Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gift of Tears

Sunday 3/22/2015 6:35 AM
My whole life I have cried easily. As a child I remember crying when relatives would leave after visiting for a few days. I also remember crying when seeing a dead animal on the road between our farm and town. My mother always said I was a sensitive child. As an adult I can also become very emotional, so much so that I can’t speak without my voice quivering or tears appearing. This has been a source of great frustration with me. I long to be able to discuss issues and have conversations without the emotions welling up within.
There have been a few times in my life when tears overwhelmed me, my body wracked with spasms because of the depth of my emotion. Once was when I was looking over the Colorado River valley. As I looked over the valley I suddenly became aware of the depth of my sin and I turned my face away and wept over my sin. Another time I was traveling alone in my car. I asked God to accompany me and, after driving for four hours singing songs of praise to God, I became aware of his presence with me in the car and I wept for joy, having to pull to the side of the road because I couldn’t see through the tears. A third time was when I looked over the city of Tucson and its surroundings. After shouting, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the people and all who live in it,” at the top of my lungs, while overlooking the city from the top of a hill, I wept uncontrollably as I realized what a mess mankind has made of this wonderful world with which God has gifted us. Another time was after the death of Tyler Verkaik, a two-year old boy, who died after undergoing a bone marrow transplant that was necessary due to an extremely rare disease he suffered, along with his older brother, Ryan. The tragedy of a young life cut short seemed to be unjust. The morning after Emily’s college graduation the goodness of God to me throughout the years overwhelmed me and I wept tears of joy because of God’s constant care for me and for my family over my lifetime. The most recent case of uncontrollable weeping occurred a week ago Friday. After meeting with one of the members of my small group I began praying for those who do not yet know God, specifically for the members of ISIS and other radical Muslims. I am troubled by the reactions of many Christians who want to destroy them by any means necessary and I realized that the only way things are going to change in our world that is filled with violence is if hearts are turned to God and towards forgiveness and reconciliation rather than on vengeance and hatred, which seem only to exacerbate the problem. The seeming hopelessness of that ever occurring overwhelmed me and I wept as I prayed until I could no longer utter any words.
This past week the theme of my devotions has been the gift of tears. I must admit that I have never considered my tears a gift. I see them more as a curse. A few of the readings in my materials have given me a somewhat different perspective on things. In her book, Tears of a Greening Heart, Wendy M. Wright writes, “…the Eastern church writers most often say tears as the outward manifestation of the spiritual experience of penthos, a term we might translate as ‘compunction.’ Compunction literally means ‘to puncture with’ and refers to the spiritual pain due not only to a shocked recognition of sin and human weakness, but the simultaneous awakening dissatisfaction with sin and longing for God.  To have our hearts thus ‘punctured’ is both the beginning and the dynamic of the journey. … Spiritual tears in themselves were variously categorized and described. They could have purifying power. They might function differently for those just beginning on the spiritual journey and for those far along. They could be provoked by memory of sin as well as consideration of the goodness of God, the desire for heaven, the fear of hell, or the thought of judgment. Overwhelmingly, tears were understood as a gracious God-given gift, a wonderful physical sign that the inner world of a person was being transformed.” In his introduction to the book, Weavings, John S. Mogabgab writes, “Tears of grief and tears of joy often mingle together in a single moment of enhanced vision, endowing us with new eyes that discern traces of the God who suffers with us silently in the pure vulnerability and power of divine love. There is comfort in such tears. They bring fresh understanding that God is nearby, sharing to the full our humanity in all its bitterness and blessedness.”
Perhaps I need to change my view of tears, seeing them as a gift from God rather than as a curse with which I was born. Jesus told his disciples that he wanted them to experience life to the full. Since life is filled with both joy and sorrow my tears might just be the way that God allows me to experience the fullness of life. The main thing I need to remember is that God weeps with me, in both the joy and the sorrows of life.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Vulnerability

Saturday 3/14/2015 6:02 AM
Our modern world seems to be governed by fear; at least in my corner of the world this seems to be true. News reports are filled with murders, suicide bombings, kidnappings, threats of nuclear proliferation, unrestrained religious fanatics gruesomely murdering their captives and mercilessly attacking villages, and other such acts of violence. In that kind of a world one feels vulnerable, almost as if one is living on borrowed time. We hunker down and isolate ourselves in our houses, barring the windows and doors to keep the evil from reaching us. Our government creates the Department of Homeland Security to protect us from threats, both foreign and domestic. Everyone is viewed with suspicion even though we are all in the same situation, experiencing the same threats.
Today I read the writing of John Mogabgab in which he writes about vulnerability. “Recently a workshop leader invited participants to voice their associations with the word vulnerability. Responses included adjectives such as meek, intimidated, na├»ve, inferior, ugly and foolish. Vulnerability is not seen as a gift to be given but a weakness to be overcome. Not vulnerability but security is the ideal that most often governs our national, communal, and personal decisions. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of loneliness in contemporary life is that our vulnerability, which unites us in a common humanity and enables us to be woven together in love, now is cause for our isolation in fear-filled cells of spiritual solitary confinement.”
I would argue that this feeling of isolation is not simply one of spiritual solitary confinement but also of social solitary confinement. Earlier this morning I read an article written by Johann Hari based on his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, in which he cites research that suggests that addictions of all sorts are caused, not by chemical hooks that attach to receptors in our brains, but, by the effects of an individual living in isolation from community. When those suffering from addictions become part of a community in which they have a meaningful role they are more likely to be able to recover from their addiction and become a contributing member of the community. It seems that Hari’s observations are illustrated perfectly in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and other similarly structured groups in which members become vulnerable with each other and, through the support of the group, are enabled to overcome the addiction.
The society in which I live is fiercely independent. Individual rights are placed above nearly everything else, resulting in pockets of isolated individuals that have a hard time seeing themselves as members of a larger community. Those with differing opinions, customs, cultures, and so forth, are seen as enemies to be avoided and overcome rather than sources of growth, enlightenment, enrichment, and healing. We want to appear strong and invincible to others, insisting our way is the best way, my way or the highway. I wonder what would happen if we would share the doubts that we all have deep within our hearts with others? Perhaps we could learn from each other and we could be released from our loneliness, the cultural addiction and solitary confinement to which we have all been sentenced.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Blanket of Love

Sunday 3/8/2015 7:42 AM
I often view God’s will for my life as a specific road that I need to travel. When I stay on that road, then God is pleased and my life goes well and, if I stray from that road, then the wheels come off the bus and I either crash or lose my way. When viewed like this it is easy to become discouraged because, to be honest, from my perspective, I spend more time off the road than on it.
E. Glenn Hinson has a different perspective in his book, Horizonal Persons. He writes, “In (Paul’s) letters, the will of God, what pleases God, or what is acceptable to God has to do with what kind of persons we are, with attitude and outlook. God wants us to be persons who live our lives from the vantage point of a covenant with God through and in Jesus Christ, conscientized and sensitized and tenderized by love, make the very best decisions we can make in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.” God is more concerned about who I am and less concerned about what I do. If I am ruled by love my actions will be ruled by love. Then the circumstances will not matter; even in situations where there seems to be no “right” answer I will react in love, and, as 1 Peter 4:8 reminds me, love covers a multitude of sins.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mercy and Trust

Sunday 3/1/2015 4:44 AM
My psalm for the week is Psalm 31. These verses caught my attention today. “I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not given me into the hand of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. … For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’ They conspire against me and plot to take my life.” The psalmist continues, “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.”
In spite of the anguish and affliction of his body and soul, the writer asks for the mercy of God and then simply trusts that God will do what is best. I thought about what that kind of simple trust would look like in a society like ours. My thoughts were jarred from the abstract to the concrete by this prayer from my devotional material, “Lord of all, may we honor you by remembering the great deeds of compassion through which you have released us from the weight of our sin and strengthened us to bless you with our whole being. Let our lives reflect your mercy toward all who are fragile and your justice for all who suffer oppression.” When the mercy of God delivers me from the affliction and anguish of my soul, and I trust God with my life, then it frees me to see the anguish and the afflictions suffered by others. When I trust God with my life, then it frees me to act as God’s agent to be merciful toward others and to seek justice for those who are oppressed.
Rueben Job writes, “Salvation is free, but the cost of discipleship is enormous. … In offering ourselves as fully as we can, we discover the cost of discipleship. For to bind our lives to Jesus Christ requires that we try to walk with him into the sorrows and suffering of the world.” This kind of attitude seems to be contrary to the attitudes of many who call themselves Christian in our society today.
Many Christians blame the poor of our society for their poverty and claim they are simply lazy and unwilling to work without seeing the unjust systems that keep them in poverty. We fail to see the anguish of those who are raised in dysfunctional homes and we fail to reach out in love. Then we blame them for joining gangs or for entering into dysfunctional relationships and remaining in them in their desperate attempts to experience the love we take for granted.
If I really trusted God with my life I would pour it out for the benefit of others. If I recognize the mercy of God in my life instead of thinking that I have accomplished everything myself then I would be merciful to others. Lord, forgive me for being judgmental and for withholding love and mercy from those who are distressed. Give me the grace to acknowledge the mercy you have given me and help me so reach out to others with love in the same way that you reached out to me.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Transformation

Wednesday 2/25/2015 4:56 AM
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, before the advent of sunscreen. I have fond memories of chasing lizards in empty lots, jumping my bike over mounds of dirt, hiding in an irrigation ditch while rolling oranges across the street to try to get cars to run them over, playing in the irrigation with my skim board, which was simply a piece of unsanded, unvarnished plywood, climbing trees, playing cowboys and Indians with guns forged from a block of wood and bows and arrows made from oleander branches and a piece of string, and, best of all, swimming in my friends’ pool and having water balloon fights to cool off. I also have unpleasant memories of severe sunburn, the result of spending countless hours in the hot sun. The summer heat in Phoenix is overwhelming and my pallid complexion was no match for the sun’s brutal rays so I spent much of my time peeling dead, sunburned skin from my body.
A few years ago those years of sun exposure caught up with me. At a regular checkup my dermatologist discovered a small carcinoma on my back. She excised it and, since then, I regularly return for checkups. Each time I visit, she discovers various scaly patches of skin on my face, ears, and forehead. The technical name for such a patch is actinic keratosis. They are an indicator that my skin is sun-damaged, not really a big surprise given my history. Left untreated, about ten or twenty percent of these spots will eventually turn into squamous cell carcinoma, so they are considered to be pre-cancer cells. To treat this condition she pulls out her can of liquid nitrogen and gives each of them a shot. Over the course of a week or so they turn red and then flake off, leaving new, fresh skin in their place.
At my last visit she said that the number of keratoses on my forehead was too numerous to treat with the liquid nitrogen so she prescribed a cream to put on my forehead, which affects the same result. For the past two weeks I have been faithfully applying the cream to my forehead. When I apply it there is a burning sensation and, over time, my forehead has turned red and blotchy. The medication seems to be doing the job but the process is slow, uncomfortable, and unsightly.
My devotional theme for the week is “we shall all be changed.” The opening affirmation in my devotional book is based upon 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” More than once this week I was struck by the irony of the reference to unveiled faces, given the current state of my own, but I have also been intrigued by the transformation into the image of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit that is referenced in the next phrase.
The medication I am using on my forehead has, as its goal, a transformation of my skin from something that poses a potentially serious threat to my health into something that protects my health and improves my complexion. I have the responsibility of applying the cream to my forehead so the medication can do its work. The Holy Spirit has the goal of transforming my sinful self into the image of Christ. I also have a responsibility in the transforming work of the Spirit. Colossians 3 describes my job, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. … But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. … Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
My assigned scripture today includes Isaiah 43:18-19, verses that were meaningful to me when I made the move from teaching at Valley Christian to teaching at Cerritos College. Today it connoted a different meaning. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” This morning these verses reminded me of Paul’s advice in Ephesians 4:22-24, “You were taught, with regard to you former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
I did not treat my sun-damaged skin for years. Eventually the probabilities overwhelmed me and one spot turned cancerous. Left untreated, sin in my life will eventually lead to an even more deadly consequence. Thank God that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am able to put off my old nature and put on a new one. I pray that I will have the discipline to do my part in this process and trust God to bring it to completion, especially when it seems slow and uncomfortable.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Conditional Joy

Saturday 2/21/2015 5:19 AM
Psalm 126 is my psalm for the week. I read it each morning this week but, today, I noted the first two verses. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” It seems as if the joy being described by the psalmist is conditional, as if their tongues would not be filled with songs of joy had not the Lord restored their fortunes. These verses seem to be a sharp contrast to Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Another is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Be joyful always.”
My life seems to operate more like Psalm 126. When things are going well, then I am joyful; when things go poorly, not so much. Living like the Philippians and the Thessalonian passages suggest seems impossible, a far-fetched dream at best. If I attempted to do so I would feel like a Pollyanna, with my head buried in the sand.
As I contemplated this for a while I decided to read the context of the other passages. Philippians 4 continues, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5 continues, “Pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
The world in which I live is filled with terrible things. Events and circumstances that seem to defy comprehension fill the news reports daily. Random natural disasters wreak havoc in people’s lives. Violence fills our streets with innocents killed by stray bullets. Those who are supposed to love and nurture innocent children, instead, perpetrate unspeakable acts upon them. How can I live with joy in that kind of world? The joy for which I long does not come in a vacuum; it is acquired by an acknowledgment of God’s presence with me, by prayer, and by being thankful. When I recognize God’s presence with me, present my requests for justice and mercy to him through prayer and thankfully recognize his care for me, then he will give me the grace to walk with those who experience the pain and injustices of life, sharing it with them. God’s love for me is meant to be shared with others, helping to alleviate their pain. My love for God can best be expressed through seeking justice for those who are oppressed. I need to remember Jesus’ words to his disciples the night before his crucifixion, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” That realization can bring real joy.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Gifts Wrapped in Paper

Friday 2/20/2015 6:59 AM
I’m sitting in my chair looking outside at a bird flitting among the inner branches of my bougainvillea. The outer leaves are rustling, as if caressed by a gentle breeze. Suddenly I am aware that the refrigerator is running; a quiet hum in the background of my mind rises to the foreground. I am distracted by the horn of a car out on Rosecrans Avenue and my mind runs through differing scenarios of what may have just occurred a few hundred feet from where I am sitting. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee beckons me and I rise from my chair to pour a steaming mug. I note the swirling patterns of the tiny bubbles floating on the surface, affected by the convection currents in the hot liquid. I also note how I can change their path by moving my hand to disturb the medium of air to which they are also exposed. The ticking of the kitchen clock interrupts my thoughts, seeming louder than it was previously, and its monotonous regularity becomes annoying.
We experience our lives us as a rush of sensations, attacking all of our senses. It is impossible to concentrate on every one of them all the time so we jump from one to another, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Our view of the world is affected either for the better or for the worse depending upon where we focus our attention.
Jane Marie Thibault writes about this in her book, A Deepening Love Affair. “We have been given the freedom to choose what we see, what we pay attention to, what we rest our awareness on. There are zillions of things that can attract us, call us to themselves. Our task is to choose which ones we want to pay attention to, which ones we want to invest our energy in, for we cannot endure full consciousness of everything.” She then goes on to warn that we can get too narrow a focus, having a certain expectation of the way things should be, so that we miss a greater gift. She continues, “No, we must always be expecting a surprise – a gift that is wrapped up in paper, hidden from immediate view.” She suggests that most of us go through our lives with too narrow a view of things, which restricts our ability to experience the blessing of God and our opportunity to bless others.
Jane Marie would suggest that I need to take time each day to “stop, look, and listen to whatever is around and within” me. That heightened awareness will afford me the opportunity to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to others. I need to become more aware of the gifts wrapped in paper.