Eternal Preparedness

God of captives and pilgrims,
you brought your people home from despair
and gave them a land of freedom and plenty.
Look in mercy on us your servants,
deliver us from the prison of selfishness and sin,
and bring us home to justice, sharing, and compassion,
the realm you promised all the world
in Jesus Christ the Savior. Amen. (source)

 

Today we are going to examine our lives in light of eternity. The four lectionary texts call us to recognize our need for God (Psalm 70), to be hopeful in salvation through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (I Thess 4), and to live out God’s heart for justice (Amos 5) in order to be eagerly prepared for Jesus Christ’s return (Matt 25).

 

Psalm 70 Verses 4-5 in the NRSV

4 Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”

5 But I am poor and needy;
hasten to (help) me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!

 

David, the Psalmist, is in some serious dismay. He has vengeful enemies who scoff at him and delight in shaming him. But he turns his gaze from those who “seek his life” to the One who can save his life. He recognizes his need for God and delights in his salvation. Verse 5 speaks of David’s humility. He says, “But I am poor and needy;”

 

Friends, I think humility is our first step toward God and I think it’s required of us each and every day. How often do we go about life without recognizing our need for God? (snarky) We feel a bit proud of the Christian life we’ve been living, of the way we’re caring for our family, or that at least we don’t have “those” problems (whatever problems we most despise in others…). And with these attitudes we    reject    God.

 

So ask yourself as honestly as you can manage:

Do I need God?

How am I poor?

How am I needy?

 

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (page 836) Paul gives us the abbreviated version of the Gospel good news of Jesus. He says in verses 13 -14  

 

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

 

Paul is saying, LOOK! THERE’S HOPE! Death is the not the final straw! We will be raised again to new life to spend eternity on the New Earth in which Jesus will reign as Lord! Amen and amen! Let it be so!

 

In verse 18 Paul closes by saying, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” That sounds all fine and dandy, I mean, hope is a good thing, but I wonder, is it actually encouragement if we’re not prepared? Do we have hope if we’re not living in humility and seeing our constant, desperate need for God and for building his kingdom?

 

Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 (page 702) depicts a bleak picture of those who claim to be his followers and yet neglect to be prepared for his return. Ask yourself honestly, “Is this me? Am I unprepared?”

 

I have never really understand this parable before reading the the IVP Bible Background Commentary on it this week. First I learned the word translated “virgin” in the NIV is actually referring to bridesmaids in a bridal party. “Being a bridesmaid was a great honor;” the commentary says, and “to be insultingly unprepared and shut out of the feast was the stuff of which young women’s nightmares were made.” The pinnacle of the wedding celebration would occur at at night. After 7 DAYS of wedding festivities (yes, DAYS), it was the bridesmaids’ supreme duty to stand prepared with large torches (not small, handheld lamps like I pictured before) waiting for the groom. The Groom would arrive to be escorted by the bridesmaids’ torchlight back to his bride, whom they all in turn would escort to the groom’s house. Five of these 10 women fell asleep and didn’t bring extra oil to keep their torches lit, resulting in their excommunication from the party.

 

In this parable Jesus implies his divinity to the listeners, referring to himself as the Bridegroom, and exhorts them to be anticipating his return. He was indicating that one day he would ascend back to heaven to dwell with the Father, and until the day of the New Earth when He would reign as Lord, we must be busy preparing his for his return.  

 

But what does that preparing look like?

 

Well, the Prophet Amos tells us what it’s not.

 

Amos 5:18-24

18 Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light. (if you’re not prepared)

Verse 20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me. (do we stink?)
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps (or pianos or guitars).

I think this prophecy is as applicable today to our middle class American churches as it was in 755 BC. The lands of Judah and Israel were disgusting God by their mechanical, religious celebrations and their mistreatment of the poor. In my Life with God Bible one of the notes says, “Although the Israelites performed their rituals of worship, their lack of love for those around them revealed the superficiality of their worship.” Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that’s like a punch in the gut for me. How often do we worship in this place and then go out and avoid those who disgust us or focus on our own goals in life or neglect to extend hospitality? Too often.

 

Remember that message of humility from Psalm 70, recognizing our need for God? I think we’ve gotten too comfortable, much like Judah and Israel. Material wealth abounded in their day and their kingdoms were expanding (sound familiar?) Again a note from the Life with God Bible: “This prosperity led them to forget their God and his laws.” Is our prosperity leading us to apathy in our love for God, a lack of love for others, concerning ourselves instead with our “American dreams” of owning a house and nice cars and 47 inch plasma tv and the new iPhone 10 retirement plans?  

 

Do    we    even     need    God?

 

Verse 24 of Amos 5 is the linchpin of our salvation, it’s how to be prepared for eternity:

 

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-ending stream!

 

The Life with God Bible, says, “God cares about how we live our lives. By protecting justice, by generosity, simple living, and holy relationships, we will find ourselves living with God and extending his Kingdom” rather than our own.

 

As we enter the season of holiday hubbub, of overspending, and over-decorating, perhaps you will join me in practicing the discipline of simplicity. Let’s decide to have our hearts be singly focused on God and his kingdom, rather than pursuing our own dreams and desires. We don’t need to keep up with anyone else’s standard of Christmas presents. Let’s go against the grain of American Christmas. Let’s simplify our gift wrapping by giving more to the poor and needy like ICCM and Heartbeat. Talk with your family about changing the standard and having a simple Christmas, honoring God.

 

Let’s live out our salvation and be prepared for Christ’s return by getting rid of the excess and repenting of our pride, and turning humbly to God in our daily need.

 

As we go today, I send you with this benediction:

 

May the Spirit of God disrupt us in our comfort and force us from our apathy,
May He form in us Christ’s perfect love,
And fill us with authentic desire to worship God and build his kingdom
Until the day of his return. Amen.

Justice and Humanity

From July 11-20, I was experiencing the lush country landscapes of Guatemala, meeting the beautiful people – both Spanish and indigenous – and learning historical, cultural, and justice lessons with my fellow cohort friends and professors. This intensive residency is a part of our graduate program – a Master’s in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. The design of this class includes pre-course reading and discussion, Scripture reading and reflections, journals, and a final synthesis paper to weave together what we’ve learned about Social Justice and Christian Spirituality. 

What follows is the transcript of the sermon I preached at my home church on Sunday, July 23, processing the intersection of justice and the created intention of humanity.

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back (l-r) Adam (worship leader), Ron, Margareta, Vickie, Gina, Mika, Jess, Jael, Angel, host son, Melissa (prof’s assistant). front (l-r) Cindy (host mom), Will, me, Paul
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The host home we stayed in for our 4 days in Antigua
* Antigua
The cobblestone streets of Antigua, right outside our host home

My time in Guatemala was incredibly beautiful and deeply challenging.

I saw the lush mountains and waters of Lake Atitlán:
01 Lake Atitlan

I visited the great cathedrals and the memorials of the 200,000 victims of the civil war that lasted from 1960 – 1996
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02 Cathedral
03 Memorial

I saw the powerful Volcanoes surrounding Antigua, the same volcanoes that leveled the city in the 1700s and moved the capital to Guatemala City.
04 Volcano Feugo

I hiked through the hilly fields of a fair trade coffee coop in San Juan La Laguna.
05 Coffee

I smelled the filth of the GC Dump – spanning 24 football fields – where scavengers – both birds and humans – hunted for scraps of worth.
06 Dump 2

07 Dump

I met some of the children of dump-employees who are cared for in the school called Camino Segura (“Safe Passage”) to give them a few hours with food, safety, fun and education – a break the cycle of poverty.
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I saw the sprawling city cemetery stacked high with the poorest deceased, their death date scribbled by a finger in wet cement while the rich were honored in grandiose mausoleums.
10 Cemetery

I visited La Limonada, one of the largest slums in the world – with 60,000 people living in shanty homes stacked along the ravine 1 mile long and ½ a mile wide.
11 La Limonada


But I didn’t feel pity. I encountered humanity and experienced how little separates us from them.

I learned that justice isn’t donating to charity. Justice starts by seeing the needs in our community, getting to know the marginalized among us, and acknowledging their humanity.

Being a Christian would be much easier and far cleaner if we kept to ourselves. But following Jesus comes with a biblical mandate to do justice. The prophet Micah declares as much in chapter 6 verse 8: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Reading the word “require” is likely to agitate our inner rebel. Most of us middle-class Westerners prefer a faith that has no specific rules and a god who has no expectations of us. If we look at the first chapter of Isaiah, however, we find the Lord chastising the people of Israel for the way they have perverted the sacrificial system and are bringing “meaningless offerings” (Isaiah 1:13). Instead they must “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Jesus himself confronts this issue of justice with the Pharisees in Luke 11:42. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” These scriptures paint a portrait of the essential practice of justice for those who wish to follow this Yahweh God.

Too many evangelical churches have come to see justice as an optional aspect of the Christian life, a sort of religious “bonus point” if you will. But justice is inextricably connected to the heart of God and His intentions for our lives. I believe God’s creative initiative in the beginning was a call to hospitality: a call into God’s own self and a call to lovingly welcome others into the love we ourselves have received from God. This form of hospitality is the crux of justice: to know the “other” and to love them. We cannot “do justice” simply by donating money to a good cause or by giving a tenth of our income to the local church. If we do not find our hearts being transformed throughout our spiritual journey to join God in his work of love and justice in this world, then we need to seriously evaluate our Christianity and delve deeper into a contemplative connection to God’s Spirit. We must ask God to grant us “epiphany eyes:” eyes to “see through the façade to the real […and] eyes to see by the light of Christ’s word.” If we go about life with our eyes closed we run the risk of avoiding spiritual transformation altogether.  Father John P. Bertolucci is quoted in a book called The God of Intimacy and Action as saying, “[…] prayer and evangelization without social action leads to a pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”

Friends, can we call ourselves Christian if we are not doing justice?

Ok…now that we’re all panicking inside, I want to invite you to take a deep breath and explore with me what it means to practice justice. Our evangelical definitions are so often severely truncated, keeping to the work of soup kitchens and warming shelters. The biblical practice of justice goes beyond the realm of the physical into the emotional and spiritual, ensuring all of God’s creation are offered fullness of life which Jesus describes in John 10:10. “I have come that they may have life and have it to full!”

My experience in the Guatemala City shantytown of La Limonada was a pivotal moment in my visioning of justice, an encounter using my “epiphany eyes.” What I saw can only be described as paradoxical, a site full of both despair and hopefulness. From the rooftop of one of the safe schools, I gazed out over the cinder-blocked homes stacked one on top of the other into the walls of the ravine, expecting to see only heartbreak and filth, despair and poverty. Instead, my eyes were met with humanity all around me. I saw countless clotheslines strung with surprisingly-white baby onesies and undergarments, well-worn jeans and tshirts. I saw shoes lined up on the doorsteps, little ones being carried in slings by their mamas, and meals being prepared. I was not blind to the pain, but I also saw the Kingdom of God unfolding in the shape of humanity. Though the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are probably numbingly familiar to many of you (“For I know the plans to prosper you…”), the preceding prophecy correlated with my consistent conviction that seeing one another’s humanity is the starting point of justice. In Jeremiah 29:5-6, The Lord tells his people to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters.” This is what life in God’s kingdom is all about – belonging to a community and doing life together. Justice in light of Jeremiah 29 and the slums of Guatemala City starts by seeing the beauty of mundane life in which we have families and settle into community and grow our food and to pray for God’s peace in our world. We can do that, right?!

As we practice the justice-work of seeing one another’s humanity, being with one another in our mundane, everyday life, we are recognizing that God’s kingdom is already among us (in the beauty of families and gardens and animals) and not yet here (in the reality of pain and suffering). When we sit with another in their suffering, we do it not with pity but with a mutual love. We say to each other, “Friend, this should not be. Let me walk with you. Let me hear your story. I may not be able to offer an answer or repair, but I will sit with you in your pain.” This kind of justice is “looking for trouble,” as Jim Martin would say.  [Looking for] “the place where we have become so identified with the suffering of our neighbors that we are suffering alongside them. It’s the place of desperation where we cannot help but fall at God’s feet and beg for his intervention.”

I believe our church is poised for justice work. We are building true community among us and inviting others to join us. We are sharing our chicken eggs and our garden vegetables and our honey. We are going shopping together and playing disc golf together and praying together. We are having fun and we are expanding the Church beyond Sunday mornings. I can’t wait to see how we might participate in Creation Care and Justice Work in the next year. Maybe we’ll have shelves in our fellowship hall where we can begin to actively share the bounty of our gardens and bees and chickens. We could truly have “everything in common” as the apostles in Acts 2. Perhaps we could change a few simple habits within our church and homes, such as eating with reusable plates and silverware or hanging a rack for mugs above our coffee bar. It’s the little decisions that begin to change our hearts and our world.

Mostly, though, I believe our church and our leadership must begin in contemplation and prayer. We must stop and be still before the Lord, to “listen to what the Lord says” as Micah 6:1 declares, in order that we may then “Stand up, plead [his] case before the mountains.” In waiting and responding to God, we will avoid asking God to bless our haphazard-justice-work. Instead, as Bono said in his 2006 National Prayer Breakfast address, my heart would be that our church would “stop asking God to bless what you are doing. [Instead we must] get involved in what God is doing because it’s already blessed.”

Lord, forgive us for doing evil in our pursuit of doing the right thing. Surely we have each fallen into the trap of pleasing you in our elaborate rituals and spiritual practices, when truly our hearts are far from you. How can we join you in healing the world? Help us to do what is right in your sight, to know what it means to “do justice” in our own context, within our neighbors and stores and families and churches. Amen


“As the plane left the ground and the clouds gradually shrouded the beautiful Guatemalan countryside, we looked at each other and spontaneously said, ‘Thank you.’ To the God who sent us and brought us together we also said ‘Thank you.’ We had traveled between two worlds and found them one. Something new was building, strong and beautiful, marvelous in our eyes. ‘De un corazón nuevo nace la paz’ : from a new heart peace is born.”

Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story

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Homes of Hospitality

I’m going to suggest something crazy: what if God’s call for his people – for us – is to create lives and communities of hospitality? From the time of creation, through the covenant with Abraham, to the sending of the Spirit: all of these pivotal moments in the story of God’s People has had to do with responding to God’s invitation to be part of God’s own self and to join God in his work. What does this look like? Well, Rev. Marjorie Thompson says,

“The essence of hospitality is receiving the other, from the heart, into my own dwelling place. It entails providing for the need, [the] comfort, and [the] delight of the other with all the openness, respect, freedom, tenderness, and joy that love itself embodies.”

Based on today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis 18, I see hospitality as three things: as paying attention, as responding to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, and as giving of yourself – your space, your time, your home, and most importantly your love. This is the story of Abraham and the Three Visitors at the Oaks of Mamre. This passage is called the “Hospitality of Abraham” and it’s an incredible story of God himself – God as three strangers – showing up. Verse 1 says,

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

By this chapter in Genesis, Abraham has a history of responding to God’s prompting, having made a covenant with God and willingly taken his son Isaac to be sacrificed. God knew Abraham would be paying attention, and so God himself showed up. Abraham notices the strangers and felt the prompting to invite them to his home. He responds by giving of himself, asking to serve them. This hospitality wasn’t a hand-out, it was a loving invitation to spend the day getting to know these strangers and serving them. Abraham’s invitation included choosing a choice calf, having it slaughtered and prepared for a meal, asking Sarah to bake bread (which takes hours alone), and conversing with his guests. The beauty of the invitation is that Abraham is served by his visitors: the Lord said to Abraham in verse 14:  “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Because Abraham was paying attention, responds, and gives of himself, he receives this precious message directly from God. God initiated the process, Abraham responds, and God continues his work. Because of Abraham’s hospitality, we are a part of God’s chosen people – a people chosen to show God’s hospitality.

The Hospitality of Abraham is depicted in this icon of the Trinity. Now, if you’re like me and you’re unsure about icons or just plain unfamiliar with them, fear not! One of my favorite resources, the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook describes them this way:

Icons are not a work of art that people worship – they are a sort of visual shorthand for what matters most. This visual language is not drawn or painted, it is “written” for it communicates unchanging truth about spiritual realities.

The spiritual reality being depicted here is the hospitality of the Trinity and the invitation of God to join him at the table.

In the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham we see the three “strangers” depicted as the three members of the Trinity. While every member’s clothing contains similarities in the blue coloring signifying their deity, there is also a unique element to each person’s garb. The Son (in the center) has a dark brown garment which correlates with his earthly existence along with a gold sash symbolic of his royal priesthood. The Spirit (on the right) is clothed in grassy green, the color of new life and growth. The Father’s garb is largely gold referencing his place in heaven. In the tilt of the shoulders, the position of the feet, and the angle of their heads, we see the mutual dynamic of love and respect shared between these three sitting down to a meal. In the foreground, we notice a not-so-subtle opening at the table. It is to this seat which God invites each of us. There is not a hierarchy nor a prerequisite to joining into this sacred setting. As the Trinity shows hospitality within himself, so God invites us to be a part of his hospitality and to invite others with the same hospitality we have received.

One of my favorite spiritual authors, Henri Nouwen, says this about this icon of the Trinity:

The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.  The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…

We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love.

When I say the word “hospitality” your minds are probably turning with your own definitions of what that looks like. Maybe you think of hospitality as creating elaborate meals and making sure your houses are spotless. Perhaps you get excited at the thought of inviting people into your home or maybe you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Our culture’s definition of hospitality has become exquisite event-planning or perfect Pinterest parties. I’d like to invite you to redefine hospitality. I believe our call to hospitality involves an inner attitude and a way of life. Hospitality is about paying attention to the others around me, responding to the Spirit’s prompting, and giving of myself to make space for those “others.” When we practice hospitality, we are saying to someone, “I see you. I want to make time for you. I want to meet your needs and show you sincere love.”

This type of hospitality can take many forms. Certainly it is having friends or family over for dinner or taking care to set out the food you know someone will love. Hospitality might look like inviting someone to take up residence in that spare bedroom or giving a stranger a ride to work. Hospitality can also be found in a conversation with someone, giving them your full attention. You can create space for the “other” in your home, in your time, and in yourself.

In my January grad school residency, one of our assignments was to lay out attainable goals for our churches for creating lives and communities of hospitality. First, Church, I have to tell you how incredibly moved I am by the type of hospitable community you all have created over the past couple of years. Most every person who comes to worship with us comments on how safe and welcomed they feel, and how they can experience the love of God and a complete lack of judgment. This is an outstanding testament to the work God has been doing in us as a people.

Today, I want to challenge you to take this a step further. I believe God is wanting us to expand our church’s hospitality by creating homes of hospitality. Dr. Christine Pohl of Asbury Seminary writes,

Recovering hospitality will involve reclaiming the household as a key site for ministry and then reconnecting the household and the church, so that the two institutions can work in partnership for the sake of the world.

We want to become a church that continually and casually welcomes both friends and strangers into our homes, breaking down our barriers of insecurity and pride. This means inviting people into our space no matter how much or little we have to offer, despite our messy living rooms and our dirty bathrooms. It doesn’t matter if we live in a an old farmhouse, a modest ranch, a tiny apartment, or a cozy trailer. Our homes are a gift God has graciously given us and God himself dwells with us; therefore our homes are a sacred space for hospitality. This means letting strangers become friends as they see the pictures on our walls and eat our cooking and watch us bicker with our spouses over how to load the dishwasher. It means holding each other’s babies, helping the elderly up the steps, it means sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows or playing a rousing game of euchre. Hospitality is anytime you welcome another.

I hope the Lord has already been prompting your heart this morning, giving you ideas and bringing people to mind. I challenge you to join me this week in creating homes of hospitality.

Let’s hold one another accountable to creating homes of hospitality. Let’s ask each other each week, “Who have you welcomed and how? Where did you respond to God’s prompting?”


 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Cor. 13:14

 

 

Roots

My dear church family,

As I look out my kitchen window I am beginning to see a longtime dream come true – the makings of a garden! Ever since we were newly married, Kevin and I have talked about having a garden, imagining where we would plant it, and what foods we would want to grow. May 24th we are celebrating our 9th anniversary (!!), and I’m so excited to finally be putting in our garden. So far, Kevin has done all the work (oops, thanks, babe!). He continues to surprise me with his vast knowledge of gardening (learned from my great in-laws!) and has been over and over the soil with his great-grandpa’s trusty roto-tiller.

There’s something about watching things grow, isn’t there? It’s a deeply spiritual experience for me to think through the growth of a single plant. The way the seed dies, being buried in the ground, feels a bit frightening. We must wait, trusting for the new life to spring up from the earth, almost magically. With the perfect combination of time and dreary rainy days and bright sunshine-y afternoons, the seed will yield its fruit in season (Ps. 1:3). Part of my spiritual practice during this season of Eastertide, is to contemplate new life, the slow process of growth, in our garden. It will keep reminding me of the way God works in our own lives – we can plant seeds and we can water them, but only God can make things grow! (I Cor. 3:6)

As the roots are going down deep in our garden, I am realizing that my husband and I are truly putting down our own roots. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but finally, after three years in pastoral ministry here in Monroe, we have both officially settled in to our offices. Kevin dug through the corners of his desk where paperwork from its previous owners was still filed away, and I have moved into a new office adjacent to his. Having these spaces to meet and pray with you, to study in solitude and to hear from God in prayer has already been a true gift. (Special thanks to everyone who’s helped! You all should check out my desk, made by our friend Kyle Loomis using a broken pew. So beautiful.)

As pastors in the Free Methodist denomination, we are appointed to a church by the Ministerial Appointments Committee (MAC) every annual conference (in June)…and when they ask us if we’d like to be reappointed we can wholeheartedly say, “Yes!”  The Lord continues to invite us to create community, and that takes time and commitment. As far as we’re concerned, the Eccles are here for the long-haul!

MFMC, we love doing life with you, serving you, and watching you grow!

-pastor melanie

Resurrection People

The week ahead of us is a bit of a roller coaster ride. We begin with Palm Sunday and the throngs of people cheering in the streets for this King Jesus. We will sing “Hosanna!” and wave our palms with shared excitement.

We follow the story through our daily Scripture readings and watch as many of those enthusiasts turn their backs on Christ. Now the streets are lined with crowds screaming chastisement and “crucify him!” as Christ carries the cross to Golgotha. On Good Friday we examine our own sinfulness and look into the eyes of our crucified savior who lovingly bore our sins. The plan of God to invite us back into the perfect fellowship of the Trinity was taking shape.

And then…oh my heart rate is quickening just thinking of the tremendous feat of Easter Sunday! Our God raises Jesus Christ from the dead, forever conquering the power of sin and the grave, and inviting us to partner with him in bringing his healing will to earth now as it is already in heaven. Our salvation begins now and our wholeness will last for eternity.

N.T. Wright puts it this way in his book Surprised by Hope:

“The prayer ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’ is powerfully answered at the first Easter and will finally be answered fully when heaven and earth are joined in the new Jerusalem. Easter was a when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.”

(Images used with permission from www.sacredordinarydays.com)

8 Years of Marriage

Today we celebrate the exchange of our wedding vows, the day we entered into the holy covenant of marriage. By the grace of God, our marriage has endured and is stronger and more lovely with each year.  And last night as we crawled into bed, we reminisced about our wedding day. It was a joyous occasion, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. As much as I loved us then – the 21 and 22 year old versions of ourselves, newly graduated from college, completely naïve to marriage, full of excitement and hope and young love – I like “us” even better now. I love who we’ve become, as a married couple, as a ministry couple, as unique and ever-evolving individuals.

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We have grown up together, Kevin and me. From those first days of college, 17 and 18 years old, we have come a long way. Our strong personalities are opposites on the Myers-Briggs (ESFJ and INTP) and we’re both first-borns. It seems we may have “broken” all of the rules about how to marry someone with whom you’re most compatible. But this marriage is a God-thing. Each of us is a strong personality, with fiery passions and peculiarities that hardly overlap. But it is because of those differences that we grow. We balance one another out in a way no one else could.

It is because of our marriage that I often ask dating or engaged couples, “How does he/she make you a better a person?” We were not created to be static beings. Rather, we should always be in pursuit of the holiness of God and to discover more deeply the person He made us to be, living out our unique skills and giftedness with passion and fervency.

As Kevin’s wife I have become more fully me. He calls out the best in me and sees gifts I try to shut down out of fear. He is not afraid to let me lead or to insist I develop a personal opinion (when I’d rather say, “whatever you want…” in the most non-committal sort of way).

I know he would list the ways I’ve helped him to grow, as well. It’s no secret that we’re a rather intense couple (in fact, some people get a kick out of watching us interact!), but we wouldn’t want it any other way. And we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that our little daughter is already a fiery individual. She will give us a run for our money, but she’ll stand on her own two feet in this world and prayerfully bring God’s Kingdom truths to those around her.

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So today, on our 8th anniversary, I reflect on the charge given us during our marriage ceremony.


Kevin and Melanie, I charge you both as you stand in the presence of God to remember that only a covenant of love will avail as the foundation for an enduring household. Let Christ, in his perfect love, be your example. If you keep this steadfast love ever before you and, remaining faithful to each other, resolutely endeavor to fulfill the vows you now make, God’s blessing will be upon you, and the home you establish will endure through life’s every change.


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God’s blessing has surely been upon us, in sickness and in health, in infertility and in childbearing, in joy and in sorrow, in ministry and in marriage. Our lives have endured many changes in just a few short years, but surely this home shall stand firm on the covenant made before God and upon the foundation of Christ our Lord.

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Kirsten Grace – Month 3

My dear sweet Kirsten Grace,

Happy 3rd Month Birthday! This has been such a fun month with you. When people ask “how’s the baby” I find myself saying, “She is so much fun!” The first few weeks were just about surviving…how to feed you, how to soothe you, how to sleep with one eye open. But as we’ve learned a new sort of normal, the true joy is settling over our home and into the depths of our spirits. You are growing and learning and developing such a sweet personality and it is truly so much fun. Kirsten Grace Month 3

My favorite moment of each day is walking into the room where you’re started to wake, leaning over the edge of your cradle and saying, “Good morning, baby girl!”…and watching the world’s biggest grin cover your face. There is no feeling like that love.

And it got me thinking about our gracious God and how he must feel about us, his children. It doesn’t matter how much we fuss and cry and wrestle with our sin natures the day before, his mercies are new every morning! I believe He cannot wait to see us when we wake. He is thrilled to see if we’ll smile back at him, to watch what new thing we’ll do that day.

Your daddy and I just adore doing life with you, Kirsten. It’s a crazy dance we do, this life as parents, in full time ministry, in marriage. No two days look the same. I have come to accept that my time alone with the Lord may not (read: almost never) come first thing in the morning with my cup of tea and the rising sun. Rather than feeling frustrated by the fact that my schedule is no longer my own, I am learning to seek the Lord at any available interval. She’s asleep and the laundry’s going and it’s 11am? Prayer. She’s content and I have time for yoga and worship? Yes, please. Daddy is home and willing to stick around so I can get in a run? Thankful for the open air devotions.

Sweet girl, if there’s one thing you know about your momma I pray you know how much I love Jesus.

Speaking of your faith, the most momentous event of your third month was your baptism and dedication on Palm Sunday, March 20th. In the Free Methodist Church, we believe in infant baptism as a sacrament, an act of God’s grace in which we are participants. Parents can also choose to dedicate their child, allowing them to select their own baptism as adults, but after much prayer and consideration, we decided we would baptize you. There is a spiritual, mysterious element to any sacrament (i.e. baptism, communion). We show up, we partake, we receive. But the work is done by God’s Spirit.

Thus, we wanted to invite the sanctifying of the Spirit to begin now, putting action to the meaning of your name Follower of Christ by the grace of God. When you are old enough to make a personal commitment to follow Jesus, you will get to participate in an affirmation of your baptism. This will allow you to assume responsibility for the vows we made on your behalf: that your life be lived in consecration and dedication to the Almighty God.

We invited Brian Kono to perform your baptism and dedication ceremony. Brian is a ministry professor at Spring Arbor and was a mentor for both your dad and me during our college days. He is a playing a large part in guiding me through my path to ordination, and he and his wife Angel have become our good friends. Superintendent Bruce & Jerilynn Rhodes were there for this service, along with our church family, five friends (representing many) from Albion, New York, and a portion of our family. We know that those who couldn’t attend – both family and friends – were there with us in spirit, standing in solidarity with the congregation’s affirmation to partner in your spiritual growth.

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Arvidson Great Grandparents, Eccles Grandparents, Mom & Dad & Kirsten, Uncle Brian and Beth
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Tara Thom, Kirsten Liddle, Eccles, Catherine Thom, Ashlyn & Sheryl LeBaron

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iml5mRmcnqQ]


This month Kirsten Grace Eccles:

  • make wonderful eye contact, following us all around the room.
  • loves light & screens (tvs, computers)…oh boy
  • smiles so big! (Her left eye squints in the cutest fashion!)
  • has become quite vocal, giggling, gurgling, and screeching on purpose
  • sometimes stop in the middle of nursing to look up and chat with momma
  • continues to be a star at Panera during many discipleship coffee meetings
  • does really well wearing cloth diapers (mommy & daddy love them too!)
  • seems to be keeping a full head of hair and bright blue eyes (like her Uncle Brian & Aunt Ashley)
  • sings along during church
  • is in a bit of a “momma-attachment” phase
  • enjoys car rides
  • is staying steadily strong and healthy with exclusive breastfeeding (momma is so thankful!)
  • has taken many walks along the River Raisin her carrier or the stroller (can’t wait for warmer days)
  • still loves her baths
  • has slept through the night (7 or 8 hours) on a couple occasions, but mostly keeps a consistent 15-20 minute nursing around 3am and then again at 6am, going back to sleep until 8:30am. (Glory!)

Now for a month’s worth of sweet moments caught on camera:

These first few photos were captured a few minutes before her second church board meeting last night. The sunlight was streaming in the bedroom window and momma just couldn’t resist. (Yes, she was a few minutes late for the meeting. worth it.)

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headband made by Andrea Ortell

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loves sucking on her fist, hasn’t consistently favored any fingers or thumb

 

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Spent all of month 3 sleeping soundly in the cradle made by Great Grandpa Arvidson for Daddy in 1986. And thanks to Amanda Loomis, our neighbor and dear friend for the lovely quilt. 

 

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Waiting for Dr. Aza Khaghany at her 2nd Month Appointment on March 3rd. She HATED the immunizations, but we all survived. (Mommy didn’t even cry!) Kirsten was 23 inches (up from 19.5″) and weighed 11lb 7oz (up from 7lb). Yay!

 

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We visited with the Shepherds a few times. Anastasia is her new friend, and now a big sister to Zoe (born just two days ago!)
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Kirsten goes to work with momma and daddy quite frequently. Here she studies St. Athanasius
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We voted in the Presidential Primaries on March 8th and then walked in the 70 degree temps.

 

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With Mom & Dad at worship practice

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Family Photo on Kirsten’s 3rd Month Birthday

After today’s photo shoot, Daddy read Kirsten his favorite childhood book: If I Had a Little Airplane. She really loved it.

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“I know, isn’t a great book?!”

Christmas Newsletter 2015

For years we prayed for this moment. Our hearts ached, our minds questioned, and our spirits sought the Lord. Yet I’m not sure we ever dreamed that just days before Christmas 2015 Melanie would be 39 weeks pregnant.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love by which he loved us…showed us the immeasurable riches of his grace.
This excerpt from Ephesians 2 refers specifically to salvation, but we know that those same graces have been poured out onto our lives through the gift of this life, this little girl long-desired. She is our gift of grace, not by works so that we can’t boast. Please, friends, proclaim with us the graciousness of the Lord for bestowing on us this undeserved gift!

Let’s back up to the beginning of this year. As we look over my calendar there are dates speckled with doctor’s appointments and days to take fertility medication. We were nearing six months post-op (for endometriosis) and our chances of getting pregnant were dwindling. That crazy blizzard Sunday in February brought with it the possibility of adopting an unborn baby boy. We said yes and hit the ground running, completing a home study and securing a lawyer and buying a larger vehicle within about two week’s time. (In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s lightening-fast in the adoption world.) Despite all our efforts and the donations and support of our friends and family, the birth-mother made a different choice. The Lord picked us up from our disappointment and washed away our stunned sadness. Little did we know, just a couple weeks after that little boy was born, God had given us our own little girl.

And so, along with all of you, we wait with baited breath for the moment our grace-gift enters this world with lungs wailing praises to the Most High.

For the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name. (Luke 1:49)

In case you’re wondering if we’ve done anything else other than expect our Little Girl this year…

  • Kevin was reappointed as Senior Pastor of Monroe Free Methodist Church for his 2nd year
  • Melanie became a Local Ministerial Candidate and is pursuing ordination
  • Melanie completed a 225hr program to become a Registered Holy Yoga Instructor
  • Kevin quiz mastered at Bible Quiz Finals and is Southern Michigan conference coordinator
  • We attended Family Camp at Somerset Beach and FM General Conference in Orlando, FL
  • Melanie spoke at Young Teen Camp at SBC
  • We vacationed at Niagara-on-the-Lake in November and visited our WNY friends
  • Kevin threw Melanie a 30th Birthday Party (and for the record, she’s totally cool with 30)
  • We were privileged to participate in the work God is doing in our congregation. These stories could fill pages, but suffice it to say we love Monroe FMC and praise God for calling us here.

And with that we send you all our love and prayers,

Kevin & Melanie

For updates on our life, our ministry, and our family, keep reading along here:
www.kevinandmelanie.wordpress.com

Sowing and Reaping

02_04_15 Sow in Tears

Dear Child of Ours,

Sometimes there are so many swirling thoughts, countless circumstances being juggled, it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the options and opinions. Deep breath. One thing at a time.

I’m a future-planner. A get-all-my-ducks-in-a-row kind of person. Thus, I am so thankful for your Daddy, the guy who speaks truth and peace into my harried lifestyle. He empowers me to accomplish one task, well. Then we’ll move on to the next. Because of him, I haven’t had to do any brown-paper-bag breathing. (Thanks, dear.)

You see, Child, for the first time in nearly five years of barrenness, we are beginning to see a glimmer of hope, that perhaps you are going to join us. And before I go any further let me tell you how much I love you already. I don’t even know you yet, but you, Child, are loved a hundred times over. And not just by your Daddy and me, but by countless people who have treaded this path with us. They, too, have dreamed about this day, prayed for you to join our family. You are widely and richly loved.

Sunday, February 1st dawned cold and snowy. The flakes fell hard and fast, covering the path behind us even as we shoveled. Your Dad and I got to church at 7:30am and readied the sanctuary for the brave souls who might venture out in this weather. The service was undeniably small – 27 people compared to our usual 60 – but the warmth and intimacy was felt by everyone in the room. We worshiped together as friends.

But just before the service started our good friend, Cathy, dropped an incredible opportunity in our laps. In her practice as a nurse midwife, she had begun caring for a young woman who was 34 weeks pregnant and had another baby at home already. (I will not be sharing the details of her story, as it’s not mine to tell.)  In the flow of conversation, the idea of adoption came up and Cathy’s mind instantly fled to “Kevin and Melanie.” She cautiously broached the subject, not wanting to scare this delicate girl away. The response from the birth mother was positive, wanting to know more about us and the adoption process.

So here we are, Sunday morning, getting ready to do what we do – lead a church service together – when suddenly we realize we might be parents in a month! Instantly we said yes, but weren’t very optimistic that this was actually going to happen. We were afraid to breathe.

At the end of the service, I felt led to tell our entire congregation about this adoption possibility. We need our church family, side by side, shouldering this with us. And they responded so wonderfully. The whole group came forward and laid hands on us as we prayed – for this unborn baby, for this birth mother and her family, and for us. May the name of the Lord be praised.

In the 13 days since this announcement we have hit the ground running. I literally had not stopped working on this adoption in all my waking hours until last night around 6pm. There was so much to be done. Thankfully, God had been preparing for the speed of this process as we prepared an application for another agency back in August. A few months ago, we had put the adoption app on hold, feeling like we just needed to wait on God’s “yes.”

God’s “Yes” came with neon, flashing lights, and the speed and intensity of the Top Thrill Dragster! We have filled out applications. We have received letters of recommendation from three references (thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, friends). We compiled our official documents – birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, social security cards, marriage license (one copy for the social worker, one for the lawyer). We have been fingerprinted. (This is the longest part of the process – pray that the government works miraculously fast on our background checks.) We typed 12 pages detailing our personal history. Thanks to Cathy, our messenger, we shared our “Dear Birth Mother” scrapbook with the birth mother and her family. (Shutterfly scrapbooks are an A+ in my book, and a beautiful way to introduce to this unborn baby’s family in a heartfelt, but hands-off way.)

We learned that the baby – a BOY! –  is healthy, measuring now at 36 weeks. The final key to all of this is the birth father. We learned on Monday that he has agreed to sign off on the adoption. Praise be to God! Birth mother has repeatedly told Cathy of her certainty that we are the right family for her baby and that she is absolutely going through with the adoption. Her family and the birth father’s family are all supportive as well. We are as certain as we can be until the baby is born and both mother and father sign their names.

Oh right, we found an incredible adoption agency to do our home study in an expedited fashion, and we found a lawyer right in town who can very easily facilitate our adoption. We have met with both the social worker and the lawyer, filled out the necessary paperwork – pages and pages, and paid both in full. The home study will be finalized next week, followed by the lawyer drawing up his papers for the court.

And we bought a baby-mobile! It’s a 2009 Mazda 5 – described as a minivan crossed with a station wagon. It’s got sliding doors, two bucket seats, and a two seater bench in the back. We love it! The gas mileage is a bit frustrating given our history of 38mpg cars, but totally worth it for the ease and safety of this vehicle. Our little beloved blueberry – a 2008 Toyota Yaris – just wasn’t the right vehicle to bring home baby. We’re selling it if anyone is interested.

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The #BabyEccles Mobile

 

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For Sale! Click on the image for the complete listing.

 

Child, we are readying a room just for you. We have been given clothes and bottles and swings and carriers from friends who want to help us prepare. I wasn’t expecting to have to compress 10 months worth of preparations into 10 days, but we are totally ok with this. I started out feeling fearful, struggling to be excited because we’ve been disappointed time and time again. But one of my friend counseled me by saying “the joy of anticipation now is greater than what the sorrow of disappointment would be.” And truly I believe God will hold our hearts through this, as He has over the past many years. We want to eagerly anticipate the arrival of you – our firstborn son – not live in skepticism and fear.

And so we wait with open arms and hearts full of love.

Eagerly praying,

Mama


Dear Readers,

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for following our journey. It has been completely overwhelming to discover the number of people who care deeply about our story, having read my entries from the beginning. I first shared this struggle 31 months into our infertility – January 2013. In December 2013, I began to write Letters to my Future Children, a venture which allowed me to share my life, my thoughts, and my dreams with the little ones who I prayed would join our family. Thank you for being faithful to pray for us, for telling me of your joy and excitement over this announcement.

My deepest desire is that the name of the Lord be praised. Our God does great things.

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Believing that many of you would want to help us in some way, we started a YouCaring fundraising page. Again, we are blown away by the generous investment in our family. Thank you for contributing to the finances of this adoption. It’s come fast and furious, and our hearts rest easier as we watch God provide through your donations.

Love,
Kevin and Mel

Favor and Honor

Dear Child of Mine,

Sometimes I get scared of how life will change when you come. I realize what a great gift these almost-seven years are, just your Dad and me. We can come and go as we please. We can go on dates and visit friends or host a gathering without thinking of how it will affect you. I don’t have to worry about how my body will change when I become a mother, struggling to let go of any pretense that it’s “mine” in the first place.  I can go for runs, practice yoga, study Scripture, take a nap, go for coffee…whenever I desire. It’s a wonderful freedom and I’m so thankful for it.

But I want you, more than anything. How can both things be true worry and want? I don’t know but they are. God is constantly reassuring me, soothing my fears, and reminding me he will equip me for whatever task lay ahead.

This morning in my time alone with the Lord, I read a passage from Psalms that a good friend recommended for me.

Psalm 84:11-12

For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.

This verse struck me as heartbreaking and true. It is hard to squelch thoughts that flicker in the back of my brain. Why am I barren? Is God punishing me? Am I not good enough? Do I just need to “get over it?” I know in the depths of my being that none of those statements are true. But it’s hard to read “No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly” and not question why I can’t have babies. Am I not righteous enough?

Only by the grace of God are any of us called “righteous.” That alone proves His goodness, bestowing favor and honor on all who believe in the name of the Lord Jesus. 01_23_15 Favor and Honor

And through these months of longing and waiting for you, Child, I have learned that God’s good gifts are being poured out on me. In each dark day, Jesus shines.

It is because of this time of barrenness that I have accepted the lifelong call to ordained pastoral ministry. I finally listened, I finally agreed with God. I finally said, “yes.”

It is through these dark years that I’ve sought after the Lord with such fervor that I could never have mustered under sunnier circumstances. 

It was during our years of infertility, that your daddy and I learned to minister together and recognized how our calls to ordination are so beautifully intertwined.

It was this first season of marriage, nearly seven years of just us, that we learned how to be married. We learned how to love, how to forgive, how to serve, how to woo, how to never stop learning.

It has been these years that brought us deep into relationships with countless teenagers. The glories of youth ministry are in these relationships. Connections that are forged in the rocky waters of adolescence and proving to sustain through time.


So, Child, I am thankful. And I am longing. And I am asking the Lord that you would be the next “good thing” the Lord bestows on us.

In His righteousness,
Mama