Love Practically: Friendship

About a year or so ago, I was visiting a community of faith in my city.  When in the course of conversation it became obvious I was looking for a regular group to fellowship with, one of the leaders there asked me, “So, are you looking for a church?”  For some reason, the question bothered me a little – it just felt like the wrong question for me. I wanted to say “No, I’m looking for something else”, but since I knew that would sound harsher than I meant it, I just avoided the question.

The answer that came to me when I got home is, “No, I’m looking for friends.”  I suppose I could have said, “No, I’m in search of community”, but the word “community” has become so overused in Christiandom that often it seems to have lost all meaning.  We preach sermons on “community” but then don’t model it, and thus in the context of “church life”, community has often come to mean something very different in a than what authentic Christian community really is.

In meditating on Jesus’ last words before His painful and lonely death, He too recognized friendship as central:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

In context He also said:

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another” – John 13:34, and

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13

It is impossible to escape that He was telling us that He desired for us to not only be His friends, but friends to one another.  And if there was any question, on the same night He modeled this friendship by deeply humbling Himself and caring for His disciples in a tender and practical way (John 13:3-17).  His humility was so pronounced as to be shocking (note Peter’s response).

How did these words and actions impact the disciples?  Jesus said to them, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7).  And at the time, they truly did not understand.  They were still vying for position with one another (Luke 22:24).  They had no idea that what they felt for one another was not yet love.

Case in point, when Jesus said “one of you will betray me”, they had absolutely no idea who He meant.  I’ve thought a lot over the years about how painful Judas’ betrayal must have been to Jesus, but only recently have I considered the deep impact it must have had on the other disciples.  Consider for a moment: all these men had lived with each other for 3 years, and had experienced a tremendous transformational experience together as Jesus turned their collective world upside down.  In this atmosphere, Judas was someone they thought they knew.  When Jesus spoke of betrayal, they couldn’t even imagine which of them Jesus could possibly be thinking of, nor were they able to take in that the betrayal would be so severe as to lead Jesus to death on the cross.  Afterward, I can imagine the other disciples thinking “How could we have been with Judas for so long and been so blind to what was going on inside him?”  Surely, realizing they knew Judas so little must have contributed to a deep realization that in the midst of their competitive wrangling with one another, they had failed to truly love each other as Christ had loved them.

How did these events affect this group of friends?  They were transformed men.  Even before the day of Pentecost, here was the atmosphere among them:

“…Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James…These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:13-14)

Was Judas on their mind as they waited in Jerusalem?  It seems he was, for their first order of business as they prayed together concerned Judas (vs 15ff).  I cannot help but think the disciples were heartbroken over him.  How can one read his tragic tale and not feel its pathos.  Remember they had all spent significant time together.  When Peter stood up and spoke, it was a moment of closure to a painful chapter of their community life together.

Then came Pentecost.  So much has been written about the birth of the church on that day, about the tongues of fire and the miracles that followed, but perhaps the greatest miracle of all was a baptism of love that came upon the gathered believers that day.  They were filled with a tenacious determination to finally learn to do what their Lord and Friend had asked of them: Love one another.  The result is found at the end of the Second chapter of Acts (vs 44-47):

“And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Yes, the church was born – a gathering of friends who were finally learning the Greatest Love, to lay down their lives one for another.  Oh, to experience such a fresh pentecostal baptism of love in our day!

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A “New” Command

I’ve found myself meditating on love quite a bit lately. About a month ago around the time that I posted the Beatles video, I felt the issue of love (or lack of it) in the Body of Christ came into sharp focus for me.

I had been meditating on a number of painful events I had experienced in different communities of faith, which had resulted in many wandering from their faith, including in each case triggering a “crisis of faith” in my own heart.  The events were so different that I had a hard time finding a common thread.  One was a church split, the others were not.  Some were attacks against leaders, some were leaders abusing people.   Some were in institutional settings, at least one was not.  As I considered each of these events, it seemed that none of the teachings I have heard about how to avoid such problems seemed to answer every one of these situations, and yet they seemed tied together by a common effect, which was  wavering faith in the hearts of believers.  Interestingly, in some cases those who struggled the most were not necessarily those being attacked or abused, even those on the “sidelines” seemed to suffer.  Why was this I wondered?  And if there was a common effect, might the cause in all these disparate events be the same?

Which led me to Jesus’ compelling words:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

Then it hit me: Jesus said “all men” which includes me!  “All men” includes not only those outside the community of faith, but those inside it as well.  In other words, our own confidence as his disciples is directly affected by our love for one another.  When we don’t love one another, we are not only affecting the person or persons we have the direct conflict with, others in our community of faith may end up casualties as well.

As if to drive this point home, I recently realized more deeply the context of Jesus words when he gave this command:  Jesus had just spoken of his own betrayal, and Judas had just departed to sell Jesus’ life for 30 pieces of silver (John 13:20-30).  As Jesus felt the aching pain of betrayal and impending accusations, he plead with his disciples “Love one another!”  He is still pleading today.  After 2000 years of church history, the most important command of all is still neglected.  How can this be?

So for me, these recent reflections have put Jesus’ love into sharp focus.  As Paul so eloquently expounded in 1 Corinthians 13, everything else counts as absolutely nothing without it.

“Beloved, let us love one another…” – 1 John 4:7

All You Need is Love

Okay, so lately I’ve been meditating on the final command Jesus gave to His disciples before going to an excruciating death, which was to “love one another”, and have been thinking about how we’ve often done everything else but that.  As I was talking to someone about this, this song popped into my head, and has rattling around up there ever since. I have a few reflections about love also rolling around in my mind which I’ll post soon, but in the meantime enjoy this vintage video. See if you can pick out another famous rocker in the audience.

Meditation: Being an Anomaly

In a recent email exchange, a friend made the comment that he viewed himself as sort of an anomaly, to which I responded “you are an anomaly!” (I didn’t put an exclamation point on it in the email, but I did in my mind.  It was such a perfect word.)

But since my response was meant to be an encouragement, I thought I’d best look up the word in the dictionary before hitting “send”.   Though my first reaction to the word was positive, when I worked in systems design an anomaly was never a good thing.  It was always the thing that happened that you weren’t expecting, and since you wanted computer programs to function as expected, you were definitely not happy when an “anomaly” popped up.  But people are not computer programs (thank God!), and I for one find those who don’t function as expected quite refreshing.  So, fortunately I have a dictionary on my Apple Powerbook that pops up with the flick of the mouse.

Anomaly: Something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected.

When I read that definition, I almost also wrote in my reply: “I hope I’m an anomaly too!”  And then I got to thinking: Wow, wasn’t Jesus an anomaly?  He really absolutely never functioned as he was “supposed” to.  He always slipped out of the verbal snares others tried to lay for him, because he didn’t answer as expected (I won’t list examples since they can be found in almost every interchange he had in the Gospels).  And in fact, he upset the religious establishment because he didn’t act as expected either (hanging out with all those “sinners”!  What was he thinking????)   And hey, I think he called us who follow him to be like Him, and therefore to be anomalies in the world as well! Which makes me think, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all viewed ourselves as anomalies?  I think we just might turn the world upside down.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

“If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring”

The following article was published on the Serving China Prayer Blog.  Though it was originally written to help foreigners more effectively pray for and serve the Body of Christ in China, it is really full of many lessons that we can learn from them as well.  Enjoy!

A House Church Pastor’s Perspective

By Brother Dong

EDITORS’ NOTE: This month we are so glad to present you with a letter written first-hand by a leading Chinese house church pastor himself! “Brother Dong” is a premiere Christian leader on a nationwide scale, involved in a very wide spectrum of Christian work across many provinces. Recently, he spoke to us by phone, giving us his insights on what we as a foreign servant ministry in China should focus on in the months and years ahead. It was so profoundly valuable that we asked him to put it in writing, which he agreed to do and then let us share with you also.

When Brother Dong first shared with by phone, his framework was how we could better pray for the church in China. Later, when he wrote the article, the same comments focused on how to best serve the church in China. Finally, when we read the article ourselves, we couldn’t help but notice how much we here in the West could learn from the church in China. It is our prayer that this excellent article will aid you both in better interceding for our brothers and sisters in China, as well as inspiring all of us to learn and apply lessons from the church in China to our communities of faith at home.

God’s work in China in the past fifty years has surprised many–Christians and non-Christians alike. Restricted circumstances and non-existent religious structure have birthed a homegrown movement, which does not easily fit into any traditional model. Maybe now for the first time Christianity has taken root in China. For the church to flourish within and without China, it is important for the Body of Christ to engage church in China in a holistic way.

First, help her stick to the essentials that sustain and grow a Christian or a church. There is a continual need for Bibles, and literature on spiritual life, preaching, and teaching, gospel tracts, world mission history and missionary biographies. Particularly in the current circumstances, these types of literature can reach many people at many places.

Second, help her return to the basics of Christian faith. The simplicity of Christian faith is the vitality of God’s church. The essence of Christ’s gospel needs no more than a mouth and a breath to spread. As the educational level improves in Chinese society, there is a temptation to develop elaborate theologies and practices, which are not only incomprehensible to many Christians and cause divisions, but also divert and waste the energy that should have been utilized to expand God’s Kingdom.

Third, encourage her to pick up the zeal and vision for world missions. The Chinese rural house church will be an important model for the future of world missions because 1) it is homegrown, which is non-threatening to local community and culture; 2) its strategies and methods are indigenous, mostly free of Western denominational influence, and so are flexible and adaptable; 3) its operation, without the burden of church building and clergy, is least resources-dependent, which in turn enables her to focus the resources for outreach; 4) it remains communal and relational, which is the nature of many societies/cultures in Asia and Africa; 5) it is of the lower class, which comprises of the majority of world population. This will potentially result in a shift in Christian missions and social development from “the strong reaching out the weak” to “peer help”.

Fourth, interact with the urban church productively. This requires Western believers to be especially wise, using caution in this effort. The urban church has experienced significant growth in the last fifteen years. It tends to be strong in education, affluence, skills, and resources, thus often self-sufficient. The strong background of leaders and limited exposure often result in isolation of churches. Intellectual ability often hinders urban churches from coming together because disagreement on certain doctrine or practice. Advanced training offers the urban church competence in managing efficiently, which could lead to some mega-churches. This may not be a good thing. There is a Chinese saying, which says: “If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring.” In the same way, efficiency of one entity may not mean effectiveness of the whole Body of Christ. To gain recognition, urban church tends to institutionalize through legal/structural effort and purchase of property, which is resource-draining. The consequences may be unexpected: when the Spirit is there, everybody cares for one another; but when the Body of Christ becomes institutionalized, each person becomes just one of many which often results in insensitivity and indifference. It is our hope that urban church would not fall into Western denominational structures and theologies.

Fifth, build dialogue and partnership between urban and rural churches. Because of societal and cultural differences, China exists in two very different worlds: the rural and the urban. Despite rapid urbanization in recent years, the influx to cities is mainly of rural outlook. The feelings of inferiority among the rural versus those of privilege among the urban often hinder interaction between the two worlds. This bears similar impact on the churches as well. They need to be pushed into dialogue and partnership to utilize their respective gifts. Rural churches typically are strong in dedication, human power, time, and contextual adaptability, while urban churches possess finance, knowledge, and advanced skills. Doing projects together may offer a good venue to develop dialogue and grow partnership.

Sixth, network churches from different background and areas. Because of the current circumstances, churches, big or small, often operate within their own circles. It would be beneficial for them to cross the boundaries which they have placed between themselves so that they can catch a big picture of God’s work and His call upon the Chinese church. This is usually not easy for nationals to initiate. Foreign believers are a good third party to initiate and sustain this kind of interaction. Only through this effort can real growth and expansion happen. Then many small and solid churches will bloom all over China, rather than a few big ones in a few centers.

Seventh, help her grow in the understanding of social witness and cross-cultural outreach. The one-sided economic development in the past thirty years has left out many in society. Most of the marginalized live among or are from the rural area. Christians have won approval through their upright living in their community, but they need to actively enter the society to reach out to the needy. Churches need to open their eyes to see the needs of orphans, HIV/AIDS, prostitutes, and the poor. Another area is cross-cultural: many churches have little experience or understanding of other cultures in China’s predominately Han Chinese society. As a result many Chinese missionaries are not effective in their work among ethnic minority groups. There is a need to understand cross-cultural issues and their practical implementation in order to include those people groups in fulfilling the Great Commission. Chinese churches are rich in resources, which can be effectively used for reaching out people outside of China, such as North Korean refugees and people-groups in Southeast Asia.

Finally, rekindle dedication to and sacrifice for Christ. As China develops economically, comfort, security, and stability begin to set in. Programs and strategies become increasingly sophisticated. There is a need to return to simplicity and rekindle the spirit of dedication and sacrifice. That is the most sustainable strategy in bringing the whole world to Christ!

My Father

This piece was originally written in 2004 as a tribute to my Dad on his 70th birthday.  It is one of my favorite pieces.  I won’t say more.  Let the piece speak for itself.

with Dad on the farm

with Dad on the farm

As I approach my father’s 70th birthday, it’s hard to believe so much time has passed by.  I remember as a little girl, looking up to my Daddy who was a colossal 6 feet 2 inches tall, with broad shoulders.  A giant of a man, yet with such a tender, gentle heart.  As a child, I remember our family moving to a farm 2 hours from the city so my parents could spend time writing.  We would take long family walks together.  It always seemed that my mother and brother would charge ahead, while I walked behind with my father – me, because my legs were the shortest, and my father, because he liked to stop and look at some small flower or bird.  A gentle giant who noticed the smallest flower and the most fleeting bird.  Every once in a while, he would pause just to listen or observe – “You hear that, Margaret, that’s a Bob White.”  or “You see that, Margaret, that’s a Mountain Laurel.”

But of all my memories, what is most precious is how my father taught me to be a spiritual being.  He did this without hardly knowing it, and at a time when he himself had lost faith in the existence of a God.  I once tried to tell my father about this memory, but he seemed to think the memory was a painful one for me, and apologized.  I didn’t know what to say, so said nothing, but now wish I had clarified.  It happened when I was around 6 years old.  We lived on the farm then.  It was glorious – a house on a hill nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  When I stood out in front of the house, mountains greeted me in every direction.  I was just at the age that it was dawning on me that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, among others, were not real.  Other questions began to creep into my mind, so one day I went out to ask my father, “Dad, is God real?”

“Well, Margaret,” he replied, in his honest philosophical voice, that never talked down to me, “I don’t believe in him, but others feel differently.  I think your mother may feel differently.”

From there I went to my mother, who replied, “I think there’s some power out there, but I don’t know what it is.”

Today, I have deep gratitude for these answers.  My father was an atheist, but he was a humble atheist.  He didn’t pretend that he knew the answers for me, and thus put the question back in my own hands.  So, I ended up standing in front of our house and asked the Universe, or whatever might be out there: “Is God real?”  In a moment, as I gazed over the visual cacophony of colors bespeckling the autumn Blue Ridge Mountain range, I knew.  I am still amazed to this day, that a young 6-year old girl could have the thoughts that flashed through my mind, but when I looked at those mountains I saw the work of an artistic genius.  I knew.  Dad, your answer was not a painful one for me, but a powerful one.  My memories of those days are the sweetest I know.  I was unknowingly pointed to the only One who could answer my question, and I heard the Voice answering visually from the mountains.  Now as I reflect back I realize that even the power of observation that answered me that day was taught to me by my father.  No, Dad it was not painful, it was the day God spoke.  Thank you.

“But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is!  By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse.”  (The Book of Romans, The Message Bible)

“So you’ll go out in joy, you’ll be led into a whole and complete life. The mountains and hills will lead the parade, bursting with song. All the trees of the forest will join the procession, exuberant with applause.  No more thistles, but giant sequoias, no more thorn bushes, but stately pines – Monuments to me, to God, living and lasting evidence of God.” (The Book of Isaiah, The Message Bible)

planting our garden

planting our garden

Thanks to you Truth Tellers!

A few weeks ago I was discussing with my mother what I appreciated about the teaching style of a pastor friend of mine, which led to a discussion of how two people can say basically the same thing, but with one it’s just words, but the other there is life because there is depth behind the words.  To this my mother asked, pondering, “What do you think it is that causes that depth?”

I like my parents, because they both really make me think.

After considering for a moment, I replied, “I think it is suffering.  Not that the whole world doesn’t suffer, but some people allow the suffering to touch them and transform them.”

Another time recently, a friend wrote me an email to encourage me about something I was going through.  The words deeply encouraged me.  Why?  The brother wrote me from the experience of his own dark nights, and long and weary fight.  The words were so beautiful in their truth that I encouraged him to consider writing a book one day.

Or, I could also tell of the friend I spent a week with recently.  She is an absolute beautiful lady, a precious gem, but her life has taken her down a road that is currently causing her deep pain.  Her pain took me back to experiences I had nearly 20 years ago.  We spent the week together in both uproarious laughter and heart-wrenching tears.  Was this friend’s suffering a burden to me?  No.  It is an honor and a privilege to be allowed to enter another’s suffering.  To me such a place is like the Holy of Holies.  My life is richer for knowing such a woman.

These and other experiences have reminded me lately of a favorite passage in Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.  This passage articulates both my own struggle to express truth, and my appreciation of many of you out there who express truth to me.  Sharing Oswald Chamber’s words below is my way of thanking you and encouraging you – some of you are fellow bloggers or writers, some are friends, some are leaders, some are just simple folk who don’t think of themselves as leaders but are.  Thank you for struggling to express to me and others the truth God has given you. My life is richer because of it.  I hope you know who you are!

APPROVED UNTO GOD (Source: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers – December 15 entry)

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:15

If you cannot express yourself on any subject, struggle until you can. If you do not, someone will be the poorer all the days of his life. Struggle to re-express some truth of God to yourself, and God will use that expression to someone else. Go through the winepress of God where the grapes are crushed. You must struggle to get expression experimentally, then there will come a time when that expression will become the very wine of strengthening to someone else; but if you say lazily – “I am not going to struggle to express this thing for myself, I will borrow what I say,” the expression will not only be of no use to you, but of no use to anyone. Try to state to yourself what you feel implicitly to be God’s truth, and you give God a chance to pass it on to someone else through you.

Always make a practice of provoking your own mind to think out what it accepts easily. Our position is not ours until we make it ours by suffering. The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.