This is the Gospel

It’s not hard to see that we live in a messed up world. Wars, famines, abuse, broken families, and even our own hearts are corrupt and full of desires that are not for our good. Pure motives, true justice and mercy, and sacrificial love can not characterize a single country on this earth. We all know in our hearts that this is not what life was meant to be, and we get glimpses of what existence should be in the love of our dearest friends, the peace of a gentle sunrise, and the exultation of a perfect summer’s day. 

The holy scriptures say that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[1] The holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent, all-good God spoke the world into existence. “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”[2] He put the first man and woman in a perfect, beautiful garden that was very good. He entrusted the earth’s care to them and charged them to be kings and queens over it—ambassadors of the divine. But they rebelled and chose selfishness instead of obeying their Creator. Their choice separated them from God and with it brought sin and death into the world. Because we are their children we inherited their sin and selfishness, and as a result, all creation groans under the weight of mankind’s rebellion from our Holy Creator. 

But God didn’t give up on His creation. Even as the earth was heavy with the weight of sin and separation, He called one man to establish a people that would bring God’s presence back to the earth. He delivered the descendants of this man out of bondage and oppression, not because of their righteousness, but because of his love and faithfulness. God’s people rebelled again and again, and God called them back to himself again and again. The people raised up kings to rule and unify them, but even the best of their kings was a murderer and lawbreaker. It was clear that mankind was desperately in need of a righteous king who would be obedient to the commands of God, and restore God’s relationship with man. Prophets rose up among the people of God and foretold the arrival of this perfect, anointed king who would restore peace, justice, and righteousness, but still the people continued in the darkness and oppression of sin. 

At last, he came, but not like anyone expected. God himself “became flesh and dwelt among us.”[3] He came not as a conquering king, but as an infant who grew to be a humble man named Jesus. Jesus is the anointed king who established the kingdom of God on earth. He didn’t come conquering enemies with the sword, but with sacrificial love. He called people to repent from their rebellion and sins, not just sins of the body like murder, sexual immorality, and theft, but also sins of the soul–anger, lust, and hypocrisy. To his followers’ dismay, but in accordance with the prophetic scriptures, he was tortured and killed by the state authorities even though he himself was sinless. But if that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t be telling it. After three days in the grave, Jesus conquered death itself and rose from the dead. One of his close friends wrote that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”[4] In his new resurrected body lies the hope that we too will be raised in new bodies and live as we were created to be–in perfect, joyful relationship with our Creator God. 

Because of Jesus, we can already begin to live in the kingdom of God, but it’s not yet here in its fullness. After the resurrection, Jesus returned to Heaven, but the Scripture says that “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.”[5] Jesus will return as the righteous judge, and in the meantime we are called to “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”[6] Jesus’ dear friend and follower John wrote about what that restoration will be like: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”[7] Even though the kingdom of Jesus is not yet manifest on the earth, we can choose to live in it and spread the good news of this kingdom of light even while we wait for Jesus Christ’s return.

Jesus himself is calling you to become a citizen of his kingdom! He’s calling you to repent, turn away from pursuing your own self, and pursue the glory of God. The scriptures say “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,”[8] and that “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[9] It’s not an easy way, Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him without understanding the cost. He said: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? . .  So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”[10] Jesus does not promise ease, but he does promise salvation, eternal life, and forgiveness of our sins. Will you join him? 


[1]  Genesis 1:1. All Scripture quotes taken from the ESV

[2] Genesis 2:7

[3]  John 1:14

[4]  I Peter 2:24

[5]  I Thessalonians 4:16

[6]  Acts 3:19-21

[7]  Revelation 21:3b-4

[8]  Acts 16:31

[9]  Romans 6:23

[10]  Luke 14:28, 33

By the Crowd of Worshipers

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Walking home along Beacon Street in the late golden afternoon is a profoundly human experience. Through the Common, across Charles Street into the Public Garden, and finally to my tree-lined home stretch.⁣

Hundreds of people pass in and out and around, swimming in the sunlight pooling at our feet and in our eyes. The general nonchalance of the passer-byes heightens the intimacy of the second when your eyes lock with another’s and they say “I see you there, and what are you about?” Life gurgles in giant dogs chasing tiny balls and snippets of conversation about irresponsible coworkers and the best Starbucks drinks.⁣

Every individual and clump of two or three, each in their own world, but inhabiting a space shared by a mind-boggling diversity of origin and lifestyle.⁣

I sometimes almost think that we are truly each in our own worlds, unaware of the human-shaped gods that we filter through every day except for the proper reverence we show. The proper reverence we show in the way we weave instinctively (or deliberately) around and through giving the least possible inconvenience to each other, and paying deference to each small sovereign in our silent, downcast eyes and easy relinquishment of our human dues.⁣

Every day in the city, I walk home through a crowd of worshipers.⁣
They are worshipers, I know.⁣
Which god, I don’t.

Moving Forward

Leaving is hard. Saying goodbye is hard. But what a gift to leave beloved. What a gift to move forward into hope, curiosity, brightness.

God is so kind to take us out of dark places into a gentle pinky-blue dawn. Dawn that, with shadowy certainty, shows us the next step, though perhaps not the next ten.

Today I’m moving across the country to finish my degree at Sattler College in Boston, MA. 12-year-old me is stoked out of her mind to be going to school in Boston—a city that was not only the birthplace of America, but is also home to the most colleges of any city in America including Harvard, one of those far off, magical temples of education that I dreamt about as a child. 23-year-old me is enjoying the magic, but is a little more aware of the risks and costs. I’ll be pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical and Religious Studies and because of my work at Faith Builder’s I should be able to earn my degree in 3 years.

I’m so excited about the opportunity to study. I’m so excited about living in a culturally rich city like Boston. I’m nervous, but mostly excited about learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew. I’m excited about expanding my understanding of the Kingdom of God and deepening my knowledge and familiarity with His word. I’m not excited about missing three years of weddings and funerals, sermons and Sunday School, MCC relief sales and Walnut Valley Festivals. I’m not excited about missing Sunday dinners, Friday night hang outs, daily family life, and all the million other things that make Hutchinson, Kansas home and wonderful.

I feel a bit like a misty-eyed fawn wobbling out of the woods into a dewy field just before sunrise. Uncertain of the way, sure of direction. Expectant of a new day, quite ignorant of how it will come.

A Prayer for the Church

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Father, we demand too much and love too little.

We’re called to be your body, but we prop our feet up and use our hands to serve ourselves.

Shake us out of the stupor induced by consumerism and a false sense of control. Enthrall us instead with your presence.

Shatter our apathy and make us a living, breathing, dying sacrifice in the image of Christ.

Teach us to demand less and love more.

Growth

23 feels good.

I’m stronger in so many ways.

I’ve handled feelings, and I’m learning to hold them too.

I’ve stretched, kneaded, and turned my mind over and under and upside down and I’m learning to let it be soft and strong.

I’ve done Pilates, ran for fun, allowed my body to take me up mountains and down beaches, and I’m learning to love my flesh and bones.

I’ve pursued genuine friendship, risked heartbreak, sent care packages, felt my friends tears on my own cheeks, and I’m learning to lean into the long haul.

I’ve thrown the conservative Anabaptist church out the window, she pulled me out into the open with her, and I’m learning to hold strength in the same hand as weakness.

I’ve died and been reborn and died again, and I’m learning to be a living sacrifice.

I’m more alone than I ever imagined and more at home than I knew was possible.

23 is good. Jesus is good.

We’re living the best story.

Listen to Your Life

Frederick Buechner has a book of devotional writing entitled Listening to Your Life. That phrase has been on heavy rotation in my mind recently. I’ve joined hope*writers this month in an attempt to hone my writing skills and focus my efforts a bit (see more here). Emily P. Freeman, one of the founders, frequently quotes author and teacher Jan Johnson saying, “It’s not the experience that brings transformation, it’s our reflection upon our experience.” This theme of reflection in order to know or expression in order to transform is something I’ve been trying to practice more consistently and, for me, the practice is summed up in Buechner’s title. How do you listen to your life?

I want to experience my own life. I want to actually see what is happening around me. I want to learn from my own life. Writing is about listening to your life. Writing is a form of self-care, a way to process and digest your experience. But does that mean that everyone needs to be a writer in order to experience transformation from the events of their life? Of course not. Expression takes many forms; the key is listening. Expression only counts if you know that you are expressing something. Expression is obvious with writing, painting, and the rest of the arts. However, a carpenter can be no less an artist, but only if he pays attention. If he builds with purpose and heart, processing life as he goes, coaxing the wood from a lovely block into a table for friendship or a cabinet for blanket storage.

But listening to your life is even broader than the act of creating something. Listening to your life means being present. Paying attention. The verb pay infers that you give something, and indeed your attention is a gift. Give it to your own life. Pay attention to your life so that you can give your life back to the world in a gift of yourself—your words, your art, your craft, your transformed life. Dorothy Sayers writes that you haven’t really experienced anything unless “you can express it—however haltingly—to your own mind.” Expression doesn’t have to be verbal or even logical. It can be a mental image, a feeling, an event, or symbol. But express your experience. Listen to your life, and you just might be transformed.

Funerals and Floods

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First was Betty Schrag. Her husband Dan died four years ago, and she had a long, waiting kind of death. She died in early April and was buried soon after. Next was Mervin Yoder. He too followed his spouse after a long, slow decline. Along with two funerals, April also brought us three inches of rain, a little over the average.

May brought flowers and the end of school, but also rapid decline in several other members of our congregation. Ironically, Mae was the next to go in a rather unexpected illness just as her daughter Betty was wrapping up the school year. At the time of her burial on May 12, we had already exceeded the average rainfall for the month by half an inch.

One week later, Harley Emma of our sister congregation passed away and was laid to rest in the ground along with 4 ½ more inches of rain. Last week it was Henry Schrock and another inch and a half. And this week? This week we lost Sam D., another venerable saint, and gained an inch of rain. But this week, we also lost Demetrius.

The six preceding deaths were deaths of men and women, builders in the church, whose lives were drawing to an end. Their ages ranged from 84 to 94, and their deaths were expected and mourned for days and weeks before it actually happened.

Monday, the call chain came around yet again. Demetrius Eugene was born via emergency c-section to Brian and Cynthia and died shortly after birth. Nobody knew anything was wrong until she started having early contractions. At the hospital, they discovered Demetrius had a rare genetic defect that would take his life as soon as he left the warmth of his mother’s womb.

This is a different kind of grief. When the elderly die, there is a beauty and rightness to their passing. Our elderly are carriers of our faith, and their death is a loss of what was. But our children carry what could be. Their death is a loss of hope.

We received over 16 inches of rain and seven deaths in these two months of spring. The Arkansas river is full to overflowing, and it has been for long enough that I’m beginning to forget what it used to look like. It’s running fast, carrying many things seen and unseen in its swollen rush, both washing away and depositing anew. We won’t really know the changes the flood is crafting until the land is finished draining and the altered riverbed is uncovered.

Our church is in flood stage. Time will tell the shape of this washing—this baptism of grief.

Mantra

Faith or Sleep?

“Now there’s faith and there’s sleep, we need to pick one please because faith is to be awake and to be awake is for us to think and for us to think is to be alive and I will try to with every rhyme to come across like I am dyin’ to let you know you need to try to think.” Car Radio TØP

These lyrics have tattooed themselves onto my brain and run like a hamster when apathy threatens to overwhelm or the universe feels too big. My calling is not to understand, to grasp or to fully articulate. I am called to have faith. But faith doesn’t mean closing my eyes to the bigness or falling into some kind of blissful unawareness. Faith is to be awake. Looking, seeing, sensing. To be awake is for us to think. Digging in a little deeper, pushing ourselves, searching the unsearchable. To be awake is to be alive. Breathing in, letting go, changing, growing.

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is sleep. Apathy, disengagement, jadedness—these are the true enemies of our faith.

Start

Nothing starts without an ending. Even when the earth was created ex nihilo, nothing ceased and God’s solitude ended. Beginnings are only the tails of endings and endings the nose of beginnings. As this reality sinks deeper into my understanding, my grief and gladness deepen also. Grief because the relationships that are just in bud, the new season I’m in, the goodness that is just now spilling into my cup won’t last forever. All will change and morph and, eventually, end. But also gladness, because ending doesn’t mean annihilation of what was, and, most of all, because ending means there’s another thing beginning.

Father, teach us how to rest.

“True restfulness is a form of awareness, a way of being in life. It is living with a sense of ease, gratitude, appreciation, peace, and prayer. We are restful when ordinary life is enough.” -Ronald Rolheiser

2018 Referred

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“Remember when Eustace turned into a dragon? And then Aslan peeled his skin off? It hurt more than anything, but it was also one of the most wonderful feelings because he was so so ready to be a boy again. This season feels like shedding, peeling, scraping, washing. It feels like ‘Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.’ Salty, stinging, pounding waves cleansing and softening.
Sometimes it’s knobbly dragon skin left behind, sometimes a trail of wet leaves.

Either way, beauty seeps in, usually in birth, but often in death.”
I posted this on Instagram last October and, looking back, it’s the dominant impression of 2018. 2018 was a hard year. I ugly cried more in the last six months of 2018 than in the last 4 years combined. I’m not a habitual ugly crier.
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2018 was the year that brought an end to the best year and a half of my life. It was the year that I dated and broke up with a good friend. It was the year that my first sibling got married and my sister and closest friend started dating. It was the year of major transition in the fabric and structure of my family. It was the year I started teaching—a new job where I knew just enough to make me terrified and aware of all the things I couldn’t do. It was the year that I lost my head just after I thought I’d finally found it. 2018 was a year of transition and grief and so much battering.

There was so much light and joy and celebration in 2018, but that’s not what I’m here to write about today. I’m focusing on the grief and battering because it’s that part of 2018 that is most precious to me.
In the transitions that this year brought, I lost my identity more than I ever have before. I suddenly realized that my “stable constants” had been shifting, and I was waking up to a new reality. I didn’t realize how much those things (relationships primarily, lifestyle too) served as the reference points for who I am. They were such a part of my worldview that I didn’t even realize how foundational they are. Yes, I’m switching tenses because they are still a massive part of my identity, but I’ve also been loosed from them in a way that I’ve never been before.
We weren’t made to exist in an empty space where the only two points are me and God.
There’s this scientific and philosophical wormhole you can go down where you realize everything is known only in terms of other things and relationships between things are essentially what makes things “real.” In other words, if only one thing existed, it would be impossible to know it existed. Indeed, the thing itself wouldn’t know of its own existence and you could even argue that it would be impossible for one thing and only one thing to exist. (yet another reason that the unity of the trinity is a mind-boggling, but an incredibly necessary mystery) In other words, existence could be described as relationship. We cannot exist in a vacuum, and I would argue that we weren’t even made to exist with God alone. God alone is enough for our existence, but he didn’t create us that way. He created abundance of existence out of the infinite depths of his own relationship with his three persons. (the biggest word we have to describe the why, how, and what of this is LOVE—but that’s a tangent we don’t have time for today, I’m already going on too long) We were made for relationship with God, but also relationship with that abundance that takes the shape, most importantly, as other image-bearers and as all else that is (creation, ideas, etc.).
The point is, it’s GOOD and normal that we use relationships as references points. It’s normal, natural, even healthy. But when those relationships become the fundamental reference point, you’re set up for a lot of pain, because they aren’t fundamental. Those relationships are auxiliary.

The mercy of God made us creatures in constant motion. Motion is one of the best ways to tell if you’re going the right direction. You move and your reference points move and you get perspective. Staying in one place makes the closest tree the biggest one. The redwoods far away are made invisible by the elm saplings in my face. Movement keeps us wondering; it keeps our awareness fixed on the infinite because in movement our finitude is so achingly apparent.

This year I ached and cried and shook from fright. This year I got drenched in my finitude like that ALS ice-bucket challenge.

And I’m so grateful.

//

I’m new and I’m old.

I’m dying and living.

I’m catching hold

That reality

Is letting go

And letting go

Is staying grounded

In Person Truth.