Focus!

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My aunt Barb was an amazing woman.  She put a positive spin on everything that she experienced.  She had an incredible work ethic and loved her catering and restaurant businesses.  But she also deeply loved those she worked with and her family grew to include not only her own flesh and blood, but also their employees.  She lived out her faith with such a genuine passion that encouraged others to claim their own.

And, my aunt had a focus in her life.  She knew that God loved her and that God had called her to love and serve others.  She found her passion – cooking – and used it to bless as many people as possible in this world, loving and serving them through food.  Whether it was bread broken around a family dinner table or a festive celebration, Barb was an instrument of God’s work in this world.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Barb as I wrestled with the text from Mark this morning.

When I think about Simon’s mother-in-law, lying in that bed, sick with a fever that was threatening to take her life, I think about the low points in my aunt’s journey with cancer.

The days when the pain was too much. Or when she felt too weak.

When her singular focus was trying to get back up out of that bed and to get back to taking care of others.

 

When we read this passage in Mark, sometimes we might wonder what kind of cultural expectations would have led this woman, who only moments before was ill, to serve these men who have visited her house.

But we miss that this is her opportunity to once again reclaim her focus and take up her calling: her place in the community, her role. The phrase used her for her service is the same term used for a deacon.  As Megan McKenna notes (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross):

She “ministers” to him, just as the “angels ministered to [Jesus]” during his time in the desert. Jesus has gone out to Simon’s mother-in-law in her disease and grasped her by the hand … In gratitude for his taking hold of her and giving her life to do his work, she responds wholeheartedly. Now the first four followers of Jesus become five in number.

Her strength comes not only from the healing power of Jesus.

Her strength comes from her focus on serving Jesus.

She has bound herself to him.

She has let him come into her life and now it is Christ’s strength that flows out of her.

 

Even on really difficult days, I was amazed at the strength my aunt found to do just that because she hoped in the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth.

In Isaiah, chapter 40, we are reminded that even young people like myself will faint and be weary if we try to go on our own.  We will fall absolutely exhausted by the side of the road.  Simple youth is not a prescription for strength or health.  Military might cannot save us.  Protein shakes and lifting weights cannot build the kind of muscles that we need to endure through our darkest days.

My aunt Barb was able to tap into a spiritual strength that helped her to make the most of every moment of her life. She crossed items off her bucket list, passed on wisdom and insight, brought joy to her grandkids and nieces and nephews and their kids.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

 

Those who wait for the Lord…

The Hebrew word for “waiting” here is the same as the word used for twisting – like making a rope.  It is not a passive state, but one of tension as you are being worked on.  This kind of waiting is focused, expectant, gathering together all that you need to keep going.  (from Lindy Black). 

As an expectant mother waits for new life to come into the world, the waiting is not passive… it can often be painful.  It is full of uncomfortable moments.  It is filled with longing and stretching.  And a kind of singular focus takes over:  What you eat matters. What you drink matters. How you move matters.  A relationship is formed in the process of the waiting.  Your life and their life is bound together – it is entwined.

That’s how it should be when we wait for the Lord…

our life becomes entwined with God’s as we worship and serve…

as we are bound together…

and in the process, God’s strength becomes our strength.

God takes our single cord and with others in the church we are made into the many… we are made strong.

God’s strength and Barb’s strength became the strength of our entire family as God took her by the hand and raised her up to find healing in the next life.

 

For Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, that healing came in this life, as Jesus entered her room, took her by the hand, and raised her up.

As Sarah Henrich notes (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1200) , this “raising” describes the strength given to someone so they “may again rise up to take their place in the world.”

And this is how the church should always be responding to the power of God in our midst.

Suzanne Guthrie writes:

[She] is lifted up, as in the Resurrection…

And she begins to serve – just as the apostles are sent out…

She is the church’s first deacon. She announces the Gospel by her action.

Healed, transformed, and readily at service she slips into her role as easily as if her life-time had prepared her for it…

She serves, like Jesus himself…

She receives the Light into her home, she is raised up by the Light, the Light shines through her as she ministers to others.

 

The healing, transformative power of God in our lives enables us to get up and be servants ourselves.

God reaches out to touch us through the bread on this table, through a prayer shawl from a friend, through a hug or a kind word.

And we, are called to rise up, to get out into this world to take our place and to live out our own calling.

Perhaps it is to make food or to teach.

Maybe it is to share music or laughter.

Maybe you have a ministry of writing cards and knitting or woodworking.

Whatever it is, God is asking you to focus on the strength of the Lord that will fill you up as you live out your purpose in this world.

So, let us come and be healed, so that we might go out and serve.

Momentum for Life: Vision for Immanuel

God spoke:

Write this!

Write what you see!

Write it out in big block letters so it can be read on the run!

 

And when God gives a vision aids our momentum.

It paints a picture of the future that drives us forward because we can’t wait to get there.

God’s vision aches for the future.

It takes our trajectory and pushes us on.

Michael Slaughter writes that “faith is looking forward, living with a forward focus.” (p. 87)

And a vision is big enough and bold enough and so clear that it moves us all forward in the same direction.

 

Friends, we are going somewhere!

As a church, we claimed a vision statement for this church in 2012. You see it in our logo and on the inside of every bulletin:

In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.

Let’s all say that together: In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer.

 

I love this statement.

It is clear and concise and talks about our relationship with God and how we live that out. It gives us three very focused things to do: Love. Serve. Pray.

 

But these words alone don’t ache for the future.

They don’t drive us forward.

In fact, they are generic enough that when each of us wrote down our dream for the church a few minutes ago, we probably each had a very different destination described on our slips of paper.

One of the things I am consistently asked is to share MY vision for the church. When I first arrived, I hesitated to answer this question because I think every church is unique and where we are going depends on where we have been. Our congregational DNA, our experiences, our gifts… all of these things shape where God is calling us to go next.

 

Slaughter writes that, “when a leader has a clear picture of God’s destination, the people begin to articulate and live that vision. Over a period of time, that vision begins to penetrate the surrounding culture.” (p. 96)

So today, I want to paint for you a picture of where I see us going. When I turn my heart to God in prayer, this is the vision that aches to be heard. And really, it is a fleshing out of what it means for us to live lives, in Christ, of love, service, and prayer.

 

First, we are called to love by celebrate difference and disagreement.

One of our greatest strengths as a congregation is our diversity in age. Countless churches lament they don’t have any young people, but we are full of young families AND nonagenarians. Unlike other churches, we can truly do intergenerational ministry that helps connect children and elders, youth and parents, retirees and babies.

We could, however, become more diverse in other areas. Within 2 miles of this building, 88% of our community identifies as white. As I look at our congregation this morning, we are far less diverse that the people we live with. Hoover High School, just a bit north of our church, educates students who speak over 100 different languages. Surrounded by that kind of diversity, God is calling us to find new ways of welcoming and making space right here for new people.

Another place we are diverse is in our politics and perspectives. From private conversations, I know that we as a church disagree on countless issues!

But the world around us has never been further divided. The roar of politics might die down for a few weeks after tomorrow’s caucuses here in Iowa, but it will come back just as strong as we head into the general election.

As a church, we don’t let those hot-button issues get in the way of being a family.

But like so many families, we hesitate to talk about the places we disagree… even when it comes to the everyday sorts of things. We hold our opinions in even as we are being asked to share our thoughts and feelings for fear of making ripples in the water.

The world gives us two models for how we deal with our differences. We can scream, shout at those who we disagree with OR we can keep our mouths shut.

There is another way. In the book of Acts, chapter 15, circumcision threatened to divide the church. So the leaders gathered and shared what they had witnessed and what they hoped for. They each spoke their truth. And they listened deeply to one another. They laid aside preconceptions and let God move in their midst. They let reason, experience, and tradition co-mingle with scripture to discover a path forward.

In the United Methodist Church, we call this holy conferencing. In love, this church can be a place that shows the world a different way as we each feel respected enough to speak our truths and we love one another enough to listen and let God, rather than our opinions, create a path forward.

 

Second, we are called to service, by taking Immanuel into our community.

This congregation does incredible mission work. Each year, we report missional giving through monetary and in-kind donations and for 2015 we are reporting $214,763 of outreach into our city, state, and world. Your generosity is simply astounding.

On a regular basis, there are groups in this church that collect items for the food pantry, take produce and bread, milk and juice to local shelters and service locations, read to children, serve meals, visit the homeless and prisoners and more.

What I notice is that this incredible work is often done by a handful of people. We aren’t very good at inviting others to come along with us in the work that we do. And I think that is because we don’t lift up these folks and tell their stories nearly enough. We aren’t painting the picture of what it means to serve in a way that allows every single one of us to find our place.

God is calling each and every one of you to serve in our community this year. And that is a two-sided calling: first, we have to be better about sharing opportunities, but you also have to take some initiative to seek opportunities and to pay attention to that nudging and say yes.

God is calling us to push beyond our traditional models when it comes to service and mission. We can donate money and goods with the best of them and we have done pretty good at doing ministry for people. But the next step is to truly build relationships with the people we are serving.

So many have told me about the warm welcome and love they experience here at Immanuel. Now we are called to take that hospitality and love into our neighborhoods. To get to know the people and their stories. To hear where God is already active in their lives. To allow their experiences to shape how and what we do in the future. And, to open wide the doors to invite the neighborhood into our building and our life of faith.

This year, I’m reading just one hour a week at Hillis Elementary School. And building a relationship with those children and teachers has opened my eyes to the realities of our community in ways I never imagined.

Whether it is in the Merle Hay or Beaverdale neighborhoods, or the neighborhood where you live, you are an ambassador for Immanuel and that you have an opportunity to serve.

 

Finally, we are called to prayer that actively changes the world.

Richard Foster wrote, “Prayer is the central avenue God uses to change us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”

We pray for people who are sick, because we believe that God will bring healing into their lives.

We pray for places of conflict, because we believe that God can bring peace.

Prayer changes the world.

But a life of prayer means a life attuned to the places where the status quo is no longer acceptable. A life of prayer calls us to play our part, to be the hands and feet of God, to listen for where God asks US to be the answer to a prayer.

We can do that by caring for one another, offering meals, knitting shawls, and visiting.

We can do that through letter writing and advocacy, through being agents of reconciliation in the midst of conflict.

We can do that by going to the people and places that are hurting and simply being present.

God is calling us to be people who not only pray for others, but who allow prayer change our hearts, minds, and lives.

 

God spoke:

Write this!

Write what you see!

Write it out in big block letters so it can be read on the run!

 

God’s vision aches for a future where every single one of us are engaged in ministries of love, service and prayer.

God’s vision aches for a community that loves and welcomes all.

God’s vision aches for a people that are deeply embedded in their neighborhoods.

God’s vision aches for a people who are transformed by the power of prayer.

 

Friends, we are going somewhere!

In Christ, let us live a life of love, service, and prayer.

Holy Ground

In our scripture video just now, the creators left off one snippet of a verse. Right at the very end, the Book of Romans reads:

Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

Do good. Love. Feed the hungry.

What does piling burning coals of fire on someone’s head have to do with any of that?

If you are anything like my, you might have assumed this had something to do with sending someone to hell. That your actions of good will serve to highlight their deeds of evil and justice will eventually come to them.

And to tell you the truth, I’ve skipped over that verse, or ignored it, like the creators of the video did… for a long time. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the scripture.

But one day, I learned about what it really meant to pile burning coals of fire on someone’s head.

As we just explored with our children, we need fire to cook our food. We need fire to warm our houses. Fire can seal up wounds and provides light in the darkness.

In the ancient world, a fire meant the difference between life and death.

So what happens when your fire goes out?

Without resources to start a fire again, you would have to go begging with your fire bowl, and pray that someone would take pity on you, and share some burning coals from their own fire with you.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Pile burning coals upon even your enemies heads.

 

We have been called to serve. We have been challenged by Jesus Christ throughout the gospels to step out of our comfort zones and to give of ourselves to others. Even if they don’t look like us or talk like us… even if they are our enemies.

But this call doesn’t start with the Paul or the gospels…. It goes back to the beginning.

Moses was called… through fire… to help set the people free.

He was an ordinary guy, living in extraordinary times. He was the child of a slave. He was a murderer. He stuttered. And yet God got his attention through a burning bush and called him to serve.

God’s power transformed his weakness into strength. And through God’s power the people were freed.

Moses just had to show up.

Today, we are going to hear some stories of folks from this church, who were called to serve in Omaha this summer. I hope you will hear that they are ordinary folks, just like you. But they heard the tug on their heart to go, to serve, to feed the hungry, and build houses for those who were struggling. They heard the call to pile burning coals on a neighbor’s head… to help make sure they have everything they need to survive.

Along the way, they changed lives… but I hope you will also listen for how they were changed.

 

[sharing from members of our mission team]

 

The call to serve is not just for some people in the church. It is for all people. There are thousands of ways to serve.

This week, we have a special opportunity to serve and feed the hungry through Meals From the Heartland’s annual Hunger Fight. On Wednesday afternoon from 2-4 pm, we will be taking a group of 30 from the church to pack meals for those who are hungry.

We still need lots of volunteers, so if you can give a few hours to change lives… please sign up as you leave!

In two weeks, we are going to fill out our time and talents sheets. But before they show up in your bulletin, I pray that God would light a fire in your life. It might not be as dramatic as a burning bush, but wherever you feel your heart strangely warmed… wherever something out of the ordinary catches your attention… wherever you sense like you could make a difference (as ordinary as you might be)… listen.

Listen to that call to love, serve, and pray. Listen for where God is trying to get your attention.

My prayer is that as you offer yourself up for service, the fires of God’s love will transform this church, this community, and this world. And that God would transform your life, too.

Fire does that you know.

It takes what is ordinary and transforms it.

Unimagineable…

I think in some ways, I’m still in shock. Or exhausted. or both.

At 2:45 on Monday afternoon, we announced that we had raised $2,009,907 for Imagine No Malaria as the Iowa Annual Conference. 

I had spent my lunch break sitting on the floor of the treasurer’s office counting the dollars that districts had raised by passing bags and hats and buckets that morning.  And as first one district exceeded a thousand dollars, and then another, and then pledges of a thousand dollars and more came rolling in, I knew we had done it.

I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I tried to casually stroll to the Diakanos area (our youth who serve as pages for conference).  I needed their help in updating our tally boards so we could reveal the new total to conference.

And even as we were recording that unbelievable number, the Iowa Foundation announced a $6,000 match of the afternoon’s donations.  They believed we still needed about $12,000 to go over the top and were willing to get us half way there.  And the East Central district announced over $1500 in pledges for our rider in the North Central Jurisdictional Ride for Change.  Even before we had made it official, our tally was inadequate. Our success was still growing. The gifts were unbelievable.  We couldn’t keep up with the outpouring of dollars and cents and checks and pledges. 

I strode up to the microphone… flipped on the yellow light… and imperceptibly shook as I shared the good news.

What that number represents to me is not simply money that was raised by folks in Iowa.  It represents all of the lives that will be saved because of the work of United Methodists.  It represents the churches that were transformed and started to think beyond their walls in this past year and a half.  It represents the youth who were given a voice and ran with a cause they knew was making a difference – whether it was with their feet on the pavement, on the ballfield, or by dyeing their hair.  It represents moms and dads in places I have never been like Sierra Leone and Angola and Nigeria who have hope their children will live.  It represents the effort of communities who have rallied together to educate one another and hold each other accountable. It is the pennies of children and the pocketbooks of millionaires.  It is diversity, and beauty, and joy, and sacrificial, and empowering, and far beyond anything I ever asked or imagined was possible.

I believed we could raise the money.

Don’t get me wrong.

I got involved in this whole wonderful mess in the first place because I knew that if every United Methodist in Iowa gave only $10, we would have raised nearly $1.8 million dollars.

It was weird for people to come up and congratulate me after the big announcement, because this was OUR success and not mine.  This was OUR effort and I simply had the honor of being the midwife.  The resources were there for this to be a successful campaign.  Of that, I had no doubt.

But I never imagined how it would transform the people of Iowa.  I have been blown away by the stories of individuals and communities which have been transformed by Imagine No Malaria in Africa.  And I never imagined how this whole experience would transform me.

Hopefully I’ll have time in the next few weeks to process some of what I have learned and some of how God has moved in my life. 

But for now, I simply say: God is Good.

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