Lenten Thoughts: Suffering

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Several years ago I helped with a “Prayer Journey to the Cross” at church. Similar to the Stations of the Cross, participants move through Jesus’ final week on earth before his crucifixion. I was responsible for two stations, The Betrayal and The Garden of Gethsemane.

I partnered with an amazingly creative woman for the Garden Station. As soon as I knew the focus was suffering, I had an idea for the station. I called my friend and asked her if she could put together a video loop of pictures of suffering and tie it to music. When I got the CD from her, I was blown away. The images and the music made a powerful statement about the human experience of suffering.
I have known my share of disappointments. I’ve gone through some difficult times. I’ve grieved the loss of friends and family. Things have been tight financially, but we’ve never gone hungry or wondered where we’d sleep at night. I’ve never really suffered. Not like the people in those pictures. We lost our home when the restaurants failed and I lost my livelihood. We had two auctions and sold the lion’s share of our belongings, but we always had a place to live and way more stuff than we can use.

Suffering.

Life will always have struggles. And while I can identify certain struggles that will follow and impact me for the rest of my life—consequences of poor decisions—I can also several blessings in my life. I am married to an amazing man who blesses me every day. I have two daughters and three grandchildren who bring me immeasurable joy. I have the best friends in the world. I am privileged to serve and pastor a wonderful group of people. I’m reasonably healthy.

How will I use my life, with all its blessings, to ease some other person’s suffering?

At each of the stations there will be an item the participants will take away with them. When they are in the Garden they will receive a hand (a construction paper cutout). They will be invited to write the name of a person or group who is suffering on the hand and then ask God how they can be his hands to that person or group.

I know you don’t have the video. I know you can’t hear the music. But you can hear His voice. Whose suffering can you ease today? Will you let him write that name on your hands and in your heart?

 

 

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Lenten Thoughts: Purpose

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For a while I thought I was depressed. Life changed drastically for me when I lost my job in 2008. In part, I think the trauma was due to the fact I found my identity in what I did. The challenges of the work gave me purpose. I felt vital and alive. Losing my job meant I lost my sense of purpose.

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I used to teach groups of people how to write their mission statements. We didn’t start with that. We would back up and talk about finding their passion in life and for life. When it came to putting that passion into a working purpose or mission statement, I would teach the difference between a goal (short term) and a mission statement (life-long driving force). A mission or purpose statement is something you can see devoting your whole life to. It is true now and will be true in twenty, thirty, even fifty years.

Reflecting on this, I wasn’t really depressed. I was just adrift and going nowhere because I had taken my eyes off the map. I thought without the job I wouldn’t be able to follow my purpose and mission. I forgot the job wasn’t the only vehicle to get me where I needed to be. I forgot that the whether I’m teaching or cleaning toilets, it is the purpose or mission God has for my life that matters and he will provide me with the opportunities I need. I forgot God is the one who gifts me and directs me to use those gifts.

I was reading about John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel. I don’t think there are many who would sign up for John’s job—especially if they knew how it was going to end for him. Yet, even in the briefest of ministries, John paved the way by preparing the people for the emergence of Jesus’ life-changing ministry.

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This reminds me of relief pitchers in baseball. These days few will pitch a whole game. That’s not their job. It’s not why they were hired. Some of those guys will only throw a few pitches and the next thing we see is the coach headed to the mound. Those couple of precisely placed pitches are what the reliever gets paid the big bucks for. It’s their purpose.

Now, dust off your imagination and try and picture your favorite baseball team has made it to the playoffs! And they did it not just on their bats, but on their pitching. But now that they’ve made it to the biggest games, the team’s relievers and closers have decided they want more playing time and they’ve threatened to not play at all if they don’t get the opportunity to pitch a whole game. How crazy is that? How dare they hold the game hostage for their whims?

The apostle Paul, in his discussion of gifts, makes this statement: “But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it (1 Corinthians 12:18, NLT).” Right there with the assurance we all have a part, we’re told that we are placed right where He wants us.

Perhaps that’s why we need to bloom where we’re planted—to trust God’s process, timing, and purpose.
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Lenten Thoughts: Rhythm

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Rhythm. I never spell that word right. Perhaps if I were a heart specialist spending my days examining and checking rhythms, or a professor of music, pounding out rhythms to students, I would find the word more natural to use and spell. As hard, though, as it is to wrap my brain around spelling it, it’s even harder for me to wrap my spirit around it.

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As I reflected upon rhythm, I was reminded of the movie, “Kate and Leopold.” In the movie a man from the past is transported to modern day. His presence changes the life of a marketing executive who is all push and drive. Late in the movie, when Kate finally believes who Leo is, she asks him what he misses from his time. He tells her he misses the pace and rhythm of life.

When Jesus looked out on the crowd, he was moved with compassion. He saw how horribly out of sync they were with the Father and he told them: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

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I’m a pairs junkie. I love to watch great partners dance. I am easily sucked into watching pairs figure skating. I don’t think they televise nearly enough pairs/doubles tennis. I love to see how two become one. It’s as if they transcend anticipating the other’s moves and begin to beat as one. I think that’s what Jesus was inviting the people, inviting us, to do.

I remember a night, several years ago, I got home from work and I was spent. I had put in three twelve hour days in a row. I wanted to crash, but my then three year old grandson was here. I love him. He is the most fun thing on earth. His favorite thing to do was chase. We ran through the house like race cars. That night he was lapping me because I just didn’t have the energy to keep up. After his mommy picked him up, I sat down to type a devotional. I had written most of it earlier in the day. I felt good about being ahead. When I went to save what I typed, I hit “don’t save.” And just that quickly, it was all gone. I sat in my chair, staring at the blank computer screen in disbelief. I was so tired that I erased everything. I was totally spent, completely mentally and physically weary.

We can become just as weary spiritually by keeping a pace we were not designed for. Think about it. Back in the Garden, what did God and Adam do? They weren’t practicing for a marathon. They walked together. Enoch walked with God, and was no more. Jesus walked with the two on the Emmaus Road. It seems God’s pace is very different from our own. Then when we might expect God to walk, he ran. He ran out to meet the wayward Prodigal Son to welcome him home.

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Unforced rhythms of grace. I love that phrase. As I think about it, I am aware of the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock across the room. Its beat is so natural and reassuring. It’s very unlike the beat when I worked at Curves. To keep people working out at a healthy clip, the music has to be within a specific beat—fast. Some of the remakes of songs make me laugh, because those songs were never intended to be sung as fast as our beat requires. Think about “O Holy Night” or “Word of God Speak” at 180 beats per minute. Ludicrous. Ridiculous. Unnatural.

So is much of our living. The problem is this: sometimes we are called to a fast paced life. The demands require much of us. I would never presume to say we need to return to the pace of the Amish (though recently, the thought held some intrigue for me). I would, however, suggest that we need to check ourselves. Can we honestly say with Paul, “’For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28, NIV)”? That’s what Jesus was inviting us to. When we live life at our pace, we are out of sync with the Creator of life, and we will always feel out of step.

If we are tired of being tired, perhaps the solution is to find those unforced rhythms of grace and learn how they will work in our lives.

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Lenten Thoughts: Fear

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” ~Thoreau

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My daughter thought she wanted to be a marine biologist. When it came time for college, she chose a school with a great marine biology program in Florida. For all her excitement, you would have thought we birthed the next Jacques Cousteau. The excitement quickly faded during her Intro to Marine Biology course. The professor took the class to a lagoon to “get their feet wet.” Annie froze—literally. Tearfully and woefully, she returned to shore unable to complete the assignment. The reason for her freezing: she couldn’t see the bottom. The fear of what she could not see totally immobilized her. She ended up dropping the course, withdrawing from school, and after a short stay in Florida, returning home.

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Thinking of this I was reminded of Peter’s impetuous attempt at water-walking. He asked Jesus, and started out pretty confidently. It wasn’t until he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the waves that he went down.

What was that about? I believe it had a lot to do with focus and fear.

Fear is the iceberg that all too often sinks our ship. Generally, what we can see doesn’t immobilizes us. It’s everything underneath. The things that we can’t see. The things we don’t know. The things we can’t control because we don’t know what they are.

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I guess Annie got her fear of murky water quite honestly—from her mother. Nelson and I traveled to South Carolina after we married to visit my grandparents. On our way back we tent camped at Myrtle Beach. Nelson bought a two-person inflatable raft. Since he knew that I was afraid of creatures that could be lurking in the murky, he would pull me out from shore and while I drifted back in he would swim about.

The system was working great until a current caught the raft and I started heading for Miami. I was panicked. Nelson had swum so far out that he couldn’t hear my cries for help. When he finally realized what was happening, he swam as fast as he could to save me. As he arrived at the raft his feet hit the bottom. He stood up–in ankle deep water. The raft was floating over a sandbar. We still laugh about how silly I looked, and the irrationality of my fear.

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Perhaps that is why Paul was so clear in his teaching that as believers we walk by faith and not by sight (see 2 Corinthians 5:7). Life gets murky. The waves rise around us. If we don’t keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we’ll go under as easily as Peter did—even if we are only in ankle deep water.
What are you looking at when we are frozen by your fears? Not Jesus. So many of the stories about Jesus’ encounters were with average people addressing enormous fears and receiving unbelievable miracles.

What are you afraid of right now? Are you walking by faith or struggling with holding onto to what you can see? If you’re going to get out of the boat, keep your eyes on Jesus. If the water is murky and you can’t see what’s there, let your faith lead your next step.

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Lenten Thoughts: Chosen

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I wasn’t picked for spelling bee teams or kick ball teams. So it was a very exciting thing when I moved to a new town just as I entered high school and found a group of young people who seemed to want me. I attended a retreat with the youth group from church, and while there was plenty of fun, there was also enough of the gospel presented that my heart was strangely moved. I heard the message I had been chosen by the one who loved me best.

In the Word there are many references to our being chosen. I found this one while thumbing through Isaiah the other day: “But as for you, Israel my servant, Jacob my chosen one, descended from Abraham my friend, I have called you back from the ends of the earth, saying, ‘You are my servant.’ For I have chosen you and will not throw you away(Isaiah 41:8-9, NLT).”

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Have you ever felt thrown away? What gets thrown away? Things that are useless, broken, spent. Things that are no longer needed. Things that are no longer wanted. We throw things away every day. Have you ever thrown away a person? Have you ever felt thrown away? Maybe you’re one of the blessed ones who has no clue what it would be like to be thrown away. But there are people walking through life with a far greater experience of being trashed than chosen.

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What kind of difference would it make in our interactions if we looked at and treated people like they were chosen by God? I’m not suggesting a short course in evangelism. I am suggesting we consider the annoying checker at Walmart, the pain in the neck co-worker who just took credit for your idea, the jerk weaving in and out of traffic. The person you can’t forgive. See them as chosen. Even the person who left you—they’re chosen.

Paul knew what it was like to be distrusted and surrounded by people who would rather throw him out than work with him. He had been murdering believers in God’s name. Murdering. Leaving families without fathers, or mothers. And then he experienced God’s grace and his own chosen-ness on his way to Damascus. How could God use him? Surely, his being chosen was a mistake. Nobody, including Paul, could believe God would use him after what he did; after the life he lived. Throw him out!

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But Paul penned these words: 4 Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes (Ephesians 1:4, NLT).

We’ve been picked for God’s team. You may have made some pathetic choices, the hounds of shame may be nipping at your heels. I know what that feels like, but I also know that I am his servant and he will not throw me away. Not because I’m broken or because others might label me as trash, but because he loves me. His Word is true: he loved us before he even made the world.

He wants us on his team. How cool is that?

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Lenten Thoughts: Tantrums

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On a quick trip to Walmart recently, I realized I come out with much more than bags of food and necessities. I often come away with fodder for reflections. On my last trip, my attention was grabbed by a three year old child throwing a “fall on the floor, bloody scream” tantrum. The only person whose attention she didn’t seem to grab was her mother.

Where do tantrums come from? Typically, they seem to be about not getting my way or not getting the attention I think I need. Pondering the recent tantrum I observed, reminded me of a time when I was part of a church mixed bowling league.

One night a couple on our team was unable to get a sitter and had to bring their daughter with them. She was about two years old. As the evening wore on, her parents became more and more involved in their game and less aware of her. Her behavior escalated as she worked to get their attention. At first they scolded her, finally she got a swat on her bottom. Her wails of “pain” could be heard by everyone in the alley. Finally, the mom pulled the little girl into her lap and rocked her to comfort. The girl quieted and was asleep within just a few moments.

What can bring on a tantrum? When things don’t go my way. One of my grandson’s favorite questions is “Why?” Why can’t I have candy all day? Why can’t I play outside in my slippers? Why do I have to take a nap? Why do I have to pick up my toys? Why questions are often accompanied by little feet stomping, all pointing to things not going the way he wants.

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How much drama is created in our lives when God doesn’t work the way we think he should? How many times do we question his wisdom, purpose, or plan? After a very dark time of questioning, my husband shared with me he learned to quit asking why. He felt God was reluctant to answer that question, but he always seemed to answer, “What’s next?” The difference is the distance between trust and tantrum.

Drama demonstrates a lack of trust.

Drama is the voice of one who thinks he knows better. It is the behavior of one who feels she needs more attention. The Good News is God knows our need better than we do. His plans and purpose, while not always understandable, are always for our good.

God doesn’t hand out acting awards, but he does promise to hold us in the palm of his hand, remember all our tears, and count the hairs on our heads. He can be trusted.

When we surrender our drama, we find his peace.
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Lenten Thoughts: Home

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Several years ago, my husband and I were in the market for a new place to live. We had only owned one home and we lost it when the restaurants my husband co-owned closed. It was a hard loss. We rented the house we lived in when we started that round of house shopping because both our daughters and all our grandchildren were living with us. They moved out on their own and we were lost in this very huge, and expensive house.

So, we found a really good realtor. She figured out our needs and likes. One day she took us to seven houses. I fell in love with one house and liked its location. Then I fell in love with one location and sort of liked the house. While we’re still struggling a bit with some things with the “loved” house, we sent her an email and told her that we thought it was the one.

As we pulled out of the driveway, I began thinking of colors for the rooms and where I’d put furniture. Nelson began research on propane. We imagined ourselves living in our new home. Was it a place where we could see ourselves growing old? The price was right, but how was the fit?

When we bought our first house (the one we lost), we bought it mostly because it was available with land contract, and it was only a block away from where we were living (an easy move), and two blocks from where I was working. We learned to live with the rest of it. It was a house, but never really became a home. We came and went so much from that place, it was more like a stopover than a dwelling place. This became very clear to me when I lost my jobs and was “stuck” being there for months before we eventually moved.

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I remember a devotion I read by John Henry Jowett many years ago where he spoke of our need to find our dwelling place, where we could be “at home.” He referenced 2 Corinthians 5 and compared birds that just flit in and out with those that nest and dwell.

A search of “dwelling place” led me to many references made to God’s dwelling place. Isaiah paints a difference image in chapter 32: “My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest (Isaiah 32:18, NIV).”

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older, and getting more so every day, but I want to find a place where I feel like I land and rest. The house we were considering had a “lake” in the back yard, and Amish farms across the road in the front. I don’t know if it gets more peaceful than that.

The important thing, though, is not the address. The house could be in the middle of nowhere and not be a place of undisturbed rest. If a house is to truly be a dwelling place, I will have to be at rest in my heart and spirit. I will need to be at peace with my creator.

So my prayer became, if this was where he wanted us that he will lead us beside the still waters and make us lie down there.

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