Stars

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In the summer of 2001, I taught astronomy to kids at a camp in rural Texas. Night after night, on the camp’s stargazing platform, these city kids would often gasp with wonder at the brilliance of the night sky. Stars are just as wondrous for adults as for children – perhaps even more so, as our adult imaginations are often starved for the kind of mystery and beauty that stars convey. And so, as David preaches on creation, fall, and restoration this fall, let’s turn our eyes heavenward and contemplate all the stars have to teach us:

  • God’s vastness and mystery. On a clear night in Arlington, we might see a few dozen stars. If we were to drive out to the Shenandoah, we may see a stunning thousand or two. These stars are so far away that it takes their light hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach us; thus, looking at the stars is looking back in time. The light we see from some stars began its journey to our eyes before man discovered fire or Columbus sailed to America. But even these stars are only a tiny fraction of all the stars that exist, each one enormous. Our sun, itself a modestly sized star, could hold a million Earths. Our galaxy alone holds over a hundred billion stars, and is only one of billions of galaxies in the universe. In the far reaches of the known universe, quasars emit the energy of trillions of suns; pulsars emit radio waves with more precision than atomic clocks; and black holes exert so much gravity that time nearly stands still in their presence. The sheer size of the universe, the mind-bending conflation of space and time, the million “why?”s that the stars provoke – all of these cause us to marvel at the extraordinary power and vastness and otherness of the God who created it all.
  • God’s intimacy. Contemplating the immensity of the universe could make God seem distant, complex, inaccessible. But instead, the Bible describes an intimate creator, a God who has counted and named every single star – including the thousand that are still being created every second. He has ordered each star’s birth, life, and death, and given it a specific place in the sky. He is the infinite and mysterious God of the heavens, yes, but he is also an intimate God, naming and knowing and carefully tending his creation.
  • God’s artistry. The Bible calls the stars God’s handiwork, and describes them with the sensory language of craftsmanship: they are spread, stretched, knit across the sky. In return, these beautifully crafted entities are described repeatedly as singing for joy. In creating the stars, God used the tools of the artist, the craftsman, the musician, to adorn the sky with billions upon billions of glorious worshipers.
  • God’s story. The entire drama of God’s story unfolds in the stars. When he creates the world, he begins with the sun, moon, and stars. When God wants to convey the enormity of his promise to Abraham, he leads him out under the night sky and directs his gaze at the stars. When his prophets foretell impending judgment, they describe stars being darkened, the heavens being torn and shaken. When he wants to announce the birth of his son, he tells a story in the night sky so compelling that Eastern astronomers leave their homes and journey for months to find the king announced in the stars. And in Revelation, when he reveals to John a sweeping vision of all history, he casts stars as the key actors – from Satan and a third of the stars being cast out of heaven, to Jesus, himself the Bright Morning Star, cradling seven stars in his hand, coming again to make all things new.
  • Our story. Carl Sagan famously wrote in Cosmos that “we are made of starstuff.” It is mind-boggling to imagine that the same elements necessary to all life on earth, including every atom in our bodies, are in the dusty nebulae from which stars are birthed. From this stardust, God lavishes beauty, creativity, story, and individuality upon billions of stars in the heavens. But amazingly, he lavishes even more upon us, assembling these same elements into human lives crafted in his image, and beckoning us into relationship with him as beloved sons and daughters. He even invites us into the act of creation and redemption, telling us to shine as stars as we hold out his life-giving word to a dark world. How humbling it is to find ourselves merely specks in an enormous universe, yet specks that are fully known, heard, and loved by the God who spoke it all into being.

Madeliene L’Engle once wrote that the ancient understanding of the word “disaster” was, quite literally, separation (dis-) from stars (-aster). In many ancient cultures, stars were believed to be deities themselves, or lights carried by invisible gods in the sky. While we no longer believe the stars are capable of controlling our fates, the ancient meaning of “disaster” still has the feel of truth; for our self-imposed separation from the stars (by pollution, electric lighting, urbanization, etc) can indeed be disastrous to our contemplation of God.

Stargazing can be an incredible source of wonder, humility, and joy. Over the coming weeks, why not take a few moments to intentionally sit beneath the stars and regain a small bit of that wonder? Take a walk after dinner. Drive an hour west and park the car for a while. Take advantage of the upcoming church retreat, far from city lights, and sit under the night sky with a pair of binoculars brought from home (telescopes are rarely needed for most sky observation). In the meantime, we’ll be providing a few small opportunities to access the stars through various art forms – from images on the screens at church to words and images on this blog – so stay tuned! We hope that these opportunities will allow us all to join with the stars in songs of worship to our creator.

– Amy Rowe

Realism and Hope

This past Monday, on July 15th, adherents of Judaism marked Tisha B’Av, which is the day to remember the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem in c. 586 B.C. and 70 A.D., respectively. One tradition on this day is to read and meditate on the book of Lamentations. This caught my attention, and I decided to read through the whole book aloud (it’s not that impressive – it’s only a few chapters!), which was a moving experience.

One thing that I found refreshing is the realism of Lamentations. The Bible never asks us to buy into a religion that papers over the problems of this world. Instead, it calls us to respond to them at a deeply emotional level, and in the case of Lamentations, the emotional response is grief. The writer (most likely Jeremiah) grieves over unspeakable atrocities in the world over which he has no control, and he grieves over the sins of his own people.  But, at the same time, this realism is mixed with an irrepressible sense of hope. Hope for forgiveness. Hope for justice. Hope for a brighter day. And all of this hope is rooted in the character of a God who is merciful, just and good.

Realism, mixed with hope. This is the message of all of Scripture. This is the message of the Gospel, that there are very real problems in the world and in our hearts, but that there is a good God who understands those problems and who promises to make all things new.

I want to invite you to continue to embrace a lifestyle of realism and hope: 

There are cases in which hope has at least begun to be realized. Every week at church we grieve over our sin through confession, but we embrace the hope that every one of our sins was taken away at the cross. And, while Christians should certainly grieve the destruction of the two temples, we believe that God’s dwelling place on earth has now reached a fuller realization in the coming of Christ and through the filling of the Church with God’s own Spirit.

But there are other cases in which hope has yet to be realized. Young men like Trayvon Martin are still gunned down because of fear and misunderstanding. Dozens of helpless kids are poisoned in Dharmasati Gandawa, India because of negligence. Maybe there’s dysfunctionality and brokenness in your home that drags on and on. Maybe you’re gripped by a particular sin and you just can’t seem to gain victory over it.

Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself about the gravity of sin and suffering. Don’t be afraid to grieve. But in the midst of your grief, try stepping into that irrepressible hope that Lamentations offers us, and pray this prayer:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
(Lam. 3:21-25)

From our Cairo Correspondent

Working in Cairo this week, I got back to my hotel room late Tuesday evening, I found a large bouquet of flowers and a bowl of fruit, and wondered why the hotel had given me that? The card that came with the flowers told a different story: it was a welcome gift from the Stephen’s Children ministry: I had arranged to meet one of them on Friday, to hand over the check representing Restoration’s Easter collection. I thought of King David when three of his warriors fought their way into Bethlehem to fetch him some water (2 Samuel 23), and David was awestruck by the generous spirit of these men, putting themselves at risk to bless David. Perhaps not quite the right analogy, but such a generous gift from a ministry working with the poor – I almost cried, and felt very humbled!

Today, I had the privilege of visiting of the many ‘garbage cities’ on the outskirts of Cairo– of the 90 or so locations where the Stephen’s Children ministry runs schools for the poorest of the poor. This ‘city’, home to perhaps 900 people – predominantly Christians – is in a dusty, stony hollow away from the road. Nothing grows there – there is no soil. None of the buildings has more than one level: the materials they are made from would not really support more. There is no electricity. Running water was made available about a year ago (this has attracted more people to move in). In the school room perhaps 40 girls aged 6 to 15  sat in rows on benches, learning the alphabet with great excitement. Nearby, I visited a study group for boys. Half a dozen squatted in the shade of a rusty corrugated iron gate as myriad flies buzzed around, and listened to the story of the cripple who had sat by the pool for years, waiting for a miracleThe back yard was buried in rubbish – plastic bags mostly, which are burned down to produce a hard black mass that can be sold for recycling (an adult and four children scavenging can earn perhaps $1.50 a day doing this).

Stephen’s Children employs around 1,500 staff to run kindergartens, and now one school, for some 30,000 children, visiting them weekly in their homes to support a holistic ministry of education, teaching on basic health and hygiene, and the bible. Many of the children, and some of their parents, are not officially registered, through ignorance and discrimination.

This was not a miserable place to visit. The children were happy as they learned. A little girl smiled broadly as the teacher washed her feet (this is done to teach hygiene, and to check for cuts and infections in little feet that at best have flip-flops to wear). Adults were welcoming. The ‘motto’ of the ministry is: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (phil 4:13). The children and their families are being given hope, not just once or in theory, but day by day, week by week, year after year. I am lost for words, but full of admiration, and very blessed to have seen God at work through his people in such a way.

Simon G.

Worship and War

Erin Bair and I like to dialogue about cool stuff we are reading, and she sent me this quote by Alexander Schmemann: “If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it.”

I look at this man from Damascus, and I ask, “How do I worship God in the midst of this?”  All I can see is my son Roman and this horrific desperation, and it doesn’t make any sense to me (probably due to the freedoms that I take for granted).  If Schmemann says that worship is “the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it,” then I struggle with how worship exists in the midst of war with the amount of dehumanization that needs to occur to cope with the violence that is committed.

As I have studied war these past three months, I have felt like less of a man, and I think it’s because I have had such a hard time figuring out how to worship God in the midst of these studies. If our humanity is so intensely tied to worshiping, then war, though I think horrifically necessary at times, can push us into a place of having to surrender our own humanity and that of others.

In his humanity, I so admire Jesus’ instruction for Peter to holster his sword. Jesus engaged deeply in the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain that was his in the Passion. He did not divorce himself from any other part of himself. Somehow in the midst of his commitment and sacrifice, there was worship. In his willingness to be sacrificed, there was beauty. I don’t understand it, yet, as was shared on Sunday, his very response to suffering is incarnation – to be manifest in his entirety.

“By Thy Mercy, O Deliver us, Good Lord.”

For Sunday’s songs: http://restorationmusic.wordpress.com/

– Matthew Hoppe

Monday musings

I’m in a bit of a pensive mood today. I’m not sure why… Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I waited all morning for the dishwasher repairman to show up and tell me that there’s nothing wrong with my dishwasher that doesn’t work. Which, while frustrating, did mean that I got to spend a good bit of the day sitting on my couch, computer on my lap, enjoying this absolutely spectacular September air come through my open windows. In any case, I was grateful for a little unexpected space to pause, to muse, to ponder. (Why yes, I am an introvert — why do you ask?)

One of the things I stumbled upon today was this blog post, “An Open Letter to the Girl in the Dressing Room.” [Disclaimer: I’ve never read anything else on this website, so do not take this mention as an endorsement of it. Unless it’s all wonderful, in which case, I’m so glad I could share with you this great source of wisdom!]

Please read it.

Women, please read it. Because unless you’re the only woman I’ve ever met who hasn’t struggled with body image stuff, there are beautiful and powerful truths in there. To wit, “[Satan is] afraid of what will happen if you offered the beauty of your brokenness. He’s scared of what will become of his treachery if exposed by God’s glory inside you.”

Men, please read it. Because women aren’t the only ones who struggle with body image. And because even if you don’t, there is a woman in your life — a wife, a sister, a girlfriend, a daughter, a friend — who needs to hear that brokenness offered to God becomes the truest sort of beauty there could ever be.

Or, as the Christopher Williams song puts it, “Beauty is still beauty when it’s scarred.”

David preached yesterday about being a church where broken people are being restored by God’s grace and are finding their place in God’s story. I pray that that girl in the dressing room someday finds a church like that — a church like ours. I think she probably needs it. I know I do.

– Erin

 

Yes People

A couple of years ago I read Danny Wallace’s ‘Yes man’, in which he chronicles a year of his life when he said ‘yes’ to EVERY request that came to him. Yes it did lead him down some very dubious paths though he drew the line at illegal requests…

It was a largely enjoyable read; though not always edifying :). However, it did make me re-think what my baseline attitude was to requests/suggestions – and I decided that I wanted to be more of a ‘YES’ woman. Since then I have tried, as far as possible, to say yes to requests, suggestions, ideas – or at least allowed them an option of a ‘yes’ response before saying ‘no’!

This has made life much more fun – and led to some amazing opportunities. I was reminded of this when David preached about King David wanting to build a house for God a couple of weeks ago. King David was definitely a ‘yes man’ – but sometimes God had to refocus/reframe his ‘yes-ness’. So with the caution that we need to be clear that we are agreeing to ideas that are actually God ideas not just good ideas, what are you saying YES to at the moment?

DMH, Jon Terry and I are in Asia today – an amazing ‘yes’ moment with God. Pray for us that we know where we should be saying YES and where we should simply be blessing people, praying for them and moving on. There is so much good happening here and so many amazing things we could engage with – but we want to build for the future and be wise as well as willing!

Liz

Uzzah’s not the only one

“And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.”

Lego depictions aside, the story of Uzzah isn’t a particularly funny one. If you just drop in on the story in 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah’s death seems pretty radically unfair. Here he is helping escort the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, he reaches out to steady the ark when the ox pulling it trips, and — BAM! — God strikes him dead. Sure, you’re not supposed to touch holy things like the ark… But isn’t death a rather harsh punishment for trying to keep the thing from falling into the dirt?

As David so clearly pointed out in his sermon yesterday, Uzzah’s error was greater than this short passage immediately makes clear. No matter how split-second a decision it may have been, Uzzah did choose to set his hand the ark rather than let it fall to the ground. And at some fundamental level, that choice reveals that Uzzah thought he knew better than God did what the best thing for the ark would be. Pretty big error.

More significantly, that ark should never have been on that cart in the first place. As God makes abundantly clear in Exodus 25, the ark was supposed to be carried by priests using the two gold-covered poles that fit through the gold rings on each of the four corners of the ark. We don’t know for sure why the Israelites decided to transport the ark up to Jerusalem using a cart — but evidently they didn’t care much for following the rules that God had set.

So this has me thinking… While the error of touching the ark was clearly Uzzah’s own, he wasn’t the only one who’d had a hand in the whose situation. There were any number of other people involved in deciding to use the cart to transport the ark. Sure, Uzzah could have — and perhaps should have — objected… but so could — or should — have all the others. Whether they knew the instructions for how the ark was to be carried and simply ignored them, or whether they’d never been taught them in the first place, the community around Uzzah bore some responsibility for the situation which ultimately resulted in Uzzah’s death.

The implications for us are a little uncomfortable. As a church, we are a community. And while each of us bears the responsibility for and the results of our own sin, we seldom commit those sins in total isolation from our community. Whether by failing to share with others in the community the instructions that God has given us for faithful and righteous living, or by participating in creating situations or decisions that set others up for temptation or bad choices, we often bear some responsibility for each others’ errors.

I say this not to suggest that we should take on more responsibility for others’ sins than is really ours. After all, Uzzah was the one who died for his error — not the whole crowd of 30,000 merry-makers. Nor should we go indiscriminately prying into each others’ lives for the sake of uncovering some sin-in-the-making. But I do think this passage should raise some questions for us, questions about how well we do understand the ways in which our actions and our choices are bound up in others’ actions and choices, how well our lives reflect the fact that faithful, righteous living is a community matter as much as it is an individual one.

This is one of the reasons I’m so grateful for Restoration’s small groups. These little communities are places where we learn from and teach each other the truths that God has given us about the kind of disciples he wants us to be. They’re the places where we can offer support where others are weak, humble challenge where others might be in error, and heartfelt celebration where others experience the joy of God’s healing work in their lives. These little communities are some of the best examples I know of the way that our relationships with God are deeply personal but never private.

If Uzzah had been a part of that kind of community, I wonder how his story might have been different. Could a small group have saved Uzzah’s life?

– Erin

Meandering around Myanmar

Just home from traveling in Myanmar with my daughter Fiona and my head is full of words, sounds, smells, ideas, images – each one lingers for a moment: the scent of jasmine, the boisterous nature of the water festival, endless bicycles, laughter, orphans, paddy fields, rice, tea, more tea, temples, kindnesses from many people… And overall, in all things, the sense of God’s hand at work.

This map shows the ethnic group areas

Myanmar (Burma) has been fairly closed for decades as a military dictatorship, civil war, sanctions etc have all put off foreign visitors. But thankfully, God has not been stopped. Quietly, steadily he has been raising up his people in Myanmar in a quite remarkable way. He has called pastors, evangelists, church planters from all the ethnic groups – and they have obeyed his call. Chin reach out to Karen, who reach out to Shan, who reach out to Burmans …. Ethnic divides not stopping the flow of the Holy Spirit. Men and women faithfully seeking to respond to Gods call in often trying circumstances. Most of the pastors I met were not only faithfully preaching and running their churches, but often had between 5-30 orphans living in their homes that they had taken under their wings, perhaps a few widows that they cared for and they were almost universally involved in church planting: training young and old people to go with the gospel into unreached areas of the country, where they were often seeing remarkable fruit.

It was a humbling trip. Every day Fiona and I went looking for open doors, and every day a number opened and some did not. We had been invited to teach a ‘youth’ bible class -for 5 hrs on Saturday – where the ‘youth’ were aged between 5 and 72 (we later realized that the class could more aptly  be called a ‘beginners’ class: this was where we donated the crayons and t-shirts collected by the children and youth at Restoration, and offered a financial gift for the ministry salaries and expenses – thank you ALL for your generosity), I preached in a village church on the Sunday, and we followed breadcrumb trails of contacts which resulted in numerous meetings where we sat and drank bitter leaf tea and heard stories of where and how God was at work.

Over the ten days in-country we met people broadly from three different strands of society: villagers, educated ‘middle class’ and foreigners. Each group had similar stories to tell. Each group was uniquely equipped and being used by God in complementary ways to reach different areas or groups of people. It was incredibly exciting to hear how their ministries complemented and dove-tailed each other. We also got to spend a few days in Bagan – an incredibly beautiful area North of Yangon.

I was reminded daily that God is sovereign and that he may choose to use me in ministry but really he doesn’t need me in the way I would sometimes like to be needed. I was allowed to walk with people from a variety of contexts, economic groups, denominations, educational backgrounds, to hear their stories and to sing and pray and talk about the goodness of God with a broad range of God’s precious family and I am so grateful. I also got to see a country on the cusp of change- perhaps not all of which will be good, but where unexperienced freedom is on the horizon for many. I don’t know where these relationships will go in the future, but I have new friends to pray for, new dreams to dream and a deeply refreshed reminder of the goodness of God.

On May 22nd  at the next global prayer meeting at church I will share a little more and show some pictures. If you’d like to hear more (and see some of my hundreds of pictures) before then, feel free to invite me to your small group, or to coffee/lunch/dinner! I’d love to tell you more….. meanwhile please pray for the church, for wise leaders, for the spread of the gospel, for good governance, and for a peaceful democracy to emerge… and for the many lovely people that we met.

Liz

From Darkness to Light

Daylight Savings Time always throws me for a loop.  I remember long ago when I was an elementary school teacher.  I was one of those teachers who got to school really early and stayed really late.  During the winter, I often drove to school in the dark and drove home in the dark.  When Daylight Savings Time would arrive, I’d find myself driving home in the light.  And, silly as it sounds, I would often miss my turn and get lost.  The same route I had driven every day for months suddenly became confusing in the light.  Eventually, I would learn, of course, but it was only after re-orienting myself that I’d get on track again.

 

I think about that a lot, especially in this season of sermons about discipleship.  I think about my patterns of living life in darkness – driving the same way out of habit.  I think about the sinful things I do – my tone of voice when speaking to others, my limited grace toward others, my “short fuse” when buttons are pushed – and how easily I do them simply out of habit.  And, then, I am reminded by the Holy Spirit, by reading the Bible and being convicted, or by the words of someone I know and love, and my sin is brought into the light.  It’s disorienting, though, when the things I ought not to do, I do and I need to learn new patterns of speech, forgiveness, and patience – new patterns that bring the One who is Light the glory He deserves.  Yet, I need not do it alone.  I can ride along with someone who has “been there, done that” and learn from them.  But, here’s the thing, too:  I have to be willing.  And, I have to reach out.  And, I have to be vulnerable.  We all do.

 

I think about how coming in to the light, we need to drive differently; we need to re-orient ourselves.  How good it is for us as Christians to have One to follow and to surround ourselves with others with whom we can “carpool.”

 

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  (1 John 1:7)

Therefore encourage one another . . . (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

 

-Louise-

Christian Character Matters

Making choices… how do I spend my time? My money? My energy? Where do I go in my thought life? What do I worry about? What and whom do I love? What gets me excited? Hopeful? What makes me laugh, or cry?

Who am I – and who do I want to be? There are so many questions which govern our daily choices… and we’d be exhausted if we thought about them all, all the time. And so the habits we form, the character we develop is critical in how we live our lives. I have just finished reading, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters” by NT Wright. It is an excellent and inspiring read.

Amongst other things, he urges Christians to pursue justice, beauty and freedom. He calls us to be people who cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, which come both by infusion and acquisition, commenting that self-discipline is listed in the fruit! And he reminds us to pursue the four virtues: humility, patience, chastity and charity (love).

Growing in these areas is done both individually and corporately – and we want to be a church crammed with character-full individuals, whilst recognizing that we need each other in order to grow. Two ways of developing character are praying together and serving together – and opportunities for both of these are available at Restoration. This weekend, for example, you could:

  • Join others to pray for justice and freedom for others tomorrow morning  at the Grays’ house (8:45-10am, 4318 39th St N, Arlington, VA 222207), or
  • You could serve at A-SPAN with Mitch Wallin on Sunday evening (mtwallin[at]gmail[dot]com), or
  •  You could sign up to go on the W VA trip at the end of June, or
  • You could come and pray with others at the prayer workshop at the Grays’ house on Monday evening at 7:30pm.

Think about how you are going to work on your character this week… and make some choices! Not necessarily to do any of the above – but to do something. Anything which makes you more like Jesus.

– Liz Gray, Seminarian.

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