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Discovering God. . .

How is it that God can hold us to an impossible standard while showing us, at the same time, impossible grace?  It’s a paradox and a mystery, one that I usually have a hard time understanding.  One of the places where I come close is in our Bible study on Genesis.  We are now working through the life of Abraham : his uprooting from Ur, his separation from Lot, his establishment–though not established, but transitory–in Canaan, his family conflicts, the covenant and all of his encounters with God.  Here are stories of BOTH AND.  Both God’s requirements and His provision.  It makes me think that Abraham might have been as confused as I sometimes am as God slowly and surely revealed Himself as attentive, demanding, loving, strict, inclusive and vindictive.  There are surprises at every turn, from the mysterious Melchizedek, King of Salem in chapter 14 to the wondrously enlightened Abimelek, early king of the Philistines in chapter 20.  From the strange covenant ceremony in chapter 15 to the awe-inspiring intercessory prayer in chapter 18.

As we read, we begin to see that the story isn’t really so much about the history of a people or a place, or even about Abraham.  The story is in fact a hair-raising portrait the author is drawing right before our very eyes of the God of Abraham, One who is most certainly unlike any other God known before or since.  The adventures, difficulties and questions of the main characters become our own, and then fall into their proper place of unimportance as we gaze on this God taking shape before us.  There are those moments during our study when we come to the end of our questioning of the text and are left in silent contemplation of the new characteristic of Abraham’s God that stares at us from our Bible pages.  A sigh, a knowing “Ah!” and a circle of smiles, an exchange of glances and that fleeting moment passes.  Having said good-bye, we leave with an even greater longing to know this God, and to fall at His feet in worship.

Let's eat !

Bible pew

 

 

 

 

 

tablesetting

 One day, James and I were reflecting on the fact that preparing a sermon is a lot like cooking up a good meal…  So together we came up with the list in this post.  Maybe it will remind those of us who spend a lot of time in the kitchen that that, too, is a ministry…

5 ways preparing a sermon is like preparing a meal

1.  Both kinds of preparation are on a schedule. You know that at a certain time in a certain place, a certain group of people will be assembled waiting for what you have prepared.  They are “hungry.”

2.  In both cases, the preparation process itself can be stressful, partly because of no. 1, but also because you only have a certain number of ingredients/resources on hand and you need to pull together something palatable for everyone in your “audience,” something that will appeal to them.

3.  When I walk into the kitchen to look in the fridge and figure out what I can make out of what I have, there is always a fear that I won’t come up with anything, or, at least, with anything that my children and husband will like. James says he experiences a similar apprehension every Sunday: what if what I’ve prepared totally flops?  What if what I have found in the text doesn’t connect with anyone else’s experience?  What if it’s not enough to nourish people?

4. In the preparation process, certain ingredients/elements get ditched in favor of something else. Not all flavors go together, so some ingredients need to stay in the fridge, just like some cross-references can be sidelined.

5. Once the meal/sermon has been delivered, post-consumption comments are rare. We don’t often hear how good it was, or whether it was even edible…  I remember our friend who pastors the church in La Robertsau once delivering a sermon about a message in a bottle thrown into the ocean, and when I spoke to her about it afterward, she confessed that that was how she felt about most of her sermons…

 

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Pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas. Vestibulum tortor quam, feugiat vitae, ultricies eget, tempor sit amet, ante. Donec eu libero sit amet quam egestas semper. Aenean ultricies mi vitae est. Mauris placerat eleifend leo. Quisque sit amet est et sapien ullamcorper pharetra. Vestibulum erat wisi, condimentum sed, commodo vitae, ornare sit amet, wisi. Aenean fermentum, elit eget tincidunt condimentum, eros ipsum rutrum orci, sagittis tempus lacus enim ac dui. Donec non enim in turpis pulvinar facilisis. Ut felis.

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The small place where I am

carteBdelaRocheHistory is important. That’s why I wanted to attend the conference last fall on the local “patois” (or dialect) which is a language a thousand years old with roman roots. At the end of the morning, my daughter’s class sang two songs in patois they had learned for the occasion. After lunch with my family, I returned for the afternoon panel discussion about perspectives for the future of this all-but-dead language. I found the discussion fascinating.
The historian spoke of the origins of the dialect, and of its possible connections to Belgian dialects which show striking similarities, hence the name of “welsch,” which closely resembles “belge,” phonetically, anyway.
The retired schoolteacher told funny stories about learning as a young adult which of the words in his every-day vocabulary were not French, but in patois. Did you know there’s a word in patois for the crack in your bottom? Picturesque language…
Then people in the audience started standing up and speaking their mind about the best way to preserve the language for future generations. The guy networking with the association that’s trying to preserve the alsatian dialect (which is, unlike our local patois, a dialect of German) said we needed to push for it to be taught in schools, like the breton dialect is taught in schools in Brittany. I heard a man in a row near me say, “What would be the use?”
A man from the Jura, near Switzerland said that writing the language would be the key to the future, because it would be the one way to perpetuate a language that is no longer fluently spoken, and that a culture with a literature is a culture that survives.
He said he communicates perfectly well with friends 40 kms away by e-mail in a written form of patois.
Then a man got up and began to speak to us in patois. The room fell completely silent. And I listened in rapt attention, despite the fact that I only understood about half of what he was saying. He spoke of new technologies, and the internet, of the fact that we could work on continuing oral practice via CDs and USB keys we could listen to in our cars… That it would be good to get someone into the schools to teach about patois, even just so that the kids could know that this language exists and it’s part of their culture.
Had I been handed the microphone, I would have pointed out the example of my children, who are American and speak English at home, who have only lived in this valley for 5 years.  When handed the newspaper article about this conference, my son looked at the little glossary in the sidebar. He read off the words in patois and said, “I know that one, and that one, oh yeah, and that one…”
This language can’t be as dead as all that, if my kids even know some words.
As I was leaving the chalet to head back down the mountain, I ran into Monsieur J. He had delivered a heated speech about how the government is deaf to this kind of intitiative to preserve local languages. He came right up to me as I was walking out of the building and jabbed his finger at me as he said, in essence, “Mark my words… In 200 or 250 years, none of this will matter. There will basically be two world languages, English and Chinese. All the rest will just be dialects.” I told him I disagreed. He told me he had been studying the phenomenon very closely.
As I drove back down the mountain, I admired the amazing view. I always feel like sailing off the mountainside into the open air up there. The mountains are so amazing, and they are where I live!
And I pondered this little place, and what makes a person proud or self-effacing about their home and heritage… And I thought about how God must love it all, how He, too, must feel strongly about the importance of preserving this heritage of this place, this culture. And how, if you put all the beautiful little places like this together into one world, you have a gem, like a diamond, sparkling from its myriad facets. It’s all one, but is not complete without any little part, any little place.
And here I am, the big-footed American in the midst of this delicate place, seeking to understand, to come alongside, to love.
The small place where I am.

Alongside is a Posture

The more I read of the cover story in this month’s Christianity Today (“Chaos and Grace in the Slums of the Earth” by Kent Annan), the more I thought that the ideas being presented as innovative and cutting-edge were ideas that I have been living by for a long time. Alongside Ministries International has existed for a little more than twenty years and was founded on the principles presented in this article. The only difference lies in our sphere of ministry. The first Alongsiders chose not to move in with the poorest of the poor–although they did, and do, have contact with them–but with Europeans.

1.  Alongside affirms the importance of long-term ministry to know a culture from the inside and better be able to serve within it. “The New Friars believe living with the people they serve helps them better understand their needs,” writes Annnan. “But they also are pursuing obedience: to follow Jesus’ willingness to live with us, not as a celestial commuter, but as a peasant carpenter, in the flesh.”
Agreed, our ministry does not perhaps involve as much physical discomfort as those that Mr. Annan describes in his article, but I have experienced (and described some on this blog) the wrenching feeling of living between two cultures, of the choice to make a “foreign” culture home.  It often leads to the kind of doubts that Michelle Kao describes in the article, “.  . .questions about whether what I do makes a difference.”

2.  I believe my colleagues in Alongside would agree with Leanne Payne, quoted by Mr. Annan: “We either contemplate or we exploit.”  He writes, “As a missionary, it’s important to both appreciate and be leery of the legacy in which one walks. . .They ward off efforts that try to do for without the compassion that comes from being with.”

3.  Alongside believes in building on historic Christian foundations here in Europe.  Along with Anji Barker, quoted in the article, James and I might say, “We’re trying to go slowly. . .and trust that God is as powerful as we believe.  We need to see:  What does it mean to be French (or Ban-de-la-Rochois) and Christian? Not, What does it mean to be a Amercian version of French?

If you ask what all this means for us in our daily lives, it means, well, a marathon.  It means normal living day in and day out like French people, making this place home, identifying with our neighbors well enough to be able to come alongside and love them with all of ourselves, and not just the part that speaks French.  We don’t need “dabblers,” as Kent Annan says in his article.  We need people who are ready to work on their posture.

 

Hermetically sealed living

Tupperware-3

Feeling out of touch with your immediate physical neighborhood?  Could be due to something I like to call hermetically sealed living.

The realization hit me one time when we were visiting in the United States from France, as I was walking around my parents’ subdivision. I looked at the houses, which, although quite different in design and size, looked surprisingly alike. With my European eyes, I noticed the garages, often large two or three-car garages. And the immaculate yards. What struck me about those yards, though, was that I never saw anyone out in them. They were beautiful, with acres of green grass that looked so springy and fresh, I wanted to sit and even roll around in it. But no one ever did. What I saw were nice, air-conditioned cars that drove down the wide, quiet streets, pulled into their automatically-opened garages, and then the door would shut behind them, and I never actually saw the people get out. I thought to myself how bizarre it was that a person could go from office (or shopping, or whatever) to home without ever having to actually be in contact with anyone or anything outside their house. When they got home, they simply got out of the car and walked into the house, and were in their own kingdom, where they could do as they wished, without anyone seeing them.  In fact, hermetically sealed living allows you to pretty much engineer your whole life: who you’ll meet when, the temperature of the air around you and what your immediate environment will look like, the part only you see and the part that others see.

These were thoughts I had when I used to live in the city, where we walked almost everywhere, driving the car perhaps once a week for the grocery shopping, or an outing with the children. Now that I live in a place where I need to take the car almost every time I have to go somewhere, I am on the inside of hermetic living. I can get in my car and go to the doctor’s appointment or the grocery store without seeing or talking to anyone. I have neighbors who are widows, who have health problems, who are lonely, who like to hang out and chat, but whom I almost never see, because I’m on a schedule and I’m driving to get there.  So sometimes, when I see someone I know in the street, and I’m not late for anything, I stop and roll down the window. We smile and shake hands and chat, maybe about the weather, maybe about their family that’s coming for a visit… And even if the encounter is only five minutes long, it’s like the breath of fresh air when you open the window. Sometimes I see more than one person on my way home, as I’m driving through the village. Oh! There’s S walking home from M’s house, and M is still hanging out her window watering her geraniums. So I roll down the other window for another chat. Then it starts to rain and I realize that I have both car windows all the way down and the rain is coming inside. Once we had stopped to chat with someone and forgot to put the windows up. It was winter, and James went out to discover that it had snowed into the car through the wide-open window.
Hermetically sealed living makes for less mess, and less disorder, but I’m finding it necessary to break the seal and live in the real world. What about you?

Things I can check off my bucket list now that I’ve trained for a marathon…

falltrailWalds1. running in the dark with a head lamp and coming face to face with a large wild boar.
2. standing still on the trail in the dark and jingling my keys so the boar and his friends would know not to come back down on the road. (because of these experiences, I no longer run while it’s still dark…)
3. seeing three young stags cross the road in front of me, stare at me and then run on up the hill. (surprisingly, this is an experience I had TWICE. amazing.)
4. running through strong winds
5. running through strong winds and freezing rain
6. running in strong winds, freezing rain and snow drifts up to my knees
7. having my water bottle tops freeze while I’m running
8. going to the bathroom in the woods more times than I can count
9. discovering the merits of gumme bears, something I don’t appreciate when I haven’t been running more than 10 miles.
10. running until I thought I couldn’t go any more, only to discover that I could
11. having my hands so numb that I couldn’t get the snacks out of my fuel belt. The pain when I got home and put them in warm water was one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever experienced!
12. throwing up after a run. It was the chocolate milk that did it…
13. seing a rainbow over the Donon (the highest peak near us) that I like to think no one else saw.
14. running with a dog from the farm over the hill who seemed to understand every word I said to him and was great company.
15. a treadmill stress test that was very difficult, but which I passed with flying colors.
16. a headache the day after I went on a long run without taking my blood pressure pill.

17. having a cheering section in my Bible study who are going to watch for me on TV.  They’re convinced I’ll come in in the top 10.