Wednesday, October 18, 2017

AFTER JAPAN: HOSPITALITY

Life presents relationships, challenges, and experiences that are best described as before-&-after events.

They create clear lines of demarcation in how we think, feel, relate, and engage - who we were before, who we are after.

Before Christ. After Christ.
Before children. After children.
Before cancer. After cancer.
Before Japan. After Japan.

Two completely different worlds.

So, how am I different, after Japan?

I am still processing, so my answer to that question is not yet fully formed. I do know, however, that I am not the same person I was a month ago. I do not want to be the same person.

While in Japan, my thinking was challenged significantly in two important areas: 1.) hospitality, and 2.) the visible church.

I was born and raised in the South. Hospitality is as much a part of my heritage as grits and cornbread. Everyone's heard of "Southern hospitality," right? We Southerners speak Hospitality fluently - it's our native tongue.

That's what I thought before Japan.

After Japan, I'm not so sure. I'm afraid many of us Southerners have traded true hospitality for a weak impostor: good manners.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for good manners and polite discourse. We should endeavor to always treat others with courtesy, respect, and kindness.

But good manners - does not equal - hospitality. Let me try to explain with an illustration...

Good manners is greeting the visitor at church on Sunday with a smile and a handshake: "Good morning! Welcome! We are so glad you are here. I hope you enjoyed the service, and that you'll come back again soon."

Hospitality is...

The young woman invited us to her house for the weekend. "Please! Come and stay! I want you to be my guests!" After the six of us arrived at her tiny abode, the woman confided to my daughter, "I am so glad you are here! But I wonder...where will everyone sleep?"

The houses I visited in Japan were small: a compact kitchen/living area, a bathroom/washroom, a sleeping room. Many single college students in America live in apartments that in Japan would accommodate a family of four.

A well-mannered Southern hostess would know better than to invite overnight guests to her house if she did not have space to accommodate them. Better to just smile, shake hands, say "So nice to meet you!" - and leave it at that. Be polite...but don't get all crazy!

But for my young Japanese friend, love for others trumped everything else. Her great concern was not - Do I have enough beds/bowls/cups for everyone? Rather, her great desire was fellowship, conversation around a common table, shared stories and laughter. She raced past "So nice to meet you" and pressed right on into "Please, come into my world, such as it is. I want to share my life with you!"

I visited many beautiful places while I was in Japan: ancient temples, fabulous gardens, parks and restaurants. Nothing was as beautiful as my young friend's home and the hospitality she and her family extended to us there.

After our visit, my daughter commented that true hospitality requires courage, because it demands that we be vulnerable. True hospitality means inviting others into our world, to commune with us not as visitors, but as family.

Politeness, good manners - those, while good, generally require neither courage nor vulnerability. They also don't require much heart. I can be polite even if I don't feel like it, even if I don't like you.

True hospitality requires a generous heart, and, yes, Martha, it requires courage.

I want to be that big and that brave, after Japan.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

LIFE OUTSIDE OF TIME

My internal clock is all out of whack.

I am not sure what day of the week it is, nor am I confident of today's date. I do know we are in the month of October now - yay, me!

My daily rhythms are off. My weekly rhythms are off. I feel like I am living life outside of time.

This time confusion is not without its advantages, though.

Life here in Japan is lived fourteen hours ahead of life in West Tennessee. It is six o'clock in the evening here. Martha is cooking dinner.

It is four o'clock in the morning in West Tennessee - four o'clock this morning, the one already past here in Japan - and it is four o'clock in Mississippi...and four o'clock in the morning is a wonderful time to pray for the day ahead for those I love back home.

My prayer sisters pray throughout the day back in Tennessee. And then, as their day ends, my day begins, and the baton is passed. It is pretty cool to know that we are praying for one another around the clock.

Before I adjust to day and night on the far side of the world, it will be time to head home, time to throw another wrench into the gears of my already malfunctioning internal clock.

I anticipate another season of time confusion. I wonder what blessings it will bring?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

WEDNESDAY IN JAPAN

I can't think of anything that makes a person feel more like a near-goddess than bathing outdoors in the middle of a forest in a pool fed by a steaming hot river...

Sainokawara Open Air Bath
...except maybe bathing with your daughter and granddaughter after hiking up a mountain in brisk fall air.

Observations from a day of adventuring in Gunma Prefecture, Japan:

I always heard the Garden of Eden was located somewhere over in the Fertile Crescent, on the Sinai Peninsula. Perhaps whoever made that claim had never visited Japan.

On the train, on the bus, in a restaurant, on the street, in the shops...the Japanese people have overwhelmed me with their friendliness, helpfulness, and hospitality. The people here are beautiful.

I have an awesome son-in-law. Thank you, Justin, for this opportunity to not only enjoy time with your family, but to also explore your new home. It is lovely!

Monday, October 2, 2017

THIS BIG, BEAUTIFUL BRIDE

When you attend a very small church in a rural community that has little interaction with the world beyond the county line, it is easy to develop a small, narrow understanding of how Jesus's people look and talk and how they worship together.

It is good, sometimes, to step outside the bounds of one's normal routines of interaction, to see Christ's church with fresh eyes, to listen with fresh ears.

Sunday, I was blessed to attend the International Church in Takasaki with my daughter and her family. Among the small group of worshipers were representatives from five continents. The sermon was presented in two different languages. Believers from Italy, Zimbabwe, and Japan raised their voices together in songs of praise to our Redeemer.

It was a long service. Translating a sermon into multiple languages takes time. Singing a hymn in first one language, then in another, takes time. It was a long service; but reluctant to part after the closing prayer, those gathered lingered late into the evening for conversation and fellowship.

I was a visitor, an outsider...and yet I was made to feel very much at home. I, too, was loathe to part company with these precious believers.

I wonder: would these sweet brothers and sisters have been welcomed as warmly and made to feel as much at home if they attended my little church in the hills of Tennessee? Or would they have been too different?

* * *
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." - Revelation 7:9-10

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SHARED SORROW, DOUBLE JOY

Speaking of the study in the book of Romans (see previous post HERE)...

When Paul was prevented from doing the thing he wanted earnestly to do - to visit believers in Rome - how did he respond? He applied himself diligently to the task before him - ministering to the church in Corinth - while he continued praying for and looking for opportunities to go to Rome.

I am so thankful God did not answer Paul's prayers with an immediate "Yes." Otherwise, we wouldn't have this amazing letter to the Romans!

It occurred to me this week that this great book gives us so many powerhouse verses of encouragement. It was in this season of deferred longing that Paul wrote:

"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

- AND -

"And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).

- AND -

"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)

These verses were penned while Paul's desires were being denied by God.

Oh, for such faith, a faith that rests in and readily testifies to the unwavering faithfulness and goodness of God, even in the face of disappointment and unanswered prayers!

Ephesians 2 tells us that this kind of confident, rock-solid, unflinching, joyful faith is the gift of God. We can not conjure it up within ourselves. So, like the father of the child possessed by an unclean spirit, I cry: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"

This has been a season of "not yet" answers to prayer at my house. It would be easy to grow discouraged, frustrated, melancholy. But God, in his great mercy, has surrounded me with a community of believers who are committed to praying alongside me. When my own faith flags, these sisters and brothers remind me - again and again - of the goodness and faithfulness of God.

One fruit of this "not yet" season: we have learned that when we share our disappointments and sorrows, they diminish. Even more astounding, we have seen our grief transformed into worship and praise. One dear sister wrote, "God is causing us to rejoice - not in a certain outcome - but in God himself."

A Swedish proverb states: "Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow."

It is one thing to begin with joy, share that joy, and then see it multiplied into greater joy; or to begin with grief, and see that grief, when shared, made smaller.

But God is so much bigger than that. Our sovereign, all-powerful Creator transforms shared sorrows into joyful praise.

* * *
I will turn their mourning into joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
Jeremiah 31:13b

Friday, September 22, 2017

HINDERED

I am participating in an AMAZING study of Romans this fall with a diverse group of women who love the Lord and who want to dig deeply into his Word.

Yesterday, we walked together step-by-step through Romans 1:1-17. Among other things, we learned that Paul had long wanted to visit believers in Rome to impart to them some spiritual gift, that he and they might be mutually encouraged. However, at the time the letter was written, Paul still had not made it to Rome. Paul writes: "...I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented)..." (v. 13).

Paul kept trying to go to Rome, but God kept thwarting Paul's plans. (I am so thankful Paul did not make it to Rome when he first desired to go there - so thankful for this letter Paul wrote while God had him serving somewhere else!)

Although Paul was prevented from going to Rome, he did not sit idly twiddling his thumbs: he continued to pray for the believers in Rome; he continued to pray that God would allow him the opportunity to visit them; he continued to look for such an opportunity; AND, he served faithfully right where he was at the moment.

As we discussed this passage yesterday, we considered implications of Paul's example for our own lives.

Have you ever earnestly wanted to do something - kingdom work, no less - but been prevented? Have you made plans to serve, only to be repeatedly hindered in carrying out those plans? Have you prayed faithfully about a particular opportunity, only to have that opportunity denied over and over again?

Me, too.

Looking at Paul's response to hindered desires, I am encouraged to keep praying, keep asking, keep trying...and then to faithfully labor in the work God gives me to do right here, right now.

The bottom line is: I can trust God with the details of my life. I can trust God even when my prayers have not yet been answered and when my plans do not work out.

So, this morning - Friday morning, September 22 - I began the day with a pretty lengthy list of things I needed to accomplish. Today was going to be a full day, start to finish, but I felt like if I stayed focused and pressed into the harness, I could handle the work load.

I began the day in Romans, reviewing the passage and the things my group discussed yesterday. As I closed my Bible and prepared to jump into the day, before I even got to Item #1 on my ToDo list, my phone exploded. Five frantic text messages from my daughter who had encountered a problem at school. Another, not-so-frantic text from my son, who needed help with his car. A phone call, another text...

My plans for the day had been thwarted. God had other plans for me! I shifted mental gears, grabbed my purse, and headed out the door to address Crisis #1. After my first stop, I hopped back in the car and checked my phone - 11 missed calls!

"Jesus, what on earth is going on!" I exclaimed.

I think God must have been laughing:  "Remember what we talked about yesterday, in the book of Romans? About Paul's experience, and how that can encourage you?"

"Yes! Yes! Of course I remember." I shifted into Drive. I can trust God with the details of my life, even when my plans are hindered. By now, things had gotten so far off-plan, so ridiculous, that I was laughing, too.

Today, I did not do the many things I intended to do. That's okay. God had other things for me to do instead. Yesterday's reminder of God's sovereignty and good purposes in the life of Paul - and in my own life - could not have been more timely.

You want to know something really cool? Checking in here at the blog was not on my ToDo list for today. Today was going to be a run-hard-all-day kind of day - no time for writing.

But God, in his sweet providence, shredded my ToDo list before the day was half-started. God had different plans for me today. I am thankful that He put writing on his list!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I WILL; BE CLEAN

Sunday mornings at Grace, we are working through the book of Matthew. This past Sunday, we read:

When he [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying "I will; be clean." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them." - Matthew 8:1-4

I love this passage, and I have written about it before here on the blog. But this week, new things jumped out at me from these verses...

Everyone of us - either while we walk this earth, or afterward, when we stand on the brink of Glory - every single one of us WILL experience a one-on-one, face-to-face encounter with Jesus. And, as we encounter Jesus, everyone of us fits into one of two categories of people:

The competent man. This man is knowledgeable, righteous, justified in all his actions. He is whole and complete; he has no need to be healed. The religious leaders of Matthew's day were competent men.

The broken man. This man is diseased, despised, desperate. Not only is he incompetent, but he has no hope of making himself better. God himself has labeled this man - the leper - unclean; and because of his uncleanness, he is forced to live life separated from God and from God's people.

The first man - the competent man - needs no healing. And guess what: when the competent man encounters Jesus, Jesus does not heal him. Whole, healthy, righteous people don't NEED to be healed, right? When the Pharisees encountered Jesus, they sought no healing, and they received none.

The second man - the "leper" - is desperately aware of his need for healing. And guess what: when the broken man encounters Jesus, Jesus heals him.

The truth is, ALL of us sons and daughters of Adam are broken. We are all lepers. We are all unclean. The question I face today is: will I deny my brokenness, thus denying myself the healing that only Jesus can provide - or - will I acknowledge my brokenness, and, like the leper, ask Jesus to make me clean?

The broken man - the leper in this passage - knows his desperate need. Although commanded by the law to stand apart from others because of his uncleanness, the leper pushed his way through the crowd until he stood before Jesus. This was an act of desperation.

The broken man approaches Jesus humbly, reverently - the leper knelt before Jesus.

The broken man recognizes that Jesus has the power to heal him - "Lord...you can make me clean" - and yet, the broken man asks with humility - "Lord, if you will..."

The broken man is not demanding. He does not pray: Heal me, Lord! Now!

He is not presumptuous. He does not assert: If I ask with faith, then God must grant what I ask.

He is submissive. The broken man submits himself, in speech, manner, and deed, to God's will rather than his own: Lord, if you will...

In response to the broken man's desperate, humble, reverent, submissive prayer, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the man - Jesus TOUCHES him! - and says, "I will; be clean."

[Do you understand the magnitude of what Jesus has just done?! I am weeping as I write this, people. Excuse me for a minute...I need to step away from the computer and sing The Doxology.]

Jesus touches the man - the broken man, the leper - and heals him. But that's not the end of this story. Jesus then says, "See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them."

Jesus would not make a very good book agent. He does not say, "Now, friend, you need to schedule interviews with all the major TV networks and then secure a movie deal for your story."

Instead, Jesus commands this man, a man who has long lived outside the community of believers, to join in public worship, at the temple, with God's people.

And how is the healed leper to worship?

"...offer the gift that Moses commanded..." - If you look back in Leviticus, chapter 14, you discover that the process a priest went through to determine if a leper could be declared "clean" was complicated. It was messy. And, it was public.

In other words, although the leper had been healed, declared clean by Jesus himself, although this man was now a member of the community of faith, Jesus basically instructed him: "Testify to your brokenness."

Why, Lord? Why must I share my diseased and broken past with others? Why not forget the past, let bygones be bygones? Why can I not now just let others see that I am healed, whole, righteous, complete... 

Wait a minute. That sounds awfully like the competent man, doesn't it, so desperately wanting to convince others that he's okay.

Oh.

Why is the healed leper called to such outrageous, humbling, visible, joyful worship?

"...for a proof to them."

* * *

I am living proof that Jesus can and will touch a leper and make her clean.

But you won't appreciate that truth - you won't be amazed at how the story ends, and be moved to worship God yourself - if I don't start back at the beginning of the story...

And so, I must own my brokenness again, and again, and again. Not because my brokenness defines who I am, but because it testifies to the power of the Savior who redefines who I am, by bringing me into union with Himself. Not because I glory in my uncleanness, but because I glory in the Lord, who said to me, "I will; be clean."

* * *

And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying "I will; be clean."