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.

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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.

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Moving outside the Inner Circle of Praise & Worship

First, let me say that this is not a #HipHop or #MusicReview website.  Just want to spread the good news and I’ve come across some very talented artists who are using their talents for GodOverMoney (godovermoney.com) .  I know a lot of people will be cynical about whether it’s REALLY all about “God Over Money” but you HAVE to start somewhere.  You have to take that first step to walk on water.  If we get excited about God doing miracles in our career and start sinking…..instead of judging us, just help us get back in the boat so we can continue to minister to a world hungry for something that fills.  ~praiseandworshipsongs.net

Anna Esther ‏@gOOgleOrGod 19h
#praiseandworshipmusic is for those already in the “inner circle.”
What about those on the outside?
So, truly–what about those on the outside?
Those who don’t know what it means to worship Christ.
Those who only know how to worship money, sex and fame.
Those of us who are lukewarm, with one foot in Christianity and one foot out.
Let’s remember to be music missionaries, not just music ministers!

“Go into all the world, proclaim the gospel to everyone.”

This album (The Good Fight by Bizzle) preaches! Praise God from whom ALL BLESSINGS flow.

Purchase tracks and spread the good news!
Buy on ITunes
Buy on Amazon

“This site has no affiliation with Bizzle.” Just want to help “multiply the loaves & fishes” as heard in sermon by @BrynWaddell

7

Playin’ the Background

So the last shall be first, and the first last.  Matthew 20:16a

LYRICS:  Why gain the whole wide world, If I’m just going to lose my soul…….

This song, though it’s stylistically counter culture to the way I was raised, reminds me of my father.  How does one “play the background” their whole life and stay faithful to it?  How does one desire more, yet manage to stay right in the center of God’s will, even though it’s a smaller destiny than they ever imagined would be their own?

How does one tirelessly pastor a small local church where the only tangible reward is being asked to preach the funeral of members whose homes you’ve visited more times than you can count, just to make sure they’re doing ok?

I’ve seen my dad usher many families into the throne room of grace as they cry for their family member who just took the last lingering breath.  I’ve listened to disgruntled members stand up during church to publicly decimate my father’s name.

Sermon after sermon he’s preached the same message of God’s saving grace, Sunday after Sunday for a lifetime.  And he’s never given in to the pressure of society, the temptation to give the message a nuance that will gain more favor with the community.

He’s stayed the course even when others have fallen by the wayside.  He’s lived with the fear of falling by the wayside all the while stumbling along, sometimes almost unable to discern God’s calling in it all.

I know he has doubts, and that sometimes he probably feels like he’s on the outside looking in on what’s going on with the “church” and the world, but I pray he’ll have the faith and stamina to keep “playing the background.”

We’re all so consumed with how to earn the spotlight.  But who’s gonna “play the background?”  I pray that I’ll have the faith to do what God wants, even when it seems like even God isn’t taking notice.

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Expecting

Sometimes it is hard to understand what someone else is going through in their own little world because it doesn’t make much sense to us based on our personal expectations and experiences so far.  I often find myself judging others when I deem their expectations to be too high or suspiciously misplaced.  I ask questions like, “What are they thinking?”  “What were they thinking?”  And above all, “What was I expecting?”  I find myself expecting a lot lately, namely the delivery of my son.  I’ve already had the beginning of birth pains, in fact by the time you read this, I may have already delivered.  Obviously I’m all consumed with the outcome, the final result and ultimately the successful or not so successful delivery of something—someone who has been in the makings for over nine months.

The Bible frequently mentions childbirth and the laboring process as a parallel to our spiritual journey.  In Matthew 24, Jesus talks about the end of time and compares it to the “beginning of birth pains.”  Verse 29 says, “Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”  This sounds oddly familiar in relation to my experience with childbirth.  Yet the hardest part has never been the PAIN in itself, yet the unknown timeframe from this mysterious BEGINNING to that elusive END.  When someone says, “This is only the beginning,”  you should either run the other way, or get really excited about what is to come.  In the instance of our spiritual journey, such as when Jesus compares the turmoil of the end-times to “only the beginning….”  do we run the other way or do we get excited about what is to come?

What journey have you started, what laborious process have you begun that leaves you wondering when the end will finally come, even amidst the hope that the final outcome might be a positive one?  Often, in the church, we start things that are initiated with the hope of a positive outcome.  Yet, we forget that the time from beginning to end might cause discomfort, doubt, and general all-out misery along the way.  If we knew exactly at which point a “new youth program” a “new mission outreach” a “new church initiative” might painfully be delivered as a recognizable and tangible success, we might be encouraged to hang in there, even when it seems like there is absolutely no end in sight.

We all are expecting something out of our “church experience,”  out of our many hours of volunteerism, our extra effort to go beyond the status quo, and our well-planned programs meant for church growth.  We don’t know the exact date that all of our efforts will come to fruition and we certainly have the fear that all of our hard work, patience and determination will end with nothing to show for it.  In the area of church music and worship development, there are many deliverables at stake—on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis.  How can we make the best of this journey we’ve begun and how can we sustain our faith that something better is to come?

John 16:21 says, “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; But as soon as she has given birth, she no longer remembers the anguish, For joy that a child has been born into the world.”

Let’s hold on a little longer, for the unseen joy that is to come.

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.  II Corinthians 4:16-18

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Spring Cleaning

This month marks the beginning of spring.  Typically we associate spring with a good spring cleaning.  But why this season?  The idea of spring cleaning is often associated with a particular climate.  But it has also been tied to different religious traditions, such as the Great Lent in Greek Orthodox nations and the Jewish Passover that remembers the quick flight of the Jews from captivity.  Ecclesiastes 3:1 says “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”  Even cleaning.

In our particular climate, spring is the preferred season for cleaning activities.  In fact, before the advent of the vacuum cleaner, early spring was the perfect time to dust because it was warm enough to open windows and doors so the March winds could carry out the dust, but it wasn’t so hot that insects were ready to move into the house (Wikipedia).

But not all of us stick to the norms around us and sometimes our hearts and motivations do not match the traditions tied to the weather or our regularly scheduled religious activities.  The weather will be getting warmer.  Lent is upon us.  The expectation is that we clean out not only our homes, but also our hearts.  Psalm 51:10 takes off a little bit of the pressure though, because it reminds us that our spiritual cleansing is not something we have to buy a shop sized vac to accomplish.  This particular prayer was a plea for God to do the real work of deep cleaning by “Creating ….. a clean heart, O God; and renewing a right spirit within….”  Let’s make that our prayer in worship and song this season—well summarized in the song lyrics that go “Change my heart oh God, make it ever true.  Change my heart oh God, make me more like you.”  Happy spring cleaning!