An Oasis

With everything going on in this world, life can seem a bit chaotic and out of control. In addition to the events surrounding us, the summer heat is beginning to set in. All of this has led me to desire an escape, a place of quiet and peace. I am in need of an oasis.

If you look up the definition of the word oasis, you will find that it refers to a fertile spot in the desert where water can be found. Life can right now feel a bit barren and more energy draining each day. The pandemic has kept us isolated from others for quite some time. We cannot go about our normal activities or those things which recharge us. We are not even able to worship with others and share in fellowship. The unrest due to the racial injustices have only added to these feelings. It is easy to see life as barren and unrelieving, much like a desert.

I have an oasis for my physical and mental well-being. My backyard provides a wonderful place of retreat for me. I can sit on my patio which is covered so I do not have to experience the heat of a summer sun. The wonderful landscaping which was left to us and to which we have added provides beautiful flowers, flowering bushes, and lush green grass to remind me of the life and beauty by which I am surrounded. The pool provides a refreshing and energizing place for me to swim and cool down from the heat of life and summer.

I also have a spiritual oasis. While I cannot physically attend a worship service currently, I am able to attend a virtual worship service. I am able to continue to study Scripture and enjoy an ongoing daily devotional with my husband. My music collection contains plenty of refreshing songs and hymns to remind me of God’s love and care. Daily I am reminded of the presence of the Spirit which encourages and recharges me.

As I thought about my spiritual oasis, my mind was drawn to the words found in an older hymn, “In The Garden.” These lyrics encapsulate all my thoughts about the oasis which I, and likely you, need today.

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

He speaks and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

I'd stay in the garden with Him
'Tho the night around me be falling
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

Songwriter: C. Austin Miles
In the Garden lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Trust Needed

We live in a time when it seems very difficult to trust anyone. Over the years, trust has been eroded in some key institutions in our lives. People have lost trust in government officials and elected leaders. As we have recently become very aware, there is limited if no trust in our law enforcement and judicial systems. The trust which people used to have in the Church and religious leaders has broken down. Our neighborhoods are no longer considered safe, so we do not even have trust in our neighbors and this is not only in large cities but also small, rural communities. Trust is a very precious commodity which appears to have become extremely rare.

One reason that this is a major issue for society is that trust is at the foundation of relationships. No relationship can survive if trust is not present. Interaction between individuals at any level requires some amount of trust. If this does not exist, then exchanges will be only on the surface and not have any depth or true meaning. Once trust is destroyed, it takes twice as much work to re-establish it, and may not even occur.

The Church has a lot of trust building to do. The distrust began with the revelations of sexual abuse occurring too often at the hands of faith leaders. However, long before that, the Church had failed to live out God’s love to everyone. For individuals who grew up realizing they were part of an unnamed group now known as LGBTQ, they were shunned by the Church, told to repent their sinful ways, and excluded from active participation in the practices and fellowship of faith. If a person was of a different ethnicity than the majority within the congregation, they were often distrusted and marginalized at best. Asking questions was seen as a lack of faith. Instead of being a safe haven for all people, a place to grow and explore faith, and a demonstration of God’s love for ALL people, the Church became judgmental, ostracizing, and a place of abuse. The Church broke the trust of numerous people and only represented pain.

It is time within our society to openly acknowledge our active role in planting seeds of distrust. The Church has the opportunity to be a leader here. Through its own acknowledgment of actions and words leading to people no longer trusting the Church and its leadership, the Church can show the first step in trying to rebuild the trust. Some individual congregations are doing that and shifts are starting to slowly begin at a greater level. This is going to take time and require a much greater effort. Some will never reclaim a trust in the Church but others can be given an opportunity to share their heart and begin healing. Then if the Church becomes a light and example to the world (as it was created to be) we may see changes happen in other institutions and among groups of people.

We need trust because we need relationships and relationships are only possible if there is trust. Let us take the first step in building trust.

Reaching

In our home we have a few houseplants. We are fortunate in this house to have windows to the south and windows to the east which provide excellent locations for some of our plants. Every few weeks, I have to turn the plants at least forty-five degrees. The reason for needing to turn the plants is that they tend to grow towards the window so by turning them I am able to keep them pretty evened out. Of course, the reason they grow toward the window is due to the fact that they are growing toward the source of the sunlight. If you remember from your basic biology class, plants need sunshine in order to trigger photosynthesis which allows the plant to grow.

You may be wondering why I have attempted to give a brief lesson regarding plants and photosynthesis. My reason is that while adjusting the plants the other day, I thought about how they reach for the sunlight. How they must have the sunlight for their survival. These thoughts caused me to ponder how I have a similar need. I am the type of person who does not do well on consecutive days of cloudy skies. After a few days, I notice shifts in my attitude and a reduction of my energy level. I am a person who needs regular days of sunlight.

I also began to consider how this applies to my faith. I have a need to feel a connection to God. When I sense this connection, my attitude is more of a positive attitude. Feeling surrounded by the Spirit of God, I experience a movement forward in my life. When going through a dark time in my life, my natural instinct is to reach out toward the Lord. Like the plant reaches toward the sunlight, I reach toward God so that I may receive what I need to survive and grow.

Between the impact of COVID-19 and the call for racial justice, there seems to me a greater need for us to reach out. A need for us to reach out to one another. A need for us to reach out to God. There we will find that life-giving source which will sustain us and help us to grow.

Living In the Grey

When we are young, we are taught about life in black and whites. Good versus bad, it is or it is not, right or wrong, are all ways we gain understanding of the world around us. When we are younger and have family to help guide us and watch over us, these black and whites make sense and provide us a clear boundary. However, as we get older and experience more of life outside of our homes, the black and whites are not so clear cut. Our world appears to us to be more grey in some areas. This can create times of confusion and tension. Yet through this process we grow and mature.

One area where this becomes clearly true is in relation to our faith. Young Christians are taught Bible stories and given examples of how God chooses us to live our lives. When we are young, these are given in very black and white terms. However, as we mature in our faith and in our lives, we start bumping up against details which cause us to question the clear black and white understandings. We learn more about God and realize that God is much more complex than black and white.

There are some individuals who never seem to make the transition from looking at the world solely in black and white to understanding a world filled with grey. These people have definite views which create an either/or dynamic in their lives. They cannot accept that life can be a both/and situation. Often they experience life on the extremes. Compromise is difficult. Uncertainty creates anxiety for them. They only see two options and determine which is the right option. Easily they can become judgmental of others. In regard to faith, they often ignore other possible interpretations outside of their chosen perspective.

I often tell people that if you truly study the original languages and cultures from which our modern day Bible emerges, you will soon discover that there is a lot of grey. First, it is difficult to truly grasp the ancient civilizations from which the stories and words of the Bible are generated without years of in depth study. Even if a person is a scholar in these ancient cultures and languages, there still are unknowns. Second, since the modern day Bible has gone through a multitude of translations and interpretations, the words we read are filtered through the experiences of Bible scholars and then refiltered through the experiences of us, the readers. Finally, there are multiple versions of the Bible today and in some cases, the words vary greatly depending on which version you are reading because of different word choices available during translation. This all points to the reality that there is grey in the main written source of the Christian faith.

Life is not black and white. There are choices based upon interpretation, experiences, culture, and new understandings which we make every day. These choices can change as we gain new insight. Understandings can be redefined as new revelations occur daily. Throughout all our life this is reality. When it comes to our faith, I believe in a living God who continues to reveal God’s self all the time. As God reveals more and more, we are moved from one interpretation to another. The grey is there because we do not fully understand God. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)

Telling Your Story

Throughout time, I have had the pleasure of reading some amazing books regarding faith and faith journeys. A few of my favorites are The Chronicles of Narnia, The Shack, and Too Busy Not to Pray. Each of these books have given me wonderful insights and amazing motivation. A key aspect of these books is that they are each told in creative ways from the perspective of a person on their own faith journey. This journey is revealed in the pages of their stories. Through this, they have demonstrated the meaning of evangelism.

Many people are resistant to the term, evangelism. Much of this resistance stems from negative experiences which they have had in life when a person tries to aggressively communicate their beliefs to the one listening. Within that communication there may exist words that are easily perceived as threats or attempts to generate fear in order to get the listener to adopt the beliefs being presented. Many Christians do not wish to be associated with this type of behavior, so they shy away from the term evangelism or evangelizing.

In truth, evangelism is actually sharing the good news found in the message of Jesus Christ. The best way of communicating this good news, the love of God extended to everyone as exemplified in Christ’s death and resurrection, is by sharing a person’s own faith journey with another. This is exactly what the authors of the books I mentioned above did for various reasons. In this manner, there is no pushing beliefs on others since each person decides if they read the book or not. There is no fear or threat found in the pages of these books. Instead, they share a story and in the process invite others to explore and discover the Good News.

Here we have an excellent example of what every believer is called to do in their life. Every believer is asked to share their own story. The manner in which the individual may choose to share the story is based on the gifts and talents of that person. There is no special formula which must be followed. Just share. In each of our faith stories there is inspiration and motivation.

Is It In There

One of the areas of confusion among people which I encounter frequently is the number of items individuals accredit to the Bible but are not actually written in Scripture. An example is, “God helps those who help themselves.” This phrase is recorded nowhere in Scripture but instead is a popular statement based on the interpretation of various passages. Some Christians argue that it even stands against the concept of grace which is prominent in our understanding of God. As a line from Kermit the Frog’s song, Rainbow Connection, reminds us, “Somebody thought of it, and somebody believed it, and look what it has done so far.” Unfortunately, because this type of confusion prevails, too often people get a very inaccurate perception of God and God’s expectations.

The Church has unwittingly, or at least I hope it has been unwittingly, propagated this confusion. What I mean is that the Church has established rules which the leadership has determined are beneficial for the well-being of humanity. These rules are based upon the Church’s interpretation of Scripture at a specific time and place within its history. Some of these rules truly are beneficial and should be followed to the best of one’s ability. However, some rules over time have changed as the Church reexamines Scripture and determines a change in interpretation is in order. Since we understand that the Bible is the Living Word, and we know that the Spirit continues to reveal God’s truth in the world, this change of interpretation is in order. Just as science continues to discover new understandings of creation, the Church discovers new understandings of what God’s message was and is now.

The key here is that people take the time and make the effort to differentiate between what is in the Bible and what is a rule that the Church has established because of an interpretation of the Bible. It is also very important to understand the context in which the rule is adopted. The reason that all this is important is because we know that our interpretations of Scripture are not absolute. They are the best understanding of God’s humanly recorded interaction with humanity at a certain time and place. These interpretations give us some insight into the nature of God and how we are to respond to God. Yet as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other great reformers of the Church have shown us, these interpretations need to be reviewed, revisited, and reformed.

Next time someone tells you that you should or should not do something because this is what God wants, make sure that you clarify whether it is truly in the Bible or if it is someone’s interpretation of the Bible. The Spirit will guide you in your interpretation at that given moment and your response to God.

Awakening The Force

I am a huge Star Wars fan. I vividly remember when the first movie came out (Chapter 4 – A New Hope). It was the summer before I entered Junior High School. The first time I saw it was with my sister, brother-in-law, and infant nephew at a drive-in theater. That same week my brother-in-law and I would go to see it again but this time in an indoor theater. Chapter 4 through 6 will always be my favorite of all the Star Wars films. I have all the films on DVD except the most recent one which came out last year.

For my birthday this year, my youngest son gave me The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. So during this period of isolation, my husband and I decided to watch both of these movies. I love seeing some of my favorite characters once again, although they look a bit older. I was sad when Han and Luke died. As I watched these movies, I was reminded of the connection which others have made between the “Force” and the Holy Spirit. You can find endless books and articles which discuss the connection of themes between the Star Wars movies and the Christian faith. Intended, or not, they are strongly visible.

The title of Chapter 7, The Force Awakens, triggered in my thoughts the awakening of the Spirit in our lives. In this movie, we see one of the main characters becoming aware of a power within herself. The Force is always present. It runs through everything in the universe. Some individuals have an ability to harness the power of the Force and are trained how to understand it and use it. These individuals became known as the Jedi, an elite group which is called upon to overcome the evil actions of some leaders who take over the universe’s governing system. The Force has two sides, the good (or light) side and the dark (or evil) side. Here sets up the continuous battle between good and evil.

The character which I mentioned above, always had the power of the Force within her. In reality, the Force does not awaken but instead her awareness of the Force is what awakens. She is confused by the newfound abilities which she seems to possess. Only by conversations with one of the rebel leaders who has this awareness and with one of the Jedi Masters does she begin to truly understand this power and how she can use it to fight against the evil leaders.

Looking at this from the perspective of Christian faith, there are similarities between the Holy Spirit and the Force. But there are also some dissimilarities. Like the character from the movie, we must become awakened to the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Unlike the Force in these movies, the Spirit’s power is not limited to an elite group. Instead, the Spirit’s power is available to all people. Another similarity is that our awareness to the Spirit’s power must be awakened. This awakening can occur in a variety of ways but most common is through discussions with others who are aware of the power. Often the characters who are called upon to use the Force in dramatic ways are resistant at first and tend to want to rely upon their own abilities and the traditional methods. Individuals usually respond the same to the power of the Holy Spirit because the reality of this power is unnerving to us.

I wonder what would happen if more people were awakened to the power of the Holy Spirit. What if we had a group of individuals who used this power to strive for good within the universe? What if a group used this power to change the lives of others in a positive direction? Would we call them Jedis, or would we give them a different name? Would there people who would take the time to train them to use this power effectively and trust in it? Wait….. this may already exist. Could it be that we call this group of people, the Church? Could it be that there already exist individuals who we call pastors, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, vacation Bible school leaders, and elders instead of Masters?

It is time that we awaken the awareness of the force, the Holy Spirit. Are you aware of the Force within you? How are you utilizing the Spirit’s power in your life? How are you sharing this awareness with others?

Most Important

Those within the Christian faith (and those who are not) have just celebrated the holiday of Easter. For Christians, this celebration is one which remembers the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. This day marks the end of a week which has become known as Holy Week. Holy Week recalls significant events Including:

  • Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem which turns into a procession with palm branches
  • Jesus’ final meal which Jesus has with the closest of his disciples
  • Jesus’ arrest by the temple guards, his “trials” before the religious leader
  • Jesus’ appearances before Pilate and Herod
  • Jesus’ crucifixion and death
  • Jesus’ body being placed in a tomb

For non-Christians, this celebration focuses solely on the Easter Bunny, hiding Easter eggs and all types of sweets and candies. Christians also take part in these fun activities. Our Jewish brothers and sisters also celebrate Passover which is significant in the Christian history as well.

The other significant celebration which is shared by Christians and non-Christians is Christmas. The Christian focus is on the incarnation of God in Jesus. Non-Christians focus on Santa Claus. Jews celebrate Hanukkah around the same time as well. A majority share in the giving of gifts, festive decorations, Santa Claus, and family gatherings.

As a Christian leader, I have wrestled with how our traditions and actions deal with both of these holidays which are significant celebrations of events in our faith. I would argue that Christmas appears to be much more important to us than Easter. Looking at the preparation, the amount of gatherings, the type of decorating, and the amount of money we spend on Christmas, our behaviors give this indication.

On an emotional level, I get it. Celebrating a birth is much more uplifting and exciting than acknowledging a torturous death followed by the foreign concept of a full, bodily resurrection. The time of the year may also have some influence. Christmas is celebrated around the winter solstice which is a very dark, and in many parts a very cold, time of year. We all need something to lift our spirits and give us hope. Easter is celebrated in the early part of spring when we are seeing new life and warming temperatures, so we already are experiencing a renewal of hope.

On a theological level, I think the emphasis is backwards. While the incarnation of God is truly amazing and unique to Christianity, and while birth has to be necessary in Jesus’ story before the events around Easter can even happen, the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection has much greater significance in our faith, life, understanding of God, and life after death. Without Easter, Christmas would be just a celebration of another human birth. Easter gives us the basis of the Christian faith. The message of Easter will be what Peter proclaims during the Jewish Festival of Passover which is considered the birth of the Christian faith. The message of Easter is an outward demonstration of the love and grace which only God could provide.

I realize that economic and traditional behaviors will not be altered by my thoughts here. I can only hope that for those who acknowledge their belief in the risen Jesus, the Christ, it will cause all to pause and examine the behaviors. Maybe even work to bring the level of our Easter celebrations up to the minimum of our Christmas celebrations.

Planting Seeds

Having grown up in an agricultural state, I became very aware of the changing of the seasons and what those changes meant to the growth cycle of creation. Living in a Midwest state where over seventy percent of the state’s gross income is linked to agriculture, you become accustomed to seeing advertisements for seed brands, fertilizers and farming equipment throughout the winter months. All of these advertisements anticipated the early months of spring when life in a small, rural community would shift to applying anhydrous ammonia, tilling the ground, and then eventually planting the corn or soybean seeds.

Much like the farming community in which I spent the early years of my life, I anticipate spring and the planting season every year. While I do not plant crops over acres of land, this year I participated in this cycle of life by planting flowers and trees as part of the landscape of our new home. Just as farmers spend time researching seed varieties, my husband and I researched different plants which grow well in our location. We discussed what types of plants, where we would place them, and what care was necessary to help establish them. Then we went to a variety of locations searching for exactly what we wanted in our price range, purchased them along with pots for some, and brought them home to be planted.

With spring and thoughts of planting, I remembered a truth which I was told and experienced as a spiritual leader… we plant seeds which we may never see grow to full maturity. The Apostle Paul summarizes it in this way:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9

One of the most difficult aspects of being a spiritual leader at times is realizing that your work may not result in an end product. This is often due to a pride struggle and external demands. What I mean is that you want to be proud of the work which you are doing. In our world, success is often measured in a numerical sense based on observable criteria. The work of planting spiritual seeds does not always result in some observable fruition. Yet, ecclesiastical bodies and most church members look for those results in determining the effectiveness of a ministry since in the rest of the world this is how we rate an individual’s success.

The other interesting item in regard to planting seeds is that it is not the sole responsibility and privilege of spiritual leaders. Every believer is called to plant faith seeds. Jesus makes this clear in his words prior to his ascension to the Father recorded in what we now refer to as the Great Commission:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “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.”

Matthew 28:16-20

Here Jesus tells his disciples (followers) to go and make other disciples and teach them Jesus’ lessons. This is planting spiritual seeds. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you have received this commission and been made a planter in the world. These seeds can be planted through a variety of methods, most often without using words. St Francis of Assisi is attributed as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” St Francis refers to planting seeds as preaching but not in the oratorical sense we usually consider.

Planting time is upon us. During this time of year, we plant seeds for plants to grow. However, it is always planting time for followers of Jesus. Each of us should spend every day living in a manner which plants the seeds of God’s love and faith in that love. Just remember that you may or may not actually see those seeds spring into the fullness of life. After all, as the Apostle Paul tells us, only God makes these seeds grow.