Confusion and Joy

My message for Easter Sunday Celebration at First Friends Church in Emporia, KS.

John 20:1-21

Confusion and Joy

These were the emotions that accompanied the experiences of Jesus’s closest friends and followers on the day of his resurrection. And why not? Any one of us would feel the same. For years they had followed him, listened to his teaching, witnessed his miracles and even the glory. They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would rescue God’s people Israel from their cruel oppressors. He would be their hero, arrayed in armor for battle, leading the charge.

Only he wasn’t. And he didn’t.

Instead he surrendered without a fight. He wouldn’t put up a defense in his trial. He let them bind him, whip him, beat him, spit on him, mock him, pull out his beard, and then he carried his cross to the place where they would crucify him.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah. Maybe they’d all been conned by a smooth talker who knew just the right things to say. Maybe they were wrong and he was just a good teacher intent on reminding Israel of God’s love and mercy. Maybe…the maybes were endless. What do you do when your dreams come crashing down?

The disciples holed up in an upper room, one with a good solid lock on the door.

The women gathered their spices and went to finish the job of burying the man they had followed who treated them like no man ever had before. Like persons of worth. Like bearers of the divine image. Like God’s children, not objects, not slaves, but companions for the journey. The women rolled up their sleeves and got to work as soon as the Sabbath had ended and they set out to anoint the body before it had another day to swelter in the tomb.

When they arrived, they were met with a puzzle. The stone was rolled away. The door open and unguarded. The tomb empty. What had happened? Who had been here, where was the body, how do they now carry out their final tribute to their friend without a body? The questions multiplied by the minute. Not once did they dare to hope that they would see him alive again.

Mary took charge, running to find Peter and John. She told them what they had seen, and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John stopped at the door, but Peter being Peter ran right on in and stood in the space that had just held the body of their friend. Empty. Just the cloth binding that had wrapped his corpse lying on the shelf to show that the space had been occupied.

They returned, more questions than before. No answers. No idea of what to do next.

Mary stayed behind. Overwhelmed with grief and frustration, unable to perform this last service for her teacher, she wept. Through her tears she gazed again into the tomb and there—where minutes before there was darkness and empty space—sat two angels. I don’t know if the day could have gotten any stranger for her at this point, but they speak to her of her tears. Why is she weeping when Jesus is not dead? Who is she looking for?

She turns as she answers, as if to search for him once again, she just wants to know where his body is. And then she sees him. Thinking he is the gardener, she asks him where they have taken him. She volunteers to go and carry him back to where he belongs. He speaks her name and she knows. It’s Jesus.

Her confusion turns to joy in a moment, so great that she throws herself at his feet. Fresh tears burst forth. There is no logic in this moment, she doesn’t try to figure it all out. He is alive and that is all that matters to her. She is consumed by a joy as overpowering as her grief had been moments ago.

Jesus gave her a message and she carried it faithfully to tell the disciples that he was alive, risen from the dead.

Other Gospels tell us that they did not believe her. It was news too good to be true, the delusion of a woman lost in despair.

That night he stands among them and blesses them. “Peace” he says, imparting to them divine wholeness, healing, restoration, forgiveness for their faithlessness, all in one breath. And then he begins to speak to them of the mission he has for them. Just as the father had sent him, he now is sending them to carry his message of the kingdom, to bring hope and healing and light where darkness, brokenness, and resignation have reigned for so long.

If this were a fairytale, at this point we would say that they all lived happily ever after. But we know that is not true in this case. They did not immediately lose their questions, their doubt, their need. They did not immediately receive the peace he offered. They did not immediately understand their mission. Like us, they were human beings living real lives with real hardship. But on that day, resurrection day, their confusion was overcome by their joy.

Jesus is alive.

They walked with him, and listened to him again for a time before he ascended into heaven. And he promised them that they would not be left alone. That promise is ours as well. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in our real lives with real hardship, real questions, real doubts.

Today we celebrate the day that their confusion turned to joy, and we can join our joy with theirs because in rising from the dead, he defeated the last fear, the last stronghold. Jesus has conquered death and hell and the grave, and no matter what we experience in our earthly lives we know we do not walk alone and the victory he won is ours as well.

Jesus lives and so do we, free to live in this bodily life, free to look forward to a life that does not end, free to know that our lives can have eternal significance as we follow him.

Christ has risen, Alleluia!

 

Don’t Kill Them, & 4 Other Essential Parenting Rules

My 5 Simple Rules for Parenting

When my first child was born, I read the books and followed the developmental charts like they were blueprints for a nuclear power plant. I didn’t want anything to explode, and knew that if something went wrong it would be a) the most terrible-awful-horrible thing ever, and b) as the mother, it would all be my fault. 13 years and two more kids down the line, I can tell you that children are way less fragile and more resilient than we could have imagined when we drove them home from the hospital at 15 miles per hour.

Everywhere you turn someone else is telling you what you absolutely have to do in order to raise healthy, happy children. They’ll scream, threaten, cajole, and manipulate your emotions to get you to follow their advice. We all want the best for our kids, right? So why is it that many of the opinions we hear completely contradict each other?

My years of experience and seeing my kids survive (so far) have brought me to a place of simplicity when it comes to parenthood. Feel free to investigate all of the parenting options out there, but I’ve boiled my personal rules of parenting down to just 5.

Parenting Rule #1: Don’t Kill Them

This is a vital piece of advice if you want them to live to adulthood. This includes things like feeding, clothing, and providing for their obvious physical needs. It also covers the very real temptation that might arise around the age of “I can do it myself” and re-emerge when the eye-rolling starts. Take a deep breath. If you don’t kill them, they will probably grow up and have children who also go through these maddening stages. Don’t we all want to see that day?

Parenting Rule #2: Do Your Best

Mismatched socks on their feet, their clothes wrinkled, and you don’t know if that jacket has been cleaned since they dripped ice cream on it last month? If that is the best you can do today, great. They are covered, and trust me their teacher has seen worse. Some days my best includes locking the bathroom door with the fan on so that I can’t hear them when they whine at me outside the door. Five minutes of solitude in the toilet just might help you follow Rule #1. You aren’t going to be parent of the year every minute of every day. Give yourself a break and just determine to do your best with what you have.

Parenting Rule #3: Love Them

I know you might be thinking this rule should probably be #1, but realistically I think not killing them wins for purely practical reasons. Love your kids. Love them sticky or clean. Love them hair combed or with rats nests. Love them with their precious gifts of art you couldn’t decipher if you were a master of cryptology. “Is that a dog? Oh, it’s mommy. Thanks, sweetie.” Just love them. Love covers over a multitude of parenting mishaps, and it will most likely help them not become psychopaths. It’s true.

Parenting Rule #4: Trust God

There are so many things in your children’s lives that you have absolutely no control over. You can’t keep them from every danger, or every bully, or every dumb idea they might decide to try out while your back is turned. If you are going to raise children, you need a higher power.

Parenting Rule #5: Everything Else Can Be Worked Out in Therapy

You know that all parenting theory is just that, theory. Someone has a good idea, it looks great on paper, but then in practice it just doesn’t work for your child. Besides, look at how much has changed in the years since you were a youngster. Could we ever have predicted that our kids wouldn’t know how to dial a phone? (I mean a real phone, selecting Grandma from the contacts list does not count.) So much will continue to change in our world, society, and in the understanding of young minds. You are bound to mess up. Besides, therapists are nice people and we should want to support their industry.

As parents we are under so much pressure to be perfect, but none of us were raised by perfect parents. (If you write to tell me your parents were perfect, I don’t know if we can be friends.) All of us are here, walking around as (mostly) productive members of society. Give yourself a break from perfection based on someone else’s theories. You will be a more peaceful parent, and your kids will need less therapy. That’s a win-win situation in my book!

Keeping it simple
ReFreshing!

Christmas Pondering

Luke 2:19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

When was the last time you did any pondering? With the way everything moves so quickly, it is hard to find time to ponder anymore. Social media makes it easy to be emotionally moved by love/anger/fear/sadness/empathy one moment and laugh at silly cats talking about cheeseburgers the next. How is it that we can shift gears so quickly? The emotion barely has time to set in before we are scrolling on to the next thing. As disturbing as this might seem, the information we are reading and the stories we are moved by mostly have to do with the lives and experiences of other people, sometimes people we’ve never met who live on the other side of the globe. It is easier to keep them at arm’s length and only allow them to touch our emotions on the surface. Still it is troubling that we interact with so many deep needs with so little thought. Possibly more troubling is the thought that we could be losing the art of thinking and feeling deeply about things in our own lives.

It might just be me, but when things get busy, during the holidays or toward the middle of each school year, I function with very little deep thought from day to day. I follow the commands of my calendar, moving from one appointment and event to the next without any time to process what I have just experienced. Like scrolling through Facebook, I can find myself keeping the story of my own life at arm’s length and the events of my day from drawing any deep thought.

With all that was happening in her life, the announcement of the angel, the trip to see her cousin Elizabeth, the return and Joseph coming to take her to his home, the journey to Bethlehem for the census, Mary took time to ponder. Perhaps in the stillness of a baby sleeping after the shepherds had left in the early morning hours. Maybe in the days to come as she experienced first-hand feeding a baby from her body, sleeping 45 minutes at a time, changing for-real clothe diapers. Definitely as they met Anna and Simeon in the temple after the time of purification to dedicate little Jesus as a firstborn son. She actively stored up these experiences and pondered them in her heart.

When we ponder, we establish memories. The stories we tell ourselves and others about the events in our lives are the ones we keep for years to come. Moments that we pass over without a thought are gone forever, but those we choose to reflect upon are treasures that last.

What is happening in your life right now that could use some mulling over? What treasures are you brushing off for more pressing demands of work, or the louder demand from the buzz of your phone? For those of us who don’t check our phones that much, maybe it’s using the radio or TV to drown out the silence. A little of that is ok, but if we find ourselves simply filling space with meaningless activity then we need to reevaluate. With all of this filler, we forget to feed our souls.

By contrast, when we remind ourselves of God at work in our lives, when we turn our hearts to gratitude for all we have and all God has done for us, when we take time to ponder, we find the deep joy God offers to us in himself.

Scientific studies have recently shown that what we ponder makes a difference in the ways our brains function, carving neural pathways so that the thoughts we think a lot, we continue to think a lot.  Like driving home and forgetting how you got there, our mind follows pathways that are familiar without our direction. It works with gratitude, being thankful as a practice makes it easier to see things to be thankful for and reinforce the gratitude. The same is true if we think about what God has done for us and is doing in our lives. Wouldn’t it be great to have gratitude and joy as our autopilot response? When we tune our minds to perceive God at work and find even more to ponder.

God gives us a lot to think about. We can start with what he did for people in ages past, recorded in the Bible. What he has done for all of humanity and the world in coming in the flesh to walk among us in the person of Jesus. Redemption. Grace. Mercy. Love. We can move on to how this plays out in our daily lives specifically. His giving us family and friends. The job that feeds us. The children that fill our homes with cheerful noise. The animals and pets that provide such loving companionship. The friends close by whose care and concern for us shines bright. The warmth of love transmitted from loved ones who are far away in cards, pictures and letters. A bird outside our window. The sun shining, the breeze blowing, the glint of light off of the snow, the break in the clouds. All can be reminders of God’s love and care.

God has done such great things for us, let us not set aside his blessings for fleeting pleasures, busy schedules and mindless lives. Let’s take time to ponder, and in that act of pondering store up treasures of memories and grace.

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

 

No unclean thing

This year I decided to read through the Bible in a year. I regularly read and study scripture to preach and teach, but It had been a while since I read straight through. Sometimes I read the portions, and other times it is more convenient to listen to the audio version. This practice really helps me to keep the words and stories of scripture in their broader context.

A few months in to the daily readings I had reached the stories of the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. I typically like to read these stories. They tend to be full of adventure although at times the numbers and counting of people and animals gets tedious. I found myself sighing and wondering why it was important to know that there were 54,400 descendants of Issachar among the other numbers of other tribes in the Desert of Sinai? I saw that in part it is important because each of those lives is celebrated as a gift and blessing from God.

Later, as I read through the book of Numbers, I came across a passage with more accounting and it stopped me in my tracks.

The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
337,500 sheep, of which the tribute for the Lord was 675;
36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72;
30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61;
16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32.
Numbers 31:36-40

Did you read that?!?!?!

I dropped my Bible and literally said out loud “What the heck, God?”

How could God accept human captives as tribute? How is it that the descendants of the 12 tribes were celebrated and these lives were treated like cattle? I was completely gob-smacked! Understanding the cultural setting, I know that these were warring people who battled here, there, and everywhere on their way to and through Canaan. I get that it was a violent age with different norms and expectations. But I also believe that God is the same then, and now. So, seriously, “What the heck, God?”

Sitting in my discomfort and pondering this God whom I serve with my life and career, I came to a realization. Words so clear and distinct, God could have said them out loud, in a calm, flat tone. “There is no untainted offering.”

I really don’t know about you, but I was offended. Of course there are untainted offerings! My offerings are untainted! Mine come from a pure heart, clean hands, and a desire to glorify God alone. How dare God say that my offerings are not pure.

Then I stopped and pondered for a moment, are they? Are my offerings pure? My money comes from the church, I give it back to the Lord in multiple ways by supporting other ministries, missionaries, and feeding the poor. That money comes from the hands of people who work hard in our community, in businesses and service professions. When I though deeper, I wondered: do I really know all the threads that support those earnings? Could there be anyone in those businesses cutting corners, or defaulting on loans, or choosing inferior products, possibly made by slave labor? I have no control over who gives to the church or where their gifts come from.

Well, maybe my financial gifts can’t be entirely accounted for, but surely my service can. I love on people, it is kind of my specialty. Listening, gently nudging at times, but mostly delighting in the people God has made fuels my ministry. I do it all for God, right? But I love it, too. Maybe sometimes I relish people’s dependence on me. It might even feed a little bit of pride.

Oh, and speaking of pride, sometimes I obsess over my sermons and musical offerings, or get worried when people might not be responding to me in the way I want…Ok, so maybe my offerings aren’t 100% pure. But are they really comparable to human trafficking?

When I buy cheap clothes made by underpaid or forced labor.
When I drink coffee picked by today’s equivalent of serfs.
When I eat chocolate most likely from cacao harvested by children.

Can I really claim to be exempt or superior?

And here we are, back to why would God accept our dirty, scratched, and broken offerings. Grace.

God knows we are dust. God knows we don’t have anything else to offer. God knows our inability to produce holiness, righteousness, and purity on our own.

The only untainted offering is God stepping out of eternity to dwell among human beings as a human being. The only untainted offering is God smiling at the child, the leper, the outcast, the prostitute through the eyes of Jesus. The only untainted offering is God still loving as humanity sentenced him to the death penalty, carried out by the hands of the state. The only untainted offering is God returning to those who had fled from his side for fear of their own safety. Building the church with imperfect people. Sustaining it through millennia using lives and resources also bearing the marks of sin.

Accepting my gifts. Accepting yours. Seeing us for all we are, and loving us. God’s grace is the only untainted offering, and it is something He offers to Us.

These thoughts are humbling, but hopeful. For me, knowing that God will continue to be the giver of every good and perfect gift sets me free from the chains of perfection. The only gift I have to offer is myself, and God himself can take this imperfect gift and make it whole. I am a work in progress, but even now at times God’s grace moves through me to pour into the lives of others.

Next time I am tempted to judge the offering of another, I will remember: the remarkable event I am witnessing is not one of a gift being offered to God, but that God in his grace and mercy accepts that gift–scuffs, stains and all.

Acceptance & Grace
What could be more ReFreshing?

Empty Hands

We don’t know what to do with prayer sometimes. We’ve heard so many different perspectives from fatalistic ones that claim prayer is only an act of obedience that doesn’t change anything to entitled views that we can demand what we want and it will happen. I’m not that old, but I’m old enough to have experienced both unexpected abundant blessings as well as heartbreak following prayer that exhausted every cell in my body.

Right now this topic of prayer is so relevant to my life and the lives of people I love dearly. What do you say to the mother who has lost a child in a tragic accident? What do you say to the family in an ongoing battle with cancer? Or the friend who is staring death in the face? And how do you pray when you know that God heals, but not always.

Recently, I spoke with a friend with her own concerns who gave me her take on prayer. She said she prays to the God of miracles, recognizing that God is at work in the details, asking for faith both to trust and to act. I needed that reminder, and the conversation that allowed me to clarify my own thoughts on how to pray in the face of the impossible.

When Jesus prayed facing the impossible–a tortuous death, even with the promise of resurrection is incomprehensible–he first poured out his heart. He asked that if there was any other path, any other way, anything else would be preferable. God if there is any way for healing to come, if there is a way for you to supernaturally heal, if there is a way for this person to receive healing medicine, if there is any other way, let’s do that. Let’s walk the path of healing and restoration, please, that is my heart’s desire.

Then, Jesus says something else, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

When some read these words and pray them, it feels like a cop-out. It feels like giving up or not investing in the outcome, and it can be. Simply praying “thy will be done” can be a way for us to pass the buck, but it can be a supreme act of faith as well. We can say those words with a heart that trusts God’s perspective is greater than ours. We can trust that God’s healing sometimes comes in a release from suffering. We can trust that when our circumstances are full of pain, God is still good. “Thy will be done” can be “God I trust that you are good. I trust you to work good in this situation. I trust you to bring life where there seems only death.”

But I’m not Jesus.

Sometimes I have to follow that with “And help my unbelief.” My faith has room to grow. My trust has room to expand into areas that are unsteady. My belief is not 100% of what it could be. I won’t lie to you and pretend to have it all together. This is a struggle.

Paul didn’t have it all together, either, even as he penned much of the New Testament. He said it himself, “Not that I have already obtained all of this or have already been made perfect…” (Philippians 3:12) But his determination was to press forward into the circumstances that would bring growth.

This is where I stand: trusting, while asking for more faith; loving, when that love brings risk; praying my heart’s desire even when the outcomes are not guaranteed.

For me this honesty brings peace and rest in my soul.
And that’s ReFreshing.

 

Disagreeing with Grace

I’ve been pondering all of the arguing and mic-dropping going on with political tensions and with world problems like poverty, violence, and discrimination. How is it that people with so much in common cannot hold a civil conversation with one another? How do we step out of the cycle of verbal bomb-throwing and find our way back to productive communication?

I watched my sister a few weeks ago talking to someone handing out literature on the street as we were shopping. They were trying to raise awareness for their particular cause, and they had their speech and talking points all prepared in advance. I confess that if I had been alone, I would have probably avoided eye contact and walked on by. If I had been feeling particularly open, I would have offered a half-smile and kept walking. I don’t like to hear talking points. They don’t impress me, and I always assume they are heavily weighted in favor of the cause being promoted.

My sister is awesome, though, and she stopped to talk with the person. When she heard the cause being promoted she asked about the sponsoring agency, she found a point of common interest, and she asked about the specific goal of this person on the street that day. They were looking for donations, and instead of making a commitment to donate right there, my sister asked for the online donation options and how to find more information about the organization sponsoring the fund drive. It took less than 3 minutes and it gave the person advocating the opportunity to share about their cause and allowed us to walk away without feeling obligated or shamed into supporting something we didn’t know much about.

I walked away from that encounter in awe of my sister’s ability to handle a potentially uncomfortable interaction in a way that everyone could feel good about. (Once again, I want to be my big sister when I grow up.)

I’ve spent the past several weeks pondering how I can interact with others in a similar way, whether I agree with them or not, whether I feel like the other person has an agenda, or even when I am the one with an agenda who wants to be heard. I think I’ve come up with some basic principles that can help.

Giving them the right to be heard. Allowing others to speak their minds gives us the ability to gauge whether they would be open to hearing our point of view. At times, stating our case when others are not open to listening falls into the category of casting our pearls before swine. If the person we are in conversation with cannot hear another perspective, anything we say, no matter how beautifully phrased, is going to sound like an attack to them. If they don’t know the value of our pearls, it feels exactly like someone throwing rocks.

We can begin by reframing our expectations based on what the other person is able to give. When we walk into a conversation,we have to recognize that we may not be in the same place as our conversation partner in our emotions, our understanding of the topic, or desire to find a solution.

Using words that frame our thoughts, that state our position, without attacking the other person offers our perspective without putting them on the defensive. Talking about what I am for does not have to include any discussion of others who do not agree. Try it out, can you talk about your passion or are you simply arguing against the passions of others?

Acceptance does not mean agreeing all the time. Acceptance means embracing those we are in relationship with in spite of disagreement. I can accept your good motivation, and assume the best about you and your cause even if I do not join in promoting it.

If you are as tired as I am of all the arguing and tension, why not add a little grace by listening, seeking understanding, offering mercy and love in spite of disagreement?

That could be very ReFreshing!