Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Day Before Thanksgiving

It's the day before Thanksgiving, 2009. I had intended to just have a lazy day, relaxing, reading, drying what seems like bushels of basil I'd harvested from the garden before what I figured would be the first freeze of the season.

Mid-morning, my phone rang. Unfamiliar number--no name with it. When I answered, the voice introduced himself as someone I had known years ago, and had recently seen at a gathering for my and his parents Sunday School class. He was clearly in distress, and quickly told me the story. His brother's stepson had been in a horrific car accident the night before. Multiple spinal injuries, and if the young man did live, there was no question of there ever being mobility again. The young man will be a complete quadriplegic, with no movement possible below the neck. We spoke a few moments, and I promised prayer and support.

A few minutes later, I received a summons to go to church and help fold a newsletter that needed to go out this afternoon. After a few moments of internal grumbling, I headed up there. But not before checking my phone and seeing a text message about a young couple who had just experienced their second miscarriage in two years and were grief-stricken. 

There were just three of us folding and labeling the 500 newsletters. One, a sweet and wonderful senior citizen, spoke of her gratefulness that her daughter, diagnosed a year ago with fast-acting leukemia, had finished all her treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, and that things looked good for her. Then she mentioned her son, now on his third round of chemo for his cancer, but still managing to go to work each day. In the meantime, the phone rang with one of the many calls I get a week from people asking for money to pay utilities and/or hotel bills. Sometimes I wonder if these folks are reading from a prepared script--it seems that I've heard the same story over and over again. 

Later, I spoke with my youngest son who said that he was having a showdown with his firm. He has consistently worked 12-15 hour days for over a year now, and had reach his limit. He was preparing for a trip to Peru, Machu Pichu, and the Amazon Jungle to get some space and time to think about what he really wanted in life.

In addition to this, several of us were planning on a "orphan's" Thanksgiving meal. All who don't have family, or want a smaller family to celebrate with a larger group, are invited to the church tomorrow for a meal. We have no idea how many are coming. This, in my opinion, is true Eucharist--the giving of thanks around a table where all bring what they can, and eat what they need. Someone asked, "What if a lot more come than we are prepared for." I said, "We'll have a miracle then. There will be enough no matter what we do."

The day: a series of problems, pain, anguish, love, service, questions and not a lot of answers, and a strong undercurrent of thanksgiving. No easy answers to life's complex challenges. 

I used to think there were. Just believe the right things, trust God, "let God and let go," operate out of the laws of attraction, etc. etc., and everything will all fall into place. No, it doesn't. So, is the world held together in Christ? I hope so. Because there, and only there, is hope. Hope that resurrection does follow death and darkness. Life does triumphs over death. Yes, I do hope so.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas Appeals

My desk is covered with appeals for funds. Most of these are organizations I have supported regularly or sporadically in the past. I have huge respect for what they do. Some are for educational institutions, but most are for agencies who work to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, release the captive, give sight to the blind. For the biblically literate, those phrases speak of the prophetic call on the life of Jesus when he first began public ministry. Later in the Gospel messages, Jesus clearly states that those are also the tasks of those who say they are God's people.

When we work together to relieve suffering, we come close to moments of transcendence. We go beyond ourselves into a greater sense of both our humanness and our greater than human selves, that is, the image of God stamped up us.

We don't have to look hard to find suffering. It sneaks or comes slamming upon every single sentient creature. The fight to keep ourselves free from suffering, pain, sadness, blindness, hunger, and imprisonment motivates most of our work, our addictions, our play, and our distractions. It's also why is it so much fun to fall in love. In the hormonal and emotional high that comes with the initial phases of romantic love, suffering is swallowed in joy and delight. The presence of the beloved so lights our eyes that everything glows from the spill-over of romance. We float for a while, and glory in the respite. Eventually, however, the suffering of others and the suffering of our own souls will again poke into consciousness. Again, we enter the round of escape by work, play, distractions and addictions. 

Is there an escape from this cycle? Well, unless and until there is a new heaven and a new earth, and until God does indeed wipe every tear from our collective eyes, no. For now, we can buffer ourselves from pain in every way possible by riches, comfort, ignorance, self-gratification, and any other means we can think of and it will still make its presence known. Alternately, we can open ourselves to it by active engagement in the relief of suffering in others, and find that much of our own melts in the process. 

Take an inventory: who are the happiest people you know? Are they the richest? Most comfortable? Most accomplished? Most beautiful? Best-dressed? Most talented? Most adulated? Most popular? Perhaps, at least briefly, they may find happiness. But the most consistently happy people are those who actively relieve suffering in others. They volunteer at animal shelters, work with abused children, adopt or foster those whom no one else wants. They feed the hungry, clothe the naked, work to release those who are held captive. This does not mean they ignore their own needs for clothing and food and freedom, but that those needs find a different perspective and take on less importance.

So, back to the many appeals for help on my desk. Almost everybody I know has experienced some financial challenge this year, and many faced devastating ones. Our first tendency at this point is to give into fear. The fear: there will not be enough. Those who are least likely to reach this point are those who had little to begin with. But those who had more, and who saw it dwindle, find fear a constant companion. Fear begets greed. We clench our fists, put a tight hold on our giving. And we die in the process. We become less human, more animalistic, taking first what we need for ourselves, caring less about the larger community and the greater good.

I know I face that temptation. It's been a tough year. And I've decided to choose the transcendent way. I will give more, not less. I will recognize that when I chose my temporary comfort over the larger needs of this inter-connected, suffering world, that I will lose my soul in the very act of protecting it. This is not an easy choice--it has taken much internal wrestling to get here. But it is the right one.

Let's unclench our fists, and get free. Yes, we will have less. And we will also have much, much more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

To Say "Thanks"

I recently received a note from someone I knew years ago but have not seen in decades. The last time we had spoken, we had discussed our mutual interest in what it might mean to live as Christian people, giving much more than simple lip service to the things we said were vitally important to us. 

He wrote to me about that conversation, "That time with you made so much difference in my life. I became much more active with the faith, began taking Christian studies during my senior year at college, and continued to make God the center of my life on through law school and then in my work life and family life. I think of you often because I appreciate you so much. In my mind God really used you as a channel to help me. My renewed relationship with God really did grow out of those very brief moments around you. I think that most of us never realize just what a big difference we can make in the lives of others. You made a huge difference in mine. Thank you so very much!"

How honored I was to read these words, "you made a huge difference in my life." To whom might I also say such words? There are dozens, hundreds of those. I think of my grandparents. My paternal grandmother used to rise at 4:00 a.m. every morning to write letters to each of her grandchildren, surrounding us with love, speaking to us of faith and faithfulness. My maternal grandmother, who lived with our family, and helped me learn to read by sharing with me her devotional magazines. My parents, knowing the importance of high quality education, made sure both my mind and my soul were nurtured and fed.

Beyond relatives, there were a myriad of caring teachers from school and church, youth directors, mentors and friends who offered support, correction, guidance and stimulating discussion. How many there were! And my guess if this: if any of these good people do remember me at all, they probably thought at the time that their words were falling on deaf ears. I was a hard nut to crack during my adolescence and early college years, full of rebellion and generally indifferent to spiritual things. 

Today, I spill over with gratefulness for them. They were the hands and feet and voice of Jesus for me. They lived grace for me and for a lot of others as well. Those unsung heros, rarely if ever thanked and probably often frustrated and in despair over me, changed my life, one drop of love at a time.

It's Thanksgiving week. Instead of the often perfunctory "I'm thankful for the food today" that often suffices to honor this brief season before the Christmas purchasing and activity frenzy takes over, why not sit down and write a note of thanks to someone who impacted your life and showed you the face of God in some way? It would be one of the best gifts you could ever give.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Touch of Healing

The Healing Touch
On an average day, what did you touch that someone else has already touched--or will touch after you?  

Consider a day at work or school.  If the entrance doesn't have an electric eye and automatic opening device, then you touch the handle to open it.  If you go up or down stairs, you will probably at some point grab the handrail.  If you use an escalator, you will probably balance with the ever-rotating hand hold at some point.  Elevators mean you will punch the button to call the elevator and then punch the button to get to the desired floor.  

If you purchase something and use cash, you will handle the bills and change offered to the server and then do the same with any bills or change coming back.  Paper money just teems with bacteria, by the way so anyone who handles it regularly touches thousands of other people per day just by that work alone. 

 If you use a public restroom, you will probably have to open the door to get in and then open and close the door to the stall and, unless it is an auto-flush, you will also have to use the handle to flush the wastes away.  And then re-open the stall and touch the handles on the faucet and the soap dispenser to wash away the dirt (we can only hope so, anyway).  Finally, you touch the door handle to exit the space.  Public diaper changing tables anyone?  Do we really want to know?

If you go clothes shopping and try on garments, have you ever considered that someone may have tried them on before you--and left their bacterial mark on them?  Shall we even talk about grocery cart handles?  Or foodstuffs in grocery stores that someone might have picked up and then put back for you to pick up later?  At the very least, the stockers had to touch them.  What about the magazines at the check out counter that you peruse and return when in a long, slowly moving line?  

If you work in any office environment, have you considered who used the copy machine, phone or fax before you?  Computer keyboards are notoriously filthy.  

Since we all now check ourselves in at airline kiosks, try not to even guess how many people used that terminal before you put your code in for your boarding pass.  And who used the tub before you for their stinky shoes? As for the airline, bus, or other public transportation seats--I urge you not to picture who sat there before you.  Trust me, it didn't get a steam clean between occupancies.  

ATM's anyone?  How many grubby hands touched it just the hour before?  Same with the canisters that drive-in banks use.  

Watch out for that light switch--goodness only knows what the previous people who flipped it on or off carried on their hands.  

As for paying for purchases, most of us swipe our own credit cards these days. but not always--and the hand that just took it had also just held dozens of others.

Consider the restaurants--somebody wrapped that silverware that comes to your table.  Someone else at the very least breathed on the food that was served to you--and probably handled it as well.  

Doctor's offices anyone?  Who DID read that out-of-date magazine before you picked it up?  Or used the pen on the counter to sign in before you picked it up?  

It's not a huge leap to real germaphobia here.  In truth, each of us lives with millions of bacteria colonies all over us.  Viruses live in airborne droplets; danger lurks around each corner.  That is the nature of life.

So, I'm suggesting an alternative to retreating to a world that insists on being germ free.  Instead of focusing on how much bacteria you are being exposed to each day, and how much you are exposing others to your own highly bacterially-colonized hands and body, consider how much goodness you can give away with each encounter.  

Try offering a silent or spoken blessing each time you touch anything, offering gratefulness to God for the privilege of living in a world where we can touch each other, where we can go to school and work and shop and travel and interact with one another.  Pray for the person who sat before you and who will sit after you.  Thank those who serve you and handle your dirty money in exchange.  Spend time praising the Holy One for the mystery of our human bodies, so complex and amazingly able to stay healthy most of the time despite continued assaults on it.  We'll never get rid of the germs, nor should we.  But we can turn curse into blessing and touch the world with healing.  Sure beats turning into a tortured hermit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where Do You Start?

What is your basic truth about the nature of God? Is God good? Happy? Angry? Close or far away? Does God like you? Dislike you?

These may seem like silly questions, but the answers we give determine how we do, or don't, relate to God. It also determines how we read the Bible and the answers we find, or don't find, about life, God, salvation, heaven and hell and a host of other things.

A wise theologian once said, "Where you enter the Bible is also the place where you will exit." I heard that phrase at a lecture years ago as the speaker encouraged us to engage in theological wresting over a contentious point of order: whether or not women had a place in church leadership, especially as ordained clergy or in the senior pastor role.

For example, do we assume that from the beginning women are supposed to be subordinate to men? Do we assume that hierarchy and "chain of command" reside within the very nature of God and therefore that human society must be also also be arranged in such a way? If so, we will read that assumption into the the Bible to support that idea.

Alternatively, do we assume that such subordination emerged as an aberration from the ideal of the experience described in the Garden of Eden? Do we think that male and female were both created fully in the image of God and are meant to partner with each other and with God in the unfolding of creation? Then our reading and interpretation would lead to very different conclusions. Both beginning points can claim biblical support--we have to choose which one we stand upon. Then we must see if that stance is consistent with what else we knew about God from our years of Bible study and the practice of living as faithful Christians.

In the last few days, I was thinking about those questions and others because of an email conversation with a dear friend. She is quite certain I've gone off the heretical edge. Her words express significant concern that I may lose my salvation and end up in hell. As she and I write about our respective positions, I find another set of assumptions that must be surfaced, examined and tested to see if they hold together.

Those assumptions go back to the questions I wrote at the beginning of this article: what DO we think is true about the very nature of God? What is our starting point when we think about God?

For example: Is God's main purpose to save only the few who manage to figure out exactly the right words and right beliefs to allay God's looming wrath? Does God then send everyone else to eternal damnation and punishment? Or does God genuinely like the created world and the beings inhabiting it and so is interested in offering to all opportunity of healing, salvation, wholeness and eternal life, which is defined by Jesus as knowing God? In other words, is God in love with us or is God in anger with us? The starting point determines the end. If we start by believing that God is angry and only willing to let a few in, we end by condemning anyone who doesn't believe like us, since pretty well any person with any belief in God or an afterlife is sure he or she is going to make it to heaven.

Recently, a young man sat in my office explaining why he avoids attending worship services. He related the story when as a teen he brought a modern translation of the Bible to church one day. His pastor took it and held it up as though he were holding a snake or some other despised object. He then soundly berated the young man for having such a horror in his possession.

Now, that's a great picture of a God who starts with anger. Basic assumption: There is only one tightly defined way to God. That one way has to be understood and communicated only in archaic language using a Bible which was translated from less reliable manuscripts than more modern and scholarly translations now use. In other words, don't use your brain, don't think very hard, and learn the moves to the dance that please this angry God before it is too late.

That really loves 'em into the kingdom of heaven, doesn't it?

I grew up certain that God was angry with me. Many people I know have that same experience. That kind of thinking leads to a life of fear and apprehension, little joy or confidence and almost no courage to make bold decisions. What if I'm wrong? What if I make a choice that displeases God? What horrors will await me then? Best to play it safe and make no mistakes.

What a shut down life that is! The Bible narratives tell us of people making bold stands for God, of challenging fights against injustice, of arguments and disagreements that eventually led to greater understanding. How can one be bold for God while living in terror than one wrong step or one's questioning of the "approved" belief structure will lead to the uttermost darkness and everlasting torment? It is the power of love that encourages boldness and the redemption of the world, not fear-producing anger.

Examine your own starting place. If your starting place indicates that God is angry with you, consider the possibility of re-thinking that. Awareness that God really does like us is a big step to loving God in return, and that really is eternal life.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Recalculating . . . recalculating . ....

Recalculating . . . recalculating . . . recalculating

Thanks to my frequently over-generous husband, I have a GPS device (global positioning system) to guide me when I'm heading someplace unfamiliar. I rarely use it, as I enjoy a good sense of direction and read maps well. However, on a couple of recent trips to out of town locations, I decided to see how it worked.

A soothing voice supplied succinct instructions (that female voice coming out of it means I must refer to this device as a "her" rather than an "it") and I docilely complied. Of course, at some point, I deviated just a bit--to stop and get something to eat, or fill up with fuel. Immediately, I would hear the "recalculating . . . recalculating . . . recalculating . . ." message and then she would spit out a set of instructions to get me back to the original route. When, on occasion, I refused to comply with her recalculated instructions, she would eventually give in and offer a new route--but always with the same destination in mind.

I discovered that she gives instructions to turn or merge on a highway only about a mile before reaching the turning or merge point. Otherwise, she stays silent. Nothing, no words, no feedback. I found when I was driving a long distance on a highway that I wanted her to say something like, "You are doing great--heading in the right direction. Good job!"

I was little spooked to discover just how much she knew about me. A friend who was riding with me on one trip could look at her and tell me exactly how fast I was driving--and therefore know my compliance level with the posted speed limit. She (the device, that is) seemed to have a very good handle on exactly when I would arrive at my destination, clearly taking into account how well I was observing the speed limits.

I kind of liked her (the device, that is) but there was something about the periodic announcements that she was "recalculating" when I made an unanticipated turn that made me consider just how much the GPS device is like God. After all, isn't God always working in our lives to redeem our various mistakes and misdirections--as though there is a constant celestial "recalculating" going on? I've never particularly held with the theology that there is one perfect path that we are ideally intended to follow. Nonetheless, I do sense that there is a consistent goal--that of becoming fully in the image of God, and therefore living as more developed human beings, able to love openly and give thoroughly and grow into socially, emotionally, volitionally, and spiritually mature people. We take so many bypaths on the way--and just like my GPS, God consistently and patiently recalculates and seeks to get us heading again toward the goal.

Then there was the lack of feedback while I drove on the same highway for an extended distance. Where was the pat on the back? Yet those who have gone deep into the heart of God and have intentionally chosen lives of transformational holiness have in common this experience: the dark night of the soul where it seems impossible to hear the voice of God or sense that Holy Presence. I seem to have this insatiable need for someone to say to me, "Good job!" I want to hear those words of affirmation from someone else. But the call to maturity says, "Learn to trust yourself as one who has practiced the holy habits for years" during those times of silence. Much soul shaping takes place in the quiet.

Finally, there was what seemed like to me only last minute instructions to turn. I wanted to know miles ahead of time that a turn was imminent, but she disregarded my desires. I only found out a short time before the change of direction. How like life that is! We really don't know the future, however much we might like to think we can control it. Instead, the turns come and our job is to go with them, finding our bearings again in the new direction before us.

Recalculating . . . recalculating . . . recalculating . . . we all do it all the time as we engage in life and death matters. I find comfort in knowing that the Creator takes my twists and turns into account and continually offers me direction to the goal, even when I choose the ways that may not be the best or straightest of paths.