Monday, October 25, 2010

The Woman in Front of Me

Yesterday’s Gospel lesson was from Luke 18 – you know the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector who were each in the temple praying. The tax collector was very ashamed of his sins and couldn’t even look to God. But, the Pharisee was praying something like “God I am so thankful that I am not like ‘those’(i.e. the tax collector) other people; I do what I’m supposed to and follow the rules, and I’m just awesome!”

This got me thinking.

Have you ever had one of those moments? You know the moment where you try to justify doing something you know you shouldn’t do or where you compare yourself to other people to build yourself up or where you judge yourself to be better in some way than another … We’ve all done it! I have! Certainly when I was a teenager, this was commonplace in my life. I think that is part of the process of growing up and gaining one’s self identity and self esteem. It’s a natural tendency. But, even as an adult and as much as I don’t want to admit it, I still catch myself in these situations from time to time.

Picture it … I was shopping. After all, I really needed some new pants. I went from store to store. When I finally found some that I liked, I wanted to get one in every color they had and call it a day. But I didn’t. I did, however, make my way to the register with 2 pairs of pants. All the while I was contemplating if I should really even get either one of them. After all, Christmas is only two months away and I could wait for a coupon to come out. But on the other hand, the pants were on sale (10% off is better than nothing, right?) and they had my size in stock.

When I got to the register, the woman in front of me had, I’m guessing, about $300 or so worth of purchases she was making. As she was handing item after item to the clerk, I heard her say something like “Well, I really don’t NEED these but they are just so cute, I HAVE to buy them. I’ll probably never wear them, though.” And, “My husband is going to be so mad at me, I didn’t get him anything … oh … hold on – there’s a nice shirt, I’ll get him that.”

I began to think to myself, how I probably didn’t need to spend my money on these two pairs of pants. But, at least I wasn’t like the woman in front of me, needlessly buying something I would never wear.
And there I was … looking down on someone else and judging myself to be better than her. When I heard this Scripture Sunday, it make me think - I was worse off than the woman needlessly spending money because of my judgment of her.

Jesus' message / lesson through this parable is simply stated. I love The Message version of the Bible and that lesson in verse 14 of this 8th chapter. “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” I also like the Contemporary English Version’s translation: “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.”
When I thought about the shopping situation and this verse from Sunday, it was a real slap in the face; a real wake up call that I need to be more humble. It’s a challenge for me. Recently, I took a spiritual gifts inventory that confirmed this. My lowest score was in mercy (and skilled craft). That’s a real growing edge for me!

So, I’m praying for myself. I need to be more like the tax collected and pray for God to give me the know-how and strength to be more merciful, non-judgmental, and compassionate. I mean, after all, I didn’t know the woman in front of me or her life story. Maybe she won the lottery. Maybe her house burned down and she was replacing her clothes. Maybe this was money she had worked really hard to save and was now enjoying spending it on herself and her husband. And, at least she thought to buy her husband something … in the first place!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Margaret and Lucy

I am sad. I’m sad because a terrible thing happened and there was a funeral. Don’t get me wrong, I understand death is a part of life and I’ve experienced the death of people that I am close to in my childhood and in my adult life. I’m no expert on death or anything but I do understand how one feels when losing someone they love and the life-long mourning and journey of personal healing that comes with the experience of death. After all, my father was killed by a drunk driver when I was ten years old. And, all of my grandparents have died between my college and young adult years; most recently my grandmother just over two years ago.

But, for me today, this is a different kind of sad. It is a heart-wrenching, deep, belly aching sadness. Tears don’t help. It’s a kind of sadness that I’ve not experienced before. It’s funny that the Lectionary Scripture on Sunday was Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestles with God, because God and I are in a full on match right now.

I’m not going to lie, I expect to have a perfect little life; unfortunately, for me, it doesn’t ever seem to work that way. Bad things happen; a lot. And, these bad things seem to usually happen to good people. Yesterday I learned that two of my friends who were about 5 months pregnant with twins, lost both of their daughters. So, yep I said it, I’m angry with God over God allowing two of God’s perfect, beautiful creations to be taken away from their parents before they were even out of the womb. I’m angry that I couldn’t be there to help in some way and to grieve with my friends.

Margaret and Lucy’s parents are the kindest, most caring and loving examples of a human being I know and they don’t deserve this. I was lucky enough to meet Jenn and Graham when they became members of the last church where I served as youth minister. Not only did I get to share in ministry with Jenn and Graham (as they served as youth volunteers), but I also had a friendship with them outside of church. They adored my son, Blaine, and he, them. You see, Jenn and Graham had this “swagger” about them. Many of the children of that church, including Blaine, would run up to Graham and hug him each Sunday … it sort of became a ritual for several of them. And the youth were very attracted and connected with Jenn and Graham. These two amazing adults were two of the greatest role models I’ve met. When I left my position at that church a year and a half ago, Graham even served as the interim youth director! Jenn and Graham loved (and still love) the youth of that church. They have a gift for youth ministry and they showed (and still show) that love and share that gift by being a consistent and positive presence in the life of those 6th-12th graders.

As I struggle with God about why such bad things happen to such good people, I realized there is a more fundamental issue for me. It’s also an issue I’ve seen with many of the 6th-12th graders I’ve shared and am sharing in ministry with. When these bad things happen to us or people we know, we tend to judge God's goodness by those circumstances. But, when you think about it that is not a really fair judgment … is it?

I believe it is only natural to question God’s goodness from time to time in our lives. Like - why doesn’t God intervene, why didn’t God save Jenn and Graham this pain? I also believe that sometimes we CAN understand the reasons why bad things happen: the brakes failed, the terrorists hated us, or the cancer had spread too far. But sometimes it gets complicated; sometimes we just don’t understand, as in this case for me.

My guess is if I asked Jenn and Graham about the situation, they would be very sad and I know they are grieving and in pain. But I also don’t think they are yelling "why me?" at God. I know that sounds silly. But, knowing Jenn and Graham and their strength and goodness, they probably see the bigger picture of "why not me?” and eventually “how can we grow and see the positives of the experience?”

Last week I was leading a Bible study based on Rob Bell’s NOOMA series. The lesson was called “Matthew.” You can view a preview of the video below:

The bottom line is (as Rob Bell states) “Whatever you’re feeling in the moment, it’s okay.” But, I don’t think we can judge God purely based on those feelings. God is good, just, loving, and merciful and I know from personal experience how easy it can be for us to lose sight of that in the midst of our pain.

As I imagine Jenn and Graham and how they are dealing with the death of their twins, I imagine that the example we will all see from them is that instead of doubting God's goodness, they are trusting. Trusting - this is a remarkably difficult thing to do. Will Jenn and Graham struggle and wrestle with God to get there? Absolutely! But I am reminded through Genesis 32 that struggling “to get there” means that we are growing. These two remarkable strong individuals will one day be even stronger.

So when these bad things happen to people we know, what can we do / how can we help? Isn’t that just like us human beings? I mean, I don’t know what I can do but I want to help; I want to make it better for Jenn and Graham (even though I know I really can’t). This is one thing that I am struggling with in my current battle with God because the answer is not one I want. The answer? Be present. Be silent. Listen.

In the video (not seen in the preview above), Rob Bell speaks about an ancient Jewish practice called “sitting shiva.” In this practice, when you know someone who loses someone whom they love, you go to their house and you just sit with them. You sit in silence and when/if they want to talk, you listen. So, Jenn and Graham, I am here. I am praying for you daily. I love you. I am here when you are ready for whatever you need.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Stroller

Just over a year ago, I was contemplating a move to another town in South Carolina (little did I know God had other plans for me). At my realtor’s suggestion, I packed up most of the “extras” and “clutter” of my house and neatly stacked the boxes in the garage. Before I could stack the boxes, I had to clear out all of the “junk” from the garage that was 7 years worth of accumulation. But, you know what “they” say: “One man’s junk is another’s treasure.” So, I had a yard sale! At that yard sale, I couldn’t bare to part with my (then) four year old’s baby seat and matching stroller. I knew Blaine would NEVER again be able to fit in the stroller, but it just seemed the best place for it was to sit in my garage and accumulate dust and spider webs.
This past weekend, my sister and mom had a yard sale. I planned to try and sell my old washing machine there and as I went out to the garage to clean it off and get it ready, I began to look around my garage. Remember, it’s only been a year or so since I cleaned it out and organized it … As I looked around I realized there was more new “stuff” and I couldn’t figure out where it came from or how my garage had gotten so disorganized and cluttered, AGAIN! As I started to look through the “stuff,” there was that baby seat and stroller. Yep, you guessed it – to the back of the car and over to my sister’s it went.
I’d thought about how much I wanted someone to pay for it and settled on $50 for the set. After all, I’d originally paid over $200.00 for it! But, secretly, I was hoping that no one would ask about it or purchase it. And, until around 11:00a.m. that was working quite nicely for me; I was sure that in about an hour, I’d be packing it pack in my car and returning it to my garage.
I noticed her because she had beautiful red hair and was clearly of Irish decent, but was speaking Spanish and translating for the women with whom she had arrived. They would look at the baby clothes and other toys my sister had out. Then the red headed young woman would ask Jessica a question and tell the others in Spanish what Jessica’s answer was.
About that time, another woman came up and asked about the stroller. She didn’t want the baby seat, just the stroller, so I told her $30. She went to make a phone call to friend she knew might want the stroller but had to leave a message. She was convinced her friend might call back and so she was waiting and continued to look. About that time, I had to walk away for a moment and the red headed woman and her friends asked my sister about the cost of the stroller and seat. Since Jessica had just heard me tell the other woman $30, she told them $30. But, Jessica didn’t know the other woman didn’t want the car seat.
When I returned, Jessica told me what was going on and I was, honestly, a bit disappointed that I wasn’t going to get the full $50 for both pieces, should this red headed lady decide she want to purchase the stroller. But as I watched what unfolded next, I was so impressed with the way these ladies were truly living in community; it reminded me of the characteristics of the early Christian church how they lived in community.
We read in Acts about how willing the early church went about helping one another. See Acts 2:44-47. All the Lord's followers often met together, and they shared everything they had. Verse 45 says: “They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it” (CEV). The main idea is that they were willing to give up all that they had so that others (their own family in Christ) would not have to go without.
As it turned out, the young red headed woman had just given birth to a baby, two weeks ago. This is why she was interested in the stroller. But, apparently, she did not have enough money to purchase the stroller because she had already purchased a car seat cover from my sister. She asked my sister if she could return the car seat cover and my sister said yes. After this, another of the Spanish speaking women purchased the car set cover for the red headed woman. About this time, another of the Spanish speaking women, went out to her car and came back with a $20 bill and gave it to the red headed woman. Still another of the Spanish speaking women, made her purchase of some clothes and gave her “change” to the red headed woman. She handed me the $30 and pushed the stroller away.
While all of this was going on, I had a few moments to prepare myself for the departure of the stroller. I know this is silly … but, emotionally, I thought it would be a hard thing to see the stroller and car seat rolled away and placed in someone else’s car. After all, letting go of the stroller meant I have to admit I have a big boy, kindergartner now, right? And that means I’m getting older. And that means, before I know it Blaine will be off to college. And that means things are changing. And that means … well, you see my thought pattern here, right? But I sat stunned, yet at peace, as these four women walked out of the yard side by side - laughing, talking, and happy for all they had accomplished together. I’m sure they thought they got a good deal on all they left my sister’s yard with (and they did), but more than that they gave and shared all they had, so that another could benefit. What a great lesson God spoke and challenged me with through these ladies.
Might I do a better job at remembering, every day, how blessed and lucky I am to live in community with such good friends, family, and in my church. Might I strive to be more like those Spanish speaking women who would do anything to help their red-headed “sister.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pray with Me?

This week at youth groups, we are electing our student leadership team members! Sunday, at our senior high youth group, we began our time together with a devotion on leadership. The students listed several qualities of being a leader and then we discussed how Jesus exemplified each of the characteristics they listed. Bottom line - we should strive to model our lives and ourselves as leaders after the example of Jesus. Afterall, it's all about example, right?! You may be the only Jesus somebody knows.
Also, this morning, in our stewardship Bible study, we were challenged to make a list of all of the things of which we should be good stewards (i.e. our bodies, our church, our money, our time, our attitude, our environment, and more!).
These two conversations convicted me to thinking further about myself and about three personal challenges I have been considering lately. I am challenged arond being a good steward of my time, attitudes, and priorities. I bet most of our students (and parents, for sure) can relate to these challenges!
For me, I've been convicted about being a good steward of my time and priorities, in part, because we hear so much about all of the miraculous healings Jesus was a part of in Bible stories. But, then I heard a challenge to consider the fact that Jesus frequently left people unhealed. Upon further investigation I realized that, quite often, Jesus said "no" to good things! I have a very hard time saying "no" to anything. What a great example to consider in today's busy, busy, busy culture.
As Blaine and I are living in to this new lifestyle of a 7:45pm bedtime (since he began kindergarten this year), I've been forced to saying "no" to friends and fun things, to meetings, and to many other options. Does time and priority challegne you? Do you feel convicted to say "no" to sport team practice or other extra-curricular activities on Wednesday nights so you can focus on your discipleship at youth group? Do you sleep in on Sunday morning or do you take moment to worship God with your church family? I heard a challenge today by the hip hop artist Jason Petty a.k.a. "Propoganda." When I was a teenager I loved to sleep! And there is not much better than a lazy Sunday morning! But this artist's statement is clear and profoud! He said (in the middle of sharing this epic poem) "You can chase down dreams or you can catch up on sleep." Click below to view the performance.

I'm also challenged about my attitude frequently. I mentioned in the front page devotion I wrote for our students in our October Student Ministry newsletter that I am a very emotional person and that because of that a growing edge for me is to think before speaking.
I've been especially challenged about being a good steward of my attitude in relation to the recent congregational survey at our chuch and an upcoming church-wide conversation about the results (this Sunday). I want to have and have been praying for the attitude of helping fix any issues for our congregation and discern the best way to move foward and bring excitement to Zion. On the other hand, it could seem that it would be much simpler and less challenging to just sit back and watch or remove ourselves from the conversation altogether. But, that would be too easy! And, I certainly don't think that is the approach Jesus would have taken. Does that challenge you?
I pray that our students and parents will join me in the challenge of being a good steward of our time, attitudes, and priorities as our church body gathers this Sudnay afternoon at 4:30pm to disuss the survey results and discern how to move foward at Zion Lutheran Church! Pray with me?