Communion as the intersection of all things

by Elizabeth

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I didn’t grow up with the Sacraments. Sacraments were for liturgical traditions, while I was a proud and happy member of Restoration Movement churches. I did, however, grow up with physical commemorations of spiritual truths — for that is what sacrament means. Of course, I didn’t know that back then.

I like to talk about these things when I get together with my friend Heidi, whose husband is an Anglican priest. When I asked her what sacrament means, this is what she told me:

 “The Anglican Book of Common Prayer uses this definition of sacrament: a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us. There’s also the pithy phrase ‘Matter matters.’ It relates to the way God comes to us through matter (water, the bread and wine, etc) and to His value of matter (our physical bodies themselves and all of creation are precious to him – not evil or something to be escaped as in Gnosticism).”

“Matter matters.” As someone who has been running away from her physical body since early adolescence, this was novel concept to me. But as I reflected on my spiritual history, I realized that my church tradition did observe two sacramental practices: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism celebrates our union with Christ through death, burial, and resurrection and is intended to occur once in a lifetime. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is a regular occurrence and a reminder of how much we are loved. We are loved enough for Christ to pour out his very blood and allow his very body to be broken for us and for our eternal home.

(I like to designate corporate singing as a sacramental practice due to the fact that in singing we join the physical sound waves of our voices together to worship our Triune God and to declare spiritual truths over ourselves, but that’s another conversation entirely.)

Some people call it the Eucharist. I usually call it communion. Whatever its name, this meal of bread and wine is our feast of love. It is where we learn and remember our belovedness. It is where God speaks to us. It is where He calls us: every particle of every person in every place.

God communicates His call in every conceivable human language, for in His wisdom He created communion as the intersection of all things.

It is the intersection of the physical – bread and wine – with the spiritual – the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life.

It is the intersection of the deeply personal – what Christ did for ME – and the incredibly communal – what Christ did for ALL of us.

It is the intersection of the Old Testament sacrifices and the new covenant where no more sacrifices are needed.

It is the intersection of the ancient and the far future as we look back to the Exodus and the Passover – the central story of the Old Testament – and eagerly await the wedding feast of the Lamb.

It is the intersection of the ordinary — a regularly repeated act — and the ceremonial — a special event.

It is the intersection of celebration – our God is victorious and we are free — and mourning – our God suffered and our sins caused it.

The Lord’s Supper is the intersection of the marriage invitation and the acceptance of His offer. It is the intersection of being chosen and the act of choosing back.

The Table brings together all human experiences. At the Table He speaks to each person’s particular history and particular language and particular longings. At the Table He places us in a community that will never end.

So come to the Table where there’s always room for more.

Take, eat: the Body of Christ, broken for you.

Take, drink: the Blood of Christ, shed for you.

Come to the Table and remember. Come to the Table and celebrate. Come to the Table where there’s always room for more.

 

photo source

This is what I know about spiritual formation (so far)

by Elizabeth

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An Anglican priest ruined it for me. He ruined the phrase “enter the presence of God.”

I was at a Lenten prayer service last year when he said, “Let us become present to the Lord, for He is always present to us.” I knew what he was saying was true, for I’d learned it in other areas of my life (Psalm 139 anyone?). So what he said was more a vocabulary lesson than a course correction.

God is always present and available to us, and I can no longer say with integrity that we “enter the Lord’s presence” during a worship service. In fact, now when I hear that phrase from others, I start to tune out. What I can say with integrity is that we can choose to become present to the Lord.

So with that in mind, here’s everything I know about becoming present to the Lord. In other words, here’s everything I know about spiritual formation (so far).

 

1. Regular, private devotional times with God.

I’ve talked about this a lot before and how it’s changed my life, so I won’t rehash it here. I’ll just summarize my low-pressure method for cultivating intimacy with God:

  • Don’t feel guilty for short times with God
  • Don’t feel guilty if you can’t keep up with a fast-paced Bible-reading plan
  • Don’t feel guilty for deviating from your plans
  • Don’t feel guilty about skipping times.

 

2. Meeting with other believers for corporate worship.

The Church has been key to my spiritual growth. I go into a worship service expecting God to speak to me through songs, sermons, and prayers. And He does.

I’d like to quote Misty Edwards here on the mystery of corporate worship: “Musical worship involves a physical voice, physical sound waves that actually move through the air and strike your ear, go into your mind, into your emotions and spirit.” She also noted that “Musical worship is how the Body becomes One.”

I cannot downplay the importance of the Church in my spiritual life; neither can I downplay the importance of my private devotional life. I need both.

 

3. Small group Bible studies and other intimate forms of community.

I’ve talked about this before, but for years in the States I was part of a small ladies’ Bible study. I learned so much about life and faith from those (mostly older) women. They empathized with my struggles and prayed me through some of my darkest days. Most of what I know about Grace, I learned with them.

These days my teammates function as my small group. We share sorrows and joys together and pray for and support each other. I’m so thankful for people who listen to, accept, pray for, and advise the “real me.”

 

4. Getting counseling.

Sometimes personal devotionals, corporate worship, and talking with trusted people are enough to work through my issues; sometimes they are not. I’ve had several key breakthroughs in my life because of counselors (both licensed professional counselors and pastoral counselors), and I cannot overstate the importance of sometimes getting outside help. I would not be where I am today in my relationship with God and my relationship with others without the help and intervention of those counselors.

 

Well there you have it, everything I know about spiritual formation (so far). What would you add to my list?

‘Tis The (Leaving) Season!

by Jonathan

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It’s that time of year when a lot of folks return to their passport countries; some for a visit and some for good. Which means it’s that time of year when returners get upset that folks “at home” don’t really care all that much about life abroad, or our ministry, or our former country, etc.

But what if the returners cared as much about the home team as we want the home team to care about us?

What if the returners asked their senders questions of the same quantity and intensity that we desire the senders to ask us?

Maybe you’ve been abroad for two years or four years or six months. That’s awesome! And maybe you’ve got stories and you’ve experienced love and loss and grit and glory.

So have they.

Those who “stayed behind” lived life too. And while you were living two years, they were living two years too. And most likely, they’ve got stories and they’ve experienced love and loss and grit and glory too.

And while we’re so desperately wanting people to listen to and care about our stories, perhaps we should spend some time listening to and caring about theirs.

Turns out, pretty much everyone likes being heard.

And I think that’s a gift we should give. These people send us, pray for us, sacrifice for us. The least we can do is actually care about their stories of love and loss.

Remember, they lived life too.

The Psalms: More than Just a Matt Redman Lyric

Do you like roller coasters? The slow climb up to the top, then the controlled crash down? Some people love ‘em, some people throw up.

How about emotional roller coasters? Ever been on one of those? The Psalms are sort of like a roller coaster, and I believe that we need to ride this thing a whole lot more. The ups and the downs. The happy jumpy praisey parts and the depressed anxious homicidal parts.

I want to invite you into the chorus of the Church; to remind you of the prayer book of God’s people.

Theologically, we need the Psalms.
Emotionally, we need the Psalms.

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Jesus loved the Psalms
In fact, Jesus quotes from the Psalms more than any other Old Testament book. Here are the top four books Jesus quotes:

#4 Exodus
#3 Isaiah
#2 Deuteronomy
#1 Psalms

The thing is, when Jesus references the Psalms, it’s almost always in a difficult situation. That is to say, when Jesus was in a stressful spot, he most often fell back on the Psalms.

  1. When he’s speaking to angry leaders who are mad because he healed someone. [Matthew 21:16]
  2. When he’s dying on the cross. [Matthew 27:46]
  3. When he’s hated without cause. [John 15:25]
  4. When he’s talking about his betrayal. [John 13:18]
  5. When the Jews want to stone him for claiming divinity. [John 10:34]
  6. When he’s being interrogated by Pilate. [Matthew 26:64]
  7. When his authority’s challenged by the chief priests and elders. [Matthew 21:42]
  8. When he’s talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. [Matthew 23:39]

If Jesus himself needed the Psalms in hard times, I might too.

And if that’s not reason enough to dive into the Psalms, here’s a collection of thoughts on the Psalms that might nudge you to jump in…

 

NT Wright, The Case for the Psalms
“The celebration is wild and uninhibited; the misery is deep and horrible. One moment we are chanting, perhaps clapping our hands in time, even stamping our feet. . . . The next moment we have tears running down our cheeks, and we want the earth to open and swallow us.”

“The Psalms not only insist that we are called to live at the intersection of God’s space and our space, of heaven and earth, to be (in other words) Temple people. They call us to live at the intersection of sacred space, the Temple and the holy land that surrounds it, and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.”

“The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world, and they still rank with any poetry in any culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the world. They are full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul – anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.”

“The Psalms are the steady, sustained subcurrent of healthy Christian living.”

“Scripture is not simply a reference book to which we turn to look up correct answers – though it’s full of those when we need them. Scripture is, at its heart, the great story that we sing in order not just to learn it with our heads but to become part of it through and through, the story that in turn becomes part of us.”

“If the Psalms provide a sense of sacred space, that space is where celebration and sorrow are held together within the powerful love and presence of the one God.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible
“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.”

 “The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity.”

 “That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to.” [Bonhoeffer saw this moment as the best time to pray the Psalms.]

“There is in the Psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering. There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt. God’s righteousness which allows the pious to be met by misfortune but the godless to escape free, even God’s good and gracious will, is undermined. His behavior is too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed. . . . He sets out to do battle against God for God.”

“If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me? If I am not guilty, why does he not bring my misery to an end and thus demonstrate my innocence to my enemies? There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions. As there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ.”

Billy Graham
I used to read five psalms every day – that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.” 

Martin Luther
The Psalter promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.”

Further Resources
Psalms – Songs for our time (31mb, mp3) This is a message I preached at the Red Bridge Church of Christ on November 29, 2015.

One way to combine the Psalms with Discovery Bible Studies and inner healing ministries.

A three-minute video showing one way to interface with the Psalms. You can read more on this method here.

 

What is a Woman Worth?

This post was originally written for and published in The Light Times Magazine, with Khmer translation done by the magazine editors. — Jonathan

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All over our world today, women are treated like trash. They are abused. They are neglected. They are desired only for what they can give (their bodies, their service, for example). They are not desired for who they are.

In our churches, it should be different. For those who follow Jesus, it should be very, very different.

What does Jesus think about women? How did Jesus talk with women? How did Jesus treat women? Before we look at how Jesus treated women, we need to look at how Adam treated Eve.

 

Blame
In the beginning, there was intimacy and freedom and trust. But sin shattered that intimacy. Sin broke the trust between Adam and Eve, and we are still suffering because of it. The moment sin entered the world, men started blaming women. (See Genesis 3:12) And we’re still blaming women for our sin.

Have you ever heard a man blame a woman for tempting him? Men hit women and then say, “She wasn’t respectful enough.” Often, men lust and then blame women. “She wasn’t wearing enough clothes. She was not modest.” I would like to say something very clearly: if a man lusts after a women, it is the man’s sin. If a man sins, it’s the man’s sin. Christian men must stop blaming women for their sin. Men have been doing this since the beginning, but we need to stop now.

I believe Jesus wants to restore intimacy and freedom and trust. But first, men must learn to value women like Jesus did.

 

The Value of Women
Jesus grew up in a culture where women were seen as property. But Jesus comes along and treats women with dignity and respect, as equal heirs of the Kingdom. Loved.

Jesus’ actions were very strange.

The culture in Jesus’ time treated women very poorly. Like slaves. The Romans did not allow women in politics or sports. Women were not allowed to go out in public alone. A woman was not allowed to learn under a rabbi and could not call a rabbi “Teacher.”

But Jesus often went out of his way to talk with women. He taught women. He allowed women to follow him. He treated women like they were worth his time, because they were. And are. In one case, Jesus even allowed a woman to return to her village as a missionary, spreading the good news about what Jesus had done for her. Jesus believed this woman was valuable enough to carry the most important Message the world has ever seen. (See John 4)

And when it was time for people to find out that he was alive again, the first people to know were women. Women were the very first people to announce the resurrection of Jesus. This was very strange. In that culture, women could not be legal witnesses in a court of law, but now, they are witnesses of the greatest event in history. And they’re telling men all about it. (See John 20)

There is one more story that we must talk about. In John 8, a very vulnerable woman is in front of very powerful men. And Jesus stands in between. Because that’s where he always stands. Jesus always positions himself between religious men and hurting women. When the men want to throw stones, Jesus stands there, protecting, wanting to heal hearts.

We must follow his example.

Ladies, hear what Jesus says to you,

You are loved,
You are valuable,
You are precious to me. 

I made you on purpose, and I love you.
If you have been hurt or abused, I am so sorry.
If you feel shame, remember that I came to erase shame.
When I see you, I do not see shame.
I see the girl I Iove, the girl I died for. 

My daughters are shameless and blameless.
Perfect in my sight.

It is my hope and prayer that the Church in Cambodia would be a place where all people are respected and loved and cherished. Old and young. Rich and poor. Men and women.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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The Church: Hungry for Community

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by Elizabeth

Last week I posted this on my Facebook wall:

This morning at church we sang “We welcome You with praise” (from Chris Tomlin’s song “Here For You”). Sometimes it’s easy to welcome Him with praise. Other times, not so much.

I remember in early 2006 when we learned that Jonathan’s dad had brain cancer. A dear friend dropped everything to come sit with me. I couldn’t pray; she prayed for me. She told God that we bring a sacrifice of praise to Him, for today, it is exactly that, a SACRIFICE. She welcomed God with praise when I couldn’t do it myself.

I love the story in Exodus where Moses holds up his staff, and the Israelites gain the advantage over the Amalekites. Soon Moses’ arms are so tired he can’t hold them up, and Aaron and Hur find a stone for him to sit on. Then they stand on either side of him, holding up his hands. And his hands hold steady.

I remember when Jonathan’s mom was dying of cancer. It was Jonathan’s turn to lead singing, and his mom was in the congregation. As he was leading “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” he got to a point where he couldn’t continue. An elder took over the song leading, and two men came and stood on either side of him and literally held his arms up as we sang.

May we be people who band together, holding each other’s arms up in the battle. May we be people who join with the tired, the weary, and the hurting, and welcome God with praise even when some in our midst cannot.

He is still with us.

The next day I wondered why I’d felt so compelled to share that. Then I realized that it was because I was writing about the Church, and I love the Church. In fact, I get irrationally happy talking about the Church. I’m captivated by God’s great idea. His magnificent idea.

I didn’t expect my Facebook post to resonate with so many people, but it did. That tells me that we are hungry for the kind of community God designed, even as we sustain damage from His people through unhealthy or abusive church environments.

A couple years ago I wrote about all the reasons I love the Church. But it felt incomplete. There’s so much more to say, so much more to flesh out. My thoughts on the Church have been percolating for a while now. So this is my launching point for a series on the Church. It won’t be in any particular order or on any particular schedule. I’ll add to the series whenever I get the chance, and I’ll unashamedly share how I feel about Christ’s Bride, the Church.

*photo credit

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Other posts in the Church series:

“Me too” Moments

On Not Being the Casserole Lady

Dear American Church

I am a Worshipper

Authenticity is Not New

A Christmas Prayer {A Life Overseas}

Jonathan recently posted on A Life Overseas. Read the whole post here.

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“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,

and we have come to worship him.”

The Star of Bethlehem had a point, an important point. But the star was not the point.

The star fulfilled its role of leading across cultures and religious paradigms, down dusty roads and around a paranoid prince, to the Child. He was the Point, this Son, and he shone brighter. He, the Child-King, deserved adoration from all peoples, in all languages, for all of time.

And the Church, like the star, has a point. But the Church is not the point. Jesus is.

The star inspired a journey, away from comfort and the great “known.” So may the Church.

The star led through danger and politically dicey situations. So has the Church, historically, and so does the Church, presently.

The star challenged prejudice, inviting outsiders in. So may the Church.

The star incited worship, but not of itself. So may the Church.

As we celebrate the incarnation of Hope, 

the birth of the Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, 

let us pray for the Church, his glorious Bride, who waits expectantly for his return

and the restoration of all things.

Read the rest of the post here.

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