A Blog share

I encourage you to read a piece that was posted on Mudroom yesterday. The author is specifically speaking about his family’s journey with foster care, but the theme is universal to all of us who want to follow Jesus. Late in the piece, author Zach Lambert writes this: “I have come to believe that if we can handle every part of our lives without God, then we aren’t really listening to the fullness of what he’s calling us to. We don’t come to the end of ourselves once or twice, but every moment of each day.” Here’s the link to “Foster Care: More Than I Can Handle” so you can read the entire piece.

Blessings this day: May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of our God, and the fellowship–the intense belonging and friendship–of the Holy Spirit abide with you right now and forever.

 

Advertisements

True Worship, True Mission

A couple weeks ago I “told” Isaiah 6:2-8 for the ordination service of a young pastor.

It’s a dramatic passage.

Isaiah tells the story in first person. “I saw the Lord!” he writes, and if he were writing today he might have used several exclamation points and a couple of emoji’s. Even without them, his excitement is clear. He sees the Lord sitting on a throne above the temple. The long train of his robe fills the temple, and six-winged seraphs fly above him, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”

At the sound of their voices, the temple shakes and fills with smoke, and suddenly Isaiah is overcome! “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips—and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Ah! One glimpse of the Lord and he is undone.

I understand this. It makes perfect sense to me. I imagine that if I got a single clear sighting of the Lord in full power and beauty—thereby seing how very, very small and inglorious I am in comparison—I would be flattened to the floor. I, too, would cry out, “Woe is me!” (or the 21st century equivalent).

But what comes next amazes me—and I imagine it surprised Isaiah as well.

Immediately after his cry, one of the seraphs flies to him, bearing a burning coal the seraph plucked from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with the live coal and tells him, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Wait? What? Just like that? Without major groveling, without a lecture, without a big deal being made of it, Isaiah is simply declared clean and worthy to stand in the presence of God?!

It’s over-the-top goodness! It’s God being the restorative, loving God he is—without any fanfare or hype.

In previous readings of this passage this graciousness of God was what jumped out at me most; the speed at which he restored Isaiah and his deep sensitivity to Isaiah’s cry.

But there is more to this story. God doesn’t dwell on Isaiah’s restoration; He moves straight ahead to the business at hand. He has messages He wants spoken to the people of Israel, and so He asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And Isaiah, rather than feeling shy or rendered speechless by answering a question posed by God himself (both fairly “normal” reactions, in my mind), answers right away. “Here am I; send me!” He’s excited. He’s bold and passionate and ready to go.

As I prepared to “tell” this passage at the ordination, I was struck by Isaiah’s willingness for mission, and I examined what led to his willingness.

It was worship and the sheer graciousness of God that inspired Isaiah!

Isaiah saw the glory of God. He heard the seraphs proclaim the holiness and glory of the Lord. He worshiped the Lord, acknowledging him as King and himself as lowly and unclean before Him.

And this worship led him to mission.

Just yesterday I read an article titled “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” It’s written by J. Todd Billings, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (I just added his latest book, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table, to “Jen’s wish list” on my husband’s Amazon page). In this article Billings pushes back a bit on the “kingdom work” focus of many theologians today. He’s not discounting or even de-emphasizing the “kingdom work” focus on the truth that “(r)edemption restores God’s good creation” or even that all Christians are called to embrace “kingdom work” in the here and now. But he is suggesting that in emphasizing the individual kingdom work(s) we are called to in the here and now, we are in danger of losing “a cosmic view of God’s work in restoring the whole creation.” In other words, a “kingdom work” focus, too, can be twisted into individualism, into a focus on what we are doing rather than on God’s great work for us. “The central question,” writes Billings, “is … what drama will we be incorporated into? If this is our question, we find our acting instructions in receiving God’s Word in worship exalting Christ our Lord…”

I see this question at work in Isaiah’s encounter with God. He sees God, high and holy. He sees and hears the seraphs worshiping God, and he gains a clear view of himself and his unworthiness. As soon as he is restored, this grace, coupled with the grandeur of God, propels him into God’s work! He doesn’t even know exactly what he is being sent out to do, he just says, “Here I am! Send me!”

Worship comes first.

Mission follows.

It makes me think, then, that the two MUST go together. Mission that has any other starting point than worship could very well unravel into nothing more than personal activism. Equally troubling is worship that never leads to mission, that never leads to a willingness to say, no matter what is asked, “Here I am! Send me!” If there is one without the other, then that one must be examined, for there is good reason to believe it is not true.

For true worship leads to true mission.

And we need both.

 

our upside-down King

The children are doing the Gospel reading tomorrow, and we’ve taken Luke’s telling of the Nativity and broken it into narration and dialogue.

We practiced today, and before we began, I told them they were the perfect ones to tell this upside-down story of an upside-down King ushering in his upside-down kingdom.

Kings generally want power and riches and comfort, I said.

But Jesus, King of the universe, kept saying things like, “I came to serve” and “I offer my life,” and his first bed was a feeding trough for animals and his first sight as a human was a poor girl’s face and maybe, if any of the nativity scenes are correct, the giant nose of a cow. The fancy presents didn’t appear till later and they came just in time to fund a run-for-your-literal-life escape to Egypt.

I finished my pretty speech, and one child raised his hand.

“Yes?” I told him, and he asked, “Can I have a big part?”

And I grinned at this unabashed display of human nature, so straight-up contrary to all the words I’d just spoken—because it was oh, so honest! And oh, so real!

Then we began, and though the rehearsal was chock-full of loud boys and stumbled lines, and missed cues,

And there was no strong sense that tomorrow would go off without a hitch or three,

There were some moments of deep beauty,

And when it was over, I could tell a child, with genuine sincerity,

“You are supposed to be Elizabeth, because when you held that baby doll oh, so gently, it did something to my heart.”

I could shrug and laugh when asked, “Well, how do you think they will do tomorrow?”

Because the upside-down-ness of the Kingdom must be embraced, despite all our tendencies to do otherwise.

If we’d planned the Nativity, it certainly wouldn’t have taken place in a stable, with rough-and-tumble shepherds as its witnesses (and if God had insisted they play a large part, at least they would have bathed). We would have had the wise men come that first night to provide some glitz and sparkle—wait, we do that!—some importance and sophistication to the occasion…

It’s a challenge to stay upside-down, to say, like Mary, “Let it be … just as the Lord has said,” to be emboldened, like the shepherds with their uncultured ways and uneducated language, to share the crazy story even when it doesn’t seem like we’re the best, most polished messengers.

So read tomorrow, children.

Tell.

Proclaim.

As upside-down messengers

Of the King laid in the manger,

the King nailed to the cross.

Our right-side-up God.

 

O God, make haste

I’m struggling with worry right now. On the other side of this move, with some things settled (like Dave’s teaching position), other things are still very much up in the air: a job for me that brings in more income but still allows me to homeschool Em and “mom” my kids well; Em’s schooling—is this the best path longterm?; soccer and friendships for the kids; church; adjustment to a decreased budget…

I finger all the strands in my mind, till it’s simply a snarled mess and I’m hopelessly tangled in it.

In very low moments, I ask, “Are you there, God?”

In other moments I know He is. I remember His faithfulness, the fact that he has never, ever failed, that the darkest moments of the past have then turned into seasons of watching and marveling at the creativity and goodness of God.

I feel like I’m cycling through the lament psalms, repeating the psalmist’s rhythm of despair/crying out/remembering God’s faithfulness/hope.

By the time I get to the remembering part, I’m ready to dump my entire snarled mess in God’s lap. “Please take this. I can’t do it. I can’t figure this out.” This brings relief, because his lap is large, big enough to hold me as well as my mess.

But, just a day or two later, sometimes only a few hours later, I find a fresh snarl of yarns in my head and the cycle begins again. Who knew my mind could gather fluff so quickly and spin so much so fast!

God has used my neighborhood to help shred my worry web, to help me move past myself to others. When I get out and about in the neighborhood and pass mothers waiting at bus stops, holding children on hips, others by the hand, I think, How many of them are running a rat race that feels hopeless? How many are working minimum-wage jobs, trying to feed and shelter a family on $350 a week, with childcare swallowing up a huge chunk of a paycheck? And, comparing these struggles to my current light-in-contrast worries—which I’m flattened by pretty easily—I wonder how long it would take before the hopelessness of that kind of grind would wear a person into the ground.

My husband’s work also shapes my perspective. The other morning he got a text from one of his student’s mothers, asking if Dave has heard from her son, that he ran away the night before and she’s hoping against all the fear in her heart that he shows up at school, that he hasn’t succumbed to some gang that’s promising him belonging, that he’ s not using, that… oh, the darkness that can swallow up all our hope.

And so my prayers change, and when I say, “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us,” I do not have just my family in mind but my neighbors, my city, beyond.

As I recite Psalm 143, I imagine myself standing before God linked hand-in-hand with a long line of people: “Hear (our) prayer, O Lord, and in your faithfulness give ear to (our) supplications; answer (us) in your righteousness.”

And for those who are so burdened they cannot even whisper the words, whose heads are bowed low, whose knees are week, I change the singular pronouns to plural; I speak louder; I raise my voice: “Our spirit faints within us; our heart within is desolate. We stretch out our hands to you; our soul gasps for you like a thirsty land.

“O Lord, make haste to answer us; our spirits fail us; hide not your face from us lest we be like those who go down to the Pit. Let us hear of your loving-kindness in the morning,

For in you we put our trust.”

A sermon and thoughts on Generosity

Two days after my sister sent me the Matthew 6 commentary on generosity and giving that I shared in my last post, I opened up my podcast library on my phone to listen to the latest Tim Keller Sermon and found that it is titled “Blessed Are the Poor.” It so closely relates to the Matthew 6 commentary that I am blown away. Clearly this is something the Lord wants me to meditate on and pray about more–and, of course, DO! Click on the link above to listen to this sermon via Podbay. Keller doesn’t pull any punches, but he ends by drawing our attention back to grace. He reminds us that “generosity” that is based on guilt is simply religion; it’s not founded in the Gospel.

One image from the Matthew 6 commentary that I keep thinking about is the “single eye.” Here’s a quote from that section: Jesus’ illustration about the “single” (NIV good) eye and the evil eye would immediately make sense to his hearers: a “good” eye was literally a healthy eye, but figuratively also an eye that looked on others generously (Sirach 32:8). In the Greek text of the Gospels, Jesus literally calls the eye a “single” eye, which is a wordplay: the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible also uses this word for “single” to translate the Hebrew term for “perfect”-thus “single-minded” devotion to God, with one’s heart set on God alone. An “evil eye,” conversely, was a stingy, jealous or greedy eye; yet it also signifies here a bad eye (Mt 6:23), one that cannot see properly. Jesus uses the “single” eye as a transition to his next point, for the “single” eye is literally undivided, having the whole picture: thus one is not divided between two masters, as the text goes on to explain (v. 24).

mads eye

I’ve posted this picture (shot by my older daughter [the subject is my younger daughter]) before, but I felt it was very appropriate for this post.

I want the generous, single eye Jesus speaks of. I want to see more and more clearly God’s great, incredible, beautiful love for me–until my eye is filled up with Love-Light so that my view of every other person is filtered with Love. This morning I was reminded that this not only applies to those in physical or social need when I realized I was viewing an interaction with a neighbor without a bit of Love in my gaze. There was no generosity in my view of her. I was thinking of her only in relation to myself, of how she had inconvenienced me. God had to remind me that the generosity He calls us to is a way of life that impacts how we see EVERYONE!

This prayer is adapted from the Message version of Matthew 6.

Lord, help us to open our eyes wide in wonder at your amazing love. Help us to believe and trust that you love us more than we can ever understand. Fill up our eyes with the light of your love so that we don’t squint our eyes in greed and distrust but look instead with generosity on others. May we deny and abandon the self-worship we are so drawn to and worship you alone. This single worship will fill our entire lives with Light!

 

Suggested Read

My sister just sent me a commentary on Matthew 6 that she found on Bible Gateway. She
called it “challenging.” She wasn’t kidding! It’s incredible–and, in my view, very, very necessary for American Christians. PLEASE read! It’s titled “Do Not Value Possessions Enough to Seek Them.”

max looking out to sea

I think the way of living described in the commentary might feel like a lonely choice AT FIRST. So I picked this picture to go with the post. But Max–the guy standing out on the rock while I stayed on the dry ground and took the picture–would have no regrets about his choice to venture out.

 

The good work of refugee care

World Relief poster“(God) creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” Ephesian 2:9, The Message

I believe with all my heart that refugee care is good work. A few weeks ago I posted the news that the ESL classes at my local World Relief (WR) office are in jeopardy because they have not received federal funding. Last Tuesday I sat in a meeting with other WR volunteers and listened as the ESL director outlined a plan that will provide as many refugees and immigrants with regular classes while still cutting costs (and staff) dramatically. Despite the great stress she was under, Sue smiled at us and reminded us that God is at work. He will provide. He so clearly cares for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, and the foreigner. She said something like this: The decreased government funding gives the church a chance to step up and in with their money and their time. It pushes us to be more generous and creative.

Hear, Hear!

poster backAt the bottom of this post, I have links to both the national and local (western suburbs of Chicago) World Relief websites as well as specific ways to support WR DuPage/Aurora.

But before I get to that, I have links to four articles: the first three specifically related to refugees, the third about cultivating a generous heart toward all those in need.

The first is a Q&A with World Relief DuPage’s Executive Director Emily Gray. PLEASE read this article. Emily is informed and wise and above all, seeking to be likeminded with Christ.

5 Objects to Fuel Your Prayers,” is a great article about concrete ways to remember those in need. It’s specifically about refugees, but you could use the same techniques to remind you to pray for the poor, the persecuted church, victims of sex trafficking, those suffering from mental illness, orphans, etc.)

WR fundraisingGrowing in generosity with the Believing Poor” is by Elizabeth Drury. It challenges our views of generosity that do not extend past our wallets, that don’t impact our comfort levels.

What Refugees in Your Neighborhood Need from You” gives a bit of an inside look at how difficult it is to be uprooted and transplanted (often several times) and how the body of Christ can step into that difficulty.

~~~

For those outside Chicago’s western suburbs: visit the international home page of World Relief and click on the “Get Involved” tab to see if WR has a location in your area.

For those IN Chicago’s western suburbs: The ESL arm of WR DuPage needs volunteers. If you have some morning hours free beginning in January or would like to tutor a refugee one-on-one, email me at jenunderwood0629@gmail.com and I can get you connected with the volunteer coordinator. You don’t need any experience or qualifications other than the ability to speak English, and it is truly a blessing.

If you’ll take a look at the poster I have pictured above, you’ll find information about items needed for Good Neighbor kits. The back side (with items needed) is the second picture. One of WR’s dropoff locations is at K’Tizo–my favorite tea/coffee shop. You can drop off items and get a yummy drink!

The third picture (sorry it’s so small) is a “Quick Guide to Fundraising for World Relief DuPage/Aurora.” If you live in another location but have a WR nearby, I’m sure you could use all the same techniques to fundraise for your area location.

 

 

Our bodies–declared GOOD

redeemedI think it was my sister who got me started on Popsugar/Fitsugar workouts, which are offered free on Youtube. (Don’t worry, this is not a commercial for Popsugar, nor is it a plug for exercise!)

The vast majority of the workouts feature Anna R, a fitness expert. One of the things I appreciate about Anna is that, though she looks exactly as our culture would expect a fitness expert to look, the other women in the videos with her do not, and she always treats them with the utmost respect. Her goal for them is fitness, not the “perfect” figure, and she doesn’t seem too terribly focused on the fact that she herself pretty much has the perfect figure.

The other day, though, I got a new perspective on Anna R. I pulled up Youtube in the early morning, typed in Popsugar fitness, and all the little squares came up, each a video choice. The human figures in the little squares were about an inch high. Intrigued by the caption on one—which promised a full-body workout in 20 minutes—I clicked on it.

When it popped up in full screen, I was surprised. When it had been limited to a tiny square, I had assumed the thin, athletic figure in the middle was Anna, and the figure to the left, who was still shapely but not quite as svelte—was one of the “other women,” the “normal” women, the ones I identify with when I follow the workouts.

But no. The woman in the middle was the very tall, very thin fitness expert Astrid M, and the woman to the left was Anna. Since Astrid’s thighs are probably the size of my upper arms, Anna didn’t look quite so thin next to her, particularly when their images were shrunk down.

And I suddenly wondered if “perfect figure” Anna plays the comparison game, too.

After all, most of us women do.

I do it, but I grow increasingly frustrated with myself for engaging in this body-comparison game. It’s a waste of my energy; it’s ridiculous; and I see clearly that no good comes from it. More and more I also understand that obsession with or subtle shame for the appearance of my body is connected to a twisted view of sexuality. Deep within I believe my worth is tied to my attractiveness, and this view is linked to the curse.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope when he made an almost offhand comment about one of his students hoping her resurrected body would have a different nose. I identified immediately (except I happen to like my nose; perhaps my ears, though? My thighs?)

But then I wondered, Why would she have a different nose? What is wrong with the one she has right now? I understand our resurrected bodies won’t bear the effects of sin and the curse (no heart failure, cancer, blindness, missing limbs, aching knees, etc.) but do we really believe that God looks at her nose—or my ears/thighs or your hips—and says, “No, that is not good”?

After all, our justification for calling parts (or the whole) of our bodies “not good” is generally in comparison with others’ parts/wholes. If my thighs are strong and get me places and can climb mountains and walk trails, why do I care that they might jiggle a little in the process? Why would that make them “not good”?

Answer: because they don’t look like Anna R’s or Astrid M’s thighs.

We have a terribly skewed version of “good.” It must mean “perfect,” we think, and we then imagine “perfect” to be uniformity, complete symmetry, fitting within a narrow definition of beauty and perfection.

But with this view, Eden becomes a very sterile garden. Did every piece of fruit have to look exactly the same? Were funky shaped pears forbidden? Did all the tree trunks have to be straight?

Or did it include lumpy fruit and gnarled branches, and were these considered GOOD because they showed in unique ways the beauty and creativity of God?

Did God rejoice in their distinct, individual beauty?

Does God do the same with that woman’s nose—and my ears—and my thighs—and your hips?

I’m reminded of the verse that often ends wedding ceremonies, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9)

I’m not trying to wrongly use that verse to speak to our body image (it’s clearly referring to marriage), but there is a principle here. God put my body together. I must stop denigrating it; stop ripping it apart with my words and attitudes and thoughts. And I certainly must never denigrate someone else’s body.

We should feel free to work out and eat well to allow our bodies to serve us better, to serve God better, to serve others better, but we must love them in the process. God loves our bodies; God made them. He will eventually restore the damage done to them by sin, but they are still his creation.

Who knows—my resurrected thighs may jiggle just as much as my current ones.

And my resurrected mind and spirit will fully agree with God’s assessment: they are good.

A Lesson from Uncle Mikey

A good friend of mine recently attended the funeral of a well-beloved uncle, an uncle who had Down syndrome, Uncle Mikey. The pastor conducting the service took the opportunity to speak about the sanctity of human life—of all human life. He mentioned that some studies, such as one done by Boston Children’s Hospital, place the percentage of children with Down syndrome who are aborted at 90%.

With tests now available that will allow pregnant women to easily and inexpensively determine if their baby has Down syndrome, this number may rise even higher. There is also pressure from many in the scientific community. One high-profile scientist calls the decision to abort a baby with Down syndrome the “ethical choice.”

Yet, the pastor said, other studies done by Children’s Hospital Boston to measure the effects of having a child or sibling with Down syndrome tell a very different story.

-Among 2,044 parents or guardians surveyed, 79 percent reported their outlook on life was more positive because of their child with Down syndrome.

-Among siblings ages 12 and older, 97 percent expressed feelings of pride about their brother or sister with Down syndrome and 88 percent were convinced they were better people because of their sibling with Down syndrome.

The pastor stopped at this point and told his audience. “The last statistic is the most telling: Among adults with Down syndrome, 99% responded they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they are, and 96% liked how they looked.”

The pastor looked out at his audience. “If I polled you, how many of you would be able to respond that way?”

He went on to talk about Uncle Mikey’s faith. “Can a person with Down syndrome have faith?” he asked. He talked about Mikey’s favorite songs, which included John Denver’s “Take Me Home” but also the hymns “The Old Rugged Cross” and “I Come to the Garden Alone,” which his mother often played for him.

“But his most favorite, the song Mikey sang most often, was ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ He would tell people, ‘Jesus loves me. He loves me.’ I think that’s a pretty incredible testimony that Mikey knew what was most important.”

When my friend told me about this funeral, tears welled up in my eyes. My faith so often gets muddied with my own performance, my own efforts to “earn” God’s approval. Mikey wasn’t hampered by this silly idea. He believed he was fully loved by Jesus, and he lived in that truth.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me.

Thank you, Uncle Mikey.

NOTE: My friend wasn’t able to remember the exact statistics the pastor said, but I did a little research and may have found the exact sources he used. One was an article at Live Action News; the other was at NBC News. The statistics in italics in the post above are drawn directly from the NBC article.

NOTE: This post reminds me of a picture book written by one of my nieces about the experience of being a sister to a brother with profound Autism. Please read Grace’s story “The Family That I Love.”

Thy light and Thy truth

DSC_0882They give me an unlit candle when I enter the service. We sing “Our darkness is never darkness in your sight: the deepest night is clear as the day,” but the candle, still unlit, dangles from my fingers. Then we sing “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart,” and down the aisle I see a small child, no more than four, carrying in her tiny hand a shining taper, its flame high and bright. Her mother, hunched over her, helps her hold the candle steady as the end person in each row bends their candle sideways and brings the wicks together till the flame is shared.

When the child nears my row, I watch her beautiful little face. She is old enough to be frightened of strangers, but though these unknown adults bend over her, one after another, she looks at nothing other than the bright flame. It is mirrored in her dark eyes.

The symbolism overwhelms me. She, too, began with an unlit candle. She, too, held it sideways, a picture for me of bowing down, of worship. Now she is captivated by the light. She has lost sight of herself and can share the flame with others without self-consciousness.

The mother shuffles, crouched over, keeping pace with her daughter’s short steps, aiding her in this beautiful work. This, too, makes me draw a sudden breath. For don’t we all share this responsibility as well at times: to slow our pace to match the faltering steps of another, to steady others’ hands so they can see the light, to bend our backs if that is what they need?

It is my turn. I tip my candle and receive the light. I hold it straight so my friend can do the same. The director sings the lines of Psalm 43, pausing at the end of each so we can respond with “Alleluia.” We lift our candles high as we sing, and my eyes follow the light. The flames from the individual candles, held above our selves, blaze as one.

“Oh, send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me,” the director sings.

Thy light and Thy truth, Lord. Let them lead.