0

Saying “No”

It’s scary when nothing you’re thinking feels congruent.  When you fear the next thing that may escape your mouth and how others may perceive it.  I always feel a need to explain.  To give a heartfelt explanation as to why my answer is simply “no.”  Why is that word so painstakingly difficult for some while for others it seems their personal motto is “no” and it rolls off their lips with absolutely no thought of what comes next?  Why is it that some feel more obligated to explain their inability or lack of desire to meet the expectations of others?  Why is it that some seem to escape the mundane requests of others altogether?  Is it because everyone already knows them as tough enough to say no (and that’s always their final answer)?  Or is it because they are so superior, others wouldn’t dare demand a moment of their time?  One of my weaknesses is easily getting caught in the trap of doing everything but what I want to do or need to do, all out of some deep seated fear that perhaps I am actually obligated in some way to meet the requests of others.  It seems that anytime I say “No,” it is mistaken for “I’m really weak.  Insinuate that I’m a jerk or aloof and I’ll eventually say “Yes.”

Saying no is an incredibly difficult part of church ministry.  But it is an essential element of dealing with people successfully.

There is absolutely no way to move forward in a position of leadership if you’re haunted by the potential guilt of having offended someone by ultimately turning down their ideas or requests.

Sometimes our Christian beliefs get all muddled up and our bad habits become outcomes of misapplied Scripture.

Verses like “Turn the other cheek” and “Forgive 70 X 7” are taken out of context and before we know it our brand of religion forgets the moments where Jesus said “no” to healing and went to the temple to shake things up and drive out the money changers.

What about you?  When is the last time your “no” was met with a clash of the Titans?  Or did you refrain from saying “no” this time just to keep the peace?  Which is better?  Saying “no” and creating an outward battle or “going along to get along” so that you’re left to fight an internal battle that is all yours to win or lose alone?

5

Power that does Not Corrupt

Français : Rencontre paul biya et bayero fadil.

Français : Rencontre paul biya et bayero fadil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I start to speak out about anything, I feel afraid because I remember Jesus’ words “Let him without sin, cast the first stone.”  What can we do to make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering at the hands of those who “know not what they do?”  I really believe that sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing.  We’ve become immune to the circumstances of our little lives and we’re just fighting to become something out there in the distance, trying to arrive but our destination slowly keeps moving beyond us–until we’ve wasted decades stepping on others to see what might still exist above them.  The further we move away from who we were, the less likely we are to remember the origin of ourselves.  We are numb to the consequences of our actions.  We’re in too deep.

It’s easy to judge those in positions of power–firmly holding to our belief that if we were in their shoes, we’d make sure to give everything we have to the poor and create policies that give hope to the hopeless.  But I’m certain that managing  an empire comes at a great cost, a cost that no one can understand unless they themselves have held the responsibility of ruling over a nation.   How easy it would be to feel justified by our actions as a leader, little by little–one decision leading to another and before we know it our allegiance is to maintain peace at all costs–some version of peace that leaves the larger part of the population starving for freedom.

I’ve recently been on a quest to figure out what the experts say about why some nations are poor and others are rich.  I really thought that maybe someone else had already won the Nobel prize for finding the answer and maybe I was just slow at having gotten around to reading their conclusions.  But as it turns out, more and more “evidence” points to the fact that the success of a nation is determined by a force well beyond the surface of what can easily be explained.

Why are some nations powerful and others powerless?  My research seems to conclude that even renowned economists can’t put their finger on what makes some nations thrive.  But their educated guess is that it has a lot to do with the decisions those in power make.  And ultimately, those in power can choose to sacrifice their own well being for the greater good of all, or they can choose policies that will maintain good relations with the elite, ensuring a long lasting throne for themselves, while ignoring the true impact of their policies on the people.  (http://whynationsfail.com/)

Assuming that this world and all that is in it, belongs to God–both leaders who claim to be Christians and leaders who make no such claim, are ultimately responsible to one True God who orders the heavens–though they may not allow Him to order the service of their church or the cabinets of their nation.

It’s so easy to say that we think it’s wrong for Christian leaders or greedy politicians to get rich at the expense of their followers, yet our own personal finances may not be aligned in the way Jesus would advise them to be aligned.  Is there any surplus, any amount that we need to re-allocate toward improving the living standard of someone else, even if at the expense of what others think of us?

Just when God says, “What can you do, what difference can you make?” And I have no idea what difference I can make in a country that is not my own and in a world where I don’t belong, I remember that “power” can corrupt us all and even if God loaned me the power to make an impact, would it be for better or for worse?

As an interesting twist to my recent quest for “economic” truth, I discovered that Cameroon, a country I follow closely (because of family ties)–recently ordered several Pentecostal churches to be closed down because of claims that they are illegally misusing their power in some shape or form.  And I find it all rather ironic, because the President behind these actions is by all outward appearance a far cry from an advocate for “the people” and his “power” by measurement of his nation’s success, is at the very least, corrupt.

Paul Biya, President of Cameroon, you’ve been President for over thirty years and one of the best policies you can create, as of late, is to shut churches down because of THEIR mis-use of POWER?

Mr. Paul Biya, I know you’re human because I saw your children, just like mine, carrying the burden of being just that-children at school who needed to be taught like me and like you, who still have things to learn and always will.  I know that a whole nation questions your policies and has fear about what might happen to them after you, because sometimes we’re afraid of something new, even when the bad is so unbearably bad.  But it’s not too late to do something good for your nation, to truly, after all these years, become “The People’s Choice” as your campaigns love to tout.

What is it that stops you from giving up your power to a higher power that will enable you to take care of the poor?  Do you know about the power that does not corrupt?  A power that sets captives free and feeds the hungry with what doesn’t ever seem like enough?  I can’t say that I’d know what to do if I were you.  But I hope you find a way to make a difference in the lives of your people before you die.   Perhaps the churches that you just shut down, at least gave their members “hope” that healing would come, that a “fair” leader would emerge, even if that hope was delusional at best.  Do your policies create roads and infrastructure–promising a hope of future profitability?  Do your laws promote the health and well being of those less fortunate?  Will the difference that you purport to make ever amount to anything more than propaganda to promote your re-election as President?

I’m helplessly optimistic that there IS a power that does not corrupt.  It IS possible for a President through the power of God’s Spirit, to help a country rise to its full potential, painstakingly so–but with the hope that at least God honors those who care for the poor.

I’m also a believer that God can work above and beyond those of us who let our own power corrupt us.  For pastors who hold the precarious position of possibly leading congregants astray, there is a God who can reconstruct a system of accountability.  There is a God who can save a nation through His transforming power that fights corruption.

President, pastor, flawed human in our insatiable quest to become:  Will we choose the power that does not corrupt?  Will we seek forgiveness for covetousness and use our position whether lowly or esteemed to meet the needs of others?

7

One of the Least of These

English: Sunday School or Church Hall? This bu...

English: Sunday School or Church Hall? This building was in the field opposite to the former Methodist Chapel in Chapel Lane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It keeps coming to my attention that I have always had a problem associating with “the least of these,” though to many I am considered to be one of “the least of these.”

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  Matthew 25:40

I generally want to keep an arm’s length distance between them and me because I’m afraid that somehow their stupidity, disease, narrow-mindedness, extreme poverty or proclivity toward difficult life’s situations will somehow rub off on me and make my life of trying to “fit in” an even worse feat. And we all have at some point in time dissociated ourselves from those who in our minds are the least in comparison to our superior set of beliefs, our higher standard of living, our elite political affiliation or our seemingly safer side of the tracks.

Ironically, even though we’ve all been looked down upon by some other group or person who deems themselves superior to us and even though we know what it feels like to be ostracized from a group for not fitting in, even though we are very familiar with the sick pit of the stomach feeling for just not quite measuring up–we still hold others to our “higher” standard–silently judging them on the inside while parading a fake smile on the outside until they’re just out of ear’s distance and we are free to say what we really think about their inferiority compared to us.

Those we considered to be the “least of these” yesterday may not be the ones we deem “least of these” today.  Life experience tends to shape our opinions about who makes the cut as being acceptable in our sphere of influence at the moment.  We habitually lean toward surrounding ourselves by people who make us feel better about ourselves.  We will hang out with people who have a little less than us so that we can feel superior about having more but not be burdened by feeling the pressure of having to help them in a big way.  We can feel better about associating ourselves with those who have more than us, but most often those relationships can only be sustained if we anticipate there is something to gain.

I’ve been visiting new churches for a few weeks.  I’ve never attended a church without having been employed by the church.  Meaning, I’ve never had to choose a church based on any other decision but the fact that they were employing me as a musician.  I really feel a leaning to take my children to a church where everything will be spoon fed to them, where they will have exciting activities, be fully engaged with the latest technology and  exposed to at least the “higher” of arts–whatever that really means.

But today we visited a neighborhood church where none of the above was true and I felt like I was among “the least of these” in some part of my wretched heart. And I WAS one of “the least of these” because my children were not behaving and there was no formal childcare or children’s program to make me feel human and well put together, once my children were out of sight and out of mind.  In fact, there were only about ten people in attendance, mostly older people.  There was one little girl who was kind of floating around the sanctuary.  She invited my children to go back to the “play” room and watch T.V.  I told her that I wanted them to stay in the sanctuary (because apparently there was going to be no adult back there).

Then finally after Sunday School was over (I didn’t realize it was Sunday School at the time), two older women took the children back (one other child had arrived eventually) to the play room.  I stayed with my youngest (a little over a year old) and then when he finally would not keep quiet, I went to the back with my children and one of the ladies struck up a conversation with me.

She described her life as if she was telling a story where she understood that her character was THE “least of these” written into the details without her consent.  Having grown up with Colitis as a young girl she eventually had to get a colostomy.  The doctors told her she would never be able to have children because of that, but she ended up having two children anyway.  She gave God the credit.  She went on to say that because of all her physical ailments that she also has problems with her brain so she was never able to finish school.  She said that she was still praying for God to heal her, that her condition is much better, but that she still hopes for complete healing and that if God could heal blind eyes back then that surely he can heal her now.  She said that many people stop by the church, receive healing and then never come back.  Apparently her son was in a could-have-been deadly wreck recently but God spared his life.  She said that she gets up at 5am every morning to pray, that she prays for all those she knows who are in need.

Somehow I felt like God was saying, “I am here.”  “I am anywhere you are that feels small.”  “I know that you want to live a comfortable life, feel good about yourself as a person, rub shoulders with those who shine, but this is where I am.  If you really want to find me, you’ll find me among the “least of these.”  “You keep saying you want to find me but you already have and whatever you do for the least of these you will have done for me.”

But no God.  This does not feel good.  I do not feel superior here.  I feel strangely in and out of my element at the same time.  Why haven’t you healed this woman yet?  Why have you not changed my heart so that I don’t look down on people of her kind, people of my kind.  Her faith is so much stronger than mine.  I’m sure she’ll be praying for me tonight before she goes to bed.  I prayed for her too, already– that she won’t be so pitiful, so pitifully trusting in you.  Why do I want to run away from this, away from her?  Why do I want my children to have more and be more?  What is the more I’m trying to have them be?  And if we’re all trying to climb our ladders, who will be there ministering to those at the bottom who could never ever “fit in” where I’m more comfortable trying to fit in?  Why can’t you just make all this sickness, all this dumb brained poverty pant sag-gin’ sub culture just go away so that we can all feel good about where we’re going and where we hope to end up?  And God, where are you when I feel like the least and when she knows for sure she’s the least but is still willing to pray for others, encourage others and have hope that you’ll heal her completely?

Surely you’ll have mercy on us all because we are all “the least” among the counterparts of who we’re trying to become–sick of heart, downright mean people who always look down on others.  Most certainly you have compassion on those of us who are first now, compared to those who seem to be last but who are closer to your heart because they know suffering and can’t seem to catch a break.  Are these, this woman who feels like the last, who I judge as even further back in the line than I am, are these the ones who you say will be first when your Kingdom finally comes?  And am I really willing to completely let go of what others think just so I can be the last in order to earn first place?

And as we left the church, the other little girl told my girls that she hopes that they come back because she is usually all by herself–no other children.

And as I told the pastor about where I previously attended church, he invited me to come back and sing for them without any reserve about whether I would be “good enough” for their taste or not.

I was the least of THEM.

2

Too much Sacrifice and too little Mercy

Good Shepherd

Good Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a lot of us who’ve grown up in the church.  But there’s little difference between us and the world.  Just like them we’re quickly aging and either frantically searching or habitually exhausted by never finding the right answers.  Our goal is to save enough for retirement and the paradox of that day when we will finally have enough money to spend our days without having to go to work is that we will also be too old to enjoy it.  We take pride in our career milestones and the nicer our homes the better we feel about ourselves.  We give sparingly in proportion to what we’ve been given but our conscience is soothed by the fact that we’ve at least done something to help those less fortunate.  Our knowledge of God is a one dimensional story teller version and the reality of faith is only felt when we’re in crisis mode.  God’s presence starts to feel real right around the time we lose someone we love or when we’ve just experienced a financial crisis. Continue reading

3

Experiential Freedom

Salvation Unplugged – But now I see through the glass clearly, until I take my eyes off of Jesus again.

In my quest to re-read Christianity God gave me a gift, not in exchange for something I’d done or as retribution for the misery to which I’d subjected myself all in the name of taking up my cross to follow Him, but he gave me a gift because I asked.  I asked God for the gift of understanding, I asked that the scales be removed from my eyes.  I asked to understand his love, mercy and grace through new eyes, eyes filled with light, not with darkness.  And in an instant, God flooded my soul with a momentary experiential understanding of what “freedom” in Christ actually means.

I felt so free, and I WAS so free that others saw it in me for a few days.  Remember when Moses came down from the mountain and he had to cover his face so that the people would not be blinded because his countenance was so bright?  In a sense this is what had happened to me.  I came down from the mountain and friends and family listened to what I had to say (power).  They were pleasantly surprised by my radiance and the newfound hope physically present all over my face.  I felt love for them and I felt loved by them (love) and my mind was clearer and lighter (sound mind) than it had been in years.  I was a modern day female version of Peter walking on water and it felt really cool that God and I had finally “jived” beyond the contrived Christianity for which I’d been bleeding sweat and tears all those years. Continue reading

8

Is Jesus Real?

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber to be an example of a charismatic religious leader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes.  I know.  Jesus IS real.  But is he real to you?  Has he made a noticeable difference in your life?  What does the before & after picture look like for you?  Does the you before Jesus and the you after Jesus- look different or just like more of the same?  How does your life look unique compared to those who do NOT believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world?  Out of the three monotheistic religions of the world:  Christianity, Islam & Judaism –Christianity is the exclusive ticket to what?  To heaven?  To a better life on earth?  To know God?  What is unique about what you believe?  In your mind, why does Christianity trump all other religions?

If you’re someone who says you only believe in God and that everything else, including the technicality of identifying with Jesus is a toss up of irrelevance, then might you just as well take your pick of Islam or Judaism?

Both hold a similar historical perspective and contain strands of the lineage Christians follow all the way through the old testament.  If you look at Christianity from the perspective of a Jew, which would be hard to authentically accomplish unless you ARE a Jew–the idea that their divinely appointed King came in the form of man who was mostly concerned with helping others instead of ruling over others as Divine royalty would sound completely absurd.  Quite frankly if I were a Jew by heritage I’d be offended too or perhaps I’d just laugh off the claim of a carpenter as King.  Consider the shock of a woman who holds the expectation that her husband will come as a knight in shining armor yet only soon discovers that he really is by all outward appearance just a bastard child who grew up with no real occupation, attracting a lot of attention by claiming to be God’s very son.

We claim to be the Bride of Christ.  But do we really know what that means?  Are we the bride of Christ by our own choosing, by believing in him, by accepting the oddity of a salvation similar to an apocalyptic unfolding of death & darkness followed by a mysterious resurrection & ascension?  Or is our allegiance to Christ likened to that of an arranged marriage?  Perhaps you’re with Jesus, but you don’t yet know him.  And oh the many years of “getting to know” that it takes to establish a deeper love than that first quickening of the Spirit that drew us to him.

Can you blame those who grew up with a different tradition of faith or expectation of redemption when they emphatically deny the relationship of Jesus to God just as much as Christians emphatically deny the relationship of Muhammad to God–because it just seems so strange and WRONG to them personally? What is it that drew you to Christianity?  I think it would be safe to say that a large portion of Christians claim their faith by identifying with a large group of Christians who claim their identity of Christianity by associating with yet another larger group of Christians. Yet if ever confronted by Jesus Himself with the question, “Who do YOU say that I am?”  your recycled answer might garner this response from Christ, “Depart from me.  You don’t know who I am and I don’t know who you are either.”

Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet sent to guide the children of Israel and to foretell of Muhammad’s time on earth.  So historically, give or take a few points here and there, Muslims and Jews and Christians all believe that Jesus existed.  So Jesus IS real.  See?  But again,  is Jesus real to you?  What about a child from Biblical times who grew up in the temple under the teachings of a very Jewish father during Jesus’ ministry on earth?  Perhaps he sat silently in the back of the temple when Jesus taught his sarcastic yet sharp truths about the prevalent religious hypocrisy–feverishly praying for his own father, a Pharisee who was in the front pew defending his point against Jesus–the Messiah Claimant.  Whose side would this boy take?  Maybe he would sneak out at night and observe Jesus teaching on the mountainside.  Would he not be confused by the tension felt between his faithful father who was esteemed in the community and Jesus who seemed to question his father’s integrity as a religious leader?  How would he reconcile this with his strong desire to get to know this man who called himself Jesus and healed people right before the boy’s eyes?

It might more accurately be concluded that the little boy would do what most of us do today–accept the teaching of our fathers over our own quest for truth.

The Bible talks a lot about searching.  But have you ever searched for something that you could not find?  It’s very frustrating and can leave us with our hands thrown up to the air, cursing under our breath about how we just knew we’d put it there.  We just knew that we’d find what we were looking for when we started searching because that’s where we knew to look and yet we come up empty handed.  Did you lose the truth about Jesus and what he means to your religion?  Did you forget where you put the part about how Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost?  Did you misplace your identity in Christ as your Savior?  Perhaps you’re still searching.  Or it could be that you’ve never started looking because you’re unaware of the fact that Jesus is yet to be found.

But belief in Jesus as WHO HE IS will be the starting point at which you will be able to differentiate Christianity from other religions.  Without that, you should brush up on your tradition, because you’ve got some praying and fasting to do-or else.  You’ve got some poor to feed.  Start planning that trip to Mecca.  And remember, a little leaven leavens the whole lump.  A whole lifetime cannot contain the mystery of Jesus, yet his Spirit bears witness to us that he is real.  And what we find is the miracle of the lost coin.  We are found in our search to find him.  Jesus is becoming real to me.

May he become more real to you in each moment of your searching.

0

Cycle of Beauty in Praise

During every choir rehearsal I am filled with awe at the beauty of song. Every single melody is like an infinite praise rolling off our tongues, a gift of word to tune that we sing back to God. The song, the instrument, the breath that gives voice to our hopes and dreams and sorrows, these are all God’s. The beauty, the pain, the pain made beautiful against the backdrop of God’s grace, these are all timeless tributes to something eternal, those places from within that God let’s us display as an outward appearance of his love. My heart swells and my eyes tear. I’m brought back to my senses at the toil and note by note, out in the fields labor that turn solos–our individual stories, into anthems, stock full of harmony, for a choir to sing.

And I’m reminded of the Biblical account of Leah and Rachel. Leah with her tear stained eyes, always the one working harder, hand to the spindle trying to earn love. Rachel, right in the center of being the chosen one, beautiful and singled out from the beginning, a product of someone else’s hands calloused by desire unfulfilled. And it’s a cycle, a failure turned inside out for God’s glory. Both part of an equation, of a longing that is deeper than today, this moment that ties us all to the frenzy of finding that perfect parking spot, close enough to where we want to be, but far enough away from others who might dent or scratch our exterior–the shell of how we want to be seen. Buffed to the shine for our own glory. When will we sing to God and not to man? How will we learn our part, take our place, fill our roles–stop preoccupying ourselves with the distraction of our performance, the carefully labeled parts that we put together with or without directions, stray bolts, screws, pieces missing, somehow managing to stand, to resemble the whole of what we were purchased with a price to become? These are all the same words, similar stories, rearranged to our tune, the tune that we know best, the one that we hum when we’re alone, the notes that have no place, wander around in our kitchen until they find their home in our hearts, in our minds these melodies to Jesus.