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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Hurrier I Go...

I simply cannot believe that February is already coming to a close. This month has been a blur. It's been far busier than I prefer, but I cannot deny that I have gotten to do some really fun stuff:

  • Interview several really great, more-than-qualified candidates for summer internships at APU and Westmont;
  • Meet with administration at those schools as well and dream about future partnerships with the Free Methodist Church;
  • Gain approval for our new Center for Transformational Leadership at APU.  We will be putting on leadership development events, training interns, mobilizing leaders and building bridges between Christian schools and the church to access gifted and called leaders;
  • Start a bible study with 5 fantastic Westmont women;
  • Have a birthday!
  • Visit New York City for 6 days with my niece and nephew, who are, at ages 11 and 14, a total blast;
  • Serve on a panel at APU for the departments of Youth Ministry and Christian Ministry;
  • Fly out tomorrow to Nashville for a conference - the Wesleyan Theological Society. 
Unfortunately, I hit a wall of sorts last night when a nagging issue became a gnarly PROBLEM... for some reason, in the last 3 months I've had sporadic episodes of puffy eyes. They appeared to be an allergic reaction to something, but each time dissipated after 2-3 days. But this time the puffiness spread to my entire face and became a full-blown case of hives, swelling my right eye shut. I would include a photo, but let's be honest, I want people to come back to this blog and not run away in horror... (or launch it throughout the internet and bring my professional life effectively to a close!)

I was m-i-s-e-r-a-b-l-e. Thankfully, in our First World privilege, I was able to land an appointment with a dermatologist who said, "Yep, you're allergic to something," and gave me a good ol' cortisone shot in the bee-hind. Things are looking up, but I was reminded yet again that it is imperative to live day by day in dependence on Christ. Nouwen says it well:
We all have dreams about the perfect life: a life without pain, sadness, conflict, or war. The spiritual challenge is to experience glimpses of this perfect life right in the middle of our many struggles. By embracing the reality of our mortal life, we can get in touch with the eternal life that has been sown there. The apostle Paul expresses this powerfully when he writes: "We are subjected to every kind of hardship, but never distressed; we see no way out but we never despair; we are pursued but never cut off; knocked down, but still have some life in us; always we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus, too, may be visible in our ... mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:8-12). 
Only by facing our mortality can we come in touch with the life that transcends death. Our imperfections open for us the vision of the perfect life that God in and through Jesus has promised us.
On my flight home from New York I started reading Surprised By Hope by N.T. Wright. I cannot recommend this book enough. This expands on the brief picture Nouwen paints in the quote above. I look forward to finishing Wright's book on this next trip. He uses some poetic prose to bring the reality and beauty of our resurrection life into sharp focus. I realize how limited my imagination is, and how much that skews my view of (and anticipation of) eternity.

I won't even attempt to summarize this book. Just read it. But he got my attention big time, and reminded me that "believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century." Even better, he rattled my cage and blew my mind with the truth about Christian hope:
"Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen."

So, amidst puffy eyes, flight delays, a fragile world economy, election drama at hand, and all the variables of daily life, I lift my eyes off my circumstances and on to Christ, and gain the perspective I need. Psalm 44 provided that swift kick in the tail this morning:

1 O God, we have heard it with our own ears— 
      our ancestors have told us 
   of all you did in their day, 
      in days long ago: 
 2 You drove out the pagan nations by your power       
and gave all the land to our ancestors. 
   You crushed their enemies 
      and set our ancestors free. 
 3 They did not conquer the land with their swords;       
it was not their own strong arm that gave them victory.    
It was your right hand and strong arm 
      and the blinding light from your face that helped them, 
      for you loved them.
 4 You are my King and my God. 
      You command victories for Israel. 
 5 Only by your power can we push back our enemies;       
only in your name can we trample our foes.  
6 I do not trust in my bow; 
      I do not count on my sword to save me. 
 7 You are the one who gives us victory over our enemies; 
      you disgrace those who hate us.  
8 O God, we give glory to you all day long 
      and constantly praise your name. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Recipe Trifecta!

There is just too much good cookin' going on at my house these days... rather than share them in separate posts, I'm going to list 3 new ones that I tried out last week. All gluten-free, all seasonal, all healthy, all sooper-dooper tastalicious, if I do say so myself. Which I do.

Spaghetti Squash with Turkey Meatballs
(thank you Martha)

I bought a lovely golden spaghetti squash last week at San Marcos Farms and wondered if there was a new way to use it. I googled spaghetti squash, and lo and behold, Martha Stewart came through with several options. This one seemed the most interesting and it was fantastic.

Rather than spell it all out here, here's the link to the recipe. And if you're curious, hit the "back to Spag Squash recipes" link at the top, and see what other delights await you.... as for the breadcrumbs, I have a bag of gluten-free bread slices in the freezer for this very cause. I pull out a slice and grate it on my cheese grater and voila! These meatballs were really good. And the spaghetti squash tasted better than if the meatballs and sauce had been served on pasta noodles.

Hearty Oatmeal Pancakes
This gem comes from a terrific birthday present I received -- a very cool cookbook called Simply in Season. This is an entire cookbook based on seasonal, sustainable recipes. You just feel good about yourself when you use it :)

I used some gluten-free flour and gluten-free oats in this recipe. Do not be daunted by the requirement to soak the oats in buttermilk or non-fat yogurt the night before. Worked like a charm for me, and took very little time.

I found the recipe link online here... but I highly recommend getting the cookbook. It is inspiring me to be even more adventurous in the kitchen. C'mon... is that possible?!

Simply in Season - go here to check it out...

Last but not least... Velvety Vegetable Soup
Once again, from Simply in Season. I made this last night as I prepared to watch the Grammys. It was cold outside, revving up to rain, and I saw a bunch of vegetables in my crisper. This worked perfectly, made the house smell wonderful, and warmed my belly quite nicely. Though I kept it vegetarian, it would taste really good with some diced chicken or even some crumbled bacon or sausage. And I topped off my bowl with a nice slice of cheddar that made this an even richer comfort food experience. No holdin' back!

I found this recipe online as well. Interestingly enough, both of these last two links rave about this cookbook too. Appears I am late to the party. Happy cooking.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I read three different things today that divinely tied together in a way that stayed with me throughout my day.

First I read this:

   A basic trouble is that most Churches limit themselves unnecessarily by addressing their message almost exclusively to those who are open to religious impressions through the intellect, whereas ... there are at least four other gateways -- the emotions, the imagination, the aesthetic feeling, and the will, through which they can be reached. A. J. Gossip (1873-1954)
Over the years I have found that preaching the gospel, especially to junior high and high school students, required me to be very creative. Not because I sought to somehow "entertain" them, but because it quickly becomes apparent that each child learns in a different way... and no one way is "right." (For more insight into this, read this article -- it had a profound impact on me years ago.)

Some of my kids liked small group discussions... some needed to use their hands in an active (and productive!) way... some learned quietly in a large group... some needed silence to reflect in a journal... still others loved getting up front or raising their hands frequently with questions or comments. You get the point. There are a multitude of ways that each of us learn. I personally need to write notes when I listen to anything. Once the words go from ear to brain to hand to eye... it's in there. I rarely refer back to the notes. The act of writing itself helps me remember what I'm hearing.

So why would we think the act of preaching the gospel is limited to expository preaching?! I love a hearty sermon more than most, I promise you. Given my aforementioned propensity to take notes, I can easily track with the speaker and concentrate for up to an hour as a good word is given.

Nevertheless... I also hear Jesus in Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, or Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son or in a songbird at the birdbath in my front yard. I smell Jesus when I walk through poor villages in the volcanic highlands of Guatemala or when I am grilling six dozen burgers for youth group. I feel His presence when I am talking with a college student about her sense of what God might have for her future, or when I hear an elderly woman behind me sing a hymn in church. So, so many ways that we may apprehend the presence of our dear Christ in, through, and with our senses. The longer I know and follow Him, the more often I am surprised by how he communicates. How can anyone deny this?!

Soon after my mind wandered down this path of reflection, I was further blessed by today's reading from the Book of Exodus, chapter 31:

The LORD then gave these instructions to Moses:  “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. You must keep the Sabbath day, for it is a holy day for you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the LORD. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. The people of Israel must keep the Sabbath day by observing it from generation to generation. This is a covenant obligation for all time. It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’”
I have preached more than once about the Sabbath, camping on Exodus 20 and the giving of the Ten Commandments. I have made a strong point that this fourth commandment is treated by most of us believers as a great suggestion rather than a commandment. If we treated the other commandments this way -- about lying, murder, stealing and so on -- we would be in far greater trouble than we already are!!

Yet I have never included this poignant follow up section from chapter 31. Here we are reminded of God's earnest call for intimacy with His people. Our relationship with God is one of deep, abiding, safe love. How foolish we are to treat so casually.

More importantly, I find that the more steadily I practice Sabbath, the better I see, hear, taste, feel, and think about God. Sabbath helps me "sharpen my saw." All the more reason to practice it!

Finally, I was moved by this keen reminder. On this day in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa, twenty-seven years after being put there for being convicted of plotting to overthrow the government because of its hateful and oppressive policy of apartheid. At one point he wrote:
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
As we enjoy God's presence in a constant and intimate way through all of our senses, as we especially revel in that holy relationship through Sabbath practice, I know that we will be unable to not desire the way of Jesus, a way that respects and enhances others' lives. As we are set free, once and for all, and in new ways each year, the proclamation of the gospel can simply flow out of us. As it says in Luke 19:40, the stones would cry out with its truth and beauty; it cannot and would not be suppressed. May it be so, Lord.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

FSE #4 - Justice & Mercy

This latest "Former Student Encounter" post comes out of several conversations I've had in the first month of this new year. I never tire of these. Questions from these young adults, though I have heard them many times before, always stir the pot for me personally, and keep me from becoming too cynical. I have always joked that one of the reasons I have stayed in youth ministry for so long is because young people's sense of wonder, along with their earnest belief that they can change the world, keeps me young.

The topics range all over the map... purpose in life, what it means to be truly independent, how to discern God's will, how can we respond adequately to poverty, what is success, who are my real friends...

Yesterday was particularly rich. In the morning over breakfast I talked about what to do after graduation with a student who asked so many good questions. At some point we talked about ministry, grad school, and making a living (quite the trifecta). This then led to a conversation about what it means to make a difference, and how challenging that is to quantify. I shared some things I've been reading recently about justice and mercy, two words I thought I understood. After all, I sang Micah 6:8 in the seventies, right?! Hum along with me...

He has shown thee, O man
What is good and what the Lord
Requires of thee (2x)

But to do justly and to love mercy
And To walk humbly with thy God...

However, this sermon, preached by John Hay, a Free Methodist pastor in Indianapolis, got up in my grill over Christmas break. Take a few minutes to read it in entirety. A few sentences are worth mentioning here:

Most recently, the 2003 denomination-wide (Free Methodist) mission statement includes in the local profile of a healthy congregation: "Every church seeking justice and showing mercy to the poor and disenfranchised."  There is no question: the history and challenge of "doing justice" is well-embedded in the denominational DNA.  The precedents and practices of "doing justice" are ample.  The more pressing question, to me, is this: what range and in what manner should "doing justice" have in the life a believer, pastor, and local congregation as we move into the 21st century?
He goes on to break down the separate meanings of justice and mercy in ways I had never really grappled with. He would define acts of mercy as acts of charity, compassion, relief and philanthropy; in other words, they relieve immediate crises and human indignities. Acts of justice look to fight for actions that permanently change social norms and bring about reform. Put another way, they "rectify the crises and indignities that are repeatedly visited upon vulnerable individuals and groups." It's more about seeking to change the systems that create the need for acts of mercy in the first place. Mercy, which is incredibly necessary, is nevertheless more reactive, and justice is more proactive.

Ouch. Maybe I could give myself a B+ on acts of mercy, but whoa nelly, on acts of justice, I have a l-o-n-g way to go. My breakfast companion and I talked through what this could look like in our lives, and we admitted that it is a challenge. Think about William Wilberforce - it took him 50 years to end slavery in England! Yet I can't shake the challenges of this sermon because he calls on the words of Isaiah 58, where believers are called to loosen the chains of injustice, untie the cord of the yoke, set the oppressed free... it is important to feed the poor, but what about transformation of a whole culture? Isn't our God big enough to do that?

Later in the day I met with a group of Westmont students for a new bible study that started last week. We are reading in the Book of Philippians, but the wealth of questions and comments that spin out of the scripture reading (coupled with what they are learning in their classes) are a delight. We talked about what it means to know God's will, and ways we tend to talk about it. There is a lot of "God talk" up at Westmont, obviously, but also within the church, and we spent some time wading through all the standard sayings, looking for real meaning.

I argued that we need to spend far less time trying to figure out God's will for our lives, because let's be honest, we will never know it this side of heaven. Rather, let's just focus on his revealed will, which is summed up in the Greatest Commandment in Mark 12:29-31,
Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only LORD. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
This brings me back to the breakfast conversation. We can make a difference by seeking after ways to love our neighbor as ourselves by performing acts of mercy and justice. Yet we won't have the strength to do that consistently without loving God with every fiber of our being. We don't have to pray about whether or not we should do that! It's more a matter of getting out of our chair and doing it regularly. What I talked about with both groups is then figuring out what this looks like as a normal part of our lives, rather than just as a spring break projects or a weekend here and there.

For me, it means being where poor people are, and listening. A couple of weeks ago it rained pretty heavily (for Santa Barbara, anyway) and I needed to take the bus rather than get sopping wet on my scooter. There was barely an empty seat as I boarded. I pulled out my earbuds and iPhone for the 30-minute ride, but then for some reason I felt like I wasn't supposed to do that. I put them away and just waited...

Soon I could not help but overhear the conversation in the seat in front of me. Two people who seemed to know each other casually started talking about what they do in weather like this. They started sharing tips with one another about where to buy clean socks, which bus shelters have coverings and which do not, where to buy the biggest burritos for the lowest price... I didn't take long for me to figure out that they were both homeless. My spirit was grieved, and humbled. I was spending my mental energy calculating how to get the most work done in the least amount of time, what to make for dinner that night, whether or not to watch the Lakers game on TV, which CD I wanted to download with my iTunes giftcard... and these folks were helping each other figure out solely how to make it through that day.

I am not saying we can take on all the world's poverty, or even the homelessness of Santa Barbara. But that doesn't mean we don't do anything. I realized I have never even thought about the coverings over bus shelters, or the life-or-death value of clean, warm socks. In the immediate, this requires acts of mercy. But in the long term, it seems ridiculous to just keep putting bandaids on the problem.

Again, I cannot recommend the sermon enough that I referred to earlier. He articulates some very clear, tangible justice-driven responses. This one hits me the most:

We are as redemptively involved in our communities for social reform as we are in our congregations for spiritual formation and revival.  Spiritual formation encourages active neighboring as well as service to support congregational life.  Volunteers serve local justice concerns in balance with congregational outreach ministries.  We see the two as complementary, not competitive or exclusionary.
In other words, I hear him saying that we should talk as a church about what we are doing in the name of Christ in our community as much as we are about what Christ is doing in us personally. Sure, it's wonderful that we give away thousands to missions around the world. But what are we doing right here, right now?

And currently, THAT is what I am enjoying the most about these FSE's. These students want to do something as a result of who Christ is in them. I am blessed to know them.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; 
      ensure justice for those being crushed. 
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, 
      and see that they get justice. (Proverbs 31:8-9)