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.  

Saint Peter’s Vision of Jesus on the Appian Way

A Participant in the Divine Nature Of Christ.  Who? Me?

As much as I love scripture – studying it and teaching it – I have become keenly aware that the Holy Spirit did not stop working among us when the last stroke of the pen completed what we know now as the New Testament.  The acts of the Holy Spirit continued and they were just as powerful, relevant, and active in the early church.   In fact, the acts of the Holy Spirit continue even today!

AW1 Sign
The Appian Way, southeast of Rome.

When my husband and I arrived in Rome after a 9-hour flight from Atlanta, we had planned to sleep for a couple of hours before venturing into the Eternal City.  Sadly, we were to find that our hotel room wasn’t ready for us.  Oh well – we washed the cobwebs from our eyes in the hotel’s public bathroom, entrusted the bellman with our luggage, donned our hiking shoes, hopped on a bus, and headed about an hour southeast of Rome to an ancient road known as the Appian Way (or Via Appia Antica, if you are Italian).  It was an awesome day – cool and dry – puffy clouds in the sky – a perfect day to hike the Appian Way back to Rome.

AW2 Original Pavement 2
The original paving stones of the Appian Way.

As we hiked on the original stones that paved the ancient road, we stopped to see all kinds of things . . .  ancient mausoleums and circuses.  We toured catacombs – the burial ground of thousands of first century Christians.  It was in the catacombs, painted above a grave, that we saw the first known depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd.  We even stopped for lunch at an amazing restaurant where we sat in their courtyard next to a fountain and feasted on pasta.

AW9 Calixus Catacombs 2 Not Ours
Earliest known depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd

But there was one place that I could not wait to see.  It was located just before we reached the walls of Rome that surrounded and protected the city.  There sits a tiny, insignificant church – a chapel really.  It would be easy to pass by without a thought.  But, for me, this church is built on holy ground and the highlight of our hiking that day.

AW11 Church of Domine Quo Vadis 1
Church of Domine Quo Vadis

After Christ’s death in Jerusalem, Peter became the head of the church.  He traveled widely proclaiming the way of Jesus everywhere he went.  He had been in Rome when persecution against Christians (who refused to worship the emperor) became increasingly frequent and violent.  Warned that his life was in grave danger, he decided to flee the city following the Appian Way to safer ground.  He got as far as the ground where this little church stands.

In Latin, the church is called “Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis.”  In English, it literally means “The Church of ‘Lord, Where are You Going?’.”  According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, as Peter fled the city, it was here that he encountered the risen Christ.   Peter saw Jesus walking in the opposite direction going back toward the city of Rome.  Peter – astonished – asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?”  Jesus responded, “I am going back to Rome to be crucified again.”

AW11 Church of Domine Quo Vadis 2
Church of Domine Quo Vadis

Peter didn’t believe that following Jesus was just a philosophical endeavor or just a nice way to live, he believed that the divine life of Christ actually lived within him and within all believers.  Earlier, he had recorded this in the New Testament:

Christ has given us . . .  his precious and very great promises, so that through them you. . .  may become participants of the divine nature. (2Pe 1:2-4)

Peter had given up his own life to live the life of Christ – to let Christ live through him.   Because of this, Peter knew that Jesus was telling him to go back to Rome where, as a participant in the divine nature of Christ, he would be crucified.   Peter would not be alone on that cross.  Jesus was with him – living through him – crucified again.  Peter was a participant in the divine nature of Jesus.  As are all those who desire Christ.

AW11 Church of Domine Quo Vadis 3
This stone marks the spot where Jesus met Peter on the Appian Way

Peter obeyed.  He returned, was arrested, and crucified upside down on a cross.

As I sat in the little chapel, I prayed, “Domine Quo Vadis?”  Lord, where are we going?  How is the Spirit calling me to participate in the divine nature?  Where does Christ want to take me? How can I be his hands and feet?  It is an overwhelming, but joyful question – to know that wherever Christ sends me, he lives his life within me!

 

If this article interested you, you may also be interested in April and her husband’s pilgrimage to Assisi.  She writes about this in St. Francis and the Christian Life.

*****

Read more interesting stories in one of April’s books

Is the Episcopal Church Dead?

Saint Thomas the Apostle Episcopal ChurchA 2012 article in the NY Times announced the approaching death of the liberal church. I find it interesting to go back and look at the article two years later.  The author gave the “liberal church” a face by identifying it with the Episcopal denomination.  But I think the author missed some important nuances in his article that I am hoping readers will help me think through:

(1) Every mainstream denomination is in decline right now, not just the Episcopal Church. Non-mainstream, non-denominational, conservative churches are also in decline.  Their attendance is harder to measure, because they grow and decline overnight with congregants chasing the latest and greatest programs and pastors around town rather than joining and supporting a single church community.  Dear reader, is your church declining or growing?  Mine, St David’s in Roswell, Georgia, is growing by leaps and bounds!

(2) The author also uses John Shelby Spong and his theology to define both liberalism and the Episcopal Church.  I consider myself a liberal Christian (one can not be a female in ministry and be anything but left of center on the vast theological spectrum), but my theology and Spong’s rarely intersect except, perhaps, on social issues.  He doesn’t speak for all Episcopal thought or theology. Nor do I.  Does your church welcome a spectrum of theology or do you have to toe the company line?

(3) There is one thing about the Episcopal Church that is different from all other denominations and I think it makes us uniquely poised for outlasting the decline of American Christianity. The identity of the Anglican church (of which Episcopalians are a part) is the worship of Christ – not a particular theology. From the very beginning, our desire and focus has been to worship together despite differences in theology. I think this is the way Christ meant for it to be. Therefore, rather than finding our identity in what we believe – we find our identity in who we worship. This is why Spong and I, though we have vast differences in theology, can still worship together.  Does your church define itself by what it believes or by who it believes in?

(4) The success of any church is not judged (by God) by how many attend, but how well they love others:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. — Jesus (John 13:34-35)

*****

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

Being the Church without Going to Church?

Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy
Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy

There are a lot of people in America who are angry at the church today.  And why not?  It has at times supported a variety of awful things: slavery, the destroying of Native American communities, unjust laws that favor the wealthy over the poor, discrimination against women and homosexuals, etc. Does it really make sense to try and affiliate with a church when not one mainline denomination has consistently (over the last several hundred years) met God’s standards to love others?

And yet, the author of Hebrews begs us . . .

“ . . .  consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (Heb 10:24-25 NRS)

St. Francis was not immune to the hurt and harm the church could bring about. Though he and his companions attended mass, they did not associate their community with the church at first.  What made St. Francis go to the church and ask that they accept his community as one of their own is a matter of debate.  Some say he was too trusting, others say he was duped.  Either way, he went to Rome and asked to be included as a holy order.  At first the church ignored him, but later as he gained more and more popularity the church decided to commandeer St. Francis’s community.

This was a nightmare for St. Francis.  Associating with the church caused his order to degenerate into a clerical institution.  St. Francis was soon to discover that loving Christ was easy, but loving Christianity was not.  He began to understand the clergy of the church as a group in need of conversion.  In his opinion, they had lost the way of Jesus.  Then the worst happened.  The church took the order from St. Francis and gave it to Peter of Catana who changed the most basic rules of life on which St. Francis and the other brothers had taken their vows.  St. Francis did not leave the church over this, but spoke into it.  Even on his deathbed, he was still writing and talking to anyone who would listen about the grave errors the church was making — not only in the order he founded, but in the church as a whole.

We need to get over the notion that we can be the church (the hands and feet of Jesus) all by ourselves.  Individually, we might be able to be a thumb or a big toe, but we need the whole community of Christ to be the hands and feet and to accomplish the work of Jesus.

What if instead of disassociating with the church, those disgusted with it stay and speak up?  Would that not make the church a better place?  Would it not, perhaps, save the church for future generations who are leaving it in droves?

My advice is to find the best church you can – one that accepts and loves you – one that is tolerant of differing views – one that is continuing Jesus’ ministry to those in need.  Find this church and realize, it will still have problems – sometimes BIG problems.  But don’t leave.  Stay, and speak into it.

*****

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

Do we substitute human guidance for going directly to God?

St F praysOne of the interesting things about St. Francis is that he didn’t have a mentor or teacher.  One of his biographers, St. Bonaventure, who entered St. Francis’s order in the 1200s wrote:

“. . . this great servant of God had neither master nor teacher to guide or instruct him, save only Christ our Lord . . .”

Reading this reminded me of Saul.  Acts 9 records Saul’s conversion.  He was transformed by a vision of Jesus on his way to Damascus where he intended to persecute Christians. Afterwards, Saul took on the name Paul and wrote much of the New Testament.  But Paul, like St. Francis, had no teacher.  He neither had the opportunity to know Jesus personally before Jesus’s ascension nor did he spend a great deal of time with Jesus’s disciples learning about Jesus. Upon his conversion, almost immediately, his life was threatened and the disciples sent him to Tarsus to protect him from being executed.  He later wrote that his knowledge of God was:

“ . . . not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit . . .“ (1Co 2:13 NRS).

St. Francis, like Paul, had a deep intimate relationship with God.  He depended on the Spirit to lead and guide him.  That kind of relationship is what God desires of each of us.  But so often we don’t take time to let God speak to us.  We shout up prayers – instructions telling God what we want God to do – but we rarely take time to hear God speak.  Both St. Francis and Paul spent time alone listening to God.  In doing so, they needed no other mentor.

It isn’t that mentors and teachers are bad.  But if we substitute them for directly going to God for guidance, we miss out on knowing our creator personally.  In fact our mentors, spiritual guides, and teachers do us the most good when they teach us how to listen to God for ourselves.

*****

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

Perpetual Outsiders – Here is your patron saint

St. FSt. Francis’s life was “that of a perpetual outsider.”

– James Cowan, from Francis: A Saint’s Way

St. Francis is remembered by the general population as the kind man who loved nature.  But he was so much more.  James Cowan calls him the “perpetual outsider.”  And Cowan wasn’t talking about St. Francis’s love for the great outdoors.  He meant that he didn’t fit in.  Not anywhere.

Outsiders everywhere – here is your patron saint!

If you are an outsider, you have no doubt felt the pressure to become an insider.  And either you have learned to withstand the pressure or you have succumbed.  St. Francis was no different.  He struggled throughout his life under the pressure of those who demanded that he conform.  Yet, somehow, even until his dying day, he managed to push through it all and fly his freak flag proudly.

What made St. Francis so different was not that he talked to animals or that he preached to birds, but that God had called him and his followers to live out Jesus’s command to go into the world and preach Jesus’s message, without the luxury of belongings:

“ . . . Take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” — Mark 6:7-13.

Therefore, St. Francis and his men lived in homelessness with very few belongings.  Their goal was to preach the teachings of Jesus while caring for those in need.  Yet, so many people have tried to reimagine St. Francis – to make him into an insider – a gentle lover of animals, man recognized by the church as a saint, a man who caused no trouble or controversy.

BUT ultimately he was the perpetual outsider! A controversial figure who loved Jesus until the very end.

For instance, when he refused to take over his father’s successful business, his father kidnapped him desperately trying to keep him inside the family fold.  St. Francis refused.  He stood naked before the authorities returning to his father even the clothes on his back and cheerfully gaining his freedom.  Years later as he mourned the lack of a father in his life, he recruited a vagrant to be his father.

When St. Francis’s band of merry homeless troubadours became too popular for the church to continue to ignore, the church commandeered them.  Over time they recognized Francis and his friends as an official order of the church and even put in their own management team, who layer by layer stripped away what St. Francis’s men had originally stood for giving them housing and belongings.  Francis protested to anyone who would listen believing this distracted them from the work of Christ.

When St. Francis became ill, the Bishop of Assisi required Francis to stay at his palace in hopes that Francis would die there and his valuable relics, which would no doubt have miraculous powers, would be safe in the bishop’s hands.  However, Francis, though deathly ill and blind, decided to sing all day and night until the Bishop could take it no more and let Francis go to face death among his friends.

Even on his deathbed, Francis wrote against what the church had done to his order.  He was so against the direction that the church was taking his men that without the presence or blessing of a priest, he and his faithful served one another the Eucharist.  Only an outsider serves the Eucharist without the proper blessing of an ordained priest – that is heresy.

With his death, the church finally had free reign over him.  So instead of honoring his marriage to Lady Poverty, they built him a tremendously expensive basilica and buried him there.  Of course, no one can contain his spirit.

Next time you see a statue of St. Francis hanging out with birds and bunnies, think of him not as just the kind man who loved creation, but also as the perpetual outsider.

And . . .  don’t forget that when God gives you a freak flag to fly, you should resist every temptation to conform.  Fly it proudly.

*****

April’s Books

When the thin horizon of a plan is not clear at all…

Bertelson6A friend of mine, Lia Mallini Bertelson, wrote this reflection almost two decades after suffering multiple heartbreaking tragedies.  All of us will suffer some kind of heartbreak at some time in life and I think it helps to know that we will survive.  So I asked her if I could post her story and she said okay…

When I was a senior in high school, my group of friends lost three of our number to tragic accidents within a month.  Two days before prom, my date-to-be and another friend were in a terrible car accident returning from senior skip day at the springs.  Mike died immediately and Trevor died Monday after spending the weekend in ICU.  That Monday, many of us gathered at the duck pond outside the hospital, waiting for news, being together. I think maybe a group prayer was led. Our friend Nick’s father emerged from the hospital to address the group on behalf of Trevor’s family and let us know that Trevor had died. Just a few short weeks later, it was Nick who died.  We were on a graduation trip.  Nick had met a girl from another school and they were talking while she sat on a balcony ledge.  She lost her balance and tried to hold on to Nick, pulling them both over.  She broke her leg and he died.

We felt robbed.  We were devastated and heartbroken.  Just at the moment when we were set to go off into the world, the world became a different, scary place.  I had been eager to go away to college since about middle school, and suddenly I felt terror at the thought of leaving the friends who knew the pain I was in and who were feeling the same pain.  One night I dreamed that I was at college and Trevor was there too.  That dream left me with enough courage to go.

During this time, The Wood Song by the Rocky RideIndigo Girls soothed me…

The thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
My friends and I have had a tough time
Bruising our brains hard up against change
All the old dogs and the magician

Now I see we’re in the boat in two-by-two’s
Only the heart that we have for a tool we could use
And the very close quarters are hard to get used to
Love weighs the hull down with its weight

But the wood is tired, and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

No way construction of this tricky plan
Was built by other than a greater hand
With a love that passes all our understanding
Watching closely over the journey

Yeah, but what it takes to cross the great divide
Seems more that all the courage I can muster up inside
But we got to have some answers when we reach the other side
The prize is always worth the rocky ride

But the wood is tired, and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took
To get us where we are this far, this far

But the question drowns in its futility
Even I have got to laugh at me
No one gets to miss the storm of what will be
Just holding on for the ride

But the wood is tired, and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

The beautiful imagery made it easier to believe that this tragedy was part of a tricky plan that would one day make some sense.   I did feel that my friends and I were on a journey together—crammed in a small boat, holding on for the ride and being rocked to the point of sickness.  I wanted to believe that our suffering was necessary, that it was leading us somewhere, and that once we got there we would see the sense of it.

A few years later, my parents divorced.  As most divorces are, it was very painful and messy.  It was not just the relationship between my parents that changed, but their relationships with my brother and sister and I also were affected, as were our relationships with each other.  We had always been a close family and the distances wedged by the separation of our parents and our different responses to it felt physically painful.  My parents had made holidays special times as we were growing up, filled with family traditions.  Suddenly it seemed I would never have a holiday (or any time at all) with my whole family together again.  Once again, The Wood Song gave hope and beauty to the pain I was feeling.

Eighteen years have passed since we lost Mike, Trevor and Nick.  Thirteen years have passed since my parents divorced.  This Thanksgiving, my husband, our two children, and I spent the holiday with my whole family. My brother and sister, each with their spouse and two children, my mom, my dad, and my dad’s wife.  This was not the first time we had all been together peacefully—major strides had been made in the past year and a half, and this was about the third or fourth family event with all sides present.  We have healed from the brokenness of our past.

The day after Thanksgiving, we all gathered at my sister Ginny’s house to celebrate my dad’s birthday.  Again, we were all there.  After dinner, many of us were sitting on their huge sectional sofa and wondering if we were setting a record for the number of people to sit there at once.  That led to the question: can we all fit on here and take a picture?  We did.  Children on laps, or standing on the couch in between grown-ups, my mom, my dad, and my dad’s wife.  In harmony.

As we sat there, my husband Mike started singing “Joy to the World” under his breath.  Mom heard it and said “Mike, sing louder!” and she joined in.  Then we all joined in.  Then little Natalie said “Let’s sing Rudolf!” so we did.  And then we sang several more songs, looking at each other, laughing, thinking “Is this real?” and  “I am so glad no one can see us right now!”  As we sang, smooshed together on the couch, all smiles and laughter, I remembered that at one time I thought I would never have my parents in the same room again.  My heart felt full as I looked around and let all the images of what was going on burn into my memory: three year old Neily standing apart, pretending to take our picture with an Elmo camera; four year old Jack holding two month old Julia; Ben and Erin, each one and a half, pushing dolls around in toy strollers; four year old Natalie sitting on the ottoman smiling in an adorable outfit and ridiculously messy hair.  My mom and my step-mother sitting next to each other, admiring the baby, sharing laughter.  I never want to forget that moment.

The next day, I traveled to a friend’s mother’s memorial service.  In the car alone, I listened to The Wood Song.  It struck me that I am comfortably on “the other side” of these tragedies and heartbreaks.  Time has passed, forgiveness has been offered and accepted, wounds have healed.  And now the song seems all wrong to me.  Though we have made it through, no plan is evident at all.  While we are no longer in pain, I would not say that we are better off for having suffered these losses.  I still don’t believe that it was necessary for my friends to die.  As happy as our family time is now, I don’t think we are happier for having gone through divorce.  It doesn’t seem right to say that “we get to have some answers when we reach the other side, the prize is always worth the rocky ride.”  If anything the prize IS the rocky ride—because the only alternative is to not be in the boat at all.  There is no smooth ride option—it is rocky or nothing.  And I don’t think that that is because the greater hand is constructing a tricky plan in which teenagers die and families are torn apart for His glory.  No! These heartbreaks happen because we are human, and we make mistakes, and we love people who make mistakes, and we love people who are hurt by the mistakes of people we don’t even know. There is no way to live without hurt. God is not making the boat crash against the rocks—God is in the boat with us, holding us as we thrash.

I don’t believe that “if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point” or that it takes pain to “get us where we are this far.”  I do believe that weather does not hold.  Weather changes, storms rise, and we are moved by the world around us.  Things happen that are painful.  There is no way to avoid that and still experience life and love.  The good news is that no matter how stormy the water, we can find God right in the boat with us.  Perhaps we won’t have the satisfaction of seeing how our heartbreak fits into a grand plan or results in the greater good, but we can experience grace right where we are.

I can’t say that I am glad that three of our friends died in high school.  I can’t say that I am glad my parents aren’t married to each other anymore.  I can say, though, that I am glad I was in the boat.  I am glad that my friends and I stuck together, despite the close quarters and the weight of our love and sorrow.  I am glad that I have remained close to the friends who shared that pain.  I am grateful that my family has stuck together in a new, different way instead of splintering permanently.  I am glad we are in the boat together.  The prize is the rocky ride.

*****

Lia’s story is posted on April’s blog.  April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

Have You Received the Spirit?

Paul laying handsIn the early church, the mark of those who followed Christ was that they had received the Spirit.

This is seen throughout the Book of Acts. My favorite story along these lines is when Paul encounters a group of twelve people who were trying to follow John the Baptist’s teachings, but were not aware that Jesus – the one whom John had been prophesying about — had arrived, been crucified, risen from the dead, and at Pentecost sent the Spirit to live within his followers.

When Paul comes upon this little group, he doesn’t ask them the question that has become so important in many Christians circles today, “Do you know you will go to heaven when you die?” Instead, Paul asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Act 19:2 NRS). Paul then tells them the story of Jesus, lays hands on them, and they receive the Spirit.

Likewise, there is a story in Acts 10 of a man named Cornelius who was seeking God, but who had never heard of Jesus. Peter, the head of the church, has a vision to go talk to Cornelius whom he has never even met and who lives some distance away. When Peter arrives, Cornelius and his friends are expecting him. Peter tells them the story of Jesus and as he is talking, they receive the Spirit.

Jesus had promised the Spirit would come upon his followers after he ascended into heaven (John 14). Through this Spirit, they would have both the wisdom and power to continue the mission of Christ serving God and others. The Spirit was the portal to God that had been made possible in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

I don’t think things have changed. I believe that this should still be the relevant question today.

Have you received the Spirit?

In Acts, those who received the Spirit often spoke in tongues, prophesied, and performed miracles. Later, bearing spiritual fruit became the focus:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-25 NRS)

So how do we receive the Spirit?

Paul answered this question  “. . . by the hearing of faith” (Gal 3:2).

Paul taught that we were to hear the story of Jesus making it our own by becoming Jesus’s followers.  Then we too would receive the Spirit.

*****

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

Does the Old Testament point to Jesus?

When I was in seminary (seminary friends – please tell me if I am remembering this wrong – it was a confusing time), one of the big points that my particular Old Testament professor wanted to drive home was that the Old Testament was not distinctively about Jesus.

This professor often said that the New Testament was just one ending to the scriptures and cited the sacred documents of other religions saying these were valid endings also. Though this professor was wonderful and highly regarded – I stubbornly disagreed.

Sadly (for me), their views weren’t exactly unique.  On my biblical exegesis ordination exam, one of the readers wrote that they strongly disagreed with my interpretation of the Old Testament text saying that it did not likely point to Christ and docked me a point for it (I got a 4 of 5 instead of a 5 of 5 because of it).  Hardly seemed fair… especially because this whole idea was hotly debated among the professors themselves.  Even many of the professors in the liberal camp disagreed with the Old Testament Professor’s interpretation.  In fact, I remember during preaching class, someone said, “I don’t know what to preach about when I preach the Old Testament any more- if it isn’t pointing to Jesus what do I preach?” The Homiletics professor smiled mischievously and told us to forget that the OT professor ever said that!  He told us that everything is about Jesus – the more Jesus the better!  Now I could get behind that!

I believed (and still do) that all of scripture (in fact all of nature, all of life, etc) points to Jesus.

Anyway… this is all coming to mind today, because while I was reading the Emmaus story this morning to those gathered for the Wednesday Morning Service at church, I was jolted to see that even Jesus thought all of the Old Testament was about him…

“Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (Luk 24:27 NRS).”

I thought about stopping the service to discuss… but alas that just isn’t done. 🙂

Any thoughts? What do you believe?  Does the Old Testament point to Jesus?  Can I believe it does and still be gracious and accepting of people who follow other religions?  Comments encouraged… opposing views welcomed and honored.

Author’s note: There is a great conversation going on via Facebook about this blog… you can join in there!

*****

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