Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Not A Tame Lion

Mr. Tumnus: He's not a tame lion.
Lucy Pevensie: No... but he is good.

“He's not a tame lion.” Anyone who has read The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis or seen either of the two Narnia movies would recognize that line. It is spoken of Aslan, the great lion who inhabits Narnia and who shows up periodically, generally to bring right a situation where great injustice is being perpetuated. Lucy Pevensie, the smallest of the four Pevensie children, is able to recognize that while Aslan is not a tame lion, he is good.

Why is the distinction important? Because when we confuse "tame" with "good" we lose a gigantic amount of power and creativity. Power and creativity are two of the most important ways we live out the image of God that is stamped upon our souls. When we insist on taming everything, we really lose the ability to live radically good lives.

There was a great article in the NY Times health section recently on how our children really do need to eat dirt in order to build up healthy immune systems. The article is here in case you are interested: Spoiler alert: it concludes by suggesting we're all better off if some worms periodically inhabit our bodies. So, if you are squeamish about such things, don't read the article.

I liked it, however, because I'm growing more concerned about the need to tame (i.e., make perfectly safe) the world we live in. When we insist on taming it this way, we risk robbing it of its goodness. Let's face it: "tame" tomatoes, those grown on huge farms with carefully metered chemical fertilizers, grown to a perfectly uniform size and washed in a bleach solution in order to remove all possible contamination by field workers, simply do not belong in the same world as "good" tomatoes--those grown in rich, well composted animal manure, often uneven in texture, sometimes cracked and sunburnt, and then picked right off the vine and eaten there, with a saltshaker in hand. The rich flavor of the tomato is enhanced with the warmth of the sunshine having penetrated deep inside. The juice drips down the chin, and heaven enters in. But it's not tame. It's not washed and sterilized and checked for any kind of possible contaminant. It's just good.

About eight years ago I saw my oldest son board a train, headed for Mexico, his life on his back. He was well on his way to a conventionally successful (read: tame) life as a CPA when he suddenly sold everything he owned, grew a beard, and headed out to follow a dream. He thought he already spoke adequate Spanish. When he got across the border, he realized he didn't understand a word. He managed to find a bus to Guadalajara, where he thought there was a family there awaiting his arrival where he could board. When he got there, he discovered they had no idea he was coming. Fortunately, the joy of hospitality informed their lives (that is goodness at work--and there is nothing tame about opening one's home to total strangers) and they welcomed him and made him a part of his family.

He entered a school to become a certified ESL teacher and then found work teaching English at a private high school. His income was $2.35/hour. He wrote to me about jogging along the city streets often chased by packs of wild dogs. No, his life was no longer tame at all. But it was good. His increasing facility in Spanish eventually landed him a job with a firm that does airline financial reconstruction work, which then took him to Bogota, Colombia--definitely not a "tame" country. And there he met his lovely wife and found yet another family that made him his own. They have since lived all over the world, with one child born in Australia, another in Canada, followed by a year in France, and now somewhat settled in London Maybe. There is not one thing really "tame" about his life. But it is so good.

We've lost the spirit of adventure by our need to tame the world. Yes, when things aren't tame, sometimes we get hurt, or sick, or go hungry, or have heartache. But without illness, hunger, pain, anguish, we completely lose the ability to recognize real good when it comes. And we especially fail to recognize it when it comes in the form of Jesus who was also most definitely not tame. He called his disciples to leave everything behind, to live lives of radical goodness, to go all the way to death for their enemies. Jesus modeled exactly that for them--and was resurrected to show us goodness, not tame safety. It's just time to quit thinking we can tame our lives and starting living really good ones instead. It just time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Greater the Relationship

"The greater the relationship, the fewer the rules."  I read that phrase many years ago and it has stuck with me since. The truth of it reverberates deep inside me.  I see it play itself out over and over.  In situations of loving trust, few rules are needed.  But when trust begins to break, when one party no longer believes the best of the other, when intentions are questioned, the rules start to mushroom.

The financial markets are facing the disastrous revelation that Bernie Maydoff lost his investment clients over 50 billion dollars in a giant ponzi scheme that finally collapsed.  The big issue is that so many trusted this man who turned out to be a creep and a thief. This, as much or even more than the loss of money, exacerbated the anguish.  The result will be lowered trust, more requirements, rapidly multiplying outside regulators with heightened invasive powers, padded bureaucracy, bigger policy manuals, lessoned joy, and no delight in unexpected friendship for there will be no space for it to form. 

Same thing happened after 9/11.  While airplane flights had long ceased being comfortable and privileged ways to travel, suddenly it became necessary to nearly disrobe in order to get through security.  The latest technology in scanning equipment effectively strips the body of all clothing, giving the screening personnel x-ray vision, kind of like Superman, as the people walking through the equipment are seen unclothed.  Sadly, there have been few protests.  The horrifying intents of a few have meant all of us pay the price of having to obey increasingly burdensome and intrusive rules along with lessoned freedom.

In the church, because of the despicable actions of a tiny percentage of clergy, nearly all of us who are seeking to enter the ministry endure years of investigations, interviews, reports, background and credit checks and examinations.  The hurdles to ordination have become so burdensome that we have lost the talents of some of the best and brightest of our young people who have sensed a call to ministry.  It's a huge loss to the church.

What happens in that public stage repeats itself in less public but equally as important private interactions.  Trust is lost in one relationship, so this lack of trust is then projected upon the next possible relationship accompanied by an often hidden list of "do's and don'ts" that turn into mine fields of explosive possibilities.  

What is most sad about this?  The increased rules just don't solve the problem.  Schemers will still con people out of their money; terrorists will figure out new and more creative ways to wreak mayhem; slimeballs who masquerade as holy people will still prey on the weak and vulnerable.  We've solved nothing by layering regulation upon regulation on us. Government can't save us.  The State makes a poor and ineffective Redeemer.  Policy manuals do not open the door to the kingdom of heaven.  

There's only one solution and that is the internal transformation that comes from relationship with a loving and holy God.  When that internal transformation is matched by an intentional choice to treat others with honor and graceful forbearance, then, and only then will goodness be able to penetrate and bring light to darkness.  

Monday, January 12, 2009

Atheist Bus Signs

There are advertising campaigns in England and Spain which publicize the atheist contention that God does not exist. Apparently highly Roman Catholic Spain has many, many atheists who feel very much discriminated against. So the local atheists have purchased an ad to run on the side of an occasional city bus that reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life."

Now, while I don't agree with the atheists, I find I disagree even more with the people who responded to the ads like this, "God is going to get them for this. They'll be punished. You can't talk about God like this and get away with it."

Apparently, we have a thin-skinned, insecure God, ready to jump on anyone who disagrees or struggles with belief. This touchy and angry God seems quick to send to eternal punishment those who, when seeking intellectual honesty, come to the point where they just don't think God exists.

If that is the case, then I suspect a lot of the world has a real problem.

I occasionally experience what I call my "2 a.m. atheism," those nights when I'm so troubled by the cruelty and nastiness in this world that I do wonder if God exists.

What would the world be like if God just . . . disappeared? If there is no absolute goodness that holds the world together?

When my thoughts reach that point, I find I enter into a dark, dark place properly called "hell." I am longer embraced by the gentle darkness of night that gives good sleep; such gentleness is replaced by raging and desperate darkness where goodness and hope are absent--an empty place, truly terrifying in its emptiness. Empty of hope, empty of possibility, empty of any sense of goodness or justice or righteousness or gentleness or faithfulness or love.

This place is empty of gestures of kindness, empty of efforts to free the oppressed or give sight to the blind, empty of sacrificial generosity, empty of loving parents getting up in the middle of the night to care for their children, empty of dogs happily wagging their tales when their humans come home, empty of flower or vegetable gardens to provide beauty and food, empty of work that brings the satisfaction of a job well done, empty of clean laundry or home-cooked meals; it is without order, art, or music or dance.

It is a terrible vision that I receive in the moment of my atheism, those moments when God seems to disappear. That is what hell is: a place empty of God and therefore empty of good. And so, for me, I come from those times grateful all over again that God does exist and that God is good, and in that goodness, continues to invite us into redemptive relationship.

Now, does this God, who invites into relationship, but does not demand that humanity respond, become violently angry against those who just can't make the leap into belief? Is God furious with me when I enter those times when I must re-examine the basis of my faith? Or does God use those times to reinforce the mystery of faith?

Personally, I think God much prefers an honest atheist to those who calls themselves "Christian" but who live and act in a such a manner that no one ever sees even a glimpse of Jesus in their words or actions. Those are the ones Jesus termed "hypocrites," or "play actors." All pretense, no substance. And those who are quick to condemn the atheists may need to take a hard look at themselves--perhaps it is their own tendency to playact that have sent some in the direction of "there is probably no God."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sanity Score

So what is health anyway?  If we can't define it well, we can't figure out if we have it.  Here's a test to check your mental health: .  I took it and am considered pretty healthy mentally.  How nice of them.  But I'd sure like some good definitions of health, physical, mental, spiritual.  Give us a place to start.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Western Medicine and the Healing Process

How does a person get well?  What is healing?  Does God really heal miraculously?  How does western medicine cooperate with the healing process?  How does one maintain spiritual health when the body appears to be suffering from un-health?

Perhaps an even better question:  what IS health anyway?

I've got a lot of these questions racing through my mind after the last few months in particular of seeing many dear friends and relatives get hit hard by various illnesses, some absolutely life-threatening, others simply bringing misery and pain and some despair.  All of us who are United Methodist here in this Conference are aware that one known as a spiritual giant among us, Rev. Kathleen Baskin-Ball, died of a very invasive cancer.  Was it possible that in her passion for her call as a clergy person she drove herself so hard that even she got off balance and did not have reserves to fight off the cancer when it began?

I write that because there is some evidence now that many malignant cancers form and then disappear--the body is able to fight them off.  How can some bodies fight them off, and some not be able to?  

As I wrote in an earlier post, all three of my grandchildren experienced significant illnesses this fall.  One was potentially life-threatening, the other two were simply felled by nasty viruses and other infections.  Are these normal experiences of growing up in a crowded world with constant exposure to others who are ill?  

A book I am currently reading about this history of ideas suggests that as soon as people stopped the roving hunter/gatherer lifestyle, they began to experience greater bouts of ill-health.  These are guesses from archaeological evidence, but the theory is intriguing.  People become more settled, the diet becomes less varied (with the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals), along with less physical exertion required to survive:  perhaps all together make us more vulnerable to the disease process.

And then there is the question of stress:  how much "stress" makes us more vulnerable to illness and how much is necessary in order to grow and thrive and create?

I've not got answers here, but am hoping to ponder and write about these things for a while.  I just don't think that our spiritual health is a separate issue from our physical and emotional health, and I don't think one can be addressed without addressing the other.  We shall see where these thoughts go.  Any suggestions and ideas are welcome.

Children, Grandchildren and the Hoidays

I was enormously privileged this year over the Christmas break to enjoy visits from my three sons, their gorgeous wives and significant others, and my three grandchildren, Joshua, 2 1/2; his brother Samuel, 13 months (my oldest son's children), and Kate, 1 1/2, (my middle son's child).

I have not had the opportunity to spend much time with any of the grandchildren.  The two grandsons lived most of the last year in France and Colombia, and have now moved to London, England. The granddaughter lives in New York City.  Because I work on weekends, and do not get more normal three-day holidays that would make quick trips up there feasible, I've missed much of their first years.  In both cases, circumstances and different life choices have meant that the maternal grandmothers have had multiple days, weeks and even months with them.  I am grateful to these two women who have poured out that special kind of grandmotherly love on these children.  Clearly, it is different from being a parent.  And just as clearly, these two women will have much stronger bonds with these children.  So in my gratefulness, there is certainly some tinge of envy and yet . . . I know that each of us is doing what is right for us and that each of us has joy in our calls and that joy can be mingled with sorrow over the things that must be left out in order to be faithful.

Each of these grandchildren is bright, beautiful, and utterly charming. Naturally. There is not a grandparent around who does not say the same about his/her own grandchildren.  That is our privilege--to see the absolute best in each of them.  Each had been very sick during December with colds, other viruses, and in the case of Samuel, a very serious antibiotic resistant e-coli infection.  Each had recovered enough health to make the trip here and brighten my life and the lives of all their other doting relatives, including their grandfather (from whom I am divorced), two great grandmothers, and a variety of other relatives.  I marveled at the flexibility of all three children--to have traveled so far, to be in the midst of jet lag, and yet to play and laugh and sleep and eat (and occasionally fuss) and to seem to be able to adapt to the constant change around them, both of physical place and of people who were interested in them.

As I looked at my sons and the families they are developing, I had a good sense of my life coming full circle.  While I suspect I shall live many, many more years, I also am aware of some sort of completion about myself.  Yes, I have much to do.  This wonderful church to serve and to encourage others to become radical disciples of Jesus the Messiah, the years left with my current and very much appreciated husband, articles and books to write, gardens to grow, sunrises to enjoy, other family members to savor.  But in all this, there is something about giving birth and seeing that birth come to maturity that is enormously satisfying.  

I looked at my daughters-in-law, who with good grace and a lot of endurance were enduring those small child years of minimal sleep and nearly no time to themselves, I was filled with admiration.  And again, filled with a sense of completion.  I have done what they have done.  I remember those years, but not clearly, because my memories are filtered through the exhaustion I also experienced in those years.  I'm glad I did that.  I'm glad it is now passed.  I loved having them here and enjoyed every single moment of the life and noise and chaos they brought.  And now I am also enjoying the silence and quiet and a different kind of order.

I am simply aware today that I am a very, very fortunate woman.  Thank you, God.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Fountain Pen

"Here's a gift for you." We were out to dinner with some very good friends just before Christmas and my husband was doing one of his favorite things: distributing gifts to friends and loved ones. I opened the gift he handed me. He's a creative shopper and often finds unusual things. But this one left me in some initial dismay: it was an elegant fountain pen and a bottle of ink.

Because I have terrible handwriting, am left-handed so writing is awkward anyway, and because my hands tend to cramp painfully when writing, I pretty well gave up doing any writing by hand years ago and have long used the computer for all my correspondence and other written work. I also consistently lose pens. Personally, I think that when we get to heaven, we are first going to be greeted by three large piles. The first one will be all the lost socks. When I had three teen boys and did 25 loads of laundry a week, I don't think I ever had a time when the socks all matched. The second will be all the lost reading glasses. All you of a certain age know exactly what I'm talking about here. And the third will be all the lost pens. A bunch of those will be mine. Frankly, I think people can be divided into two groups by way they use or lose pens. On one side will be those who have used the same pen for 20 or 30 or 50 years. On the other side, there will be those who can't ever find one at all even though a dozen of them were just purchased. Guess which side I fall in? For that reason, plus the handwriting situation, I have long refused to spend more than a small amount of money for any writing instrument at all.

Now, suddenly I am gifted with an exquisite writing instrument--one of those German-made, handcrafted-with-precision type pens. In fact, they are so unusual that there are on-line forums dedicated just to discussing them. These are definitely NOT bought in bulk at the local office supply store.

As has long been my pattern, on New Years Eve I sat down to write thank-you notes. I looked at that pen and ink, and then looked longingly at my computer. Resolutely, I inked up the pen, took some stationary, and began to write.
Now, I don't want you to get the idea that there was some miracle here and I suddenly began to write with perfectly shaped and legible letters. My handwriting is still pretty bad. But this pen glided effortlessly across the paper. There was no resistance, but almost a pull to make the letters that form the words. Something I have avoided for years because of the pain suddenly became the intriguing pleasure of discovery. Exquisite workmanship, time spent in perfecting the pattern, a good quality ink--and the words of gratefulness came flowing out.

Those kinds of pens don't just come rolling off a mass-production assembly line. They are the product of careful individual attention. I think there is a strong analogy here with the individuals who pay careful attention to their spiritual lives and have the marks of the Master permeating even the smallest part of their being and those who have just been quickly put together and sent out the door. Both types of pens will write, and both types of people will have impact on those around them. But some will be so touched with the thumbprints of God upon them that they will operate with exquisite grace and endurance no matter what they face. Others will quickly quit being effective or not be treasured because of cheap workmanship and little attention paid to the details. The smallest trial or obstacle sends them to the trash.

Pens don't have a choice as to whether they will be manufactured quickly and cheaply or by the slower, more expensive hand-crafted method. But people do. We can decide if we will submit thoroughly to the work of God and be shaped inside and out for lives of transformational holiness. We can also decide if we are unwilling to submit to such discipline. God is both patient and loving and will honor us when we say "no." God will not go where we will not give invitation. But those who do say "yes" to the work of God await great glory. Eyes are suddenly opened to see the possibilities of a Jesus-filled life in every moment. The fruitless pursuit of happiness gives way to the enduring joy and delight of the creative energies of God in our lives and in our world. Doomed-to-fail self-improvement programs are transformed into a journey to holy living. A salvation that looks only to escaping from eternal damnation gradually becomes a salvation that begins now by being real disciples of Jesus Christ and continues when we pass onto the other side of death. For 2009, let us all chose to let the work of God permeate every detail of our lives. It's a great place to start this journey to discipleship.

First Day of His Retirement

As of midnight, December 31, 2008, my husband entered retirement.  Kind of.  He was immediately reappointed to his current church, but on a half-time basis, not full time. He's also starting a new business venture with some friends, but this will be a while gearing up and is full of uncertainties.  Many life changes marked at that moment.

We drank a toast to all of this, and then I immediately went to bed, having a sense the the flu was coming on.  That would be no surprise as my Beloved had been deathly ill from just before Christmas until a day and a half ago.  My turn was coming.

This morning, I woke to the sounds of busy kitchen activity, and soon the odor of beautifully-cooked black-eyed peas began to fill the house.  I straggled to the breakfast table, managed to make a pot of lovely Irish Breakfast Tea (both the elegant tea set and the tea being a Christmas gift from him), and just sat there, hoping some energy would return.   In the meantime, my Beloved busily cooked me a fabulous breakfast, and began the makings of an elegant mid-day meal.  As he served me, he reminded me that I am now the major wage-earner, and that as the retired one, it was his privilege to see how he could make my life easier.  An hour and a half later, as I'm still not moving from the table, the refrigerator has been cleaned out, the pots and pans stacked neatly in their appointed places, the dishwasher emptied, and the traces of lipstick, which I never can get off, removed from the glassware.  He then fed the dogs, gave them yet another lesson in dog etiquette, reminded them of their proper place in our household dog pack, and then joined me for a cup of Emerald Bamboo Forest tea (another part of the Christmas tea set gift).

I'm still just sitting here, but did bring the laptop in so I could write a bit and enjoy the morning light.  Clearly, I could get used to this very, very quickly.

In the last few months, as I've gone through a grueling time with multiple professional challenges and a sense that all the balls I had in the air were about to come crashing down, I mentioned to some friends that what I really needed was a wife.  It's really not fair to the word "wife" to say that--what I really wanted was a butler.  Someone to fix my meals and make sure I eat properly, get my clothes to the cleaners and pick them up, keep the house orderly because I work so much better in an orderly environment, do the grocery shopping, make sure the dogs get good attention, and thus help free some of my energy for the work issues on my plate and for more refreshing relaxation time.

Only if these things were combined with profound affection, respectful love and occasional romance could such a position be called a "wife."  And suddenly, at least for this day, I have that "wife."

For me, it is a bit of a challenge to consent to being served this way.  I've spent most of my life serving.  First being that "wife," and then rearing my children and then in various school and work situations where my primary responsibility has been the success of someone else who was the responsible one.  But now I'm that one. I am the primary wage-earner. I am the senior pastor of this thriving church that is experiencing so much change and transformation.  I still have the privilege of serving, yet really, and truly, the buck does stop at my desk. 

I sense in these hours with my Beloved the aroma of the Presence of the Spirit of God.  These acts are a reminder to me that I am not alone, ever, no matter how alone I may feel on occasion.  Nice things to savor on this first day of 2009.