I finished my Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving this year — gifts wrapped and under the tree. My cards are done — complete with handwritten notes. My decorations have been up for weeks.

Now, in an ideal world, I’d be sitting back with my peppermint mocha enjoying all the sights, sounds, and smells of the season.

But wait … I just got a card from a friend I marked off my list years ago. And last week I had lunch with someone who came bearing gifts. We’ve never exchanged gifts before. Should I run out and buy a gift? Or does that make it even more obvious that I didn’t intend to get her anything? And while I was out running errands the other day I saw some decorations that would look great outside my house. I do need to add to my collection this year — all the neighbors did.

And then there’s that holiday baking I wanted to do. But I’m running out of time, so I’ll probably just pick something up at the bakery. I’m sure my friends will enjoy that more anyway. I’m not much of a cook.

Funny how it seems as if it’s never all done. I’m exhausted. I thought by getting ahead of the game I would eliminate the stress I experience every year when I focus on everything I think needs to be done —  and done perfectly, of course.

Maybe the real stressor isn’t the dozens of things I feel I need to do but, instead, why I choose to do those things. Do I send Christmas cards because I genuinely want to stay in touch with all those people? Or do I send cards because I feel an obligation to those who send cards to me? Do I give gifts because I want those special people in my life to know I think they are special? Does the gift have to be the “perfect” thing? Or can it be something that reminds me of my friend or a memory we share? And what about those decorations? Do I really care how I measure up to the neighbors?

This year I want the reason behind everything I do to be a reflection of Jesus. I want my Christmas cards to serve as a way to catch up with those I don’t talk to often but care deeply about. I want to give gifts out of love. I want to bake so that the important people in my life have something I took time to create just for them. I want to decorate because it makes me happy and makes my home welcoming to others.

Things don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be special. After all, the stable wasn’t perfect, but it was special because Jesus was there. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, and I pray your holiday will be about those things that are closest to your heart.

Until next time,
Signe

I’ve been having fun viewing some of the video parodies that are being produced by churches nowadays. I guess everyone has seen “Sunday’s Coming” from the folks at North Point http://vimeo.com/11501569 by now so I’ll let chatter on other blogs answer the questions raised there.

I recently had to answer some questions about a product when using “Christian” and “Christ Follower” interchangeably so this video series from Community Christian Church is even more applicable to where I am now. For me the terms are more a matter of nuance or flavor and I think I understand why some groups feel more comfortable using one term over the other in certain settings.

As a former missionary to Communists and to Muslims, I often substituted terms that were less familiar but more clearly communicated our message. There was sometimes some pushback from those who preferred more traditional language but missionaries in pioneer areas are a bit more experiential by nature.

What I didn’t realize in this modern/postmodern struggle in the US is that there are groups on both sides that feel so strongly about some terminology and what it represents that there is some defensiveness associated with it…even with what we call ourselves. While this video is clearly slanted toward one side, it does provoke some interesting thought and questions.

So what do you think…Christian or Christ Follower? Why? Does it really matter?

Jesus in Gethsemane

Growing up Roman Catholic, Holy Week was one of the few times when the church drew my full attention. As repetitive a practice as the mass in general, I suppose the year that passed in between allowed for a certain sense of freshness. And speaking of “senses” mine were overloaded that week in particular! From the waving of my new palm branch, to the incense that burned while attending the “Stations of the Cross,” to the brilliant display of colors on Easter Sunday, Holy Week had much to make this Catholic altar boy wide-eyed with wonder.

After coming to a personal relationship with Christ through repentance and faith and rejecting for many years much of the tradition I had grown up with, I am now finding a desire in my heart for something of the Holy Week experience. Perhaps distance has made the heart grow fonder or perhaps I have simply tired of seeing the casual way that this significant week of reflection is treated sometimes by many of my Protestant brothers and sisters. Should there not be a time of deep-seated emotional reflection this week in particular?

Last night, I shared with the flock that God has granted me the privilege to shepherd just a glimpse of the significance of this week to me and how I will experience it. On Maundy Thursday as evening comes, I will be thinking of Jesus and His “Last Supper” with His friends. Of their somber stroll through the Garden of Gethsemane. Of friends who were restfully sleeping while their Saviour sweated drops of blood. Of a cup that would not pass. Of a friend who betrayed his Lord with a kiss which began a Satanic night of torture, lies, and abuse… that saw even His most faithful friend deny he ever knew Him.

And all of that before the crown of thorns, the via dolorosa, and the Cross. Before that day that we call Good Friday, which wasn’t good for Jesus at all, but meant absolutely everything good for us.

Easter will come soon enough and I will be full of elation. We’re going to go all out with fun for the kids and treats and a nice meal and so forth. It will be a day of great rejoicing as we remember the reason for the season and proclaim that “He is Risen.” But for now, I am drawn once more to the “Stations of the Cross” in my mind and in my heart. Only this time, I am more connected and understand at a heart level what it is really all about. I will weep with those who wept so that I may rejoice when the morning comes.

As I sat in church Sunday morning, I relished in the beauty of the sanctuary. Poinsettias overflowed on the stage. Wreaths hung from the walls. Beautiful arrangements of candles and fresh magnolia leaves graced every windowsill. The chamber choir sang a glorious song recalling the words of Mary as she learned of the child in her womb:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
because He has looked with favor
on the humble condition of His slave.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed,
because the Mighty One
has done great things for me,
and His name is holy.”   Luke 1:46-49, HCSB

It was easy, in that setting, with the first candle of the Advent wreath glowing, children singing, and sun streaming in the windows, to remember the birth of our Christ. I couldn’t help but think that if I could just camp out in the sanctuary for the next four weeks, I could truly worship. I could be with Jesus all day long, praising God for sending His Son, singing to Him.

But we all know that’s not an option. Our struggle, always, with faith is moving it out into the everyday. Into brushing your teeth, changing your kids’ dirty diapers, and burning dinner.

A wise campus minister once told us that Quakers have prayers for everything they do. Showering, cooking, gardening–everything was deemed sacred and devoted to God. What a blessing, to have such a focused mind.

This Christmas season, I pray for focus. In the car every morning, I try to spend time in prayer, thanking God for His gift. While it may not matter that I don’t have a tree, don’t have any lights up, don’t even have a nativity other than the Fisher-Price version, it would matter if I forgot why we celebrate these weeks in December.

How do you make the season sacred?

“I believe that in the end truth will conquer” -John Wycliffe

Well, it looks like John knew what he was talking about there.  But can you imagine a guy getting his bones dug up and burned half a century after his death?  John Wycliffe committed the horrible crimes of translating the Bible into the common language of the English people and suggesting that perhaps the Church should focus less on wealth and be more like Jesus in His poverty.  Who’s to say which caused the greater offense, but I’d suspect it was the latter!

One of the things that has helped me greatly in my walk with Christ has been reading and studying the life of great men and women of the faith, the kind of people who were so committed that they were willing to die for their faith.  These are the kind of people who walked the talk and who made a difference in their time and even more in the generations to follow.  Yep, there’s a lot I can learn from a guy like Wycliffe.

One of my concerns in our much-needed push for relevance in our culture is that we may lose our connection with the past.  We may forget that we are standing on the shoulders of spiritual giants from whom we have much to learn.  Let’s make it a point to not only find contemporary examples of people who push the edge but to remind our small group members of others like Wycliffe who did the same.  In doing so, we can make these great Christian examples from the past relevant to our contemporary small groups today.  I don’t know about you, but our community could use another Wycliffe or two!

 

“86 years have I served Him, he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”   -Polycarp at martyrdom

As I’ve been studying through the seven churches of Revelation, I’ve been drawn once again into study of the early Church. Since most of my missionary time was spent trying to “unlearn” much of church form and tradition in order to strip myself of cultural baggage, I guess I had gone on kind of a multi-year fast from one of my favorite educational passions: Church History.

One of the great inspirations of the early Church was Polycarp, pastor of the Church of Smyrna. When you read Jesus’ letter to this church in Revelation and then cross-reference Polycarp’s story, what results is a beautiful portrait of courage in the face of adversity. Here’s a link to part of Polycarp’s bio: http://www.polycarp.net/

Here are just a few of the questions I’m pondering:

– As we strive for relevance, are we as a church still modeling this kind of courage in the face of adversity?

– As a church leader, is this the kind of courage I model for those in my circle of influence?

– If Jesus were to write a letter to my church or small group, what would He say?

Encouragement this week came in the form of a Sunday School lesson and a sermon.

Why should that surprise me? But it did. Sunday everything hit home, boom boom boom.

“Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Colossians 3:17, HCSB

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. The lovely accident on the stairs was only the highlight to several weeks of worrying over the house, many projects at work being due at the same time, a baby with continuous constipation and teething leading to continuous whining and crying, and trying to keep sane as a working mom with a husband who 133 miles away.

At times, I feel that I’m consumed by everything that’s going on and worry about whether our house will ever sell, whether I can be a single mom during the week, whether I’ll go insane when we do move to Chattanooga.

This year has been full of God’s plan trumping our plans. I would have never imagined what we are going through right now. And yet, I truly believe it is God’s plan for us–better than we could imagine. He’s given me this specific time for a reason, and I believe that is to grow closer to Him and develop patience and perserverance.

It’s all going to work out for good. For that, I am ever thankful. I am so glad I have a church family that continues to challenge and encourage me.

newenglandchurchMy husband and I are in the midst of an impending move to a new city. While the move is not imminent for me (I am staying in Nashville until we sell our house or I go insane), my Mr. and I have been tossing around qualities we’d like our new church to have for months.

We were lucky to avoid the church hop when we moved to Nashville nearly five years ago. We visited two churches. The first one was just not a good fit. The second one we never left. It is a wonderful church, where we feel that God is moving and the staff is truly seeking His heart. We have Sunday School, but we don’t have what we would classify here as small groups. [I know. And I’m writing for this blog!]

We love our Sunday School class. But working for Serendipity these past six months, I’ve unearthed a deep desire to be a part of small-group life. So I put that on our list of qualifications: a church with small groups.

I think for moving to a city where we know no one, having a small group to build into would help tremendously. With a tiny daughter and no family nearby, I need help and friends. I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom once we move, and I am not the kind of person who can stay in the house all day every day. I will need community.

What are your tips for finding a small-group church? While we both enjoy traditional-style worship, we’re aware it’s less likely we’ll be able to find a church with that and small groups. We’re open to a more contemporary worship style. We’d like to find a somewhat large church with a great children’s program. What’s the best method of going about this? And hey, if you know of any Chattanooga churches that fit this, e-mail me and let me know!

Also, what have your church hop experiences been like? I’d love to hear.

I sometimes complain. I wish I made more money. I wish I had a nicer set of golf clubs. I wish I could get that sports car I’ve always dreamed of. I wish I was home more. I wish someone would pay for my cell phone. I wish ministry was easier. I wish more people knew my name. (I have to admit… This list could go on ad nausea.)

There’s one common word in the paragraph above… “I.” It seems “I” has a way of keeping many of us from experiencing the adventure and thrill of ministry more than anyone or anything else. Self-centered ministry, if given space to grow, darkens the heart so much that we become unable to see when we’ve accomplished fulfilling ministry.

 Last weekend God ambushed me. Through the life of a man I’ve never met I came face-to-face with my own self-absorption. I and a few others attended the funeral of a co-worker’s father. To get to the church we exited a major Tennessee highway and zig-zagged our way another 10 or so miles through the Tennessee foothills. The final stretch of this short journey put us on an obviously overused road that led us into “the valley.” The place of worship that had served generations of Tennesseans was stunning. That small country church lingered patiently in the crevice of two of God’s beautifully designed mountains. On the side of one of those hills was a garden of headstones. Between some of the gravestones a tent had been erected, a hole had been dug. The body of Brother Fred Copeland would join the family members who had gone before him in a few hours.

 As we entered the church building the ushers handed each of us an 8.5 by 5.5 piece of paper. The words that had been penned on one side of a slice of paper the size of a notepad had broken the dam that had held back the tears of many of his friends, family, and parishioners. Six short paragraphs unveiled his character, integrity, the purity of his heart and the passion with which he accepted God’s expectations of him, requirements he accomplished for 73 years. A few excerpts…

 Fred Copeland was born March 28, 1918. Fred accepted Christ as his Savior at 17 years of age. The Lord called him to preach a few months later. On October 10, 1936, he rode a horse 8 miles to preach his first sermon.

 He worked at various jobs: farming, logging, etc. making 50 – 75 cents a day (for 10 hours a day). He worked for the CNOPTP Railroad in Oakdale for 7 years, as well as for the Morgan County School Board as a bus driver for over 26 years.

 Fred served in our Lord’s ministry for 73 years. He pastored 12 churches, three of them more than one time.

 In spite of not owning a car, he pastored churches for many years requiring him to walk or hitch hike several miles to preach. In the 1930’s and 1940’s many churches only had services once or twice a month. Therefore, he often pastored 2 or 3 churches at the same time. His salary comprised of whatever the offering (or passing the hat) brought. One church he pastored was 40 miles away. To get there, he walked to Harriman, paid 15 cents to ride the bus to Kingston, and then rode the rest of the way with one of the deacons (where he also spent the night). They had services Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. He would receive a love offering usually, around $2.00. One Sunday there were 15 people present and 3 of them accepted Christ as their Savior. Records at one church indicate they paid him $5.00 a week. One week he received $3.00 in cash and $2.00 in produce, which was a bucket of eggs that he carried as he walked home. While pastoring Pine Orchard (1948-52) he baptized 74 people – 25 at one time.

 I never knew the man but during the funeral service I too wiped the tears from my eyes. I have processed why and have come to this conclusion… He’s one of my heroes. It seems that anyone who is who I want to become is one of my heroes. I can only hope that I’ll never again “wish” for something God has not yet given me. I can only pray that I never again long for comfort more than I yearn to do God’s will. I can only beg God and my closest friends to remind me that it’s not about making a name for myself, it’s about making Jesus famous.

There’s a difference between a calling and a career. I’m afraid I sometimes forget. I don’t believe Brother Copeland ever did. Brother Copeland was 91 years old when he was set free from the confines of his earthly body. I’m pretty sure his reward is great in heaven. Actually, I’m certain of it… “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:29-31

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As I continue my transition to Stateside living, I’ve been looking for more ways to incorporate some of the principles and practices that were effective for Kingdom expansion overseas. One of the growing trends in church-planting circles is called “Business as Missions” or BAM.

Here’s a link to a good article about BAM that you can read: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/november/24.24.html.

Question: What principles that BAMers use do you think can be utilized by our Small Groups to transform our communities for Christ here in the U.S.?

I’d love to hear your ideas!