Hope? How Ridiculous!

First Advent Candle2(This “Moment” is arriving early because on Monday, we will be on the road from Colorado to Texas.)

Here it is: the first week of Advent when Christians around the world light one candle on a wreath. Traditionally the first candle symbolizes hope, but that word sounds ludicrous in a world threatened by a spreading deadly virus, by armed terrorists who do not hesitate to kill innocent children in their selfish quest for domination. Most of us Americans ate too much delectable Thanksgiving fare just a few days ago, but thousands scrounged for bits of food that day in the dumps of Cambodia, India and The Philippines.

Hope? The cynics among us believe it is long gone. Idealists (many of them Christians) think it only a coming-Kingdom reality. But what about the here and now? Is hope, defined as a confident expectation, even possible in the midst of seemingly hopeless marriages, young people adrift in the haze of drugs, women and men weary from climbing the tilting corporate ladder? Is hope a mere pipe dream? (Incidentally, that term is thought to be derived from the fantasies brought about by smoking opium!)

Each week I’m privileged to sit among a dozen or more women who exemplify hope. Many of them have experienced broken dreams, some live with chronic pain, some with the reality of ravished families and some even facing terminal disease. While we often weep and pray together over all these forms of brokenness, I am amazed and encouraged by the reality of hope that absolutely oozes out of them. They give of resources, love, friendship when their own wells seem almost dry. Could it be that it is primarily when we are drained of all that money, prestige, success, even people can give that hope is what fuels us?

When family troubles seemed overwhelming to an acquaintance, her husband-to-be sent her these words, Regardless of circumstances, in the face of the storm… Things are not what they seem…(because) our hope is in Christ… And with even more profound impact, listen to these words from an Iranian Christian who has been imprisoned for his faith for over three years. After repeated beatings and “kangaroo court” proceedings, he wrote a birthday greeting to his eight-year-old daughter (capitalization is his own): I know that you question why you have prayed so many times for my return and yet I am not home… In your mind you are asking WHY? The answer to the WHY is WHO. WHO is in control? LORD JESUS CHRIST is in control… The confusion of “WHY has all this happened?” and “WHY are prayers not answered yet” is resolved with understanding WHO is in control…LORD JESUS CHRIST, OUR GOD!

To an untuned heart, this kind of hope is ridiculous, but to those who claim kinship with David, the Hebrew Shepherd-King, these words are life and breath:

But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you. (Psalm 37:7)

Precious Moments

Koln Cathedral 1No, not the small Precious Moments© figurines that gather dust on shelves—at least on mine. The ones I’m talking about require no human trademark (God has put His own special imprint on them) and rest only in my heart and mind.

These aren’t the moments usually thought of when speaking of memories: not the birth of a child, family reunions or even a time when God intervened in some special way. These are the times—usually only moments—when into the mind and heart came an unexpected, special “awareness” of God’s presence. Maybe no deep spiritual truth was revealed, but in that moment you and God were together in an indescribable way.

Recently I took time to sit quietly—no books, no journal, no Bible—asking God to help me bring a few of those precious moments to the surface of my mind:

Walking on freshly fallen snow on the way to the school bus stop, the only sounds birds singing their morning song in the woods and the crunch as my feet made a new path. Even in my yet-spiritually-unformed heart, I somehow sensed God…
Sitting on a metal chair in the near empty Moby Gym at Colorado State University when I cried out, “I want to REALLY know you…” 
On a back pew in Maria Laach Abbey chapel when the monks soundlessly walked into the choir stalls to sing their mid-afternoon chants of praise…
Sitting on a stump in a Texas field where the quiet enveloped and refreshed…
Walking through Austrian forests with snow blanketing the pine branches…
Late afternoon walks along the Rhine with the golden blush of a setting sun…
Rain sliding down a city windowpane as I waited for a friend…
Listening for the wind’s whisper through the pines in the Great Tetons…
Stepping up out of the dark parking garage to see the Köln cathedral ablaze with light…

These are moments we rarely talk about with friends. They are deep within our souls, moments perhaps best described by the psalmist’s words, when “deep calls to deep…”

So how and when do these moments occur? How can I be better prepared to receive them? C.S. Lewis saw that “the world is crowded with [God]. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”*

In The Attentive Life, Leighton Ford suggests several ways for what I call “preparing the way” for God to present Himself to us:

          Be fully present in the moment…
          Look long enough…
          Look freshly (with ‘new’ eyes!) at what is familiar…
Be available…
Wait with expectancy…
Be mindful…

As I review these suggestions from Ford (he has several more), I see that all require the discipline of time and quiet. No filling the space with words or action. Just being. When was the last time you created the space for a precious moment? You really don’t want to miss it!

*Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer

bible study or BIBLE STUDY?!

Bible StudyIt happened many years ago but I remember it as though it were yesterday. While attending the Bonn American Protestant Church in Germany, I had the challenge and joy of teaching the high schoolers on Sunday mornings before the sanctuary worship service began. Imagine a mini-United Nations: teens from Canada, England, Scotland, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the U.S., and other countries I can’t recall at the moment.

Until we outgrew the space, we met in a corner of the basement curtained off from the “little kids” and it was in that unprepossessing area that something happened one Sunday to remind me that eager minds and hearts (of any age) are just waiting to be filled with the Bible’s truth when presented with creativity and well thought-through questions. In that environment, truth captivates and excites.

I don’t recall the topic for the morning, but the teens’ minds were curious and the discussion lively. The time neared for ending the session in order to move to worship upstairs, but opinions, thoughts, questions, comments (many controversial!) flew around the circle with no attention to the clock. Finally I slipped upstairs to inform the ushers that we would be extending our class time and parents shouldn’t be worried about the absence of their teenagers. It was another hour and a half before the teens noticed that hunger pains were upstaging mental and spiritual curiosity.

When was the last time you got similarly excited about something you discovered in the Bible? When did truth exposed by the pastor’s sermon so entice you that you couldn’t wait to dig into the verses for yourself when you got home? (This in contrast to shaking his/her hand with a complimentary, “Nice sermon, pastor” as you walk out the door!) When did you discover a gem in the psalms so stirring that in your quiet corner you gave God a figurative high five?! When did you discover a new way of praying, praising, studying that made your heart beat just a little faster?

Last week Psalm 70 was the meditation assignment for the delightful group of women who meet together each Sunday morning in our church. In this psalm, David is desperately seeking God’s help during a time when he is surrounded by those intent on his destruction. He is not ashamed to call for God’s action now: Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord to help me.

But it was verse four that captured my heart as I read and re-read the words. (Incidentally, this is called “slow reading” or as Eugene Peterson describes it, gnawing on the words.) May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who long (yearn) for your saving help always say, “The Lord is great!”

There’s no indication that at this point God had sent David help. We have no clue that the battle had been won or the family situation calmed or the cancer cured or the paycheck in hand. In fact, in the fifth verse, he again implores: Come quickly to me, O God. It is in the midst of the prayer, while his antagonists are still hot on his trail, that he remembers that it is in the seeking that rejoicing and gladness must be evident. It is while yearning for God’s help that he–and we–acknowledge his sovereignty: The Lord is great!”

It is this kind of Bible study that captivates my soul and makes my heart beat faster!


PS   Do you know how few graphics illustrate exciting Bible study?? Almost everything I found showed a group of people sedately sitting around with open Bibles and expressionless faces. I like to imagine that when David shouted, The Lord is great!, the neighbors gaped in astonishment, the windows rattled and the heavens opened!

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

Lame ManI’ve been thinking about Jesus’ seemingly senseless question to a suffering man: “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6) Was he being audacious? crowd seeking? taunting? Even the most dogmatic critic would not attribute these characteristics to the man called Jesus.

People, events and current reading have led me into deeper thinking about Jesus’ question. I find myself in a quandary (is ‘quagmire’ a better word?) when I consider the number of people sitting in churches each week who seem to believe that it is normal to be lukewarm about things of the faith. “Let’s not go overboard” is their mantra. Or an even safer position is “don’t rock the boat.”

While writing about the lame man approached by Jesus, Adele Calhoun says, “The man Jesus spoke to that day had carved out a life in a community where sickness was the norm (emphasis my own).” I wonder if we have been lulled into believing that statements like, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” are only for the faith-filled William Careys of the18th century?

An interesting thing has been happening in a small group of women in which I’m privileged to be a part. Over a year ago we began asking each other: “Where did you ‘see’ or ‘hear’ God this week?” For months it was only the few who have learned what I call the Holy Habits who responded to the question. Sometimes the silences were long but I have learned that silence is almost always a good thing in Christian circles! Somehow we have been conditioned to believe that hearing or seeing God is abnormal–that “sickness (deafness/clogged ears/blindness) is the norm.” But recently—as the Holy Habits are being practiced—more of us are on the alert during the week and God sightings, God sounds are being shared.

Leadership in my own church has been struggling in the last year or more with the concept of discipleship. What does it mean? Who is it for? What is its process? Perhaps some who have succumbed to the “sickness norm” might even query, “When is it over?!” (Thankfully, no one in this group asked that question!)

In the book of Acts (chapter four) we have the description of that first band of Christians, people who believed that walking and leaping and praising God was the norm. Peter and John, preaching and healing in the power of the Holy Spirit, have been briefly imprisoned. Upon their release they return to the faithful and a “prayer meeting” spontaneously erupts. This is not a Dear-Heavenly-Father-bless-the-missionaries kind of praying. They are bold and specific and God-glorifying. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way: As soon as Peter and John were let go, they went to their friends and told them what the high priests and religious leaders had said. Hearing the report, they lifted their voices in a wonderful harmony in prayer: “Strong God, you made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. By the Holy Spirit you spoke through the mouth of your servant and our father, David…

‘Why the big noise, nations?
Why the mean plots, peoples?
Earths leaders push for position,
Potentates meet for summit talks,
The God-deniers, the Messiah-defiers!’

And now they’re at it again! Take care of their threats and give your servants fearless confidence in preaching your message, as you stretch out your hand to us in healings and miracles and wonders done in the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

Meditate on the words and phrases I’ve underlined. Definitely not the norm!

Do you hunger for this kind of ” new normal”? Watch out…Luke gives us the result of what might happen, paraphrased again by Peterson: While they were praying, the place where they were meeting trembled and shook. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak God’s Word with fearless confidence.

The new normal.




PS   If you’re able to connect with the website below, you might find an article by Mark Labberton of interest. Everything by Labberton is worth the time and what he writes here is related to today’s blog. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/this-is-the-best-of-times-for-following-Jesus.html



The Extra Hour

ClockWhat did you do with your Daylight Savings Time extra hour yesterday? Did you even notice that you had one? Or perhaps you, like me, didn’t think that so-called extra hour made any difference. After all, it will be stolen from us next spring.

As I sat in worship yesterday morning, those thoughts contrasted with the sermon topic: Recapturing the Sabbath. Without laying a guilt trip on the overworked, unrested members of the congregation, the speaker went on to explain how Sabbath rest is actually a gift from God.

God had miraculously rescued the children of Israel from harsh servitude, and they were beginning the trek to the Promised Land. But as one preacher put it, “between bondage and blessing lay the wilderness.” They began to fret about food supply now that leeks and garlic weren’t growing so well in the desert. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread (manna) from heaven for you and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.’” Eventually God would add quail protein to their diet.

It was in these circumstances that the people learned about Sabbath rest. “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning…’ And the Lord said to Moses, ’See! the Lord has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days…’ So the people rested on the seventh day.

When I was a girl, we (meaning my dad and I!) did no work on Sunday. My mother, of course, had risen early to begin cooking what would rest in the oven and be ready for a delicious dinner after church. But even she did no other work on Sundays. Sometimes we took a ride into the country, sometimes family and friends visited. Yes, there was a hint of legalism about the practices (or non-practices) although I don’t recall a sense of heaviness about the day. My hardworking parents sensed that in addition to Sabbath-keeping as a command, the gift of one full day away from labor in a factory, in the garden, in the house was to be treasured.

But are we to understand this Sabbath-gift as only a what-you-don’t-do-on-Sunday? But could there be a reason beyond obedience for Sabbath keeping? Is there something deeper that God wants us to grasp and experience? Could it be that God is asking us to intentionally carve out that “extra hour” on a regular basis? That we will find unexpected treasure as we unwrap the gift of Sabbath?

Rev. John W. Sonnenday writes: “Sabbath is a gift. Not a burden. It is a gift of time free from the (world’s) competitiveness and coercion and manipulation and exploitation and abuse and anxiousness.”

I don’t gather manna or boil quail. My days are full with meetings, people, study, appointments, tasks, deadlines and more. When and where and how is my Sabbath? When I do purposely set aside that time—whether on Sunday or, preferably, every day—is my mind fully concentrated on him? Do I open the gift he has given and become hilarious with joy with what I discover?

You may be a person who has too much time. Maybe you live alone, far from family and empty of friends. Are your “extra” hours merely void of activity or are you finding unexplainable depth of intimacy with the Savior? Activity-driven and activity-less people are recipients of the Sabbath gift just waiting to be opened.