“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” – Psalm 85:8
I have the great and unending joy of serving a wonderful United Methodist Church in Alabama. I have been a part of this congregation for almost 10 years and dare say I have probably only missed maybe 10-15 worship services over those years. I have seen and experienced some incredible worship experiences. However, one might think that worship becomes business as usual after a time. After all, it is my job. Does it ever become just routine?
That is why I am so excited to share my worship experience from this evening. It was the most moving and wonder-filled encounter with the Spirit I have had in a long time.
My church is embarking on a Lenten study with the book, “Life Together,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And to begin our season of what it really means to be the church, we chose to honor the persecuted church with our Ash Wednesday services.
We chose an undisclosed location hidden back in the woods near our community. This afternoon we texted out the location to our members and waited in anticipation to see who would show up. It didn’t help that we had tornado watches and thunderstorms throughout the day (springtime in Alabama.) However, the church staff arrived early and waited.
We had chosen a park somewhat off the beaten path. And after following a long and winding path into the forest, we found ourselves in a small concrete shelter of sorts. No lights, no power of any kind, and no bathrooms. And we waited.
My job as greeter took me back to the entrance of the park to welcome and help people find their way down the path in the right direction. The parking lot was completely dark as we neared our starting time, and I wondered if anyone would come out on a night like this.
Slowly I began to see headlights making their way up the hill toward me. And then a few more. And then a few more. And before I knew it, the parking lot was full, and people were pouring into the park with smiles and anticipation for the coming event. They were all excited to be there and hurried off down the path, cell phone flashlights their only guide to what lay ahead.
I stood there, in wonder, for quite some time with headlights shining at me from one side with the incoming traffic; and a stream of small lights on the other side leading down the path in the dark, in search of our church family. It was in that moment, with the dark clouds overhead and the wind blowing around me, that I felt the Holy Spirit’s presence and I began to pray for Him to speak to us in ways that we all could understand. I began to pray that He would begin an incredible transformation in the hearts of our church, and that a hunger for His presence would begin to grow within our community. There was a power there, and it was tangible. Praise be to God!
Even after the service began I remained at the entrance, still waiting for any who might not have made it on time. I prayed earnestly for my brethren who were now unseen in the forest. “Speak, my Lord, speak!” And, in a short time, I was able to start down that path myself about half-way through the service.
I walked the path in the dark, surrounded by the silence. I was so very aware of the quiet. But as I drew near to the shelter, I began to hear the voice of my pastor. It was loud and clear and full of the Holy Spirit. Ringing out through the silence, I heard him urging us on to greater faithfulness in our Lenten journey. “What do you need to get rid of in order to get closer to God?” I heard that voice in the darkness and I felt the great wonder of the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit, and I knew I was on holy ground.
As I approached the shelter, I was in awe of a magnificent sight. Over 100 people gathered inside this tiny, cinder-block structure. There was a small lantern in the middle of the room. But nothing else. Everything we were accustomed to in worship was stripped away. People were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, holding their children in their arms. There were no chairs, no large screens, no sound systems. Just believers, listening to the Word, and singing the old hymns. And as those voices rose together into the dark night, I was in awe of being in a place of pure worship. We were there. And God was there and we didn’t need anything else. Speak, Lord, speak!
As the service came to a close, everyone lined up for the imposition of the ashes. I listened to the conversations as people began walking back up the path toward the parking lot. I heard words like, “moving,” powerful,” and “real.” One could see on the faces that many had meaningful encounters with the Spirit. Praise God.
It makes me wonder. We go to such lengths to create perfect worship experiences in our churches. But there was something so pure about our experience tonight, why would we ever need anything else? I believe I experienced church at its best tonight. To God be the glory!
Peace my friends.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” – Hebrews 13:3
As I begin my journey into Lent, I have been praying and asking the Lord what it is that will bring me closer to Him during this time of deep reflection and soul-searching. In years past, I have felt the need to give something up: tv, sugar, caffeine… In other years, I have felt strongly that I should “take something on” such as reading my Bible everyday, or giving to charity in a meaningful way.
In my fifteen years of being a believer, I have always tried to be a faithful follower during Lent because it re-oriented me in my relationship with Christ. Regardless of where I find myself spiritually following Christmas, I have always looked forward to Lent as a time that I could get back on track, I could be renewed, I could slow down and pay attention to things that mattered. But I always got to “do” something.
This time it’s different. At this point, I am getting a very strong message not to “do,” but to “remember.” Be aware. Be mindful. Pay attention. And what am I paying attention to?
My brothers and sisters. The church. My friends right down the street, and the saints half-way around the world. The Holy Spirit is telling me, “It’s not about YOU!” There are all kinds of hurts going on in the church today. So I will pay attention and pray. I will pray everyday for those that share a life with me in the body of Christ. I will do my best to get outside my own bubble and try to make a difference in the lives of those that need Jesus the most.
I might be called to “do” something. And that would probably make me more comfortable. But for now, I will be still. I will listen. And I will pray for those around me like I have never prayed before. It’s going to be a different kind of Lent. And I am thankful for the opportunity to watch my Savior at work. Maybe being still won’t be so hard after all.
I would love to hear what our Lord is asking of you this Lenten season. Please share your thoughts if you so desire. Let us journey together these next forty days, my friends.
I am feeling strongly about beginning my prayers for those in the church who are persecuted for their faith. Consider the following video if you feel the same. It is a long one, 13 minutes. But a very thought-provoking time for those of us worshiping from the comfort of a risk-free environment.
So, I am tasked with creating a Psalm of Lament (or Complaint) for my Old Testament Class.
A lament psalm is one in which the writer is experiencing a painful situation. He cries out to Yahweh and asks for divine intervention in his problem (Stanley, p. 397.) The lament psalms are especially appealing to me because they contain real emotions, anger, fear, depression, etc… The lament psalms are not legends and myths from “days of old,” that have nothing to do with me. In fact, Stanley relates that the reason the psalms have been so popular for thousands of years is their “generality” of emotions allows people of varied circumstances to apply them to their own lives and to find comfort in doing so (p. 397.)
There are some features that are standard for most lament psalms. However, they are not always consistently engaged. We might find greater emphasis on some elements, and almost no emphasis on others. Nonetheless, these are the features commonly found in this genre, according to our class handout:
- Address to God – Approaching God in such a way as to identify Him as the one who can help me with my problem.
- Complaint – I tell Him what is wrong. And I use my entire descriptive vocabulary to do so, just so he knows how bad it really is.
- Statement of Trust – I admit that I do trust Him to help me, even though He has not done so yet.
- Petition – I tell Him what I want Him to do to fix my problem.
- Vow of Thanksgiving – I promise to praise Him, but more importantly, to share with others the story of His great deeds once He intervenes in my circumstances.
I believe that as a modern church, we do not do a sufficient job of teaching our members how to engage the lament psalms. According to Stanley, “one of the chief benefits of religion is that it helps people cope with adversity,” (p. 398.)
I believe that is true. However, we need to do a better job introducing our people to the language, the emotions, and the appropriateness of approaching God with our pain. If not, then we risk turning our faith into nothing more than a dead ideaology that is no help to us in our daily struggles. I love this quote by Dr. Lester in his article, Psalms of Lament:
“Lament gazes unflinchingly at the present reality of pain and at God’s apparent slowness to save.”
The laments give voice to our reality and allow us to approach God boldly with our problems and cries for help. They are the core foundation in our ability to express trust in an ever-present and loving God, even when He hasn’t acted on our behalf, yet…
I have never tried to write a psalm of this nature before, but I thought about it a great deal and figured that the time of my own greatest “lament” would be a good place to begin. I tried to express the emotions and needs in that time while still remaining available to others in their situations. I also tried to incorporate the main elements that are expected in a psalm of this nature. Hope it speaks to some of you!
Where are you, my Lord?
Where are you, my Rock and my Fortress?
Why have you left me here all alone?
Why have you abandoned me in my time of greatest need?
All day long, I cry out to you, “Help me, Lord!”
But You remain silent.
I am lonely in this place, my King.
Once, I was part of the world; doing lunch with friends, meeting the day with joy, taking showers…
Now I slog through life; every day a repeat of the one before.
Gone is the joy of laughter and stimulating conversation with others.
All that exists in my head is the incessant drone of Max and Ruby…
Help me, Lord!
My enemies pile up around me. They overwhelm me and drive me further into the pit.
And yet, I have faith in You, my King. Deliver me from this torment, I beg You!
As the dirty clothes encroach upon me, and the stench of the overflowing diaper pail overtakes me, I feel as if I am drowning. I can’t breathe!
Help me, Lord!
I am weary, my King.
I long for the days of old when sleep came peacefully and consistently.
Now, I live under the constant threat of the voices in the darkness crying out, “MOMMY!, I need juice!”
Have mercy on me, I beg. Just for an hour… a blessed nap from your victorious right hand…
Help me, Lord!
You will save me. I know it to be true.
For I am your precious child, doing my best to honor you.
And on that glorious day, when you restore me to a life of meaning;
I will sing your praises; in your mighty presence I will dance.
And I will trust that my feet will fall in soft, green pastures,
instead of crushed Cheerios and ants…
I Praise you, Lord!
“But Jesus replied, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about.”
I began taking a class yesterday on contemplative prayer. This is a form of prayer in which we are called to be completely still for a period of time. It is much different than the way I normally pray, taking my every thought and request to God. I have come to realize that I spend most of my prayer time talking. That is why this class interested me so much, it will teach me how to listen.
My first assignment was to learn this week how to practice mindfulness. That means to live in the moment and be aware of God’s presence at every point during the day. I was encouraged to spend 15 minutes this morning and 15 minutes this evening being perfectly still, perfectly quiet, and living in that moment. Sounds simple right??
Wrong! It was incredibly hard. Being physically still was the easy part. However, quieting my mind was extremely difficult. It kept jumping between events that happened yesterday or a week ago, all the way over to the things I need to accomplish today or this weekend.
Yes, to just sit and listen, to quiet my mind so that I might be aware of God’s presence was very difficult for me. I guess that shows how much I really do need this class. However, for the few minutes I was able to, I found that the practice provided me with some much needed peace and clarity. To be able to sit and commune with the risen Savior does provide us with a “food” we know nothing about. It is a soul feast in which our spirits are filled with His presence and nourished for the journey to come. It is a form of power and energy with which we are not accustomed. It can become, I can see, quite addictive if we stay with it.
I am sharing below a poem written by my teacher, the Reverend Dr. William Thiele, a pastor in the United Methodist Church in New Orleans. After reading this poem yesterday, I was more than convinced to try this prayer method. Maybe it will be an encouragement to you as well.
Be still my friends!
If I Miss Seeing
If I miss seeing the
the first opening
of the pink lotus blossom
in the early dawn
of its very first morning,
on my way to see
my first hospital patient
of the day,
I’ll probably miss seeing
the expression on his face
as he waits to place his heart
in a surgeon’s hands too.
And if I miss seeing
the way the moon at dawn
still catches light
in its three-quarter radius
just above our cypress swamp,
on my way to see
my first hospital patient
of the day,
I’ll probably miss
hearing the way his throat catches
as he tells me he can’t pray too well
’cause his tears always take over
after the second word
until he can’t speak at all.
Don’t you see?
If I’m not here in every moment
of utter stillness in the bayou,
of morning dew pooling on the red caladiums,
of dawn falling across the grass,
I won’t be there
when a moment that means everything
comes from the mouth
or rises in the face
of the ones I will love today.
If I’m not here right now
with all my being,
I won’t be there either.
“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you.”
I stepped out onto my back porch this morning to an incredible sight: ELECTRIC GREEN!
You know that color don’t you? The neon hue that adorns all the plants and bushes just as they begin to sprout anew in the springtime? It is a different green than we see the rest of the year. It is brand new; young and vibrant. And when mixed with the crispness of the air, the smell of the coming rain, and the singing of the birds – it brings an amazing amount of energy, joy, and even hope to our sensibilities.
This green does more than simply herald the coming of the new season. For me, it affirms something I know (but maybe have forgotten in the dark days of winter.) This electric green reminds me that God is real and He is working to renew everything in my world. Being able to touch the new growth on my backyard bushes is a visible and tangible reminder that God is always at work in my life renewing, regenerating, and helping me to begin again.
What a grace of our Father in heaven. We are told that those who believe without seeing are truly blessed. Those who have faith in the absence of proof – they are held in high esteem by the Almighty. And, sometimes, I am one of those people. But many times, I am not. Many times in the midst of discouragement and disappointment, it is hard for me to believe that God is still engaged in my affairs. Sometimes when I have waited and prayed for so long with no discernible answer, I find myself doubting and wondering if He is even there at all.
But in His infinite mercy, He doesn’t hold those thoughts against me. Instead He does just the opposite. He gives me a sign, like these bushes that say, “I am still here with You.” He gives me hope in a way that I can understand it. And what a gift! After all, He is the God of the universe, and He owes me nothing. But His love for me is made real in these reminders that are popping up all around me. I am humbled when I behold His handiwork – to know that He cares enough to help me over the hard days when my faith waivers and my emotions are overtaken with feelings of abandonment. Indeed, He is my Good Shepherd.
How about you, friends? Are you aware of God’s work in your life today? Have you taken the time to look around for those signs that He is with you and will never forsake you? Oh, please do. They are there. We just have to slow down and look for them. Allow His grace to flow over you today and be renewed in your spirits. Regardless of where you have been, allow Him to minister to your soul, renew your heart, and to create a new hope and way of seeing things today. For He is good, all the time.
Peace my friends.
“So now you are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.”
Yesterday I attended the funeral of my father-in-law. He had lived here near my family for a couple of years. Before that, he had been retired to the Alabama Coast for about 15 years. And before that, he had lived for over 30 years in Pennsylvania. So where would we have the funeral? There was no question. We were going home.
Home happens to be a very small town in south Alabama. And as the family gathered, coming from Pennsylvania, Florida, Maine, and so many other places, we all felt the familiarity of coming home. It might sound strange, but having been a member of the family for only 10 years, I didn’t know most of the people there. However, my 7-year-old son described the situation best when we arrived in the parking lot and he commented that this was “our church.”
After the service, our family gathered at the First Baptist Church. There, members had been busily working all morning to prepare lunch for us all, as well to provide a place for us to gather and reminisce. These kind-hearted people have done this on many occasions for our family, and we indeed consider this our family church.
I find it interesting that none of our generation have ever attended a service there. We knew none of the people serving us. However, that didn’t seem to matter. We are welcomed there and loved every time we step through the door. We are counseled by a pastor that only knows we are part of the family. We are fed and consoled by people that we have never met. What causes this?
I can think of a couple of reasons:
See all those folks ministering to us yesterday, they didn’t know us. But they knew Poppy. And they knew grandmother and grandaddy. And they knew the generations of Johnsons that have come before us. So when we show up, we are not strangers. We are family. And therefore, they love us.
I dare say, the elder members of our family didn’t realize the bonds they were forging in all those years of showing up, helping out, and supporting that community of faith. They just went about their daily lives, but were intentional in being an integral part of that church family. My husband’s grandmother once told me she had been a member of the same Sunday school class for over 70 years. And I believe in those years, of serving together, praying for each other, and going through life together – family was forged.
And here we are today, my children call that place, “our church.” They already know that this is place where they can go to be loved and cared for. All because the blood of Jesus Christ has created something strong and unified there. It is a legacy that I am eternally grateful for.
I ask you, friends, what kind of legacy are you creating for your children? Think about it? When you are no longer in the picture, who will care and love your family without fail, just because of the relationships you have built? Are you creating a “family” for them that they can trust and run to if times get hard? It is a question worth asking for the sake of our future generations.
The enduring quality of the church is that it isn’t built on temporal promises. It is built on the foundation of Christ’s love for us. It goes on forever. And we are part of the family, not due to some random occurrence, but because His blood is thick enough to bind us all together for the long haul.
Shalom my friends.
“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”- Jeremiah 33:3
It is that time of year again. The excitement wells up in my chest, my mind begins racing with ideas and possibilities, and I can’t wait because of the anticipation building in my soul. What is going on, you ask? Those of you that know me well may have already guessed: IT’S STRATEGIC PLANNING TIME!
That is right, it is the time of year that I sit down with Pastor Wade and discuss our dreams and vision for the coming years. I love this time because I get to spend some great time with God, asking what He wants to do next. I get so excited to re-visit where we have been as a church and where He is leading us next. How will we worship? Which leaders is He raising up for His mission? How are we being called to minister and love those around us? How will we, as a congregation, come to know Jesus more intimately?
Who wouldn’t be excited??
I create my planning and goal objectives with several different time frames in mind: the immediate, 1-3 years, and 5-10 years. And each year I re-visit those longer-term plans, adjusting for any changes that might be needed. You might think planning that far in advance is strange, however, we have occupied this church for over 8 years now, and it has gone by in the blink of an eye. We have to continually be looking at the future, or it will pass us by and take our opportunities for reaching others for Christ with it.
The point today is that I wanted to share the method I use for planning. It is the best gift from God I can receive and I believe it isn’t contained to church leadership. For anyone that is hoping to make good decisions, I believe cultivating a means of listening to God is essential.
We all listen to God differently. But during my planning process, this is what I do. (I would love for you to share your experiences if you are willing.)
2. I don’t begin with:
3. Instead, I clear my mind as best I can with all my pre-conceived notions. After all, He may be leading us in a completely different direction, and I need to be open to that. Then I ask God to show me, in a way that I can understand, where He wants us to go, what He wants us to do.
4. Then I wait. And listen.
5. Then I wait and listen some more.
6. I bring a drawing pad, a bible, and my journal with me. I continue to write or draw anything that comes to mind.
7. I don’t ask for any specifics like “How?” or “When?” or “How will we pay for it?”
8. I just listen and record whatever message or vision He shows me. Then I agree to do whatever it is to be the best of my ability.
9. Then I come back again the next day, and the next. And I continue to pray the same prayers and ask the same questions and record whatever I receive. And eventually, I have a plan of action and a peace of heart that I am headed in the right direction.
The key is, I keep coming back until I have what I need to proceed. Sometimes it takes a day, some times I come every day for months. But the secret is that I keep coming. Just like the persistent widow, I have faith that if I keep asking, God will answer. And not only does He answer, He gives me a good plan. I never worry that I made the wrong decision or choice. I never second-guess myself. And I never have any anxiety about what might be coming in the future. I have peace.
My friends, I hope that you have the ability to withdraw from the world and work through your decisions with God. I hope that you have a place to meet with Him. And I hope that you have the patience and wisdom to seek Him continually. The blessings of His presence in such matters are too numerous to count. And as followers of Christ, we are called to walk with Him in all things. There is grace in the everyday with Him if we will only seek it out.
In my prayer time at the labyrinth, I spent a good deal of time lying on my back in the center. This was my magnificent view. It changed my perspective on several ideas.