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

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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.

Repeat.

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.
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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.