Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jesus' Prescription for a Healthy Soul

"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit...Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing." John 15: 1-2, 4-5

Holy Ambition

With God's help, my desires for money and prestige have been tamed over the years (with occasional relapses). Back in junior high school, I remember evaluating future careers based on how much money I'd make. By the time I entered college, I had a double major in English literature and creative writing -- certainly not the typical route to a high income.

Over the years, however, I've noticed that my ambition leans toward worthier goals, focused on making a difference in the world for the glory of God. There is a place deep inside me that longs to influence others for good, have a sense of purpose, be a part of something that lasts beyond my lifetime here on earth.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the question of whether this desire is truly pure of heart. (Prepare for some soul-baring here...) Here's when the red flag goes off: I hear about people who are my age and similar to me in many ways who are pastoring churches, leading ministries and non-profits, publishing books, sitting on boards, rubbing shoulders with the Christian "bigwigs" of our country and the world (not to imply that the "bigwigs" sought that out). When I see others doing these things, I think Why am I not doing things like that? My life and contribution seems so insignificant in comparison. Am I a Christian underachiever?

Am I the only one who has these thoughts?

The truth is, there is an element in my life of letting fear hold me back from trying "big" things. There's also an element of lacking focus -- I have multiple interests but excel at none. And there's nothing wrong with hungering for a sense of purpose or wanting to contribute or use my gifts and abilities for God's glory.

BUT...I think a bigger element is that I am right where I'm supposed to be, that I am having an influence in tiny ways that few will ever see (and who else needs to know but God anyway?), and that His main concern is that I love Him with all my heart, mind and soul and love others as myself. He doesn't care that I haven't gone to seminary, been published, planted a church, etc., as long as I am being faithful with whatever he's given me right now. He loves me as I am.

That doesn't mean that it's wrong to do the aforementioned sorts of things if God so leads. But for me, for right now, I'm just going to give Him my attention and trust that if I'm heading off course or missing something He has in store for me, He will show me the way. I will seek to be faithful with what I have been given and trust that there's a reason I'm exactly where I am and seek to learn from it.

I would love to hear if any readers also have these kinds of thoughts. I think "holy ambition" can also play itself out in the local church as some members become overinvolved or have their feelings hurt when they are not chosen to do certain things, lead ministries, etc.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Inside the Mind of a Church Visitor

My family is looking for a church community that will be a good fit for us. We moved to this area nearly a year ago, but only recently learned where we're likely to land on a more long-term basis. Thus, the search for a church home has resumed (we found a temporary home this summer at a church with a kid-friendly service where we could easily include our young child).

Last Sunday as I sat in another perfectly fine but not right for us church, I found myself rapidly writing down notes about all the things that, regardless of denomination, can make things friendlier for visitors. Several years ago I was on a church committee where we often discussed how well our church welcomed visitors and subsequently connected them with the church body as a whole and met their needs. It was difficult for me to remember how it felt to be a visitor, so I'm sharing some of my thoughts in case they are helpful to any of this blog's readers. (Of course, this is only my perspective, and I'm sure coming from a different faith background (or lack thereof) could add another layer of questions and concerns.

On the way to the service, questions flood my mind: How do I get there? Did I wear something appropriate? Do I need to bring my Bible or anything else? Where do I park? Where do I enter the building? Where do I sit?

Churches that offer guest parking spots make parking simple. Conversely, those with severe parking issues (not enough spaces in the lot for the attendees) seriously need to address the problem. I contemplated leaving last weekend because I literally could not find a place to park. I ended up in a nearby lot for a business that wasn't open at the time. Not every guest will be that persistent.

Make sure to have a pile of bulletins/programs placed near entrances for latecomers. Also, ushers should not be shy about actually helping people find seats (maybe even discreetly asking if a person would prefer to sit in the front, middle or back). I thought I found a seat last week but the entire pew, it seemed, was being saved with coats and Bibles. I ended up in the back, the only place I could find a seat.

Be sure to have song lyrics available either in hymnals, printouts, or onscreen. Don't assume that everyone knows the words to songs that are widely known in your church.

If you do communion, be sure that visitors understand your approach (doctrinally and logistically) eitiher through an announcement or an explanation in the bulletin.

Try to make it clear, either with signs or volunteers, which entrance is closest to where the service takes place.

Try to have greeters and ushers remain on duty for 5-10 minutes after the start of the service. Due to various reasons, visitors are likely to be late, and they are the people who most need assistance.

Be sure to have extra Bibles available and/or put the words from a passage onscreen. (Side note: a church we attended where we previously lived had tissue boxes in each row, and I appreciated that several times!)

Please don't force visitors to stand up, raise hands, introduce themselves, or be called out in any way. Often guests just want to get a feel for what your church is like. They typically appreciate some level of friendliness but not undue focus on them.

On the other hand, if your church has a time where the congregation greets each other, be sure to make an effort to look for people who might be visiting (including in the back) so they are not overly ignored.

If you have certain announcements that might be relevant to visitors, wait to make them until 10-15 minutes into the service so latecomers don't miss anything important.

Have 1-2 (or more, depending on the size of your church) volunteers ready to help parents learn what the options are for their kids (unless there aren't any). It is nerve wracking leaving your young child in a nursery or preschool (or other) area for the first time. It helps if someone is there to explain how things work, escort you to the appropriate area for your child, etc.

Related to that, make sure your children's areas are very secure! I'll never forget the time we came to retrieve our child, who was in the hallway unsupervised near an exit. We made an effort to tell the room leaders that we were the parents and they didn't seem to care. This was after an extremely detailed signup process that implied they had a great system.

Try to have ample materials related to your church available in an obvious spot. Guests will want to know what your church believes, what programs are available, and much more. Make it easy to find.

Also, if you have a welcome center or similar area, try to make sure that both a man and a woman are always available in case a visitor isn't comfortable approaching one or the other alone.

I'm sure you'll all have a lot to add, but those are my thoughts so far. I'd love to hear more comments on your thoughts about visiting churches and/or things that have or haven't worked at your churches.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Defense of a Moment of Silence

Our ears are overflowing with sound throughout the day. Coworkers, children, TV, radio, trains, horns honking, construction, alarms and timers going off, and so on. Beyond that, we have the "noise" of browsing the Internet, reading the newspaper, even looking at billboards as we drive past them, and the general buzz of an endless string of thoughts and concerns that fills our minds.

At times, I have even been known to sabatoge perfectly peaceful quiet moments by seeking to fill the silence -- turning on the TV just to hear the sound of another person's voice when I'm home alone, reading a book, listening to the radio in the car, or flipping mindlessly through a magazine. There's nothing wrong with any of those things in particular. But if we're constantly giving in to the "noise," we may be missing out on something even better.

Is there space in your life to hear what God might want to tell you? Is there a time when you allot even a few minutes here and there to just being with Him, knowing that He loves you and you love Him, without an agenda? I've sensed lately that God has been nudging me to learn to take pleasure simply in being with Him and contemplating Him.

I am the mom of a preschooler, so I can't get away very often for personal retreat time. Maybe you have similar personal constraints (really, blessings!). That doesn't mean we're exempt from creating bits of silence in our lives. The bits might just be smaller or less frequent than we might have time for in other seasons of life -- but the point is to be mindful of creating some space instead of rushing to fill the potential segments of time with mindless "noise" like I am often guilty of.

No one's time was under more demands than Jesus -- he had disciples constantly asking him questions and looking to him for wisdom and guidance, crowds following his every move, Pharisees and Saduccees looking to challenge him, sick people crying out to be healed, and much more! And yet we see multiple examples of him withdrawing for some time with the Father (and there were likely countless more that went undocumented -- after all, we don't get an account of every meal he ate or every little thing he did on a daily basis). "But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray." Luke 5:16

My goal for now is to be more mindful, more aware of potential bits of time when I can truly quiet my mind and be with God throughout my day. It doesn't have to be a long stretch of time. It could be as simple as stepping out my back door, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds sing, saying a prayer of thankfulness to God, telling Him I love Him, and then being silent for a moment so I can listen, just like in a regular conversation with someone I love.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Glimpses of Heaven

"The best of life on Earth is a glimpse of Heaven; the worst of life is a glimpse of Hell." Randy Alcorn, from his book Heaven

I recently began reading the book Heaven by Randy Alcorn. I'm only on about page 68 or so, and it's already re-shaping my views on Heaven and bringing to light how seldom this topic is discussed among Christians or preached about. I picked up the book with a specific hope: that it will help diminish my fear of death. The existence of this fear has often made me feel that my faith is not strong enough, but I think it's really my understanding of the reality of Heaven that is weak.

The quote above stood out to me because I have often felt that there are specific experiences or moments in my life that were like bits of Heaven on earth or little loving touches from God. Alcorn goes on to discuss that earth might have been inspired by Heaven in sort of the same way that humans were created in God's image. This got me thinking: Could it be worthwhile, or even a spiritual exercise, to create a greater awareness of those heavenly moments and be more intentional about thanking God for them and using them as a reminder to set our minds on Heaven and eternity?

Conversely, those darkest moments of our lives here on earth could be promptings to thank God for His grace in sparing us from Hell and to pray for others to open themselves to faith in Him.

Sometimes we view the spiritual and things that can be experienced with our senses as completely separate, possibly even in opposition to each other. But what could be more spiritual than taking in a beautiful view of the mountains or sunset and then saying thank you to the Creator and meditating on the beauty of his works? So many things that can be felt, seen, heard, tasted, or touched could actually be foretastes of the incredible life that awaits us in Heaven.

More thoughts on this to come, but I would be curious to hear what some of your "foretaste of Heaven" moments might be.