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Life Notes

A Reverse Mission

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen writes, “I have become aware that wherever God’s Spirit is present there is a reverse mission.” He refers to the common realization that those whom we believe need our help – our mission field – often have more to offer us than we have for them. Nouwen continues, “The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the ‘normal,’ the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made into victims, God has chosen to be bearers of good news.”

I first heard about reverse missions on a mission trip to Honduras. While my church sends mission teams to Central America every year, I was surprised to learn that Central American churches send missionary teams to the United States, too. This was an easier idea to process once I spent time with some of the people of Honduras. Were they poor? Certainly. Did they lack some fundamental needs like clean water? Yes, they did. Did I return home feeling I had done God’s work in Honduras? No, I did not. I came home feeling like God’s work had been done to me in Honduras.

When we feed the hungry or house the homeless, we perform acts of mercy – meeting a need that another cannot meet on his or her own. Jesus says those who are merciful – those who give mercy – will receive mercy. This is exactly what Nouwen writes. And it fits perfectly with what I experienced in Honduras. What I gave, what I accomplished on behalf of those I went to serve paled in comparison to what I received. My first hint of a reverse mission occurred at the church services I attended the day after I arrived. There was energy and joy beyond anything I had experienced in church before. Congregants praised God with abandon, and reached out in loving fellowship to others (including our mission team) as if we were long-lost members of their own family. I was perplexed that people lacking in so many basic necessities could be filled with such joy. But they were.

I went to Honduras on a mission – to give some of what I have in the United States to the people of Honduras. I left Honduras with the knowledge that much of what we value in the United States is of little or no lasting value, and much more valued here than it should be. We are distracted from our true blessings of love, relationship, and fellowship, by the sheer abundance of our dominating distractions, like perpetual internet access and cell reception. Our relationships become shallow and impersonal. Deep, loving, and healing connections happen face-to-face, not text-to-text.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be a blessing; be blessed.

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Life Notes

Less Human

Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.  Job 18:11-12, 21

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a Syrian refugee. He had been displaced from his home and life by the intense violence and unrest there. In describing the desperate state of his homeland and fellow Syrians he said, “Nothing makes you less human than being hungry.” My life is so sheltered and blessed compared to the lives of so many that it is difficult to imagine being that ravenous. I recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrates how we cannot strive for higher, more human traits when our most basic needs are left wanting. When a person has no sense of security – no food, roof over their head, or basic space of their own – they cannot worry about how their words or actions will impact others, and so they may act in ways less human. Fundamental needs must be met before other more human traits can manifest.

It is difficult for those of us in first world countries to imagine such a degree of desperation. Typically, when we say we are “starving” it means we have not eaten for several hours, not that we have not eaten in days, or that we have not eaten adequately – ever. When we say we need “space,” we do not mean we need protection from the elements or criminals as much as we need a break from the abundance of people and material goods around us. I recall the secured fortresses around most living spaces in Honduras and understand them to be the result of their desperate need for safety. It seemed to me, at first glance, there were many needs the money could be better spent meeting than on personal security, but basic needs always come first.

We all hunger for different things in our lives and some of our desires cause us to be less human to others. Obviously, not all of us hunger for things as basic as food and safety. Rampant gang violence, civil wars, and other acts of lethal violence seem to occur mostly in poor countries and in the poorest sections of first world countries. Perhaps the conditions that result in the widespread loss of innocent human lives continue because the basic needs of the perpetrators are not being met – and so they act in ways we consider less human. The finger of judgement I point at these wrongdoers, however, ultimately points back at me. What am I doing to assist with the basic needs of people less fortunate than I am? What am I doing to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and protect the vulnerable? If I am honest with myself, I am doing far too little. The Job passage above implies these are the conditions of the “ungodly” or of “those who do not know God.” Perhaps we can best help them know God by finding ways to feed them.

Come home to church this Sunday. The body of Christ needs you.

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Taming an Ego

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  Ephesians 4:22-24

There is an obstacle between spiritual enlightenment and me. It is not a wall I can tear down, nor is it a body of water I can swim across. This impediment is not an intellectual puzzle I can solve by logic. My nemesis is closer than my next breath. It is the me I most closely identify with – my ego. My ego has evolved over the course of my life under the influence of my family, friends, and experiences. Actually, an ego is not a bad thing to have. In fact, it is necessary to develop a strong sense of who we are as individuals. All of us are endowed by our Creator with specific gifts and talents to be used in service to others. We need to know what those are, and our egos shout out our uniqueness.

Consider that I or me appear 12 times in the first few sentences of this Life Note. Most of us believe the universe revolves around us from a very early age. Our perception seems to confirm it, too. Unfortunately, that perception is wrong, or at least is a misleading truth. We are all special and unique persons created in the image of God. When everyone is special, no one is special. When we seek our uniqueness apart from others, we risk becoming narcissistic, selfish, and wretched beings. When we find our distinctive niche alongside others, our value is defined as part of a larger body, as we were created.

My epiphany about ego as a stumbling block to a fuller life occurred sometime after my 30th birthday. I grew weary of my self-styled life, and my existence lacked the joy of rich fellowship with others. I had a modest following as a solo musician – something that not only defined me, but also consumed my weekends. I also had a group of friends I enjoyed being with. Of course, the times they typically gathered were over the weekends when I was away, performing in clubs.

As I learned to wrestle my ego’s grip from my life, I married, had children, and developed a web of close and dear friends. Years ago, I would have considered my life today as indistinguishable from the masses. Fine, I was wrong. I make music with others, now, instead of by myself. The music, like my life, is exponentially richer. An ego becomes an impediment when we do not balance it with a social life. As Christians, we believe the body of Christ is us – all of us working together – not me, standing apart. I have discovered I am the best version of myself in fellowship with others. Taming a strong ego is hard work. For me, the optimal solution has been in find my special place within, not outside of the others in my life. A good church can help.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your place in the body of Christ.

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My Ebenezer

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

EbenezerLast week I attended the memorial service for a cousin of my father’s. It was at the Ebenezer United Methodist Church, 3 miles south of Green and about 8 miles west of Leonardville. A group of German Methodists immigrated to the area in the 1870s and established the church, barely a decade after the Civil War. My great-grandfather, a child at the time, was among them. The remote location of the church is memorable, as miles and miles of farmland surround it. It is on the slightest of rises in an otherwise flat expanse of pasture, wheat, and soybeans.

Ebenezer UMC is a familiar church because of family reunions, funerals, and other gatherings I have attended there since I was a child. It is a plain, no-frills, wooden structure. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy stone or woodwork, and no vaulted ceilings. This church was built for function, not form, consistent with the folks it was built for – practical, down-to-earth, and humble. I always found Ebenezer UMC disquieting, due in part to its name. Perhaps it reminded me of Ebenezer Scrooge – bah humbug! Perhaps it was the puzzling line from an old hymn: Here I raise my Ebenezer; but something about the name made me think of ancient and haunted things. The church stands proud, however, on this unforgiving, horizontal vastness, tempting the unrelenting Kansas winds to blow it off its foundation. At least in my lifetime, no storm has phased it.

The biblical references to Ebenezer are in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. I assume the “stone” that Samuel placed was large enough to be seen for miles. That stone, which he named Ebenezer, stood as a symbol of God’s constant and helpful presence throughout their struggles. Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they gave up everything they knew for the promise of a new life. A group of Methodist immigrants gave up everything familiar and crossed the Atlantic Ocean for a similar promise of a new life. They landed in a vast country where they could eke out a reasonable living with the sweat of their brow. In the midst of this fertile soil, they erected a visible reminder that God is good; a place to call the faithful to worship and, in their time, to call the saints home. An Ebenezer – a symbol of hope, a reminder of God’s presence – is a good thing to have as we weather the storms of life. God is always near, but sometimes we forget. When we enter new life territory, when we feel lost and alone, when we need to remember, may there always be an Ebenezer in sight.

Come home to church this Sunday. Where is your Ebenezer?

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A Disturbing Intruder

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  –James 2:14-17

A gift of grace is something positive received that is not earned or deserved. I often consider God’s grace to be like something nice I do for another who cannot respond in kind. Certainly, there are aspects of God’s grace that fall into that category, such as salvation. There are, however, gifts and graces from God that may not be so free. In his devotional, Seize the Day, Dr. Charles Ringma writes: “Grace always calls us to a response. God’s action toward us is never meant to leave us as we are, but is a challenge to move us forward. Grace is thus never a convenient gift, but a disturbing intruder.” 

I love the life God has granted me. I am comfortable and relatively secure, certainly more so than most others in this world. I am not motivated to change my life, even for the better, if it means risking my comfort and security. While I give God the glory for my many blessings, is that enough? The writer of James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, people of faith cannot retain their blessings by hoarding them. I am reminded of the lyrics of an old folk song: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more!” Gifts of grace are meant to change us and move us forward. When we commit to making the lives of others better, our own lives also improve because our gifts multiply by being shared.

Certainly, we have the free will to determine the purposes for which we will share what we are given. Indeed, we have a responsibility to pass along our gifts in intentional and responsible ways. But our gifts are to be used for purposes beyond our own selfish desires. In that respect, as Dr. Ringma writes, gifts of grace may not be such a convenient gift after all, but a “disturbing intruder.”  They are like doors inviting us out of our comforts and into new experiences in community with others. Acknowledging and being thankful for our gifts of grace is important, not because we hope to be loved more (which is not possible), but so that love and grace can flow through us to others. Like a faucet that must be left open for water to flow, grace is made new by flowing through us. Our cup remains full, even as the waters of love and life flow to others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Accept the invitation of this disturbing intruder.

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A Box of Chocolates

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7a

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest often has difficulty understanding life’s twists and turns, as well as the way others act. His mother had a way of putting life’s puzzles into words Forrest could understand. One of his favorite sayings from his mother was, “Life is like a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Forrest loved chocolates, so he understood the analogy. Inevitably, when he bought a box of chocolates for someone, he would eat a few before giving the rest away. He knew that there are varieties of flavors in every box of chocolates, all sharing at least one thing in common – chocolate.

Personally, facing a box of chocolates is somewhat daunting for me because I do not like coconut. I do not like the taste, and I abhor the texture. I learned, early on, that many – but not all – of the circular and oval chocolates were filled with coconut. I also learned that many – but not all – of the square and rectangular candies had caramel or some other filling I really liked. Even trying to sort chocolates by geometric shape, however, did not always prevent a mouthful of something I detested. I never knew what I was gonna get.

Forrest’s mother’s reference to life being like a box of chocolates is certainly true when dealing with people – you never know what you’re gonna get. Although the candies in a box of chocolates look relatively homogenous on the outside, they are very different on the inside. With people, however, the homogeneity is more internal than external. Most folks look and act very differently, but there is something good and pure within everyone – the Spirit of God. Connecting deeply with another, spirit to spirit, is not unlike the taste of chocolate on the tongue – sweet, savory, and satisfying. And that connection, once made, can cover for a lot of unpleasantness on the surface. Those we love are not perfect. They are fully capable of leaving us angry, sad, hurt, and disappointed. Yet, we stay with them because of connections that bind us together in spite of our quirky frailties. All the candies in a box of chocolates share something good in common – chocolate – just as all people share something good in common. When we experience another person, we will find deep beauty only when we look beyond skin color, hairstyle, clothes, sexual orientation, and education level. On the surface, people are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. Deep inside, however, we find the image of God.

Come home to church this Sunday. You never know what you’re gonna get…

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Giving Thanks by Giving 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17

This past Sunday, I sat through two equally disturbing sermons given by the pastors of my church. The sermons were not troubling because of weak delivery of the messages, however. The sermons got under my skin because they revealed aspects of my being that I prefer not to acknowledge. The theme was judgment, as described by Jesus near the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew. In verses 31 to 45, Jesus describes the identification process by which those who enter eternal life will be separated from those who will enter eternal punishment. The factor distinguishing one group from the other is how they treat and care for the least privileged in society.

At least by biblical standards, I am a selfish person and a stingy passer-along of my blessings. I have been known to pat myself on the back for being a good person, which is to say I do not commit a lot of sins overtly. Sins of commission – those sins directly committed – are not where I fall so short by Judeo-Christian standards. Sins of omission – the good I am capable of doing, but fail to do – well, that is an entirely different matter.

Like many of you reading this Life Note, I will sit down at a table overflowing with an abundance of wonderful food today, and in the presence of family and friends, I will eat myself into a long, luxurious, Thanksgiving nap. Meanwhile, Pastor Tom told us that about 13 people in the world die of starvation every minute. Later today, I will consume more food in one meal than some people eat in a month. And in the time it takes me to eat my way to desert, another 400 or so of my neighbors will starve to death.

My purpose is not to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving with an extra helping of guilt-casserole, however. The point is to remember the critical needs around us, even in this country, and even in our town. Yes, it is appropriate to celebrate and be thankful for the rich blessings we have been given. Is it sufficient, however, to simply give thanks, eat ourselves silly, and then go to sleep? Maybe this year we will commit to doing something more to show our gratitude, perhaps by sharing from our abundance for others who lack. Pick up an extra turkey and give it to a food kitchen. Help prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Visit a nursing home. Donate. Most of us have so much more food, clothing, money, time, and other resources than we need. There are many places where our excess is accepted and passed along to those less fortunate. That is giving thanks by giving away. This year, all year, let us not forget the giving part of Thanksgiving.

Enjoy a blessed Thanksgiving; and then give to a world that needs your leftovers.

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