Today I Saw God
I never knew that Mexican food could become a part of my spiritual practice, but growing up I began to equate chicken soft tacos with church. In a small town, there aren't many restaurant options. However, during middle school we were finally blessed with a restaurant named "Little Mexico." I'm not really sure when it happened, but at some point it became understood that Little Mexico would be the central meeting place for most people in town following Sunday church services. My sister and I would (occasionally) grumble under our breath about our Baptist pastor's lengthy sermon, for fear it might cut into our precious lunchtime. "If he doesn't wrap it up, the Methodists are definitely going to beat us to lunch and hijack all the long tables." Somehow week after week, they were always victorious in the race to lunch.
Often my family would grab others from church to join us, and the one-hour meal stretched to two or three as we casually strolled from table to table chatting with friends in the community. For a while, our ritual was so predictable that servers stopped asking for our order. They already knew exactly what we wanted. Sometimes we re-hashed the sermon or dissected musical choices, but mostly we simply laughed, shared stories and fought over cheese dip.
After moving to northern Virginia, there were times when I would experience intense cravings for Little Mexico. "Why?" I wondered. By culinary standards, it is not necessarily the best Mexican cuisine I've ever tasted. (If you are reading this from Big Stone Gap, I apologize, but I speak truth. Okay yes the cheese dip wins). However, I would still rate this as one of my all-time favorite restaurants. I believe it is because of what it represents. This average strip-mall eatery is symbolic of the importance of a shared meal. It is communal and tugs on a primal need we have as humans.
Early Christians understood the importance of a shared meal, and Jesus often used these as opportunities to teach. Jesus dined with the unholy, causing outrage amongst religious leaders yet providing a shining example for inclusion. He did not adhere to social norms of hierarchical seating arrangements. Rather, he used this occasion to teach the importance of humility. Some of Jesus' most interesting miracles involved providing large groups with the opportunity to eat and drink together when there simply didn't seem to be enough food. It should not surprise us that Jesus, knowing he was going to be betrayed by his disciples within hours, still chose to spend his last evening dining with them. He then gave us a precious gift of communion, which allows us to remember him. Breaking bread together is important.
We've read all the studies that tout the benefits of family dinners. Most of these focus on how important this interaction is for the development of children. However, I think we neglect to realize adults also need to commune and dine with others to keep our soul healthy. A shared Sunday meal could be a continuation of our church experience that is missing from our spiritual practices.
Unfortunately, I believe this is where northern Virginia pales in comparison to its rural, small-town counterparts. In an area in which busyness is currency, we simply don't have time for such a weekly ritual. Travel soccer and swim meets dictate entire family schedules for weekends and holidays. In a transient community such as our own, state lines and even oceans split families so the common practice of meeting at Grandma's house isn't always an option. Our church has grown to a size in which even something as simple as a Sunday potluck after a service is no small feat, and it requires extensive planning and logistical efforts. For me, Sunday begins with a 5 a.m. alarm, and I usually don't see my home again until 8 p.m. I get it. Sundays are hard.
However, I think we must make space in our calendar to dine with friends and family, so, how do we bring Sunday Supper back? Here are a few suggestions:
- Plan a meal after a service with members of your small group. If you aren't a part of a small group, now is a great time to join!
- Join Dinner for Eight, or a similar program if your church offers such a thing. The dinners might not take place on Sunday, but it will still be a great experience to share a meal in someone's home. If your church does not have this program, look into starting one.
- Ask if any parents in your child's Sunday school group are interested in starting a Sunday lunch bunch.
- Offer to host a meal at your house after a service. (This is where a slow cooker or Instant Pot will come in handy)
- Plan a progressive meal with members of your neighborhood or apartment community on Sundays. This way you are only tasked with creating one dish.
- If you are part of a ministry team in your church, ask the leader or other members if they would be interested in dining out together after your service has ended.
- During meet and greet, invite your "pew neighbors" to grab food afterwards. Super awkward, right? Who cares! The worst they can say is, no. (Disclaimer: if you are single, you may want to present this as a group option. Otherwise, it might make someone uncomfortable.)
This fall, I've decided to put my money where my mouth is. Members of our music ministry team have lobbied for this exact occasion, so we are implementing "Second Sunday Supper." If anyone would like to join us after the 5 p.m. service once a month, we'd love to get to know you! Feel free to contact me at the church or come see me after a service for more information.
I love food. But most importantly, I love sharing food with others. Maybe it's the Southerner in me, but I think our stomach is an integral part of our faith journey. This fall, I hope you will find ways to incorporate this into your life. And if you're feeling really adventurous, maybe we can make a carpool pilgrimage to Little Mexico someday for the best cheese dip of all time.
I had the opportunity to take my family to the Nationals Park for Faith Day on Saturday afternoon. We were really excited to go for many reasons, and the day could not have been better. Although we had been to many minor league games over the years, this was the first MLB game that we had attended. The weather was just perfect. Nottoo hot, low humidity and a nice breeze — the best weather we could have expected for a late-August afternoon watching baseball. When we arrived, we saw Natasha Smith and Mike Dickerson and were very pleased to know they would be performing after the game at the Faith Day event. I was so happy for them, and I could see it on their faces that they were looking forward to performing — they were smiling from ear-to-ear. The game was very entertaining. The Nationals were playing the New York Mets, and the crowd roared as the Nats took the field to begin the game. A great start to what would be a wonderful evening. It was nice to see the familiar faces of members of the Floris UMC congregation having a good time with friends and family members as the game continued inning to inning. I watched my daughter take it all in as she scanned the stadium while watching the game. One of her highlights was seeing the Presidents race around the field. As I sat there, I remembered years ago having the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a minor league game in southwest Virginia. I held my then 2-year old daughter in one arm while I threw out the pitch. As I walked off of the mound I remember all of the players coming over to say hello to my little girl, and the catcher handed her the baseball I had thrown. As each player spoke to hershe would giggle and laugh, which in turn, made many of them smile in response. Today as I watched my daughter at the game, I can still see that 2-year old laughing, but now in the face of my teenager. Lasting memories of a father and daughter at a ballpark.
At the end of the game, the scoreboard read Mets 4, Nats 9. It was now time to enjoy the "Faith Day" portion of the evening. As everyone gathered in sections 112-114, the program began with a video of a number of the players giving testimony, gladly telling how important their faith is in both their professional and personal lives. We then watched Natasha and Mike perform two beautiful songs, and Natasha gave a "shout out" to her friends from Floris UMC. They both did a great job, and it was obvious the people in attendance enjoyed the performance. The evening was filled with live testimony from the players, and it was nice to see both teams represented at the event. I was so glad we were able to attend this event, and we are already looking forward to Faith Day 2018.
"Every morning, I ask God to make me a blessing to someone today." says my friend, Dave. Over the ten years I have known him, I have seen ample evidence of God answering his prayer in the affirmative.
Make me a blessing. A simple prayer. A curious prayer. Even a bold, adventurous or risky prayer.
Blessing is defined as "the act or words of one who blesses" or "a thing conducive to happiness or welfare." Another definition of blessing says it is "something good that one feels grateful" or "lucky to have." We offer someone our blessing when we give our permission, support or approval for something. Whichever of these definitions you apply, blessing is a gift of grace and generosity in word or deed.
Counting my blessings from God is a spiritual discipline I have long practiced, because a habit of gratitude makes sense to me on every level. I am more likely to see God's hand at work in my life when I am actively watching for it. Gratitude is a choice to open my eyes and expect to see God's presence.
Yet the idea of actively looking for ways to BE a blessing, a practice inspired by my friend, is a relatively new intention for me.
My Bible tells me God wants to give us blessings. In fact, God delights in giving good gifts to his children. When I count my blessings, I am often overwhelmed with gratitude by the abundance I discover. Counting my blessings is good for me and brings my heart closer to God. Yet, I sometimes get frustrated by the use of the word blessing among people of faith, as if God is handing out party favors to his favorites. I get squirmy with the implication we somehow earned a prize by signing up for the right club. I cringe a bit every time I see the hashtag #blessed.
By contrast, I am energized and challenged by the idea that I am blessed in order to BE a blessing, the Kingdom of God in action. God's pouring in requires, invites, and equips my pouring out. As we begin to watch for opportunities to be part of God's blessing brigade, we find the possibilities are endless.
"God, make me a blessing to someone today." I dare you to pray this prayer and watch what happens.
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com.
Did you see the movie, The Shack?
The book just blew me away. Reading it a few years back, I marveled at the creative expression its author, William Young, used to tease out the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and their unique rolls in ministering to one of their beloved when tragedy strikes. The thing is, for me, reading is rarely believing. It may inspire me, but that doesn't last long. But if you engage my other senses with sights, sounds, camera and action, things get real-er.
That's what I was hoping for when I shelled out the small fortune to see The Shack on the big screen. And man, that scene at the lake didn't disappoint. Even though I know what is coming, I am praying it won't happen. And when it does, I feel it in every fiber of my body.
It's amazing how this happens when we empathize with characters on the screen. Our bodies react physically as if it were happening to us. The tragic scenes evoke this for me; then I'm hooked. I'm right there with Mack Phillips in his rage, his pain, his depression, and his plight. This is no longer simply a story or a performance by an actor, it feels real.
Now, the tone is set for God, in three Persons, to do what only God can do. The novel did this magnificently. I'm expecting big things from the movie. I'm pulling for Mack and the transformation I know he has coming to him. With him, I sit at the crossroads of perhaps the #1 question we all have for God: why? Why, do you let terrible things happen? With everyone else in that theater, I'm waiting to be convinced by a good answer.
But honestly, I am not.It seems to me (and I'm no film critic) that main character, Mack Phillips, has reverted to human husband and father, actor Sam Worthington. And Sam, asked to forgive the unforgivable, just can't. Who could? He delivers dialogue asking the right questions, demanding answers and explanations, and confronting God for the truth, all as I surely would. I believe him. But, in the pivotal moment, he tosses down his backpack (apparently symbolic for giving up the burden he is carrying) and complies. I just don't believe him. His facial expression and his body language are just acting, way more like a teen tantrum than a surrender to God.
I'm so disappointed. I had hoped this movie which had drawn accolades in pre-screening for Christian crowds could reach would-be believers with the sure message that a compassionate and just God dearly loves them and can be trusted, even in the face of terrible injustice. I had hoped people on a spiritual quest for God would leave affirmed on their journey. Instead, it felt like the main character was still doubtful.
Thank you for the important reminder, Papa God, that we can't just pretend to have faith and expect people to believe us.
"If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." ~ Romans 10: 9-10
And I guess we shouldn't be relying on Hollywood to do the job we're meant to do. If we don't believe in our hearts before we profess with our mouths, we're just actors, and all the world's a stage.
Funny thing, when I googled Mr. Worthington, I found a brief interview he did about The Shack and his preparation for this role. He has a young family, and it is clear that the story cut him deeply. He also has a wicked-strong Australian accent. I felt a bit foolish falling for his portrayal as Mack Phillips, All-American dad. But that's his job; actors are trained to trick us into believing in them.
God's not like that, thank goodness. He/she/they are in the truth business.
Sometimes we have a clear understanding of what Jesus wants us to do. When the disciples asked Jesus, "Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?" Jesus was very specific, head into town, find a man carrying water and follow him. Then say to the owner of the house he enters, "The Teacher asks: where is my the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples." Jesus said the owner will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. The disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do and they found things just as Jesus had said. (Mark 14:12-15)
Other times, we have the sense that God is up to something and it's not as clear. I imagine that the owner of the house might have felt like this. The Bible tells us that the owner had the large upper room in his house furnished and ready, this makes me think he was expecting company. But I wonder, did he know who his company would be? How long had he been waiting to welcome his guests? Were there times during the wait that he became discouraged, wondering if they would ever arrive? Did he ever doubt the need to prepare the room? Who told the owner to prepare the room?
I think in the owner, we see someone who was responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if maybe he just had "the feeling" or "sensed" that he needed to have the room ready. It's hard to be the owner. You don't have the same clarity as when you get a clear instruction from Jesus. But the owner is just as obedient as the disciples, maybe even more so. In preparing the room the owner welcomes Jesus Christ into his house.
Since October, a group of us have been preparing for recent college graduates to join us on an adventure called the Wesley Fellows. Like the disciples who followed the man with the water, these young people have spent time in prayer and discernment and are embarking on a journey that they feel called to be on. They have a vision and mission. Like the owner of the upper room, we have host families who have been prompted to share their homes, mentors who have agreed to walk beside these young people and employers willing to give them jobs. Like the owner, the details aren't clear, but the need to respond to a request to be part of this adventure is clear.
It is an exciting time for all of us. These next nine months we will journey together. Just like the owner of the upper room we will experience Christ in our midst and we will learn and grow together as we extend Christian hospitality to our Wesley Fellows. I can't wait to see what God is going to do with this first cohort of Wesley Fellows!