Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What's in a name?

"How would you like to sign your checks with that name: No Love. No Mercy?"

My pastor's hypothetical question was met with a smattering of laughs Sunday morning, but mine did not join the others. We were reading from Hosea when God instructs Hosea to marry Gomer, a known prostitute. Hosea does what he is asked and chapter 1 records three births to the family; the language suggests that one of them did not belong to Hosea. Ignoring that fact for just a second, the names that God gives to Hosea for his children are terrible: Jezreel (a city known for punishment and destruction), Lo-ruhamah (no compassion, no mercy; also, not loved), and Lo-ammi (not mine). I know, pretty weird names, right? But names held a little more importance in ancient times than they do today. They could speak about the condition or reaction to your birth (or conception, in Isaac's case) or the family to which you belong. Sometimes family names were passed down to first born sons (remember how John the Baptist was almost called Zechariah?). Other names of course, like Jesus, came from divine revelation.

The Lord gave Hosea specific instructions on what to name his children. It was like he said, "Give them names to show my people how far they have turned from me. I want to make this so clear to them that they can't miss what I'm doing." The whole book of Hosea is a parable fleshed out to show the Israelites that they had turned from God, that things would be hard because of their sin but that God would pursue them for the sake of love and redemption and that He would never give up on them.

Amidst the laughter around me, my heart broke a little. I understand, at least in part, what God was getting at in the story. By chapter three, we see promise of redemption, not only of Gomer but also of her children. God promises to reclaim his people: instead of a land of destruction and harshness, the land will be plentiful; instead of a people who have not been able to find love or compassion, He will show compassion and love toward them; instead of being called "not mine," He will claim them as His people. But it still hurts to have your God given name be "not loved."

Which brings us back to the question my pastor posed to us that morning: how would you like to sign your name "no love"?

I couldn't laugh at his joke because we do this to ourselves.  We name ourselves "not loved" and insist on living life with that weight, even though redemption has been offered to us. We focus on our (perceived) deficiencies and short comings, keeping a running tally of our failures next to our coffee pot so we are sure to see them every day. We add addendum to our new name: not loved because I'm fat, not loved because I'm skinny, not loved because I'm depressed, not loved because I'm stupid.
I think it's interesting that Lo-ruhamah had no qualifiers. There wasn't anything she did to deserve the name. So when her redemption comes, she is called "loved" with no qualifications. Not because of anything she has done or left undone, she is called "loved" by God because that was His goal all along. 

One of the last points Pastor Tim made on Sunday was that God does not love us because of who we are or what we do; he loves us because of who He is and in spite of what we do. From the very beginning, even as early as Genesis 3, redemption has been His game. We get hints and promises of a Messiah almost before the fruit has a chance to turn brown. Even with the stories in the Old Testament of the Israelites turning away from God, there is still promise of redemption. Isaiah 42 has prophecy about the coming Messiah with astonishing detail. Every time I see it, I am amazed. This isn't just a way to fix a plot hole or a temporary story arc. This is THE PLAN from the beginning.

I suffer from self-naming the same way that you do. I pull my failures out of the past, dust them off and give them a place of prominence in my present. I see my deficiencies in the mirror every day and examine them closely before leaving the house, keeping them in the forefront of my mind as I go about my day.

And you know what?

It's exhausting.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Lo-ruhamah and her redemption. I've gone back to Hosea and read the passage again, looking for a key to understanding God's love, redemption, and plan in the story. Maybe it's there if I look hard enough. Maybe looking is part of understanding. Maybe just believing that we are worth more than our names, more than our actions, worth something just because is the first step to really understanding.

Try it on, just for today. Call yourself "loved" and remind yourself that you are more than your imperfections. Not because you are perfect or better than anyone else, but because God says you are loved and because He made you for more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Tired Faith & Dusty Offerings

There have been at least two times in my life (in recent history) when I knowingly used my gifts when I didn't want to. Both times, I ended up being surprised and amazed by the grace I was rewarded with.
It shouldn't surprise me any more, but it does.

Recently I was asked to sign a song for a good friend of mine. Of course I said yes, but when I first listened to the song I had more misgivings than this song had repeats. And boy, did it have a lot.
The list was long: it wasn't the style I usually signed, the words were so modern, the repeats, etc. I put off looking at it until it was far too late and I spent a week practically kicking and screaming, complaining to anyone who would listen, but begrudgingly learning this song.

I ended up learning all the signs and by Saturday I felt rather confident that things would go well. I mean, as confident as I could be given the amount of time I had left to study (zero) and number of days until the performance (um, again, zero). I ran through it a couple of times before bed and then decided it would have to be enough. I sent at least five alarms, got ready for bed early (for me, of course) and tried to sleep.

I was jolted awake sometime around 3 AM to the shouts and arguments of my downstairs neighbors. I tried to will myself back to sleep, knowing that if I got up to do anything, I would be unable to even think about sleeping. I couldn't tell you how long the noise went on but when my alarm went off at 6 a.m., I was sure I could afford a few more moments of sleep. However, the 4 other alarms I set didn't go off and I found myself waking up 15 minutes before I needed to leave. Things were just not going my way.

I aggressively ignored some of the speed limit signs on my way to church. I prayed that the cops would either all be asleep or at church already and that the people in front of me weren't going to my church. It wasn't just that I had overslept; I was late heading to my first practice and first performance of the song I really wish I hadn't agreed to sign.

Thankfully, I got to church with enough time to run through the song 1.5 times with the rest of the team. Unfortunately, most of the coffee I had hastily made that morning was still in my travel mug. I gulped furiously. As I gulped, our keyboardist prayed for us before the service started. His prayer quieted me and reminded my heart that this thing we were doing was simply enhancing the vocalist's gift. I needed to hear that.

I'm always nervous when I sign. Always. Even if it is a song I choose and like, I get nervous. But here I was, exhausted, under-caffeinated, wishing I was somewhere else. This was more than just normal nerves. 

I signed twice on Sunday, first service and second service. In between services, I talked with friends. I've written about these friends before, the ones who ask "How are you?" and "Are you safe?" and "Do you need anything?" and expect an honest and real answer. The ones who can see the tears in my eyes before I really know they are there. They could see I was exhausted on all levels and made sure to ask me about it. I started waking up. Not just in the way you do when the coffee kicks in, but in that way you do when your soul has been run down for so long that you think you are alone in the universe and you finally start seeing a way out.

It wasn't until I started signing in the second service that it all really hit me. I was signing about tired faith and a vast feeling of hopelessness and I didn't realize I was signing about me until that moment. I might have been asked to sign the song to help spread the message of God's love and grace to the congregation, but in that moment, the message of the song was for me.

I wasn't on my best form. It was the first song I've signed in ages, probably since Easter. My gift that morning was a halfhearted dusty offering. But in all of that, I left church that morning with a tear in my eye and the echoes of hope in my heart.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Get Involved in Someone's Mess

It's become a tradition in my family, and one that I have continued as I work out my own traditions, to attend the Maundy Thursday service at my church. I didn't even know what Maundy Thursday was about until we started attending my church almost 10 years ago. Now I can't imagine missing it.
It's pretty much the same service every year. We keep it simple: mostly hymns, organ prelude, reduced praise team, no drums. The lights are kept low and all of the distractions in the lobby are cleared out. We don't have greeters at the door and you are asked to enter the sanctuary speaking only to the Lord in prayer. Our pastors pitch in and take different parts of the service: one or two read scripture at different points, one (or more) give a devotional on the scripture, our Senior pastor leads communion.
We have a foot washing at this service. It is to mirror what happened after the Passover meal that the disciples shared with Jesus. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, a job usually reserved for a gentile servant. Apparently, washing feet was something so degrading that they couldn't even ask one Jewish servant to wash another Jew's feet. It wasn't just the dirt, but the humiliating nature of humbling yourself before another person that made this task to distasteful.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

I've heard the story before. Jesus humbled himself, taking on the place of a servant and washed his disciples feet. It's an example to us to live humble lives, just as he did. The weight of the Lord of the Universe getting down on his knees and washing feet was huge. It was the picture of sacrifice. But tonight I saw something different. When Jesus started washing feet, the disciples were talking amongst themselves about the political organization of Jesus' new kingdom. They were trying to figure out who would be at the right and left hand of the King, who would hold what positions, probably how great it was going to be to see Rome cower in fear. They lived in a time when there was a first and a last and even to religious leaders of the day, that order was very important. Surely the new kingdom that Jesus would bring would have such an order to it as well. 
Instead of reprimanding them, Jesus grabs a towel and starts washing their feet. I imagine it got pretty quiet, the bickering dying down as people stopped to watch their Master washing feet.
In that one simple act, Jesus set the traditional religious and political roles of the day on their head: he made all twelve men equal. 
He didn't wash Peter's feet and then say, "Wash the feet of the brother next to you." He did all the dirty work, quieting the voices calling out to be noticed and recognized. He humbled himself before each man. By making the disciples equals, not based on their political or economic station, but by their importance to him, Jesus calls them to participate in each other's lives. The bigger picture here is that they had been served but now it was their job to go and serve others. If Jesus got down to wash the dirty feet, maybe we also need to be washing feet of the people around us? Maybe we also need to get involved in other people's messy lives?

Maybe I've heard it before. Maybe I've been blind to it. But all of a sudden, washing feet was about more than just me. Holy Week is a time for introspection and prayer. We remember the joys and struggles of the last week of Jesus' life on earth. We are thankful for the sacrifice that was made for us…and then it kind of ends. I hesitate to say this, but I think we've been making Holy Week all about us. And if you haven't, I'm pretty sure I have been.

Washing feet tonight felt different. I walked back tonight with a fair bit of anxiety. The hall is dimly lit with people everywhere, and I am just not sure where I'm sitting. In years past, I would pick a person before going back so that it would be easier. I didn't this year. I spent the short walk to the fellowship hall mulling over the call to involve ourselves in other people's messy lives.   When I got to the back, my choice was easy. There was a young woman, probably only a few years younger than me, who I knew from the church and a Bible study we used to attend. She was sitting alone and so I asked her if I could wash her feet. I knew some of her story, but only what she had sparingly shared. Her family also served in the church; sometimes it is hard to speak honestly about family (even if it is just your biased perception of things) members who publicly serve and are known in the church. I knelt down and prayed for her as I cupped water to dribble over her feet. I prayed for her heart. I prayed for her struggles. I prayed that she would feel loved.

Life is messy. There isn't anyway around that. Sometimes in my mess, I hardly feel equipped to deal with my stuff. I use that as an excuse to not serve others. But then I think about the disciples--not a one of them were trained for ministry when they met Jesus. Some of them had really great jobs, some just had jobs. He called them out of their former life and taught them something new. We don't have be amazing preachers or teachers to further God's kingdom. Sometimes, we just need to help wipe the dust from someone's feet, pray for them and get involved in their mess.

"But among you, those who are the greatest should take the lower rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Normally the master sits at the table and is served by his servants. But not here! For I am your servant." 
Luke 23:26-27

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

All Is Calm

Last year I had the incredible honor of writing for a Christian website called Audacious. I mentioned on this blog that I had written a few posts and linked you over to the website. Due to funding, the site no longer exists. I've been struggling with that all year, I think. I was so excited to have a place to write and improve as a writer. When it went away, I felt kind of tricked. Like Lucy with the football. Have this great opportunity to expand and-- oh wait, just kidding. I stopped writing shortly after the website came down. I wrote a little for my book reviews but not much. Things kind of stopped. 

As I drove home tonight, I had a pretty intense conversation with God. I shared some fears and insecurities and then listened for an answer. I'm so high stress right now (finals week at university, Christmas, emergencies/alerts at university, general job stress, holiday shoppers…) that I know I don't take enough time to listen. 
I happen to have a copy of a post I wrote for Audacious last December open on my desktop. As I re-read it I realized it is still true for me. As I have been reminded over the years, sometimes a good lesson takes awhile to learn and for it to really sink in, you need to hear it again. And again. 
I needed to hear it again. Maybe you do too. 

Christmas caroling around the community with my church family has become one of my most cherished Christmas traditions. I love listening to and singing Christmas music all year round. One of the many perks of living alone is that there is no one to complain when I start the Christmas music in July. But really, nothing quite beats walking around in the freezing cold, in hats and scarves and gloves, singing "Joy to the World." Nothing. 
However, over the years, my work schedule has gotten so busy that I am usually unable to make it to our Christmas caroling night. This year a close friend begged me to come. Begged. Thanks to a sympathetic supervisor and a slow day at work, I was able to arrange some things so I could finally attend. Easy peasy.
Ha. Life never is, is it? 
Even though I was so excited that I was finally able to participate in the one event I have missed over the years, I left work late, leaving what felt like 100 things unfinished. I texted my friend before I left work. "Do not leave without me. I will cry if you do."  I drove as fast as the speed limit would let me, still getting to the church almost 10 minutes late. Almost as soon as I stepped foot in the church, we were off to our first stop. 
It wasn't until we were on our second or third song that I realized I wasn't enjoying myself. I had been stressing out and running high on adrenaline for the last couple of hours. I was finally able to spend time with my church family and all I felt was stress. I could feel the frustration building up inside my heart. I was stressing about work things. Had I remembered to tell my supervisor…? I was stressing about the cold and the snow. I was stressing about…well, pretty much everything.
And then I heard it. Those beautiful words of the hymn:
Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy Infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace. 
One second, I was singing. And the next? Well, the next I stood there with tears falling down my face. All is calm? Hardly. Heavenly peace? Where can I get some of that? Oh Lord,  I prayed,  I am so far from calm at this moment. So far from the peace that you promise. Please calm my heart. Grant me peace.
And as we sang the rest of that song, it felt like I was hearing for the very first time that Jesus came to bring us peace and grace. That in our fear and trembling, the angels were bringing good news of a Savior. That this thing we celebrate every December 25th, Jesus putting skin on and stepping into our world, isn't just for children. 
It's for me. 
Even on the stressful, messy days? Yes. Even then. And guess what? It's for you too! 
Even on your messy days?Yes. Even then. Especially then.

Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 
LUKE 2:9-11

(Originally published December 8, 2013 for Audacious)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Faith of our Fathers

 Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;

O how our hearts beat high with joy

Whenever we hear that glorious Word!

When I got my new job, I had to switch the church service I attended. For the longest time, I was a solid second service girl. Enough time to sleep in, make it to Sunday school (on a good morning) and then service. As long as the preacher didn't go too long, breakfast was just wearing off by the end of the sermon, making you the right amount of content and hungry. At this point you were happy and content enough to pay attention and talk to other congregation members, but hungry enough to not forget the time. If you had kids under ten, there was no way you would forget that lunch needed to happen soon after the final "Amen."

Faith of our fathers, we will strive
To win all nations unto Thee;

And through the truth that comes from God,

We all shall then be truly free.

I was sure the thing I would miss the most (besides all the sleep) was the music from second service. Second service was for the young, hip kids (and kids at heart) who liked drums and a good bass line. We sang songs that you stood for, clapped hands for, raised hands for and sometimes, even cried over. This was the service that gave you permission to talk to God in a language void of words like "bulwark" and "fortress."

Faith of our fathers, we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;

And preach Thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life.

 So when I found myself crying over the hymn, Faith of our Fathers, it surprised me. Not a bad thing or a wrong thing, just a surprising thing. I started singing this hymn and I got through the first verse just fine. The problem came when I tried to sing the verse.

 Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

The words stopped in my throat. In spite of dungeon, fire and sword. The children in the Middle East who were currently experiencing the "sword" part of that verse jarred me out of my easy Sunday morning routine. I started praying.

Lord how is this happening? How do things like this pass your desk? What do these children know about sacrifice? I know you are in control of all things and allow things to happen for reasons I will never understand, but how is this happening? 

The faces of children I knew in my church who had recently professed faith came to mind. I couldn't help it. This is where I lost it. I was standing there in the middle of the church, hymnal hugged to my chest, weeping over the faith of children everywhere. I wept for their families. I wept for the sacrifice. I wept at the loss. I trusted God to turn my tears into prayers and encouragements for the families mourning the loss of their children. I surely could not do it justice.

How do you cope when Faith of our Fathers leads to the beheading of children?
I wanted to be angry at God. I wanted to rail at Him for allowing … what? People to choose faith above life? To test them on it?
This is something I can do every day. I live in a country that allows me to choose my faith and worship freely. I forget that other countries and other Christians around the world do not have that luxury.

If some of this feels disjointed, it is because I don't have answers to these questions. I don't have political statements or solutions.
I just know that my heart is breaking for the children and the families that are literally choosing to be true to Christ until death.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pray for Scotland

If you've been paying attention to the news, you might know today is a big day for Scotland. 

Today they vote on whether they want to be an independent nation or remain part of the United Kingdom. 

I've been trying to pay attention to all of the articles that are out there (and there are a lot) and listen to both sides of this discussion. I've read articles that talk about what the Yes vote will mean for the future of Scotland and what it will mean for other countries and leaders around the world. I've read articles that talk about the importance of the No vote for the stabilization of economy, as just a starting point. 
I've been really conflicted on both sides of this discussion over the past few weeks, agreeing with the Queen that people need to "think very carefully about the future." 

I found some tweets from Annie Downs this morning that really opened my eyes. I will confess, I read them not only looking for information about the vote, but also hoping to find what side she fell on in this debate. Maybe to help me have an opinion that was consistent with the Scottish people's voice, I don't know. 

But you know what? She cut through all the political talk about the vote. She titled her post "Today, we pray for Scotland." She shared some information links about the vote to help Americans understand what is at stake today. But in the end? She reminded her readers that at the end of the day, we need to pray for the people. Stand with our brothers and sisters in Scotland. Pray for revival in Scotland. Pray for the future of this country. 

It is so much more than a "yes" or a "no" vote today.  

I sit here far away from Scotland and Annie, but my heart is with them both. I am ashamed for thinking that this was just a simple vote. I forgot that our purpose in life is not to reduce people to the number of votes that come in on any particular political issue. There are real life people behind those votes and today I am praying for them. I am praying that God will give peace to the people and bring revival to that place, no matter the outcome of today's vote.

This rest of this post is taken from Annie's blog.  Join us in praying for Scotland. 

Will you join me in praying for Scotland today?

Here is what I’m praying:
–> For revival in Scotland (here’s a great article about that)
–> For the future of that nation politically.
–> For the rescue and salvation of relationships between Scots on the “yes” and “no” side, no matter the result. I have watched dear friends on both sides of the issue argue on Facebook, and everyone is seriously passionate, and I’m praying that God would give them the ability to reunite despite the harsh words and deep opposing feelings. Praying peace for all the hearts.
–> For God to do what only He can do- use this to draw the Scottish people to Himself.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When Your Hands Shake

I would be lying if I said last week wasn't hard. There is death and destruction all around us in this great big world and sadly, no one is safe from it. There is war and political unrest that is tearing apart homes, cities, and families.
I don't watch the news for this reason. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop these atrocities from happening. It lessens my awareness but doesn't change the situation.
I can't help thinking I'm not alone in my-not-watching-the-news world, but something happened this week that made me stop and pay attention.

Two words.
Robin Williams.

After hearing the news and thinking on it for a few days, I said to my mom, "I'm really sad and I can't figure out why. I know I didn't know him but his death makes me feel sad and hurt. I don't really get it."
She thought about it for a while and then she said something that I hadn't thought of before: "He made you laugh. When people can bring you to that place, you form a connection to them. It's like they understand what you find funny and it feels like a personal connection. It's the universality of comedians, I think. They make us laugh when they make fun of something that happens to everyone, like family dynamics or how we act in a grocery store when people in front of us take too long to decide on an item. But in the end, strangers don't make you laugh, you know? Friends do that."

Before she finished talking, I found myself nodding in agreement. Comedians have an interesting place in our lives. They are wholly outside of our everyday, however we end up feeling very close to them. Also, they are comedians. They are professionally funny. Surely they don't suffer from depression or illness?

Losing Robin Williams reminds me that this isn't the case. Sometimes being funny just another way of dealing with pain and addiction. Losing Robin Williams reminds me that depression and mental illness don't see our successes but focuses on our failures. It doesn't see our wealth but shows us where we are poor.

Today at church, I saw an old family friend and his wife. We used to go to the same church years ago and after we moved to my current church, they followed us shortly after. My parents got pretty involved kind of quickly, but this other couple didn't for whatever reason. I don't see them very often and honestly, I'm not even sure they would remember me. But today as we were singing our last hymn, I happened to look over at them. He was standing, holding a shaking hymnal in his hand, struggling to find the page. I watched him, Parkinson's Disease rearing it's ugly head close to home. I cried. I cried for the suffering he was facing. I cried for Robin, understanding only a tiny portion of what it must have been like to get a diagnosis like that.

But after my tears stopped, I looked over again at the couple. Now they were both standing, the troublesome hymnal safely stored in the pew rack. They stood together. Not singing, but standing in solidarity. Sometimes when our hands shake, we just want to know that someone else is there. 

I don't know what life has thrown your way recently. I don't know if everything is coming up sunshine and roses for you. I don't know if this is the 10th day in a run of horrible no-good days for you. But I do know that no matter what is going on, there is someone in your life who is willing to listen to you and offer help. If things are going great for you right now, maybe YOU are that person for someone else. Sometimes conversations about depression and the bad days of life are hard to have but I promise they are important.