The Morning After

The new Easter dresses and ties have been put in the hamper. The Easter ham has been turned into leftover sandwiches. The last Easter egg has been found – or, if it hasn’t, the nose will find it on the next hot day. The Peep-induced sugar crash has (almost) subsided. Easter is over.

It’s the morning after.

We can now indulge in chocolate or Facebook or whatever else we gave up for Lent and go back to our normal routine.

Even we church leaders may find ourselves relieved to go back to life as normal, now that the work of Easter is over.

But, thanks be to God, it is not.

Every year around Easter many documentaries and news articles, secular and otherwise, address the question: Do we believe Jesus rose from the dead? It’s an important question. But Duke Divinity School professor and author Stanley Hauerwas challenges us to consider another question that is equally important, if not more so: “The problem, after all, is not belief in the resurrection, but whether we live lives that would make no sense if, in fact, Jesus has not been raised from the dead.”

On the secular calendar, Easter is a day. On the church calendar, it is a season. But for the follower of Jesus, Easter is a lifestyle. In other words, it is our “normal” routine.

Because Jesus calls us, not just to believe the resurrection, but to live it.

He even gives us a specific place where we are to live the resurrection. When the women arrive at the tomb and hear that Jesus has been raised, they are told: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7).

Why Galilee?

Galilee was the hometown of the women and the disciples. It was the place of their daily routine – their chores, their work, their studies, their mealtimes, their family relationships, their waking and their sleeping. But in addition to being their home base, “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15) was also the launch pad for Jesus’ mission to make disciples of all nations.

That’s where we are told to go and see Jesus – the Galilee’s of our homes and the Galilee’s of our community and world. In the places in our lives and in the places of the world’s lives, in every place where hope seems dead, we are called to declare the tomb is empty – by daring to live in ways that make no earthly sense, save that the Savior lives.

Howard Thurman’s powerful poem “The Work of Christmas” reminds us that Christmas does not end on the day after Epiphany. His message is equally timely on this day after Easter:

When the last note of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” has been sung, when the last chocolate bunny has been eaten, when the lilies have wilted…

…the work of Easter begins.

It’s time to go and see Jesus in Galilee.

What Time Is It?

What time is it? How many of us instinctively look at our watches or smartphones when we hear someone ask that question? Telling time is something we learn to do as a child by looking at where the hands are on the clock. Yet as we get older, we learn that telling time is not always as simple as that. Though the hands of the clock may work, well, like “clockwork,” time itself seems to be a bit more elusive. Depending on which team you are pulling for in a college basketball game, the final two minutes of the game may seem like two seconds or two hours. For high school seniors, the days until graduation seem far too many; for their parents, far too few. How slow does the time go when waiting for a loved one to arrive? How quickly does it pass before they have to leave?

Even the understanding of being “on time” can be elusive, differing from culture to culture or sometimes even person to person. We all know people who define “on time” as five minutes early, and others for whom being just five minutes late is as close to on time as they may get. My husband James and I have traveled to Kenya three times in as many years. There have been many jokes made there – on both sides – about the difference between American time and Kenyan time. In Kenya, if a meeting were supposed to start at 9:00, it might start by 9:30 (at the earliest!). That made many of us type-A Americans a bit antsy, glancing at our watches which our culture tells us dictate our schedule. However, in Kenya, it’s not a watch that dictates time, but people. When the people are gathered and ready, then the meeting begins – not a second before.

At the same time, if ever there were a people that needed to be on time – right down to the second – it’s the people of Kenya. James and I were there to serve with a ministry called Tree of Lives, a mission that provides holistic care and support for those suffering with HIV/AIDS. Most of the Tree of Lives clients receive life-saving antiretroviral medication provided by the U.S. government. The medication is highly effective if taken properly, that is, twice a day every day, at the exact same time every day. Whereas that 9am meeting may start at 9:30, 9:00 for medication means 9:00 on the dot. Not 8:58 or 9:01. There’s no fashionably late here. It would be challenging for any of us who have a watch or smartphone alarm to be that precise day in and day out. Imagine how much more challenging it is in some remote villages in Kenya, where the majority of people don’t own a watch or even a simple clock. Yet some 90% of Tree of Lives clients manage to take their medication successfully on time – day after day, month after month, year after year. How? We’ll come back to that in a minute.

For many of us, the issue is not just about being on time, but about finding time for all the many things that demand it. How many of us go to bed having checked off everything on our to do-list? How many of us go to bed with more things on that to-do list than were on it at the start of the day? When we look at all of the things we have to do, it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Yet the author of Ecclesiastes claims there are: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The author then lists 28 items in 14 pairs – all multiples of 7, the number symbolizing completion or perfection in the Bible. Even the literary style suggests this sense of completeness, using pairs of polar extremes as a way of capturing everything that lies between them, all of life’s experiences, both literal and figurative: “A time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,…a time to tear down, and a time to build up,….a time to seek, and a time to lose,…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…” (verses 2-8).

But even though the author describes the complete expression of the human experience, it doesn’t seem complete. Something’s missing. There’s no progression. The lines of the poem never stop, yet they never progress, much like the lines of our life may seem, when we go through the motions and carry out our day-to-day routines in a palindrome-like rhythm, back and forth, from sunrise to sunset. The monotony can sometimes leave us wanting to cry out with the author in that other famous phrase from Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Indeed, it can be meaningless – depending on how we tell time.

While there may be a season for everything, you and I can’t do everything. Yet, how hard do we try, right? Think about the typical opening words in a conversation with a friend or colleague. When someone asks, “How are you?”, what’s the most common response we hear? There once was a time when “fine” was the standard response. But today, more often than not, what answer do we hear? “How are you?” “Busy.” It seems busy has become the new fine. In fact, busy has become better than fine. We now determine the significance of a person by how busy he or she is. When I recall conversations with my peers in college and even in seminary, it was like we were trying to compete for who was the busiest, as if it were a poker game: “How are you?” “Busy. I’ve got two exams.” “I’ll see your two exams and raise you three term papers.” It’s laughable to me now, and yet I know I still play the same game. Different chips. But the same stakes.

And what’s at stake is this: Busy is not better than fine. In fact, busy often means I’m not fine at all. Next time we find ourselves responding to the question, “How are you?” with the answer, “Busy,” let’s ask ourselves why: Why am I busy? Sure, there are seasons where we just flat out have a lot we need to do, so we are busy. But often our busyness masks something deeper. Because often being “busy” is a barrier – a defense mechanism or excuse or other barrier that keeps us from experiencing true community. Typically, when we are busy trying to juggle everything we have to do, the first ball we tend to drop is our relationships. In those times when we most need to be in community, instead of investing more in being, we invest more in doing. The end result of such busyness is not greater significance and meaning, but ironically greater loneliness and depression.

There is a season for everything, but we can’t do everything, no matter how hard we try. And we were never meant to do so. Because when we try to do everything, we’re probably not doing one thing well.

Still, Scripture maintains there is time for everything.

How is there a time for everything under heaven when it seems there’s no way on earth to fit it all in? If we can’t make sense of it, then maybe it’s time we re-learn how to tell time – and it begins by getting a new watch.

After listing these pairs of life’s activities that never seem to progress anywhere, the author asks almost rhetorically, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” Then he answers his own question: “I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with” (verses 9-10). To explain how to discern what that business is, the author continues: “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future in their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (verse 11). It’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? We have a sense of the past and future, but we don’t know the beginning and the end? If it seems paradoxical, maybe it’s because we get so caught up in questions of “When?” and “How?” that we forget the “Who?”

But the “Who?” question is what helps us adjust our clocks.

Flash forward to the New Testament, and we find that same language of beginning and end, not in the form of a timeline, but in the form of a person. When everything was made suitable for its time, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), God sent his Son Jesus Christ, whom Revelation calls the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:8), the first and the last, the beginning and the end. We might not know what happens in the beginning and the end, but we can know the Beginning and the End. When we let go of the time we have in our hands and live more in rhythm with the One who ultimately holds time in his hands, from its beginning to its end, then day by day we find that time falls into place, as we discover more of “the business God has given” us and, more importantly, the meaning of it all: “God has done this, so that all should stand in awe of him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

Our business of busyness places significance on what we do. But God’s business frees us to rejoice, not in what we do, but what God in Jesus Christ has done for us.

So which are we about: our busyness or God’s business? If we’re tired of being busy and want to be more about God’s business, then the antidote is found in recovering our sense of community – with God, God’s people, and ourselves.

Start by giving yourself time – time to do that vital practice of prayer and reflection. Maybe that means getting up a little earlier for some quiet time before anyone else in your house begins to stir. Maybe it means committing this week to turn down the noise. Our lives are full of noise, yet somehow we often choose to add to it. If you’re like me, the radio is constantly on while driving. If you find yourself needing that critical time to reflect, then commit with me not to turn on the radio this week while commuting back and forth, thus making quiet space to listen to the still small voice of God.

Spend more time being instead of doing. Disengage in order to engage – for, when we disengage from our watches, we will soon find Jesus calling us to engage a different watch.

As I shared earlier, in Kenya, time is marked not by the watch of the wrist, but by the watch of people – the watch of one’s neighbor. How do 90% of HIV clients manage to take their medicine on time without the help of a watch? Because they rely on the help of those who do have a watch. In each case, there was a neighbor or family member who had committed to get up and walk to the client’s house – however near or far – to make sure they took their medicine on time. Twice a day, everyday, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And because of that seemingly small act, thousands of people are winning the fight against AIDS in Africa. All because a neighbor committed his or her time to something that transcends time.

What might Jesus do through you and me if we set our watches, not by our own needs, but by the needs of our neighbor?

What time is it? Perhaps it’s time you and I got a new watch.

When the Nativity Sets Go Back in the Box

Like many of us, this past week found our family packing up our Christmas decorations. I always look forward to unpacking our decorations and recalling the stories behind them – special ornaments given to us by friends, crafts created as a child, family heirlooms passed down over the years. Especially I enjoy unpacking our nativity set and waiting, together with all of the figurines, for the placement of baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Day. The unpacking day is a day of great anticipation.

The packing day, on the other hand? It just doesn’t quite hold the same anticipation. Beyond just the work of packing and cleaning, it is marked by a bit of sadness, as all of these treasures go back in the box for another year.

Christmas is over.

Many congregations also find themselves in the throes of packing. The celebration of the Day of Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord Sunday signals that it’s time to put away the church’s decorations as well. Advent candles and wreaths are moved to the storage closet. Christmon ornaments get carefully wrapped and put in their boxes. The nativity set used in the children’s pageant and in worship returns to the basement until the next Christmas season – because this Christmas season is over.

Every year it is the same routine, and with it the same tinge of sadness. But this year for me was marked less by sadness – and more by conviction – a conviction that began long before that first Christmas box was opened.

Back in October, in a conversation with our Future Travelers cohort, our facilitator Alan Hirsch made a statement that kept swirling in my heart in the weeks leading up to and throughout Advent. The closer we got to Christmas, the faster it swirled – faster still in the days following Christmas.

Hirsch said, “Evangelicals emphasize the cross and the resurrection. But what we often miss is the incarnation.”

In my Doctor of Ministry residency this week, we’ve been visiting various congregations’ worship spaces in order to help us consider several questions: How does our worship space tell God’s Story? What is the Story it tells – in its layout, design, stained glass and other images? What parts of the Story are missing in the space and thus need to be told in other ways?

When we visited one particular congregation, I was struck by how the sanctuary conveyed the transcendence and beauty of God, with its domed ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows lining the length of the walls. In the far left corner of the sanctuary stood a nativity set. As the worship leader explained, the nativity set was to be removed yesterday, following worship celebrating the Baptism of the Lord.

In the Sundays that follow, other stories of Jesus’ life would become the focus in worship. Many of these stories were captured in the stained-glass windows and elsewhere in the sanctuary. The big cross hanging front and center told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The picture of the empty tomb in the window closest to the cross recalled the story of his resurrection.

But what about the story of the incarnation – when Jesus took on flesh in the form of a baby in a manger? Nowhere was it to be found except in the nativity set.

And when the nativity set went back in the box, so did the incarnation.

This congregation is not unique. Think about the story your congregation’s worship space tells. Where in its images and décor do you see the incarnation? When do you hear it celebrated in worship? If you are involved in leading worship, when and how do you tell and retell the story of Jesus’ incarnation throughout the year? If I’m honest, I admit the temptation is to relegate it just to those four Sundays of Advent (hopefully, all four!) We’ll then give the incarnation its due by letting the story take center stage on Christmas Eve and Nativity of the Lord/Christmas Day before moving on to the other stories after Epiphany.

There’s good reason why the Twelve Days of Christmas end with Epiphany. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the coming of light in the birth of Jesus. On Epiphany, with the visit of the Magi, we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus’ light to all the world. It’s as if Epiphany adds a big exclamation point to the good news of Christmas.

Or rather, not an exclamation point, but a colon.

Because the great celebration of Christmas doesn’t end on Epiphany: The party is actually just getting started.

While the baby Jesus and the Magi figures may go back in the box, the incarnation was never meant to be boxed up. It was meant to be on “unboxed” display throughout the year….through figures like you and me.

Jesus, the one who said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), also said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   The way, not just our congregations, but all of the world is to see and experience the Word become flesh is in the way you and I live the Word in our flesh.

How are you living out the incarnation in ways that call you out of the box – the box of comfort, the box of familiarity, the box of security, the box of control? Where do you find yourself still living “boxed in”? How might Jesus be calling you to shine his light into the darkest boxes of this world? The box of despair, loneliness, addiction, disease, poverty, hunger, and more? What is one step you can take this week to live more out of the box – and to help someone else do the same?

As we put away our nativity sets this year, may we take care not sadly to put away the incarnation with them. Rather, may we with joyful conviction “unbox” the incarnation every day – until Light comes again.

A Congregation That Prays…or a Praying Congregation?

It may seem like semantics – the difference between a congregation that prays and a praying congregation. They sound like the same thing – but what if they aren’t? The former describes a congregation who participates in prayer as an activity; it is a church that worships, that enjoy a good potluck together, that serves its community, and that prays. The latter, however, describes a congregation that doesn’t define prayer as one of its many activities. Rather, prayer defines the congregation.

I recently asked a colleague if his congregation was a praying congregation. He said, “Yes, we pray in worship. We try to pray at the beginning or end of every committee meeting – generally both.” No offense to my colleague, but I would call that a congregation that prays, not a praying congregation.

For many of us, when asked if we are a praying congregation, we might offer a response similar to my friend’s: We list the number of times we pray in worship, during committee meetings, and perhaps at special prayer gatherings during the week. But a praying congregation is not defined by its quantity of prayer. Prayer is its defining quality.

Consider a couple of perhaps more significant examples…

I serve as the chair of our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM). When candidates receive a call, we often ask for their feedback on our process – how did we help prepare them for ministry and how could we have been more helpful. While we may not always agree with their responses, there was one candidate whose feedback we could not dispute: “Why didn’t we pray at the start of my interview?” she asked.

In addition to shepherding candidates who are seeking their first call, I am presently seeking a call myself. Recently, this candidate’s question has become my own, as one of the things I notice in phone or Skype interviews is whether or not a Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) prays at the beginning and end of the interview. Even more so, I notice how prayer plays a role in the PNC’s dialogue: “We are praying about how Jesus might call us to engage our community in more effective ways.” “We are praying about how we can grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.” “We are praying about the person Jesus might raise up to be our next pastor.”

To those who have been given the high calling of connecting pastors and congregations – CPM’s, COM’s, PNC’s, and candidates for ministry (and I’m including myself here!) – let me ask us this: Do we take Jesus and his Church seriously enough to enter into every interview – before, during, and after – in prayerful conversation with the Head of the Church? If we don’t, then consider what that says about what we believe.

Because ultimately, it’s not about semantics at all. It’s about Christology.

And while the above examples may be those of a pastoral search, the Christological questions apply to all of us in the Church.

Do we trust more in ourselves and our ability to know the next step, tacking on a prayer for good measure and asking God to bless our plans? Or do we trust more in Jesus and his full knowledge of the next step, bathing the conversation in prayer and asking Jesus to show us his plan?

The term “exile” has often been used to describe the post-Christendom, post-denominational age in which congregations find themselves, where the church no longer holds center place in the culture, where the number of “none’s” in religious affiliations is increasing and the number of church memberships decreasing. This season is not the first time God’s people have experienced exile. So perhaps we would do well to take a page from our spiritual ancestors’ exile.

In the period of the kings, what was their greatest sin? It wasn’t their intermarriage with pagans or improper worship or idolatry. These were symptoms of a deeper sin: They “did not inquire of the Lord” (I Chronicles 10:14 et al). Rather than learning from their mistakes, it seems history repeated itself and eventually led to Judah’s exile in Babylon, as noted by Jeremiah: “The shepherds” – that is, pastors (!) – “are senseless and do not inquire of the Lord” (Jeremiah 10:21).

If not seeking the Lord is the problem, then the solution seems pretty obvious. Indeed, Jeremiah gives the people a great antidote – and even greater promise – from the Lord: “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’” (Jeremiah 29:13).

If we desire good fits between pastors and congregations, or, more importantly, if we desire to join together as God’s people and be the Church Jesus calls us to be, then we, too, need to seek the Lord. Not because we’re supposed to pray at a meeting or because we think it’s just a good thing to do. But because we believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior and Head of the Church.  And so we pray to him, with every beat of our heart and every fiber of our being, as if our very lives and those of our congregations depend on it…

I realize you and I are not always going to get it right. There will be plenty of times when we fall short in prayer – either in quantity or quality or both. One of the prayers in Scripture for which I am most grateful is that of Jesus from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus knows us well, doesn’t he? As much as we may think we know the next step, we really don’t know what we are doing. But thanks be to God that we are invited to seek after the One who seeks after us like the great hound of heaven. May we pray to seek after him in like manner.

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33

Will You Sign Your Name on the Dotted Line?

When was the last time you signed a contract? Any kind of contract – a mortgage, a car loan, a new job, a marriage license, a school admissions agreement. Now consider this: How many pages was the contract? More importantly, did you make sure you read every page before you signed it?

I’ve been thinking about these questions since last week when I took a class at Columbia Theological Seminary. Part of the Certificate in Spiritual Formation program, the class was called “Exodus: Freedom and Formation.” After exploring the opening chapters of Exodus – the Hebrew slaves’ oppression in Egypt, their crying out to God, and God’s hearing their cry, delivering them, and setting them free to worship – we, along with the Israelites, arrived at Sinai and the establishment of God’s covenant with his people. The stipulations of the covenant would be outlined over the course of the next several chapters and books (Exodus 20-Numbers 10). But before the first word of this contract was spoken, “the people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do’” (Exodus 19:8).

In our class discussion about present-day contracts, one colleague shared how in his career he travels around the world negotiating building contracts and how people of other cultures sign multimillion dollar contracts that are just a few pages in length with very little detail. How often have you and I demanded a lot more pages and a lot more detail – for a lot less money? Yet for others around the world, it seems the content of the contract is not as important as the character of the contractor.

Every relationship has a contract of sorts. The relationship between an employer and employee, a husband and wife, even friend to friend.   While some of these relationships have agreements in the form of a written contract or spoken vows, as the relationship continues we discover that many of the “terms” go unwritten and unspoken, relying less on words and more on the worth of the relationship, less on treatise and more on trust.

The Israelites had seen God display his worth and trustworthiness, not only through their deliverance from slavery, but also through God’s providing for their needs on their journey to Sinai (Exodus 15:22-18:27). Now at Sinai, with those experiences of God’s faithfulness fresh in their memories, they are faced with a question: Will they sign their name on the dotted line?

“The people all answered as one:” Yes.

Would you and I have done the same?

No matter where you and I are in our faith journeys, we all are faced with that question every day – indeed, every moment of every day. When we woke up this morning, how many of us knew every detail the day would hold? How many of us have ever wondered why something happened or what next step we should take? Like Israel, we aren’t always given a reason, but we are given a relationship – a relationship with our God who is for us and with us. We might not know the way, but we can know the Way. Like Israel, we, too, are faced with a question: Will we trust more in what we know or Who we know?

An age-old question. A present-moment opportunity.

Will you sign your name on the dotted line?

 

One of the (Many) Reasons Why I Run

This morning I completed my seventh half marathon – the inaugural Hotlanta Half Marathon. My motivation for registering was to participate in this new tradition for our city and also to check off a goal for the year as a “half-crazy” runner.  But the gift I received this morning went far beyond any of that.

One of the reasons I enjoy long runs and races in our great city is that it gives me a bigger glimpse of our community’s joys and concerns that I don’t always take the time to see. On today’s run, we passed a cluster of homeless men and women waking up after a long night under an overpass; a cluster of fraternity houses just going to sleep after a long night of their own; upscale, high-rise condos; lower-income government housing; a variety of churches, offices, neighborhoods, and more – all within a few short miles of one another. I pass these same neighborhoods every now and then in my car at a much faster rate than I do when I run, admittedly too fast to take time to notice (and that observation goes far beyond just my driving or running speed!) I am grateful for these opportunities to slow down and see our community in fresh, new ways. I pray that, in my driving and running, in my waking and sleeping, in my dreaming and praying, I will take more time to notice my brothers and sisters around me.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Father Tom

Having had the joy of traveling to Kenya annually for the past three years, I have begun to look forward to seeing specific people each time I visit, people I have come to know over time, people I have the privilege of calling friends. One of those individuals is Father Tom, a Catholic missionary priest who has served in Kenya for forty years. We’ve never actually met, but I have come to know him by worshipping with him and his “congregation” – the patients, Indian sisters, doctors, nurses, and pastoral counselors of Nazareth Hospital, a mission hospital outside of Nairobi – in the “sanctuary” of the hospital corridors.

This Sunday morning is my last morning in Kenya, and, thus, our time of worship would be some of the last words I would hear from my Kenyan brothers and sisters before I began the journey back to Atlanta – and what powerful words they were. Father Tom’s message was a gift to me, and I hope it is to you as well. The following is a synopsis.

(Note: The Scripture was read in Swahili. Between my understanding of the English sermon and my very limited Swahili, I believe the Scripture text was Matthew 11:25-30.)

This particular Sunday marks the beginning of “ordinary time” in the Catholic Church. Father Tom said that we often think of ordinary time as exactly that – ordinary, uneventful, maybe even boring. While today may be an ordinary day, tomorrow in Kenya is an eventful, monumental day, he noted. Tomorrow is Saba Saba, the anniversary of the founding of the opposition party, a day always celebrated with a political rally. Given the recent attacks in Kenya and the resulting political tension, many people feared the rally would lead to violence. Father Tom said, “We can look upon tomorrow – any of our tomorrows – with fear, or we can look upon them as a moment of discovery. Crisis is not a danger; crisis is an opportunity. Every birth, every journey to discovering who we are, begins with a crisis.”

Father Tom then recounted his own journey in Kenya. He said, when he first came to Kenya, someone asked him, “What did you come to Kenya to do?” It was an interesting question, he said, and forty years later he’s still asking himself the same question. To him, the answer as he experiences it is as follows: “If I didn’t come here for you to evangelize me, if I didn’t come here for you to reveal Jesus to me, if I only thought I was to reveal Jesus to you, then I may as well go home tomorrow. You may think that I as the priest am here to reveal Jesus to you, but the truth is you reveal Jesus to me even more. We are here to reveal Jesus to one another.”

After sharing his story, he shared the story of a friend of his and how, when she was four months pregnant with her fifth child, her husband died right beside her of a massive heart attack. After the child’s birth, she told Father Tom, “What kept me going those remaining months of my pregnancy was the anticipation of seeing the face of that child which would reveal to me something of the face of my husband that I’d never seen before.”

Reflecting on her words, Father Tom asked, “Do we look at both ordinary times and monumental times in our lives as moments that will reveal to us something of the face of Jesus that we’ve never seen before? That’s where joy comes from. The life of joy is hard work, but it is good work.”

In closing, he said, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. There is no tomorrow in God. There is only this day. Live this day as if it’s your first day, your last day, and your only day.”

Amen.

On Being Kenyan

Ruth is trying to make me into a Kenyan, and, according to her, I am making progress.  The Director of the Joy Village, she and I met Sunday morning to finalize plans for worship at area congregations.  Seeing a Kenyan-shillings bill on top of my Bible, she asked if I had reminded the team about the offering, as everyone in a Kenyan worship service goes forward during the offering.  I told her I had.  We then discussed the invitation from the church next door to join their congregation for worship and a fundraiser.  As the women on our team were each heading to other congregations with their host families, we decided it was important that Ruth and two of our men worship at this neighboring church as a means of expressing our gratitude for their support of Joy Village. 

Then came my next lesson on being Kenyan:  Ruth said, “Nicole, you need to know that, in Kenya, when a Mzungu (Swahili word for “white American”) participates in any gathering, his or her presence is an honor.  Kenyans will assume that everything you say and everything you do must be right – and so they will pay attention to everything you say and everything you do.” 

With those words, it was time to go to worship.  So I slipped the shillings into my Bible, and we began our walk to the Catholic church. 

Whenever I preach, I always enter into worship with some degree of nervous energy, out of a desire to be faithful in my proclamation of the Word.  I wasn’t preaching that morning, but my nervous energy was higher than ever after hearing Ruth’s words.  In part, the feeling was one of humility, as her words reminded me of the Western “we-are-here-to-give-to-them” mentality that has long plagued our history of mission – when my experience has taught me that I have as much to receive (if not more so!) than I have to give my Kenyan brothers and sisters.  But what caused my spirit to tremble most that morning was the other reminder I heard: the importance of, not just the Word preached, but the Word lived. 

I enjoyed a wonderful time of worship with Mama Lucy’s family, spending most of the hour and a half with the two twins Mary and Jane taking turns sitting on my lap and with Kennedy trying to teach this Presbyterian when to sit, stand, and kneel in mass.  In the Catholic tradition, Sunday was the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  Among the narratives and writings of these two great ancestors of our faith that we read in Scripture was II Timothy 4:6-7, where Paul writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 

Then it came time for the offering. 

I turned to reach for the shillings in my Bible….and they were gone.  They had fallen somewhere on the way to worship.  What was I going to do?  According to Ruth, that wasn’t just my question, but everyone’s question, for just as she predicted, every eye seemed to be on me, watching what I would do.  Everyone goes up for the offering, she said, but now I had nothing to offer. 

As I sat there aware of the eyes on me, suddenly my eyes became aware of those around me.  During the time of offering, sure enough, everyone was coming forward to the altar.  But they weren’t just offering monetary gifts.  They were also offering spontaneous singing, joyful dancing, and heartfelt prayers.  For my fellow Kenyan worshippers, there didn’t seem to be any concern for what others saw.  Who they are is who they are, and who they are is “Christ in [them], the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  That hope was what compelled them to come forward and pour out all of themselves as an offering to the Lord. 

So I, too, got up.  I, too, came forward.  When I arrived at the wooden offering box, I placed my hand on it and prayed that I, too, might be poured out as a drink offering for the Lord. 

I still have a lot to learn about being Kenyan.  And about being Christ-like.

 

Joy’s Turning Points

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” – Philippians 4:4 

On Wednesday, our team took a road trip to Kiserian in the beautiful Masai region of Kenya.  After visiting the Nazareth clinic there, we divided into two teams to visit homes in the surrounding area.  Our team’s first stop was the home of a beautiful three-day-old baby girl, along with her mother and grandmother – the mother’s mother-in-law – and other extended family. 

The new grandmother was so proud of her new granddaughter – and rightly so.  Her joy was contagious, her smile extending from ear to ear.  She insisted that each of us in turn sit beside her, hold the baby, and have someone from our team take our photograph. 

After my turn, as I stepped through the open door into the yard, I heard the social worker Kimani say – rather loudly, as if he wanted to make sure everyone present heard him – “We are here to meet and celebrate this new baby.” 

Certainly, the gift of new life is cause for such rejoicing and the hour-and-a-half drive to do so.  But I knew that our team’s visit meant someone in the family was HIV+.  I walked over to Kimani and quietly stood beside him, wondering what was going on.  Sensing my question, he leaned over and whispered, “The mother is HIV+.  Her husband just called me from work and told us that his mother doesn’t know his wife’s status.  So he asked that we not say anything.” 

Having been to Kenya twice before, I have heard many similar stories of this family dynamic.  In some cases, when the mother-in-law learns her daughter-in-law is HIV+, she will ostracize the daughter-in-law – and perhaps her son and grandchildren as well.  In a few instances, the mother-in-law may even pressure her son to leave his wife and family because of the wife’s status. 

On the long drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the grandmother.  I found it hard to believe that the joy that was so tangibly present in her might turn so quickly into anger, shame, or grief. 

Then again, perhaps it is not so hard for me to believe after all. 

I do not claim to understand what it is like to be HIV+ and to live under its accompanying stigma.  But I do know what it is like to allow my joy to be flipped on its head in a flash by some unwanted news in my own life – not having things go the way I had planned, watching helplessly as a loved one suffers, an illness, a disagreement, a frustration, or a disappointment. 

I pray that nothing will take away the joy of the Lord for this grandmother today.  I pray the same for you and for me. 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

The Mesmerizing Rhythm

A Reflection on Mark Labberton’s Address for GA…and for Today

 I just returned home from my first General Assembly, where I had the joy of serving as part of the PFR and Fellowship Team and sharing our new, exciting vision for the Fellowship Community.  As is the case at every General Assembly, one of the highlights of our time in Detroit was the PFR/Fellowship Breakfast midway through the week.  Our speaker Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, shared a powerful word, not only for commissioners as they turned their focus to the start of plenary discussions, but for all of us as we focus on what it means be a Gospel-centered community today. 

Labberton centered his address on the Book of Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar’s decree: 

“You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to bow down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down in worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 

Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews.  They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.  There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods, and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it not true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up?  Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:4-15) 

If your eyes began to glaze over by the time you read “the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble” for a fourth time (and now a fifth time!), you are tracking with Labberton’s point:  There is a “mesmerizing rhythm” about this cultural decree. 

And just as there were “mesmerizing rhythms” in the Babylonian culture, so there are with ours, such that the eyes of our souls glaze over and we lose our focus and vision. 

I get the reality of that rhythm.  The day-to-day routine. Errands to run.  Chores to do.  Classes and meetings to attend.  Emails and phone calls.  Health and fitness regimens.  Bills.  Family life.  Social life.  Political and economic strife.  Cultural tensions.  Cultural temptations.  The demands of the world.  The demands of self.  Whether good, bad, or indifferent, the cycle of it all can lull us. 

Even our flurried pace of ministry – or our flurry of denominational discussions – can have a hypnotizing effect of their own. 

When I say I just returned home from General Assembly, I did not return to my home outside of Atlanta, Georgia, but to my home away from home.  I went from Detroit to Nazareth Hospital in Limuru, Kenya, where I am writing this blog post and where I am serving for two weeks with Tree of Lives, a holistic mission for individuals, families, and communities impacted by HIV/AIDS.  The rhythm in Kenya is different – and yet it can be equally as mesmerizing. 

On a routine errand to the local grocery store this week with Vinton, one of the pastoral counselors at the hospital, I asked Vinton if ministry had been busy.  (The question itself betrays the impact of that mesmerizing rhythm on me!) Vinton replied, “Yes, disease, death, grief, and so on.”  His response was similar to that of the last time I asked him the question when I saw him in November. 

During the hospital’s Monday-morning staff meeting on that same fall trip, our mission facilitator asked the staff if any of them had seen God at work in the past 24 hours.  Not one person raised his or her hand.  Our facilitator remarked that, when he asked the same question of our mission team, each of us had no trouble listing three or four experiences where we had seen Christ.  But here at the start of the workweek, no staff person could do the same. 

I get that reality as well. 

By God’s grace, Vinton and the Nazareth staff are helping defeat the, not just mesmerizing, but lethal rhythm of HIV/AIDS in Kenya.  At the same time, as much as Vinton or I or any of us who proclaim to be followers of Christ desire to break our culture’s rhythms, we are just as tempted and persuaded by them.  How much easier it is for me – when I am miles away from the routine of home and know that I am on a “mission trip” – how much easier it is to see Jesus in the faces and places and experiences I encounter.  How hard it can be – when I am back at home with its varied circumstances and challenges – how hard it can be to see Christ and the mission on which He has called me, wherever I am – in Kenya or in Atlanta, in my office or at church or in my own backyard. 

But by God’s grace, we can break that deadly rhythm as well. 

So how do we get out of this rhythm – and into Rhythm?  Listen to how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego respond to King Nebuchadnezzar’s ultimatum:  “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).  In Labberton’s words, the greatest threat is not the fiery furnace; the greatest threat is idolatry. 

There is a bit of a paradox at work, of course.  Certainly, we need to be in touch with the rhythms that surround us.  But there is a grave difference – a joyful difference! – between being in touch with them and being tethered to them.  Indeed, it is a question of worship:  Which rhythm commands – and receives – our attention, our obedience, our adoration? 

All other rhythms may woo us, entice us, weary us, beat us down, or otherwise tempt us to give into their threat.  But there is a greater Rhythm still. 

Ever since I first heard it years ago, I have often found myself reflecting on Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message:  “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

For us as Christ followers, that’s our true mesmerizing rhythm – and my prayer for each of us this day.  May we be so disconnected to any other rhythm and so connected – intimately and integrally – to the One True Rhythm of Jesus.  And may that Rhythm impact every other rhythm, to the end that all of God’s people might live in glorious sync with the mission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Soli Deo Gloria.


"In life, it's not about what you do; it's about what you see – out of which you do." – Father Tom

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