Some school children in Edmond, Oklahoma wrote these notes to be put in a disaster relief box given out by Feed The Children this week. Words to live by:
For all of those who woke this morning with joy and sunshine, only to end their day in utter devastation.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.
For all those who have no place to lay their head this night, left only to the kindness of strangers.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.
For all of those who hid in bathtubs, horse stalls and storm shelters and survived . . . and for all of those who didn’t.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.
For all of the children whose homes and schools are destroyed and whose innocence was taken on this day.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.
For all those relief workers who are right now searching for those who are crying for help.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.
For all those who wonder why life is worth living after moments like this.
Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.
For all of those who ask, “Why God?” on a day of so many tears.
Lord in your mercy hear our prayer.
Come close. Keep this city safe tonight. Be near to the crying, the hurt, those sitting in the shambles. Lead neighbors to be the hands and feet of Christ on earth to those who need it most. Break through light in the darkness and peace to the most restless of hearts.
I’ve been around church for years. And I think I’ve seen so much of what makes church, church these days–
Worship by the Common Book of Prayer
Worship where tongues are spoken
Worship where hands are raised
Worship in shorts
Worship in suits
Worship with shouts
Worship in silence
Worship from the pews
Worship from the pulpit
Is there a correct way to worship?
Is there a way of worship that is more pleasing to God?
Is there a worship style that will get more people to attend your church?
Such are the kind of questions church folks like to ask each other. Such are the kind of questions that church folks like to think they have complete certainty about.
We go to conferences to seek to worship in mass numbers. We go to conferences to learn better ways to lead our kind of worship. And we go to conferences to learn about the latest trends in worship.
But is such worth all our energy? What does God think of all our shuffling around like this? Does “better worship” or “bigger worship” really help us draw closer to the Divine?
I’m not so sure.
We’ve become good students at the art form of worship, but we’ve lost sight at what encountering God looks like– the kind of God that Annie Dillard says we need to wear crash helmets to experience in church. We’ve lost sight of believing that worship begins with a relationship. Worship begins with a desire for adoration of the One who is greater than us all– who could never to be controlled
And no fancy templates or worship orders are always needed. We can worship with or without drums, the piano or the organ.
And most of all, it’s never about emotion alone as is the most popular trend in so many churches today– it’s about an alignment of our entire being.
And worship most of all is not about us– not about what we “get out of it.” Not about the feelings we leave a worship service with and most of all worship is not for worship’s sake. Worship, as given to us in the Christian context is about setting our feet on holy ground. Holy ground which we may “feel” once in our lives– or if we are lucky maybe more . . . but the emotion is never guaranteed.
Consider this wisdom from Roberta Bondi about the emotional traps of whatever kind of worship practice we choose:
“If we have a powerful religious experience, we need always to remember that just because a religious experience is powerful it is not necessarily from God.”
Bondi goes on to ask us to consider these questions in our discernment of worship: “Does this experience make us feel singled out and either superior or not accountable to others in or out of the community because of it? Does it lead us to be judgmental of others, to say who deserves to belong to God’s people and who does not? . . . OR does this experience give us insight into ourselves, others or God? Do its insights hold good over time, or was it simply an emotional high that not only wears off but makes us seek another?”
If an experience of God in church leads us to want more of the experiences (the high of it all) and not God alone, then it is not worship at its best. BUT, if an experience changes us from inside out, turning over in us bone and marrow, thought and feeling, then it is worship that is about to change the world. It’s heaven come to earth.
What I most like to tell people as a pastor is: if you feel the need to raise your hands in a “quiet” church: do it. If you feel the need to cover your head in reverence in a “high” church: do it. If you feel the need to sit reflectively in a “loud” church: do it.
I think the sooner we stop trying to manufacture experiences of God, the sooner we’ll find the Holy in whatever tradition our worshiping life takes us.
Over the past several months, I found myself with more quiet and uninterrupted time than I’ve ever experienced before in my life. My pastoral Sabbatical has gone on for more months that I would have planned in the beginning.
By March, the temptation was to “just do something.” To fill the space with more books to read, more coffees to have with new friends and old friends alike, and more trips to take. Maybe start or learn a new hobby? Maybe get a part-time job just for the fun of it? More of something to fill the void of time that used to be offered to the church.
Sure there were things to do like finish my book manuscript which would fulfill my commitment to the Louisville institute, events to attend with Kevin for Feed The Children, and the usual of keeping up with house chores (in two cities nonetheless) and the never-ending pile of mail that always seems to need attention on my desk.
But, still even with all of this “doing” there was plenty of silence left. Still there was quiet. Still even with all of the coffee dates and lunches I could muster energy up to attend, there has been just me. Alone. In quiet. Making friends with this state of being called solitude.
There have been days when I’ve loved it, savoring every minute.
There have been days I counted the minutes until I could go to bed at night or Kevin came home from work.
There have been days when all I wanted was a friend to call and rescue me from the void that is life in my living room alone.
But the silent beat has gone on.
And this is what I’ve learned: silence, even as much as we all fight it, is not going to kill us. Nope. It hasn’t killed me. Well sometimes it might have felt like it would, but it didn’t. And I don’t think it will.
Silence has been God’s great transformational gift that my busybody soul has needed.
One of the authors I read in seminary but have become fascinated with again the past couple of months is Roberta Bondi. I’ve loved reading her again because of her focus the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century who retreated to find solitude. And Bondi writes about what made them tick, how they related to their fellow silent pilgrims, and most of all what they learned about prayer as a result.
As I’ve stuck close to her book, To Pray and To Love again, I’ve been reminded that the Spirit often does the best work in us when we surrender to the quiet.
Bondi makes a case for such by saying that when the distractions of our lives are stripped away we have no one or no thing to blame for our laziness, our moodiness, our impulses, or our addictions than the brokeness that is within us. In solitude we realize that life is not about our jobs, our families or even our own ambitions for the future.
Rather, life is about us and God. Life is about all of life flowing out of God’s great love for us. Life is dance card full of great opportunities designed just for us to soar.
But only in silence would we know this.
Only in silence would we have eyes to see these things.
And, only when we say no to the temptation of adding just one more thing to our plate do we make room for God.
Life filled with God is worth fighting for even as the hours of silence continue on. At least for now.
God’s Dreams for Us
Genesis 28: 10-19, Ephesians 2:14-21
Watonga Indian Baptist Church
Have you ever found yourself in a position where you were confused, without direction or without prospects on the horizon for a better future?
Maybe such was a time in your life when you lost a job, fell into a conflict with a family member, or even didn’t know where your next meal came from?
Maybe it was a time when a beloved family member died? Or when one of your children was terribly sick?
Or maybe even when someone sought to speak authoritatively to you without any concern for your best interest?
I bet we could all say yes to this question—that sometime in our life, if not right now we’ve reached moments when all we wanted to do was sit in the floor and cry or just run away from everything familiar to us or even drown our sorrows in too much sleep or alcohol—because life has just felt that bad.
God, it has seemed has not been present in our lives in a way that speaks to our heart. We feel alone, abandoned, and are wandering aimlessly through our days.
So with all of this true, I tell you, you’ll like the main character in our Old Testament story today: Jacob. Jacob as we meet him in Genesis 28, is not the exalted son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, the great patriarchs of the people of Israel. He’s not in a place of greatness simply because of who his family is or because he got a huge inheritance of wealth.
No, rather, we find Jacob down and out. We find that he’s was forced to leave his land, his home, his family and we find him as verse 11 tells us in “no particular place.”
We find that Jacob is no the run without real plans for the future, alone, and without any creature comfort for protection.
In fact, if we read earlier in the story, we know that Jacob is on the hit list of his brother Esau. After Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, tricked her husband into giving Jacob, her younger son the blessing usually reserved for the oldest son, Jacob’s brother Esau is angry.
Esau says he wants Jacob dead. Rebekah, being the smart woman that she is (I know like so many of the women in this room this morning) creates a plan whereby Jacob’s father thinks it is in the best interest of Jacob to send him away for a while. (The excuse being that he needed to find a wife in the region of the country where Rebekah’s people are from).
So, with father Isaac on board with the “go find a wife in another region” plan, Jacob is sent away. No one asked Jacob if he wanted to go. He was told to go.
But, while some young adults might have loved this plan, we don’t get the idea from Jacob that he’s too excited about it. For, we know he’s never been away from home before. He’s never been on a route to the destination of Hebron before. This journey out into the great unknown was full of a lot of firsts.
But, even though from the outside this just seems like a secular story about a family drama—God is still present.
God had not forgotten the promise He’d made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham.
God had not forgotten about Jacob.
God had not forgotten his love for Jacob.
So, as Jacob takes shelter for the night in what I can imagine was an open field (not much shelter really at all) laying his head on a rock for a pillow, scripture tells us that God speaks to him.
Not as God had done before through a voice or through the presence of messengers, but through a dream.
And in this dream, scripture tells us that Jacob sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching toward heaven.
As an aside it’s this juncture in scripture is where the song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” comes from. Anyone ever sang or heard of this song before? I had to look up the words—all I knew was the first line. But if you look them us too, beware: it really has nothing to do with this story.
But it wasn’t really a ladder Jacob sees. More like a ramp. For a popular part of the religious culture of Jacob’s time was the idea of ziggurats—artificial mountains built as shrines, shrines that connected things of on the earth to higher things of heaven.
We aren’t told that Jacob gets access to heaven on this ramp. Instead it serves as a sign that God comes to dwell with Jacob—to be with him where he was. Right there in the middle of nowhere.
It was an image of God saying to Jacob—“Look, you are not alone. I am with you, even here in this remote place.”
But even more than this, I believe, God is inviting Jacob to see the world as God views it, to dream alongside God.
In verse 13, my Bible reads—“there above it (meaning the ladder) stood the Lord” but many translations of this verse actually read, “There beside him.” I really want to lean into the second interpretation—that as God begins to speak directly to Jacob he is not standing over him, but standing beside him—coming close to his heart.
And saying these words: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out like the west and the east, to the north and to the south. All people on earth will be blessed.”
What powerful words! Not only was God saying to Jacob in his moment of crisis: “I see you!” but God was also making unconditional promises to him about the future of his people.
“I’m going to bless you,” God says, “No matter what. No matter how much you screw up. No matter how far you stray from me. No matter how people treat you. Or how lost you feel. I’m going to bless you.”
It was an invitation for Jacob to come and see the world as God already saw it—full of possibility, full of promise, full of hope, even when the circumstances of Jacob’s life seemed like nothing good could possibility come from them.
This past week, Kevin, my husband and I spent several days meeting with, assisting with feeding programs and shoe distributions for children in Guatemala. All of this was part of Kevin’s work for an organization based out of Oklahoma City called Feed The Children and I was just along for the ride.
One of my favorite communities we visited was in the region of Guatemala known as San Antonio Polopa among a traditional Mayan culture. Though the community struggles with having enough provisions of food and clean water and proper supplies for their children to go to school with and had every reason to shun us as “outsiders” Kevin and I, along with the rest of the team from Feed The Children were overwhelmed by the kind welcome we received. I even got a Mayan makeover while I was there, with traditional dress given to me and put on me (I can show you pictures after the service if you are interested).
But, as Kevin spoke to this group before we all ate together, as he had done many times before with different groups, he said something that struck me (especially as I had this passage of scripture on my mind). Kevin told the group of mothers and children gathered around us: “We are here today to stand in solidarity with you. Though we come from a different country, a different culture and from a different background, there is one thing we hold in common. And that is all parents want the same thing for their children. All parents want a better life for their children than they had themselves.”
And the Mayan mothers seemed to agree, as maybe the mothers in this room here in Watonga agree too. It’s only natural as Parents to dream big for your children.
You want your children to grow up and succeed at whatever they do—having better days than you ever experienced, making more money than you ever did, and living in a more comfortable living space than you. It’s part of what makes us human, to have this desire.
But, what about God, have you ever thought about what God dreams for you?
If we say that God is our Heavenly Father or Heavenly Mother . . . if we believe that God in heaven is the great Parent of us all, then what are God’s dreams for us? When God thinks about our future, what comes to God’s mind?
Taking our cues from Jacob this morning, we see that there are no limits to what God has planned for our future.
Consider again with me the language of verse 14 of Genesis chapter 28.
The LORD said to Jacob, “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth.”
Being called “dust” doesn’t sound too bad does it? Dust is everywhere. Dust is a part of all places. Dust is the very essence of life.
But, there’s more. One Biblical commentator on this passage calls our attention to the fact that the original Hebrew word for dust was not just an generic word for dust, rather it was more like the English word “topsoil.”
Topsoil, as we know from our gardening is the best kind of soil. It’s the soil that is full of the nutrients. It’s the soil that ensures the crops’ success. It’s the soil full of the rich ingredients that the plants need within them to help them grow strong and tall. And with out the topsoil our hopes of a rich harvest are ruined.
Thus, God is telling Jacob in speaking of topsoil: “I have a dream for you. My dream is not just that you’ll have a good home. Or, that you’ll have kids one day of your own. Or that happiness will find you more than sadness does. But, rather, my dream is that you’ll be a life-restoring, life-giving pillar wherever you go. That your community will be blessed because of YOU bringing MY presence to it., the riches gift of all.”
I believe this is exactly what the apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to the church at Ephesus about God’s dreams for their lives. Saying that he prays regularly for the Ephesians, “That Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith. And [Paul] prays that [they] being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with the saints, to grasp how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
Paul wants them to know that God’s dreams for the people of this world are in fact so big that we could not even wrap our minds around them if we tried. Why? Because we serve a God, as Paul writes that is “able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask for or imagine.”
Unimaginable dreams—that’s bigger than any of us know how to speak about!
I tell you today that is hard to keep dreaming like this. It’s hard to dream at all sometimes. It’s hard to dream the more that life has beaten us down, shredded our attempted contributions to pieces. It’s hard to dream when all we want to do is throw up our hands in disbelief of the suffering that has found us in this life.
But we are called to keep dreaming, nonetheless.
The poet Langston Hughes that I like very much says this about dreams: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is broken winged bird that can’t fly.”
As people of faith, as people who are in relationship with the God of all living things, we can’t give up hope. We can’t give up dreaming. We have to allow room in our hearts to received God’s unexpected surprises of dreams in our sleep, of visions in the daytime, of words of instruction from wise ones in our community.
I am so glad I serve a God who has a plan for me, along with every living creature on this earth.
I’m so glad I serve a God who wants a brighter future not only for the children but for all of us older ones as well.
I’m so glad I serve a God who helps give me vision when I feel lost, alone or without the courage to keep dreaming anew.
I’m so glad God’s dream for all of us flow out of great love– love that is wider and longer and higher and deeper than I could ever conceive on my own.
Let’s us pledge together again on this day to invite the power of the Holy to teach us to dream anew.
Let’s dream together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dream together as children of father Jacob.
Let us on this special day of family celebration thank God that God’s dream for us our families are not over. But with God with us, the best is yet to be!
I have spent the last week feeling mostly like an outsider.
Not because of lack of welcome. (I can’t tell you how many hugs and smiles I received)
Not because no one looked me in the eyes. (Countless children pointed at my face as if to notice I was the only green-eyed and blonde haired woman they’d met)
Not because no one said my name. (“Elizabeth, Elizabeth” were words I heard in crowded markets and along busy streets)
But because I visited a country where few (at least of those I encountered) spoke English.
I only speak English.
I know only a few words in Spanish. Mucho gusto or buenos dias anyone?
A funny thing happens when you grow up in America, the land where most students take only two years of foreign language in high school to graduate (as I did): you believe everyone speaks like you.
You believe that it is acceptable not to master at least one other language than your own.
You equate speaking English is the superior way to form sentences.
You may even go as far as to think that you are smarter than those you meet who don’t speak English. Shameful to admit but true.
Most places I have traveled outside of the US lately have been cultures where English is revered. Even folks who don’t speak it say they want to be taught. But this week in Guatemala I met many lovely folks who know as much English as I do Spanish. And they were proud and content. I don’t see them seeking to learn English anytime soon.
As I was ordering a late lunch at the hotel cafe of a major American hotel chain in Guatemala City yesterday (you know the place you’d expect everyone to speak English) I found myself pointing and using my limited words like uno mas and agua to the clerk. Again, no English for her. Was I annoyed? Yeah a little. Was I frustrated at my limited vocabulary? For sure. But most of I was aware anew of my own prejudice. I was in Guatemala not the United States. What did I expect?
The whole world does not speak English. It is ok if they don’t. Who ever said speaking English was a degree from on high?
To speak English does not make one superior to another. If anything to cling to English as one’s only language spoken makes a person arrogant.
It takes great courage and strength of character to permanently enter a culture where you do not speak the primary language as many new immigrants do every day on US shores. I now have a new appreciation.
It is good to be reminded what it feels like on the other side of things. It is good to remember that language, as God gave it to us originally was not meant to divide us or make some of us feel better about ourselves than others. It is good to get one more kick in the pants that I need to stop stalling and learn Spanish soon.
This week I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s latest: Help, Thanks, Wow. It’s a book about three essential prayers that Lamott says are necessary for all of us to go back to over and over again. Saying to God, “Help!” “Thanks!” and “Wow!”
The first two sections were typical Anne Lamott good– honest, raw, and real. So real that her words make you want to figure out how to write like this in your own voice.
But the third section has captured my attention in way that I think we don’t talk about enough as people of faith: Wow!
Lamott writes: “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace.”
And when you put it like this, I don’t think we don’t know how to say wow. Sure, it’s a simple enough word, but I can’t think of the last time I heard it in a conversation.
Maybe it is because we don’t know how to stop.
Maybe it is because speechlessness as a prayer doesn’t seem to equate to “real” prayer in our minds.
Maybe it is because we are people who like to rush on through to the next project, the next meal, the next adventure that we keep our eyes shut to “Wow” most of the time.
This week as I’ve been traveling with the team from Feed The Children in Guatemala, there have been a lot of wow moments.
The children getting a book for the first time.
The smiles of the mothers.
The birds (and flying beatles) waking us up in the morning at sunrise.
As we’ve been thrust out of our normal day-to-day routines saturated in the beauty of a country with lush hills and valleys, colorful clothes and flavorful foods, it is much easier to say wow. Especially as we’ve served meals to children with the sparkle of gratitude in their eyes for a simple plate full of tamales, rice and beans, you just can’t help but smile in wow!
But I don’t think you have to go out of the country or into a new experience to have a “wow” moment or to offer up a “wow” prayer. Such opportunities are all around us, I believe.
Our children learning to say please.
Waking up before our alarm goes off.
An unexpected invitation to dinner.
A card of thanksgiving.
What about you? what is making you say “Wow” where you are today? Here’s some photos of mine.