Today I Saw God
The sea has parted forming a wall of water on both sides and a commanding voice booms, "You may paaasss."That's how I have always pictured the scene as the ancient Israelites marched, en mass, through the red sea on their way out of Egypt. I imagine Moses at the helm, smiling triumphantly, exuberantly and perhaps a little relievedly as his magic staff actually accomplished what God had told him it would: Let my people go!
Yet, according to the book of Exodus, the Israelites were none too sure about things, Red Sea parting or not:
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and criedout to theLord.They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" – Exodus 11:10-12
"Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?"Ironically, this was the phrase that overtook me as I encountered theactualdesert for the first time.The Sahara of North Africa was stark, dry and barren; sand upon sand as far as the eye could see.
I had been looking forward to this family excursion for months. The trip was planned, a guide secured, preparations made, clothing purchased and accommodations booked. All was made ready for our travel to Morocco. This day's journey was the trip's crown jewel: riding camels through the desert to a campsite where we would spend the night in tents under the expanse of a night sky, completely unspoiled by ambient light of any humankind. We would be alone with the stars in the desert. What bliss
But first, the desert. Just mounting my camelwas a bit harrowing as she lurched forward and then backward to achieve her standing, but as the guide led our small family group toward the dunes, I settled into the clippety-clop rhythm of my ride.I even loosened my death grip on the saddle slightly as we started up the first dune.
The setting was like nothing I'd ever seen. It was the purest expression of two complimentary colors: an infinity in grains of carmelized sand piled against an inestimable expanse of sky blue. The line separating them as if a kindergartner had drawn it with a crayon. The scene was miraculous, both breathtakingly beautiful and ominously frightening. Fear and awe all at once.
No greenery. No trees. No water. Only sprigs of dried grasses. Hardly a sign of life of any kind. And we were setting out into it. All I could think was:"Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?" Those Israelites had a point. Just imagine being led away from everything you ever knew, all supply, all solace and all resources into a promised land that looked anything but promising. My judgment of those Israelites was premature. I forgive them their doubt.
And yet, the awe and beauty was palpable in its simplicity, quiet and tranquility as we upped and downed the dunes. Silent movement. Slow trudging progress towardHow did our guide know which way to go with no landmarks and no visual cues? Everything looked exactly the same to me. The occasional brave pebble rolled downward, displaced by our camels' hooves, but a brief gust of sultry wind would wipe away the footsteps and remove all evidence that we were here.
We had placed our wellbeing in the hands of our guide, a mere teenager. He was a member of a nomadic tribe whose family had lived and loved this land for generations. He didn't speak our language, and we didn't speak his. Still, we let ourselves be guided and came to trust our sturdy ridesup and over, out and around, over and back, side hill and downhillas one does the mule who carries you along the switchbacks overlooking the Grand Canyon."They don't often lose people on these trips," I told myself.
When the campsite came within view, I confess I exhaled a relieved sigh. Light was growing dimmer and all of me could use a rest. It had cooled off from the daytime 105 degrees to an evening "low" in the upper 90s. As evening fell and stars appeared overhead, we trudged up the nearby dune to get a closer look. Laying back and resting on the fine, dry Sahara sand, we looked up at the stars the same ones that overlooked all the earth's inhabitants and the very same that accompanied the ancient Israelites; still they twinkled down at us. I was completely entranced.
The miraculous always astounds me. With reverence, we set off to see and understand and experience on holy ground. Then we come before God in complete awe and he reminds us of his promise to Abraham and his son Isaac, and through them, to us.
"I will surely bless youand make your descendantsas numerous as the stars in the skyand as the sand on the seashore." – Genesis 22:17
Now, it seems odd that the Lord spoke of the sand on the seashore to a people in the desert. Perhaps, he had in mind to part the sea.
This post originally appeared on "The Kinesthetic Christian."
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.