The Beautiful Pink Horse

Saturday night a few friends and I gathered in our living room. Our son who is three years old and another child who is two were happily coloring pictures while the grown-ups sang a few songs to Jesus. While we were doing this, Mason slipped over to see how little Paisley was coloring her picture. She had made a very pink choice for her horses’ coat and Mase was clearly interested. He was about to comment when we noticed him stop himself mid-sentence. “That’s a funny… I like your beautiful picture. I like brown horses, but I like your beautiful pink horse.” Paisley has had enough encounters with little boys to be leery of them, so up until this moment she has been shy about joining Mason in the playroom during our grown-up Bible discussion time. This time things were shifting and all the adults in the room were watching out of the corner of our eyes. With a big smile she said, “Thank you,” found a small soccer ball and passed it to him. They were happily playing within minutes and for the first time Paisley felt at home.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since Saturday night. From a parent’s perspective, there is nothing more satisfying than watching your child love beyond himself. Clearly something of the love of Christ is reaching his heart and mind, directing his thoughts and leading him into life. The weight of joy in that moment, and the small moments throughout the rest of the days of his life outweighs the other, less Christlike moments. The Holy Spirit’s leadership of our meetings is often expressed in ways we don’t immediately recognize.

Could it be that Father watches our small attempts to love each other with just such joy? As we serve each other, reach out beyond ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit, do we recognize His work among us in the small, quiet ways love changes our lives? They add up to soul-satisfying fellowship and I, for one, am deeply grateful.

Questions to think about:

1. Do I feel at home where I meet with God’s people?
2. Do others feel at home with me wherever we are in relationships; at home, at school, at work, at coffee?
3. What are some small, quiet ways I can serve to make others feel at home in Jesus’ presence?

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Happy Mother’s Day 2013

I’ve had a blessed day. Of course, I’ve had a long string of blessed Mother’s days, beginning in 1985 with the birth of our first child. Today was delightful. Brunch with Eric, Amy, Mason and Seth was perfect and brought that deep sense of joy and fulfillment one feels when dear people go out of their way to say, “I love you.” Who wouldn’t feel blessed?

I am exceedingly grateful. No one deserves such a full cup as I experienced today, as I experience every day. So what was nagging at me, under the surface? I have come to realize that there’s a part of my soul that is never contented with enough joy, but always wants more. It’s embarrassing, really.

So to counteract my ever-expanding appetite for pleasure, I’ve been practicing the art of grateful praise. I know it sounds corny, but the more thankful I am, the more pleasure I actually enjoy. The less I expect from others, the more I enjoy the love they do share. When what people give me is more than what I expect to receive, I am always contented.

“Want to know how you can always be happy with me?” someone wise once said. “Lower your expectations.”

As I was thinking about the coming day last week, I remembered the pain of being childless, single, of grieving the loss of children unborn. I remembered the pain of Mother’s Day and all its accompanying unmet expectations. I thought of my friends who are estranged from beloved children, who are looking at empty cribs and failed marriages. I thought of them and prayed for comfort for them. Then the idea came to me that our friends on North 1st Street might have an extra share of this kind of pain today. My garden is bursting with iris. I decided it would please them and honor Jesus to take each mother a pretty flower.

I’d like to think I gave a little beauty where there is a whole world of ugliness. I’d like to think I brought some comfort to lonely people. Truthfully, what they gave to me was greater. I drove into the driveway of my home in a comfortable, tree-lined neighborhood where Sunday Mother’s Day brunch is a normal, expected sort of joy, and I realized just how overflowing my cup really is. What we give away is all we keep. What we do for others in His name is all that really lasts. Truly it is better to give than it is to receive.

Happy Mother’s Day 2013. May what you give keep you.

The Great Good Neighbor

4It’s easy to think of God, the Father Almighty, as the great good neighbor on high. He feels distant and we wonder whether he pays much attention to us here, across the border, in every-man’s land. Shootings, lootings, famines, floods, these go on in marching succession as they always have done, increasing in intensity, perhaps, yet piling up sorrows together like great snow banks of grief which lean against someone else’s fence, uncared-for, unobserved by the Omniscient Eye. They melt in time into pools of standing tears, and water our worst fears.

We can almost fear he is near and worse than indifferent, uncaring: a great holy Other with unswollen eyes who goes about universal tasks of deep significance on automatic drive, oblivious, head in his vast newspaper, full of Himself and no other. These are blasphemies we seldom speak, but often think… And worse, believe where our deepest faith competes with these in mortal struggle.

And they cry out to us that this is “real”, that this is “true” and why don’t you and I give up? One simple reason why. Among us was born a child. He was the Most High. His eyes were swollen with our pain. His head was bowed beneath our shame and all our fear and unbelief, our longings and our grief was tied to His shredded back and crucified. He lived and died. Where graves and gunfire, mortar and drones, Katrina and Sandy and the thousands of silent tsunamis which rip apart the hearts of humanity around the globe abound; where fear of eternal silence and an empty throne where sits no Father but a hooded executioner creep up and capture pain-weakened hearts- enter the Man in a towel who washes feet. Enter the Man whose smile vanquishes unbelief. Enter the One who stores our grief in safety until he makes all wrongs come right. Enter the baby of Silent Night.

We realize that we live not next door neighbor to the One who lives, but in His house. We look around the earth and see not our own furnishings and what scraps we keep, but His trees, His sky, His ocean depths, His Saturn’s rings, His shimmering waves. We find ourselves sitting in the lap of God our lips curled up in scorn. Let us pause, reflect and weep. Let us watch Him as He sleeps vulnerably in the manger deep and let us just for once believe.

Let us have faith this Christmas and rejoin the angel chorus in His praise. And let us live there all our days.

Merry Christmas!

Eric and Anne Stoothoff1d

Rest- Hebrews 4

“God’s promise of entering his place of rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to get there. For this Good News – that God has prepared a place of rest – has been announced to us just as it was to them. But it did them no good because they didn’t believe what God told them.” Hebrews 4: 1

Maybe its because of Christmas Break that I’ve been contemplating rest lately. Sorely needed rest is what I look forward to most after the last hectic week of school. I long for rest before the holy pause of Advent. It somehow feels as if all the world has been set into stasis for a moment and rest and reflection become our “work” … well, between the press of obligations and traditions. Perhaps it is this quiet meditation that the god of this world is after as he chases us down the aisles of WalMart screaming 50% off! God is in the quiet.

So as I read Hebrews 4 this morning, I realized that God has invited us into the rest He himself inhabits. In fact, God seems to be very serious about our sitting down with Him on the inside since the whole chapter is really a warning against our jumping up and doing life as usual. Why? What’s the big deal about rest?

The book of Hebrews is a letter by one of our early church fathers (we don’t know who) speaking under the Spirit’s power to Jews who lived just after Jesus’ first coming. These men and women were God’s people Israel by birth. What defined them as God’s people were the things they did to please Him…things God Himself initiated among them, and things their rabbis added to God’s commands. What made a Jew a Jew was obedience to the revealed Law and the observance of rituals. It is this obedience to the Old Covenant that the writer contrasts with “rest”. It is the doing of these things that is the opposite of the new Way of Jesus that His death, burial and resurrection ushered in. That’s the message of Hebrews 4- stop being God’s people by doing and be His New Covenant people, just be.

It must have felt like skinny dipping in broad daylight. This meant that their entire cultural identity was on the line. It might be like giving up our citizenship in the United States and membership in our church to follow Jesus. They would no longer be part of the worshiping community that had cradled them in infancy and carried them through life to the grave, and beyond. They were to enter into a new, very real spiritual reality of oneness with God through faith in Christ…just through faith…and walk in obedience to the Holy Spirit within. This is rest.

What is not rest is adding anything to our oneness with God through Christ that does not flow from His leadership; living as though our lives were our own; acting from our own strength to please God. Yes, even to please God! We tend to think of the danger of greed, pride, lust, rebellion and rightly rest from these works, by the grace of God alone. But then, later, we have the habit of running our normal, day- to- day Christian lives apart from His leadership. Hebrews 4 challenges that right we claim over life this side of surrender. It names it “unbelief”. It is a very dangerous idea to think that we can live our Christian lives according to our own ideas of what pleases God; even popular ideas promoted by famous people.

The life of faith is one of constant naked trust. It is a cultivated habit of listening to the inward voice of the Holy Spirit and inviting His Presence again and again to fill us. We hear Him in His Word. We hear Him through other people. We hear Him in His other testament- the natural world. And we obey the last thing He said to us until He tells us something new. It is keeping the door of the heart always open to Him first, and others only afterward, as He should lead. This brings incredible freedom and joy; so much so that if we’re not experiencing joy and peace and freedom it is a telltale sign of having abandoned the rest of God and taken up another habit. When one has pleased God there is no other pleasure.

So how do we know we have drifted into “unbelief” and out of the rest of God?

  • more “shoulds” in life than “get to’s”- a constant sense of guilt
  • a sense of having unfinished business with God
  • resentment at not measuring up to His standards
  • striving to achieve spiritual success leading to emptiness
  • envy of others seemingly more secure position with God
  • constant motion- never-ending cycle of doing the next good thing

But isn’t there something we must do for God? No, is my contention, but there is an infinite number of things we get to do with Him! Believing is the adventure that may lead to a dug-out canoe ride in the Borneo jungle; to well-drilling in an impoverished African village; to a job in an inner-city school. When you are sitting down with Father on the inside, you are truly free to be useful to Him and to others on the outside- no strings attached. And that is rest in the Way He showed  us how to do.

Weeding the Weeder

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.”  James 4:7-10

Last night the church that meets in our home started thinking together about the first man and woman and the way things might have been. In the garden, where every good fruit and vegetable grew ripe and full and sweet without weeds to worry about, the first man and woman truly walked in beauty. Then it occurred to us that one day, in the kingdom of heaven, we will walk once again without weeds…without worms in our apples, without crabgrass and bindweed choking the life out of the garden. Beautiful!

The thin membrane that separates time and space, height and depth and density from that otherness, the dimension where God exists fully, is near. As we lay aside our cares and allow the Spirit of God to lead us, it is to this Kingdom He carries us. We draw near to what is as near as the air we breathe. We are immersed in what we are sustained with as the fish is immersed in the sea. We become real to ourselves and to God in a way which transcends our flaws, our misunderstandings, our human capabilities. The weakness of absolute trust in One who is above all trustworthy embraces us and we are made whole. For a time we remember who we really are.

What a paradox! The weakness of faith in the strong arms of God leads us to the place of our God-given power as His created priests and princes on earth. How sweetly He guided our conversation! How deep and rich and satisfying the communion of His holy people!

But the hours before were just as precious. In those hours as we prepared the house, the food, the spiritual atmosphere of our home for the people of Jesus, the Lord drew me aside and weeded my heart. “Come with Me and walk for awhile. I have something to talk with you about,” He pressed upon me. How patient the Lord is!

Shoes laced, dog on leash and heart open I set out. The beauty of our neighborhood this time of year is breathtaking. Gardens are full of flowering mock orange and blue bell flower, roses draped luxuriously over every arbor and the sweet smell of cut grass infusing all.

“Lord, your creation is so beautiful; every flower unique in its display, every tree limb glowing in Your sunlight. You know so well how to make all things!” Slowly the message dawned on me. He who made all things knows how to form a family of people who love Him. “Child, give Me your desire for success.”

“But Lord, all that You make is perfect. I want to be successful … ” I wanted to say, “…for You” but in that moment, under His gaze I could see that my motive was not for Him, but for me. I was still trying on my own to build His kingdom, for me. And that is selfish, foolish pride. What a weed! As soft as the ground around this dandelion was, still, the roots grew deep. Thankfully, my daughter walked beside me and I confessed my sin to her aloud. She stood with me as I let go of my desire to be successful for myself and gave it up to God, again, probably not for the last time. (James 5:16, 17)

In another paradox of the Kingdom of heaven, it is the weakness of willingness to fail and be nothing that releases God’s marvelous creative ability. So I thank God for weeding my heart as we tend God’s garden for Him. The sweet flower and fruit of this kind of death to self is true success.

  • What is it that makes your heart soft and open to God’s probing questions?
  • Is there some “weed” in your life He desires to remove?
  • Why is it important to have another believer hear your confession and pray with you?
  • James 4:7-10 teaches about the love of the world. What is this? Why is it dangerous?

When Less Really is More

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.
Matthew 13:43-45

One day, pondering the Kingdom of Heaven, I came across this verse and thought I knew exactly what it meant. I knew all about selling stuff and getting different stuff. We had done that to go overseas to serve as missi0naries. I knew all about working hard, throwing all my weight into something good, to gain something better. I was fully engaged in church ministry and was running the race flat out. And I was exhausted. Longingly, my thoughts turned to the days when I walked with Jesus, as though knowing Him was enough…when I didn’t understand the Kingdom at all.

How quickly the simple gospel, “Follow Me”, had become the human substitute, “Work the system”. Why? It’s easier. Let me explain. The challenge of listening for His voice in the midst of a cacophony of other noises is hard work. The human mind, the press of the culture of the age, the sounds of very convincing systems managers, and the pervasive voice of the temper all harmonize on the same theme. It goes something like this, “You, puny human, are too weak to actually think you can hear the voice of God! Get real! Listen to the experts. Listen to the famous people, to the well-educated, silver-tongued men and women who really know Jesus. Then, get with some successful Christians. They get it right. Be part of that parade and it’ll all be fine!” Whew! Easy, right? Just follow the steps and be a success. Follow the right leader and reap spiritual rewards- a good reputation, a nice family, a clean life. Why doesn’t everybody follow?

It’s a simple exchange- an inner knowing of Jesus and His ways, communion with Christ by His Spirit, sweet fellowship with like-minded believers- for a system of knowing Him which one can wrap one’s mind around. Understandable steps, achievable goals, clearly defined success- all these marks of the attainment of a life of secure, well-respected faith are so very tempting, and so very enslaving, at least to me.

Jesus calls us to join him “outside the camp”.

12 So also Jesus suffered and died outside the city gates to make his people holy by means of his own blood. 13 So let us go out to him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore. 14 For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. Hebrews 13:12-14

In the days of the Hebrews, when God was in the business of showing us that even a nation with perfect laws given directly from heaven can never rescue humanity, God’s people figured they knew Kingdom business really well. It took a visitation from the King himself, wrapped in the clothing of simple humanity, to subvert the human system of righteousness they had conspired to create. Many dear, humble hearts within the system of Hebraic law received their King and abandoned human methods of becoming like Him. They embraced His sacrifice and were cleansed by His blood alone, the atoning Passover once and for all, continuing in faith within the Jewish culture. This went on until a final break occurred.

At some point, the requirements of a system will always come into direct conflict with the command of the Master. At some point the fatigue of human effort overcomes the life of the Spirit within and it is just at this point where Jesus calls us out to Himself, “outside the camp”. Will you go? Will you go lovingly, obediently, faithfully?

The Kingdom of Heaven is undefined, uncontrollable, seemingly inchoate…a leap in the direction of a beloved Voice off a cliff of man-made solid, systematic ground. The Kingdom of Heaven is not safe. Many have paid the price of this leap with their lives. The Kingdom of Heaven is powerful, and potent, and every whit holy. It is good to a degree of goodness we cannot fathom. It is the Pearl of Great Price…costing everything.

Are you at the point of no return? Be encouraged.

“A man is no fool to give what he cannot keep, in order to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot, martyr

The Bridegroom’s Friend

April 30, 2011

“I am the bridegroom’s friend. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” John 3:30

After a long, busy day preparing our house for the gathering, restocking the shelves from the work-week, washing clothes and weeding the vegetable garden I sat down with a huge steak and avocado burrito. “Oh, I am so hungry! I just noticed!” That felt like a metaphor for the unfolding of the Holy Spirit’s plan for gathering us unto himself last night.

In 1978 I sat down on the rug in the middle of the living room at Christian House and experienced the Presence of the Lord, heard His voice, was introduced and immersed in the loving leadership of the Holy Spirit through His body. The Spirit chose the songs and let each one know which should be sung. The Spirit led various ones of us to share from His Word the thoughts that He impressed upon our hearts. The Spirit fed and filled us.

Then, the time came for us to be moved to various other places for various other purposes and the way we gathered and experienced His Presence was overshadowed by the more traditional structure of the churches we joined. We sought after church communities where the Voice of God was clearly listened to and clearly obeyed. We started out within the traditional church with a sense of the Lord’s leadership.Slowly, after 30 years and hundreds of programs, initiatives, simulcasts, small groups and services the sense of the leadership of the Holy Spirit was lost under the “doing” of church.

Sitting last night in the Presence of Jesus, letting Him lead us, yielding to the Lord of Love- so real, so present, so patient-my soul heaved a huge sigh of relief. “I am so hungry!”

We sang the songs He chose. We spoke the words He led us to say. We were honest. We laughed. We cried. We prayed. We ate tacos. We loved each other in truth. And precious Maitel committed her life to Jesus Christ as Lord. What a gift to be witness to such a miracle!

I’d like to take this moment to officially un-cloathe myself from the position of Leader in the Church. Eric and I are happy to serve as nobodies helping other people grow closer to the Great I Am. If the years of preparation and study and licensing have been for any purpose other than to lay down at the feet of Jesus, opening a way for Him to take His rightful place among His people, I am glad for them. May He be honored!

The day He spoke to me about Simple Church He told me something else. He said, “Come home.” It is this journey we are on together, imperfect, sinful and struggling, that I am so deeply thankful to be on!

anne for eric and anne

“Take me back, dear Lord. Around and back.”