conviction that this is part of what God does in our lives here today.

As I thought about all of this this week, I kept coming back to two promises in the Bible:

One, which Anne mentioned last week, from Ecclesiastes: “God has made all things beautiful in his time.” This invites the question: What does God want to make beautiful, here today?

 And the second, from at letter written to the Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  Hebrews 13:7-8

PetersMotherInLawI thought the best way to see what that meant was to spend some time traipsing around after Peter, one of the disciples who spent time with Jesus during his life here on earth. So that’s what we’ll do right now. As we do this, I want you to keep two images in mind:

  1. How, Peter is sort of an overeager little brother with Jesus, taking in the things he sees around him in a kind of wide-eyed way and trying to do it himself any chance he gets; and
  2. How we can look at Peter in this same big-brother way, trying things he tried, based on what we see in who Jesus was yesterday and believing it’s the same today and forever.

Note: This is not meant to be a definitive history of Peter’s life or ministry. Rather, it’s a overview of what Peter saw, what Jesus said, and what Peter then did with that.  Most of our passages come from Mark’s Gospel – which is quick & action packed and sort of lends itself to this kind of consideration.  The italicized portions are quoted straight from the Bible, and in some places I’ve summarized or prefaced to give context – those are the parts in regular type.

Let’s dive in:

In the first chapter of Mark, right in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we’re told:

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”  As Jesus walked beside the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon [Peter’s original name] and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.  Mark 1:14-18

They picked up a couple of other fishermen along the way – James and John – and eventually went to Simon & Andrew’s family home.

Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. Mark 1:29-31

That’s an interesting out-of-the gate story, no? Later that night, we’re told that people from all over gathered and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.  Mark 1:32-34

A man with [a skin condition] came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.  1:40-42

While Jesus was preaching, some men cut a hole in the roof of the building and lowered a paralyzed man down to him.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son your sins are forgiven.” [then he said to the man] I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  He got up, too his mat and walked out in full view of them all.  2:1-12

After they had witnessed all of these things, Jesus appointed twelve apostles, of whom Simon was the first. Jesus gave him the name “Peter.”  Mark 3:16

Then things got wilder:

Peter and the other apostles watched as Jesus woke up from a sound sleep to calm a crazy storm that was tossing their boat all over the place. Mark 4:35

Then when they finally make it across the lake, they’re greeted by a man so filled with demons that he lived in the tombs, cutting himself, crying out, unable to be subdued even with chains. Jesus has a conversation with the demons, tells them they have to leave, and then grants their request to be sent into a nearby heard of pigs, who promptly throw themselves into the lake and are drowned. Everyone in the region is so freaked out, they beg Jesus to leave. Mark 5:1-17

And then after this, Peter and the others witness a shift, as healing happens without Jesus initiating it:

A large crowd followed and pressed around Jesus. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.”  Mark 5:24-29

Jesus didn’t initiate or participate in that, it just happened because of his power. 5:21-34

Peter is one of only three apostles who watches as Jesus goes into a room where a little girl is lying dead. Jesus kicks out all the people who don’t believe, and then we’re told, He took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him and when in where they child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old).  Mark 5:37-42

Peter saw Jesus raise a child from the dead. I imagine that would change one’s perspective on what is possible.

Matthew’s Gospel account contains perhaps the best-known story about Peter:

Jesus has sent the apostles ahead of him on a boat so that he can have some time alone to pray. The boat was against the wind, and so being tossed around quite a bit by the waves.

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Walking on Faith by Benjamin McPherson

Walking on Faith by Benjamin McPherson

 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

 Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said. “why did you doubt?”

 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret…People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the ege of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.  Matthew 14:22-31, 34-36.

And not long after this, Peter was the first to confess to Jesus, “You are the Christ.” Mark 8:27

Matthew then tells us that Jesus replied,

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…And I tell you that your are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Matthew 16:16-19

And if all of this wasn’t enough, Peter was then one of the “core three” apostles who witnessed Jesus transfigured on top of a mountain, and then conduct a conversation with Moses and Elijah, after which God himself enveloped them all in a bright cloud and said about Jesus, “This is my son, whom I love; Listen to him!”  Mark 9:2-7

Soon thereafter, Peter had an interesting conversation with Jesus, where he pledged his undying devotion. Jesus said, in effect, “Please…you’ll deny me three times before the end of the day…” And that’s exactly what happened. – Mark 14:29-30

This was an important moment, for us to note: it shows that Jesus knew Peter –what he was capable of AND how he would fail – better than Peter knew himself. Peter’s limitations did not limit God’s plan for his life.

Shortly after this, Jesus was crucified.

Let’s Pause and think about that for a moment. Imagine the scene:

All these people had put their hope in him, believing he was the Messiah. They’d changed their lives, given up old things to follow him, seen miracle after miracle (and a lot of fighting and persecution, too).  Now, it seems like it may all have been for nothing. Everyone who knew and loved him is sort of milling around, numb and unsure what to do.  At a very real level, they’re struggling just to figure out, “what do I do now?”

Mark 16 tells us about what happened on the third day. We’re told first that three women went to Jesus’ grave to care for his body, but his body was not there.  After that, things got interesting:

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. 

Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. 

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

He said to them: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.  Mark 16:9-20

Jesus told the apostles to stick around until they received the Holy Spirit.

We’re told about this in the book of Acts: how this galvanizes Peter, turns him into a brilliant orator, and how after that he walked in the authority he received.  For example:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer- at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts.  When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

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Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk.  Acts 3:1-8

 The Apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared to join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Never the less, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.  Acts 5:12-16

***

 Quite a story, right? A regular fisherman, transformed into someone who carries the healing power of Jesus, even in his SHADOW.

What I love about Peter’s journey is that it shows us his learning process: he tried these things because:

  1. He saw Jesus pray for people and see them healed; and
  2. He heard Jesus tell him he could do this (and other things, like walk on water) too; and
  3. He was brave (or uninhibited) enough to try.

He saw, he heard, he did.

And as anyone who has ever inadvertently taught a small child an inappropriate gesture or a swear word, you can attest that this is exactly how we learn new things!

This is why we looked at Peter’s life today. So we can see this passing down – we see Jesus with him, and then we see him walking this out.

Now I DO believe in praying for peace, especially those who are sick. We need God’s miraculous peace, too. And there are times when the healing we pray for does not come right away, or we don’t see it. We don’t know the whole story.

But we’re invited, called, to offer what we have, as Peter and John did that day. And what we have is a relationship with Jesus, that bridges the gap between us and God, and makes impossible things possible.

This is the “good news” people talk about when it comes to Christ – that even if you think, as I did, “But I already know God” there is MORE to know, and a deeper relationship available, with all sorts of gifts and fruit and miracles and surprises.  Today, we’ll ask God for a piece of that MORE.

Let’s pray…

Faith Community Talk: Our Quest for Wisdom

Here are the notes from our Faith Community talk this week. I hope they encourage you :)

Our Quest for Wisdom

 UnknownThis week was my birthday.  I turned 45. This is the first birthday that has felt “big” to me: like I should pause and pay attention, think about what this means.  I think this came from learning that Martin Luther King, Jr. died at 39 – I hadn’t known that.  It made me aware that it’s an honor to reach this age. It feels like a crossroads of sorts, where ALL my varied life experiences so far kind of all come together and start to make sense, and that I should notice the way God puts things together. That this is a wisdom we earn in life. I don’t think this is tied to any specific age; I think we’re all in this process.

All this made me think of a time about 10 years ago, when I asked for wisdom specifically, and how God has answered that prayer in some unexpected ways.

Here’s what happened: when Steve and I were newlyweds, we joined a small group at our church that focused on looking at marriage through the lens of the Bible, using that as a blueprint from which to build these important relationships.  One night we were talking about prayer, and trying to be bolder in asking God for what we need. We went around the circle and each answered the question: “If you could ask God for ANYTHING, what would you ask for?”

 There were lots of good answers, but one really stuck with me. When we got to our friend Chris, he said, “Well, King Solomon had the chance to ask God for anything he wanted, and he asked for wisdom. So that seems like a smart choice to me.”

 I liked that.

I went home and read the story in the 1 Kings 3: how God came to Solomon in a dream and asked him this question, and when he asked for wisdom, God was pleased, and told him:

Unknown-2Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have you asked for the death of your enemies, but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. MOREOVER, I will give you what you have not asked for – both riches and honor – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.  And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.   (1 Kings 3)

 Following Chris’ lead, I asked for wisdom that night ten years ago, and have asked for it many, many times since.  When I asked, here’s what I was expecting:

I thought it wisdom was something that came as sort of a Divine Download, where supernaturally, God would just deposit all this “knowing” into my mind; where I’d find myself able to comprehend and handle things that would have confounded me before.  I thought it would be similar to when I learned Astrology. Back then, whenever anyone told me their birthday, I’d “know” a whole slew of information about them: their personality, what motivated them, their fears and goals, ways of approaching things. It was a little creepy, but it was handy.  For 6-7 years, this was my primary system for navigating relationships: friendships, at work, romantic prospects.  And as I’ve shared before, what I “knew” via astrology was surprisingly accurate…but it wasn’t GOOD. As fun as it was to feel like I was accessing supernatural information, it rarely put anyone in a positive light, and tended to reveal things that were unflattering or sort of “you at your worst.” At some level, it made you feel known and exposed, rather than known and encouraged.  (Later I could understand why in the Bible, God tells us not to seek this sort of knowledge from sources other than Him.)

The Bible tells us in a couple of different places that we’re hardwired with a bent to look for wisdom via what we can do: (In my case, learning someone’s birthday)

Indeed, the very first man and woman came to look at things this way, after Eve’s encounter with the snake in the Garden of Eden.  In the third chapter of Genesis we read about a shift in Eve’s perception of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had told Adam they were not to eat. But then she chatted with the snake, who lied to her and said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Then Eve started to crave Eve Fruitwhat she thought she couldn’t have. We’re told that “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

Eve had probably always seen that the fruit was pretty, and guessed that it would taste good.  But when the serpent came along and told her it would give her knowledge, THAT’S when Eve decided to defy God.  And since then, we seek knowledge. We want to KNOW things based on some easy behavior or attitude:

  • Learning someone’s astrological sign (or Myer’s Briggs or Enneagram, etc.)
  • Moving furniture to a special arrangement
  • Adopting a 100% positive attitude
  • Eating vegan or paleo or Atkins (or any other specialized way) not for health reasons, but in the belief that it will give us “clarity” or make us “more evolved.”

We want life to be better…we want to KNOW things and be wise…and we love the idea that that can come via something we do or learn or say.  We love the idea that WE control it.

We don’t.

Now, there are elements that are similar, sometimes, where it feels like I get a “Divine Download”:

  • Certainly, reading the Bible broadens my understanding of God and our relationship to Him and gives me a new lens for how to see the world and respond to it. It gives me wisdom to handle things differently than I might have before.
  • There have been countless times where I’ve “known” something I could not have known on my own, with ideas that just sort of popped into my head.
  • The Bible describes gifts from God that come under the heading of Prophecy, where people know things they could not know any other way, because God tells them.
  • And I’ve had lots of experiences where, when faced with a challenging question or situation when talking with someone, I’ll open my mouth to respond and think, “I have no idea what I’m going to say here…” and yet I’ll say something “wise” that I’d never thought of before.

But I’m not sure these experiences are the kind of wisdom King Solomon was asking for, or the kind the Bible encourages us to pursue.

By and large, God has answered my prayers for wisdom by hurling me into one situation after another that I have almost no idea how to handle.  It comes with gaining lots of momentum and then slamming into a wall, then working with God for answers and understanding (and motivation and stamina) to get through or around it.

Almost always, it’s situations where there are perhaps two available, obvious responses:

  1. The “normal” response, filled with extreme reactions, positive or negative.
  2. The “Christian” response, filled with niceness and determined, tamped-down calm.

Rarely do either of these responses appeal to me.  I’m not all that extreme, and I’m not all that nice.  So I find myself casting about for a 3rd option.  And rather than the lovely long-range plan I’m looking for, I usually get minute-by-minute possible responses.  God even skips some minutes. Sometimes a lot of them, and I feel more or less left to my own devices.

And when His minute-by-minute suggestions clash BLUNTLY with both the “normal” response and the “Christian” response, it sets up these double & triple wisdom-needing situations, because people get mad (or disappointed, or resentful, or whatever), and then there are relational issues on top of whatever situation was at issue in the first place.

It’s a mess. And yet in the midst of these messes, God leads me through, one minute at a time. It’s only when things are more or less over–which often takes a couple years–that I can look back and see what God was doing: what all those small instructions added up to, maybe even a little bit of why He directed things that way, places I “zigged” when I should have “zagged.”

And I realize that as a result of this experience, I “know” things – I have wisdom – that I did not have before.

In short, the way in which God answers our prayers for wisdom is SO MUCH HARDER than I thought it would be.

It reminds me of a Sara Grove song, where she contrasts the difference between “What I thought I wanted” and “What I got instead.”  She describes how life hands us these situations that are UNFAIR, and we want them fixed. And yet how, over time, we see that the broken engagement, the betrayed friendship, the disappointing grade on your statistics exam, and the wall that popped up out of nowhere and stopped your momentum cold…lead to good things…eventually.

I DISLIKE this system.

And yet, given that a couple of weeks ago we talked about becoming Spiritual Superheroes, I must admit that this system is one of the ways God gives us His power. Superheroes are people who have been through some “assignments” with God, survived impossible situations, experienced the joy of being part of helping/rescuing/bringing hope into hopelessness, and so have hidden stores of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and belief.

This isn’t the ONLY way God’s power works…it’s only a small fraction. But it is an IMPORTANT part of what we pick up in life, and what we have to work with as we move forward in the future.

***

Let’s look at how one of the Proverbs personifies wisdom, describing it in incredible terms:

 Selections from Proverbs 8 – Wisdom’s Call

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where Unknown-1the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding. Listen, for I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver; knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.

 I wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. By me kings reign, and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than fine gold, what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full….

 ….blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord. But whoever fails to find me harms himself, and all who hate me love death.”

Compelling, right?

When I was new to following Jesus, someone suggested that I could pray this Proverb over myself. This was so encouraging, because in my life before, you might have described me as smart in an analytical sort of way, and enthusiastic. But I doubt the word “wise” would have come to mind.  The idea that God could make me wise when I hadn’t really been that before was so hopeful.

And yet I was confused by what I saw when I read King Solomon’s words that he wrote toward the end of his life, in a book of the Bible he wrote called Ecclesiastes, where he describes how “God has placed eternity in the hearts of man,” and yet his experience of gaining the very best life has to offer leads him to conclude that it’s more or less “meaningless” – that we labor for all these things we want in vain.

  • THIS is the conclusion of the man to whom God gave EVERYTHING?

Whenever I reach a point like this in the Bible – particularly something that is really troubling – I ask, “So how does Jesus change this dynamic in our relationship with God?”

  • To recap, Eve’s decision to eat the fruit she thought would give her wisdom was EXPRESS disobedience to God, and it caused a breech in the relationship between God and us that has continued through every generation.  It put inside of us a longing for things that are contrary to God.
  • God sent his son Jesus to BRIDGE this gap—to give us a way to overcome these longings, rather than be enslaved by them.
  • Once this bridge is connected, we have a promise that when we die, that’s not the end of the story—there’s more. There is life in heaven with God.
  • We have only the faintest idea what that could possibly mean. But one of the things it seems to mean is that the things we do here on earth AREN’T MEANINGLESS. That we’ll see things that have happened in a new way, and say, “Yeah…wow…hmmm…okay; that makes sense now.”

And even in the meantime, during our lives, we get glimpses of this. These glimpses are the wisdom the writer of Proverbs 8 describes.

So how do we “hang at wisdom’s doorway”?  And what do we do with what we find there?

The Apostle James offers us some guidance here: He says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…” (James 1:5)

Then a bit later, he tells us that there are two kinds of wisdom, and gives us a template to consider when we’re trying to figure out where our thoughts or guidance might be coming from:

“if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”  (James 3:14-16)

Note: this DOESN’T say, “don’t have any ambition.”  God created us to have dreams and goals, to work hard to better ourselves and make the most of what we’re given.  Jesus told a parable specifically to make the point that whatever we’re given—whether a little or a lot—we’re supposed to invest it to try and make a return.

But selfish ambition and bitter envy have a feel that isn’t encouraging and hopeful; but rather clawing and filled with disregard for others.  James is essentially saying that God didn’t create a world where, to make the most of our talents, we need to mow down whoever is in our way to get to where God wants us. That is the system set up by our enemy, the devil.

In contrast, he says, “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17-18)

This too, has stumped me, because not all of the wisdom I’ve received from God has looked like these things as I’ve walked it out.

Doesn’t it sound like Christian nice-ness and people-pleasing?  How could you ever leave a romantic relationship where the other person still loved you, or a job you were really good at, in a way that was “submissive and impartial”?

But as I’ve prayed about this, I’ve sensed God drawing a distinction: saying that I don’t bring these qualities to the process, He does. HE exhibits these qualities in the fruit of the wisdom He bestows.  HE is pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

And thus the choices we make when following Him will produce this fruit. Not always immediately. But over time. 

We don’t have to force ourselves to be our best approximation of these qualities.  We just have to seek God for his wisdom, and do our best to obey

  • Even if it’s costly
  • Even if it’s awkward
  • Even if it’s not “nice” and/or a full expression of every one of our emotions.

When we do this, we can trust that God will bring about conclusions to situations that are each one of these things.  (Or, occasionally, we’ll realize that what we listened to was not “wisdom” from God, and we’ll know to look for a different way to handle things next time.)

And so that’s what I’m celebrating, here on my 45th birthday: the glimpses I have of how God has lead me and others through IMPOSSIBLE situations, and yet once the dust settles, we can see that what transpired has these qualities James described: full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere, pure and at peace.  That even in the places where we don’t know how to be considerate with others, God is considerate with all of us.

 It leaves us more in awe of God…and wanting to see more of His Kingdom, here on earth.

Let’s pray…

***

We prayed through Proverbs 8, asking God to fill us with the wisdom described there.  We took communion. And then we spent some time in “newcomer prayer,” asking God for words of encouragement, strength & comfort for someone joining us for the first time.  I am still in awe at how God showed up for all of us, speaking words we could not have known any other way and cheering us on as we walk out these lives He’s directing.

I’m grateful :)

Sermon: Calling All Superheroes

Here is the talk from this morning’s Faith Community. This one came out about how I wrote it (which either means I’m getting better at this, or that I was off my game…)

Our opening Psalm of Worship was Psalm 18, a story sung by David to celebrate how God came through for him when he was in an impossible situation and fearing for his life.  Check it out first–it’s inspiring.

Calling all Superheroes

 One of the most interesting aspects of starting something new like this faith community is how many chances it gives Steve and I to choose:

  • Do we  share what goes on behind the scenes of this creative process, as we try to listen to God and figure out just what it is we’re creating here;
  • or do we show just the final product, in the unspoken hope that you’ll think we have it all together?

We tend towards the first option—the open, behind the scenes approach. It makes the story more interesting, I think. We prefer interesting stories to perfect pictures (partly because perfect pictures are just beyond us).  And we’ve learned that in this creative process, as we interact with God, things always turns out differently than we expect.

This week, I spent my study time working on a sermon that sussed out what we mean when we talk about “faith community” and being part of a larger “spiritual family.” These are phrases that could be taken a number of different ways, so it seemed worth defining our terms, both for our own purposes (it’s hard to say if you’ve built what you were aiming for if you’re not clear in the beginning what the plan is) and for anyone who might wonder if being part of this might be for them.

I prepared a lovely, stirring talk. It began with Genesis and the first moments of creation, went through the first family (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth) and even gave a brief nod to Noah, his son Shem, and how they were in the linage of Abraham and ultimately, Jesus.

It talked about this miraculous ways God creates families—biologically, and through people he “grafts in” to our lives through faith in Jesus. There were thoughts about how we work within these family or community dynamics, about things like love and acceptance, encouragement and honor.

 It was lovely, and true, and FINE. But as I looked it over yesterday, this talk made me itchy & unsettled.  As I stepped away from it to run some errands, I realized why:

All that stuff is true about family and community, generally.  But it’s not THE truth about what we’re hoping for in THIS community. What I really want is NOT a group of people being nice to one another and cheering each other on.

I want a gathering of spiritual superheroes. images-5

 I want to surround myself with people who are excited about God – not because that’s a proper thing to do to get to heaven. But because it means we get to be catalysts and witnesses as God brings hints of heaven here to earth.

images

Like the Psalm of David we used in our worship today, we want to be the people who say: “Let’s respond to God, and expect something cool.” And then point at the miracles and say, “That right there? That was God.”  Because when you carry with you a real story about God being true and ACTIVE here now, today, you have the power to change the world, every time you share it.

We don’t change the world with our attitude or our positive thinking.

We change the world with our stories. 

 The Apostle Paul wrote about this in a letter to his friends in Corinth, a group of people who were building their own faith community.  They were having some difficulties figuring out who was in and who was out, and just generally how to be and what to do.  There were lots of questions. Paul had provided some answers in an earlier letter. But here, Paul reframes the whole conversation:

“From now on,” Paul says, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view.  Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 

 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

 As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’  I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation.”   -2 Corinthians 5:16 – 6:2

 I read this, and think, This is the commissioning of spiritual superheroes.

 Every part of this gets me excited –

  • the crazy idea that change IS possible;
  • that we CAN be different, better versions of ourselves;
  • that our lives can make a huge difference to others;
  • And that there’s a way to see glimpses of heaven, here on earth.

 We have the ability to look at circumstances – even where things are dire and frustrating and impossible – and see something different than anyone else sees.

 

***

 Ever since I was little, I’ve been into the Super Friends Superheroes. Superman and Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, Aqua Man, the Wonder Twins: Men and women and even kids with special gifts and superpowers, Hall_of_Justicebanding together at the Hall of Justice to receive assignments and form teams to thwart the bad guys and save people who need help.

I’ve blogged about this; I’ve written about it in my books.  It’s still a live dream for me, as silly as that sounds.

I don’t want these gatherings to be about being polite and encouraging.  I want this faith community to be a Hall of Justice.  Where we come together to seek God for our assignments:

  • new missions,
  • further instructions for ongoing ventures
  • getting patched up and healed when we’ve taken some hits.  Because we’ll take some hits.

I believe that faith in God is the only way we’ll see justice, here on earth.

This all sounds ridiculous, of course. Until you read the Bible.  The Bible is filled with exhortation to believe exactly this sort of thing is possible when God brings people together.

Earlier in this same letter to the people in Corinth, Paul acknowledges how self-aggrandizing this all can sound: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again?” he asks, after sharing an experience he and his team had in their travels, how they were led by God to in a “triumphal procession in Christ,” spreading the knowledge of Jesus.  “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God,”  he says.  “Not that we are content in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life….Therefore, since we have such hope, we are very bold.”  -2 Corinthians 3

These passages are representative of two powerful themes in the Bible:

  1. That when we say yes to Jesus –when we are “in Christ,”– a transformation happens. We are a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come.  It’s the offer we’ve been dreaming of, the chance to start over and be the “real” us we’ve sensed was inside but couldn’t quite get to.
  2. This experience of living out our “new creation-ness” is what bonds us as a family.  We live our lives as “Christ’s Ambassadors,” whose “confidence comes from God.” And “since we have such hope, we are very bold.”  WE get to be the ones who can say, “Can I pray for you?” or “I feel like God is saying XYZ” because of a picture or sense we get.  We get to be part of what God is doing, to bring his Kingdom to bear, here on earth.

We NEED each other as we live this out.

If we live in a spiritual world where there is this GOODNESS, it stands to reason that there is also spiritual BAD out there, and the Bible tells us that we’re not just imagining it: there is actual, personified EVIL trying to block us and pull us away from God’s best for our lives.

images-3Paul admits in his letter: how, during that same trip where he and his team were “led in triumphal procession in Christ,” they were ALSO “Harassed at every turn—conflicts outside, fears within.”

In any superhero mission, there are bad guys to fight.  But when we band together and share our skills and knowledge and talents, we can win and save the day.  It may take awhile, but the triumphal procession in Christ always trumps the harassed at every turn.

We see each other through these battles, and then remind each other IT’S WORTH IT.  We LOOK for victory, because we know that it is coming.

Two “Superheroes” for Steve & I are our friends Gavin and Emily. They used to live here in Boston; now they live in DC. We get to see each other every couple of years.

I mention this because Emily and I talked yesterday, and it was exactly this—we weren’t just catching up on each other’s lives, but at every step, our ears and our spirits were asking, “God, what are you doing here?”

For example, I shared about the heartache of saying goodbye to our foster daughter last summer, and how awful it is to hear reports that she is suffering and struggling, Emily said, “But you KNOW God must have incredible plans for her, right?”

She didn’t just mean it as a feel good platitude. She was actively wondering about that future, because she’s seen God bring miracles out of severe suffering. She KNOWS that this is how it works. So she holds that vision for me, helping me remember.  Her story of God coming through makes belief not only possible, but reasonable.  It changes the whole conversation.

This is what we do for each other.

***

As superheroes, there’s also what we do out in the world.

Paul calls us “Ambassadors for Christ.” Think about it: what is the role of an ambassador? It’s not just a PR professional.  The role of an ambassador is to navigate the early rumblings of war, to communicate clearly, “This is who we are & what we’re about” so that at least no one blows things up based on misinformation.  They try and keep the lines of communication open.

As Jesus’ Ambassadors, that’s our role: we communicate clearly who he is and why it matters.  We show that it’s reasonable to expect God to come through for us, just as he did for David in Psalm 18.  We say, “This is the good news of the Gospel.”

 If there were a “Mission Statement” on the wall of our Hall of Justice, this is what it would say, that THIS is the good news of the Gospel:

  • There is a GAP between us and God. Whether you feel it or not; it’s there
  • As long as it’s there, you can’t live the full life you were created to live.
  • Jesus is the bridge that spans this.  He is the missing puzzle piece.
  • We can cross that bridge or accept this gift (pick your metaphor) at any time. We can say, “Jesus, I want your help. Please come and set me free.”
  • This freedom comes with a rather astonishing benefits package.
  • We can’t really know what any of this means until we experience it–but we can experience it at any time.

That is the mission statement I imagine, what brings us together here at the Hall of Justice.

One of the things I love about my faith is that Jesus is such a gentleman: he doesn’t storm the gates of your life. He waits to be invited in.

And once he is, he is SO VERY EXCITED to get to work with you. He’s like one of those contractors you see on home improvement shows, walking through what looks like collapse and rubble and pointing out, “We’ll do this here, and move this wall, and open this all up to let in the light!”  The rubble that overwhelmed us is no big deal to him; he just clears it away.

This is what makes us Spiritual Superheroes: this experience of having said yes to Jesus, experiencing his remodel.  This is our foundation.  “The cornerstone,” as the Bible calls it, the piece that goes in first and sets the orientation of the project.

We are the projects under construction, and the contractors Jesus uses in each other’s lives.

In closing, I’ll admit: I don’t really buy that our job is to convince anyone else to sign up for a Jesus remodel.  We’re here to help each other figure out how to respond once God brings us to a place of saying, “Yes Jesus – that applies to me.”

When you say yes, you become part of the family.  It’s the path to becoming a superhero.  As the Apostle Paul said, I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation.

Praise be to God. Amen.

 

Sermon: A Teed up Ball, A T in the Road

From the Bible:  Psalm 29 – A Psalm of David

     Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 

     Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness.

     The Voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty   waters.

     The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic.

     The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

     He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox.

     The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.

     The voice of the Lord shakes the desert; the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.

     The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.

     And in His temple, all cry, “Glory!”

     The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever.

     The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.

***

Welcome :)

Let me tell you a bit about how we came to be here.

RocksPebblesThere’s an oft-used image that comes up when people talk about life organization. It starts with a jar that represents our capacity. Into the jar go big rocks (the things that are most important to us), and smaller stones and even sand (the less important things).  The demonstration first shows how, after you put all the sand and pebbles in, it’s almost impossible to get the big stones – the important stuff—in later.  This is how so many of us end up living lives that feel totally different than the lives we dream of in our minds, with the sense that we don’t have space or time for the things that matter most. But when you dump out the jar and reverse the process, putting the big rocks in first, then there is still plenty of room for all the little rocks. Voila! Life restructured!

There aren’t that many times in life where you can dump out all your rocks and not have it be a catastrophe. But today is that sort of day for us – where the reorganizing is good, rather than tragic. Two specifics come to mind:

First, in this new season, in our new home, Steve and I want to orient our week around God.

It takes a lot of intentionality to do this, and we know we’re not alone in this desire. We’ve watched how easily this scheduling piece can slip away—how even though God is always first in our hearts, you wouldn’t necessarily know that by looking at our calendars. Now that we’re in our new house, and rethinking so much of how our time is used, establishing a faith community each Sunday morning is a way of putting that rock in first, before all the little nuggets take up all the room.

Second, on the day God told me we should have this first gathering on December 29th, He said to use Psalm 29 as the basis of our sermon. It’s not a psalm I know well, so I had to pull over (I was driving to Target) to look it up. It’s one of King David’s prayers, leading us to give credit to God for all He is.  As I thought and prayed about this later, the sense I got was that understanding God—our creator, father, the first member of the Trinity—is the big rock we need to get in the jar early in any faith initiative.  So that’s what we’ll talk about today.

***

 Experts say that your image of God is largely influenced by how you see your father here on earth.  This may be your biological father, or a father figure.  Whoever comes to mind for you when that word is mentioned.

  • If your father is domineering, for example, you’re likely to see God as an authority figure.
  • If your father is distant, or passive, or even absent, you might see God as disinterested or even disapproving.
  • If your father is powerful, you could see God as able to get things done.

This is an influence, not a definitive rule. But it’s a good thing to be aware of. Because how we see God is where everything starts, faith-wise. So tools that help us suss out what we think of when we think of God can be helpful.

(Even if we consider ourselves non-believers, this non-belief colors our experience of life in some interesting ways.)

Pop culture and psychology tell us that it’s how we see ourselves that is where everything starts. Let me tell you why I think that’s not true: We don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do.

  • Research indicates we have a terrible track record for accurately picking what will make us happy.
  • When we do pick, if we get there, we’re frequently disappointed; we end up like Stevie Nicks, singing Landslide: “I climbed a mountain and I turned around.”  We’re disappointed. We thought there’d be more, or we’d do better, or life would feel different.

Self-awareness is a good thing. But it’s not a life plan.

This is what brings many of us to God in the first place: Coming to the end of ourselves, awash in this odd hope that maybe God knows us, and has a better plan. And how we see God is the lens through which we first view what He might do in our lives.

As I’ve considered this Dad/God connection for me, here’s what I see:

In broad strokes, my Dad is someone who laughs a lot, and knows how to fix things. He doesn’t take himself, or anyone else, too seriously. And he likes solutions. For many problems, small and large, Dad has always been my go-to guy to make things better.

For example, this week at Christmas, I mentioned that a chair of ours was sliding on the floor and I was afraid it would scratch the wood.  Dad said, “You could get a piece of foam rubber and glue it to the base of the chair….”  Then he went down to his basement and got me a sheet of the material he was talking about.  He doesn’t just suggest a fix, he does what he can to implement it. He offers everything he has.  I’ve always known that if my Dad had what it took to fix a problem, he’d do everything he could to help.

 I also saw God as close by (because my Dad was around a lot), funny, willing to laugh at things but in a loving way, encouraging me to take life seriously, but not myself.

That’s not a bad starting place for an image of God. My Dad teed that up really well.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But even with a great start, most of us will face a time where our understanding of God goes off into the rough as the picture in our heads is whacked by the downswing of real life. (End of golf metaphor!)

FOR ME, this came in a recent season over about five years of having tangible problems that needed fixing, that I believed God COULD fix, that based on what I read in the Bible He WANTED to fix… and yet God did what looked (to me) like NOTHING.  He just let things break, and die, and head toward loss and ruin. This was heartbreaking. It seemed totally inconsistent with what I saw in the Bible: the God who longs to bring new life, rescue people, bring justice and end suffering.

images-2After about three years in this place, where things just kept getting worse, I realized I was at a T in the road. The path I’d been on was ending, and I had to make a decision to go either left, or right.

To go one way meant to consider that everything in the Bible, and even the existence of God, might be a lie. Perhaps this was all just in my imagination, a feel-good way to be with some nice people engaging in shared delusion that could not withstand a collision with reality.  Facing this way felt horrible. But possible in a way I’d never before imagined.

The other way meant to consider that God is FAR bigger, and weirder, and beyond my imagination and understanding than I’d ever thought. It was an invitation, but with no promise that I’d like what I found.  It suggested a more interesting understanding, but one that would require me to abandon some ideas about God I really loved (such as that when things get really difficult, God is just like my Dad and will jump in to fix things).

I stood at that intersection for about two years.

I inched down one road (packing up all my faith books, not reading the Bible, deciding for the first time ever not to pray), then backtracked to try the other (telling God sarcastically/hopefully, “Well if You have something You’d like to tell me, I’m listening…”).

SnakeVT080511-15-TrailWillmarthWoodsThe first road looked fine enough. On the surface, it even had some appeal: maybe I could just be normal, and spend my time fretting over my 401k. But it led to despair and a sense of, well, nothingness.

One upside, though: wandering that way taught me that the rotation of the world is not contingent upon my diligent bible study or my fervent prayers.  This was HUGE news, as I’d started to believe that it was, and it was exhausting, especially after such a long time of feeling like my prayers were broken, or being re-routed to a cargo hold in Pago-Pago.  God still did things even when I declined to participate. He is, it turns out, bigger than me, and able to function without my assistance. Thank God.

The other path was equally daunting, though.  It wasn’t well lit; I couldn’t tell what was out there, or what sun_lit_path_by_johnkyo-d2hdqpzI’d discover. But it felt bigger somehow. More majestic and compelling than anything I’d experienced. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough, brave enough, or had the energy that path required. But ultimately, that’s the road I chose. It felt like the only real choice, as trite as that sounds. (And yet I didn’t sense that God was upset at all that I needed that long, long rest, sitting at that T in the road, unable to make a decision. God didn’t seem in any sort of hurry to get me sorted out.)

On this road, I’ve found that it’s true, this promise in Psalm 29: that when the cedars break and oaks get twisted, and even mountains are moving, God gives us strength, and God gives us peace. It’s weird.

And so now, when I hear a song like Chris Tomlin’s “Our God is Greater,” what comes to mind is different than before.  The attempt to capture God in a song seems trite and silly…and yet altogether worth the effort.

THIS is why I don’t think it’s a game-ender if your father was distant, or mean, or just gone.   This simply means that if you choose to pursue faith, your “intersection” between the picture of God in your head and real life will come at a different time, in a different way.

 WE ALL have that moment of seeing differences between the God we expect and the God we experience.

Reconciling this tension is the walk of faith.

Being in a faith community means having a place to check in each week and ask, “How am I doing with God?” “What is God talking to me about this week?” and “In my gut, how am I responding?”

We can do this alone, of course.  But it’s so helpful to have other people asking these same questions, who offer two things most of us can’t pull off alone:

  • They SUPPORT our growing hope in how miraculous God can be,
  • and SQUASH our fears that He might not be real, or care, or care about us.

(As I wrote this, a picture of my friend Pascha came to mind. She was stomping on weeds along a walkway, saying “Fear, fear, fear, fear, fear…” She identified them – they weren’t flowers, they were predators – and unabashedly stomped them out in a way I’m usually too polite to do.)

We help each other Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name – to the best of our ability, in light of what He has revealed. We each bring our picture of God, and together, we’re closer to seeing Him as He really is.

As we close, let’s consider the structure of Psalm 29 –

  • It starts with a call to acknowledge God’s greatness and holiness and splendor.
  • Then it goes through a list of things God controls that are beyond us, particularly WEATHER.  There’s this language about God breaking cedars and moving mountains – showing how God can take down the very things we depend on for shelter and to build our lives, the things we believe will protect us.  He is bigger than those things.  This is terrifying and excellent news.
  • The Psalm ends with an unexpected shift, saying that in the midst of all of this chaos, The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.

 It’s like an arrow, pointing to Jesus.  It’s as if David is telling us: Yes, God is THIS powerful…and there is more to the story.  This isn’t just a story about power. This is a story about the answer you’ve been hoping for.

Our faith community is about each of us finding our place in the tension of knowing: That this powerful God cares about you…and that the God who cares about you is indeed this powerful.

 Next Sunday, we’ll explore more of what that means.

For now, let’s pray the prayer suggested by Jesus, God’s Son:

      Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. 

      Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

     Give us this day our daily bread.

     Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

     Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

     For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, forever and ever.

Amen.

The Best Laid Plans are Bendy

I’m feeling blessed today…and I can’t stop laughing.

First the blessed part:

?????????????????????????????????We had our first faith gathering yesterday!

Steve and I gathered around our coffee table, lit candles, set bread and wine just beyond THAT DOG’s reach (she can get very Holy when given the opportunity), and bowed our heads as Steve prayed.  As strange as it sounds to be doing church with just two people, it was nice to be in our home, setting aside this time to be together with each other and God.  We knew that December 29th is not the optimal time to start a new gathering if crowds are your goal, but that’s the date God gave me as I was driving to Target a few weeks ago thinking it might be fun to start something like this…in April. I asked “when should we do this?” (meaning, when in April?) and He said, “December 29th.”  We try not to ignore promptings like this, even if they seem based on an entirely different timeframe, so we went with it. And indeed, right from the start, yesterday felt like something wonderful. I couldn’t stop smiling, and closing my eyes and whispering Thank You under my breath.

A few minutes in, we heard steps on the front porch. It was our friends Paul & Pascha. If you’ve read my first book, you “know” them: they were my first small group leaders, the ones who did the early heavy lifting in helping me find my faith. They have two young sons now, who were with them.  Paul said, “I brought my guitar if you want me to bring it in…” My eyes lit up.  I love to sing, but I’m bad at it. Steve and I have ZERO musical skills, so we’d decided that if God sends musically inclined people, we’ll sing in our faith community, and if not, we’ll worship in ways that align with the talents we have. The Bible suggests that God gives us different gifts with with to bless each other, so our plan is is that we’ll adapt to what God arranges each week, looking forward to some surprises. This was a FUN one, and it made us glad we’ve left things kind of bendy in our planning.

(It’s fun to sing with friends. I forget that sometimes when I’m busy being a grown up.)

I’d planned a talk on Psalm 29, which I adapted on the fly to be helpful to younger listeners. I discovered how fun it is to have smart, spiritually-inclined kids add their thoughts and reactions to what you say.  I’ve always loved the interactiveness of the Black church tradition, where people say “AMEN!” and things like that during the sermon…this felt like a Boston version of this, where ideas are tossed out and the talk builds in ways and directions beyond the basic foundation laid by  the speaker.  It was really energizing.

We sang the Our Father prayer, and then spoke the Our Father prayer. Steve closed us with this from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

We TOTALLY forgot to offer to pray for individual needs…a rather comic omission, given that personal prayer is one of the things we believe is most wonderful about this kind of faith community.  That’s our “thing to do better next week” item :)

Paul and Pascha are part of another new church community that is evolving from our old church family.  Their presence here yesterday felt like having our godparents show up at our graduation: a blessing and a reminder of roots and family and connectedness, looking ahead to growth and adventure and new horizons. We’re all branching out.  It feels great to see how many good things God is bringing out of our family.  :)

I’ll post my original sermon here later today, along with the hints I have so far about what we’ll talk about next Sunday. It will be January 5th, Steve’s 40th birthday, so we might include something FESTIVE in our gathering. (Is 10:30am too early for cake???)  If you’re looking for a place to explore God and celebrate life with friends, come on by. (Email me & I’ll send directions)

Oh…and the reason I’m laughing today?

I was working in bed this morning with coffee & my laptop. Feeling happy & getting ORGANIZED for this accomplished day I had planned.  I completely forgot that the plumber was coming. I ended up greeting him in my scrubbiest pajamas, with full-bed head and glasses, then touring him through the house and trying to discuss various pipe-routing options.  So. Very. Awkward.

Every time I try to set up my life to be accomplished and orderly (the way I assume each of you live all the time) something like this comes along to remind me: this is God’s life. I’m just living it :)

It’s A Start

Not our friends or our living room. But note the squished in-ness.

Not our friends or our living room. But note the squished in-ness!

Steve and I are starting a faith community here in our living room.  We’ll meet for the first time on Sunday, December 29th, at 10:00am.

There will be prayer, a sermon, and some time to quiet the chaos of life and listen in to what God might be saying to each of us.

Steve and I are starting this because we like being in a community where we help each other figure out what God is saying and doing. It adds to life, shaping the rhythm of your week in a way nothing else does. Our approach to faith was formed in this sort of gathering about a decade ago, in what was called a small group – a phrase always spoken with a hint of irony, as those groups rarely stayed small for long, and were comprised of people willing to squish over a bit on the couch or floor to make room for new people each week. We talked and laughed and hoped together, looking at the Bible to help us make sense of it all and figure out how to respond. It was a powerful, transformative thing.

Part of what we learned was that when you explore Jesus together, you become a sort of second family. It’s surprising, actually, how people you may not have much in common with outwardly become allies in your life. There’s something about believing together – that that Jesus cares for us, speaks to us, and has a purpose for our lives…and that a primary way we discover what that is and how to pursue it is by squishing together in the living room to talk and learn and pray.  It’s kind of miraculous…and also very cool.

More than a decade later, we are surprised (and grateful) to realize that these ties are still strong – we are STILL family, still helping and encouraging and being for each other in amazing ways, even though we are all living in different places and attending different churches. The bond still holds.

This feels like a time and a chance to “add to the family.”

If you live in Greater Boston and are wondering what God might be saying to you, or how to respond to what He is doing in your life, this might be something to check out.  Send me an email (TrishRyanOnline AT Gmail dot com) and I’ll give you directions to our house and answer any questions.

So that’s the start: On Sunday the 29th, Steve and I (along with THAT DOG) will be in our living room, celebrating God. You’re invited.