Today I Saw God
There were six rows of benches on either side of the aisle. Each bench sat four people, which meant our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team took up 25 percent of the space. It was Wednesday evening, and we were at a United Methodist church in Manajanabo in the center of Cuba. It was their midweek service, and it was packed.
There was music, drama, reading from the Bible and songs sung by so many different people. Five small children came up, one playing a ukulele, and sang a song with such joy. A young girl sang and though I didn't understand many of the words, I knew in my heart that she was praising and worshiping God. Even one of our mission team members sang a song. It was a wonderful, joy-filled praise and worship experience. The pastor talked about serving and the importance of serving. She talked about the sacrifice we made to come to Cuba, "leaving their homes and their families to come here."
At the end of the service the pastor invited a family up to the front of the church. It was a mother and her eight children. Apparently their dad had left them. Our UMVIM team leader, Aldo, was invited to pray over them. He did and then he sang too.
I was so struck by the love and nurture I saw in this church. They had such deep love of God and an equally deep love for one another. This small band of Christians was committed to taking care of this family, and in that "one anothering," the love of Christ was palpable.
I saw this deep love of God and of others over and over again all over Cuba. Love for one another. Christian community. The joy of fellowship. Genuine love of God. What I saw in Cuba reminded me of what I read about in Acts 2:42-47. The early church was a close-knit community that took care of one another. The Bible tells us they were "devoted to teaching and to fellowship…They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had needThey broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God."
The church in Cuba is growing, just like the church in the first century grew. Acts tells us that "The Lord added to their number daily." Something is happening in Cuba. Something that the early church knew and something we could learn from. There is power when people come together to love God and love others.
"What does it mean when the Bible says perfect love drives out fear?"
I asked this question to the thoughtful group of Bible study participants as we gathered around the table at The Lamb Center, a day shelter for homeless and poor individuals where I lead Bible study on Tuesday afternoons. We were studying some of the many places in scripture, which talk about fear and courage. At this point in our discussion, we had landed in 1 John, chapter 4, verse 18.
Where God's love is, there is no fear, because God's perfect love drives out fear.
It was an active group, and many around the table had offered insights and stories about their own journey with fear and their attempts at bravery. When I asked this question about perfect love driving out fear, one of the newer ladies to our company shared these thoughts:
"I was so scared. I had gotten sick and lost everything. I ended up in the hospitalandwhen it was time to leave, I didn't have anywhere to go. One of the people at the hospital told me about The Lamb Center. When I came here, people were so nice. Everyone showed me the love of God. The more I felt the love of God through the people here, the less afraid I felt. I didn't feel alone anymore. Experiencing God's love through this place drove out my fear. That's what it means when it says perfect love drives out fear."
As we continued our discussion, she shared another example:the story of a kind woman on a bus who touched her arm and gave her a little money. Although having the money for bus fare was meaningful, she seemed more grateful for the kind words and the touch on the arm. She believed God sent the lady on the bus to let her know he saw her and was with her. I hope the kind lady on the bus knew how much her simple act of obedience meant to my struggling friend.
My friends at The Lamb Center know first-hand about fear. They know intimately the fear of having no place to go. The fear of sleeping at a bus stop or in the woods. The fear of an approaching hurricane when they have no shelter. The fear of disconnection, judgment, shame and loss. They know the fear of isolation and the fear of losing hope and never finding it again. My friends at The Lamb Center know all about what it means to dig deep for courage when they feel afraid.
Fear and anxiety are part of the human journey. While I am grateful my fears don't include worrying about where I will sleep, I understand the solace of realizing I am not alone in my strugglewhatever that struggle might be. Like so many other topics found in scripture, each of us could relate that day to the need to navigate the difficult paths of fear, worry and anxiety. And we were all grateful that God seems to have some answers for us in his word. Answers that often, it seems, include our ongoing need to live in community.
Earlier in chapter 4, John says these words:
"If we love each other, God lives in us. His love is made perfect in us."
Here are some things we learned that day as we talked:
- God is love.
- God sees us when we are afraid, worried or anxious.
- God's love can heal.
- God's love finds its fullest expression through us. It matters when we participate.
- When we love and care for each other without judgment, God's love is made perfect.
- Isolation contributes to our fear. Incommunity, we feel less afraid and less alone.
- It is a privilege to be used by God to encourage one another, so we need to pay attention to those nudges from God to reach out to somebody.
God repeatedly reminds us in scripture"Do not fear. For I am with you."God's answer to our fears is his presence. Sometimes, God's presence involves our presence with one another. Perfect love casts out fear. God's love is made perfect when we reach out and love one another.
As the old 70s song says, "They will know we are Christians by our love." It seems simple, but I know I need the reminder sometimes.
The greatest commandment: Love God, Love Each Other. Could love indeed be the antidote to fear?
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com.
"Mommy, when you are a hundred, will you be as tall as the clouds?"
This, my little daughter asks me from her seat on the swing in our backyard. Her sweet up-turned face looks past me to the billowing clouds overhead. To her, growing up means growing taller so she can reach the monkey bars unassisted and ride all the rides at the theme park.Surely 100 years should be enough to reach those clouds, she concludes.
While our growing taller comes to an end during our teens and early twenties, our growth doesn't stop then; it merely goes undercover. Throughout our lives, our bodies are busy reshaping, remodeling and renewing themselves, not only to heal after injury or illness but as a regular practice. Cellular turnover is part of our programming.
This notion always came as a surprise to the students in my anatomy class who, though quite a bit more advanced than my small daughter, generally assumed that once they stopped growing up they started growing old. Actually, there's a whole lot of reconstruction going on.
Even our bones, which seem the deadest of things thanks to archaeological excavations and Halloween decorations, are active and changing our whole lives long. Even when they aren't growing longer, they're growing stronger in response to the pushes, pulls and pressures they endure. It's the beauty of weight-bearing exercise. We're designed to fortify ourselves.What breaks down gets rebuilt, only stronger, given sufficient time, good design and quality building materials. We are always undergoing renovation.
We call this maturation, and I'm pretty sure it's meant to be a total makeover of body, mind and soul.
Kids think that once they've grown up they're grown-ups, figuring they may have some "filling out" to do but are otherwise ready to take on the world. We, who have spent some time in the maturing phase, know that the growing never stops. Though we're not getting any taller, we're always remodeling and reorganizing: filling in gaps, replacing old notions and fortifying things in light of new information.
We who have reached our full height are meant to be filling in: building spiritual muscle, agility and fortitude as God reshapes it along with our minds, hearts and souls. We are clay in the hands of the potter, teaches Jeremiah 18. A contemporary retelling might call us plastic, hardened at room temperature, but pliable at God-temperature.
God's not done with us yet. That's such very good news. God's continually defining and refining, affirming and growing us, inside out, as we will let him. That's not just for our own good but also for the good of all of our relationships, including the precious ones we have with the generations to come.
They're sure to ask us in Sunday school or confirmation class, around the dinner table or after ball practice, on their graduation day or on their wedding day, "Mom and Dad, do your think you'll ever be able to touch the sky?" They ask, not because they really think we will, but because they want to. And they can't see ever doing it without us.
"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." –2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Oh my yes, little girl, there's every chance I will reach those clouds because, thanks to God, we're both still growing.
This post originally appeared on "The Kinesthetic Christian."
It was such a joy to share the sermon at Floris UMC this Sunday that I wanted to share an additional story that didn't quite make the cut. For those of you who weren't with us (or need help remembering), the main point came from John 13:31-35, in which Jesus told his disciples about a new commandment to love one another as a distinctive marker of Christian community. The disciples had a role to play in developing the climate in which they would continue to exist, grow and thrive in Christ. And, as we know, climate is crucial for things to grow.
The story I want to share further illustrates the importance of climate. In May 2007, my family faced a difficult transition. My parents had to leave Western New York (which has been their home for their entire lives) for my dad's new job in North Carolina. As a teenager at the time, I found opportunities to connect with new people through school, church, etc. But we all faced some culture shock when we 'Yankees' moved to North Carolina. The climate, both cultural and physical, was challenging in so many ways, especially as we experienced heat and humidity like we had never known before. That summer was one of the hottest on record, and our AC unit (and new love) in our home simply couldn't handle it. We had never hador needed to haveair conditioning in our house before. But pretty soon after our move, we had to make a call to a repair company.
My mom and I were both home during the day when the repairman came. And let's just say we had a hard time communicating. My mom (who had worked professional jobs in Western New York her whole life) and the repairman (who, to my memory, had been born and raised in rural North Carolina) simply couldn't understand each other. The main cooling unit had rusted through, including a coil in the unit. As the repairman tried to tell my mom that he had to order a new coil (pronounced "coal") for the unit, my mom looked back in disbelief, wondering why there was coal in the unit to begin with.
Luckily, I was able to finish the conversation with the repairman. As he left, I looked back at my mom expecting to laugh about the whole ordeal. But our joy rather quickly turned to sadness. The exchange plainly reminded us of how disconnected we felt, even in our own home. Just as a home with a broken AC unit in July can surround us with sweltering heat and humidity, disconnectedness and brokenness can surround us with anxiety and sadness. In more ways than one, our climate wasn't necessarily conducive to our growth.
Don't discount how your environment affects your life and don't discount how you can contribute to your own environment. Perhaps you can be a climate changer for good, creating spaces at church, work or wherever you are that are conducive to your own growth and the growth of those around you.
If you're like me, you might scratch your head when you consider just how many Christian denominations exist. Sure, we might anticipate religious diversity throughout the world, but who could have anticipated such diversity within Christianity itself? Think about how many churches you pass on your way to work, or better yet, how many churches you pass on your way to wherever you worship on any given week. How can we explain such a wide array of expressions of a supposedly unified faith?
In my life, different circumstances have led me to meaningfully experience several Christian denominations. I grew up in the Wesleyan Church, began to own my faith in a Southern Baptist congregation, attended a college with an Anabaptist heritage and, while in college, connected with the Presbyterian Church in America, Assemblies of God, the Brethren in Christ and the Church of Uganda (with Anglican influence). Each of these experiences has shaped me and my faith in important ways, and I can appreciate various elements of each denomination listed above. As I was finishing college, however, I realized that my lifelong tour of Evangelical Protestantism had left me disconnected from a church I could call my home. I began searching for a place where I not only felt welcomed, but also where I could continue to dive deeper into God's love and grace in meaningful community. It did not take me long to find a place to belong in the United Methodist Church (UMC).
Before I learned much about what it meant to be United Methodist, two things in particular drew me into the Methodist connection. First, hearing of John and Charles Wesley and the core teachings of Methodist doctrine reminded me of language with which I was already familiar, having grown up in the Wesleyan Church. Rather than learning new vocabulary, I gained deeper insight and received more meaning from vocabulary that I already used (some of which I will discuss further below). Second, and most impressive to me, I appreciated the UMC's openness to modern thought and scholarship. Too often in my experiences, churches, pastors and many Christians I knew saw the extent of their interaction with the world as simply resisting the world's evils and waiting for God to fix everything in judgment. While the UMC still has a powerful prophetic witness against evil and injustice in the world, it also engages culture in a meaningful way, asking how our faith informs our interactions with science, sociology, biblical scholarship or other areas, rather than insisting our faith has nothing to learn from these fields to which countless women and men devote their lives with excellence.
But while these characteristics the UMC's Wesleyan heritage and openness to the modern world initially attracted me to the denomination, there was something deeper, something woven throughout the church's very existence that resonated not only with my mind, but also with my very soul. Methodists have a very unique way of describing their experiences and relationship with God, a phrase that John Wesley often called the "way of salvation." Unlike some other expressions of Christian faith, the Methodist expression emphasizes that one's salvation is not completed in a moment, but over a lifetime. Methodism tells a story, God's story, that is being written through all of history in which God invites us to participate. The story of our salvation extends far before and long after our conscious decision to enter into relationship with God. Something far bigger is going on, and that something is God!
The way of salvation is a compelling narrative that resonates with the human experience, allowing all people to acknowledge brokenness in their life, community and world and see how God's work in the past, present and future is making all things new. No matter where you are, where you've been, or what you've experienced in your life, God invites all into restorative fellowship with God's self, offering healing to all our brokenness and ailments, even those we didn't realize we had. Perhaps this theology will be as compelling to you as it was to me as you think about your life and your need for a place to belong.
God's preemptive action to reach out in love and grace lies at the heart of Wesley's way of salvation. When God shows us grace when we do not ask for it or realize our need for it, we label it prevenient grace, or grace that precedes us. Prevenient grace is God's gift to all people, allowing us to not only experience God's blessings without realizing their source, but also to use our own volition to seek and find God. We need grace to find God because our brokenness and self-centeredness prevents us from finding God on our own. This idea that all humans need healing from the power of sin remains consistent with traditional Christian teachings, and is central to the Methodist way of salvation. Amidst humanity's brokenness, God has intervened to allow all people to find new life in God.
Charles Wesley reminds us of this theme in his hymn, "Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast," where he writes:
"Come, sinners, to the gospel feast
Let every soul be Jesus' guest.
Ye need not one be left behind
For God hath bid all humankind.
Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now."
Though the language of "sinners" finds less common usage in our era, Wesley highlights these themes: God invites all people into relationship, and this invitation is not earned but extended freely. In a similar fashion, John Wesley calls our first encounters with God "the first dawning of grace in the soul." This dawning for some comes as early as baptism, when even as infants, entirely dependent on others for our very life, God freely extends an invitation into the divine community and the local church even before we have any awareness of that sort of invitation. The act of baptism serves as one of the church's two sacraments, or ways that we tangibly receive and celebrate God's transforming grace. According to the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, a statement of core Methodist doctrine published at the onset of Methodism's distinct presence in the United States in 1784, baptism is the first sign of "the new life" offered by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The beginning stages of Wesley's way of salvation emphasize that God is actively seeking us, even when we cannot or do not actively seek God.
Once we accept God's preemptive extension of grace, God pours out more in order that we can be freed from the guilt of our sin and begin living a life devoted to and restored to God. Many Christians place this moment of "conversion" at the pinnacle of one's experience with God; once you have been "saved," you will escape damnation and live forever with God in heaven after your death. Such an overemphasis on a single moment of salvation is absent from Methodist theology, for our experience of grace as our sins are forgiven is not the culmination of our journey with God, but the beginning. Charles Wesley describes this beginning in "How Can We Sinners Know?":
We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died,
We all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied.
Our nature's turned, our mind transformed in all its powers,
And both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.
For Charles Wesley, justification implies a beginning, a "turning" that makes humans right with God and sets them on the course of salvation. John Wesley articulates a similar understanding; as he reflects on the promise of God offered in 1 John 1:9, he identifies a singular moment of justification as the beginning of a salvation journey:
Now it is evident, the Apostle [John] here also speaks of a deliverance wrought in this world. For he saith not, the blood of Christ will cleanse at the hour of deathbut, it "cleanseth," at the time present, "us," living Christians, "from all sin". Neither let any sinner against his own soul say, that this relates to justification only, or the cleansing us from the guilt of sin. First, because this is confounding together what the Apostle clearly distinguishes, who mentions first, to forgive us our sins, and then to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The journey with God that begins with justification allows a person's entire life to potentially be transformed by the Holy Spirit. This lifelong process works on multiple levels. On one hand, God works to form the inner self of each person in relationship with God, cultivating right attitudes and behaviors, or personal holiness. On the other hand, Wesley extended this holiness beyond internal spirituality to how one interacts with the world. Without a meaningful social holiness, Wesley would question the authenticity of one's salvation. This emphasis fueled the creation of general rules for gatherings of Methodists during the Wesley brothers' time, generally categorized as avoiding evil, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God.
The reality and possibility of personal holiness is best expressed in the Wesleyan theology of total sanctification, or the possibility of having love of God and neighbor perfected in a person in this lifetime. This theology affirms the power of God's grace over all evil in the world, including that which so directly affects our lives. Charles Wesley expresses this anticipation in the hymn, "O Come and Dwell in Me,"
Hasten the joyful day which shall my sins consume,
When all things shall be done away and all things new become.
The journey of salvation is in fact a journey, but it is also key to remember that our journey to God is not necessarily linear. Circumstances arise in our lives that threaten the bond of peace established with God in our lives, and we can far too easily wander from the way God has intended us to live. While we often depict prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace as different gifts offered on a linear journey with and to God, we actually experience the same grace in different ways depending on where we are in life. This theme emerges in one of John Wesley's sermons on the "Means of Grace," or, Wesley says, "the ordinary channels whereby [God] might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace." God's grace, accepted and entered into, restores us to God's "[favor] and image," by God's "free gracenot by any power, wisdom, or strength, which is in [us], or in any other creature; but merely through the grace or power of the Holy Ghost, which worketh all in all."
That's really what's at the core of this Methodist experience: God meeting us where we are and always having a place for us to go and grow. I know I'm still new to this denomination and my local congregation, but the idea that God wants to write our story into God's story simply captivates me. No matter where you are, God has something for you: grace. I hope that grace pours out abundantly in your life today, and may God hasten the joyful day when all sin shall be done away and all new things become!
 United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) 339.
 John Wesley, "The Scripture Way of Salvation," in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 173-179.
 Article of Religion 17, in Ted A. Campbell, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials, Rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011), 120.
 UMH 372.
 John Wesley, "Christian Perfection," in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 88-89.
 John and Charles Wesley, "The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies in London, Bristol, Kingswood, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, etc." in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 95-100.
 UMH 388.
 John Wesley, "The Means of Grace," in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 105.
 Ibid., 108-109.