A Day of Reflection

A few times a year, the monastery north of us in Mt. Angel offers a day of reflection.  It includes a few short talks from one of the nuns, and several hours of quiet time.  This past week I took a friend and we joined in.  I came away with a few new ways at looking at some of my issues and questions, along with a lighter heart and a more rested spirit.

One talk focused on preparing for the birth of Jesus during the Advent Season.  I started to think about all that this season usually entails - preparing special meals, Christmas parties, choosing gifts and decorating the house among other things.  It always is a time when I really feel that need to take control of my schedule since every minute can be busy with activity. 

But our teacher suggested a better way to prepare.

...Instead of focusing on physical preparation, focus on spiritual preparation. 

...Instead of planning every moment, be open and receptive to how God chooses to show up in my moments. 

...Instead of worrying whether I’ve checked everything off the list and put every decoration in place, be alert to God’s surprises, delays, and plans.

This certainly is the year to take this message to heart.  For many weeks, Bruce has been working on refinishing our dining/living room floor.  It’s a big job and has been much more involved and time consuming than we expected.  Our son, his fiancé, and her little boy are arriving here in two weeks, with their wedding a week later.  And we are not ready – yet. 

Some days I get anxious about the “doing”, because this is the season of doing.  The morning at Mt. Angel reminded me again to focus on God’s presence, and to be receptive to whatever He has for me each day. 

This is the way to prepare for the birth of Jesus: to joyfully experience being in the presence of Almighty God. 

Oh come let us adore Him – Christ the Lord. 

-          Julie

Next Steps

Recently Bruce and I were in the pasture clearing blackberries and old, rotting wood.  We threw things in the utility trailer, ready to be hauled away.  It is back-breaking work – especially for a couple of folks in their 50’s.  The black berries branches have incredibly sharp thorns, and the old wood is decayed, and often full of splinters and rusty nails.  While we worked, I spent time thinking about the way God’s plans unfold in our lives.

As the sun beats down on me today, and we bend and move dead bushes, I have a lot of time to think.  Certainly about when our next water break will be, or ways to grab the wood without getting caught on nails, but also about God’s call to us.  Creating plans, drawing garden dimensions, and offering spiritual direction to women…are all part of this call.  But reaching that goal also includes hours of just plain, hard labor. 

This makes me think of Noah and the challenges He faced in responding to God’s call.  He was 500 years old when God commanded him to build an ark.  This was to provide safety to Noah, his extended family and many animals, when God flooded the earth. 

Talk about back-breaking work!  It took him years to build an ark.  But he persevered, believing that God wanted him to do this task.  No matter that his neighbors scoffed at him, no matter that he lived in a desert, far from water.  Noah was asked to trust God and in faith, do what God asked. 

I believe that God has called us not to build an ark, but to provide a place of rest, reflection and renewal for women.  We have our own set of challenges, but the foundational questions are the same – do we trust God to provide what we need?  Are we willing to walk by faith and not by sight?  Do we believe that God will do what He has said He will do? 

In the midst of shoveling, with dirt on my clothes, surrounded by rotting lumber and dead shrubbery, I am caught by the vision, and stand silent and still…what is there to say?  The Almighty God has asked me, (with the support of Bruce and others) to offer this land for His purposes.  Our part is to listen and then to respond, as He unfolds His plan.  Amazing. 

Recently a member of our prayer team sent me a note regarding a prayer time with God about the Lavender Pavilion.  Here is some of what he said:

“First, my beginning words in prayer speaking to God flowed simply out of my desire to acknowledge to Him that "it is Your Property, Your Plan and Your Provision."  That being said, I wondered how to continue in prayer about the situation and immediately this short prayer flowed out.  ‘Open your servant's eyes today to Your Providence’. 

“That took me on a little study in the dictionary to go a little deeper on the meaning of the word ‘Providence’ that I clearly heard God speak, and I found the following:  Providence means divine guidance, foresight, management of resources and direction. 

“Ultimately, the whole ministry plan and all its elements are God's, and what we as servants of the Lord really need most is direction.  So, now my closing words to God in concluding my prayer time for both of you today is, ‘I got it.  I know how to pray.  Thanks’”. 

Direction is what we seek every step of the way.  I thought building a sound wall was next, but God instead has given us someone to clear the rest of the property.   

I really wanted to build the prayer walk, but that is waiting for the planting of the 24 trees and bushes we just purchased, to help provide privacy and a boundary along the lane next to the Lavender Pavilion.  So planting seems to be the next step.  

We are so thankful for God's providence to us.  The Lord has provided encouragement and prayer from many different people.  We've even received some financial donations, though we have yet to finalize our non-profit status.  We are grateful and amazed.  

This is my prayer as we plant these trees and take another step in developing the Lavender Pavilion:

Lord, take this place and fill it with Your blessing.
Let it be a haven where the poor in spirit sing.
Take this place and fill it, Lord.  Fill it with Yourself.
Northumbria Prayer 

- Julie

God’s Grace & Graciousness

A few weeks ago, I woke up feeling a bit melancholy.  Just before Bruce left for work, he prayed for me, as he often does.    In that prayer, he encouraged me to embrace God’s grace, to reflect God’s graciousness, and to be grateful for all that God has given me. 

I’ve been pondering these qualities – grace, graciousness and gratefulness – in a new way since that morning.  These thoughts are not new or profound, but they serve as reminders of the importance of keeping my mind, my heart, and my attitudes in tune with Jesus. 

Embrace God’s grace
God’s grace is offered to me as His child.  I am a sinner in need of a Lord who will receive me with unmerited favor; a Savior who will pardon my sin.  But sometimes I act as if I’m a sinner who has yet to find a Savior!  I see my sin…and I berate myself.  I groan with disappointment at my imperfections and bad attitudes, and – by doing so – I allow negative thoughts to overshadow God’s gift of grace.  
Psalm 32 reminds me to rejoice in the Lord and be glad.  The psalmist reminds me that I am called “righteous”…not because of what I do or don’t do, but because the very act of my confession draws me into God’s grace. 

How can I be melancholy if I embrace the reality of God’s grace? 

Reflect God’s Graciousness
My mother was one of the most gracious people I ever have met.  She showed a gracious spirit toward other people, often in the face of unkind comments or selfish behaviors.  She extended herself to care for others, even when they were difficult to deal with.  She followed Jesus’ example of love by reflecting God’s graciousness to the people around her. 

I’ve seen God extend His love and graciousness to me…and not just through people like my mom.  God has been merciful, offering me gentle indulgence when I’ve failed or have been stubborn in my response to Him.  Galatians 5:22 reminds me that I am not just a recipient of God’s graciousness…I also have the opportunity to pass His graciousness on to others.  Each day, I can choose to embrace the reality that God’s Spirit lives within me and equips me to radiate godly character and godly virtues toward the people I encounter.

Yet it’s so easy to fall short.  It’s easy to be gracious when people are loving and accepting of me.  Or when I’m in a good mood because things are going well.  But when I’m irritated or frustrated…when people don’t treat me the way I prefer to be treated…then I’m not always so gracious.  And so I recognize that the only way to consistently reflect God’s graciousness is to keep spending time with Him.  I need to dwell in His gracious presence so I can, in turn, reflect His gracious love to others. 

Gratefulness to God
Of these three qualities – grace, graciousness and gratefulness – this last one is the most difficult for me.  I don’t like to admit it, but feelings of entitlement can overshadow my thinking.  Pessimistic attitudes can loom large in my mind and emotions.  And these things then crowd out the awe…the incredible awe…of having a relationship with the God of heaven and earth.  A lack of gratefulness erodes my appreciation for who God is, for His gift of love, and for the rich and abundant life He offers me.

As I ponder this, I realize anew that gratefulness is a choice.  I always can find something to complain about or fret over.  Yet God is willing to walk with me, guide me, and love me in spite of my weaknesses.  And so there always is something for which I can be grateful. 

And above all things, I am grateful for His grace. 

-      Julie

The Joys of the Small(er) Church

A number of years ago I had an experience which made me realize that our evaluation of “big” and “small” truly are shaped by our personal experience.

Julie and I both are natives of a region of California known as the “Greater Los Angeles Area.”  When we moved to the far western suburbs of Chicago in 1980, we relocated from a place of urban sprawl to a place where there actually was empty land between the towns.  We initially settled into a suburb of some 40,000 people…a town surrounded by woods and agricultural land…and it felt very small to us. 

When we found a church, we became friends with another couple who had relocated from rural North Carolina.  The biggest town they ever had seen was about 5000 people.  Needless to say, they thought our town of 40,000 was huge.  And Chicago – some 45 minutes away – was terrifying to them.

We’ve experienced the same sort of thing when it comes to the size of a church.  We spent nearly 25 years in a church of some 3000 people.  The pastors that I networked with all were from other megachurches.  In fact, the church where we served was not even the largest church in town.  There was another church, a few miles away, that had about 6000 people. 

When we came to Oregon so that I could serve as the preaching minister at Garden Way Church (www.gardenway.net), it was a dramatic change, because this is a congregation of about 400 people.  To many people in Oregon, our church is on the larger side.  There are no megachurches in our immediate area, and there are many small, rural churches in the region with congregations of 100 or less.  So Garden Way is not small, but it definitely is smaller than what we have been used to. 

And this is turning out to be a huge joy for us, because our church experience is richer in so many ways. 

One of the assumptions about megachurches is that they have plenty of everything; that resources abound.  It is true that they have larger budgets, and more staff…but all of this is really proportional.  They have many of the same struggles and challenges as smaller churches, just on a different scale.

For example, I know of a megachurch that has 2 full-time staff members who oversee the Early Childhood Ministry.  Imagine: two staff members just for the kids from birth through age 5!  These staff members oversee a team of some 90 people each Sunday morning who staff the nurseries and classrooms for this age group.  But there is a problem:  to properly staff this ministry, they actually need 120+ people each week.  So – just like smaller churches – they face the continual challenge of finding enough volunteers to make the ministry function at the most desirable level. 

I’m reminded of this whenever we have “holes” in the ministry here at our church.  It’s the same kind of thing we used to face, just on a different scale.

But here is what we like most about this wonderful, smaller church where God has led us.  Itis a vibrant community where people truly interact across the generations.   Julie has attended baby showers, and other events, where women of all ages from the church were present.  I’ve attended Men’s Retreats with men of all ages. 

At least in our experience, large churches tend to be much more age segmented.  For example, when there are – literally – hundreds of young couples in your church, then it is easy for the young couples to spend virtually all their time with people like them.  The annual Men’s Retreat at our last church was almost exclusively attended by the young guys. 

I don’t say this critically, because I think it is natural for all of us to behave this way.  But in a church where each age group is much smaller, than it becomes simpler…and easier…and more natural…for people to mingle and interact across the generations. 

And we love this. 

At our last church, I had zero contact with the youth group.  But here, I actually know some of the teens.  Not well, but enough to have a conversation.  We’ve made friends with seniors and young singles and those in-between.  And we see others doing the same.

This strikes me as incredibly healthy and it creates opportunities for natural, relational mentoring.  It creates a greater sense (at least to me) of “the church”.  It solidifies a sense of identity and continuity and legacy that is being passed on from generation to generation.  The rhythm of church life is based more on relationships, and less on programs. 

Yes, there are times when I wish we did have more staff or a bigger budget.  I wish we had a bigger team of volunteers ready, willing, and able to serve.  But – as I said before – these things really are just a matter of scale.  When I think about what really matters…when I think about the importance of living and serving together as a community of faith…I am finding more vitality and meaning in this smaller church. 

I am learning – in a new, different, and exciting way – what it means to “be” the church of Jesus Christ. 

-      Bruce

A Surprising "Donation"

How exciting to see God’s hand at work, especially when you least expect it. 

In the last month of 2012, God provided unexpected financial donations from four individuals wanting to invest in our vision for The Lavender Pavilion.  [See my post from September 30].  We have not even established a non-profit organization yet, we only have shared our vision.  Yet God prompted people to contribute.  We were amazed and excited and even humbled.  These generous gifts were yet another sign from the Lord which confirmed that this vision truly is from Him.

In my earlier post, I showed a couple of pictures of our first purchases for the prayer garden we plan to create.  However, because of other demands on our time, we've not finished clearing and preparing the ground...so the Japanese Maples are still in their pots.   
But yesterday, Bruce excitedly called me and Rachel outside.  There - in the middle of the pasture (which will become the prayer garden) - was one growing plant.  A purple plant.  Isolated and alone...but beautifully flowering. 

And we did not put it into the ground. 

This is our third spring in the house, and this plant never has grown here before.   This part of the pasture previously was filled with weeds, wild grass, and wild blackberries...all of which we slowly have been clearing.  How did this plant get here?  Did an animal carry a seed to this spot and drop it?  Did God Himself put this particular flower into this particular place? 

We do not know.  We only know that this previously was pastureland, not a garden.  There are no other flowers planted here. 

So whatever the explanation - whether the Lord used natural means or supernatural means - we have no doubt that this was His doing.  He chose to provide us with an amazing and exciting gift.  

We see this as yet another sign - a very powerful sign - that the vision we have is from God.  And to give us hope and confidence, our gracious Father planted the very first flower Himself...and He chose one with lavender colors.  (It's a purplish-blue flower, and my camera makes it look a bit more blue than it actually is.) 

As we stood in the middle of the pasture, Bruce called it "holy ground".  I believe it is.  And I believe it will be, as we slowly...faithfully... patiently...fulfill the vision that God has given us for the ministry of The Lavender Pavilion. 

- Julie