At the Table with April Fiet http://aprilfiet.com Sat, 15 Aug 2015 13:45:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.4 Looking for Identity in Target’s Toy Departmenthttp://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/looking-for-identity-in-targets-toy-department http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/looking-for-identity-in-targets-toy-department#comments Sat, 15 Aug 2015 13:45:17 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2209 If a memoir were to be written about the Internet and social media in 2015, it would be entitled The Big, Bad World against Poor,...

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If a memoir were to be written about the Internet and social media in 2015, it would be entitled The Big, Bad World against Poor, Helpless Me.

Or something snarky about the constant need to be outraged or offended by something new on any given day.

This week’s topic has been Target’s decision to remove gender-specific signage from their toy department. And the reaction has been intense. Many have been in favor of the changes, while others have been concerned that Target’s decision is yet one more move away from a traditional, binary understanding of gender.

I’ll be completely transparent and say that Target’s decision doesn’t really bother me. Regardless of what signs in store toy departments suggest, I have encouraged my children to be interested in what they are interested in. If my son wants to cook, that’s fine with me. If my daughter wants to drive Hot Wheels cars, I see no problem with it. If my son wants to sleep with a purple, unicorn Pillow Pet, that’s cool with me.

The suggestion on the sign doesn’t influence the way I parent my children.

However, as my kids have begun learning to read, they have asked me questions about the things they read on store signs. They’ve flushed with embarrassment at the realization that a toy they love was designated as a toy for the opposite sex. I’ve tried to use those moments as teaching opportunities, even though I’m a floundering mess most of the time. Despite all my efforts, I’m still very much a parenting work-in-progress, just trying not to leave my kids with too many issues they have to work out in therapy.

The question that I’m wrestling with in the wake of Target’s decision- and the subsequent conversations about toys and gender – has very little to do with toys and the way kids play. The part that I’m puzzling over is the intensity of the reaction to this change, and other changes like it.

What is it about Target’s decision that has so many people either overjoyed or furious?

While I suspect that each person’s reaction comes from a mixture of beliefs and personal experiences, I also wonder if something more is at play.

I wonder if part of the visceral reaction has to do with the stage of life our society is in. I have explored before the idea that the church in the United States might be in a state of prolonged adolescence, in part because many scholars have suggested that the United States as a whole has much in common with adolescence. And, I wonder if the conflict of adolescence might be one piece of why Target’s decision has caused such an intense response.

In adolescence, we begin to figure out who we are by figuring out who we are not.

In Erik Erikson’s stages of human development, each stage has a central conflict. For the adolescent stage, the primary conflict is about identity. The two extremes are role rigidity and extreme diffusion. A healthy identity is somewhere in the middle, and it is something that is true of us no matter our situation or context.[1] Erikson also suggests that it is during this stage of life that ideas about gender roles become internalized.

Can boys like pink? Should girls have short hair? Is it acceptable for a boy to be on the cheerleading team? Can a girl be assertive?

Whether we realized we were doing it or not, during adolescence we made decisions about what kinds of things are acceptable for boys and girls to do. As we were coming to understand our identity, we (in part) defined ourselves by what it was acceptable for us to do as young men or young women.

When Target decided to remove gender-based signage from its toy department, many people perceived it as a challenge to their deeply-held understanding of gender roles. And, threats to our identities have to be fended off. Otherwise, we face an identity crisis. Can our identities withstand the pressure, or will we be forced to change?

In adolescence we learn to define ourselves in comparison to others. We outgrow the box we were in, and we begin to wonder what we fit into instead.

In adolescence we also learn that identity is not boundless.

As a high schooler, I remember a few friends talking about anarchy. Government was too oppressive. They wanted us to fit into little boxes. Rather than give in and fit into those boxes, these friends believed the best option was to have no boxes at all. Instead of oppressive government, there should be no government.

In adolescence, we are faced with two competing opposites: the desire to rigidly define ourselves (often in comparison to others), or the confusion of being unable to define ourselves at all. Erikson believed that the successful navigation of adolescence was somewhere in the middle. Roles and identities were not rigid, but they were not boundless either.

One aspect of the outrage about Target’s decision is the fear that soon gender will have no meaning at all. I have read many concerned comments about “the government trying to make us all androgynous” or “being forced to believe there are no differences between boys and girls.”

The fear is that we’ll go from a society with rigid definitions about gender roles to a society with no definitions at all.

But, if we are to successfully navigate adolescence as a society, we need to find our identity somewhere in between rigidity and boundlessness. 

The key is having an identity that stays the same no matter our context. This identity is the constant that anchors us. I think this is a large part of why many churches talk about baptismal identity as our truest identity. For Christians, no matter where we go or what changes around us, our identity as children of God is something that stays constant. And, for those who do not identify as Christians, a healthy sense of identity will still have a constant, even if that constant is something different than what is constant for a Christian.

Target changing their signs doesn’t really change who we are. It’s a peripheral change in one store that may or may not be tied to other changes in society. The key for navigating these changes (no matter whether we think they are positive or negative!) is a healthy sense of self that can withstand whatever changes might come our way.

The answer to who we are cannot be found in the toy aisle at any department store. Our identity isn’t color-coded in blue or pink for easy identification. We are not the labels placed on us by society.

Who we are is something much deeper, longer lasting, and constant. If we are to navigate our society’s prolonged adolescence we need to find that constant and find solace in it.

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[1] James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective, p. 207.

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Bookends, Self-Cleaning Ovens, and Mercy – A Sermon on Jude 17-25http://aprilfiet.com/theology-culture/sermon-meditation/bookends-self-cleaning-ovens-and-mercy-a-sermon-on-jude-17-25 http://aprilfiet.com/theology-culture/sermon-meditation/bookends-self-cleaning-ovens-and-mercy-a-sermon-on-jude-17-25#comments Sun, 26 Jul 2015 13:08:36 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2191 Jude 17-25 My Old Testament professor Carol Bechtel once told us that “goodness and mercy are like God’s sheepdogs.” After all, it says in...

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Jude 17-25

My Old Testament professor Carol Bechtel once told us that “goodness and mercy are like God’s sheepdogs.” After all, it says in Psalm 23 that goodness and mercy will follow the psalmist all the days of his life. And it’s true. God’s goodness and mercy are everywhere – in Scripture and in our lives – so we must always be on the lookout. In the book of Jude, God’s mercy is like a thread that holds the whole book together, and it also serves as Jude’s bookends. Jude begins with mercy and ends with mercy, but sometimes the baggage we bring with us as we read the Bible makes it harder for us to see what God wants us to see.

As I read through the book of Jude, specifically the last nine verses, I struggled to make sense of what Jude was trying to say. I wrestled with the words and found myself frustrated time and again as I read verses 22-23 and couldn’t understand them.

I kept coming back to the end of verse 23: “And have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” Whose fear – the one having mercy, or the one with the defiled tunic? How can hate be merciful? What does this mean for how I live my life? And, then I realized that what I was struggling with revealed more about theological baggage I was carrying around than it did about what Jude was teaching. I had internalized some ideas about God – and about the Christian life – and those ideas had muddied the waters so much that I couldn’t see the good news that was plainly in front of me.

When I was in high school, I attended a youth group event at a ski resort. During the day we would ski, and at night we had sessions with a speaker and worship led by a praise team. On the last night, our speaker asked one of us to stand on a chair. He demonstrated how much easier it is to pull someone off of the chair than it is for the person on the chair to pull anyone up.

Our speaker said this should serve as a warning to us about mingling with people “in the world.” At the time, this made a huge impression on me. People “out there” were to be feared because they could make me change my life, and not in a good way. So, as I approached Jude 22-23, and read about saving others by snatching them out of the fire, I read that as a call to make sure my brothers and sisters in Christ weren’t mingling too much with the world. I read it as a call to save my brothers and sisters from the hell that was “out there.”

But, there’s a problem with the chair scenario. Sure, there are times where we have to make wise choices about entering into certain situations. There are relationships that are unhealthy for us to be involved in, and there are times when we have to make tough decisions so that we can live healthier and fuller lives. The problem with the chair scenario is that there really isn’t a chair. I’m not “up here” while someone else is “down there.” I’m not called to be the savior of the world. A gospel where I’m the savior isn’t good news for anyone.

When I read through these verses the first time, I read it from the vantage point of someone on the chair. I read it as step-by-step instructions for bringing three different kinds of people to Jesus, and for protecting myself from the world. Some need a little mercy because they are wavering. Others are toeing the line and are in the fire and need me to pluck them out. Still others are dangerous and if I try to pull them up, they will pull me down. Is that really what Jude wants to teach us?

This is where context is critical. Backing up to verse 20, we read this: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some…” We are a people standing in desperate need of the mercy of Jesus. We are a people who need to keep ourselves rooted in love, tethered to faith, and who rely on the working of the Holy Spirit. At the foot of the cross, we are all on level playing field. None of us stands high on the chair commissioned to save the people around us. Instead, we are to keep looking up to the only one who can save, the one whose mercy we are looking forward to.

Verses 22-23 read a little differently when we are not trying to hold ourselves responsible for saving the world. Having mercy looks different when we no longer see ourselves as people standing high above the crowd, but rather as people within it. When we read these verses from this vantage point, we no longer see three categories of people we are responsible for. So, what else might they mean?

“Have mercy on some who are wavering” seems pretty straightforward. There were divisions in the church, and perhaps some of the people were unsure who to follow – the false teachers, or the truth. Jude urges the people to show compassion – or have mercy on – those who are dealing with doubts about who to follow or trust. Doubts should not be handled with judgment, but with compassion. In times of division and struggle, the appropriate response to those who are trying to discern their way is not one of condemnation, but one of mercy. This is good news for all of us, because no matter how assured we may feel, doubt and struggle is something that most of us can relate to.

Even John Calvin, who is often painted as a staunch defender of faith and quite assertive in his beliefs, once wrote in The Institutes, “Faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace.”

The call to “save others by snatching them out of the fire,” however, not only tempts us to see ourselves as the savior standing up high and pulling others out, but it also reveals to us what we’ve been taught about how fire is viewed in the Bible. When we read the word fire, what do we think of first? For many of us, the answer is hell. But, let’s take a look at how fire is viewed in Zechariah 3:1-3:

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?”

Throughout the book of Zechariah, and elsewhere, fire is seen as a place of burning off impurities, an indication of the need for repentance. We read of the refiner’s fire in Zechariah 13. God is described as a devouring fire in Deuteronomy 4 and again in Hebrews 12. Fire, in the Bible, is not only used to talk about God’s judgment, it is also used to describe God’s majesty, God’s presence, and the purification of repentance.

What kind of fire is Jude talking about – condemation or repentance? Let’s put that question to the side just for a moment and continue on with the rest of verse 23: “And have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” When I first read this part of Jude, I found it to be the most confusing. But, the more I read and studied it, I began to realize that it is the key. The call to snatch others out of the fire, and the reference to hating the tunic defiled by their bodies is so remarkably similar to Zechariah 3 that I wonder if Jude was structuring his words with Zechariah’s words in mind.

In Zechariah 3 we begin with an interesting exchange between the Lord and Satan. Satan, in this passage, wants to accuse the high priest Joshua, but the Lord rebukes Satan. He calls Joshua “a brand plucked from the fire.” And then the passage continues,

Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by.

Joshua, the high priest, had been plucked out of the fire. He had withstood it. He had passed the test. He had been spared, even though his clothes were dirty. His filthy clothes were removed and he was clothed in priestly garments.

What if, rather than giving us a step-by-step guide for how to best save different groups of people, Jude is reminding us that even though there are divisions in the church, even though it seems as though we are going through the fire and our clothes are filthy, God will take away our guilt and make us new. What if, instead of reading these words through the lens of a hero, we recognize our dependence on the mercy of Christ who has plucked us from the fire and called us to be priests in this world?

This past week, I cleaned my oven. I turned on the self-clean function, set it for three hours, and then locked the oven door. For the next three hours, the inside of the oven was super-heated as bits of food were burned and vaporized. When the oven was finished with the self-clean, I waited until it cooled, and then I unlocked the door and looked inside. The bottom of the oven was covered with soot. In some ways, it looked dirtier than when I had started. But with a swipe of a damp rag, the soot was wiped away and all that was left was the clean oven that had been under all of that filth all along. The heat and the soot didn’t change what was underneath it all.

Brothers and sisters, whether we are wavering, struggling, or covered with guilt, the mercy of Christ abounds.

Whether we’re doubting, passing through the fire, or longing to be changed, the mercy of Christ abounds.

No matter how close to God we feel or how far off, no matter how filthy our rags might be, the mercy of Christ abounds.

This is why we come together as a church – to accompany each other along the way, no matter the obstacles, no matter the challenges, no matter how hard it might be – because the mercy of Christ has been shown to us so that we may show it to others.

Jude began with the greeting “May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundace,” and ended with the call to look forward to the mercy of Christ that leads to eternal life. We are called to show mercy to others, not because we have any power to save, but because so much mercy has been poured out onto us. None of it is possible without Christ.

May we be a people who greet doubts and struggle with mercy. May we look beyond the filthy rags we all wear and see the new creation that exists because of Christ. And may we receive this beautiful blessing from Jude as a blessing upon each of us, too:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.”

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Women Are Too Emotional – And Other Tragedieshttp://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/women-are-too-emotional-and-other-tragedies http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/women-are-too-emotional-and-other-tragedies#comments Thu, 09 Jul 2015 15:06:53 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2183 “Women are too emotional to be in church leadership. When a high pressure situation arises, they will act impulsively and out of their emotions,...

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“Women are too emotional to be in church leadership. When a high pressure situation arises, they will act impulsively and out of their emotions, and that’s not what God wants for the church.”

I wish I could say that this was something terrible someone said to me when I was on the path to ordination.

I wish I could tell you that I had a witty comeback for such hurtful words, and that I managed to silence the person who said such terrible things.

I wish I could tell you that someone else said this. But, it wasn’t someone else. The quote I’m sharing with you is something that I once said when I was about fifteen years old and heard someone bring up the topic of the ordination of women to church office.

I said that. As a young woman. About women.

Sometimes when I think back on how I used to believe and the things I have said (quite confidently, I might add), it makes me pause to catch my breath. And, I have trouble deciding if I’m angry about the things I believed, or devastated that as a young woman I had already internalized such a painful and dehumanizing story of what it means to be a woman.

And that story – the story of women being too emotional, and somehow inherently unreliable – has been the lens through which I’ve read the Bible, interacted with other women, and how I’ve discerned God’s leading in my life.

I didn’t even realize how deeply I had taken that story in until I was re-reading the story of the Fall in Genesis 3.

[The serpent] said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?'”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'”

Nor shall you touch it?! God didn’t say that! If Eve had just listened to God, none of this would have happened!

Before Eve has even sinned, we’ve already condemned her as guilty.

How many of you have heard entire sermons on Eve’s misunderstanding of God’s original command? I know I’ve heard a few, and I have personally skewered Eve for her inability to remember a simple command from God. But, I don’t actually think that’s what’s going on in this passage at all.

Frequently in the Bible, people relate back their understanding of the law or customs, and they add things we don’t remember. Take, for instance, Peter in Acts 10. He tells Cornelius that it was unlawful to associate with a Gentile, which seems puzzling given that Jesus did that a lot. It also seems strange given the laws in Leviticus about welcoming the stranger. Certainly there were laws about what kinds of associations Jews and Gentiles could have (and they were pretty limited and restricted!), but mere association wasn’t unlawful. Socially undesirable, probably. Illegal, no.

But, I don’t see anyone fixating on that point to show how Peter resisted God’s work to include the Gentiles. Peter is lauded as one who finally understood that God’s plan was much bigger than one people group. God’s plan included the world.

It is quite common in the Bible for us to hear not only God’s words to the people, but also their interpretation of those words and the midrashic way it ends up being lived out. We do this all the time in our own attempts to follow faithfully after God.

But, as I was re-reading the story of Eve and the serpent, I suddenly realized that Eve’s sin was not that she listened to her emotions and instincts, but rather that she allowed herself to be talked out of them. The point of the story isn’t that somehow Eve had missed the point from the beginning, but rather that she didn’t trust her recollection and her instincts.

In short, Eve allowed someone else to talk her out of her understanding of God’s plans for the world and her life.

For too long in the church we’ve viewed our emotional lives with suspicion, as though nothing positive could come from listening to how we feel. We forget that Jesus wept, was indignant, felt distress, and experienced feelings of abandonment.

Our emotions are not inherently wrong or evil, but – like anything else in our lives – have to be discerned.

I wonder what it would look like if I listened to my instincts first before I talked myself out of them.

I wonder what would happen if we didn’t write off women – or others – as “too emotional,” but rather listened to what was coming from the innermost places of our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts.

Perhaps our emotions aren’t the problem, but rather the way we’ve refused to listen to them.

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Corn Tortillas and Chicken Soup – a Sermon on 3 Johnhttp://aprilfiet.com/theology-culture/sermon-meditation/corn-tortillas-and-chicken-soup-a-sermon-on-3-john http://aprilfiet.com/theology-culture/sermon-meditation/corn-tortillas-and-chicken-soup-a-sermon-on-3-john#comments Sun, 05 Jul 2015 13:18:22 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2172 When I went to Chiapas, Mexico in 2006, I went prepared to learn about a different culture. I went prepared to learn some Spanish,...

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When I went to Chiapas, Mexico in 2006, I went prepared to learn about a different culture. I went prepared to learn some Spanish, and maybe a little Tzotzil. I came ready to be a student, and ready to find a few souvenirs to help me remember the things I saw and experienced.What I did not expect was a crash course in being a Christian. I didn’t expect to learn how to “do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you,” as the Elder wrote in 3 John. But that’s exactly what happened. I wonder if any of you have had similar experiences.

A few days into our trip, we had the opportunity to stay with host families. Jeff and I were fortunate enough to end up at the same home where our professor and guide would be staying. He was fluent in both Spanish and Tzotzil, and he comfortably translated for us all of the things our hosts were saying. He helped us learn of a prayer need in the family, and as I prayed for the family’s aging grandmother, he translated for me, and all of our tears flowed.

That night, Jeff and I slept on a bed with a plywood mattress, and were awakened every fifteen or twenty minutes to the sounds of jingling and bootsteps outside of the open window near us. I did manage to peek out the window one time, and noticed the people marching by were armed with military-style assault rifles. My breathing quickened. I’m not sure how much I slept, but it was very little, and when I woke up, my hips were sore from sleeping on the wood.

We gathered for a light breakfast, and I pointed to a mat on the cement floor and asked our guide what it was. “That’s where your hosts slept last night. They gave you their own bed.” Wow. My sore hip bones were suddenly a reminder of amazing hospitality and sacrifice on the part of my hosts. Following our light breakfast, we walked to church. On the way to the church, I started thinking about the meal we ate at the church the night before. Our hosts had set up long tables with chairs. They filled our bowls to the brim with chicken soup and vegetables. They urged us, “Eat, and don’t be afraid. We boiled our water for 24 hours to make sure there would be nothing here to make you sick.” In between each plate, they had stacked homemade corn tortillas so high that I wondered if they would tip over.

We were eating, and enjoying ourselves, when I turned and noticed that our hosts were seated in a small room, on a dirt floor, sipping only broth and eating a few of the remaining tortillas. They fed us with an abundance, and gave themselves what very little was remaining. I turned to our guide and I said, “No. This isn’t right. They should sit here with us. They should be eating with us. Can we at least give them something for serving us this way?” And he said, “They wouldn’t accept anything you wanted to give. You are their guests. If you want to repay them, give generously in the offering plate at church in the morning. They would never return an offering you gave to God.”

Our group got to the church, and we worshiped with these Chenalho Christians, many of whom had walked considerable distances to worship. And when the offering was received, we filled the plates to overflowing out of our immense gratitude for what God – and the people of Chenalho – had done for us. We were strangers to them, and yet we were also their friends. They had never met us, and yet we were their brothers and sisters. They gave to us faithfully – sacrificially – and left very little for themselves, a radical kind of hospitality that is a rare diamond among the rocks.

The letter of 3 John teaches us about the importance of radical hospitality, and about the joy we experience when those who have learned about Jesus from us – our children in the faith – walk in the truth in their own lives. We give, and give, and give, and someday we will be overjoyed as we see the fruit growing in the lives of those around us.

3 John is a personal letter written privately from “the elder” to Gaius. The elder commends Gaius for showing hospitality to missionaries who had traveled and stayed with him along the way. The hospitality Gaius shows is an outward sign of his love for Christ, a love that causes the elder to rejoice because Gaius is “walking in the truth.” In contrast to the way Gaius has shown love and hospitality, Diotrephes does not recognize the authority of the elder, he spreads false charges, and he does not “welcome the friends,” like Gaius has done. In a very real sense, 3 John sees hospitality as an outward sign of what is going on in our hearts. In fact, the word for “welcome” used in verse 10 can also mean “to acknowledge” or “accept” someone’s authority. By refusing to welcome the people the elder sent, Diotrephes was also rejecting the message they carried. For the elder, an open door and home reveals an open heart.

As Christians, we are called to be a people who show radical hospitality – people who remember how the hospitality of God saved us, and continues to save us. We are strangers in this world, travelers walking along the road together as we seek to follow our Lord. This is our history, and it is our truth even today. As we are reminded in the book of Leviticus, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). We are a people who ought to know what it’s like to be a stranger, and as strangers, our eyes should be ready to recognize the strangers around us.

This week I came across an article that made me take a hard look at myself and the way I show hospitality to others. In the article, Kristen Welch talked about her experience with the mission she runs – Mercy House – and the struggle she has encountered with people donating things that are worthless to missionaries and to those who are impoverished. In her article, she encouraged the church to think about the way we give – whether it is out of our surplus, and we’re merely getting rid of things that really should just go in the garbage – or if it is sacrificial giving that changes the way we live.1

Or, as Ann Voskamp wrote: “We’re not giving what we’re called to give, unless that giving affects how we live – affects what we put on our plate and where we make our home and hang our hat and what kind of threads we’ve got to have on our back. Surplus Giving is the leftover you can afford to give; Sacrificial Giving is the love gift that changes how you live – because the love of Christ has changed you. God doesn’t want your leftovers. God wants your love overtures, your first-overs, because He is your first love.”

We gather in worship as a community of Jesus-followers who are still learning, growing, and becoming like Christ. We sing songs of praise as we overflow with gratitude for all that God has done. We join together in prayer, asking for forgiveness for our sins, and offering our requests – for people we know and love, and the world around us – before our God. And, then we gather around the Table for a feast unlike any other feast. At the Table we experience the radical hospitality of God who feeds us and cares forus. We are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our God’s love, who spared nothing to bring us back into relationship with him. And we are trained – trained in hospitality and sacrificial love.

Randy Smit, director and founder of Compassionate Connection as well as a minister in the RCA, recalled serving communion in this way: “We shared together one by one. I’d bless them, and they’d leave the service. It was very meaningful, because we all got the sense of being one who is fed and now feeds others.” At the Table we are fed, and we are sent forth to feed others. Smit says that, “The story of Scripture is the hospitality of God, who invites us to come home. That hospitality is more than we know how to think about or contain. That’s why we’ve been invited to take part in sacramental mysteries, so God can open our eyes again and again.”2

When I come to the Table, I can’t help but remember the Christians in Chenalho who filled my bowl to the brim with their very best. My mind wanders to the family who gave me their bed while they slept on the floor. I think about the piles of corn tortillas served to our group of strangers by people who knew how to “welcome the friends.” At the Table we experience the welcome of Christ, the One who gave himself for us while we were still sinners. He is our host, and he feeds us. And, being fed, we are called to go forth and feed the world with the radical hospitality of God. May God open our eyes time and again so that we can see the lavish spread that is before us. May we become people of radical hospitality, people who welcome the friends even though they are strangers. And, in so doing, may we be people who can’t help but open our doors because God has transformed our hearts.

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On Why Coaching Saved Me and an Interview with Jane Haltonhttp://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/on-why-coaching-saved-me-and-an-interview-with-jane-halton http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/on-why-coaching-saved-me-and-an-interview-with-jane-halton#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 14:17:40 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2158 A few years ago, while I was still trying to find my footing in ministry and I had two very small children, I found...

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A few years ago, while I was still trying to find my footing in ministry and I had two very small children, I found myself struggling. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, but everything seemed overwhelming to me. Looking back on it, I think I was experiencing some burnout and some mild depression, but when you are in the midst of the fog, sometimes it is hard to remember what life feels like when the sky is clear and light.

Right around that time, I connected with a friend of mine from seminary over the phone. She had recently completed training to be a coach, and she was also an ordained minister. This led to a coaching relationship that lasted for over two years, and we made appointments to check in with each other about once a month.

Coaching isn’t a quick fix, and it isn’t a substitute for counseling, but a trained coach can help you look at something you need to work on, and empower you to find the solution yourself. Coaches don’t usually give advice, but they do help you to see that you probably already know the answer. My coach helped me to grow in confidence, find the courage to see a counselor, work through some snags in my leadership style, and each step of the way I felt like I was letting go of everything that was weighing me down. In a real way, coaching saved me.

So, when I connected with Jane Halton recently, and had the opportunity to talk with her on the phone and via email about her coaching, I was eager to do so. Jane is a fantastic person and an excellent coach. But, rather than tell you about her myself, I thought it would be fun for you to get to know her and her coaching work by interviewing her on what she does.

So…meet Jane.

headshot

What experiences led you to pursue coach training?

JH: As it is with most career changes, I can follow the journey back many years.  Upon graduating from seminary in 2005, I began working at a non-profit in the inner city of Vancouver.  I spent most of my time there hiring, training, and working with volunteers. I helped them figure out where they would fit in our organization, what they had to offer, and what they wanted to learn.

After nearly ten years, I was feeling ready to move on. Around this time I went to a workshop with a good friend of mine and we began to chat over lunch with a former-pastor-turned-coach. My friend Dawn asked him more about coaching and, as he explained what it was, she looked at me and said, “Jane, this is what you should do next!”  I agreed!  My seminary degree, work at the non-profit, and (ironically?) ten years as a swim coach, had me interested. I began coaching school in Sept. 2012 and finished one year later.

Who do you coach?

JH: I work primarily with Christian women who are ready and willing to make a change in their lives. That change can be in their career, attitude toward something, health, relationships, etc. What I have found is that often times Christians who have grown up in the church have learned something that really limits them, or they have unconsciously and unhelpfully twisted something they grew up hearing. For example, they have been taught that pride is sinful but have twisted it into “I can’t admit what I’m good at or really own my talents because I will be prideful.” This can become incredibly difficult when applying for jobs or even choosing a career. I help to untwist these things while still honouring what they believe about their faith.  I’m happy to work with men or people of other faiths as well, but the majority of my clients are Christian women.

What benefits of coaching do you see?

JH: The benefits and results I see in my clients are what keep me coaching!  With the encouragement, clarity, and accountability you get with coaching, people accomplish more than they ever imagined.  I’ve seen people gain confidence and make crazy decisions they’ve wanted to make for years.  I’ve seen people get jobs they never dreamed of and, on the other hand, quit jobs they have hated for years.

One of the best things I see is people finding deep meaning in their work or life. This often happens through discovering values (and figuring out if they are being lived out) and changing perspectives.  And lastly, I see the benefits of people actually getting things done!  It’s amazing what can really get accomplished with an outsider offering unbiased encouragement and accountability.

Why would I hire a coach instead of a counselor or why not just talk to my pastor?

JH: I get asked this question a lot, in fact, so much so I wrote a blog about the difference here.

But in brief, coaches are trained to help you move forward more than dig up the past. Although we work holistically and won’t ignore areas of your life, our focus is moving you forward. Also, we don’t diagnose people and gladly refer people to therapy if necessary.

Pastors can be good people to talk to but are, in my experience, often ill-equipped to offer all the things coaches can (especially long-term accountability). Also, many people feel inhibited by the ‘status’ of pastors and don’t want to share as openly. The anonymity of coaching can help draw people out.

(Side note from April: Coaching can be wonderful for everyone, but coaching can be especially great for pastors and other church leaders who do not have a pastor or confidant within the church to turn to.)

Is coaching just like all that self-help stuff – you know, be happy, positive, smile more?

JH: Ugh. I have to admit there is some of this, and I can’t stand it.  I’ve really had to work through it because it is not my thing.  However, when you really pick apart some of that “10 ways to be happier” stuff or whatnot, something in there will probably work for you.  I just don’t think there is an easy answer to it. It is hard work to change your attitude or perspective on something, but ultimately it can make a world of difference. If you are interested in reading more about this I wrote a guest blog post for Addie Zierman called Self Help for Christians: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

How can people find out more about coaching with you?

JH: You can read more about coaching and me on my website but the best way is to experience it.  If you are interested feel free to sign up for a chat here and we can figure out if we are a good match!

Jane Halton is a certified coach, a wedding officiant, a casual blogger and an occasional preacher/speaker.  She describes her coaching work as pastoral care meets your to-do list (or sometimes ‘blowing up evangelical baggage’). Using her coaching skills, an MDiv, wit and thought provoking questions she not only helps people figure out what really matters to them but also, what they’re going to do about it.  Jane is a Canadian who got lost in California for half her life (she is pretty sure there is sadly no good Mexican food in all of Canada). She lives with her husband Dane and their two young and extremely chatty boys in Vancouver, BC. She loves reading, swimming, and urban gardening. For more info visit: janehalton.com, Twitter or Facebook.

 

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Afraid for the Churchhttp://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/afraid-for-the-church http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/afraid-for-the-church#comments Sun, 14 Jun 2015 14:20:10 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2152 Saturday afternoons at General Synod (annual gathering of delegates from across the Reformed Church in America) are usually reserved for some of the most...

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Saturday afternoons at General Synod (annual gathering of delegates from across the Reformed Church in America) are usually reserved for some of the most difficult and contentious business. At this year’s General Synod – the 209th – many matters were discussed, from creating a special council to provide clarity on matters of human sexuality, to calling for a season of restraint from performing same-sex marriages or from leaving the denomination over matters of sexuality, and the nature of the power Regional Synods might have as it concerns moving churches from one classis to another.

Debates drag on. Impassioned pleas are made from the microphone on the floor. Parliamentary questions stop us in our tracks and make us realize how very little we know about Robert’s Rules of Order. Emotions fill us up, and we overflow with anxiety.

While I am not a delegate this year, I was one two years ago. I remember the feeling of Saturday afternoon well. I watched the livestream yesterday, and it transported me back to that Saturday afternoon two years ago when very similar topics were discussed.

But this year, two things were said that I haven’t been able to forget. The first wasn’t said by any one person, but was a sentiment that was reflected in many comments. It is a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly – not just yesterday – from both sides of the divide. It’s not always said the same way, but the meaning is the same.

“I’m afraid for the future of the church.”

I completely and totally understand this fear. Our already small denomination seems torn, not just in two but into thousands of fragments. Can we really weather one more storm at sea? Will this be the storm that sinks our fleet of ships” [1]

And we cry out in fear.

But, something else was said from the floor of debate that pulled me back out of my fear. James Brumm referred to Acts 5 and the words of Gamaliel.

In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles were teaching about Jesus. They were brought before the high priest for questioning. They had been forbidden to teach in the name of Jesus, and yet they were continuing to do so. And then Gamaliel, a Pharisee in the council, asked for Peter and the apostles to be put outside for a moment. What he said next is astonishing.

First, he looks back at history, and he talks of others who rose up and drew a following. Over time, these leaders were killed and their movements disbursed. Gamaliel said, “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” [2]

When tensions are high, disagreements are fierce, and when we seem at an impasse, we can’t be given over to fear. We can worry about our denomination. We can wonder about our individual churches. Ministers can feel uncertainty and concern about their jobs. But we cannot fear for the Church because it is something created by God. What God has made cannot be destroyed.

Perhaps this is why John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” [3]

God is love, and the perfect love of God should cast out all our fears. What God has created cannot be destroyed. Even when it seems impossible, God will continue to uphold and strengthen the church.

As it says in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 54:

Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Always. God gather, protects, and preserves this community always. And even when we fight against God’s purposes, God will accomplish them through us anyway.

After all, we are those who follow the One who made this startling claim: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [4] How startling it would have been if Jesus had been referring to the physical temple. But, even more than that, he was referring to his own body, to the conquering of death, and the resurrection that would unite us to Christ so that we might not be enslaved to death.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot allow ourselves to become enslaved to fear. We are perfectly loved by the love of God. We are being gathered, protected, and preserved into a community that transcends denominations, geography, nationality, and time. And of this community, we are and will always be living members.

Always.

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  • [1] The word “Classis” (RCA regional governing bodies) comes from the Latin for “fleet of ships.”
  • [2] Acts 5:34-39, NRSV
  • [3] 1 John 4:18, NRSV.
  • [4] John 2:19, NRSV.

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Who Is in a Position to Forgive?http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/who-is-in-a-position-to-forgive http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/who-is-in-a-position-to-forgive#comments Mon, 08 Jun 2015 14:53:27 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2145 Right now I don’t want to talk about judging others. It’s something that gets talked about a lot, and for a good reason: judging...

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Right now I don’t want to talk about judging others. It’s something that gets talked about a lot, and for a good reason: judging others is something that many people struggle with. Romans 8 takes the idea of passing judgment head on when it asks: “Who is to condemn?” The answer? “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).

The only one who gets to judge is Jesus. We knows this. We remember vividly the story of Jesus telling everyone that only those without sin could cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery. We remember everyone walking away, unable to condemn her on account of their own sin. And, we remember that the one who was in a position to condemn – only Christ Jesus – did not cast stones, but showed grace.

We know all this.

We might be terrible at practicing what we preach, but we know that judgment really isn’t something we’re in a position to pass on others.

But, what if the question was: Who is in a position to forgive?

How would we answer that one?

When someone hurts us directly, the answer seems pretty straightforward. If we’ve been hurt, we’re in a position to offer forgiveness. And, because all sins are against God, God is ultimately the one who can forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4), Jesus teaches the disciples to pray for forgiveness from God. Interestingly, in both recorded versions of this prayer from Jesus, forgiveness from God is somehow related to our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us.

In Luke 11:4 it says, “And forgive us our sin, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

Matthew 6:12 reads: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Somehow our ability to forgive those who have sinned against us is connected to the forgiveness we receive from God. But, it still remains that when someone has wronged us, we are in a position to forgive.

But, what about in the case of a scandal in the church? What about when someone in the body of Christ hurts someone else in the body of Christ? What about when abuse is discovered and called out?

I could name two very recent sexual abuse scandals that have been plastered all over the media of late, but I won’t, because unfortunately these scandals are nothing new. The issue of forgiveness in instances of abuse isn’t something that only applies to these high profile cases, it is something that congregations around the country – and world – deal with on a far too regular basis.

One of the most controversial teachings of Jesus is that we ought not only to love our neighbors, but also our enemies. We are called to pray for our enemies, offer love and grace, and give to those who have taken from us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “‘You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father” (Matthew 5:43-45a).

And so, when it comes out that someone in our midst has abused someone else in our midst, we want to find a way to offer love and grace both to the person who has been hurt and to the abuser. I get that. I think there’s something theologically important that we are wrestling with when we seek to offer love and care to the perpetrator as well as to the victim.

But, there’s something we cannot do. We cannot publicly offer forgiveness to the abuser, because forgiveness is not ours to give. Of course, we may feel hurt and shocked by what has happened. We might feel angry that the community we believed was safe has been shown unsafe. We might feel embarrassed and ashamed that the good reputation of our church or community has been tarnished. We feel violated.

But, we also know that forgiveness comes from God. We know that God’s love is enough to cover a multitude of sins. And so we want to offer quick forgiveness because we think it is the right thing to do. We want to offer quick forgiveness because, in some way, it makes us feel like we’re taking the high road.

In reality, the move to offer quick forgiveness is something we do in order to protect ourselves. We feel uncomfortable sitting with the pain, and so we want to rush to make it better. But, in the process, offering quick public forgiveness is doing something far more damaging.

When the church publicly forgives an offender, the victim loses the ability to forgive, or to have any say in when/how forgiveness is offered. It takes yet another choice away from the victim, and it can even make a statement that the church is more concerned about the abuser than the one who has been abused.

We cannot rush victims of abuse to forgiveness. We cannot offer forgiveness in their stead because it is not ours to give. We cannot smooth things over to save face, our reputation, or to escape the discomfort we feel. We can offer love to the abuser, we can help an abuser seek help (from approved and recognized organizations, and not some in-house program). But, we should never do these things at the expense of the one who has been hurt.

Instead of asking, “How can we make our pain go away?” we need to be asking the person who was hurt, “How can we best support you?” Just as God promises to be near to the brokenhearted in Psalm 34:18, we need to be asking how we can be near to those whose hearts have been broken.

Forgiveness is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t mean no longer being affected by what happened. It’s something that may need to be worked on for years, decades, or even a lifetime depending on the severity and duration of the abuse.

When abuse is uncovered in the church, our job is not to try and make it go away as quickly as possible. If the abuse happened in one of the church’s ministries, every effort needs to be made to ensure our ministries are as safe as possible. Confession needs to be made if failings on our part contributed to what happened. And those who were hurt need to be supported along their journey towards healing. If the abuse did not take place in the context of one of the church’s ministries, every effort still needs to be made to protect and support those who were hurt.

Who is in a position to forgive? The one who has been wronged, and God. We can’t force forgiveness, and we can’t offer it on behalf of someone else. We need to be willing to sit next those who are suffering and grieve with them. We need make space for the pain rather than try to cover it over. And the question we need to have always at the ready is, “What can we do to support you?”

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Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers – a sermon on 1 John 5:9-13http://aprilfiet.com/theology-culture/sermon-meditation/finders-keepers-losers-weepers-a-sermon-on-1-john-59-13 http://aprilfiet.com/theology-culture/sermon-meditation/finders-keepers-losers-weepers-a-sermon-on-1-john-59-13#comments Sun, 17 May 2015 12:51:10 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2138 1 John 5:9-13 Life seems to be filled with loss, doesn’t it? We lose people we love dearly. We lose things we treasure. We...

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1 John 5:9-13

Life seems to be filled with loss, doesn’t it? We lose people we love dearly. We lose things we treasure. We lose abilities, memories, trains of thought, momentum, and drive. These losses are painful. We grieve. We mourn. We long for things to be different. We cling to things because we don’t want to lose them.

Jesus comes and, knowing our desires to preserve what we have, turns our fears of loss on their head. For Jesus, losing is gaining. Giving up is receiving. Losing is winning. Jesus taught his disciples by saying, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what would it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:35-36).

My brother and I liked to torment each other as all siblings do. If one of us got up from our seat, the other would swoop in and take it. “You lost your spot,” we’d tease each other. Or, if one of us left one of our toys somewhere and the other found it, we’d taunt, “Finders keepers; losers weepers.” Even as children, we learn that loss is inevitable. We lose things we care about. We have things we enjoy get broken. And, we knew that would be a soft spot for getting each others’ goats, so to speak. I knew that taking something my brother enjoyed would get to him.

It gets to all of us when we lose something, and after a while we can become consumed with protecting ourselves and what we have at all costs. Maybe if we lock it all up, we can’t lose it. But, we still lose things. And it can disturb us very deeply inside. We lose things, and it reminds us in little ways – and in tremendous ways – that things are not the way we hoped they would be.

John was writing to a divided and hurting church. False teachers were coming in. There were divisions. Despite their best efforts, people were still sinning, and because of that, people were terribly afraid of judgment. John writes and urges them to love one another and love God, to believe in God, to walk in the light, and to trust the Holy Spirit. Here at the end of 1 John, John talks a lot about testimony – our testimony, and God’s testimony, but in order for any of that to make sense to us, we have to back up and read beginning with verse 6:

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.

No matter what people say about Jesus, the Spirit and the water and the blood continue to testify to the truth. In addition to that, God continues to testify, and what God says is trustworthy.

So, what does this all mean? One thing I absolutely love about both the Gospel of John and the 1st epistle of John is that both tell us exactly why they were written. Back in John 20:31 we read, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Everything written in the Gospel of John was written down so that we might believe in Jesus and have life in his name.

1 John 5:13 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The community that received this letter knew Jesus. They believed Jesus was the Son of God. They struggled with sin, and false teachings, and divisions, and all of the things so many of us in church communities find ourselves dealing with, and they were afraid. They were afraid they’d believe the wrong thing, embrace the wrong teaching, sin just a little too much, and that in doing so would find themselves removed from God’s love.

Everything John wrote in this letter was written because he wanted them to know that God never fails to keep God’s promises.

Even when human testimony is wrong, even when sin lingers, God is faithful. For this community that believed in the name of Jesus, they could rest assured that they would receive eternal life – not because of their perfection, but because of God’s faithfulness and grace. And isn’t that amazing news for us, too? The good news of Jesus isn’t something we can lose. It isn’t something we can have snatched out from under us. The grace of God is something given freely, and it’s the one thing in this life we can rest assured we will never, ever lose.

When I was a young girl, of maybe five or six years old, I was shopping with my mom. I was standing in the aisle looking at food- probably candy, knowing me – and when I looked up, I could not see my mom. To this day, I still remember the panicky feeling, the tears forming in my eyes, and the lump welling up in my throat at the thought of having been left in the grocery store. I managed to barely squeak out the word, “Mom!” over the tears. And there she was, standing just around the corner at the end of the aisle. She was only feet away from me, and I’m certain she had never taken her eyes off of me the entire time. But in that moment when I was certain I had been forgotten, I was petrified.

In moments of fear and doubt, we may feel forgotten by God. We might even be convinced that we sinned just badly enough to have used up all the grace God can muster. But just like the Lord said to Zion through the prophet Isaiah, God says to us today, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16a). John wrote this letter to the community and told them to stop sinning. He warned them of false teaching. He urged them to stay strong in the faith. But, at the end, what he wants them to know is that even in their divisions, and sins, and broken relationships, they still belong to God.

The water and the blood testify – a reference to Christ’s saving work on the cross. The Spirit testifies – by reminding us of the truth, encouraging us, and uniting us to Christ. And God testifies. They all testify together, and what they testify is the truth. They all testify, as verse 11 says, that “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” God gave us eternal life through Jesus, and this isn’t something we can lose. We cannot lose the grace of God because it is a gift given to us.

This is good news for us, indeed. And, it is especially good news for the Sunday right after Ascension Day. This past Thursday, churches around the world celebrated Ascension Day – the 40th day from Easter day – the day when Jesus was taken up into the clouds. The disciples watched him ascend, and Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be with them. This is the beginning of the exaltation of Christ in glory. This is the moment when Jesus commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is the time when the return of Jesus was promised by two men in white robes. But, it is also a moment that feels a lot like loss.

If we back up to the account of the resurrection in John 20, we can catch a glimpse of this. When Mary encounters Jesus, he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Why would Jesus tell Mary not to hold on to him? Some have wondered if it was because Jesus’ body wasn’t really tangible, but the Gospel of John goes to great lengths to show the reality of Jesus’ resurrected body. He eats with his disciples. He invites them to touch his scars. He breathes on them.

I think Jesus’ words to Mary get at the heart of what she must have been feeling in that moment. She had felt Jesus’ absence, painfully, after the crucifixion. In those days following the crucifixion, Jesus was gone. When she saw him, she wanted to make sure she never lost him again. She wanted to cling to him to make sure he never got away. And, can we blame her?

But, Jesus tells her, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The ascension of Jesus unites us to God, and because of the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church. Even though it seems strange and backwards, the ascension of Jesus is a vivid reminder that God never leaves us alone. The ascension of Jesus, and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit, unite us to God through Christ.

The movement of death and resurrection is a movement toward greater union with God, as it says in Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” The gift of the Holy Spirit was made possible because of the ascension. The Holy Spirit’s presence is God with us in a way that is not confined by space or time. The ascension makes it possible for us to have greater union with God through Christ.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Salvation is a gift freely given by God. We can’t lose it, and we don’t have to be afraid. So, let’s love God and our neighbors with reckless abandon. Let’s settle our differences, confess our sins, and strive to live more into the people we were created to be each day. And, in the darkest days and most difficult nights, may we be assured that we are never, ever alone because the gift of God’s salvation is not something we can ever lose.

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“The Sky Is Falling” and Other Thoughts on Pew Research’s 2015 Surveyhttp://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/the-sky-is-falling-and-other-thoughts-on-pew-researchs-2015-survey http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/the-sky-is-falling-and-other-thoughts-on-pew-researchs-2015-survey#comments Fri, 15 May 2015 14:45:07 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2130 In her book Stitches, Anne Lamott relates a charming story her pastor once told about a little sparrow lying with both legs up in the...

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In her book Stitches, Anne Lamott relates a charming story her pastor once told about a little sparrow lying with both legs up in the air. A warhorse approached the bird and asked what the bird was doing. The bird replied, “I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.” The horse mockingly asked the sparrow if she thought she could do a thing to prevent the sky from falling with her scrawny little bird legs. The sparrow replied, “One does what one can.”

Pew Research Center recently released a new survey on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” and from the response on the blogosphere, one would think that the sky was falling. Each new blog post is like another sparrow on its back, legs high in the air,  hoping to stop the sky from crashing down on us.

Even though I’m sure this topic has reached the saturation point, I wanted to share briefly just a few thoughts I have had as I’ve reflected on both the survey and the response from Christian leaders and bloggers. These aren’t in any particular order.

1. Numbers are not people or stories. Numbers may give us some interesting information, but when it comes to people and spirituality, those numbers will be desperately incomplete. Numbers do not give us a “why,”  nor do they allow people to tell their own stories. We may be able to poll quantitatively how many Americans identify as Christian via a telephone poll. What we cannot do is determine what prompted that identification.

Ed Stetzer has done some compelling work – and some very persuasive speaking – on the observable reality that worship attendance is declining across the United States. He suggests that Christianity in the U.S. is not falling apart, but rather that “it’s being clarified.” What he means by that is that only recently has it become socially acceptable to have no religious affiliation. Whereas there used to be social stigma and loss that occurred from not identifying as Christian, those losses are not nearly as prevalent in 2015 as they once were. He suggests that the rising category of “the nones” is made up of those who were once nominal (Christian in name only) but are now more willing to make clear how they identify.

Rachel Held Evans suggests that the rapid decline in attendance – particularly among Millennials – is because the church has not been welcoming of doubts and struggles, and because Millennials are tired of being marketed to with raucous, concert-like worship services.

So, which is it? Or could it be a piece of what Ed Stetzer has suggested and a piece of what Rachel Held Evans has suggested? The truth is, we don’t really know. We would need to listen to the stories of those who once identified as Christian and no longer do. And, I’m guessing their responses are not something that could be neatly represented on a chart.

2. Christianity is only in decline if your focus is solely on the United States.  As of 2011, Christianity has continued to grow rapidly, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Asia-Pacific region. Though the percentage of the world’s population identifying as Christian has remained the same (proportionally), the population of the world has continued to grow. There are more Christians in the world today than there were ten years ago, they just aren’t living in the same parts of the world as they used to. Worries about the “declining church” reveal far more than institutional anxiety, but also uncovers our self-centered perspective of the church. Christianity is far bigger than one country or nationality, and God continues to grow the church around the world.

3. The survey didn’t change the church. All it did was quantify a reality that many (if not most) churches across the country had already noticed. For the past several years, countless books, seminars, and workshops on church growth and revitalization have promised to stop the decline and bring people back to church. Countless blogs have been dedicated to “understanding Millennials” so that we can begin to understand why their generation (and mine) are largely absent from the church. We’ve blamed school sports on Sundays, lousy music, antiquated preaching, gossipy people. But what we’ve really been trying to do is find a cause for the decline in worship attendance because we’ve noticed it.

But, we have to remember we didn’t get here overnight. The problems and issues that have brought us to where we are likely won’t be fixed overnight, either. They are things we have to commit to working on for the long haul, not because we want to bring young people back, but because they are changes the church needs to make in order to be more faithful. The survey didn’t change the church, it only describes what we’ve already noticed. And, while that description may raise our anxiety, it hasn’t changed anything. It simply put on paper something we hoped we were only imagining. It made it feel more real.

4. Observation and critique can only take the church so far. I don’t have the heart to read another book, or survey, or blog post about what’s wrong with the church if it doesn’t offer any solutions. It’s easy to look at the church and see problems. The church is, after all, a collection of people. And where there are people, there will be struggles, and difficulties, and disagreements, and sin. Stone-throwing is easy, but all it does is cause damage.

I truly believe that nearly everyone can take a look at the church in the United States and find legitimate problems. You could look at pretty much any other collection of people and find problems, too. Finding the problems isn’t going to help unless we’re also willing to do the deep work that’s necessary for lasting change.

5. God never promised Christians would be in the majority. Christians follow one who started with a scrappy, ragtag group of twelve people. We believe in a God who has made a habit of choosing the smaller, the younger, the weaker, the least expected. We worship a God who warned against putting our faith in numbers, and who accomplishes much from very little. Isn’t it God’s way to work through a struggling group of people who get a lot of things wrong? Christians were never promised majority status, comfort, power, or prestige. Why should we be surprised to find out that our majority status in the United States is in decline?

Surveys are useful tools only insofar as they propel us to dig deeper. Quantitative data will only help if we’re willing to do the qualitative work of asking questions and listening to what others have to say. But we can only do that if we let the anxiety out a little. Otherwise we’ll be like little sparrows trying to keep the sky from falling with our spindly little legs — worried, anxious, and straining, but accomplishing nothing.

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Lessons Learned in the Kitchen with My Sonhttp://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/lessons-learned-in-the-kitchen-with-my-son http://aprilfiet.com/my-thoughts/lessons-learned-in-the-kitchen-with-my-son#comments Wed, 13 May 2015 11:37:12 +0000 http://aprilfiet.com/?p=2106 On a rare afternoon of one-on-one time with my oldest child, I wanted to balance the work I needed to get done around the...

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On a rare afternoon of one-on-one time with my oldest child, I wanted to balance the work I needed to get done around the house with spending quality time together. These opportunities of time alone are fleeting, and they are precious. The last thing I wanted to do was spend all of it cooking and cleaning.

And so, I decided to invite my son to make dinner with me.

“I’ve got some very special jobs I’d like you to help me with,” I said.

He got an excited look on his face and said, “I love Mom-and-me days.”

“First, we need to snap the green beans.”

We sat on the step together and I showed him how to snap the beans and place them in the strainer. We talked about wanting to plant our garden in the next week or so, and we laughed when we found strange-looking beans, or noticed the squirrels hoping we would drop some food for them.

We brought our beans inside to wash, and then we worked together buttering the bread for garlic toast. I taught my son how to turn the oven on, all the while we were talking about his day at school.

It was a simple meal of spaghetti, garlic toast, and green beans, but I watched his face brighten each time he got to try something new – especially turning on the oven as he’s just now old enough to learn how to use it.

We waited for the water to boil, and then we added the pasta. Right as we were finishing up our work in the kitchen, my husband and daughter arrived home.

“I made our dinner tonight!” my son said with excitement. “I can’t wait for you to eat it…and I hope it turns out all right!”

Quite a change from, “What’s for dinner, Mom?”

I’ve often heard it said that involving children in cooking family meals and preparing snacks encourages them to try new foods. It gives them a sense of investment in what is being served and a sense of accomplishment in making something that is for everyone to share.  I noticed my son’s pride, and could see his investment, but I also started to wonder about how this applies to other areas of lives.

I believe something happens when we stop observing our lives and start participating in them.

Something changes inside of us when we no longer allow the current to sweep us along and deposit us in some strange place.

But, even if we know this to be true, it can be terribly difficult to practice. Richard Rohr once wrote, “It has been said that 90 percent of people seem to live 90 percent of their lives on cruise control, which is to be unconscious.” We mindlessly float through the routines and expectations of life without truly involving ourselves in what we’re doing and who we are becoming.

Life isn’t something that’s meant to happen to us; it’s something for us to participate in.

We aren’t just observers, we’re a part of what’s going on.

But taking that first step can be a tremendous challenge. Or, as I once heard someone say, “Deciding to get involved in what’s important to you is easy for those in the habit of participating. For the observer, it’s a tough decision.”

I’m not completely sure why this is, but it has been true in my experience. The more I participate in something, the more invested in it I become. The more invested I am, the the more invested I am in how things turn out.

The positive side of participating in our lives rather than simply observing is that the rewards are so much greater. One of my most profound joys as a mom is preparing a meal and watching my family enjoy it. I feel like I have shared a part of myself with them as I feed them, like I am part of their growing, changing, and development into who they are.

The negative side of participation is that sometimes it’s painful.

Many years ago, I was part of a fun and funky youth group in the inner city. Participating in that group brought me some of the most profoundly joyful experiences I have ever had in ministry, but I also felt deep pain as I watched teens struggle with pain in their own lives. I felt disappointment when things did not go as I had hoped. More often than not I felt enthusiastic, inspired, and joyful as I watched the Spirit at work in the lives of the teens I worked with. But on those occasions when something didn’t go as hoped, I felt angry, or sad, or even hopeless.

Observing would have saved me from that pain, but I would never have experienced the joy either.

I still struggle with going back on autopilot at times. Sometimes I desperately wish that someone or something else could just make choices for me. Sometimes I wish I could sit on the sidelines and complain. But, as my karate Shihan likes to remind us, “If you are complaining, you aren’t training.”

The sidelines are a great place for Monday morning quarterbacks, but I think there’s much more enjoyment in being part of the game. Participating can be painful, but it’s where the stuff of life really happens.

So, let’s make dinner together and serve the world. Let’s work together through the disappointments and heartache of life. Let’s get our hands dirty because we care enough. It will be tough sometimes, but it will be worth it.

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