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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Help

Thursday 2/19/2015 4:34 AM
A few days ago we were reviewing for a test. I allow students to ask questions they may have over any of the material we have covered up to that point. I continue to allow questions until either the class is finished or students have no further questions. In one of my classes the students stopped asking questions about a half hour before the scheduled end of class time. The classroom began emptying and I was in the process of packing up my material, getting ready to go back to my office, when I looked up to find six students lined up, waiting to ask questions. I answered their questions over the course of the next twenty minutes and finally went back to my office at about the regular time that class is done. When I got back to my office there was another student there with more questions that we discussed during my office hours.
After the student left I pondered why there were so many questions that were not asked during class time. Today I read a quote from A Clearing Season, by Sarah Parsons, that sheds some light on the issue. She writes, “The capacity to express vulnerability is a great human strength. We sometimes wish our vulnerabilities would disappear so we wouldn’t have to worry about hiding them. Without these pesky vulnerabilities, we could convince the world that we have it all together, that we have no unsatisfied needs, that we can care constantly for others and never need care ourselves. It is hard to let people see our vulnerable parts – our fears and insecurities, our sadness and shame. To express vulnerability requires courage. Only in exercising this courage, in bravely showing our ‘weakness’ to one another, do we achieve a form of real power – the power to ask for help when needed.”
In modern Western society we are constantly reminded of the science of evolution. We are taught the concept of survival of the fittest from an early age and we are taught to hide any weaknesses we may have or else it may hinder us from achieving our goals. When interviewing for a job, prospective employees tout their strengths in an attempt to impress their prospective employer. In social interactions we are taught to stand up for our rights and to never back down.
All people need other people in order to be able to thrive. We all need relationships with others. In an ideal world one person’s strength complements another person’s weakness. If we all asked for help we need it and offered to help others when we saw a need or when asked by others for help, then the entire community would be stronger and our relationships with others would be strengthened too. Too often our pride gets in the way of asking for help, and we suffer as a result. In reality, we are not the only ones who suffer; our entire community is impoverished.
I pray that I will have the courage to be vulnerable, to allow others to see my needs and to ask for help. I also pray that I will have eyes to see others in need of help and take the necessary steps to walk with them to provide the support they need.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Being Still and Knowing God

Friday 2/13/2015 4:56 AM
My reading today includes the familiar words of Psalm 46:10, “He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’” I also read Luke 4:33-35 as part of my assigned scripture today. “In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, ‘Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’ ‘Be quiet!’ Jesus said sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.”
Both of these verses entail being quiet and recognizing that God is God. Psalm 46 is an invitation to quiet oneself down and to meditate upon the nature of God. The passage in Luke 4 seems more like a command, almost like one is doing something against one’s will. The outcome of both situations is the same; God is recognized for who he is.
I have a feeling that God is constantly inviting me into quiet solitude. If I accept his invitation he reveals his nature to me and whispers words of love to me and gives direction to my life. If I decline the invitation, God will still be exalted in the earth but he has to use adverse or unpleasant circumstances to stop me in my tracks and get me to recognize that I am not in control of things in my life, God is still God.
The choice seems to be mine. Do I willingly stop the busyness in my life so that I can hear God’s gentle whisper, inviting me into an intimacy with him that reveals his nature and will to me, or do I continue running pell-mell through life until some adversity strikes that forces me to stop and consider who God is? Both paths lead to the same result but one path seems more desirable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Discipline and Community

Tuesday 2/10/2015 4:19 AM
Over the past couple of years I feel as if my relationship with God has diminished in its vitality. As I was considering the cause of this a few weeks ago I realized that I have not been having regular devotions and my discipline of daily exercise in the form of running has also fallen by the wayside. A little over a week ago I asked my small group to hold me accountable to have regular devotions and a regular time of exercise. Of course the first week that I made the commitment I got sick and was unable to run for a few days. However, I have had my devotional time each day.
"Be Still" is my devotional theme for the week and this morning, as I meditated on the assigned scripture, the Holy Spirit brought Proverbs 1:7 to my mind, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” I immediately realized that I have lacked discipline in my devotional time during the last couple of years. I had time alone with God when it was convenient or when I felt like it, but not on a regular, daily basis.
Today I read two excerpts in my readings that address this issue. The first was from How to Conduct a Spiritual Life Retreat, by Norman Shawchuck, Rueben P. Job, and Robert G. Doherty. They write, “Solitude and silence are the essential conditions that favor deep retrieval for personal integration of all facets of the human-divine relationship. A supportive, praying community is the preferable context out of which we enter into the desert of solitude. The boundaries surrounding one’s desert of solitude are the love of an intimate community.” I need to have that time alone with God each day if I am to cultivate the integration of my faith and my relationship with God into my daily life. Having the support of my small group praying for me and encouraging me is essential.
The second reading was from Selections from the Writings of William Temple. He writes, “The first thing – the beginning of the inner life under the control of the Holy Spirit by the perpetual discipline which brings us back, day by day, to the remembrance and companionship of Jesus Christ. Upon that everything else depends, for if the inward life is not sound you cannot do much with the other.” If I expect to be under the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit in my life I need to maintain a close relationship with God, through Christ. That, like a healthy marriage relationship, requires constant communication and attention.
The closing prayer of my devotional material seems especially fitting for me this week. “Holy God, I want to be still, experiencing and growing in your love so that I might shine on others with the light of love.”

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Seeing Math or Seeing God

Sunday 2/1/2015 5:13 AM
I am currently reading Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, by Max Tegmark. In the book he contends that the universe we inhabit is one of an infinite number of universes. Without going into all the details, he claims that our finely tuned universe is simply one mathematical structure among an infinite number of structures, some of which contain sentient life, like us, and others that do not contain sentient life. The reason we find ourselves in this universe, that appears finely tuned, is because if it were a different one, that wasn’t finely tuned, we would not exist in it to ask the question. Needless to say, while it may explain why the universe is finely tuned, it is very unsatisfying to think that I am nothing more than an entity within a mathematical structure. In this way of thinking there is no room for God, or for a creation of our universe, because the universe as we experience it just is, and always has been.
My devotional theme for the week is the beauty of the Lord and the opening prayer is, “Lord of the whole earth, the heavens proclaim your beauty. May we behold your splendor, glory, and majesty, O Lord, in all the forms they assume, seen and unseen, obvious and hidden. We rejoice in you and give thanks and praise to your holy name.” I immediately thought about the vastness of our visible universe, governed by Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the tiny Plank length distances, where quantum theory rules the day. God’s majesty is on display in both the seen and unseen, the obvious and the hidden. My psalm for the week is Psalm 97, which begins with these words, “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” The middle of the psalm contains these words, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory.” The psalm ends with these words, “Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart. Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.”
This psalm seems to imply that God hides himself in clouds and thick darkness but all people can, and do, see his glory. When I look at the universe through the eyes of the Hubble telescope I see the majesty and power of God on display. When others look at the same thing, they are just as amazed as I am but they see a mathematical structure instead. My reading today also includes 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” It continues in verse 25, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
In spite of all the brilliance of physicists and mathematicians who manipulate equations and search for that one theory of everything, they will never see God in their work. God remains hidden in clouds and thick darkness. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” If I am an atheist who believes that God does not exist then, when I explore the mathematical equations that seem to define the universe I inhabit, I see nothing but a mathematical structure, and God remains hidden in darkness. If I have faith in mathematics and science then I see mathematics and science. But if I believe that God exists then, when I look at the same mathematical equations that define our universe, God sheds light upon me and I see through the clouds and darkness to see God.