Beach Cleanup

by Jill McFaddenIMG_1631

A few years ago Ian and I were on our honeymoon in Nicaragua.  We headed to the seaside town of San Juan Del Sur to stay in one of its nicest hotels (after all, it was our honeymoon).   As we rolled up into town on public transportation – a dilapidated decommissioned school bus decked out in a bizarre mixture of Looney Tunes decals and Catholic icons—I was surprised to find that our hotel was at the very top of a big hill.  To my mind, “nice hotel” in a seaside town meant that the hotel had waterfront property and beach access.

To be sure, the hotel was lovely and the views were stunning.  But swimming in the infinity pool looking out over the crescent shape beach and inviting waters, I still thought it was odd that the hotel was so far from the water.

That evening we walked down the hill to find a waterfront restaurant for dinner.  And it was then that I realized why the nicest hotel is on a hilltop.  The beaches that looked so gorgeous and inviting from the infinity pool were now revealed for what they were – replete with old tires and trash, stained with oil, pervaded by the smell of dead fish.

I continued to enjoy the beauty of the distant beach from the hilltop infinity pool.

Indulge me in an analogy.  If my heart is the beach of San Juan Del Sur, too often I like to look at it—my actions, thoughts, motivations, desires—from the comfortable distance of the hilltop pool.  And from there, really, it looks pretty good.  I mean, I have no criminal record, go to church, help people with some regularity, am usually kind to my husband.   I can even invite friends to the infinity pool.  Compared to a lot of people’s beaches, this one looks sparkling and inviting—from a distance.

But when I do take the time to walk down to the beach, I see my inner life for what it really is.   Full of pride and accompanying insecurity, self-centered, striving for success and approval, addicted to comfort and averse to self-denial.   At the water’s edge, it is clear that even my most sparkling actions are accompanied by oily motivations.

Maybe this is why I don’t make the space or time to visit the beach all that often.
It’s easier to be too busy.

We like to look at our lives from the infinity pool.  We like our friends to look at us from the infinity pool.  But God is always on the beach.  He knows the complex motivations of every action, he sees each thought.  This sounds scary, depressing, defeating.  Why won’t God just stay on the hilltop pool deck?

We might be a little worried to walk down to the beach, thinking God would be there to meet us for a good scolding.  But, to our surprise, he seems glad that we’ve finally shown up on our own close-up shore.  He hands us a big trash bag and one of those pointy sticks, maybe some gloves.  Turns out God is inviting us to do some beach cleanup, and will stay with us and empower us to do it.  If we’re overwhelmed or not sure where to start, he’ll point out a pile of trash here, an oil spill there.  After all, it’s his transformative, restorative, new-life work anyway.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the kick-off to the Lenten season.  Lent is a focused time of repentance and renewal.  Basically, Lent is a time to stay on the beach—or at least spend some time there every day—to face the trash and the smell, and do some serious beach cleanup.  Yes, it can get ugly.  But surprisingly, it comes with a lot of joy as well.  God longs for us to share in his full, irrepressible life.  The more we stay in his presence, attentive to the state of the beach, the more of his life and joy and power we’ll come to know.

Not sure where to start?  This prayer is a good place to begin.  Happy cleaning!

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Psalm 139:23-24


The Power of His Promise


God’s promises are like Earth’s gravity.  Whether you throw diamonds in the air or dog turds in the air, both will be pulled ground-ward by the the inexorable tug of gravity.  That’s my cheery Advent thought.

Long ago God promised a couple of infertile Semitic retirees that He’d bless the all families of the planet through their offspring.  And for hundreds of years after they laughed at God’s outlandish promise, it seemed they were right.  It was laughable.  Laughable for anyone who saw the cheaters, the backbiters, the flawed leaders, the exiled, occupied nation that slowly emerged from the son that couple eventually had.  A blessing to all the families of earth?  Seriously?

And then Jesus was born.  The one who calls himself the “Amen”,[1] the one of whom Paul says, “all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in Him.”[2]  But the process of getting from the original promise to Abraham and Sarah to the final fulfillment in Jesus looks like alchemy.  Somehow, God worked the base materials of deceit, failure, rebellion, rejection, brokenness, barrenness, sin and seduction into the minted gold of salvation and the promise fulfilled.

Let me show you what I mean.  I think Matthew was gawping at this too.  When he gets just three verses into his story about the birth of Jesus, he mentions Tamar,[3] one of the people pouring genes into the gene stream flowing between Abraham and Jesus.  Remember her?[4]  She was married to a guy named Er, the great-great-grandson of Abraham.  So we’re only four generations removed from the original promise.  Er was evil, so God took his life.  (Yeah, that kinda made me pause too.) According to Israelite ethics, then, Er’s brother, Onan, should have married Tamar to provide her with a chance to have kids.  And this is exactly what Judah, the father of Er and Onan, suggested.  But Onan was worried that providing an heir for Tamar and his dead brother would cause competition for his own heirs, so he refused to help her make babies.  So God took him too.  Everyone knew that Judah, the father-in-law, and his family had a responsibility to provide financially for Tamar and to provide a legitimate husband so that she’d have a shot at kids.  Ducking his responsibilities but trying to save face, Judah sent Tamar back to live with her own family and promised her that once his younger son, Shelah, was old enough he’d marry Tamar.  That’s what Judah promised.  Unlike God, though, he had no intention of keeping the promise.

Cruel years passed by, Shelah grew up, and the promise was never kept.  Tamar, out of desperation, decided to take matters into her own hands.  She disguised herself as a prostitute and waited on the road that she knew Judah would be taking on the way to annual sheep shearing.  Evidently she judged him well, because he stopped and propositioned her, not realizing she was his daughter-in-law.  But, he didn’t have any cash on him to pay for the full-service massage, so he promised another delayed payment–a goat to be sent from his flock.  Not one to be fooled twice, Tamar insisted that he give her a security until the full payment could be made.  She asked him for his seal, his cord and his staff as a pledge.

Eventually, Judah did send a goat to the prostitute who had his security pledge.  The prostitute was nowhere to be seen.  About this time word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law had been playing a prostitute and consequently was pregnant.  To purge the shame from his family, he ordered that she be burned.  Before she could be executed, though, Tamar pulled out the seal, cord and staff and announced that they belonged to the john.  When Judah recognized his belongings, he relented and Tamar lived to give birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

Even if you watch a lot of soaps, you’ve got to admit that is a pretty messed-up story.  A lying, cheating father-in-law who refuses to take care of his widowed daughter-in-law but eagerly takes advantage of women on the road.  A desperate, cunning woman who is willing to seduce the dad of her two dead husbands to get pregnant.  And these are Jesus’ gene pool.  These are the sort of lives and stories that stand between the promise and the fulfillment.  But under the gravitational pull of God’s promise, these are the sort of lives and stories that get melded into the fulfillment.  It doesn’t so much matter what God has to work with–diamonds or dog turds–he still is the alchemist who can bring a savior from a line of sinners.

That’s one of the things we’re going to attend to in Advent this year: the power of God’s promise to take our sinful, broken, sorry little stories and to give them dignity and redemption by writing them into the great story of His rescue and healing of the world through his son, Jesus.  Maybe it was a thought something like that which spilled out in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, saying, “For He took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.”[5]  Maybe that’s what her cousin, Elizabeth, was thinking when she exclaimed, “How kind the Lord is.  He has taken away my disgrace.”[6]

But the power of God’s promise doesn’t extend only to those who happened to live between the times of Abraham and Jesus.  Jesus is the “yes” to God’s promise echoing in both directions through time.  That’s why Paul, writing to a group of suffering Christians in Corinth, years after Jesus was gone, reminds them that even in the midst of suffering they could stand firm in Christ, because they could know God would keep his promise to redeem them in Christ. How could they know?  How can we know?  It is as if Paul anticipated that very question.  He says they could stand firm in Christ, banking on God’s promise because, in the Holy Spirit, God had given them his seal and security pledge.  Sound familiar?  The other time ‘seal’ and ‘pledge’ occur side-by-side in the Bible is in the salacious vignette about Tamar and Judah.  Paul is evoking that story on purpose.  He is saying you can go to the bank on God’s promises.  If you have received His Holy Spirit, you can bet the farm He’s going to fulfill his promise of redeeming you.  The promise of redemption might seem distant and laughable right now–like the first promise did when Tamar was dressed as a hooker and taking her father-in-law’s seal as a pledge–but just as surely as that story became part of the greater story of the fulfillment of the promise of Christ, so too will our base, sinful, struggling stories be transformed by the Alchemist into one great story of the return and triumph of Christ.

So, this Advent as you feel the heavy need of Christ’s return in the cold reality of your sin and struggle, do so with confident hope.  Tamar’s tawdry tale became the prologue to a Gospel.  No matter how sorry your circumstances or how base your story, if you have received the pledge of the Spirit of Christ, your life will be rewritten into the story of Jesus’ triumph with all the certainty of gravity.

[1] Revelation 3:14

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:20

[3] Matthew 1:3

[4] Genesis 38

[5] Luke 1:48

[6] Luke 1:25

image by kevissimo

The Café or the Family Dinner?

by Jill McFadden

Every morning I get up, brew coffee that I think is delicious, grab one of my favorite granola bars, wash my hair with a very particular type of shampoo, and pick out an outfit from one of the too-many items squeezed into our too-tiny closet.1   I drive to work listening to music that I like.  I go to lunch at my favorite café, peruse the menu, and order the entrée that I think looks best.  After work I may watch a movie that I pick out myself,2  hang out with people that I enjoy, go where I want to go, or shop where I want to shop.


Each day brings with it a host of choices, and for most of them, I’m free to choose only the options that are pleasing/interesting/ lovely/delicious/entertaining.  When I go to Starbucks I can order the venti-skinny-double-shot-no-whip-soy-whatever, and I sense the right to be a little miffed if they don’t get it just right.  The truth is, for as much as I complain about doing dishes and sorting laundry, there is almost nothing in my life that I didn’t choose to do because I wanted to do it.  My felt identity as someone who can choose—someone who has the right to choose—is probably even more fundamental than I realize.

Enter Sunday morning.  It starts similarly to every other day, making choices about breakfast and coffee and clothes.  And then I choose to go to church, and I choose which church to go to.  Do I feel like a powerful choice-making consumer?  Check.  But when I come to church something different happens—something that can be uncomfortable, threatening, irritating:

I stop calling the shots.
Continue reading

Pancakes, Puritans, and Penitence

by Ian McFadden

I know it’s hard to imagine, but when I was growing up in England, we never celebrated Mardi Gras.   Well, sort of.   We never called it Mardi Gras.  In England—and in much of the Anglican-influenced world for that matter, Fat Tuesday is called Shrove Tuesday or, more commonly, Pancake Day.  Why?  I guess ‘cause pancakes can make you fat…  Actually whatever name you use for it, the Tuesday before Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday) has historically been a day of feasting and partying.   With 40 days of pared back eating and living looming, most people feel like having a last hurrah.  Thus beads and beer and parades.  Thus also pancakes.   All of which begs the question, “why give up certain things for Lent?”

Lent is the 46 days (if you count Sundays) leading up to Easter.  In the past, the church around the globe has used these 40 days (not counting Sundays now—hang with me)  as a mini desert experience.  The people group called Israel wandered in a wilderness for 40 years prior to God fulfilling his promise to them by leading them into a Promised Land.  This wilderness motif became a useful one for Israelite prophets and teachers to describe harsh circumstances—whether exile or enslavement or occupation by external regimes—which God used to draw his people back to himself before bringing them some sort of deliverance.   Of course the ultimate deliverance God offered was through His Son, Jesus Messiah, who died to free us from the condemnation of our sinfulness and rose, freeing us from the lasting bonds of death.  When Christians celebrate this deliverance in Easter, therefore, it is appropriate to spend a few weeks in a mini desert beforehand, drawing close to God and feeling our need for rescue.

That’s one of the biggest problems for me:  feeling my need for rescue.  That is, I don’t, often. Continue reading

Mountaineering [1], The Enlightenment [2], and the Advent Child [3]

By Ian McFadden

I’m not a mountaineer. But in my head I am.  I’ve climbed enough small mountains and read enough books and watched enough documentaries about expeditions on bigger ones that I feel I know at least something of the culture of the climbing world.  It isn’t exactly what you’d expect.  I would have expected a world of driven egomaniacs, people convinced that if they’d clambered to the top of the world physically, that they’d achieved the same conquest more universally as well.  I’ll concede that such monuments to some Jurassic machismo do exist; but they’re not the norm like I thought they would be among world-class climbers.

Instead I’ve come across (in print, in celluloid or in person) mountaineer after mountaineer who climbs because it makes him feel small.  When they talk about what they’ve achieved in the world’s tallest peaks, words like “conquer,” “defeat,” and “prevail” hardly crop up.  They’ll talk about “sneaking” through a brief gap in the weather, they’ll talk about “surviving this time,” and regularly use words like “humility,” “accept,” and “patience.”  My point isn’t that these climbers are necessarily a lovely bunch of role models  (though some are, to be sure).  What I’m saying is that I think serious mountaineers see in the world’s most difficult peaks a view of reality that rings more true than the prevailing western, post-Enlightenment “can-do” attitude.  It is a strange line of argument, I realize.  It seems counter-intuitive that people who are ostensibly all about achieving a difficult goal would find solace and a clearer vantage-point on truth in being defeated.
Continue reading

He is Coming

by Jill McFadden

Last November I was driving along the interstate near Baltimore and passed a huge, majestic picture of a lion with the simple words:  “He Returns.”  Immediately there were chill bumps on my forearms and my heart raced just for a second.  After this quick, visceral reaction I registered that is was only an advertisement for the upcoming release of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie.  I did want to see the movie, but Aslan’s second sequel was not firstly what prompted my reaction.  I was fascinated to see that I had unthinkingly, automatically responded out of a deeper anticipation for Christ’s return—for the Lion of Judah to enter into history once again and make all things fully and finally right.

Now, to be honest, I do not regularly think about Christ’s return, nor do I regularly, eagerly pray for it.  Often, when life is going on rather normally, when I don’t experience the world’s wrongs and woes in my day-to-day routine, I don’t long for someone to come in bringing justice and righteousness.  I don’t always understand our world as needing it so desperately.  So I was glad to see that, somewhere deep within me, there is a latent longing for the world’s savior to come again and finish what He started two thousand years ago.  It would be great if this desire and longing were more often in the forefront of my consciousness—if I did eagerly pray and long for Christ’s return.  And that is when the church calendar comes in very handy.  Built into it are periods of refreshment, or conviction, or longing, or celebration, so that every year we have time set aside to focus on different aspects of the Christian story and of our devotion to its God.  And it is this deep-seated anticipation for Christ’s coming that the season of Advent is designed to reawaken and to cultivate.

Advent is comprised of the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  Derived from the Latin “to come,” it is a season that focuses on waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ.  Like Lent, it is a time of repentance and renewal that precedes a great celebration.  It provides an opportunity and encouragement to cultivate both an awareness of our need for a savior, and a deep longing for that savior.

Advent is a time of waiting, and in it, we inhabit two “waiting rooms.”  First, we remember Israel’s long waiting, her eager expectation for the Messiah to come.  We enter into Israel’s story, focusing on the words of the prophets who spoke of a savior to rescue Israel and make the wrong world right.  And second, we remember that we too are still waiting—waiting for Israel’s Messiah to come again.  Advent is a backward and forward looking time, stepping into Israel’s waiting as we anticipate a celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas, and, growing into our own waiting as we anticipate Christ’s return.  He came and acted decisively to make a way for fallen people to be reconciled to God.  But that was only the beginning.  He will return and bring to a glorious culmination the salvation and renewal of the earth that he already set in motion in the Incarnation.  The earth is still groaning.  God’s people are still waiting, still crying out for Him to make all things new.  And the true Lion will return…

This holiday season think about how you and those closest to you can prepare to celebrate Christmas well.  Perhaps spend some time in the Old Testament, remembering Israel’s expectation for a Messiah to come.  Make an Advent calendar at home, and as your children help count down the days until Christmas, talk about what it means to wait and to hope for Christ to come.  If we don’t take proactive steps to celebrate Christmas as Christians, we will naturally celebrate it as consumers and miss a much better celebration invitation.

Reflections of a Kid in Church

by Jill McFadden

Every Sunday morning I sat with my little sisters on the first row of the sanctuary, feet not yet touching the floor, dressed in some variation of floral print, fold-down laced socks and dress shoes.  Sometimes getting ready for church on Sundays was the most stressful part of the family’s week–everyone getting ready at the same time, hogging showers, digging the desired outfit out of the laundry basket.  But eventually we made it, Mom and Dad in their shiny blue choir robes with red collars, choir members’ children lined up on the first crimson pew, nearest the choir loft.

Our church had children’s Sunday school but not children’s church, so we all attended the worship service as families.  I’m sure this wasn’t always easy for my parents, as I was not necessarily the model child, and even when I wasn’t behaving badly, I was, still, a child.  For example, I went through a stage, before I could follow sermons well, in which I determined to join in whenever the congregation was cued to answer a  ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.  It made me feel very grown up.  Problem was, I hadn’t yet grasped the concept of the rhetorical question, so I answered loudly to anything that remotely resembled a question, arbitrarily guessing whether it was going to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, mortified when mine was the only voice in the room.

Or there was the time I was banned from playing with my fake furry mouse during church because I had almost caused a heart attack somewhere in the soprano section.  Or that time I tried to pass the offering plate backward over my head, dropping the metal plate full of coins onto the tiled floor with a succession of loud clangs (Mom really didn’t like that one).  When I wasn’t doing something to unintentionally attract attention, I had to do things like restrain little siblings from sticking their tongues into the tiny communion cups as they passed by.

I’m sure there were weeks when I retained almost nothing from those services.  Week after week, in the box labeled “My Picture of the Sermon” in my children’s activity bulletin, I meticulously drew the same picture of our pastor speaking at the huge wooden pulpit.  Not reassuring if looking for evidence of information retention.  Yet, somehow, through those years of childlike but growing understanding, I learned a lot about God, about our faith, about the Bible.  In fact, those weeks in church with my parents greatly shaped me.  I saw that worship was important to my parents.  It was something they actively participated in and expected me to participate in–sitting, standing, listening, singing, praying, eating.  I began to see, over time, the importance and meaning of communion.  And, importantly, sitting in a worship service with other kids, with my parents, with older people whose children were grown, helped me to see that worshiping with the body of Christ is something I am called to for my entire life.  It is not something just for adults, nor is it something I would grow out of.

I guess it is because of what family worship services have meant to me that I am very eager to see families worshiping together whenever possible.  I know that many churches offer tremendous and effective children’s programming, where children can learn in a way tailored specifically for them.  But as wonderful (and as convenient) as children’s programming is, I urge any parent to supplement that–even periodically–by bringing their children with them to corporate worship.  Give your children the opportunity to familiarize themselves with corporate worship so that their transition out of children’s church is a smooth one.  Give them the chance to see you worshiping–singing, praying, listening, reading.  Even when it seems hard, or your kids seem apathetic, seeds will be planted that can flourish into life-shaping, God-glorifying faith, in time.