Thanksgiving in March

For the last month and a half I have been trying to get healthy. I’ve been eating smaller portions and healthier food, taking vitamins and probiotics, and stretching and doing yoga daily. I’m especially fond of the hilarious Adriene of “Yoga with Adriene.” Her motto is “Find What Feels Good.” Now, as a Christian, I know that saying cannot be applied to everything. Many things that “feel good” in the moment are not good for us in eternity, but it works for yoga and stretching. It basically means, don’t over-extend.

In life, I am learning, however, that it’s important to not only find what feels good, it’s important to find what fills us. Over the weekend I had the pleasure of meeting Costas*, a man from Haiti who lives near a park where I was attending an event. Our conversation started when he mistakenly told me “Happy Thanksgiving” and I corrected him, saying, “I think you mean happy Easter.” This led to a long conversation about assignments from God. Though, on first glance, Costas seemed like a disheveled wanderer, it turned out he was a man literally on a mission from God. All the trials and tribulations of his past had brought him to a place, geographically, financially, and spiritually, where he could serve the very place where it all began. He allowed God to take the pain of yesterday and turn it into the joy of the present.

After escaping his home country, Costas entered a world that was new to him. The language was new. The culture was new. Everything was new. In this place of deep need and emptiness, much like Job of the scripture, he encountered people on assignment for God, people of many different cultures and religions who had made the humble decision to serve refugees. As a recipient of such generosity and kindness, he thrived in his new home. He created a life for himself, even purchased the house he once shared with 11 other refugees.

His story could have ended there with a big fat “Happily Ever After,” but it didn’t. Instead God called him back to where all the pain began, where the running began, where the terror began. It must have been as profound for him as it was for me listening to it because he made a point of saying, “God often sends you back to where it all began.” He gave examples like that of Moses who had to go back to Egypt to set the Israelites free. Costas, in the last 15 years, decades after escaping Haiti, decided to go back to build a school where there was no education and serve thousands of people in rural Haiti.

His story really resonated with me. For the first 25 years of life I lived within 30 miles of where I was born. At 25 years old I decided to move to the Bay Area for 3 years until I finished school. Now 10 years later I am still here, and constantly wondering why. I love Oakland. I love my church, the food, the culture, but I often miss home. Maybe God took me from home to learn something to take back home someday. Perhaps there’s something I will find here that I would have never found at home, and when I return I will bring with me something someone needs.

So maybe there is something I could gain from this conversation with Costas that I could use years from now when I return home, but what I can I take from it today? Later that day, after talking with him, I felt so energized. I’m sure it was partially due to the Holy Spirit’s involvement in our exchange, but it was something more than that. I realized afterward that I am energized by one-on-one conversations with people. I walk away feeling like I have gained insight, learned more about culture, the similarities and differences. I feel as though the words spoken to me are the most precious gift.

Through this conversation with a complete stranger God reminded me that I need to have these individual conversations in order to be filled, energized. I recognize now why I sometimes feel unfulfilled in my workplace where there’s little time for individual exchanges or deep conversation, where the majority of my day is spent conversing with a computer screen.

Perhaps Costas had a point. It may not have been Thanksgiving, but Sunday was truly a day to be thankful.

 

*name changed for privacy

 

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What are you Holding Onto?

Recently my pastors have given a message series on “Discovering Your Story”, teaching how to discern where we fit into to God’s story. The series has been both challenging and enlightening to me, and has brought some inspiration to my little dry spell the last few weeks. (Sorry for that.)

The last message in the series follows Moses in the book of Numbers as he struggles with the complaints of thousands of thirsty Israelites. It reminds me of the wife who spends well over an hour preparing a lovely dinner for her family only to receive complaints. Moses must have been thinking, as I sometimes do, “If I’m following God’s will then why am I stuck here with these people I don’t particularly like right now!” And yet, despite his anger and frustration, God still provides him a way out. How gracious!

God tells Moses to take his staff, speak to a rock and it will pour out water. Why did God ask Moses to take his staff, the staff that he used during the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and much more? Earlier in the story of Moses, in the book of Exodus, we even read that God had commanded Moses to strike a rock with his staff to pour out water. At first you might not think anything of him bringing his staff. You might think the staff was like a magic wand, that it needed to be present for miracles to happen. Perhaps Moses needed the staff because he was old and bent over. The Bible doesn’t say why he was told to take the staff if God didn’t want him to strike the rock this time, but my pastor’s message suggested that Moses and the Israelites needed the staff as a reminder of all the past miracles God had done through the staff just as we need to be reminded of all our past answered prayers.

As I pondered on Pastor Ed’s point about the importance of remembering God’s goodness, I realized that if we aren’t holding onto the promise of God’s goodness, we are holding onto something else. Sometimes we complain as the Israelites did. Sometimes we turn to money, substances, or material things to solve our problems. Sometimes we avoid our problems, and there are even times that we blame God. In all of these instances we have let go of our gratitude, our memory of God’s faithfulness, his past victories, and turn to something that can only provide a temporary solution. This is why it is important to hold onto the metaphoric staffs in our lives.

While holding onto these past promises, as Moses did, can help us follow God’s will for our situation, we still stumble from time to time. This is because God made us in His image, an image that very much experiences emotion. We see it in God’s Old Testament interactions with Moses and the Israelites. It seems Moses is constantly begging God to show mercy in his anger. Jesus also demonstrated emotion as he cries at the death of his friend Lazarus. We see it in Jesus’ anger at the vendors in the temple. We even see it in the creation story of Genesis as God thought his creation of man was “very good.” God would not deny us our emotions, just as he would not deny Moses his anger as he approaches the rock in the presence of disappointed Israelites. This is where Moses needed to practice the self-control talked about in the fruit of the spirit passage in Galatians 5. This is where he needed to take a moment and put aside those emotions in order to follow God’s will. Instead Moses lashes out in both words and actions and destroys his chance of ever entering the Promised Land.

Two of the lessons we can learn from Numbers 20:

  1. Take God’s goodness, answered prayers, and promises with you in all you do as a reminder of His faithfulness.
  2. Decisions should not be made by our emotions but God’s will. Practice self-control in all situations no matter how emotional.

How will you practice these lessons today, tomorrow, this week? We all have to make tough decisions in emotional situations. Most big decisions are emotional. Do you find yourself making life decisions based on your emotions?

Prayer:

Heavenly Father, I pray your will be done, not mine. I don’t have a way to see the big picture, but you do, so Lord, I give every decision little or big to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Uncertainty and a Call for Action

Some people thrive on uncertainty. People like me, planners, call those people daredevils. What do you mean unplanned events, pending results, or even undecided outfits don’t keep you up at night?

Oh, how it seems life would be so leisurely if only I would be more comfortable with uncertainty, but I am my mother’s (and father’s) daughter and therefore I am destined to be tortured by the pending, the “to be continued”, and the dreaded “what ifs”. But do I really have to accept that I will forever obsess over the uncertain? Or is it my “hidden” distrust in God, my worry that keeps my mind reeling with the risk of what’s around the corner?

This morning, on my way to work, I listened to a worship song playlist on my smart phone. The song “Oceans” by Hillsong came on as I prayed silently to God. It’s amazing how many ways this song has spoken into different situations in my life. As I was driving along, the lyric “my soul will rest in your embrace” drew tears to my eyes. It was in that moment I realized it’s not that God isn’t embracing me. It’s that I’m not resting in his embrace. All this fretting, it’s not allowing him to embrace me. I’m just shrugging him off by trying to carry a burden I’m not meant to carry.

As I sang along with the rest of the song, God revealed to me exactly what he wanted me to do about the uncertain situation for which I was obsessing. It’s as if he said, “You think because you care, but what is care without action?” Thinking is not enough, caring is not enough. When God calls you into action and you respond, that’s when your soul can rest in his embrace. It can rest because God stirred it up for action, not for obessing over what might be, not for worrying.

What it Really Means to be a Contagious Christian

Last Sunday I attended a new church with my parents and family friend. They showed a video of a new study they are starting called “Becoming a Contagious Christian.” The video had about five individuals telling about their misconceptions of the meaning of “evangelism” and why it was so scary for them to practice.

Toward the end of the video the five people each told how this study on contagious Christianity had changed their view of evangelism and made them more attractive to those who are yet to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. After church my family had brunch together and discussed our thoughts on sharing our faith with others. Some of us were scared and intimidated and others felt they had found ways to share that were right for them.

As I pondered the topic, I thought of those in my life that practice contagious Christianity. I was reminded of a coworker who posts scriptures on her office bulletin board, a friend who writes heartfelt letters of love and encouragement, my dad who uses his talents to serve others and his church, my pastor who made it his mission to overwhelm our city with love through service, and a mentor that, even after retiring from teaching, invited former students over for tea parties.

The key to being contagious is radically loving, doing something so selfless that people ask why, and being the one that others look to for inspiration. Most of all, contagious Christianity pulls, it beckons, it draws others in to the love of Christ rather than the punishment of sin. Yes, hell is a very real thing, but the message of salvation is a much stronger conduit.

In a world full of failed relationships, broken families, abuse and violence, we cannot expect the message of eternal punishment to change lives. Many people feel they are already living in hell. The one thing people do respond to is transformation and hope for a pain-free eternity.

There’s a reason why Christmas stories like that of “A Christmas Carol” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” are still so widely popular. They are testaments of spiritual transformation. Your testimony, your faith story is the most powerful tool you hold in becoming contagious when you share it with a little TLC.

More than a Christmas Greeting

Don’t get me wrong, I love sending Christmas cards, but I’m often fatigued by the time I get to the last one. I don’t like to just sign my name and be done with it. To me the whole point of writing a letter or sending a card is to make someone feel loved and important.

In order to avoid greeting card burn out, I am starting my letters a bit early with the intention to not only mail a message, but to send up a prayer. Especially in a time when destruction and terror seem to be spreading globally, it is important to lift up our loved ones in prayer, not only for protection and peace but for salvation.

Whether you send cards, buy gifts or just make a phone call to those you love, send up a prayer before you do. As you bless them spiritually, you will find yourself blessed by peace rather than stress during this season of celebration. Gift giving, family gatherings and sending cards will become a response to your prayer and a labor of love.

This year lay down your burden and lift up a prayer for each and every loved one you encounter. You will see a difference when you do.

Whose Open Tomb?

With two upcoming baptisms just around the corner, I think it’s only appropriate to reflect on what it means to be baptized. What does it symbolize? And why should baptism be celebrated?

Just as a wedding is a ceremony representing a commitment between husband and wife, so is a baptism a ceremony representing a covenant between God and man. Baptism is such an important public declaration of commitment to Christ that Jesus commands it in the scripture many refer to as the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus says:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

If Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize, he wants the same for you and me. He wants us to proudly proclaim that he is our Lord and Savior.

The act of baptism symbolizes Jesus’ death for our sins and burial in the tomb, and his miraculous resurrection on the third day. This is why so many prefer to be immersed in water versus the “sprinkle” baptism. The symbolism is perhaps better experienced in the immersion baptism.

So if the idea is that we die to our old lives of sin, and experience a “spiritual resurrection” when we emerge from the water, then is Jesus’ tomb the only empty grave? If we are truly made new, no longer spiritually dead in our sin, and alive through the cleansing/forgiveness of our sins, then aren’t our graves just as empty as Jesus’?

Visualize this, on the day that you take your last breath on earth, after that breath, you are in a garden, your body has never felt more alive, your skin is flawless, your conscience clear, all you concern yourself with is praising the Father for who he is, not just what he’s done. You look up from your prayer and praise and see your friends approaching a grave. As you look closer, you notice that your name is engraved in the headstone, the date is today. How can you be seeing your own grave, covered in fresh soil, flowers tossed on top? How can it be?

Then you remember that day you decided to give your life to God. You remember the day you were baptized, the symbolism the pastor described. You are taken back to his words, “When she emerges from the water, it symbolizes Christ’s resurrection. Like Him she is made new, alive again, born again, adopted into Christ’s family, a child of God.” You immediately know why you are looking at your grave. There may be a body inside, but your spirit was resurrected the day you accepted Jesus as the forgiver of your sin. You proclaimed it through your baptism, and now you have a first class seat to seeing it completed. You realize how faithful the Father is, how you had taken this step of faith for granted all those years ago, but now you see the reality of your decision to make that covenant with Christ. Do you think you’d have any regrets?

Whose tomb is empty? Is it yours? If it isn’t, do you want to invite Jesus into your life, accept him as your Lord and Savior, forgiver of your sins? You can make that decision now. Just talk to Jesus. Tell him you want to make a covenant with him for eternal, forgiven life as a child of God.

Resting and Being Yourself

Ever been offered an opportunity to do something you love, but your plate is already close to full? It’s hard to turn down that opportunity. It’s also hard to say no to something that needs to be done when you know no one else will do it. Life is full of things that need to be done, that are actually, in reality, optional. Examine what’s on your plate, and you will likely find things that could fall off without anyone noticing.

This past week I was asked to be on several different “teams.” All of the teams sounded great, fun, amazing. I was asked if I wanted to communicate. I love talking, writing, and sharing information. Yes! That’s for me! The kid’s team asked me to help out in the classroom. I worked with kids for six years at my old church, and it was fun. That would be an easy one for me. Maybe I should do that. The third team that approached me was the outreach team. I have been wanting to be a part of an outreach team for years, and as the team leader described the areas she envisioned us focusing on, I wanted to volunteer for them all. After receiving these three offers, I was so excited, but then reality sunk in. My past complaints about serving so much in church, included not having as much time to volunteer with other favorite non-profits, not enough time to enjoy the hobbies that help me reenergize, resenting my volunteer duties, etc. Do I really want to put myself back into that situation?

I’d like to say that when those thoughts arose, I went straight to God in prayer, but alas, I didn’t go to Him right away. Instead I went to my mom, my friends, and my sleep. You see, when I’m stressed I have nightmares, and I did. I had nightmares about losing control, feeling overworked and burdened by responsibility. Why didn’t I just go to God? You’d think I would have learned by now.

The next day, after tossing and turning all night, I did get up and pray about it. I was reminded that my blog really is my outlet for “communication” and writing. While I would enjoy time with the kiddos, maybe now is not the season to volunteer in children’s ministry. Outreach is really where I’m most passionate in this season of my life, and where I have been most passionate most of my life. I love helping people, meeting needs, and improving my community. I felt God nudge me in this direction, but I still felt so bad saying no to the Communication team and the Kid’s team. Then in a last-ditch effort God provided, not one, but a whole week’s worth of devotions on resting. Day after day I read messages that reminded me to rest my body and my mind for, not only, my physical and mental health but my spiritual health. It took me back to times when I was riddled with anxiety and stress, not that taking part in the communication and kids teams would do that, but I know myself and once I start taking on responsibility, I don’t slow down.

As a result of God’s undeniable answer to my prayer, I did contact the two team leaders for the teams I had to decline. I sent thoughtful responses and expected them to beg for my assistance despite my turning them down, but instead I was met with encouragement and understanding. Perhaps I reminded them they needed to rest too.

I believe that, as a Christian, when I truly rest, I experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus sent him to be our counselor, and what a gentle and kind counselor he is. He makes my spirit feel like it is lying down in a green pasture beside still waters, full of peace. It is in this time that I feel truly myself, the way God created me, a creative, kind, compassionate, quirky, funny woman. I feel free to create art, write letters, chat with friends, laugh at a favorite movie, talk to God out-loud, and totally recharge. It is in this Holy Spirit time that I “fill my tank” as my dear friend Scott would say.

When your soul is resting, your emotions are okay, your mind is okay, and your will is at peace with God, not resisting what He’s doing.    – Joyce Meyer

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