The Bush That Didn’t Burn Up (And The Shed That Wasn’t So Fortunate)

1960929_10152366877639433_3973263476439310069_oIn Exodus ch. 3, Moses, the Jew-turned-Egyptian-turned-nomad is wandering through the wilderness. It’s easy to imagine that this day was like any other for Moses as he tackled the arduous demands of being a shepherd in the desert. He was searching for water for his flock, on the watch for predators, and shielding his face from the heat of the desert. Just another ordinary day. But then he noticed something peculiar. Fires in the desert weren’t uncommon. Sometimes the heat from the sun was enough to ignite the scarce vegetation scattered over the barren terrain. But there was something different about this fire. The fire was burning, white-hot, exasperating the heat of the midday desert, but the bush was undisturbed. The narrator of the story treats his audience to Moses’ brilliant inner dialogue, “I will go over and see this strange sight, why this bush does not burn up.” Thanks Moses.

As Moses approaches the bush, he hears a voice calling him by name. But there’s an interesting detail that is often passed over in our own retelling of the story. V. 4 tells us that when the Lord saw that Moses had gone over to inspect the impervious bush, that he began to call out. I wonder how many days, how many ordinary days, Moses had been so focused on being a shepherd, or wallowing in his own exilic misery, or consumed by the guilt of murder that had forced him into the wilderness that the bush had burned with the same intensity and potential and Moses simply failed to notice.

The voice tells Moses to take off his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground. The text doesn’t tell us anything about the sanctity of human feet, but have you ever walked on hot sand at the beach? Ouch. God has a unique way of making us just a little uncomfortable before speaking words of peace and life. The bush then identifies itself as the voice of the promise, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who has heard the cries of his people. God is about to do something, and he’s about to invite Moses to help him.

This past weekend, there was a significant fire at Princeton Community Church. Our storage shed in the back of the property was set ablaze spreading to the side of our auditorium, damaging the side of the exterior of the building, some of the roof, breaking some windows and filling the auditorium with smoke. If not for the skill and courage of the first responders the fire certainly could have reached catastrophic proportions. Overall, the fire was bad but it could have been much, much worse. Right next to the shed, its branches literally touching the outside wall, are three bushes. Truthfully, these bushes are pretty ugly. Their branches look like the kind of thing that you gather for tinder to start a fire while camping. So naturally, having an ignition source for branches and being inches away from a raging inferno, the bush was completely undisturbed.

Just as the point of the story in Exodus is not the invincible bush, my point here has little to do with the fact that we have some particularly stubborn, and ugly shrubs in the back of our property.   The point of the fire and the bush and the voice in Exodus is that God is about to do something, something liberating, something huge, and he’s inviting Moses to be a part of it. At our church, we saw glimpses of this yesterday. The shed and the bushes had burned. The shed was consumed, the bushes weren’t and that meant that it was no ordinary day. We were left with few options other than to take advantage of a glorious day and to have our worship service outside. Our congregation was energized with purpose and excitement.   People showed up early, they wanted to be a part of that day. In some small way, we, as a church, could sense God inviting us into newness and reliance upon him. Don’t get me wrong, I am not patting anyone on the back for moving a church service outside on a beautiful, 70 degree Spring day. That is about as ingenious and useful as Moses’ inner dialogue upon first seeing the bush. But what I see is a principle.

Perhaps, as a church, we need to lift up our head, from the very real demands of our jobs, from our tendency to get swallowed up by our own circumstances, maybe even from guilt that has somehow convinced us that we are of no use to God or anyone else. Perhaps, then we would see that the bush is always burning with God’s voice of promise and purpose. This weekend was a glimpse of something pure and beautiful. The discomfort of removing our shoes was as easy as moving some cords and tables and the holy ground was not a desert with scorching sand, but a field of green grass under a serene blue canopy of God’s grace and wonder. Things won’t always be that easy. Moses eventually finds himself in the middle of a cosmic showdown with the most powerful empire in the world, a vulnerable position of complete trust that God will protect and, oh you know, work miracles like turning rivers into blood and raining hail from the sky. The more we listen to the voice of God, the more we are reliant upon him.

But don’t miss the results. Because Moses saw a strange bush in a lonely desert, Moses was awakened to the reality that today was no ordinary day. Because he exposed his feet to the heat of the desert sand, he was able to stand on holy ground and hear the voice of God. Because he heard the voice of God, the empire of enslavement and consumerism was dismantled by the justice of a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and sets the captives free.

If we were to look for the bush, ablaze but not consumed, and listen for the voice of God today, I suspect we would find that God is inviting us into a story not unlike the story of Moses. Yesterday was a small glimpse of something that could be a part of God’s much larger invitation to bring freedom to a whole city.   Sometimes, all it takes for us to notice is some bushes that don’t burn up, and perhaps a shed that isn’t so fortunate.

What Haiti Really Taught Me

By Joy Frederich

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“Haiti changed me. My heart, my worldview, my thoughts, my passions and desires. It’s where I developed a vision for international development, poverty alleviation, sustainable and equitable business, and creative solutions to environmental and social injustices. Seeing the beauty and joy and incredibly unique and awe-inspiring Haitian landscape, people and culture strengthened my faith and opened my eyes to God’s plan for the world and for my life.”

This is the classic response I give whenever anyone asks me about my short-term mission trip experiences. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong or untrue about it. But right at a time in my life when I find myself lodged into monotonous patterns and routines of college life, going through the motions, struggling to live with daily passion, vision and purpose, Courtney asked me to reflect on my three trips to Haiti and write a blog post for PCC in response to Ed’s visit. I thought about it a lot, and almost wrote an extended version of the few sentences above until I realized how cliché, fake, and shallow that would be. Instead, I really challenged myself to deeply reflect on the true significance of Haiti to my daily life two years after my last trip, the ways that I allow these experiences to permeate my everyday decision making, and the ways that I continue to walk in ignorance and neglect for the place and people that I claim to have been so moved by.

I’ve been to Haiti three times, beginning in March 2009 and spanning my high school career. I came face to face with extreme poverty for the first time, and I will never forget how much the sight of tin and mud makeshift huts, barefooted kids with tattered t-shirts, infants with brassy, red hair (a sign of iron deficiency), and people openly defecating on the roadside, broke me and moved me. Despite these searing memories that replay in my mind often, I continue to find myself living and mindlessly participating in avaricious, prideful, selfish cycles of materialism, apathy, separation and indifference to the constant struggles and battles of the poor and oppressed around the world. As much as my worldly perspective has broadened and softened and my eyes have been truly opened to unimaginable poverty, these realizations mean nothing if they fail to penetrate my heart and transform my everyday life. I realize that the only way that we can ever truly dream of change and empowerment for Haitians or people anywhere is if we change the way that we live our daily lives in the comfort of our own homes. The stories, faces, and sights that we see and experience in Haiti or any other developing country will remain nothing more than poverty tourism or toxic charity if we don’t allow them to change how we treat the poor in our own community, the way that we handle our money, the way that we approach our job or schoolwork, or the way that we see and treat other peoples and cultures different from us. I believe that God does use experiences like short-term mission trips to break us, mold us, change us and inspire us, but we have to remember that the discomfort, life changing realizations, and harsh realities we see are not meant to only last a week and then fade in the midst of the comforts, routines, and busyness of everyday life. The change, challenge and discomfort should be ongoing, continual and tangible even as we pass between cultures, places, national boundaries, economic strata, and in a sense, realities.

I encourage all readers to take this moment to reflect on God’s call, purpose and commands for your life, and how His Word in the midst of the experiences you are faced with tangibly takes root and is lived out daily. Whether you have had the opportunity to participate on a short-term mission trip or not, ask God what it truly means to be poor in spirit or to go out and make disciples or to be the light of the world in 21st century America. And if you have been on mission trips to Haiti or other nations, ask God how to keep these people close to your heart even as you are physically separate. Pray for them, thank God for your experiences, ask him to soften and shape your heart in order to mold your actions so that you can truly live out Christ’s message of love, grace, and redemption here on earth.

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Beauty from Ashes

By Ian Graham

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on a spiritual retreat before he begins to announce the Kingdom of God. If it were me, I’d pick a small cottage next to the ocean where I could feel the sand, soft and warm, under my feet and hear the waves rise and fall as I prayed all day and drifted off to sleep. Also, there’s something spiritual to me about eating really good food with really good friends and family. Ok, my spiritual retreat sounds a bit more like a vacation!

But Jesus, as is his custom, does pretty much exactly the opposite of what I would do. He withdraws to the wilderness, a solitary place abundant in danger and short on water. And he does it alone. He doesn’t sit down to rich meals to laugh with close friends — he saves that sort of behavior for much of the rest of his life. No, Matthew tells us that Jesus doesn’t eat a thing for forty days and forty nights. When the silence of solitude is finally broken, it’s not the Father who offers a “well done” to his Son or the sound of the angels’ offering their praise to the Son of Heaven. The first voice Jesus hears is the accuser, the deceiver offering his solutions to the hunger pangs and promising the world (Matthew 4:1-11). His is the language of consumption. His is the native tongue of this world.

“Take it. You deserve it. Did God really say that you can’t eat the fruit from the tree?”

Jesus, chooses to put himself at the mercy of his loving Father to live a life that acknowledges that he is not subject to every whim and desire. Jesus chooses trust in the provision, abundance and attention of his Father. He doesn’t do whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, and he is God. In the face of a world that says you can be your own god, God in the flesh chooses trust and submission.

If God in the flesh, devoid of the sins of idolatry and fear, felt it necessary to abstain, to submit his own will to that of the Father, perhaps that concept might be both radical and practical enough to work in our own pride-filled lives. For the American disciple of Jesus, the Lenten season is counterintuitive to the very air that we breathe. Lent invites the Christian, before we take our seat at the lavish resurrection banquet, to join the Son of God in the desert, to trade our freedom and our distractions for something far better and far more dangerous. If you notice in Matthew 4, it’s not the devil but the Holy Spirit that initiates this season in Jesus’ life. And it’s the Holy Spirit that’s beckoning us today.

“Give it up. Thank God you don’t get everything ‘you deserve.’ Put the fruit back on the tree and let me be God.”

Ash Wednesday is the precipice that overlooks the Lenten valley that we must descend into in order to follow our Lord’s journey up the hill of our redemption. The ashes of Ash Wednesday embody two truths that stubbornly refuse to be swept under the rug. First, we are vapor. The cries as we exit our mother’s womb are the furthest we will ever be from death. Every time we breathe we are one breath closer to the grave. Each step we take is one step towards our tombs. As much as we desperately try to ignore it and as much as we are able to delay it, the fact remains, our lives end in death. We are vapor.

Second, the ashes confront us with the imminent consequences of our sins and invite us to behold, in appropriate horror, what our hands have wrought. We have wrought death. We deserve death. As Jeremiah describes the idolatry of the people of God and the divine judgment that results, he invites the people to roll in ashes, mourning the destruction of their choices. Paul tells us that the wages earned by our constant efforts to play god are the death and decay that is so prevalent in our world. When we mourn, when we actually allow God to shine a light on the darkness of our hearts, we confess our roles in the disruption of the peace and justice that were supposed to mark God’s good world.

Yes our lives are fleeting, yes our allegiances are fickle but still Ash Wednesday marks not an end, but a beginning. Ash Wednesday sets us on a path that will remind us that we are no longer mere vapor, no longer mere sinners. For in the midst of the macabre reflection in the mirror we find something even more shocking: hope. For though we are vapor, God is the solid rock who is inviting us into his eternal story. Though we are sinful, God is the faithful one who gives of himself at great cost to be close to us and through these same wayward, broken people, to somehow redeem the entire world. God is a God who breathes life into dust. God is a God who makes beauty from ashes.

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