Sunday, September 30, 2007

Welcome to the World

It was an unfortunate case of reading too quickly. I read what I thought the sermon title was instead of what was actually printed. I quickly realized my error though when the message began and the sermon was about the importance of taking God's Word like it was the Word of God. Oops - "Welcome to the Word" is was my mind should have registered. Chalk it up to a hasty assumption - I thought the sermon was going to be about our place in the world. It's only one letter different but it definitely changed the tenor of things.

"Coincidently" I had already been thinking a lot about our place in the world - perhaps the reason for my accidental misinterpretation. Reading a book called "Not On Our Watch" I learned about the mass atrocities that are being perpetrated in Darfur. I had heard a lot about the situation in Sudan but had mistakenly believed that the peace treaty signed in 2006 had brought to bear the weight of the international community and that remedies were being put into place. What I hadn't realized was that Darfur was specifically left out of the treaties. Suspicious of any cause that garners the attention of celebrities, I hadn't paid much attention to the details of the arrangement which is perhaps why I had neglected to pay attention to the continue cycle of violence, sexual assault, and mass atrocities that are being suffered by the people of Darfur. Fueled by ethnic tensions and backed by government support, thousands of been subject to unspeakable crimes and even more have been displaced as a result of the ongoing violence. Ignorance is bliss, and my previous ignorance was definitely more peaceable than the compelling knowledge that I now must contend with. Its probably why I don't like to watch the news - too much responsibility comes with knowledge.

However no longer protected by the thin veil of ignorance I'm left to struggle with what I can do in situations that far outweigh my abilities. The truth is I haven't quite figured out the best way to participate in a solution. What I do know, however, is that as a Christian, my concern has to be for the people who are suffering. Jesus never commanded to love only if the result of that love would solve problems. We are instructed to think of others ahead of ourselves and when His children suffer, regardless of where they are in the world, our heart should break right alongside His. Our place in the world is to be the extension of His compassion. It may not solve international crises but its impact on singular lives can not be underestimated. Its easier to stay in our bubble, but being a Christian isn't supposed to be easy, and the value of a human life is far outweighs the cost of our comfort. It's our job to join in; to do our part to show others Jesus' love. Without us, His truth remains a mystery. Without it, evil wins.

Welcome to the world. It needs you.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A story about a friend

Most of the time this space is filled with my musings on life and the life hereafter. Today, I wanted to share with you an e-mail from my friend Juli who writes about her friend Hannah. Although the purpose of Juli's e-mail was to share the strength and hope that she found in Hannah's countenance, a part of the story that Juli left untold is the integral part that she plays in this process. Juli is a nurse ministering to AIDS patients in Kenya. She is amazing and I'm privileged to call her my friend.

Please pray. Not only for Hannah and her family, but for my friend Juli who is doing the work that so many of us are unable to do.

Juli's E-mail:

I went this afternoon to sit with my friend named Hannah. She is 51 years old. She is married and has nine children. By the standards of the world, Hannah is poor. Over the past four years, a tumor has overtaken her face and parts of her brain leaving her body wasted and her face greatly disfigured. Her situation is full of loss and intense suffering. But this is not the whole story.

As I walked into her mud hut, I heard her voice saying: “Mtoto wangu, karibu sana.” meaning “My child, welcome so much”. I sat at Hannah’s bedside and saw how, even in the past five days, the tumor had grown noticeably larger around her eye and further into her mouth. Her speech was slurred but her spirit was full of life. She talked about how God continues to take care of her and then she waved her arms as she sang “Mungu yu mwema”- God is so good. She praised her daughters for the ongoing care they are providing to her as she is bedridden and dependent upon them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is hard for me to imagine talking about God’s goodness when faced with such pain; and yet her words are not a cliché, they are her hope.

I went to encourage Hannah; but I also went because she has something I long for. Hannah is beautiful. If you saw a picture of her, it would be impossible to see it; but there is a beauty that transcends and overshadows her appearance. Hannah knows the love of God, and it has cast out her fears. She is living in freedom and nothing in this world can take it away- not even death.

More than once, I have been humbled by the sweetness of God’s presence that rests upon this home. It causes me to be still and reminds me that God has not changed. Although questions remain unanswered, His faithfulness and love are not lessened by these struggles. In multiple languages, Hannah’s family and I have recited Psalm 23 together bringing life to these often quoted verses:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

This afternoon, God used Hannah to speak His word to me. As I shared within my last update, I have recently been discouraged and overwhelmed by the challenges that surround. The weight feels so heavy; but this dear mama, on her deathbed, looked into my eyes and saw the burdens that I have been carrying. She said, “Juli, uko na wasi wasi. Usiwe na wasi wasi. Mungu anakulinda;” which means “Juli, you have worries- don’t worry. God is taking care of you”. As she spoke truth into my life, I grabbed her feeble hand, leaned forward and listened.

I pray that Hannah’s testimony will be an encouragement to you this day. I ask that as Hannah and her family come to your mind, please pray on their behalf. With much love, Juli


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Waiting for Strength

Somehow, in the midst of bouncing from school to school, I missed the Presidential Fitness Test. I'm not totally sure how it happened but I remember being anxious for it because I watched my sister having to sweat through performing the various tasks. Apparently I switched to private school just in the knick of time and I lucked out. Never was I to suffer the public humiliation of trying to meet all those standards.

As a result of skipping the milestone, there is no documented time that I was able to do a pull-up. Because I tended to be one of those girls who flung themselves around the even bars at school, I'm guessing that at some point in my life I probably could have done one, but there's no way to verify it. Consequently its become my goal to try to complete one. And as someone with minimal upper body strength and narrow shoulders this isn't a task that's easily accomplished. Slow and steady will win the race though, I'm told, and so I'm diligently embarking on a strength resistance program to build those muscles. As someone who gets easily bored with any type of weight-lifting program, it's not easy, especially considering there's not much of a foundation to build upon. But I figure the hard work will pay off eventually. As least I hope so.

The reason for this sudden detour in discussing my fitness routine is that recently I was struck by how different it is in God's economy. The thought occurred to me as I listened to Chris Tomlin's song "Everlasting God". In God's economy, you gain strength by waiting, not by working. Isaiah 40:31 says, "But those who who wait on their Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings as eagles . . ." You accomplish much by doing little. To achieve great things, you anticipate the work of another. If the same principles applied when it came to doing a pull-up, I would have been the Presidential Fitness Test long ago. But when reaching for God's goal, its not the work that we do that matters. Its the time that we spend in anticipation of His.

I wish that patience brought upper body strength in the same way that it brought spiritual strength. Although it doesn't, I'm glad that God's strength doesn't come as a result of the work I do. I would much rather that the Sustainer of All Things impart it to me as an act of grace. Any attempts on my part would be more futile than trying to do a pull-up.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Humble Grace

No one likes to eat humble pie. Its embedded in our nature to want to stick up for our rights, our prerogatives, and our relationships. We struggle to admit our frailties and even more rarely disclose our mistakes. We want people to believe that we have everything together even though no one really does. Humility comes at quite a cost in a culture that thrives on competition and success.

Recently though, I've learned, that humility is the only way that we can draw closer to God. Being a Christian for as long as I have, I'm tempted to forget the magnitude of my unworthiness that struck me the day that I accepted God's grace as covering for my sins. As time passes, I'm inclined to think that I have it all together and that God and I are going along just fine. And then something happens where someone does me a wrong, or someone questions my integrity and I want to again proclaim my worthiness as a human being. I forget my complete lack of worth except as a child of God. As God's child is not up to me to defend my honor or to strike a chord to seek my own justice. In a monarchy the king's heirs aren't called upon to defend themselves, the king's mere presence renders that unnecessary. In the same way, my King has my back and my calling is to continuously seek Him. When I do that, He promises to be my defender and my strength. Humility is what prompts us to say "more of You Lord, less of me" and its only when we truly recognize our smallness and God's significance that the prayer becomes our lifeline rather than a ritual uttering of an unrepentant heart.

Humility may be difficult to swallow but its the only pure nourishment for a soul that seeks Christ.

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In Defense of Nice

Recently I've had the awkward experience of someone assuming that I "liked" one of my guy friends. Not knowing the person well, I couldn't set the record straight, although it did make me wonder why the thought would have entered their mind. In sharing with another friend, he wisely said, "maybe she just doesn't know that you're nice to everybody and so she thinks it means something." I agreed and shrugged my shoulders. What else could I do? Its not a situation that I'm totally unfamiliar with and through the years I've learned its easier to roll with it rather than defend my intentions.

What's been impressed on my heart even more recently though is that while people may think I'm nice, I'm not sure I'm very good at sharing the motivations behind it. Even some of my best friends just think, "well that's Natalie, she's a nice person", which while I wish were true, I also recognize is horribly inaccurate. I'm not a nice person. I'm selfish, and a little too independent, and can be as stubborn as all get out. Who I am is a sinner, who, through God's saving grace, is hopefully developing a regenerate heart that more accurately reflects His love and His goodness each and every day. Its not that I'm nice - its that God's been so gracious to me, I'm compelled to share His goodness with others.

I haven't figured out how to more accurately conveyed this since I'm one of those people who show love through actions rather than words. But maybe knowing more clearly in my own mind why I am nice will help me share this motivation with others. And then maybe my reflection of Christ's love will shine a little brighter as a result.

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Church-Going Folk

One of my favorite things to do is to learn about people's perceptions of me. I think its because we all tend to think that we're projecting a certain image and than we are startled when we find out that what people think of us could be very different from that. In the past, this would bother me but I've learned its just part of the beauty of human relationships. Our self-perceptions are always distorted - we might as well deal with it.

I was reminded of this recently when someone expressed surprised that I regularly attended church. As someone who often attends church multiple times a week it was amusing to have someone think that I was an infrequent attender. Their logic was that I probably would be frustrated by the politics and insincerity that plaques many church gatherings therefore my response would be to be someone who visits church rather than participate.

The truth is that there is a bunch of insincerity and politics that make going to church less than ideal. Church, in fact, has become a cultural ritual rather than a community of like-minded followers. And while I recognize this divergence from the model, I also recognize that they let me come to church and I have plenty of my own baggage that other people choose to deal with. It seems hypocritical of me not to be willing to deal with theirs.

The other truth is that, like many things in life, we derive the value out of attending church that we ascribe to it. The church is definitely made up of a bunch of sinners - but that's what makes it great - we all stand equal in front of a Holy God. By investing in relationships, by worshiping corporately we learn more about what God's intentions are. And while these might be different from our perceptions, at least we are then more fully prepared for our final Home.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Growing in Grace

I work in business. One of the common refrains once you're in management is that "this management thing would be a whole lot easier if it wasn't for the people." And its true. If everything worked on autopilot, everything would be a lot simpler. It wouldn't be nearly as entertaining, but it would definitely run smoother.

The same could be said about many people's walk of faith. "If it wasn't for Christians, this Christian thing would be a lot easier." For many people, Christians challenge what they believe to be true about God mostly because regardless of how you slice it, we're all still sinners. For some reason, its easier to accept our own frailties than those of others, but that's a tangent for another time. Suffice to say, Christians make us rethink Christianity in a number of ways. We challenge God's extension of grace to people we deem less-than-worthy. We mock the sincerity of another's faith because their actions don't meet our high standards. And for those who have been in the Church for any length of time, you quickly learn that other believers cause you the greatest pain and the deepest grief. God didn't intend for it be this way, but then again, God didn't intend for Eve to eat the fruit.

What God did intend was that other Christians would be our primary nourishment for growing in grace. As John Bunyan said, "Christians are like the flowers in a garden, that have each of them the dew of Heaven, which, being shaken with the wind, they let fall at each other's roots, whereby they are jointly nourished, and become nourishers of each other." In other words, Christians should encourage our faith, not detract from it.

Maybe its easier to think of fellow believers not as nourishment, but as fertilizers. Even with all the garbage mixed in, they build our strength, solidify our resolve, and cause us to grow in grace.


Mindful of Heaven

My pastor is fond of sharing a quotation by CS Lewis regarding how some people feel that Christians are so heavenly-minded that they won't do any Earthly good. CS Lewis retorted that it was only when we are heavenly minded that we do any Earthly good. Thoughts of heaven are like the scoreboard at the football game. It reminds us of our ultimate satisfaction and encourages us to strive for victory. Heaven can seem to have little to do with Earth until we remember that the whole purpose of this life is to prepare us for the next.

Thoughts of heaven serve another purpose too. They remind us of what we are giving up when we walk contrary to what God desires. If every good and perfect gift is from above (see James 1) than everything that we are made for, everything our heart seeks, is to be found in heaven. Poor substitutes are found here on Earth and yet sometimes we settle for the also-runs. Thoughts of heaven remind us of what we are actually giving up in order to take advantage of those temporary pleasures. As Frederick Ward Kates reminds us, "The purpose of religion--at any rate, the Christian religion--is not to get you into heaven, but to get heaven into you." Our walk of faith is designed so that more and more we seek the same things that God desires so that we are better prepared for the fullness of satisfaction that comes when we finally join Him.

A song that we use to sing as Sunday Schoolers sums it up nicely:

Heaven is a wonderful place
Full of mercy and grace
I want to see my Savior's face
And heaven is a wonderful place
I want to go there.

Lord, let it be.


Better Things Ahead: September 2007

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Better Things Ahead