Today I Saw God
"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.
" I think that we humans don't have the capacity to imagine eternity, Mom" said my ninth-grade daughter Joanne. "If we can think of it a little bit, we may live differently."
This short conversation recently grabbed my attention. My daughter's English class had been reading and discussing the book "Dante's Inferno." She was assigned a small group project that explored the different levels of hell as described in the book. When she spoke about her class, she mentioned how she was scared about the conditions of hell portrayed in the book. The most unbearable thing to her was the eternal pain, whether the pain was from a little pinch or painful burning. I agreed with her but also encouraged her to think about the eternal joy on the opposite side: heaven, which is given to us through Jesus.
Lately I have been thinking about this conversation and the word "eternity." Even though I call myself a Christian, l don't usually think about the eternal life while I am living my daily earthbound life. I often live moment by moment and easily forget my final destination.
When I was in fifth grade, my Sunday school teacher taught us about salvation, which leads us to have eternal life in heaven. We learned not only about eternal life in heaven, but also about eternal life in hell. I took it very seriously and started praying everyday for my dad and family who didn't believe in Christ at that time. I was devastated because I loved them so much, and I wanted them to be saved. I brought my best friends to church with me as much as I could because I truly believed in eternal life, whether in heaven or hell.
However, as I got older, having been a Christian for a while, my thoughts about eternal life dulled. The joy of salvation became a phrase instead of a condition in my heart. I can't remember the last time I invited nonbelievers to church or even shared the good news.
I have a reasonable excuse not to do these things often. Because I work at a church, I hardly encounter nonbelievers on a daily basis. Still, I know that is just an excuse. I deceive myself in many ways, making myself believe that I have done my best so far. But I know that is not true.
So, how can I invite people to church so they too have a chance to enjoy eternal life in heaven?
One of ways God showed me recently was through a children's music camp. We all have neighbors, co-workers or friends who don't believe in Christ or who don't know who Christ is. And one way we could introduce them to Christ is by inviting their children to experience a little taste of heaven by singing, playing instruments and learning about other cultures all around the world. An experience like that could show them that God holds the world in his hands.
I pray that Floris UMC's Children's Music Camp in August could be an opportunity to provide a glimpse of eternal life to children who may share their experience with others, just like I did with my friends and family as a child.
I truly know how powerful it is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe that God heard my prayers for my dad when I was young. Though he was not a believer then, he became a strong believer later in his life. I am deeply grateful for my Sunday school teacher who taught me about eternal life.
I would like to invite you to share this good news with the children. I wish as I grew older that I had kept that passion about eternal life in heaven. If I did, I would have lived differently each day. But, it is never too late to help others and yourself.
As a psalmist prays in Psalm 51, I pray, "Restore to me the joy of salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."
When I was growing up, the calendar in our kitchen was always full of Mom's notes about her volunteer activities. She was active in the PTA for a while as well as multiple nonprofits and regional committees related to causes she was passionate about. My dad's way of supporting her passion usually involved helping to set up or put away chairs at an event or making endless pots of his signature chili beans and cornbread for potlucks and fundraising events. Given their examples of service, it's no surprise that I have held the same value as a high priority in my life.
That said, serving on Floris UMC's Church Council as lay leader was not on my mind at all before I was invited to consider it. I was familiar with what would be required; I had served in other laity leadership roles in my previous Methodist church. What I realized when I was asked to pray about serving is that I was holding a certain idea of the lay leader role based only on those prior experiences. Lay leaders I'd known in past churches were often long-time members, frequently retired folks, who demonstrated consistent discipleship and who sometimes filled in for the pastor when he or she was on vacation. I'm thinking of two of these people right now as I type this. They were and still are people I greatly admire because of their example.
The same examples that make me smile now felt like intimidating, self-imposed pressure in that initial conversation about serving at Floris UMC. "Who am I, as just an ordinary person in midlife, to say I have a life of faith all figured out?" I remember thinking. That, and the fact that I have a wonderful career that involves a bit of travel and family members that periodically need my help as a caregiver, also felt like good reasons to decline. I was concerned to say yes and then let others down. You may be thinking the same about yourself and your life as you read this.
But something happened when I prayed about this. I remembered that service is not about perfection, and it certainly isn't about knowing all of the answers. My belief about leadership, in particular, is that it takes just as much humility as it does confidence because you are guaranteed not to know everything all the time. I also gave myself a bit more credit for the consistency of my existing faith practice even as I considered how serving in the role could add to my spiritual growth. Finally, I thought about one of the reasons I was so attracted to Floris UMC to begin with: a clear passion for making a difference that you can sense in the people and activities. So, after prayer, a thoughtful conversation with our lead pastor, Rev. Tom Berlin, and our Church Council chairperson, Rick Auman, I said yes. I have loved serving as lay leader for nearly four years now.
It is bittersweet for me to think about my service as lay leader ending this December. It has been a privilege to represent our congregation on Church Council. I know we're encouraged not to be prideful, but do you all realize how extraordinary you are? I've loved seeing people of all ages get commissioned on mission trips, serve as summer camp or Hutchison volunteers, take the next step toward baptism or confirmation or play the all-important role of usher or greeter so our hospitality is on full display for everyone who approaches our campus. I talk about our church and its people all the timejust ask anyone in my circle who doesn't attend here. One of my favorite parts of this role has been seeing people who started as visitors come back and claim Floris UMC as their new church home. When I volunteer at Coffee with the Pastors, I frequently hear new members say it was our warm welcome and our sense of community that played a big role in their decision to join us.
I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you one question: What comes to mind for you when you think about volunteering in a leadership role at church? Does it make you curious? Nervous? Excited? You might still have concerns about it or questions about what type of opportunity would be a good fit for you. I would love to talk with you about that and want to assure you that having a conversation does not mean you're committing yourself to something. Remember what I said about my own journey: it may take time to discern your next step, and we all have different gifts that could be used in ways that we don't even see yet. It starts with listening.
In fact in the end, it was one of my favorite quotes (below) from Marianne Williamson that reminded me that service is about listening to what you believe God is calling you to and then stepping forward in faith, trusting that he will equip you for the journey. If nothing else, I hope you'll take the time to pray about what God is calling you to in this season of your life. You might just be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."