Monday, August 30, 2010

Broken beyond repair

"Listen to me, you guys! I totally get it. All these years of ministry experience have taught me a few things..." Pastor Tom leans in to address the small group of ministers. He's successful, a can-do mover-and-shaker who has the respect of his peers.

"On the one side, here's Ken, whose life is a disaster. He still claims he's done no wrong. On the other hand, we have God, who promises to bless those serve him and do right." 

He turns to the broken ruin of a pastor sitting across from him. "Ken, we've watched your church go downhill.Your marriage is in shambles. Your kids died last year in a car accident. (Except in our hearts, we know that probably was no accident. Most likely, God's judgment.) 

"We understand that God uses everything to reward and punish his people and build his Church. We can tell there's something you're not admitting to us. Something is very wrong in your life, but you either have a blind spot or refuse to confess it."

Ken insists wearily, "Guys, we've been over this before. I know what it looks like from the outside. Believe me, I've lain on my face before God for answers, searching for anything that might explain this. There are no sins or hidden failures to keep from him... or from you. Everything's out in the open."

He shakes his head and runs bruised fingers over the sores covering his face, "I have no idea what's going on. God is not answering. He seems so distant. My prayers stop at the ceiling. I still can't believe I've lost my family and everything I worked for." 

He whispers. "But there's nothing. Nothing at all between God and me."

Tom isn't buying it, and neither are Ben or Gavin. They surround Ken and get ready to pray for him one last time. They wish he would confess his wrongdoing, turn back to God, and accept his punishment. And be restored, of course. Ken used to be such an effective pastor. What a waste.

"Look, God promised prosperity and blessings to good people. You call this living in prosperity?" The group looks around the seedy apartment, with its stench of dirt, incontinence,  and medicines. "But if you confess your secret sins, Ken - whatever it is that you've done wrong - God will help you fix the mess you're in. We've seen this before. Trust us. Our wisdom comes from years of study of scripture and work with people."

Ken has nothing more to say. He's tried to explain his predicament - his clean life, a responsible ministry. Followed by loss, grief, and suffering like nothing he's ever experienced.

"Ok, we're not coming back again until you follow through. This is it. Call us when you're ready." His friends walk out the door, closing it without looking back. Theirs is solidarity, based on the wisdom of ministry experience and sound theology.

Ken knows it's not the end of the story. He opens a tube of antibiotics, winces as he gently applies ointment to his skin. Glances at his calendar to confirm the next doctor's appointment in a week. There's no point in calling his wife. She won't pick up this number.

He limps over to his desk, feeling the blisters on his soles ready to pop. Flips open the Bible to Job. Tom (Elihu) and his other "friends" have apparently had their final say. 

The future is up to God. Ken cries in pain as he falls on his knees and pleads once more, "Please intervene. I worship you, for you are able to do anything. But you know I will love and serve you, no matter what."

Read more: 
*Read Job 34-42 (in a new translation)

*And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NKJV

Friday, August 27, 2010

Overcoming disappointments

Some people are disappointments. God is probably as happy with them as he is with us. He doesn't seem to have favorites, and he's forgiven each of us for weaknesses.

But we may have high expectations of our own about other people. "This one I'm mentoring is going to shine." "My new boss will be great to work for." "This coworker looks like a team player." "My employee seems like a hard worker." "The person marrying into our family will be a great partner for my sister/brother and fits into the tribe."

And then reality bites. The person who had our back abandons us. Our partner runs for cover. A teammate sabotages our work and claims credit for our ideas. The boss twists our actions so our reputation becomes tainted throughout the company. Our brother-in-law has an affair and leaves his wife and kids.

We feel shocked and let down. We didn't see it coming and hoped for better! Now we're discouraged by someone else's immaturity, their backstabbing for political gain, or their disloyalty and unfaithfulness. 

"Whom can we trust?" we ask ourselves.

"No one," of course. Not even ourselves. 

Every one of us is a sinner, waiting for the opportunity to look good. Given the chance, we secretly want to be the one who stands in the limelight, even if someone else loses out. Even the best among us occasionally pauses before shrugging off temptation to benefit at the expense of others. 

But disciplined meditation on Jesus' character and practice in stepping back, putting others ahead of ourselves, pays off. We can live with ourselves when we're constantly looking for the good in others, finding ways to help them excel, and boosting another -- especially when no one but God notices.

"Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." I picked up a wooden bracelet this summer, clicking off the beads as I'm praying the Lord's Prayer. "And lead us... not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

Living daily within the prayer, I trust only God. I'm going to accrue debts. I want those I wrong to forgive me, to wipe the slate clean over and over, and to trust my best intentions. 

Others will also step over the line to crush my hopes and dreams. Jesus knew that. But he wants my promise to forgive them completely, knowing a loving heavenly Father made such loving surrender possible. God already paid everything we owe and are owed, overcoming our disappointments through the death of his Son. 

Read more: 
*In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free. The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. Psalm 118:5-8 NIV

*I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, (more than watchmen wait for the morning.) O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins. Psalm 130:5-8 NIV

*What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us allhow will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Romans 8:31-32 NIV

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Just show up!"

"Just show up." The phrase haunted my alumni desk. I'd get a notice of a wedding or a funeral, a celebration or a memorial, and type the appointment into my calendar.

Once, headed down the freeway to a funeral an hour and a half south, I questioned the wisdom of arriving at a service for someone I had never known.

"Just show up." The voice in my head repeated several times as the miles hummed under the tires. "Just show up." OK, OK, I'm going.

So I showed up. I was ten minutes early. The family was chatting in the foyer, two daughters, their husbands, and one granddaughter, clutching a flute. One daughter drifted my way to find out who I was.

"Really? You are from the college Mom attended? She was only there a year, but she never forgot. She was so proud that she'd studied at Northwest Bible Institute. She married Dad and didn't finish." She smiled. "Wow. I can hardly believe you came. Thank you so much!"

"Not such a big deal," I thought to myself as I sat down, the first guest in a chapel empty except for a stunning casket and the funeral home organist. "It's my job after all, and our alums are amazing."

The family had gone through a lot of effort: the box was lacquered sea-foam green, the flowers were lavish, and the printed programs attractive. I read about Kay's life, wincing a the hideous cacophony of notes fighting the hands of an inept musician.

Another gal came in, after hugging one of the sisters. She sat near me. "I'm Marg's childhood friend," she introduced herself. "I didn't want to miss it. I'm supporting her. But also, Mom Kay was such an encouragement to me. She prayed me and my kids through a nasty divorce a few years ago."

Twenty minutes after service time, it was apparent that there would be no more attendees. The family walked in slowly, somberly, and scattered into the front two pews.

An older pastor climbed to the platform and performed the service. "Kay is the reason I am in ministry," he began. "When I was a youth pastor, she would help at events. She was a great influence on everyone around her.

"I'd get frustrated and discouraged, ready to quit. She'd come over, real quiet-like, and give me a hug, say a few words about how she knew God was pleased to have me serve him." The preacher sighed, brushing away a tear. "She's the reason I'm a pastor, after all these years." He delivered his twenty-minute sermon.

The family read their tributes. Kay had been a great mom and mother-in-law. A beloved grandmother. She'd faithfully volunteered for sixty years in her local congregation. She's been in the thick of things most of her life, but many of her friends had passed away, and her health had failed. The kids moved her to a retirement home twenty miles from where she had lived, so they could take care of her. 

The granddaughter played a flute solo, a hymn Grandma liked. Her careful performance clashed against the fumbles of the organist.

"Focus, Rosemarie, focus!" I tried to listen to her and ignore him.

The girl exhaled her relief as she walked off the stage to sit beside her mom. Her mom leaned over, took her hand, and whispered, "Good job, honey."

Then it was over. The family filed out behind the casket. They paused in the foyer to say good-bye. "Thanks again. We really appreciate it. Her friends must be too old to make the trip. We'll never forget that her alma mater honored her."

I eased back into the driver's seat, still in shock. This woman of God, well-known for decades, influential in her circle, loved and treasured by many. And only her family came, with one friend, and a stranger who heard a gentle, "Just show up."

I drove out of the parking lot. My heart was grateful. My body relaxed into the long drive back to work.

I have never regretted showing up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The unembellished life

embellish: 1. to make beautiful with ornamentation, decorate; 2. to heighten the attractiveness of by adding decorative or fanciful details, enhance

Example sentence: Chris knew that his grandfather may have embellished the truth about his youth, but he enjoyed hearing the stories nonetheless.

Looking at Sue, most of us would assume she has the perfect life. She is beautiful. Her family drives two newish cars and lives in a nice house in a good neighborhood. She and her husband have good jobs, one of them in a church.

As I've gotten to know Sue, her brokenness is apparent behind all the exterior embellishments. She's struggling with a pornography addiction, dealing with a rebellious teen, and her husband has a chronic illness. 

"How can she look so 'put together' with all her struggles and concerns?" I wonder.  

The trappings of a North American lifestyle can hide a heart filled with hurts. I know I'm not living without pain. Looking into my windows, people might think I "have it all together," too. It's not so. Every one of us has their own tale of ongoing grace and forgiveness. Our pasts and current realities never measure up to our aspirations or God's expectations.

One of the fantastic things about being a believer is not having to pretend. Hopefully we don't carelessly air all our dirty laundry in public. That would be pointless and self-defeating. 

However, our Redeemer invited us to cast our cares on him because he cares for us. We are not to worry, but to trust him. He designed our Family of faith to share our burdens and sins, letting us grow within its nurturing community.

What other God or gods offers a shelter in himself? Who else knows us inside and out like our God? Yet he accepts us completely - and even brags on his children to the world. Have any idols or gods of human imagination created a safe, spiritual household in which to come to maturity?

"The cross is shaped to our own back," said my mom. She's right. I wouldn't be able to carry Sue's brokenness, nor she mine. But Jesus is enough today for her... and for me. (Hallelujah, what a Savior!) And thanks be to God for the Church, where we are loved and learn to love and forgive.

Read more:
*The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
My mouth will speak in praise of the LORD. Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever. Psalm 145:17-21 NIV

*Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5 NKJV

*But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christthe righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:7-11 NIV

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Really? Do I believe it?

I'm reading the passage, nodding my head, "Lift up your heads, O you gates!  And be lifted up, you everlasting doors!  And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory?  The LORD strong and mighty,  The LORD mighty in battle.
"Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory." Psalm 24:7-10 NKJV

"Ok, what great verses," I think. I've read them many times. "Lift up your heads,... the King of glory is... strong and mighty, ...Lord of Hosts, etc." 

I say I believe it. If anyone challenged me with, "Do you believe this is true?" I'd give a quick reply. "Of course I believe it's true!"

Waking last week, I had only one idea in my head. Not such a shocking idea, except it hit me like a blow to the heart: "What would today look like if I were fully devoted to Christ? If every impulse of my own, every ambition, and every want, were surrendered to Jesus?"

All day long, I carried the thought into the attitudes and actions of my experiences. "Hmm, that lady is sure slow. Move over already! I want to pass you. Now." I was walking behind a window shopper who was dawdling on the sidewalk. 

"Oh, I hate when they bring that up," listening to a conversation. "Always the same old complaints."

"I wonder if I can go to ... later?" daydreaming while someone was talking to me.

"Can I get out of this chore?" scheming on how to maximize my time over someone else's.

When I went to bed that night, I was aware of many times I had failed to give to others the kind attention and love Christ gives me. I was utterly humiliated by my incongruity. It's not gross sin that derails me. I am smitten by the inconsistency between what I say I believe and how I act. By how inappropriate my selfishness is, putting my desires before the best I can do for others.

The One I claim to serve is Lord of hosts (boss over angelic multitudes). I need someone that big to remind me that he is Central to all being and to all beings. There's no value in emptying myself into nothingness (like Hinduism or Buddhism). I need to accept his forgiveness for flaws and failures, allowing him to fill me completely with his thoughts and life, his love and his strength. 

No wonder he is the King of glory! Splendid in power and majesty. Holy and set apart from created things. Worthy of all adoration and praise.

I believe it. With all my heart. "So how would today look, if I were utterly, absolutely devoted to him?"

Read more:
*Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Psalm 115:1

*This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches,  but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. Jer. 9:23-24 NIV  

*Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth..." Matthew 5:1-5 NIV 

*Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27 NIV

Monday, August 16, 2010

Strong women

predilection \pred-uh-LEK-shun\ noun
 Meaning: an established preference for something
Example Sentence: Aware of Kim's predilection for Italian food, Theo brought her to a quaint trattoria.

The women in my family thrive on growth and new ideas. We're not intimidated by hard work, nor by people who are afraid of our abilities to think and do new things. We know from where (and from whom) our abilities come.

I'm back from a week in Winnipeg (where I grew up). My cousin organized an 80th birthday party for our "favorite" uncle. He and my aunt (who has passed away) had no children, so they adopted their nephews and nieces. One after another mentioned his influence on them.

I got to sit back to watch the event unfold. After doing events professionally for 5 1/2 years, it was a joy to watch another strong woman bring in help, arrange the space, food, and settings, and make sure everything ran smoothly. I wanted to get up and clap and cheer for Elaine when it was done. What a great job! 

"All in a day's work," she said during a visit the next day. That made me beam.

I know. God has given several of us girls in the family the ability to relax in stressful situations, to flow rather than freeze when circumstances are challenging, and between us we know a lot about people, events, and all kinds of stuff. We watched our grandmothers, mothers, and aunts host dinners, sleepovers, and keep the family on the move.

I've observed that not everyone is comfortable around women with a predilection to strength. Many men and women are wary of female ability or power. Insecure people may feel respected only when other are afraid of them or their position, but strong women tend to give respect to others as equals rather than "Superiors." Some people feel threatened or suspect they can't measure up in comparison to a strong woman because she seems to use her gifts with ease. 

Historically the Church has relegated such women leaders out of authority with warped theology of man's superiority as a human. What a loss to what could be done for Christ!

I was delighted, watching Elaine say a word here, give a directive there, wrapping up the evening, and putting things in order as the guests were leaving. When I went to bed that night, I thanked God for strong women like her. And I woke in the morning with deep smile furrows on my face from being happy.

Read more:
*Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. I wait for your salvation, O LORD, and I follow your commands. I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly. I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you. Psalm 119:165-168 NIV

*Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24 NIV  

*Jesus told this story: Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. "Master," he said, "you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more."

His master replied, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!"

The man with the two talents also came. "Master," he said, "you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more."

His master replied, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!"
Then the man who had received the one talent came. "Master," he said, "I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you."

His master replied, "You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed. Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." Matthew 25:14-29 NIV 

*Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:8-10 NIV