Thursday, December 11, 2014

Waiting on God's Surprises

A few weeks ago, I finished an eight-week Life Keys class at church. I'd taken the class because I love personality and gift questionnaires--as evidenced by my very thick file folder full of that type of information that I'd collected over the years. This class was different than others I had taken because it encompassed more topics and also because it distinguished between "life gifts" and "spiritual gifts". 

I didn't expect to learn anything new about myself and even thought it would annoy me or get me down because for so long I haven't been using skills and gifts in ways that I would like. I've been patient...but almost three years seems like a long time to wait on God (yes, yes, I know, many people in the Bible have waited much longer). For my summary during the last class, I easily and quickly picked the information you see in the photo. And then I went home, stuck it up on my wall above my desk for some kind of inspiration, put the folder away, and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up to this message on Facebook:

"I am actually wondering about your speaking experiences and if you would ever be interested in filling my pulpits some time? I also would be interested in having you be a speaker for the United Methodist Women. I think the ladies would be delighted to hear you speak about Christianity from a perspective that is outside their "normal" realm. I guess I'm thinking along the lines of what is coming in the future for Christianity, small-town churches and the best ways to maybe prepare for changes?"

And then this past Saturday, I woke up to another out-of-the-blue message on Facebook inviting me to be a contributor to Zondervan's newest women's devotional Bible: NIV Devotional Bible for Women: Fresh Insights for Thriving in Today's World.

And so, in a very short period of time, I'm scheduled to speak and will be a published writer this fall. Those passions and gifts I wrote down (and one I didn't--writing) are all coming together.

I've gone back and forth between being excited and being in disbelief and wondering how on earth this all happened. I'm not one to really have experiences where I can say without a doubt that God's pulling something together, but in this case, I feel confident saying that. 

And I'm so thankful. 

At the beginning of Advent, I also wrote about waiting (it really is a great theme to write about--there are many, many verses in the Bible about waiting) and ended with the question: "Are we willing to wait for God's surprises?"

I think I am--and I'm excited to see what comes next. 

Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.  Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.  He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.  Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. --Psalm 37:3-7

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Are We Waiting For? Advent: A Year of Renewal

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It's an incongruent time of year--but then again, maybe all parts of the year are like that. For now, for me, football season and its accompanying Friday night team pasta dinners are over, and Advent (and recruiting season!) is beginning. Ending and beginning. It happens every year and it happens throughout the year, but we often just rush through or focus on our day to day life that we pay little attention to the multiple beginnings and endings. Qoheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, knew this well. Time passes and the same things happen again and again and again. 
 5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.  6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.  7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.  8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.  9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. --Ecclesiastes 1:5-9
And now we find ourselves in Advent, again. We may light candles, hear sermons and write blog posts about preparation and waiting, sing Christmas songs, and talk about how Jesus is the reason for the season as we finish our shopping lists and put up our decorations and insist that we're not falling prey to commercialism because we know it's about Jesus. 

And yet we still won't feel fulfilled. People will still be missing families they can't be with during the holiday. People will still have health or financial or relationship or school or work problems. Not everyone will receive the gifts they want or be able to give the gifts they would like to give. 

We still want something more.

We find ourselves in a perpetual state of waiting. Advent is just a short, four week representation of waiting. And we're familiar with the major theme: people were waiting for the Messiah, and today Christians are waiting for Jesus' return. Then and now, the time of it happening was unknown. 

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

We don't like to wait for anything. We don't have patience or appreciate how long it takes to accomplish something. We can send a message to someone instantly, but have lost the art of a well-thought-out letter. 

I think Advent, and life, is more like a letter than an instant message, even though we want it to be the opposite.

Waiting takes patience, silence, surrender, and not knowing. We don't really want to wait for Jesus to return--we want it now (probably one reason why Left Behind is so popular). We don't really want to wait to listen to God--we want God to speak to us on our time line. 

But sometimes, God doesn't speak.

It was believed that prophecy had ceased with the words of Malachi (probably why it's the last book in the Christian Old Testament) and then nothing happened until the incarnation, 400+ years later. 

Four hundred years of not hearing from God.

And we go nuts when people don't respond to our text messages in what we think is a timely manner. 

Again, Qoheleth speaks to this idea that we have of time:
11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. --Ecclesiastes 3:11  
As Qoheleth said earlier, there is nothing new under the sun. We're still waiting. We're still celebrating. We're still wondering what God is up to in this world. And when Advent ends, we'll still be doing that. We'll have times in our life where we will need to wait on something, when God is distant, and we won't know when it will end. And it's ok to acknowledge we don't always hear God or know what God wants from us.

Some of our lectionary readings for today acknowledge God hiding and not acting (Isaiah 64:4-5; Psalm 80) even if we don't often want to admit that happens. But our readings also include a lesson that tells us even when we wait, God is still faithful.
7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. --1 Corinthians 1:7-9.
We usually consider Advent a time of preparation, because we know the story we hear every year on Christmas. But what if we instead considered Advent a time of silence and not knowing; a time of uncertainty when we wonder if and when God will act. If we looked at it that way, what questions would we have? Would our faith be challenged? Would it strengthen or weaken? 

Are we willing to wait for God's surprises?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Everything is Meaningless (Or Is It?)

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Sukkot began last Wednesday evening and will end this coming Friday evening . While it is a holiday that my Jewish friends celebrate, it's not one that many Christians know or care about, even though it is the one holiday that the Bible mentions that both Jews and Gentiles will celebrate. 
"If any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain upon them.  And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then on them shall come the plague that the LORD inflicts on the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths.  Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to keep the festival of booths."  --Zechariah 14:17-19
The emphasis during Sukkot is about temporary dwellings, to remember the time of Israel wandering in the desert. 

On the Sabbath during Sukkot, the book of Ecclesiastes is read. Overall, Ecclesiastes is a fairly depressing book.  Qoheleth, the author, is fairly uncertain about God and life.  He is sure there is a God and that God knows what He's doing, but humans really have no clue as to what this is. He writes that God "has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

He thinks God has made life confusing:
"Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?  In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them." (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14)
"Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother's womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything." (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
And then there are Qoheleth's thoughts on death:
  • 1:4, 11  people are forgotten when they die
  • 2:12-17  all his wisdom will get him nothing, just like the fool
  • 2:18-21  hated toil, hated to leave it to his heirs
  • 3:19-21  humans and animals both die
  • 5:13-16  we come in to world with nothing and leave it with nothing 
  • 8:8  you can't control when you die no more than when you can control the wind
  • 9:4 But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.   
If God makes no sense and life has little meaning what might people do to find meaning in life?  Qoheleth explores some of what might make life meaningful:
  • Pleasure (2:1 ff), but his conclusion is that it is vanity
  • Work (2:18-23; 4:4;11:6), but his  conclusion is that it is vanity
  • Wealth/Possessions (5:10-12; 6:1-2), but his conclusion is that it is vanity 
  • Learning (1:12-18; 2:12-17; 9:13-16), but his conclusion is that it is vanity
  • Religion/Piety (5:1-7) but his conclusion is don't get involved; it's dangerous, relationship with God is based on fear. 
Vanity does not mean vanity in the sense that it is all about me as an individual (although it definitely can be that way for many of us).  When Qoheleth uses the word vanity, it is the Hebrew word hebel, which means vapor or breath.  It is something that dissipates, something that cannot be grasped.  It is something that is meaningless.  This is Qoheleth's view of life.  

Qoheleth seems to be desperately trying to find meaning in life before it ends.  

In the book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life that Matters, Harold Kusher writes that "Ecclesiates wrote his book many hundreds of years ago to share with us his disappointments and frustrations, to warn us that we should not waste our limited time as he did, in the illusion that wealth, wisdom, pleasure, or piety will make our lives matter. He tells us his story with mounting desperation, as one road after another leads to a a dead end and he begins to see himself running out of years and running out of options. But he has not written his book only to express his frustration or to depress us. In the end, he has an answer. But it is an answer that makes sense only to someone who has shared his earlier dead ends and disappointments. That is why he offers it to us at the end of his story rather than at the beginning." (42)

Qoheleth tells us all the things he’s done to give life meaning that haven’t worked throughout his life journey.  He is afraid of dying before learning how to live.  He doesn't really wonder "what does life mean" but "what does my life mean?"

What does my life mean?

I think we all wonder that at some point in our lives, and maybe at multiple times.  I've been wondering that myself for the last couple of years as I've been searching for my current and next purpose(s) in life; that is one reason I began my "Come Alive" series and my "Year of Renewal" project.  

I have wondered off and on, if my writing really is worth it, if it really has any meaning. I read all the advice out there about frequency of blogging and length of posts and platform building and networking and going to conferences and time management and don't make these 5 mistakes or do these 10 things and so on--and it often all just seems like it is too much to take in and too much to implement. 

In addition, in such a fast-paced world, if a blogger doesn't write her thoughts out in reaction to whatever the biggest current event of the day is, then it ends up becoming irrelevant and old news.  Or, sometimes, I read something that another blogger writes and I think "I wrote a similar post three years ago" or "I had a draft started about this very point; why bother now?"  Sometimes I just don't understand the popularity of some posts.  Maybe sometimes, what I write, has also been written by someone else; I am just unaware of it.  And so, I wonder, where exactly do I fit in this world?

Or where do I fit in church?  I've often found that there seems to be a "right" way to do church, to teach people:  keep it very simple.  It's ok that I love the Bible and love to learn it in depth, but most people aren't like that, and it scares them off from the Bible.  I can just study it on your own, as always.  There's no community in that (But I am slowly finding real-life people who do have this interest, and am hoping it is the start of something wonderful).

I'm not crazy about Qoheleth's view of life. I think I dislike it, though, not so much because of its negativity, but because it is often something that I feel.  Why bother cleaning up after the kids when they just mess it all up again?  Why bother trying to be organized when it doesn't last?  Why bother trying to write and study and enjoy it when I have so many other responsibilities that must take priority?  Why bother with anything?

There is something positive about Ecclesiastes, though.  If we read through it carefully and ask the questions "What is good? and "Who gives enjoyment?", we will find some answers.
  • 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22 5:18-20; 8:15 Eating & drinking & finding enjoyment in work 
  • 4:9-12  friendship
  • 9:7-10  enjoy life before you die 
These are activities in which we participate every single day in a variety of ways.  Every day, we eat and drink and do some type of work.  Every day, we have the opportunity to participate in friendships and to enjoy life.  

So many of us are looking for the One Big Thing in our lives that will define us and give us meaning.  For some, it's finding the perfect marriage partner.  For others, it's climbing to the top of the career ladder.  It could be fame, or money that we desire.  We often feel as if we are wandering in the desert of life--and perhaps because that is something all experience, it is the reason the Bible mentions that all will celebrate this holiday. But life is not about the One Big Thing. It's about everything, the good and the bad, together. All of life matters. 

I'm not sure that after writing this, I'll really remember my own words.   Every day brings frustrations and feelings of inadequacy.  Even they will be hebel and dissipate.  But for now, at this moment in time, Ecclesiastes means to me that yes, life is a mist, but yes, life--my life--and yours--matters. You are not a finished product. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rosh Hashana: A Year of Renewal

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight (remember, Biblically, days begin in the evening because Genesis tells us "and there was evening and there was morning..."). 

We see references to it in Leviticus, Numbers, and Nehemiah:
  • Leviticus 23:24   24 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.
  • Numbers 29:1 On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets
  • Nehemiah 7:73 - 8:3  73 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants,and all Israel settled in their towns. When the seventh month came-- the people of Israel being settled in their towns--  8:1 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel.  2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.  3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
So why is the Jewish New Year when it is obviously the seventh month?  This is because there are 2 traditions as to when the world was created, one is Tishrei (the seventh month) and one is Nisan (the first month).  So, it's the head of the year in the sense of when the world was created therefore years, that count age of the world, are counted from then, but months, such as when holidays are, are counted from Nisan because Hashem told Moshe "this month is for you as the first month for the months of the year" [you can thank my friend Yaakov for all that info].

There are many meanings and symbols for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time in the Jewish calendar for being introspective about the past and upcoming year.  There's a theme of judgment (based on the word mishpat in Ps 81:4) of all people (both Jews and Gentiles) connected with their successes and failures of the upcoming year.  Traditionally, apples and honey are eaten as a symbol of wishing for a sweet upcoming year, and challah is shaped into a crown to signify that God is King. The greeting on Rosh Hashanah is l'shanah tovah which means have a good year. The readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah are Genesis 21:1-34 and 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10  (because the Gemara says these events occurred on Rosh Hashana). The day is also called Yom Zikaron (Day of Remembering) because it is the time when God "remembers", or rather, chooses to pay attention to His promises. 

As Christians in the U.S., we typically utilize the secular New Year's holiday to make resolutions; it's not something that we think of doing in the fall, the time of year when the leaves change color and die, when the weather starts to cool, birds migrate south, and the landscape starts to become brown and barren (many of us even pay little attention to when our Christian year begins with Advent, unless we attend a very liturgically-oriented church). Fall is not really a time we associate with new life--even as new experiences begin (i.e. new school year).  But new life happens every day, even when we aren't expecting it (as happened recently when my nephew was born 8 weeks early!). 

It can be beneficial to us to remember and improve upon our past year, or simply be introspective about one or more areas of life. We are often too busy and caught up with all of our day-to-day activities to really do this well. I've recently taken a "Christian Life Profile Assessment" and while there is a lot about it I didn't care for, it has prompted me to think about some of the various categories it covers, and so I will be starting a new blog series soon based on that Assessment.

Do you practice being introspective on a regular basis?  When do you do it and what do you do?

Other posts in this "Year of Renewal" Series can be read beginning here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Facebook Conversations & Digging into the Bible

Facebook is notorious as a place where conversations devolve into anger and accusations.  I typically use my personal timeline as a place to interact in a more fun than serious way and rarely do I have long conversations there. 

Until recently.  I'd posted an article about an atheist's take on the portrayal of atheists in the movie "God's Not Dead" and it set off quite the conversation.  Through it all though, people remained civil to each other.  It made me think that miracles do happen.

And then a friend send me a private message asking me what I thought about some verses in Matthew, and later that night I was able to spend some time looking at them and reading them in the context of the gospel as a whole.  As I explored the topic of the Kingdom of God throughout the gospel, I found my faith being reignited--and I didn't even know that it needed to be. With the text in front of me and my thoughts about it and what I've read on the subject forming in my head, I felt myself coming alive.  

It really makes such a huge difference to look at verses in context.  I know I am guilty of being lazy and not doing that at times, especially if it's a verse that I really like for some reason, but when I do actually put in the effort to learn the context, it ends up meaning so much more to me than just taking a verse here and a verse there and thinking I know what they mean because I've heard it in a sermon or have seen it on a calendar.

As I wrote up my notes and thoughts, I even learned something new.  I had always known the verses when Jesus talks about only going after the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and I had known the verses at the end of Matthew about making disciples of all nations, but I had never really looked at the progression of getting from one to the other, and as I noticed that, I could visualize how Jesus' movement started so small and narrowly focused, yet then opened up to include all people everywhere.  

And that's good news.

Because we often think of the Bible as a guidebook, we have a tendency to look at it as abstract pieces of information on how to live.  And while I do think it teaches us how to live, I don't think it's in the way of a checklist; it's more holistic than that.  It's easy to check off memory verses without understanding them or hold up a reference at a sporting event. But I constantly find myself wanting to go deeper than that.  For many people, the way I read and study the Bible would probably be considered too boring or difficult, because it doesn't provide automatic answers or advice.  But for me, when I do this, I find that the Bible opens up the world of faith to me in ways I don't experience any other way. It forces me to look at big pictures and challenge any suppositions I unknowingly have.  It causes me to think, to question, to wrestle.  Most of all, though that, it causes me to focus on God more than if I pluck out a verse.  

I think the Bible is beautiful, and am thankful for the conversations it fosters and the way those conversations make me look harder and dig deeper.  

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Monday, September 01, 2014

Reading My Bible: A Year of Renewal

For two months, I've been reading more Scripture on a regular basis than I have in a long time.  As part of my Year of Renewal project, I've been reading the parashah, haftarah, and Revised Common Lectionary readings for each week.  

Reading so much scripture has been great; it's made me wonder and it's made me question.  It's made me think of connections--and disconnections--between what I am reading and in other books I am reading (Galatians, What St. Paul Really Said).  I see themes that tie together and themes that contradict each other.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted:

This was referring to the fact that I haven't signed up for one class at church. Not Sunday morning, Sunday evening, or Wednesday evening. There are some great options that are being offered. They just aren't for me at this time.  I miss reading and studying my Bible and I'm planning to take more time to actually do that. 

I have spent far too long going to various groups or activities because I feel obligated to do so: to meet people, to have a social outlet, to spend time with other adults. But I often still find that something is lacking.  It's like I'm attending a salad luncheon when all I want is a steak dinner.

Then I read this article by Ben Irwin on Q Ideas in which he states

"We buy a lot of Bibles. We just don’t read them. And if we do, it’s usually a verse here or a chapter there. We don’t read; we cherry-pick. And cherry-picking is a guaranteed path to a miserable reading experience."

That's exactly what we do. We read a verse here and there, or have a topic and find all the verses that we think go along with that topic, and we ignore whole chapters and books and context.  We want to skip right to application.  I'm so tired of doing that.  I'm tired of reading, say Galatians 1:3-5   

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,  to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

and skipping over it, or just thinking, oh, ok, Jesus died for our sins. What's next?  

Why, when we read the Bible, do we tend to not ask questions? Such as:
  • What did Paul mean when he says "present evil age"?  
  • What was considered evil in that period in history?
  • How does Jesus giving himself for sins set people free? What did it mean then? Is it connected to Luke 4:18?
  • How did Paul define sin?
Those are six questions about one small part of these verses that we usually skip over, if we even read them at all, because usually we'd rather just get on to an inspirational verse that we can memorize to pull out when we're feeling down (or a verse for when we want to prooftext something).  

I think part of the problem is that we see the Bible as our self-help guide and we're looking for 3 steps to stop worrying or 5 ways to grow faith or 7 ways to parent Biblically. But the Bible is so much more than that, and treating it as a self-help book can detract from what we can experience if we actually were to read it for the benefit of reading it and what we can learn and how we can grow through that process, and not just for a quick few steps about how to do something.  

How do you read the Bible? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong & David Hagedorn

I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books for the purpose of this review.

I don't normally review cookbooks--this isn't a food blog, after all.  But when I was perusing the books offered, I was drawn to this one for a few reasons:  1) I have Irish ancestry 2) I have absolutely no knowledge of Irish food 3) the novel I am writing has characters with Irish ancestry and I thought it would be a good resource.

The book itself is beautiful.  It is hardcover, with many photographs of the dishes made from the recipes.  It is not a book for a beginning cook and there are often ingredients and supplies which are not going to be easy to get (though the authors are upfront about this and give a list of resources in the back).  Ironically, one ingredient they acknowledge that will be difficult to procure is pig's blood, for Black Pudding (page 22).  Since I live in a rural area with lots of farms, including pigs, I'd probably not have much of a problem getting this ingredient--but I don't want to!

After reading through most of the book, I admit I'm still a bit puzzled as to what exactly constitutes Irish food, because many of the recipes are not specifically Irish.  Each recipe, though, is preceded by a short memory the author has of it, and I think that is what makes the book stand above a regular cook book. The reader is able to imagine sitting around "The Irish Table" and experiencing what the author remembers along with the food itself. I think this is an important part of a meal.  It's not just about the food we eat, but the connections and memories we make with people as we are eating.

The one recipe that I tried so far, Auntie Ann's Pavlova (page 220), was wonderful.  While mine didn't get as puffy as the one in the picture in the book (the above photo is mine), it was still very easy to make and very delicious to eat.  I'll definitely be trying more recipes from the book.

You can buy it from Amazon here: My Irish Table

Monday, August 18, 2014

What Saved Your Faith?

I'm joining the synchroblog for the release of A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth

I enjoy writing about doubt and faith, because so many people struggle with it yet feel so alone, because somehow, they've been taught that if they doubt, then they don't have enough faith and are not good enough.  We so easily dismiss the Pharisees as so works-oriented that they just didn't understand Jesus, but fail to recognize when we then judge each other based on how much and what kind of faith we have.  

My biggest doubts have come from reading the Bible itself.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It is the inspired word of God that has caused me to doubt.  The first time I really remember it happening was when I read Hosea 11:1 in context instead of in Matthew's interpretation of it.  

Or when I learned that in Ezekiel 42-45, there are measurements for a third temple that Revelation 21:22 tells us will not exist.  

Or when I learned that the Jewish understanding of the requirements for what the Messiah will do are very, very different from the Christian understanding.

Or when I learned that there were people who had left Christianity and that there were a lot of other interpretations of Scripture out there.

And so on and so forth.

While the timing of past events has become very fuzzy to me, there is one moment I do remember, although I do not remember when or where it occurred.  I was at a point where I thought I would have to make a decision to give it all up.  Faith, church, Jesus.  And as I contemplated what to do, I realized it could go either way.  I didn't know anymore who Jesus was or what he was supposed to mean to me.  It was as if I was facing two paths to walk down, and I had to choose one.

The only thing that was certain was that I somehow knew, if I did walk away, I would be missing something important in my life.  

So I guess you could say Jesus saved my faith.  It really was nothing that I or anyone else did at all--I wouldn't even say I had faith as large as a mustard seed at that point. 

Many people are fond of quoting Romans 8:38-39:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Nor anything else in all creation.  That includes doubt and fear.  And so, if you are in that place of doubt, no matter if anyone tries to tell you different, know that even if you are doubting Jesus, he still loves you, and is waiting patiently.

 “What saved your faith? Write your own post answering that question and then visit to learn how you can join the synchroblog or to read additional posts to celebrate the release of Ed’s book A Christian Survival Guide, which is discounted on Amazon this week. “

P.S.  A Christian Survival Guide is free for Kindle today.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

One Body One Hope Helps with Ebola Outbreak in Liberia

The church I go to partners with the non-profit organization One Body One Hope This morning we received copies of a letter that Pastor Emmanual Bimba from Abide in the Vine Church sent to the president of the organization.  He writes:

"I am writing to you this letter of request in tears and heavy heart.  Our beloved country Liberia and our people went through pain and suffering for 15 years of civil war at which time many families lost their love one.  9 years ago, the Lord brought the war to an end and started rebuilding our lives again.  As we set our minds in moving forward with life, and trying to rebuild out we are again facing another epidemic of Ebola that is so scaring and fearful than the gun battle.
...the recent outbreak of Ebola virus in out country, this situation is getting out of hand...Many hospitals in the country were closed down because health workers were dying from this deadly virus. With the closing of these hospitals, many people started dying from other sicknesses because there were no treatments for them...
The government of Liberia...came out with some preventive measures...consistent washing of hand with chlorine and regular uses of hand sanitizer...These things are very costly for our people and the government is only supplying these things to hospitals and government entities. Individual are to purchase them by themselves.  We as a church have tried our best for the past two weeks but we do not have enough funding to continue...the government declared the state of emergencies; there by restricting all movement within the country. This has added another trouble to both the people upcountry and those in the city. As we speak, people are going without food. With this, we expect more death."

If you would like to help with the situation in Liberia but weren't sure how, please consider donating to One Body One Hope, and help provide money for food, chlorine, and hand sanitizer.   Please designate that it is for Abide in the Vine.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Water in the Desert

I noticed recently that my introductory post to my "Year of Renewal" Project has had substantially more page views than many of my other posts, even though it is not especially informative or detailed.  So, some of you out there are definitely interested in the topic, it seems.

In July, I visited the Labyrinth of the Dancing Christ and often find myself wanting to return.  Unfortunately, it's 1,000 miles away and I can't just go back.  It's easy to stay in that mindset though, of wanting to go back to a certain place in time when we believe everything was better (regardless of whether or not it was).  The Israelites faced that when they were wandering in the desert.  In Numbers 14: 3-4, they are questioning following where God is leading them and wonder if it would be better to return to Egypt, where they were slaves.  What they had known was better than following God into the unknown.  

When I walked the labyrinth, I almost didn't want to step in because I didn't know what lay ahead for me; I wanted to stay where I was comfortable, with what I knew. And now, I find myself wanting to go back to the labyrinth because of the experience there.  It's hard to want to look ahead when we can't see very far.

In the labyrinth, I couldn't see how to get to the center; I just had to take one step after another and I found myself enjoying the journey and not looking behind me.  That is what I need to remember on those days when I just want to go back there.  That experience of the labyrinth is in the past, and, while I hope there will be another one, I need to focus on the steps I am currently taking.  

I think, though, what we need to remember about specific experiences that we yearn to go back to is not to keep wanting to go back to them, but finding ways to be strengthened from the past and be able to look ahead to the future with hope.  During this project, one song continuously comes to mind: "Desert Song" by Hillsong.  

The first verse says:

This is my prayer in the desert
When all that's within me feels dry
This is my prayer in my hunger and need
My God is the God who provides

In those lines, there is a spark of hope, no matter how small it is.  

And so as I continue reading the various portions of scripture each week that come from both the Jewish cycle of reading and the Christian lectionary, I look for even the tiniest parts that bring hope when the scripture is difficult and complicated.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Idolatry of the Bible

This morning, my friend Andy posted a recent Facebook status of the band Gungor:
There is a trend in modern society, no more than a trend...a religion, an idolatry that elevates scripture above Jesus.  This 'bibliolatry', if you will, is rooted in a modern mindset that values reductionism over mystery. A reading of the Bible over Jesus. (One clue that your church might be tinged with bibliolatry:in your beliefs section of your website, do you find Jesus first or the Bible?)  Bibliolaters claim (read my twitter feed) that Jesus CANT be the foundation of our faith--how do we know about Jesus without the Bible?  What they may fail to realize is that Christianity existed for hundreds of years before there even was a Bible as we know it."
This is a topic that I have talked and written about before:

It is comforting to want to believe that the Bible has all the answers for us and is directed to each of us individually.  For example, I love when Jeremiah says "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." (Jeremiah 29:11).  We all also want to be assured that our lives have had meaning since before we were born, as God says to Jeremiah in the very beginning: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you" (1:5).  But we never finish that verse when we apply it to each human being, because it says "I appointed you a prophet to the nations," and if we take Paul seriously, not all of us are prophets (1 Corinthians 12:29).  I want to know that God knows my future, that God has plans for me that are for my good and bring me a hopeful future.  And even if that is completely 100% true, those verses aren't directed to me as an individual living in the United States of America in 2014.  

The words of Jeremiah are "reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C.E. This crisis is the dominant and shaping event of the entire OT." (Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming, page 1).

To think that they are directed to each of us individually does a disservice to God.  When we think the Bible is directed to us, we make it about us, and we take the focus off of the Father who inspired it, the Son it points to, and the Spirit who guides us through it.  

There is nothing wrong with taking comfort in various verses in the Bible.  There is nothing wrong with believing what we read there.  But when we stay at a superficial level we are in danger of having a superficial faith that cannot handle any discrepancies that are thrown our way.  And, yes, there are discrepancies.  I think our fear of being wrong about our faith, whether or not we even realize we are afraid, drives us to want the Bible to be perfect and give us all the answers.  Relying on a written text as if it is a car instruction manual is far easier than following Jesus in faith.  We look at the Pharisees in the Bible and castigate them for relying on "works" to please God, but then we turn around and rely on our belief about the Bible as what marks one with true faith and belonging.  

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he explains to them that as Gentiles, they do not need to adopt Jewish practices in order to belong to Jesus. Their faith is enough:  "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2:16)

If we want to apply this to our lives today, as we are so fond of doing with the Bible, we might want to change it a little.  If Paul was writing on this topic today, he might say:  "yet we know that a person is justified not by what one believes about the Bible, but through faith in Jesus Christ."

Our desire to put the Bible as the focus of our lives instead of our faith in Jesus as the focus of our lives has perhaps had the unintended consequence of enslaving us instead of freeing us--and can cause us to have grave doubts, as happened to me in the past.  Paul writes further in Galatians that "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1).  Then, he wrote that "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6) and "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 5:22 - 23) and "If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit." (Galatians 5:26).

It comes down to how we read the Bible.  Do we read it as a rote instruction manual, a list what to do and what to not do so our lives are robotically perfect?  Or do we read it as the story of how God works in our world, the story of how God loves us, the story of how God redeems us and is making all things new?  If we are reading the Bible and the fruits of the Spirit are not present in our lives, then we are reading it wrong--no matter what we believe about it or how good our intentions are.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Journey Begins...Again

The long and winding path from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Edward Webb, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Two and a half years ago, I had to quit a job that I loved and move.  Since then, I have been a full-time stay-at-home-mom.  It's been difficult, as I enjoyed working part-time and I miss it.  

A year after I moved here, I wrote this

"And I love where I am now.  It is a new chapter in my life, that, although I didn't write it, has been wonderful.  It is a chapter in my life that I have seen, felt, experienced (pick which word you relate to best!) God's leading more than any other time in my life.  Even before it was certain we would move here, I somehow knew that this was the place we would go.  It was strange too, because there was the potential of another place, closer to where I had grown up, that was becoming an option.  I would have preferred that place, but I knew it wasn't the time yet."

I have often wondered why God wanted us here.  What specifically was there for me to do?  A few months ago, I thought I knew exactly what it was God had called me here for, but as it turned out, that job opportunity was not to be.

Yesterday in church, our pastor was talking about blessings, and read from Genesis 12:1-3.  I ended up deviating from that and reading further on, since I have always loved the story of God calling Abraham, and noticed something.  

"And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb." (12:9)
"He journeyed on by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first, and there Abram called on the name of the Lord" (13:3-4)

What first stood out to me was the phrase "journeyed on by stages".  When God called Abraham, God's promises didn't just appear.  In fact, God's promises of descendents and land were so far in the future that Abraham would not even be able to see them himself.  

I next noticed that after the second journey by stages, Abram ended up where he had been at the beginning.  He'd left his family and all he ever knew to go on this journey of God's calling, and ends up at the first place he had come to initially.  He had to start over yet again.  How frustrating!  

It brought me a little comfort though, that even Abraham, this person that God chose to start a great nation, had setbacks.  The journey wasn't easy or clear.  I don't know if he expected it to be or not, but I know that I tend to expect it to be pretty clear.  I didn't expect to spend this much time being only a stay-at-home-mom, and I didn't expect that part-time job to disappear just when I thought it was the exact right opportunity for me.

But life doesn't always meet our expectations, and we sometimes have to think about where we've been, what we've done, and just start over.  The last two and a half years haven't been a waste, at all, even if they weren't what I expected.  Not working has had some of its own blessings: no problems staying home with my kids when they were sick or had a snow day, getting to know a family in the neighborhood and loving the kids in that family, deciding to cook or bake whenever I had an urge to do so, etc.

But now, I do feel like I am starting over.  Soon, football season and the new school year will begin.  Both my kids will now be in school (1 elementary, 1 preschool), and it is time for a new chapter in my life.  And I still have no idea what that is.  The question "what is your ideal job" has been posed to me twice in the last couple of weeks, by two people who have no connection to each other.  And it stumped me. I am not entirely sure what my ideal job would be.  I have a list of dreams and interests and what I am good at and I don't know how they fit together.  But here they are.  I'm hoping that deliberately writing them out and publicizing them will somehow help bring some clarity and direction. 
  • Must be part-time and flexible so I can stay home when the kids are sick and can't go to school as well as flexible during school vacations. 
  • Writing/Editing
    • I am currently at 17,498 words in my novel
    • I've been blogging on faith/Bible topics since 2005
    • I have a yearlong spiritual discovery project started that could potentially be a book
    • I have always been good at proofreading and have read and provided feedback for writers in my writing group and do some freelance proofreading for an editor friend of mine
  • Publication Design
    • I've created newsletters, booklets, posters, handouts, inspirational sayings on an amateur basis for various organizations and personal use (caveat: I have no idea how to use Adobe products. I know that's a big negative).
  • Social Media 
  • Speaking/Preaching/Teaching
    • I have led Bible studies, given sermons and other devotional talks for many years
  • Getting to know people on a one-on-one basis
  • I've enjoyed my church/ministry jobs the most
We always talk about the church being a community and that people are not supposed to do life alone, so I'm asking for your help and feedback.  I'm not sure what type of job combines those interests and abilities, but if I don't put it out there, I will never know.  So, please, if you have thoughts, advice, know of something that seems like it would fit me, let me know.  And we'll see where the next journey leads. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Being Bold and Honest

For the second year in a row, and the fourth time overall, we've spent a week at an Evangelical sports camp.  I really enjoy having the week off from cooking: we get to eat every single meal in the cafeteria of the college where the event is hosted.  There is a morning children's program for my kids and optional afternoon activities, chapel each night, and then adult social time after that. 

There's also a study for the female spouses of the coaches working the camp.

That's the part I tend to struggle with the most.  Most, if not all, women's events I have ever attended I have not really enjoyed.  This is probably along the same lines as the reason I rarely enjoy Sunday School or small group type stuff anymore--they just don't have the depth that I am interested in or need.  Last summer, I didn't attend the women's study.  I wanted some time alone to write and I am glad I did that.  This year, I did attend it, with a little trepidation.  Last year's study was one that I read afterwards, and I thought the book that was used was badly written/edited and could actually be very concerning if it was followed the way it was written.  I sent an email to the leader of the study and expressed my concerns, she wrote back, I wrote back again.  It was a cordial conversation but we obviously disagreed and I wasn't too sure I would be welcomed back again this year.

But I was. 

And more than being welcomed, it turns out that people appreciated my being there.  On our last day of the study, we wrote some affirmations for each of the women in the group, and when I got mine back, I was surprised to read some of them because it's not really how I see myself (which should be good evidence that our perceptions of ourselves can get really skewed):
  • I admire you very much in how honest you are and how true to the Word you are!
  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
  • Thank you--your sharing and encouragement has been such a gift to us.
  • Thank you for being so real.
  • You remind me to exercise my gifts and be who God created me to be.  Thanks for granting me permission. Inspirational, you are.
  • I so appreciate your heart and security in knowing who you are.
  • Thank you for sharing your passion and wisdom.
  • I have been blessed by your knowledge and insightful contributions this week. Thank you!!
This surprised me because of my comments when we were talking about self-worth.  When the question about what we often base worth on, I said that we often base a person's worth on his or her gender, and I also commented later that we put certain people or "levels" of faith as we perceive them up on pedestals.  The other bold/honest comment I made was that we idolize marriage and motherhood and too often women are discouraged from being and doing anything else and are taught that is all they are made to do, and their passions for anything else are snuffed out.  I didn't think that would go over well at all but it seemed as if there was some agreement in the room, and when I got my affirmation sheet back and saw the comments, I realized that maybe, people have similar thoughts and are too afraid to voice them--I know that I have been afraid in the past, and even was a little fearful to do so this week.

What I learned is that I need to do it more often (and so I did--and wrote an entire page on the back of the evaluation sheet with some concerns I had about one particular event during the week).  There are too many people out there who feel as if they are the only one thinking something.  I know, because I often feel this way.  It never occurred to me that I need to be the one to take that first step and help others see that they are not alone.  This will be an adjustment for me; it is stepping out of my comfort zone.  But in a way, it ties back into my theme for the year of "Alive".  If I am only living in the safe and predictable areas, then am I truly living?  I don't think so.  

In Deuteronomy 31, Moses is telling the people that they are going to cross into the Promised Land...but without him.  He encourages them to "Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you"  (Deuteronomy 31:6).  Too often, I have lived in fear of being bold.  It is not really my nature to be that way and who knows what the reasons are for it; I'm sure there are many.  But I'm going to try to remember this verse when I want to speak up about something and feel myself pulling back from doing so because I'm afraid of the reaction of others or what they will think about me.  Being bold must, of course, be tempered with wisdom and caution too; it's not just recklessly saying or doing something because I feel like it.  It would seem that this is the next part of the journey of faith that God has me on, and if so, I can only trust that He'll guide me through it.

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