Snowplow Ministry Clears Path for Generosity

12 12 2011

by KARIN PETER, president of seventy

Last winter my sister visited us in Missouri from the Pacific Coast. One night we had a big snowfall. She awoke the next morning to the sound of our neighbor and his teenage son plowing our driveway and shoveling our sidewalk.

It surprised her that after finishing they began clearing the sidewalks and driveways of houses near us. Then they did those across the street and down the road.

My sister and I had been talking about generosity and giving, mainly because she had been asked to share A Disciple’s Generous Response in her congregation after returning home. That morning, as she watched our neighbors shovel and plow, she noted their generosity.

“Your neighbors,” she said, “could have cleared their own driveway and yours and then gone home to a warm house, having taken care of their own needs and those of their immediate neighbors. Instead they shared their gifts with those across the street and those who live on roads they themselves seldom use.”

She likened this to sharing equally through Local and World Mission Tithes.

“When we give locally we take care of the needs in our own congregation and in our local community. When we contribute to World Mission Tithes we provide for ministry in neighborhoods, villages, and cities much farther away, down roads we may never travel.”

As I plan my financial giving I will remember the “snowplow lesson” and generously share my resources in both Local and World Mission Tithes.


The Firm Foundation

10 12 2011

This story is condensed and reprinted with permission from Crumb Donors, a newsletter in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA. Several names have been omitted because of matters of sensitivity.

I have never had a dad. There have always been plenty of males around who took up with my mom from time to time, but none of them stuck around long.

When I was in first grade, we moved into a house of our own. But around the fifth of each of month the rent man came, and my mom would pay the rent any way she had to. I’m shamefully saying my mom seldom paid with money.

When I was 9, I got tired of this guy collecting rent that way. So when he showed up one October day, I missed the bus and came home instead. I made a choice to make sure this man never collected “the rent” from my mom again.

The consequences of this choice meant I had to spend the next three years in group and foster homes. It may be wrong, but I never regretted that choice. But it made me believe I would never be anything more than a street thug. So when I returned home I began living out that belief.

A kid named Sean invited me to church one day at an old bank building. He told me we probably would play basketball most of our time there. I went, and then I started to go a lot. I wasn’t very good at basketball, but one older kid named Jared was.

He began to coach me in basketball. I got baptized and confirmed, and I spent more and more of my time at the center, playing basketball and doing church.

One day, Jared told me I should try out for my school basketball team. I told him I was afraid to ’cause if I didn’t make it, I would feel so angry that I probably would end up in juvenile.

But Jared kept working with me, and I made the team. I started hanging out at gyms and at church all the time. Being a thug became less and less of my future. Before long my entire family, including my mom, began coming to church. She got baptized and confirmed, too. The church helped my mom get her high school diploma and helped provide transportation so she could work.

She began to pay our rent with money. She went to rehab and got clean. In the meantime, I got confidence and also began to play football.

My mom met a man…I mean a real man. They got married. I finally got me a dad. This makes me cry even as I write this.

We moved away from Chattanooga after my sophomore year, but I still played high school basketball and football. I still kept in touch with my church family.

Today, Jared is the pastor at the church I grew up in. I am now a junior in a Christian college on a dual-sports scholarship in Virginia. I haven’t been a street thug since the day I made the basketball team at Tyner Middle School in Chattanooga. I never missed a day of school after that.

I still go to church, and I still have Jesus as my firm foundation.

To the Brink and Back

8 12 2011

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

I met Robbie Cooper 71/2 years ago when he moved into Alpha Trailer Park. He was a fierce-looking man who was not much more than a skeleton. He hated the world.

It took a long time to get any communication between us. He didn’t trust anybody. His own words to me: “I am a raving junkie.” He looked like one, the worst I’ve ever seen. But in time I got to know Robbie well. I’d like to share some of his story.

Robbie was born a twin with a hernia of the bowel. He was the first baby in Victoria to have open-heart surgery because of complications from the hernia surgery. A wonderful mother raised him, but his father was violent and didn’t get along with Robbie.

He began using drugs and spent years in and out of jail. He told me he never wanted to go back to jail, and he never has. The turning point came when he called and said he’d had enough of living like that. He had nearly died, which forced that decision. I watched him detoxify cold turkey.

You would think that the worst would have been over. But in 2006 Robbie got bullous disease and suffered more than a year. Then in 2008 he contracted shingles. I took him to the hospital twice. He was in agony. He couldn’t sleep, was extremely fatigued, and nearly had a breakdown. The medical staff offered pain relief, but he refused.

As Robbie says, “An addict is always an addict.” He did not want to deal with the temptation. He now no longer has full use of an arm and can be moody when the pain gets to him.

A growing respect for each other turned into friendship and, on my part, complete trust. If I need a bit of wisdom or advice, I call him. When I feel flat, he picks me up. And when he needs me, I’m there.

As time went on I noticed Robbie had a quick mind and was good at thinking of ways to raise money for Hope Community Care, which serves the disadvantaged.

Robbie has become one of my biggest supporters. He comes to church to support me for my services. He’s there on walkathons and Christmas barbecues. I couldn’t begin to tell you all of the things he’s done for me and Hope.

Robbie comes into Hope regularly to give advice and tease me. He has taken some younger park members under his wing and is like a surrogate father.

Robbie never married. Though he always wanted children, he had never picked up a child until the day he held Miss Lily (our little angel). You could not know how much it meant to him or how her innocence and trust ministered to him.

After all those wasted years he has found life. With the help of God, he had the guts to turn himself into the man he is today. There will never be another Robbie.

Incarnation—What God’s Love Looks Like

6 12 2011

Charmaine and Tony Chvala-Smithby CHARMAINE and TONY CHVALA-SMITH
Disciple Formation Ministries

In Jesus Christ, God came to us in an incomparable way. That is the mystery of the incarnation. “Incarnation” is shorthand for the Christian belief that in Jesus Christ the eternal divine Logos (Word) became fully human: “in flesh,” as the Latin term incarnatus denotes. It is the extraordinary center of the Christian faith, on which there is no better time to reflect than Advent.

God’s Act of Love

The whole of who God is for us as creator and redeemer…is found in concentrated compass in Christ. —Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key

How can we fathom that God chose to be in our midst, to be with us, and even to be one of us? What does it mean for God to show us the way by becoming the way? It is a disturbing thought.

The incarnation has had an uphill trudge in our modern world. If we’re honest, many who identify themselves as Christians are uncomfortable with the exalted and “otherworldly” claims Biblical authors and Christians through the ages have heaped on Jesus. Discomfort comes because these claims of “God in human form” and resurrection are discordant with many cultural understandings of the limits of life and death.

Jesus’ birth, miracles, death, and resurrection just don’t make sense in our empirical world, where only things explained by logic, science, or convention are deemed reasonable. Plus, the egocentrism of our western worldview suggests our advanced intellects are fully capable of comprehending anything worth believing, which renders many claims about Christ inconceivable. Small wonder many Christians aren’t sure what to make of Jesus. Bundle into this an enculturated self-reliance and an aversion to admitting we need forgiveness or help in addressing our self-centeredness and our brokenness, and we begin to understand why the incarnation makes so many of us uneasy.

So why do we work so hard to resist this amazing gift of God’s own presence with us? Are we uncomfortable with a God who is so very near, and who comes to us in such a particular and messy way? Or with a love that eclipses our own, and interacts with all creation in ways beyond our imagination? The incarnation necessarily humbles us and reminds us that we are of a different nature than the God we worship.

An analogy for the power of the incarnation can be found in recent literature. If you’ve tapped into the Harry Potter books or movies, you’ll be familiar with a theme that resonates at humanity’s core and is found in many cultures’ stories. In each story, the pure (or passionate) and selfless love of one person ripples into the future in transforming ways that could not have been imagined at first.

In the Harry Potter saga, this catalyst is Lily, Harry’s mother. Lily dies shielding her son from an attack by Lord Voldemort, the series’ villain. Her love, expressed in a willingness to offer her own life, produces a force that simultaneously protects Harry and radically diminishes Voldemort’s power.

As the series unfolds we learn there’s a special quality and depth to her sacrificial love. It not only protects Harry from Lord Voldemort’s first attack on him, but it continues to safeguard him in unexpected ways throughout his life, not just for his sake, but for the sake of what is good, right, and just throughout the wizarding world.

Also, Lily’s love for her childhood friend, Severus Snape, who is poor, awkward, and rejected by his classmates, produces yet another shield for Harry. Not until the end does Harry learn that Snape, his most despised teacher, has been responding to the power of Lily’s compassion all along and protecting him from harm. In the end, that love becomes the means of Snape’s redemption.

Another character, Remus, describes Lily this way, “She had a way of seeing the beauty in others even, and perhaps most especially, when that person couldn’t see it in themselves.”

Lily is a very accomplished witch, yet it is not her magic, but her love that stops Lord Voldemort’s evil plans. Again and again, the love she exercised in the world during her life (and in her death) keeps creating unimagined possibilities for good, giving others cause for hope, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Her life, her love, and her death continue to affect the world as corrective forces in the face of hate, power, and greed. Lily’s sacrificial love mystically preserves Harry, defeats evil, and becomes the driving force of the whole story.

Can you see the parallels to the incarnation? Our point is not to minimize Christ’s incarnation by comparing it to a literary character, but simply to show how even in our empirical culture, we intuitively comprehend the power of an embodied love. Christ, embodying God’s passionate love for us, comes into the world and seeks out, invites, and brings healing to the poor, the despised, and rejected. He willingly defies the forces of violence, fear, and death so his followers (and eventually others, too) can see that God’s power and love are not defeatable.

His actions and words on behalf of the weak bring him into direct conflict with the power brokers of his day, both Roman and Jewish. He is not afraid of death, but he lets it be another way to express God’s love for even his enemies. His life’s ministry, death’s purpose, and the resurrection’s message all proclaim God’s love in visible and tangible ways. They empower us to live differently in the world, making room for hope and for an expanding kingdom.

Unlike Lily in the Harry Potter series, Christ is more than a memory or a ghost-like mirage that occasionally appears in moments of crisis. After all, the incarnation is not just an idea but is meant to be felt and experienced. It affects how we see ourselves, how we interact with others and the world, and shapes the relationship we can have with God.

Incarnation means, not that Christ was with us, but that Christ is with us; that he is present still, at work within us, around us, and in the world. We can expect to meet him in the sacraments, to bump into him as we stretch beyond our comfort zones for the sake of others, and to encounter him in our quiet moments of prayer or meditation.

Be Open to the Word Made Flesh, in Our Midst

Incarnation…declares Christ as the joyous interaction of Spirit and flesh, God and creation—intermingled in delicious friendship. —W. Paul Jones

The Word became flesh in a first-century, Aramaic-speaking, Galilean Jew, in Roman-occupied Palestine. John 1:14 uses a colorful verb to describe this event. The Greek text literally says the Word “tented among us.” The image of pitching a tent amid human experience vividly reminds us that God, who is beyond all space, place, and time, takes our spaces, places, and times seriously.

How else could God be with us—shaped as we are by geography, history, and culture—than to camp with us? Jesus Christ reveals a God who is not known in a mythical never-never land, but in the gritty peculiarity of place.

“(Jesus) saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him” (Mark 2:14 NRSV). Yielding to the call of the Incarnate One is not unlike the giving of oneself in the experience of falling in love. To fall in love is both a choice and a response prompted by what is outside one’s control. Paradoxically we are never freer or more captive than when we “fall” for another.

Real encounter with Jesus Christ, as Levi discovered, creates a moment in which one both may and must say “yes.” Why? A family member described his decision to seek baptism: “As I sat in that worship service, I found myself surrounded by a love I had never experienced before in my life.” He had to respond to it.

Christ, as God’s revealed love, makes but one invitation: “Come follow me.” Embracing this call begins a voyage of infinite possibility, for to know Jesus Christ is to know not what is less than God, but God’s own self. In Jesus, God is whom Levi and every disciple since have met. This encounter with love incarnate elicits a response of our whole self.

In the fourth and fifth centuries Christians, both women and men, sought to know Christ deeply by living in the harsh Egyptian and Syrian deserts in radical faithfulness to Jesus’ way. A story from Sayings of the Desert Fathers (edited by Benedicta Ward) tells how a brother named Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph for some spiritual direction.

Lot recounted his simple lifestyle: He did a little of this and a little of that; regular prayer, some fasting, tried to live peaceably and to conquer any evil thoughts. “What else can I do,” he asked. Abba Joseph arose and reached his hands to heaven. “His ten fingers,” the story says, “became like ten lamps of fire” and in that enigmatic way of the desert disciples Joseph said to Lot, ‘‘If you will, you can become all flame.”

Uncommon devotion is not merely a “head thing.” It doesn’t spring from reading a few books, thinking some pious thoughts, and then going about our regular business. It is fitting that a religion that affirms “the Word became flesh” can be experienced fully only by putting our whole bodies into it. To “become all flame” rises from a deepening union with Christ and a growing participation in the life of his Body: water, bread, wine, hands, touch, oil, words, story, song, tears, silence, sharing, and serving.

Re-Present the Incarnation

Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s shalom, invites all people to come and receive divine peace…and discover the blessings of all of the dimensions of salvation…You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. —Doctrine and Covenants 163:2a, 3a

In Christian community the effect of the incarnation becomes embedded in the structures of life. By following Jesus’ way, the church not only bears witness to, but re-presents, the incarnation. The church reveals in its body language what it means that “God so loved the world.”

What can that look like? My (Tony’s) first glimpse of this was as a young-adult seeker, and eventually a member, in the Farwell, Michigan, Congregation. They knew about uncommon devotion but wouldn’t have thought to call it that.

There was the gentle, smiling face of Wes, who, on my first visit, shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Brother Higgins.” There was the way the congregation gathered around the grieving or those struggling with tragedy. They loved each other (even when they disagreed), ate together, and shared each other’s happiness and sorrows. They prayed a lot for each other. They all pitched in to help with fish suppers, and Labor Day stands, and special dinners, and funerals, and picnics, and workdays at the church.

It was among them that for the first time in my life I saw men—strong farmers, factory workers, and retired railroad men—cry. They cried because they knew God cared for them and were simply grateful.

The congregation made room for this overenthusiastic convert and even asked me to do things. They showed me how Christianity could be woven into the fabric of each day, not only Sunday. In endless ways they revealed that God had embraced the flesh and blood of their lives and was working out an amazing purpose among us. Through the love of the Farwell church I came to know something of Jesus’ love, and my life has been forever changed.

In the Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In the incarnation [of Christ] the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.” In this light, beloved Christmas lyrics like “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing” stir a note of daring and conviction.

After all, how can the church remain silent about such things as workers’ wages, turning away the stranger, or the melting of glaciers if “the Word became flesh and tented among us”? If this one thing is true, then the world as we know it is not the world as it must become. We who believe in Christ must not be keepers of the status quo, but partners in an insurrection of love.

How Are You Preparing?

3 12 2011

—Stephen M. Veazey
president of the church

As I write this article in October for the December Herald, Cathi and I are anticipating the imminent birth of our second grandchild. We already know this child is a boy, and his name will be Peyton.

Peyton’s 3-year-old sister, Bailey, is noticeably enthused about the prospect of having a little brother. Bree and Travis, our daughter and son-in-law, have prepared for Peyton’s birth in every way possible. They’ve stockpiled baby clothes and a large diaper inventory. A bedroom has been artfully decorated and furnished with a cozy crib. Stuffed animals wait patiently for upcoming adventures.

In fact, we are all patiently waiting. We are waiting for a child who will transform and enrich our lives. We are waiting for news of his birth. We are waiting for first glimpses of his face!

Advent—the four Sundays before Christmas—is a time to prepare for the birth of another child. Scripture speaks clearly about the impact of this child’s birth:

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

—Matthew 1:20–21 NRSV

Can we bring the same heightened preparation to this opportunity to experience the meaning of Jesus’ birth that my family has brought to our grandson’s expected birth?

Often we miss such opportunities because of the press of other matters or the furious pace of our lives. The one thing our weary souls may need most is to pause to prayerfully explore once again the coming of Emanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23 NRSV).

We have excellent resources to guide us on our Advent journey. These include familiar scripture passages, the church’s Worship Resources, and Daily Bread.

We also can use the five mission initiatives to enrich our Advent experience. We can prayerfully explore the initiatives to better understand how they express the person and work of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we can be living witnesses of God’s incarnation in Christ by moving to “enflesh” Jesus’ mission through our lives.

For example, I will “Invite People to Christ” by encouraging people to go with me to Advent worship experiences in my congregation and at the Temple. People are much more likely to respond to such invitations during holidays than at any other time.

What about “Abolish Poverty, End Suffering”? Recent reports indicate the number of children who go to bed hungry is increasing significantly. Can we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus without doing something to increase food security for children in our hometowns and world?

Scripture asserts that Jesus was born to bring peace on Earth (Luke 2:14 NRSV). If so, we must examine what we are doing to bring Christ’s peace to our conflicted world. What steps can we take to “Pursue Peace on Earth” and to signify the birth of the Prince of Peace?

I also will give an additional World Mission Tithes contribution during Advent to support all of the mission initiatives. I simply cannot claim God’s grace revealed in Christ for me and my family without doing what I can to provide opportunities for others to experience his ministry.

How are you preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this Advent?

A Contemplative Christmas

1 12 2011

BY CAROLYN BROCK, Spiritual Formation and Wholeness Ministries

Each December we have a decision to make. How will we spend our time and energy during Advent? Distractions, busy schedules, cultural consumerism expectations, and financial stress abound. What helps us to stop, wait, and sink into a pregnant pause that opens us to the contemplative spirit of Christmas?

To be contemplative is to be present, quietly attentive, and expectant. Advent invites us into a spirit of watching and listening, waiting for the birth of the Christ child. It is a time of mystery and wonder, reflection and discernment that takes us deep into the heart of God.

Centering Prayer is a contemplative practice that can deepen our experience of this holy season. Our focus is drawn to the Giver of the ultimate Gift. Our hearts are opened to the Beloved One we welcome and celebrate. We breathe in the generous love of God and are opened to the compassionate spirit of Christ. We are moved from contemplation to healing action.

What Is Centering Prayer?

• A simple way of praying in which breath and a “prayer word” keep our attention focused on God’s presence.

• A listening prayer in which we set aside all thoughts and intentions other than openness to God.

• The intentional emptying of inner clutter and chatter to create space for God.

Why Is It Important?

• Healing of the spirit requires openness to God’s touch at deep levels. Receptive quietness opens this space into which we may realize and welcome God.

• Jesus’ life and ministry were grounded in the renewing grace of intimate friendship with God. Our lives find grounding in deep wells of love, energy, and peace when centered in God’s presence.

• Centering prayer reorients all dimensions of self and life around the reality of God. Life’s pieces are integrated into wholeness when held together by our focus on God.

Suggestions for Practice

1. Sit with relaxed, erect posture in a comfortable chair, hands open and receptive in your lap. Close your eyes.

2. Offer a brief prayer to state your intention. (For example: “I’m here, God. Waiting, listening, open. Help me receive and rest in you.”)

3. Breathe in a regular rhythm, slightly slower and deeper than normal. Let your breath become a prayer as you sense God’s presence surrounding and moving through you.

4. Listen beneath or within your breath for a prayer word (a sacred word) that expresses the desires of your heart. The word has no special power. It is a reminder to return your attention to God when other thoughts or images arise.

5. When you become aware of the prayer word, begin to pray it silently in rhythm with your breathing. Take a breath. Silently repeat the word as you breathe out. As you begin you may need to say the prayer word with each breath. Let the word go as you move more deeply into silent awareness of God. Return to the sacred word when distracting thoughts divert your attention.

6. Continue your silent focus on God for 20 minutes. Thank God and sit still for a few moments as you close. Listen for an invitation to express God’s grace and offer the peace of Christ during the Advent season.