Excuse me, is this church?

When I lived in Afghanistan, I gathered with less than a dozen other foreign believers in my community to pray, worship, share the Scriptures and sometimes celebrate communion. We didn’t have a pastor or a sound system or air-conditioning. There were months on end when we sang a cappella because we didn’t have a guitarist to accompany us.

What we did have was community. We were a small band of believers. We drew strength and encouragement from our times with one another, but it was more than that. We were few and vulnerable and deeply committed to one another.

We expressed our commitment in very practical ways; when a member’s child nearly cut her finger off, my team rushed back from the mountains so that our doctor could tend the wound. When one of us returned from a long trip, we threw a party. And when newcomers came, we welcomed them, got to know them, and called them ‘us’.

Imagine my shock when I returned to America.

One of the 1st churches I went to had the sound system turned up so loudly that I couldn’t hear the voices of the people beside me. That church even had colored lights for the band. At another church, everything was seeker friendly – all designed for comfort. Yet another church had fantastic teaching but I was completely invisible. Oh, then there was that strange church of some 15 members who did 5 altar calls after the sermon. I almost went forward just to make them feel better.

I was lost!

I recently found a quote that resonated in my heart: “When the church throws itself into entertaining us, we walk out. And in return, older generations are left frustrated by the shallowness of the Sunday morning service.” ~Carson Nyquist

Ah, I thought, that’s it. Entertainment. The cool churches have it and the rest wish they did. (Fortunately, I’m exaggerating wildly.)

The truth is, not everyone wants to be entertained. There’s something in us that aches for authenticity, for community – with Christ and with one another.

I wonder if this is core to what it means to be a Christian; that we are part of the body of Christ. We’re family. Not like a nuclear family, but like a big messy extended family. Still, we belong.

I’m musing. How do you see church?

Posted in Walking in Community | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

We’re in this together

Recently, gunmen opened fire on a Tunisian beach, killing and wounding vacationing Europeans. The West was outraged and should be. Innocent people were killed.

The whole event underscored the belief that Muslims are at war with the West; both with Christians and with secularists. But is that really true? Do you believe Muslims are at war with you?

It’s a simple black and white concept, easy to grab hold of. Muslims = bad, Westerners = good. Every Muslim’s an enemy. Until we look deeper.

When we do, we find that most victims are not Westerners at all. Muslims killed 140 plus Muslims in attacks on mosques and villages in Nigeria. Muslims killed 322 Muslims from a single tribe in Iraq. Muslims killed Hazara Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reports are too numerous.

With each individual killed, a community is destroyed. Grief rips life from those left behind. The world is impoverished.

For the sake of truth, we need to change the story.

Why?

Because the Muslim man tending the counter at the convenience store may be grieving the loss of precious loved ones or aching with the searing pain of his homeland ripped to shreds. The woman walking down the street may be hiding tears behind her veil.

The man asking to build a mosque in your neighborhood may have grief in common with the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11.

The 1st and greatest victims of Muslim violence are other Muslims. The second victims of Muslim violence are Westerners and Christians. We’re in this together.

That’s why I’m writing this post – to remind us that we’re in this together.

And so, the next question; how do we respond?

For me, I think the 1st response is in my heart. When a veiled woman steps into line behind me, will I see an enemy, a friend, or a stranger clothing a precious, beautiful, wounded human being?

And if I choose to wonder, will I take a moment to say hello? And if context allows, will I get to know this person for who she is, where she’s from, what she’s experienced, all she hopes and dreams for?

And when I do, will we share tears for all we’ve lost and prayers for all we seek?

Posted in Loving the Stranger | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Through lament

The other day I found myself talking to a woman about prayer. She said, “Prayer is simple. I talk to God anytime, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.”

Then, she told me a wonderful story of a time when she was flat out and overwhelmed. She cried out to God and when the tears came, she pulled over to the side of the road. There, she sensed him, sitting in the passenger seat of her car, quieting her soul. She said, “I’m still poor, but God is with me and that’s enough.”

I loved her story and I loved the God who met a crying woman while she drove down the road.

There are times when we have words and those words are full of honest, raw, and intense emotion. We hurl our pain and doubt and confusion into the waiting silence, our emotions too real to edit down into careful theology.

David knew this kind of prayer: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)

We want to silence this cry, make ourselves and others sound right, good, people of faith. And we are. We are also sometimes hurt and frightened. We cry and here’s the beautiful thing. God hears us.

What are the alternatives? Swallow or deny the pain or fear that’s shaking us to the core? Put on a happy face and quote a piece of truth?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the truth! I cling to it, especially in the storms. But sometimes, we have to cry the lament before the truth can embrace our souls.

David prayed his lament. I imagine his emotions were just as raw as the woman who told me her story. Perhaps he went straight from his cry to the truth. Perhaps he cried for years.

In the end, after his cry, he was able to say, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psa 13:5-6)

The cry of lament makes uncomfortable. It’s messy and sometimes it seems to last forever. Still, it’s holy!

Have you prayed your own lament? How did God meet you?

 

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What does your forgiveness give to the other?

The Afghans have an interesting notion of forgiveness. If, for example, a man kills another man, he cannot be forgiven by God unless the family of the man forgives him. That puts a lot of power into human hands.

I would discount the theory entirely except that it has a surprising parallel in Scripture. After the resurrection, Jesus met with his disciples. He breathed on them and imparted the Holy Spirit. Immediately afterward, he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:23)

The verse startles me.

Really? I have the capacity to forgive sins and if I forgive someone their sin, does that mean their sin is forgiven by God as well? That sounds like a huge responsibility.

But what about repentance? What about confession? Aren’t these things required?

And what about King David who said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” What about Bathsheba? What about her husband, Uriah? Didn’t David sin against them?

I certainly think so!

I recognize confusion and turn to Jesus. Certainly, he forgave sins but then again, he was God incarnate. On the other hand, he asked us to do the same as he had done.

Wow. That’s a staggering thought. Is there anything in it at all? Perhaps there’s a different way of reading the verse. Perhaps there’s a connection between receiving the Holy Spirit and offering forgiveness to others. I don’t know. What do you think?

What if the forgiveness I offer a person who has hurt me is so powerful, so significant that it communicates God’s forgiveness as well? What if forgiveness isn’t just a matter of keeping my own heart clean, but also a matter of cleansing the heart of my offender?

I might not offer my forgiveness so easily. After all, I take comfort in believing that the really cruel, inhumane people of the world will be judged by God no matter how many people forgive them on earth.

I don’t know. It all sounds so huge, so powerful and who am I really?

What do you think about all this? What does your forgiveness give to the person who is hurt or offended you? Does it give them anything or is it just about your own freedom which is certainly significant?

Posted in Loving the Stranger | Tagged | 2 Comments

Big things from little things grow

There’s an Australian folk song, “From little things big things grow” that tells the story of Vincent Lingiari, an Aboriginal stockman whose small actions radically changed Australia’s treatment of its aboriginal population.

The chorus is simple; “From little things big things grow.”

I heard it covered by the Waifs and just had to learn the history.

It’s a story about oppression, courage, small actions and justice. And, it’s the story of how the Kingdom of God appears in this world.

“From little things big things grow.”

Small seeds scattered and forgotten. Fields planted and left to grow. Yeast kneaded a quarter teaspoon at a time into dough. And God provides the increase.

There’s always a partnership, some action that we must take. Vincent Lingiari walked off the job. Rosa Parks sat in the wrong seat. Nicholas Winton brought children out of harm’s way. And the world became a better place.

Is this kingdom of God stuff?

I think it is. I think it’s justice versus oppression, freedom versus subjugation, life versus death. If that’s not the stuff of the Kingdom, I don’t know what is.

I’ll admit, I love the big signs and wonders like when God miraculously restores sight to the blind. And you’d better believe I pray for sovereign miracles.

But the works that really awe me are the actions of individuals taken against impossible odds. After all, I don’t think it’s any big deal for God, the Creator of the universe to restore sight. He doesn’t risk death for doing it like Corrie ten Boom and her family did when they hid Jews from the Nazis. Or Paul Rusesabagina did when he hid Hutu and Tutsi refugees during the Rwandan Genocide.

These people awe me. Courage – the courage to risk their lives to make the world a better place.

And they make me think of Jesus who gave his life to make the world a better place.

Maybe that’s why God doesn’t do as many miracles as we want. Maybe he’s waiting for us to follow his example and do our part. Maybe he doesn’t expect us to do the big things. Maybe he just wants us to do the little things and trust that from those little things, big things will grow.

What are your little things?

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Kalashnikovs and Glocks

Too many men with too many weapons – slung over their shoulders, dangling from their fingertips, kicking flash suppressors against their shins.

I take a rifle into my own hands. It’s heavy and slick. Cold. Hard. Why do I need this? Will firing a rifle help me finish the conversation? Shut out the image? Close the door? If I hold the bullets, will I come to terms with their weight? Will I be more frightened, or less?

My friends have been killed. Bullets. Rockets. No one to help. Flesh and bone and lead and steel.

We are lambs sent among wolves and wolves have teeth and hunger. I want to believe all the wolves live far away, that if I stay home, no one will hurt me or the ones I love.

Then; a movie theatre, a school, a church…

And I want to grow my own teeth. Shake this vulnerability. Take the rifle into my own arms. I want to be the stronger, no longer the target. I don’t like being a lamb.

Am I alone in this struggle? Did the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing dream of retribution? Did the brothers and sisters of the slain at Emmanuel Church desire blood, even for a moment?

But I’m sure Jesus envisioned Kalashnikovs and rockets, homemade bombs and Glock 45s when he hung on the cross. I’m sure he saw this day.

Put your sword away. Be harmless as doves. Some have been sawn in twain and the world is not worthy of them. Go. I am with you, always. Go.

Our brothers and sisters are buried in Kabul and Charleston and Boston. They were flesh and blood, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. Now, they are at rest, but we are still here with our grief and fear and rage.

We who walk as lambs in the world have no right to Kalashnikovs or bullets. Somehow, we must come to terms with this, too.

Chris Singleton, the son of an Emmanuel Church massacre victim shows us the way. “Love is always stronger than hate, so if we just love the way my mom would, then the hate won’t be anywhere close to where love is.”

And I would add; love changes the world in ways hate never could.

How do you respond to violence?

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Finding the fulcrum

I am almost 2 years from Afghanistan; from sketchy electricity, sketchier heating, and bucket baths.

I still step into a hot shower and feel blessed. I still rejoice in morning coffee, driving my own car and the noteworthy absence of men with Kalashnikovs.

I am grateful.

The small things are still delightful; lights that turn on when I flick a switch, a gas stove that lights without a match, an oven that doesn’t threaten to blow up, a vacuum cleaner, my dogs free to enter the house.

The noticing is helpful.

In Afghanistan, I dreamed of Wal-Mart and Home Depot; one-stop shopping for things unavailable or nearly impossible to find in a culture of small family owned stores staffed by men far too interested in the foreign women who came seeking products.

Sometimes I would draw pictures of things I wanted or find them in someone else’s house, snap a photo with my phone, and send my Afghan staff out to find what I wanted. Occasionally the process failed. Always it took great effort. And so, I chose to want little.

There was a grace in that. I called it living a fasted life. It was simple and uncluttered.

America’s different.

Noisy, full of commercials, billboards, stores with stocked shelves – anything you can imagine available somewhere, if not locally, then on the internet.

I am learning to filter.

It’s no longer a matter of thinking of something I might want. Now it’s a constant effort to see things people tell me I want and to say no.

The thing is, I want to live an uncluttered, simple life.

I’m not seeking some severe, self-destructive asceticism. Just a kind of simplicity that allows my heart to stay clean and quiet enough to hear the whisper of God and see the face of my neighbor.

I want balance; electricity and lamps to illumine rooms, without of obsession – the quest for the perfect lamp. I want enough, but not too much. And I want to live grateful for all I have without hungering for what I don’t need.

The fulcrum is small and shifts from subject to subject. There are no hard and fast rules. Instead, I find myself asking the question; really? Is this a value and if it is, why? If it’s not, forget it.

How do you decide?

Posted in Self Care | Tagged , , | 4 Comments