Posts Tagged With: Jesus

Entering Rest in the Midst of Calendar Chaos

IMG_0936It’s the first week of the academic year and with it brings two welcome cookouts for UC Christian Grads, a prayer gathering, meetings with ministry partners, and continued planning. For the first time in several months I’ll be immersed in interactions with students and faculty nearly every day. I’m looking forward to each appointment on my calendar – along with the ones not scheduled. Even as I’m eager to step into this work, I’m also leery. In this chaotic mess of activity I can often lose myself and the purpose of all this activity. Then at the end of the semester I look back and wonder what happened. But that’s not the way I want to begin the year – flailing around for a solid landing place that never appears. No, I want to step out from a firm foundation.

So, before I drive across the bridge over the Ohio River into Cincinnati, I stop at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington.

Opening the solid, wooden doors I am surrounded by a quiet comfort. The firmness of the stone, the height of the vaulted ceilings, the diffused light through the stained glass, the muffled sound of the traffic, and the light scent of incense and candles invites me to rest even in the midst of work. This is a place of refuge in which my thoughts turn to God instead of my calendar.

Slowly I walk in front of the altar, across the marble floors to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Sliding into the back pew I sit and close my eyes to rest in this space and allow it to speak to me. Opening my eyes I gaze at the jeweled-toned stained glass before me: an image of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. God met them in that place abundantly and in ways they never imagined – manna raining down, water gushing out, and God’s presence in the light and cloud surrounding the tabernacle. The desperation of the people was heard and met.

But the story told on the walls in this small chapel doesn’t end here. On the side walls murals by Frank Duveneck portray Jesus – sacrificing himself on the cross as the bread of life and breaking bread three days later with two disciples in Emmaus. In these images we see how God himself became the bread to feed us, in a fuller and more lasting way than with manna.

Sitting here I am able to focus again on the truth that Jesus is our living bread, our true source of nourishment. Since I’m prone to want to feed myself, I need to hear these words over and over. I need to stop kneading the dough of my life to death and, instead, hold out my hands to the living bread.

The readings from the past Sunday undergird these musings:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. – John 6:35

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! – Psalm 34:8

I sit and feed on these words and images until it’s time to leave. Then, I take a last look around and walk through the nave noticing the banks of candles lit by previous visitors. Others who have taken refuge and encountered the bread of life in this space. I don’t know how the others left – in hope or despair.

As for me, this place as helped me remember that solid foundation that undergirds all this activity. And not just remember, but rest in the foundation of Christ. Walking out of the doors, I now see the food I’m purchasing for the cookout tonight as not one more task to finish, but part of a larger story of following Jesus and inviting others to come along.

Let the feast begin!

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The Relief of Lent

The real man is at liberty to be his Creator’s creature.  To be conformed with the Incarnate is to have the right to be the man one really is.  – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Over the past weeks I’ve been to retreats, cooked meals, met new people, planned ministry events, been invited to dinners, made phone calls, spent time with friends, celebrated . . . and read, wrote, cleaned, organized finances . . . the list could go on.  It doesn’t take long before days, weeks, and months are overflowing with tasks.

It’s in the midst of such a hectic schedule that Lent is such a relief.  It’s a gift to have an expectation to give up something, slow down.

Time to reflect. To return to God.  To breathe again.

At the same time I also wonder how to describe Lent to people outside of the church – as well as to many people within.  It’s not a practice or festival that is in the Bible.  It also seems to run counter to the picture of hope and abundance that is often central to Christianity.  Does Jesus really want us to go around looking sorrowful and depriving ourselves?

No, but throughout his words there are many messages about repentance, carrying our crosses, and persecution.  These are not the jubilant voices of preachers on a Sunday morning or the comforting words of a friend.  They are the earnest pleadings of God wanting us to look at reality.  To see what is really before us, in all its brokenness, instead of painting false pictures.  A God who yearns to heal us.  In current western society that admires image, wants to create a better narrative no matter how far it is from reality, we need this call more than ever.

This is lent.  It provides a time to recalibrate the stories in our lives.  To remove the false versions of ourselves and others.  To see God as God is and ourselves as his creatures.    To step out of the daily routine.  It’s a time when it’s okay to reflect.  It’s okay to remove our masks as we hear we are ashes, we are dust.

What we each give up or take on isn’t as important as the practice of doing so – and Christ breaking into this time to reveal the Truth and to set us free.  Free to be broken and to step into this mess with Jesus in the midst.

How will you find relief and break from the routine in your life over the next weeks to open yourself to God’s calling to repent – see reality as it is and turn to Him?

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A Better Tabernacle

Where is God’s tabernacle today?

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, God wanted to have a place to be in the center of his people.  So, in addition to detailing how they were to live, he provided instructions about creating a tent where he would dwell – from the dimensions of the structure to the colors of the decorative thread.  Bezalel, who God had filled with his Spirit and skill, led many artisans to create this tent and its accompanying furnishings.  This was a holy, sacred place.  When it was finished, and Moses had made sure it was set up as God dictated, the Glory of the Lord entered.  Never before, since sin had entered the world, had God been so present in the midst of his people.

It was easy to see this was a holy place.  Set up in the center of all the other tents, it had special rules surrounding it.  Not just anyone could enter, especially the place where God resided, the Holy of Holies.  For the average Israelite, God remained distant.  All they saw were the structure of the tent, the rituals, and the priests.  It was beautiful, but inaccessible.  Eventually God became lost for the people, locked away.  They worshiped the external forms instead of the God to whom the forms were pointing.

The celebration of Christmas has taken a similar turn. The ideal image is beautiful – if you can get it.   If you want to have a good Christmas you better have a properly decorated tree; a well-dressed, happy family around the dinner table; and the latest toys and clothes for gifts.  This is when the Christmas spirit will come and fill your lives – or at least is evidence of it.

However, what happens if your Christmas is spent in the hospital, or with a father who is dying, or with your family on the street?  What if you are in a barracks a world away from your family or you have no money for any gifts?  Where is Christmas?  Only priests could enter God’s presence – and it seems that only the privileged people today can have the full Christmas experience today.  The trappings of the first tabernacle that were to provide a way to God eventually became a barrier to really knowing him; and the trappings of Christmas can be a barrier to people knowing God today.

Fortunately, another tabernacle entered the picture just over 2,000 years ago.  This time God did not require a structure built by human hands.  Human flesh became his tent, his tabernacle.  God’s glory, the same glory that filled the tent in the desert, now filled an infant in a manger.  An ordinary birth.  Later on this living tabernacle moved among people, and not always in the best places.

If we really want to celebrate Christmas, it’s not about making a winter wonderland, but going into the places where people’s lives are torn just as this infant, Jesus, would do. Jesus enters the hospital and sits by the bed and stands with the soldier away from home.  Amazingly we don’t have to go to this tabernacle.  He comes to us and we are changed.

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Life Together

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!  Psalm 133:1

More than ever I’ve been experiencing dissension around me, especially among Christians.  Pastors can’t, or won’t, reach out to brothers and sisters who hold a different interpretation of a favorite doctrine.  Friends call each other idiots because they support different political parties. Church members shun those who hold a different view of creation. People are standing their grounds – and dividing the world more deeply than ever.

If everyone would believe my way, then there would be unity.  

Really?

What would it be like to lay down our arms, instead of taking them up to defend our positions?  I don’t want to hear arguments anymore.  I want to sit down and talk.  To work to see God’s image in one another.

Dissension was also part of the Gospels – Jesus did not shy away from it.  But neither did he allow it to separate people, unless they chose separation. He brought religious zealots and tax collectors into his inner circle.  Beyond the twelve disciples, pharisees, prostitutes, and other outcasts were regular followers. These individuals did not always get along or have the same vision of God’s Kingdom.  Yet, this was the first inkling of Christian community.  Unlike the religious leaders of their day, the primary commonality among Jesus’ followers was not external practices, rules, or programs.  No, Christ himself was the unifying element.

Nearly two thousand years after this original band came together, I often wonder if the church has forgotten what it means to live in unity.  While part of an underground seminary in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored the idea of Christian community in the book, Life Together.  This group did not wait until they could be a thriving church body drawing people in from the streets when all programs and procedures were in order.  They practiced this community in the chaos of the Third Reich.  As Bonhoeffer writes, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (30).  In other words, a church is not a church because it has certain external practices, but because Christ is in the midst of her workings.

I have noticed that Christian community often breaks down because of differing expectations of what a church should and should not be.  For some people, it must have the right youth program, worship service, or only include people whose ideas are similar to theirs.  Or, maybe its budget should contain specific items or the carpet be a certain color.  However, as Bonhoeffer warns, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (27).  When I read this sentence I knew he was not just talking to those with whom I disagree, but to me as well.  Many times my dreams of what a Christian community could be overpower the reality of how Christ is working.  I need to ask forgiveness.

However, whether it’s a need to ask for forgiveness, to share failings in work or family life, or just to express that one is weak, we are fearful that if we back down from our ‘a-okay’ personas people will walk away.  As Bonhoeffer rightly reminds us, “many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous” (110). How sad. We are all sinners. Jesus came not for a group of perfect humans – but for those who know they are broken and need help.  As we hide our sins from the community, sin has greater control over us.  Only when we are honest before others and God does sin loosen its hold on our lives.

Some of the work that makes this possible runs contrary to how the world says we should conduct ourselves in order to succeed.  Instead of speaking against people behind their backs, we are to hold our tongues.  Instead of claiming one’s rights above another, we are to be meek.  We are to listen, to bear each others’ burdens, and to proclaim God’s Word and truth in love.  An amazing freedom occurs as we practice these actions through Christ.  We allow our brothers and sisters, along with ourselves, to be free to be the image of God, not be constrained by the limiting image we have for them.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

 

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Holy Exhaustion

Days of new activities, students, planning can take a toll.  Starting with a midnight pancake breakfast and ending over a week later with a tour of Cincinnati – and with open houses, dinners, and meetings in between – outreaching to students in campus ministry is exhausting.  All I want to do is crawl in bed or curl up with a book.  But I must keep going during these first weeks so that students are aware of the ministry.

This isn’t easy when so many other things are vying for their attention – moving into dorms, finding their way to classes, buying books, wondering how their professors will grade, landing a job, preparing to teach, hanging out with friends.  Why would campus ministry be in the picture at all?  It’s difficult enough to juggle what is required to get that degree.  So, it appears the exhaustion is not only on my part.

Maybe there’s a way to connect with this mutual feeling.  How do we deal with this overload of activity?  Jesus promises that all who labor and are heavy laden will find rest in him (Matthew 11:28).   Exhaustion may bring us to that place where we can’t do anything but rely on God. But what does this look like today?

Campus ministry doesn’t have to be more club to join or responsibility to add to an already full schedule.  (Though, I will admit, many times it can feel like it and it’s tempting to call students to such a practice.)  No, such ministry can provide a way to see everything in our lives as a response to God’s grace.

Instead of fighting with the rest of the world to succeed, we can rest with our identity in Jesus. Whether students gather in small groups to pray, for worship, or even over a meal, together we can encourage one another to step out of the practices that are wearing us down and take up others that bring life.  More importantly, we can together look to the cross, the place where God wiped out everything that separates us from him.

Taking time to gather as Christians on campus doesn’t have to be just one more thing.  No, if done well, it points to the One who puts everything else in perspective and ultimately relieves our exhaustion.

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Don’t Let Your Heart Be Troubled

Moments of this campus ministry journey include intense times of planning and executing activities during which I must be ‘on’ for five or more hours – talking with students, leading discussions, giving tours of the house, helping volunteers.  All this while also seeing how I might help students connect with God’s story.  During these times it’s easy to focus on food and games, trying to keeping everyone happy.  Or, to think about how the event is not living up to my expectations.

At 6:30pm this past Tuesday I was discouraged because there was not a line outside of the door ready for our annual international meal.  Some students were inside, but many of these were returning from last year.  The rush of new students didn’t appear.  I was reluctant to begin and almost wanted to apologize.  I had people bring all this food for what?

Then a handful of new students walked in – we prayed and headed to the kitchen to fill our plates.  Several times throughout the evening students came in the front door.  There may not have been a long line to start, but it turns out that these small forays worked better.  I was able to focus on each group for awhile instead of being overwhelmed with a large mass of students at once.  Hmm . . . maybe my expectations needed some rearranging?

Once I was more comfortable with the number of people, I started to be concerned when I realized that I hadn’t really prepared anything to catalyze community.  We had good food and people, but how would individuals connect?  I tried to keep the conversation going in the dining room.  However, the energy that comes when people start building a community didn’t seem to happen.  Fearful that people would start getting up to leave, I started to panic.  I couldn’t force them to stay and interact.

But there might be something that would help.  So, when people started moving to the front room I pulled out Jenga, the block stacking game.  I didn’t know if it would work, but slowly people gathered, started coming together, and laughing.  Don’t get me wrong – we didn’t end up with life-long friends talking about the deep mysteries of God that evening.  Yet, a sense of community started and hopefully several of these students will continue on their journeys us in the coming weeks.

Both of these moments were reminders of not letting my heart be troubled – John 14:1, 27 – in the liminal moments of this ministry.  Not an easy thing to do, but these words of Jesus to his disciples could be my mantra during the coming year.  Also, as I look to build community within the group I need to remember that it won’t just happen.  On this journey, there will be moments during which I’ll need to facilitate interaction and not just expect it.  God even had his ways – a burning bush, a ladder with angels, questions.

Could get interesting . . .

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