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.
"Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you." Galatians 5:1
Several years ago, in the midst of a carpool drop-off, a friend said to me in passing, "Someday I want you to tell me why you always seem so content." If I recall correctly, I laughed and said that my kids and husband might disagree with her characterization but that I would love to have coffee and chat more about it. And I said, "The short answer to your question is my faith. My relationship with God is the source of what I think you are noticing in me."
That was several years ago now, but that conversation and our follow-up discussions popped into my mind when I was thinking about the word "freedom" and what Paul might have been talking about in the verse above. Any joy, peace or contentment that my life manifests is the gift of God's love, grace, mercy and presence in my life.
Simply put, although it sounds a bit sappy, God's love sets me free.
When I am plugged into the power of the Holy Spirit, God's love sets me free from:
- comparison and envy
- perfectionism and people pleasing
- competition and the need to be right/better/smarter
- a world with no boundaries to keep me safe
- guilt and shame about the past
- worry and fear about the future
- the sense that everything is my responsibility/fault/job to fix
- loneliness and isolation
- addiction to self and my narcissistic idiosyncrasies
When I abide in him, God's love, grace and forgiveness sets me free to:
- be brave, be me
- create, imagine, explore, dream, risk, try new things
- be vulnerable and authentic in my relationships
- love and serve others well
- find peace through obedience to the ways of Jesus
- be confident and self-assured
- extend grace to myself and others
- forgive myself and others
- make a difference in his kingdom by sharing my unique gifts
Do I always live in this freedom? No. Sometimes I forget that I am God's beloved child. Sometimes I get distracted. Sometimes I get insecure and petty and confused and scared.
But then I remember.
I remember that I am loved beyond all measure. My heavenly father delights in me.
I remember that I belong to God and that he will never, ever leave me alone to figure out life by myself. God has my back.
I remember that I have the mind and spirit of Christ within me at all times. If I listen, God makes me wise.
I remember what Jesus said about focusing on the most important thing: love God with all our heart, soul, mind and spirit and love others well. God loves people through me.
I remember that I am made in God's image. Therefore, when I am abiding in God's power, I am creative, loving, gifted, equipped and sent out by him. When I temporarily forget and act otherwise, through Jesus, I am forgiven and I can try again. And again. And again.
I remember that God wants to partner with me, and with you, in bringing his kingdom down to earth. We get to be on Team Jesus! We can fight for justice, feed the hungry, love the unloved and be light in the darkness. We have the power to change our little corner of the world by being brave and following Jesus to heal our broken world.
When we stay connected to God, we are free!
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com.
"God is goodAll the time!
And all the timeGod is good!"
Ah, the call and response of a faithful people. We like knowing how to respond. But do we believe it?Is God really good all the time? For the parent who's just lost a child? For the man who's just received a dire diagnosis? For the teen who is bullied, the wife who is abused? What of the family without a home? The children who live in fear? The list goes on and on.
Is God really all that good? Certainly a good God would have none of this.
Recently, I attended a funeral service for my friend Bill. He had beena good husband, good father, good son, good uncle, good friend, good businessman and, by all accounts, a good Christian. His family suffered with him through nine months of brain cancer before they lost him. Is God still good?
What is good? According to me, it's an outcome; it's a judgment; it's the feeling I have when everything goes my way. On those days I chime right in:"God is good all the time and all the time God is good."But Bill and his family and friends remind me that that's not the good that God is.
God is love; that's way more than good. God made this substitution, so we can know that:
- God is patient.
- God is kind.
- God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud.
- God is not rude or self-seeking.
- God is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs.
- God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
This God I can actually see in those circumstances of sorrow and hurt and pain and loss. There may be no good in any of those, but there is God. God is so much better than good.
More than this, love is not just what God is but what God does.
- God always protects.
- God always trusts.
- God always hopes.
- God always perseveres.
Since love does that, so can we, if we believe in love. God is there, no matter the circumstance, providing what we need to respond in love to the one who is in need.When we offer protection and trust, and when we hold on to hope that perseveres, we are in love.Love never fails.
God is so much better than good. God does good, in and through us, when we let God.
At Bill's memorial service, a man came to the pulpit to share memories of their longtime friendship. "People come into our lives for one of four reasons," the man began, "to add, subtract, multiply or divide. Bill was an add-er."
Oh my yes. Bill added so much; and somehow, there in the saddest of circumstances, it seemed that what Bill added, God was multiplying. Love is like that.
This post originally appeared on "The Kinesthetic Christian."
I was thinking recently about one of Rev. Barbara Miner's past sermons at Floris UMCthe one where she encouraged us to take a picture first thing in the morning before any attempts to beautify our appearance. Her point in this challenge was to remind us that we are already masterpieces in God's eyes, so we don't need to make ourselves look good in order to be worthy of his love. She encouraged us to embrace all of our imperfect perfection and try to love ourselves as we are, like God does.
I think we sometimes struggle with this in the same way that we struggle to stay connected with God. If only we could find that elusive 25th hour in the dayif only we could cross off that last item on our to do list and get everything just rightthen our decks would be clear and we would finally be ready to engage fully with God. But what if we didn't wait until that perfect, accomplished moment to engage with God? How would our lives be different if we decided to just show up as we are?
I was working from home as usual one Monday afternoon, immersed in a few projects. Before I knew it, 4 p.m. became nearly 6 p.m.then 6:20 p.m.then 6:40 p.m. I felt myself racing against the clock to finish something that evening and also make it to my 7 p.m. small group on time. For a split second, I thought about skipping my group and pushing through my project to completion. It would feel so good to finish it! Besides, I wasn't even dressed for church. I was still wearing my hair in a pony tail and still had on the yoga pants I'd put on hours earlier, back when the idea of going to yoga class before my small group was still in my plan for the day. By now you're getting a picture of my Monday can I get an amen?
It would have been easy to just call it a day, stay home and vow to do better the following Monday. Instead, I put on sneakers (complete with very unfashionable green socks) and a jacket and sped off to church in time for small group. And you know what? Nobody cared what I wore. I left a little over an hour later feeling renewed and extremely grateful for the time spent in connection with God and my friends in faith.
I think God wants us to know that our incomplete to do lists and our yoga pants are just fine with him. He wants us to come as we are, especially when we are feeling pulled in multiple directions. I don't know that you'll ever see me in worship in my yoga pants (you're welcome), but I feel confident that God would save a seat for me if I did. Why? Because I am God's beloved. So are you! Whether we're dressed in yoga pants or tuxedos, God remains especially fond of us.