Monday, January 28, 2013

Extending Compassion

I’ve been prayerfully reading through Isaiah for several months now. Recently I read these verses:
The land mourned; it wasted away;
   Lebanon was ashamed; it withered.
Sharon became like the desert,
   and Bashan and Carmel were dropping their leaves.   
                                                                                                Isaiah 33:9
The lack of care for humanity extends to the land as well, according to Isaiah’s prophecy. That makes sense, for how can true compassion be compartmentalized? How can you love one and not another? How can you care for people and not for animals or vice versa? Psalm 36:6 says: Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea. Lord, you save both humans and animals. How can you value the earth and not its residents? How do you love God and mutilate God’s creation?

Purposely and accidentally we have shielded ourselves from the consequences of our choices. We don’t always know the effects of our lifestyle and when we do know, we sometimes objectify the suffering we cause, as if that somehow makes it okay. When we label people as different from us (by sex, race, religion, age, lifestyle, etc.) we can justify our actions against them. When we objectify a person with a label, then we no longer see him or her as a child of God. When we commoditize flora and fauna, we lose sight of the care God took to create it and of the delicate balance of interconnectedness that we were charged to preserve. Our careless, self-important attitude leaves no quarter for true compassion or for the fullness of God’s love to flow through us for the benefit of a hurting world.

Who of us is not guilty? When we use electricity, someone’s nature is destroyed. Our mindless food choices means people and animals and land are often exploited and abused. When we push for cheaper products, the poor person in another country suffers for our benefit. The recent garment factory fire in Bangladesh should cause us to require accountability for the clothing we purchase. Our unwillingness to consider the consequences of our actions causes others to suffer and breaks God’s heart.

We may hide behind the notion that we are “good people,” but the suffering of lives that intersect with ours, if we stop to think about the reach of our choices, tells a different story. We are sinful people, and to glibly claim forgiveness continues to keep us skating on the surface of compassion, avoiding the deep woundedness that our lifestyle choices perpetuate. Ezekiel’s prophecy against the leaders of his day could be spoken to us in first world America: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice. (Ezekiel 34:2b-4).

Until we cut through the calloused layer created by our limited vision, we cannot deeply know our forgiveness, for true forgiveness has to result in a changed life, a changed heart, a heart that knows that God lives in every person, every animal, every natural resource, every created thing. When we truly know that, we cannot help living differently. Until we know that, we crucify God time and time again by not honoring what God created and loves.

Lord God, creator of all that is, seen and unseen, help me to see you in every part of creation—people, animals, plants, and all else you created. Help me to live mindfully, making whatever choices I can to preserve your life in the world. Where I continue to crucify you by the lifestyle choices I cannot easily overcome, give me wisdom and prudence to lessen my dependence on these choices, a voice to speak out for changes, and courage and faith when such changes seem insurmountable. Give me a compassionate heart, even though I know that by asking for this, I am also asking for the ability to shoulder the pain and suffering of your creation, which is your pain and suffering. Give me the courage to carry your cross, which is carried daily by the poor and the exploited of all creation. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Yogurt Evangelism

A couple of years ago a friend of mine told me how to make my own yogurt. I don’t know how many people I’ve shared the recipe with. People are always amazed at how easy it is to make, and marvel at the process and the finished product. Even busy people can find time to make it, and while they may be skeptical at first, they all become believers once they try it.

I sometimes feel as though I’ve become something of a yogurt evangelist, telling others the good news that yogurt can be made easily and inexpensively. My experience with yogurt bears much similarity to the way I believe our faith is spread to others.

First of all, it’s based on personal experience. While we’ve all heard stories of mass conversions at conferences and revivals, I often wonder how well such conversions actually stick once the euphoria of the mountaintop is gone, and life returns to the nitty-gritty valley. I might have found the directions for making yogurt online, but without someone else’s personal experience to back it up, I likely would not have tried it. While the energy of a large group might propel me to try something new, let me get away from that setting and doubts and insecurities may creep in and prevent me from doing what I intended to do. But let me see the spark in another’s eyes, someone I know and respect, and I am more likely to follow through on my intentions, especially knowing that I can call that person for help when my enthusiasm wanes or I doubt my ability to persevere.

Second, it doesn’t require any fancy equipment or training. Making yogurt at home requires only a crock pot. Sharing your faith with others only requires that you tell what you know. You don’t need a tract or a script, you only need relationships—a relationship with God and a relationship with another person. But while that sounds simple, it isn’t easy to build authentic relationship with God or with others. Both take time and attention, the willingness and ability to listen, and the desire to put the relationship ahead of your own agenda. Making yogurt is simple, but it does require time and attention. Like relationships, it isn’t an instant process. In both relationships and yogurt-making, you must pace yourself. In either case, the process cannot be rushed.

Finally, things will not always go as you hope they will. I’ve had batches of yogurt fail, and I’ve had relationships with others become strained. My relationship with God has times of doubt and uncertainty. When my yogurt fails, I salvage it as best I can, because I don’t want to waste what I’ve worked to make. If I cannot salvage it, I at least try to learn from the failure, so I won’t repeat it. In my relationships with others, I ask forgiveness, I seek to understand where I failed and change, and always, I try to learn from the experience. In my relationship with God, I know that the failure is not God, but me. I ask for forgiveness and accept that I am forgiven and loved.

Making my own yogurt has changed what I spend on groceries because making it at home is more economical than buying it. My relationship with God has changed my life. The time I’ve devoted to developing a relationship with God has helped me to fall in love with God. Being in love with God increases my love for others. As I grow in my love for others, evangelism just naturally happens. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Waiting and Preparation

We have just come through Advent, a season of waiting and preparation for the birth of Jesus. Soon we will be in the season of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. Waiting and preparation permeate not only the Christian calendar, but also our lives.

Biblical examples of waiting can encourage us in our own waiting.
  • Abraham and Sarah waited until he was 99 years old for the son God promised them.
  • The Israelites waited forty years to enter the Promised Land.
  • Elizabeth and Zechariah waited years to have a son.

These are just a few examples. I am sure you can think of more.

Waiting is not always a welcome activity. However, waiting provides time for preparation. Waiting changes us.

Early in 2005, I began to be restless. I had worked hard to build an accounting practice. I had amazing employees and loyal clients. Our firm had achieved local and statewide recognition, earning numerous awards. Life was good. But after returning from a mission trip to New Orleans four months after Hurricane Katrina, I was berated by an angry client because I had been out of the office after Christmas and was unavailable to meet with him for year-end tax planning. Having just spent a week working with a family that lost all their material possessions and yet witnessed to our team because of their faith and peace, I was stunned at the reaction of this man who blamed me for the predicament caused by his own procrastination. I began to ask myself, “Is this how I am to serve God?” After months of prayer and listening and waiting, I sold my accounting practice, thinking that I would focus on helping small business owners develop practices to run their businesses more effectively and thus improve their emotional well-being.

I learned that God’s ways are different than my ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). My plans were stymied, and instead, I was given the gift of Sabbath (although at the time it didn’t feel like a gift). Out of that Sabbath, a book was born, and doors opened for me to share God’s work in me with a wider audience. Instead of speaking to business audiences about time management and business development, I was sharing about God and God’s living word.
I sensed God calling me to a ministry of spiritual direction, to walk with others through their questions and experiences of God. Participating in the 2-Year Academy for Spiritual Formation and the Spiritual Direction program at Perkins School of Theology, I have experienced the affirmation of that call. During this time of preparation and waiting, I put my accounting skills to work for a nonprofit organization. The stability of a regular income allowed me to pay for my studies and the flexibility of my work schedule allowed me to continue writing and presenting programs for various groups.
But during Advent, I realized it was time to devote myself fully to this call of God on my life. I’ve left my job, fully committed to the path God has placed in front of me. The waiting is over and I am beginning a new chapter in my journey of discipleship. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Challenge Questions for the New Year

I have been reading Colossians 3:12-17 daily since December 31st. I don’t know how long I will stay with it. There is just so much there to ponder and absorb. In an earlier post, I reflected on the first part of Colossians 3:12. Today I want to focus on the last part of the verse.

Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

Imagine what kind of impression we who claim to be Christian would make in the world if we consistently put on these five traits: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness or patience. I must be accountable for how well I demonstrate these in my life.

So here is a list of these traits with some challenge questions for each. The questions are not exhaustive (although I may be exhausted trying to live so that I can answer them as a faithful disciple). Over the next few months I intend to focus on one of these each week in my own life, to be challenged and hopefully changed for the better.

Can I put myself in the place of another so that I don’t just pity them, but seek to understand them?
Will I allow myself to fully experience the pain and heartbreak of another, especially one whose lifestyle, views, or beliefs are different than mine?
Can I experience not only the pain of the victim but also the pain of the perpetrator?
Can I learn to see as God sees, to love as God loves, unconditionally, generously and mercifully?
When I read news accounts, will I refuse to see numbers or enemies and instead see people—people who are mothers, fathers, daughters or sons?
Will I consider who is benefitted or exploited by the consumer choices I make for goods, services and utilities?

Will I be kind to others—all others? All the time?
Can I not only act kindly but also think kindly?
Can I extend kindness to those who have not been kind to me?
Can I be kind to those with whom I disagree?

Will I prefer others over myself?
Will I be honest in my self-assessments, neither overstating my strengths nor playing down the abilities God has given me?
Can I acknowledge that I am capable of good but also capable of evil, yet always loved by God?
Can I be content with the talents God has given me?

Can I be careful with the feelings of others, especially those closest to me?
Will I consider the inadvertent ways I hurt others, by ignoring or forgetting or failing to be compassionate?
Can I be gentle toward others in the words I say, post, or tweet? 
Can I disagree with another without attacking the person, remembering that God loves them as much as God loves me?

Will I be patient with God, patient with others, and patient with myself?
Can I enjoy and appreciate times of inactivity and waiting?
Will I move slower, so I can be more aware of God, more aware of others and more aware of myself?
Can I learn when to work and when to wait?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Missing the Messiah

When everyone was expecting a militant messiah, God came to us in a baby named Jesus. As he grew and began his ministry, people had a hard time believing he was the Messiah because he did everything the opposite of what the people expected. Instead of overthrowing the Roman rule, he instructed his followers to love their enemies. When his hometown rejected him, he did not retaliate, or call down fire on them, or ask his disciples to attack them. And when he knew that the Roman soldiers had come for him, to crucify him, he healed the ear of the one whom his disciples injured. With his dying breath, he sought forgiveness, not retaliation.

Sadly, many of us are still looking for that militant messiah. In fact, we’ve so perverted the Jesus whose birth we have just celebrated that we have blamed him for the killing of innocent children in Newtown Connecticut. For what else do you call it when you say that the reason this senseless attack occurred is because God was evicted from public schools? If Jesus is the visible example of the invisible God, if the will of God and Jesus are one and the same, if we believe in one God, and that Jesus is the Word made flesh, then we are accusing Jesus of killing these children when we say that this attack is the result of a retaliatory God.

How can you reconcile the Jesus who loved children (Mark 10:13-16), who forgave those who killed him (Luke 23:24), with a Jesus who perpetrates the killing of children? We run a grave risk when we attribute our human propensity to retaliation to the one who told us to turn the other cheek. It makes me sick to read the distorted way that many have blamed this terrible evil on the One who is Love, the One who is Light, the One who did not retaliate against those who killed him.

When the magi came looking for the King that was Jesus, the Jewish scholars were surprised. This baby was born right under their noses and they missed the significance of his birth. We have once again celebrated his birth, and I’m afraid we too have missed the significance of his birth and his life because we are still looking for a militant messiah, one who will smite our enemies and lift us high, instead of one who calls us to love our enemies and preached that the last will be first.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Knowing Who We Are

Colossians 3:12-17 was one of the lectionary readings for this past Sunday, and it packs a lot in a few verses. In fact, verse 12 alone is powerful: Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

It’s easy to overlook the first part of this verse and focus only on the traits listed. However, considering just the first part of this verse is powerful and awesome and humbling: God’s choice, holy and loved. That is who we are! We are God’s choice. We are holy and we are loved. If I could really believe and accept that about myself, then living out the traits of compassion, kindness humility, gentleness and patience become easier because I know who I am and am left with nothing to prove. Who I am and whose I am is settled. Who you are and whose you are is not open for debate. You and I are loved, holy and chosen.

What if we began 2013 with a mission to accept that for ourselves and then, to accept it for others? How would it really change us if we know, really know, that we are chosen, that we are holy and that we are loved?

Say these three sentences to yourself:
  • ·         I am God’s choice.
  • ·         I am holy.
  • ·         I am loved.

Just to know this is enough. What a way to begin a new year!