Say the Words

Twice this week I’ve found myself in conversation with people who have recently and unexpectedly lost a parent, a woman whose father died and a man whose mother died, both from a stroke.

Last night as I listened to my friend describe the events surrounding his mother’s last days, he said, “Tell the people you love that you love them, over and over, as often as you can. I’d do anything for her to have regained consciousness one more time so that I could tell her again that I love her…”

This morning I awoke from vivid dreams with an uncomfortable heaviness in my chest. I realized my dad had come to me, wearing a nice coat that must have been his Pan American Airlines uniform. As hale and hearty as he had been when I was a child, he greeted me with a big bear hug. I turned to see Q13, looking exactly as he does today except that he was dressed up, too, wearing a suit jacket and slacks. I introduced my son to his grandfather. They embraced, and I woke up.

It didn’t take more than a moment to address the ruminations of my unconscious brain.

This weekend we will celebrate Q13’s fourteenth birthday. Also, the thirteenth anniversary of my dad’s passing on the morning of my son’s first birthday. It’s a weird day, always.

Thankfully, we had time to say the words. In fact, while I have regularly been a gushing fountain of emotion, Dad got better at expressing his love as he recognized the end of his life drawing near. Still, what I wouldn’t do to say it again, and to hear again that he loved me. What I wouldn’t do to watch my son enjoy his own relationship with the grandpa he didn’t have time to know.

Say the words, people. We don’t know how many breaths have been allotted to any of us. Use all the breath you have to share love.

What’s the News?

A couple years ago, I decided I needed to curtail my practice of ending each day with the first fifteen minutes of the 10 pm newscast. For most of my adult life, I watched the news before bed. But gradually I realized that I wasn’t sleeping soundly, that images or issues from the news wound themselves into my dreams or, worse, left me tossing sleeplessly through the night. Adulting can be difficult enough without insomnia.

Towards the end of 2016 I decided that, for my sanity, I needed to forgo TV newscasts altogether. The presidential race brought out the worst in everyone, me included. Above and beyond the ‘commonplace’ stories on worldwide political shifts and violence, America’s angry politicians and their supporters had turned up the volume. In response, I turned it off.

Although we had stopped taking the paper years earlier, the time had come to once again read the news. To that end, I am grateful for The Skimm, which (ahem) skims the national and international headlines and presents summaries in a nonpartisan, headline style with links to more information.

I need to stay informed, but there is just so much bad news!

Without trying hard, I could rattle off bad news on too many world-changing issues. Yet when I ask myself, “What’s the good news?” I’m not sure I know how to answer.

What is the good news? And, now that we’re thinking about it, don’t we all love those too-infrequent feel-good news stories? The ones where the good Samaritan does some wonderful sacrificial act that changes the life of a wheelchair-bound child, or a homeless person, or simply their neighbor who has fallen on hard times. Maybe someone should produce a regular good-news cast (Is there such a thing? If so, point me in the right direction, because I need it!).

Some days—many days?—I forget that gospel = good news. I forget that Jesus told us all about this: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I forget that God’s still in charge: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).

I suspect I’m not alone. Not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the world’s troubles. Not alone in finding it incredibly difficult to be still. Not alone in forgetting that God loves the world, this world, the very one He created, populated by all the people He fearfully and wonderfully made.

Not alone at all, because God loves me. And God loves you. And God asks us to love one another.

That love one another thing can be hard, especially with all the bad news. You and me, we may not even like each other. We may be on opposite sides of battle lines, barbed wire, drawn guns, hatred.

Jesus found Himself there, too. And, despite all the bad news that we are, He loved us so much anyway that He did the most wonderfully sacrificial good-news thing ever: He gave His life in our place, for our sins, so that we can live forever in relationship with God. Jesus’ story–which becomes our story–makes for the ultimate good-news cast.

Walk in Love
Week 10: Walk in Love
1 John 4:7-21

Connect
What good news have you received recently?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 4:7-21.
Why should God’s people love one another?
What does God’s love for us look like?
How does God’s love for us change us?
According to this passage, what does the Spirit do for us (vv13-16)?
Compare vv12 and 17. What is the difference between God’s love being made complete in us and among us?
How do God’s people loving one another make God visible (vv12, 17, 20-21)?
What is the connection between love and Christian confidence or “no fear” (vv17-19)?

Live
Does John mean to say that everyone who acts lovingly has a saving relationship with God? That anyone who does not act lovingly does not? Explain.
How do you know God loves you? How do you experience God’s love for you? What’s the difference between knowledge and experience of God’s love?
In your experience, does love or fear inspire more obedience? Better character? Explain.
When have you acted lovingly despite not feeling loving? What was that like?
“Remarkably, loving someone who is unlovely brings into focus the power of God’s choice to love us in our unloveliness” (Gary M. Burge). Have you ever experienced this? If so, describe it.
How would you sum up John’s version of the gospel’s good news from this passage?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God will help you know and experience His love so that you have generous love to share with others.

Live Lent (2018)

Mom Down!

I’ve been sick for two weeks now. What began as a lousy cold–power through, Mom, as most moms do–and I thought I had and was mostly on the mend–became a painful ear infection and virus v2. Six days on antibiotics and I still have pain and no hearing on my left side. Bleh!

Thankfully, I have a loving family determined to carry on around me, caring for me as they go. Guy bought lovely red tulips to bring me cheer and took care of all the kid-duties I couldn’t manage. Q13 offered to refill my water bottle, among other simple tasks. As John says, they have loved me in truth through their actions: “…let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18).

Meanwhile, Lent began this past Wednesday. Lent, that church season during which Jesus’ followers traditionally give up or take on something to more closely identify with the suffering our Lord endured for our sake.

Give up…dessert? alcohol? social media?
Take on…a new form of service? more/different forms of prayer?

I googled Lent and came across this fantastic New York Times article reporting that the Church of England has asked their parishioners to give up plastics in order to better steward God’s creation. As an animal-loving vegetarian environmentalist, mostly for stewardship reasons, I ❤ this so much! They’ve even created a daily calendar of actions one could take to limit plastic consumption…which I plan to print out and work towards.

Research shows the best way to create a new habit is to change one thing at a time, and to stick with it for at least three weeks. So during Lent, we have an opportunity to create two new God-honoring habits, or really dial down on one. Even week by week small actions will make a difference, in our lives and the world.

January 2017 I began keeping a Gratitude Journal, and in January 2018 I recommitted to it. I also recommitted to what should be my ongoing practice of reading the Bible daily; in mid-February I can say that the combination of daily Bible reading + gratitude has brought me new joy.

So here we are at Lent, a new opportunity to create lifestyle changes that will identify us as Jesus’ followers.

In my job as Church Communication Director and based on our sermon series in 1 John, I created a list of twelve things one might do during Lent.

12 Things to Do During Lent
based on 1 John 3:11-5:21
February 14-March 31, 2018

  1. Repair a broken relationship.
  2. Donate goods, money and time to charity.
  3. Set aside regular time to rest in His presence (i.e., read the Bible, pray, worship, sit quietly with the God who loves you).
  4. Do intentional loving acts for those who wouldn’t expect it.
  5. Since Jesus Christ came in the flesh, do something to honor your God-given body (i.e., exercise, eat healthy, soak in a hot tub, get a massage)…and pray!
  6. Search the Bible for passages about the Holy Spirit and spend time getting to know His voice.
  7. Memorize and meditate on 1 John 4:7-12.
  8. Pray for a hard-to-love person in your life and ask God to change your heart.
  9. Read the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and ask God what He wants you to do to faithfully keep His commandments.
  10. Read a book to grow your belief in Jesus as the Son of God.
  11. Pray with bold confidence, for yourself and for others, according to God’s will.
  12. Ask God to identify and cut out sin in your life.

With little energy to do much else, I joined a Facebook group: 40 Bags in 40 Days. Created by a woman who follows a Lenten discipline (though that’s not required), the idea is to declutter our households and donate to charity. Which fits well with #2. So far, I’ve attacked some bathroom and refrigerator drawers (much of which went in the trash), and plan to keep at it.

As with any day, any season, I cannot yet predict how this Lenten season will pan out. I pray that God will grow me in new ways, teach me new things, ingrain in me new ways of being that honor Him and mark me as His follower.

What will you do?

Walk in Love
Week 7: Love One Another
1 John 3:11-18

Connect
If you’re married, reflect on highlights from your wedding day. If you’re not married, reflect on a time you knew you were well loved.

Study
Read aloud 1 John 3:11-18.
Compare 1 John 3:11 to 1 John 1:1, 5. What does love for others have to do with God’s light?
Contrast the negative example of Cain’s relationship with his brother Abel to Jesus’ positive example of love.
Compare vv13-15 with Matthew 5:21-22, then explain John’s equations: hate=death and love=life.
How might sharing your possessions be an example of laying down your life (vv16-17)?
Can someone speak lovingly but not in truth? Can someone act lovingly but not in truth? How is it different to love “with actions and in truth” (v18)?

Live
How do you know if you love someone? If someone loves you?
How could you handle well a religious disagreement that brought about hostility?
Without breaking confidentiality, what have you done to intentionally act lovingly towards someone who was hard for you to love? Did it change the relationship and if so, how?
How might material possessions get in the way of one’s spiritual life?
What would it look like for a church to be generous with Christ’s love? What can you do, personally and as a Community Group, to more generously share Christ’s love?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God’s love will overflow your life.

J.O.Y.

I attended Jr. High at the beginning of the 80’s when Preppies ruled the school. I had one white Izod shirt and, though I stood several rungs down the social ladder from Popular, wearing it made me feel pretty.

I had a crush on an 8th grade boy who had expressed interest in me despite my 7th grade status. We talked on the phone for hours, the curly phone cord stretched taut from the kitchen across the hallway and into my bedroom.

When he invited me to join him at the roller rink, I wore my Izod and a pale pink lip gloss. I felt cute until I stepped out of my mom’s car. The boy’s eyes took in the little alligator logo high on my chest and his whole face fell. His disappointed eyes found mine, and I wanted to sink into a crack in the pavement.

I had blown it. The one thing the boy didn’t like: Preppies. Easygoing as he was, he hated Izods. I had heard him express disdain for people using money and status symbols to gain popularity and, despite the long phone calls and my interest in him, I had worn the one thing that marked me as not like him.

We skated for a couple hours. We talked a few more times. The relationship ended.

My Izod shirt was no moral failure, but wearing it on that occasion demonstrated that I had put myself before my friend. My desire to look cute outweighed his youthful stance on a social issue he felt concerned us both.

When we care about someone, we take into consideration the things about which they feel strongly.

Big segue: If we love God, we care about what He cares about.

God has taken great care to give us an entire Book filled with descriptions of what He cares about. He even boiled it all down a few times, in the Ten Commandments and even further in the Great Commandment.

Love God. Love others.

A few years before I wore an Izod shirt to a roller rink, I learned a Sunday school song that taught me that J.O.Y. came from loving Jesus, Others, and You, in that order. I no longer remember the tune, but the acrostic stuck.

We demonstrate that we love God by obeying Him, by getting involved in the things (and restraining ourselves from others) about which He feels strongly.

Chief among those: loving others.

Some people in God’s family can be hard for me to like, let alone love (of course others may feel the same about me). But God made them, God loves them, God included them in His family. God asks me to love them, so I work at it. I pray for a change of heart. I pray for them. I bite my tongue. I choose to serve them. I resist the temptation to judge them.

John wrote to help his readers know that God wants us to love Him–and so obey Him–and that an important way we obey Him is by loving those He loves.

Which we don’t do if we apply John’s message to others: See that guy? He says he’s a Christian, but look at his life! If he really knew God, he wouldn’t do that, and that, and that…

Nope. My job is to examine my life, to love God and let Him lead me to obedience. Some days, judging others comes far more easily than loving them. And that’s when I need to return to JOY–Jesus take the wheel, and help me love others as you have loved me.

Walk in Love
Week 3: Obey God
1 John 2:3-11

Connect
Reflect on the process of getting to know someone with whom you are close.

Study
Read aloud 1 John 2:3-11.
How does John describe believers (vv3-4, 6, 9) and what do those descriptions mean?
What assurance do we have of our relationship with God (vv3-6)?
Read John 14:15-17. Why does John emphasize the Truth of God?
How must believers live (in other words, how did Jesus live? v6)?
Why is it important to love other believers (vv9-11)?

Live
What’s the difference between knowing about God and knowing God?
How would you explain the correlation between knowing God and obeying God? Between knowing God and loving other believers?
Does John write to encourage self-reflection or judgment? What potential risks lie in applying this passage to others?
What actions have you taken to love those you find it difficult to love?
What will you do this week to obey God and love others?

Pray
Ask God to fill you with the strength and courage that come from knowing Him to help you obey Him and love others.

Find Center

If you’ve been around here for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been a Jesus-lover since forever. I have spent most of my professional life working in churches, and I am also married to a pastor. And I (mostly) love the church in all its beauty and brokenness.

All of this can lead to a flurry of activity: worship attendance, so many groups of various sizes and kinds for study and prayer and community, volunteer service, special events, even cookie baking.

So many things on the calendar threatening to crowd out the heart behind them. In fact, truly meaningless without the heart behind them.

Lately, I’ve had four words cycling through my head: Love God. Love Others.

That’s it, folks. It all boils down to love.

Because you can do all the things, but if you don’t do them for the love of God and others, why do them at all?

Jesus blasted some harsh words at the folks in His day who did all the things, were very proud of themselves for doing all the things, but had completely missed the point of all their activity: loving God and others. He called them “white-washed tombs.” Eww…I don’t want to hold the dead things. No sirree, I want Life!

Lately as I’ve practiced yoga, my intention has been along the lines of gratitude (hello, Thanksgiving!) or strength (because, exercise). Today my word was “center,” and as soon as it landed it struck every nerve in my being in the best way.

In so many ways yoga is all about center, core, balance. As a Jesus-follower, GOD is the center of my being. Or, that should be true, but I don’t always live it. When I don’t, I’m off-balance, toppling this way and that, and life doesn’t work nearly so well.

Throughout my practice this morning, I mentally and physically returned to my center, my God whose love and gentleness and goodness overflows my life in ways I don’t always recognize.

When engaged in a balance challenge, it helps oh so much to set your gaze on a stable point directly in front of you, whether that’s straight down on your mat or two feet in front of you. Holding your gaze steady helps to strengthen your center and steady your balance.

A yoga newbie, I am way wiggly, but I’m working on it. As a long-time pursuer of Jesus, I should be less wiggly. It all depends on where I put my gaze: on me, my challenges or obstacles, my fear or anxiety? Or on the immovable God who created me, knows the plans He has for me, and promises to give me strength to meet anything He puts before me? Let’s see, which makes more stabilizing sense?

They tell me that no matter how long you’ve practiced yoga, sometimes one side will be tighter than the other. I’ve found that true already, that some days I can stretch deeper or balance with more stability on one side than the other.

Same goes for loving God and others. I venture most of us find it easiest to engage in loving others, flesh-and-blood, visible right before our eyes. But then some of us tend toward contemplative introversion, so loving God can feel more natural than engaging with actual humans.

Still, with our gaze set on God, His love flows through us back to Him and out to others. It’s always a both-and.

So that’s where I’m at as we enter one of the busiest seasons of the year, Advent, in which we anticipate Christ’s birth and second-coming. The decorations are coming out today to be ready for the first Sunday of Advent tomorrow. The calendar is filling up. I’m praying God will keep my gaze centered on Him. Then all the activities can filter through the two sides of the fulcrum: does this help me love God? Does this help me love others?

Adventures in Sunday School

I’m married to a pastor. I work on the church staff. I lead small groups for both women’s and student ministries. I wasn’t looking for more ways to serve.

But they needed teachers, and Tween has been a student helper with the 4-year-old class. Which is better for me than the 2-year-old class; the only time I can recall leaving a service opportunity in tears of failure was when Tween was 2 and I was conscripted as Teacher–give me middle schoolers any day, but I lack the gift for 2’s.

So I said Yes, I am willing to serve as Teacher when Tween is helper. But the day of the month they needed me, of course, Tween is already committed to Scout camp outs. I said Yes anyway.

I accompanied Tween last month just to watch. The other teachers didn’t mind one more set of hands, especially because the craft that day involved way too much cutting for 4-year-old hands. The Bible lesson emphasized, “God loves me,” and I realized:

Preschool Sunday school is truly about welcoming children, helping them to have fun and feel loved by God and others. If that’s all they get, that’s a whole lot already.

Today was my first time actually teaching. Fortunately I had a more experienced partner, though she confessed to having relied on the teacher whose spot I filled. Our “student helper” was yet another mom filling in for her tween while he played sports. The curriculum didn’t make as much sense as I’d hoped (what 4-year-old needs a bookmark?) so I made up new connections (We share because we love others, so we’re making bookmarks to share with our parents). Roughly following the curriculum, the three of us cobbled together a lesson–music complete with hand motions, activities, DVD lesson, Bible story, and snack, with free play at beginning and end.

Here’s the thing: it mostly worked. The kids mostly seemed to have fun, and so did we. And the hour wasn’t endless. I could do this again.

The story was the poor widow who gave her two coins, all she had, because she loves God (Mark 12:41-44). The point: I can love everyone. [Point to your heart and say, “I.” Cross your arms over your chest and say, “can love.” Point to others and say, “everyone.” We did that A LOT.]

So we practiced loving everyone. We love the precocious little girl who, as I entered the room, was spelling T-Y-L-E-R for another adult.
“Is that your brother?”
“No, he’s my baby.”
“Oh, your baby brother?”
“Yes.”
“Do you have an older brother?”
“Jake.”
“Can you spell Jake?”
“J-A-C-O-B!”
“You bet! That’s the formal spelling of Jake!” Wink, wink.

We practiced loving the little boy who never spoke a word. We practiced loving the kid who wanted all the stickers. We practiced loving the little boy who admitted that he hates sharing, but when we said, “Right, because sharing can be hard,” replied, “No it’s not!”

During our combined music time with all the preschool classes, a little girl from another class whom I’d never seen before asked to sit on my lap. In her hands, she proudly held a pink construction paper heart on which she’d glued pom poms and drawn a smiley face. I complimented her craft yet she was concerned that it was missing a long Popsicle stick with which to hold it. And the smiley face she’d drawn only had eyes and smile, no nose.

I did the hand motions while she sat on my lap, then she scooted away, returning when she’d drawn a big yellow oval nose and yellow eyelashes on her smiley face. I told her I liked the improvements.

She looked at it, looked at me, then said, “It’s for you!”
“Thank you! But you should give it to your mommy.”
“Yah, it’s for Mommy. But I can give it to you.”
“Please give it to your mommy. She’ll be so happy to have it.”
(mumble…)
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Yes, I brushed my teeth.”
“Did you really?”
“(Hmmm…) Does my breath smell bad?”
“Yes.”
“I’m sorry. Does it smell like coffee?”
“Yes.”
“Well, yes. I had a cup of coffee after I brushed my teeth.”
“Okay.”

So I also practiced loving the honest little darling who called me out on coffee breath and gave me a small pom pom so I can remember her craft forever.

Leadership can be funny. Every person you lead is different, with different ways of being and thinking and loving and understanding God. Every age and stage is different, too. The 4-year-olds need something different than the 6th grade girls different from the mamas. While maintaining authenticity, leadership seems to require chameleon-like color-blending skills–I will be who you need today so that you can meet Jesus.

Because, while every person and every age is unique, what we all need at the core is the same: to know that we are loved by God.

Jesus: Our Shepherd
Restored: Jeremiah 23

Connect
Whose leadership do you admire, and why?

Study
Read aloud Jeremiah 23:1-4.
What have the shepherds done, and what are the consequences?
God’s response includes both judgment and promise. Explain.
Read aloud Jeremiah 23:5-6.
Describe “the righteous Branch.”
Read aloud Jeremiah 23:7-8.
Why would people have said the statement in v. 7? Why would they replace it with the statement in v. 8?

Live
Who do you shepherd? What does this passage say to your practice as shepherd?
Some use bad church leadership as an excuse for their lack of participation in the church. How could you use this passage to encourage them?
Jesus is our Shepherd. How does this picture of Jesus give you hope in hard times?
How can Jesus’ model of leadership help you be a better leader?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will be a faithful follower of Jesus as you shepherd others.