Saturday, March 30, 2013

Re-focusing at the Center For Retreat and Renewal....

  Yesterday was Good Friday and thus continuing on in my theme this year of spending more time thinking about and reflecting on what this Easter season is all about, I spent some of my afternoon at the Center for Renewal and Retreat.  The Center is this retreat house in the "backwoods" of a local town that is located on 38 acres of land.  It has hiking paths, prayer huts, and even an outdoor well as a comfy little house...for you to use and just get away from the hustle and bustle of life in order to meet with God.  I had been there before, but I was really excited to go back....especially after the crap-tastic morning I had.

  When I first arrived, I stopped in the house to say hello and then headed out into the great outdoors.  There's a little prayer hut by a little stream in the woods just a little up the path from the building and I knew I wanted to head there to quiet myself and read a bit of God's word.  I read through Matthews account of Jesus's last days...his trial and crucifixion...and the about His Resurrection.  And then headed for the trails to reflect  and pray.

  There's something about being surrounded by nature that truly helps me to connect with God.  I see Him in the glare of the sun or the formation of the clouds.  I hear Him in the chirping of the birds or the flowing of a stream.  I sense Him in the current of a breeze and the crunching of leaves beneath my feet.  It's like He's there....right there....all around me....and I know it!
   I guess it's for this reason that I find it so easy to  pray while
hiking in the woods.  Some people talk to a walking buddy, I use the time to talk to God...and yesterday was no different.  I spent the good part of an hour walking and talking with God...and I was brutally honest with Him, sharing how at times I feel like I'm not even a Christian because the most basic concepts of faith I fail to truly understand.  I even repented for the times and ways I've put on a show, pretending our relationship was what I thought it was suppose to be instead of what it actually is.  And I relished in the fact that, even when I'm not honest with the world, I am always honest with God...and I'm no longer afraid to be real with Him....even in the ugly times.  Then I headed inside for a time of group worship.
  I can't seem to find the right words to explain myself... but group worship was so hard for me.  I should have spent the time reflecting on the cross, but my mind was on how sucky of a Christian I felt like in comparison to every one else that was in the room.  I would try to sing and try to pray but I just kept getting more and more frustrated...because I'm not like them.  I don't like to pray out loud....I don't lift my hands in worship...I only get on my knees before God in the comfort of my own room. I found myself boiling down Christianity and faith in God into these simple outward displays... and the fact that I don't show them to the world was making me feel pretty condemned.
  Then I opened my bible to Romans 5  and began reading...." Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory...When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners... And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation."
   "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).....NO CONDEMNATION...NONE!  As I read these verses, and thought about the rest of Romans (by far my favorite book in the Bible), I couldn't help but praise God!  In fact I ended up heading back outside after group worship, and going to the outdoor sanctuary to sit in front of the cross there, singing my own songs of praise!

  I may never get this Christian thing right....I may always struggle to want to fall back into works over grace or just to put on a show....I might never even feel comfortable praying out loud or raising my hands in worship....BUT  I'm still saved and there is no need for me to feel condemned!
  So maybe that's not the traditional lesson or focus for a Good Friday...but for me it's what I needed....especially heading into celebrating Christ's Resurrection Sunday....where it's His freedom that allows me to worship Him in my own matter what it looks like or how it compares to others!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Celebrating the Passover Seder...

  Today is Good Friday....the day Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world.  This year, more than any year before, I've put lots of thought into The Cross  and what it meant for Jesus to do what He did.  Over the past week I've spent time meditating on the words Jesus spoke from the cross and over His last few days walking the earth, I've watched a play about it and discussed the ramifications  with my friends, and then last night I went to a Seder...which is the Jewish Passover meal (although I am not Jewish and the traditional day for the meal was days before).
  My friend Laura knows a Christian family who puts on this meal every year, for the last several years
and this year invited her (and thus me) to join. Since they aren't actually Jewish the symbolism of the meal was explained both in how  Jews would understand it and then also with things added in about how for us Christians Jesus is the Fulfillment.  It was by far one of the coolest things I have ever been a part of!

  For one...I knew only one person at the table and yet in that moment we were all ONE.  In fact during one of the pourings of the cup (There are four times through out the meal that your cup gets filled and you all drink together, each with a different meaning... the first representing Sanctification,the second Instruction, the third Redemption, and the fourth Praise) I looked around the room and was in awe that here we were... young and old, strangers and friends, former Catholics and former Jehovah Witnesses and fully committed never turning Christians...all dinning and celebrating together! It was, to me,such a great representation of what the body of Christ is and should be...and I was truly touched!
  Then I was also touched by parts of the actual ceremony.  Between the pouring of the second cup and the actual drinking of it, there was a responsive reading called "We should of be Content" where the "father" of the table goes phrase by phrase, through Jewish history from the time of exile all the way to the building of the actual temple, with the rest of us repeating "We should have been content" after each line.  At the very end the "father" says, "But praise the Lord!  God provided eternal salvation through the sacrifice of our messiah"!  As we read through it all I couldn't help but think how much God has done for us...all of us!  He's gone so far above and beyond....even when we've failed to be grateful!  He's just given and given...even to the point of death!  How could I do anything but Praise the Lord!!!

  There were other parts that stuck out to me as well....the symbolism of the different parts of the Seder plate, the extra setting for Elijah and the all felt so meaningful and yet freeing at the same time.  Then after (this part is usually done in middle of the Seder,but we put it at the end), we all ate dinner together...I tried Matzo ball soup and lamb for the first time (yummers to the soup!)...and we had cake to acknowledge one of the gentleman's birthday's.  We even sat there after that for a good 30 minutes or so just talking around the table about the good things the Lord had done in our lives!
  I've never done anything like this before....and the fact that it was an experience I could share with my friend (and it fell on Holy Thursday), made it all the more special to me.  Who knows, maybe next year (or one of the years after that) I'll start this tradition myself.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lessons From the Passion of the King...

  Last night I had the opportunity to go see "The Passion of the King", a passion play put on by a local church in our community. Basically it's the story of Easter....Jesus' final days on earth and His Resurrection...with a few other things added in for detail.  This particular church has put on this production for the community for years and although this was my first time seeing it, I have to say, they do a pretty great job (although there is definitely at least one over dramatic actor who preforms in it).  
  Anyway, as I was watching the play, a few things stuck out to me. For one, there is this scene in the first act where John the Baptist is talking to the crowd about Jesus and as they begin to break out in song (oh yeah...I forgot to mention this play was sort of a musical) people from the "crowd" began to come forward, one by one, proclaiming the things Jesus had done for them.  There's a healed leopard and blind man, the centurion and his son,  and then even Mary Magdalene. I think Mary stood out to me the most because she talked about how Jesus came to her...called her by name... and forgave her.
  He called her by NAME. I find that so powerful for some reason.  For one I think what people call you says a lot about how well they know you.  Take my name for example, in professional settings or when people are just meeting me, I'm called Jessica. When I am among friends or family, people who know me quite well, it's Jess.  And  then you have those few people who call me Jessie, showing that they are trying to be friendly, but that they also don't know me well enough to know I absolutely despise that name!  Thinking along those lines,  I think it's so powerful that Jesus called people by name.  With that one word (or two in some cases) He is saying... not only do i see you and acknowledge you,  but I know you....I really know you!  P-O-W-E-R-F-U-L......
   The other thing that stood out to me was from the scene in the
second act when Jesus is up on the cross dying and He screams out "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".  Now to be honest, I think in part this phrase stood out to me because of a discussion we had at my community group on Tuesday.  The group I am a part of meets once a week to further discuss the sermon we all heard the Sunday before.  This past Sunday our pastor preached on four of the last seven statements of Jesus...and this "why have you forsaken me" question was one of them.  
   On Tuesday the question was asked, "Why is Jesus asking Why?".  Yes Jesus is fully human and in agony for taking on the sins of the world (something that I can't even begin to wrap my head around), but He's also fully God and He knows this is why He was sent to earth, He knows this is the only way and  He knows what's going to happen in the end.  So why ask why?
   Watching the play and hearing these words spoken only seemed to bring up the question again for me, this time with a little more umph.  I thought about the fact that Jesus is dying here....He knows what He says here will be the last memory people ever have of Him (until His return)....and instead of spewing out another sermon or parable, He seems to be choosing His words wisely and His statements very carefully.  This leads me to believe there's some significance to why He would say them and why He would word them the way He did (I mean He could have just said, "God has forsaken me", but instead He asks God why have you forsaken).  I don't really know the answer....believe me people tried to explain it to me on Tuesday, so I would understand it, but I don't.  But it's still interesting to me none-the-less.
   And I guess that's the point of a play like stir up questions and perk up interest in you that leads you to seek God for yourself!  And...well....if that is the point....then it definitely did it's job!  So if you live in the Hartford area and are interested, you should totally check this play out....of course, you'll have to wait until next year since it's completely sold out now (sorry!).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Only One Who Can "Fix You" (or in this Case Me)!...

 When you try your best, but you don't succeed. When you get what you want, but not what you needWhen you feel so tired, but you can't sleep.Stuck in reverse
Lights will guide you home And ignite your bones And I will try to fix you
 -"Fix You"  by Cold Play-


  On Friday mornings my friend Alicia has a book study at her home based on the book "Not a Fan" by Kyle Idleman.  I've read the book before and watched most of the videos in the study, so I'm just  there to watch the kiddos and allow their mommies to have a much needed break and  to relax while they participate.  This past Friday however, I actually had a chance to join the adult  group and it turns was the beginning of one of those moments you know God had His hands all over.
  You see, I seem to constantly fall back into this "works" mentality.  I know in my head that I am saved by grace...I know that I am  loved by God not because of what I do but because of who I am...and I know that there's no way I could ever earn my way into heaven. I know that.  I do......except....sometimes....I don't.  Not really. I get it in my head....but my heart certainly still has a long way to grow in grasping that!
  Well while at book study I decided that I was going to be completely honest and just share how I was feeling (since the first step to recovery is admittance, right?) and so I shared how sometimes I wish God would just hand me a detailed check off list of all He requires of me in order to live a life that honors Him.  It's not that I think I could actually live up to it....but I just kind of feel like if I had a list like that I would know exactly what God expected from me and exactly were I stood with Him (Although I guess I should already know that anyway).
  Well, the study went on and ended and then Friday night I went to a women's fellowship bible study that my church holds at Panera.  We were going through some selected Psalms and some how the topic of Law and Grace came up again. I started to share what I had said earlier at the book study, but was cut off by someone who reminded me that God's already given us that's called the Bible.  She went on to say how the Bible is God's instruction book to us and that Jesus did not abolish the Law in it, but fulfilled it and now calls us to an even higher standard!  I pretty much left that study feeling like a horrible Christian whose just never gonna get it right...and completely condemned  (although I know that was not her intent)!
  Then came Sunday morning service.  Now I know I should probably enter into a church service expecting a big ah-ha moment from God, but I was just not feeling it...and so although I spent my morning preparing my heart for church with some worship, I didn't enter church looking for anything special.  In fact I was late (as always) and totally embarrassed for a mishap in trying to get to my seat, so my heart was pretty much anything but focused on God by the time the sermon came around (Hum...that happens a lot too)!

Anyway, my Pastor preached on Jesus's crucifixion and 4 of the 7 statements Jesus made before His death.  Statement number two was  "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (which He says to one of the convicts being crucified next to Him).  In and of itself, that doesn't seem like all that powerful of a statement, at least not something that could rock me to the core.  But he followed it up by saying something like...imagine this convict was being put to death for something he did to you (something so drastic it was deserving of nothing more than death and hell) and here he turns to Jesus in faith and Jesus claims paradise for him!  How would you feel?!  (Honestly....I would be angry...and I knew it)!  
  Well the point didn't stop there. My pastor went on to talk about how we can tell if we are still living by law or walking in grace based on how we would respond to that statement (ouch!)  and how we are really all just saved by faith not by works!  ALL who turn to God in faith are saved....from Jefferey Dommer to Mother Teresa! And it's not that we should go out sinning because it doesn't matter how we live, but that no matter how good we are (or think we are), we will never measure up...and God knows this, so He made a way!
  I just sat there through the rest of service thinking about this convicted He turned to God and was welcomed into the!  I imagined the joy...the relief....the overwhelming gratefulness...and awe he must have felt in that moment!...and I was undone!  I am that man....held against the law I'm not just a first time or second time offender....I'm a convicted repeater, prancing around in my jail suit that I've tried to cover up with Good deeds!  I try to pretend like I'm greater than I am and I try to convince people that I am not the sinner I know deep down I am.  But I don't have to...because that moment on the cross  was enough!
  Which brings me to my last point (I know this is getting long....I'm sorry...I'm wordy).  Before ending service my pastor made a few applications as to what this all means for our everyday lives (he's usually pretty good about tying it up like that).  One of his points included the fact that forgiveness and eternal life belong to ALL who repent and turn to Christ....that means nobody is ever too far from God's reach....AND that we no longer have to preform to prove ourselves to God!  It is finished!  And that is EXACTLY what I needed to hear!!!

Monday, March 25, 2013

The best kind of gifts...

  My birthday was yesterday (Hooray!) and it turned out to be a really great day for me! Honestly, I love my birthday.  It's the one time of year that I don't feel bad for wanting to feel loved and cared about! I also struggle a lot with not wanting to get my hopes up with things though.....since there's nothing worse than having your hopes dashed when things don't work out the way you expected... So all this week leading up to my birthday I kept reminding myself to not expect anything (well...anything more than the little bit I thought I knew about my party) and just to be happy with whatever happened! 
  Thankfully yesterday morning I also went to church and heard this great sermon that reminded me of the fact that I had already been given the greatest gift I could ever be given by God,  So I was pretty much feeling obscenely grateful before my birthday festivities even began!  Pretty much nothing could have ruined my mood!
  So my friend Christina sent me on a really fun scavenger hunt that involved coffee, food and books....three of my favorite things in the world! And then I ended up being led to a surprise party at her house with all my friends (which was way more than I expected)!!  We played games and ate food and talked....and it was great!
 Then sometime after mid-night I packed up all my stuff and headed home.  Before climbing into bed though I sat down and read through my cards (again) and a little box of notes/well-wishes from my friends. Some of them were silly and some of them were funny, but my favorites were the ones that reminded me that the work I put into my friendships is not in vain!  
   Sometimes I feel like people don't like me and just put up with me... and sometimes I feel like I'm a horrible friend who is too hard on the people in my life and I just drain the life out of them...and sometimes, like yesterday, I feel like my friends really do love me and are willing to go out of their way for me even when they don't have to!  And that's a pretty great birthday gift, if you ask me!
   So to all my friends and family and everyone who had a hand in making my day special,  THANK YOU, it means a lot!!!

Monday, March 11, 2013

What's Behind that Squeaky Wheel...

They say that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. I don't know who they are, but I think they are right! For most of my life I've tried not be the squeaky wheel....mostly for reasons that have to do with not wanting to be seen in a bad light or out of fear of rejection...but none the less, for the most part I have kept my mouth shut. And well...the thing about not saying anything is that you are never heard! You just suffer silently and become bitter and angry! A few nights ago I had a discussion with God about this...well more like I scribbled in my journal for a good bit and then prayed that God would make sense of it....and for the first time in a long time I felt like God responded (not outwardly but in my spirit). He seemed to take everything I said in with a deep breath and then responded with the question...."why don't you speak up"!.....(by the way why does does always seem to answer with a question)! Now, I would like to say at that point I was straight up honest with God...but the reality is, I tried to shrug off His question with some false humility, acting has if my main concern was drawing attention off of Him and to myself! But the thing about God is....He's God....and He knows us all inside and He saw through my lie and began drawing out the truth...that I care more about the opinion of man than of Him, that I'd rather have fake relationships than no relationships, that my heart is often selfish and self centered instead of others centered and God centered... The thing is I don' t think God asked me that question so that I would go out and stir up all sorts of drama. Instead I think God wanted to give me a good look at my own my attitudes and motivations...and to use that to understand how much I need Him to lead and direct my life while living inside of me! That does not mean I don't think God is also calling me to be more open and honest with my thoughts and opinions...cause I think He is...but it's only from that place of humbleness that I should speak and ultimately be heard...and the place of complete humbleness is on my knees.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Who do You think You are....

  A few Sunday's ago my Pastor preached from the parable in the Bible about the Unforgiving Debtor.  The story is found in Matthew 18 and it's about this servant who owes a HUGE sum of money to the King.  It's a debt so large that there is no way possible that he would ever be able to pay it back, and yet when called upon to return his debt, he begs the King for mercy and to give him more time to come up with the money.  The king in turn is filled with compassion and lets the servant go, freeing him from his debt. 
  Unfortunately instead of now going off and showing the same kind of love and mercy to those around him, the servant goes and finds another man who owes him a small sum of money and demands to be paid.  Then when the man cannot some up with the money, the servant immediately throws him into prison until he can clear his debt. 
  Well the King hears about this servants actions and as you might have guessed, is pretty angry and ends up changing his mind about the servants debt, throwing him into jail as well until he can pay everything back. 
  Basically it's a story about forgiveness and realizing how much we have been forgiven and thus how willing we should be to forgive others.  I get that...but the day of this preaching, I also got something else.  You see my pastor went on top talk about five steps of forgiveness and his last step was to cancel the debt and let it go, trusting God as judge and redeemer of all.  He went on to make a comment about how this servant was acting like a king...and I couldn't help but think about how much I do the exact same thing.
  While I know that God is suppose to be judge and ruler of all...and while I believe He is the only one in this world who can perfectly assess a situation and make a proper decision about it...I often times just want things my way.  And while it's not like I actually come out and say that....or go out and throw a public tantrum, like a two year old demanding my want until I get it.....I do often  act like a king by expecting things to go my way.
  And I know it's not true, but a lot of time I act like the way I see things is the only right and proper way to see them and thus every one should just fall in line with my way of thinking.  Then when things don't go my way or according to my plan I get angry and start blaming every one else for getting it wrong.  I act like a king shouting "off with their heads"...condeming everyone for not living up to my standard... even though deep down I know I am only a servant.
  I've been thinking about this a lot the last few weeks....and I've been thinking about how by acting this way I've basically been sitting in God's seat, instead of waiting for my invitaion to the head of the table (as proverbs 25 says).  This will only lead to my own humilation... I know this...So I repent and I let go of the reigns of control of the world, asking God to give me the strength to never try to pick them up again.
  And I take this time to admit...I am a servant....a servant of a King who has forgiven me a HUGE debt... a debt that I will never be able to repay.  But unlike the unforgivening debtor in this story, I pray that I would learn to forgive others in the same way I have been forgiven...with an overwhelming love and grace. And in that sense I can act like my King. Amen.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Who am I to Expect That?!....

I expect things out of people. I probably would not have admitted that before today, but it's true none the less. I pretty much believe that I should treat people how I want to be treated and in return they should also treat me as I want to be treated. I expect that if I give to them that they should give back to me as well and that when I take their crap they should willingly take mine too. I also expect that people should do things my way and see things as I do. I expect them to give me the benefit of the doubt, even when I don't do the same for them. And I expect them to care about me and the things I care about, even when its not something that interests them. I expect people to be who I think I need them to be, instead of who they are. And then to top it all off...I get hurt and offended when people don't live up to my standards. But one reaccuring theme that God has been speaking into my life for the past year is that it doesn't matter what other people do or don't do. Every person in this world is responsible for their own actions and attitudes and thus even if people never live up to my expectations, it does not matter....I still treat them with love, joy and respect. That is so much easier to talk about than do. It's hard to swallow your pride and shut off that part of you that says "I deserve better"....but I guess that is what it means to take up your cross. It takes understanding the weight of your own sin and how much your own failures have cost. It takes understanding the depth of your own debt...and realizing how far you have fallen from the expectation's of God. And it takes an understanding of the grace and mercy God has shown to you to do it! Some days I get it....maybe not completely but enough so that I can offer that same grace to others. And then there are other days....where what I want matters most to me in this world and mercy and grace are such foriegn concepts that God has to literally beat me over the head with my own sin before I start to see I am just as much of a sinner in need of grace as everyone else...and thus there is no other option but Jesus. I pray that God helps me to get this more and more every day...that I would have a deeper understanding of my sin so that I can have a greater understanding of His grace. And I pray that I learn that the only expectation Ishould place on people is that they will need grace just as much as me.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Who It's all About...

  Sometimes I get lost in the clutter of trying to please and impress people and making a way for myself...that I forget that life is NOT about me!  Then I have moments like last night where I was reminded of the TRUTH...
  I've been fighting off some kind of sickness the last few days and so there I was curled up in bed, just laying there, resting and thinking about life...and praying.  Then out of no where it was like God gently asked me (in that non-audible but deep down in my spirit kinda way) "Who are you living for?".  It wasn't said accusatory or in a demeaning kinda way.  Just a question.....said with care. 
  And what I realised once again is that when I put God in His rightful place in my life and remember that life is about Him and making His name known, all that other stuff....all the clutter of the world...just doesn't seem to matter so much any more!
  I don't have to make my way in this world because God will lead me along His path.  I don't have to make a name for myself because it's God's name that should be glorified.  I don't have to impress people and try to gain their acceptance because I've already been accepted by the most meaningful person in the world...God Himself!
  Now to just keep on remembering that....