Made for Community

Sunday marked the beginning of a new year, which means flipping calendars and, if you’re like me, the beginning of a season of scribbling out dates until I finally remember to write the correct year.

Sunday also marked my last shift at the breakfast restaurant. Several weeks prior I was offered a job as a support teacher at an early childhood education center, mostly working with infants and toddlers. I jumped into the classroom the day after I was hired, soaking up as many hours of experience as I could fit in before I took responsibility for my own extended day classroom this Tuesday. It marked the end of working every Saturday and Sunday, opening up my weekends again.

Despite how much I hated working every Sunday morning, I found myself reluctant to leave the job. Part of it was a reluctance to make yet another transition (we’ve had so many in the past couple years). When Sunday afternoon came, I lingered a bit, trying to figure out how to say goodbye to coworkers who I spent hours with every week but who were not necessarily friends in the sense that they had no place in the rest of my life (am I the only one who finds this a bit awkward?).

That afternoon, as I enjoyed my rest at home, I pondered why I found it hard to leave that job. It wasn’t that I was particularly attached to the restaurant business (though I do love hospitality). Then that still, small voice said simply:

“Because you were made for community.”

I was made for community. Indeed. That simple phrase opened up my perspective. Looking back, I recognized that I have spent a lot of my life feeling alone, so when I find pockets of community, I cling tightly to them. Even surface communities, where the closest ties are merely proximity and we share little of our lives, feed that desire for community. For the past five months I spent more time at the restaurant than anywhere else and I did develop a sense of community there that I sorely missed elsewhere in that busy season of school and work that left little time for anything else.

In a small way, it reminded me of the power of meal-sharing in building a sense of community and acceptance. Though we did not share full meals, there were early morning breakfasts before the customers arrived, sampling the chef’s daily specials, and gathering with the other servers to eat miscooked meals that couldn’t be served to the customers. Even in these brief moments of chatting between bites, I saw how sharing food brought people together, even people who were very different from one another with a wide variety of backgrounds and lifestyles. It reminds me of Brennan Manning’s insights on the power of meal-sharing in A Glimpse of Jesus, in the chapter titled “Healing Through Meal-Sharing”: “In the East, to share a meal with someone is a symbol of peace, trust, brotherhood, and forgiveness; the shared table is a shared life. To say to an Orthodox Jew, ‘I would like to have dinner with you,’ is understood as ‘I would like to enter into friendship with you’” (Manning, A Glimpse of Jesus: The Stranger to Self-Hatred, p. 54).

But I also recognize that a surface sense of community like I experienced at work will never satisfy my desire for true, Christ-centered community. It remains only a shadow of the depth of relationship that God desired among His people and – even more importantly – the communion we were made for with Him. We are made for deep relationships that push deep beyond the surface, that open up our lives to be vulnerable with one another, that carry one another’s sorrows and joys, and that sharpen each other like iron sharpens iron. A surface sense of joint activity will never satisfy the ache for community like that.

I was made for community. Not surface community, not just shared activity, certainly not the facebook version, but true, deep community. This year, as I transition into a new season, I want to intentionally pursue relationship, giving it greater space in my life again.

(P.S. I don’t really do New Year’s resolution, but if I did, I would probably also resolve to blog more this year, so you may be hearing from me more regularly again. Maybe.)

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Grace and Provision (and the Provision of Grace)

Four snow days in a row this past week unearthed some interesting things in my heart, particularly in what I believe about God’s provision (an area that I feel like He has been highlighting for me lately).

The first snow day was so relaxing. I spent the day with Derek, dreaming about the future, walking through the neighborhood, and just enjoying our time together. The second day was still a welcome time of rest and reflection. By the third day, though, I felt a little bored and antsy to return to work and a more normal schedule.

And on the fourth day I started to do some math (you know, the kind where I multiply the days I’ve worked by my rate of pay, then subtract rent, utilities, groceries, bus fare, and phone bill, and then freak out a bit). The main problem this month is that, because of having two weeks off for Christmas and these unexpected snow day, my two pay checks this month will only amount to seven days of work (significantly less than usual).

So I took myself and my growing ball of anxiety up to our room and sat down with the Lord. I felt like God really wanted to use this time to teach me about His provision. Almost as soon as I sat down to pray, though, a raw question burst forth from my heart:

“But am I doing enough for God to provide for us? Am I doing enough ‘kingdom work’ for God to pay our bills?”

The question hung there, quivering with insecurity and inadequateness. As if God were my calculating employer, tallying up hours and rationing funds accordingly, instead of my Abba who tenderly cares for me as His daughter. Because what child earns her father’s provision? Since when does a child question whether they’ve been good enough or productive enough for their father to feed them, clothe them, provide for their needs? (unless, of course, they come from a dysfunctional home – but there is nothing dysfunctional about the kingdom of heaven). Yet God calls us His children and heirs (Romans 8:17) and even His friends (John 15:15).

It surprised me, actually, to find that question in my heart, because of everything God has worked in my heart this past year in teaching me how I am beloved in Him apart from what I do. Clearly there are still layers of self-sufficiency that God wants to peel back to draw me into deeper trust in Him and His grace.

Appropriately enough, yesterday morning at the Boiler Room Adam spoke about God’s incredible, extravagant grace and how everything we have is a gift and cannot be earned. His message struck home, right to the core of this wrestling over God’s provision.

Yes, I need God’s provision, but more than that – so much more than that – I need His grace. I need His grace in my weakness, in my anxiety and lack faith, in my ungratefulness and my pale love for the One who, full of grace, poured out His life for me. I need his grace to free me from my self-imposed standards of worth, to break this urge to try to earn whatever I need (and the false belief that I can possibly earn it). I need His grace to change my heart and transform my life, to release me to the freedom of God’s love. Grace that I can’t possibly earn or deserve. I need God’s grace to convince me of these truths and root them deeply into my life.

Last night we gathered with some friends to pray (these same friends had prayed over us at collective on Thursday). One of them shared that he was struggling with provision and we began to share stories of how God has provided for us, testifying to God’s faithfulness over and over. Initially we planned to share one story each, but the more we shared, the more we remembered about how God had provided for us, sometimes just enough and sometimes extravagantly, sometimes in the necessities and sometimes in little luxuries to show His attentive love. I feel encouraged by these testimonies and by remembering God’s faithfulness in my own life thus far.

So stay tuned. I fully expect to have stories to share of God’s provision in the near future.

“Grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is a gift.” – Brennan Manning

A Return to Sabbath

I’m still working my way through Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. In the most recent chapter I read, he talked about the spirit of the Pharisees and how that attacks our identity as Abba’s child. He had a lot of good things to say, but what struck me the most in the chapter was actually his description of the traditional Jewish Sabbath celebration.

Manning wrote that the Sabbath was meant, first and foremost, to be “a memorial of creation” (p.78), a remembrance of God creating the world and seeing that what He made was good. Isaiah referred to it as “a day of delight” where “fasting and mourning were forbidden. Special festive white clothes were to be worn and joyous music was to permeate the Sabbath observance” (p.79). It was a day to rejoice in what God has made and also a day to remember that we owe our lives to the Creator. “The Sabbath was a solemn recognition that God had sovereign rights, a public act of appropriation wherein the believing community acknowledged that they owed their life and being to Another. As the memorial day of creation, the Sabbath meant a worship of adoration and thanksgiving for all God’s goodness, for all the Jews were and had” (p. 78). For Christians, this Sabbath remembrance also foreshadowed our celebration of the resurrection each Sunday where we remember our re-creation in Christ through His death and resurrection. In all this, “worship remained the essential element of the Sabbath celebration” (p. 78).

Manning also points out that as we remember our Creator, we re-focus our perspective on our lives. He writes: “A rest from preoccupation with money, pleasure, and all creature comforts meant getting a proper perspective in relation to the Creator. On the Sabbath, Jews reflected and put the events of the past week in a larger context of saying to God: ‘You are the true Ruler, I am but Your steward.’ The Sabbath was a day of rigorous honesty and careful contemplation, a day of taking stock, examining the direction of life, and rooting oneself anew in God. The Jew on the Sabbath learned to pray: ‘Our hearts are restless all week, until today they rest again in Thee.’” (p. 78). The Sabbath was also a memorial of the covenant between God and His people, a day for the people to renew their dedication to His service and rejoice anew in the promises of God: “‘If you obey my voice and hold fast to my covenant you of all the nations shall be my very own for al the earth is mine. I will count you a kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation’ (Exodus 19:5-6).” (p. 78).

But what was most interesting to me was how Manning tied Sabbath observance to the health and stability of a family. He even goes so far as to say that “the Sabbath is considered the chief foundation of the remarkably stable home life and close family spirit that has characterized orthodox Jews through the centuries. All the members of the family were to be present along with invited guests, especially the poor, strangers, or travelers.” (p.79). He goes on to describe the Sabbath celebration: “The Sabbath celebration started at sundown Friday with the mother of the family ceremonially lighting the candles. Then the father, after saying grace over a cup of wine, laid his hand on the head of each of his children and solemnly blessed them with a personal prayer.” He said this practice of blessing the family every Sabbath helped make the home “a miniature sanctuary in which the parents were he priests and the family table was the altar.” (p. 79).

He went on to use this observance of the Sabbath as an example of how a religious spirit makes “primary matters secondary and secondary matters primary” (p. 80), in this case by the Pharisees emphasizing the need to refrain from work on the Sabbath rather than focusing on the heart of what the celebration was supposed to be. But I was really captivated by his picture of the heart of what Sabbath was meant to be.

I’m captivated by this picture of a family coming together – and opening their doors and hearts to others to join in – to joyfully celebrate the goodness of God, His goodness in His creation, in His enduring covenant with His people, and in His new creation of us through Jesus, and to reflect on and refocus their lives in light of that. I want to practice Sabbath like this in my life, not just observing a day of rest, but learning to rest in the goodness and faithfulness of God, weekly celebrating that truth, and learning to re-orient my life according to it.

My Heart For Community

(My husband wrote this today. It speaks of the heart both of have for community so I wanted to share it here as well).

“I don’t normally write notes, but I read this today and I had to write about it. It is so much my heart for community and the way I see (or want to see) the church. You are tagged in this note because I consider you one of those who are on this journey with me…Does this ring true in your hearts as well?

‘The early church was built on small groups of people who came together to support one another in a whole new way of life. These primitive communities were visible evidence of an alternative to the status quo of their culture. Today we need small bands of people who take the gospel at face value, who realize what God is doing in our time, and who are living proof of what it means to be in the world but not of the world.

These ‘base’ communities or neighborhood churches should be small enough for intimacy, kindred enough for acceptance, and gentle enough for criticism. Gathered in the name of Jesus, the community empowers us to incarnate in our lives what we believe in our hearts and proclaim with our lips.

Of course, we must not romanticize such groups. It is all too easy to envision a cozy, harmonious little fellowship where everyone is tuned in on the same wavelength, to love the dream of community more than the sin-scarred members who comprise it, to fantasize heroic deeds for the Lord, and to hear the applause in heaven and on earth as we shape an angelic koinonia. The reality is otherwise. Egos collide, personalities conflict, power brokers intrude, anger and resentment surface, risk is inevitable. It is less like utopia than a crucible or refiner’s fire.

The experience of community is neither a luxury for the spiritually affluent nor a panacea (remedy) for the lonely, bored, and idle. It is, in fact, a necessity for every Christian. It is my personal conviction that this is what Jesus and Paul meant when they spoke of the church–small Christian communities praying and worshiping together, healing, forgiving, reconciling, supporting, challenging, and encouraging one another. Scott Peck says, ‘There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace–and ultimately no life–without community.’

We need a group of people around us who support and understand us. Even Jesus needed this. He called them ‘the twelve,’ the first Christian community. We need perspective on the present, so we pray together; we need accountability, so we share our lives with each other; we need a vision of the future, so we dream together.”

This is a quote from The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to ruin their life for the sake of Christ and His gospel. Please comment on this note, I want to hear what you think.”

Beloved in the Ordinary Life

I’m in a place of wrestling with my identity and worth in this new city and new season. Yesterday, as I groped for anything to hold onto, anything to help me make sense of where I am and what God’s doing here, I picked up Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning again. Chapter three is titled simply “The Beloved.” Reading through it last night and again this morning, I feel like this is a piece of what God is producing in me in this season.

Manning talks about the difference between the imposter, the false self we manufacture to present to the world around us in hopes of being accepted, and the true self, the self that finds its identity and worth in Christ alone. He writes, “While the imposter draws his identity from past achievements and the adulation of others, the true self claims identity in its belovedness. We encounter God in the ordinariness of life: not in the search for spiritual highs and extraordinary, mystical experiences but in our simple presence in life….We give glory to God simply by being ourselves” (Abba’s Child, p. 51-52).

He also shares a segment from the journal of John Eagan, a high school teacher and a contemplative, where Eagan talks about a visit with his spiritual director:

“Then he states something that I will ponder for years; he says it very deliberately. I ask him to repeat it so I can write it down. ‘John, the heart of it is this: to make the Lord and his immense love for you constitutive of your personal worth. Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. God’s love for you and his choice of you constitute your worth. Accept that, and let it become the most important thing in your life.’

We discuss it. The basis of my personal worth is not my possessions, my talents, not esteem of others, reputation…not kudos of appreciation from parents and kids, not applause, and everyone telling you how important you are to the place…I stand anchored now in God before whom I stand naked, this God who tells me ‘You are my son, my beloved one.’” (p. 51).

This idea of belovedness apart from what I do or the people around me strikes at a lie deep in my heart. In my head I can protest, “Of course I know that I’m not defined by my possessions or my position….or my lack thereof” but in my heart I still ache for a position that lets me know that I’m significant, that I matter, that I belong. I still crave the praise and appreciation of others that lets me know that I’m needed, I’m wanted, I’m liked. And I still look at my possessions and my lifestyle to see if I look right, if I live right, so I fit in, so I can say I have a place here. This move to a new city has magnified all those insecurities and cravings to an enormous weight of wanting in my heart. This needs to be dealt with, not fed or covered up. This needs the lancing of God’s truth and the balm of His love. Manning insists that if I seek for life and meaning and identity anywhere else but in Him, “I am spiritually dead” (p. 52).

“God created us for union with Himself: This is the original purpose of our lives. And God is defined as love (1 John 4:16). Living in awareness of our belovedness is the axis around which the Christian life revolves. Being the beloved is our identity, the core of our existence. It is not merely a lofty thought, an inspiring idea, or one name among many. It is the name by which God knows us and the way He relates to us” (Abba’s Child, p. 52).

I need to learn that I’m beloved, even apart from any ministry or position, any friendship or sense of belonging. I need to live out of the truth that I am beloved in my ordinary life. I’m beloved as I walk to work, as I bake muffins, as I take photos, as I sit with my husband, as I struggle to maintain patience, as I itch to get my hands dirty in the world of poverty, as I think wistfully of friends back home. Beloved in all these ordinary moments. Beloved right where I am. I need to know that I’m beloved, and that it’s enough. I need to learn to rest in that belovedness.

And as I grow in an awareness of my identity as one beloved by God, I am reminded of my call – the truest call in my life – to loved the great Lover Himself, to find my identity in that call to love and be loved in return and to live out of the truth that this is enough. I don’t need to strive to earn worth beyond this.

God was  speaking this to me the other day through His Presence in the Midst of You, by Charles Elliot Newbold Jr., a collection of letters written as if God is speaking directly to the reader (based on scripture). In it I was reminded:

“The highest service anyone can render unto Me is to worship Me in spirit and truth. I created you for this reason. Men lose their way with Me when they think they have to achieve great works in My name.

I do not want your works. I want you. I want your love, your passion, your desire to be in My presence and for My presence to abide in you.

They who wait upon Me to be refreshed by Me will be My lights in the world. The world will see the sacrifices you make to worship and praise Me, and, through such sacrifices of self, I will  draw others to Me.

Your praise of Me is the greatest testimony you can give in the world. It is your message. Your life of praise is your works. It is your sacrifice of self – laying aside your agendas, your plans, and your programs to allow Me to be all in all.” (p. 4).

I pray that, in this season in particular, God will work these essential truths deep into my heart and life. They changed my life at one time. At one time this idea, that the most important thing I could do for God is to spend time with Him, was so radical that all I could do was sit in the middle of my floor and ponder how this changed everything. It meant a complete change in direction. But that  was over three years ago. In the onslaught of passions and desires, plans and callings, that followed that revelation, the central truth of it dulled. Perhaps this season is a cal to sit in the middle of the floor again and let that enormous truth sink into my spirit and life and chang me once again.

A Glimpse of Jesus in My Life

Recently I’ve started reading A Glimpse of Jesus; the Stranger to Self-Hatred by Brennan Manning (I’ve always been impressed and convicted by any quote I’ve heard from him, but have yet to read one of his books). In the second chapter he issues the challenge:

“Who is the Jesus of your journey? How would you describe the Christ who is the still point of a turning world for so many people and an irrelevancy or embarrassment for countless others…The challenge, so keenly put in the New Testament – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ – is addressed to each of us. Who is the Jesus of your own interiority? Describe the Christ that you have personally encountered on the grounds of your own self?

Only a stereotypical answer can be forthcoming if we have not developed a personal relationship with Jesus. We can only repeat pious turns of speech that others have spoken or wave a catechism under children’s noses if we have not gained some partial insight, some small glimpse of the inexhaustible richness of the mystery who is Jesus Christ.” (Brennan Manning, A Glimpse of Jesus, p. 24-25)

I read on a little further, but eventually had to stop and close the book so I could ponder this question. Who is Jesus in my life? “Who do you say I am?”

I feel like I’m still just beginning to truly know Jesus and make Him known in my life, that I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the fullness of life in Him, but I’m encouraged by Manning’s words:

“Perhaps what is decisive is not how much we see, but how much we trust and follow Jesus of Nazareth, however sketchy the portrait, how ever sketchy the glimpse,” (A Glimpse of Jesus, forward).

That said, here are few glimpses of the Jesus I’ve come to know in my life:

He is the one who shifted the priorities in my life by showing me what is most important to Him (time with Him and our relationship with Him). He is beautiful and captivating. He draws my heart like nothing else. Everything else that I pursued and anything else that I could pursue pales in comparison with time spent in His presence. He is fullness of life that satisfies me in a way that chasing after my own desires and glory never did.

He is the one that gives me hope by His promises. He gives me hope for continued transformation in my own life, but also hope for the transformation of people and communities around me, hope for broken people to be healed, shattered foundations rebuilt, new life from death, and redemption from failure. He is the picture of who we will be and the face of God’s love and mercy towards us.

He is my first Love, my faithful friend. He is always with me when I cry to Him. He pushes back the despair and lifts the loneliness. He tells me who I am and reminds me of His plans for me. His love never fails. He is always there and always sufficient.

He is my compass, who reorients my life and points me in the direction I need to go. He is the nourisher of my soul who feeds me with His words, corrects me, gives me wisdom, who draws the depths of my heart (both the dreams and the filth) to the light of the surface.

He is my Redeemer, who makes sure that nothing in my life is wasted. He brings light and growth out of even my deepest pain or sharpest failing.

This is still such a partial picture of all that Jesus is and promises to be in our lives, but I hope and pray that I will continue to come to know Him more. I pray that as I come to know more about Him, that the things I know about Him will become more and more evident in my life and I will truly know Him more. And for now, I strive to be faithful to what I do know.