Evangelism & Human Longing

To always be relevant, you have to say things that are eternal. –Simone Weil

Relevance was a trendy word in the church a few years ago.  There was a stampede towards making churches hip and tech-savvy. Now the pendulum has swung the other way.  Authenticity is ‘in’ and the more ‘traditional’ model is being heralded as the church of the future.  Detailed statistics are used to explain whichever direction the millennials or Generation X, Y and Z are heading –in most cases, right out the church door.  While cultural and demographic studies have their place, the church that chases relevance (or authenticity) will forever be chasing a constantly-shifting illusion.  

Scripture offers us an alternative to chasing fads.  In John 4 we catch a unique glimpse of Jesus’ methods of evangelism.  Instead of relying on culture to define his mission or methods, Jesus taps into the timeless longings that spring from every human heart.

Now he had to go through Samaria… Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.  It was about noon when a Samaritan woman came to draw water. John 4:4,6-7

Awkward hardly begins to describe this scene.  Wells were the nightclubs of the Middle East where men and women would meet.  Jacob and Moses had both met their wives at wells.  Here was a lone man and lone woman together without another person in sight. To add to the intrigue, Jesus and this woman could not have been more different.  Jesus was a Jew, a man and a religious teacher. 

She was Samaritan and a woman barely hanging on to the fringe of social respectability.

John mentions that it was the hottest time of day (noon). Jacob’s well sits a considerable distance from the town.  Bible commentators say there were at least two closer wells.  It did not take a genius to put two and two together. Here was a woman who was purposefully trying to avoid running into anyone she knew.  Her goal was to get her water and get back home –back to being invisible.

Jesus notices her and asks:  “Would you give me a drink?”

Jesus’ request is shocking on two levels.  First, Jesus intentionally places himself in a position of need from this Samaritan woman.  She holds the jug and the means of drawing water. She has the power to grant his request or walk away. Jesus surrenders any moral high-ground that might be associated with his birth or station in life (as a male, a Jew and a religious moral teacher) and puts her in control of the interaction.

Secondly, most Jews would have preferred to die of thirst than to beg water from a half-breed Samaritan.  Jesus is violating a number of social taboos –a fact the woman is quick to point out (v. 9).  Yet Jesus brushes aside the social conventions of status, racial prejudice and sexual inequality that separate them.  Jesus talks to her as a valued person.  

Jesus invites her into honest, open dialog on equal footing.

The Samaritan woman turns out to be a worthy opponent.  She dodges, evades and parries like a pro.  She attempts to bait Jesus into a theological standoff (v. 20). Interestingly, Jesus does not seem deterred by her skepticism.  If anything, he seems to welcomes her intellectual engagement and religious objections.  

Throughout their discourse, Jesus does not lose sight of what is ultimately at stake. He keeps bringing the conversation back to living water.  For the Samaritan woman, the necessity of water -and her foray to retrieve it- was a daily reminder of her very public shame.  Jesus turns the symbol of her shame –her need for water- into the source of her redemption.  

In the end, it is not Jesus’ correct theological responses that win her over, but his value of her.

The change is remarkable and immediate.  She rushes back to town. This woman, who only moments before had been so carefully to avoid public attention, is now proclaiming to the entire town:  “Come and see the man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this man be the Christ?” (v. 29) Jesus has not only transformed her perception of herself but also transformed her relationship to her community.  The social conventions that designated her as an outsider, no longer seem significant.  She is already accepted.  She wastes no time in sharing the source of her joy.  

Cultural trends and demographic studies have their value in today’s church.  Yet, constantly changing cultural trends require ever-evolving strategies. It becomes a problem when cultural trends become the primary tool for church evangelism.

Jesus taps into the timeless universal longings that spring from every human heart. 

Jesus was acutely perceptive to the cultural trends and complexities of his day.  Yet at no point does he allow culture to define his mission or his methods.  If anything, Jesus’ methods fly in the face of the status quo. Jesus intentionally seeks out those on the margins of society –the mentally ill, the socially ostracized and the morally compromised. His message does not rely on slick gospel presentations or cultural trends.  Instead Jesus taps into the timeless universal longings that spring from every human heart –the need for love, forgiveness and belonging.   Two thousand years later, those needs remain the same.  

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Writing, Preaching, and Teaching

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;  ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8, NRSV)

 

The twists and turns that come up on the journey of life are always surprising.

It isn’t like the new cars of today that have the sensors all around them that start flashing lights and talking to you warning you of things that are coming.  Wouldn’t it be great if humans were equipped with this capability?  To be able to prepare and be proactive rather than reactive?  But alas, God our creator didn’t see any need to add this feature to our design.

So, surprises must be a required part of our journeys.

For me the surprise twist in my road seems to be that God has been using me to preach.

Me!

A woman.

A relatively new Anabaptist.

Never in a million years would I have expected this.  In fact, over the years, I have been adamant that I could never be a preacher and had no desire to give a sermon….EVER! Yet here I am, preparing to start writing my sixth sermon message in seven months and plans for a seventh one to be given in May.

Our God works in very mysterious ways indeed!

When I first began to feel that God was calling me to change and to begin something new I was excited. All indications seemed to point to being a writer.  This all seemed very romantic to me as I recalled all of my childhood literary heroines.  It was like being invited to join the ranks of Laura Ingalls, Jo March and Anne Shirley!  As a result, Wisdom Wanderings was born!

It was this urge to write that led me to become a C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow.

I entered into that year of intentional discipleship expecting to learn more about myself and to also gain a firmer understanding of my faith, what I believe, and who I am as a child of God.  All of these possibilities excited me and I just KNEW I would come out of that year of study a better, more competent writer.

It doesn’t surprise me that all of these expectations were the outcome – I do have a firmer understanding of what I believe and a much deeper faith – but I am very surprised that the writing I am doing the most of since completing year one of my fellowship time is sermon writing!

Not blog posts.

Not magazine articles.

Not a bestselling book helping others to find the deeper faith that I did….Sermon writing.

All of this sermon writing has me wondering where this road is going to.  Again, there is no sensor to give me any indications of what is coming.

It would seem that a perfect storm of events, a.k.a God’s timing, has placed me in a church that is currently seeking a new pastor.  This vacancy has given me the opportunity to preach occasionally.  However, we will eventually find a pastor, and that leads my mind to wondering what comes next for me?

God always has a purpose.  This time of sermon writing and giving are preparing me for something.  Only time will tell what God is currently equipping me for.

Could there really be a future for me in some kind of preaching or teaching capacity?  I can’t in the foreseeable future see any opportunities for either preaching or teaching outside of my own church.  God works in mysterious ways and in his own perfect timing.

In the end, all I can do is continue on as God’s disciple.  When he calls me I will answer with the words of Isaiah:   “Here I am, send me!”

Although preaching and teachings God’s word from a pulpit weren’t a part of my plans, they seem to be part of God’s plan for me.  To truly be his disciple I must heed the call and follow his plans rather than my own.  After all, his are always infinitely better!  I will continue to trust and hold on as I come around the next bend in my life and be willing to be open to whatever God has around that bend for me.

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14, NRSV)

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Who Is My Neighbor

 “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29, NRSV)

Amid all of the turmoil and news that has been inundating me these past few weeks, I received a Facebook invitation to an event.  It was sent to me by one of the gentleman I attend church with and would be taking place in Akron, OH.

What was this event?  It was for a 48-hour prayer vigil being held by World Relief Akron.  The purpose of prayer? Intercession for refugees and immigrant families as our new administration tries to figure out how it would like to handle new refugees coming to the United States.

Initially I didn’t think much about this invite other than giving it a passing glance.  We have all been inundated with news stories and events and conversations on social media regarding the refugee crisis, especially in Syria.  I just couldn’t at that particular moment absorb one more thought on the matter.

I have been seeing stories and posts from groups and people who were all for a refugee ban and their reasons for supporting legislation that would enforce this.

I have seen just as many stories and posts from groups and people who are against any measures that would prevent refugees from coming to the U.S. and their reasons for believing to not allow refugees and immigrants is wrong.

We continue to witness the clashes between these two groups on television, in public conversations, and on social media.  So, when this particular invite notification arrived I chose to ignore it for the sake of preserving my sanity.

I began to feel as if God was telling me to reassess that invite, and to take a second look at it.  It felt as if this was something I needed to attend.

Prior to this event I have never attended anything like this outside.  I have never been part of a march or held a picket sign for peace, or other similar activities that a lot of the Anabaptist community have taken part in over the years for peace and social justice causes.  So, it was with some trepidation that I set out with a couple from my church this past Sunday afternoon.

Fear, I must confess, was one of the things I was feeling.  Fear that with all of the emotions that have been running so high in our society that some violence might come from groups that opposed refugees.  Perhaps it was a little over dramatic on my part, but I wondered if I would be somehow harmed in some way while there.

Isn’t that funny and awful at the same time?  I was feeling sorry for myself that God was telling me to attend a prayer vigil and feeling fearful about going at the same time.

The very refugees that I was going to pray for are facing real dangers EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!  Especially the women and children!  People that are stuck with no country to call their own and no idea of where they will be ending up.

My fears (unfounded as they were) almost prevented me from going.  I needed to set them aside and trust in God.  This was the lesson given to me to learn.

In a coffee shop that was in the middle of being remodeled, a small group of strangers gathered together in Akron, OH.  People of different denominations, backgrounds, and beliefs bowed their heads together in prayer.

Prayers for safety for refugees.  Prayers for the heartaches being felt by families who have been torn apart and separated.  Prayers for mommas who are desperately trying to provide shelter, food, and clothing for their little ones the world over.  And prayers for the immigrants who are already living in our communities that they may find acceptance and love here.

Human beings united in the common cause of praying for other human beings.

Should refugees be allowed to come to the United States whether they are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.?  Should there be a limit to the number who can come?  Should they not be allowed to come at all?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions or any solutions for how to fix these real problems that are affecting very real people.   What I do know is that I can continue to do something.  I can pray for all the people who find themselves stuck as refugees and also for immigrants who are just trying to find a new way of life in a strange place.

Somewhere there is a new home for these people.  I can pray that they find safety and a place to begin again.  But most importantly, that they can begin to find peace and healing.

My neighbor isn’t a specific race or religion.

My neighbor doesn’t just live in just the houses around mine.

My neighbor is everyone.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  ( Luke 10:30-37, NRSV)

Beauty Before Consumption

Four majestic oak trees frame the front yard of my Ohio home.  The largest – nearly five feet across – is subject to endless speculation.  Locals have dropped by to admire and give their best reckoning of its age.  They all agree that the massive tree predates my house, and the log cabin before it.

It is easy to see why trees held a special place in the mythological stories of antiquity. Trees are larger than us.  Like the mountains and hills, they endure the passing of time. Yet for all their grandeur, we have power over them, to cut them down and shape them to our purposes.  (In antiquity, this was mostly only true of trees. In our modern technological age, it is also true of hills and mountains as well.)  Left unchecked, our ability to shape our natural world can give way to the singular perception that the natural world exists solely as a utility of our convenience and consumption.

In Greek Mythology, the god Zeus withholds the knowledge of fire from humans in order to keep them weak and subservient to nature.  His plans are thwarted when the hero Prometheus steals fire from Mount Olympus and teaches humans the secret of civilization. Thus armed, humans become masters over the natural world and their destiny. The natural world becomes the raw building blocks from which to forge their growing self-reliance.

With the rise of our modern age, self-reliance over nature has become the dominant worldview. C.S Lewis, in his Abolition of Man, notes that this shift towards technology has reshaped the way we perceive the natural world:

“There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”  C.S. Lewis

The major difference, according to Lewis, between ancient and modern society is who is conforming to whom.  In ancient times, roads and trade routes followed the natural terrain and curvature of the landscape.  With the advance of technology, we now see nature as an obstacle to be overcome and shaped to our liking.  We build tunnels, bridges, and canals to bypass geographical inconveniences.  We harness the power of the wind, water and waves.  We engineer molecules to work for us in the form of biological weapons, genetically modified food and nuclear energy.  This shift is more than just how we interact with the natural world.  It has reshaped our entire perception of the natural world into an object to be manipulated, dominated and reduced to the utilitarian sum of its parts.

Is this what God intends?  Has God designed the natural world to be molded to humans’ will and whim, or is it the other way around?  The author of Genesis writes:  The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”  (Ge 2:15.) “He brought (animals) to the man to see what he would name them.  (v. 19). Unlike Zeus, who withheld fire from humans, here God places humans in the role as care-taker and name-giver of all creation.  With this elevated role comes its own particular set of rules.

“Out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  Genesis 2:9 

Notice the order.  First, trees were pleasant to the eyes -beautiful. Second, they were good for food. God also creates a tree of knowledge -that also has fruit- but which God commands the humans not to eat of it (v. 17).  The plan has been set.  Then temptation arrives.

“The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Genesis 3:6

Notice the subtle reversing of the order.  Eve prioritizes food first, beauty second. God had given them every tree in the garden for food, save one. They were instructed not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree, apparently, was to be appreciated only for its beauty, not for its utilitarian use. When Eve reverses God’s perfect order, and eats from the tree reserved solely for beauty, sin and chaos enter the world. The same is true for us when we prioritize consumption over adoration.

Human beings consume. That is what we do. Turning back the technological clock to some prehistoric state of existence does not change the biological fact that we are omnivores who get our energy primarily from the eating of plants and animals.  Plants and animals are also consumers.  What sets humans apart from plants and animals is our ability to adore.

The point is: God did create fruit-bearing trees -and by extension natural world- for our consumptive enjoyment.  But this consumption must always take a back seat to our adoration of the Creator and an appreciation of His gift of creation. To reverse the order is to wildly miss God’s original design. Adoration must always precede consumption. Any beast can devour food, but only we humans can appreciate beauty. Never-ending consumption without adoration leads to greed, overconsumption and the eventual destruction of our planet.  When God’s order is restored, the results are much different.  Adoration first, with consumption second, leads to gratitude, sustainable consumption, and concern for the thriving of all of life.

Sanity Check

 

Do you ever wonder if you are, perhaps, the resident nut job at your church?

Our church families are just as complicated as our biological families.  We all have that one crazy member that everyone can identify as THAT crazy person.  The one that we cringe at when we see them coming (yes, church members are still humans!).  We find them harmless enough, but they just don’t know when to stop talking or just have no filter……

I am wondering if that is me.

Over the last several years I have been involved in a variety of projects and served in a number of different ways in different capacities.   Last year I realized after soul-searching that beyond being a people pleaser I was also very prone to believe that my identity was found in the things I did.

After a lot of reluctance and stubbornness on my part, I finally surrendered to God’s will and began to step back from some things and give other things up completely.  This has put me into a very odd position for me.

I am not currently the person serving in different areas, but I have a ton of knowledge about how things have been done, changes that have been made over the years and why they were made, and other historical type information like that.   A repository of mostly useless information at this point.

As a result, I get asked a lot of questions……at least at first……and in a way, my busy-a-holic soul loved this because it kept me in touch with those positions I had given up.  I was still in the know……I was still important…….

And then the questions stopped coming……and I had to remind myself that this is a VERY GOOD THING!!!  I have successfully transitioned out of multiple roles with just a small remaining role in the worship planning/leading arena.

However, I still seem to stumble upon conversations coming and going at church and I JUST CAN’T STOP MYSELF at times from throwing in my two cents worth.

This is why I am now wondering have I become the resident church nut job?  The one who just can’t seem to keep her nose out of things that are no longer her concern?

So just as I have had to become more intentional about prayer times and scripture study times, I must now also become intentional about not picking back up the things that are not my current assignments from God.

I have often complained that I don’t like people stepping on my callings, or feel like I am at times being held back by folks from doing the currently assigned tasks from God.  However, if I refuse to let things go, then I am the person stepping in the way and holding others back from their full potential in God’s callings for them.

Letting go doesn’t mean losing a part of me, it instead is actually FREEDOM for me.  Freedom to continue to grow and the ability to allow others to grow as well.  Freedom to spread my wings and be open to trying new things.

My identity is found in belonging to the one true living and eternal God.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.  The same God that Deborah, Ruth, and Esther belonged to.   This needs to be my focus.  This is what I need to be intentional about.  I am being prepared for “just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14 – NRSV).

What I do at church does not define who I am in Christ.

My new guiding verse can be found in Isaiah 58:11 (AMP):

“And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched and dry places, and give strength to your bones: and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”

Going forward I will speak less and listen more.  I will reserve my opinions and keep them to myself unless asked specifically for them.  Yes, yes, I know, but please try to contain your laughter at those last two statements…… I will, with God’s strength and guidance, be able to accomplish even this!

So, while I may be a recovering busy-a-holic, and a recovering nut job (okay, may not be any way for me to escape this one!), at the beginning, the middle, and the end of every single day I am a child of the one true King.  And that makes me ENOUGH.

I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12-13 – NRSV)