The gift of intimacy

I am left-handed. When I travel to India, that can be a bit of a challenge. In many middle-eastern countries, the left hand is used for hygiene; using it for anything else is just not done. Don’t eat with it. Don’t touch people with it.

But I’m really left-handed so that’s a challenge for me.

Last year, I went to India for the fourth time. For a couple of days we visited in a home for the poorest of the poor. We took nail polish with us. We were going to give the women a treat by painting their nails. I’m not a nail painter in my own world; I’m really not a nail painter in a right-handed world. This was way outside my comfort zone but I am a team player, so if nail painting is the task I’ll do my best.

The first day, I noticed some of the other team members pretty quickly gathered crowds. Women were all around them, waiting to get their nails painted. I on the other hand (no pun intended) had hardly anyone around me. It took most of that day for me to get it that it was because I’m left-handed. I simply can’t paint nails with my right hand.

That second day, the first person whose nails I painted wanted to know why I was using my left hand. She wasn’t speaking English, but through gestures and facial expressions she made her point. At first — I’ll be honest — I was a bit defensive. This person who had lice in her hair, who smelled of urine, who was in an indigent care home, found my left hand unsettling. In fact, when I told her I couldn’t use my right hand, she wanted someone else to do her nails.

That little exchange got me thinking: How often do I decide someone is “less than” or “not as good as,” simply because they aren’t like me?

After that, I gave up painting nails. Instead, I began circulating through the women, praying for them. And now that I was inside my comfort zone, I began to see Jesus. I saw him and heard him. I would pray, “Lord, be present to this person today,” and I would hear, “I am present. You are there.” I would pray, “Lord, surround this person with your angels,” and I would hear, “I have. I sent you.”

I sang with some women and taught them songs. I danced with a woman who loved to dance. I sat with one woman for quite a while and she took my hand and rubbed it while she talked and I listened. I couldn’t understand her but I could be present. That seemed enough.

After a while another woman came over and sat with us. She was very old. She balled up part of her sari and leaned it against my leg like a pillow. Then she put her head there and closed her eyes. The other woman put her head in my lap. While these women rested on me, the Lord spoke.

“This is what intimacy looks like.”

And I thanked God I am left-handed and for the gift of that moment.

 

(This blog is reposted as I remember our blessed trip to India a year ago.)

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“In the evening I went very unwillingly to Charge Conference …”

This week, I felt my heart strangely warmed.

On Tuesday evening, I went (somewhat) unwillingly to Charge Conference. I confess to having lost patience with some of these denominational forms. I’m not alone. We all tend to grumble about these things. But there, in the least likely of places, the Holy Spirit showed up, manifesting as holy conviction and illogical joy.

Terry Fleming, our district superintendent, spoke eloquently about tortoises and hares, humility and perseverance. Somewhere in his message, I experienced the truth of God being spoken over my life. It wasn’t a comfortable truth. I sensed a personal call to confession for a kind of pride that has been masquerading as faithfulness.

Heather Glover sensed the Spirit, too, though for her it showed up as gratitude. Heather is a poster child for our discipleship system, having been spiritually raised up from a life of addiction through Celebrate Recovery and Mosaic’s leadership incubator program. She now serves as our Director of Adult Discipleship. This was her experience of her first-ever Charge Conference, in her words:

Charge Conference, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is when the church leaders come together with the District Superintendent to approve the budget and church leadership for the upcoming year. Sounds like a hoot, right? I mean, anything with conference in the title will surely strike fear in the heart of any fun loving individual.

Never mind the mention of a line item list of the budget.

But WAIT! Let me tell you what Charge Conference means to me.

Charge Conference means that my God went before me and prepared a place for me at the table. I know this because when I walked in the room, no one batted an eye. Why? Because I belonged there. One of those line items in the budget list was my salary. Another was the budget for my ministry area. And I am the very first Director of Adult Discipleship at my church, EVER. My God went before me and made a way, against all odds.

Charge Conference means that God’s grace IS sufficient. It is by God’s grace alone that I am at this place in my life. From lost, addicted, and wandering far from God, to doing the Lord’s work. I don’t have a job. It’s a vocation. A calling. And I didn’t look for it. It fell in my lap. That’s what God’s unmerited favor looks like. That’s grace.

Charge Conference means that I am a part of something much bigger than myself. And it means I have the privilege and honor of being a leader among leaders.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending Charge Conference. I hung on every word that my fellow leaders, my pastor, and the DS spoke. And I left with a spring in my step, singing praises to my God. I will never take for granted the formalities in life that should otherwise bore me to tears. I have experienced a life of chaos, void of all formalities, and absent any sense of belonging. This is pure joy by comparison.

Lord, forgive me for failing to keep my eye fixed on you, for failing to look for you in the unlikely places, for failing to believe you can show up anywhere.

Even at Charge Conference.

 

(The title of this blog — and the line about being “strangely warmed” — references John Wesley’s journal entry on the night he experienced a spiritual awakening while attending a study of Romans in a home on Aldersgate Street in London.)

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Church is a verb.

The tabernacle as we find it in Exodus was meant to be a sign of God’s presence among the people and a signal tower for his plan. Once the tabernacle was complete, God came into the House and filled it and a cloud rested over it with fire in the cloud so all the people could see it. And the Lord told them, “When the cloud moves, you move.”

Depending on which Hebrew word for “tabernacle” we use, it can mean either a place to meet or a place that moves. That tells me God never meant for his tabernacle to get stuck in one place. It was built to move.

In other words, when God moves we move.

What I learn from my desert ancestors in Exodus changes what I understand about the nature of the Church. If “church” is designed to move, then it is more “Verb” than “noun.” Nouns sit. Verbs go. A noun is something I come to and sit in. A verb is not a monument but a movement.

Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says I go to church. “Church as a verb” says I am the church. Are you a noun, or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says someone somewhere is supposed to provide the programs and I am supposed to come to them. “Church as a verb” says I am a functioning part of a body together with a whole lot of others and a partner in shaping my own spiritual growth. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says someone somewhere is supposed to provide me with mission opportunities. “Church as a verb” says what motivates me ought to motivate me. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says the church owes me something. “Church as a verb” says if anyone owes anyone anything, I owe Jesus. Not to earn my salvation but because of what he’s done for me. My mission is defined by what Jesus has done for me. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” is always looking for what we used to have. “Church as a verb” is looking for what’s ahead. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says you come here and we’ll show you Jesus. “Church as a verb” says we’ll come to you and be Jesus. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says, “Let’s go to church.” “Church as a verb” says, “Let’s just go.” Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says, “Going costs too much. Can’t we just send a check?” “Church is a verb” says, “Go! Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I will be with you always.”

Church as a verb says, “When God moves, we move” — whatever the cost, whatever the commitment. Because it is only in following the Spirit, in moving with the Spirit and embracing change, that we find our pleasure, passion and purpose and bring pleasure to God.

(This blog was first posted in 2014. I repost it today in honor of the many churches preparing in this season for their Global Impact Celebration.)

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The Truth About John Wesley’s Famous Line

John Wesley, the driver behind the Methodist movement, was raised in the Church of England. His father was an Anglican priest. His brother was, too. Wesley was surrounded by churchmen.

He became a priest himself but early on, experienced a restlessness with “church as usual,” finding himself frustrated with what he saw as lifeless religious rites that lacked power to transform lives.

To Wesley’s mind, the Church of England was stuck. It had somehow lost touch with the Holy Spirit. Wesley was a popular preacher, so he began to preach about what he was seeing as he traveled throughout England from church to church. Preaching against dead religion and in favor of the Holy Spirit got him kicked out of every church in his country.

Literally kicked out. Banned.

Once he ran out of buildings to preach in, Wesley began preaching in open fields to thousands of people. He saw mass conversions, living out Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Even preaching in open fields garnered the ire of other pastors. The Church of England was divided into parishes, after all, and those fields in which Wesley preached were in someone’s parish. Pastors would write to him, demanding that he stay out of their parish. Wesley returned fire on one such pastor, writing a letter in response in which he said (in effect), “I have an option. I can obey church law, or I can obey God’s law. Since I have no parish, then the world is my parish.”

It has become one of Wesley’s most famous lines. The world is my parish. It graces seminary walls and serves as a byline for mission organizations. We want to claim that line over our call to be on mission to all the world, in the spirit of Acts 1:8.

The world is our parish! Let’s take the gospel to the ends of the earth! No rest until every ear has heard, every heart has received, every knee has bowed.

All great aspirations, only that’s not what Wesley meant. In the context of his circumstances and that letter, Wesley’s sentiment was not primarily a statement about missions. This was his stand against dead religion. He refused to be jerked around by lifeless forms that keep people stuck in their spiritual numbness. He refused to let rigid structures and hard hearts determine for him to whom he would preach this gospel. Like Paul, Wesley had decided he would become all things to all people so that by all means he might win some.

True, our mission field is the world. But Wesley’s point when he penned that line is that our mission is not to cater to dead forms of religion.

We simply don’t have time for that.

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Post Traumatic Church Disorder and the Hope of Glory

If you have suffered from PTCD you know it. I heard someone use the phrase last week and it immediately resonated: Post-traumatic Church Disorder.

Bad spirituality can make us spiritually sick, just like bad food can give us food poisoning. Some of you know this first-hand. You’ve got a story of a dysfunctional church life where all change is considered bad, where people cling to sacred cows and argue over who is sitting in whose pew. You’ve got flashbacks of joyless Sunday School hours and angry VBS teachers, of seemingly pointless meetings where people seem to want to argue for the fun of it.

That spirit of religion is a killer. I remember as a child sitting in church counting ceiling tiles and wondering if a person actually could die of boredom and if so, how close was I? You may have a story of church abuse that is much worse, criminal even.

Post-traumatic church disorder has a root cause. It happens when people who are sick at the point of their faith pass along their spiritual sickness by the way they behave. Spiritually sick people tend to be the angry ones in the room. They are unwilling to operate from the highest, best version of themselves and instead think, act and make decisions out of their woundedness. They aren’t interested in working through conflict. They tend to operate out of their own agendas.

Then there are those who, in the prophetic words of Pink Floyd, have become comfortably numb. They aren’t angry. They aren’t desperate. They aren’t anything. They are just there.

Lukewarm is its own kind of pain.

Maybe you have been infected by a spiritually sick person. Maybe you have been hurt by this all-too-human institution that was supposed teach you the best God has to offer, but instead showed you the worst. I am sorry for those of you who have been bored to death by a church that never challenged you with more than three points and a poem. I am sorry for you who have been confused by the hypocrisy of people preaching love, mercy, and grace, but living rigidly and angrily. I am sorry for you who learned too much about guilt but who were never given the gospel of grace.

I am sorry, and I want you to know I believe with all I am that the heart of God cries out for you and grieves the wounds you’ve sustained. And while he has chosen to allow suffering, even within his own Church, he proves his love for us by becoming personally, intimately involved in our redemption.

Thomas Merton talks about “the Christ of the burnt people” — the ones separated from him by brokenness. It is for the burnt people Christ came, for the burnt people he was burned himself. He was seared by the hatred of humanity. For the burnt people he stood in the gap so he could be our bridge into the very presence of God where we now stand holy and blameless because of the flesh and blood of Christ.

This is why, as Paul says in Colossians 1:27, Christ is our only hope of glory. I love the way Paul puts it: “This is the secret of life: Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Because Christ is the only one who can take burned-out, burned-up people and give them meaning. Christ is the only one who can take an all-too-imperfect institution and use it redemptively to bring the Kingdom in.

Christ in us.  Christ in us.

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Pigs don’t fly.

A passenger on a recent U.S. Airways flight boarded a plane carrying what other passengers are saying resembled a duffel bag thrown over her shoulder. Her assigned seat was next to Jonathan Skolnik who realized, as she got closer, that this was no duffel bag at all. “We could smell it. It was a pig on a leash. She tethered it to the arm rest next to me and started to deal with her stuff, but the pig was walking back and forth … I was terrified, because I was thinking I’m gonna be on the plane with the pig!”

Skolnik was greatly relieved when the woman and pig were asked to deboard, not because the pig was illegal but because he became unruly. Classified as an emotional support animal, he actually became emotional himself so he and his owner were escorted off the plane.*

Which now gives us empirical proof that pigs really don’t fly.

I found this story while mediating on another one. In Mark, chapter 5, the story is told of a demon-possessed man who meets Jesus and gets exorcised. He admits to being possessed by thousands of demons, all of which Jesus casts into a nearby herd of pigs, who then (all 2,000 of them) run madly off a cliff and drown. The story of this healing miracle ripples quickly through town. Our demon-possessed guy is healed! Oh, and also … our pigs are all at the bottom of the sea!

The townspeople find Jesus and beg him to leave. They want nothing to do with this kind of power, nor do they appreciate the loss of their pigs.

Why would normal people be put off by a display of Kingdom power? From the story, you get the sense that while they didn’t much like the demons, they weren’t so put off by them that they were willing to give up their pigs. It seems that what bothers them is how Jesus chooses to solve their problem.

Let me say that again this way: What so often bothers us is how Jesus chooses to solve our problems. It is as if we get our demons and our pigs confused. What we want is for our demons to disappear but for our pigs to fly. In other words, we want the issue to go away without us having to change anything.

But as it turns out, pigs don’t fly.

Which means that if I have an addiction and want to be delivered of it, I also have to be willing to let go of whatever triggers kick my cravings into high gear. If I’m dealing with depression and want healing for it, I may have to let go of my bias against medicine or therapy. Or I may have to find room and discipline in my life for exercise. Or I may have to figure out my limits and live inside of them so I don’t continually toss myself into the darkness by ignoring good boundaries.

If childhood wounds have created adult dysfunctions, I may have to let go of unforgiveness, or anger. I may have to find healthier ways of dealing with debilitating feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. If I want healing from the wounds, I also have to let the scars go.

It makes me think of that woman carrying a pig onto an airplane for emotional support. Maybe it works for her (I sure don’t want to debate the therapeutic benefits of emotional support animals). But where the rest of us are concerned, I wonder if we might be guilty of carrying our “pigs” around for emotional support when Jesus wants to see both the demons and pigs destroyed. When the demons go, the pigs have to go, too.

Here’s the moral of the story: Pigs really don’t fly. Don’t hang onto them hoping one day they will.

*Source: http://abcnews.go.com/US/proof-pigs-fly/story?id=27222136

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Three Secrets of a Strong Marriage

In my last post, I mentioned three things Steve and I have done intentionally that have had a positive impact on our twenty-nine-year marriage. The first one is that we learned how to approach life as givers by tithing. The second one has to do with prayer.

strong-marriageDo you know the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in the U.S.? 50% of all marriages don’t make it. How many Christian marriages end in divorce? 50%. Evidently, saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds.

However, in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, something like one in a thousand ends in divorce. It really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

About the time we got serious about our walk with Christ, Steve and I started praying together. The first few times we did it, it felt awkward. To me, prayer is the most intimate thing you can do with your spouse. Getting that personal and that real with each other takes some practice. But over time, we got used to it and now, it is such a gift in our life together.

Here’s what we do. When we get in bed at night, the first thing we do is a little mental check to see if there’s anything we needed to tell each other that we haven’t had the chance to say. Then eventually, one of us will say, “Who’s turn is it?” And whoever’s turn it is will pray. The next night, it is the other person’s turn.

Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence.

So … We tithe. We pray together. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is that we observe a Sabbath.

In other words, we pay. We pray. And we play.

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, and play and nap and try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, our Sabbath is 6:00p Friday to 6:00p Saturday. At least in theory, it is. We don’t make it there every week. I am in a season now when Sabbath rest has been scarce, and I am recalibrating to restore it to my life. Sabbath has to be the goal, because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after twenty-nine years of giving this our best shot. You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been means of grace.

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Why We Tithe (or, How to Make a Marriage Great)

Steve and I can’t take much credit for twenty-nine years of a great marriage. Mostly, it has been mercy and mistakes. But there are a few things we’ve done to make our marriage work that we often share with young couples — things we’ve done intentionally that have made a significant difference.

For instance, about twenty years ago, we began to pray together nightly, and we believe that has carried our family and especially our daughter. About fifteen years ago, we instituted an intentional Sabbath in our home. From 6:00 Friday to 6:00 Saturday, our home is a work-free zone — at least as much as church life allows.

That third thing? Tithing.

When we married we were not practicing Christians, so tithing was not part of our life for those first few years together. We started going to church in our late twenties when we got involved in a Bible study. That’s when we started doing what most people do, dropping a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were tippers, not tithers. We were also  renters with credit card debt and two car payments, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then a man we both respected a lot (Sam Pursley) stood up in church one day and talked about the line from Jesus, where he says, “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” He talked about how his dad would sell grain that way, and how the farmers would tell his dad, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.”

Then Sam talked about his Sunday School teacher, who told him as a young man, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.” He asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving 10% of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.”

Sam then asked the question we all ask. “Is that 10% of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.” From that day on, Sam tithed and discovered that as he gave, it was given to him — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give 10%.” Now, I hate when my husband gets spiritual on me about money. I told him it wasn’t possible. We were renters. We had credit card debt. We owed on two cars. We were barely scraping by when we gave about 2%. It wasn’t possible to give more. I argued reasonably with Steve, but he didn’t back down. Finally, I gave up. I figured, when we ended up with more month than money, he’d get it. I mean, how many ramen noodles do you have eat before you get it?

So we went from 2% to 10% in one week. And I know it isn’t supposed to happen this way, and I know how dangerous it is to tell our story just the way it happened, but this is how it happened for us. We gave, and it was given to us — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

In the twenty-plus years since we started taking God at His word, everything we’ve needed we’ve had. Without debt. We’ve even continued to step forward from the tithe in our giving. We’ve learned that the Lord provides. And as I said, I know it’s dangerous to tell these kinds of stories, but I think it is important.

I want you to hear how our marriage has thrived, and I would be doing a disservice if I said anything less than what that lady said to our friend, Sam, that day. “As a follower of Jesus, you will never be all you are supposed to be (and your marriage will never be all it is supposed to be) until you begin to tithe.”

Why?

Because the tithe is how we get past the lie that life is short and into the truth that life is designed to be eternal.

And the tithe has changed the spiritual atmosphere of our home. It makes us approach life and finances and big adventures as givers, and that changes everything.

No wonder God asks us to give. He asks, because he knows how we are made and he knows what works.

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The Divine Frisky

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University did an online survey of about 1500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things. Like, kick a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free. I guessing not all those respondents are pagans.

(Surely, you’ve heard the old joke about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.”)

Lots of us haven’t managed to master Paul’s advice: “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably” (Romans 12:18).

But you say, “You don’t know what this person did to me. You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts.” But if it all depends on circumstance, we are right back to a works-based religion, the kind Paul said kills spirits. If your acceptance of me depends on me, I’m sunk. I can’t be that good. If your acceptance of me is grounded in what Jesus has done for you, there’s hope.

Because, frankly, you haven’t been that good, either.

This is great news on two fronts: I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; nor do circumstances control my capacity for joy. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Christian Maturity, writes this:

“The real Christian is the most natural person in the world. He has natural joys, natural gaiety, natural laughter, natural culture, natural grace—he is a man reduced to simple naturalness. When one is not living the Christian way all his pleasures have to be induced—induced by entertainment from without, by liquor, by stimulation of various kinds. They have to try to have a good time. I don’t try to have a good time—I just have one, naturally and normally. A simple, bubbling gaiety from within, what Rufus Moseley called “the Divine frisky.” As you get cleaned up and cleaned out within, you develop a hair-trigger laugh—one with which you can laugh at yourself if you cannot laugh at anything else.”

How attractive that is! — to be known for the infectiousness of your laugh rather than the accuracy of your tomato-tossing, to have your mood drawn up from deeper wells than whatever has just happened. Wouldn’t it be something to be known for that, rather than the contentiousness and moodiness that too often define our average, proud lives? Don’t you think this is what Jesus was after when he called us to live his commandments, “that my joy may be in you, that your joy may be full” (John 15:11)?

Joy is a mark of holy living.

I’m “convicted,” as they say, by the stunning gap that separates my reality from this vision, but I’m also smitten by this notion of “the Divine frisky.” I’d like to be known for my capacity to find joy in any circumstance, to be at peace whatever the cost to my pride.

I’d like them to say at my funeral, “She had the best laugh!”

(This post first appeared on my old blog site, firestones, in 2014.)

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