Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Change is inevitable, but growth is optional

Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.
While waiting at the doctor's office this morning, I looked at pictures in a local magazine. Yes, I did have textbooks with me to read, but I opted to look at pictures instead. That's grace, okay?

While I was flipping through the magazine, I saw a quote, "Change is inevitable, but growth is optional." According to my 3-second google search, John Maxwell said it.

The quote has been rolling around in my head for these past several hours.

Certainly change is inevitable. I have had many changes in these past few years. Job changes. Family changes. Changes in pastoral leadership. Class changes. Change. Change. Change.

Growth has happened too. My daughters have grow a lot! The older is 15 and has a job and is saving money to buy a car. The younger is in middle school, and I just looked at her and thought, "How has she grown enough to be in our youth group?!" As the years go by and children change, they inevitably grow too. It isn't optional.

So, in what ways is growth optional, the way change isn't?

I think the intention here is that we get to make choices, to some extent, about how we respond to change. My own response to change lately has been difficult. For one thing, I'm tired of change. For another, it seems that change has been thrust upon me, and in a quantity that is more than I want to tackle at one time. I prefer to maintain some control about how much and when I experience change.

But, I'm not in control of everything. [I know, I know, this will surprise my family.]

What I am in some control of, is how I choose to let the challenge that change brings become a catalyst for healthy growth in me. How do I receive the challenge of change? Do I consider how God can use the change? Do I ask God how I should respond? Do I give myself plenty of time and space to grieve the losses that change often brings? I get to choose those things. Another option is to let the challenge that change brings become an opportunity to complain and grow bitter and resist the change and refuse to let God get a word in edgewise. [Note: this tactic doesn't work well between me and God. God wins because God has lots of grace to pour into all our challenges.]

But, it does my heart good to know that I have a choice about my response. I like having options. And, sometimes I like being stubborn too.

Some days I choose the second option, and I let change discourage me. And others days, I think about all the things that God teaches me through change. I think of the wide array of learning experiences and opportunities that I have been given by not having the same things going on day after day and year after year. Change brings happy surprises too! Variety is a gift.

And somethings don't ever change:

Psalm 118 says, God's love endures forever! James 1 says, Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

That is good news! Be encouraged: Change gives us opportunities to grow, whether we want them or not, and the God who remains loving, merciful, just, and kind forever, gives abundant grace to all who ask and walks with us always. God's presence with us is inevitable too. Grow with God.

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Edited: I should add, since the intention of this blog is to let people read what I'm doing in school, that I've completed 50 credits. That means I've read a lot, written a lot, and this summer I took preaching class, so I preached some too. I have two years left and I'm still on track to graduate in May 2020. This past June I got to go with the seminary to the Dominican Republic on a mission trip. This fall I'm taking classes in Doctrine, Bible and Archaeology, and Discipleship.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Receiving Love

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I just got home from Good Friday worship. Like many Christians, I've been thinking about the love of God this week. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." (John 3:16). 

It's a common thing to consider that Jesus loved people. He loved enough to give up his own life, and before that, to endure suffering in the form of desertion, betrayal, mockery, violence, and crucifixion, not to mention the love spurring the divine to become human in the first place. God extends love to us.

But this week, I've also been thinking about how Jesus received love. Right in amongst the story of plotting and betrayal in Matthew 26 is the story of Jesus being anointed at Bethany:


Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” -Matthew 26: 6-13 

There is a lot in this passage, but for me this week, the point is this: Jesus received a gift from the woman. There Jesus was, sitting among his friends, and a woman came and poured a whole jar of expensive ointment on him. His disciples saw waste. He saw a good service, an act of love. He received the gift.

Early on in our marriage, Ryan learned that I didn't want him to waste money on gifts for me. That was probably a good financial choice; I was still in college after all. But, it also shows a little bit of that part of me that is adverse to receiving love, thinking I don't need it or don't deserve it. 

One of my prayers this week has been, Lord, help me to receive love from others, like you did from the woman. When people perform a good service for me, help me receive it with thankfulness rather than pushing it away. When you place good gifts before me and within me, urge me to receive them and use them. May it be so.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Wednesday

Well, Wednesday was a tough day, huh? Not just because it was a tension between Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday for some of us, but because America experienced another mass shooting. 

It's hard for me to do my school work this week. I'm distracted. That's not my favorite way to be; I prefer to be more focused. I find myself wanting to be hopeful that we can have some meaningful change in legislation but being hopeful feels disingenuous. Since at least the 90s we have been having calls for change after mass shootings and we still don't have meaningful changes. Yet again, I've contacted senators and representatives - I did all Iowa's US reps this time. I assume I'll be living in this same place for the next election, but it's possible I'll be another's constituent by then. 

I'm troubled by all of the "reasons" I've seen named for this: gun laws, mental health, schools not being secured, teachers not being armed, society at large, break down of family, silence of churches, sin. As an aside, I cannot understand why one would name "sin" and then appear to infer that nothing can be done "It's not gun laws or mental health" it's "sin". So we sit here and do nothing because our poor laws clearly have nothing to do with "sin"?!

Taking a wider look using statistics, also on Wednesday 162 people died in the US from opioid overdose, 123 suicides in the US (about 1/5 veterans; half using firearms), 8500 children under the age of 5 died from poor nutrition worldwide, 1200 murdered worldwide, and 17 died in a school shooting in Florida. Each and every one of these deaths is significant. Each person is of sacred value and worth. Though my head cannot take in these numbers, my heart can.

Another wider look that is discouraging to me is that this isn't new. For example, I've been reading church history this year and it is full of awful killing-sprees done in the name of God and empire. 

So, I think that our trouble begins with a misunderstanding of the problem. The problem is big and deep and wide. We can take constructive steps to fix it, and we should, but we will do best when we acknowledge the gravity of the issue, like the tax collector did in Luke 18 who "...beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’" There is widespread error in our initial reactions, including mine. On one hand, we think it can be solved with legislation alone, getting rid of a strong lobbyist, or on the other hand, we think it's too abstract to even try to solve, aka "sin".

I read Kathleen Norris' essay on Idolatry today, from Amazing Grace. She brings up that in older english the word "devotion" also could mean "curse" so the word held in tension how being devoted to something often means being against something else. So, when Jesus reframes the commandments by saying, love God, love neighbor, love self (Mark 12), it's an incredibly difficult thing for us humans because we couple devotion with cursing. On good days I struggle to keep them all going at one - holding that tension among loving God and neighbor and myself. On bad days I can't even try - I'm too mad at my neighbor or myself or God to hold devotion without cursing. 

I think that we see the cursing side of devotion all over the place in our culture. To be devoted to the constitution means to curse gun control. To be devoted to God means to curse your neighbor or yourself.  And our devotions run so deep, and our curses with them, that we can't listen and we can't love. 

So, how to have hope? I have hope because of things that seem little. I have hope because the Gospel of John records Jesus praying for us, and Romans says the Spirit helps us pray (John 17, Romans 8). I have hope because big problems don't scare Jesus (see my reflection from our trip to Madison). I have hope because the love of God shines through people even in the dark places. I have hope because even on days that I see and hear awful things, I also see and hear beautiful things; God's grace is still at work. I have hope because I believe Jesus really did overcome death; the Spirit really is at work even in our mess; and one day all things really will be set right. And, I have hope that we still look at tragedy like this and know that it's not right. So, maybe being hopeful isn't disingenuous after all. 

And maybe I can do my schoolwork now?

May you have grace to live in the tension of loving God, neighbor, and self, with hope.

You are loved!

--

Tension

This Wednesday we observed both Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday. It was a really good chance to look at the tension that is present every day – celebration and grief. It was a feast and a fast at one time. And, while the dual holidays don’t happen often, the tension is really not unusual.
 At FUMC we've experienced a lot of this same tension in the past 5 months. Personally, when I celebrate something with my husband, I'm often reminded that Pastor Jenny can't be with hers in the same way anymore. During my weeklong vacation with my family in Florida at Christmas, I was aware that my friend Lana and her family were supposed to be on vacation too that same week. I was enjoying my family, while she was in a hospital, grieving.
On Wednesday, Pastor Jenny heroically lived into her calling of Pastor despite it begin one of the bad days of grief. For me, Valentine’s Day was different: my valentine was “super romantic” and texted a funny video. And maybe he’ll find some candy on clearance for me! But he is here, so my day was different.
 I'm learning, slowly, to let the tension be present, which means that I can experience both - joy and sadness - and let them be together. Experiencing is more than acknowledging. It's easier to acknowledge: this is life; it's the human experience. I acknowledge that life is both hard and good. Experiencing is more. To experience both means letting these realities affect me: they bring tears, laughter, silent prayers, and huge smiles. They result in hugs of congratulations and wordless embraces of empathy.
 The cross was a mix too, right? The mother weeping, the Son crying out, the earth quaking, and the temple curtain ripping in two, all because of perfect love. The best of all and the worst of all, all mixed up in one. And more: the entire incarnation of Jesus Christ was a mix of human limitation and divine power. Jesus did them both too. I admit that it is hard for me, often, to let the two exist together, but fortunately, I can be pretty determined, so I'll keep trying. And I'm thankful for the continual opportunity and grace to try and for God to work within me, within us, to be formed.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Words of encouragement from a visitor to Madison

Our Gospel in Context class visited Madison in August. I was asked to write my thoughts for the blog Selfless Ambition. The original post is here: http://blog.selflessambition.org/uncategorized/words-encouragement-visitor-madison/

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I’m not an expert on Madison, but I visited your city for four days in August 2017 with as much open openness and honesty I could muster – I’m an introvert, you see, and a rural one at that – and our days were exhausting! It was a great experience and I’m thankful for the hospitality we experienced.
Our seminary – University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa – sent us, nine Gospel in Context: Urban students and our fearless professor, to practice “exegeting a community.”
We talked to dozens of locals, including city and ministry leaders, people experiencing homelessness, vendors and those in the marketplace, and more. We walked around neighborhoods, visited churches, celebrated worship with five different congregations, and ate at several great restaurants – my favorite was the Weary Traveler Freehouse on Williamson.
When asked if I’d be interested in writing a reflection for Selfless Ambition, I said yes right away, because I appreciate your faith community. Not because you’ve done everything right, but because I sense you’re trying to be honest.
From what we saw and heard, many times over in our few days, a primary issue being experienced by Madison centers around racial disparity. More specifically, I saw a Christian Community reeling from disillusionment around the issues identified in both The Race to Equity Report and Dr. Gee’s Justified Anger editorial and movement.
How can it be that we, progressive, loving Madisonians can be in the midst of the worst racial disparity in the nation? Indeed, how can it be? My mind echoed the same question.
Our group asked questions, both of the many people we met and of one another. How does a community that values, lobbies, and preaches equality, hospitality, and love have segments of population – that’s real people: men, women, and children – that have so little right beside those who have so much?
Certainly this isn’t an issue just for Madison, but thank you, Madison, for taking blinders off and beginning to be honest enough to seek answers.
I don’t have answers, but I have reflections, and thankfully that’s all I’ve been asked to provide.
Big issues don’t scare Jesus
Racial disparity doesn’t have an easy fix. The Why? has many root causes. The Who? are diverse, of course, even within the same ethnicity. The When? has as many origins as the diverse people who have been hurt and those who have gained. You’ve got a start on The What?, with more statistics than we were able to fully wrap our heads around, and I’m sure you’ve already discovered more of the issue without yet coming to its end.
With no easy answer, how does Madison move forward? With Jesus.
Big issues don’t scare Jesus. He touched the unclean and healed the sick, he confronted systems of injustice and reinterpreted the law, he brought back life from death and forgave sin. The sin of all humanity, including that at the heart of racial disparity, and all of its accompanying shame and despair, didn’t scare Jesus on the cross and it doesn’t scare Jesus now. He died living his call in the face of really big problems.
That’s good news, and there’s more: the same Spirit empowers us. Be bold in the power of the Spirit; Madison’s issues don’t scare Jesus.
Be your words; don’t just say them
How does faith influence your life? I mean really, do you live differently because you’re a Christian? In other words, how does what you think theologically align with what you experience, and how does what you say align with what you do?
From our discussions in Madison, I wonder if Madisonians are experiencing misalignment. In a city personified in opposition to the politically conservative occupants of the State House and surrounding rural communities, is it just a given that a relevant urbanite must be progressive? It seems like being progressive is cool, so much so, that sounding progressive comes naturally to Madison’s residents.
Yet aligning voice to action isn’t so natural.
We saw hundreds of people pay a fair price for organic produce at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. I was one of them. Just across the street from the market were several experiencing homelessness, and perhaps hungry. Is organic produce, a part of a healthy life, only for those who can afford it in Madison?
If you say you care about the those experiencing homelessness, does your experience align with what you say? Do you care enough to know the circumstances of any individual experiencing life without a place to sleep, to bathe, to make a call or check email? If you think something doesn’t make sense, or something isn’t right, what do you do about it?
I, for one, found some of my assumptions tested in Madison. I didn’t necessarily like it, but it was good. That’s part of the intention of the class we are taking, of course, to help us interrogate our own theology. When our thoughts don’t line up with what we observe and experience, we need to change our thoughts. When our actions don’t line up, we need to change what we do.
Keep in mind, though, that experience is richest and most honest when it is collective human experience rather than my experience. If you find yourself in an echo chamber of similar thoughts, similar experiences, similar actions, get outside and experience more of God’s beloved creation.
Here’s a warning: it’s hard work! When you leave your own echo chamber – and most people have one, probably even you – you will be vulnerable. Suddenly, everyone doesn’t agree with you. Suddenly, your foolproof logic might come up short. Suddenly, your idea of God may be too small. And when that happens, you will feel exposed.
It’s a lot easier to stay in your protective trenches with your own people who repeat your ideas and share your experiences. When you’re ready to move outside your own comfort zone, I have two suggestions: one for your attitude and then one for your behavior.
First, hold the goal of hearing much higher than the goal of being heard. Listen more than you speak. We’ve all heard that said before, but really we rarely do it because it is hard – ask God for a quiet and longing heart to hear.
Then, an action: truly be lovingly honest. Sadly, the norm in our culture, including in the church, is to dig in with those of like minds. O God, how we need ears to hear others, hearts to love, eyes to see the sacred worth in every person, voices that express what we really feel, and arms that embrace and serve.
How does a community get there? We must take up our true identity.
Your true identity
Madison Christian community, your real identity isn’t a political ideology. It isn’t your radical hospitality, or lack thereof. It isn’t being Sanctuary, or winning the Race to Equity. No, your identity is more. Your identity is Christ’s Church in Madison. You are part of God’s Beloved!
Perhaps you look at yourself and see the ways you’ve failed. You have failed at times; all communities have. But, you’re still the church and God uses you. Live into your true identity. Clothe yourself with Christ.
To be truly vulnerable before one another, first requires being vulnerable before God. You know how to do this: confess, receive forgiveness, and walk in the light of Christ.
No more do you need to wallow in the way you’ve been; live in who you are!
Neither do you need to act like you’re better than you are; be vulnerable, expose your weaknesses, ask for help, listen to ALL the voices – which means seek out voices that are often silent, and continue to move forward!
You’ve already got a great start, because your start began In the Beginning, a long time ago, and your end will be fulfillment.
Continue to be honest with yourselves, Madison Christian community.
Seek the heart of God and do God’s work.
As individuals, cultivate your spiritual lives.
As a diverse group, discern God’s voice.
Be vulnerable and willing to change.
I have great hope for the Madison Christian Community because the Holy Spirit is at work within you. May abundant peace follow abundant grace within your hearts, among your congregations, and throughout the whole Madison community. My prayers are with you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I am human; so are you

Try as I may, I've been unable to get an image to leave my head. A couple weeks ago during the contentious confirmation hearing of now Education Secretary DeVos, there was an image making rounds on social media of a venn diagram that indicated there is nothing in common among DeVos and educators. While I consider it a responsibility of constituents to voice opinions to representatives, the diagram has deeply troubled my soul. My soul ache isn't simply because of the use of the diagram. It was a witty statement, for sure, and certainly a fitting image for how many educators feel. My soul ache is because of how well the diagram describes the common way people treat one another. How, my friends, have we gotten to a place where we no longer see dignity and worth in our neighbor? Why do we no longer recognize another member of the human race as our sister or brother?

O God, we have gone crazy.
We have forgotten that those we hate are those you love.
We have discarded the idea that every person is created in Your image.
We mock You, thinking surely we know best.

Her idea is absurd.
His opinion is skewed.
We know what is really true...
Or, at least I do.

How long will this go on, O God?
Wake us from this foolish quest for our dreamland.
In a thousand ways we are different.
Remind us of how we are alike.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New year, new semester, new thoughts on ministry

This is really fun reading!
Books for schoolare longer and I don't
 usually have cuddle buddies!
It's the New Year 2017 now, and I'm just back from a little vacation with our family. It was nice to be away and to spend time with family and friends. I haven't written for about a month, so let me update you that I did finish my first semester with all passing grades. I have started reading for my January class and will spend all of next week, Monday through Friday, in Dubuque at school for one "intensive" class. Then I'll have a couple weeks to finish that class at home on my own and second semester will begin. I think I ordered 15 books for the semester, so if you're looking for me, I'll be reading!

The class I'm taking this month is United Methodist Polity. You may guess that it is about the polity of the United Methodist Church. You'd be right! That means I'll learn about the organization and structure of the church and the underlying beliefs that formed this organization led by the Holy Spirit, but also clearly under the influence of people like you and me. For any of you that are associated with the United Methodist Church, you may find it interesting that we are assigned to read the entire Book of Discipline (it's around 800 pages). Because the Book of Disciple covers topics that aren't always interesting in extreme detail, the reading can be dry. However, at times, such as when explaining some things I've wondered about or articulating doctrines, the reading can be interesting and even a little exciting. And, there are little gems all over the place, like this one "Support without accountability promotes moral weakness; accountability without support is a form of cruelty". It was written regarding Social Principles but applies to a lot of situations: parenting, leadership, etc.

One of the things I've thought about a little differently these past couple days as a result of the reading is the idea of ordained ministry. For years, since the beginning of the church, Christians have had a practice of setting apart people for total dedication to the ministry of the church in the world. In some ways, I think of this similarly to how we set apart money in our personal and corporate budgets to support the work of the church. Setting apart money in our budget for the church doesn't mean we can waste all the rest of our money - we are still stewards of it all, and in the same way, setting apart some individuals for full-time ministry doesn't mean the rest of Christians aren't also stewards of God's grace and love for the world. We are all called to ministry.

Many times, when we talk about a person "going into the ministry" we are talking about something that is very personal for that one person - one person gets a call from God and one person responds. However, that understanding isn't the understanding of the United Methodist Church, and it's not my understanding either. True, I do believe God is calling me to prepare and to be set apart for ministry, but it's not something about me as one person. The Book of Discipline says that the greatest contribution the local church makes is identifying and supporting candidates for ordained ministry. The local church, where the hands of Jesus meet the world, is the body that is used to nurture people who will exemplify the Christian life in the world. Through the reading, I've been confirmed in thinking that my being set apart isn't an action that just I'm doing. My local church is setting me apart now, and probably one day the larger church will too. We are all stewards together - sharing Jesus with the world.

Then there's about 799 other pages that begin to scratch the surface of how the UMC works in the world...