Jesus loves me, even when I look like a dizzy octopus

On most mornings, I rise and shine (or rise and whine) and make my way to the living room to sweat it out to a workout video.  I like this kind of exercise: a full body workout that gets my heart pumping and evokes memories of my mother’s Richard Simmons videos.  I try not to repeat the same workout too often to work different muscle groups for different lengths of time and intensity but mostly to avoid boredom.  If I follow the same exercise day after day, the routine becomes just that: routine.  My brain switches to auto-pilot, my body goes through the motions with minimal effort, and I can lose track of which moves I’ve already done.  This is not good.

A new workout video is a good remedy to break up the routine, but on the first few days with the new video, well…I’m glad no one is watching me.  I try to follow the perky instructors as well as I can, but I’m afraid I look like a dizzy octopus with a dumbbell gripped in each tentacle.  But even though I might feel a little clumsy and look a little silly, I know the change is good for me.  My muscles feel strengthened in new ways, and I definitely feel more awake than after  “going through the motions” with an old workout.  After a few more times working out with the new video, I know the moves better and I can perform them with more confidence.

How I view my physical health can also be reflected in how I approach my spiritual health.  Am I content to follow a boring routine that fails to challenge me?  Attending church, praying throughout the day, and reading Scripture can all bring nourishment to a hungry soul.  But if the attendance, prayers, and readings feel obligatory, if they fail to stimulate the mind and touch the heart, what good are they?  They are no longer ways to deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ or to gain wisdom.  They are only characteristics of a lukewarm Christian which God detests (Revelation 3:16).  Baby Christians (that’s “Christianese” for a new believer) just crawling or toddling towards the doors of a church for the first time should be encouraged in all they do to learn more about God, no matter how seemingly small the steps.  But mature Christians should crave what the author of Hebrews referred to as “solid food”: training and teaching that leads to distinguishing good from evil (Hebrews 5:13-14).  Mature Christians should be hiking up mountains while baby Christians are learning to tie their bootlaces.

Wonderfully, growing as a Christian is easy to do – all it takes is effort.  God smiles on all His children when they glorify Him, whether they teach a Sunday School class, bring a meal to a needy family, fix a stranger’s flat tire, mentor a child, or build an orphanage.  Jesus’ life was not defined by record-breaking attendance at the Temple or showy prayers.  He loved the unlovable (John 4:1-42), touched the untouchable (Matthew 8:1-4), and forgave the unforgivable (Luke 23:34).  While it might seem like a “sacrifice” of time and effort to get the whole family dressed in their best and arrive at church right at 9:00 every Sunday morning, or praying the same prayer before dinner every night, it is all meaningless to God if the bodies that go to church and pray before meals do not genuinely show God’s love at other times.  For God desires mercy and acknowledgement more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

So how will you challenge and strengthen yourself as you walk with God?  Personally, I look for ways to keep my Sunday School class fresh and fun so the kids want to come rather than feeling forced to come.  My husband and I are spearheading an initiative at our church focused on service that will honor God while helping people in our community.  And I’m following a one-year plan to read through the new Bible my husband gave me when we were married last year.  (“Ugh, I have to underline all my favorite verses again because I got a new Bible.” #FirstWorldChristianProblems)  I hope you do not think I’m bragging, reader, or suggesting you have to do these exact same things to grow.  These are just ways that fit well with my spiritual gifts, and how you choose to grow may look completely different than my ways.  What matters is that Christians honor God with their hearts, souls, minds, and strengths to the best of their abilities.  Just as an athlete trains to jump higher, run farther, swim faster, or dive deeper, we should aim to pray more fervently, work more cheerfully, give more generously, suffer more patiently, and live more faithfully.  We might look like dizzy octopuses when we start, but God will still be smiling.

Photo credit: https://lostandfounders.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/workout.png

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“Scrubbin’ toilets for the Lord,” as my mom likes to say.

Recently, I began listening to the sermons available on the website of my parents’ church, the church I attended in high school and whenever I was home during my college years.  Though I might otherwise choose to listen to NPR or Pandora radio, sometimes I need a break from hearing about the fight in Congress over President Trump’s nominee for Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Department of the Posterior, and, let’s face it, Pandora’s music stream isn’t as exhaustive as one might hope.

When I listened to the first sermon, I was surprised at the difference between what I remember hearing in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and what is recorded through the sound system.  When the congregation is singing with the praise leaders, and all the voices are mixing with the band, reverberating off the ceiling and walls, you just might think the sound could lift you straight up to heaven.  But the recording, which cuts out all the congregation’s singing, well…it’s a little less inspiring.  Don’t misunderstand me: the church’s praise team members are all extremely talented (especially the bass player*), but the individual voices and instruments cannot blend as well as when a hundred or so voices are singing with them.

I realized that the watering down of a worship service – when just a few people are highlighted and the rest are removed – reflected how much every Christian matters in God’s Church.  In the small group I attend, we recently shared what we considered our “spiritual gifts.”  1 Corinthians 12:4-6 states that there are different types of gifts, service, and ways of working, but the entire spectra of all three can can be used to serve and glorify God.  I cannot drive a bus full of kids to church camp, but I can teach a Sunday School class and wash dishes after a potluck.  Of course, service for God extends beyond one’s personal church to the world-wide community of Christians.  In both places, the followers of Jesus Christ are called to teach, serve, lead, give generously, and show mercy according to their abilities for the strengthening of God’s Church (Romans 12:4-8).

“But I’m not a missionary or a pastor,” someone might say.  “I’m a plumber/salesman/flight attendant/exterminator.  My everyday business doesn’t really deal with ‘God stuff.'”  Well, fair point.  On this side of heaven, the human race is bothered with needs that must be fulfilled.  Once we reach our glorious reward, then our entire being will be devoted to “God stuff.”  But while we’re here, we still must eat by the sweat of our brow (thanks a lot, Adam).  But even if a career is not carried out in a church, it can still be used as a mighty pulpit.  When the wonderful – nay, miraculous – regeneration of a Christian occurs by the Holy Spirit entering that person, the fruit of the Spirit that person bears is evidence of God’s character.  That fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control – can be exhibited by a pastor baptizing a new believer or a plumber installing a sink for a fair price and with a kind smile.  Or a salesman refusing to deal dishonestly.  Or a flight attendant patiently assisting a rude passenger.  Or an exterminator getting rid of pests in the most humane way possible (rats are God’s creatures, too).  Personally, I work in the food industry, and I can serve God by ensuring safe, wholesome food is produced to feed the people He made.

From my past years in various churches, I have too often seen too few people carry too much of the load that is an inherent part of managing the many facets of a church.  I believe God has blessed His people enough that the same person does not need to coordinate the nursery schedule, play piano for the praise band, and clean the bathrooms after Wednesday night activities in addition to working a full-time job and raising a family.  Sufficient service on the part of God’s people can keep saints from becoming broken-down and burned-out.  So consider this: what talents and gifts has God given to you?  How can you put them to use in the local and world-wide church?  Where do you see a need that you can meet?

While I enjoy hearing the sermons of a very insightful pastor and singing along with familiar voices of the praise team, listening to a podcast isn’t the same as attending God’s house on a Sunday morning.  I don’t  experience the feeling of security that comes with being surrounded by fellow Christians.  I also don’t see the ushers greeting guests and handing out bulletins, the audio-visual team hard at work in the back of the sanctuary, the frazzled but satisfied-looking Children’s Church teachers.  But I’m glad to know they are there on a Sunday morning, impacting lives in their community, and I can now use my talents at my current church according to the ways God has blessed me.

*my dad

Image credit: http://www.1stchurchjc.org/uploads/4/1/4/2/4142961/_148785.jpeg

VBS: If you’re not a little insane at the end, you’re not doing it right.

Okay readers, I’m back.  I had to take a hiatus due to moving, getting married, settling into married life (you know, just a few small life changes).  I am happy to report that married life is pretty wonderful so far.  Resolving to love and respect my husband in a godly manner – to go from a single life to a shared life – is challenging but rewarding.  What makes it so much easier is when I remember Jesus’ command to love each other just as He loved us (1 John 4:10).  If Jesus was willing to die a horrible death because He loved us, I can definitely then clean my husband’s laundry and make him orange juice out of love.

But I don’t want to delve too deeply into Christian marriage in this post.  Oodles of other articles on that topic, written by Ph.D.s with decades of experience, already exist.  This post is to psych up myself, and many others out there, for working at Vacation Bible School (VBS) this summer.  VBS programs can vary from church to church – morning, evening, or all-day; mixed ages or divided ages;  divided genders or mixed genders – but all programs take a great deal of dedication and hard work on behalf of the adult volunteers.  Our church will host VBS in the evening, and children will be divided into group according to age.  Now, in the summertime heat, after a long day at work, it can be difficult to show up every evening with a smile on one’s face and maintain a fervent, cheerful attitude while working with children riding high on the wave of summer vacation.  Crafts, games, music, and snacks are used to keep the children engaged, but the main point of VBS is to teach children more about God.  But kids won’t learn much of God’s love if the leaders do not show it themselves.

Thanks be to God, my husband and I came across a trio of verses that are perfect for motivating VBS workers to have the right attitude.  First Thessalonians 5:14 reads, “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”  From past experiences as a VBS and children’s ministries worker, I have encountered children who are idle and disruptive, disheartened, and weak.  And God knows I’ve needed extra helpings of patience while teaching Sunday School and working in the toddler nursery.  I just love how this verse encourages me to be a friend to the kids but not to withhold my “mom voice” if I need to use it.  First Thessalonians 5:15 continues with, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”  With God’s help I will see any negative behavior quickly and “nip it in the bud” as Barney Fife would say.  I will encourage the kids to learn more about each other, and cooperate, and – oh, I hope and pray – avoid tattling.

Striving for peace and harmony among the kids is a great and godly goal, but keeping a loving attitude towards other workers is just as important.  First Thessalonians 5:16 states, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  Holding grudges or bickering is difficult when you choose to rejoice, pray, and give thanks with your fellow VBS volunteers, especially when you do so in all circumstances.  Is it raining?  Thank you, God, that the kids won’t get sunburned tonight.  Are the microphones not working?  Thank you, God, that the children will need to listen extra hard.  Are you wiping up juice that was spilled on the kitchen floor?  Thank you, God, for this awesome arm workout.  And thank you that we have safe drinking water for the kids instead.  Are you waiting by the bathroom door while a six-year-old is taking an ETERNITY in there?  Thank you, God, for indoor bathrooms.  (When my mom went to VBS as a kid, her church only had an outhouse.)

God is good to give us words of encouragement when we need them.  To summarize, these verses in First Thessalonians have motivated me to work at VBS in the following way:

  • Give equal attention to all the kids, but give particular attention in certain cases: warnings or correction for idleness or disruption; extra kind words and encouragement to shy or upset kids; respectful support to children with disabilities or other limitations.
  • Encourage cooperation and friendship among the kids.
  • Rejoice, pray, and give thanks with other workers.

If you are working at a VBS program this summer, thank you for your efforts, and God bless you as you show God’s qualities to the children that He brings your way.  When parents see you with cheerful hearts and faces despite the long hours you’ve worked and the commotion around you, hopefully they will see that you’re not insane, just strengthened by God.  (Okay, by Friday, you might be just a touch insane :).

Photo credit: http://www.churchplanting.com/how-important-is-children%E2%80%99s-ministry-in-church-planting/#axzz4AiGRTkdr

 

 

Confessions of an (almost) Pharisee

Full disclosure: I am a sinner.  Sin is anything we think, say, or do that does not glorify God.  All have sinned by the default of being human, as 1 John 1: 8 and 10 describe: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and His word is not in us.”  A multitude of sins can stain our lives and hearts, and sometimes a common theme can describe our personal sins.  It might be Anger, Deceit, Violence, Materialism, Conceit…or Legalism.  Ashamedly, I admit so many of my sins have fallen under the last category.

In the Christian sphere, Legalists tend to stress strict adherence to God’s laws.  They hope obedience to a set of rules will grant them salvation, and they look down on people that do not follow the rules as they do (1).  In the Bible, a group of people called “Pharisees” believed both God’s Law (Torah) and Oral Law were strict codes to be kept by God’s people.  (A great video explaining what the Sadducees and Pharisees believed is below.)  The Pharisees did not like Jesus’ new message, and they were constantly looking for ways to thwart people from hearing His Word.  But Jesus often called them out for this, as in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

 

Recently, I have realized that I have acted too much like these people who were so bent on following God’s law and the laws developed by men.  When I grew up in the front pew and attended Sunday School, AWANA, Vacation Bible School, and Bible camp, in addition to having Christian parents, my absorbent brain was quickly and incessantly filled with knowledge of God and the Bible.  However, I became too caught up in the verses describing what I should  not do rather than what I should do.  My personality that strove for high achievement in school and activities did not help me be the most patient or loving person, either.  During my last years of undergraduate school and time as a graduate student, I became so preoccupied with making grades and doing things “right” that I avoided people and situations that I considered unhelpful for reaching my earthly goals.  Too often I looked around at the “sinners” around me and shuddered.  Why should I have allowed them into my life?  They did not go to church, they did not use time or money wisely, they did not…  My criticisms went on and on.  I justified my actions with 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’.”  But while this single pithy saying defended my choices, Jesus’ entire life contested them  I was, essentially, a Pharisee: shunning the people that did not live up to my Christian “ideals.”

Jesus was criticized by the legalists of His time when He associated with people who were banned from the society of “godly” people.  Yet he gathered them to His side.  He talked with them, listened to them, had meals with them.  On one occasion described in Matthew 9:10-12, Jesus was hanging out at the home of Matthew, a tax collector – a member of special class of sinners – having a meal with other tax collectors and sinners.  Some Pharisees on the scene, shocked and appalled at this, asked Jesus’ disciples why He dared to be seen with these people.  In response, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  The sins of the people were known and obvious to Jesus, but He still chose to be near them.  A good doctor is not afraid of disease, and he must get close enough to see, touch, and hear his patient to prescribe treatment.  But the good doctor also knows how to avoid getting the disease so he can keep on caring for his patients.

 

Fear of earthly failure inspired my dark moments of pride and lack of love.  Rather than trusting God to protect me from worldly influences while reaching out to others, I instead focused on myself and how well I was following my religion.  I now painfully regret the moments lost when I could have shared the love of God with others.  I gave up potential friendships and the chance to tell others about Jesus because of my legalistic ways.  During my transient life as a student, I had the this mentality: “I just need to focus on my work for two years and then I’ll move on.  There’s no point in making relationships that will be broken sooner than later.”  I thank God that, after six months at my current job, my boss pointed out my less than sociable ways.  I admit it: I cried.  I realized I was not acting like a true Christian – someone Jesus would want to claim as a friend.  Since then, I have made more efforts to be inclusive, patient, and loving.  True, I still have said or done the wrong thing at times, but I have more often chosen to say and do what God what want.  And, wonderfully, despite my spotted past, Jesus still wants me to be His friend!  Even though we are all sinners, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Jesus will have anyone with a sincere heart – tax collectors, Pharisees, and front pew kids who know a little too much for their own good.

Photo credit: http://cedricstudio.com/tag/jesus/

  1. https://carm.org/what-is-legalism

Prayer, Praise…and Potluck

Changing churches is tough.  Sadly, conflict within churches made this front pew kid sit in a lot of different front pews throughout childhood.  (It’s terrible when Christians don’t act like Christians, but that’s for another post.)  I worshiped God in the auditoriums of mega-churches and the living rooms of home churches.  My family even helped start a new church, but then we moved to another state and began the search yet again.  Again, we went through the awkward first few Sundays trying to remember the names of the people we met last week, sizing up the offered ministries,  hoping the church is a good fit because the people are just so darn nice to us, we’d feel rude not to come back.  Thankfully, I was never embittered by any church I attended, and choosing a church to attend was a first priority when I moved around as an adult.  Choosing to leave each one was difficult, mostly when it meant leaving behind people who had welcomed and invested their interest in me.  But even when a person leaves a church, they never leave the Church.

The Church (the collection of Christ’s followers) is more powerful than a church (a building where people gather to worship).  Though separated by physical distance or personal preferences, all Christians share salvation through Jesus.  This is a powerful, uniting force, and, amazingly, makes extremely different people do incredibly similar things.  Acts 2:42 describes the activities of members of the early church as such: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  I’m not a scholar on First Century Church Life, so I don’t know what exactly happened when the earliest Christians worshiped.  But the basics of worship – learning about Jesus’ message, spending time together and caring for each other, sharing meals, and reaching God through prayer and praise – well, they haven’t changed much over 2,000 years.  Despite the differences among Christian denominations (the “top 35” by membership size are described here), all Christians are equally valued by God and have Christ within them. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Salvation unites men and women,  princes and paupers, Alaskans and Australians.

I’m a relative newcomer at my current church.  It is the home church of my fiance, and his family is deeply rooted there.  On this past Sunday the church celebrated its 125th Anniversary.  It was indeed a special Sunday with the presence of former pastors and congregants as well as other unique touches, but the songs we sang, the fellowship we shared, and the prayers we lifted were all meant to honor God and bind us closer together.  Chosen verses for the occasion included Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Besides the chance to worship God, the point of church is to support the Church.  We pray for each other, we praise God together, and we potluck like nobody’s business.  (We were instructed to break bread together, right?)

The uniting bond of salvation among Christians has always given me courage to try a new church as I’ve felt led.  It’s a supernatural feat for this introvert to enter a building full of smiling, handshaking strangers.  How can this be?  Well, just like the Powdermilk Biscuits mentioned on A Prairie Home Companion,  the Bible in my arms and the Holy Spirit inside me “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

 

Photo credit: http://www.penwag.org/december-potluck-challenges-revealed-and-super-stash-sale/

Front Pew Kid All Grown Up

All front pew kids, put your hands up.

If you don’t know what a front pew kid is, then you are not one.  Front pew kids are the sons and daughters of pastors, praise leaders, teachers, missionaries, elders, deacons, women’s committee directors, etc.  Essentially, if your parent/s help “run” church on Sunday mornings (or Saturdays, if that was your thing), you are a front pew kid.  If you no  longer attend youth group and actually have some responsibility in this world, you are a front pew kid all grown up.

I was a front pew kid.  Before I was a stowaway aboard the S.S. Mother, my dad played in the church praise band, and he still does to this day.  Piano, guitar, drums, bass – he can play them all.  He has used his God-given talent to help stir the hearts and souls of churchgoers through the universal language of music, and I am awed by all the time and energy he has put into serving the Lord this way.   My family changed churches every few years as I grew up, and as we felt comfortable enough to volunteer at each one, my dad committed himself to the praise team.  For easier and faster access to the stage, I have always known my dad to sit at the edge of the pew (or row of chairs) near the front of the church.  Being a tightly knit family unit, we always sat together in church, and so, as soon as I graduated from nursery, I became a front pew kid.

Church attendance was expected.  I did not rebel against this; it was just part of life’s rhythm.  On the off chance we did not attend church, I felt a strange nagging, a lack of purpose.  Wearing pajamas until 10 AM on a Sunday, a habit for probably much of the U.S. population, was so…abnormal.  “Normal” was hauling a drum set, keyboards, and speakers in my family’s van to our church’s temporary building every Sunday.  We would set up all the instruments and audio equipment, worship God, listen to the sermon, and then tear it down and pack it up.  I was a roadie by age 10.

I grew up with other front pew kids.  Every Sunday, the pastor and other praise team members brought their rather sleepy-eyed children to learn about God and make friends with “good” kids.  As I grew, I noticed that, since our parents were literally front and center, since we came to church despite threatening blizzards or tempting sunshine, since we could recite all 66 books of the Bible, older people assumed we were “good” kids.  Many people who knew about our consistent whereabouts on Sunday morning assumed that a Christian life had just seeped into us via osmosis, what with the endless hours of sermons and praise songs we had been exposed to since we could understand flannel graphs.  And so, like good little sponges, we would always face any devilish temptation with the thoughtful consideration of “What would Jesus do?”, know exactly what Jesus would do, do it, and, thereby, avoid all sin.

Maturation of Christian faith is not that simple.  Yes, I am so thankful that my parents were involved in church so I grew up knowing godly people and learning about God and His salvation He offers through Jesus.  But choosing to follow God – to obey Him – did not become as natural and automatic a thing as setting up a hi-hat and ride cymbal early on a Sunday morning did.  Sometimes going to church feels like an involuntary routine – a necessity – rather than an exciting  experience  to fellowship with other Christians and worship God.  I, along with many other front pew kids, did not come from a home in which God was an option or even forbidden.  His existence was taken as fact.  I was so surrounded by Bible verses, crosses, Michael W. Smith songs, and people speaking “Christianese”, that in this rose garden of my childhood the beauty of the roses was often lost on me.  As I grew older, though, and was torn from the garden to wander through deserts, I remembered the beauty of the blooms and the sweetness of their scents.  I realized that flowers – the blessings of life and hope of salvation – found in the desert were to be cherished and treasured, and shared with other wanderers in the wasteland.  Still, on one day I might spot the smallest blossom, hold it close, and smile about it for hours, while at another time I might stomp through an oasis, kicking the heads off orchids, not caring about the Gardener who grows them.

So it is for this front pew kid, all grown up.  My mother no longer sings me to sleep with “The Old Rugged Cross.”  I must choose to listen to it on my own rather than to a scintillating song with lyrics that do not honor God.  Front pew kids grow up with the best seats in the house to hear and see what God has done, but this does not guarantee a close adult relationship with God.  They accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior…or they don’t.  They go to church after leaving home…or they don’t.  They remember the words of their teachers and pastors and parents…or they don’t.  We cannot trade in the gold stars on our Sunday School attendance chart for a ticket to Heaven.

I am writing this for several reasons.  I want to hear from other grown up front pew kids.  We have taken different paths, and I am interested in their stories.  I also am writing this to prove the existence of Millennial Christians.  I was born in 1990, smack dab in the middle of the Millennial generation (1980-2000).  My views do not match many generalized notions of Millennial views mostly due to my faith.  I am also writing merely for the pleasure of writing and the challenge to voice my ideas politely and intelligently.  My high school band teacher used to say it does not take talent to play loud and fast; it takes talent to play softly and slowly.  So instead of through ranting and virtual Bible-thumping, I aim to deliver insights without giving the reader a headache.

Opinions and viewpoints will not come from a seminary graduate.  They will merely come from a front pew kid all grown up, still remembering (or not) what her Sunday school teacher taught or what she learned from VeggieTales, and still wondering, “What would Jesus do?”