Saturday, December 21, 2013

she who has received grace

Today has been an ungracious sort of day.

I was late for a volunteer recruitment meeting. I struggled, aggravated, through my Hebrew studies as a bewildered mama tried unsuccessfully to control her screaming toddler. I very aggressively slammed a shopping cart into the corral in frustration that the grocery store customer before me felt too hurried to put it back. I had a little temper tantrum in the car as my commute to a friend's house was doubled in the crazy holiday traffic. I ranted to my family on the phone about some unwelcome news I received this week. Despite a lovely brunch with friends this afternoon, I headed home annoyed that there was more work to be done for church tomorrow.

Chalk it up to the shortest day of the year and the winter blues, but I did not feel Christmasy. And I certainly didn't feel full of grace.

The past year has been like that. I have wanted to be brave and beautiful in the midst of little challenges and more looming adversity. But I haven't handled each trial with the sort of poise I would have hoped. Instead it has all felt pretty clumsy.

I hate these sorts of days because gracious is what I want most of all to be.  That and gutsy.  But the grace usually feels harder to come by than the guts.

I was feeling frustrated with myself when I read the loveliest words in the Gordon-Conwell Advent Devotional, day 20, written by early Christian history professor Dr. Donald Fairbairn:

When the angel Gabriel greets Mary, he uses an expression that has proven difficult to translate. The Latin Vulgate renders it with the equivalent of, "O one who is full of grace." The King James renders it, "Thou that art highly favored." And the ESV has, "O favored one." The Greek expression is a single word, a passive form of the verb for "to grace." Perhaps the most precise way to render it in English would be "O you who have received grace." Gabriel is not talking about Mary as a source of grace, but as a recipient of grace. 

The Vulgate's translation feels darn near impossible to live up to, and I bet Mary would agree. Maybe her temperament was a bit less fiery than mine, but I'll bet she had some ungracious days, too. {{She was human, after all.}} But Mary had received grace--literally, had been graced--in the most precious, Incarnate way.

Dr. Fairbairn continues: 

As for what this grace consists of, the next phrase holds the key: "the Lord is with you." At heart, grace is not God's giving us just any kind of favor; it is his giving us his very presence. 

God with us--grace for my unloveliest, pitch-a-fit sort of days. Unmerited favor in the here-with-us presence of God. The Word become flesh for us, giving us access to the Father, making us sons and daughters.

I am not always {read: hardly ever} full of grace. But tonight I am most thankful for the grace received through the Incarnation, God's strength in my weakness.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How Christmas Myth Prepares Us for Advent Truth

We're already more than a week into Advent and I've barely begun the daily Scriptures, much less posted them for friends to download. {they're included at the bottom of this post!} I have to confess that I'm a little sad my Christmas decorations are all neatly packed away in storage. I think their absence this year has made me feel less Christmasy, so I've finally decided that I must get at least a tabletop tree to adorn "the Shire" (my room at the Dorsch Casa, affectionately named because it has a short, hobbit-hole door that opens into a large, high-ceilinged space with lots of glorious light--it reminds us all of a hobbit hole!).

Tonight I'm shamelessly re-blogging a post I wrote for my Church since the Reformation class in response to a forum question about whether or not Christians should observe the secular traditions associated with Christmas.  I hope it inspires you to read not only the Advent Scriptures this month, but also some fancy that will help you to believe in the seemingly too-wonderful story of God in the manger.

My family has always celebrated Christmas with a lot of intensity and sparkle. In an almost Narnian way, the fanciful traditions of Santa Claus were mingled with the nativity, which I understood from an early age to be the true meaning of Christmas. While I have heard many of my gospel-minded friends express concern about confusing their kids with notions of the jolly old elf sliding down their chimney, these two aspects of my family's Christmases never seemed to me to conflict.

I remember one special Christmas Eve when Santa Claus made a visit to my grandparents' living room.  I was about five and desperately enthralled with the magic of it all, although my older cousins recognized the man in the red suit as a man from their church. Being the youngest, I anxiously awaited my turn as Santa addressed the cousins one by one, giving us each a gift and whispering a secret in our ears. Finally, Santa presented me with my gift, and then, pulling me close whispered, "You know that Jesus is the real reason for Christmas."  In a strange way, it was one if the holiest moments of my life, when I sensed that all I had heard about Jesus was true.  Thus began an even deeper faith in Santa {{he was a Christian! Somehow I had sensed it all along!}} and in the Jesus we both shared.  Believing in Santa helped me to believe in Jesus. And when I stopped believing in Santa, I kept right on believing in his God.

I recently read a Wall Street Journal article from 2008 in which a Christian father explains why he encourages his kids to believe in Santa. He writes: "This sheds light on a seeming paradox in St. Paul's letter to Roman Christians: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. . . ." How does one see "invisible attributes"? Only people raised on fairy tales can make sense of that. It belongs in a terrain where magic glasses can illumine what was heretofore hidden, where rabbit holes open into wonderlands."  

I dearly love this idea that myth prepares our hearts for Truth, and never sense it so profoundly as at Christmastime.

I must say that I am disturbed by moralistic interpretations of Santa Claus, such as the Elf on the Shelf tradition (although the lighted-hearted Facebook pictures of his mischievous escapades are hilarious) that conflict with a gospel of grace. But that was not the Santa I knew growing up--thanks, I suppose, to the fact that my parents didn't rely on his pending visit as a way to make me behave.  I agree with others who have commented that we need to resist the secularization of Christmas, including the accompanying, all-too-prevalent materialism. However I think there is a way to hold the mystery of the Incarnation in tension with the fairy tails--and traditions--that help us to believe it.   
 As Sally Lloyd-Jones retells the meeting of Mary and the angel Gabriel in her beloved Jesus Storybook Bible, "So Mary trusted God more than what her eyes could see. And she believed." 

Friday, October 11, 2013

standing on his shoulders

One summer night at Greenwoods a former youth intern, now a good friend, envisioned leadership for me using John Maxwell's image of a leader allowing others to stand on her shoulders.  A leader, my friend shared, is someone who recognizes the gifts and abilities of others and empowers those people to go further than he could.

{{I'm not much for books about leadership--save the one course I took in Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies--so I love when other people read this stuff and give me the CliffsNotes recap.}}

As I thought about how desperately I want to be that kind of leader, I recalled hearing Sandra McCracken relate the heart-wrenching story on which her chilling song "Age After Age" is based.  It was the night of the Live Under Lights and Wires release party in Nashville, a magical night at a hip East Nashville venue where Sandra and Derek played the songs and shared the stories of her then-current album.  I wept right there at the party when she told the tale of two young brothers who were swept up in quicksand in the Mississippi River.  When they pulled the younger one out of the sand alive, they found that he was standing on the shoulders of his older brother.

On the edge of the river, the mighty Mississippi
Two boys spent their summers on the banks of the levy
When the waters burst and broke the dam
they were swallowed in a wave of sand
they pulled the younger one out by the hand
from standing on his brother's shoulders.

One nation under God, young and proud she stumbled
With a trail of tears left by those who were outnumbered
She said, "This land is your land, this land is mine, unless you are an Indian"
But a higher ground we have tried to find"
standing on their shoulders.

Age after age

of heroes and soldiers
it gives me sight and makes me brave,
standing on their shoulders
  One man in the shadow of the white-washed cathedrals
He tried to pull the system through the eye of the needle
To his conscience bound he would not recant for the freedom of the Saints
And truth is truth is truth
and we are standing on his shoulders

To the ones left behind who are picking up the pieces
of planes, bombs, and buildings of innocence and evil
'Cause when the news and noise and flowers die,
and you still wake up alone
There is a God who knows every tear you cry
and this world is on his shoulders

In the last year and a half as my role at Walnut Hill has evolved, I have reflected on this image often.  I am not naturally good at delegation.  I struggle to prioritize.  Like generations of Kingstons before me, I hold tightly to my responsibilities, thinking it's easier to do them myself than to give them away.  I have been begging God to help me let go, to delegate, to empower those around me.

I am a young church leader with a lot to learn.  But there is one thing I know, and it's that the church will not grow until we shepherds of the flock follow Jesus into this work of empowering others.  We are after all, standing on his shoulders.

...And the government will be upon his shoulders {Isaiah 9:6}
 ...And the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him {Isaiah 53:5}

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How parenting your teenager is a lot like riding a horse

I think a lot about parenting when I'm riding my thoroughbred Aiden Magee.

Lately I've been finding myself getting aggravated with Aiden for making me work so hard at moving him forward.  I'm exhausted after our warm-up alone, having used all my strength just to get him going at an acceptable pace.  In reality, if I were more consistent, he would be too.

Sound familiar?!

A good analogy came to me this week as I was preparing to teach a parenting class for some moms in our morning women's ministry at church.  The youth team is leading this class on the book For Parents Only: Getting Inside The Head of Your Kid, and my first week to teach was on a chapter about how middle and high school students want freedom more than nearly anything else.   

I had a blast hanging out with a room full of very insightful moms, some with small children and others with kids in our ministry.  Here's what I shared with them:

If you're pulling back on the reins with everything you've got, you're already out of control.

When you ride a horse, you need to use your whole body to halt him.  Your legs around his girth keep his legs engaged as you prepare to stop.  Your gluts and abs contract to help you sit squarely in the saddle to signal the halt.  And your hands squeezing the reins ever so slightly reinforce your other aids.  Pulling back on the bit alone will only get you into a tug-of-war--one that a twelve-hundred pound animal will win every time!

Just the same, your teenager will most likely win a tug-of-war with you.  

It's not that he weighs more {well, maybe he does at this point...} or that she can actually outsmart you.  But kids in their middle and high school years want freedom so badly, they will do nearly anything to get it. "Freedom is like cocaine to a teenager," our authors from the parenting book have observed.  If you tug back, it starts a vicious cycle of desperation. 

When you want to put a horse "on the bit" as we say, coaxing him into a lovely frame, similar rules to the principles about halting apply.  You use your seat and your legs to keep the horse moving forward, pushing from his hind end to engage his entire body.  You keep a firm contact with his mouth via the outside rein, giving a half-halt, or a light tug, every now and then.  And with the inside rein, you give.  A death grip on his mouth has the opposite effect of what you're after, causing the horse to stretch out his neck in resistance rather than softening it in sunmission.

A trainer recently instructed me to stop everything I'm doing with my hands every so often for three short strides.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it's the only way Aiden will ever have a chance to put into effect what I'm trying to show him.  If my hands are always there applying pressure on his mouth, he never gets the opportunity to figure things out for himself.

Sometimes when I take the pressure away, he'll fall apart and we'll have to go back to square one.  Other times, he'll keep the bend we've been working to achieve, and it's magic.  Those are the moments you live for in riding.

{{So too, I have observed, in parenting.}}

How will your middle or high school student ever have a chance to put into practice all you've taught her if you never allow her the freedom to test her wings?  When you take away the pressure for a moment or two, she may very well fall apart.  But this is an opportunity for you to help her regroup, process what she could do differently, and for you to impart more valuable training that she'll need later on, once she's flown the coup. 

But those moments when you give a little and and she softens?  Those moments when she soars in the freedom you've allowed her?  Those will be the moments when you know she'll be okay someday, out there in the wide world,  

moments when you sit up, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Friday, September 20, 2013

On the High Holy Days, Hebrew Liturgy, and Studying for the Competency Exam

If Greek is math, Hebrew is poetry.

Greek is logical, systematic, and linear.  I am therefore a sub-par Greek student.

Fluid and full of nuance, Hebrew connects us to ancient roots and calls us to worship.  I am remembering how much I love Hebrew.

I took my final exam for first semester Greek last week and immediately dusted off my Hebrew books to begin studying for the competency exam in January.  Maybe it wasn't the best planning to try to relearn two semesters of Hebrew in four months while working full time and taking three other classes at Conwell.  But as my dad likes to say, I do nothing easy.

In perfect timing, as I was just beginning to review the Hebrew alphabet after a four-year hiatus, my former student Abby, now a college girl in New York, contacted me about the observation of the High Holy days and Messianic Judaism.

"Didn't you use to go to a Messianic synagogue and how can we celebrate Yom Kippur?" she wanted to know.  So off we went to West Haven last Saturday morning to sing the liturgies and proclaim with Jewish believers that Jesus has indeed made the final atonement for our sin.

Singing in Hebrew, I learned during my college-girl days in Richmond, is the best way to learn the language.  Slowly as we recited the blessings from Yom Kippur siddur (prayer book), I found the old words and rhythms coming back to me.

Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d and G‑d of our fathers, G‑d of Abraham, G‑d of Isaac and G‑d of Jacob, the great, mighty and awesome G‑d, exalted G‑d, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children's children, for the sake of His Name.

The Hebrew prayers are always reminding us of this God who promises a Redeemer, and in Messianic worship we rejoice that he has come in the Person of Jesus. 

Appropriately, it is the writer of the Book of Hebrews who tells us about this connection between the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur and our great once-and-for-all Redeemer:

But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance...But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:7, 11-12).

Reciting the blessings and praises of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar calls our attention to the reality of a risen Savior, who has "done away with sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26).

As I do, I am thankful for this poetic native tongue of the people of God, preserved for us that we might praise Him more.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nassau 2013: On learning to fight for the kids we love

 One of my students has started compiling stories and pictures from his teammates with the intention of putting together an anthology of our experiences in Nassau.  I love encouraging students to write, and I'm so proud of this year's team.  Here's my first stab at something to include in the anthology:

Mismatched sandals she calls slippers flop on rough terrain strewn with broken glass as she trails behind the bigger kids. Year after year, I watch them grow.

One who used to be our constant shadow, now elusive as he runs with a tougher crowd--bigger boys who trade in school for the shelter of the neighborhood gang. I see him only briefly, his once-sparkling eyes now hollow and lost. He hardly looks at me, hardly smiles that had-me-at-hello grin. Who will protect him, this darling boy who used to be protector of the little ones?

His younger brother smiles wide as ever, reminding me of the first PB&J we ever shared, the one he thanked God for in a beautiful 8-year-old prayer I wish I could remember by heart. He still greets me at the door with a shout and a toothless grin. He comes and goes more now, but still wants to play, still wants to talk. I ask him if he is studying hard, choosing good friends. "Yes ma'am," he says, meeting my eye. He tells me of his dream to go to the States. When we part ways at the end of the week, he hugs me long and hard, and I wonder how long he'll be little-boy enough to shamelessly hug the white woman who brings all her friends.

Another, the goofball of the family, looks at me with dancing eyes that promise mischief. He wears stolen sunglasses and a bandana tied like Bo peep's bonnet, making us all laugh. He answers to no one, not even to me, but looks out for the littler kids. He lies about having already had a snack and shares with a hungry neighbor. He runs ahead of the group and grins when I call him, weaving back and forth to keep an eye on us.

Their neighborhood friend has moved out of her family's plywood shanty and into one of the richer looking houses across the street. Some of the girls take me there reluctantly, saying she never comes out to play anymore. They tell me she lives with Ms. Rose because her momma kicked her out for being sassy. Ms. Rose beats her, they say. When she joins us one afternoon, she gives me her usual pout until I talk her down and tell her I've missed her and that we are going to have the best day. Finally a smile, and I cringe, thinking how they try to squelch her spirit. She is hard-as-nails to protect what they have tried to take from her. Later she comes climbing up the ladder to find me on the roof. I sternly tell her to get down, that I will find her in a few minutes. If only I had known it would be the only day we'd have all week, I'd have sprinted down and snuggled her so tight and never let go. The next day, Ms. Rose refuses to let her come and my heart is in my throat and I am imagining what is happening in that drug-lord house with its drawn blinds and all its secrets.

Her sister/cousin/friend--I only know they used to live in the same white shack--asks me about Connecticut, wants to know "is it fun there?" I laugh and tell her Connecticut is boring, that I love the Bahamas best. She says cable TV would make it fun here. I tell her I don't have cable either, and she stares at me in disbelief. "Connecticut is boring," she repeats, even and convinced. "I can come with you?" The next day, her voice on the other end of the phone shatters my foundation, leaves me reeling. I nearly double over as she tells me her momma has said she can come home to live with me. I stand there for what seems like forever, not speaking, evaluating my life and everything else I know, trying to think of an answer that will explain to a 12-year-old what I don't understand myself: why I have to leave her here. why life isn't fair. why some people live in shacks and others live in mansions. Gritting my teeth I tell her I can't take her with me. Promises to visit next year that used to seem adequate fall desperately short now.

The little one looks up wide-eyed--eyes that already have seen too much. She is obeying more than five days ago. We have made progress with this barely two-year-old wonder who was all backtalk and curse words and running out in the street at the beginning of the week and all smiles and snuggles and "yes ma'ams" at its close. The light in her is so bright, this half-pint fierce and full of daring. I wonder who she will become. Childhood slips away too quickly here; the others have taught me there's not much time.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Nassau 2013: On foiled plans and the God who works for our good

To say this week got off to a slow start would be an understatement.  On Monday, Pastor Joseph was stuck in Haiti (typical), the lay leaders we trained in April to run VBS were not able to get to the church, the supplies we needed to begin roof repair didn't turn up, and we had a bit of a snafu with another group about how to merge our ministry in the same neighborhood.

Basically, all of my plans were foiled. So trusting that God had some different ones, we set off for Carmichael Church on Tuesday for our second day of work.

My students planned a VBS lesson to use if the Haitian leaders didn't show again (they didn't), and we reworked our plan with the mission team that came to serve at Anna's house, a neighborhood where my students and I are also deeply invested. The day was going more smoothly as our roofing supplies arrived, and I was able to put our two male leaders, Codi and Andy, on the roof with three of my trusted roofing pros, students from last year's team Neil, Steve, and Adam.  They began ripping up rotten plywood on the roof and were treading carefully on the rafters below.

At 2:00 p.m., Andy fell through the roof.

Time stood still as two students on the ground ran to tell me to come. When I arrived in the bathroom where Andy had fallen, Codi was already there and Steve had sprinted to get the first aid kit from my backpack. Our friends Lauren and Nate from Mission Discovery rushed to our site and Nate and I headed with Andy to the ER.

I'm writing this as we're back in the hospital today after some harrowing complications with the injury and the care he received initially. {{Parents, take heart knowing that your students are safe and enjoying a great team debrief day we had planned for them! I popped in while Andy was in surgery and we had a sweet time of prayer on the beach.}}

Amazingly, until this morning, Andy had been up and walking around, joining us at Carmichael to play the drums and give the Haitian kids lessons.  

The whole experience has reminded me of a story about another guy who came down through a roof.

Jesus was teaching from a private home, and the place was so packed with people who wanted to hear from the wise Teacher that no one else could even squeeze through the door. Four friends wanted to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus, trusting that the Teacher would heal him. In desperation, they removed the shingles and lowered him through the roof.  In his account, Mark records that upon seeing the faith of these men, Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. After saying this, Jesus discerned that the scribes were questioning his authority in their hearts. 

So he asked them, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'your sins are forgiven,' or to say 'Rise, take up your bed, and walk?' But that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins'--he said to the paralytic--'I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.'" (Mark 2:9-11).

To the amazement of the crowds and the praise of God, the paralytic did just that.

When I asked Andy just a couple weeks ago to join us on the Nassau trip, I told him that was looking for a second male leader who could help me to focus the team on being sensitive to what God was doing throughout the trip. As it has turned out, that has indeed been Andy's most crucial role within the team, not least of all through his fall. While we were at the ER Tuesday night, our team and the two others were praying strong prayers for his recovery back at camp. He returned to camp that night to an entourage of our students and shouts of praise. And he rejoined us on the worksite on Thursday and Friday to the amazement of us all. Just like the paralytic, Andy's trip through the roof and his accompanying healing has been such that we "we're all amazed and glorified God saying, 'We never saw anything like this!'" (Mark 2:12).

A few days before our departure to Nassau, a friend and past leader of this trip said to me, "Remember that these kids need more than a lesson in social justice. You need to introduce them to a Person." Through the ups and downs of this week, and especially through Andy's bold faith, I believe each of my eighteen students have encountered Jesus in new ways.  Like the four men who were willing to do whatever it took to get their friend in front of Jesus, Andy's fall has gotten us all in front of Jesus.  The healing we have seen in points to the reality of a risen Christ who has authority to forgive their sin and who calls them to greater courage. 

There are many more stories from this week that I'm excited to share. But as I sit with my friend in recovery--waiting for his very brave and gracious wife to arrive--I'm just grateful for the God who uses the most surprising and in some cases, even the most terrifying events to bring us face to face with Him.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Last Night on Greenwood Ave

It's hard to believe the time has come to leave this sweet little nest that has been my home for nearly four years!  How I've loved decorating and entertaining and trying new recipes and writing and resting and ministering here.

I'm remembering my first official night in my first grown-up home.  I had only lived in Connecticut for six weeks, but a houseful of single girls gathered to raise a glass of wine and some prayers as we sat in a circle in my bare living room.  {Many of those women have moved away since, but still remain my close friends.}   We christened this little home, asking God to bless and use it.

When I think of all the late nights with good friends, the college girls' dinners, and the high school Bible studies that have happened here since, I'm blown away.  What a good gift.

I'm sooo excited to move in with my friends the Dorsches for a fun summer with their three girls!   But as I was flying home from Seattle a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly felt a sense of fretfulness and panic about leaving this place that I have loved so much.  I opened my Bible and started reading some Psalms, when my eyes settled on Psalm 23:6:

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The house of the LORD.  Bethel!  (To be specific, it's not the exact Hebrew word used here...but it's hard to miss the similarity.) When I first set foot in Connecticut to interview for my job at Walnut Hill, I knew that I wanted to live in this quaint New England town because of its Hebrew name.

But my truest, most perfect Home is not here on Greenwood Avenue; it is hidden in Christ--Beth'el,  the house of God.  My home here is just a shadow, and the town of Bethel a reminder that goodness and love will follow me no matter where I go. 

Just a few minutes later, on that same Seattle flight, I read this in a book for my pastoral counseling class:

In wilderness, there can be no illusion of a permanent home...When we see through God's eyes, we will not pretend that the tent we live in today can approximate the mansion in which we are destined to live.
Michael Mangis, from Care for the Soul 

Once again, it seems, God is asking me to follow the Cloud of His presence, to pick up and move without knowing what is to come next.  It's kind of scary to pack up all your belongings and put them in storage, not knowing where your next home will be.  But this is life as we trust in God's timing and plan.  Wherever the Cloud settled, the Israelites encamped (Numbers 9:17). 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Love Greater than Peanut Butter

Coming home from Nassau always feels a bit dizzying...and this time is no exception.  I'm also returning from my first-ever-soon-to-be-repeated trip to Haiti, which adds another layer of experience to debrief.

There really aren't words to describe the emotions of tonight.  Horror at some of the things I have just seen.  Immense joy as I think about the kids in Nassau and how blessed I am to call them friends.  Tremendous pride in my students, who wisely and bravely navigate cross-cultural relationships to share the love of Christ in the face of injustice.  My heart is swelling.  I am so thankful.

There were many highlights over the past ten days:

Playing with kids at the orphanages in Haiti and meeting the people who care for them.

Hiking up a hill to a little makeshift church where nearly 100 people have come to know Jesus since the earthquake, and hearing the pastor say that the Voodoo temples in the area have mostly disappeared.

Greeting my little friends in Nassau and hearing them read their nursery rhymes or tell me about school.

Watching my student, Will, fulfill the dream of his year-long senior project to plant a vegetable garden at Carmichael Church that will feed hungry kids in the neighborhood.

Dancing and giggling into the night with a group of middle school girls and women my own age at the church {{pure joy!}}. 

Spending a lazy Saturday playing with the neighborhood kids.

Taking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and popsicles to our friends at Anna's house.

Tonight, I settle back into the old rhythms.  Take Aiden molasses cookies and feel the spring breeze on my back as I ride.  Get a manicure to remove the grime of the past ten days from under my fingernails.  Order takeout.  Cozy up on my plush sofa and call my parents.

But as I slide easily into my comfy life with all its little luxuries, the children I met in Haiti will still have to climb a half mile or more up hill with the day's water.  And as Will wisely remarked today, our friend Ronell is still sitting on the same dank stoop in the hot Bahamian sun.  The precious kids I love still don't have a clean spot to lay their heads.

And the same old question haunts me:  
what must change in my life to make a difference in theirs? 

It is one thing to travel to these places and offer love, encouragement, a PB&J.  But it's another to effect lasting change.  I want to do that.  To make a difference that counts.  And as I lie between my soft, organic cotton sheets writing this, I confess that change--real change--feels far off. How can it be near when I'm so comfy-cozy-not-lacking-anything?  These are the questions with which I wrestle, without exception, each time I return from the little Haitian slum on Carmichael Road.

Sister Mona at the Good Shepherd Orphanage in Carfour, Haiti says that presence is the most important thing we can give.  "When you come with your smiles and play with our children," the articulate orphanage director quips, "we know that we are no longer forsaken." 

And so it is with my Jesus, who had dirt under his fingernails.  He stopped to spend time with the down-and-out, the brokenhearted, and the outcast.  He invited children to come sit on his lap.  He offered some loaves and fish.  Even he, our Good Teacher and the Healer of the whole world did not solve the problems of poverty and hunger and injustice in a day.  He just moved on into the neighborhood (John 1:14) and visited a while. 

They know Him best, these little friends of mine with not much in their tummies.  And spending time with them, I come to know Him better, too.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The God Who Stoops Low

On Wednesday I was writing discussion questions for our area WHY Groups on the Beatitudes.  I hoped to draw the distinction between our world's view of success and what Jesus says about what it means to be blessed.  In a way only Jesus can, he radically redefines our ideas of blessedness: if you are poor, if you mourn, if you are meek, hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, or persecuted--you will be blessed (Matthew 5:3-10).

Lutheran pastor/teacher Brian Stoffregen's comments are helpful in understanding the Greek word for "blessed," makarios:

"The old Rabbi said, "In olden days there were men who saw the face of God."
"Why don't they any more?" a young student asked.
"Because, nowadays no one stoops so low," he replied.
"Who wants to be a lowly person? Who wants to be stooped down? Most of us spend a good part of our lives trying to pull ourselves up. We want to walk tall in society. But, according to this rabbi, it is the lowly – those stooped low – who see the face of God. According to Jesus in the Beatitudes, it is the lowly – those stooped low – who are blessed by God. This runs counter to the normal uses of that word for blessed, makarios."

Later that afternoon, I went to WestConn to hear a speaker from a New Haven-based NGO called Love146 that combats the child sex slave trade.  The organization is closely linked to IJM, but its focus is more narrow.

Love146 COO Jim Ehrmen expertly communicated the problem to an audience for whom the issue was relatively new.  "The market value of a slave in 1850 was $40,000 with inflation," he said.  "And pardon my crassness, but when you have a machine at that value, you take care of it."  Then he shared the shocking reality; a child sex slave in today's economy is worth roughly $90.  And so millions of children around the world are being trafficked and used as commodities that may be discarded when they are no longer useful to their owners.

"You wanna know what's fueling sex trafficking right now," Jim asked the crowd.  "Children who don't have a rudder, who don't have a home, who don't have a sense of well-being."  

In the face of such devastating information, I'm thankful that we serve a God who has stooped low for us, making himself nothing (Philippians 2) and taking on the suffering of the world.

I continue to wrestle with this question of how I am to join Him in this stooping low, this identifying with the suffering of the poor, the mourning, the hungry, the persecuted.  

This morning, I'm departing for Haiti--a part of the world that some have called "Fourth World," simply because the living conditions there are so far beyond anything else in the underdeveloped world (i.e. Third World).  I am thankful for this opportunity to meet those who have seen the face of God.  May we be a people who take hold of the same blessing.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Our Rescuer

Tonight is Maundy Thursday, when we remember the events of the night Jesus was betrayed into the hands of the crowds.  (The chief priests and elders were cowards and would not come for him themselves.)

As I thought today about the coming Easter weekend, I found myself craving liturgy and solemn observance--and even anonymity.  {When you work at a church, sometimes you long to be an anonymous worshiper.} And so I went to a Maundy Thursday service tonight at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, where the pastor is a Gordon-Conwell graduate and the former pastor of my close friends on the North Shore.

It is a solemn night, and all the collects are all solemn.  We recite the confession together, declaring: "we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition." And I am weeping already, kneeling on the pew kneelers and remembering that I need rescuing.

We take communion and remember that Jesus prepared this meal for his disciples so that they would have assurance of his grace and his presence with them.  Even after his crucifixion.  Even after everything had changed.

But this meal is not just any meal--it is inextricably linked to the Passover, which is taking place this very week.

Fittingly, I talked with students this past Sunday about Moses and the first Passover.
{{I outline the curriculum and even write the material for our 9:00 a.m. small groups, but this timing had not been intentional--at least not on my part.}}

As I prepared last week to speak to students about Moses and the burning bush (before they split up to discuss the story in their groups), the verses that stood out to me were Exodus 3:7-8:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.  So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

"Can't you just imagine it?" I asked my sophomore girls after we had split up from the larger group.  "God looks down on you and on me, and He says, I have indeed seen the misery of my people...I am concerned about their suffering.  So I have come down to rescue them! and He sends Jesus.  Our Rescuer.

Paul puts it this way in Titus 3:3-5:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

Like the Israelites, we too have been enslaved.  Our passions and pleasures have held us captive to sin.  Our Enemy has kept us in bondage.  But God has indeed seen our misery, has been concerned about our suffering.  And He himself has come down to rescue us.

In the first Passover meal, God rescued His people from the hand of their oppressors.  In this Passover, He has rescued us from ours.