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.”


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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