Today’s word comes to you courtesy of my dear friend, Mary Hofacker.
When I think of miracles, I am reminded of a song Nelson and I heard at a Steve and Annie Chapman concert way back in the 1980’s. Living far from family with two toddlers and very little income, we felt desperate and prayed for God to miraculously reveal his power and grace. The song was a constant ear worm: things are looking right for a miracle.
When I went to WordSwag to create the pic for today’s post, I used a font I rarely use, but it fit perfectly. Miracles quite often come in very plain and obvious ways: a miracle healing, the perfect job, etc. But sometimes the miracle we need comes disguised as something else and we appreciate the gift or improvement to life, but we don’t see God’s intervention coming in a way we couldn’t have imagined or even begun to ask for. We missed the backstory completely, claimed the gift, and moved on.
I think that’s why I appreciate Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (see Eph. 3:20): Now to the One who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly, above and beyond anything and everything we could ever ask or even imagine…
And that God knows me best and loves me most. You, too.
For several weeks I’ve been thinking about how I want to be different next year, how I want to be better, and what I want to bring with me into 2021.
Do you set goals or make resolutions? I used to. And they would last until about the third week of January. I know I can be disciplined and include routine in my life, but so many of the things I try to add just don’t stick.
So I began to dig into why. Why don’t they stick? Why can’t I pick goals I can achieve. Goals need to be SMART:
(I couldn’t find a graphic that included everything I wanted to put here, so I made my own—forgive the raw nature, but that’s how I’d teach it.)
Going back over this information, two words stuck out to me: relevant and attractive. This is probably where my goals failed. Realizing this reminded me of when I failed my oral exams for my M.Div. so miserably that they suggested we act as if the horrible showing never happened and schedule to do them again next time around.
Regurgitating information merely to demonstrate an array of facts didn’t work for me. How was I going to figure this out? Then without even knowing smart goals I realized I needed to find a way to make my accumulated knowledge both attractive and relevant.
At the time I was trying to figure this out I was engaged in the learning/training experience called Clinical Pastoral Education, CPE for short. Each quarter (I took 10) I had to identify my learning goals. What did I want to learn? What learning would enhance my skills and move me along in my long range plan?
The way this all worked out, I began to link my learning as being under an overarching theme. Everything began to fall into place, become connected, and make so much sense that when I went in the second time the committee commented on how confident and clear I seemed—two words that never would have described my first time before the committee.
Thinking of that brought me to my lightbulb moment. The goals I had been setting were goals I felt I should set. They were goals that had greater meaning to others than to me, so they were neither relevant or attractive to me, and therefore unsuccessful.
With this awareness, how will I set some goals for this year?
First, what is my appealing over arching theme? I landed on the scriptural call to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Here’s my worksheet so far:
So…I need a little time to live with these, but I’ll be back by Wednesday to let you know how this has developed for me.
(This article appeared yesterday in the Ashland (OH) Times-Gazette.)
I came to Phoenix, Arizona in January for a women’s clergy gathering. As is often the case, the experience was blessing upon blessing. My spirit soared. My faith was enriched. I made new friends—and not just the “pad my Facebook numbers” kind. I looked to the heavens and said, “But God, I don’t want to leave yet.”
Instead of coming right home, I figured I couldn’t visit Arizona and not visit my mom who lives south of Tucson. During my visit she became ill which resulted in a diagnosis of pneumonia and five days in the hospital. We opted to continue her recuperation at home with in-home health care. To describe this time as difficult would be an understatement.
During her convalescence, my mom asked if I would be willing to stay with her—permanently. This is a plan we had discussed the year prior during another illness. Because of that conversation, my husband and I also had a series of talks. We began to make plans: I would take care of my mom and he would stay in Ohio to take care of his.
On paper and when we spoke, these things made sense to us. Even still, Mom’s request felt like a punch in the gut. I hadn’t expected it. I still had things to do in Ashland. I looked to the heavens and said, “But God, I don’t want to leave yet.”
I have enough Bible under my belt to know when we say, “But God…” we are in essence telling him, “No.” Not a smart move. Telling God no negates all he wants and can do for us. The petulant child comes out of us. We stomp our feet, and pitch our fit. We tell God all the reasons why his plan isn’t good enough.
My mom is the queen of pithy statements, homey proverbs. When she wanted to cut off our childish rants, she would say, “But me no buts.” I did a little research. That phrase has been around since 1709 when Susanna Centlivre coined it in the play, “The Busie Body.” These four words were used to cut off all objections.
In my experience, God has been good at cutting off my objections. When he nips my protestations, he uses my own words to redirect me to his power and plan. My whiny “But God…” becomes his “but GOD!”
A quick search through scripture shows how Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, Jonah, and even Jesus knew the power of “but GOD!” Joseph puts the truth quite clearly when after suffering injustice upon injustice, he finally ends up being Pharaoh’s right hand man, which puts him in the perfect place to provide for the brothers who left him for dead. “You meant to do me harm, but God used it for good (see Genesis 50:20).”
The Apostle Paul understood this too. In his letter to the Romans he writes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” When he writes about this to the Ephesians he lays God’s plan out quite plainly: Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins (2:1); But God is so rich in mercy and he loves us so much that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life through Christ (2:4); Therefore, you are not strangers, neither guests, but inhabitants of the city of The Holy One and children of the household of God (2:9).
These are difficult days. Dealing with isolation, illness, financial devastation, can definitely bring out our worse whiny case of “But God…” Perhaps God, though, is leading us individually and as a faith community into new situations that push us far beyond our comfort, far from where our own plans would take us. If we will surrender our plan, we open ourselves to power that is “but God!”
Imagine if you could interview the people I mentioned above, and ask them if they thought it was worth it to surrender their plans to God. They would probably tell you the journey wasn’t easy—but it was the best choice they ever made.
Daily I’m learning to surrender my whiny protesting for my way so that I can find the power of “but God!” Need some extra power? Need a better plan? Check out what God can do when we but Him no buts.
I came out to the patio to write. I swept the patio. I fussed around the table. I decided to work on worship music for tomorrow’s online service.
I was doing everything but writing.
I pulled up the song, “Fear No More by building 429.” I found something to write about. I love this song. It fits my current situation. The lyrics of the song contain an image of Jesus holding us in a storm not of our own choosing. “This isn’t what I planned…” Chaos is all around but Jesus is with us in the storm.
As I listened my mind drifted to the passage where Jesus and the disciples are in a boat and a strong storm happens. Mark records Peter’s recollection: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-40, NIV)
Jesus is not holding the disciples when the storm crashes in on them, and they are terrified they are going to die.
Jesus is there. He’s been there all along. He has the power to still the storm around them…and within them. Their fear brought them to Jesus, but not for an answer. They came accusing him of not caring. They are angry because while they’re consumed with and by their fear Jesus is curled up, cozy on a cushion. They are infuriated at his selfishness: this is no time to sleep, man! Do something for us. NOW!
In Mark’s account, Jesus rebuked the storm. What an object lesson. Storm, be at peace. Be still. Jesus may have addressed the storm, but his message was for the disciples. And it’s for us also.
Do you feel like there’s a storm all around you? Are the walls closing in? Do you fear for your life…or your way of living?
Here’s my confession: I’ve been really mad at God. Life was going pretty sweetly for me. I was achieving goals. I was about to start my D.Min (or finish it). Nelson was finally getting some of his medical issues addressed. We were happy. It was sort of like a Sunday boat ride on the lake on a wonderful summer day. Weather perfect. Floating along. Cozy. Relaxed. Happy.
Then bam. And nothing was comfortable. I couldn’t find happy anywhere on my radar. Ripped from the familiar. Life as I knew it…as I wanted it…was gone.
And this isn’t the first time in my life. I don’t want to re-rehearse the litany of what I saw as injustices perpetrated by God upon me. Why give it to me just to yank it away?
Selah. (Period of reflective silence.)
Job: shall we take the good and not the bad?
Paul: I have learned whatever situation I am in to find contentment.
Jesus: I’m right here. Be at peace. Be still.
Paul again: God puts us right where he wants us. (1 Corinthians 12:18)
Me: okay. I will trust that you are with me—even in the storm. I may not be in school for my D.Min, but I have a lot to learn. Right here. Right now. (That’s my prayer, so Amen.)
I read a post this morning by my friend Tammy Whitehurst (look her up on Facebook, she’s an awesome communicator). It made me cry. Happy tears. Finally, I found someone who’s Easter experience resembled mine.
Most of what I’ve been reading since yesterday is more lament. Sadness over what we missed: big choirs, lots of celebration, surrounded by a warm sense of community, family feasts—all the good stuff Easter evokes and offers.
I had very little of that. But what I did had touched my heart deeply. Please don’t miss the blessings that came while you pine for what wasn’t.
The message that was laid on my heart to share from the Easter story was the word of the angel to Peter…including Peter. The Easter message is a message of hope and restoration. Peter’s story is our story. Peter, after his pathetic personal performance (aka betrayal) was being offered a second chance.
Don’t miss the second chance you’re being offered.
It seems to me that when the people of God have gotten too comfortable, God shakes up the pot. Ask Job. Check with David. Look at Paul. And don’t forget those wandering former slaves who just couldn’t get it right…take another lap around Mt. Sinai.
Before this current pandemic went down. Before you were ordered to stay home. Do you remember wishing you had more time to read your Bible? Do you remember wishing you could have more time to dig deeper, move deeper spiritually?
How’s that working for you? How much TV/movies etc have you binge watched? I’m not saying it’s bad but I wonder how good it is for your spirit?
Confession. I found I was reading “news” articles on line far more than I was reading things that would encourage my faith and spirit. I felt myself sliding down a slippery slope into cynicism and despair.
Fortunately, after a long conversation with a friend (face to face and safely distanced, thank you Louise Waller) I was able to pull myself out of the nose dive. But I’m going to tell you, it was like what you see in the movies when the pilot is pulling back on the control with all their strength—not sure if they’re going to make it.
I made it.
You can too.
But second chances, like what Peter got, like what God has for each of us, are a gift we have to receive. Intentionality is involved. Want to is mandatory. We may not be able to choose your circumstances or situation, but we choose our response.
Peter could have heard the message and not believed it could be true. “Yeah, right. Maybe for someone else—not me.” Or like the rich young ruler in Jesus’ story (see Mark 10:17-31) walk away empty handed, empty hearted.
If all we see is what we didn’t have this Easter…then we walk away empty handed.
What did I learn? You take away all the trappings. All that is familiar and comforting. All that I count on. And I can still find so much to be thank-full for. So much room for praise. And a joy this world cannot take away.
What blessing did you receive in this unusual, but very special holy season?
Psalm 121 1-2 I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains? No, my strength comes from God, who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.
3-4 He won’t let you stumble, your Guardian God won’t fall asleep. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep.
5-6 God’s your Guardian, right at your side to protect you— Shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke.
7-8 God guards you from every evil, he guards your very life. He guards you when you leave and when you return, he guards you now, he guards you always. (The Message)
Negative news. Fake news. No news. Too much information. Confusing and conflicting words coming from sources that should encourage us, solidify us, comfort us…direct us. Who do we believe? Who can we believe? What do we want to believe?
If my peace, my strength, only comes from external and world-based sources, I will always be tossed about, unsettled, and lost.
My strength, my peace comes from a source that is consistent, unshakeable, and always right on time.
The One who is my strength will not allow me to stumble, not from weakness nor in the dark. None of the confusion swirling around me occurs without the awareness of the One who created everything and promises to make all things new.
This One, this creator, is also the shield providing relief and protection. The promise rings true: God is not going anywhere—whether we are close or running, struggling or resting. This One who knows us best and loves us most guards us now and always.
So on my walk today, I was thinking back to the Living Stream service from Sunday evening. The couple that brought the message shared about their CPE (clinical pastoral education) experience. I could relate because of my own training (10 quarters in KC, MO).
Their words, my walk, and my current situation, brought to mind the words from the Shepherds Psalm: 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. (Psalm 23:4)
Until my walk this morning, I always associated this verse with someone getting ready to die. Or for the family of someone who just passed.
But what if, we see it more as a verse that stays with the theme of provision. What if when we feel like we’re walking in the dark, into the unknown, we choose faith over fear, trust in the provider instead of our own wits and abilities?
Or…what if our training and experience prepares us to walk with others into their dark valleys. What if we are called to be their light and their comfort. Not everyone can do it. But if God calls us, he will equip us, and he will use us.
(If you didn’t read the previous post, you might consider doing so…in case I can’t make this make sense on its own.)
Today has been a full day of blessed meetings, phone calls, and contacts…but also a day saturated with the awareness of growth. That’s all so exciting to me.
As I am typing this post, I feel lighter and hopeful. I have been able to shut the door on the negative messages I had allowed to permeate my thinking, mood, and actions.
My work with writing critique groups has been very helpful as I have struggled to understand the critique I received on my messages. Here are few important things I’ve learned about critique:
When people are courageous enough to give you their perception, don’t ignore it. As weird as it may sound: it is a gift.
As the receiver of critique, we have the opportunity accept or reject what is being offered. Prayerfully listening will assist in one’s ability to discern what’s best and truly helpful.
This bullet may not apply to you, but it’s abundantly true for me: I do not need to be perfect. Perfection, or the expectation of perfection, can often limit our ability to grow. I will either be disappointed because I’m not measuring up, or feel defeated and just give up. My goal needs to be growth (process/journey) not perfection.
There’s always something to be learn. When we stop learning, we stop living.
So how do I apply this learning from my experience with writing critique. Here’s what I know about myself.
I like writing devotions. I major in paring down the fat, leaving the nugget. So why should I be wounded that someone is saying I’m too long winded. Cut back on the fluff and make sure the treasure (main point) shines. Editing is our friend.
I teach a course to men and women preparing for leadership in the Church of the Brethren that focuses on Christian Education in the Small Church. I remember clearly telling the class that the message is not the be-all-end-all of the worship experience. Yes, I put enormous energy and study into crafting a message plan that builds on the full word of God. I give attention to my year plan and series of messages. I focus on the things that are distinctive to Brethren. I challenge myself. I listen to the Spirit. I’m sensitive to the needs of the people. But the message is just one part of the worship experience. I had forgotten this. The weight I put on the message and myself had become disproportionate. I don’t even like thinking about what it had become.
Here’s where it gets super exciting for me. The Enemy of my soul and ministry was winning while I was stuck licking my wound. Ugh. Nelson was right. I let it go on way too long. The great and wonderful news is: I’m back! I’m ready to grow. I have a new tool and I’m not afraid to use it—to the glory of God and the help of my neighbor.
Get ready church! God’s my best editor. Here come his treasured nuggets.
I have learned to take critique. Thank you, Word Weavers. I have actually gotten to the place with my writing that I seek out the input of others to make me a better writer.
Sadly, this openness to input and constructive criticism had not reached other parts of my life.
Not long ago, the chairman of the commission I’m directly responsible to informed me that I need to cut back on the length of my sermons, and stick to my manuscript so that I don’t get off topic so much.
I love preaching. And I was under the impression after only glowing comments for the past four and a half years that the congregation was pleased with my style and delivery. I make a point of watching the crowd and thought I was reading them well.
I began to feel like I used to when I got job evaluations. The whole eval could be positive, but if there was one point where I perceived I received a negative “grade” that’s all I could focus on. And I always took it personally. That’s what coming from a shame-based family will do for you—at least it did for me.
I complied. I became a clock watcher. I finished in time for the closing hymn—whether I was done or not. I stopped short of saying, “Well, I can see we’re out of time…” I read the manuscript and held onto the sides of the pulpit to avoid walking away from the script and getting lost in my illustrations.
And I went home and cried every Sunday. And I sought solace in food.
Finally, this last week, my husband said, “Enough.” He went on to describe the disturbing depth of my funk, suggested a few options, and instructed me to pull out of my head.
In case I’ve never mentioned it here…I really appreciate this guy.
Then on Monday I pulled up several posts from my dear friend, Debby Berry. She’s going through a really tough time and is blogging some really powerful stuff. I plugged into her posts on Philippians 4:8 and what we need to be feeding our mind.
And a light came on in my brain. And it continued to shine brighter and brighter as I got ready for a bike ride. I remembered one of my favorite stories.
A long time ago, I read about a couple little kids who were going to ride their bikes. One kid showed up wearing his helmet. The other kid didn’t and he started teasing his buddy about his “baby hat.” The helmet wearer responded by asking why his friend’s parents didn’t make him wear one. His buddy had no answer. Helmet boy, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I guess my mom loves my brain more than yours does.”
And I heard the sweet whisper of God: I love your brain. We need to work on your thinking.
Couldn’t argue with that.
So I put the bike on the rack and headed toward my favorite trail.
Half way down the road (flying down the interstate) I realized I forgot my helmet. I don’t ride without my helmet. Well, that’s not exactly true. This summer I got all the way (21 miles from home) to the trail and realized I’d left my helmet by the door. I opted to ride anyway, but the guilt each time I passed a child on their bike, riding with their parents, and wisely wearing their helmets, was huge. I kept wanting to shout an apology: “I’m sorry. I know I’m being a horrible example. Keep wearing those helmets kids!”
Right then, I decided I was stopping in at the bike shop near trail before I started my ride. I was hoping they rented helmets, or I’d be buying a new one. I got there at 9:40 and they didn’t open til 10. Wait? Absolutely.
When the door was unlocked, I went in and explained my dilemma and need to the owner who promptly handed me a helmet and told there was no charge.
And I heard that sweet whisper again: I love your brain. Ready to think better?
My favorite thing about riding is how close I feel to God as I pedal away. I found that to be especially true on this ride. I left my funk somewhere out on the trail. I came up with several creative options to my preaching critique—that’s what critique should do. Now we’ll implement them and see what works.
In case you haven’t been told lately, God loves your brain too! Be careful what you feed it.
Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21, NLT)
One day a well-to-do young man came to Jesus. He wanted to know what good deed he needed to do to guarantee eternal life. In the conversation that followed the man was quick to point out his perfect keeping of the Law—I assume he was pretty proud of himself and expected Jesus to give a free-pass into heaven.
I wonder if Jesus was smiling…stifling a laugh at his arrogance and pride…and his self-absorbed confusion about what was truly important. The purpose of the Law is to make sure that we are loving God supremely and caring for our neighbor. To point out how clearly confused the wealthy man was, Jesus gave him an instruction that struck at the heart of his problem: he hadn’t done either requirement.
Truth for the rich young man was that his amassed wealth was his god, and he wasn’t willing to part with it for anyone…even if it meant missing heaven.
Some of the saddest words in scripture (in my opinion) are attributed then to this man: he went away sad.
This Advent season we have looked into the scriptures to see the “good thing” we need to do. We have thought about how God values small things. In a time when bright lights, sweet treats, cozy parties serve to cover our real need, we have taken time to focus on God’s valuing of honesty. Finally, we have pondered the greatness of God’s gift in his son, our savior—and his invitation to be cheerful generous givers.
My prayer is that we have learned what “good thing” we have each needed to address, that we have made sure God is supreme, and our neighbor is cared for.
Because I don’t want any of us to go away sad.
PRAYER: O come, o come, Emmanuel. O come let us adore him…and share the joy he wants to bring to our lives, and to the world. Amen. May it ever be true. Make it true precious God. Make it true.