Say the Words

Twice this week I’ve found myself in conversation with people who have recently and unexpectedly lost a parent, a woman whose father died and a man whose mother died, both from a stroke.

Last night as I listened to my friend describe the events surrounding his mother’s last days, he said, “Tell the people you love that you love them, over and over, as often as you can. I’d do anything for her to have regained consciousness one more time so that I could tell her again that I love her…”

This morning I awoke from vivid dreams with an uncomfortable heaviness in my chest. I realized my dad had come to me, wearing a nice coat that must have been his Pan American Airlines uniform. As hale and hearty as he had been when I was a child, he greeted me with a big bear hug. I turned to see Q13, looking exactly as he does today except that he was dressed up, too, wearing a suit jacket and slacks. I introduced my son to his grandfather. They embraced, and I woke up.

It didn’t take more than a moment to address the ruminations of my unconscious brain.

This weekend we will celebrate Q13’s fourteenth birthday. Also, the thirteenth anniversary of my dad’s passing on the morning of my son’s first birthday. It’s a weird day, always.

Thankfully, we had time to say the words. In fact, while I have regularly been a gushing fountain of emotion, Dad got better at expressing his love as he recognized the end of his life drawing near. Still, what I wouldn’t do to say it again, and to hear again that he loved me. What I wouldn’t do to watch my son enjoy his own relationship with the grandpa he didn’t have time to know.

Say the words, people. We don’t know how many breaths have been allotted to any of us. Use all the breath you have to share love.

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What’s the News?

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to curtail my practice of ending each day with the first fifteen minutes of the 10 pm newscast. For most of my adult life, I watched the news before bed. But gradually I realized that I wasn’t sleeping soundly, that images or issues from the news wound themselves into my dreams or, worse, left me tossing sleeplessly through the night. Adulting can be difficult enough without insomnia.

Towards the end of 2016 I decided that, for my sanity, I needed to forgo TV newscasts altogether. The presidential race brought out the worst in everyone, me included. Above and beyond the ‘commonplace’ stories on worldwide political shifts and violence, America’s angry politicians and their supporters had turned up the volume. In response, I turned it off.

Although we had stopped taking the paper years earlier, the time had come to once again read the news. To that end, I am grateful for The Skimm, which (ahem) skims the national and international headlines and presents summaries in a nonpartisan, headline style with links to more information.

I need to stay informed, but there is just so much bad news!

Without trying hard, I could rattle off bad news on too many world-changing issues. Yet when I ask myself, “What’s the good news?” I’m not sure I know how to answer.

What is the good news? And, now that we’re thinking about it, don’t we all love those too-infrequent feel-good news stories? The ones where the good Samaritan does some wonderful sacrificial act that changes the life of a wheelchair-bound child, or a homeless person, or simply their neighbor who has fallen on hard times. Maybe someone should produce a regular good-news cast (Is there such a thing? If so, point me in the right direction, because I need it!).

Some days—many days?—I forget that gospel = good news. I forget that Jesus told us all about this: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I forget that God’s still in charge: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).

I suspect I’m not alone. Not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the world’s troubles. Not alone in finding it incredibly difficult to be still. Not alone in forgetting that God loves the world, this world, the very one He created, populated by all the people He fearfully and wonderfully made.

Not alone at all, because God loves me. And God loves you. And God asks us to love one another.

That love one another thing can be hard, especially with all the bad news. You and me, we may not even like each other. We may be on opposite sides of battle lines, barbed wire, drawn guns, hatred.

Jesus found Himself there, too. And, despite all the bad news that we are, He loved us so much anyway that He did the most wonderfully sacrificial good-news thing ever: He gave His life in our place, for our sins, so that we can live forever in relationship with God. Jesus’ story–which becomes our story–makes for the ultimate good-news cast.

Walk in Love
Week 10: Walk in Love
1 John 4:7-21

Connect
What good news have you received recently?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 4:7-21.
Why should God’s people love one another?
What does God’s love for us look like?
How does God’s love for us change us?
According to this passage, what does the Spirit do for us (vv13-16)?
Compare vv12 and 17. What is the difference between God’s love being made complete in us and among us?
How do God’s people loving one another make God visible (vv12, 17, 20-21)?
What is the connection between love and Christian confidence or “no fear” (vv17-19)?

Live
Does John mean to say that everyone who acts lovingly has a saving relationship with God? That anyone who does not act lovingly does not? Explain.
How do you know God loves you? How do you experience God’s love for you? What’s the difference between knowledge and experience of God’s love?
In your experience, does love or fear inspire more obedience? Better character? Explain.
When have you acted lovingly despite not feeling loving? What was that like?
“Remarkably, loving someone who is unlovely brings into focus the power of God’s choice to love us in our unloveliness” (Gary M. Burge). Have you ever experienced this? If so, describe it.
How would you sum up John’s version of the gospel’s good news from this passage?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God will help you know and experience His love so that you have generous love to share with others.

Believe. Love.

Many years ago, in my first church job, I had the privilege of working in the front office. Which meant I was the ‘face’ of the office, handling all the various requests of both members and those who walked in off the street. Brenda, the mentally-absent and sweet homeless woman whom we often let sleep in the women’s lounge, was one of the most colorful ‘characters’ in the mix. Oh, but we all have our character traits that lend to the stories of our churches–and our lives.

Another woman, a leader in her area of volunteer responsibility, was particularly ornery. I don’t know why, perhaps she couldn’t articulate it herself. She came to my office regularly to bark complaints at me. It was always my fault, even when it wasn’t, and she had no time for explanations. I cringed when I saw her coming.

After months of regular, painful, interactions, I put her at Jesus’ feet in prayer. I asked God to help me love her. Of course it would be great if God decided to change her, but meanwhile I would ask God to change me.

I took action. I smiled every time I saw her. I listened with all the patience I could muster. I did everything I could to soothe her frustration and help her in whatever ways she needed. I even committed to greeting her with a huge smile and a hug every Sunday morning during worship. After all, she sat on the aisle only a few pews back from my regular aisle seat.

At first she seemed skeptical. She yelled at me all the time; why would I hug her? I persisted with a big puppy dog-faithful grin. It wasn’t fake–I hate fake! Rather it was a courageous act of obedience to our loving God. Even when we don’t feel loving, we can choose to act lovingly. And sometimes, thank God!, our actions will work into us the feelings.

Over time she melted like an ice cube. She stopped grumping at me. She smiled back. Eventually, she even smiled first. She opened up to share her joys (with the occasional frustration thrown in). When the time came for her to move away to be closer to her grown children in her older age, we shared a genuine, tearful goodbye.

God did change her, but He changed me first. I decided to believe in Jesus, and to live in the truth that Jesus loved her as much as He loved me. Sheesh, Jesus loves me even when I’m the biggest grump in the world! Of course He can strengthen me to share His love with others. Even when it’s hard. Even when they’re hard. Especially then.

1 John 3:23–“And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us”–sounds a lot like the Great Commandment–

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Believe in Jesus. Love one another.
Love God. Love others as you love yourself.

When we believe, we have the courage to act. When we love, God changes us.

Walk in Love
Week 8: Belong to the Truth
1 John 3:19-24

Connect
To which organizations or clubs do you belong, and what are some of the rules of membership?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 3:19-24.
What might cause someone’s heart to condemn them (v20)?
How can Jesus’ followers set their hearts at rest (vv19-24)? In other words, from this passage, what evidence would indicate that someone “belongs to the truth”?
Notice the balance between what we know and what we feel. Why are both important?
How would you explain vv21-22 to someone who says they prayed but God didn’t answer as they hoped?
How does this passage explain our role and God’s role in our relationship with Him?

Live
Have you ever doubted your relationship with God? What helped you through that time? Alternately, what reassurance have you offered to someone who doubted?
What comfort does it give you that God knows everything?
How might conflict between people who claim to follow God affect one’s faith? Explain the emphasis on the command to love one another.
What does it look like in your daily life to fulfill the commands to believe in Jesus and love one another?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God will help you believe in Jesus and love others.

 

 

Find Center

If you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been a Jesus-lover since forever. I have spent most of my professional life working in churches, and I am also married to a pastor. And I (mostly) love the church in all its beauty and brokenness.

All of this can lead to a flurry of activity: worship attendance, so many groups of various sizes and kinds for study and prayer and community, volunteer service, special events, even cookie baking.

So many things on the calendar threatening to crowd out the heart behind them. In fact, truly meaningless without the heart behind them.

Lately, I’ve had four words cycling through my head: Love God. Love Others.

That’s it, folks. It all boils down to love.

Because you can do all the things, but if you don’t do them for the love of God and others, why do them at all?

Jesus blasted some harsh words at the folks in His day who did all the things, were very proud of themselves for doing all the things, but had completely missed the point of all their activity: loving God and others. He called them “white-washed tombs.” Eww…I don’t want to hold the dead things. No sirree, I want Life!

Lately as I’ve practiced yoga, my intention has been along the lines of gratitude (hello, Thanksgiving!) or strength (because, exercise). Today my word was “center,” and as soon as it landed it struck every nerve in my being in the best way.

In so many ways yoga is all about center, core, balance. As a Jesus-follower, GOD is the center of my being. Or, that should be true, but I don’t always live it. When I don’t, I’m off-balance, toppling this way and that, and life doesn’t work nearly so well.

Throughout my practice this morning, I mentally and physically returned to my center, my God whose love and gentleness and goodness overflows my life in ways I don’t always recognize.

When engaged in a balance challenge, it helps oh so much to set your gaze on a stable point directly in front of you, whether that’s straight down on your mat or two feet in front of you. Holding your gaze steady helps to strengthen your center and steady your balance.

A yoga newbie, I am way wiggly, but I’m working on it. As a long-time pursuer of Jesus, I should be less wiggly. It all depends on where I put my gaze: on me, my challenges or obstacles, my fear or anxiety? Or on the immovable God who created me, knows the plans He has for me, and promises to give me strength to meet anything He puts before me? Let’s see, which makes more stabilizing sense?

They tell me that no matter how long you’ve practiced yoga, sometimes one side will be tighter than the other. I’ve found that true already, that some days I can stretch deeper or balance with more stability on one side than the other.

Same goes for loving God and others. I venture most of us find it easiest to engage in loving others, flesh-and-blood, visible right before our eyes. But then some of us tend toward contemplative introversion, so loving God can feel more natural than engaging with actual humans.

Still, with our gaze set on God, His love flows through us back to Him and out to others. It’s always a both-and.

So that’s where I’m at as we enter one of the busiest seasons of the year, Advent, in which we anticipate Christ’s birth and second-coming. The decorations are coming out today to be ready for the first Sunday of Advent tomorrow. The calendar is filling up. I’m praying God will keep my gaze centered on Him. Then all the activities can filter through the two sides of the fulcrum: does this help me love God? Does this help me love others?

Humble. Yoga. Go!

Friends opened a yoga studio and invited me to try it.

I’d never tried yoga and, other than mandatory (despised, humiliating) PE classes all the way through college and some neon jazzercise in the late-80’s/early-90’s, group exercise—team or class—hasn’t been my thing.

To be honest, exercise hasn’t been my thing. I’m branching out in middle age! (Literally: tree pose, growing branches)

I would have chickened out, but I bumped into my friend. She looked at me, pointed dramatically, and declared: “YOU! It’s time!”

I went. I loved it.

Because my son took a year of yoga in high school, I had heard that final savasana (lying flat on your back as in sleep) is supposedly the hardest yoga pose. Seriously, what’s so hard about lying still?

Proud of myself for making it through an hour of yoga, I was surprised when my yogi-friend grabbed my foot, then lifted, wiggled and pulled on one leg and then the other. I realized: I didn’t even know how to properly lie still. My body had been holding in stress and my legs weren’t fully stretched out. Talk about humbling…

At the end of class, I gulped one big sob: I had found a form of exercise that could unite body, mind, and spirit. Through this practice, hard and humbling as it might be, I could physically practice the greatest commandment: to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Though my body ached, I had to go back. This time, I couldn’t keep still during final savasana as sobs shook my shoulders. Yoga tapped so deeply into my inner being that I felt like I should go home and journal. I knew I needed more yoga in my life.

One of my favorite things about this studio: humility is built into its name. Humble Yoga. As a total newbie, I have no choice but to enter in with humility. And when I wiggle or shake or fall flat on my rear, I laugh at myself. No judgment, always options to modify, and at least I’m trying! (One of our yogis said, “Oh, you just laugh all the time!” With humility I agreed, and laughter is good for the soul).

Another favorite thing about yoga: what I learn on the mat applies to life off the mat. Listen to these phrases I hear in most classes:

What is your intention?
Where is your foundation?
Ground down.
Inhale your intention. Exhale, commit a little deeper.
Engage your core.
Notice your body. Release any feelings of tension.
Grow tall through your crown.
Drop your shoulders.
Find your edge. Breathe through your edge.
Relax your face.
Shake it out.
Find your active pose.
Find something new in each familiar pose.
Gaze up.
Find a focal point.
Are you still breathing?
Option to modify.
Come back to your breath. Come back to your intention.
Give yourself a gentle squeeze.
This is your practice.

I’m sure you can imagine countless scenarios where those phrases would be helpful advice… In a tense work meeting, or conversation with a neighbor, spouse, or grumpy teenager. Any time life feels challenging. Any time you feel stumped or stifled. Any time you feel run down or discouraged. Any time you need a gentle nudge towards growth. How many times off the mat have I reminded myself to notice my body, to remember my intention, to relax my face and drop my shoulders, and just breathe?

Yoga reminds me to be present to this moment. This breath. This stretch. To breathe into the pain or pleasure of this moment without anticipating what will come next. Whatever’s next will surely come, and I will breathe into that moment as it comes, but this is Now. We can do hard things if we are present to what each moment requires and remember to keep breathing.

We do together what we would not do alone. I still walk or run most days in between yoga work outs, but yoga pushes me in ways I wouldn’t push myself. And in the studio I make new friends and connect in new ways with people I’ve known for years. In the studio we build community within our community, and it will strengthen the community beyond its doors.

Currently, my goal is to go 2-4 days a week; eventually that will become 3-5 days a week as I get stronger and ache less between. Still, even the aches remind me to breathe; that I have done and will do hard things; to be intentional.

I may not have a “yoga body,” but this body does yoga.
I am not strong. I am growing stronger.
I am stronger than I was. I will grow stronger still.

With practice.

[Yoga with me! gohumbleyoga.com]

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24 Years and Counting

Today we celebrate 24 years of marriage.

We met at 17, started dating at 20, got engaged at 22, and married at 23.

We have now been married more than half our lives.

In that time, we have lived in seven homes in three counties in one state. We have worked at nine jobs, including four churches, three of which we both served professionally. We have raised two incredible sons.

I can’t begin to quantify how many sermons he’s preached or articles I’ve written. How many camps, retreats, or mission trips we’ve organized. How many Bible lessons we’ve taught, or cups of coffee we’ve shared with people we love. Nor how many weddings he’s officiated.

For obvious reasons, the weddings are on my mind today. Some would say we got lucky, that marrying so young could have gone badly. We know some for whom that was the case. Thankfully, not us, and thankfully, we’ve learned a few things about marriage in this half of life.

JOY is contagious.
Jesus, Others, You. It may be cliché, but it is also the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God, and love others as yourself. From before our beginning as a couple, we committed to love God first and foremost. We recognized our love for one another as His gift, to nurture with an outpouring of His love for us as individuals and as a couple. We put church and activities that would help us grow in love with God and each other first on our calendar, careful not to let other activities compete (at least not regularly) for space in our lives that belonged to God.

Remember why you fell in love.
Romance is sappy, staring-deeply-into-eyes fun. But romance ebbs and flows. Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning and actively remember those qualities about your spouse that weakened your knees: his sense of humor or the way his hug wrapped you up and made you feel safe or the laughs you shared playing board games.

Invest time.
Regularly. Ideally, daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally. Shared time is the investment you make often in order to have something to draw on when you need it most. Daily could be as little as a fifteen-minute check-in chat after work. Weekly might be a walk around the block, a date night, a Sunday lunch. Monthly or seasonally, depending on your life stage and/or budget, might be a splurge date or an overnight get-away.

Grow.
Everything that has life grows. Or it dies. So you might as well be clear up front: I’m not going to get in a rut. Each of you will grow, learn, and change, and your relationship will need to flex in order to accommodate your individual growth. It’s a good thing, and it will make you more interesting. Just be sure to grow in complimentary directions.

Experiences over stuff.
Make memories, not collections. We’re all drowning in stuff and spend way too many hours of our lives managing all the stuff: cleaning, dusting, moving it from one place to another, reorganizing, decluttering, (re)gifting. Instead, we need more shared time together, more laughter and play and memory-making that in the long run will require no more work than sharing stories with family and friends for generations.

Talk. A lot.
Be honest. No topic too sacred, nothing off-limits. Communication is the basic building block you stack over and over and over in order to build a shared life. You have to talk in order to avoid and resolve conflict, which will do its best to topple all the hard-placed blocks. Learn to speak graciously, to honor each other with your words by building each other up, lavishing encouragement, being his/her #1 fan. Keep criticism to a minimum.

Play.
Marriage can be a lot of work if you don’t balance it with some just-because fun. What did you do on dates pre-marriage? Do more of that. See movies. Eat meals out, or cook meals in. Go to museums, take classes, and develop new hobbies. Enjoy the big beautiful world on a hike. Take a trip—even a day trip—to somewhere new, or visit your old stomping grounds. Enjoy each other’s company.

Play for the same team.
Think of your marriage as a team: What does winning look like? What position(s) do you play? How can you work together rather than against each other? Stop trying to keep individual score (I took the trash out last week… Yah, but I emptied the dishwasher this morning) and figure out how to complement each other’s strengths and shore up each other’s weaknesses.

Forgive.
Most of us misunderstand forgiveness. We think it means claiming that whatever the offense, it didn’t matter. To the contrary, forgiveness means the offense absolutely mattered, but I will choose to live with the consequences so we can both move on. Forgiveness involves addressing the conflict honestly and then agreeing to new boundaries to prevent further hurt, including agreeing not to bring it up again. It is hard, necessary work for any substantial relationship.

Keep it simple.
Don’t put off date night until you have the sitter and the reservation at the fancy-schmancy A-list restaurant. Put the kids to bed early, order pizza, and put in a DVD if you have to. Don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself, your spouse, your kids, your kids’ schools or teachers or coaches, your neighbors… Don’t make life harder than it will be already. Keep your priorities straight, and keep it simple.

Your spouse won’t meet all your needs.
No one person will satisfy all your needs. Adulting requires that you meet more than a few of your own needs, and sometimes that involves sucking it up when you feel dissatisfied. Also, cultivate friends you can talk to and play with when your spouse isn’t available. Just remember: they don’t come first in your heart’s priorities.

Serve one another in love.
Every time Guy officiates at a wedding I hear him say: “Marriage is not 50-50. Marriage is 100-100. Marriage is both partners all in for the sake of the relationship. I give everything I am, and she gives everything she is, and together we make one whole.”

I admit, service is not my strong suit. Sometimes I notice myself feeling more than a little annoyed at all the mundane tasks I do that seem to go unnoticed. At those times I remind myself that our marriage is built on mutual service. Some days it takes a lot of service on my part; other days, he will pick up all the slack. It’s a give-and-take, both of us intending to give more than we take.

Today we have followed our own advice. After shuffling the kids out the door and off to school, we began our day in a yoga class together, a new-to-us practice that grounds us in health and wellness and community with our friends and neighbors. We each did our individual work, then ran errands together for the sake of our family. We both participated in chores and dinner prep. The kids have homework, so we made a simple dinner: a big Greek salad, whole wheat pita bread and hummus, corn on the cob, with cherries for dessert. We opened a nicer-than-usual bottle of wine—a Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc—from a winery we have visited for special occasions with loved ones. We sip from glasses that belonged to Guy’s grandparents, engraved with the initial and name I adopted 24 years ago today.

Here’s to 24 years, and many, many more!

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For Cryin’ Out Loud

How many times have I sat with a group of women, Bibles open to Luke 10, as criticism of Martha zings around the room?

Martha’s too busy.
She’s caught up in the wrong thing.
She’s obviously Type A.
Clearly she’s a fussbudget busybody.
She’s overly dramatic.
She’s causing a scene.
Does she think she needs to prepare six courses? Hasn’t she heard of a one-pot meal? How about a sheet pan dinner?

Poor Martha! Every once in a while a woman seated around the circle will eke out a timid comment in her defense: who among us hasn’t acted like Martha at least once? Who truly feels qualified to cast these stones?

Mary gets the honor, while Martha gets vilified. I think we might be missing the point.

I think Martha lost sight of Jesus.

Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. She made Him and His traveling entourage feel comfortable. Hospitality was a BIG big deal back then, way more so than these days. Dirt floors and mud walls might have made housecleaning less of an obvious burden (or moreso?), but inviting at least thirteen hungry travelers into your home meant you probably had to slaughter a goat or two. To skin it, clean it, cook it, how long would that take? (asks the vegetarian…) Plus the side dishes: I imagine tabbouleh and unleavened bread, eggs and nuts and fruit, cheese and wine.spice-370114_1920

I’m getting better, but I used to turn into a whirling dervish before hosting a dinner party. Except way less graceful. I have a soft spot for Martha.

No, I don’t think it’s Martha’s hospitality that got her in trouble. She worked that gift in spades (go, girl!). The key is in her question. Interrupting the party beyond the kitchen, Martha cried:

“Master, don’t you care…?”

Martha forgot who Jesus was. If God = love and Jesus = God, then Jesus = love. Okay, I’m willing to concede that maybe Martha didn’t know Jesus well enough yet. Maybe the if/then hadn’t been made clear.

And yet: I believe Mary’s stillness at Jesus’ feet and Martha’s busyness in the kitchen were separated by only one thing. Mary was attentive to Jesus and Martha was attentive to her preparations.

Can we do whatever we’re doing and still be attentive to Jesus? I sure hope so! I’ve pretty much built my life and faith on paying attention to God while I also do business. In Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey claims that real, undignified life is the classroom for holiness. “If you can’t find God while you’re changing diapers or serving food or hanging out with your friends, you won’t find God at the worship service or the spiritual retreat or the regimented daily quiet time or the mission field” (p117).

If Martha had taken off her apron and plunked herself down next to Mary, she still might have missed Jesus. She needed to focus her heart, not her hands.

Martha’s cry recalled for me Mark 4, the disciples in the boat when the storm came up. Jesus was sleeping, which might have been a good tip off that God was not going to sink them. But their fisherman training got the best of them. They’d seen storms and this one seemed bad in the worst way.rembrandt_christ_in_the_storm_on_the_lake_of_galilee

They cried: “Teacher, don’t you care…?”

Of course He does. Jesus loved them. Jesus loves us.

Jesus loves us in the boat. In the kitchen. In the green pastures and the dark valleys, wherever He leads us He also loves us. Psalm 31:7 promises, “I will be glad and rejoice in your unfailing love, for you have seen my troubles, and you care…”

Thinking about Martha’s cry, the disciples’ cry, brought to mind the phrase, “for cryin’ out loud.” I did an online search and each site that popped up confirmed the same origin for the phrase. While consistently an expression of frustration or exasperation, its origin comes from the phrase, “for Christ’s sake.”

Which made me laugh: crying out to Christ, in frustration and fear, for Christ’s sake? That seems appropriate. We call out to Christ–maybe with the wrong motives, sure, but still–we cry out to Him and He draws us near for His own sake. Because He loves us.