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

 

 

Living Disciplined in the Dark

In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline. In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline.

According to the author of this Psalm, we must raise glad exultations to God for He has done marvelous things. “But what are these great deeds?” one could ask. “Why should I give praise to this God?” In the first portion of the Psalm, we read depictions of how the entire world is already lifting a chorus of praise to God for they observe the works of their Creator. “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). The people of Israel know the deeds of God in the way He parted the Red Sea and led them across dry land as they escaped brutal slavery in Egypt. Time and again this God of theirs executed justice in the ways He protected his people from rebellious nations. Surely for these acts alone He deserves praise.

The call to praise God becomes a bit convoluted as we move to the central verses in this Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 beckon us to bless God because “he has kept us among the living” (NRSV)  and “he has preserved us” (NIV). This language of preservation make me think of the to meticulous storage techniques involved in canning fruits or vegetables. It’s essential to follow the recipe precisely and to time the heating process perfectly in order to keep the lids sealed and the foods stored safely (and deliciously) for later use. Here in the Psalm the use of the word “preservation” in conjunction with the reference to human life points towards the fullness of life to which God is inviting us. As his people we have intrinsic value and we find our purpose in the work of his kingdom. Thus we are worth protecting and preserving with the utmost care.

This detailed work of preservation is extended in the way in which God does not “let our feet slip” (verse 9). The Lord keeps a careful eye on his loved ones, being sure our feet are firmly planted on the path before us. In my role as a mother,  I share a similar watchfulness over my young daughter on the playground (Stoneco, Vienna, St Mary’s). I sit back and allow her freedom to explore and exert her independence. Up and down she climbs, my attentive gaze always following her. My stomach churns as she creeps close to an edge, but I cheer when she wisely decides to take another route. The moment her foot begins to slip, however, I spring into action and catch her, keeping her from injury. The Lord does the same for us, his sons and daughters.

That sounds well and good, yet we find ourselves reading the words of verses 10 through 12 with shock and frustration, jolted out of our loving image of God.

10 For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;

Here we find the psalmist reflecting on the afflictions the Lord has brought his people through. In the Message paraphrase, verse 12 says “He has road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back.” Not only does it seem we have been deliberately put through the flames of refinement, but we were led into a trap and intentionally burdened. In these verses we find ourselves moved from a place of praising God for the way He led His people out of slavery, to lamenting the way God’s own hand directed us back to prison. “Why would God allow these painful trials and tribulations to face the children He supposedly loves?” we could ask.

The process of spiritual transformation happens in the fire or the rough waters, the darkest times of our journey. Our tendency is to run from pain and ask God to keep us from ever experiencing difficulty. The great surprise of the spiritual life is not that it is free from burden or challenge, but rather that we find ourselves nearest to God’s heart in those moments. When we read the psalmist’s metaphorical description of trials as the refining process of silver, we must examine the greater purpose of this pain. In the refinement process the goal is not to alter the silver, but to bring it to a more pure version of itself. Spiritually speaking, our own journeys toward God are not to lead us further away from who we are today, but toward a more holistic – more sanctified – a more Christ-in-me – version of ourselves.

In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr say, “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.” (Rohr, 100). This summary of the Christian spiritual formation process is an invitation to embrace the pain of life as a way of communing with God. Psalm 66:12b alters our perspective of the turbulent times when we see the welcomed conjunction “yet” changing the scenery. “yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” Suddenly we realize our Good Shepherd has not kept us in the pain for no purpose, but has led us toward a “spacious place” of freedom and abundance. Our hearts can be at rest in this place of “green pastures and quiet waters” as its put in Psalm 23, and we begin to recount the ways God has been faithful through the trials.

If our spiritual journey will take us deeper into the heart of God in the midst of hardship and affliction, we must have a plan in place to endure these times and deliberately call our attention to the presence of God with us. Psalm 66 is a hymn of discipline. Kevin and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I can’t help but think of how perfectly our wedding vows suit this Psalm. We are called to praise God in times of plenty and in times of want, in joy and in sorrow. In order to praise God in the midst of darkness we must live disciplined lives, using the tools of spiritual discipline to place ourselves before God and ask that our eyes be opened to his grace.

The ways in which we cultivate a life whose soul-soil is ready to receive the difficult work of the Holy Spirit is through faithful love and obedience to God. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We express our love for God by intentionally being present to Him and noticing his presence with us. In this Psalm alone, multiple spiritual disciplines are laid out as examples to us. First we practice the discipline of celebration, being deliberate in our praise of God for all of the goodness we have already experienced. By practicing the discipline of contemplation, where we stop and pause (as seen in the “selahs” of this Psalm),  meditating on the character of God or on his good works. This discipline of the mind helps us to notice more readily the ways God is being gracious to us in the midst of our present circumstances. In verse 13-15 the psalmist writes:

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

We can commit to bringing elaborate sacrificial offerings into God’s house even when we find ourselves facing hardship. This turns our hearts to generosity and allows us to better receive the generosity of God. We read the guttural cries of the psalmist in verse 17 when he says 17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue;” we too can commune with God in honest prayer through the suffering. God listens to our prayers and responds, and verse 18 indicates our prayers are most effective when we have practiced the discipline of confession. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Being blameless and righteous when we come before God is an important starting point to all of our prayers and humbly ushers us into the transforming work of the Spirit.

The final steps in our rhythm of spiritual formation is to declare the great things God has done to all who will hear. Verse 5 says, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals” while verse 16 echoes this by declaring, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” As we experience the saving work of God and his gentle presence with us as we endure difficulties, we must tell everyone who will listen the story of God. God’s invitation is for all people to be with him, communing with him and joining in his creative work in the world. Our role is to notice his presence with us in the fiery times or in the times of spacious safety and to glorify his good name always, beckoning others to experience this great grace.

The road of spiritual formation is winding, not linear, being led by the Spirit of God as we place ourselves in a posture of receptivity to his work. By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, contemplation, celebration, confession, and generosity, we are better able to respond to the work God is doing in our lives. Through his work we become more like Him as our impurities are washed away refining our character, drawing out the image of God already stamped on our souls.

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)

The Scent of Grandma’s House

Dear Gramma Mary,

I will always remember that patch of irises or “root beer flowers” you had in the back corner of the house. Any time I see these beautiful purple blooms I think of you and the many memories we made in that big back yard –

clean linens flapping on the line,

birds chirping near the feeder,

tire swing swaying from the montrous oak,

and the long wait for the charcoal grill to heat and cook our hamburgers.


I remember sitting in your Florida room watching Lawrence Welk as the summer breeze blew through the screened windows.

I remember you tossing us a whiffle ball and the time I hit a “home run” by breaking one of those glass panes. I learned about restitution.

I remember playing “fox and hound” in a foot of freshly fallen snow when I’d spend a snow day at your house.

I remember your clip-on earrings and your red carpet room and your pretty head scarves that you wore when it was windy.

So many things make me think of you – old fashioned pencil sharpeners, Archway windmill cookies, cabbage rolls, jade jewelry, aspen trees, rummy, gumdrops, and anything PBS.


Thanks for having Ash and I over every Friday night to eat McDonald’s and watch Jeopardy and TGIF (ok, that was mostly us, but I can’t forget that ancient 13 inch tv in your bedroom.) Thanks for letting us spend the night and snuggle with you in the double bed and telling us stories before we fell asleep. Thanks for teaching me how to do plastic canvas and letting me pretend to use your acrylic paints like Bob Ross. I’ll forgive you for snoring if you forgive me for getting water all over the place whenever I “helped” wash dishes. I always smile when I think of how you called Kevin your boyfriend and how proud you were when he became a pastor. I think I’ll start signing my name with xoxo just like you always did.


I’ll miss you, Grams, but I certainly won’t forget you. I’m forever grateful that you were willing to hang around for enough years to see your first great grandchild, and I promise I will tell her all about you.

 

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

In her Lenten Reflections booklet, Ruth Haley Barton says,

During Lent we are called to enter more intentionally into prayer, self-examination and repentance for the purpose of restoration and renewal. As painful as it is to be exposed at this level, awakening is evidence of God’s Grace.

Using the story of Jesus and this Samaritan woman we’re going to explore awakening to God’s grace. I want to invite you to join me in the process of restoration and renewal of our souls and to experience the belonging Jesus offers us. 

Last Sunday we read the verses 16-17 of John 3, which say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In Chapter 4 of John we see Jesus putting his teaching about salvation into practice. Without using words Jesus shows his disciples that THIS is what he meant by loving the whole world, giving love and belonging to this woman, this Samaritan woman, this abandoned Samaritan woman.

Most of the sermons I’ve heard about this Samaritan woman describe the forgiveness of Jesus and the sinfulness of the woman. But there is no mention of forgiveness or promiscuity here – we have read that into the text. Perhaps this woman’s story is different than that. Perhaps her story is more like ours than we’d like to admit. Though the details may be unique to her story, I believe each one of us is longing for relationship and acceptance, just as she was. And I believe that Jesus offers the same belonging and salvation to each of us as he offered to the Samaritan woman.

This woman had been married five times and she has been abandoned five times…abandoned through death of a spouse or divorce, likely due to her barrenness. The ability to bear children in ancient times was seen as the primary purpose of a woman, carrying on a male’s lineage was the entire point of marriage. If this woman was incapable of this “basic biological function”, she would surely be rejected. Thus when she meets Jesus at the well, she is thirsty for more than water. This woman is in need of acceptance, of relationship, of belonging.

My own story is not unlike this Samaritan woman’s. As a young married woman, I wanted nothing more than to have children. I had framed my future and my sole purpose in motherhood. Thus, I was completely shaken when my body’s functioning wasn’t “normal” and healthy. I, too, was barren. I spent five years of sorrow and darkness and questioning my worth and belonging. My friends were having children, women’s retreats would gather and discuss their kids, and I was on the outside. My infertility was even used as a weapon against me when some people questioned my effectiveness in church ministry if we didn’t have children. How could we possibly connect with the community without kids? These types of statements were both cruel and untrue. Though we knew these words were not of God, the shaming from outsiders was hard to bear.

Gradually my darkness began to transform me. I turned to God with more intensity than ever before. Gently and graciously, He began to unravel the strings I had tied up in my worth as a mother. He began to reveal to me the truths: I was valuable… apart from whether I had children or not. Kids would not fulfill me, my husband could not fulfill me, a job or ministry could not fulfill me. Jesus told me I was loved and I had belonging in him, no strings attached. This is the message of salvation for each of us – love and belonging.

So back to Sychar…there’s Jesus interacting in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely people. Meeting at a well was somewhat scandalous in itself, for wells were often the place where love-matches were made. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and others like them met their spouses at a well. Jesus’s Jewish heritage came with an unspoken rule to not interact with their rebel-cousins, the Samaritans. And as a man, Jesus was ignoring all sorts of social protocol by interacting with a woman, going as far as to ask her to share her drinking vessel with him. He was risking his reputation in order to share the refreshing streams of God’s love with this thirsty woman.

Even in the Exodus passage we read about how physical needs drive us to God. In chapter 17, the Israelites are complaining and arguing with Moses about how terrible their living conditions were. They were so overcome with their selfishness and their thirst that they went as far as to complain that they were no longer slaves in Egypt! Moses was afraid their rage was going to result in his stoning. (Talk about “hangry”!) In verse 6, God provides the miraculous water from the rock at Horeb and Moses commemorates the occasion by naming the location Massah and Meribah which mean “Test and Quarrel.”

But the thing about each of us, and the Samaritan woman, and the Israelites is our thirst is so much deeper than a dry mouth. Our physical symptoms or outward actions are often an expression of an inward spiritual need.  How often do you find yourself acting out in anger or impatience when the real problem isn’t really your kids or your husband or the barista or the guy in the car next to you. The real cause of your turmoil is something inside you. The stress or selfishness or jealousy causes us to act out, and those feelings are all rooted in a need to be filled with the living waters of Jesus. When we look inside ourselves and begin to dig through the mess we’ve created – the broken relationships, the poor self-image, the fear about money or anxiety about future plans – we find that at our core we need belonging. We try desperately to fill ourselves and take away the ache of belonging…that dream job, the perfect house, that friendship, the 401K, the fairytale wedding, the marriage, those kids, that college degree…none of it works, friends. All of this can just mask the problem unless we let Jesus walk us through the process of releasing our desires and our inadequacies and to be filled with him alone. It’s terrifying, I’m not gonna lie. But what I know for certain is that Jesus wants to save us from ourselves. He wants to give us living water that wells up to eternal life. By believing in him and following him, we find the belonging and we find salvation. And we, like the Samaritan woman, can’t wait to share this truth with everyone we meet.

This woman kept asking more and more questions of Jesus. “How can you be asking me for a drink? Where do you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors? Will you condemn me for the life I’ve lived? Where should we worship you? Are you really the Messiah?”

And she believes him. She knows he must be the Messiah and runs to tell everyone in her city that very day. The truth sets us free, friends! And this woman was changed from a shamed barren reject of society to a missionary for the good news about Jesus.

So how does Jesus want to save you? What shame or struggle does he want to free you from? What does he want you to release to his care so he can fill up your real need, your need to belong.

This is salvation, friends: to find acceptance and belonging in Jesus.

 

Enduring Presence,
goal and guide,
you go before and await our coming.
Only our thirst compels us
beyond complaint to conversation,
beyond rejection to relationship.
Pour your love into our hearts,
that, refreshed and renewed,
we may invite others to the living water
given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

source

 

Sermon given at Monroe Free Methodist Church based on the texts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

 

Stay in the Cloud

 

The essence of this exercise is nothing else but a simple and direct reaching out to God for himself…not (asking) to be released from pain or for his reward to be increased; in a word (the practitioner) asks for nothing but God himself; so much so that s/he takes no account or regard of whether s/he is in pain or in joy, but only that the will of Him who s/he loves be fulfilled.

I sat with this concept for a long time during this week.  Before I read these words, the Lord was already cultivating this soil in my heart, leading me to a patient lingering in the Tension. Is it possible that God wants me to wait in the tension, to stay in the Land of the Unresolved? I have always longed for direction and a solution. Lord, just tell me what to do and I will do it. I am an active (struggling with the contemplative) after all. I am willing to have the difficult conversations, to confront or to apologize. But to just wait?!

Waiting (and not forcing an answer or solution) is a difficult concept, and one that I have honestly not considered. My form of waiting is really just badgering the Lord for answers. Yet God is asking me to be with Him. It is not time to move on past the pain. This land, this tension between the Already and the Not Yet, is where He wants me. Perhaps an “answer” (in the form I’m imagining) will not come. Maybe I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, settling in deeper to the heart of God because what else is there, really?

 

These are reflections on my reading of The Cloud of Unknowing for my Master’s class in Formational Theology.

 

My Loving Priority

As part of my grad school coursework, I am instructed to participate in various prayer practices during the week. Last week in my practice of the Jesus prayer, I noticed two important shifts in my thinking and I am thankful for my experience with the Lord. Praying the Jesus Prayer is simple and profound. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

During my prayers, I found myself convicted of my priorities at the start of my morning. I always begin my day in my certain seat in the living room, Bible open, journal and pen in hand. This rhythm helps to start my day in peace and with Jesus. But for the past few weeks, I had selfishly and lazily allowed my iPad and all of its social media pitfalls to lead me away from my Loving priority. What shocked me about this realization wasn’t so much that I shouldn’t start my day on Instagram (I knew that already), but that my social media interaction at 5 or 6 am was actually harmful to my mind and spirit. Thanks to the tender grace of Jesus, I noticed that my body was already tensing up, engaging with the exterior world before I was adequately bathed in his loving acceptance. My heart was racing, my mind following suit. Oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…

 
Aside from this conviction, I was thankful for the way that this prayer was taken with me into my day. I found myself praying this Jesus prayer while I was driving, refocusing on my Love and confessing my need. As I took multiple stroller-walks with my daughter, I meditated on the Jesus prayer with each plodding step. At first I had started a podcast, something mindless and fun. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, sometimes just for fun is just what God wants of me. But last week, with the rhythmic steps and the sunny skies, I am thankful for praying again and again,

Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.