Saturday, November 24, 2007

Control or Surprise?

Genetic engineering—it is now part of our present, not the future. Soon and very soon, well-off parents-to-be will be able to make a list of the traits they want in their offspring, arrange for the contraception to take place outside the womb, and accept only the embryo that has the proper genes to fit their order.

Kind of scary, isn't it? I wonder what my parents would have ordered if they have been able to do that before I was born? I'd still be a girl—they already had birthed a son, and my dad wanted a daughter badly. But surely my hair would have been far less curly, I'd have extensive musical gifts (my father's favorite phrase about my voice: “You can't carry a tune in a bucket”) and I'd be at least four inches taller. I also hope I would be more organized, but don't know yet if there is a gene for that.

What I would have ordered had I been able to do that with my own children? Would I have born three sons? Surely I would have picked a daughter somewhere along the line, but which of my sons could I possibly envision my life without? Not one, of course. They are each so precious, and I have been enriched beyond words by their births and lives. Would I have liked them not to have suffered from asthma? Yep, that one is easy. And yet, much of that suffering also shaped their lives and mine, teaching us patience and faith in God and persistence and compassion and reminding us often daily of the fragility of life. Those are such good gifts. On the other hand I would have liked for my oldest son to be able to carry a tune!!!

As I ponder these thoughts, I'm aware that it is easy to be afraid of this move to manipulate our genetic makeup by science and decry it as against God's will.. Christian people have struggled with scientific discoveries like this for recorded history. It wasn't all that long ago that pain relief for women in childbirth was seen as distinctly anti-biblical because of an interpretation of a passage in Genesis that suggests that God WANTS women to suffer in childbirth. But even so, is it God's will be to able to order our children's genes to fit what we think we want?

That's a tough one.

I suspect the real issue here is the human need to be able to control, or at least think we control, our lives and our future. We want to be able to think that we can make things safe enough that we can actually insure our happiness and comfort. One of the ways to do that is to control our environment as much as possible. After all, is anyone reading this upset about the use of central air conditioning on 100 degree days or an efficient heating system now that it has turned chilly?

I was thinking about our need to control the universe when I heard the rain start to fall on Saturday morning. What a glorious sound that was. We are way too dry again, and rain is such a blessing for us. Will we ever be able to really control the weather? We can predict it with some accuracy now (but no one guessed that it might snow on Thanksgiving Day!), but controlling it is a very different thing. I have a feeling we will live at the mercy of weather for many, many lifetimes in front of us.

I think that is a good thing. If nothing else, our inability to control weather can remind us that we humans really are not all that powerful. We can't stop a tornado, or create a noisy thunderstorm or cleanse the oceans with hurricanes or create new islands with volcanoes (OK, that's not exactly weather, but you get the idea). We think we're important—but we're not all that powerful. Not really. Not even when we can play with genes.

So, maybe we should consider that there is something a lot more powerful in our universe, and consider whether that powerful something just might be interested in us, in our souls, in our redemption, in our present lives and in our future life. Maybe, just maybe, that powerful something, whom we call God, may even be interested enough to enter our experience in the form of humanity. Maybe, just maybe, a baby was born in strangely inauspicious circumstances a long, long time ago. And maybe, just maybe, that baby offered the possibility of peace on earth.

Maybe, just maybe, we need to get ready to receive that peace. Maybe, just maybe, God is full of surprising love and chooses to express it in surprising ways. Just something to think about while we try to order our lives so we don't have any surprises.

Monday, November 19, 2007

“Shop and Prepare”

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and the shopping frenzy has begun. Actually, some stores opened late in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, and many others opened at midnight or 1:00 a.m. this morning. Those who create economic indices will be watching carefully to see what kind of money was spent today. By Monday, the business sections will be full of comparisons and prognostications. Was this year better or worse than last year? Will retailers end in the black? How much will the sub-prime mortgage crash affect consumer willingness to spend during this holiday season?

Many churches, on the other hand, will be imploring people, “Don’t forget what Christmas is all about! Remember, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’” We’ll be saying, “Slow down—this is a time of preparation for the birth of the Savior.” We’ll also be saying, “And if you really feel the need to spend a lot of money, for goodness sake, don’t forget to give some to the church! Or at the very least, remember the homeless and hungry in the process of filling our already over-filled houses with even more things we really don’t need.”

This tension between church and society over this holiday is not new. When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Party came to power in England in the middle of the 17th century, all Christmas celebrations were outlawed. I also understand that anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit in Boston in the mid-to-late 1600’s was fined! All this came from their Puritan heritage. The motive was good. They wanted the people to remember the entrance of the Savior to the world with reverence and awe. But the means were awful—legislation that tells people they can’t celebrate will never, ever work.

Personally, I think we need to honor both traditions. It’s the church’s job to encourage us to recognize that the world does indeed need a Savior and to use this time to prepare for it. That is why we call this season “Advent.” It simply means “Coming.” The Sent One is soon to arrive. It’s a time to decorate with greens for the evergreen is a sign of life and hope. The wreath that many hang on their doors is the circle that represents the eternality of God. Just as the circle has no beginning or end, in God there is no beginning and no end. The Advent Candles, three violet ones and one rose-colored, will be progressively lit, adding one each Sunday. These remind us that the Light of the World is indeed coming and we need to get ready for that.

But it is also a time set aside to let loose with parties and joy and giving and relaxation and vacations. It’s a time to consider others and fill food pantries and go into a baking frenzy and enjoy multiple sports activities and take a break from work and school. It’s a time to spend money, plan surprises, and express our hope for the future.

So, let the party begin. Shop well, have fun with the preparations, and come to church each week in Advent. Take a couple of hours each Sunday to open your hearts anew to the Savior. Plan on attending a Christmas Eve worship service. Prepare your homes AND prepare your hearts. You can do both and I hope you will.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Transformative “Thank You”

Wow, Thanksgiving is already upon us. School is out for all of next week, academic pressure is off for a little while, and many will travel for family gatherings.

For years and years, my sister and I have prepared a very formal Thanksgiving meal at her gracious home in Plano for the extended family. The best linens, china, silver and crystal emerged from their normal storage spots to endure the yearly washing and preparation time. This year, after a rather tumultuous summer and fall for both of us, and the growing realization that what people really wanted to do was snack in front of the TV and watch football, we changed our plans. Everything will be disposable—when the meal is over, we’ll pick up the four corners of the plastic tablecloths and tie them up and place all in the trash can.

Clearly, this will be much easier on the cleaning crew (read: me), but I also know we are putting behind a cherished tradition and will miss the beauty of the exquisite table settings and the quiet and extended conversations that often took place around them. However, in the last 13 months, four of the five elderly people who sat around that table have died. Both of my husband’s parents, my father and my sister’s mother-in-law have all gone on to new life in the glorious and unveiled presence of God. My mother is the only one left, and frankly, she always thought my sister and I were a bit crazy to put on such a show anyway.

So I suspect that tradition has now passed. And other things are different. Traditionally, my three sons have all managed to get back to the Metroplex for this holiday. But my oldest son’s wife has just given birth by C-section this week to their second son and the trip will be too much for them. Middle son, wife and five month-old daughter should make it, but they rightly need to split time with her family. Youngest son needs to explore the seriousness of a relationship he has formed with a lovely young woman and so will celebrate Thanksgiving with her family in Florida this year.

Changes, changes, changes. They happen to all of us. And I hope that each of us will take time this week to ponder them and say “Thank You” to God for each of them, no matter how welcome or unwelcome those changes may be. A “Thank You” like that is a transformative experience. It slows us down for a moment, encourages just a bit of reflection, and reminds us that, while we may not be able to direct our lives just the way we’d like, we can still receive life’s experiences with grateful hearts and find the goodness and hope in them.

So my prayer for all who read this post: “May the love of God the Father, the grace of God the Son, and the communion of God the Holy Spirit surround each of you in your time of thanksgiving, family, food and fun. Go in peace, dear friends, and find all joy in this holiday. Amen and Amen.”
The complexity of spiritual health

I was thinking today how very complicated it is to live a spiritually healthy life. Certainly a spiritually healthy person’s center can be quickly articulated: someone who loves the Lord God with all heart and mind and strength and soul, and one who loves his or her neighbor as the self. That’s health all right. But how does anyone get to that point?

At our midweek Bible study yesterday, a group of us began to wrestle with some words in Luke 6 that form the core of Jesus’ ethical teachings. The ones that tell us to love our enemies and always return good when treated badly, and to stop being vengeful.

How against human nature such words are! We all want to punch out those who are hurting us or are hurting those whom we love. Jesus seems to be asking us to receive the hurts, not as passive doormats, but as those actively seeking to return good for evil.

At one point in this very powerful discussion, one person vocalized what we were all beginning to see more clearly: this path leads to the cross. It took Jesus there and we have to go there as well. Again, we must go not as passive victims, but as those actively seeking righteousness. And we must never forget: Easter Sunday ALWAYS follows Good Friday.

As we ended our study in prayer last night, we knew that Jesus had been in our midst. Love flowed around that table as a group of beat-up people facing multiple challenges again said, “I’m Yours, Lord. Thy will be done.” The kind of peace that really does pass understanding settled, however briefly, upon each of us. What a luminous moment.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Problem of Female Pastors

Here’s a link to an article in Christianity Today, a well-known and well-regarded publication, about a visiting pastor in Finland being charged with criminal discrimination because he refused to serve with a female pastor.

This article provoked a number of comments. Below is one of them, copied exactly as it was written from the comments page:

Feminism is a damnable form of modern paganism and idolatry. And Christianity Astray magazine is wicked and apostate for its promotion of it. Even the form of your questionaire shows a decided bias and promotion of Gnostic feminism. But you will all find out on the Day of Judgment when you are cast into hell just how important 1 Cor.14:34-35 and 1 Tim.2:11-15 are to the Gospel of Christ. Feminists and all those who support female leadership in church and government will burn in hell under the wrath of God. 1 Cor.6:9-10 and Rev.21:8!.

OK, what do you think? Is our whole church going to burn in hell under the wrath of God? Is this what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about? By the way, the two passages the writer quotes to uphold his position read this way in the NRSV:

1 Cor 14: 34-35
women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Tim 2:11-15
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

And yes, I’ve fought this battle before and am happy to dialogue about it. Would love to hear your thoughts

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Infectious Laughter

A few weeks ago, I was in Montreal, Canada, enjoying a few days with my oldest son, his wife, and their 16 month old son, Joshua. The four of us drove one day to Quebec City and were exploring the Old Town, the fort and city that had been built hundreds of years ago on the Saint Lawrence River.

Joshua was just learning to walk, and I was shepherding him around the tourist-packed cobbled streets while his parents were in one of the shops. As is typical of children that age, he had decided he no longer wanted to hold my hand, demanding to explore freely without grandmotherly restraint. Suddenly, he realized that his mom and dad were not in sight. He began to get anxious. Just at that moment, my son appeared about 25 feet away. He knelt down and opened his arms wide as Joshua moved toward him. A look of delight spread over Joshua’s face and he began to chortle with an uninhibited belly laugh as he carefully balanced himself on the uneven cobblestones and made his way to his father. Nearly everyone on the narrow, crowded street stopped and watched this happy, giggling infant get swept into his daddy’s arms. Joshua’s own laughter infected the entire crowd, and they, too, began to laugh. Truly a contagious moment of light-hearted joy. The son reunited with the father, swept high into the air in those safe and loving arms, all panic gone, replaced with unhampered love and comfort and unrestrained laughter.

What a picture of heaven! Surely it is a place of delighted laughter, infectious joy, and thrilling reconciliations as we are met by the Son, swept into the arms of our Father, and discover the complete fullness of the Spirit. Fear disappears, heavy hearts find complete relief, and from our mouths flow words of praise and adoration.

It all makes me think that those moments of unrestrained laughter serve as doorways to the gracious presence of God. There have been movements around the world when “holy laughter” has taken over congregations. Someone finds himself or herself so infused with the joy of heaven that he or she starts laughing and can’t stop. The laughter leaps from person to person until all are consumed with joy.

I was worshipping with such a group one night. It was a five day retreat where all of us engaged in the disciplines of silence, study, fellowship, and worship on a set schedule each day. After the last worship service of each day, no words were spoken again until the next morning when we gathered again before breakfast. There the cantor would sing “O Lord, open my lips” and we would all respond with “And let me sing forth thy joy.”

This particular night, it was time to begin our final worship time and prepare for the silence to follow. Just before the opening words, someone got the “holy giggles.” Those giggles spread throughout the room. Each time the worship leaders thought things were calm enough to go forward, someone would start laughing again and the whole room would break up. This continued for about 30 minutes. We were simply taken up in the joyous presence of God that night.

Yes, these moments are foretastes of heaven. May we all experience them often!

Sunday, November 4, we will celebrate All Saints, a day in which we honor those from our church who have passed from glory to glory in this past year. As we remember the past, we will also take time to look into our future. Memories of our past inform our future. A life without memories is a life without direction. Think about it. How could you do anything you do if you did not have memories to direct you? There are stories of brain injured people who have no memories at all—everything has to be relearned from moment to moment. There is no past to inform the future, and no forward movement can be made. While living in the present in a good thing, being stuck in the present is not. The proper honoring of our memories gives us impetus to create new ones.

I had a professor once who spoke of “cellular memories” and the phrase really struck me. He had a sense that there are lots of memories built into our souls that we are not really conscious of but which very much affect how we live and the decisions we make. It was his guess that those memories go back for generations and generations. It makes sense—there are memories built into our DNA. They surround us, influence us, sometimes they bring good, sometimes harm. But they are there.

When we worship together, I often have a sense that there are hundreds more people in the room than we see physically around us. Each of us brings with us powerful relationships and these people in our lives are present mentally. Sometimes when I’m alone in our Sanctuary, sitting quietly, I have a sense of thousands and thousands of prayers embedded in the walls. Memories, joys and concerns, hope and despair, friendship and isolation, wedding delights and funeral sorrows. They are all there. When we move to our new location, we’ll need to infuse the new worship space with another set of memories. And it is very, very important that we not lose the special history of our church in the process. The saints who went before us have helped to create the saints who walk among us. And that is what we will do for the next generation. It’s our gift to them. May we do this with grace and generosity.