Summer Road Trip – Destination: God’s Presence

I have always dreamed of traveling to Rome.

So when our plane landed in Pisa, Italy in June my internal GPS was set to get me to Rome as quickly as possible, even though our itinerary said that Rome was still five days away.

First, we spent a couple of days in Florence, where I saw with my very own eyes, Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia Gallery. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in the same room with this seventeen foot sculptured masterpiece. We visited the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, the Tuscan hills, and the vineyards of Umbria. Finally we reached Rome, and toured the Colesseum, as well as many other amazing and ancient historical sites.

But I had been dreaming about one particular place in Rome for a very long time – the Sistine Chapel. I anticipated slowly walking into the quiet of that beautiful space, where papal conclaves have been taking place since 1492. Once inside I would look up in awe at the ceiling to see the majesty of Michelangelo’s fresco of The Creation of Adam, painted over 500 years ago. I imagined in that moment, as I first saw the actual painting of God’s finger reaching out to touch Adam’s finger, I would feel a new and powerful spark of God’s presence in me, just like Adam.  I even imagined myself lying on the floor on my back, relaxed, just gazing up at the ceiling for as long as I wanted. This would be a breathe-taking moment between God and me.

I had very high expectations that my once-in-a-lifetime experience in that room would be…perfect!

In case you didn’t know, five million tourists visit the Sistine Chapel each year. It averages about 25,000 visitors each day.
And I think all 25,000 of us were packed into the Sistine Chapel together for fifteen minutes the day I was there.

Without realizing it, I had anticipated that just me and God would be there together and we would relax, take in the creative majesty together and stay as long as we wanted. I had in mind that all the elements would come together perfectly, just for God and me in that moment.

That didn’t happen. There was a schedule. There was a crowd. I felt distracted and rushed.

That moment didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. It was still good. Just not what I anticipated.

Sometimes we get caught up in a disappointing experience and just stop trying. Something doesn’t turn out as magnificent as we imagined and we become turned off completely. A conversation with a co-worker isn’t productive. A night out with our significant other feels like we’re going through the motions instead of exciting and romantic. A project that looked fabulously successful in our heads turns out mediocre. And our memory of disappointment begins to color everything.

This can even be true of our expectations of God.

Thankfully, my disappointing experience didn’t diminish the majesty of God – or even the majesty of the Sistine Chapel.

And I don’t want to allow it to keep me from anticipating great moments with God in my future.

I will forever remember, a couple of days before returning home from Italy, walking into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. I did not anticipate this moment at all. I hardly noticed this place in our travel plans. But inside, it was dark, quiet, beautiful, ancient and holy. Glimmering gold and bronze mosaic tiles came together to reveal the face of Jesus in the center of a beautifully gilded dome.

And as I looked up to into the beauty of Jesus’ face, I felt his presence there.

God surprised me with that new and powerful spark of his presence I had been hoping for. This was not the place I had dreamed about. But it was in this unexpected, unanticipated place that I felt God’s presence and mystery in a new and powerful way.

I didn’t even know I would be here. But God waited for me

And isn’t that our journey? We hope. We plan. We anticipate. We don’t always know where or with whom we will experience this deep sense of God’s presence. We can only trust, deeply trust, that God is there waiting for us.

The prophet Isaiah said it this way; “But the LORD still waits for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the LORD is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for him to help them.”  Isaiah 30:18

- Sharon

How Italy Changed Me

While in Italy, I identified a lot of new ideas that I want to explore further. Here is one that particularly intrigues me:

I want to be more intentional about partnering with God in creating and enjoying beauty.

This is because I experienced two awe-inspiring expressions of beauty in Italy.

Natural beauty.
God created us and placed us in a garden of great beauty. The rhythm of our souls long for and thrive in that setting with God. The more we separate ourselves from being present with God in natural and refreshing settings the more dry and pale our souls become. I find myself “re-syncing” with God’s rhythm for my soul as I relax, enjoy, and give thanks to God for being the top creative Creator of all things good. God makes the invisible visible with gifts for the eye and the soul to experience – gifts that God and I can relax and enjoy together. The people of Italy are very intentional about honoring this partnership and experience with God. Italians enjoy il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. It is an attitude. It is a mindset. It is the opportunity to enjoy the simple things life has to offer, whether it is a beautiful sunset, a colorful garden, delicious food, a child’s laugh or a long nap on a warm summer afternoon.

Created beauty.
The Creator created us to be creators. I came across a breathtakingly spectacular view one day in Rome. From this somewhat secluded spot I looked across a small valley in the heart of the city that held the remains of the Roman Forum. Some of these structures were built around 700-600 BC. For centuries this was the center of Roman public life where triumphal processions and elections took place, public speeches were made, criminal trials took place, and sadly, gladiators and Christian martyrs were set to lose their lives. From here, I could see the columns of the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Temple of Caesar, the Temple of Vesta and just beyond all this I could see the Colosseum. These structures were created to last for eternity. And even though they were not originally created to honor God, as I took in the awe of that moment, in that place, God received my thanks and praise for creating us to create and for allowing what was created by human hands over 2,000 years ago to remain here now for us to see.

A Dangerous Place To Live

Earth can be a dangerous place to live.

Recently, Moore, Oklahoma and Granbury and Cleburne, Texas have experienced horrific loss through monster tornadoes that have reminded us just how vulnerable we are here on Earth.

As I process the images of devastation and loss, I find myself wondering what God was thinking as mile-wide tornadoes were barreling toward schools filled with children, homes filled with families, hospitals, businesses, churches – all the places where our lives normally make sense and feel safe.

Actually, I have personally witnessed a couple of life-altering disasters in which I had no choice but to stand by helplessly. I remember thinking, “If I could have just rearranged this whole scenario, I could have fixed this so that no one would have been hurt.”

 I wonder if God ever thinks in that same way.

I’ve also made painful choices – choices in which it seemed no one was a winner. And with the choice comes the knowledge that, without it, something even more disastrous inevitably comes.

I wonder if God ever has to make those kinds of choices.

In the aftermath of a disaster, we are often inept at explaining what we believe God’s part has been in that moment. We quote the biblical teaching that God is sovereign, meaning that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without God’s direction or permission.

I agree that all things are under God’s rule but I struggle with the notion that God controls tornadoes, directs them and gives them permission to destroy.

Sometimes I simply have to say, “I don’t know how this works and I don’t know exactly how God thinks.”  I can make a distinction between what I know about God and what I believe about God.

  • I believe God is deeply interested in healing us and saving us and he is not at all interested in causing us harm.
  • I believe God made the choice to give us freedom (to follow Jesus, love God, love others and serve the world) rather than control us and control everything around us.
  • I believe God has us in mind all the time, and his love and grace for us is much more powerful than any disaster that might come our way here on Earth.

Freedom. It makes Earth a dangerous place to live at times. Things get out of control – even under the watch of our sovereign God who, I believe, only has good in mind for us.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  - Jeremiah 29:11

Meeting With God, Chapter 3

Meeting with God posts are all connected with a question I was once asked about how I developed a daily quiet time with God. As I reflect back on my journey, I recognize how the time I spend seeking to know more about God relates directly to my understanding of how God’s Spirit lives and works in me.

So I researched in Scripture for an understanding of the process God uses to transform us and I came across Titus 2:11-14. I have underlined the words that grabbed my attention that day.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.    Titus 2:11-14

The Apostle Paul tells us it is God’s grace that teaches us, trains us and helps us grow as disciples who are self-controlled and eager to do what is good – followers of Jesus who turn away from ungodliness and worldly passions.

But how can God’s grace change my heart if I’m not doing my part? And what is my part?

It can be challenging to comprehend how God’s grace works without recognizing the direct connection between the grace of God and the Spirit of God. We experience the grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. Simply put, in that place where we experience God’s presence we also experience God’s grace.

So where are you and what are you doing when you feel the presence of God?

Keep going back!

Spend more and more time there!

Discover new places to experience God!

In that place, where you feel God’s Spirit active in you, God’s grace is teaching you and shaping your heart to love God, love others and serve the world.

Forsaking Control for Trust

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.- Proverbs 3:5-6

By nature, I want to be in control. I convince myself, at times, that my way is better, safer, more attractive, more fun, more successful or simply… right. I sometimes believe that if everyone would just do things my way, the world, or let’s just say my family, would be much better off. Of course, that is simply not true. My plans don’t always work out, and I know why. I can only see a portion of the intricate pieces of this complicated thing we call life. I have limitations and lack the wisdom necessary to be in complete control of my world.  And honestly, the realization that I have so little control causes me to feel anxious.

When I try to place me in the driver’s seat to control things, in essence I am struggling to depose God of his rightful place as the sovereign Lord of my world.

Carrie Underwood’s Jesus Take the Wheel song is a story about this struggle for control. It’s about a young mother who lives a very hectic life. On a late-night drive down a snow-covered road with her baby in the backseat, the young mom begins sorting out her life.  She comes to realize that she has held total control of her life but she hasn’t done a very good job of focusing it on people and things that really matter. Suddenly, her car hits a patch of black ice, causing the woman to lose control of the car. She panics, takes her hands off the steering wheel and cries out for Jesus to take control of not only the car, but also her life.

Of course, I don’t believe this song paints a true picture of the kind of surrender God wants from us. God doesn’t want us to throw up our hands and give up. And, God doesn’t want to control us either. Control damages relationships.

What God wants is our complete trust, and trust is a partnership that offers great assurance and hope.

In 1941 a pastor named Reinhold Niebuhr shared a prayer in a sermon that evolved into what we now call the Serenity Prayer. It says:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

God, help me forsake control and take in its place a partnership of deep trust in you. 

Meeting With God, Chapter 2

In my last post, I mentioned that someone asked me how I developed a daily quiet time with God.  That question inspired me to look back to the beginning of my journey. Through that reflection, I can see how my quiet time continues to evolve, based on how I need to change or what I need to learn about God’s nature.

That first post about Meeting with God was focused on learning how to submit to God. This chapter is about recognizing how God is working all around us every moment of every day. Of course, the one element that has remained consistent is meeting with God first thing each morning because it impacts the way I interact with others, make decisions and think about my purpose and role in situations throughout the entire day.

The second phase of my journey grew out of a perceived need to pray over everything and everyone before I started my day. Journaling my prayer time became very important to me during this season. I learned a pattern for prayer which basically developed into something that looked like this:

  1. Praise God for being God and submit to his authority in my life and the world. I would write out my praises to God for his goodness, generosity, grace, power and majesty.
  2. Thank God for being God and reflect on what he has done. I would reflect on and write down all the good things I recognized as God’s work in the world over the past day, through people and situations, and I would give God thanks.
  3. Ask God to bless the people and the world around me. I would write out the name of each person on my heart – a complete list of family, friends, church staff, world needs – asking God to bless each one with very specific requests.
  4. Ask God to forgive me, bless me and transform me into the person he wants me to become. I would write out all my failures (at least the ones I could see) from the past day and ask God to forgive me and change my heart. I would write out situations and ask God to help me know how to respond and make good decisions.
  5. Listen to what God has to say. I would end this journaling time of prayer by trying really hard to stop thinking and just be quiet. I would write out what I sensed God wanted me to hear. Even on those days when I sensed no specific response from God, the practice of learning to quiet my own spirit and listen became an invaluable discipline that brought peace and balance to my day.

Through journaling my prayer time, I learned principles and practices that still influence my relationship with God today.  But I’m really not a “journaler” by nature. It became too much for me and I became inconsistent with the practice of writing out every part of my prayer time. However, that season of consistent journaling was just what I needed to build a foundation for a greater understanding of where God is present and where God is working.

God is in action everywhere! It gives me great peace to have that assurance.

Meeting with God

Recently someone asked me how I developed a daily quiet time with God.  That question inspired me to look back to the beginning of my journey.

I love change and I’m just a bit ADD. As I reflect back, I can see how my quiet time has changed and evolved into just the right experience for a given time period so that I would keep growing and remain engaged. There is one practice that has remained consistent however, and that is meeting with God first thing each morning. It is important for me because it impacts the way I interact with others, make decisions and think about my purpose and role in situations throughout the entire day.

Early on in these quiet times, I can see now how I was learning to submit to God. Sitting quietly to pray and read scripture made me feel jittery and restless. Evidently, there was a struggle that was taking place within me. So I changed my posture to one of submission. I began kneeling down on the floor to simply worship God, reflecting on his awesome power and grace. I took the pressure off myself to produce a prayer or read through a whole chapter of the Bible. I started with what came more naturally to me at the time. I called it prayer but it was simply being in God’s presence – being in awe of God’s presence.

Sometimes I would kneel down completely with my face on the floor. Through that posture of submission and time of simple worship of God I learned the difference between quality time and quantity time with God. God wants more of me not just more of my time.

I can see now how important it was for me to begin with an attitude and posture of submission. It was something I was struggling with at that time. Because of that experience, I now know for certain that I have a God, the King of all creation. I kneel in his presence. I am not in control. I submit to his power and authority. This reality did not come easily to me. I had to experience it many times before I could fully accept it as truth in my heart and mind.

Submitting to God was just the beginning. In my next post I’ll share what happened next.

God was in Russia long before I got there

I remember sharing with our Russian Orphan Aid team, just after we settled into our dorm rooms in Voronehz, that God was here in Russia long before we got here and he will be here long after we leave. We are simply here joining with him in his work. It is not ours. It is his.

As I sit here this morning, reflecting on all I learned and experienced in Russia, I remember those words I shared. God claimed the people of Russia as his own long ago and continues to redeem them. He has walked with them through the great suffering and devastation of wars, famine and economic instability. He stuck with them when they were commanded to turn away and when many of his ancient cathedrals were demolished. While in Russia, I sensed the lasting effects of the peoples’ suffering and their determination to persevere.

In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul spoke about what suffering produces:

“And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Early in our trip, as I entered one of the Russian Orthodox cathedrals near Red Square and saw the magnificent ancient icons in rich colors, completely covering its huge walls and pillars from floor to ceiling, I held my breathe in awe of God. The icons reveal God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, Apostles and stories of the Bible. The first thought that came to me as I stood there was “faithfulness”. These are the signs of ancient faithful people pointing to God. I couldn’t even imagine what it took to create this. Such beauty cannot be described. And today, there are still many Russian Orthodox people who worship God and follow Jesus with deep, deep devotion in ways that I do not completely understand but can see with eyes of faith.

While in Russia, we worshipped with the people of Restoration Church in Moscow and felt God’s Spirit present in a room completely filled to overflowing. We also worshipped with young adults from four churches in Voronehz, including Resurrection United Methodist Church, and experienced God moving in powerful and refreshing ways through all of us. We met Christians everywhere we went who instantly welcomed us and cared for us as close family members.

I have to admit that I was not expecting to experience God’s presence in Russia with such depth of foundation and pervasiveness of power. But today, I am reminded that God is big enough to walk with the Russian people through all they have endured. God was there long before I arrived and will not leave. His love endures forever.

Making Disciples

It seems that more and more often I have the privilege of watching as our church family offers its very best. Tonight the United Methodist Women did just that as they offered warm hospitality with excellence and honored one of their own.

Brenda Jobe is a woman who has served God and others with deep love and wild enthusiasm. I know this because I’ve experienced it first-hand!

In just a few short years here at First Methodist Mansfield, Brenda has become a spiritual mom to dozens of women and has claimed Robbie Erwin as her own. She has nurtured women into joining a bible study group for the first time ever and then walked alongside some of those same women as they became bible study leaders themselves.

Brenda is one of those disciples we describe as Christ-centered. Every segment of her life seems to be infused with a desire for us to see what she sees – how great God is!

Let me just simply say, Brenda Jobe’s labor of love has made a difference here and the fruit of her labor showed up to honor her tonight.

As I looked around the room at the faces of all the women who were there to say “thank you” to Brenda, I was reminded of the way God moves in and through us to accomplish his vision for the church. It was an inspiring moment!

I’m so very proud of the hearts and the mission work of our United Methodist Women and I’m thankful that Brenda Jobe continues to serve at First Methodist Mansfield.

Inexhaustible

Whenever I feel a bit exhausted it reminds me of how much I need God. I have limits. I can run out of energy, patience, compassion, creativity and hope. I can become depleted physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually.  I am exhaustible…but God is inexhaustible.

God is incapable of being depleted.

God never runs out of energy, patience, compassion, creativity or hope. Remembering this refuels my faith and gives me a sense of peace about the contrast between my limitations and God’s inexhaustible depth.

God is God. I am not. I need God’s inexhaustible strength.

Isaiah 40: 28-31 says,

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Inexhaustible God, help me spend more time alone with you every day so that I might have all the energy I need to love you, love others and serve the world. Amen.

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