Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dislocated Seagulls

For reasons unbeknownst to me, seagulls come every winter to live in the parking lot of the shopping center that is a mile from our house. I always wonder where they have come from, and why, being the shore birds they are, they choose to winter over in an asphalt parking lot, far from any beach or salt water.

Today I saw them for the first time this winter. It was a very windy morning and I had been watching the clouds race across the sky on my morning walk. One gull in particular seemed to be enjoying the high winds as he soared in the gusts overhead. I felt as though I could read his thoughts and that he was reminded of the winds at his seaside home. While his view of earth is much different now than where he normally lives, I could sense his joy in finding a moment of familiarity, an experience that reoriented him toward his usual surroundings.

I thought about my own life, and how at times I find myself in a place that is not familiar or comfortable. Life experiences can be unsettling. The holidays can take me out of the rhythm that most often nourishes and sustains me. Like the seagull, I may be in a season of change, a place that is different than what is home for me. In such situations, I need to be attentive for a strong wind, a wind of the Spirit that blows over me and allows me to soar in a moment of reorientation, of union with God.

My ability to recognize and appreciate such winds happens by the work I do while in my normal rhythms of life. Morning devotions, scripture study, centering prayer, worship, Eucharist and fixed hour prayer ground me and allow me to pay attention even when I am in places where those disciplines are more difficult to maintain. As such spiritual practices become hard-wired into me, I can find moments of “home” even when life’s seasons carry me far from my physical home, just as my friend the seagull found this morning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Missing The Star

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”        Matthew 2:1-2

Why is it that no one saw the star except the magi? How did everyone else miss it? I thought about that this morning as I walked in the predawn darkness and looked at Saturn, which has been shining brightly in the early morning sky recently.

If the magi traveled from a long distance, and if Jesus was already two years old when they arrived, how is it that this extraordinarily bright star did not capture the attention of others? In two years, no one wondered about it?! These magi were from far away, yet they knew that the star foretold the birth of the king of the Jews. Apparently, no one in Judea realized the significance of the star or took the time to figure it out.

I am humbled by the curiosity and determination of these magi, who were awed by what they saw, understood its significance, and laid aside their life obligations to travel a long distance for a long time to honor a seemingly insignificant small child. They could see what others could not. They were willing to look where others would not. They could embrace the possibility that the king of the Jews could be found in an unlikely place.

What am I missing because I am caught up in my own life’s agenda? How am I blinded to the possibility of God’s work in others because of my preconceived notions? Am I too busy to be curious? Do I worship busyness and productivity as my king and miss the birth of the true King?

Look up, people! See that star! Wonder about it! Be curious! See the Christ in a baby, or in a toddler, or a teenager, or the person right in front of you! Let us all lay aside our agendas and marvel at what is happening in this season. God is here, right now. O come let us adore him!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Scandalous Faith

A group at our church is studying the book Christmas is not Your Birthday by Rev. Mike Slaughter.  As we studied the chapter on Scandalous Love yesterday, Slaughter pointed out that Mary would have been criticized and ostracized by her community. But when she traveled to visit with her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s first words to her are “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:42). Elizabeth speaks words of encouragement to her young cousin, words that Mary desperately needed to hear.

Slaughter asks, “How many miracles are aborted because of put-downs, sarcasm, and negativity?” As we considered that question in our study, we wondered aloud how we as the church often respond when a member or a group comes enthusiastically with a new idea, a radical “what if we . . .” or a dream for something different. Are our church’s administrative structures the places where dreams go to die, or do we believe that God still acts through ordinary lay people? Do we believe in each other, that God lives in each one of us and that God can unleash God’s power in any one of us at any time? Or do we only believe in what we can actually see, which is often a shortage of money or people to support what the Spirit is urging us toward?

Slaughter observes that the example of Mary can be the example for any of us, that God can and does work God’s miracles through ordinary people who are open to hear God’s word for them and who will act on it. I am challenged to discern when I am called to be the place of gestation for God’s miracle, as Mary was, and when I am called to be Elizabeth, the encourager of the miracle in another. Or maybe I am called to be the midwife, who helps another birth the miracle that is in them. To be any of these requires that I pay attention, accept my role-whichever one it is, and believe that God is alive and at work in every one of us, even the unlikeliest of folks. How would our churches look if each of us did this? They would be scandalous places indeed, for they would be aflame with God’s Spirit!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Active Rest

Oh rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.
-Edmund H. Sears

Third verses of Christmas carols are sung less frequently than the first, second and last. While I have sung the carol “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” I was not familiar with the third verse, which ends with the words above, until I heard “Midnight Clear” by The Digital Age. In the aftermath of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday, all before Advent has even begun, maybe the best thing I could do this holiday season is rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

Quite frankly, rest is not something we value, probably because we think of rest as unproductive and if we want to be anything at all, it is productive. Our society measures everything in terms of output and results, and those results had better come quickly. Resting and waiting are viewed as unproductive.

Even in the church, we fall victim to our culture’s obsession with productivity. I think that’s why we struggle with how to pray. We pray for results. We want our prayers to be effective, to produce a desired outcome. If that outcome is not obtained, we tend to think we have somehow prayed wrong. I believe that is why so few of us embrace centering prayer. Sitting silently for twenty minutes just seems unproductive. The promise of a growing inner peace that comes over time as one faithfully practices this spiritual discipline is not alluring enough or quick enough for us to patiently persist in such prayer.

Maybe we would do well to consider rest as an active verb rather than as passive. For rest, in the spiritual sense, is not sloth. Rest is more like fallowness, a time of being still, becoming more aware of yourself and thus, of God, and maybe, just maybe, hearing the angels sing, rather than rushing through stores listening to carols piped in over Muzak as we frantically try to secure the latest toy or gadget for someone who already has plenty of toys or gadgets.

Active rest is what happened to Elizabeth and Mary, as they carried the promise of God in their wombs over nine months. As their babies grew inside them, they could do nothing to rush the process of birth along, and their pregnancies came with a responsibility, as pregnancies do, of taking care of themselves so that their babies would have the best chance to thrive. While there is much that needs to be done to bring Christ to others, such as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and dying, and sharing our abundance with those who have none, that cannot be done at the expense of our own rest, or the Christ we deliver will be sickly and weak, ineffective for the long journey of faith.

So how are you growing the promised Christ within you this Advent season? Do you feel the presence of Christ growing in you as you prepare your heart for Christmas, or only a growing sense of anxiety over getting the right presents? My greatest wish this season is that we all would rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing. What greater gift could we give to a weary world?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reclamation Project

The past several months have been stressful, busy, and sometimes chaotic. August began with my dad having cancerous tumors removed from his bladder, then discovering that the cancer had spread aggressively. He died on October 3. Between traveling back and forth to his home in Tennessee prior to his death, the decisions that had to be made prior to and after his death and working through all the details that come when you are an only child and have lost your last surviving parent, autumn has been a blur for me. I went into “survival mode,” which for me means filling every waking moment with something to do. I went into this same mode when I went to graduate school, commuting 2 hours each way two or three days a week for eighteen months while teaching full time with a toddler and kindergartener at home. My husband says it took me years to come out of that mode, but I knew I was defaulting back into it as I moved through the past four months.

At least this time I knew what was happening to me, and I’ve been trying to ratchet back the pace to return back to some semblance of balance and rhythm. This week, my reclamation project has been aided by a furry buddy, Annie. We are dog sitting for friends and Annie is a puppy. Since our dog died a year ago, we’ve resisted getting another one because our traveling schedule right now would make dog ownership complicated. But Jim & I were both looking forward to “borrowing” Annie for the week.

Because Annie is not quite housebroken, we have to be attentive about taking her outside. That has gotten me out of the house and into our backyard, where I’ve been able to enjoy the fall colors and the crisp air. Being outside is therapeutic for me, but I’ve been hunkered down inside for most of the fall, observing the changing season only through windows, either the ones in our house, at Dad’s house or in the car as we’ve traveled back and forth to Tennessee. I am grateful that Annie is luring me outside this week (and it helps that the weather has been nice).

If I sit down to read or write, she stays close by, either sleeping or chewing her bone. Yesterday evening, when I got home from work, I sat down on the sofa for a moment and she fell asleep on the floor beside me. Instead of getting up to go do something in the house, I simply sat there and did absolutely nothing. I enjoyed Annie’s nap as much as she did. Adjusting my rhythm to hers is helping me slow down and savor the present moment.

I did not expect my reclamation project to be encouraged by a little black dog, but I am experiencing healing through her being here this week. God is using her to help me reclaim the pace of life at which I thrive. And even when she greets me at the back door soaking wet from dunking herself in our frog pond, necessitating a bath before 7:00 a.m., I can shrug and laugh and adjust. It is all just part of the journey, a reminder that God is present in every moment and in every creature and that each can be savored and appreciated for what it brings to the tapestry of life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tribute to My Dad

My dad was not a sappy guy. He was hardheaded and independent and not afraid to share his thoughts about any subject with anyone. When I was growing up, I can remember my mom suggesting that he curb his remarks at work out of concern that his tongue might negatively affect his career path. Patience was not his strong suit, but he taught countless friends and family members how to water ski over many years, taking as much time with each as was needed to make them successful.

The year he coached my rec league softball team, I heard many complaints from my teammates about how hard he pushed us in practice. Our recreational league teams were organized by school. Our elementary school had two teams—the ringers and the rejects. Our team was the reject team.  But that year, we won the rec league championship because of the effort Dad extracted from us in practice.

When my mom was diagnosed with an incurable strain of tuberculosis, Dad took early retirement so they could enjoy retirement together in the hills of Tennessee on Watts Bar Lake. Mom had a lot of good years left, but as she became unable to cook or keep house Dad took over those duties without complaint. He was devoted to my mom, and took care of her as her health declined.

After retiring, he got active in the little church they joined when they moved to the lake. He and Mom served in many ways there, and developed a close circle of friends. When Dad was admitted to the hospital last month, and we realized that his cancer was terminal, a steady stream of friends flowed into his room to visit. My husband, Jim, and I heard story after story of kindnesses done by Dad, and we were moved by the circle of love that surrounded Dad and us, not only during his hospital stay but also afterward, when he was moved to the nursing facility where he spent his remaining three weeks.

Dad left this world peacefully and gracefully in the early morning hours last Wednesday. Of course, I miss him already, but I was blessed by the way he lived his final weeks on earth. And even though there were many, many times I rolled my eyes or got frustrated by things Dad said and did, I am proud to be his daughter.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lesson from a Bumblebee

With my dad’s health situation, my husband Jim and I have been traveling back and forth to be with Dad and to take care of the things he cannot take care of himself. Our own jobs and household affairs still need attention. If I begin to think about all the decisions to be made and all the things that I either want or need to do, I get overwhelmed.

This morning I watched as a bumblebee worked over the morning glory vines in our yard (one of the projects I had hoped to complete was curbing the growth of these vines that have covered our hydrangeas). The bumblebee went from flower to flower, one at a time, very methodically. He didn’t seem to be overwhelmed at the number of flowers, nor did he seem to be in any sort of hurry. He didn’t even try to enter every flower.

As I watched him work, I was reminded that I can only do one thing at a time, that not everything that presents itself to me needs my attention, and that taking my time is necessary to doing things well and also to my own well-being.

A friend at work, who has dealt with her own health issues and those of family members, gave me some good advice yesterday. She said that some things just need to be put on a shelf mentally, to be dealt with at a later time. Just as that bumblebee cannot work on every flower at the same time, neither can I handle all the things that compete for my attention at one time. I have to decide what to address and what needs to go on that mental shelf for later. Some of those items on the shelf will end up being done eventually, and some really don’t need to be done at all. I may not be in a position to make such decisions now, but if I continue to focus on only one thing at a time, I will be in a better mindset to make a good decision when a decision needs to be made.

Taking time to focus on only one thing at a time is how I was even able to notice the bumblebee this morning. Maybe it’s a good thing that eliminating the morning glory vines is a project that has gone on the shelf. Without them, I would have missed the lesson the bumblebee showed me.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Signs of Life

My dad has aggressive stage 4 cancer. Last week he was admitted to the hospital near where he lives, and my husband Jim and I made the 4-5 hour drive to be with him. My mom died several years ago and I’m an only child, so the responsibility for hard decisions falls solely on me. Fortunately, my dad had shared his wishes with me a long time ago, and I have been able to make decisions about treatment in accordance with his wishes.

For some time now, I have tried to practice twenty minutes a day of centering prayer. Between hospital activity, tending to things at Dad’s house, and finding a skilled nursing facility for him to go to upon leaving the hospital, I found it difficult to settle into a mode of centering prayer last week, and when I tried, there were many thoughts swirling around in my head.

What I did discover, however, were centering moments every day. A predawn cup of coffee on Dad’s porch while listening to owls hoot, two fawns chasing each other in a field as we drove to the hospital, deer at Dad’s house crunching acorns, sunset over the lake, breakfast entertainment of a baby squirrel and its mother, two turkeys crossing the road as we returned to Dad’s house from the hospital at dusk, and the thinnest sliver of a moon hanging in the sky on the evening of the day we settled him into a nursing facility.

These signs of life remind me of the eternal presence of God even in the midst of difficult circumstances. They help me remain centered in the flurry of medical personnel, visiting family and friends, and decisions to be made. I am grateful for them and rejoice in the gift that they are to me.

Life is always changing, but times like this draw our attention to that reality more acutely. In joys, sorrows or sameness, God is present, if I will only pay attention to the signs of life around me.  As I continue to walk this path with my dad, I am grateful for signposts that remind me that the journey doesn’t end in defeat but in victory.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Burden of Effectiveness

For much of my working life, I sought to be effective. I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People more than once and sought to employ those habits in my own life. They are good habits and I still have the book, unlike many of the books I’ve read over the years. Effectiveness gets things done, and as Stephen Covey pointed out in the book, effectiveness is about getting the right things done. I have observed that many people equate busyness with effectiveness. We tend to value people based on how busy they are. Movers and shakers are approved, while sitters and thinkers are often overlooked.

We need to learn to value waiting, watching and listening. These may appear to be ineffective, especially when the mantra of our society is “don’t just stand there, do something.” But waiting, watching and listening allow us to dig beneath the surface of people and issues, to learn to understand both ourselves and others. These habits cause us to slow down and pay attention, which is not an easy behavior for many of us in our hurry-hurry existence.

Effectiveness becomes a burden when we try to apply it to our relationship with God and with others. Jesus wasn’t about effectiveness. As a group of us discussed healing in Sunday school, one person wondered why Jesus did not heal every leper, wiping out all the leper colonies. That this question was raised shows me that Jesus focused more on relationships than on productivity or effectiveness. He waited, watched and listened. He acted, but he did it within the context of relationship. He talked to people and listened to them. He observed the bent-over woman among all the people coming and going in the Temple (Luke 13:11-13). He felt healing power leave him as a woman in a crowd touched the hem of his robe (Matthew9:20-22). He heard Bartimaeus calling to him even though everyone lining the roadside was cheering for him (Mark 10:46-52).

And after his death, he did not immediately send the apostles out to continue his ministry. He told them to wait. That doesn’t seem very effective. We talk about building on momentum, and certainly Jesus’ resurrection, his appearances to the apostles and others, and his ascension would have been momentum boosters. But Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem until they are given heavenly power.

I expect they were motivated and itching to do something. We catch a glimpse of that when Peter decides to go fishing (John 21:3). Jesus shows them the importance of waiting, watching and listening one last time, for even though he modeled such behavior for them in his life on earth, they were not always quick to catch on.

We need to let go of the burden of effectiveness and realize that building relationships with God, with others and even with ourselves is how we learn to love God, love others and love ourselves. Relationships are not built by effectiveness but by paying attention—waiting, watching and listening—so that our action is a loving response, not just “doing something.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Creation, Destruction and Discipleship

It is always easier to destroy things than to create them. Creativity always takes longer than destruction.

I heard these comments in a workshop I attended recently. I thought about the implications of this observation and how we, as a culture, put so much emphasis on productivity. Creativity seems to me to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from productivity. Maybe that is why we tend to be destructive—to ourselves and to others. It is what is rewarded, because productivity is more akin to destruction than to creation.

Think about what it takes to bring a baby to birth. It’s a nine month process just to get a baby to the point where it can live outside its mother’s womb. It is even longer before the baby grows up enough to be able to take care of its own needs. While creation arguably takes more than the nine months prior to birth, death can happen instantly.

Because creation takes time, it also requires patience. But in our culture, we want instant, and instant means that creation may not get the time and attention needed to take root and flourish.

This is true with discipleship. In the early church, those who wanted to be baptized and join the church went through a season of preparation, usually during Lent. That time of preparation gave time for a person to learn about God and themselves, and to recognize that they were only beginning a faith journey. Baptism was not the end of the journey, but only the beginning.

Contrast that with the way many of us view baptism and church membership today. It’s an instant process, consumer oriented, and often seen as the end rather than the commencement of a lifelong journey of discipleship. As a result, some in the church think that discipleship is defined as membership and nothing more.
When church is something we consume rather than the place where we learn to pour out our lives in sacrifice, then the level of commitment to a church family is low. If you can’t consume what you like, you leave and go where your “needs” are met. I read somewhere that church is the one place where you learn to work and live with folks different from you. That’s one way of learning discipleship. Learning to forgive, to be patient, to put others ahead of self, to give, to be accountable, to be humble—these are all lessons learned best with those who are different than us. It is when each of us rubs each other’s raw and sharp edges that we learn discipleship.

In a sense, there is destruction involved in creation. The old must die for the new to be born. The consumer mentality must die for the sacrificial mentality of discipleship to be born. Just as we see the pattern of death and resurrection in Jesus, we also must live into that same cycle of death and resurrection if we are to grow as disciples.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Where is my Trust?

Trusting in God is a difficult thing to do. At a workshop a couple of years ago, the speaker said the most important question is “Do you trust God with your life?” A quick response might be “yes, of course,” but I think the question is much deeper. A quick response does not really honor the magnitude of the question.

I hesitate to answer the question with a confident yes, because when I look at my life, there is evidence aplenty that shows I don’t really trust God with my life. I trust God with bits and pieces of it, but not my whole life. My economic position gets some of my trust. My physical condition and health gets some of my trust. My ability to earn income gets some of my trust. Yet none of these are guaranteed. I can’t rely on my physical condition to remain good, no matter how healthy my eating and exercise habits. I can’t rely on financial or economic conditions to always sustain me. Jobs go away, bank accounts dwindle, investments fail. Putting my trust in any of these is a losing proposition. We don’t always realize that these are shaky sources of trust until we actually lose these things. We worry and fret until we hopefully, reach a point where we recognize that we can do nothing about these, and that the only constant is God.

Trusting God with my life doesn’t mean that suffering will go away. It does mean, however, that even in the midst of suffering, I can be at peace because I am trusting in the only constant, the Source and Giver of life. If I can trust God with my life, I can see that all the other is shifting sand, and I cannot stand on it with confidence. It will be like being at the beach and feeling the sand wash out from under your feet as you stand at the edge of the water.

This morning I was reading the parable about the tenant farmers in Luke 20:9-19. I spent some time with the way Jesus identified them as tenants. A tenant has temporary custody of a place. He does not own it. I was reminded that I don’t own anything either. It has been entrusted to me to use to glorify God. When I put my trust in the gift instead of the Giver, I put myself in a place of uncertainty. Trusting God with my life means that I look to the Giver, and with my vision full of the Light, I know I have already received all the Gift I could ever need.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cracked Pots

Some years ago in a small group study, we were given a piece of clay and told to make a pot. Some created attractive, symmetrical vessels, while others of us (myself included) brought out of our clay something less attractive, more misshapen and lopsided. Mine reminded me of a pot I made as a child. My clay skills had not improved over the years.

Once our pots were made, we discovered that they were to hold a small tea light candle. At this point, I realized that the most artistic and attractive pots did no better job at holding the candle than my own lopsided creation! That was a good lesson for me, reminding me that I should not compare myself with others, for we are all created by God, and given different gifts, abilities and appearances.

But that was not the lesson of this exercise. When we placed the candles in the pots, lit the wicks and turned out the lights, we discovered how ineffective our pots were as lanterns. Other than a small amount of light coming from the tops of the pots, we could not see much. The sturdy clay walls held the light in.

You may remember the story of Gideon and how, with only 300 men, he overtook the Midianites (Judges 7). The men each had a trumpet and an empty jar, with a torch inside each jar. Gideon instructed the men to blow their trumpets when he blew his trumpet and then to smash the jars so that the torches would shine brightly.

The problem with our pots was that they did not allow our lights to shine very brightly. The pots were well constructed, but opaque. How much of my life have I tried to construct my life as a sturdy, impervious vessel, able to withstand the various bumps and blows that life throws my way? My very effort to create a strong pot out of my life prevents Christ’s light from shining through me. Like the men of Gideon’s army, my jar must be broken open for light to shine out. But, oh, how we resist being broken open!

A life lived outside-in tries to construct a sturdy structure to prevent brokenness. If my attempts to be Christlike focus only on outward effort, I may get so caught up in “works” for God that I don’t let God inside nor do I let the light of Christ shine out of me.

A life lived inside-out understands that the light is the most important thing and must be allowed to shine. The structure thus must be fragile, permeable, cracked and broken so that the light can shine out. That is not necessarily encouraging to us, because we want to avoid suffering and brokenness. But what God wants from us is not rigidity. God is looking for cracked pots. They are the only pots that can be light for a dark world.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bad Vines

Several years ago, my husband, Jim, planted a grape vine at our house. It was one he had found on his family farm and he thought it was an old variety. We didn’t expect much from it the first couple of years, because it had to get itself established. Jim did what he could to help it along.

We both got excited the first year we saw it bloom, but it didn’t produce anything that year. We were patient, however. For several years we watched the vine hint that it might produce grapes, but while the vine was lush and healthy and growing, no fruit ever showed up. Jim finally wrote it off, but we left it where it was planted.

It grows outside a window where I read and journal. I watch the birds land on it, and I’ve watched it grow all over a boxwood beneath the window, all over the window itself, and into the maple tree that might as well be called “bird central,” because it is the favorite spot for birds to land before and after getting seeds from our bird feeder. Just this past weekend, it reached a new milestone—it has managed to attach its tendrils to a limb from the flowering cherry tree planted in a corner of the yard.

I noticed this on a windy day, because I saw the limb unable to move when the wind blew. The vine, although much smaller than the limb it was attached to, had such a grip on the limb that I wondered if the vine would break the limb in a strong wind, damaging the tree but not harming the vine at all. As I watched the tree with its constricted movement, I thought about the lesson this vine was teaching me.

We took on the vine and tried to help it along, thinking it would be good for us when it bore fruit. How often have I gotten involved in some habit or activity or venture thinking it would be good for me or for my family? It may have been truly a good and beneficial thing for someone else or under different circumstances, but it fails to bear fruit for me. Instead of enhancing my life, it drains my life. Like the fruitless grape vine, it continues to spread its influence into my life, and I keep hoping things will change. When they fail to change, I may find it easier simply to let things continue rather than to make the change that will be life-giving for me because the change will be painful. Like this vine that we allowed to continue to grow, the activity or habit continues to spread its influence over me. My time may be so consumed by this venture or activity that I never stop to consider if it is drawing me nearer to God or pushing me away from God.

I would not have seen how the vine had spread if I had not been paying attention to it while watching the wind blow. The Holy Spirit, the wind of God, cannot move me if I have let the vine that is taking over my life continue its work. I have to pay attention to my relationship with God. I have to examine all that I am involved in to see if it is drawing me nearer to God, or, if, like my cherry tree, I am unable to move freely when the Spirit blows. I am unlikely to fall off a cliff away from God, instead, I drift away, inch by inch, as the tendrils of the fruitless vine overtake my heart.

If my life is unexamined, I won’t realize what is happening. Truthful examination won’t be pleasant, because when I really begin to look closely at my heart, I will discover that there are bad vines there. The only solution for the vine in our yard will be to cut it down. The same is true of the fruitless vines in my heart. It won’t be easy, and like plants often do, they will continue to try and put out new shoots. I will have to remain vigilant to put to death vines that have grown for many years but vigilance is necessary for me to grow toward God.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Love and the Law

I’ve been reading through the gospel of Luke for the past couple of months. Reading through the whole of Luke has allowed me to come to new ways of seeing familiar passages as I read them in the context of what comes before and after them. In January, I heard Brian McLaren teach on how scripture’s meaning can change for us when we read it in context. That has helped me look at what I am reading more from a panoramic viewpoint rather than in isolation.

Luke 14 begins with Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus then teaches us that discipleship demands that we be completely committed to him, willing even to give up all our possessions (note that this is said to all, not simply to the rich young ruler). Luke 15 gives stories about hospitality and welcoming, and in the first part of chapter 16 Jesus teaches about faithfulness with money. What follows are these five verses:

14 The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. 15 He said to them,“You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. 16 Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it.17 It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the Law to drop out. 18 Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (CEB)

What follows is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, teachings about faithful service, and then Jesus heals ten lepers, and the only one who returns to thank him is a Samaritan. Through the passages before and after these verses, Jesus has done what is offensive to the Pharisees. Healing on the Sabbath violated the Law, giving up all ones possessions went way farther than the tithe prescribed by the Law, as did Jesus’ teachings about divorce. But Jesus also taught grace and forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son and the manager who changed the accounts of his master’s debtors. Jesus also reached out to those whom society used the Law to avoid when he healed the ten lepers.

So in reading the familiar verse about how it’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the Law to drop out, I wonder if Jesus is speaking more to the rigidity of the Pharisees than he is praising the Law. The Pharisees highly valued the Law and often seemed to revere it over people. They seemed more concerned about preserving the Law than they did about extending love and grace and healing to others. Reading this verse in the context of this whole section of Luke causes me to wonder if Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were so unmovable in their adoration of the Law that even if they were shown a higher and better way, they would not let go of the Law.

Jesus says that what is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. I wonder what it is that I might value highly that God finds offensive. What “values” blind me from being a bearer of good news to others? The Pharisees did not get singled out because they valued the Law, but because they put the Law ahead of compassion. I wonder if God is more offended by those who claim to be Christian but spew forth hatred and name-calling than God is by those who do evil without any claim of being a follower of God.

I don’t presume to know the “right” answer, but I believe with all my heart that because Jesus loved me enough to give himself for me and for all people—all races, all religious faiths, all nonreligious, all sexual orientations, all evildoers-repentant or not, and even those who offend me—my only response is to fall to my knees, exclaim, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” and then to love others without exclusion in humility and gratitude for the grace given to me. Jesus did not withhold his love from anyone and I am called to go and do likewise. I cannot take in the magnitude of God’s love for all creatures, but I will humbly try to share God’s love with others.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Discipleship in Community

Every week, I look forward to Sunday worship. To be able to go and sing and pray with my church family, to hear the scripture read and preached, and to express my love, praise and gratitude to God alongside others who are similarly overwhelmed by God is joy and excitement for me. So when I knew I would miss worship this past Sunday, I was disappointed, but instead decided to be more attentive to worshipping God through the activities of the day, which were centered around moving Nick, our younger son, out of the house he’s lived in for the past year.

Nick is an intern with the University of Georgia Wesley Foundation, about to begin his third year in ministry there. UGA Wesley is a huge ministry, with over 1000 students a week participating in worship, small groups, and discipleship meetings. (You can find out more about UGA Wesley here). Other than the director, Rev. Bob Beckwith, the leadership is comprised exclusively of young adults. Students may serve in leadership roles beginning with their second year of college. Some who have served for several years as leaders may offer themselves in service as interns, where they are treated as full-time missionaries in the mission field of Athens. These interns raise their own support, living by faith on a day to day basis. Associate Directors, who are still young adults, have invested their lives in the UGA Wesley ministry for a longer term. They receive a small stipend but still depend on support.

Yesterday I saw an example of the church lived out in the world. The community that is UGA Wesley is an embodiment of the church at its best. There is love, mutual support, prayer, and sharing of resources among this group of young adults. Although leases commence and end the middle of this week, intern training also begins this week, so Nick and others could only move on the weekend. When we arrived to help Nick move out, Nick shared the plan for the move. He was moving out of the place he’s been in the past year, moving all his stuff into the garage at the home where other Wesley interns live, staying with yet another group of interns for the week, then moving into his new place next weekend. The other guys he will be living with, also interns, have all made similar arrangements through the Wesley intern family.

I know this is just a small example of the hospitality and generosity among this group, and Jim and I have experienced it many times, from the times we’ve attended worship at Wesley on Wednesday nights to the care and support we and Nick received through Nick’s ongoing lung collapses, his surgeries to correct these, and recoveries afterward. As parents, we’ve been confident that Nick was surrounded by a community of care and love when he needed it, and he has participated in caring for and loving others. There is a spirit of mutuality among these disciples that gives without keeping score, and receives with grace and gratitude.

So while I was not able to worship as I typically do on Sunday, I spent a hot summer moving day in the presence of God in the Kingdom of God. I saw the Word alive and active. Praise God!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Singing My Authentic Song

During the summer months, my morning walks put me outside as the sun is beginning to rise and the birds begin to sing. There is a particular sparrow whose song is one of my favorites to hear. Last week I was at Lake Junaluska for SoulFeast, and I noticed that every time I was walking back and forth to Morning Prayer or to workshops, I heard that same sparrow’s song. It’s a simple, sweet song, with a few variations, sung over and over again.

I wonder if this sparrow ever gets tired of singing its song. I wonder if it ever wishes that it could sing the songs of other birds. I wonder if it ever wishes to be a mockingbird, which loudly and enthusiastically sings the songs of other birds and even mimics other sounds it hears. (Once, I heard a mockingbird singing the backup beep sound. It was so authentic sounding I began looking for the vehicle that was producing it!)

I wonder how much I am like the mockingbird, listening to and singing the songs of others, rather than sticking to my own song. In an effort to please others, I can end up singing what I think someone wants to hear, rather than singing with my authentic voice the song God has given me to sing. The problem with trying to please others is that I can end up sounding like the mockingbird, singing only little bits of each song, so that I sound disjointed and scattered. While God created the mockingbird to string together the songs it hears, God did not create us to speak with every voice we hear.

Over the past couple of months, I have been discovering my authentic song. I’ve examined my spiritual gifts, thought about my deepest desires, and looked at how my choices either move me toward my deepest desires or take me away from them. Through this process, I realize that I have spent a large part of my life as a mockingbird, singing whatever song meets the expectations of others. Because different people have different expectations, I’ve switched songs depending on my audience. Trying to keep up with so many songs created much dis-ease within me, and I did not realize how much this was affecting my relationship with God until I began to peel away the layers of songs that were hiding God’s authentic song for me from myself.

I don’t believe the process is complete, but I have come to understand that for me to be who God created me to be I need to be a sparrow, not a mockingbird. I need to sing the song that is uniquely mine to sing. Some may like my song, some may not. That’s okay, because ultimately, the one for whom I sing is God. Not everyone will hear my song, and it’s not up to me to make sure that my song is heard. It is my task to faithfully sing my song, trusting that God will use it however God desires. And that is certainly sufficient for me!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hearing the Right Voice

This week, I'm recycling a column I wrote several years ago for a magazine. It has been on my mind, so I thought I'd pull it out, re-read it myself, and share it with you.

One of the birds I enjoy hearing is the wood thrush. It has such a melodious song. As I listen for it, I realize my effort to hear it sing relates to my effort to hear God’s voice.

You need to know what you are listening for. If I didn’t know what a wood thrush sounds like, I wouldn’t know when I hear it among the chorus of bird songs. Someone had to share it with me so I knew what I am listening for. In the same way, I needed someone to teach me how God’s voice sounds so I could distinguish it from the other voices I hear.

Once I know what the wood thrush’s song sounds like, I still must listen in order to hear it. I’ve noticed I can miss its song by listening to a robin or a mockingbird or a wren. If my ears are tuned to another song, I don’t hear the wood thrush. Even looking at the full moon causes me to tune out the bird songs. But if I focus my hearing on the wood thrush’s song, all the other distractions fade into the background. If I want to hear God’s voice, I need to be an active listener. I must make an effort to listen for it or I will lose it among the competing voices in the world. When I do actively and attentively listen for it, I often find that the other voices fade away.

It also helps to be in the right environment. As its name implies, the wood thrush lives in the woods. I won’t hear it in the grocery store parking lot. Even in our neighborhood, I only hear it in certain places, where there are more trees than grass. God is not limited by environment, but if I am in the wrong environment, it will be harder for me to hear God's voice.

There are times when I cannot hear the song of the wood thrush. I may be travelling or sick and unable to get outside. I know the song well, so I can sing it in my head. I can enjoy it even when I cannot hear it. There are times when I’m struggling due to illness, family crisis, or some other life circumstance. I may find it hard at those times to listen for God’s voice. By knowing it well enough, I can hear it in my head even as I go through difficulty!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chipmunk Grace

If I am faithful about anything, it is feeding the birds. Both my husband and sons will attest to that. In fact, now that our sons are no longer living at home, we spend more on sunflower seed than on groceries.

Last summer, in an attempt to add some color to our garden and, ever so slightly, defray the cost of sunflower seeds, I purchased a packet of sunflower seeds and planted them in one of our garden beds. A few days after planting, I checked to see if any were sprouting. Where my nice row of seeds had been planted, there was now a neat row of holes. The chipmunks or squirrels had dug up every single seed! I decided that it was a waste of time to plant sunflowers, for all my effort produced nothing.

This spring, I did not give sunflowers any consideration for my garden. Yet this summer, I am enjoying sunflowers blooming continuously in my garden. I have sunflowers at various stages of growth in almost every bed.

Chipmunks can fill their cheek pouches under our bird feeders because brown thrashers sit at the feeders and knock out lots of seeds as they look for something particular. I enjoy watching a certain chipmunk whose home is apparently at the back fence of our yard. He fills his cheeks, runs through our garden, and carries his loot to his hole for safekeeping. Or at least that is his intent. Apparently along the way, he has dropped clusters of seeds in the various beds of our garden. And now, we have sunflowers!

This chipmunk has taught me a lesson about God’s grace and gentleness. All my effort to grow sunflowers produced nothing. My planning and productivity resulted in no fruit (or flowers, in this case). Yet my faithfulness in feeding the birds, day in and day out, rain or shine, produced the flowers I had tried to get by my own effort and in a way much better than I could have ever planned. You see, the planting has been done all through my garden, not in an isolated bed, and has been staggered over time so that as one group of flowers begins to wane, another group is about to bloom.

If you follow my blog, you will know this is my first post in several months. Try as I might to be productive, to create some good piece of writing, I was coming up dry. I finally gave up trying so hard to produce something and instead have been trying to rest in God’s presence and let God simply shine on me and to accept God’s graciousness to me. When I quit trying so hard, God sent a chipmunk with a cheek full of seeds to show me that all I really needed to do was to let God be God for me, and to let myself be God’s creature.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Who is Lord?

In a recent devotion by Richard Rohr, he points out that to say "Jesus is Lord" was a political statement when Rome was in power because Caesar was the one who was to be called "lord." While we are not required to say the same thing about our president, the furor that accompanies the presidential race would make one think that it is of the same magnitude as picking who will be our lord. Is the authority for my life the one who lives in the White House?

Maybe the stir is because we want to belong to the winning candidate. We don't like to lose, and some act as though the loss of "their" candidate is the end of the world, as if God was watching for just the right (read "wrong") person to get elected so God could throw the switch on the end of time.

To me that shows how inflated our national ego really is. Some act as though our nation is the only nation that matters in all of time (the U.S. is only 235 years old). When we do this, we act like small children who thing the world revolves around them alone.

I have to think that God is shaking God's head at the fervor with which some view election season. I wonder if it grieves God that we view the source of all power as a flawed human being rather than the Creator of the universe.

What really matters is not who is elected president, but how we will live as followers of Jesus Christ. It is Christ to whom I belong, not some person running for office. They are only temporary, a puff of wind, just as I am. If I will do what Jesus did, then who is president really won't matter to me, for I am living in God's Kingdom (to which, by the way, the United States does not have exclusive rights).

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Crown or a Cross?

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. . .If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person. . .”
                                                                Mark 8:34, 38

Jesus isn’t much of a salesman. The way he chose and asks us to choose is outrageous by the standards of our culture. We want the crown but not the cross. We want to be accepted by society and still call ourselves disciples of Jesus. How much does the Church even encourage us to live against the grain of our society, which is certainly as “adulterous and sinful” as Jesus’ society, if not more? So why does Jesus challenge us with these words about rejection and suffering and losing one’s life? Why is living any other way characterized as selfish?

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can be who Jesus challenges me to be as long as I have possessions, power and prestige (Richard Rohr calls these the 3 P’s). As long as I have any of these I don’t really need to rely on God. How can I say I trust God to provide when I have the influence and the financial wherewithal to provide for myself? I can say I know it all comes from God as a gift, but do I really believe that? Does my attitude support that belief?

Pictures of the recent tornado outbreak bring home to me afresh that all this stuff I have is just temporary and can be gone in an instant. It won’t protect me or save me or even bring me happiness without effort. It all possesses me and makes demands of me and burdens me. Carrying these burdens prevents me from being able to carry the cross that Jesus offers me.

It seems to me that we excuse and deny the depth of this challenge given by Jesus. As much as we want to be dualistic in our thinking about who’s saved and who isn’t, who’s right and who’s wrong, we want to view this challenge of Jesus as a both/and proposition: carry our stuff and carry his cross, save our selfish ways and be saved, please ourselves and society and please God. How badly we have missed the mark! Lord, help us, help me to change!

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Simplicity of Silence

Peter exclaimed, “Rabbi, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorialsone for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified.
                                                    Mark 9:5-6

Why is it that we so frequently feel we must say something to fill the silence? Nobody had asked Peter to speak in this moment when Jesus was transfigured and was with Moses and Elijah, yet Peter felt that he needed to speak up, to make his presence known, to fill the silence instead of being an observer.

We use noise of any kind to soothe us because we are afraid of silence. It makes us uncomfortable, often when we are alone, and always when we are with another.

In my Sunday school class, where our attendance is usually around 20-30 each week I struggle sometimes to remain silent when there is a time of open discussion. Observing Peter, I recognize that many times my speaking is not about sharing some profound insight but about the desire for acknowledgment. Like Peter, I speak to make my presence known, and like Peter, much of what comes out of my mouth is equally as irrelevant.

In Freedom of Simplicity Richard Foster speaks of simplifying our speech. He says we shouldn’t say we’re starving when we are merely hungry. Doing so diminishes real starvation, a plight all too real in our world. My hunger in no way is anything like the real starvation another faces.

I think simplicity of speech also extends to the “filling the air with words” that we sometimes do. It’s understandable that we do it, for our entire days can be filled with words from television, radio and work. We sing songs in our heads, read words on a page or a screen, talk on the phone, text or e-mail (or even blog!). Even if the words aren’t audible, they fill our heads.

What if I used fewer words? What if I could disconnect, unplug and shut down the constant river of words that beats on me like a waterfall and that spews forth from my own mind and mouth? Maybe a good Lenten discipline would be to use fewer words, especially words directed (or aimed, as the case may be) at others instead of God. Maybe if I used fewer words, I would learn to make my words more meaningful.

Maybe too, I could enter into a silence that is without words, a place where being present in the presence of God is sufficient, where nothing needs to be said (or even thought), where the glory of God simply shines into me, and I receive it in silent, wordless gratitude.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Popularity vs. Purpose

Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray. Later Simon and the others went out to find him. When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them, too. That is why I came.”
                                                                           Mark 1:36-38

Sometimes it seems that Jesus gets pulled in every direction and responds to every request made of him. But here, in Mark 1, Jesus gently says no. I expect Simon, Andrew, James and John wanted Jesus to remain in Capernaum—it was home for them. Had Jesus stayed there, they could follow him without leaving what was familiar and comfortable, not to mention revel in what was likely newfound status and popularity by their association with Jesus.

The previous day had been exhilarating for these men. Jesus had taught in the synagogue, cast out an evil spirit and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. The day had climaxed with the whole town gathered at the home of Simon’s mother-in-law. No wonder Simon and the others went out looking for Jesus. They likely wanted more of the same!

But Jesus not only denies their request, he calls them to leave even as momentum is building. He tells them to leave a half-begun ministry and move on. I imagine it must have given them pause to consider what this call to follow Jesus really meant. It meant leaving their families and their work. It meant leaving the familiarity of their home town. And now, it probably meant some embarrassment, because, among those who knew them best, this group of men was walking away from an unfinished “project,” leaving many of their closest friends and family disappointed and angry. I know I am speculating about this, but human nature being what it is, the desire on the part of the disciples for earthly popularity and the desire on the part of their fellow townspeople to get more of Jesus certainly seem like natural behaviors.

Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum and met the expectations of this community, but if he had, he would not have been who God called him to be. He had to keep his focus on God’s expectation for him, not the expectations of the people around him. I wonder if he was torn between staying in Capernaum and building on the ministry he had done there and leaving for other towns. I wonder if that was why he withdrew to pray, to keep his focus where it needed to be.

It’s not easy to deny the expectations of others when they are asking for help. It is easier to ride the tide of pleasing people, helping with worthy causes, and building a ministry program than it is to step away from all that and move on, leaving things unfinished and people disappointed. To do that requires trust in God, deep and complete trust that is only possible through close, intimate communion with God. Such communion is not developed in the busyness of doing but in the stillness of listening. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about getting caught up “in the thick of thin things.” The problem is that without a proper comparison, we think the thin things are actually the big things. It is only in stepping back and learning to see as God sees that we can see that we have been operating on the periphery instead of in the center.

Jesus did many things, but he was always centered in God’s will. His doing flowed out of his being, not the other way around. He could say no because he knew the only One he was focused on pleasing was God. How I want to do the same!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mastered by Time

He has planted eternity in the human heart. . .  
                                                                Ecclesiastes 3:11b

I have begun using A Book of Hours, which uses writings of Thomas Merton for praying the hours. In a recent morning reading, Merton writes that in the morning, creation awakes and asks permission of God to “be” for another day. All creation, that is, except humans, who believe we control time and our use of it. I wonder if it is that notion that keeps us from fully surrendering to God, because we always live with an eye on the clock and the clock is how we have tried to gain mastery over time.

But what if we had no clock, no calendar? What if, like the rest of creation, we lived in cycles of light and dark and each new day we asked permission of God to “be?” Would that be living out the eternity placed in our souls? Would we then take life in stride, with its times and season, joys and sorrows, difficulties and pleasures, much as the ocean ebbs and flows as the tides move it?

St. Benedict, in creating his Rule that guided monastic life, made adjustments for the seasons—the longer summer days had a different schedule than the shorter days of winter. We are not as likely to make adjustments to our lives according to the seasons. We cheat, for we fill our evenings, be they long or short, with work that keeps us up late and causes us to miss the waking of creation in the morning, which Merton says is the closest we come to experiencing paradise in this life.

We do not ask permission of God to “be.” Instead, we stumble out of bed to the sound of an alarm and put ourselves through the paces of a schedule God may never have intended for us to face, all in the name of being masters of time, when actually, what has happened is that time has become the master of us.

Could we be more fully human if we recognized each morning that it is God who gives us permission to “be,” so that we manifest God’s glory in our very “be-ing?” Is this not how the Word is made flesh and lives among us today?