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I love a good story. Even more so, I love a good true story. You know, the kind that reminds you to dream and to dare – to embrace risk and live outside of the comfortable circle you’re currently in

Well, I recently came across such a story. : )

Levi Benkert had been a wealthy real estate developer, living the good life in California with his wife and three young kids… that is, until the market tanked in 2008. Stress. For months and months he tried to rebuild what was lost, to salvage something from the wreckage. Stress. Deals fell through, employees couldn’t be paid, and things just weren’t getting better. Stress. When the phone rang, a call from an old pastor friend he hadn’t kept in good contact with through the years, the story began to change…

His friends’ request was simple, yet complicated: would he please drop everything and join a two-week trip to Ethiopia? The team was going to help jinka ethiopiaorganize a small rescue orphanage in a rural, southern Ethiopian town. Though Levi had worked overseas in an orphanage setting years and years ago, those days were long gone. He was immersed in the business world now. What a crazy idea!! Drop everything, with so many people around him wanting money and answers regarding his crumbled business, cut off communication and fly half way around the world for two weeks?! No. Absolutely not. He couldn’t… could he? Well, he went. He spent those two weeks in the rural town of Jinka (pictured at right), a two days’ drive from the capital. There he was introduced to a very old, and wretchedly evil practice: mingi. He’d never be the same.

‘Why?’ I wondered out loud. ‘Why would any parents do this?’

The children Levi was visiting were all survivors. They’d each been deemed “cursed” by the local clan they were born into, and were thus sentenced to die immediately. Babies suffocated after their mouths were stuffed with dirt; toddlers were bound and thrown in the river to drown. As many as 1,000 “cursed” Ethiopian children are killed each year because of this superstition (p.22). This is called mingi. ‘Why?’ I wondered out loud. “‘Why would any parents do this?’ ‘Because they live in fear,’ Simi explained” (p.22):

“A child can be declared mingi for three reasons: if the parents are not married, if the parents do not announce to the elders in an elaborate ceremony that they intend to conceive, or if the child’s top teeth come in before the bottom teeth. Once the infants or children are labeled mingi, they are murdered to protect the village from evil spirits. The elders teach that if the killings don’t happen, the whole tribe will be harmed. It will not rain. crops will fail. People will die.” ( p.22)

These kids, now orphans, were rescued – some miraculously – from this fate. Praise be to God! Foreigners befriended the elders of the tribe, and eventually convinced them that the tribe didn’t have to kill the children to prevent bringing curse and calamity on their people: simply removing the “cursed” babies and kids from the tribe was sufficient. So the beginnings of the orphanage was born. The children had been rescued, but they still had no one to care for them. There was much work to be done.

Six weeks after returning from his two-week trip, Levi and his whole family moved to rural Ethiopia to dig in and love those precious orphans. They sold their house and belongings, took a leap of faith, and embraced a whole new way of life:

benkert family“After fourteen days in the hotel with no water and with power that seemed to be off more than it was on, we finally moved into a small house near the orphanage. It was a bright red mud house with a tin roof, cement floors, and a pleasant yard full of eucalyptus trees that swayed in the wind.” (p.61)

Their story isn’t a perfect one. Nobody’s is. It was hard, it was different, and it didn’t always turn out the way they thought it would.

“This was the deepest, darkest place we’d ever been together and yet strangely, at the same time it was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been. We were at that sacred place of human weakness, where we recognized that our abilities were not enough. We had no choice but to trust God.” (p.52)

You can read their story in the book “No Greater Love” by Levi Benkert and Candy Chand (2012, Tyndale House Publishers). It’s a look into the world of international adoption, orphan care, and Ethiopian life and culture… but more so it’s the story of a family who dared to risk, who felt a calling and ran after it. It’s the story of their bumps and bruises, their victories, and most of all an insight into the kind of people they’ve become — people touched by God’s love and used by him to impact the world.

Wow.

check out the Benkerts ministry (they are still in Ethiopia, yes): http://bringlove.in/

and the official trailor for the book about their story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zwOBs1_ae4

photo credits:

http://www.hidmotour.com.et/jinka.html

http://bringlove.in/about/levi-jessie/

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…WEDDING bells…

On August 21st, at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the most wonderful man asked me to marry him. Of course I said “yes!”. : )

I could write for a VERY long time about Josh… there are so many things I love, appreciate, and respect about him… but as I was sitting in church this past Sunday morning the eretheal world of love had taken a back seat, in my mind, to the very tangible realm of WEDDING PLANNING.

I’m convinced planning the “most important day of your life” is a test of character — one I haven’t always been passing. But I want to be.

Sitting in my church chair, coffee in hand, staring at the actual HONEY BUCKET up on the stage (a demonstration of how replusive God finds our sin), my mind couldn’t let go of the selfishness that so easily gets tangled into the ribbons and bells of planning a wedding. The simple phrase my perfect day says so much, doesn’t it? It just oozes with an “it’s all about ME” mindset. And, when coupled with a longing for a “perfect” day, the infamous Bridezilla emerges.

…Isn’t it ironic that while preparing for the time when we are, supposedly, to look the most beautiful in our lives that the preparation period actually can bring out the very ugliest parts of ourselves?

Entitlement, greed, vanity, pride, selfishness, competitive spirit, envy. How easily I can shift from the beautiful bride to the putrid port-a-potty!!

According to Reuters, in 2012 couples in America spent an average of $27,000 on their wedding — not including the honeymoon. In New York the average climbs to more than $60,000. That’s more than I paid for my brand-new CAR! …People are literally taking out loans to help cover the cost of extravagant celebrations and memorable nupitals. With the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, it’s a sad reality that some people continue to pay off their weddings after their marriage has dissolved. What is happening?!

I think wedding planning, with its “me” focus, is an incubator for self-centeredness and vanity: “I deserve this… I want to look like that…”

Whether it’s a well-meaning friend asking “well what do you want?” or an advertisement daring me to splurge because “you’re worth it”, it seems that wedding culture continues to bring us back to ourselves. I think that’s exactly the problem: us. There is too much “me” in wedding world — it is poisoning our spirits and eventually unleashing the bridezilla that lurks in the depths of each of us!

So what’s the solution… how do we kill the beast?

Not with bobby pins, safety pins, bleach pens, or wire-edged ribbon. With God. He’s the creator of love and sustainer of life. Only he can kill the selfish bridezilla beast and heal the wounds its inflicted. Thank goodness he loves us and delights in restoring us! More so, when we allow him to clean up our minds and hearts, he brings a radiance that no make-up artist or designer gown can imitate.

Sitting in that chair… staring at that port-a-potty on the stage… I thought about how easily I’ve slipped into putting God on the backburner while I dip into wedding world for awhile.

I skip reading my Bible in order to spend extra time comparing font styles on invitations. I dream about wedding ideas but fall asleep while praying — oh how that betrays what has really captured my mind!! But God is good and full of mercy. I felt like he was whispering to my heart… to return to him and trust that the pieces will all come together in the right time. After all, it is God who breathes life and beauty into us, who mends our relationships, replaces anxiety with peace, and teaches us how to love sacrifically.

We become like those we spend the most time with… is God someone you are spending time with? I want to be.

I would absolutely LOVE to be a beautiful bride, but I also want to be a kind, generous, grateful and content one… not a selfish, greedy, jealous and proud one. Only God can do the kind of work on my mind and heart to make that a possibility:

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/23/us-wedding-costs-idUSBRE82M11O20120323

I will never forget standing on the wet ferry deck, huddled with family, watching my uncle take out my grandfather’s remains and scatter them into the sea.

I’d crossed these waters countless times growing up, but it didn’t matter. Red tulips — freshly cut, bursting with life – hit the water one by one. Their blood red blossoms drifted toward the ashes, intertwined for a moment in the waters neither one would ever leave. There was no sunshine, but the icy air didn’t even register: I felt numb.

My uncle broke the silence, “Our Father, who art in heaven… we’d decided to recite the Lord’s Prayer after the ashes… hallowed be your name… the rest of us tried to join … your Kingdom come, your will be done… my voice shaking… on earth as it is in heaven … tears flowing mixed with winter’s raindrops on my cheeks… give us this day our daily bread … the first horn blew and we froze, listening … and forgive us our trespasses… the maritime tradition of remembrance and honor for those laid to rest in the sea… as we forgive those who trespass against us … the long, deep and melancholy tone of the second horn echoed the feeling of my heartand lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil… my eyes glued to the water … for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever and ever… and the ashes drifted further and further away with every breath… Amen.

I lost two grandparents, one from each side of the family, in two months.

My grandfather’s heart failed while being airlifted to the hospital. The day before his memorial, my grandmother’s doctors decided she wasn’t going to make it. They moved her into hospice and gave us little comfort on how long we had to say goodbye.  Hours, maybe days — maybe.

The reality of death’s curse set in as I watched that light-grey, powder fine ash settle on the water’s surface: By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19).

By God’s mercy, my grandmother did not die that day. After my grandfather’s memorial we left one town, and drove straight to the hospital in another. What prayers were answered that day as we talked with her, read to her, prayed with her, and said good-bye to her!! It was nearly a week later that her weary body breathed its last.

Different people. Different traditions. Different lives. Different deaths. But both  returned to dust.

.And so will we. I think part of the reason death is so difficult is that it’s hard to wrap our brains around because it brings us outside of the scientific, rational world and into the unknown.

… Could grandma feel her body slowly shutting down? Is grandpa in heaven?

I’ve been haunted by that question these past few weeks.  ..I went to work… I walked through a cemetery, reading the inscriptions on headstones and thinking about the kind of life I want to live… I took a blueberry-scented bubble bath and lit candles… I read CS Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” and thanked God I hadn’t lost a spouse… I watched snow flutter to the ground and drunk in its beauty and peacefulness… I made artisan bread for the first time, relishing the ability to make something with my hands… I read Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts” and started my own list of everyday blessings… I sat by the fire and let my mind wander, and I slept. A lot. These things have been a nourishing, helpful part of grieving for me…

But the question remained.

Friends, the sympathy cards and condolences are very kind, but they are not necessarily true. My grandmother may not be in a better place now. My grandfather may not be in the arms of the Lord.

The Bible says there is only one way to God and into his presence – heaven. It is through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16, Romans 10:9). There is no back-up plan, no second option. It doesn’t matter if you were a good person, smart, kind, generous, attractive, or wealthy. There’s only one factor: did they know the Lord? God alone knows that answer. Only he knows the condition of a heart, the thoughts of the mind, and the longings of the soul.

Someday, when my own ashes are scattered to the wind or to the waves, I hope that I will see both my grandparents again at the gates of heaven. The Book of Revelation paints a place of unimaginable beauty and splendor. It is without tears, pain, or darkness. Music and peace are abundant, and God himself is there. Friends, I don’t know about you, but that is definitely where I want to be!


…LIFE as of late…

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “predictable” person. Others might, but they would of course be mistaken. : ) You see, I love exploring, adventure, and creativity. I love meeting new people, hearing new stories, talking about new ideas, traveling to new places, and dabbling with new recipes. Thus, to me, things that are too predictable can seem a bit stagnant — in need of a fresh breath of creativity and whimsy. Alas, the dislike of appearing too predictable really has little to do with the reason it’s been six months since I’ve posted anything to this blog.

        My mind has just been cluttered.

Life has continued and God has remained, but I haven’t found the time and quietness of spirit required to untangle and articulate the tangents, storms, and epiphanies of my mind and heart. Perhaps you can relate. That said, this blog was never meant to be flawlessly written, nor was it ever intended to showcase only the sunny spots in life. Rather, I’ve hoped that this would be a place of genuine honesty, celebration, encouragement, and challenge — both for myself and for whomever stumbles across it. I truly hope you are blessed in some way by what you find here.

The past six months have been stuffed — like Santa’s toy bag or a Thanksgiving turkey. Let me elaborate…

-my dad was diagnosed with cancer, underwent surgery, healed, and declared cancer-free! The night before I left to see him, my roommate had a friend over and I overheard something about her taking the train north. She just happened to be going to the same place I was, to see her father, who she’d just found out had cancer… the very same kind my dad had! God orchestrated that night and that trip like I’d never seen before and he turned a situation of grief and pain into one of blessing and companionship.

-I saw a friend who uses a wheelchair everyday actually walk down the aisle on her wedding day!

-when a garbage can came tumbling into my freeway lane and I was boxed in, I hit it and came to a grinding halt. Not only was my car undamaged, but the lady behind me miraculously stopped in time — being rear-ended at a dead stop would have put me in the hospital if not the morgue!

-someone at church suggested I attend an out-of-town conference on justice and then proceeded to give me both a free registration and a free place for me to stay while I attended

-I was writing a paper on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a coffee shop one afternoon and a fellow I’d never seen before came over and started asking me about it. He’d seen my notes scattered around, had lived in Israel for a time, and wanted to know my thoughts. He’d never been to a Christian church and wasn’t sure what I believed or why. We talked that afternoon about a lot of things and I made absolutely no progress on that paper. It was the best thing I did all day.

..bracelets from India..

..bracelets from India..

-I stumbled across a breakfast hosted by an international organization in town. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw pictures of the girls I’d spent time with in India both on their 2011 calendars and on the slideshow of the main speaker.

-I planned a dream trip to Europe and ended up cancelling my tickets a couple weeks before I was supposed to leave. A week or so later an opportunity to visit an out-of-state friend opened up. I went and it was amazing — honestly so much better than Europe would have been if I’d have forced the original trip.

And the list goes on… in the past six months:

..friends have had babies, others have lost loved ones; some have fallen in love and been married, others suffered in broken marriages; some have received full ride scholarships to school, others have struggled to buy groceries; a dear friendship broke, but many others have been revitalized and restored; friends have left to live overseas, others have returned after living overseas.

..I’ve met with leaders of different faiths and heard their stories (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian). I’ve dug into the Bible, preached a sermon, written papers, attended church, and have fallen on my face in front of God a number of times. With guys I’ve been both pursued and rejected. I’ve been learning about humility, relationships, and the destructive power of gossip and sarcasm (Ephesians 4:29).

I’ve been thinking and talking about the church, roles of men and women, and relief work. I’ve been in class, out on the town, clocked in at work, at the gym, and with people. I’ve also been reading quite a bit — “chewing the cud” on the thoughts of others. I love God and am convinced we can’t live without Him.

This is my life.

I like islands… especially ones nestled in turquoise waters filled with colorful fish and playful dolphins. Ones that are far away from tsunamis, but blossoming with exotic flowers and sprinkled with palm trees. I used to think I would ADORE living the stereo-typical, laid-back island life. You know: lay on the beach, eat pineapple, learn to surf, be tan, swim with dolphins, buy a hammock… and relax with the people I love.

Hank’s friend, “Wilson”

..but it’d be a whole different story to be on the same quintessential island alone. Did you ever watch the movie “Castaway” (2000) with Tom Hanks? I couldn’t bring myself to sit through the entire saga, but I understand Hanks’ character gets so lonely on a beautiful island that he fashions an imaginary friend out of an old volleyball. Not exactly paradise.

John Donne (1572-1631), who was an English clergyman and poet, once said:

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…” (Meditation XVII, emph mine).

Life is better when it’s shared. In today’s world it’s easy to live essentially isolated from one another — like islands sprinkled across a vast ocean. Sure, we are constantly physically around people…  but do we really know them?

I think America is detached and depressed. We dabble in escapist ventures — be it movies, video games, alcohol, fantasy books, self mutilation, prescription meds, or one night stands. We cheat ourselves out of authentic relationships with real people. Be it within families, marriages, friendships, or churches… the monsters of biterness, jealousy, insecurity, and fear get in the way of living in community. We get caught up with success, status, and self preservation… and it isolates us.

 …Let it be no more.

plumeria, Hawaii

This semester I decided to do something radically different with my life —  to set aside my own agendas and issues, trust God in tangible ways, and live more like Christ and less like me. (See “Taking the PLUNGE” entry.) The past month or so the concept of community has been turning slowly in my brain like a pig roasting over the fire at a sunset luau… the more it turns over the more enticingly fragrant it becomes.

It’s a counter-cultural idea… in a society that values people who stand alone (the rugged individualist), I’m suggesting we stand together. Not in a way that compromises who we are, but in a way that shares who we are with the people around us. I’m not promoting co-dependence, I’m encouraging authentic relationship… allowing people to genuinely know us and seeking to know others.

The words of Richard Stearns, President of the humanitarian organization World Vision, resonate with the idea of bidding adieu to this “island” life. He says that our idea of privatized Christianity, of faith merely being between us and God, is incomplete Christianity isn’t a quick prayer uttered in one of life’s corners, it’s a transformational relationship with God that should overflow into every aspect of our lives… in other words, it’s not lived in isolation. In The Hole in Our Gospel (Thomas Nelson: 2009), Stearns says:

“The idea behind The Hole in Our Gospel is quite simple. It’s basically the belief that being a Christian, or follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God. It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world. If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith — and mine — has a hole in it.” (p.2).

Though Stearns is ultimately drawing attention to our responsibility to respond to global issues like poverty and rampant disease, I think his observation is spot on. We tend to compartmentalize our lives and our beliefs, and it hinders our ability to truly know and be known. Think about it… if you were to invite everyone you knew to the same party what would that look like?

Work friends. School friends. Neighbors. Family. Church friends. Out on the town friends. Sports friends. Facebook friends. New and old, everyone… would they know the same person? Clearly, people are multi-faceted and not each friendship will be a cookie-cutter of the next, but are we essentially the same in all our relationships… or do we adjust who we are based on expectations and fear?

the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

Friends, fear KILLS community. It breeds island dwellers. Authentic relationships simply cannot survive on the superficial; they have to be built on foundations of truth. (Think about what broken trust and betrayl do to a relationship, for example, when truth is compromised.) And truth-based relationships require a whole lot of LOVE, forgiveness, and vulnerability. The words of the apostle John come to mind:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:18

Perfect love casts out fear. Fear of being honest, of being rejected, vulnerable, exposed, judged. It is the polar opposite of pride. Pride demands self preservation… and, subsequently, it builds walls. The more proud we are the greater the distance becomes between “us” and “them”. But rather than distancing, love takes a risk and APPROACHES.

 

So, my hope is that we will distance a little less and love radically more. That we will build bridges off our islands and tear down the walls that protect our own pride and insecurity — and isolate us —  as we share honestly life’s pain and laughter, hope and love with the real people around us. Let us ask God for the courage and the grace to live in true community with one another. Let us bid farewell to “island” life.

Have a listen to Phil Wickham’s song, Beautiful. Nowhere is there a better example of perfect, unselfish love for others than that which is poured out in Christ’s love for humanity. It’s beautiful.

 

Photo credits:

http://www.softpedia.com/progScreenshots/Tropical-Island-Escape-Screenshot-35556.html

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://aquaest.typepad.com/.a/6a00e5551268ac883401157100e500970c-320pi&imgrefurl=http://www.sulisminerva.org/2009/07/being-a-bridge-nan-degrove.html&usg=__jCTksMbToWUlvLittDrtdsep9fA=&h=320&w=213&sz=10&hl=en&start=69&zoom=1&itbs=1&tbnid=c_dWUWjYFslatM:&tbnh=118&tbnw=79&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dbridge%2Bat%2Bsunrise%26start%3D54%26hl%3Den%26safe%3Dactive%26sa%3DN%26gbv%3D2%26ndsp%3D18%26tbs%3Disch:1

http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/WK-AU418_TVREVI_G_20100623133659.jpg

http://www.brainmysteries.com/Images/cast_away_movie_Wilson_football.jpg

… taking the PLUNGE…

Have you ever been cliff jumping? You know, where you run to the edge of a towering rock face and then throw your body over the side… free falling toward a  deep pool of icy water with ever increasing momentum? ..I haven’t.

I love the outdoors, I especially love water, and I love hanging out with adventure sports people. But my brain tends to be more of a calculating one… so how far OUT would I have to jump to avoid smashing into the cliff on the way down… how DEEP is that water… are there any hidden ROCKS lurking beneath the surface that could paralyze me?!  I want to calculate the risk before jumping. So, inevitably, I will stand at the edge of the rock face — gazing longingly at the refreshing water below — and watch person after person run, flailing or gracefully diving, and JUMP.

Do you live your life like the person who stands at the edge paused, hesistant to truly dive into something?  Have you been living with “one toe in”, involved somewhat but not fully invested in relationships, commitments, future plans, and –dare I say it — “church”? I have.

Ever wondered what it would be like to go all in? To really live the way that God intended? Sure, it’s easy to go to church, listen to the sermon, maybe even volunteer in the nursery, give money to a charitable organization, or lead a Bible study group. But I’m talking about something more… more than learning about what God has to say, actually living that way. I’m not suggesting it’s bad to do these things, but I am suggesting that we can do all this — and more — and still be standing at the edge of the cliff.

Those who will commit to nothing, who stand for nothing, and who risk for nothing, in the end, rarely accomplish anything. (The Bravehearted Gospel, p. 123)

Following God is not a list of “do nots” or guilt-laden commitments throughout the week;  it’s about relationship — first with the God of the universe and then with the people around us. Being a Christian is about living like Christ, not just talking about it. Let us not merely talk about theological questions of the ages, let us pray for our friends who have cancer, release bitterness and confront hatred, and allow the Bible to move from our brains and seep into our hearts that it may transform who we are and not just what we do. May what we DO flow out of who we are, out of love  for one another not out of obligation. May we not be legalistic, superficial, self-righteous people. May we not be people who have “the appearance of godliness” but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5).

So what does this “all in” look like?

Black Rock cliff jump, Maui

I think it means caring more about what God thinks than the people we try to impress: romantic interests, colleagues, friends, bosses, parents, etc. It means that our motivations matter: the reasons behind our actions. It means relationships are saturated with honesty and love: we let down our walls and let people see us as we truly are… and we love on people as they truly are. It means we have to trust God with a LOT: we withdraw from the driver’s seat in life and yield to God’s guiding. It means we cut out the sin (the things that aren’t right before God) from our lives; we allow people to shine light on those areas and we listen to their words with humility. It means we spend time with God: reading the Bible and praying. It means instead of being crazy busy we prioritize and simplify: we go DEEP instead of WIDE. It means we apologize and forgive — always. We seek to restore broken relationships.

As a single girl in her 20s, let me add this to the ladies out there…  This also means we take an honest look at the way we interact with the guys in our lives. It means we gain our sense of beauty, power, identity, and worth not from the praises of charming — and not-so-charming — fellows, but from God. This doesn’t mean making ourselves unattractive, but rather taking a closer look at our wardrobes, especially the mini skirts and plunging shirts, and our hearts. I think jumping “all in” means we willingly relinquish the sense of power and control that comes from turning heads and collecting compliments. It means we choose to put God in the spotlight instead of ourselves.

Please hear me, this is not a formula. It’s not a “10 steps to heaven” deal. The Bible says people are saved through faith in Christ, it’s not something you earn (Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 2:5) it’s something you believe (Romans 10:9). What I’m talking about is living a FULL life, at taking God at his word and believing that he really knows best how to approach life. So, go ahead and take the plunge… bring on the ripples of change! : )

photo credits:

http://lillianknight.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/cliff-jumping.jpg

https://heidibay.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/waterripples05l.jpg

…promises UNBROKEN…

It’s the beginning of the school year. The clouds above the northwest have swelled and begun pouring rain — in large and small amounts — on the streets and sidewalks of my little corner of the city. Coffee pots are being dusted off, syllabi handed out, and pillows less frequented… September has come.

I remember when school meant long rides on the crickety bus and the hustle and bustle of malls filled with teenagers eagerly awaiting their chance to walk into the same halls with a new identity — transformed by their summer experiences, relationships, and newly infused fashionable wardrobes. I remember getting ready… buying textbooks, school bags, pens, locker decorations, and such. And then sitting in class trying to stay awake.

…Not this year.

I love my classes. For the past two years I have had the incredible opportunity to study, well, God. : ) From Greek language to counseling, theology to global issues, and Genesis to Revelation the whole idea of coming to seminary has been to get to know God: to study the Bible, spend time with God in prayer, and to let that transform my life from the inside out.

I was sitting in class yesterday morning thinking about the heartbreak in America, the bitterness toward God that so many hold when he has failed to come through for them — or it appears that way. My professor was talking about an often quoted, but misunderstood, verse (Matthew 18:19-20):

“…if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

On its own it sounds a lot like God is promising that when two people agree on something and come to him in prayer about it that He will give them whatever they ask. It’s a formula to get our wildest prayers answered — or so it may appear at first glance. So we grab a buddie and pray earnestly for a job, spouse, medical healing, guidance on an issue or the like… and if God doesn’t grant our request we shake our fists at Him and point our fingers bitterly to this verse. We feel entitled to an answer, an answered PROMISE to be precise, but the problem is that we misunderstood the verse. We took it out of context.

The verse, which starts with “Again I say to you”, is part of a larger unit of thought that stretches back to the beginning of chapter 18. My professor continued speaking: the main idea is that when Christians live in sin, fellow Christians should seek to restore them to fellowship. This passage is about relationships within the church, about acting with humility toward one another, and not causing harm. Oh, that we would take these words to heart and not just skim over them!

When a Christian does sin (by doing something contrary to what God says is right), as the church we should reach out in love and humility in every effort to restore them into relationship and fellowship. The context surrounding the description of how this should be done includes a strong emphasis on humility (the opposite of pride), and love. Rather than condemning and “scarlet lettering” someone, we are to approach the person with an attitude like a shepard going after a single sheep that’s wandered off. The shepard’s desire is — most likely–  not to beat the sheep, but to bring it back to the flock and to safety.  When this is done according to the will of Christ and in real agreement in prayer, it is powerful and God is a part of it.

As I sat and listened to my professor explore this passage, I saw the way its segments were woven together as a unit. I continue to be amazed at the interconnectedness and depth of the Scriptures. While the Bible clearly states blatant truths, there is much more to be learned by peeling back its layers and examining the frameworks within those truths have been presented.

….Here is my hope and my point

May we not hold grudges against God for breaking what we have incorrectly deemed a promise. Let us never remove anyone’s words, especially God’s, from the context in which they are said. God is perfect, always has been, and He loves you and me. Next time you see a one verse bumper sticker, t-shirt, bookmark, or bulletin board I’d encourage us all to open our Bibles and find where it’s nestled. I pray you will be blessed by the experience, and I am confident you will find that God loves you and His promises remain unbroken. : )

image from: http://wapellayouth.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/prayer-hands.jpg