Thursday, April 16, 2015

Before What Comes Next

For a good time and an uplifting read take a look at the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations - said no person ever. But I am. Not looking for a good time but reading Jeremiah and Lamentations. I committed to read the whole Bible through using a two year reading plan about two and a half years ago. So yeah, there's that. I'm late. What else is new? I may be six months behind but I am dedicated to finishing this plan. So - I'm reading Jeremiah and Lamentations.

People often dive into these books to pull out the lovely, encouraging bits like Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the thoughts I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope) or Lamentations 3:25 (The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him) but did you know that those sweet verse are just a flash in the pan? Before Jeremiah 29:11 there are 28 chapters of doom and gloom prophecy about how Israel is going to face the natural consequences for a life lived outside of God's will. And after this hopeful glimpse there are two dozen more chapters that highlight the destruction and terror that is heading Israel's way. And in Lamentations when Jeremiah writes about God's goodness he is literally standing in the rubble that used to be God's holy city.

Reading these books have been a real eye-opener for me. I'm usually a glass half full kind of girl and if the glass happens to dip below the half way mark I tend to just ignore it and hope things will turn around. I love good news and I pretend bad news doesn't exist so I found the book of Jeremiah jarring. It's 10 to 1 bad news. Even the good news is flanked by bad news. That's no fun! Especially for me, who has grown up spiritually marinated in the promises and goodness of God and happily skipped over the messy parts of the Bible.

But here's the thing, God is in the messes too. He is in the moments of correction, the walking through consequences and in the devastating unforeseen circumstances. He is there - with us. That's the beauty of the mess. We are never alone in it. God doesn't rescue us from the circumstances because He has already rescued our hearts with His love. And that's better. Seriously, it is.

When I was a kid, I thought God was kind of like Cinderella's fairy godmother. I thought He was just waiting in the wings for things to get 'just bad enough' and then He would swoop in, change everything and rescue me. And when He didn't I was hurt, confused and angry. What kind of magical being was He if He couldn't fix my problems? How could He love me if He wouldn't change my circumstances?

I never really got an answer to those questions but somewhere along the way I decided to lock those questions and doubts in The Bad News Corner of my brain and move on. I still felt that God should be more like a fairy godmother, even if He wasn't but there wasn't anything that could be done for it so I let it go.

As I matured I understood a little better how God worked, how He loved and why He did some of the things He did. Occasionally I'd be chatting with a friend about the Bible and God and the question would come up, "If God is unchanging and so loving then what's with all the smiting in the Old Testament?" I would shrug, babble a little and then try to shift the conversation because I had no answer. I wondered what was with all the smiting, too.

This is the first time that I have read every word in Jeremiah, from start to finish and I now kind of understand what was with all the smiting and destruction. Israel took what was holy and made it unholy. They defiled the temple, the city and the countryside with false idols and pagan worship. Every good thing God had given them they distorted into something profane. God cannot be in an unholy place because He IS holy. So what option did He have?

After generations of warnings, pleadings, chances and mercy Israel was beyond repair - but not beyond redemption. God had to start fresh. He had to tear down all that was unholy to make way for His holiness once again. And in the tearing down there was some natural grief, mourning and pain - but God was still there. He stayed with His people. He watched them, comforted them and made a way for them to come back to Him. He redeemed them.

When we make dumb choices, when we are foolish and selfish and vain we defile what God has made holy. When we put selfish gain, fame, popularity or any current idol in the place of God in our lives there will be some natural consequences. We might be able to live a long time with this off kilter perspective - Israel did - but eventually loneliness, despair, greed, anger and fear will creep into your life. And it is only by tearing down that there will be room to build back up. Room for God to build you back up.

This is something I am learning. Something I am living. In order to be ready to handle what is coming next, you have to make room and prepare yourself. Tear down what is holding you back. Remove what is keeping you at a distance from where you want to be. Be okay with being unpopular. Give up your dreams of fame. Let go of your greed and self ambition and be content to work, to love, to serve, to give.

It took 70 years but God eventually rebuilt Israel. He brought them back, held them near and loved them. He gave them everything He had promised - a hope and a future. But it took time. It took walking through the hard road of captivity to freedom to rebuilding. It took learning again how to work, how to be in community, how to trust God. It took generations. But all the while God had His eye on them.

That's me. I'm Israel. I'm in my 70 years - again. I go through these times regularly. Every time God is preparing me for something new He asks me to take a look at my life, my time, my idols. He asks me to tear down, to make room. Sometimes it's easy but most of the time I struggle a bit. It's hard letting go of the life you've planned, of the things you love. It's scary. What if this is the last good thing? What if I let go and there's nothing else for me? What if I free fall?

The what ifs never happen. There's always something better waiting. There is always the next thing when I let go of the last thing. I never fall. I am always carried by God's grace and mercy and love.

Jeremiah and Lamentations are good news books, after all. They are full of hope and redemption and preparation for the next good thing. They are a reminder that God never is far away, never too far to see you, know you and love you. They are a declaration of God's hope and future and plan.

For us.

"And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity …"
Jeremiah 29:13 & 14a

Thursday, April 9, 2015

They are My People,Too

Last Friday, Good Friday, we hauled our Wee Ones out of bed at the crack of dawn, bundled up and headed downtown for our own kind of Good Friday service. We spent just over an hour set up on Main Street, within eyesight of four different shelters, handing out coffee and muffins to whoever happened by. Nothing fancy, just a folding table, some snacks and teeth chattering smiles. We served about 60 people before we ran out of … well, everything. And each person we served changed us.

I was slightly terrified to do this thing. I felt that it was what we were supposed to do but I was still so nervous that I hardly slept the night before. All of my preconceived ideas, all my stereotypes, all my fears ran through my brain on a lightening fast loop all night. I put on a brave face in the morning as the kids excitedly chatted about who was going to do what job and what they were going to say to the people who stopped by the table. I put on a brave face but my stomach was in knots!

I said next to nothing on the drive downtown. I just watched Crafty in the review mirror as she carefully folded the 60 little notes of encouragement she wrote to hand out with the coffee and wondered if I was making a HUGE mistake. What if someone violent came by? What of we were asked for money? What if someone approached our kids inappropriately? What if? What if? What if?

I had a dozen reasonable concerns and a million unreasonable ones swirling through my brain as we pulled up to our pre-scouted spot. We weren't even out of the van when we were approached by a couple of men, asking if we were lost. We told them that we were exactly where we meant to be and that we had coffee and muffins to share. And that's when all of my fears and stereotypes were turned upside down.

These guys waited patiently for us to set up and chatted with us for a bit after we handed them their coffee. They spread the word to a few other fellas who were taking shelter in a doorway and soon we had line going. As we poured and joked and chatted, I felt like an idiot -  a middle class, white, privileged idiot. I forgot the most important thing while I was obsessing over my fears. We were planning on serving people. Not Homeless. Not Street. Not Underprivileged. We were serving PEOPLE. Just people. Just regular folks who laugh and love and care and live. People who have their own community, their own culture, their own sense of family and belonging with each other.

And they accepted us. Just as we came. How beautiful is that?!

One older gentleman stood and talked with Dude about school and music. A beautiful woman, dressed like Rainbow Bright, complimented Crafty on her hair and jacket. A jovial middle age man teased Joyboy about his broken foot. Several people took coffee for themselves and came back for coffee and muffins for their wheelchair bound friends who were parked across the street. One man noticed we were running low on sugar so he searched through his pockets for packets he had been saving up and he left them on the table for others who might need. Another man took and apple but left a banana, "for someone in need" then he whistled a happy tune as he ambled away in his duct taped shoes.

Time and time again we saw humanity, care and pride from the people we came to serve. They asked us about our lives, thanked us for showing up on a day when almost everything within walking distance was closed and blessed us for our generosity. I stood there humbled because, in truth, we were the ones being served.

Each person who stopped by the table served us joy, hope, compassion, dignity and grace. They gave us humour and acceptance. They offered us a glimpse into contentment and thankfulness. They left us with overflowing hearts and a burning desire to do more, to return to this spot so we can know them better.

Yesterday I drove by the corner where we served and were served and I saw a few familiar faces. I saw the man who took six sugars in his coffee, the man who joked with Dude about being a casanova, the woman who brought her friend to the table just to show her people cared. I saw them. I recognized them. They are my people, too. They are the ones I think of, pray for and hope for as I crawl into my safe and warm bed each night. They are the ones that come to mind when I see the weather report each morning. They are the ones I hope to know better as we continue to think of ways to connect and be helpful.

Yes, they are addicts, homeless, poor and abusers. But so are we. Yes, they have made horrible decisions, led lives of disappointment and destruction and have alienated so many people who have tried to help. But so have we. Sure, they are dirty, smelly, unkempt and unhealthy. But so are we. They are a broken, used up, desperate people. And so are we. Our brokenness, our filth, our bad habits didn't stop them from accepting us, from being kind to us, from welcoming us into their space. So why does their mess stop us?

That's what I've been asking myself every day for the last week. Jesus died for me and he died for them. Their sin is not greater than mine. My heart is no more worth saving than theirs. There is no difference but the difference I invent.

These are my people. And I am theirs.

I will invite myself into their space again soon. We will bring the treats and receive their welcome. We will spend more time chatting and less time fearing. We will open our hearts wide and let their acceptance be an example to us. We will love and care and share … and so will they.

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn't about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same -- with charity you give love, so don't just give money but reach out your hand instead.” 
― Mother Teresa

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A New Tradition?

I'm a sucker for traditions. I love the comfort that sameness brings.

On Christmas Eve we go to church together, make a good Ukrainian lunch and watch It's a Wonderful Life in our brand new pjs. On Canada Day we put on our new Canada Day t-shirts and make our rounds to Lower Fort Garry, The Forks and Assiniboine Park to celebrate our awesome Canada. Pick a holiday and I bet you we have some dear-held tradition associated with it, so with Easter coming you'd think I'd be in my glory, what with new outfits, Easter egg hunts and family brunch after church.

You'd think but you'd be wrong.

I'm all squiggy and discontent and irritated with Easter traditions this year. These traditions feel hollow and self serving and somehow, on their own, missing the mark of what Easter really is about. I think all of these feeling may have something to do with that weird prayer I started praying (Lord, make me uncomfortable. Keep me from settling for a life less than Your best - however that looks.) In a thousand ways, God has answered that prayer -  a thousand uncomfortable, irritating and life disrupting ways. And I think my Easter traditions are just the latest casualties of this prayer.

A few weeks ago I began my annual search for a Good Friday Service to attend. Our regular church participates in a community service but I don't love attending it. My mom's church hasn't done a Good Friday service for years, my cousin's church does a really good service but the parking is terrible, there's the one we went to last year but it was kind of boring and didn't leave me with the emotional high I'd come to expect from a special service - yes, I know how snobby and petty I sound. I caught myself the first time had had this train of thought - or rather God caught me.

Service. Service. Service. Serv-ice.

Serve Us.

Um. Ouch.  I was looking for a place that would serve us. Serve our needs. Make me feel warm and fuzzy and reflective of the sacrifice of Jesus, without having to, you know, be like Jesus. I had a moment of realization of how consumer focused I was being while trying to find a church service to attend to commemorate Jesus dying for my selfish hide and I was humbled and ashamed. But God din't leave me in my shame. Instead He spoke straight to my heart and corrected my selfish views. It went something like this,

"Service? Serve us? The greatest act of service that Jesus ever did for you was to die in your place. If you want to commemorate His act of service then do one of your own."

Well, okay then. I spent a week trying to figure out what that meant and then my lightening fast mind realized that maybe it meant I should find someone or someway to serve. I've spent the last week emailing and calling different organizations who help the marginalized people of our community - and no one wants our help. Like seriously, I can't get any takers. I still have a couple of emails out there but it's not looking good, folks.

So this morning, as I was pouting and wigging out and complaining to God about how I wanted to help but no one would let me, He got to me again.

What's stopping you?

No one wants me.

Poor you.

Thank you.

No, really. What's stopping you?

I don't have an organization to partner with. I don't have time to go through the application process. All of their spots for helping are booked.

And …

Well … I can't help.

I'm sorry. You don't have a van? And built in volunteers? And some spare cash? You can't buy some muffins and hot chocolate and drive your poor self downtown to hand those things out? Oh, poor you.

Ok, yes. God is sarcastic when He speaks to me - He meets us where we are at. Don't judge me. And yes, I have a van and a family willing to do Any Crazy Thing and I can afford a few dozen muffins. So what's stopping me?

It's inconvenient. And scary. And weird. And uncomfortable.

Oops. Didn't I pray for that last one?

Okay. So, here's the deal, unless one of my free floating emails returns to me with some kind of place to serve, Mr. Awesome and I will be loading the Wee Ones into the van and driving to downtown Winnipeg to hand out hot chocolate and muffins.

Not because the homeless of Winnipeg need me but because I need to remember that it's not all about me, that Jesus died for me and for them and that makes us the same. I need to remember that the best way to honour the sacrifice Jesus made is to live like Him, everyday.

If you are in the Winnipeg area and want to join us message me … who knows, maybe this will be our new tradition.

I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
Acts 20:35