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Home…at last

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Whether you measure it by days, weeks, months, or years, our journey has been a long one. And adventurous. We started in August 2013 with the decision to pursue a Lead Pastor role. Today—four years and eight months later—I am sitting for the first time in my new-to-me study at The Journey Church in Sonora, California.

What began as an exciting, if not a bit unnerving, challenge took our family through the twists and turns of cancer, unemployment, loss, and death; we faced depression and discouragement.

Along the way, we also reconnected with old friends, saw acquaintances become lifelong friends, and made new friends. God pushed, prodded, and poked us, challenging each of us to lean on him more and in new ways. He continued his lifelong transformation in our lives. He showed me my pride (again) and stripped (some of) it away. I saw my attitude toward churches shift from, I could lead that church; to I don’t know if I can do this – but I can love the people and walk along with them.

And so here we are, back in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just starting this journey with a very appropriately-named community. And if what we’ve seen in the five days we’ve been here is any indication, God’s going to do some amazing things through us all – and I mostly need to hang on tight!

#JourneyToTheJourney

Prisoners of Hope

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“Prisoners of hope.” It’s not a phrase you hear very often. Prison, especially in the ancient world in which these words were written, is not a place one normally associates with hope. Yet here is the phrase, in the middle of a prophecy (Zechariah 9:9-12) that held hope for the exiled Israelites and holds hope for us today. It is a Messianic prophecy—the foretelling of a coming Messiah, a savior—fulfilled in part on that first “palm Sunday” when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey.

But as is true with so many Biblical prophecies, this, too, finds its fulfillment both Now and Not Yet; it has been fulfilled, and it is yet to be fulfilled. For while Jesus the Messiah did indeed “speak peace to the nations,” his rule is not yet “from sea to sea and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (verse 10).

That is what we long for: peace. Messiah’s rule. We long for an end to war and the flag-draped caskets we receive in return. We long for an end to the threat and fear of more war, of bigger, badder wars. We long for an end to violence against women and innocent children, the broken homes and broken lives left in the wake of that violence. We long for an end to racism, to the wrongs done to men and women only because of their skin color or birthplace. We long to send our children to school without wondering whether theirs will be the next to be ripped apart by gunfire on national television.

Today we celebrate the hope of Palm Sunday. But just as the partying crowds some 2,000 years ago were blissfully unaware of the brutal death just five days away, so we, too, shut our eyes to the death that surrounds us. We long for peace … but just like those long-ago crowds—who wanted Jesus to throw off the Roman occupiers—we put our hope in laws and and lawmakers and governments instead of in the Prince of Peace. We are prisoners indeed, but not prisoners of hope if our hopes are set on these long-failed institutions.

And just as Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus then but is still yet to be fulfilled, we can bring peace to our world now even while we wait for peace to come finally in Jesus Christ. Prayer is needed, but prayer is not enough. Laws are not enough, but laws are needed. 

Today, on Palm Sunday, if you profess to follow Jesus Christ, speak out for peace in Him – and for peace in our nation – and for peace in our world. Let your worship of the Prince of Peace not be undermined by your worship of a weapon of war.

The End of A Road … maybe

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It’s only been a couple years, but somehow it seems longer – and somehow much shorter. Two years after stepping in front of a classroom for the first time, that part of my journey is coming to an end. Soon I will be back to a different kind of teaching, as a pastor, leaving this role of teaching, which I have discovered to be a different kind of pastoring.

Living on only in my memories and a few hastily-scribbled notes will be several hundred kids whose lives have been woven briefly into mine. If my whole life were to be displayed as a tapestry, this time, these kids, would be mere threads…yet they would stand out bright in the midst of an otherwise dark spot somewhere in the middle of that image.

As is the norm for substitutes, most of my assignments were for just a day or maybe two. Often, my role seemed more babysitter or classroom monitor than teacher. The day was a success if no one got hurt; if they actually learned history or math or what “obligation” means, that was a bonus. My biggest hope on those days was that students would have what a mentor of mine calls collisions with righteousness: a fresh breath, a teacher who didn’t belittle him; a teacher who saw through her teenage mask to the value and potential hidden within.

But twice I was given the chance to be with classes for multiple weeks, first with fourth graders and then with seventh. Each time I got to know more than a hundred students, learning their names, matching them to faces that will long be engraved on my heart. I learned how hard is the work of a teacher – work that goes far beyond the labor of planning lessons, clawing coherent sentences out of kids who prefer video games and sports and dance over agriculture and urbanization in medieval China.

I learned how important are those moments of going off topic—”bird walks,” some teachers call them—because those bird walks just might take us into territory that one kid out of 130 needs to see to give them life and hope. I’ve been able to talk graciously about homosexuality and comparative religion. We’ve scratched the surface of human trafficking and how a 12-year-old might learn tips from the samurai to protect herself against an adult aggressor. I’ve tried to break the awe kids seemed to have about seppuku, the ritual suicide practiced by samurai to guard their honor; and encouraged kids to speak up when a friend says they’re having thoughts of suicide. (That one may have been effective far more quickly than I ever dreamed.)

And, of course, we’ve had some fun. While role playing scenes from Imperial China we met the fictitious Empress Ping Pong (or was it Empress Ping from the Pong Dynasty?). When we moved to Central America to learn about the Maya and the civilizations that influenced them, like the Olmec, we met an anthropologist named Don, immortalized in a familiar song: “Olmec Donald had a farm….” We’ve learned about cultural exchange, cultural diffusion … and, well, cultural confusion (which is what happens when seventh graders suggest that Europe’s knights were led by people from Japan!).

Teaching has been a cultural immersion for me. I’ve had students from Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Germany, Japan, Philippines, and a few from the U.S. I’ve learned, almost, to say good morning in Arabic – which sent the 12-year-old twin girls from Syria who tried teaching me into near hysterics when I repeated exactly what I heard! (Thank you is much easier: shukran.) I was introduced to Frankenstein by a class of Honors English students. I laughed with a fourth grader who learned for the first time that the cute dogs with the bad reputation are called pit bulls, not pipples! (But if I were ever to get one, I’d name it Pipples.)

When I stepped out of the classroom on my last day, I said good-bye not just to the 127 kids I’ve been with most recently, but to all those who have loved, accepted, laughed with, and maybe even learned with me: Cassie, Clara, Nick. Emma and Emily. “Mad Dog” Madison, Duncan, Mohammed, Muhammed, Yousif (all of them!). The 3rd graders from Ms. Bradbury’s class, 10th grade Honors English students at Christian High, all the kids in 3rd through 8th grades at Fuerte and Hillsdale and LFCS. The students at my daughters’ (and niece’s) school who call me not just Mr. Ehle, but Father, Dad, and Uncle Randy.

To all of you, I say: Thank you. Gracias. Danke. Arigato. Merci. Shukran

Can these dry bones live?

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It’s one of the odder scenes in the Bible: a valley of bones. Dry, sun-bleached bones. We don’t know why they’re there, or even where “there” is. We only know that God takes Ezekiel and sets him down in a valley filled with dry bones. Very dry.

But the odd isn’t over. God tells Ezekiel to speak—or rather, to prophesy—to proclaim God’s words to the bones. “Say to them,” God says, “‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.'”

Ummm… God? Bones can’t hear. Especially dry bones. 

But isn’t that sort of the point? If the bones could hear, they wouldn’t be dry. Resurrection wouldn’t be resurrection without death.

We speak of “the miracle of modern medicine” – and I admit, it’s pretty amazing stuff. (My 80-year-old Dad had three major surgeries last year; I’m convinced.) But miraculous? Even Miracle Max knew that his “miracle pill” would only work because The Man in Black was just “mostly dead. … With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” (The Princess Bride)

Lazarus was all dead when Jesus called him from the grave. Jesus was all dead when God raised him that first Easter morning. And the dry bones were all dead. But that didn’t stop Ezekiel from prophesying.

What part of you is God bringing back to life?
Where is God’s breath blowing,
the dry bones moving?

Read Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ reflection (from which those questions come) at www.unfoldinglight.net. Then listen for the rattling of the bones. Listen for the wind (God’s breath, His Spirit; they’re all the same word). And, as Steve writes:

Be open to the miracle
Let God breathe, and wait.

Because even if you’re “all dead,” God can breathe life into your dry bones.

Beyond Numbers – Beyond Borders – Beyond Ourselves

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Immigration isn’t an easy topic with easy answers. Even the questions are hard. Add the dynamic of refugees—immigrants fleeing war, persecution, famine…or even economic hardship—and everything just gets more challenging. But look into a refugee’s eyes for a few minutes and something changes. The questions are still hard; the answers don’t come any easier. But you see not a number or a statistic, you see a human being – a person. And behind those eyes is a story….