Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Thy Kingdom Come

Tuesday 4/21/2015 4:02 AM
It seems that every day the news is filled with accounts of war, terrorism and violence. One people group attacks another, killing hundreds. A car bomb explodes in a crowded market with scores killed and injured. A boat full of refugees fleeing war-torn countries and persecution sinks in the Mediterranean Sea and hundreds drown. Innocents die, caught in the crossfire of two rival gangs. Road rage results in death because on driver cuts off another. Police shoot and kill unarmed citizens because they have been trained to shoot first and ask questions later. I could go on.
In the United States candidates are gearing up for the upcoming Presidential election. Republicans attack Democrats accusing the Obama administration of having a failed foreign policy while promising increased funding for the Defense Department. Democrats attack Republicans accusing them of looking out for corporate interests rather than for the interests of the common citizen while promising increased aid for the ever-increasing number of those living in poverty. Even within parties the candidates cast aspersions upon one another, vying for power and an increased voting base.
Rather than warring with one another, both at home and abroad, I long for a time when we work together for the common good. The last two verses of Psalm 120 express my feelings well. “Too long I have lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” My aging mother often says that she is tired of hearing about all the violence in the world and she wishes God would simply allow her to die and be removed from it all. It seems the older I get the more I understand her point of view. I do not long to die but I want the animosity, hatred and division to cease.
In the editor’s introduction to Weavings (March/April 1987) John Mogabgab writes, “…there are indeed two worlds in which we must learn to live. One is the world both John and Paul understood to be marked by division, confusion, and hostility. The other is the realm of Christ characterized by reconciliation, understanding, and peace. We are called to live in the first in a manner that reveals that we belong to the second. Specifically, we are sent into the world to show forth the truth of God’s kingdom already present in Christ.” I find it difficult to know exactly how to do that.
Throughout the world the United States is known for exporting war, various types of armaments, and a promiscuous lifestyle in the form of movies and other visual media that many find abhorrent. Unfortunately many Christians are calling for a tougher military response to what they perceive to be threats to our American way. They insist on their right to bear arms of any kind including assault rifles with clips that can hold hundreds of rounds of ammunition. I see these responses to be antithetical to reconciliation, understanding, and peace.
I feel as if we need to rely on God for our security and expend our energies and resources to care for the downtrodden and the underprivileged in our society. We should assist in aiding the refugees fleeing war-torn countries. We should help to rebuild trust in our local communities by insisting law enforcement agencies train their officers differently so that shooting and violence is not the first line of defense when dealing with those who have broken the law. We should ask news agencies to report on the good things that are happening in our communities, in our country and in our world so people can be encouraged to join in the efforts to improve things. Election laws should prohibit any negative attack ads. A candidate can only say what they might do to improve things without belittling their opponents. If Christians behaved in such a manner the world would be a better place and the kingdom of God would be revealed.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Joy Squelchers

Saturday 4/18/2015 6:53 AM
Yesterday morning I had a meeting at school with some of my colleagues about how to more effectively use technology in our classrooms to enhance student learning. After the meeting I went to my office to attend to some last minute details. When I left my office I noticed two of my colleagues, whose office is across the hall from mine, who were attentively looking at a computer monitor. I walked into their office and said, “It looks like you two are having way too much fun over here. Tone it down a little bit. We have rules about that around here you know.” We shared some laughter and then visited together for a few minutes, expanding upon a discussion topic that came up during our meeting. I eventually wished them a good weekend and left.
This morning I read an excerpt from Good Tidings of Great Joy, by Doris Donnelly, in which she comments on those who squelch joy. The comments I made to my colleagues were made in jest but there are people in our lives that seem to suck the joy out of nearly everything. From what I recall from my childhood the church in which I was raised seemed to be such a place. Worship was somber and serious. I seldom saw smiles on the faces of those attending. Life was seen as a time of suffering in a vale of tears that had to be endured until we died and went to heaven. Joy was something that could only be achieved and enjoyed in the sweet by and by. Those who did seem to enjoy the good things of this life we accused of being too worldly and were often ostracized by the majority.
Donnelly suggests an alternative way of thinking and acting. “Maybe we owe it to ourselves to survey our culpability as squelchers of joy in others and of being part of systems and institutions that do not tolerate, let alone encourage, joy. Maybe we need to redress the balance of somberness by gladdening others with support, kind words, encouragement, laughter, hope, time, and the simple gift of self. It wouldn’t hurt. It could heal. And it would point to that kingdom first heralded by angels who proclaimed the ‘good tidings of great joy’ that went hand in hand with ‘peace on earth.’” I want to be the kind of person she describes.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Joy and Suffering

Friday 4/17/2015 7:03 AM
W. Paul Jones asks a poignant question in his book Joy and Religious Motivation, “Why is this word joy, so frequent in scripture, so absent in our modern vocabulary?” He goes on to show how the joy described in the Bible is often linked with suffering. My assigned scripture today includes James 1:2, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, …” Paul rejoiced in his suffering in Colossians 1. David speaks of his weeping lasting for the night but rejoicing coming in the morning in Psalm 30. Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. The list could go on.
In his essay Something Bigger than All of Us, Paul Lynd Escamilla writes, “When Dante was making his ascent to heaven in the Divine Comedy, he heard what sounded like ‘the laughter of the universe’. Such sublime laughter – the joy of a world completely transformed by the healing, reconciling work of God – is beyond our ability to comprehend, or even fully imagine. It is a joy that, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s words, lies ‘beyond the walls of this world.’” A world transformed by the healing and reconciling work of God is what I long for.
As Christians we often isolate ourselves from suffering. We surround ourselves with “happy” people and if something untoward arises we distance ourselves from it as quickly as possible. We close our eyes to the pain and suffering we see around us and usually blame those who suffer for their problems. We live in a world of false happiness and never experience true joy.
However, when we enter into a suffering world and wrestle with the messiness and pain we experience ourselves and also that which we see in others, then, when the grace and power of God’s mercy and love enter the picture and transforms our own life and the lives of others, bringing peace, healing and harmony, we are filled with unspeakable joy that spills out of us and into the lives of those around us. That kind of joy can only be experienced when we have experienced suffering.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An Ambling God

Sunday 4/12/2015 5:54 AM
My devotional theme for the new week is: count it all joy. I thought immediately of Emily’s friends having to deal with the devastating diagnosis of brain cancer and how difficult it would be to count that as joy. My psalm for the new week is Psalm 47, which begins with these words, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy. For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth.” I’m not sure why, but for some reason when I first looked at those verses I read the second verse as, “For the Lord Most High is kindness, the great King over all the earth.”
It is easy to think of God as being kind when life is going well and everything is rosy but when news like brain cancer enters the picture, the kindness of God disappears from our consciousness. The two things seem incompatible to us, mutually exclusive sets. We ask, “How could a loving, all-powerful God allow such a horrible thing to happen?” I don’t have an answer to that question.
When my dad died when I was thirteen I asked the same question. I didn’t have an answer then either but I know that in the middle of my grief God was right there with me, crying along with me. I don’t know why he doesn’t just keep the painful things from happening but I do know that he did not sit by, aloofly watching me suffer. He entered into the suffering with me and shared it. Things change in life, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The good news is that God walks with me in all the change and eventually leads me to a better place.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Drought

Sunday 4/5/2015 4:51 AM
California is in the middle of a severe drought. The rainfall and snowpack over the past few years has been below normal and this year we have received only about 6% of a normal year’s precipitation. Throughout the state reservoirs are at an all time low and wells are going dry. Last week Governor Brown ordered mandatory restrictions on fresh water usage in an attempt to conserve what little water there is.
Over the past couple of years I have also experienced a spiritual drought. My devotional time, once a source of refreshment and of new insight from God, became a barren wasteland leaving me thirsting for God and for direction but receiving none. Over the course of the past few weeks there seems to be a bit of a turnaround but I wonder if it is only a temporary reprieve.
In her book, In the Sanctuary of Women, Jan L. Richardson writes about what I have experienced. “And the well runs dry. It’s one of the most common experiences in the spiritual life. A practice that we have cherished, a habit that has deepened us and drawn us closer to God, a discipline that we perhaps have engaged in for years, no longer seems to work. Gradually over time or overnight with no warning, its familiar contours turn foreign, dull, perhaps even painful. Pondering the questions that lie at the bottom of a dry well offers a journey of its own. What I know is this: to find the answers, we have to pay attention to the dryness. This is a desert place. As uncomfortable as it may be, there is no substitute for these desert places in the spiritual life. They offer a wisdom that we cannot get any other way.” At this point I am not sure what wisdom I received from my spiritual drought. I was simply frustrated and somewhat angry with God for putting me through the experience. Maybe I need to spend more time paying attention to the dryness, as Richardson suggests.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Impasse

Wednesday 4/1/2015 4:38 AM
My devotional theme this week is impasse. To me an impasse describes a situation where progress isn’t possible, either because of disagreement or because of circumstances. My assigned scripture today includes Psalm 53:2-3, “God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Sunday I attended a worship service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach. The service was much different from that with which I am familiar. The service was entirely scripted with the exception of the message delivered by the rector. Since it is Passion Week the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the events of that week were read much like a reader’s theater, with different characters’ statements in the story read by different members of the congregation and staff. The entire congregation read the portions of the story where large crowds spoke so at the beginning of the service we were shouting our hosannas as Jesus rode into town on his colt and we were shouting crucify him when Jesus was before Pilate. I found that part of the service to be very meaningful as my voice shouted with the others, “Crucify him!” I got goose bumps on my arms when I heard my voice shouting those words and I realized that if I had been alive in that day I would have indeed been in the crowd calling for his death. I like to imagine that I may have been different but Psalm 53 reminds me that all have turned away from God, even me.
Many in the Christian church today like to compare themselves with others, thinking they are a cut above everyone else. This kind of attitude eventually results in an attitude of judgment toward others and those who are not Christians look upon that kind of person with disdain. John Mogabgab writes the following about impasses. “Today many seekers are encountering impasses in personal life. Overtaken by old inner wounds, recently gnarled relationships, unexpectedly unstable finances, they have come to the end of the tether, stumbled into the heart of darkness (Joseph Conrad). Moreover, impasses snake out beyond the personal sphere. Social and political life, ever tormented by the ancient question of how we can live together well, seem regularly and alarmingly to become exhausted in places of not exit (Jean-Paul Sartre). Weariness grows. Hope collapses.” He then goes on to describe how the Bible is the account of how God breaks through and makes the impassable passable. He describes how Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth and Mary experienced impossible births in spite of the biological impasse they experienced with conception. Others like Naaman and a man born blind experienced healing of diseases. Physical and geographical barriers were overcome when Peter was delivered from prison and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea. Mogabgab writes, “Everywhere the pattern is the same: The most daunting impasse precedes a passage to God; the most impenetrable maze has a Center.”
Reading that “everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” can be cause for despair. But thank God that the impassable is made passable because of his love and mercy. No matter how hopeless my circumstances seem God can overcome them to bring me through them to himself.

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.