The number one sin of the Church in America

Followers are funny.

When the first followers of Jesus were sent out into the surrounding villages and towns to practice what they’d been modeled by Jesus himself, they were full of enthusiasm, not to mention a little unrighteous judgment. While they were out there, they saw a guy driving out demons and they asked Jesus to put a stop to it. When they got a little pushback from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, they had the nerve to actually ask Jesus if they could rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided it was time to revisit the vision.

You find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between verses 55 and 56 of Luke 9. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles.

Nonetheless, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his followers when they return from their missionary work. The usual version you’ll get in Luke 9:55-56 is this: “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version, but some manuscripts include another sentence so that the passage reads:

But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” Then he and his disciples went to another village.

What a powerful commentary. Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often. We don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. We don’t even know what we’re made of. We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, while it turns out that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption. And we have been invited to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the Kingdom of God is multiplied to overflowing.

What Jesus was after in sending out those first twelve (and then 72), and what Jesus is still after today, is people who understand what it means to harvest souls. Jesus is looking for people whose hearts are in the harvest, whose energy is for giving people the good news that the half-life they have isn’t the last word over their lives.

The Son of Man didn’t come to destroy lives but to save them.

Mark Buchanan talks about visiting the famous Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York. Thousands of people have been gathering there every Tuesday night for years. Buchanan calls it “3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.” On the Tuesday he went, he had dinner with Jim Cymbala, the pastor. “In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, ‘Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is? … It’s not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large. … The number one sin of the church in America,’ he said, ‘is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, “Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.”’”

Mark Buchanan said that in the face of such a statement he had no response because he’d never prayed like that. So that night, he went home, repented, and began to cry out for those nobody wants.

There is no shortage of those people; the fields are full of them, Jesus says. There are fields full of people who desperately need someone who will claim the power of Christ over their broken lives, fields full of people whose salvation story has not yet been told. There are people still out there — in our own country — who haven’t been reached, who more than anything need a fair account of the gospel and a generous dose of grace. And we have lost touch with our heart for them because we have forgotten who we are.

It is time for American Christians to remember the Spirit we have and our call to the Harvest. It is time to cry out, to get on our knees and cry out for a neighbor or co-worker, for a brother or son-in-law … or I don’t know … maybe for your own soul. It is time to cry out for the people we tend to judge most and to seek God’s heart for them. It is time for us to set down our unrighteous judgment and begin crying out for the ones Jesus came to save.

Who is God asking you to cry out for? The poor? The broken-hearted? The prisoners? Whose salvation story has not yet been told? Here’s the thing: if you are a Christian you are made for the work of the harvest. That’s who you are. In this coming season of ministry, I’m casting my lot for the ones Jesus came to save and I am asking you to join me and to remember whose Spirit you are of.

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From ego to awe

Developmentally, we are designed to move from ego to awe.

In our most immature state, our task is to figure out who we are as separate beings from our mothers. Our mental time is spent understanding our autonomy, which makes us highly self-conscious. As we develop, we move from self-consciousness to simple self-awareness — understanding our place within the context around us. From there we move to awareness, thinking less of self and more of our surroundings. At our most mature, we are self-forgetful as we practice the gift of awe — seeing the holy in and around every situation. From this place of awe — of worship — we have the most to offer the world.*

This is a map of spiritual maturity. This process of moving from self-consciousness to awareness of the world around us to a holy awareness of God’s presence is what Methodists might call sanctification. It is the process of “holy-fying” our thoughts and of becoming more intimately connected to God as we see him exposed in the world. He becomes our focus.

Of course, we don’t move in clean lines from immaturity to maturity. We all know adults who still relate to the world from a very self-conscious place — constantly self-referencing in conversations and tagging every moment with an internal question: “What’s in it for me?” This is the consumer’s question. “Where is God?” is the question of a giver — one who is other-focused. To advance from self-consciousness to worship requires to us to move from “What’s in it for me?” to “Where is God?” And this is a move many of us desperately need to make.

Our culture has trained us to be consumers. We tend to look at everything, even worship, as a “what’s in it for me?” proposition. The lie of this world is that we can consume our way to significance, but the truth is that material consumption only creates more emptiness. That question, “What’s in it for me?” only makes us want more.

Meanwhile, worship (or holy awe) leads to fulfillment. When we go vertical, we find life, even abundant life, according to Jesus (John 10:10). Tish Warren references the “abundant economy of worship.” It is the idea that worship is the one thing that never runs out. Start with everything else, and worship will get our leftovers. Start with worship and it will overflow and fill everything else with meaning and significance.

Worship asks one thing of us: It asks us to move from ego to awe. The pay-off for that shift is a life of abundance, a life overflowing in fullness and fruitfulness. When I make this shift from ego to awe — and only when I make this shift — I am rightly postured for the work of witnessing. David paints this poetically in Psalm 96. He begins this majestic hymn with worship: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, praise his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day!”

David begins with worship before calling the reader in verse three to declare God’s glory — the same glory we’ve just personally experienced — to the nations. David teaches us that if we want to find God’s heart for the lost, we must begin by developing our own holy awe. We must see the glory for ourselves first. He calls us upward, inviting us to become so overwhelmed by the things of God that we can’t help but want to proclaim them among the nations.

When we cultivate a holy awe, our witness will flow out of our worship.

Steven Cole quotes John Piper, who begins one of his books on missions by saying, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man … The goal of missions is the gladness of the people in the greatness of God.”

Cole says worship is not just the goal of missions, but the basis for it. He says, “If we are not fervent worshipers of God, we have nothing to tell the nations. If we do not exude joy in God and His wonderful salvation, why should lost people be interested in what we have to say? So worship is both the goal of missions and the foundation for missions. If we’re not worshipers, we will be lousy witnesses.”

The rhythm of Psalm 96 moves us between worship and witness. Our worship propels us out “to the nations,” to places hungering to worship the one, true God. When we get there, we proclaim His glory and our witness inspires others to worship our God. And the rhythm continues. Worship leads to witness leads to worship. Holy rhythm.

All this is to say: Missions and evangelism are not a function of self-fulfillment or empathy. They don’t exist to satisfy our own deep longings (“What’s in it for me?”) or because we have connected with the suffering of others (“What is around me?”).

Missions and evangelism exist as the overflow of hearts engaged in the holy awe of a glorious God who is worthy to be praised.

What if you spent today practicing holy awe, forgetful of self and searching in every situation for the glory of God?

 

*I learned this from Dr. Marilyn Elliott, Vice-President of Community Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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Karma, Abundance, and the Prosperity Gospel

“God is able to bless you abundantly so that …” – 2 Corinthians 9:8

Let’s start with a Kingdom definition of abundance.

Paul tells the Corinthians that God is able to bless us abundantly. I suspect Paul is saying not just that God is able, but that God wants to bless us abundantly. I lean for evidence on what Jesus teaches. He tells us we leave things on the table all the time because we don’t ask (John 11:22, John 14:13, John 15;7). He tells us we misunderstand the character of God, treating him for all practical purposes more like a cosmic zapper than a good father (Matthew 7:11).

Paul says, “God is able to bless you abundantly.” This is not just his ability but his desire and if this is our Creator’s desire, then this must be our created design. We are designed to operate out of a spirit of abundance. Our design yearns for an abundant (lavish, ample, full) connection with our Father, while our fallen nature tends toward scarcity. In other words, our design yearns to trust God, while the unsaved parts of us suspect that maybe God does not have our best interests at heart.

Meanwhile, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” His teaching doesn’t square with our fallen tendencies. God’s great desire is to be faithful to us — a desire God can make good on because God is able. God has been … is … will be faithful, because that is who God is and what God promises. Jesus said so. “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

That brings us to the two words that blow the lid off the prosperity gospel. Paul tells the Corinthians why God gives abundantly. It is not so people can be fat and happy; it isn’t about physical rewards at all. Paul couldn’t make it more clear when he tells the Corinthians, “God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things at all times, having everything you need, you will abound in good works.” We are enriched so that we can participate more fully in the harvest, so that we can increase our participation in righteousness, so that we can experience abundance that way it is defined in the Kingdom of God.

Paul says we are enriched so that we can be generous. Pastor Alec Rowlands of Westgate Chapel says this, “The blessing of God always goes hand in hand with holiness.” Amen. Always.

The premise of the prosperity gospel — the idea that our giving results in material blessings — seems at every level like a gross misreading of the scripture, not to mention a conscious blindness to the lifestyle of Jesus himself. Let’s be clear: the biblical understanding of abundance has nothing to do with the prosperity gospel. We don’t believe that if you tithe, God is going to give you a Mercedes. That isn’t Christian; that is the Buddhist principle of karma and Christians don’t believe in karma. Faith for us is not a lever we pull to get Jesus to do as we please or a manipulation that requires God to give us things. That kind of thinking is sheer heresy.

Paul’s “so that” says nothing about making us rich for the sake of comfort. We are enriched so that we can be generous. “So that” is all about Kingdom advancement. It is for the purpose of fulfilling the work of Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Our sense of abundance is inextricably tied to Kingdom advancement.

We are enriched so that we can practice the art of holiness and participate in the coming Kingdom.

Does God give extravagantly? Absolutely. Why? So thatprayer in one hand, a shovel in the other — we can be gratefully positioned at the center of the next great move of God. What better pay-off could there be?

So here’s your sanctification question for the day: Does your access to abundance lead to an excess of generosity? If not, you are not only missing the biblical principle of sowing and reaping, you are missing out on God’s promise of abundance. When we give time, talent, gifts, service and witness to Kingdom projects — when we engage the world with Kingdom motives — we position ourselves at the center of Kingdom advancement and through our witness God is glorified. His glory is the fruit of abundance, and it is what we are after when we boldly talk about and enter into giving for Kingdom causes.

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Holiness and the African UMC: An open letter to the U.S. Church

I have stated in other posts (here and here) that it has taken me a while to understand exactly how to posture myself within the current United Methodist Church. While at times I’ve been more content to wait for an exit door, in this season God and global Methodism have been drawing me toward the UMC, not away from it.

The hook is the global church. I am convinced that a globally connected church leads to a more faithful expression of the gospel. Early on, John Wesley displayed his commitment to the heart of a missionary God by traveling from England to Georgia for the cause of spreading the gospel.

It is in our DNA. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. Today, we seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the world, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith.

Given that commitment, I am grateful for the following word from UMC Africa Initiative. Their expression of bold faith at General Conference inspired us and their continued engagement in this season is prophetic and wise. Disagree with their theology if you must, but have an appropriate respect for their right to reflect back into the UMC the very faith carried to them through Methodist missionaries.

Keep in mind: African United Methodists don’t have to engage our American problems. Their jurisdiction is sufficiently removed, both geographically and politically, that they could easily extract themselves and move on independently with little reverberation. They have enough of their own tensions and complicating issues to deal with without having to take on ours. And yet they stay connected, passionately defending orthodoxy and the covenant we all accepted. Their commitment inspires me to do the same.

This letter from UMC representatives in Africa deserves our attention. I share it with the hope that it will help the reader better understand and honor their perspective and even more, that it will inspire you to pray for a more globally focused, Kingdom-oriented approach to the gospel and the Body of Christ.

A MESSAGE TO GLOBAL UMC FROM UMC AFRICA INITIATIVE

5th August 2016

Over the past weeks we have been following the events and activities of the five jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church with mixed emotions and serious concerns about the future of our beloved church. We have read of actions taken by some in gross disobedience to the Bible and our Book of Discipline, and of others who have written to express their disagreements. We are deeply concerned. However, we are praying for God’s intervention as we discern God’s plans for the future of our church.

It is shockingly amazing that in the communication of “Love Prevails” to the Council of Bishops there was no mention of a specific reference to any passage of the Holy Scripture, our primary authority for doctrine, faith, and Christian living as the Church of Jesus Christ, to support any of its claims, arguments, and demands and justifications for the actions it has taken in recent times. This attitude and behavior has the propensity to embarrass, ridicule, and blur the message of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone has the power to save and transform society.

In light of the commitment we (African delegates to the 2016 General Conference) made to the request of the Council of Bishops by our support to have them set up a special Commission to inquire into all human sexuality issues contained in our Book of Discipline, many of us are deeply saddened by the actions of some of our brothers and sisters to attempt to derail the unity of global Methodism. Their actions to grossly disrespect our Bishops and disobey our global decision at the recent 2016 General Conference are incompatible with fostering unity within global Methodism.

Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, John Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out”. When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.

We are left to wonder, why are we not identified as Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, etc., but Christians? It is because every religious faith has a doctrine and a religious code of conduct that distinguishes it from all other religion. In the case of Christianity, it is the Bible, the Holy Word of God, as the Quran is for the Muslims. One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents. One cannot claim to truly be a member of any of the world’s religions and live in gross disobedience to its teachings. (John14:15; Psalm 119:9-11,105; 19:7-11). Let the church be the church; and let not the culture of the day define the global Christian community called United Methodist, but the Bible (Joshua 1:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Christian Church, bought and birthed with the blood of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:1-13; Matthew 27: 32-61; John 10:10-11; Hebrews 10:1-39) is not and cannot be a social club; it cannot be directed by any form of political activism that contradicts the teachings of Scripture. And it is not a social or political system based on humanism or secular ideologies and philosophies (2 John 2;15-16; Colossians 2: 8-15;1 Samuel 8) that seeks endorsement for a kind of “human rights” to the detriment of human existence as God our Creator has designed it. Instead, the Church of Jesus Christ is a global community redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who lives in loving relationship with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They are a people called out from the world and yet sent into the world (John 16:7-11; Acts 1:8; Genesis 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 28; Judges 2:10-13; 17:6) to share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in order that persons might come to faith in Christ and become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We cannot in any way be “bad news” by our decisions, actions, and attitudes, and yet attempt to proclaim the good news.

It is time to return to the faith of our fathers and mothers (the Holy Scriptures) and be the church. In spite all that is going on, there is hope for the continued growth and development of the Church of Jesus Christ because Jesus is still the LORD of His Church. We will remain committed and determined to live in loyalty and obedience to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and to our Book of Discipline. We will also remain supportive of the unity of the global United Methodist Community as long as the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and Christian living. We shall remain loving of members of the UM Church who have chosen to tread the cultural path of contemporary society that is inimical to the teaching of Scripture, in the hope that we will reconcile our differences and submit to the Lordship of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters for whom Christ also gave his life. However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.

We are confident that God is in sovereign control of His Church. He promises to continually build it until He returns to receive us unto Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b). We need to only be still, yet vigorously prayerful and discerning in such a time as this, and we will see the deliverance of the Lord.

We must admit that global United Methodist Church is at the crossroads (Jeremiah 6:16). We have choices to make. On one hand, we can choose to obey God and His word, and thereby repent of the sin of gross disobedience and abandon the quest to be like the rest of the world. On the other hand, we can choose to continue in pursuit of what the cultural practices of the day dictate that denies God’s sovereignty over God’s creation and accepts what feels good, what seems politically acceptable to society, etc. The choice is ours.

But as Joshua, at the close of his ministry in Shechem, said to all of the Israelites, and by implication to all United Methodist at the crossroads today, we wish to challenge all born again believers in Jesus Christ (John 3:3-5), in the words of this great general of God’s people, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness…But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household (the UM Community in Africa, in particular, and all faithful Christians everywhere who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the undiluted Word of God for belief and practice), we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15). Together, we shall make it for God’s glory (Joshua 2:17-18; 2 Samuel 10:9-12). God has wonderful plans for the prosperity of His Church on earth (Jeremiah 29:11). Let us be firmed and very courageous in prayer and in discerning God’s will for the future of our church, always abounding in the Word of the Lord; for we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain (Joshua 1:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:58). May God bless the people called United Methodist.

For His Glory,
Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah
Central Conference Coordinator
UMC Africa Initiative on behalf of the UMC Africa Initiative
Liberia Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
13th Street, Sinkor
Tel.: +231(0) 88 652 0399
Email: jerry.kulah@gmail.com

(Find this letter here.)

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I just want to be saved (or, What missions is)

When I met her, she was laying in the middle of the road, flat on her back. It was a Tuesday afternoon in January. I was driving back toward our church on a two-lane road and there she was, laying in the oncoming lane.

She’d been on her bicycle and collided with a car. There was no ambulance there yet so I pulled over, got out and ran over to this woman who was laying in the road. I had no idea what kind of shape she was in but I knelt over her and said, “My name is Carolyn. I’m a pastor. Is there anything I can do for you?” Her eyes got wide, and she grabbed both my hands and pulled them to her chest and said, “I just want to be saved!”

This kind of thing never happens in real life, but there it was … just like that. “I just want to be saved!”

Then she said, “I knew you’d come.” And I thought, “Well, maybe she’s not completely with it,” because I didn’t know her from Adam. But she said it again. “I just knew you’d come.”

And with that, I realized I was being given an invitation — a window into eternity — so I took it. I hunched right over that woman with her holding both my hands and I prayed, “Lord, hear the cry of this woman’s heart. She just wants to be saved.” And I prayed for her healing and I prayed for her salvation and I prayed that God would meet her right there and do the work in her life that needed to be done. And I prayed over this woman until the ambulance showed up and then I stepped back so they could take care of her. Just as they were putting her on a stretcher into the ambulance, I got in her line of sight and said, “I’m praying for you.” And again, she grabbed my hand. I could see the hunger in her eyes.

I went home that night and looked up the accident online. I found her name and where they took her, so the next morning I went to see her. She was in a local hospital. She’d broken her hip. When I walked into her room, she called me by name. That was hopeful. Maybe she had been with it when we prayed. During that visit, she told me, “I always thought it would happen for me that way.”

I knew what she meant. She knew she’d be one of those people who would take the long way home. Who would need the patience and perseverance of the Body of Christ to get there. Who probably wouldn’t get there by walking through the doors of a church on Sunday morning.

I don’t believe she’s unusual in that way. I think the world is full of people like her — people who have had their feet knocked out from under them, who are flat on their backs, who have lost their job or their marriage or their sanity and they are hungry or lonely and trying to make sense of their circumstances. They may live across the street or they may live on the other side of the globe; either way, what they want more than anything is to be saved.

And in the midst of their pain, they are more likely to show up in the middle of the road or in a crisis pregnancy center or a mercy ministry or social service than they are to walk into a church on Sunday morning. And they’ll walk into one of those places and tell you what their problem is, but really … that problem is just a symptom. What they really want is to know how to get saved. They want an “out” from this way of doing life.

Which ends up being the one question the Church is most qualified to answer. But to speak that answer into their lives, what people like the woman in that road need most is someone willing to tabernacle the Spirit of God and take it out of the church building to where they are.

And that’s what missions is. It is learning to tabernacle the Spirit of God for the sake of a world full of people who just want to be saved.

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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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