Your Church Could Do This Now

Many churches in my state are starting to reopen but with really strange requirements like RSVP, only sitting in certain locations, escorts in and out, and limits on attendees. I am encouraged that church families will start to gather again, offer collective praise and worship, and actively demonstrate their love for God and one another. But is that all there is to a church? My prayer is that churches have realized during lockdown and shelter in place that outside of a weekly gathering, there is so much that they can be doing. Here are just two examples:

Provide An Outlet For Prayer and Encouragement. The other day, I was getting gas and a woman who I had spotted earlier pulled up close to my gas pump and began imploring me to “call out to Jesus, to pray for my family and to ask for his protection and care. That Jesus was my only hope and answer for salvation.” She didn’t know that I already call out to Jesus and that I already trust him. It didn’t matter to her, driven by a sense of urgency for our world and the reality of a scary virus, she needed to proclaim what was most important to her.

The bottom line, people are still scared and freaked out and concerned. They may have lost their job, they may be banned from seeing their ailing parents, they may be trying to manage a broken relationship in the midst of shelter-in-place, and they have not seen close friends in months.

geometric decoration

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Churches should create prayer lines, or private Zoom forums for people to let out their frustrations and have a caring, loving person listen. They could throw together a small prayer garden with some benches and flowers to let people just come and sit in a tranquil location. Churches can’t assume that everyone is managing this time well. They need to be creative to help those who are urgently seeking answers and are scared and uncertain.

Open Up A “Business” Center. I am the director of a college library and as we started to open the group of people who most wanted to be in the library were not just students but community people who are desperately trying to navigate job applications, resume building, unemployment benefits, and form after form. They may be lacking the toner ink or the paper or the quality wi-fi to manage all that they are needing to do to provide for their family and survive the next year.

A church could make a room available in their building with a few donated computers, a printer, good internet, a smile, and some coffee for community people who are desperate to handle the frustrating hassle of what comes next. Sure, be safe, make people set an appointment, screen people, wipe down everything. But, offer a basic service that would be quite simple to provide and manage.

COVID-19 has helped us all rethink how we work, teach, worship, and be a family. Let it also help us rethink how to be the church and serve our church family and the needy people outside the church walls.

Finding Jesus In A Podcast About Buddhism

While listening to a podcast that was highlighting the work of a Buddhist author, I heard phrases and bits that led me to deeper and more profound thoughts on Jesus and his love.

The first phrase that was mentioned was, “this kinship with the suffering of others.” This made me think about Jesus when his friend Lazurus dies and Jesus is so overcome with emotion that he weeps. I thought about the ridicule, false accusations, and attacks that Jesus suffered from people that had such influence and power on the communities where he operated. I thought about Jesus being betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends and how that must have left him so lonely and disappointed. I thought about the humiliation and pain of the cross and facing death in such a public and torturous way.

Jesus knew suffering and knows our suffering.

The next phrase that they mentioned was “a love that never dies.” There is nothing very revolutionary about this phrase because we use phrases like endless love and never-ending love in songs and on cards all the time. What I thought about was Jesus embodying the phrase “a love that never dies.” The person of Jesus, representing love, dying but three days later being resurrected. I moved from the pop song, greeting card notion of love to a person making the ultimate sacrifice and defeating death. He truly is a love that never dies. And I get to experience that person dwelling inside me, working on my behalf, and showing me how to walk in that kind of love.

The third part that more than just go my attention was a discussion about descending into human identification and suffering rather than just seeking spiritual heights and ecstasies. The thought that came to mind was Jesus experiencing the eternal presence of God, the joy and certainty of heaven but yet coming to inhabit earth. Jesus seemed to prefer to be with the lowest of the low and didn’t require his followers to meet him on some high spiritual plane but moved down and down into humanity because that is where he is most needed. “Right down into the thick of things we discover the love that never dies.”

The differences between the Buddhist thought expressed in the podcast and the way of Jesus is that Buddhism asks the individual to achieve identification with the suffering of others, the individual to develop the love that never dies, and the individual to move down into the thick of things despite the pain and turmoil that might be there.

Christianity is making a person, Jesus Christ, the Lord of your life because he already knows our suffering, our temptations, and our disappointments. He demonstrated and allows us to share in his death and resurrection because he is the love that never dies. And Jesus is not sitting on some high mountain of holiness expecting us to climb to him but descended to us and made his kingdom as present as the next room, present even to our own hearts.

Christianity begins and ends with the person of Jesus Christ. So much so that even as a I was listening to thought that was not my own, all I could think about was Jesus and his truth.

Now Is The Time For A Spiritual Check Up

Eight weeks of shutdown has made us all assess every aspect of our life. What work and school can be accomplished at home? What is this place they call a park? Do I know how to work an oven? Is our WiFi strong enough?

But as some areas begin to open up and people start to find what they have been missing, I thought it would be a good time to assess where we all are in our Grow Up plan, our spiritual formation.

So, here are some questions to ask yourself and some exercises to try to strengthen or develop what needs to Grow Up.

Questions of Assessment

God

  1. Is the God you are envisioning right now good and merciful and loving or is he angry, wrathful, and stingy?
  2. Are you connecting more to God through prayer, listening, and worship or do you find it harder to practice these soul training exercises?

Your Life

  1. Do you find it hard to consider your life good right now with so much taken away from you? Is your faith at the mercy of your circumstances?
  2. What negative points of your character have surfaced and been prominently revealed to you and others? Anger? Impatience? Fear? Selfishness? Lack of Sympathy?

Community

  1. How has your thoughts on the value of the local church and your role in the church changed during this time?
  2. Have you been motivated to serve others and help those in need?

'I_Can't_Grow_Up'_mural_in_Manhattan_created_by_Baron_von_Fancy

Exercises to try to help you Grow Up in these areas

God

  1. Take a walk and consider all that God has provided for you in his natural world? Notice something new that is worthy of your amazement and thank God for it.
  2. Instead of making requests of God, ask him what he wants from you and then listen for his reply.

Your Life

  1. Read Mark 9:1-29 everyday for a week. Notice Jesus, notice the disciples, notice the boy’s father. Let God reveal to you what is most needed in your life.
  2. Live with Jesus for the next 10 minutes. Don’t try to solve all of your spiritual problems at once. Just simply see what it looks and feels like to walk side by side with Jesus for the next 10 minutes.

Community

  1. Who can you connect with today? Who needs to hear from you? Make an effort to call, text, write a letter, or FaceTime this person.
  2. I love the stories of surprise gifts and unexpected blessings. Who can you surprise with a small gesture of service and love? Give them toilet paper, or a box of masks, or some crayons, or a gift card. It doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate.

It has been said many times to not let “a crisis go to waste.” Ask God what he wants your life to look like right now and go about letting him shape that life. Surrender to whatever he has for you. You won’t regret it and will look back on this strange year as a time when you Grew Up like never before.

A Stress Free Prayer Life

Sometimes I will ask one of our daughters to pray before a meal or before going to bed at night. As they pray, they will sometimes stumble over their words or forget what they were trying to say or say something that doesn’t make much sense. They will end the prayer and then start apologizing for how they messed up the prayer or they will kick themselves for a poor word choice or line that sounded dumb.

As adults, when we find ourselves inept in our prayer life we aren’t full of apologies or anger at ourselves. Instead, we just stop praying. We think that we don’t have the skill for it or no one is listening or nothing sounds very spiritual or that God is bored with our unimaginative words.

In reality, God delights in hearing from us and relishes each word that comes out of our mouths and longs to have time with us where he can communicate and have us communicate with him.

1996.91.47_1.tif

I don’t berate our daughters when they mess up their prayers. I don’t criticize them for their prayer miscues. If their father, who is prone to grumpiness and annoyance and can be overly critical, isn’t being too hard on them as they pray, why on earth would their loving Father in heaven think they have screwed up?

Likewise, as those of us who are more mature in their life with Christ pray we can take the pressure off of ourselves.

Just now, as I was writing this, I paused to get up from my computer and said a prayer for this blog post. Here was my prayer, “Father, may your will be done with this post, may this post be well, may this post bring someone joy and peace, and may someone know the extent of your love for them through reading this.”

I obviously was forcing my prayer about my blog post into language that I use for other prayers. Why? Because I don’t usually have very articulate words to pray and I need the structure of a prayer pattern to keep me focused and praying for important things.

The format and structure doesn’t matter. The point is, God is hearing me, God is ready to answer my prayers, and God is delighted that I am wanting to talk to him again today.

We all would be better off to quit overthinking our prayers and just sit for a while and let the words come. This may be one minute or 25 minutes but just sit and start mentioning what you want to thank God for, ask him to help a few people in your life that you care about, ask him to change your heart to be more like Christ’s, and be willing to listen too.

You and God are doing this life thing together whether we recognize it or not so you might as well start talking to him about it. He has no condemnation for you, only open arms and ears to hear from his beloved child.

 

Relax…Your Life Doesn’t Have to Be Amazing Even In Lockdown

It seems like I am supposed to have more time on my hands to read more. It seems like I am supposed to have overhauled my landscaping. It seems like I should have completed every TV series in the Trending block of my Netflix feed. It seems like I should have perfected bread making. It seems like I should have read all of the Psalms and embraced their rich meaning in light of the lockdown we find ourselves in. It seems like I should have mastered homeschooling, which I have never done before, and working from home, which I have never done before.

The reality is I have practiced my ukelele playing a bit more. I have learned to tie a few more knots. I have tackled a few more home projects with a bit more energy and purpose. I have learned what Twitch is and why I might want to use it. I have learned Teams and Zoom and Sharepoint and Loom and Google Classroom.

But, I am not okay and that is okay. I am not supposed to be okay.

I haven’t taken communion in over a month and I haven’t sung songs with a church community. There are people that I care about and pull for be told that they will no longer have a job when this is all over. My daughter has been robbed of her junior year in high school and all of the rich and profound memories that accompany that season of life. Our oldest daughter was supposed to go on a Spring Break trip to New York and that was taken away from her. Our youngest loved her drama club and the chance to perform this spring and that was canceled for good.

pexels-photo-3952231.jpeg

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

These things are just what I have experienced personally. What of the people that have no jobs, the people suffering in isolation and with little personal comfort? What of the health care workers and their mental anguish, tired bodies, and fear? What of families that can no longer be together.

I am not okay with any of this.

I have embraced a bit more margin in my life and the lessened strain on my time but I am not living my best life and there is no reason for us to think that I have to. I shouldn’t think that if I am not “making the most of this” that something is wrong with me.

For you, there is nothing wrong with you if you are not thriving during this season of lockdown. There is nothing wrong with you if you are depressed, scared, angry, frustrated, lazy, and unfocused.

What is essential for us to be reminded over and over in our lifetimes is that what we do and what we accomplish and what we feel is so not completely dependent on us. I can’t make myself be productive or get a better attitude or Grow Up. God has to intevene for these things to happen. The transforming work of Christ has to work on our hearts to create good.

We have to practice spiritual disciplines, we have to surrender ourselves to God, we have to leave the outcomes to him, and put ourselves in a position to be changed but God does the changing.

So, if you are burdened by the pressure to do more or be greater or win during such a disruptive time then I would suggest that you be reminded of your limitations, I know I have, and let God accomplish his will for you. God’s will is ‘where what God wants done is done.’ Not what I want done but what he wants done.

So, quit the comparison game and stop trying to impress those around you and simply tell God, “I want nothing more than what you want for my life and I surrender all of my selfish ambitions and petty achievements for the hope of living in your good and perfect will. God, do with me what you will and give me the heart to accept it.”

That is living your best life.

Recalibrating What It Means To Be A Christian

Every day of this pandemic, we are all having to reconfigure our days because what we have known is in such upheaval.

Is it the same for our spiritual life? Do you need to rethink your spiritual life in the same way your have started rethinking your work life? Your home life? Your student life? Your social life?

We may need to ask ourselves, if I am not going to a physical church or meeting with a physical small group am I still practicing my religion? Sure, I can watch church services from all over the world on my laptop but is that all I have been called to do as a Christian? Just consume Christian content like I consume cooking shows or Survivor?

Eugene Peterson calls the Christian life “a long obedience in the same direction.” The word ‘same’ might throw us off and give us a false sense of what we should be doing. We might think that we just have to maintain our church attendance, keep reading our Bibles, and pray occasionally and we have got this “same direction” thing down.

This would be wrong thinking.

The same direction is a person and we just finished celebrating his life, death, burial, and resurrection. Our long obedience is pointing to Jesus and his life and his purposes, and his teachings, and his cross, and his resurrection power. Our long obedience now is not toward more church attendance because we can’t attend church right now. Our long obedience is not toward consuming the next popular Christian vlog or online course, as helpful as these may be. Our long obedience, especially now, in the midst of a complete shutdown of society, is toward Christ.

This is why Growing Up, or spiritual formation, is so important and can never just be a nice add on to our Christian life. Because when all of our religious trappings are removed, we are just left with our life and what Christ is doing in our life and how our life is interacting with His.

analog audio mixer

Photo by Carlos Santos on Pexels.com

Dallas Willard calls spiritual formation, learning “to live the kind of life that Jesus would live if he were you.” If Jesus was in your house, with your kids, your responsibilities, or lack there of, during this time, how might he be going about his day, what sort of things would he be doing, what sort of routines would he have? What would characterize his actions? This is what it means to be a Christian and what it has always meant to be a Christian.

Church attendance, Bible study participation, and consumption of Christian programming can be vitally important to a thriving Christian life but it can never be a replacement for an interactive, vibrant, and humble relationship with Jesus. What is it that the writer of Hebrews says? “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…”

So during this time of shutdown, may you and I be reminded of our salvation in Christ and that this same Christ is to be relied upon to transform, shape, and renovate our lives. We have been forced to rethink how we do everything we might as well rethink how we do this Christian life and learn to Grow Up.

Don’t know where to start? Jesus will help you. Ask him and he will give you a starting point and then another and then another. Start today.

‘The World He Claims, Claims Him’

I shared this several years ago and need to make it an Easter tradition. Don’t let this Easter go by without reflecting on the cross.

I continue sharing some excerpts from Francis Spufford’s book Apologetic. I hope this helps you see the sacrifice of Jesus in a fresh way so that Good Friday and Easter are profoundly inspiring to you. I would suggest that you read the words below as a meditation on Christ’s work, his death, the reason for it, and the great sacrifice he carried out for you and for me. This is hard work and we often avoid this kind of dark reality but we do enough avoidance of reality. It is true, the joy of Sunday is coming so maybe you need to linger on Friday a bit more to make Sunday that much sweeter.

lest we forget cross

Photo by Eric Smart on Pexels.com

spufford

And yet he goes on taking in. It is not what he does, it is what he is. He is all open door: to sorrow, suffering, guilt, despair, horror, everything that cannot be escaped, and he does not even try to escape it, he turns to meet it, and claims it all as his own. This is mine now, he is saying; and he embraces it with all that is left in him, each dark act, each dripping memory, as if it were something precious, as if it were itself the loved child tottering homeward on the road. But there is so much of it. So many injured children; so many locked rooms; so much lonely anger; so many bombs in public places; so much vicious zeal; so many bored teenagers at roadblocks; so many drunk girls at parties someone thought they could have a little fun with; so many jokes that go too far; so much greed; so much sick ingenuity; so much burned skin. The world he claims, claims him. It burns and stings, it splinters and gouges, it locks him round and drags him down.

…There is nothing to keep him company there but the light he’s always felt shining beneath things. But the light is going. He’s so deep down now in the geology of woe, so buried beneath the mountains’ weight of it, that the pressure is squeezing out his feeling for the light. There is nothing left of it for him but a speck, a pinpoint the world grinds in on itself, a dot dimming as the strata of the dark are piled heavier and heavier on it. And then it goes out…This is the first time in his life he’s ever felt alone. Now there is no love song. There is no kind father. There is just a man on a cross, dying in pain; a foolish man who chose to give up life and breath to be a carcass on a pole.

Easter Doesn’t Lose Its Power Because You Are in Your Pajamas

When we gather for Easter this year some of us may be in our pajamas instead of our latest store bought outfit. Most of us will be gathered around a TV rather than an altar. Our communion bread might be cinnamon toast. Nothing will feel like a holiday or a time of rejoicing.

A friend of mine posted this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“We always used to think: it was one of the elementary rights of man that he should be able to plan his life in advance, both private life and professional. That is a thing of the past. The pressure of events is forcing us to give up ‘being anxious for the morrow’…Thinking and acting for the sake of the coming generation, but taking each day as it comes without fear and anxiety – that is the spirit in which we are being forced to live in practice. It is not easy to be brave and hold out, but it is imperative.”

As we deal with an odd threat that is invisible, often distant, and yet seemingly creeping into our neighborhoods, we must find ways to face each day without fear and anxiety.

What does that mean for Easter?

Well, it means that Easter, despite the bazaar virtual nature of its services and commemorations, will need to be embraced with a special intensity this year. It means that the truth of Christ’s resurrection will need to be proclaimed and celebrated with all the conviction that we can muster. Why? Because the promise of the resurrection is the promise that sickness and death does not have the last word. It is the promise that evil and brokenness does not win.

Roger Bennett, in a newsletter called The Raven, shared these words sent to him by a reader. I have modified them to include what I think is the only piece that matters, Christ Jesus.

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break and all things can be mended, not with time as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is (in) you. [The light of the resurrected Christ’”]

Thank God that Easter will fall during a spike in coronavirus cases and even deaths. For it will be a deep reminder that the mending we need and the resurrection we long for is available and ever present. The power of Easter is greater than the power of a virus or economic collapse. Embrace this fact and don’t let the odd circumstance of your personal Easter celebration hinder your worship and celebration. You need this Easter more than any other year and so does everyone else.

 

We Have Entered The Coronavirus Sabbath

In 44 years of life, I have never seen anything like this – the complete shutdown of all aspects of society. No segment of society is unaffected by COVID-19. I am working from home for the first time in my life, no churches are meeting in a building, March Madness is canceled, schools are shuttered, and traffic is eerily clear.

I find it very profound that this is all happening during Lent, that six week period where Christians prepare for Easter by solemn services, prayer, repentance, and self-denial. God appreciates our humble attempts to forgo caffeine or TV during Lent but this year he may be forcing us to sacrifice much more. He may be forcing us into an extended Sabbath.

If you are unfamiliar with Sabbath, it is the ceasing of work for one day, usually Sunday, to worship, rest, and learn to trust God with our time and energy. The idea in Sabbath keeping is that we follow God’s example of resting on the seventh day of creation and make a “radical statement that we are not God, and we trust him to hold the world together.”

Those that do not practice Sabbath can face a terrible toll. Peter Scazzero, in his book The Emotionally Healthy Leader, says, “If we do not keep the Sabbath, we are incurring a deficit and God himself will stop us, through a crisis, a health issue, an emergency, or anything that gets our attention.”

grayscale photo of a woman resting on a wooden chair

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Has God stopped us to get our attention?

I am very limited in knowing what God is up to but I can tell you that I have struggled in the past two weeks to accept my inactivity. I have struggled surrendering my time and agenda. I have struggled losing the routines that give me a sense of control over my life. I have struggled not being king over my little kingdom.

God is certainly using this disruption to get my attention; to cling to him for my next move even if that move is to do nothing. I look around my house and see the people that are the most precious to me and remember that they need me and I need them. I come to grips with my tendency to live out of a sense of scarcity rather than abundance. These are all lessons that I need to learn and work on and I would not be working on them right now if it wasn’t for this extended Sabbath that we are all in.

I want to lean into this time; learn to rest; learn to trust; and let God be in charge and receive this gift of Sabbath that can come in no other way.

How is God getting your attention during this extended Sabbath? Have you committed this time to him or are you still clinging to your own wants and stubbornness? How might this Sabbath get you to Grow Up?

God Is Not Practicing Social Distancing

As if modern life wasn’t isolating enough, experts are telling us that in order to avoid a raging virus and to save our own health and that of others we must isolate ourselves and distance ourselves from fellow humans and their contact.

How depressing and lonely.

May we find encouragement in the nearness of God. “Yeah, Yeah,” you might say, “he is in heaven and that seems like a far off place.” This is not true. The Greek word that is at the root of the word “heaven” means “to cover” or “to encompass.” Heaven surrounds us and it is literally the air we breathe. When we pray, “Our father, who art in heaven…” we have to understand that heaven, where God is present, is in the farthest reaches of the cosmos but also near to us, as near as the particles of oxygen that we survive on.

MVIMG_20200303_183728

Frederick Buechner said, “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and with the world.”

You may have to work from home but God is closer than the air you breathe. You may not be able to worship with your church family but God is closer than the air you breathe. Your favorite restaurant may be closed but God is closer than the air you breathe. You may be quarantined but God is closer than the air you breathe. You may be isolated from family and friends but God is closer than the air you breathe. Six feet of social distancing may feel like a canyon between you and others but God is closer than the air you breathe.

God is there to listen to you, to speak to you, and to be present with you. Embrace the nearness of God and draw comfort, peace, and a way to live in these isolated times.

 

This post was inspired by a daily reading from The Reservoir: A Spiritual Formation Devotional, Renovare, 2019.