Tuesday, December 3, 2013

12 Grief Cliche's by Leanne Penny

So, I stumbled across this blog post by my friend Leanne--and I thought she totally hit the nail on the head about the many awful cliches that Christians come up with... and I think she's right that many times the reason is that a cliche is easier than getting too close to the pain and mess that others are experiencing.  So without further ado, here's the beginning of Leanne's post.  You can read the full post here.

Two weeks ago I asked a question via my Facebook page: “In your opinion, what is the worst cliche used for grief and loss?”

People hate clichés, so they were happy to chime in on the flippant things people said to them in their worst moments.

I’ve had nearly all of these thrown at me in a funeral receiving line, all except the ones that pertain to loss of a child, a unique grief which I haven’t walked through.

I’ve spent the past few weeks going over these in my head, turning them over in my heart and I’ve come to realize that there are two central themes running through every one

1) Loss isn’t that bad and it will all be better soon, this isn’t really that hard.

2)  God is the source of your loss, he willed it for the good of all.

I find that every grief cliche has one or both of these going on.
Often those who come bearing these cliches also come armed with scripture that makes us wonder, “wait, are they right? Is the way I’m feeling completely invalid? Is God up there sending the worst into my life like a parent doling out punishment?”

This practice is called proof texting, it’s what people do when they want to say something and they want it to be biblical, so they find a verse that backs up their thoughts and ignore the context completely.

And the google gods have just made this even easier to do… 

Proof texting has backed up slavery, racism, gender inequality, corporal punishment and pretty much all of these awful cliches. So when you hear a verse that seems completely incompatible from what you know to be true of the Gospels and the love of God, dismiss it until you’ve had time to look into the context itself.

For now, let’s blow up some clichés, yes?

To read the rest of the post, click here.

Thanks, Leanne!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Presence in suffering

I had a friend lose a child recently to the criminal justice system, and I was able to stop by the courthouse and stand with my friend as the sentence was handed down.  And I thought that day about the power of presence in the midst of a person's suffering.

See, I didn't really know if I'd be welcome.  I didn't know if it would be embarrassing to my friend to have me there while things were not looking pretty and the horrible realities of life were exposed.  I didn't know if my friend would appreciate the vulnerability that my presence would bring.  We'd never shared an experience like that, never talked deeply about our emotional scars, never really gone to that level.

But still I went, and I stood there, and I experienced those moments with my friend.  And though I couldn't solve any problems or make anything better, I could just be.  I could just be there.  And that means now that my friend will never have to explain to me what happened that day. 

Words will always be inadequate to express what those moments of suffering are like.  If I had not been there, I would never know what happened--not really.  But because I was there and shared that experience no words are necessary.  As my friend deals with what happened that day, I'll never need an explanation for why it is hard or what feelings might be involved.  I won't need the story because I saw the story unfold.  I will know because I was there.

Presence in the midst of suffering is a gift.  And the gift is not in the ability to problem solve, to make the situation better, or to even ease the pain.  But presence is a gift because it means that I don't have to explain to you why my life is hard or why my day was hard or why I am not ok.  You already know because you were there.  And that means that I am not alone.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Biblical Storying with Post-Christian Generations

I had the opportunity to write an article for the journal EMQ about how I've come to use biblical storying to reach my post-Christian friends.  You can read the article for a limited time by following this link.  In about a year, I'll be able to post the whole article on the blog.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


I'm blogging over at my friend Emily Miller's blog about the spiritual practice of taking time to retreat.  Check it out!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Saturday Book Review

Coffee Shop Conversations by Dale and Jonalyn Fincher (Zondervan, 2007)

This book is divided into three parts:  the first argues that we can and should find ways to naturally talk about our faith in small talk and everyday life.  The second part talks about some essential tools that people can use when talking about faith with others.  And the third part argues that there are only a few things that we should actually be willing to die for theologically, and that the most important thing is to introduce people to Jesus.

Overall, I thought the book brought some really important points to the table.  Like the Finchers, I believe that in this post-modern world, it's a mistake to convey that people have to believe a certain list of ideas in order to become a Christian.  Instead, we need to introduce people to the Person of Jesus Christ--he is the only one who has the authority and the ability to call people to follow him.  And many of the things that the organized church has stood for and against have been things that don't matter or that we can't know for sure.  There is a lot of room within the Orthodox Christian faith for a whole spectrum of theologies and practices, and to tell our friends they have to believe just like us to follow Christ is both wrong and ineffective.

They also argued that we need to earn the right to speak into others' lives.  Specifically, they say that "the only time we have a right to talk with someone and introduce Jesus is when we’re certain we see them as equally human, broken, and in pain like us. . . .Until we open up to two-way giving and receiving, our acts of charity, whether they be donating, witnessing, volunteering, dining with an argumentative couple, listening to a troubled teen, or striking up a conversation with a woman at the library, will remain drive-by acts of charity."  In this way, they encourage us to see people beyond the way we label them and as people who are made in the image of God and who are valuable to relate to and learn from.

So overall, if you have a heart and passion for evangelism, I think it's probably worth reading.  However, if you're looking to gain a skill set to help you talk about faith with post-modern, post-Christian folks, I'm not sure this is a helpful resource, for two reasons.  First, although the book is filled with stories of how the Finchers have shared faith and challenged the philosophies of their friends, if you have no background in philosophy yourself, you would not be able to figure out how to lead conversations the way that they do.  They are able to identify a worldview and philosophy and meet people within that to share faith effectively within that context.  And though I believe that we can all learn to do this, the book does not go far enough in truly identifying philosophies and practically helping the reader to know how to respond.

Second, there is no discussion of barriers to faith that aren't intellectual or philosophical.  In today's world where people are increasingly making decisions based on how they feel rather than what they think, a book that does not speak to the emotional barriers people have to faith is of limited usefulness.  Sadly, this gaping hole in the book is absolutely typical of the current conversation around evangelism.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR 255.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

embracing suffering

Therefore we do not lose heart. 
Though outwardly we are wasting away, 
yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  
For our light and momentary troubles 
are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, 
but on what is unseen, 
since what is seen is temporary,
 but what is unseen is eternal.  

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)

If you've ever been "hard-pressed on every side" like Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4:7, you'll understand the struggle not to lose heart.  But Paul says, again and again in so many of his letters, that we should not lose heart.  He consistently talks about finding joy in suffering, comparing today's momentary troubles with eternal glory and abundant life.

But when you're hard-pressed on every side, sometimes it's impossible to see beyond the moment.  When my 38-year-old roommate is literally groaning in pain for hours on end and there's no relief in sight and no hope for future healing, I must admit that I struggle to see anything else.  The abstract thought of life with Christ is so intangible in that moment compared to the solid wall of pain and suffering that's with me in that space and that time.

Paul talks about fixing his eyes on what is unseen, and while I cry out to God to give me that vision--to see what is unseen--it is not a vision that I have within myself.  It's not a vision I can create out of my own mind or even my heart.  I can't produce or imagine what a world free of suffering would even look like, let alone a world  filled up by the presence of God.

But this is what a life of faith looks like, isn't it?  It's a life that embraces humanity and struggle and suffering and invites Jesus into the darkest of places.  It's life that is renewed from the inside out, day by day, no matter what the struggle is on the outside.  It's a life where I know that no matter what the pain and suffering, Jesus is walking with me through it, and the Holy Spirit is interceding on my behalf.

Left on my own, the mere idea of an eternity that I can't see or feel right now would never sustain me through the circumstances surrounding my life.  But what I am finding in this place of suffering is the very real presence of God--not magically fixing all the broken places of life--but transforming me from the inside out and giving me a faith that is solid enough to give me abundant life in the midst of a world where death is mercy.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Encounters with Jesus

Soo... after long last, Encounters with Jesus is now available in book form.  I really fought with myself about publishing these stories formally because my heart is that they'd be available and usable to anyone who wants them.  So you can still get the individual stories at www.annarapa.com.  But in the end, I think the book form is important because people are much more likely to pick it up if they can hold it in their hands and look at it instead of having to print it out at home.

So, without further ado, here's the link to the hard copy, and here's the link to the Kindle version.  After a couple of weeks, it'll be available through other bookstores online and by special order in the brick and mortar stores.

Monday, June 10, 2013

There's a really interesting story in the Atlantic about young atheists who have left the church.  I think it demonstrates how the church needs to begin thinking about how to address the emotional barriers people have to faith rather than just the rational ones...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

community in suffering

When I was 15, I traveled to Manila, Philippines for a week for a missions trip.  We did medical clinics in poor areas, checked blood pressure, and played with kids while they waited to be seen by the mission doctors.  Once a day, one of the missionaries would take one of us to deliver powdered milk to the very poorest children in the neighborhood.

The day it was my turn, I followed a missionary woman through tiny pathways in a shanty-town village.  The homes were made of plywood, with tin roofs.  As I peeked around the doorway into one home, I saw a crude table, a small cooking area, and a sleeping area made out of dirt.  There were no couches, no blankets, and nothing that spoke of comfort and home.  If extreme poverty is a type of suffering, then these people were suffering tremendously.

And yet, as I was leaving this same shanty-town, located just outside a dump in Manila, I saw a group of kids playing with a dirty, tattered soccer ball.  There were probably 15-20 kids, and one ball.  Their clothes hung off them like rags, and they clearly had no possessions to their name, yet they kicked and ran and played joyfully.

I remember clearly wondering what gave them such joy in the midst of such suffering.   And I remember realizing that their joy came from their relationships with one another in the midst of the daily difficulties of life.

There are a lot of problems with a collectivistic culture, yet one thing that those kids had that I knew even then that I didn't have, was a strong and deep bond to the community around them.  They were connected to their families and their neighbors--connected in a way that you can only become connected in life when you are facing adversity together.

Community is one of the greatest gifts that suffering can bring.  I know that it has been so for me--that the people I have walked through the last 10 years of life with are the ones that I see as my strongest advocates and my closest friends.  And the depth of the bond that you have to forge with the people who are sharing your journey is not even comparable to the surface relationships that make up so much of our western, comfort-filled lives.

But suffering can also isolate.  As we suffer, sometimes we become so inwardly focused that we are no good to anyone within our community.  Sometimes we lash out from a place of pain and cause pain to others.  Sometimes we simply allow our own suffering to prevent us from joining the community that's around us.

What do you think the difference is between building strong community in the midst of suffering versus allowing suffering to cause division and strife?  I know this is an issue that my new book's characters are going to have to work through, so I'd love to hear from you...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

abundant life

When I was little, I dreamed of being an elementary school teacher.  I imagined that I would teach children, have a nice home, a husband, a family.  I imagined that my life would be insulated from trouble and heartache, life would be an adventure, and I would be comfortable, secure, and happy.

When I read Jesus's words in John 10, where he promises abundant life for his followers, sometimes I picture abundant life like that--a warm, safe, vibrant life where there are no worries and there is no pain.  And an expectation creeps in that my life will look like that and feel like that.

But as I've studied the stories of Jesus over the last couple of years, I've come to believe that this abundant life is eternal life.  And eternal life is not just everlasting life--the life we have with God after we die, but the life with the Eternal One that I have right now if I follow Jesus and allow him to transform me.

Life with the Eternal One is always abundant life--it is always the life we were meant to have and the fullest that life can possibly be, no matter what the other circumstances of our lives.

But the way to this abundant life is not what I would expect.  It's not seeking after safety and security and comfort.  It's seeking the kingdom first.   And it's not seeking the kingdom only when it's convenient for me, it's seeking the kingdom though it costs me everything.  Jesus called us to death, just as he died.  He said,  "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it."  Mark 8:34-35.

As I've pondered this juxtaposition of abundant life and self-death this week, I've been amazed at how a change in my thinking about suffering affects my feelings about it.  As I've meditated on Paul's statements in Philippians 4 about being content in all circumstances, I think this is the secret that he mentions.  Abundant life is life with God.  Period.  No circumstance, pain, or suffering can take his presence away.  And his presence and communion is what makes life abundant.  A living, growing relationship with the Eternal One is the goal and the reward of life surrendered to Jesus.  Whether I have money or power or family or friends, I know that I belong to God and he is walking with me.  This is abundant life.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The God Who Sees Me

Hagar was an Egyptian slave.  Her owner, Sarai, struggled with infertility, and as was the custom in that place at that time, Sarai offered her slave to her husband to bear her children.  The children would be treated as Sarai's even though she did not bear them.

When Hagar got pregnant, there was a not-so-subtle shift in power.  Now Hagar had something over her owner, and she started to look down on Sarai.  Sarai immediately fought to preserve her power over Hagar by complaining to Abram about Hagar's behavior and abusing her.  So Hagar ran away.

She ran to the desert, found a spring of water, and sat down.  What must she have been thinking and feeling in that moment?  The injustice of her life must have left a bitter taste in her mouth.  She'd run this far, but where was she to go next, as a runaway slave?  How would she care for herself and her baby?

It was there that an angel of the Lord found her and blessed her and promised that she would have a son because God heard her misery.  And she named God the God Who Sees Me.

Human suffering can be so isolating, particularly in a culture so bent on comfort that any mention of a hurt is met with attempts to problem solve or an immediate aversion to further conversation.  No one wants to reflect on suffering or to think it might happen to them.  It's a rare person who can simply sit with one who is suffering and empathize.  So those who are suffering are often left without community to walk with them through it.  We often feel alone and forgotten. 

Leaving aside for a moment the questions of why (like why does God allow suffering at all, or why did he provide relief for Hagar but not for me [my friend, my relative]?),  I find great comfort in this story.  It says something about the character of God, the infinite God who at this time was focused mostly on a guy named Abram to achieve his redemptive purpose for the entire world.  Still, he saw and cared for an Egyptian slave in the midst of her mistreatment.  He saw and ministered to her at a personal level.  Although he didn't fix her situation, indeed, he sent her back to the place she would be mistreated and told her that her son would have a hard time with his siblings, he demonstrated that he was with her even in that difficult place.

God is still the same today.  Even though there are all kinds of human calamities.  Even where there are millions of people suffering at any given time.  Even while God still has a redemptive purpose that is bigger than any one person.  When there is nothing else to hold on to, God is still the God Who Sees Me.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


60 AD

Euodia stood under the cypress tree, hugging her traveling cloak to her body.  Still she shivered—neither the heat of the summer night nor that of the raging fire could reach her.    But the sound of the blaze insulated her from the gathering crowd.  She saw nothing but the fire, watching almost against her will as the flames danced up the side of her home, consuming everything.   Everyone.

 Atticus.  Jace.   Jace.
It could have been seconds she watched, or hours.  And then she crumbled to the ground and let out a single, piercing shriek.  It was there, huddled on the ground and silent, that Syntyche found her.  


 Several years ago, after my 27 year-old brother had been diagnosed with lymphoma and gone through 9 long months of treatment, my sister-in-law asked me to write about suffering.  It was a super-hard time for my family, bringing my parents home from overseas for a time.  All of us were asking who and where God was and how something like this could happen to someone so young.

Years later, I find myself sitting in a place of a deeper and more sustained type of suffering.  One of my long-term housemates has been struggling with chronic, debilitating nerve pain and brain damage since a lightening strike 6 years ago.  Both of us have lost our fathers to tragic accidents in the intervening years, and daily I face evil and brokenness as I represent criminal clients.

Juxtaposed with all this distress, I find exhortation from Scripture to "embrace suffering" and to look on it as a gift.   In a culture that seeks comfort above almost all else, this Kingdom value is difficult to even get my mind around.  

So it's from this place that I am embarking on this new writing project, as yet untitled.  It's meant to be a novel, with the dual purpose of exploring issues related to suffering and providing background to the book of Philippians for readers who are unlikely to study the biblical back story before trying to understand and apply it to their lives.

In many ways, this project overlaps with what I have been writing about for the past few years.  The question of suffering and evil existing in a world where God is supposed to be good and all-powerful is a question that people ask at an emotional level.  Many seek to have that question answered before they can begin to trust Christ.  For me, and probably for them, the clipped answers of things like "God is in control" or "God is good" simply don't answer the issues of the heart.  And many of my questions are more about what sustainable faith looks like in the midst of suffering - like what does it look like day by day?  And how do you go on trusting and walking with Christ when you're facing down 30-50 years of the same type of suffering with no real possibility of relief aside from miraculous intervention? 

So I don't know what this is going to look like or how often I'll be able to post meaningfully.  I don't know how much of the fiction writing I'll share as compared to the wrestling with the idea and theology of suffering.  But I'm going to aim for the once-a-week posts that I've been doing for the last couple of years.  And I'm going to experiment with involving you as much as I can as the book develops.   

So if you're up for the ride, I'd love to know what you think of the opening scene.  What questions do you have about the characters?  What do you want to hear about next--where Euodia and Syntyche came from, or what they're going through now?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Free stuff :)

In lieu of actual thoughts for the week, I thought I'd take the chance to share 2 resources that are free to download tonight and tomorrow all day on Amazon.com.

Second Story
     Alex Cunningham's recent motorcycle accident changed his life - now he sees every day as a mission to share the good news of the gospel. But his long-time girlfriend, Annie Russo, just doesn't understand. And if that isn't enough, every time Alex opens his mouth to say something about God at work, everything backfires: his co-manager Drew rarely even looks at him now. But help comes in the form of Sara Locke, an ex-missionary widow with wisdom to spare. Together, Alex, Annie, and Sara discover how to see people's unspoken emotional barriers to faith in God. Along the way, Alex and Annie explore how to engage those barriers in natural and nonjudgmental ways as they begin to talk about their Christian faith with their friends. But one of them has more success than the other, and the stress on their relationship might just be too much. A blend of fiction and evangelism training, author Anna Rapa uses narrative storytelling to communicate key truths about evangelism in today's postmodern world. Dive in to the story of Alex and Annie, and let this story show you how to reach people in today's culture with God's transforming story of rescue.

Encounter Jesus
    Have you ever wondered what it was like to meet Jesus? This book is a set of imaginative stories based on seven important dialogues Jesus had with people in the gospels. Written in first-person, they invite you to experience Jesus as these people did. There are also discussion questions and questions for reflection if you want to discuss the stories with others.

These resources were created out of my own experiences walking beside people for the last 10 years or so.  They're based on things I've learned and observed and felt like I would've wanted when I was first starting to analyze what it looks like and means to live a life of faith in front of people who may or may not have any interest in that type of thing.  Hope they're helpful!  If you want more information about the resources, there's some good stuff at Da[w]bar House--the publisher's website.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The long view

I often wonder what it is that brings a person to finally surrender their life to Christ and begin to follow him.  Especially when I have been praying for a person for a year--or years--and I don't see any discernible effect.

And sometimes when I hear people talking about evangelism and transformation, they equate it with convincing someone to come to church with them.  Somehow, we have the idea that if we can just get someone inside the doors of the church, something magical will happen.  And many times, if we ask a friend or neighbor to church and they say no, we drop it forever.

When Jesus talked to Nicodemus about people entering the kingdom of God, he talked about how those who will find the kingdom of God must be born again.  And he described the Spirit of God as the one who brings this about.  So as I pray for my friends, I often pray that God will awaken the spirit of the person I am praying for--so that he is able to hear the voice of God and see God's interaction, so that the words of Scripture will come alive, so that the person will find that he is hungry to know the God who created him.  Sometimes I even pray this song, that calls out for people to awaken to God's activity and presence.

As I've done a lot of reading about the conversion process, I've also noticed the pattern that there is almost always a person of faith who is part of that process.  In the last book I read, Prof. Rambo called that person of faith the "Advocate," and explained that it's a dynamic and unpredictable process where information is shared and a person is invited into a new way of thinking and believing.  The advocate plays the role of an ambassador, illustrating what a life of faith looks like and being there to answer questions about how and why and what is going on.  So as I'm waiting and praying, I'm also trying to be that person of faith who is that ambassador or advocate.

For example, I do my best to live my life according to kingdom values.  This raises a lot of questions, like why I'm driving that old white mini van that I got for free instead of something a little more like what a lawyer would normally drive.  And when people ask, I am prayerfully prepared to answer and explain how God's example of selfless love motivates me to give a lot of time and money away.  This may ultimately lead to more conversations and more opportunities, or it may just be a visual example day by day.

Bottom line--it takes a long time to see someone come to follow Jesus.  The process is complicated and mysterious.  And yet, Jesus invites us to be involved.  He invites us to pray for the Spirit to transform lives--may his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  But he also invites us to get involved, to be there sharing live with those who are not yet followers.

What about you?  What kinds of prayers do you pray for your friends?  Do you see yourself as an ambassador or an advocate?  How do you persevere even when you don't see immediate signs of interest in spiritual things?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Before the Conversation...

When I read stories like the one we talked about on Sunday--Philip walking up to the Ethiopian guy and being able to just jump right in and say all the right things so that he was immediately ready to follow Jesus--well, it feels a little bit intimidating.  Of course someone who walked and talked with Jesus, who ate with him and watched him talking to thousands of people, who could ask him all the questions that I always have rolling around in my head--of course Philip would know what to say.  But faith feels so different when it's not based on that kind of tangible interaction.

But over the years that I've been hanging out with people who are not yet following Jesus, I have learned that there are a whole lot of things I can do to prepare for the opportunities I might have.  In fact, if I'm really paying attention to what my friends are doing and what they're experiencing, I can often prepare ahead of time for conversations that may come up.

For example, I think that there are certain times in a person's life when he or she might become more spiritually sensitive--like the birth of a child or a marriage or a death.  If I see that coming on the horizon, I can begin praying weeks and even months ahead of time (1) that the Spirit would be working in that time to draw the person to Jesus, (2) that the Spirit will show me the questions of the heart that my friend might be asking, and (3) that the Spirit would show me what stories from Scripture or from my own life might connect to those questions my friend might have.  So when I get to the actual conversation, I've been thinking and praying for weeks and months about what I might say.

So much of evangelism, at a practical level, is about being watchful and prayerful.  It's about looking for what God is already doing in the hearts of the people around you.  It's about being willing to say something when the time is right.  It's about praying for wisdom and God's leading so that you say something that will help rather than hurt.

Here's a link to a page of questions that you can prayerfully think through as it relates the friend or friends that you're praying for right now.  I hope you'll take some time this week to begin the process of preparing to be there, at the right place and the right time with the right heart.

Monday, February 11, 2013

More than words

Charles Kraft wrote some 30 years ago that "God himself is the message [of the gospel], and we respond to a person."  He then argues that "if the message is life, only life is an adequate vehicle for its transmission."   Charles Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press 1983), 59.

 I've been kind of chewing on this idea for the last week.  A lot of times I think we feel like the most important thing is to introduce people to the vast narrative of Scripture--to be able to tell the whole story in a nice little elevator-sized speech.  We feel a lot of pressure to say the right things at the right time or to have all the right words.

But God himself is the message of the gospel.  When we invite people into faith, we are inviting them into relationship with a living Being who happens to be the creator and sustainor of all life.   So he is the message.  Relationship with God is the theme.  And relationship with God is something that permeates the whole of life.  Therefore, the message is too big for words.  It's too big for explanation.  It's not simply an idea.  The message of the gospel actually requires a person's whole life to communicate and demonstrate and illustrate what it looks like.

I think this is a freeing idea.  It frees me up to genuinely seek relationship with God, day by day.  It frees me up to chase after God's heart and try to hear his voice and try to build that relationship the same way I would any other relationship in life.  And while I'm doing that, I am illustrating and demonstrating and communicating to everyone I come into contact with the message of the gospel.  My life is a picture of what transformation and surrender looks like.

That's not to say I don't explain with words.  I think that's an important part.  But it is only part of the gospel message.  My life is the rest of that message.

What is your life saying to others about who God is and what he invites us to?  What has he transformed and renewed in you that demonstrates or illustrates what the gospel is like?

Monday, February 4, 2013

quilting connection

I spent the weekend working on piecing together a quilt.  It's got 900 pieces and 2 borders.  And no matter how I try, I can't sew a single piece on straight.  But I like quilting because first you cut up pieces of fabric, and then you put them together to make something even more beautiful than you started with.  In a life full of criminal law and other craziness, I need tangible beauty as a part of my everyday life.  And quilting speaks to me of the kind of restoration and reconciliation God is doing in the very broken world around me.

But my friend Mary can think of nothing worse than quilting.  We were actually sitting around a table a couple of weeks ago, talking about how we're connecting with people around us to be light in the world and share our relationships with Jesus, and she actually said something like, "thankfully, I don't have to do something like quilting!"  Instead, she has a monthly book club with some people in her neighborhood where she's intentionally and prayerfully building relationships with people around her.

What struck me in that moment again is how God has created us to be who we are on purpose.  Mary hates quilting, but she loves books, so she uses her love of books to reach out to those around her.  I connect with other women over quilts.  And both of us have opportunities to minister to those around us as we're pursuing the things that we love to do.

That's not to say, of course, that God couldn't (or doesn't) ask us to go beyond who we are.  Sometimes he does.  He asked Moses to speak for a whole nation.  He asked Jonah to go to Ninevah.  But even when you don't have a clear calling from God to do something outrageous, he wants to use you right where you are, right who you are, to reach the people that you're naturally going to want to be around anyway.

What are your interests or hobbies?  Who is in your life who shares these interests that you might be able to hang out with while doing what you love?  How can you pursue a relationship with that person through the activity that you both enjoy?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

praying for change

"Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."  Matthew 17:20

"The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective."  James 5:16

When I was growing up (and admittedly, still in the concrete stage of thinking, developmentally), I read the verses about how if we ask anything in Jesus's name, God would do it.  And I believed it.  So I remember one time in my room just laying there on my waterbed and praying that God would make me float in the air, in Jesus's name.  

As you can imagine, he never really answered that prayer.  And I know now that I didn't really understand what it meant to pray in Jesus's name--or to pray according to the things that are in his character and that would accomplish his purposes and his will.

But as I pray now for my friends, it often seems like my prayers are just as ineffective as those prayers that I would float.  I pray daily that the Holy Spirit would break through into my friends' lives--that he would pour out his spirit on them, that their hearts would soften, that they would come awake spiritually, that the wounds caused them by Christians would heal.  And I have no idea if those things are happening--sometimes I just can't see a bit of difference.

I think though, that although we are invited to rest on the promise that our prayers are effective and that God can (and does) move mountains, there is no sense of time in those Scriptures.  We aren't told that if we pray today, the mountain will be gone tomorrow.  And in a world of instant gratification of lightening-speed internet and microwave ovens, I don't think we have to wait very often.

But I think it takes a long time--years even--to melt a heart of stone.  I think it takes a long time for people to change and be transformed.  And I think those changes are made up of microscopic changes over a long period of time.

This is one of those areas where we have to have faith.  We should persevere because we know that God is hearing our prayers, and if we are praying that God's will would be done, that his name would be glorified, and that his kingdom would come, we know that he will answer those prayers.  He is answering those prayers.  One day at a time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Staying Connected

Where I live in West Michigan, there's a huge cultural divide between people who go to church and people who don't.  And there are so many religious people that the religious people rarely hang out with those who aren't part of their faith community.  Sure, they go to work with people of all different faiths, but all their time outside of work is spent with family (who all live nearby) or the people from their church.  So talking about evangelism in this context is a little tricky.  It often seems like a huge, scary, unknown thing to walk outside of the familiar to branch out to those who don't know Jesus.

Yet Jesus modeled the incarnation for us.  He left his place of comfort and security and perfection and came to earth to demonstrate the love of God.  Not to say that church or faith community is always comfortable or secure--and it's certainly not perfect!  But still, we should be following in Jesus's footsteps and looking outside the comfort of hanging out only with those who share our values and beliefs.  We should be building real, sincere relationships.  But how? 

Kevin Harney writes in this weeks Outreach Magazine some tips for staying connected to people outside your church community.  What do you think of his ideas?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fencing God in

I've started reading The Message translation of the Bible--just as something different.  And there are things that it says that just really stand out.  Like the first chapter in Hosea.  It says,

    "The first time God spoke to Hosea he said:
     'Find a whore and marry her. . . .'"

I just about dropped my Bible.  I mean, I know the story of Hosea.  I know what it's supposed to teach us about God and his faithfulness even in light of our unfaithfulness.  But really.... the first time God spoke to Hosea, this is what he said?  And Hosea just went out and did it?  Incredible.  There aren't even words that could contain all the thoughts and feelings I have about that.

So many times we put God into nice and neat parameters that we've created for him.  We dissect and explain and sanitize and fence him in.  We make an object of him in our heads so that we can have a sense of control--so we know what to expect.  And when we talk to others about God, we introduce them to that god--the one we made up and put in our own minds, the one we think we can control like a puppet.  Is it any wonder that so few people seem interested?

What if, instead of that, we introduced people to the Person of Christ--this being who exists apart from us and outside of our own minds?  What if we modeled prayer and submission to this Person, but we let our friends get to know him themselves, as we would if we introduced them to any other person in our lives?  What if we prayed for Jesus to show up through the Holy Spirit and touch their lives in a real and personal way?  What if we demonstrated what radical following looks like?

When we talk about Jesus, it's so easy to slip into the abstract, to talk about our beliefs about who Jesus is like our beliefs define him.  They don't.  Jesus exists whether I believe in him or not.  Jesus is who he is whether I know that about him or not.  And if he is alive, living, and active in my life, then I can expect that he is working in the world around me as well.

What about you?  What kind of fences do you put up around God?  How do you communicate that to others when you talk about God with others?  How might you be able to introduce people to Jesus as a Person instead?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Tough Questions

I had a frank conversation with a friend recently that I wasn't well prepared for.  We were hanging out talking about other things, and somehow his emotional barriers to faith came up - he was struggling to understand how good people could be condemned to hell just because they don't believe in God, or if they believe in the wrong God.

This is a question that comes up fairly regularly with various friends, but I still wasn't prepared.  I didn't have a neat answer to share.  I didn't have any books in mind to recommend.  All I could do is speak from my own experience with God in trying to answer that question in a way that I can live with.  But even as I was sharing from my experience, I could tell that it wasn't actually hitting him where he was struggling.  The answers that I've come to within my relationship with God that allow me to be close to him didn't reach him where he was at.

So I left that conversation feeling like I'd missed an opportunity.  But even after I had time to reflect on it, I wasn't sure what I could've said differently.  I felt like maybe I needed to listen more, to hear more about the deeper issues behind the questions as he presented them.  I definitely came away feeling like I needed to keep talking to him and walking beside him.  I've also been made aware of the tip of the iceberg on his barriers to faith, so I'll be praying that the Spirit will show me what stories to tell or how to help him take the next steps.  Most of all, I'll be trying to model what faith looks like in my own life, even when there are doubts and difficult things.

What about you?  Would you have been discouraged by the conversation if you'd had it with a friend?  What are the things that you would be praying for as you continued in relationship with this friend?  What would you hope God would show you?