Category Archives: Theology

A Prayer for Our Country

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A Prayer for Our Country

Last week I was sitting in church when we began singing these lyrics . . .

“We call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive!
We call out to dead hearts, come alive!”

At the time I had no idea what our sermon would be about.  However, here is what came to my mind.  At this time in our country’s history, what would happen if we as a church began to cry out to our political leaders and institutions the invitation to come alive and if we called out to God to revive the dead hearts found in the halls of our country’s government institutions?  How would our country change?  This isn’t about a political party or affiliation.  I hope that we are not naive enough to believe that any human party has a corner on the market of Christ-likeness.  This is about realizing the need for us as a church to be about the business of the Kingdom.

One of my religion professors in college once said this, “The Kingdom of Heaven is not a pipe dream.”  In other words, when Jesus entered this world he ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven and while it may not reach completion until we arrive in heaven, that in no way negates the fact that he calls his followers to be about the business of bringing that kingdom here and now.  We are positioned at exactly the time and place that needs the Church.  Needs us to reject the idea that one ideology or political party has all the answers.  Needs us to reject the notion that we have to question each other’s faith if we question their vote.  Needs us to reject the easy path of only listening to those who agree with us.  We need to engage, to listen, to love, and to fight for the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is not a pipe dream and we have a responsibility to work towards its realization on earth.

So, as I sat in my seat and listened to the song I began to pen this prayer.  And as the sermon began I was surprised to find the message was connected to this same topic.  Maybe God was trying to tell me something.  Maybe he’s trying to tell us all.  Will you join with me in praying this over our country?  And will you join me in the fighting to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth?

Be with our leaders—in each branch of our government
Be with our leaders—in community organizations, churches, and non-profits
Be with our leaders—in town councils, schools, and emergency services
And be with us—the citizens who stand in this divided time

Where there are dry bones and dead hearts, we call out “come alive!”
Where there are hardened hearts, we pray that you would open them with your grace
Where we have closed ourselves off, we pray that you would break our hearts for what breaks your
          heart
Where there is fear that has left us paralyzed or hiding behind closed doors, remind us of your
frequent call to “fear not” and strengthen us in your power
Where there is mistrust and resentment, enable us to risk understanding where others are coming
from

Where there is hurt and past scars, give us the grace to forgive and move forward
Where there is selfishness and greed, reorient us to your kingdom values
Where there is hatred and anger, overpower us with your love and allow us to see our enemies as
your children whom you love with an overwhelming fierceness
Where there is division, fill us with unity, help us to be peacemakers

Help our leaders
Help our churches
Help us
          to be the standard bearers of your image
          to honor you with our words and actions
          to stand for all your children
          to remember who our neighbors are
          to work to bring your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven
Help us, Oh Lord

The Problem With Trusting God

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I’m an ordained elder.  For 13 years I was a pastor.  And if you test my spiritual gifts, one of them will be faith.  So it might surprise you to learn that trusting God is something I struggle with.

Perhaps the seeds of this struggle were planted when I was 11 and my father died from brain cancer.  I grew up going to church and when my father was diagnosed with cancer it was unreal.  Everyone I knew was praying for him to recover.  Yet, despite all the prayers and Bible verses that were quoted, my family watched him slip away from us.  I struggled, I grieved, but somehow my faith remained intact.

Then, the summer after my junior year in college I went on my first mission trip.  I went with an amazing group called YIM that did a fantastic job preparing us for the world beyond our borders.  During that summer I was confronted with the reality of the third world.  I learned about people who lived on less than a dollar a day.  I learned of people who were literally starving to death.  I heard the stories of those who were sick and dying from illnesses that could be prevented by a simple mosquito net or treated with drugs that were readily available to all Americans.

As an American Christian I had always been taught that God provides for his children.  I had memorized verses about God knowing exactly what we need and promising to care for us.  I had studied the passages about not worrying about what we would eat or drink.  I shook my head in agreement when I heard someone say “God always provides, right on time,” or “God didn’t bring you this far to leave you now.”  I accepted these things as truth.

But how could I look in the face of brave Christian brothers and sisters who were facing death and recite those familiar platitudes?  How could I say “don’t worry” to the mother who had no food to feed her children?  Or tell the young man dying for lack of basic medicines, “trust God, he will provide.”?  Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to “just trust God.”

If God’s children were dying of hunger or sick and suffering in third world countries, what did that mean for me and my struggles?  Surely it wasn’t as easy as just “trusting God to provide.”  I’m not saying that I don’t believe God provides.  Or that I don’t believe God is good, loving, and cares about us and our problems.  I just believe that the way God works is more complicated than easy platitudes allow for.

Over the years I have found myself in many difficult circumstances which have tested my ability to hold onto my faith and trust God.  I have cried with friends who have lost loved ones.  I have faced incredibly difficult challenges in the ministry.  I have struggled as my son fights to overcome the trauma he experienced before he entered foster care.  I have faced extreme financial hardships.  And I have faced the loss of my daughter.  Life has not always been easy, and often I find myself struggling with the question of how to trust God in the midst of suffering.

Ultimately, I believe that God provides through us—the church.  When someone is praying for food to feed their children, clean water, or medicine for their loved one in a third world country, we as a church are designed to be the answer to that prayer.  When a mother admits she can’t buy milk, a man is homeless and eating from a trash can, a refugee is seeking shelter, or a friend asks us to pray for them, we are created to help. It’s not enough to tell those who are struggling to rely on God, or not to worry.  We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

So the next time you’re tempted to tell someone to “just trust God,” consider whether or not God may be trusting you to be the answer to their prayer.

I should have been a black girl . . .

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I once had a boss tell me “We love you and we’re so glad you’re on our team.  But our ideal candidate was someone with your skills and abilities, who was also a black woman with XYZ in their background.”  Instead they got me — a girl so white my friends in high school teased that I was Casper the Friendly Ghost on a trip to Florida.  They chose me, and they were happy to have me, but the point is they were intentionally looking for diversity.

There are a lot of people that don’t like the idea of affirmative action.  To them it feels like discrimination, an unfair advantage, or bias.  In their eyes affirmative action is a rejection of the skills, gifts, and abilities of people in the majority group.  I respect these people.  I understand where they’re coming from.  But I don’t agree.

Diversity doesn’t happen by chance.

Want proof?  Go visit any large city and take a drive through the different neighborhoods and boroughs.  Go visit some schools in the inner city and then drive out to the suburbs.  Pay attention to who’s sitting at which lunch tables.  Try out a few different hair salons.  Or better yet . . . go visit any church on an average Sunday morning.

We live in a very segregated world.  A world that seems to only be capable of defining ourselves by defining who is other.  I know I am A: not B, C, D or E.  Don’t believe me?  I challenge you to go  have an honest conversation with someone who is trying to live as an “AND” in an “either/or” world.  A biracial teen.  An adult who grew up in one country and now lives in another.  An LGBT Christian.  A Liberal Christian.  The list could go on and on.  There is a tension that exists in their life.  We are a world that likes to categorize and define and put things in boxes.  And we like to keep those boxes separate.  We do it without thinking.  We divide people by race, gender, ethnicity, economic status, age, education level, religious background, political affiliation, and more.  Some areas are more natural to us than others, but we still do it.  This is what comes naturally to us.  (This, in my opinion, is one of the consequences of the fall.)

So wherever we find diversity we should celebrate it.  And we should realize it didn’t come about by chance, but by choice.  Someone — some leader or group of people — decided that diversity was valuable enough to work for it.  To take risks and make changes.  To set goals and take steps to make them a reality.  And some days they don’t make progress, but they don’t give up.  (Some days you hire the pasty white girl, but you keep looking for that amazing black woman also.)

I have spent most of my adult life working in churches.  One of the things we talk about is that when people come into a church for the first time they will look around and ask “Is there anyone here who is like me?”  This doesn’t just apply to race and gender, but  to whatever it is that we have defined ourselves as.  And one of the first places we will look to answer that question is the platform–who’s on stage or listed on the website.  We’re looking for an answer because we don’t want to be an other.  We are all born with an innate desire to belong.  If we want to be a church where everyone feels comfortable, then we must be a place where everyone can answer that question with a confident “Yes!  I’m not alone!”

This week the denomination that I am ordained in is making some very important decisions regarding the future leadership of the church.  These decisions are always tough because there are so many amazingly qualified potential leaders.  It is my prayer that as decisions are made, those voting will remember the value and beauty of diversity.   Diversity of thoughts and perspectives, ethnicities and genders, ages and backgrounds, talents and skills.

And as I pray this, I also pray . . . not my will but yours be done.

Shame, Guilt, and How I Escaped

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Today I’ve read not one, but two, of my friends blogs that wrestled with the weighty issues of shame and guilt.

Karissa, who I mentioned a couple of days ago, wrote about how growing up her faith often came with an ugly price tag called guilt.  She ended up leaving the church she grew up in search of a faith that freed her from that guilt.

And Jermaine wrote about how shame gets passed around like candy sometimes, claiming that we’re speaking the truth in love, when really all we’re doing is passing out shame and judgement.

Life in the church can be harsh sometimes.  We’re not perfect people, and sometimes in our quest to better ourselves we end up filling others with shame, guilt, and a whole bunch of other crap that “ain’t nobody got time for.”  It’s not healthy.  I don’t think we even intend to do it sometimes.  But it happens.

I grew up in the same church background as my friend Karissa.  Like her, I went to a small, conservative Nazarene church.  We went to the same college, where we were best friends and roommates.  And many of her experiences resonate with me.  I can remember growing up and praying every five minutes or so for my salvation.  I was sure I’d done something terribly evil in the past five minutes and needed redemption.  (This coming from the girl who never smoked, drank, or tried drugs, and considered it complete failure if I got less than an A in class.)  As a kid I was always striving for perfection.  Honestly, that part of me hasn’t changed much.  But I know that a large part of that is my firstborn perfectionist tendencies, not my faith.

I do want to be the best I can at whatever I’m doing.  I want to be living a life that demonstrates love, grace, and compassion.  I want to have an intimate relationship with God.  But if those thinks were once driven by a sense of guilt, it’s been a long time since that held true.  Somewhere along the way I dropped that shame and guilt like a dirty rag, and I moved on.

How did that happen?  I’m not sure I could pinpoint some moment in time or new understanding that changed my world.  I think it just gradually grew up into my faith, as I planted deep roots and learned the meaning of a tree’s flexibility.

There is a part of that growth that was planted by my mother.  There were a lot of times my mom tried to push her ideas on me.  Like when she told me I had no other choice than to attend college at her alma mater.  And being the stubborn, strong-willed child that I was/am, I then proceeded to do the exact opposite of what she told me to do.  But then there were these gems of moments when she challenged me to think for myself.  And those moments were probably her best parenting choices ever.

I was 12 when I first had the opportunity to audition for show choir (that’s a glee club for all you non-midwesterners).  I wanted desperately to be a part of it.  But I was a member of a Nazarene church and it was against the rules.  I asked my mom what to do.  And instead of telling me, she taught me to think for myself.  She told me to go read the Bible.  To pray.  To ask God, and then listen.  And I did.  And guess what?  What I heard from God was not what I heard from my church’s rule book.  Mind blowing experience for a 12 year old.  But it was probably one of the most important faith lessons of my childhood.

In the end I auditioned and so began a long relationship with all things music, theatre, and dance related.  And it didn’t break my faith in the church or the people who came up with those rules.  I simply accepted that we could disagree sometimes and it would be ok.  And I discovered a relationship that was about more than a rule book.  More than getting things right and being perfect.  I discovered a God who was so much more than a church who sometimes weighs us down with guilt and shame–but a God who still loved that church and worked through her.

And that’s exactly the kind of God I needed.  A God who is so far above me and my failings–but still loves me and works through me.

So here’s to all my friends out there who are struggling with guilt and shame that’s been piled on you by some well-meaning Christian.  May you find release from those chains.  Freedom from a pain that doesn’t come from God.  And the mystery of a love that surrounds you even in your darkest place.

Were Adam and Eve cave people?

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Were Adam and Eve cave people?

That’s what I was asked by a kid at church recently.  Let me back up.  At Kid Connect we believe it’s important to involve kids in the learning process, so we encourage them to ask questions.  We don’t want to be that teacher calling out the standard fill-in-the-blank questions looking for “Sunday School answers.”  So, throughout the worship experience kids have the opportunity to write down questions.  We take those questions and the inspiration leaders (our large group teachers) address those questions in the teach time.  As you can imagine we get some awesome questions.  Teachers have three options when they read a question–they can answer it themselves, challenge the kids to come up with the answer, or they can put it in the “Expert Box” for me to answer later.

As you can imagine, I get some very interesting questions.  And so it was that last weekend during one of our venues our inspiration leader pulled out a question and read “Were Adam and Eve cave people?”  There was a moment of awkward silence.  Then she looked up, smirked at me, and laughed “Well, that one’s going in the Expert Box.”

Thanks a lot.

Here are some of the other questions I’ve been asked:

  • Did God know Santa?
  • How do we love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, when we’ve never met him?
  • How was the “big bang” made?
  • How many people die from hunger in 24 hours?
  • Why did the women not get treated fairly?
  • Why are people mean?
  • Can I beat up people?
  • What does God look like?
  • How do I get people to stop hitting me?
  • How does hope spread?
  • Can God stop school?
  • Why didn’t God just wipe out sin instead of making Jesus die?
  • Why are some churches so big and fancy and some don’t have a playground?
  • What do you do when there are a lot of people annoying you?
  • When you get baptized is it like falling back into Jesus’ arms?
  • How do you tell someone you are afraid of about Jesus?
  • Why do people think it’s all about money?
  • Why do people bully?
  • Does God have a Holy Spirit in himself

Wow!  Right?

So, it’s time for you to get involved!   What questions have kids asked you?  Or, what questions do you have that you’ve been too afraid to ask?  And how would you answer these questions?

Are you really a Christian?

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Have you ever noticed what a wide variety of factors we consider when determining if a person is “really a Christian?”  I’ve been in professional ministry for about a decade and I could almost write another 613 laws based on some of the stipulations I’ve heard.

Are you really a Christian?  I’ve been told you’re not a *real* Christian if . . .

  • you’re a Democrat
  • you’re a Republican
  • you don’t home school your kids
  • you home school your kids
  • you’re a working mom
  • you’re a stay-at-home dad
  • you believe in gay marriage
  • you don’t believe in gay marriage
  • you believe in a pre-millenial rapture
  • you believe in a post-millenial rapture
  • you work on Sundays
  • you’re business is open on Sundays
  • you drink alcohol
  • you never drink alcohol
  • you can’t remember the date you choose to follow Jesus
  • you don’t picket outside family planning clinics
  • you do picket outside family planning clinics

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  We all have this picture (whether we want to admit it or not) of what a Christian looks like, acts like, and believes.  And most of the time our picture addresses things that go far beyond the questions of  “Do you believe in Jesus?  Did you seek forgiveness for your sins?  Do you choose to follow God?”

And all that has me wondering . . . when people who don’t consider themselves Christians look at us, what factors do they use to determine who is and who isn’t Christian?  Are they asking us questions about our belief systems or are they judging based on who “goes to church?”  Are they evaluating our behaviors and moral boundaries or are they examining our political and social beliefs?

Or, what if Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he said: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Try to forget that you’ve ever heard that verse before.  Try to forget the watered-down definition of love that our culture has come to believe in.  Try to forget everything you’ve come to assume is what defines you as a Christian.  What if the only way for people to know that we have anything to do with the God-man we call Jesus Christ, is if we love each other?  With the kind of radical, deep-running, lay-down-your-life kind of love that I believe Jesus was talking about.

If that was the measuring stick of our Christianity, what would people on the “outside” think of us on the “inside?”  Would they see us as Christians when they looked in our churches, our homes, our offices, and our ministries?  Would they see a radical love between all those people gathered in an auditorium on Sunday morning?  Would they see a deep love if they visited our church board meetings?  Would they see an edifying  love if they walked through our offices?  Would they see a self-sacrificing love if they hung out with us in our family room?

What if, radical as this may be, what if God looked at us the same way?  What if he was a lot less concerned with our political party or our views on end-times than he was with how we loved each other.  It’s a freeing proposition–that I don’t have to end up on the right side of the debate or have all the correct answers.  But it’s also a terrifying thought.  Because loving people–the way I believe God wants us to love people–isn’t easy.  It isn’t easy to love the person you can’t agree with.  It’s even harder to love the person who hurt you.  And we do that in the church . . . a lot.  We hurt people.  We don’t mean to, but we do.  We’re not God, we’re messed up humans and we make mistakes.

The question is, is it even possible to live with that kind of radical love?  To love the family member who broke your heart?  To love the person on the other side of the aisle who betrayed your trust?  To love the congregation down the street whose beliefs don’t line up with yours?  To love the coworker who drives you crazy?  Is that kind of love really possible here on earth?  Is that thing we call the “Kingdom of Heaven” ever going to be realized in this world, or is it only possible when Jesus returns?

I’ll tell you what a wise man once told me:  “The Kingdom of Heaven is not a pipe dream.” 

Maybe we’ll never perfect that Kingdom reality in this lifetime.  Maybe our love will never be that complete.  But I’d love to see us try.

23,000

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23,000 began as the poem you see below.  It has since morphed into a song–which is not quite completed.  Now I can’t read it without humming that song in my head.  I hope you enjoy!

 

It is the unconscious rhythm that orders my days
23,000 times a day in a steady stream of inevitability
sometimes quick and shallow
others deep and peaceful
23,000 breaths which fill my lungs
with a beautiful monotony
23,000 breaths—
an invisible umbilical cord which births my living
new each day
23,000 gifts unfolding between two sunsets
23,000 sighs of longing
23,000 inhales
23,000 exhales
and a love that has captured them
taken each one prisoner and carried it away—
the spoils of war
rescued from a gray stagnancy

I
(and each day’s 23,000 breaths)
became your pirate bride
Touched
by you
until breathing became
intertwined
with loving you
and each of my
inhales/exhales
was colored by your palette of
intimate grace

Each day I offer
my 23,000 gifts back to you
intertwining the spirit-breath which first formed me
with the daily rhythm of my breathing