Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lord's Boot Camp

I watched the 48 Hours Special last night on The Lord's Boot Camp. It is akin to the documentary Jesus Camp (which I'm trying to get a hold of) and outlines 3 youth as they attend a Teen Missions camp. Two of the students that they followed were being prepared for a mission trip to Zambia to work with children and one of the students was going to Indiana to evangelize at what looked like a county fair. The methods were pretty intense...providing "practice" evangelistic conversations on how to "lead" someone to the Lord and even going to a nursing home to "practice" on some elderly. They did personally challenging tasks that were designed to test their mettle and they came away with a clear sense of purpose and training for the tasks that they would undertake on their mission trips.

Okay. Hold up! A "practice" evangelistic conversation with elderly folks at the nursing home? Seriously? What makes it okay for a 13 year old (chock full of righteous training) to go into a vulnerable population and tell the woman how sinful she was just so that she can "pray the prayer" with her and write her name on a card. I'm not exaggerating...that's what happened. The other two students who were being trained for Zambia were shown to experience pretty rough conditions in order to be able to endure what they would physically have to endure. Their minds were shaped, their bodies were shaped, and then, just so that they wouldn't be a total mess, they brought in Billy Graham's grandson, Will, to build them back up and commission them for their trip. Hmm.

I'm all for evangelism, and I'm sure that the tv show was slanted to some degree, but I actually heard one of the leaders of the camp say that they "use" children to do the evagelism because who wouldn't want to talk to the children? Manipulation, anyone? I do not call what the kids were being trained to do as evangelism--sharing the good news. They were sharing a "hell fire and damnation" gospel (of which I was well acquainted during some of my formative years) that reeks of emotional (and temporary) conversion, the kind that requires asking Jesus into your heart again and again. Seriously? Unfortunately it is this manipulative, disjointed, fear-induced gospel that the world seems to be rejecting. I pray that the life-giving gospel of Christ is proclaimed and true evangelism--redemptive, faithful, hope-giving--is able to be shared.

This video is a part of a panel discussion that CBS engineered with a broad base of students to respond. There are several other videos and they provide some good food for thought to hear how teens themselves respond.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You Are Not Alone...

In mid October, I attended a women’s retreat led by women from my church. One of the speakers, Lisa, a woman that I’ve known for over 10 years, was sharing an experience about how God reminded her of his love during a particularly difficult time in her life. As she went about her day, she began noticing flowers. Not just any flowers, but yellow flowers with a black center. Sometimes the flowers were sunflowers, other times wildflowers, and sometimes they were printed on t-shirts, bags or in pictures. Every time Lisa saw one of these flowers (which was often), she was reminded of God’s love for her. It was as simple as that. God notices her and he loves her and as a symbol of his love, he sends her flowers.

As she was speaking, I was reminded of a time when I went alone on a silent retreat. I had gone hiking and as I was moving from place to place, I discovered that a butterfly seemed to be following me. For probably an hour, the butterfly was my companion. At the end of the day, I sat on a bench and spent some time in prayer and journaling and discovered, once again, that a butterfly had joined me. In that moment, God was more tangible to me than I had remembered in quite some time. Lisa’s story of the yellow flowers brought my encounter with the butterfly to my mind.

The next morning, I was standing in the church office, speaking with several people and a magazine caught my eye. The cover was a photo of a swarm of butterflies. I smiled as I thought back to the day before, when I identified the butterfly as an experience of God’s presence several years earlier. The next day, I saw a moth as I walked into the Student Center to go to lunch. I laughed as I thought of the fact that it wasn’t quite a butterfly, but that a moth was the next best thing! On Tuesday, I had a meeting with my District Superintendent and would you believe what she was wearing on her lapel? A painted butterfly pin! I began to put together all of my “butterfly sightings” and thought that maybe, just maybe God was sending me a little message.

You see, I’m not usually one to “look for signs” or read too much into what is happening at the moment, but I most definitely believe in a God who cares about each of us individually and communicates with us. I know that God loves me, but sometimes I suppose that I, like Lisa, tend to get overly busy and distracted and feel lonely and need a reminder of God’s love. On Wednesday, my suspicions that this may be a part of God’s plan were confirmed as I went to speak to a woman that occasionally attends our chapel services. As I spoke to her, I noticed that she, too, was wearing a pin: a painted butterfly! I almost laughed out loud and as I did, I remembered that Reinhold Niebuhr said that laughter is the beginning of a prayer. I decided to thank God, right then and there, for the little ways that he was showing me that he loves me…I know in big ways that God loves me—I know the joy of being a Christian, I have everything that I need, I have a strong sense of calling, I have friends and family that show me love—but the butterflies began to minister to me in a very intimate way. The next day, I was reading a friends’ blog from several months earlier when I happened to see pictures of her family at a butterfly farm. On Friday, the butterfly was on a student’s t-shirt. On Saturday evening, I realized that I had not yet seen a butterfly. I was coming back from the grocery store and listening to the radio when the DJ spoke about how he used to dismiss people’s stories of “weird” things being God’s voice but he had come to realize that God could speak through anything, when just then, my headlights caught the side of a house that had 3 painted wooden butterflies attached to the side of the house. If I had any intellectualized skeptic left in me, that soon disappeared!

Over the course of an entire week, a butterfly had been present with me in some form or fashion every single day. I began to think back through all that was happening in my life: I was entering a time in my life that was particularly stressful, a time when I was looking for God’s guidance and strength in a new way and somehow the vulnerability of the butterfly has become a gift from God to encourage me through these difficult days. Would you believe that every single day for 6 weeks, I saw a butterfly? It’s true! Perhaps my butterflies were sent to give me that extra little bit of encouragement during a particularly difficult 6 weeks. Perhaps there have been butterflies all along, but I’ve been too busy to notice. Perhaps there is another explanation. However, I choose to believe that God was sending me a message that isn’t too different than the message that he sends to each of us, if we would only have the ears to hear it. That message is this: I love you. I notice you. I’m with you. I will give you strength. Be not afraid.

P.S. One of my butterfly sightings during that 6 weeks was the cover of the book that is shown above. I was examining a book catalog and spied the little butterfly in the picture. And then I read the title of the book!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting Refreshed

Each December (for the last 3, counting this one), I attend a conference called "Refresh" sponsored by the Foundation for Evangelism for United Methodists in Campus Ministry. This year, I was on the design team, which meant that I watched things a little more closely than I have in the past (and I didn't quite get as "refreshed" as I have the other years!). I posted following the first one a couple of years ago, and I wanted to post a couple of observations this year, too.

  • First of all, community is irreplacable. Several of my friends from seminary (and beyond) attend this conference, but I've also begun to form community with others that I would never have known without meeting them through the common bond of campus ministry in the United Methodist Church. We all come from very different backgrounds (sometimes theologically, and sometimes the context of our ministries), but we like each other and we are united around a common goal: living out the gospel among younger adults in the context of the United Methodist Church. That is enough to join us together. I certainly get my "emotional cup" refilled to overflowing when I attend Refresh! Thanks be to God!

  • Second of all, at this particular conference, there seemed to be a stirring of the Holy Spirit around the ideas of simplicity, living in community and living spiritual practices. I make this statement with this qualification: we often say these things, but this week, I believed the people who said them. Our line-up was interesting: Chris Seay, the guy in charge of the Ekklesia Project; Sean Gladding (who was a classmate of mine at Asbury), co-pastor of Mercy Street Ministries (and an insightful bible teacher!!!!), a community in Houston; and Dr. Elaine Heath, a theologian from Perkins School of Theology at SMU (there were others, but these three were most notable to me). My personal response to the combination of these messages is this: We live fractured, busy, consuming lives, even if we are "Christians." However, the message of the gospel, found in the enduring pages of Scripture and lived out by communities of Christians, provides a message of completion and redemption to counter our own misaligned attempts. The single most important feature of living this type of life is true, life-giving, intentional Christian community (see above--a "full" emotional cup, not to mention living the Kingdom here on earth!).

  • Thirdly, at a personal level, I was confirmed in some thoughts that I've had, and have shared with students, about the possibility of having a home for some of our amazing college students that is dedicated to hospitality, intentional Christian community, and spiritual practices. Elaine and others are starting homes like this in the Dallas area, and maybe elsewhere! Stay tuned for more of my thoughts on this in the upcoming months, but trust me, I'm excited!

Despite the fact that I somehow ended up more tired at the end of my time together with 160 others that love college aged students, I am incredibly excited about the work of God's Spirit in the ministries of my colleagues around the country! May God continue to breathe even more life into all of our ministries!

(For another perspective on Refresh, see my colleague and mentor, Steve Rankin's, blog here.)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

God's activity in the world

God has been teaching me a lesson in the last month that I can only begin to reference here and will probably outline more in a later posting. However, at this time, I'm compelled to notice God's activity in the world around me. This image of the book at the left illustrates what I'm talking about. I haven't read the book, but the cover and the concept capture me. If God is personally involved in my life (and yours), it can be assumed that even the seemingly mundane must have an imprint of God in it. And yet, often I fail to see it. I'm compelled to ask: what is God doing in the world around me that I'm too busy to notice?
O God, may I never be too busy, too self-absorbed, and too pious to be above the places where you might bring me! Open my eyes to where you are at work. Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Good Old Days!

This weekend was my 10 year class reunion from college. Once I was able to get beyond the fact that I've been out of college for an entire decade, I decided that I was going to have fun with it! Here are a couple of my observations:

  • The groups that we hung out with in college were nearly irrelevant after 10 years! Obviously you want to catch up with your friends, but I found it as exciting to catch up with people that I had barely thought about during the 10 years that have passed!

  • The more things change, the more things stay the same. While there may have a been a few surprises out of people, people more often were pretty similar to how they were when we were in college. For example--Burt (now a doctor) announced politely that he was going to use the restroom. Chris (now a lawyer) said, "Hey guys--here is our chance to all run out of the restaurant and leave him!" And then, after about 10 minutes, Chris points out that we still have our opportunity to leave Burt since he had not left the restroom yet. What the heck was he doing in there?

  • College yearbooks can provide hours of free entertainment. With a couple of guys providing color commentary, stories from the "good old days" were told, critiques were made on the fashions of days gone by, and guesses were made on where people might have ended up. Or at least that is the edited version of what happened on Saturday night with the yearbooks. :)

  • Southwestern College does a great job of educating it's students! I have to say that I was VERY impressed with some of the accomplishments of some of my classmates, and I'm not just talking about the jobs that they've held, but rather the people that they've become! Most of the people that I spoke with are serving in their churches, in their community, and wanting to make a difference in the world!

I just think that it was amazing that nearly 30 people from the class of 1998 came back to visit Winfield and Southwestern! Most brought their spouse or family and all brought some good memories! It brought back some old memories and gave us a chance to make some new ones.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On Call 24.7

I have a friend who formerly held a job with a large company that required her to carry a company phone and be on call virtually at all times. She technically had some days that she was "off duty," but due to her position as head over safety for the whole factory, "off duty" time meant nothing in the case of an accident that slowed down production. I remember meeting her for a quick lunch one day, only to have it disturbed by an emergency at work. This friend of mine, a powerful woman, hung up her phone, eyes threatening to spill over with tears, and said, "I just want to eat lunch with my friend in peace. Can't I just have an hour without being on duty?"

I feel for my friend. Her life was dictated by that little annoying gadget on her hip that could reach her anywhere (which meant everywhere). I remember thinking about how glad I was that I didn't have a job where I had to be on call all the time. I think I was sympathetic toward her and told her that she certainly deserved some time off every now and then, just as everyone deserves time off every now and then. And yet, I'm not so sure if I agree with myself anymore.

First...a qualification: everyone needs to take time to rest. In scripture we hear of that time as observing the Sabbath. I won't take the time right now to talk about why I think Sabbath is so important (and I do! I really, really do!), but what I do want to talk about is about the importance of living out our faith 24.7.

I'm currently teaching a Sunday School class at my church on the book of Philippians. I really don't know why I chose Philippians, except that several of my favorite verses are in it. I'm using a commentary by Tom Wright for some background info, but we're moving through pretty slowly and asking lots of questions of the text, and of ourselves. We've only made it through chapter 1, but one of the things that I've been struck by so far has to do with our citizenship as a Christian. Newsflash: as a Christian, I must relinquish any of my own rights and privileges, and take on the perspective of being a Kingdom citizen. This shouldn't be revolutionary, should it? And yet, far too often, I want to be a good Christian when the setting is convenient, but not if it requires something of me.

In various ways throughout chapter 1 of Philippians, Paul mentions that the Christians to whom he is writing will suffer. In fact, in verse 29 of chapter 1, he actually says that it is a privilege that they can suffer for Christ. What kind of masochistic man is that Paul? It sounds like the beginnings of the Opus Dei a la Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. And yet, I become ever convinced that the suffering that Paul is talking about is not just something that the select few in the time of the earliest persecution of the church will experience. Rather, if we are reading the gospel correctly, we must acknowledge that obedience to it requires an element of suffering, no matter who you are. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells me that as a Christian, I'm required to take up my cross daily and follow Christ. That same passage goes on to say that if I want to gain my life, I must lose it. What a crazy gospel this is, is it not? To paraphrase C.S. Lewis' famous quote,
this gospel must either be crazy or be true. Why would people follow a God that required so much? The only plausible explaination that I can come up with is that people follow it because the God that authors that salvation story has transformed their lives and requires nothing less than offering our lives back to him.

And now...I return to my initial thoughts about being "on call 24.7." While my friend ended up quitting her job that sucked the life out of her because she was always on duty, in God's economy, we have the opportunity to live "on call 24.7" and actually find true life in Christ. And all that God expects in exchange is that we willingly lay down our lives for him. All the time. At work and at play. In our relationships. In our amusements. In our wallets, purses and bank accounts. In our despair. In our joy. It sounds like God is asking too much, and yet what a great God we serve! I give him my rags, and he gives me his righteousness. But why, oh why are those rags so difficult to give up?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sock Monkeys and Blogging

Okay...I found this and it made me chuckle (and think of my sister and my friend, Amber). I know that I could have just linked this to the article itself, but I also like to read the blog and wanted to post it here.

The link is to a blog about a sock monkey ministry. There's something in the world for everyone. I'm just saying...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Pain of Change

I spent the better part of the afternoon and early evening rearranging my office. Coming from a person that doesn't love change--but loves order--it was a bit of a painful, yet refreshing experience. A couple of weeks ago, just several days before all the students returned to campus, I had the opportunity to get a different desk. Considering the fact that my former desk was functional, but was HUGE for my smallish office, I was thrilled at the prospect of getting one that was more flexible in size (and has a great built-in light!). The new desk would be great, but the timing was about as bad as it could be! The week before students come and the first week that they're here are about the busiest days of the year on campus. Think Macy's on the day after Thanksgiving! We have a very integrated campus when it comes to faculty and staff involvement and so I end up playing several roles when it comes to those first two weeks and I was not in any mood to play Trading Spaces with my office. And yet, because of the disdain I had for my old desk and the sweet built-in light, I packed up my desk and prepared to rearrange.

On the appointed day, (with much anticipation, I might add) I opened my door to see my new desk in it's proper position. Unfortunately because this new one was shorter on one side and longer on the other, it left about an 8 inch swath between the desk and a bookshelf through which I might squeeze. My co-worker said, "That's a bruise waiting to happen." And right she was! I've gotten at least 2 since my new arrangement happened! So, finally today I invested 3.5 hours of my life to bring a little order to the chaos that was my office. I cleaned out filing cabinets, moved a very-full (and very dusty!) bookshelf (which made me temporarily wish that I wasn't such a bibliophile, but just temporarily! I do love my books!), and separated the two parts of the desk to make my office more inviting. If someone would have seen me an hour before I was done, they would have thought that a tornado came my way, but by now, everything looks like it's been exactly where it is for months. The new arrangement is fantastic! My office looks twice as big, is comfortable and looks like a place that welcomes people to come and "sit a spell," instead of getting an answer to their question and moving on to the next task on their list. Looking at the new arrangement makes me wonder why I waited 3 years to push things around a bit since I was never really happy with how it formerly was.

Change is inevitable, they say. But that doesn't make it easy. I suppose that's a good thing. Establishing patterns are part of Christian discipleship. Sometimes the patterns (or disciplines, to use a not very fun sounding word) carry us through the times in our lives when our motivation can't. But patterns can sometimes kill, or at least bruise, us spiritually. We get used to playing a certain role in a community, or doing the things that we know will keep us safe and (moderately) happy, or doing what we've always done because even if we aren't totally happy, at least we know what to expect. And then, every now and then, something happens to jar us into a new reality. We get sick, get a new job, take a risk, watch someone else get sick, get a new job or take a risk and we realize that the patterns that we've been living in have constricted us to a place where we're no longer trusting God with the future, but rather controlling it (or at least attempting to) with our well-worn patterns.

Clearly rearranging my office is nothing compared to the kind of changes that really shock our systems and instill in us a sense of the awareness of God's provision at EVERY level in life. And yet, God speaks, even through rearranging an office. The message that he's whispering to me is that what may feel inconvenient, difficult, or even painful in the moment can serve to free us from our status quo and open us to the winds of change that blow through from time to time. And at least right now, some of the clutter (and dust!) is gone.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My new favorite blog

A couple of years ago, I started reading a blog that was probably one of the first that I ever read with any regularity. It was called WesleyBlog and was written by Shane Raynor. The blog went silent for some time but has now been resurrected in a new form. Here it is...enjoy!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

My new favorite song

Here's a link to my new favorite song that I heard on a Relevant Podcast a couple of months ago. The video absolutely cracks me up! It's on the Relevant TV broadcast and you have to click on the Pork and Beans video by Weezer. You should see nods to a couple of YouTube favorites.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Minister's Prayer

The Concluding Prayer of the Church that I read during the Midday Office today is one that I'm claiming. Here it is:

O Lord my God, to you and your service I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit. Fill my memory with the record of your mighty works; enlighten my understanding with the light of your Holy Spirit; and make all the desires of my heart and will center in what you would have me do. Make me an instrument of your salvation for the people entrusted to my care, and let me by my life and speaking set forth your true and living Word. Be always with me in carrying out the duties of my vocation; in praises heighten my love and gratitude; in speaking of You give me readiness of thought and expression; and grant that, by the clearness and brightness of your holy Word, all the world may be drawn to your blessed kingdom. All this I ask for the sake of your Son my Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vespers Prayer

As if on cue, the concluding prayer for the Vespers reading for today reads like this:

Drop thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
John G. Whittier

Amen, and Amen

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Changing Gears

It seems that this is the time of year when I feel a little torn between the quiet "dog days" of summer and the busy "Fall Frenzy" of a new year. I've had quite a bit going on this summer with some projects that I've been working on and my sister getting married, but I've been able to rest and relax a bit, too. I haven't had much contact time with students, so obviously I'm excited to reconnect with current students and meet the new ones that will be heading our way. Looking backward to what is behind and looking forward to what is ahead is not always comfortable. It's hard to truly be present in the moment when our heads and hearts are rooted elsewhere. My transition, thankfully, is not a major one. I'm not moving, or getting a new job, or getting married, like many others that I know. But the rhythms of my current day-to-day life are changing for the next phase of the year.

Rhythms are important. They remind us that our current circumstances are temporary...just wait until x happens and then y will happen. They also help us to order the chaos of our life...we can put a little order to the pandemonium when we get into a rhythm. And rhythms shape and form us...there is a level of submission required in order to truly lapse into a rhythm.

One rhythm that I've been thinking about this summer which carries me into the fall is that of prayer. As noted before, I've been praying the "Divine Hours" this summer, praying the Morning, Midday, Vespers, and Night Offices. The Morning one felt pretty natural, and even the Night one, too. But the Midday and the Vespers? Those two cramped my style a bit. I decided to pray the Midday Office upon returning from lunch. Occasionally I forgot and already got started checking my email or returning to the project I had left prior to my lunch break. When I did, it took every ounce of discipline that I had to stop what I was doing, break the rhythm of work, to enter a different rhythm, the rhythm of prayer. The Vespers Office was similar. I found myself trying to pray it before I left my office to head for home, but quickly found that undesirable. Instead, I opted to pray the Vespers prayer after dinner. Again, the difficult thing is not the actual praying, but subverting my agenda for the rhythm of prayer.

After a summer of praying in this manner, I have several reflections. First of all, nothing "magical" happened during these times of prayer. Sometimes (dare I say it?), I felt like I was robotically reading words, albeit it holy words. Sometimes, my mind or heart engaged more and I was temporarily blessed. But rarely did the prayer do anything to me. Or so I thought.

Sure, I'll grant that praying this way did not lead me to some of the more "emotional" encounters with God that I've experienced in other manners of prayer, but praying the Hours led me to a whole different kind of experience in prayer than I've known before, and it is all tied up to the concept of the rhythms. We're commended in Scripture to pray without ceasing and (as the Psalms often assigned in my prayerbook say) pray in the morning, at noonday and at night. I've often said that I felt like I've done that by continually throwing up prayers (pun intended) all throughout the day. Now, don't get me wrong...I think that God is pleased when we ask for help in all things, but I also think that often my "throw up prayers" are more about my lack of faith or patience or wisdom that can only be changed through the slow, constant, rhythmic formation of sustained reorientation (if there is such a concept). Praying the Hours allows someone else to set the agenda. Sure, I can still lift my heart to the Lord, but I'm also being reminded of the need every morning to ask God to "preserve me with [God's] mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome with adversity; and in all I do, direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ my Lord" (emphasis mine). My agenda takes a back seat, when I pray at the end of the day, "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit." My own individualism who wants to keep things on track is derailed, to the agenda of the One Who Is REALLY In Charge.

So has my praying four times a day done anything? You bet it has. It has made me more willing to listen, not just to God, but to others. It has given me perspective by joining in the prayers of the saints across time. And it has created a rhythm in me that is able to join more closely to the rhythm of God. So, crazy, busy I come. Despite the chaos and commotion that is campus life in the fall, I enter with a sense of peace and expectation that through it all, God is sustaining me. Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Not quite ready for college? Take a Gap Year....hmm...

I subscribe to several e-newsletters, one of which comes from Walter Mueller's Center for Parents/Youth Understanding. I just got this article written by Derrick Melleby, who leads their work on transitioning students to college. Any thoughts?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Our Father

One of my spiritual practices this summer has been to pray through the "Divine Hours," as Phyllis Tickle calls them in her manual of the same name. It's "praying the hours," founded on readings from the Book of Common Prayer. Last fall I started praying the Morning Office, usually with a couple of students before their 9:00 class. However, I haven't really prayed through all the offices until this summer. This morning, while praying the Morning Office, as I've done most mornings for the last year, I prayed the Lord's Prayer.

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread..."

You know it, whether you pray trespasses or debts, you know it. Anyway, as I was praying these first three lines, I was struck by something that, ashamedly, I've just noticed. I noticed that I had just prayed in the plural..."Our Father...Give us...our daily bread." Praying the Lord's prayer has not been one of my common practices, except for in church when I pray it along with the rest of the congregation, until I started praying the hours. And throughout most of the year, I prayed it with students. This summer, I've been praying the Lord's prayer by myself, but today the "corporate-ness" of it really struck me.

One of the powerful things to me about using Divine Hours as a guidebook for prayer has been the idea that while I'm praying this prayer now in my time zone, an hour from now, someone in Mountain Time will be praying it. And then Pacific, etc. The idea of continual prayer, around the world becomes a reality. I think this morning I sensed a similar reality, except on a bigger scale with the Lord's prayer. While I was praying, I realized that while I may be praying it alone in my living room or in my office, "the saints," both living and dead have prayed this prayer innumerable times. Hebrews 11 and the first verse of Hebrews 12 comes to mind, "Here we are, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." The faithful prayers of so many, initiated by Jesus' important prayer, help us hold that prayer in proper context. We can pray to God, requesting for God's kingdom to be realized here on earth and that God's purposes would be accomplished. We can be grateful for the provision that God gives us through physical things and receive the forgiveness of God, as well. We also can ask for God's protection through all of our trials and temptations. We. Sure, I individually could ask for these these things, but this is a prayer for all of humanity. It reminds us that we haven't "arrived" yet. And, due to it's universality, it is a prayer that helps us experience community, even if we're praying it alone in our living room. Thanks be to God!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Summer Vacation (Books and Travels)

In my last blog, I wrote about how great it was to read some of the books that I've been wanting to read this summer! That remains true...I've read two more books since I wrote that last and I'll give my two sentence synopsis of those two books:

Taking Back the United Methodist Church by Mark Tooley. This book was written just in time for all the delegates of the quadrennial General Conference by the UM Action Director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. While I think that the book had lots of good information in it, the sometimes inflammatory tone could perhaps mislead readers, especially readers who have a beef against the IRD or Tooley. Reading the book gave me some background on some of the contemporary controversies in the UMC (for the good or for the bad). (Sorry...that was three sentences.)

2.) The Shack by William P. Young. Paraphrasing Eugene Peterson in his accolades of the book, The Shack is a modern-day Pilgrim's Progress. That's pretty high praise, but (if you don't take the theology too seriously, as it borders on modalism)the book is encouraging and helps to answer the question of how God is at work during difficult times. (There...I did it in 2 sentences!)

I also got to go on vacation since my last post. I visited friends in Oxford, MS; Lake Arthur, LA; and Mandeville, LA and had my fill of southern food! Borrowing from my good friend Katie's blog, I'll adopt her style of 5 words or phrases to summarize my trip:

Oxford--Laughter. Conversation. Great Food. Southern Charm. Kindred Spirits.
Lake Arthur--Stories. Giggles. Crawfish. Spiritually Relaxing. Felt like home.
Mandeville--Barfing Baby. Rest. Catching Up. French Market. Sharing Secrets.

I had such a great time with Corrie and D., Melanie and her family and Shannon and Jeff! Thanks to you all for hosting me! What a gift each of you are to me...

I ended my vacation at a family wedding in Springfield, MO. After 2300 miles and about $200 in gasoline, I arrived home exhausted, but feeling incredibly blessed by my friends and family!

PS I listened to two more great AudioBooks on my travels, Light from Heaven by Jan Karon and Morality for Beautiful Girls, one of Alexander McCall Smith's books from the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Both were great!

Friday, June 06, 2008

From the Bookshelf

One of the joys of summertime in campus ministry is that I have more time to read the books that have been cluttering up my desk! In the last week I’ve begun two new books—one for “research” purposes and the other for my own edification! I had skimmed through Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion last spring, but the time has come for me to sit down and really read it. While it reveals some truly fascinating research about the beliefs and demographics of American young adults (which he defines as people age 21-45), it still is a book full of social science research, thus requiring a somewhat methodical pace. I’ve read half of it so far and have discovered several things:

Discovery Number 1:
Much of the media’s hype (and the church’s hype, for that matter) about the secularizing of America isn’t quite as “bad” as it is made out. True, fewer people are in worship on Sunday morning (or Saturday night, or Sunday night, etc.), but convictions of Christian young adults about the Bible aren’t drastically different than they were twenty years ago (before the Absolute Truth campaign began in evangelical circles). (See Figure 5.2, if you have the book.)

Discovery Number 2:
While folks for millennia have said that Christianity is for the ignorant and for women (I’m loosely quoting an early critique of Christians), the research says otherwise, at least for young adults! True, the number of women in the church does outnumber the men, but generally, the more education a person has, the more likely they are to attend religious services (There is one glaring—and puzzling—exception, according to Wuthnow’s research. Religious participation dropped significantly for women after they earned a graduate degree. This was not true for men. See Figure 3.5, if you have the book.) So, folks…I guess it’s true…you can be an educated person and still be a Christian! Thank God!

Contrast this book with Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People by Mike Yaconelli. This book is a refreshingly honest glimpse into the life of a spiritual leader who confesses that often he didn’t feel so spiritual. I’ve loved reading it because it reminds me that while the Spiritual Disciplines are so important in shaping me as a Christian, more important is my understanding that all of life is spiritual. The message of grace pervades the pages of the book, yet it doesn’t give license to give into the pangs of spiritual practice when they hit (if that was how it worked). I’m reminded that John Wesley wrote to a struggling preacher:

“Fix some part of everyday for [reading and praying]. You may acquire the taste which you have not: What is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty superficial Preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross, and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you…”

So…I read. I read even the tedious and difficult passages that shape and form my understanding of my calling. I read the stuff that inspires and convicts me. I read the Scriptures that orient my mind and heart. And I’m grateful that there are others that read, too.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Morning Prayer

Last fall I started a morning prayer time with a small group of students using Phyllis Tickle's Divine Hours as our guidebook. This morning the "Prayer Appointed for the Week" particularly spoke to me:

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep me, I pray, from all things that may hurt me, that I, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with a free heart those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one Good, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Would you join me in prayer?

His name was Ed. He was wearing an old Tommy Hilfiger jersey shirt over a plaid flannel shirt and a Budweiser Select ball cap. His face showed that at its last shave, he had worn a goatee. But his last shave had to have been over a week ago. His eyes were brown and welled up with tears from time to time. He was missing one bottom tooth. And he was homeless. Not only was he homeless, but he was a heroin addict. I met him last Friday at a “Soup Kitchen” in St. Louis. Discipleship had taken its annual mission trip there for this year and we had worked in a variety of places: a children’s home (for a rough group of kids), two different schools (for an even rougher group of kids), and the soup kitchen. There were 21 of us in total. A group of students had worked all year planning the trip, another group fundraising for it, and all of us praying for it. And now we were in the midst of the trip. We had just completed a “Homeless Walk,” where we had spent two hours trying to understand the homeless situation in downtown St. Louis. We walked (in the rain, as it had been raining the whole week we were there) for four miles from place to place, a church where they were allowed to pray, “Hobo Park” where they could take a nap, a library where they could read or search the internet, a couple of shelters where they could sleep for the night, and back to the church, where they could grab their next meal. We were pretty miserable from the two hours that we spent in the cold and rain, and then had the opportunity to eat with some of the men, women and children with whom we now felt solidarity. I followed two of my students to a table near the back of the room where they sat down beside a man who nodded and said hi when we sat down.

Ed confessed to us his heroin addiction early in our conversation and then told us that he would be entering a treatment program for his addiction that afternoon. He told us that he had a ride coming to pick him up after lunch was over. As we talked, he shared with us that he had not always been a drug addict. He had formerly been a window washer for high rise buildings and had been able to work anywhere he wanted. At one point, he even told use that he “was not like the rest of these homeless guys.” He said that he had only been homeless for a week and that he had now hit rock bottom. He spoke with clarity, not appearing to be high at the moment. He expressed his regret, sadness, and anger at his addiction. And thankfully, he had hope. He had hope that he would break out of his darkness, but not a na├»ve, unfounded hope.

“Five years ago, I would have been the one here helping out with this program, telling these guys that they can break out of addiction,” he said. You see, he had been “clean” several different times, once for more than two years. But, slowly, temptation had arisen for him, one time in the form of a client who offered him drugs, sending him into the downward spiral of addiction, once again. This time, he said that it had partially been because of his girlfriend, Stephanie. They were both addicts who had been clean when they met, but “were not good for each other,” as he said. She had entered the hospital that morning for her attempt at rehabilitation. But he painfully told me that they had broken up that morning when she went to rehab. He wants to be clean and he knows that he can’t be clean and stay connected to her. Now, I was hopeful. He might have a chance, I internally reasoned. I asked him why he had been able to stop doing drugs before and he said, “God. I know that God is the only thing stronger than heroin. I just hope that he can break the addiction in me this time, too, and for good.” At one point, he even said, “You don’t know how hard it is for me to stay sitting here. Everything in me wants to just get up right now and go outside and find drugs.” Thankfully, not quite everything. I believe that there is a glimmer of God’s grace that is holding on to him in the midst of his darkness.

I have to say, I don’t understand the downward spiral of addiction. I hear it has dark claws that hold on to the heart and mind of those that submit. I think of Frodo in Lord of the Rings and the weakness that results for him when he “uses” the ring to “hide.” The final scenes of the last movie of the trilogy illustrate the bitter conflict of addiction, as best I can ascertain. The darkness that enfolds a person when they are in sin, that is something that we can all identify with, I suppose. The apostle Paul said it this way: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). He goes on to say, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24). Truly, only the power of God can set any of us free from our inclination to sin. And thankfully Ed knows that, too. Unfortunately, admitting you have a problem is only the first step.

Ed will have many steps to take in getting free from his addiction. And unfortunately he will have to take the hardest of those steps by himself. He will need every possible grace of God in order to make it. I asked him how long his rehab would be. He said 12 weeks to 6 months, but hoped that it would be 6 months long. He really wants to make it this time and the longer he would have, the better his chance would be. As he spoke, I forcefully felt the urge to pray for him, not just that day, but until his treatment was over. I tried to shove it away…intercession is hard work! But, the urge would not leave me. I offered it to him. “Ed, would it be okay with you for me to pray with you for the next 6 months, while you’re in rehab?” Those brown eyes, now rimmed in red, welled up with tears as he said, “Oh please! And would you pray for Stephanie, too?” He went on to say that he knew that he needed every support that he could possibly get in order to break free from his addiction.

His ride came right on time to pick him up. He gathered his things and said over his shoulder, “Thanks for your prayers.” His next 6 months will be the hardest of his life. He will have to let his body get rid of the drugs. He will have to resist the urges to “stop” the pain by getting more drugs. And he will have to learn how to forgive himself and others who have contributed to his addiction. I do believe that he’s learned the lesson of sacrifice in obedience. He yielded his relationship with his girlfriend in an attempt to make it this time. But, even still, I don’t know if he’ll make it. I want to believe that he will. I want Ed to draw strength knowing that someone is praying for him in Kansas. I want him to turn his life around and begin a ministry of reaching out to drug addicts to show them the way of life in Christ. I want all that to happen, but I will never know, even if it does happen. The task of the Christian is to be faithful, even when one doesn’t see results. Even so, I pray that this time, Ed can make it. May it be so, Lord, may it be so.

Lord, be with Ed and Stephanie. Surround them with your love and grace. Bring people into their lives that have compassion and care for them. Remove the darkness that addiction brings to them. Shine in your healing light. Let them know that they are worth loving, even in their darkest moments.

Friday, April 25, 2008

27, er, I mean 9 Dresses guessed it! I get to be a bridesmaid, AGAIN! This time it is for my twin sister. The picture to the left is them. Don't they look happy? They are...and everyone else is pretty happy for them, too! For any of my friends who read this, here is their wedding website.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Accomplishments and Disappointments

Last Sunday, I accomplished something that I’ve talked about doing for 3 and a half years! My friend (and former running partner!!), Corrie, and I began talking about running a half marathon back when we were running around the gym in the Luce Center. It seemed like a far off goal, as even then we were “building up” to running a 5K, a mere 3.1 miles. But, we talked about it, even talking about where we would run the race. Life happened and I moved away, but we still talked about running one at some point. Then, “Life” passed me by as she continued training without me and ran a half marathon a year after I moved away.

And yet, I was given another chance. Last fall, my sister began talking about running a half marathon. When Amy brought it up, I told her that I was going to run one, too! I don’t think that she believed me. To her credit, I had really only started running again in August, and even then, it was just 1 measly mile. By that time it was October and I had worked up to 3 miles (but only once or twice!). What was I thinking? I wanted to be able to run 13.1 miles by the spring? Well, fortunately, I wasn’t thinking, just acting on a desire that had been planted in me three years earlier!

And so, armed with a new pair of Adidas, and some new workout clothes, I started running “purposefully” last November. My sister pushed me to run (even on Thanksgiving Day) even when I didn’t want to, and then my pride took over! I had told people, namely my sister (who, by the way is in awesome shape), that I was going to run a half marathon in the spring, and by golly, I was going to do it, even if it meant running on holidays. Throughout the winter, I bundled up, avoided the ice and snow, and ran anyway. I enjoyed the “think time” of being able to just go and put my brain on autopilot while I worked my body. By Christmas time, I was bored of my own brain and bit the bullet to buy an iPod to be my training partner. I was ecstatic when I discovered the Nike+ system that charts my mileage, my pace, and the length of time I’ve been running. Soon, I abandoned my old (shorter) routes of 3 to 5 miles and I set out to blaze a new (longer) trail, with my iPod as my guide! This was wonderful, as I didn’t have to take the time to drive my routes anymore. My distances were able to be downloaded, analyzed, and recorded for me to study to improve my pace. My iPod and me—we were a great team! It always told me everything I needed to know!

Race day came last Sunday morning in Lawrence, KS, and I was absolutely confident! Sure, I would be lots slower than my sister, but I would make it—no problem! During my last long workout, I had run 11.5 miles in 2 hours and 5 minutes and I was ready to go. It had not been easy, but I knew that I could make it one and a half miles further. As we set out running that morning, I quickly settled into my pace (SLOW!) that I knew I would be able to sustain. It wasn’t a breeze, but I was making it. I sure was looking forward to being done, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other…on Mass. St…by the stadium…up the hill to the Campanile…up another hill…and through residential areas. About mile 9, I began to be perplexed. I caught a glimpse of the mile marker and something didn’t seem right. I had pressed the button to hear from my iPod about my distance a few minutes earlier and it had told me that I had run over 10 miles. I was confused by the sign, but convinced myself that it must be wrong. According to the times that I had run the week before, I was on pace to have already run over 10 miles! I kept running, putting one foot in front of the other…a park…another hill…a water station…and then, finally, heading back in the direction of Haskell, where the race was to end. I pushed the button once again and heard sweet, wonderful words: “You’ve completed 12.5 miles.” Yeah! I’m almost done, but something didn’t quite seem right. I couldn’t even see the stadium yet. My worst fears were confirmed when I saw the mile marker sign marked 11. A panic set in as I realized that my iPod had been feeding me wrong information through my race that day. The worst of it? I had been sharing my information with a fellow runner who was just as ready to be done as I was! I silently despaired at the thought of 2.1 miles to go instead of the .5 miles that I thought remained. I confessed to my fellow runner that I had been accidentally feeding him wrong information and he confessed that he had stopped believing me a mile earlier when he passed the 10 mile mark (which apparently, I had explained away). Those last 2.1 miles seemed like the longest miles ever. My blister from the week before had returned, my knees ached, my head spun, and my toes hurt. But, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I prayed, I thought of the well wishes that I had gotten from students, friends, and family. As I headed toward the finish line, I saw my sister, some students from Southwestern, and the rest of my friends who were waiting patiently. I took the headphones out of my ears and I kept repeating the words, “I will not stop running, I will finish this race,” in my head. Somehow, I managed. For the next few minutes, everything sort of turned into a blur of pain, water, and the now unfamiliar feeling of standing still. As I told my friends about my iPod, my sister asked me, “Didn’t you see the mile markers? They should have told you how far you had run.” My answer? “I think I saw most of them, but I didn’t want to believe they were right. I wanted my iPod to be right.” I was struck by the truth in that statement. How frequently do I see the signs in life about something, but I explain it away through my own rationalizations, excuses, or ignorance. How many times do we look at something, and still not recognize the Truth standing right in front of us?

My finish time was disappointing. It took me a very long 2 hours and 40 minutes to finish the race. I was shooting for 2 hours and 20 minutes. I got home and downloaded the data to my computer and laughed out loud when I looked at it. I managed to keep the pace in my “desired” range (10:30-11:00/miles) until I ran 13 miles…according to my iPod, anyway. It takes a serious dip after it records 13. I wasn’t prepared. I thought I was. I had run for weeks, and weeks, and weeks. I thought I had run 11.5 miles. But, I was relying on a wrong system to tell me what to do. My iPod had been wrong on race day, but it had also been wrong every other day that I had trained. By my calculations, I must have only run 10 miles the previous week, causing a pretty big jump to 13 when it really counted. While I faced the disappointment of not hitting my goal, I did enjoy the satisfaction of completion of the race.

That’s what it’s truly about, isn’t it…finishing the race? In our Christian lives, we often think that we’re on the right track, doing all that we need to do, listening to God’s voice, and then sometimes, we’re put to the test by our circumstances and we discover that we really weren’t quite as prepared as we thought we were. We stumble. We fall. We sometimes even lead others astray by our actions. But fortunately, God continues to surround us with people cheering us on, encouraging us, and challenging us to get back in the race. And certainly he leaves us mile markers. If only we have the eyes to see them.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

And Yet...

After the supper was over, Jesus and his disciples left the Upper Room and went to a garden called Gethsemane. Jesus knew that his time on earth was limited and the unfolding events would alter not only his life, but the rest of human history. He must have been numbly exhausted, and yet, his soul was in distress. He made one request of his disciples: “Stay here and keep watch with me.” They must have been eager to please their rabbi, and yet, they failed him in his most distressing hour. Not once, not twice, but three times he found them sleeping when he had asked them to pray. How often we fail to keep our word, follow through, or do our best, despite our best intentions. And yet, Christ loves us through it all. He willingly drinks the cup that leads him to death for penalty of our sins.

As the Lenten season comes to a close and we wait longingly for Easter, may we remember that we are deeply in need of a Savior. We often seem to have it together. We like to think that we’re not that bad. However, at the very least, we get tired. We get impatient. We want things to just hurry up. We act like the disciples on that last night that Jesus had with together with them. We have good intentions, and yet, we fall asleep. Fortunately for us, we have a patient Savior. We can be rebuked and then reinstated (like Peter—the sleeper)! I take great peace in reading these words of Peter in 1 Peter 4:7: “Be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” Peter wrote these words knowing that this was not an easy task. And yet, he learned the lesson. May we learn it, too.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Lenten Lament

The season of Lent is upon us! We are caught in the middle of the time when we are initiated into death (Ash Wednesday) and when we celebrate the New Life of Jesus Christ through Resurrection Sunday (Easter). I did not grow up observing Lent. I thought it was something that only my Catholic friends did, and even then, I didn’t have any clue what it was that they did (except not eating meat). My first real exposure to Lent was when I went to a United Methodist college and we had an Ash Wednesday service in Chapel one year. I received the smudge of ashes on my forehead, feeling self-conscious for the next hour about what the ashes said about me. They boldly proclaimed my mortality—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. They said I was a “religious” person. They sent a message to others about who I was. And they made me uncomfortable! Sure, I was a Christian—others on campus who knew me already knew that about me. But somehow the ashes signified my brokenness in a way that I’d never “broadcast” before.

Lent is the time of year when we embrace the fact that we are a finite and broken people. In a sense, we mourn our humanity. We remember that one day we will die. In fact, as the preacher on Ash Wednesday said this year, “Without Christ, we are dead.” It sounds blunt, but it is the truth. When we live a life without Christ, we actually are dead already. Dead to eternal life. Dead because of our sin. We are walking dead. The Lenten season reminds us of our death. That’s not very encouraging! We like to put a positive spin on things. Naturally, we like to push our thoughts toward Easter, that resurrection morning when death was defeated. And yet, it’s important to dwell in the morbid thoughts of our broken humanity for this season of the year.

Christian tradition teaches us to deny ourselves of something during the Lenten season. Some choose chocolate, others Facebook, or something else. This year I chose morning TV. I’m not ashamed to admit it…my day starts better when I have Good Morning America to accompany me in my morning ritual! I sometimes switch to The Today Show when GMA isn’t so hot, but I do enjoy catching some news along with the new spring fashions. This year, I decided that I would give up morning television as a way of denying myself and focusing on Christ. All was well until that chapel a week after Ash Wednesday. It was announced in chapel that the Discipleship team would be giving up pop and sending the money to Blood: Water Mission to dig a well in Africa. This was news to me, but I was all for it! I had just recently heard about this project and their plan to build wells for clean water in Africa. I was happy to donate money, but not too keen on giving up pop. During this first week, I sort of played around with this idea. Okay…so I won’t buy any new pop, but I’ll drink what I have on hand (fortunately for me, I had purchased 2-24 packs. Hey—they were on sale!) just a week before Lent. Or, I won’t buy any pop at a restaurant, but if I’m not paying for it and it’s included in the price, it’s okay. I’ll still donate money. For goodness sake, I’m giving up morning TV for Lent! I didn’t decide on the pop thing—it was decided for me and I’ll donate the money.

And then, this weekend…the still, small voice of God finally broke through my litany of excuses.

“Ashlee…is this really about not drinking pop, or is this about your
stubborn humanity? Do you want to do things your way, or are you willing
to yield to me? Have you taken seriously what it means to ‘take up your
cross and follow me’?”
Well…when you put it that way, Lord! My broken excuses revealed for all to see about my humanity, much more obviously than the smudge of ashes on my forehead ever did. It’s easy for me (as for all of us) to justify our actions, pay off our “guilt,” or plug our ears to the still, small voice of our Savior. And so, we can’t skip ahead to Easter. We need Lent. A time when we willingly admit our brokenness, for all to see! We remind ourselves that without Christ, we are dead. We deny our “wants” in order to join in the sufferings of Christ, relying on his strength. I’m still not watching morning TV until after Easter, but for me, Lent has become about denying myself in another way. I’m letting the decision of another person (the Kingdom Committee of the Discipleship team) help break me of my stubbornness. I’m giving of my financial resources and I’m hopeful for the recipients of the well that we will contribute to, but that’s not the goal. (Don’t get me wrong—it’s a wonderful, wonderful byproduct of our obedience!). The goal is that we would become people that are fully submitted to Christ, every day of the year, able to respond to the countless ways that we are employed by Christ to do the work that he has called us to do. So…lament! Lament and remember your humanity. Remember that without Christ, you are dead. And on that day when we celebrate the new life that we have in Christ, we will join with Christ and be raised from the dead. And this year, the recipients of the new well in Africa can celebrate with us, too.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

We Will Never Forget

I woke up this morning to fog outside. I don't live in a valley or near a body of water, and yet from time to time we wake up to fog. The sun is now out and has burned it all away, but the fog of the morning sticks with me. It reminds me of that foggy day 10 years ago today when Holly died.

I can't believe that it's been 10 years. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday since everything about that day is so vivid in my memory. And yet, it seems like a whole lifetime has happened in the decade since Holly died. It was the Monday morning after the Super Bowl and Leslee, Danny and I had just come from Responsibilities for the Future, a capstone class for graduating seniors that we had affectionately dubbed "Death Class" since we had spent the first 3 weeks of class talking about death and dying. We had just read Tuesdays With Morrie and discussed what it meant to die well. As we were walking down the hill back to our apartment in Reid, Martin met us on the hill and told us that he needed to tell us some bad news. The world was spinning as he told us about Holly's accident on the way to work that morning in Wichita. Leslee cried, Danny supported her on the walk back to our room, and I tried to tell Martin all the reasons why I was sure that she was not really dead.

I didn't know what to say to people. I remember when they gradually started flooding our room. First, Amy came and told us that Dawn had told her in the stairwell in the Student Center. Then Kellie came. Then Amber. Gradually all our roommates and neighbors gathered in Reid 204. All our roommates except for Holly. She was notably absent. Her stuff was everywhere in the room, reminding us at every turn that she would never come home again. We still didn't believe it, but we knew that it was true, expecially after we went to the funeral home and saw her with our own eyes. Someone had come by our room earlier and gotten some of her sweats and a t-shirt so that they could dress her in her own clothes as they sent her body back to Colorado. When we saw her in the funeral home, she was wearing her high school track t-shirt, had her eyes closed, her hair slightly damp. She looked asleep. And that's when we realized that she wasn't just asleep.

Over 100 people came by our room that day to mourn with us. I didn't even realize that I knew 100 people. And yet, they came--some of them to talk to us, some of them to sit on Holly's bed, some of them to just say that they had "heard" and Holly would be missed. We looked through a HUGE box of pictures and began a memorial for her. Pictures of her laughing, her Homecoming Queen portrait (which she HATED because one of her eyes was squinty!), pictures of us girls going out, and of her boyfriend and her. We laughed, we cried. We felt guilty because we were able to laugh and cry and she wasn't. And then, the memorial wall outside our room began to appear, like what happens with celebrities when they die unexpectedly. First, our posterboard filled with pictures, then notes we left for Holly, then flowers, cards, signs, pictures and gifts left by others. We all wanted to say something to Holly. Things that had been unsaid when she was still alive. Things that needed to be unsaid now that she was gone. Things that would bring us peace and solace during this time of grief and sadness. It was almost unbearable, and yet, in the awfulness of it, we began to heal.

The room that Leslee and Holly shared felt cold. We didn't want to abandon that room where Holly had slept and we didn't want Leslee to stay in there alone, so Amber and I moved our beds into that bedroom. Somehow we felt reconnected again, all 4 of us. We began to be able to talk about Holly without crying, then felt guilty for that, then realized that she was the first to flash a smile and we should not let her smile alone, so we laughed--at her, with her, at ourselves, now without her. We didn't want to forget about her, so we talked about her. I still think that she got the last laugh on that one as two years later I was finally able to find the beeping noise that went off every afternoon at 2:20. It was the alarm on her sports watch that had fallen deep inside my couch. The watch still works and I never have shut off the alarm. I don't hear it often due to my schedule, but it reminds me of Holly's presence.

The last decade has brought laughter, tears, joy, pain, marriages, babies, and careers. Our friends and our neighbors join in our celebrations and our pains, and yet, one is absent. Holly remains in our hearts and in our minds as we "carry on" with our lives. The foggy weather appears every now and then, hanging heavy, reminding me that I am surrounded by something that I often cannot see or feel. Like the air that always surrounds me, so does Christ's presence surround me. There are many days, like the one 10 years ago when Holly died, that you wonder where he is. Some mornings, however, the air becomes visible, and in the midst of the fog, the Son comes out.

Holly Jo Mitchek, '98
We will never forget you

Friday, January 18, 2008

Living God's Call in Hard Times

There is a caricature of the “Christian Life”, sometime propagated by Hollywood, sometimes by TV Preachers, that says that a person who has a messed up life can bring all their problems to God and, snap, things are going to be perfect. The birds will sing, you’ll always find a great parking spot, and your team will always win the big game. Well, unfortunately, this is simply not true. “Bad things happen to Good People,” accidents happen and the Moundbuilders occasionally have a bad game. It’s true that we can bring all of our pain and sorrow to God and he can rebuild our lives, but unfortunately it usually doesn’t happen overnight.

We pick up our story today here, in the book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament:

Scene 1:
They’re living in hard times—a couple hundred years ago their people, the Israelites, came from slavery in Egypt where they were being oppressed. They are ruled by a group of people who are known as Judges—not really a king, not really a priest, but they’re called by God and given insight into what God wants to do with this group of people. A woman, Hannah, is married to a man, Elkanah, who loves her very much. She’s got two problems, however. Problem #1: she is barren and has been unable to have children. The only thing worse is problem #2.) Elkanah is also married to another woman, Peninniah (they used to do that in those days). Peninniah isn’t her husband’s favorite, but she feels vindicated b/c she has a slew of children. Each year when they go up to make sacrifices, Hannah makes an offering to the Lord and prays before God. The typical way that they prayed included them gathering in their place of worship praying aloud. However, this particular year, Hannah was so overcome with grief over her barrenness that she poured out her heart before God in silence, moving her lips, but not able to express her prayer verbally. This caught the attention of Eli, the priest, who noticed her abnormal behavior and even accused her of being drunk! Hannah even offered her son in service to the Lord, as a Nazarite, never to cut his hair or give him wine to drink. That was the ultimate offering, it seemed, to give him back to the God that gave him first to her once he turned 3 years old. After she explained her situation, he blessed and said, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition that you have made to him.”

Scene 2:
They’re living in hard times—the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread. Eli, the old priest tried to be faithful, but the task felt too big for him. He had just been warned by a man of God about the bad behavior of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They served with him, receiving sacrifices and conducting religions ceremonies which made matters worse. They skimmed a little off the top of the sacrifices, taking more than their fair share and cutting into what was supposed to be offered to the Lord. No only that, but they also copied the practices of those in the land of Canaan that they were trying to replace and had sex with temple prostitutes—not quite the example that you want your children to set when you’re the religious leader! Eli was grateful for one thing, though, that’s for sure: Samuel, the boy who had been serving with him the last couple of years was sure an answer to prayer! Eli remembered that he had first thought that his mother was drunk, praying like she was with her lips moving, but no sound coming out! At second glance, she prayed reverently, desperately even, imploring the God of the Universe to grant her one prayer: to have a child. Eli was grateful for Samuel’s ministry among them. It seemed almost a “do-over” to him, an opportunity to discuss who the God of Israel was, to teach him of God’s mighty acts in bringing them out of oppressive Egypt and to carry on the work of God.

This story isn’t turning out well at all! Our hero—Samuel—is thrown a curveball and given an unglamorous task! If we were writing the story, we might write the story differently:

  • Hannah—God blessed her with a child, Samuel, and he did grow up to be a faithful servant of God, but she didn’t have to give him up at age 3. He matured on his own and chose to follow God as a priest.
  • Hophni & Phinehas—They repented of their wicked ways and once again were used by God to minister to the people.
  • Eli—He saw the repentance of his sons and died and old, happy man.
  • Samuel—He lived his life knowing that he was an answer to prayer, feeling blessed and lived his life in response to God.

These things COULD have happened, but they didn’t. We often have the desire for things to turn out with a fairytale ending, but they often don’t.

So how do we live God’s call in the hard times?

We learn a lesson from Hannah. She gave up her son in service to the Lord. She didn’t try to make excuses to God. And she didn’t know if she would ever have any more children. But she remained faithful to her promise to dedicate her son to God’s service. We learn from Hannah that living with integrity—keeping one’s promise—is one way to live God’s call in hard times.

We learn a lesson from Eli. While Eli was reluctant to confront his sons about their bad behavior, he did maintain an open heart to God. He taught Samuel to be able to hear God’s voice and even encouraged him to share openly with him about the message that God had given him, even if he knew that it would be at a personal cost to him. We learn from Eli that pointing others to God is one way to live God’s call in hard times.

We learn a lesson from Samuel. Samuel did not get a say in whether he would be raised in service to the Lord. He was handed over as a 3 year old to be shaped and formed by the priest Eli. And yet, Samuel was obedient. He acts heroically when he is faithful despite the fact that he really has been dealt a difficult hand. We learn from Samuel that God speaks to us when we are listening and sheer obedience is the way to live God’s call in hard times.

We even learn a lesson from Hophni and Phinehas. While it may seem that you’re living a self-indulgent life without any consequences, eventually sin and obedience catches us to you. We learn from these two guys that God has a standard and we are to keep it even in hard times.

The rest of the story:

Hannah went on to miraculously have more children—3 sons and 2 daughters—and was blessed for her willingness to serve God faithful. And Samuel, despite his difficult first task, went on to live a blessed life with all his enemies slain by just a simple nod of his head. His rule as a judge ushered in a time of peace and harmony for the people of Israel and his team always won….Uh-oh, there’s that tricky caricature, again! The first part about Hannah is true, but that’s not quite what happened. Even though he encountered many difficult days in his life, Samuel did grow up to be a figure in the history of Israel that ushered in a new period: the Monarchy. He anointed the first king, Saul, and then the Greatest King, David, preparing a new chapter in the lives of the people of Israel. His faithful mother would never have known that day when she prayed desperately for a child that her son would grow up to play such an important role in the history of Israel! That he would become a mouthpiece for God during a time of much silence. That he would speak words of truth to King David, preparing him for his role as the unifier of Israel (even a unified Israel lasted for only a brief time).

Scene 3:

We’re living in hard times. We often feel tossed and torn by the pressures that come our way. We have relationship pressures, academic pressures, and financial pressures. We vacillate between silence of God and steps that seem impossible to follow. The word of the Lord seems to be apparent to everyone around us except for us! We try to pray, but our prayers feel as though they hit the ceiling and never reach God’s ears. We compare our faith to those around us and seem to never match up. We ask forgiveness for the same thing over and over again, never quite feeling like we’re back in God’s good graces. And we forget that in the hard times, God is present here with us.

It’s good that we don’t write the end of the stories. It’s good that we learn how to live out the call of God in the hard times. It’s good that God has left us with the image of a Savior that endured difficulty, and we can look not only to what Christ did, but also to what he is doing in the world today.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Newly Resolved

It's that time of year when we make all sorts of new resolutions--to lose weight, to exercise more, to de-clutter our lives, etc. We start out strong, but after a couple weeks, our newfound resolve starts to shrink and we throw caution to wind and drive through the Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait, throwing our trash in the backseat with last week's Wendy's bag (I'm only throwing out an example--I would never do that!). Well, while I do have some healthy goals (like drinking more water, less Diet Dr. Pepper and running a 1/2 marathon this year), these are my resolutions for 2008:

1.) I resolve to have more fun! It's so easy for me to get focused on tasks, to-do lists, and responsibility that I neglect leisure. But, this is the year of fun for Ashlee Alley! Watch out! Seriously, often I end up so tired of planning things for work that I don't initiate social things, but this is the year!
2.) I resolve to enjoy music. I love music, but somehow I tend to get stuck in a rut of that unnamed national "positive, encouraging" Christian station (embarrassing, I know) and live in the Christian ghetto of 2 or 3 new hits and a bunch of old stuff. Yikes! Well, armed with my new iPod nano (which I love, by the way), I'm going to try to step out and really enjoy music in '08. Let me know if you have some new suggestions for me!

3.) I resolve to slow down. Really, I do. I tend to feel like much of my life is lived on a hamster wheel--lots of running and not much "progress." Well, I know that this is not the way that God has wired us to live. It's not honoring to God, to others, or to myself and I'm going to learn how to avoid this trap in which I find myself.

Well, these are pretty big aspirations, but they're my resolutions for this year! I can resolve as much as I want, but really, only through the grace of God can I become who Christ is calling me to become. Here's to 2008...