James the Disturber

JamesThe current sermon series at our church is from the New Testament book of James, and each week I’m more convinced that another book or topic would be more to my liking. Why not Psalm 23 with its pastoral scenes and emphasis on God-as-loving-shepherd? Or Proverbs with its pithy advice? (Although I admit that Solomon can also get a little preachy.)

Not only will I be hearing prickly sermons for the next several weeks, but the Sunday morning class in which I participate has decided to more deeply study James’ words. From past experience I know that could take months. And knowing this group of women, they’ll not pull punches or merely moralize the topics.

In just the past few sermons I’ve already heard:

(1) Trials are not to be avoided but are to be welcomed as friends because they produce perseverance. (How often have you put that on your prayer request list?) This must be important because James returns to the topic as he closes his disturbing letter.

(2) It’s not sufficient to just listen to Bible teaching; doing what it says—“continuing in it”—is what God looks for. (No more quickie morning devotions or forgetting the sermon on the way out to the car.)

(3) I can’t simply pass a granola bar out the car window to the person holding an out-of-work-need-food sign at the corner. I’m to invite that unbathed homeless woman to sit next to me in my favorite pew. James belabors this point and minces no words in describing my condition if I’m tempted to shirk: “If you show favoritism, you SIN and are CONVICTED as LAWBREAKERS.” Ouch.

And then came yesterday’s sermon:

My “Christian” tongue is small, boastful, fiery, corrupting, restlessly evil and poisonous. And that strangely shaped thing occupying my mouth can be hypocritical: “out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” Equally disturbing was the preacher’s emphasis that all the ugly stuff my tongue dispenses finds its foundation in my heart.

As I contemplated what I’ve heard, and what I will very likely continue hearing, I was reminded of what a young woman wrote as she debriefed from a mission trip: I learned to live in the unexpected. Not just go in to it, but to live there… that is where God functions. Beyond the edges of what is feasible, into the unbelievable. 

I think that’s where James is leading me. The question then becomes: do I really want to go into that space where God functions, beyond the edges of what is feasible, into the unbelievable? Do I so want God to transform, even revolutionize me, that I fall into his arms, abandon myself to him, lay all on the altar and simply say, “Here I am, use me. Reveal my sin. Fill me with your Spirit. Break me if necessary. I’m yours.” That seems to be where James is leading me.

So very disturbing.

Funeral Musings

MartieI arrived early at Martie’s funeral last week. To be accurate, the title of the religious observance was “A Service to Celebrate the Life of Martha…” But whether called a funeral, memorial or celebration of life, the atmosphere usually has similar characteristics: silence, weeping, solemnity, soft music. I’m learning, however, that in spite of their resemblances, such occasions often are subtly different, and frequently can be studies in human nature as the gathered individuals remember their friend or family member.

As people were ushered to their seats, the organ played a medley of Martie’s favorite hymns but instead of the solemnity and stillness usually preceding such a service, a low hum of conversation filled the space as arrivals noticed already seated friends and acquaintances. Travel down the aisle was slow as greetings and hugs were repeatedly exchanged.

Let me introduce you to Martie. At ninety-six, her life was one of trusting God since childhood. Her home was one where alcohol ruled with all the attendant misery, but when a neighbor invited her father to a local mission, the message of Christ awakened a longing stronger than alcohol and he eventually chose to trust Christ with almost immediate life change. Even as a young girl, Martie was curious about those “mission people” and when she accompanied her parents to the mission, she decided she wanted what they had.

This began a life of adventure with she and her husband joining the staff of Young Life, an organization in which adults who are concerned enough about adolescents go to them, on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship, sharing God’s love by deed and word. Her walk with Jesus was not without challenge, especially when the organization in the 1960’s asked George and Martie to move from the suburbs of Dallas to turbulent Chicago where they would work with inner city youth.

From Martie’s own lips I heard the story many years ago. “Taking my young children to downtown Chicago was NOT in my game plan. God may have been calling George but I hadn’t heard any such call and saw no need to follow George’s plan without personal verification from God. So when George asked me to at least pray about it, I went into the bedroom, got down on my knees and basically told God I thought this was a ridiculous idea, but if it was His idea, I would be willing to go. As I knelt there quietly, an unexpected peace settled over me. I moved—with George!—to Chicago.” The rest is history as goes the saying.

Her walk with God was one of deep faith but not without questions. She and God were on intimate terms and she truly enjoyed Him. And she loved being with people who also basked in His presence. (She would have loved this celebration of her life!) Throughout her years she shared herself with others without losing her sense of self. We in the congregation that day couldn’t wait to tell others our Martie stories. Many of us had the privilege of working closely in ministry with her, but for Martie, there was little difference between “ministry” and having a party. Even in her last years, before being confined to bed or wheelchair and unable to remember names of friends and family members, when seated at the piano, she played “by heart” the hymns she knew so well. Two weeks before Martie’s death, her granddaughter (whose name she couldn’t remember) read Psalm 46. Memory of names and places was gone, but soon her faint voice began to “read” along. The words had not been merely memorized but stored deep within her soul.

But what is the connection between Martie’s life story—and there’s so much more to tell—and the chatty congregation?? As I sat through hymns, shared memories and a short sermon, I began to realize something. Hovering over and floating within was this common sense of community: we all had been touched by Martie’s life—by the Jesus of Martie’s life—and we were happy to be together. We needed to talk and hug and remember. This is what it means to be family, Christ’s family.*



*Martie’s family requested that, before the congregation move downstairs for coffee and dessert, we listen to the organ bursting forth with Widor’s “Toccata” Symphony #5. “We imagine this being played as Martie walked into Jesus’ presence.” Check it out on YouTube. What do you think?

My Place

Maria LaachMany years ago I read Dr. Paul Tournier’s book, A Place for You, and was strangely touched by his insight into what it means to finally, and totally, find our “place” in God. One reviewer describes Tournier’s view this way: There is the uncomfortable uncertainty of being between handholds, but ultimately we have to learn to cope with this. The ultimate place, he (Tournier) suggests, is God.

As one who has moved many times in her adult life, I often find it necessary to discover a physical place to settle into the God place. During these first weeks of the new year while cleaning off the nooks and crannies of my desk, I came upon a postcard that immediately invoked memories—sights, sounds, impressions—of such a place.

During our fifteen years in Germany my life was full to the brim most days. Early in those years, I coped with tragedy and questions. Later I was blessed to be part of a group of women who eagerly wanted to learn how to deeply delve into the Bible, discovering not only methods of study, but—more importantly—how that book and its Author could gradually transform our lives. In addition, my husband and I became acquainted at an increasingly deep level with people from countries around the world and this meant lots of social interaction. Also, our office was in our home, so finding a free-of-interruption “place” of my own was nearly impossible.

But since personal, spiritual, mental, emotional sanity was an absolute necessity, I fled to two spaces. During the later years, daily walks along the Rhine River became the time to breathe anew. Sunsets, the chug of river barges, the splash of waves hitting the shore, mother ducks and their playful offspring, all served as moments of renewal.

But it was at the Benedictine Maria Laach Abbey, forty minutes south of Bonn, where I sat to regroup, renew, refill my soul to the greatest degree. If I timed it right, after walking through the Romanesque covered archway, I found a pew in the very back of the church, settling myself just before a door at the right front slid open and black-robed monks entered, shod with footwear I’m sure had six-inch rubber soles that allowed no step to be heard. They silently found their places in the choir rows to the side of the altar.

Snatches of my high school Latin surfaced so I could understand bits and pieces of the beautiful noon time chanted adoration of the Incarnate Christ. As they gave voice to their praise, I could feel peace seeping into my soul. Then, just as soundlessly as they entered, they disappeared through the same door. Some days I sat long after their departure, offering my own inner chants of praise. Other times I walked through the Abbey gardens before again taking my place in B9 traffic toward Bonn.

Today I have no Rhine and no Abbey. When weather permits, I walk into the hills of a nearby convent to settle on a bench where the only sounds are from God-created, feathered birds and the occasional man-created training aircraft from the nearby Air Force Academy. But most days I simply sit quietly at home in my rocking chair, burning candle nearby, looking for—and usually finding—my place in God.

Happy NEW Year

2016 Calendar2015 calendars have been tossed. My 2015 journal placed on the closet shelf. (Actually, it’s a 2013-2015 journal; I’m not very faithful in daily writing.) NPR is no longer reviewing events of the past twelve months. Ready or not, it’s time to move on.

Because the weeks leading up to Christmas were incredibly busy, and because we were out of town for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve not had–I’ve not taken–much time for reflection about the coming year. That will come later this week after the house is stripped of it holiday finery and I sneak away to a solitary place. Resolutions are few and somewhat mundane: go through every scrap of paper on my desk until I find bare wood.

One word repeatedly surfaced in friendly greetings over recent days: Happy NEW Year! But I can’t make everything new. This body insists on its aging process. (In spite of vitamins, exercise and kale.) A favorite sweater is beginning to show more and more ragged edges. “Guaranteed” appliances are dangerously groaning. And my pens keep running out of ink.

Is it just for the future that God declares, “Behold (LOOK, PAY ATTENTION, SIT UP STRAIGHT!), I am making all things new”? Or is it possible to experience newness in the midst of wearing-out bodies, tired rhetoric and relationships that have lost their glitter? Can Jesus followers actually flourish when all around is crumbling into dust?

It seems so. The prophet Isaiah was privileged to quote God: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven…making it bud it flourish…so is my WORD…(it) will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

It’s not a diet and exercise plan. It’s not a closet cleaning regimen. It’s a rock solid prescription from the Creator God: his infallible, unchanging-yet-ever-new Word can drip into my body and soul to make me flourish. IF I take time to not just fulfill my read-through-the-Bible plan, but allow words and phrases–illuminated by the Holy Spirit as I slowly ponder–to soak into my soul, drench me with refreshment.

Maybe during every rain shower or snowfall this year, I need to make a soul check: is God’s Word accomplishing what he desires?  When I turn the last page of the 2016 calendar, I want to be budding and flourishing.