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)

Talents and Testimonies

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A few weeks ago my son and I joined our church family on the annual weekend spring retreat.  It was held at the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center near Mt. Pleasant, PA.

One of the activities available at Laurelville is a prayer labyrinth. It is situated at the top of a long, gradually winding, hilly path.  From this labyrinth, which is a large circle and consists of winding stone and pebble paths, you can look out across a breathtaking view of a valley.

As I set out for an afternoon walk to the prayer labyrinth I found sunshine, deep vividly blue sky, brisk winds, and a quiet meditative time of reflection and prayer.  My thoughts began to reflect on the powerful messages our resource person for the weekend had shared with us earlier that morning and the previous night before.

Our resource person was Dr. Don Bartlette*.  He is a very gifted speaker known for his  life story, Macaroni at Midnight.   It tells of the struggles he faced as not only a disabled child, but also as a discriminated Native American child who grew up in poverty.  He over came all of the adversities of his childhood and young adult years and would eventually go on to use his story of healing and redemption to help spread God’s message of love.

As I continued to walk with the brisk breezes and sunshine hitting my face my thoughts shifted from Dr. Don to one of the scriptures I have been meditating on over the past month,  the Parable of the Talents.

Found in Matthew 25:14-30, this story tells the tale of three servants who are each entrusted with different amounts of talents (money) from their master.  Two of them immediately go out and use the talents they have been given to increase the total amount of talents.  The last servant, who had only been given one talent, dug a hole and hid the talent given to him there.

When the master returned he was greatly pleased with the first two servants and rewarded them.  The third servant was not so fortunate.  He was tossed out for being wicked and lazy.  I must admit that I have always felt sorry for this poor guy.

Until recently I must have been taking this story quite literally because I couldn’t understand why the guy who protected the money he was given was considered so lazy.  He was entrusted to protect the money given to him, right?  That’s exactly what he did!  In my mind the first two were the ones that were questionable because they were gambling with the master’s money.

It turns out Jesus wasn’t telling this story to warn us about the dangers of a gambling addiction!

In this parable the talents are actually representing spiritual gifts and the master is God.  So the first and second servants went out immediately and used the talents/gifts God had given them to increase the numbers in God’s flock which in turn brought the gifts of the new members to be used for Kingdom work.  They were obedient and willing servants.

The third servant, who was called lazy, actually kept his gifts locked inside and was refusing to use his gifts because he was afraid of God.  I believe that at the heart of this fear was the fact that he didn’t clearly understand the nature of God.  He says to him, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” in verse 24.

We have been taught in songs that there are many gifts but the same Spirit.  The Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts and talents that are uniquely suited to our purposes and tasks in the Kingdom:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;   and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.   To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (NRSV)

However, neither God the Father nor the Holy Spirit forces us to use these gifts.  We have to willingly make the choice to share our gifts and to be used for good here on earth.

We are also each given a testimony that is unique to us.  These testimonies are made of good experience and bad experiences.  There is pain in this life.  No one can escape from it.  However, God is using that pain in the process to help refine us.

God doesn’t choose to let bad things happen to us, but he will always use the experience for good.  If we are willing to live lives of obedience and humility in his service he will help us to not only survive but to heal and to thrive.  He will use these experiences as teaching tools once the work of refining and molding are done.  The greatest men and women in the Bible had to go through pain and trials as God was cleansing them and preparing them for great tasks.

Who would know this better than Joseph?  He chose to trust in the Lord in the midst of his betrayals and sufferings caused by his brothers’ jealousy.  Joseph also allowed God to heal his wounded heart.  When the time came, he was able to not only forgive those same brothers, but he provided for them and their people during the time of famine:

Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. – Genesis 50:20 (NRSV)

We each have a testimony to go out and share and talents to use to help us share not only our testimony, but also the love of God.  Our heavenly Master is weaving together our gifts and experiences into the tapestries of our lives.  Will the finished tapestries reflect love and care for gathering in God’s people?  Or will they be marred by insecurity or an unwilling, unrepentant spirit?

Will we allow God to heal our wounds and depend on him to use them for good? 

Trust in God and he will make all things new and good.

I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. – Philemon 1:6 (NRSV)

*To learn more about Dr. Don Bartlette and his experiences and testimony, visit his website or find his recordings at Amazon.

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Mr. Max and Dr. Don Bartlette – Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, April 2016

What Happens When the Reason for the Season is Forgotten?

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It was a normal enough Monday afternoon.

Monday was behaving in typical fashion, and I was just waiting for the work day to finish.  Suddenly my phone beeped at me calling for my attention.  As it was late Monday afternoon, any distraction would do.  So I checked to see what the notification was for.

It was a tag on Facebook to an article that has had the thoughts in my head turning ever since reading it.  The article comes from a blog called  Scary Mommy and the title of the post is “When the Heck Did Easter Become the New Christmas?”  (Click the post tittle to see the entire post).  One section in particular caught my attention and stuck out to me:

What happened, America?  Easter used to be the simple holiday; the one you barely even had to acknowledge if you weren’t celebrating it for religious reasons.  Now, it’s yet another day of the year we’re expected to shower our kids with mountains of plastic crap they don’t need and organize a full day of meals, gatherings, and activities.  – Ashley Austrew,  posted at http://www.ScaryMommy.com

The statistics referenced in the article were startling!  Has commercialism and/or consumerism taken over this religious holiday?  My answer would be not really in our house.  We choose to try to spend more time and energy on the religious significance of the holiday.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t take part in some of the fun traditions.  Mr. Max will be eagerly searching for his basket on Easter morning, but it will contain mostly candy.  We do tend to add non-candy items to the basket as well, but they are small things  — a small stuffed animal, a book, and a couple of neat mineral rocks as geology has become a new interest of his.

While we do enjoy watching the search every year, these fun family activities aren’t usually our main focus during the holiday season, be it Advent or Lent.  A part of our family traditions yes, but not the main focus.

Oddly enough though this consumerism attitude has come into our home ever so slightly this year.  Just last week Mr. Max was telling me about all of the things he is hoping for in his basket this year.   My response to him?  “This isn’t Christmas you know.”

There always seems to be something taking place at our church that my husband and I look forward to during holiday seasons as well.  We have been able to pass this tradition on to our son too.  He will tell you that he looks forward to the Christmas Eve service at Midway each year.  I look forward to singing the hymns that are only sung during this season.

We are very focused on the fact that this holiday is in remembrance of our Saviour going to the cross for us to give us the gift of sacrificial saving grace.  It is the celebration of Jesus triumphing over death and his redeeming love for mankind.

With the wheels spinning in my head it isn’t long before I am wondering if there is a reason Easter is becoming the new Christmas.  Is  it possibly because the folks that are buying the gifts to beef up baskets are more focused on the gifting part of things rather than the religious aspect of it?

Is there a connection between the loss of religion in general in a Post-Christendom culture and the increase in spending at Easter?  Does removing the religious origins of this holiday cause us to spend more on the gifts/baskets because the focus is now more commercial/consumerist?

Is spending up because faith is down?

—  The world is perishing for lack of the knowledge of God and the Church is famishing for want of His Presence. – A.W. Tozer – The Pursuit of God  —

We have seen time and again that we seek to fill voids within ourselves that can only truly be filled by God.  We struggle to be self-sufficient.  We don’t want to depend on anyone else.  So it would stand to reason that as we forget the religious significance of Easter it is leaving a void in our souls.  We as humans seek to fill this void by shopping:

  • we shop for basket fillers
  • we shop for the perfect Easter outfits
  • we shop for food for a fabulous feast
  • we shop for decorations to make our homes more festive for the season

Isn’t it odd that we are even celebrating the holiday if we aren’t celebrating it for the religious reasons?  In our church communities we mourn that Jesus Christ seems to be absent in the ways our society celebrates Easter (or Christmas).  We pray for the unchurched who are missing “the reason for the season.”  How many times have we heard this expression said?  How many times have I said this very thing?

Does this signify that we are fearful that the evil one is winning the day, even though we know he has already lost the war.  Perhaps it isn’t just the unchurched that have lost faith.  The claim could be made that perhaps we as Christians are trying to take over for God in a way and make sure that the reason for the season becomes the focus again. We are showing a lack of trust in Him who knows all that has been and all that will be.

However, perhaps we are looking at this trend all wrong after all.  Maybe the Enemy has started his victory dance a little too early.

What better way to start a conversation with someone on the status of their belief or unbelief than to ask them, “So, what does Easter mean to you?”  This little question will lead to wonderful doors that will open up for conversations on the concept of saving grace to take place!

When we share the Easter Gospel with someone, we are sending out the Word of God.  Essentially we are offering a life line.  Planting a seed.  We can’t make people take ahold of the message we are offering to them.  But we can know with confidence that if we sow the Word in people, the Holy Spirit will come back to gather the harvest when the time is right.

Hallelujah!!  He is risen, he is risen indeed!

Death has been conquered!

No one can remove the reason for the season as long as there are still faithful people out there spreading the love of God.

Keep sowing the seeds of the gospel.

It always produces.

Always.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. – Isaiah 55:10-11 (NRSV)

 

 

Irish Reflections and Discipleship

I was born with Irish blood.  In typical American fashion it isn’t 100% Irish ancestry that I can claim.  There is a mixture of Russian, German, French and Polish decent in there as well, but the biggest portion of ancestries running through my veins are of  Irish and Polish origins.

Last night I made both the Irish side and the Polish side of my tummy happy with corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes in anticipation of St. Patrick’s day.  Today I must confess my Irish eyes are smiling (which is a great song!) and that I am proudly wearing my favorite green shirt:

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This is also the day that I am most likely to watch the old Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People.   However, that is where my following of St. Patrick’s Day traditions ends.

And that is also where my musings begin.

Throughout the day many people will partake in another St. Patrick’s Day “tradition”.  Drinking copious amounts of green beer.  The irony here is that this “tradition” didn’t come from Ireland, but rather was started in New York City in the early 1900’s.

Perhaps the saddest piece of this whole day as it is celebrated in our culture is that in no way does any of it actually tie back to or tell the inspiring story of the man who is celebrated on this day.  Rather than celebrating the life and legacy of a true man of God, we have commercialized this day in our society and have shifted the focus to pursuits that tend to be more negative in nature instead.  Bad Irish jokes and drunkenness have become the order of the day.

St. Patrick was a real person.  In fact, most of what we know about him comes from his own works.  This was a man who embodied forgiveness, humility, obedience, and a willingness to go when God called him to go and make disciples.

If you have never heard the actual details of his life, St. Patrick was actually British!  He found himself kidnapped from his native Britain and family of some wealth, enslaved, and put to work by Irish marauders as a shepherd in Ireland at the age of 16.  For several years he faithfully went about the duties of his new-found life finding strength in his ever-deepening dependence and relationship with God.

And God was faithful to Patrick.

One night in a dream God spoke to Patrick and gave him instructions to run away from his current post, to head for the coast where he would find a boat home.  This was a very dangerous thing for a slave to do and if caught could be life ending.  However Patrick trusted in his God and went.

He did indeed find a boat home and was able to return to the home he was stolen from.  Once there he decided to dedicate his life to the God who saved him both through the grace of salvation and from his physical bonds of slavery.  Patrick became a priest and was made a bishop.  At some point during this time God again spoke to Patrick in his dreams more or less telling him that he should now return to the land of his captivity, not for revenge, but to lead the people there away from the pagan ways they were living to lives of redemption and salvation through Christ.

Again, Patrick heard the voice of his God and listened to his call.

St. Patrick went back to help save the very people who had enslaved him.  After returning to Ireland, this man went on to convert large portions of the population of Ireland to Christianity and is responsible for the building of many churches there.

So today rather than celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by drinking green beer be a radical rebel!  Share with someone the inspiring true story of this man who lived long ago.  Walk in the footsteps of St. Patrick and help introduce someone to the saving grace found in Christ alone (another great song!).  Lead lost people to the one true Shepherd.

 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10-9:10, NSRV)

 

 

The “Stuff” Society Revisited

Have you ever absent mindedly scrolled through your Facebook news feed only to suddenly have something reach out and grab your attention? One such post for me was a quote from noted money advice guy Dave Ramsey, and it said, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”  Wow!  Talk about perspective!  It caught my eye as the screen was scrolling by, and I had to back up to make sure I had read it correctly.   This is worth another WOW!

I couldn’t help but reflect over my life and the impressions I have had through out my life of what I needed to buy in order to obtain my American Dream.   Then I realized that maybe deep down I had already realized this because over the last couple of years my priorities have shifted.  My ideas of what we (the husband, our son, and I) actually need, as opposed to what would be nice, have gone through a drastic change.

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;  but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. – Matthew 6:18-20

Magazines and blogs are full of articles on how to organize our stuff.   They are also full of articles on how to declutter our stuff.   It seems like a vicious cycle.  We buy the stuff, we store the stuff, we get overwhelmed by the stuff, we get rid of the stuff, then we replace the stuff with more stuff — what are we really looking for?

Perhaps we are looking for approval, possibly from a parent or loved one.  We are hoping beyond hope that the stuff we have acquired will make them proud of us and our successes. All of the stuff we are buying is to show how well we are doing so that they will realize we are worthy of their  affection that we believe is otherwise lacking for us.  Trying to perhaps measure up to some imaginable standard that in reality most likely does not exist.

Perhaps we are we looking for friendship, using the stuff as our “dues” to get into the group we think we most closely identify with.  Why do we think that our character, intelligence,  sense of humor, and compassionate hearts aren’t enough to get and keep friends?  Is our society really that fickle that we choose friends based on outward appearances and possessions instead of on what is on the inside?  When did the make and model of someone’s car become more important than the knowledge that said friend would come to pick us up if we ever needed to be rescued?  Let’s start a friendship revolution instead and try to top each other with acts of kindness, not the brand names of stuff we possess.

Perhaps we are looking for acceptance from our peers and co-workers or maybe our in-laws.  For some reason we are convinced we have to prove we are capable, competent and worthy of what ever position we are holding. Be it office worker or wife, why do we feel we need to prove to others we belong where we are?  Obviously SOMEONE has chosen us, hired us, married us, because they think we fit the bill exactly right.  Let’s own that!

It’s time to put away the prizes for the best stuff.  They just give us even more stuff that we don’t need.

Perhaps we need to figure out why we are filling in the holes in our lives with stuff.  Shouldn’t we instead be turning those holes that need to be filled to our God and creator?  I can’t answer that for you, but for me I think the answer was and IS a definite YES — human insecurity plagues us and we feel less than.

The cures we tend to choose in this broken world are the ones we find here on Planet Earth.  However, I am learning that with every step I take to deepen my own personal relationship with our Heavenly Father, the less incomplete and  undeserving I find myself feeling.  I am learning to rely on him.  This is something that I have to relearn every day, but it is worth it!

As I begin to look to Heaven for the hope I need to in my life I am discovering that I am doing ok.  The Lord wants me to come to him in prayer and be like a child telling him all of the trials and tribulations I am having as wells as all the triumphs and successes in my life.  He will fill me with all that I need.  His gifts to me as his child include wisdom, courage and strength.  He is proud of me and he makes me enough just as I am.

The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing – Zephaniah 3:17 (NRSV)