Thursday, July 26, 2012

Learning to Fly

Learning to fly, but I aint got wings.
And coming down is the hardest thing...
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Learning to Fly"

Flying and Catching

Henri Nouwen was a well-known Catholic priest and author.  He at one point spent time getting to know the members of an acrobatic troupe[1].  Among them were flyers and catchers.  Flyers captured the public eye as they soared through the air—they got all the applause. Catchers worked behind the scenes, lurking in the shadows, just out of view, waiting for the critical moment during the act when they reached out of the darkness to catch the flyer and bring them safely home. I can only imagine that the flyer was “very glad” every time that moment came.

Nouwen once asked the leader of the troupe what the secret was to making the act work.  His response was simple but profound: The secret is that the flyer does nothing; the catcher does everything.  “When I fly to Joe, I simply have to stretch out my hands and wait.” 

While I see the point of the sentiment, I don’t necessarily agree that the flyer does “nothing.” In fact, I actually think he ultimately makes the choice that makes the whole act possible.  You see, the flyer is the only who can decide to jump. 

There can be no dramatic catch until the flyer makes the fateful choice to "let go" and fly.

Once we're flying, then I agree, the outcome is sort of out of our hands, but I don’t think we should diminish the importance of that initial choice to "let go[2]." 

Sounds all well and good, but humans don't have wings!

It looks routine, but it actually takes
lots of practice to learn to fly.
I think what makes us spectators “ooh” and “ah” when we watch the remarkable performances (like the one Nouwen got to experience) going on above our heads is that they seem to be doing something humanly "impossible."   We know what they are doing is very dangerous; injury or even death is possible if things go poorly.  We're on the edge of our seat to see how it turns out.  This kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to anyone, and yet as these flyers and catchers do it night after night, such death-defying acts begin to look routine—like the outcome was never in doubt.

We ask ourselves:  How in the world do they make it look so natural?!

Having never done a high-wire act, I can only guess, but, in a word, I would say the answer is: practice.  

More specifically I would imagine that they would have to:

·      Get to know each other—very well.  Flyers and catchers no doubt spent lots of time together.  I would imagine a troupe like that even lived together.  A flyer had to know that the he could count on his catcher to do his job well—and vice versa.  

·      Work together—a lot. Something this difficult to do only looks routine and effortless to the audience because the performers have put in long hours working together as a team.  The flyer and the catcher have built a strong connection that enables trust between the two. Each almost knows instinctively what the other will do in any given situation. They can anticipate each other's moves and adjust accordingly.

But even after all that training, imagine how it must feel to climb that ladder and stand up on that platform before a packed house.  No matter how much you've prepared, to take that first step out into nothingness must be hard. As you leap, you are leaning on all the practice that has bought you to this point and on the trust you have placed in your friends who are there with you

And then, in an instant, it happens.  Each does their part.
The flyer flies; the catcher catches; and the crowd goes wild!

Choosing to "Let Go" and Fly

Have you noticed that real life has a way of putting us in a similar place as those flyers on a regular basis?  While we’re not usually literally hundreds of feet off the ground on a narrow ledge waiting to jump, we often face critical moments in our lives where we have to make the fateful choice to “let go”—or not.

Once we "let go," we might fail spectacularly or we might succeed beyond our wildest dreams.  We can't control the outcome once we're airborne. But we can be sure of one thing: 

Until we decide to let go and fly, nothing will happen—good or bad.  We'll be stuck in "neutral," plagued by uncertainty and doubt, haunted by the notion that what we desire remains just beyond our reach here on the platform.  

So all this got me thinking:

Could our churches be "flight schools"?

Without a doubt, making that initial decision to "let go" is hard.  Flying out into nothingness and placing your trust in "unseen hands" to catch you and bring you safely home doesn’t come naturally to any human being.  Left to our own devices, most of us will probably never “climb the ladder,” much less have the courage to “jump”.  No, if we're ever going to fly, it will probably take the support and encouragement of some friends who can perhaps help make the "unseen hands" just a smidge more visible for us.

Could your church, small group, or other gathering become a "safe place" to practice flying?  Could we practice and prepare together for our flights?  Could we learn to trust each other implicitly? Could we offer support and encouragement as we each summon the courage to step to the "platform" and fly toward that whatever it is we sense God calling us to do next?  Could we be there to catch one another when we fall—as will inevitably happen from time-to-time?  Could we offer congratulations and consolation to one another as needed, and encouragement to keep flying even amidst the turbulence of doubt, fear, and uncertainty?  

Could we help each other mount the platform, take the leap out into the unknown and fly, trusting the Divine hands that promise to catch us and bring us safely home?

[1] Ortberg, John: Know Doubt: Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith, Chapter 2, pp. 36-38.
[2] I think this is why Ortberg ends Know Doubt the way he does—see Chapter 11.  The whole book is about dealing with uncertainty and doubt in our faith, and his point is that these only fade as we make the choice we are capable of making in this process—to "let go" and experience the freedom God gives us to "fly."  And we must make that choice over and over again in our lives.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lessons from Joshua, Part III: Okay, We're Here... Now What?

The last two posts looked at various scenes from the life of Joshua.  There is one more  “scene” involving Joshua I would like to consider, but I should say up front that this one comes not from the Bible but from the imagination of Alan—a fascinating place to visit to be sure but not considered part of the canonical Scriptures. J That said:

I wonder how Joshua felt several weeks after crossing the Jordan?

If he is like me, then I imagine he felt excited but also a little overwhelmed. He had been waiting to “cross over” for maybe twenty years and now it finally happened. So much of Joshua’s time and energy in recent days went into preparing his people to “cross over” and then the overseeing the crossing of the Jordan. He probably felt a little tired after living through it all.  If he did, then Laurie and I can empathize.

Moving is one of the more stressful and tiring activities that anyone can do.  There’s packing up all the boxes in preparation for the move… then there’s “crossing over”—the actual move to the new place… and then there’s settling in, unpacking the boxes, and “taking possession”—starting to make your new house your home.  That last piece can take quite a while as you get to know a whole new community and the people in our—large—church.  It’s really quite draining to take it all in—physically, mentally, even spiritually—especially for an introvert like me.
Perhaps this view of the Jordan is similar
to what greeted Joshua that morning.

Anyway, back to Joshua…  I have this image of him waking up one morning with the miraculous crossing of the Jordan now several weeks in the rearview mirror, and with Jericho and other epic battles and conquests that we associate with Joshua still waiting for him in the future.  He stands at the entrance of his tent, the Sun rising over the verdant hills of Canaan, the cool breeze of morning rippling the flap at the entrance.  He feels so excited to finally be here. It feels so good to finally be in the land of the Promise.  He can’t wait to see what God has for his People in this place.  

The place pulses with palpable potential.

But then the enormity of it all hits him… Joshua looks around and sees the veritable portable city that surrounds him.  Tents and other structures stretch as far as the eye can see.  Twelve tribes—comprising thousands of men, women, and children—have followed him on this journey with a goal of “taking possession” of the land God has given them.  For now though, they are crammed on the shore of the Jordan awaiting instruction on what to do next. (Remember, this is occupied territory!)  As Joshua gazes around, he is suddenly struck by a thought that overwhelms him. 

Dear God!  All these people are looking to me to guide them!  I don’t even know their names.  How am I’m supposed to lead them effectively?!

Then I imagine him looking skyward and saying something like: “Okay God, we’re here.  Now what do we do next?”

And God did answer—not all at once, but faithfully day-by-day. Each day, Joshua every had to trust God to show him what’s next, so that he, in turn, could provide guidance and leadership to God’s people.  God showed Joshua what he needed for each moment he faced—provided each day his daily bread.

I probably can imagine that scene right now, because, frankly, I feel as if I am living a modern version of it.  Like Joshua, I am several weeks into a new reality.  My family is settling into a new home in Waldorf, getting to know the lay of the land in a new community, and beginning to find our way in a new—and significantly larger—church.

Not unlike Canaan, our new church pulses with energy and vitality—the place pulses with palpable potential.  We sense it and so do many of the people we’ve met so far.   In many ways, the church is quite a bit different from the churches we previously served.  That alone takes some getting used to.  We’ve joined an ongoing story at Good Shepherd and we’re starting to learn it and figure out where our gifts and graces fit in—all in due time. 

I think my wife probably relates to this imagined scene from the life of Joshua right now even more than me.  You see, she’s the pastor—I’m the writer and the ruminator in the family J.  That means that in our new setting, she is “Joshua.”  She’s the one to whom the people of our church are already looking to set the tone and reassure them that all shall be well in this new day.  Ultimately she must answer their anxious question: “Okay, you’re here.  Now what do we do next?”  It’s a pretty awesome privilege and a huge responsibility that God gives to a pastor, and—speaking as the spouse of a pastor who only experiences the phenomenon second-hand—it can feel more than a little overwhelming at times to take it all in. 

As was true with Joshua, we trust God will continue to equip Laurie, day-by-day, to fulfill her new role as pastor of Good Shepherd.  We likewise trust God to equip me, her spouse, to both support her and live out my own calling in this place, and to help our whole family continue to adjust to our new reality.

The congregation of Good Shepherd naturally looks to Laurie, their newly appointed pastor and shepherd, to lead them into the next chapter of their story, but ultimately, what we all really want is to do as Joshua did—trust God to go with us and guide us into this new place pulsing with promise and potential. 

We will do our best to release some of the stored potential of this place, to set in motion God’s energies in our church, our community, and our world. As we do so, we hope to see God’s Kingdom become just a little more visible on Earth as it is in heaven. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons from Joshua, Part II: Crossing Over At Last

The day Israel finally crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land had to have been a momentous occasion for Joshua—Joshua 3. He may have had early childhood memories of being part of another miraculous crossing—Exodus 14—but now he was the one leading Israel as they “cross over” to Canaan.  Years earlier, he tasted the fruit from the other side of the Jordan—Numbers 13:21-24—and he was ready to go then, but his “youthful optimism” was quashed and the “wisdom” of the elders prevailed—Numbers 13:30-33.  His faith was no doubt severely tested by years of waiting in the wilderness, but despite having his hopes deferred and his deepest desires rebuffed—Numbers 14:5-10a—Joshua remains loyal and obedient.  He continues to serve as second in command to the elder Moses until the moment finally comes for him to take center stage—Deuteronomy 31:1-8.

I wonder if Joshua ever felt like he was squandering the best years of his life working the hard-scrabble in an arid, inhospitable place when a much more verdant place, pulsing with potential and possibility, was waiting for him (and for his people) just over the Jordan—if they would just step out in faith.

I imagine the waiting was hard for Joshua; it would have been for me.  There had to have been moments of doubt, cynicism, bordering on despair.    After so many years of waiting, Joshua must have wondered if Israel would ever be ready to “cross over?”  But, even if he didn’t know it when he was in the middle of it, the waiting served a purpose; it prepared him for what lied ahead.   When the day finally came, it came without much warning, but Joshua is ready to respond—quickly.  The waiting has done its work!  He and his people scramble to “get ready” for what God was about to do—Joshua 3:5.
After 40 years of wandering and waiting,
Joshua and the people of Israel "cross over" the Jordan. 

Joshua 3:14-17

My experience is that when something happens that we’ve wanted for a long time we are often both excited and overwhelmed at the same time.  It’s sometimes hard to trust that it’s real; we worry that it’s too good to be true.

To finally sense that God is saying to him, “get ready, because very soon, you will lead the people across,” no doubt energized Joshua, but it must have also been something of a shock for him—Joshua 1:10-11.  It was something he longed for and dreamed about for so long, but after all this time, he probably wasn’t expecting it to happen anytime soon.  He still hoped for it perhaps, but he just wasn’t sure anymore.  Then like a spark on dry grass, God speaks, and, in an instant, the fire is lit again with Joshua.  God tells the people, “get ready, because this thing you’ve dreamed about is about to become reality.”  The hectic days of preparation leading up to the crossing must have seemed a bit surreal to Joshua. Although, if he’s anything like me, he didn’t have much time to think about it ahead of time; he was too busy getting “packed” and ready to go! 

Then again, like me, he probably didn’t sleep well the night before the “move.”  His mind was no doubt consumed with what was about to happen—and the fact that God had seemingly placed him right in the center of it all.  Joshua has had his hopes deferred many times.  Did he wonder if this would be another disappointment?  Would something go wrong at the last minute?  But this time, it actually happened.  Israel crossed the Jordan successfully and Joshua was the one who led them across!   When he stepped on dry land on the “other side,” Joshua and the elders of Israel rejoiced and praised God—Joshua 4.  Worship is the natural response when God answers the deepest desires of our heart. 

On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him, as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.  —Joshua 4:14.

Moses passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua, but Joshua had to earn the right to wear it.  Joshua has now earned that right; he has proven himself to the people.  They will now put their trust in him to lead them to take possession of the Promised Land.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lessons from Joshua, Part I: A New Leader for a New Chapter

I’ve spent some time ruminating on the story of Joshua lately.  I suppose it’s because I have been in a time of “crossing over” recently.  As many know, in the past month, we’ve moved to a new town and begun to worship in a new church.  We are “taking possession” of a new home and my wife is “taking authority” as pastor of a new congregation.    

As the youthful protégé and faithful aide de camp for Moses, Joshua no doubt witnessed many miraculous things. When Moses would speak to God, “face-to-face” in the Tabernacle, Joshua was always close by—Exodus 33:11.  When Moses sent spies to probe the Promised Land—Numbers 13:1-24—Joshua was one of twelve chosen to go—Numbers 13:8.  While all the men chosen for this mission would have to be healthy enough to survive the rigors of covert travel in the wilderness, I have the impression that he and Caleb are the youngest in the group.  I’m not sure we’re told that specifically in the text, but it makes sense to me based on what we know about them from the Bible.  The fact that Joshua is still a able-bodied leader when all the others “of his generation” perish in the wilderness and Israel finally crosses the Jordan, might also suggest he was a young adult when the first “abandoned” crossing happened.  Maybe he and Caleb are the “token” young adults chosen for the mission—many of us know how that goes.  J

The people of Israel "cross over" [Joshua 3]
"The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan"—Gustave Dore.
The land they survey is plentiful and bursting with potential, everyone, young and old, agrees that it’s just as God promised, but… Isn’t there always a but?? Wars are fought over but...  Denominations split over but…  Whole societies crumble over but.  For such a little word, but sure has done a lot of damage over the centuries.  

In this case, the but is people.  The spies quickly discover that although the land on other side of the Jordan is rich and plentiful, it’s also occupied territoryNumbers 13:27-29.  No one was really terribly surprised to find such good land occupied.  It wasn’t going to simply lay vacant while God’s people were off in slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years.  Opportunistic nomadic/agrarian peoples would surely move in in the interim.  However, it does have serious implications for Israel.  It means that if they want to “take possession” of the land, as God has told them to do, they will have to displace the current inhabitants.  Said inhabitants seem very robust and strong.  They’ve built fortified settlements and don’t show signs that they intend to leave anytime soon. 

As often happens, it’s what comes after the but, that complicates the situation and causes division among the spies. 

The question basically comes down to:  Can we take them?

Joshua and his friend Caleb seem to be the young “idealists” in the group who answer with an emphatic “Yes!”  They argue to seize the moment and “cross over” now, believing that if God went with them, as God promised he would, then no enemy could prevail over them—Numbers 13:30.  But Joshua and Caleb represent the minority, and ultimately the view of the majority prevails—Numbers 13:31. In the end, Israel’s elders opt to play it safe and maintain the status quoNumbers 14.

Even though the land across the Jordan is obviously fertile and offers much potential, Israel’s leaders became convinced they would be no match for the “monstrous men” living on the other side.  They feared they would be overwhelmed if they crossed over. What purpose would it serve to come “all this way” and then be trampled like grasshoppers.  No, it was just safer to stay where they were and survive. Perhaps another opportunity would come in due time when Israel would be stronger and more prepared… but “crossing over” wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture. J

And so, Israel waited… and waited, and eventually another opportunity did come—God is, after all,  a God of second chances.  But there are always consequences for unfaithfulness.  Other than Joshua and Caleb, an entire generation perishes before Israel finally gets another chance to cross over—Numbers 14:30-35.  

Moses glimpsed the Promised Land from afar, but because of his disobedience, even he was not permitted to enter—Numbers 20:1-13. At the end of his long life, Moses passes the mantle of leadership to Joshua—Deuteronomy 31:1-8—placing him in the difficult role of “following a legend.”  But true to his character, Joshua never shies away from the challenge; he accepts the mantle from Moses.

Joshua is a different kind of leader than Moses; he is not a priest or prophet, he is a warrior—and that is precisely what Israel needs for the rather violent and bloody chapter of its history that is about to begin. If Israel is to "take possession" of this land, God knows (whether God likes it or not) they are going to have to fight, and Joshua is just the man to organize and equip them for the battles that lie ahead.  It is his time to take authority and lead, and that precisely what he does...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It Seemed Good to Us and to the Holy Spirit

Listen to advice and accept instruction so that you may gain wisdom for the future.
The human mind may devise many plans but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.  —Proverbs 19:20-21

The Jerusalem Council debates the "Gentile Issue."
As depicted in stained glass at the
Cathedral of St. Helena, Helena, MT

Photo Credit: Jeff Gardner
As the Message of Jesus began to spread beyond Jerusalem issues began to arise.  Jesus was of course Jewish, and all of his original followers were Jewish.  However, in the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, believers began to “take heat” for practicing their faith.  Some of the Apostles (e.g., Philip) were forced to flee Jerusalem, but they took with them their new way of living.  It didn’t take long before non-Jews were attracted to the way of Jesus.

The good news is the church starts to grow exponentially, but with that growth comes new challenges. Prior to this, the Church has been almost 100% Jewish, but now non-Jews are starting to become “Christians.”  How should they integrate these new believers into the church? Do they need to be circumcised before they can be baptized—i.e., do they have to “become Jewish” before they “become Christian?” It was an issue that polarized the leadership of the young church.  (Luke presents his version of these events in Acts 15 and Paul gives another perspective in his letters—e.g., Galatians 2:1-14.)

The man who would become the Apostle Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord on the Damascus Road that turned one of the faith’s greatest enemies into its greatest advocate.  Barnabas, called “the Encourager,” went “out on a limb” for Paul when he first came to Jerusalem, and bought him before the Apostles.  Paul disappears from the story for a while; we aren’t sure why.   Some say he was in seclusion while others say he went on a failed mission to Arabia.  Whatever the reason, after three years, Paul returns to Antioch and he and Barnabas are “set apart” for a special mission to the Gentiles.  Together, these two friends embark on a mission to take the message to the non-Jewish world.  Paul and Barnabas would have represented the more “liberal” view that God-believers did not have to be circumcised before they could be part of the fellowship. 

Meanwhile, the faction back in Jerusalem, including Peter, James, and John, is much more “conservative.”  As we noted above, the Church in Jerusalem is a much more homogeneous population mainly comprised of Jews, so the question of circumcision never really came up—at first.  But little by little, these “pillars of the church” begin to hear the stories of what is taking place beyond the boarders of Jerusalem in Samaria and beyond, and are intrigued, and, probably a little afraid, of the new Spirit winds that seem to be blowing through the Church.

Then, Peter himself has a powerful experience of the Spirit.   Peter is in Joppa when he has a vision that opens his mind and spirit to new possibilities. Simultaneously, in Caesarea, a man named Cornelius has an encounter in which he is compelled to summon Peter to his home.  Peter complies and goes to Cornelius’ home—and the stage is set for the Spirit’s next move.

As Cornelius explains the remarkable circumstances that led him to summon Peter to his home, Peter finally puts all the pieces together.  He realizes what God was trying to communicate through his vision.  No one is unclean in God’s eyes—no one is excluded from God’s Kingdom!  Gentiles should no longer be denied access to the fellowship.  Even before he can finish proclaiming his revelation, the Holy Spirit falls upon the group assembled in a similar manner to what happened in Jerusalem on Pentecost.  Peter is obviously moved by the Gentile Pentecost experience and returns to Jerusalem to share it.  Even the most “conservative” of the Apostles are forced to admit, however begrudgingly, that: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Despite Peter’s experience and revelation, however, there is still substantial disagreement over whether Gentiles should or should not be integrated into the fellowship—and if so how. Luke reports that when some individuals come down to Antioch from Jerusalem, they teach that unless one was circumcised, one could not be saved.  The issue is so controversial that eventually a meeting is convened in Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas are among those chosen to attend. 

Acts 10:10-11
The Jerusalem Council was a very contentious meeting, with both sides presenting their positions with passion.  The issue seemed destined for deadlock until an unlikely ally rises to speak for Paul. With his Gentile Pentecost experience no doubt still fresh in his memory, Peter vouches for the Apostle to the Gentiles.  He speaks eloquently about his own experience.  His argument against circumcision essentially boils down to,  “We can’t expect them to live up to something that none of us have ever been able to live up to.”

The words of the one Jesus called, The Rock, seem to have impact on the others, and perhaps help to break the impasse over this issue.  James, the leader of the Apostles, agrees to let Paul and Barnabas tell their story to the whole council—previously they have shared it only with a select few. 

Eventually a compromise was reached and the "conservatives" agreed that circumcision would not be required for Gentile converts. Luke reports that the letter sent to the Church at Antioch included a phrase: "It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit"

There's evidence to suggest the issue of "what to do with Gentiles" was far from settled when the delegation left Jerusalem.  According to Paul, the issue led him to a public confrontation with Peter—Galatians 2:11-14. Paul and his longtime friend and mentor Barnabas eventually decided to go their separate ways, possibly due to Paul’s lingering hard feelings over this issue.

Nevertheless, at Jerusalem, we get this sense that the Spirit was allowed to be a part of this conversation, and the result is that the participants were able to find a solution that seemed "good" to all parties involved. In essence, the agreement reached was that if the churches outside Jerusalem would help support the struggling church in Jerusalem, then the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised.  It seems to have been a win-win for both sides.

What’s our Jerusalem Council debate today?  We could easily compile a list of similar "hot button" issues that divide Christians in the early 21st century, issues that seem to us every bit as thorny as the "Gentile inclusion" debate in the Early Church.  We could extend the conversation to the larger world around us where society faces a host of vexing and complex questions that try as we might, defy simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.

When these issues arise—and they inevitably will—we would do well to remember the example and wisdom of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. We shouldn't be so bound and determined to preserve an illusion of unity among believers that we are afraid to admit that there are issues on which people of faith hold differing views. No, we've got to allow ourselves to engage in dialogue and wrestle with "tough" issues, just as the Apostles did in Jerusalem.

Unity doesn't require uniformity; in fact, diversity, handled well, actually helps to deepen our sense of unity and opens up new ways of experiencing God.

Our true unity as followers of Jesus is based upon our mutual love for God. The cords of divine love that bind us ALL together as believers should be stronger than any human issue that divides us. That love should be enough to sustain us even when we engage in contentious debate over these divisive issues.

We should be willing to trust one another even when we disagree with each other. We should respect our brothers and sisters in Christ even if we don't fully understand their point of view—we should be slow to judge others and open to what someone different from us can teach us about God. (It seems that was true of the in the case of Peter and Paul; Paul clearly showed respect and reverence for Peter even though they vehemently disagreed on some issues—and vice versa.) Most of all, we should trust in God’s power, a different kind of power that surpasses our limited human perspective, sees the complete picture—the Kingdom perspective if you will—and is the world’s best hope for finding answers.

If we can manage to lay aside our personal stake in these issues (the outcome we want/desire) and instead put our trust in God’s power and kingdom perspective (what God wants/desires), we may just find answers to some of the harder questions that, up until now, have eluded us. We too might discern a way forward that leads us toward a hopeful future that seems: "good to all of us and to the Holy Spirit."   Lord, let it be so!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nine Years Later: The Vows Remain the Same

I am a "rocket scientist" but I didn't have to be one to know a GOOD thing when I saw it! Nine years ago today, I married the lovely Laurie Gates-Ward.  Surely, one of the smartest choices a guy could make!

I am thankful that God, through means of technology like the Internet , at the right time, bought the two of us together.  We lived near one another earlier on when Laurie served in Calvert County and could have met then—but we didn't. We may have passed each other on the highway as strangers.  We had mutual friends that could have introduced us—but they didn't. I suppose it wasn't time yet...  one or both of us wasn't ready for someone else in our lives.    

But then, on July 4, 2002,  thanks to a system called e-Harmony, the time was right, and we did meet.  And it was good!  A year-and-a-day later, on July 5, 2003, we got married.  And that was the start of our adventure together!

We certainly had a wonderful beginning that day, but as those who are married know, the real story of your marriage is written in all the moments in between—in the ordinary days that follow after the wedding and in those extraordinary moments that life dishes up without asking our permission.  If you were there that day you may remember that we danced to Stephen Curtis Chapman's "I Will Be Here".  It sort of went along with the theme of the day.  We promised to follow each other on the journey; we made vows that said we were in this for keeps—not just while the going was easy.  We committed that we would "be here" for one another—no matter what!

If you've been following our story, you know we've lived through some TOUGH STUFF these past nine years.  We've had moments when the "rubber hits the road" and we both had to look down deep and decide if we really meant what we said to each—and promised God—on our wedding day.  In our case, despite challenges that have stretched and challenged both of us, we've stuck together.  There has been no white flag above our door, and I think we've even grown stronger through it all.   I'm convinced the "glue" that binds us together is God—that invisible, but very real, third strand that is strong when one or both of us isn't.  

My wedding band is a cord of three strands and serves as a daily reminder of the commitment the three of us (me, Laurie, and God) made nine years ago today.  It also reminds me of God's promise to be the strong third strand in our marriage—as long as we make room for God's presence in our lives.  I believe that promise has been essential to helping us endure all that we have lived through, continues to this day, and will help us face the whatever may lie ahead for us with confidence and strength.  

God has walked with us through both the trials and triumphs of the past nine years as he promised, but God has also been walking ahead of us preparing the way for a future that, although sometimes just beyond the horizon that we can see, promises to be good. 

And now we come to a new chapter—the dawning of our tenth year of marriage, and, just last week, the start of a new chapter of ministry for both of us.  I am looking forward to writing the next chapter of the story of us here in Waldorf at a church called Good Shepherd!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rolling With the Spirit: Welcome to Waldorf Y'all!

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.  —Ruth 1:16

 Derecho!  Oh no!  

An intense windstorm whipped through Waldorf this past Friday night just one week after our arrival at our new home.  While our home was spared damage—and we even kept our power—millions in our area were not as fortunate.  Good Shepherd UMC, where our family was to have our first worship with our new congregation on Sunday, lost power as a result of the storm. 

“Houston, we have a problem. How will God’s people respond?  Houston, can you read me?  Or is your power out just like everyone else?”

Here’s how the people of Good Shepherd responded:

The youth of the church had planned a car wash for Saturday to raise money for a missions trip, but the power outage made that impossible.  So what did they do instead?  Well, they could have all just gone home, or gone someplace cooler like the mall or the pool.  No one would have blamed them, really.  It was a stinking hot day!    But that’s not what they chose to do.  Instead, they saw what needed to be done and they did it.  They noticed that a good-sized tree limb had fallen in the parking lot, so the youth and their leaders went to work and removed it—so it wouldn’t obstruct traffic flow on Sunday. 

While that was going on, others were working to make alternative plans for Sunday worship.  Good Shepherd has a beautiful sanctuary but it is quite dark when there is no power.   The people could have thrown up their hands and said, “Well, I guess church is canceled this week.”  No one really could have blamed them.  Other churches in the area made that choice.  But Good Shepherd didn’t.  No, instead, they simply moved to “Plan B." While the sanctuary would not work as a worship venue with no power (too dark without electricity) the fellowship hall was well lit and could be used—and in fact we later found out that this was the original worship space for this congregation.  A generator was set up outside that provided enough power to run Power Point and a small sound system (used at the early “contemporary” service); chairs were set up in the fellowship hall.  The communion table and hymnals were bought in from the sanctuary. The people did what needed to be done when it needed doing.  All was in place to have worship. 

And so, on Sunday morning that is precisely what we did. Yes, it was a little chaotic; yes, it was a little uncomfortable; no, it was not exactly how we planned our first Sunday to be—but we the people of Good Shepherd worshipped God together.  The electricity was out but God’s power was not!  I think we had a good first Sunday together.  (And the electricity came back on mid-way through the second service!)

The text for the day was Ruth 1:1-18 and it was quite fitting.  Things didn’t go according to plan for Ruth either.  Her father-in-law died; not long after that, her own husband died (as did her brother-in-law); life was spiraling out of control.  She would have had every right to walk away from Naomi in that moment, her mother-in-law even encourages her to do just that—but she doesn’t choose to.  Instead, Ruth stays

Even though the decision will be cost Ruth a great deal personally, she remains loyal to Naomi. She wants Naomi to have a chance at a better life and she knows she will not find it in Moab. Thus Ruth forsakes her identity, her home, and all that is comfortable and familiar so she can embark on a journey with Naomi to Bethlehem.   Ruth is stepping out in faith.  She does not know what lies ahead for her; but she trusts there is someone who does.  She does not even worship the God of Naomi’s people, and yet she utters the unbelievable words of loyalty to Naomi written at the top of this post.

Ruth is willing to do what it takes, when it is needed, for as long as it takes, and wherever it takes her, to support her mother-in-law.  In her we see the essence of what it means to follow God.

I think I saw a glimpse of that kind of loyalty on display this past weekend as the people of Good Shepherd rolled with the Spirit to make sure that worship happened on Sunday and that the new pastor had a proper welcome this past week. They did not know her yet, but they wanted to make her—and her family—feel welcome to their new community.  They came and brought meals, they came and helped us unpack, they welcomed us and our children at Vacation Bible School, they rallied to make sure that worship went off without a hitch despite unexpected occurrences.  They treated us as if we had been “part of the family” for years.

The congregation embodied the spirit of Ruth 1:16
The church sign currently reads: “Welcome Rev. Laurie, we are your people.”  Nice words of welcome for the new pastor, yes, but this week they became much more.  Through their kind and hospitable actions, the people of Good Shepherd lived these words.  What a remarkable “God-incidence!” 

I’m sure it wasn’t easy or convenient for anyone involved; some no doubt had to make personal sacrifices to do what they did, but they chose to do it anyway.  Each pitched in and did what they could, so no one person had to do more than they could bear.  Together, they embodied discipleship—working together as a team to do what was needed for the Kingdom of God, when it needed to be done, for as long as was needed, placing the needs of the community on par with or even above their own needs.  The common good was served!

Laurie and I are thankful for the welcome we have received thus far and looking forward to discovering what God has in store for the Ward family in a place called Waldorf at a church called Good Shepherd. 

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