Tag Archives: Faith Community

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.