Surprised by Joy

The project was a failure.  I mean, I was the teacher, so no one was really going to grade me on it.  But I had mentally written a big “F” all over the idea. It seemed so simple!  “Create a 1-3 minute video that defines happiness.” What could go wrong?!? I was teaching 8th Grade English in a private school, and I can’t even remember what book we were studying.  But I was still new and filled with ideas. I had thought this one would be gold. But as it turns out, I’m not sure that your average teenager really knows what happiness is. I had envisioned them weaving in short segments of vocations, family time, hobbies, etc.  Instead, I found myself looking at pictures of butterflies and flowers and students spinning in office chairs across a stage. At any rate, they seemed to have fun making the videos, so maybe it wasn’t a complete loss after all. But still, I was surprised by their apparent lack of joy.  Maybe they just weren’t old enough. Maybe they just didn’t know how to recognize it and label it. After all, there is a fine line between something that brings you momentary pleasure and something that gives you joy. That was 6 years ago. Do you think it would be different if I asked them to do the same project today?  What if I asked you?

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Maybe it’s because I told them to go looking for it.  Maybe joy is more of a surprise. Like this picture of my son.  We had had his first birthday party for him not long before this picture was taken.  We invited all the family and had the house filled with lots of presents, trying to make a big deal out of celebrating him.  And it went ok, but you know how it is. He had more fun playing with the boxes than the actual toys, and the texture of the icing on the cake made him cry when he got it all over his face.  So the expectation didn’t play out; we had failed to manufacture joy on a level we would have liked. But then, one day we were walking by my parents’ pond, and I captured this image. His face here is one of pure joy, at least in my mind.  There was nothing special about the occasion. No presents. No cake. Just the wild discovery that my voice echoed off the valley walls in that particular spot by the paddle boat. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world. And once is never enough for a toddler.  I had to make the sound at least 20 times, but each seemed to be funnier than the last. I was lucky enough to snap this picture and capture the moment that my son was entirely surprised by joy.

This Sunday’s Advent message is JOY, and the truth is that joy and happiness have always been a bit surprising, and not a little elusive and hard to nail down.  Sometimes it floods over you in a moment without explanation. Sometimes you can’t see it unless you back on your life and see times that might have been joyful.  It happens when you find old photos or start telling stories of beloved memories of family or friends. But at the time the event was taking place, you might not even have realized you were experiencing joy.  But it always seems to happen without explanation. It’s always a bit of a surprise.

Joy seems to be something, like pain (inexplicably), that’s mixed up with our everyday lives, and it sneaks up and surprises us at the strangest moments when we least expect it.  The holidays are like that. We can forget that the joy of the season can become mixed with pain for those who have suffered loss. We laugh at Porky Pig singing “Blue Christmas,” but after any major loss, the holidays can take on an entirely different feel, and seeing what feels like everyone else having a great time can sometimes increase the isolation.  Take my grandmother, for instance, who was cooking Christmas dinner when her four-year-old daughter accidentally pulled a boiling pot onto herself. She didn’t survive, and the holidays were never the same for my grandmother.  The joy of the season had become forever mixed with the pain and grief of loss. Once major tragedy or suffering strikes, joy seems to come only as brief moments when you become lost in something happy and forget your pain for just a little while.  (The poet Wordsworth immortalized this awkward mix of emotions in his poem “Surprised by Joy” where he recounts momentarily forgetting the death of his daughter.)  Some of the same memories or photos that used to bring you joy now bring pain instead.  Grief is complicated, and different for everyone, but I pray that you find a way to keep the joy alive.  And be patient with those who are still finding their own path through grief. Sometimes it takes time, a lot of it.

In his book, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis traces his own journey through life and his own encounters with something he labels “joy.”  For him, the concept is something (like God) that is indescribable, too high up for words. For him, “joy” is more “like a ‘signpost’ to those lost in the woods, pointing the way, and that its appearance is not as important ‘when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles.’” And he notes a distinction between pleasure and Joy, saying, “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” Indeed, we fill our lives with pursuing pleasures that can sometimes leave us feeling empty, so much that we might be blind to the Joy that’s right in front of us.  

So open your eyes this season so that Joy might surprise you.  Don’t let fear of pain or pursuit of pleasure keep your heart from glowing with the joy you’ve found.  It’s there; you just have to learn to see it. Let it shine a little brighter than the pain that won’t seem to go away.  Let it surprise you.

~Justin

Waiting vs. Getting in “The NOW”

 The face of waiting…

The face of waiting…

A speech given to high school chapel at King’s Ridge Christian School 12/6/18 @ 9:45am.

This time of year is busy.  Too busy. Crazy busy for some you.  Between all the family commitments and concerts and other events...it seems like we spend all of our time waiting...waiting for “this thing to be over with” or waiting for the next thing to begin.  And sometimes we get so caught up in where we going that we forget to be where we are.  The truth is we’re not very good and living in the NOW.  Makes me think of Kung Fu Panda.  My favorite is that wise old turtle...Oogway...you know the one… “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”  

Living in THE NOW is a very hard thing to do.  Especially if we’re waiting. I remember when I was in Middle School a long time ago...in the BC days...you know, BC...Before Computers...and I hated it.  I mean, I was this nerdy little dude with glasses...and I had all this hair...believe it or not...and gravity had no effect...it just stood straight up all the time in every direction.  There was so much of it, in fact, they called me “wolf-man” in the locker room. Middle school was the worst. So the whole time I was there, I couldn’t WAIT for high school. “If I can just get to high school,” I thought, “everything will be better.”  Well, I finally got to high school, and...NOPE...same thing...I couldn’t WAIT to get to college. Everybody called me “Biscuit” for some reason, and I was great at school...but you know how it is...if you’re great at school and always make 100s on everything, people give you a hard time about it...and when you do make a tiny mistake, everybody lets you know about it!  So here I am again, “If I can just get to college,” I thought, “everything will be better.” I couldn’t WAIT. Well, you see where I’m going with this...I got to college, and then I couldn’t WAIT to get my first job, and then I got my first job...and I couldn’t WAIT to get the next one.

You see...what I wasn’t doing...I wasn’t living in the NOW.  I lived my life waiting for the next phase, and it robbed me of the PRESENT.  So that’s my challenge for you: learn how to live in the present, in “the NOW”, wherever you are.  I’m challenging you to do something that I couldn’t...I never figured it out while I was in school, but I believe it’s possible.  You just have to catch yourself when something steals you away from the NOW.

“Mr. Bishop,” you might say, “aren’t we always in the now?”  Well, yes, you might physically be present in the here and now, but it’s possible to be here but not really be “PRESENT.”  Have you ever tried talking to your parents when they’re answering an email? Or have you ever tried to talk to you friend while they’re playing a game on their computer?  It’s possible to be right next to people but not really be present. The thing is, it’s easy to see when someone else does it, but it’s harder to recognize it when you do it.  So, the next time you catch your friend not paying attention, not being present in the moment, you might say, “Hey, get in THE NOW!” Better yet, catch yourself when your mind starts to wander away, and tell yourself, “Hey, get in THE NOW.”

Think about this...you post the pic or the video...and you wait for the likes...nothing wrong with that, but if you obsess over it, it’s stolen you away from the NOW.  You’ve sent the text, and now you’re waiting for the response...nothing wrong with that, but if you obsess over it, it’s stolen you away from the NOW. If all you can think about is the reply you haven’t gotten, you’re no longer living in the NOW.  The past or the future have stolen you. If the future steals you away, that’s called worry.  You start thinking about all the things that could go wrong, all the possibilities that might happen…, and you get worried.  (I remember when I was in college I went water-skiing with my roommate, and he left his phone in the apartment...he didn’t take it on the boat with us. We were gone maybe 3 hours...and when got back...he had 12 voicemails from his girlfriend...12 voicemails!  It was the days before text messages, so she had called him and left messages.  They started out nice enough… “Hey, what’s going on, just checking on you. Give me a call back.” But then they started to get more and more angry.  “Where are you?!!? Why the heck won’t you call me back!?!” Finally, by the last message, she was yelling into the phone:  “You jerk! I knew it...you’re with HER aren’t you?!? You’re cheating on me!!!” ...you may not have a gone that far when it comes to waiting and worrying, but haven’t we all started to freak out when we have to wait?  The point is, when you worry about what might go wrong, what might happen in the future, then the future can steal you from the NOW.) If the past steals you away, that’s called regret...and you start thinking about what’s happened before, and suddenly you’re locked into that frame of mind:  THE WAY IT’S ALWAYS BEEN IS THE WAY IT ALWAYS WILL BE. And it steals you from the NOW.

So what do we do to stay in the NOW? How do we WAIT well and not let ourselves get stolen by the past or the future?  I think the church gives us two good answers, and it has to do with this time of year. This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, the story of Christ coming to earth, the divine becoming human to see through our eyes and feel what we feel.  Last Sunday was HOPE and next Sunday is PEACE. And I think that’s the answer to living in the NOW and learning to wait well:  hope and peace.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but most of the Bible is a story of waiting - either God waiting for people to do the right thing, or people waiting for God to show up.  You get some interesting stories about God waiting on people...think Moses...he leads the Israelites out of slavery...that’s a pretty big deal...you’d think they would follow God and start doing the right thing...NOPE!  They get halfway into the dessert and suddenly start doing the wrong thing, worshipping other gods and forgetting all about what God had done for them. God waited on them for a long time. But people also had to wait on God, and that’s where Advent comes in...you see, there was this promise in Isaiah of “Immanuel” - Hebrew for “God with us.”  And that’s where Jesus comes in. The problem is that it took about 700 years for that prophecy to come true...700 years! Can you imagine waiting that long? Isaiah’s grandchildren were probably like...ok, “let’s get this Immanuel show on the road, come on God! Show up already!”  By the time Jesus shows up, many people had already given up on God.  Sometimes I think the same thing might be true today.

It takes a lot of courage, and a lot of guts to wait for a long time.  And that’s where hope comes in. When things don’t go your way for a long time, it’s easy to give up.  It’s easy to look at the way it’s always been...and to think that that’s the way it always will be. But hope is different.  Hope is choosing to see something better, refusing to accept that the way things have been is the way they will always be.  

Are there any high school seniors in the room?  You know something about waiting, right?  I mean, isn’t this the longest school-year of your life?  Some days probably seem to take forever. Not to mention waiting on your college acceptance letters, right?  The whole process is gruelling, and it brings up the past whether you’ve moved on or not...you’re looking at your transcript and you start to think, “Man, I wish I’d turned in that 9th grade research paper on time!”  (Underclassmen, I hope you’re taking notes on this…) While you’re waiting on those acceptance letters, it’s easy to start to worry, but then, you get that first one and you breathe a sigh of relief. But sometimes it seems like your #1 choice takes forever to get back to you.  It takes courage to stay hopeful in all of that. It’s easier just to try to forget about it. And God forbid if your #1 choice says no. Holding on to hope is a hard thing to do.  Especially when you get the results and it’s not what you wanted.  It’s then that HOPE says, “Maybe God has something in store for me that’s even better than my plans.”  But that’s not an easy thing to say.  Still, hope is a way to keep yourself rooted in the NOW, and keep your mind focused on the present rather than worrying about the future.

For me, hope was kinda easy.  It’s peace that was the problem.  You see, I’m a perfectionist, which means that I’m always over-analyzing everything.  Anybody with me? Anybody out there overanalyze stuff? All my life I would do something or say something, and I’d think about it over and over again in my mind.  Especially if it was a stupid thing that I did or said. I didn’t have a label for it when I was your age, but today I think we’d call it anxiety. I’d worry myself to death over something that was in the past!  And the past is the one thing that you cannot change no matter how hard you try. So if you’re like me, the past can haunt you just as much as the future, especially if you’re not even aware of it. And that steals you from the NOW, it takes you away from the present.  Peace is the answer to that, but like hope, it’s not easy. Peace is the opposite of war, and what we don’t realize is that sometimes we’re at war with ourselves or the past. And just like in a war, you have to make a peace agreement with yourself...almost like you’re looking in the mirror, saying, “Ok, SELF, I know you messed up.  But that’s in the past. It’s part of who I am now, but I won’t let the past haunt me…” Easy for me to say, but much harder to live.

So how do you do that?  It’s so easy regret to flood you with emotion and totally take over and you lose control.  So what do you do? It sounds simple. It sounds too good to be true, but the easiest thing you can do is learn to breathe.  That’s it. Just breathe. Science shows that a few deep breaths can calm you and lower your blood pressure. So, try it. The next time you get yourself worried sick with embarrassment because that video is going around of you doing that stupid thing...just breathe.

So that’s it.  All of us are waiting for something...waiting for something to start, waiting for something to be over.  And it’s easy to lose grip on “the NOW.” But Jesus us did not call us to lives of worry or regret.  Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.  Claim that promise. Claim that hope and peace even in the midst of this busy season, and take comfort knowing what Bible says about Jesus, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Whoever you are, whatever you’re going through, there is hope and peace for you, here, NOW. You just have to learn to see it.

At my church we have a benediction, which is really just a “Good Word,” like “Go in Peace” or something.  So here is my benediction, my blessing for you.

Let us go from this place

Believing with hope that there is a light that shines in the darkness

Which the darkness shall not overcome

And may the love of the Creator

The joy of the Spirit And the peace of the Christ-child

Be with you this Christmas, and evermore

Amen.  Go in peace.

~Justin

Christmas in Context: The Huron Carol

“Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high.”

It’s a strange verse to find in the Methodist hymnal, but there it is.  Title: “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” or “The Huron Carol.”  And it makes you wonder:  baby Jesus in “rabbit skins?” Wise men as “hunter braves?”  Does the Nativity story work with different details? Does the Gospel preach in language you can understand?  I would say that’s the only language that really works. After all, what good is heilsgeschicte if you have no idea what it means?  In case you’re wondering, it’s the theological term for “Salvation History,” tracing God’s redemptive work throughout the events of human history, and the truth is that every book of the Bible presents God’s “saving work” in language that could be understood in a particular context, to a particular group of people in a particular time and place, making the divine mystery accessible.  So “The Huron Carol” has more in common with the Bible than we might think.

Jean de Brébeuf gave his life as a missionary spreading the Gospel to the Huron people in Canada in the 1600s.  Embracing the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Brébeuf met the people where they were, learning their native language and even writing the first Huron dictionary.  He took a French song and re-wrote the lyrics in Huron, creating “The Huron Carol” as a way to present the Christmas Nativity story in terms that the Huron people could understand, bringing alive the Gospel truth that “Jesus your king is born” with familiar symbols and cultural ideas.  The hymn must have resonated with the people because after Brébeuf and his community were attacked by the Iroquois, killing Brébeuf and destroying his mission, the song resurfaced in Quebec among migrant survivors, presumably becoming a part of their oral tradition. Inspired by his story, musicians in more recent times translated Brébeuf’s lyrics into French and English, and the song is now widely celebrated as the first Canadian carol.  Brébeuf was canonized in 1930, becoming the patron saint of Canada.

So the details are different.  Yet the spirit of Truth is there.  “Come kneel before the radiant boy, who brings you beauty, peace, and joy.”  Haven’t we all experienced Christ on our own terms? In language that we understand?  To me that’s the power of Christ: he can speak the same Gospel Truth to me, to you, to everyone, and though the words might be different each time, the message is the same.

~Justin

THE HURON CAROL

'Twas in the Moon of Winter Time
Jesous Ahatonhia

Saint Jean de Brébeuf (25 March 1593 – 16 March 1649), a Jesuit priest, 1643
English Translation by Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926

1. 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunter heard the hymn:

Refrain:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

2. Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high. Refrain

3. O children of the forest free,
O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy. Refrain


Rusty Grace: Prayer in a Divided Age

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We live in an either/or world.  Right vs. Wrong. Left vs. Right. Republican vs. Democrat. Insiders vs. Outsiders. We spend so much time trying to figure out where we stand that we forget to be present where we are.  Once we think we know where we stand, we learn to listen for key words in conversation, and once we hear them, we disengage. Once we disagree, we cease to listen and start defending our position.  There’s nothing wrong in standing up for yourself and what you believe, but there’s a way to do it with grace. Have you ever thought about winning the person instead of the argument?

It seems like we’ve forgotten how to disagree well.  Just because you disagree doesn’t mean that you can’t love one another.  You can completely disagree with everything someone stands for yet still love them.  Just ask the parent of a wayward child, the teacher of the hateful student, the martyr blessing her accusers with her last breath.  It’s not easy, but it’s possible. I just bought a shirt that says, “God loves the people you hate.” I hope I can learn to live that way--with love and grace.

So what’s the key to finding this grace--this unconditional love?  Sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back and regroup. History has seen its share of revivals and reformations, and so has the church.  Maybe it’s time for another. I say we start with PRAYER.

We think of prayer as coming up with the right words to say to God.  But if you go back in time, there are many Christians who saw it less as speaking to God and more as being in God’s presence.  Jesus himself preferred quiet prayer over spoken words (especially public) which he cautioned against, saying not to “heap up empty phrases” (NRSV, Matthew 6:7).  And we only get the Lord’s prayer from him after the disciples begged him for it saying “Teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1).  He even tells us to go to a private room and shut the door (Matt. 6:6). In this type of prayer, the words don’t matter so much.

So how do you pray without words?  Just breathe. It seems all to simple.  But try it. Find a quiet space where you’re all alone, and just empty your mind by focusing on your breathing.  Give it some time. At least 5 minutes. Half an hour is best. But if it’s a super busy, stressful day and you can’t find half an hour...you’d better do a full hour then!  

Breath Prayer

If you can’t stop your thoughts from racing, pick a couple words or phrases and focus one on breathing in and the other on breathing out:  breathe in “PEACE” and breathe out “STRESS.” Or breathe in “LOVE” and breathe out “ANGER.” The important thing is to empty yourself of yourself and make more room for God.

What does this have to do with our divided age?  The idea is this: if you’re more at peace with yourself, then it’s much easier to be at peace with your brothers and sisters.  After all, God doesn’t love you because of the words you say. God loves you for you. That’s called grace. And if you learn to recognize it in your own life (God showing grace to you), then it’s much easier to live it (you showing grace to others).  I went to seminary with a man named Rusty Grace, and I think that’s the way we all are...we’re a little bit rusty when it comes to showing grace.  So spend some time in silent prayer this week, and see if you can knock some rust off the old grace and make it shine.  Because, after all,

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

~ Justin

A Walk in the Woods

 …sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.

…sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.

“Take off your shoes.”  The thought hadn’t occurred to me.  In fact, thus far on the path, I could think of nothing but the fact that my leather work shoes might get dirty from all the sand, leaves, and mud.  Well, that and the mosquitoes and spider webs. You see, I was on a 24-hour silent retreat, and this was a “prayer walk” through the woods by the Chattahoochee River.  It’s not the kind of thing I would normally seek, but when it’s a requirement for your doctorate, you don’t ask questions. At this point I was four hours in, and I had stared out my window enough.  So I took a walk.

Now I was used to walking in the woods, but the point was usually to get somewhere:  a place to fish, a mountain peak to capture the view, a campsite, etc. This was different.  The path didn’t go anywhere. It was just a circle. And when I say “path”...it was more of game trail than anything else, the weeds and ferns and ivy growing so close that at times I could barely see the shoes I was so worried about.  

At last I reached a deck by the river.  A welcome reprieve from my “spider-web-in-the-face,” “a-snake’s-about-to-bite-my-leg” anxiety.  I was carrying a bag with my copy of our discussion series book in it. So I opened Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith, and what do you know!  She has a chapter called “The Practice of Walking the Earth.”  It seemed serendipitous. It seemed like “God-moment.” So I sat down to read.  

“Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground...you don’t need to go to the Sinai desert to engage the practice of going barefoot.  Just choose a place outdoors that you are willing to encounter in the flesh without your customary cushion and protection...Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are….It will help if you do not expect God to speak to you” (Taylor 66-67).

“...do not expect God to speak to you…”  The words echoed in my mind. “Ok, ok. I think I get it.  Slow down, and stop looking for it. Stop waiting for something to happen.”  So I took off those nice leather shoes I had been so worried about. I pulled off my socks, rolled up my pants leg, and I started walking.  More slowly this time. More deliberately, gingerly placing each step on the ball of my foot instead of the heel to avoid putting too much weight on a sharp stick or stone.  

It sounds funny, but the effect was almost instantaneous.  My anxiety was gone. I could feel the softness of the damp, sandy soil.  I could sense the crunch of the leaves. And for the first time I could sense my surroundings.  Everything came alive. The birds in the distance. The gentle flow of the water. God didn’t say anything, but God’s peace was more real to me than it had been in quite a while.  I guess sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.

~Justin


Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap.jpg

“Isaac,” the stern deacon said, “if you cannot be reverent, you can at least keep your mouth shut about things which do not concern you.”  When Isaac and his brother Enoch remonstrated that they were not only criticizing the hymns that were being used (they had called them “cheap” and “ugly”), but that they hoped to prepare their own hymnal, the elder laughed and said, “That old hymnal was good enough for your grandfather, and your father, and so I reckon it will have to be good enough for you!” ~Controversy

Isaac may not have gone about it the right way, but he had a vision.  He had a gift. But not everyone could see it.  Some embraced the “newness” of his songs. Others, like many of us, had trouble letting go of the way it’s always been. “They took issue with one of his most popular songs calling it ‘man-centered’ and ‘focussed on human experience’ . . . The year was 1707, the composer was Isaac Watts, and the song was ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’” (Radford). Sometimes great things are forged in the gap between tradition and vision.

In the London subway (or “The Tube,” as they call it), there are signs everywhere that say “Mind the Gap.”  The wording seems odd to us, but it’s there as a warning, calling you to attention the space between the platform and the train.  It’s meant to keep you out of trouble. If you don’t “Mind the Gap,” you could wind up in serious trouble, i.e., with a broken leg...or worse!  

I think there’s a bigger gap we have to “mind” in life.  It stands between reality and possibility. There’s the way things have always been.  And there’s what might be. There’s what we hope for our children.  And there’s who they have become. There’s what we want. And there’s what everyone else voted for.  To “mind the gap” is to hold on to hope that a third way will emerge.

“I hold no illusions about how hard it is to live in that gap. Though we may try to keep our grip on both reality and hope, we often find the tension too hard to hold—so we let go of one pole and collapse into the other. Sometimes we resign ourselves to things as they are and sink into cynical disengagement. Sometimes we cling to escapist fantasies and float above the fray” (A Hidden Wholeness).

In faith, as in any human endeavor, to cling to the past (or reality) is to disengage, to close the door on the future.  To focus on fantasy (possibility) is to check out or “lose touch.” There must be a third way! As humans, we crave resolution, but at what cost?  Too often we settle when we could have waited and found something far greater.

When we don’t understand what God is doing in our lives, it’s easier to dismiss it, to give up the question and fall back on our old clichés.  But if you can wait, if you can hold the tension, if you can “mind the gap”--God may show up in an entirely unexpected way. And who knows where the train might take you!

~Justin

Hurricane Florence

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Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of North and South Carolina and Virginia whose lives and homes have been affected by Hurricane Florence.  I have checked the CBF websites for both Global CBF and North Carolina CBF to see what options for response might be available for any of us at Heritage Fellowship who would like to assist.  Generally, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship waits to allow first responders to handle the immediate aftermath of a disaster until such time as CBF can determine a location that might have been overlooked in that initial effort.  

Here is the current advisory on the CBF Global website:

CBF Disaster Response continues to monitor the ongoing effects of Tropical Depression Florence in the Carolinas as well as Virginia. In consultation with CBF of North Carolina and local congregations, Alan Williams, CBF’s Disaster Response Specialist, will begin assessing damage and needs in various impacted communities. Williams will be joined by other team members and consultants over the next few days.

We will update this page when we have determined specific communities for CBF engagement and share opportunities for network and congregational involvement. Our priority is to assist neighborhoods that tend to be overlooked during disaster recovery.

As we prepare for response efforts, please be advised that CBF Disaster Response is not capable of handling donations of food, water, clothing and other material goods. However, we will be following up as quickly as possible regarding volunteer needs in specific communities.

CBF is accepting disaster response funds in preparation for the response efforts to Hurricane Florence. Churches and individuals wanting to contribute to Hurricane Florence Disaster Response can give online here. If you prefer, you may also give by mailing a check payable to “CBF” to:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
PO Box 102972
Atlanta, GA 30368-2972

Here is a prayer that was offered by Rev. Amy McClure, Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, NC on this past Sunday morning and posted on the CBF North Carolina website:

Present and Holy God,

We come before you this morning knowing that you hear our prayers at all times, so we offer up to you the things on our hearts and in our minds. 

This morning our minds are flooded with thoughts for so many who have been affected by Hurricane Florence. Even as we join together to come to you this morning in prayer, there are so many who are stranded in shelters, many who are soaking wet trying to wade through the water to get help, many senior adults who were unable to evacuate and are waiting to hear from family, and many who are not quite sure where the money will come from to do the necessary repairs to their damaged homes. For all of those people, we pray.  

We pray for our sister churches on the coast who are working diligently to help their communities in this time of crisis. We pray you will keep them safe, give them strength and energy, and equip them with the resources needed to come alongside so many in their communities.  

We pray for the children who are scared and aren’t quite sure they still have their toys, their pets, and their sense of security. Put people in their path who can love them well and calm their anxiety and stress.  

For the first responders and emergency personnel both on the coast and here who are working tirelessly to make sure all are safe, we give thanks for their dedication and pray that you keep them safe. We pray for their families who spend those moments worrying about them while they are out and pray you will give them a peace that only you can provide… 

With all of who we are, we give you thanks for Jesus, the one who came so that we may all have life and have it abundantly and the one who taught us to pray saying….”Our Father…”  Amen.

Let us at Heritage Fellowship add our prayers to that of Rev. McClure and pray for our brothers and sisters.

Blessings,

Rob

Peace-mongers

 “Start with conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course.” ~Tod Bolsinger,  Canoeing the Mountains

“Start with conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course.” ~Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains

“When you’re more concerned with winning the person than winning the argument, you know you have arrived.”  I put the book down and marveled at the truth that was still echoing in my mind. Bill Self had been my pastor, and now, through his book Surviving the Stained Glass Jungle, he was continuing to shape my thinking.  I had been wrong. For years as a teacher I had sought to understand the teenage mind of the students in my class, and I had assumed that I could logically persuade them to believe in the importance of what I was trying to teach them.  For years I had failed. Mostly because they don’t think. They feel.  And if it doesn’t feel fun, then it’s not really worth their time.  I had been trying to win the argument, to lead them something instead of meeting them where they were.  Don’t get me wrong. I got through to many of them, but it was the ones who came and left unchanged after an entire year in my class that drove me insane.  I should have tried to win them instead of the argument.

It’s easy to look at a younger generation and think how “naive” they are.  But really they’re us. Really we are all shaped by the same emotional distractions as they are.  Some of us get better at processing it, but deep down we are all heavily emotional creatures. So what do we do?  We pick our battles. We calculate (consciously or not) which ones we can win, and we fight! And those battles deemed as too hard, we give up and bottle up.  We learn to keep our mouth shut. But the absence of a fight is not really peace. If we still harbor ill feelings and never express them, then we have chosen harmony over health.  We’ve become “peace-mongers” as Bolsinger says in Canoeing the Mountains.  

If we only learn to silence the complainers in our lives, we’ve created a “cheap” version of peace.  If we only learn to silence our own opinions for the sake of avoiding disagreement, we’ve created a “cheap” version of peace.  It’s a recipe for anxiety (we’ll always be worried about when the complainers will “blow up” at us again). It’s a path that leads to unhealthy self-denial (if you don’t stay true to yourself, eventually you sacrifice your integrity in the name of “peace,” or you forget who you are entirely).  

In order to create beloved community in our circles of influence, we must learn how to disagree without disengaging.  Too many people cut themselves off at the first sign of trouble, but real community is formed in facing challenges together, and any relationship involves a certain amount of sacrifice, a certain amount of give and take.  It seems like you can either be right all the time, or you can have a good relationship with people. We think of Jesus as the “Prince of Peace,” but he didn’t get there by agreeing with everyone or by rigidly following the letter of the Law.  

So when you feel those emotions starting to trump your reason, don’t check out, don’t give up, and don’t blow up.  Instead, “start with conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course” (Canoeing the Mountains).  You’ll be on your way to “winning the person instead of the argument.”  You’ll be cultivating beloved community. You’ll be more holy, healthy, and whole. You’ll be more like Christ.

~Justin

Canoeing the Mountains: Spiritual Reorientation

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“You don’t have a purpose in life.”  My students shifted in their seats. I could tell that a few weren’t paying attention because with them there had been no reaction.  I said it again, slowly, to let it sink in, putting more emphasis on the “a” before purpose.

“You don’t have A purpose in life.  You have purpose, and you bring it to life.”  

“Mr. Bishop, are you saying that life has no meaning?”  The furrow on the 9th grader’s brow was genuine.  

“Precisely.  Each of us has meaning, and we bring it to life.  All your life, people have acted like you have exactly one way, one chance to get your life right, and if you miss that calling, purpose, or meaning, then your life ceases to have value, ceases to matter.  I’m here to tell you that you have calling, meaning, purpose. You matter. You have value. And if you look at life the right way, you have thousands of chances to bring it to life wherever you are, whoever you’re with, whatever job you’re doing.  You just have to have the right perspective because if you ‘change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’” (quote from Wayne Dyer’s Blog)

The bell rang, and they hurried off to whatever Spanish quiz or math test was stressing them out that day.  But I bowed and prayed that something from that discussion had sunk in.

I hate Charles Dickens.  Probably more than my students did.  But sometimes, on a trip down the path you fear to trod, you find a treasure.  I found truth. And I’m not sure I was looking for it. It was my first year teaching A Tale of Two Cities, and I wasn’t doing a very good job.  I had never read it, and I was keeping up with the homework at the same pace as the class.  Sometimes I had more questions than they did, and I definitely did not have any answers. But somehow we made it through, and somehow I came up with a good final exam question:  Is meaning in life possible without sacrifice? I’m not sure what I expected in their essays, but there it was in the first one I graded, a truth I’m still trying to live by:

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” ~Joseph Campbell

I had read Joseph Campbell in seminary.  I had taught his model of the hero’s journey. But I had never seen this truth blazing off the page at me before.  And here it was, quoted in a 9th grade final exam essay.

I wonder if we fall into this same trap in our spiritual lives.  Do we get stuck? When it comes to our faith, have you ever wondered:  Where did I go wrong? Is this all there is? There’s got to be more!

When Lewis and Clark got to the headwaters of the Missouri River and the water stopped, they stood on top of a ridge where they expected to find another stream on the other side that would carry them all the way to the Pacific.  What they found was the Rocky Mountains. Miles of them. They had to change plans. What had worked to this point, what got them to where they were--it wasn’t going to work any more. After all, you can’t canoe the mountains. They had to reorient themselves.  They had to adapt.  

Sometimes we think we’re not making progress because we’re not trying hard enough.  But in reality we need an entirely new approach, a new way of looking at things before we can take the next step.  We need a spiritual reorientation. We all need allies and mentors to help us along the way. We all need healthy habits to transform us into the best version of ourselves.  Faith is a journey. Are you ready to cross the threshold of adventure?

~Justin

Don't Build a Church - Be the Church

 Church happens outside the walls too.

Church happens outside the walls too.

I once lead a deacons’ retreat at a church.  The theme was a simple one:  “What Does It Mean To Be the Church?”  I asked the group to imagine that no church existed at all in their town and that they had been sent as missionaries from some far off place to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the folks there who had no idea about the Christian faith.  I wondered together with them about how they would start.  What sort of “strategy” would they identify as a means to share their faith?

At first they were puzzled by the assignment.  I had to clarify a bit.  “You mean, our whole town is following another religion?” one deacon asked.

I answered in the affirmative. 

“Or perhaps no religion at all,” I added.

“And we are supposed to plant a church here?” he continued.

“That certainly is one thing you might do,” I responded.  “But you also might decide to do something else as well.”

They divided into groups and started working.  Eventually we all came back together as a larger group.  And they reported on their conversations.

One group had a great idea.  They looked around the group and identified the various occupations that sat at the table—a couple of teachers, a lawyer, a hardware store owner, a landscape designer.  They determined that they could make a living in their occupations while working through those occupations to share the gospel with others in the community, to meet human need, to try to make the community a better place.

We tossed that one around for a while.  One guy just couldn’t quite get it.  He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the goal of the group was to engage in mission in the world and not to “build a church.”  He kept trying to argue the others down and to insist that they needed a church building first before they did anything else.

Then someone said it.  “Isn’t this exactly what we are to be doing as church now?  Using our occupations and our lives beyond the walls of the church to be the presence of Christ in the world?”

The man who was having difficulty grasping it all suddenly slapped his hand to his forehead and said, “Wait a minute!  Do you mean to tell me that my construction work during the week actually connects to what I do at church on Sunday?”

I nodded yes.  Somehow through all the Sunday School classes and worship services over the years, he had missed this simple truth.

And I suppose this is what I carry away from the mission conversations we have had at church over these past Wednesday nights.  Our goal is the same as the goal of those who have shared with us.  To see ourselves as God’s people in the world as much as we see ourselves as God’s people in the church.  To move outside the walls.  To change and transform our community in the same ways that they have transformed theirs.  This truly is what it means to be church.  We just sometimes have to be reminded.

~Rob

Global Missions: The World Race

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Noel and Rosalie's Grandson, Joshua Schulz, is about to embark on an 11 country, 11 month mission trip called The World Race which will take him across Europe, Asia, and South America.  Since August is Global Missions Month at Heritage, I thought it would be a great opportunity to share his story.  And I can share it in his own words!

"As I entered my senior year of college, I contemplated what I wanted to do post graduation.  During spring breaks in high school, I went on four one-week mission trips with my church.  These trips were life-changing, and I loved them.  I knew I wanted to go on another mission trip at some point, and now that I am graduating, I have felt God telling me that it's time.  My hope for this mission is simple, to love and serve the people of the world just as God through Christ loved and served me.  By doing this, I hope to see disciples made, just as God asked us to do in what many know as the Great Commission

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV, Matthew 28:1820)

I know that this is what I have seen God's constant faithfulness throughout college in a multitude of ways. We all hear stories about how so many people lose their faith when they get to college. So one thing I prayed for was a godly community that would encourage me in my relationship with Jesus and keep me true to who I am and whom I belong to.

Looking back I can see God has been by my side the entire time and is still there to this day. God has taught me to put my trust in Him time and time again as He has proven Himself faithful and worthy of being trusted. 

In high school I had been on four mission trips through my church, Johnson Ferry Baptist, where I grew up going. Each were one week long, spanning the course of spring break. I had the privilege of going to the Dominican Republic three times and once to Peru.

These trips were life changing and I absolutely loved them. I knew I wanted to go on another trip similar once I graduated college. However, when God started putting a yearlong mission trip on my heart I was hesitant at first. Then, remembering how faithful He is I knew this is what I had to do.

I remembered my friend briefly mentioning the World Race, so I began doing some research. It did not take long for me to decide that this is what I was going to do.

I leave in August and could not be more excited. I know as a result of this trip God is going to change lives, mine included.

My name, Joshua, in Hebrew actually means 'Jehovah saves.' I hope this message will be spread to the ends of the Earth. Please pray for me and my team as we prepare for this journey."

The Worship Service Industry

 Would we be patient without the sign?

Would we be patient without the sign?

“I’ll be there between 2 and 5.”  How many times have we heard those words in a time of need?  The AC, refrigerator, cable tv, plumbing, etc. is broken, and so are our patience.  The repair technician is on the way, but suddenly all kinds of ungodly things go through our minds.  And look out if he shows up at 5:05! We know what we want, and we want it fixed now! We have a “normal” we desperately want to return to.  We have an idea of what is “supposed” to happen. We have expectations.

I wonder--do we sometimes bring this same mindset, these same “expectations” into worship? Do we expect God to show up promptly between 11 and 12? Do we expect everything that’s wrong to be fixed quickly and at a reasonable price?  What happens when we have to wait?

And what of our expectations of our fellow church members?  We’re here waiting on God, and someone does the wrong thing, says the wrong thing, or doesn’t do/say the right thing.  What happens to our attitudes toward our Christian brothers and sisters?

It’s a wonder we’re ever able to worship with all that’s going through our minds.  But somehow we find a way to wait on God. Somehow we find a way to forgive. But I know I can do better.  

It doesn’t often happen, but something spoke to me on Facebook this week as I was fighting insomnia late one night:

It made think of a book I used to teach:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.  It seems like empathy and the service industry don’t mix, but I certainly hope that empathy goes hand-in-hand with worship, and that we can “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, ESV), and “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, ESV).

~Justin

Heritage on Mission

17,291 Lunches + 400-500 Children + 38 Drivers and Riders + 26 Checkers/Packers =  1 Mission: Building the Kingdom of God. The MUST Ministries Summer Lunch Program wrapped up it’s 9th year at Heritage on Tuesday, July 31st thanks to your generous donations of time, money, and food.  Here are a few things that I’ve learned:

  1. Collective Efforts = Exponential Return on Time - You would think that two people doing the same job would make it get done twice as fast.  But it’s more than that. Every weekday we would pack over 400 lunches in a little more than 15 minutes, and even on the days we would make the sandwiches and set up bags, it still only took 45 minutes to an hour. There is power when people work together. Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken,” meaning when we work together, we can accomplish so much more.  I like how The Message puts it:  “By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.”  I wonder what would happen if we carried this collective effort idea into other areas of our lives? What would the world look like if everyone lived that way?

  2. $1 Goes a Long Way -  What would you think it would cost for a brown bag filled with a sandwich, a drink, a bag of chips, and a fruit cup?  Would you believe it’s less than $1? “Extreme Poverty” is defined as anyone who lives on less than 1 US dollar per day, and current numbers show that around 1 billion people around the world live this way.  $1 goes a long way.

  3. Smiles and Barriers - Many of the children who receive our donated lunches are the children of immigrants.  For most of us, we’ve lived a sheltered life in relative safety, so there’s often more than just a language barrier between the “insiders” of American culture and those who are newly arrived.  For a long time in my life, an “immigrant” was more of an idea than a living, breathing, struggling human being because I had never met one (or at least I had never had an in-depth conversation with one in a language that both of us could understand).  That all changed during my college years when I made a close friend from Venezuela and heard his personal stories. Once you’ve made an authentic human connection with someone, it’s hard to still maintain “idea” version. Once you’ve connected with their story, it changes your perspective.  I don’t know where you are in this journey, but I know that for me this summer stepping out of my car into these communities and seeing where these children live and seeing the smiles on their faces as I gave them a lunchbag--all of this had a profound effect on my perspective as a human being in this world.  I pray for more smiles shared and for more barriers broken in what lies ahead.

I am grateful and humbled by our community of people who care so deeply about their neighbors.  It is such a blessing to work alongside you, truly building the Kingdom of God.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve!

~Justin

From the Cathedral to the Fair

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Have you noticed that reality just isn’t what it used to be?  Some sixty years ago or so, we Christians in the United States occupied a very privileged space.  Most everyone around us accepted the very same reality that we championed. The Judeo-Christian worldview and perspective dominated the landscape.  In fact, the sociologist Will Herberg wrote a book in 1960 entitled Protestant, Catholic, Jew in which he concluded that, if you weren’t Protestant, Catholic or Jewish in America then you just weren’t really an American.   The ceiling over us was the Judeo-Christian ceiling. Most everyone accepted it, lived their lives by it, and anticipated that what it said about this life and the next life was quite accurate.

To put it succinctly, we lived in a massive Cathedral.  Perhaps you’ve visited one before. You enter the front doors and look up at an expansive ceiling that pulls your gaze ever upward toward the soaring gothic spires with its beautiful paintings and arches.  At the front is a massive altar and along the sides are various chapels. For US society in the 1950s and 1960s, those chapels represented all of the various denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Pentecostals and, yes, even the Jewish faith.

Most everyone went to church (or to their particular chapel) or was expected to even if they didn’t.  We all pulled out of our driveways together on Sunday morning, went to Sunday School and enjoyed Sunday dinner after church.

Then, suddenly and somewhat without warning, the Cathedral ceiling crumbled.  We entered the tumultuous decade of the 1960s that challenged so much about that old Judeo-Christian reality.  The Civil Rights movement shook us to the core as it became clear that many churches in the United States had turned blind eyes toward the oppression and injustice that our black brothers and sisters were experiencing.  The Vietnam War caused us to question our global responsibility as a nation and to realize that our political leaders were not as trustworthy as we once assumed. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy lead to intense and collective introspection about the violence in our culture.  The Immigration Act of 1964 opened our borders up to the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America for the first time since the 1920s.

We woke up one day and the Cathedral was gone!  We found ourselves in an entirely different reality, one in which the sky was our ceiling and the dirt was our floor.  We were living at the Fair instead of at the Cathedral. No single reality dominated the culture. People suddenly could find meaning and purpose in a variety of religions or outside religious institutions completely.  Suddenly, to live inside the Judeo-Christian worldview was to live in a different reality than the rest of the culture embraced. A different sort of spiritual vitality was demanded of us that needed to be much more vital and meaningful than the spirituality that characterized us in the Cathedral.

Indeed, reality isn’t what it used to be!  And I’m wondering if that isn’t something that we should embrace rather than fear.  It is good, after all, that our faith, the Story that gives meaning and purpose to our lives, should be a faith that we choose for ourselves and that is powerful enough and meaningful enough to help us make sense of every decision that we make and every experience of our lives.  

We now live at the Fair.  We now live together with others who embrace the Story that we have embraced and seek to live life out of that Story.  It truly is a good place to be—a place in which our faith is our own and not something that is simply handed down to us or contained within the culture that surrounds us.  It is our faith. Each day demands of us an individual decision to enter into the Story we ourselves have chosen to embrace and to allow that Story to determine everything about who we are, what we do, and why we do it.  And, of course, to embrace it in such a way that it makes enough difference in our lives to compel our friends and neighbors into it as well and to find the same meaning that we have found.

~Rob

The "With God" Life

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Sometimes “goodbye” isn’t goodbye.  It’s more than that. This may come as a shock to some of you, but I’m a nerd.  A big nerd. I own exactly 7 Star Wars t-shirts.  Anyway, as part of being a nerd, I am fascinated by language.  And sometimes a phrase doesn’t literally translate from one language to the next.  For example, “goodbye” in Spanish is “¡Adiós!”...or more literally “to God.” In more formal situations if someone is leaving for a long, dangerous journey, you would say “Vaya con dios,” which is “go with God.”  In fact, the linguists say that even our word “goodbye” is the result of hundreds of years of shortening the phrase “God be with thee.” I say all that to say this: embedded in our ordinary, everyday life is the notion of going, being, and living WITH GOD.  

In fact, the “With God” Life can be traced through the heart of the entire Bible (as outlined here in this article by the Renovaré Team).  Professing faith in Christ is the beginning of your faith journey, but hopefully it’s not the end.  Everything that comes after takes a focused, determined effort to learn and ultimately live a life “With God.”  The fancier name we give to this concept is “Spiritual Formation.”

Now, there are all kinds of things you can do to foster spiritual growth, but today I just want to talk about reading the Bible.  As pervasive as the Bible is in American culture, it’s a bit of a conundrum. People everywhere seem to have tremendous faith in the Bible without actually knowing what is in the Bible, let alone how to understand it.  Many people read out of a sense of something missing in their lives, or they go looking for facts in an effort to prove someone else wrong.  While some of these efforts might wind up successful, they often miss the point. Reading the Bible that way can result in us “trying to control what comes out of the Bible rather than a means of entering the process of transforming our whole person and our whole life into Christlikeness” (Richard Foster’s Life with God Bible, page xxvi).

When I used to teach the 6th grade Bible class, my intro lesson was this:  If you read for knowledge and/or need, you can get off track, confused by the details.  So what’s the purpose of scripture? It’s about the WHO and NEW - the WHO is a revelation of who God is and how God moves in history and the NEW is about your own personal renewal, or how to find new life with God, ultimately to transform you to be more like Christ.

Rob speaks of “moving the equator.”  Well, when it comes to scripture, sometimes you have to change the way you look at scripture to find a way to let scripture change you.

So sometime this week (today even!) dust off one those Bibles you have on the shelf, and look at it with fresh eyes.  Ask yourself: “What does this tell me about who God is?” and “How can this help me become more like Christ?” If you do, you’ll be one step closer to the “With God” Life.

~Justin

The Prophetic Imagination

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“You’ll shoot your eye out kid!” Everyone seems to remember the iconic line from A Christmas Story (a movie I can’t stand, by the way...I know...feel free to judge me!). The words ring in the boy’s ears, an ominous foreboding of what might happen.  

This is what most people think of when they hear the word prophet:  some cranky guy in the street delivering bad news about all the bad things about to happen.  But the biblical reality is not quite so simple. The prophet represents God to the people (whereas the priest represents the people to God), and as such a representative, prophets often find themselves at odds with the culture around them.  Take Elijah for example. He called out the prophets of Ba’al in a dramatic display calling down fire from God, but as a result, he had to run away and take refuge in a mountain cave. Jesus himself said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home” (NIV, Mark 6:4).  It seems that, where prophets are concerned, familiarity breeds contempt, setting up the paradigm of prophet vs. society (or at least the culture which they are calling out).

Prophets might not have been well-liked, but they were agents of change.  It wasn’t so much that they were at odds with the people, but rather, they were at odds with the status quo.  They weren’t ok with the way things were, with the way things have always been. And people don’t like change.

If one prophet can be such a powerful agent of change, what would an entire community look like?  In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann describes an “alternative community of Moses” which stands out against the backdrop of the culture around it. But this doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes an acute level of self-awareness on the part of every community member. In other words, a prophetic community takes an alternative perception to succeed.

To be an agent of change, you have to see the world differently than the culture around you.  In case you haven’t noticed, Heritage is different! We already see things differently. We naturally exemplify some of the marks of a prophetic community.  But what would it look like if we were more self-aware? More perceptive? More attuned to the needs of the world around us?

We live in a culture of consumerism, and we’re buried so deep in it, it’s hard even to see it.  But there’s hope! There’s a way to break free. There’s a way to become a prophetic community who is not ok with the way things are but instead chooses to “fight the giants” (as Rob said Sunday).  There is a way to imagine not what is but what could be, what should be.  So who’s with me?

~Justin

God's Umbrella and Baptist Identity

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In an ironic twist of fate, both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative
Baptist Fellowship are meeting in Dallas, Texas this week! Somewhere God must be having a good laugh!

I’ve been keeping up with both meetings, though I wasn’t able to attend CBF this year.
My friends who are there say that it is rather strange to be encountering each other on
elevators as people from both camps are staying at the same hotels.

For those of you who don’t know the history, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was
formed in 1991 as the result of schism within the Southern Baptist Convention. Over a period of years, the SBC took a decidedly sharp turn to the right in terms of theology and biblical interpretation. Taking a literal approach to scripture, SBC leadership determined that women could not be pastors of local congregations. Seminary professors were charged with heresy simply for teaching a different interpretation from those that held power. Soon the idea of the priesthood of every follower of Jesus Christ was threatened as the authority of pastors was elevated.

In 1990, Dr. Daniel Vestal called for a meeting of Baptists who were concerned about
this increasing conservative control of the denomination. About 3500 people showed up in
Atlanta for that meeting. Within a year, CBF formed and some 2000 churches would soon
affiliate with it. Some churches, like Heritage for example, emerged as new churches and made CBF their sole denominational affiliation. We are one of the few congregations with
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on our sign! CBF churches champion some wonderful things,
including the right of women to serve as pastors of local churches and the right of each believer to pursue truth wherever it might lead.

Someone asked me the other day if there was much tension between all of the various
denominations—Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans and so forth. It
occurred to me as I answered his question that there was far more tension within
denominations than between them. We Baptists are proof positive of this observation.
But the truth of the matter is that we do need to take a stand for what we believe to be
true as best we can know it. This is what the priesthood of believers is all about. We have the
right, under the leadership of the Spirit, to seek God’s truth. And we have the responsibility,
particularly when it comes to matters of justice, to stand up for what we believe to be right.
We can still love those with whom we differ and we can still do ministry together with them.
Our school summer lunch program is one example of shared ministry together despite
differences in theology and practice.

So, while I can’t be at CBF this week, I’m still glad that Southern Baptists and Cooperative Baptists are at least bumping into each other on the elevator. God’s umbrella is a big umbrella. God has a sense of humor that sometimes brings us together despite ourselves.

~Rob

Learning to Listen - Lessons from Summer Lunch

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“Can I please have an extra lunch for my brother?” His face was desperate, worried, concerned.  But the rules said only one lunch per person. And another young man had just run away shouting to his friends, “Look!  I got an extra one!” My heart was locked in a moral dilemma: the rules said one thing, but the boy’s face said another.  

“Can you go get your brother?  I have to see him before I can give you extra.”  I had chosen the rules. He walked away crestfallen, taking with him my confidence in having made the right decision.  The crowd was pressing in, twenty or thirty other children excitedly reaching for the small brown bags containing a simple free lunch.  With all the happy faces around me now, I tried to forget about the one I had just made sad. But then I heard something different.

“See!  Here he is!”  The boy had returned, and in his arms he carried a younger boy around one year old.  My heart did a backflip. I was so glad that he was now able to feed his brother, but I was so ashamed at having chosen the rules over his need.

Don’t get me wrong.  The rules are there for a reason.  But I wonder how often our choice to follow the “right thing” causes us to ignore the need standing right in front of our eyes.  I wonder how often our commitment to the “letter of the law” causes us to deny the “spirit of the law,” the reason the rules were made in the first place.  

I think I unknowingly became a Pharisee in that moment.  And the words of Jesus echoed in my head.

The Pharisees loved the Law.  In their mind, it was the way to God, and the truth is, that was its original intent:  an instruction manual to live a Godly life. But sometimes they seemed to miss the point.  When they saw Jesus sitting with “tax collectors and sinners” at dinner, when they saw his disciples not following the rules of fasting, when they saw the disciples gathering leftover food from a field on the sabbath,

“The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?  He entered the house of God...and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any buth the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions...The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’” (NRSV, Mark 2:23-28).

I pray that next time I’ll listen more.  I pray that I’ll learn to see the need and not need so much to follow the rules.  Summer Lunch was made for the hungry, not the hungry for me to feel better about myself because I followed procedure.  

~Justin

"The eye can only see what the mind knows."

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"The eye can only see what the mind knows," said the young Indian doctor.  She was preparing us for a visit to a rural village not far from Aligarh where we were going to visit in homes together with residents from the  Aligarh Muslim University School of Medicine.  Her point was that it was sometimes difficult to convince poor people in the rural areas to take their medications or to practice good hygiene.

She encouraged us to make our visit and to ask whatever questions we wanted to ask. Destiny was my partner for the morning and our resident took us into a concrete block home with a floor made from packed cow manure.  Flies buzzed around our heads as we settled into some plastic chairs.  Our hosts were a woman and her three daughters together with a couple of neighbors who had stopped by.

I assumed we would learn in the conversation about how much their lives were different from ours . . . but I was wrong.  We discovered that the family enjoys life in the small village they live in.  The community is close and folks take care of each other.  Our host mentioned that one of her daughters had passed away recently and it was clear she was still grieving the loss.  We learned they go to the Hindu temple in the village twice a day (imagine if we had church that often!) and that she intended to arrange the marriage of her three daughters.  She had very strong opinions that her future sons-in-law should be moral people who treated her daughters well.  I certainly could identify with her concern having just given my daughter away to be married!

In the end, we spoke out of our common humanity and not out of our differences.  The differences exist, yes, but we all experience joy and grief in life.  We all yearn for the same things.

Where I had expected differences, I found similarity.  My eyes had been opened and I had learned something I didn't expect to learn.

Indeed "the eye can only see what the mind knows" . . . . at least until we sit down together and listen to each other and find that we are far more the same than we are different.

From Aligarh,

Rob

Isn't the Taj Beautiful, Sir!?

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We were standing at one of the most beautiful spots in the world yesterday, the grand gate to the Taj Mahal, through which was perfectly framed the gorgeous mausoleum itself.  Construction began in 1631 just shortly after the death of empress Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, as she was giving birth to their fourteenth child.  Grief-stricken, the emperor was determined to build a fitting memorial to his wife.  He somehow managed to build one of the seven wonders of the world.

Our Mercer group was there with about 30 children from the Ahmadi School for the Visually Challenged so that, as Principal Firdaus Rahman put it, they could see the Taj through our eyes.

Kaif was standing beside me. He is a big strapping and handsome young man who recently had surgery to partially repair one eye.  Earlier, on our walk from the parking lot, I had asked him if he could see well out of that one eye.  "Sir, I see better than before," he said optimistically and he went on to speak of his hope that one day he would be able to see out of both eyes.

I turned my gaze again toward the Taj but I noticed that Kaif kept his eyes fixed on me.  Without ever looking at the mausoleum at all, he said with excitement and joy,  "Isn't the Taj beautiful, sir?"

"Oh, yes, it is beautiful, Kaif!"  I responded.

And then I remembered that he was supposed to be seeing it through my eyes and not me through his . . . .

From Aligarh,