Friday, December 31, 2010

Cookies, Statistics, and Church Planting

During our annual indulgence in Christmas cookies, I’ve been reminded of special cookie events from my past. For a short while I became famous within a very small community for making cookies. I love baking cookies, so I became the cookie champion for our family Christmas gatherings. We ladies would sit around chatting while munching from a big platter of more than eight varieties of cookies that I’d baked. These coffee and cookie chats are one of my favorite Christmas memories.

But I was also reminded of a special week in our early days of living in Zambia when Randy and I ate cookies for supper every night. Oh the sweet memories! As part of a coordinating committee for a city-wide crusade, we offered to sort the response cards and distribute them to pastors the following morning along with follow up packets. Each day after helping close down the crusade venue we would head to our tiny apartment with our stack of response cards. We were pretty tired, so we munched on our special cache of home made cookies while we recorded information from the cards on our little Apple 2c computer. Our supper of cookies made a tedious task rather pleasant.

Our foray into statistics also yielded some surprising findings. After sorting the cards by geographical locations we would put them in groups to distribute to the area pastors we had trained for crusade follow up. By the second day it became apparent that a major part of those responding at the crusade were from one “compound” near town that was known as a haven for thieves. But with this information came a dilemma. We had no pastors to give these cards to. At our daily pastor’s briefing we discovered there was no evangelical church in this compound! We had hundreds of new believers with no church and no shepherd. We added special prayer to our nightly cookies and statistics.

Near the end of the week the leaders of one denomination offered to send all their Bible school students into the compound for two weeks of outreach. The students’ courageous visits to new believers and their families resulted in a church plant in the middle of this poverty ridden location. One student was so moved by the needs he encountered that he was inspired to commit to return after graduation to pastor this fledgling church.” Jack is still there!

I love recalling those late nights of statistics and cookies. And I delight in remembering this special pastor and church that have made Jesus known to their neighbors, ministered to the needs of community, and lowered their compound’s crime rate. Cookies, statistics, and church planting make for wonderful memories.

photo courtesy of photobucket.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Today, Another Gift from God

There’s something awesome about rising up early – a new day ahead. It’s new. Never a rehashed day or a left over day. Always new! Nothing has to be the same as yesterday! We start afresh.

New day, starting with God’s mercy

New day, clean slate

New day, fresh joy

New day, new challenges

New day, set a new pace

New day, new horizons

New day, new perspectives

New day, relive commitments

New day, new blessings

New day, new substance for praise

New day, opportunity for obedience

New day, new strength

New day, fresh glimpses of God

(picture from photobucket)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My World has Shrunk

My living space has shrunk to the spare bedroom in a tiny house with my mother-in-law. My regular jaunts for doctor’s visits, lab appointments, and shopping are within a 5 mile radius of this little house. And when my friend picks me up to accompany her to court 20 minutes away I feel like I’m on holiday! For the time being I’m fairly limited in being able to be away from the house. Randy and I even had to slot in a short coffee date on a grocery run while mom was in bed. For the time being, no more day trips to encourage isolated missionaries, no more five-day road trips across four nations of Africa, and no short hops on a plane two countries north. Right now my assigned portion is this slice of suburbia. My world has shrunk and I’m feeling the pinch and the pain of my loss.

And in the moments I feel overwhelmed with the narrowness of choices, travel, and food I am reminded of Jesus who left Heaven’s infinity to live in a narrow slice of troubled land. His ministry was primarily limited to the Jewish people and particularly the poor and needy. During his ministry he had no permanent home or transportation. (Okay, I have it really good!)

During my season of restriction I am starkly reminded that God is in charge. He’s my boss. Hey, I know it, but I can easily forget that! God can tell me where to live and what to do. He can send me to suburbia to care for my mother-in-law. And that is what my life as a servant is to be about!

I’ve also been reminded that this servant calling is not about what I want or even about what I think I need. In our mushy comfort driven society we’ve been brainwashed to think that we are supposed to be monitoring our lives to ensure that our needs are met and that anything that imposes on those needs has to be out of line or unjust. In other words, we think we are entitled and God has to cough up!

As a result, I can be tempted to subconsciously think that God is crowding me and overlooking my needs. Not true. The clear point Jesus made about not worrying is “Your father knows you need these things” (Mtt 6:32). It is during the reoccurring moments I feel claustrophobic in my little suburban bubble that I have to choose to trust God to care for what he knows I need just as Jesus did.

And God reminds me that when I’m focusing on giving up my freedom to travel, my nice home, our sturdy four x four, and my own kitchen, I can easily be distracted from actually serving those I’m sent to serve! Jesus so clearly left everything behind when he came to earth as a man, but we have no record of any time he whined about his losses or the cost of serving. We do have stories of his unabated focused ministry to those he came to serve.

And one delight of our transition is the times of joy I’ve experienced when I fall into bed after a busy day of drudgery and hear God’s “well done.” At those times I’m reminded of God’s stamp of approval on servanthood.

I’m not quite sure yet of all God’s purposes and plans for this transition, but if I just make progress in implementing these lessons of servanthood in this new context, it would be worth everything I’ve given up. Maybe that is just what God had in mind!

picture from photobucket

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Who is the Star?

My friend invited me to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah at a local Methodist Church. Sure, I thought, that’s a Christmas tradition I haven’t enjoyed for years! So in the rather gloomy cool weather we set off for the church and joined other clumps of friends and family trickling into the impressive sanctuary. While the congregation stumbled through several verses of Noel, the choir marched in and took their places across the front third of the sanctuary. I have to say, I wasn’t all that expectant about the quality of the program as I saw the wide variety of choir robes representing many local churches.

However, as a professional soloist began his rendering of “Comfort Ye My People” my heart began singing. The words began to soak into my soul, reminding me that the historical precedent of Jesus’ lonely arrival on earth was God’s proactive compassion for his people. The concert continued with movement after movement of musical renditions of God’s written Word. I found myself lost in the beauty of the words that ushered me into a place to gaze upon the majesty of the God of the earth. He is the God of the world, no matter how they ignore him, shut him out of their world, or scream against him. He is God.

By the time we reached the crescendo of the Hallelujah Chorus I was ready to stand and shout “This is our God. This is the God we serve. This is the God we are talking about! Look at Him. Give him praise.” And then the crowd roared with applause while the orchestra members bowed and each professional soloist received a surge of applause and a bouquet of flowers. Concert over, Crowds trickling out the doors and back to their cars.

I was so sorry the concert was over already. And I was grieved that the star of Handel’s Messiah did not receive his due. The star of the concert was not the stupendous composer, or the great director, or the magnificent soloists, the talented choir members, or the committed committee who organized the event. The real star was the God of all the Earth who sent Jesus the Savior of mankind. And in the buzz and hurry of the traditions of thanks, applause, and gifts we left him out of our applause and praise.

My renewed wonder at God’s splendor and Amazing Provision has stayed with me. And my longing has intensified for God’s name to be proclaimed and honored as he deserves. My prayer is that in all the buzz and hurry of Christmas traditions we remember to honor the real Star of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crossing Bigotry Barriers

During my early grade school years, one of my best friends was Vanessa. She happened to be an African American, but I don’t recall thinking anything of that. I enjoyed her friendship. I played at her house after school, and I invited her to Sunday school. Just kid’s stuff. By bringing Vanessa to church our family turned the church on its head. As my parents told me later, the leaders asked them to stop bringing her to church or find another church. So we moved to another church! I was too young to understand what bigotry was, and I didn’t learn it at home. My parents nurtured us in Christian love towards our neighbors, no matter their race or status.

As a teen I vividly recall the afternoon a group of angry black youths surrounded my sister and I, accusing us of killing Martin Luther King. None of those hot headed teens could read our hearts. They only reacted to our white skin. And that is the nature of bigotry of any kind - choosing responses based on unique outward distinctions rather than identifying the humanness of the heart we all share.

Many decades later our world is still grappling with various forms of bigotry. Despite intentional “diversity training,” News constantly reports injurious incidents of hatred and bullying and educators are asking, “Can we teach empathy to our students?”

All cultures engender some form of bigotry whether based on tribe, nationality, gender, status, or language. Jesus came into a decisively bigoted culture, encountering barriers between Jews and Gentiles, Jews and Samaritans, religious synagogue goers and tax collectors, and the healthy and the infirm. When Jesus purposed to make the disciples into ministers of his Good News he shouldered the daunting task of breaking down the destructive barriers that could thwart them in preaching Good News to anyone anywhere.

We could all do with some wisdom from the Master Teacher who succeeded in transforming this group of rowdy bigots into ministers of the Gospel willing to compassionately cross bigotry borders. I’ve observed a few practices Jesus incorporated into his discipleship training to bring about this change.

Jesus intentionally ministered across bigotry boundaries. Jesus refused to honor culture-bound bigotry. He was like a bigotry hound sniffing out the smallest scent of bigotry. And then he did just the opposite of cultural practices. He touched lepers. He called a blind beggar out of the crowd for healing. He crossed the lake to meet with the demon possessed monster the whole town feared. He talked to a Samaritan slut. He healed the daughter of a Canaanite Gentile. He banqueted with despicable tax collectors. If there was a bigotry barrier he purposely crossed it!

Jesus immersed his disciples in bigotry border crossings. He walked with them among the poor, the blind, the lame, and the beggars. He strode with the disciples into the pool of Siloam where the ignored dregs of society waited for a miracle. He hiked his followers through Samaria and kept them there for two days of ministry. He and his disciples chatted over meals with despised publicans.

Jesus exposed ugly attitudes of bigotry. Ever the teacher, Jesus tackled stinking attitudes with stories. The tale of the Good Samaritan contrasted haughty religious indifference towards a robbery victim with the surprising compassion of a despised Samaritan (Lk 10). Jesus addressed the older brother’s snooty self-righteousness towards his brother’s self-inflicted poverty in the story of the prodigal son (Lk 15). Jesus also included teaching about judging, arrogance, and self-righteousness wherever he went.

Jesus honored those whom others “despised.” Jesus ministered across bigotry borders, but he also took opportunities to honor those who were normally despised by society. The Gospels show Jesus honoring a Roman centurion, a Canaanite women, and a repentant harlot for their faith (Lk 7:9; Matt 15:28; Lk 7:50).

Can empathy be taught? Yes. My parents gave us a good start. Yes. Jesus showed us how. But the task is not for the weak. Jesus showed that we must sniff out bigotry barriers in our culture and in ourselves. Only then can we take steps to intentionally cross bigotry barriers to minister to whomever wherever Jesus sends us.

Picture from

Friday, December 3, 2010

Debunking the Comparison-Trick

Recently I had a challenging day and was scrambling for God’s grace and patience. No, it wasn’t a family tragedy, or a lost job, or a diagnosis of a terminal illness. It was simply facing recurring pesky irritations in our house. It was nothing new that hadn’t happened before, I just felt more vulnerable and others’ comments felt like barbs entering my spirit. I was having difficulty not lashing out with unkind words or my defensive sarcasm. My impulse was to find a place to be alone and cry, but then I thought, “This is nothing compared to what others are facing. Buck up, Jane.” I swallowed my tears and kept trying.

But the neat comparison-trick didn’t really work. The comparison only succeeded in making me feel more inadequate and stupid and pushed me to be even more irritable! The comparison-trick only delayed my ability to deal with how I was feeling. It was only when the lights were out and Randy was gently snoring next to me, that I was able to breath and get fresh perspective.

God came so close, and surprised me with his response. He didn’t compare my pain to someone else’s pain. He saw and understood my hurt, my trials, and my struggles. And he embraced me with his tender compassion. I awoke in the morning with a solid sense of his support and faced the same challenges with more grace and self-control.

Today I’ve spent more time rolling these thoughts around and questioning the validity of the comparison-trick I had learned sometime in my past (probably during a time when I needed a kick to spin me out of self-pity). I recalled that God hand picks the temptations that are allowed in my life (1 Cor 10:13). Because of that, there’s no need for me or God to compare my struggles to another person’s trials. This testing is mine and God is personally committed to walking me through them! No haranguing, no criticism, and no indifference. Only compassion, encouragement, and instruction.

Jesus is my ultimate model. I can’t imagine Jesus needing the comparison-trick to keep him moving and victorious. He constantly focused on others’ needs, even during the most intense testing times in the Garden and on the cross. Because Jesus walked in flesh with imperfect parents, reactionary disciples, ungrateful recipients, arrogant leaders, and constantly demanding crowds there’s probably not one of my trials with which I could shock him (Heb 4:14-16).

I think I’m going to ditch the comparison-trick and focus on these take -away points from my brief valley experience.
  • As I receive God’s understanding and love I am more equipped to love others and keep moving. No comparison-tricks or any face-straining efforts needed. Just more of Him.
  • The way God responds to me should guide me in how to respond to others’ trials. I want to respect the pain that results from their personal “allowed temptations.” No pain is insignificant. Advocating the comparison-trick is out. Respecting their situation and understanding their pain is in. God, make me a compassionate cheerleader to help others through their individual trials.
  • Just like Jesus, the more difficulties and trials I face, the more equipped I should become to be able to understand and empathize with others’ struggles. God, I invite you to fill my heart with more of your understanding and compassion.

So, even my flash-trial has proven valuable, debunked another personal myth, and taken me a few steps further on my journey to be like Jesus.

picture from Photobucket