Riding out of the Wilderness on Jesus’s Shoulders

I grew up in a church that looked down on me even from my birth.  You see, I was born a girl and girls weren’t supposed to have a voice in this church.  We could not be leaders, teachers of men, and certainly not pastors.  We were to be submissive to our husbands – in fact, to all males.  I was neither slave nor free.  In this wilderness, I was lost for years.

Jesus spoke in his parables of this wilderness.  A wilderness where being who God created me to be was impossible — a wilderness where I could not use my gifts of leadership and teaching.  Through no fault of my own, I was lost.  I was like a sheep who had been told not to grow wool and not to make sheep sounds.

This is exactly what the religious leaders were doing to both the religious and non-religious people of Jesus’s day.   They wrapped the religious up in rules that enslaved them.  They shunned the non-religious by telling them they had no place with God.

This caused conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus.  Jesus was out having dinner with lost people like me.  He was inviting people like me to come out of the wilderness and into his community where we would be treasured and nourished.  The religious leaders didn’t like this one bit.  They wanted Jesus to leave the lost in the wilderness – a wilderness that they had created for them and where they had power over them. But Jesus explained to the religious leaders that he was the good shepherd who “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NRS).

In Old Testament scripture, the prophet Ezekiel was angry with the religious leaders of his day, “You shepherds have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?”  The religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day were no better than the religious leaders of Jesus’s day. And so God speaks his mind to these leaders: “I will provide for the sheep… They are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am their God.”  Jesus came to fulfill this ancient promise – to gather his sheep and carry them from the wilderness of a religion that enslaves to his beloved community.

Jesus found me enslaved in a church that kept me from being who God created me to be.  Jesus picked me up on his shoulders and is carrying me – even now – out of the wilderness into his beloved community where I am nourished and cared for.  And where I can nourish and care for others.

There are many things in the wilderness that keep us from being our best selves — injustices of all kinds.  Your wilderness experience will be different from mine. But it doesn’t matter.  Jesus came to find us, to scoop us up on his shoulders, and carry us to his community where we can flourish.  It is a journey that takes a lifetime.  But the ride comes with a pretty good view.

Now the lost were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the religious leaders were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes the lost and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my Sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (turns around – comes out of the wilderness – lets Jesus pick them up) than over ninety-nine righteous persons who see no need. (Luke 15:1-7)

Freeing the Religious — not Religious Freedom

I had been a pastor about four years when the Spirit gave me the crazy notion to preach about how Jesus was the friend of tax collectors and sinners.  This was my text:

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’.” (Luke 15:1-2 NRS).

I started the sermon by asking people to call out the most despicable type of human being on the planet.  Like popcorn around the sanctuary, I could hear people saying things like “child molesters,” “rapists,” “murderers,” “terrorists.”  My first clue that the sermon was going to go really bad should have been when someone called out “democrats.”  But everyone laughed nervously and I started to go on.

But before I could go on, someone called out “homosexuals.”  This old man wore black round George Burns style glasses with even thicker rims.  His hipster fashion taste was a strange choice, especially for the Deep South.  Once he had asked me to find him childcare for his grandchildren from a first marriage since his new wife didn’t deserve to be burdened with them when it was his weekend to see them. To him, as his pastor, I was not only a concierge service, but I was to preach what he wanted other people to hear.  He had made sure right off the bat that I knew that homosexuality was wrong.  So that morning, not terribly surprised, I let his words hit the floor like a brick.

Next I asked my congregation to picture Jesus standing at the church doors, welcoming that person and then heading over to their house after church for lunch.

In the scripture for that day, Jesus befriended tax collectors and they were the most despicable people alive in the mind of the first century Pharisee.  Tax collectors were wealthy Jews who worked for the Roman invaders of Jerusalem. They took their fellow Jew’s money, took some off the top for themselves, and then gave the rest to those occupying Jewish land.  The Pharisees hated tax collectors.

For the religious Pharisees, it was socially acceptable to spit on tax collectors in the streets or to call them dogs to their faces.  Not just acceptable, it was considered a holy thing to do!  Refusing to do business with them was not only acceptable, it was mandatory.  Yet, my scripture for that day said that Jesus hung out with them.  He welcomed them . . . to his teaching sessions, to dinner, and most certainly to his father’s carpentry business.

My congregant had a wrong image of God.  He, like the Pharisees, didn’t want a messiah who hung out with anyone that didn’t fit his cultural norm – who didn’t follow his interpretation of right and wrong.  I had had the riot act read to me when a young white single mom had brought the black father of her child to the church picnic.  This congregant was religious, but knew nothing about Jesus.

You see, Jesus is love.  Jesus’s love invites even despicable people in and makes room for them at the table (Given that – think of what he does with people who just make us uncomfortable).  But God’s love is not just for the outcast.  God’s love is also for the Pharisees and other miss-the-mark religious people.  Don’t miss the irony of this — God’s love frees the religious of religion – a religion that follows a list of rules instead of Jesus.

The sanctuary of my church had been packed full that morning.  There were no parking spaces left in the parking lot.  People had pulled their cars onto a nearby field.  The pews were crammed with people.  As I stood in the back to shake hands, most said things like, “I feel relieved that I can love people without judging them.”  I even got a “Best sermon I have ever heard.” But when the George Burns congregant got to the door, he would not shake my hand.  He said, “I will never come back here as long as you are the pastor.”  A promise he didn’t keep, by the way.  After all, who was going to keep me in line if he didn’t come back?

Never once can I remember Jesus or his followers saying a word about religious freedom – and they were persecuted for their beliefs. The fact of the matter is that Jesus’s “Religious Freedom Law” is quite different from ours.  It frees the religious from religion – not the religious from being with people they are uncomfortable with.

***

April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

Wasting Time on Good Friday Night

After the women saw where Jesus was buried, “they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” (Luk 23:55-24:1 NRS).

Artist: He Qi, 1999
Artist: He Qi, 1999

Jesus died on Friday.  His female followers stayed with Jesus’s body from the cross to the tomb and then went home to prepare spices and ointments to be used to give him a proper burial.  They knew they had to finish with the burial preparations before the Sabbath when it was required that they rest.

These women were planners and doers and fearless.  But they were also confused.  And what they were doing Friday late into the night was a waste of time.  For they were preparing spices for a body that would not be dead when they arrived to care for it on Sunday at day break.

I am certain that I would have done the same thing.  But if they had known – had trusted – that Jesus wouldn’t be dead Sunday morning, what might they have done Friday night instead?  They wasted time worrying, preparing for the worst, unable to imagine the amazing and good possibilities.  Had they not understood what Jesus had told them would happen?  Did they not believe the promises he had made?  They could have spent the time in wonder and in peace. But they worked.  Wasted energy and time.

Like these women, I too have wasted a lot of time worrying and preparing for the worst between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Instead of living in joyful anticipation of what God will do next, I busy myself with things that I don’t even realize won’t matter in the morning.  I refuse to really hear his promises and grab hold of them. I prepare burial spices when I could be preparing a celebration!

O God, transform me!  Let me have faith that death – all the little deaths and all the big ones – have no power over me.  Let me have faith that the resurrection is coming!  And that in the power of the resurrection, I will be empowered to be your hands and feet.  Amen.

***

April’s Books

The Sacred Hug promised in the Upper Room

goose hugSometimes I just need a hug.  Yesterday was one of those days.  Too much going on.  Little things making me stressed out.  Nothing huge.  I really can’t explain why, but I felt a little down.  Nothing a hug couldn’t cure.

I remember when my son Kit was a toddler.  He gave the best hugs.  Just wrapped his entire little body – both arms and legs – around me.  I can close my eyes even now and remember what his big bear hugs felt like. Even to this day, there is such joy in his hugs! My church is also a good place to go to get hugs (I realize not all churches are) — except during holy week when you are instructed to leave in silence.  That was disappointing last night!  I wanted to stop everyone and give them a hug!  Yet when my husband walks in from work at the end of a long day, I always get hugged.  I like the way he is so tall that I fit under his chin.  When my other son Brent arrived home last Friday for Holy Week, my husband and I both hugged him at the same time.  To our surprise, Maggie, our Great Dane joined the hug by standing on her hind legs and putting one paw on my husband and one on me.  A great big family hug with lots of laughter.  The doggie seemed pleased.

“The Holy Spirit is God in the act of giving us an infinite embrace”

Being hugged and giving hugs can be a very holy thing.  While teaching about the Upper Room for the last six weeks, I discovered that the Holy Spirit is God in the act of giving us an infinite hug.  I am not just being sappy . . .  stick with me for a second.  This is what Jesus said:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (Joh 14:16 NRS).

Other translations call the Holy Spirit “the Comforter” instead of “Advocate.”  There is a sense that the Holy Spirit is for us.  Advocating, Teaching, and Comforting.  Hugging!  But that isn’t all.  This is what is really cool:

In the book of Acts, after Pentecost (which was when the Holy Spirit came), the Holy Spirit is described as tripping and falling a lot.  For instance in Acts 10:44 the Holy Spirit falls on all who heard the word.  In Acts 11:15, the Holy Spirit falls on them again.  That amused me.  Was the Spirit drunk and doing a lot of tripping and falling?  No, but that was the image conjured up in my mischievous mind.

I started looking into what this “falling” really meant.  Lo and behold, it literally means “to embrace” to “give a bear hug.”  The Spirit was giving these people a hug that never ends!  How cool is that?

The same word is used to describe what the father does when he runs to meet the prodigal son.  He “falls on his neck” or better translated, “he hugs him” (Luke 15:11-32).

The Holy Spirit hugs us.  The Holy Spirit is God in the act of giving us an infinite embrace.  Think about that the next time you feel a bit (or even a lot) down.  You aren’t alone.  The Holy Spirit has her arms around you holding you tight.  Know how much you are loved!

P.S.  Don’t let my calling the Holy Spirit “her” distract you.  The Spirit is gender feminine in the Old Testament and neutral in the New Testament so it is perfectly theologically legit.

*****

April’s Books  

Foot Washing: What do you have to offer?

Jesus_washing_Peter's_feet“What do you have to offer?”  Not the typical Holy Week question.  But it really should be!

I have been reading a book about how to market books.  As I recently told my publisher, “I am not fond of the marketing aspects of being an author.”  Clearly, I don’t know what I am doing.  It isn’t – at least not so far – in my skill set.  But apparently it is part of my job description.

The first thing this marketing book says to do is to develop a brand.  I am to start this process by asking myself: “What do I have to offer?”  As I thought about this, I realized that it is an important question, but not just for authors.  In fact, with Holy Week coming up, I think it is something we should all be reflecting on.

After Jesus had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  (Joh 13:12 NRS)

There was a time when I bought into the “Jesus Says: Do the Crappiest Jobs” sermons I had heard about this scripture.  In fact, I may have preached one or two myself.  Who hasn’t heard it preached?  Wasn’t Jesus teaching his disciples to randomly take on the most humiliating, most unrewarding, lowliest tasks possible? Not exactly.

Consider this.  At that moment in history, Jesus was the only one who could wash the disciple’s feet.  No one else could do it.  He hadn’t picked out a lowly task in order to be humble; he was humbly doing what only he could do.  He says this in his exchange with Peter:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean . . . “  (Joh 13:6-10 NRS)

Jesus wasn’t washing their feet because they had physical mud and dust on them. In fact, according to custom, they had likely already washed their own feet as they entered the house.  This foot washing pointed to spiritual renewal –  a cleansing of someone already ultimately clean – a forgiving of someone already ultimately forgiven – a renewal of vows to be committed to the well-being of the other.

Yet, Jesus was also demonstrating to the disciples that they were to serve one another like he served each of them. This meant perpetually loving, forgiving, and meeting all kinds of emotional, physical, and spiritual needs for one another — to be committed to each other’s well-being.

You call me Teacher and Lord– and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (Joh 13:13-17 NRS)

Just as Jesus was the only one who could wash their feet, our service to each other should also come from our uniqueness.  “What do I have to offer to you?” is the ultimate question when washing another’s feet.  “How can I love you, forgive you, care for your needs?”

We aren’t to pick out lowly tasks in order to be humble; we are to humbly do for each other what God has given us the skills and resources to do. This is a subtle, but incredibly important difference.  It is how we make the biggest impact in our world with the least amount of wasted time and effort.  But it also makes it essential for us to know the abilities and skills God has given us – to hone and refine them so that we can humbly serve each other best.  

Since marketing is part of a writer’s job, then I guess honing and refining my skills is what I am doing in reading this marketing book.  By the way, it might make sense for me to accept help from someone who has these skills already. This is how we wash one another’s feet.

*****

April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

Ever Prayed with an Icon?

Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410I facilitate a multicultural spiritual direction group of half a dozen women every other Monday night at an Episcopal Church.  This week we are practicing the spiritual discipline of praying with icons that isn’t often practiced in protestant denominations. And, by icons, I don’t mean famous people!  I mean the 2-D paintings.

Icons were originally a way of communicating the stories of scripture and saints to the illiterate.  We are using these ancient icons to do something very similar.  In deep meditative prayer, we gaze upon them considering the stories and lives portrayed in them watching for how the Holy Spirit might speak to us through what we see.

The icon that I have been gazing at is the icon of the Trinity painted by Rublev in the 15th Century.  It shows the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gathered around a table having a conversation.  One side of the table has an opening.  I have taken this to mean that they are inviting us to sit down and join in their conversation. After all, isn’t that what we do when we pray?

The curious thing is  . . . the first day that I prayed, I had a hard time sitting down at the table with the trinity.  Oh I know the theology – I know the Holy Spirit makes it possible through Jesus’s work on the cross and in the resurrection for me to sit at that table and be in relationship with God.  But yet, I had a hard time sitting down. Not exactly because I thought that I didn’t belong at the table, but because in my subconscious, I thought they might get up and leave.

See, I had an experience a while back where God made way for others and not me to do something I really wanted to do.  Something I think God wanted me to do too.  Everyone has probably experienced this at one time or another – you know, you didn’t get into the school you wanted, you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, the person you wanted to date said, “no way.” Anyway, I was feeling confused about why God hadn’t fully opened doors that I thought God was telling me to go through.

My priest said he knew how I felt.  He said, “It is like God loaded up the truck with his friends and left you standing in the rain.”  Exactly!  But my priest also went on to say, “Trust me, I am just as confused as you are, but God hasn’t really left.  Maybe God went to get something ready?  Whatever it is God will certainly be back.  Give God time.  And maybe then we will know why it seems God left you behind.”

So as I gazed at the icon, I realized that I didn’t want to sit down at the table if the trinity was going to run out the door and leave me sitting there yelling, “wait for me!”  Of course, the trinity wouldn’t actually do that.  Hasn’t actually done that.  But I felt like they had.  And it wasn’t until I spent time praying with this icon that I realized how I was hesitating to give up all my hurt feelings and sit down anyway.  Trust.  I needed to trust them so that I could sit down at the table and listen to them.  It’s hard to be a servant of Christ if you don’t trust the trinity enough to sit down and chat.  So the next time I prayed, I entered the painting, pulled up a chair, and sat down.  Now I am ready to listen.

Try praying with icons.  Henri Nouwen used to do it whenever he was too tired to pray with words. Henri Nouwen explains the practice in his book called Behold the Beauty of the Lord.

*****

April writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines.
See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

April’s Blog

April writes mostly about Scripture & Spiritual Disciplines – but sometimes about social issues and her life. Immediately below is a list of some of her most popular posts. Scroll down further to see the latest posts. Search capability is on the menu to the left.

Being a Progressive Christian in the Deep South * When A Church Elder Called Me an Ass * When Peace is not Shalom * The Day Jesus Described God as a Woman * A Trinitarian World View will Change Everything you Thought you Knew about God * Stop Pretending Sexism is a Legitimate Religious Belief * The Death Penalty Shows us What is Wrong with Worshiping the Bible * Fight Over Ferguson in the Nail SalonAre you Committing the Sin of Scarcity? * When a Horrible Mistake Becomes Something AwesomeSt. Peter’s Vision on the Apian WayIs the Episcopal Church Dead?The Good Shepherd Doesn’t Break the Sheep’s LegGive * Trump sums up Mexicans with a Taco * Being Yourself with GodNine Blessings from the Non-Conservative MovementFive Things Non-Conservative Christians can Learn from Conservative ChristiansThe Kingdom of the Christ Child and the Big Bang Theory  *  Who is Going to Heaven?The Inerrant Paraclete * What Easter Island and Scripture have in CommonA Misunderstanding of Good and EvilWhy I do not believe God directed the ancient Jews to slaughter other nationsHeld in Slavery by Christianity

Scroll Down for the latest posts…

Fight over Ferguson in the Nail Salon

pedicure_at_homeLate this afternoon, I treated myself to a pedicure.  I especially love the big comfy chairs that give you a massage while the nail artist makes your feet look pretty.  To be exact, I wasn’t actually on a break from writing.  I was honestly still diligently researching my next book – engaged in reading a commentary.  Comfy I was!

When a large sixty-something woman with bottle-blonde hair four chairs down from me announced loudly, “That black boy deserved to be shot!”

There were about a dozen of us getting manicures and pedicures in the room.  All of us were white, except for one African-American woman.  I looked up to see the heavy blonde woman starring at the back of the black woman’s head who was sitting at a table drying her nails between the blonde and a TV.  The TV was on mute, but captions about Ferguson were running along the bottom.

Less than 3 seconds passed when the black woman turned to confront the white woman. The black woman – angry – pointed out that the boy probably wouldn’t have been shot had he been white.  She named similar situations – worse situations actually – where white boys were captured alive.  The white woman continued to hurl insults until the black woman stood up (all six feet of her). She towered over the short round white woman who kept talking.  It was then I saw where the white woman’s boldness was coming from.  Her grown son was with her.  He didn’t speak, but he came to his mother’s side.

I can honestly say, that I have never seen racism like this in person before.   I sat stunned. I tried desperately to think how Jesus would have reacted to this scene.  I didn’t want to enter into their argument – to become just another screaming voice, but I wanted to demonstrate the love of God somehow.  The black woman left before I could think of what to say.  I watched her through the store window as she walk to her car.  My heart broke for her.  No one said a word in the salon.  Not a word.

I was lost in my thoughts when I realized the black woman had returned.  She was standing in front of the instigator again.  She was angry and holding back tears. “You didn’t say that boy deserved to be shot – you said that black boy deserved to be shot.”  The blonde woman responded “Yes, I did!  That black boy!”

“You are a racist and nothing more,” replied the black woman.

The black woman had to walk by me to leave.  This time I caught her eye.  I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to suffer this kind of hatred.  I said, “I am sorry – not all of us are like that.”  She stopped and said, “Thank you.”  Then as she thought about it – she turned back and said, “Thank you!” again. Before she got out the door, another white woman wearing a black leather jacket turned to her and said, “I agree with what you said!”  The black woman reached down and touched the woman’s shoulder and left.  No one spoke.  The lady in the black leather jacket locked eyes with me and shook her head sadly.

A young teenager also with blonde hair and heavy too, who had been in the waiting area, took the chair next to mine.  We talked on and off about trivial things.  She didn’t seem particularly bright or interested in much beyond nail color.  I wondered if she was just a younger version of the lady four seats down.  She called me “Ma’am” which I don’t like because it makes me feel old, but she was deeply Southern and it was meant to be respectful.  It wasn’t long until the older blonde woman and her son got up to leave.  As they passed the teenager, the girl said to her, “Excuse me Ma’am.”  The older blonde woman stopped and turned.  With great respect and in a backwoods Southern accent, the teenager said, “Ma’am, you have a right to your opinion, but this is America and we don’t treat each other like that here.”

Out of the mouth of babes…

*****

April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

Are you Committing the Sin of Living in Scarcity?

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
(Joh 10:10)

There is a prosperity gospel out there that is – no matter how you slice it – wrong.  The prosperity gospel teaches that whatever you want (as long as it doesn’t break any of “God’s rules”) is what God wants to give you.  Your job is to believe hard enough that God will give it to you.  This just isn’t how God works!

Abundance
Abundance!

However, the prosperity gospel is not the same as living in abundance.  Jesus’s disciple, Matthew, was big on abundance.  Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Jesus called Matthew to follow him while Matthew was still sitting at the tax collection table where he collected taxes from his fellow Jews and gave them to the Romans occupying Jerusalem.  He was a hated man among the Jews – a traitor who took their money and gave it to their oppressors.  Perhaps he had many stories of the chosen people of God living both in abundance and scarcity.  Perhaps this dichotomy between the rich and poor was something that plagued him and something he needed to explain.   Twice in his gospel, he records these words of Jesus:

“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mat 13:12 and Matt 25:29)

These verses are stern warnings.  The followers of Jesus are to live out of the abundance of God not in scarcity.  And yet, so many times we choose the way of scarcity.

Scarcity in Guiding our Children:

How many times have I heard parents tell their children not to pursue their dreams because their dreams are too risky?  They want to be an artist, but it’s too hard to be successful.  Don’t try.  Become an accountant instead.  Please don’t teach your children to live in scarcity.  Teach them to pray, to know God’s plans for them, and to pursue them with vigor!  Do everything you can to help them achieve God’s plans for their lives.

Scarcity in our Health:

An elderly doctor friend of mine was in a car accident.  The car hit him and crushed him – basically cutting his body in two.  He was alive when he shouldn’t have been.  He was even talking and coherent when he arrived at the hospital.  He could hear the doctors’ voices telling his daughters that they were going to do surgery even though there was no real hope of saving him.  He called the nurse nearest him over and said to her, “I want to talk to every doctor who will be present for the operation.  Can you gather them over here?”  They came to his bedside.  He said to them.  I want you to operate using all you have ever learned as if I am going to live – not as if I am going to die.  I don’t want you in the operating room if you have no hope.  Then he prayed for them.  He insisted that they operate on him out of their abundant training not out of fear and scarcity.  He lived!

Scarcity in our Churches:

Perhaps your church has a need.  Ours does.  We need an elevator for the elderly.  We need a priest focused on families.  We need to refurbish our organ.  And we need to pay off our debt.  I have so admired our vestry and priests who have chosen not to live out of scarcity.  Out of deep prayer they have discerned God’s vision to supply these things.  And in the midst of an economy that says you are crazy to do a capital campaign, they are doing just that.  The staff was the first to make their pledges with generous hearts! The rest of us are following.  They could have chosen the way of scarcity, but they chose abundance instead!

Scarcity in our Denominations:

I met with one of my old seminary professors recently.  He has been watching how different denominations have handled the economic recession.  Being a seminary professor and teaching future ministers, his view has particularly focused on how denominations treat their seminarians.  He said some denominations are turning away those who believe they are called into ministry saying there is “no place for them to minister.”  When the truth is, there is a huge need for ministers in all denominations, but no money to pay them.  These denominations are living in scarcity.  His words were that “they are in hospice mode just making themselves comfortable until they die.”

But he has noticed that other denominations, instead of turning away those God is calling into ministry, understand that God is miraculously raising up new ministers to serve in a time just like this!  These denominations see this as a miracle.  These new ministers are inspiring congregations to give more. They are finding creative ways to finance their educations and ministries.  They are willing to live on less – because less is more when you have the honor of serving God!  Some are even willing to work without pay taking on outside jobs. These denominations are inspired – giving more and outgrowing their buildings.  They are not in hospice; they have chosen abundance.  And they are seeing God provide.

Scarcity in Practicing Sabbath:

A single mom was terminated from her job when the company downsized.  For a few days, she was overwhelmed with the fear of not being able to care for her young son.  She had been working so hard for so long and was exhausted.  She needed rest and renewal.  So she began to pray.  In her prayers, she laid out her savings account and severance package before God. She started out with, “God how do I make this last as long as possible until you give me a new job?” Oddly and unexpectedly, God clearly spoke to her telling her to take some of the money and her son and head to a cabin in the mountains for a couple of weeks of rest.  Strange thing for a mom to do who is worried about the future. But she did.  She practiced Sabbath during this time and return renewed and ready to search for a job.  She found one that included a raise.  She also negotiated a week extra vacation every year.  She practiced abundance and not scarcity.

Scarcity in our Country:

Isn’t it scarcity that we practice when we don’t provide health care for all who need it? Isn’t it scarcity when we don’t pay living wages so everyone can provide for themselves and their families?  Isn’t it scarcity when we turn away immigrants instead of embracing them?

“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mat 13:12 and Matt 25:29)

Practicing abundance is very different from practicing the prosperity gospel.  Living abundantly is the mark of the Christian.  This teaching requires that we discern the way of Jesus and live into his abundance – which will look different for each of us. We live in the sure hope that God will provide for whatever God calls us to do.  And once we know the will of God, we move forward without looking back. Do we know all the steps along the way?  Of course not.  But we know that Jesus firmly told us to live abundantly.  And we trust him.

Dear God, Help me see where I am living in scarcity and transform me into one who lives in your abundance!  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

*****

April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

When a Horrible Mistake becomes Something Awesome!

Brent in tux
Brent at 6 months.

Our son Brent turned 28 yesterday.  That makes me really old.  And Steve, his dad, even older!  But honestly, we still feel (and act!) like we are 18.

Brent doesn’t like for me to tell his story.  He rightly tells me that his vision issues are just a small part of who he is – so I shouldn’t emphasize them.  At an early age, even though he turned down prosthetics that would have eventually made his eyes the same size saying he liked the way God made him, he still didn’t and doesn’t want to be known by his disability. But today I am going to tell the story anyway.  Brent, if you are reading this, just humor an old lady, because your story is also my story and there are people who will be blessed by it!

Brent’s birth and the days afterwards were one of those surreal experiences in life that never quite leaves you.  It was the night of the World Series and Fall Equinox when the time changes.  I know, because my doctor watched the World Series sitting on my bed while I labored.  And humorously because of the time change, I only got credit for 12 hours of labor in the official records, even though I was in labor for 13!

Brent was born early the next morning weighing in at 10 pounds 4 ounces.  He looked like a linebacker next to all of the other tiny little babies in the nursery.  When I finally got to hold him in my room, I noticed that his eyes were two different sizes.  I called the nurse and told her.  She dismissed me saying it was normal and no big deal.  She tried to comfort me by emphasizing that the “expert” pediatrician had examined him at birth and that he was perfect.  She told me I was just a nervous mother, but all was fine.  Granted, I was an engineer and not an expert in newborns, but I was pretty sure a mistake had been made – something was surely wrong.

The next day, the pediatrician made her rounds and after giving him another clean bill of health, I pointed out Brent’s eyes.  I watched the look on her face go from condescension at my concern to embarrassment over having made such a huge error to fear.  He was rushed to the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) where even more mistakes were to be made.

All sorts of doctors were called in – geneticists, ophthalmologists, heart and lungs specialists, and others with many degrees behind their names.  My mother and husband and I sat and listened to them tell us that he had all kinds of problems.  He would have seizures all his life, he would never see, he would not have a normal IQ, he might never walk or speak.  The problem was likely genetic.  The world came crashing down around me.  I was overwhelmed with guilt that I must have done something wrong while I was pregnant.  I felt like such a failure (this is a typical reaction of a mother whose baby is not “normal”).  I was too shocked to even cry.  They told us to make plans for a child that would need constant care for the rest of his life.  He would never be normal.

Sitting there listening to the doctors, my mother was the only one who spoke.  She said very matter of factly, “He can’t see very well, but other than that he is just fine.”  She took a breath and added, “He is going to be a preacher one day.” The doctors firmly but kindly told her she needed to accept the facts and help us accept them too.  My mother listened and then added just loud enough for all of us to hear, “You have made a mistake.” 

How she knew, I do not know.  She is a brilliant woman not prone to speaking prophetic words or contradicting doctors.  But there was something holy about her words – even the doctors saw it.  No one dared contradict her.

Turns out she was right.  About everything.

Thank goodness that we did not accept the doctors’ diagnosis and give up on Brent.  I shudder to think what would have happened.  As Brent grew, we pretty much ignored what the doctors had told us.  Perhaps it was because he compensated so well.  He was speaking in complete sentences before he was a year old.  At his 12 month appointment he said, “Good morning Doctor H” when the doctor walked into the examination room.  He was reading long before kindergarten and by the time he started school, he was reading Star Trek novels on his own.  There were no seizures.  And his genes were completely normal.  The doctors were right about only one thing, his IQ wasn’t normal.  But they were wrong that it would be on the low end of the scale.  His IQ was immeasurable, even beyond the 175-point mark that falls into the genius category.  He was indeed very special.

We had no idea how to raise a 3rd grader who read Time Magazine and explained in detail to his friends why global warming was a bad thing.  Who sat and listened to our adult conversations taking every word in.  Who refused, to his preschool teacher’s serious disappointment, to color the duck yellow, because he had only ever seen white ducks.  He not only understood facts, but he could translate them so that others could understand them at their own level.  Those who took time to talk to Brent always walked away fascinated – and maybe a little better informed!  We loved him so much.

I don’t know why, but we never prayed that God would heal him.  Perhaps it seemed that he was just like God intended.  But then, it became obvious as he reached the teenage years that not being able to drive was going to be a terrible burden on him.  Therefore, though we had never prayed for Brent to be healed before, we began to pray that he would be able to drive.

God didn’t say yes right away.  In fact, during his senior year in college, we got a call from Brent late one night.

“Dad, I have a problem.”

Steve knew immediately something was very very wrong.  Brent had woken up that morning and his vision was a bit blurry.  As the day had progressed, his vision went from blurry to not being able to recognize faces.  It was now evening and he was calmly calling to tell us that for all intents and purposes, he was completely blind.

I called his doctor who told me to get him to Atlanta as quickly as possible where they had the expertise to try and help him.  I drove all night picking him up and bringing him back to his doctor.  His good eye had serious problems.  A hole had opened in it and was leaking fluid.  His doctor told us honestly that this was such a rare occurrence that she did not know what to do.  She called experts around the country – and they didn’t know what to do either.  Finally, it seemed the only hope was surgery – something they would have never attempted prior.  What little vision he had before was too precious to risk – now with greatly deteriorated vision, it made sense to take the risk.

Six surgeries later, Brent and I sat together waiting to hear the results.  Scared to death, I could hardly breath.  Then his doctor’s beautiful voice announced, “Today you are going to go get your learners permit!”  His vision was better than ever!  Praise God!

April and Brent
Brent and April worshiping in the chapel at Union Seminary before Graduation Ceremonies.

The doctors, though well intended and kind, had made a mistake.  They claimed things about Brent when God was saying something different.  Not only was Brent healthy and brilliant, but one day he would even see well enough to drive!  Grandma had politely and gently called them on their mistake.

Turns out, God had planned all along to make something amazing out of their mistake. I learned that day to listen to the plans that God has for us, not the mistakes of well-intending mortals who just can’t know all God has planned!  Today Brent has his own car and is studying the Old Testament at Drew University.  Last year, we heard him preach at the little church where he took his turn preaching all year last year.  That was a day of celebration!

Thank you God! Thank you for our Brent.  And thank you for making something awesome out of mistakes!

P.S.  To Brent:  It isn’t like I mentioned that you are single and posted your email address and phone number.  It isn’t like I am encouraging women to contact you if they are interested!  So it’s all good.  🙂  I love you!  I am in so much trouble!

*****

April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.