Grace upon grace

In her commentary on the Gospel of John, Dr. Karoline Lewis uses a phrase that has become a mantra of hope and encouragement to me:

“Grace upon grace…”

What does grace upon grace sound like? It sounds like when you are deader than dead and you hear your name being called, by the shepherd who knows you and loves you, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb, unbound to rest at the bosom of Jesus. Dr. Karoline M. Lewis, John: (Fortress Preaching Biblical Commentaries.) © 2014 Fortress Press. Minneapolis. p. 160.

These last few weeks I have needed extra touches of God’s Grace. With our church, Twinbrook Baptist, making the decision to sell our building, and gift out the proceeds rather than spend down our resources, there’s been a mixed bag of feelings. At times, my joy has been “deader than dead” but then God’s grace appears and restores me.

I’ve watched my friend and pastor, Jill, and our church leadership respond with honest, heartfelt feelings – but also serve with open-hearted kindness and grace. We have embraced hope. We’ve laughed. We have worshiped with joy. We have reminded ourselves that we are Resurrection people. We have hugged and reassured. We’ve bitched (a little — just human!) And we’ve cried. When I took the last boxes home from my church office on Sunday after worship, the tears flowed down my cheeks.

But grace… Grace has never been far away. God has shown up in a number of grace-filled ways.

I found this photo this morning, snapped unintentionally by my smartphone as I headed home from working out last night. I totally missed it at the time. I was intent on getting a shower and doing some charting. This vista, this contrast of light and dark brought hope and encouragement. The beauty is there, ready to proclaim God’s glory. Do I notice?

“Grace upon grace…”

To provide a backdrop for a sermon on hospitality by Pastor Jill McCrory, I brought this quilt, a family heirloom, to use for the communion table. Its presence on the altar immediately provoked stories and sweet memories by congregants. Who knew this “grandmother’s flower garden” would provide joy and comfort for our last regular worship service? I just pulled it out as a whim. God knew.

“Grace upon grace…”

 I tried to have a healthy snack and boost to my lunch today, so I stopped to get a protein smoothie. Banana-strawberry. Mmmmm… Except the lid was not on tightly and it decorated my white pants! The employee who served my smoothie was embarrassed because she saw what had happened. I frantically tried to clean up the splotches with napkins. She ran to the back of the store and came out with a stain remover pen. “Here! Take this!” I went to my car, mopped up the stain, and brought it back, profusely thankful. She wouldn’t take a tip. So I told her manager how grateful I was and that she needed a bonus.

“Grace upon grace…”

I’m sure there will be more examples. Now I’m more aware of what the Grace of God can do in my boring, everyday, grumpy life. Maybe yours, too?

I’m being intentional. Mindful. Looking for grace every moment. Focusing on the things that show love and joy and faithfulness. Taking a short, private cussing break when the feelings overflow. (Like I said… just being real!) Looking up to see… God. There. Always.

Lauren Daigle wrote a song that is on my “repeat” playlist right now. It’s keeping me going… a love song from God reminding me to Look Up Child.

Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. Hebrews 12:14-15

So may it be.

sdg

Pruning

5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”
John 15, TNIV

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It’s an old, stately crabapple tree. Every year I wait with anticipation for the first blossoms to unfurl. Every year, it is covered, almost overnight, in these deep pink blooms, and the sound of the bees reveling in the branches is like a dull roar. Every year, the petals drop off and cover the front walk with a pink confetti. It’s the first of many trumpets of spring at our house. And it seemed pretty healthy for an older tree…

Yes, there was some sign of disease. There was some dead wood further out from the trunk, but most of that branch had lots of green leaves, and the crabapples had set on after blooming this spring. To our surprise, in a wind gust Sunday, the branch cracked and fell to the ground, blocking the entire driveway! Yes, it was not the healthiest branch on the tree. But it looked OK. At least, it appeared to be.

As my husband sawed it it apart and cleared the driveway, we saw that part of the main support for this branch was hollow all the way through. It appeared alive on the outside. And it was dead, completely dead on the inside. There was no way to sustain life. No way to support new growth. And much of the rest of the branch was well on its way to self-destruction.

BAM. Critical mass reached. Tipping point engaged. Good-bye, branch!

In my studies in church growth, church planting, and chaplaincy, I have learned about the phenomena of a “sick system.” This is when a constellation of relationships appear to be a healthy system, but are actually a very “sick” system. Under stress, or continued neglect, that which appears to be working for the moment is disastrous in the long-haul.

The bottom line: when the pressure comes for new growth and new direction, faking it doesn’t make it any more.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I read the latest round of op-ed pieces on church health, church growth and church sustainability. Millennials will engage if we do x, y and z. Boomers and Busters need a program which includes a, b, and c. I read lots of church gurus’ suggestions and mandates. I hear about innovative approaches. I meet passionate, praying, and caring pastors who are following the latest trends and hoping this will be the “multi-vitamin of Jesus” that their anemic church needs. And… I note that the very cancer which has been dogging their footsteps has never been treated.

What might this “cancer” be? Self-centeredness. Anger. Self-righteousness. Prejudice. Misogyny. Homophobia. Transphobia. Entitlement. Exhaustion. Fear of change.

Church… we gotta get over ourselves. That’s the plain facts. The issues we “church people” argue about are not only unimportant, they don’t contribute to the overall health of the church! People OUTSIDE the church really and truly don’t care about our sacred cows and holy hobby horses. They DO NOT CARE.

Really… NO ONE CARES if you had Sunday School at 9 and worship at 10:30 since Solomon built the Temple.

NO ONE CARES if you wear robes/collars/vestments/T-shirts/open-toed shoes.

NO ONE CARES if you use a rock band/pipe organ/bagpipes for worship. (OK, maybe I do care about the bagpipes.)

NO ONE CARES what version of the Bible you use.

NO ONE CARES if you do all sorts of things for God, but never just sit and BE with God.

NO ONE CARES who uses which bathroom.

No one, that is, EXCEPT the people who perpetuate the system. (cough cough: look in the mirror :cough cough)

It’s simply comes down to this… if we (and I am the first in this line of “we”) do not grapple with the things which make us ineffective and dilute the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, our lives and our world, we will never change. And, more importantly, we will not succeed in bringing about change and hope to those who are desperately seeking it. And if we (and again, I include myself!) do not consider where we have made the Church into a hobby and not into a passion, we doom our energies from the start.

I don’t think we (ahem — I) need a another new start or a new program. The journey to healthy growth begins in the heart. It is the pushing, the challenging, the reshaping, the pruning by God. It is the consistent, guiding hand of God. And then. when I’ve mastered some baby steps in change, it points to other places where I need to prune some more. A lot more, actually. It’s shaping the pastor who prays and leads and prays some more.

The result? Pain. Loss. And amazing new growth. In myself. In the work that God calls me to. In the people around me that God cares about more than I possibly can. That’s what I’m going for. Change that means God gives… and takes away.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord…
You give and take away,
My heart will choose to say,
“Blessed be the Name of the Lord”

Blessed be.

Enough

My week started out taxing and frustrating, and ended with a sense of Divine forgiveness and intervention. The frustration came from within, feeling inadequate to handle the tasks and problems in front of me. The Divine forgiveness and intervention was part of experiencing a fellowship meal, Communion and a time of reflection on Maundy Thursday.

At one point in my workday, I took a break. I needed to find inspiration and beauty. The faces I saw were full of anger and hurt and pain… There were issues I could only bear witness to, and offer my ministry of presence. A helpless feeling, that.

I sat with God a while… I felt unequal to the work I was tasked to do…

But I was reminded that it was “enough.” I am enough. God’s Spirit bearing witness in my presence is enough. Sitting in silence and in prayer is enough. Holding a limp hand in the face of death is enough. Crying out my own frustration as I drove from one family to the next is enough. Just BEING is enough!

This runs counter to the way our world sees things. For there are never enough clothes  in your closet, enough food on your table, a fancy enough car. Driven to buy, use and buy again, we forget the essence of “enough.”

On Maundy Thursday, we sat together and remembered the One who gave Enough love for the whole world. A gift that can never be matched or expressed in my limited capacity as a Christ-follower. It was a holy moment as we sang…

Were you there as they crucified my Lord…
Were you there as they crucified my Lord…
Ohhhh, sometimes it causes me to tremble…

It was enough. It is enough. And it is all God.

NaBloPoMo: Happy New Year (C) Resolution

In the liturgical calendar, the “new year” actually starts with Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. It always catches me a little by surprise, even though I know when the holidays fall on my calendar. It is with the “new year” theme in mind, that the Revgals offer this prompt:

NaBloPoMo Day 22: What’s your spiritual resolution for Year C?

 

I have two resolutions and they are very intertwined…

  1. to “finish strongly” with our present congregation, Church in Bethesda
  2. to “begin humbly” with a new church family, wherever it will be, in 2016.

It’s hard for me to write about the process our church is going through right now. I have been a part of its leadership, serving in various  capacities, preaching very infrequently, and loving the saints God brought through the doors. There was, as Carrie Newcomer sings, “Room at the Table for everyone.”

There was a radical welcome, but it was not enough. A convergence of problems signaled it was time for a change.

In the last eighteen months, we lost about half of our regular attendees due to transfers and moves to other parts of the country. We were not able to retain a large enough congregation to meet our budget and do some necessary capital improvements and repairs. And we couldn’t afford to keep Todd, our lead pastor, full-time. In the midst of the swirl of changes within our church, God was leading Todd into the discernment process  with The Episcopal Church. Our Sunday worship will morph into something new and, as of yet, unknown.

 

So I stand in the swirl of the the liturgical year and the calendar year in a peak of emotions and wonderings… knowing that God is in the mix and I am, without a doubt, completely loved.

And for now, that is enough.

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Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. 

I Corinthians 13:12 (NLT)

Crazed

IT’S FINALLY TIME!!!!

No, I’m not packed, finished with my paper, my sermon or the chores that need doing before I go. It’s gonna be a LOoooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggg night. And an early morning. ai yi yiiiiiii!

We are leaving for France tomorrow, right after church!!!!!!!!!! I am on a team with 8 super folks. It is going to be fun, hard work, exhausting and exhilarating. Catch you when we’re back!

Deb