Finding Community

When I stop in at my favorite local coffee shop I see a group of women huddled over the newspaper working the daily crossword puzzle together. While searching for words they share stories and coffee. Their laughter is sweet music. Their focus on each other blesses me. So I finally stopped enjoying them from afar and went to their table.

“Hi. My name is Tina. I write about the things I see, and I have watched you each time I come in. And I want you to know how much you bless me by faithfully meeting together. May I take your picture? And would you mind if I wrote about your little coffee shop community?”

They agreed on all accounts.

During Super Bowl LIV, Facebook paid the big bucks and had a commercial highlighting their different groups:

Why is Facebook and all the other social media sites (Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, et al) thriving? Probably for the same reason it’s sometimes hard to get a seat at one of our local coffee shops, or why McDonalds is packed out before the sun comes up with seniors drinking coffee and chatting—and trust me it’s not about the coffee!

Whether it’s coffee, beer, or the daily crossword, we all crave a sense of community: we want to feel like we belong. We need to know that if we reach out someone will be there. That someone will care.

Now before the introvert and hermit crowd get all in a huff, and mumble something about not needing anyone: the bottom line is we really do need each other. Even introverts need people…just in small, controlled, selective doses. 

I believe that human beings were created by a loving God to be in relationship: relationship with the creator…and with each other. That’s why in the manual for living (aka, the Bible) there are so many instructions to work on the relationship with the creator (Love God), and to love one another. It’s both and. Love God—vertical relationship. Love each other—horizontal relationships.

So I’m wondering, how are you, how are we, doing at creating and maintaining healthy relationships, holy connections?

More thoughts on this will follow…let’s stay connected. 

Last Words…

(Once again going through writing files. Finding this the day after the tragic helicopter crash that killed nine people in California, including Kobe Bryant and his daughter, just seemed serendipitous. That and realizing how sick my mom was last week, well, I just want to encourage us to say those things that need to be said to find healing, comfort, and closure.)

My dad died in August 1989. He had cancer of the bladder that metastasized to his lungs, kidneys, and finally the brain. In July, he had a seizure, and while his body kept functioning, my dad was gone. I came home while he was still in the hospital. I was sitting with Dad, giving Mom a break, when the fog in his brain lifted. He began speaking clearly and using familiar hand gestures and expressions. It was so good to see him. He started to make me a diagram on the tablet I was writing on. About thirty seconds into what he was explaining his writing and his speech began to slur, and he was back in the fog.

A few weeks later, we received a call from Mom. The hospice nurse had told her to gather the family. They didn’t know if he would even make it through the day. It was the quickest trip from Kansas City to Columbus we ever made. That was Friday. Dad lingered until Wednesday. Each of us had our time by his bedside. We all said lots of things, but I don’t know what he heard. More than anything I said, what I wanted was to hear him say he loved me…one more time.

Last words. They hold such power and weight. Jesus knew that. As he came to the end of his time, he gathered the disciples close, and gave them his undivided attention and teaching. As I think through those lessons I’m thankful Jesus’ last words to Peter weren’t about his betrayal, but were an instruction to feed Jesus’ sheep.

Last words. Here’s the problem with them. Jesus knew when he was going to die. He had the opportunity to plan out those final meetings with the people who mattered the most to him—an advantage not many of us have. We rarely have a clue what could happen in a day. This was driven home to me when the husband of a friend had a colonoscopy done, and two weeks later he was gone. Or when my fifteen year old nephew fell off a cliff at church camp and died. Or when one month after becoming friends with a precious, encouraging woman, she was killed in a head on automobile accident.

So here’s what I think the challenge for us is. We have to learn to somehow live as if all our words were our last words. As if all our lessons to our children were the last lessons we were going to give. Would it make a difference? Hopefully, there would be more love and grace. When asked if he knew he only had a short time to live if he would change anything, John Wesley replied he would not, implying he was already living with a sense of the importance of each moment. Are we there yet? I know I’ve got room for improvement.

In Ken Gire’s book, Reflective Living, he discusses the Shema. He describes how important this was to the Jewish believer. It would be the first thing they said every morning and the last thing said every night. Their last words before they died would be the Shema: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deut. 6:5, NIV).”

If we were living this kind of ALL consuming love, perhaps we would come to say all the things we need to say while we’re alive. I believe living all out this way will make Jesus’ last words more real to us, and help our words, first and last, count more now…

…and in the end.

And Be Thankful…

(I’ve been staying with my mom for a couple weeks. She is recovering from a nasty bout of pneumonia. This morning we were having a conversation about worry, control, and acceptance of the new normal. After our talk, I found this piece in my to be finished file. The message seems timely…hope it is for you, too.)

Have you ever considered what it must have been like to be Adam and Eve? How perfect their life was. How every one of their needs was met before they could ask. How they had no questions, because there was no need. How every day they walked with God—they were completely in his presence.

How cunning of the Tempter to challenge their naïveté, their simple way of life.

He challenged them on the only front he could: their desire for more, their sense of entitlement. And they bit and bought his deception, and that introduced the problem of dissatisfaction to the whole human race.

We are entering the season of the year when we focus not only on being thankful, but a time when we contemplate the giving of the greatest gift—God himself coming as a baby—born that man no more may die.

Recently, I spent some time in my Sunday message addressing how meekness is not weakness. I suggested the definition: Meekness is therefore an active and deliberate acceptance of undesirable circumstances that are wisely seen by the individual as only part of a larger picture. 

I think Paul must have understood this. 

To the Corinthian church he wrote: Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NLT).

Eugene Peterson in The Message gives us this paraphrase of the same passage: I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. Now I could see Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Because of this shift in thinking, I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get—the less control I try to muster, the stronger I become.

To the Colossians Paul also wrote: And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father (Colossians 3:15-17, NLT).

And to the Thessalonians, in his final advice section, he pens: Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NLT).

James got it too: Dear brothers and sisters,[a] when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing (James 1:2-4, NLT).

Our strength comes from being grateful that God is in control. We can rely on him. The recognition of our inability to control things is where our weakness meets up with God’s strength.

This is where I find confidence to declare with Paul, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

It’s not a matter of “doing” everything. 

I can’t do everything, or every thing.

But I can face what ever comes my way.

Because he promises in all things we are—or can be—more than conquerors.

So when the tempter slithers up beside and tries to convince you that you don’t have enough, or the best, or less than someone else—call him what he is: a big fat liar.

The LORD, he is your shepherd…and you have everything you need…

…and be grateful.

Part 2: Applying the Critique

(If you didn’t read the previous post, you might consider doing so…in case I can’t make this make sense on its own.)

Today has been a full day of blessed meetings, phone calls, and contacts…but also a day saturated with the awareness of growth. That’s all so exciting to me.

As I am typing this post, I feel lighter and hopeful. I have been able to shut the door on the negative messages I had allowed to permeate my thinking, mood, and actions.

My work with writing critique groups has been very helpful as I have struggled to understand the critique I received on my messages. Here are few important things I’ve learned about critique:

  1. When people are courageous enough to give you their perception, don’t ignore it. As weird as it may sound: it is a gift.
  2. As the receiver of critique, we have the opportunity accept or reject what is being offered. Prayerfully listening will assist in one’s ability to discern what’s best and truly helpful.
  3. This bullet may not apply to you, but it’s abundantly true for me: I do not need to be perfect. Perfection, or the expectation of perfection, can often limit our ability to grow. I will either be disappointed because I’m not measuring up, or feel defeated and just give up. My goal needs to be growth (process/journey) not perfection.
  4. There’s always something to be learn. When we stop learning, we stop living.

So how do I apply this learning from my experience with writing critique. Here’s what I know about myself.

  • I like writing devotions. I major in paring down the fat, leaving the nugget. So why should I be wounded that someone is saying I’m too long winded. Cut back on the fluff and make sure the treasure (main point) shines. Editing is our friend.
  • I teach a course to men and women preparing for leadership in the Church of the Brethren that focuses on Christian Education in the Small Church. I remember clearly telling the class that the message is not the be-all-end-all of the worship experience. Yes, I put enormous energy and study into crafting a message plan that builds on the full word of God. I give attention to my year plan and series of messages. I focus on the things that are distinctive to Brethren. I challenge myself. I listen to the Spirit. I’m sensitive to the needs of the people. But the message is just one part of the worship experience. I had forgotten this. The weight I put on the message and myself had become disproportionate. I don’t even like thinking about what it had become.

Here’s where it gets super exciting for me. The Enemy of my soul and ministry was winning while I was stuck licking my wound. Ugh. Nelson was right. I let it go on way too long. The great and wonderful news is: I’m back! I’m ready to grow. I have a new tool and I’m not afraid to use it—to the glory of God and the help of my neighbor.

Get ready church! God’s my best editor. Here come his treasured nuggets.

Brain Protection

I have learned to take critique. Thank you, Word Weavers. I have actually gotten to the place with my writing that I seek out the input of others to make me a better writer.

Sadly, this openness to input and constructive criticism had not reached other parts of my life.

Not long ago, the chairman of the commission I’m directly responsible to informed me that I need to cut back on the length of my sermons, and stick to my manuscript so that I don’t get off topic so much.

I love preaching. And I was under the impression after only glowing comments for the past four and a half years that the congregation was pleased with my style and delivery. I make a point of watching the crowd and thought I was reading them well.

Guess not.

I began to feel like I used to when I got job evaluations. The whole eval could be positive, but if there was one point where I perceived I received a negative “grade” that’s all I could focus on. And I always took it personally. That’s what coming from a shame-based family will do for you—at least it did for me.

I complied. I became a clock watcher. I finished in time for the closing hymn—whether I was done or not. I stopped short of saying, “Well, I can see we’re out of time…” I read the manuscript and held onto the sides of the pulpit to avoid walking away from the script and getting lost in my illustrations.

And I went home and cried every Sunday. And I sought solace in food.

Finally, this last week, my husband said, “Enough.” He went on to describe the disturbing depth of my funk, suggested a few options, and instructed me to pull out of my head.

In case I’ve never mentioned it here…I really appreciate this guy.

Then on Monday I pulled up several posts from my dear friend, Debby Berry. She’s going through a really tough time and is blogging some really powerful stuff. I plugged into her posts on Philippians 4:8 and what we need to be feeding our mind.

And a light came on in my brain. And it continued to shine brighter and brighter as I got ready for a bike ride. I remembered one of my favorite stories.

A long time ago, I read about a couple little kids who were going to ride their bikes. One kid showed up wearing his helmet. The other kid didn’t and he started teasing his buddy about his “baby hat.” The helmet wearer responded by asking why his friend’s parents didn’t make him wear one. His buddy had no answer. Helmet boy, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I guess my mom loves my brain more than yours does.”

And I heard the sweet whisper of God: I love your brain. We need to work on your thinking.

Couldn’t argue with that.

So I put the bike on the rack and headed toward my favorite trail.

Half way down the road (flying down the interstate) I realized I forgot my helmet. I don’t ride without my helmet. Well, that’s not exactly true. This summer I got all the way (21 miles from home) to the trail and realized I’d left my helmet by the door. I opted to ride anyway, but the guilt each time I passed a child on their bike, riding with their parents, and wisely wearing their helmets, was huge. I kept wanting to shout an apology: “I’m sorry. I know I’m being a horrible example. Keep wearing those helmets kids!”

Right then, I decided I was stopping in at the bike shop near trail before I started my ride. I was hoping they rented helmets, or I’d be buying a new one. I got there at 9:40 and they didn’t open til 10. Wait? Absolutely.

When the door was unlocked, I went in and explained my dilemma and need to the owner who promptly handed me a helmet and told there was no charge.

And I heard that sweet whisper again: I love your brain. Ready to think better?

My favorite thing about riding is how close I feel to God as I pedal away. I found that to be especially true on this ride. I left my funk somewhere out on the trail. I came up with several creative options to my preaching critique—that’s what critique should do. Now we’ll implement them and see what works.

In case you haven’t been told lately, God loves your brain too! Be careful what you feed it.

Irritable

Lately, I’ve been feeling irritable, on-edge, restless, out-of-focus.

I grabbed my prayer book this morning and this is what I found:

Are the antidotes to my dis-ease in this simple, timely prayer? Let’s think it through:

First, have I responded in love when irritations and annoyances erupt? Nope. My anger has over-ruled and overrun my giving grace and love mechanism, like a log truck going downhill in the mountains.

If sensible people control their temper, as the writer of Proverbs admonishes, I have been anything but sensible. I have been out of my senses. I have been out of control. This is obvious in my interactions, my eating, and my disciplines. I haven’t written anything for months. My office is in total disarray. All I want to do is get on my bike and ride—hard, long, and fast.

It’s like I’m trying to get away from something. I’ve always been a runner, an avoider. Ignore something long enough and it will go away. Ridiculous thinking. I would identify it and encourage others to change, but have not been very good at owning it in myself.

As a counselor, I learned and taught classes, groups, and individuals about anger management. A basic truth for me has always been that most often anger is a protective response. People feel more comfortable expressing anger and pushing others away than owning their more vulnerable feelings of sadness, fear, confusion, or brokenness.

I’m feeling all of the above. At work. At home. In my relationships. I feel more comfortable holing up alone in my house with my dogs who don’t care what I’m going through as long as I feed them, let them out to potty, and give them an occasional scratch behind the ear.

But this is not how I want to be. And perhaps that’s why I’m so frustrated. I don’t feel like I’m allowed or supposed to feel this way. I have to be on and up for everyone. I’m not allowed to be irritated. And heaven forbid that I would express my frustration publically.

For example…last week the tree trimmers came to my house to cut my tree limbs back from the power lines. I was fuming. They’re supposed to let us know so we can pay top dollar to tree-trimming companies to sculpt rather than butcher our trees indiscriminately. We weren’t notified. They butchered my tree.

I felt violated. I was so angry, I was telling people that I was ready to chop the rest of the tree down with my teeth. Not particularly attractive talk or behavior. Upon reflection, I was mortified that I was so vociferous in my expression of my anger. I should have been gracious. After all, they were only doing their job, and keeping the electric on is important for me and for the neighborhood.

Spewing my anger over what I felt was hack job on my tree became the perfect opportunity to empty out my hoard of pent up frustration and irritation. My behavior was completely disproportionate to the incident. My ranting was unbecoming and my inability to control my expression was indicative of a deeper wounding that needs to be addressed.

That said, I have realized and reminded myself of Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians regarding anger: be angry and sin not. Anger is not the enemy. Anger is a legitimate emotion. How we release or control the intensity is what matters. Who we express it to is also relevant. Anger is energy that when channeled appropriately can result is positive change.

Typically I like to finish one of these posts in a neat package, with a tidy resolution tied up with a pretty ribbon.

Sorry, no ribbon today. Today begins the arduous work of back-tracking soul-searching examination to uncover the wound that has been the impetus to this feeling of dis-ease. I take comfort in the words of Psalm 103, “He heals all our dis-eases.”

I’m trusting in that truth, and in the ensuing process. I’m also hoping the ownership of the feelings unlocks the door to peace (completeness, shalom) so that my life and living will be a more credible witness.

Woo or Woe

Woo Not Woe

“Mom, is there anybody you won’t talk to?” This was a question my girls would ask when they were young. We’d go into the store, and I would invariably strike up a conversation with someone in the checkout line or parking lot. I never gave it much thought. I just liked connecting with people.

Several years ago I was required to undergo psychological testing as a precursor to a job I applied for. One of the tests came from a book, “Strengths Finder 2.0” written by Tom Rath. It was a very new test at the time.

Not surprising to me, I scored very high in the area of “woo.” Woo is the ability to win others over. It’s about connecting with others and involves the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. Good trait for a pastoral/preacher type to have.

Jesus thought it was a good trait for all his followers. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus responds to a question posed by his disciples: “Who’s the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” I think they were hoping he would say it was them and not the religious establishment. Jesus turns, however, and picks up a child. Not what they were expecting—or even able to comprehend.

The disciples and followers of Jesus were constantly taken aback when his teachings and behaviors didn’t match up to their desires for the Messiah. He wasn’t what they were looking for … but exactly what they needed. 

They were focused on themselves, their plans and dreams, and wanting to distance themselves from others—so they would come out on top. Jesus was about reaching out to others, about loving the unlovely, about connecting with the disenfranchised. This was his mission before he even arrived (for background check out Isaiah 58 and 61, and Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4).

Jesus’ response to their “greatest” question contained some strong words of warning. Each one began with ‘woe.’ Woe unto those who are so caught up in themselves that their behavior causes anyone to stumble. Woe unto those whose selfishness and self-serving behavior drives anyone away.

For Jesus the better behavior would be a wooing behavior—a drawing behavior. The kind of living and loving that is welcoming and warm. 

I don’t know about you, but I find that behavior as rare as a sunny day in Ohio recently. Our lives have been inundated with a divisiveness that is far from wooing. We live in a time when offering a cool cup of water, a tender word, and a moment of connection would go a long way to bring someone into the fullness of the kingdom.

These days we need less ‘childishness’ (self-seeking) and more child-likeness (open and trusting). I know I don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ ‘woe.’ The world watches and wants a whole lot more wooing from those of us who claim to follow the ways of Jesus. 

Let’s get wooing.