Sunday, May 10, 2015

God-Honoring Behavior

Sunday 5/10/2015 6:04 AM
A few years ago there was a popular bracelet that many Christians wore containing the letters WWJD. It was meant to be a reminder to ask the question “What would Jesus do?” when faced with a choice.
I spend much of my time trying to determine what God would have me do in various situations. I usually don’t have a specific situation in mind; I simply want to know the most God-honoring way to interact with those with whom I have contact as I go about my daily routine.
My psalm for the week is Psalm 146. It describes the work of God in the world. “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” If I want to honor God in my life, what better way than by doing what God would do? If I align my behavior with that of God himself I will become the hands of God to those around me: alleviating pain, encouraging the hopeless, seeking justice and freedom for the oppressed, opposing those who would do harm while loving and supporting those who seek righteousness. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Earthquakes and Riots

Friday 5/1/2015 4:36 AM
Last week there was a devastating earthquake in Nepal measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. Collapsing buildings, landslides, and avalanches killed thousands of people. Yesterday there was a small 3.6 earthquake in Carson, a nearby city. It reminds me that I live in an earthquake prone area where devastation can come without warning.
In the course of the last week there has also been rioting in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young man who died while in police custody. Scores of people were injured, buildings and cars were burned, and businesses were looted. It reminds me of the rioting that occurred in the Los Angeles area in 1994 after the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. It reminds me that I live in an area of the country where social unrest and violence can come without warning.
Today I read Psalm 64 as part of my devotional reading. It begins with these words: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.” Isaiah then goes on to acknowledge the sin of God’s people. “All of us become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. The chapter ends with these words, “Your sacred cities have become a wasteland; even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins. After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?”
The events occurring in Isaiah’s day seem to have been repeated in the past week in our modern world. The people of Israel do not have a corner on the shaking mountains, unclean people, and ruined cities market. We have the same bent. This realization can bring with it a sense of hopelessness and despair. Will things never change? Will God withhold his blessing from this world forever?
The hope for our world is hidden in Isaiah 64:3, “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.” The earthquakes described at the beginning of the chapter are actually caused by God coming down and doing the unexpected, making his name known to his enemies. One would expect for God to come and wipe humanity off the face of the earth so he could start over. But, after giving us over to our sin for a time, God returns, not with judgment but with mercy. That is earthshattering news worth sharing.

Squirrel!

Friday 5/8/2015 4:38 AM
I am amazed at how quickly things can turn around in my walk with God. It seems that a slightly busier schedule and a few distractions can easily dissuade me from my regular morning routine of Bible reading and prayer. This past week has been such a week. I am currently giving my last round of midterm exams in my classes and I am preparing for final exams. I’ve had a few extra meetings thrown in for good measure and suddenly it seems I am too busy for my morning quiet time.
The theme of my devotions this week is singleness of heart and if there was ever a week when I didn’t have singleness of heart, this was it. I feel a little bit like the talking dog, Dug, in the movie Up, always distracted by a squirrel across the street. In his book Dimensions of Prayer, Douglas V. Steere describes the need for a deep desire to be in God’s presence as a prerequisite for singleness of heart. “To live the life of prayer means to emerge from my drowse, to awaken to the communing, guiding, healing, clarifying, and transforming current of God’s Holy Spirit in which I am immersed. But to awaken is not necessarily to return. Awareness, no matter how vivid, must be accompanied by ‘a longing aye to dwell within the beauty of his countenance,’ and until prayer knows and is the expression of this longing, it is still callow and is likely to melt away at the first sharp thaw.” I think it is the lack of that “longing aye” to which Steere refers that causes me to melt away in my commitment. I need to say yes to cultivating my relationship with God instead of no.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jackhammers and Elegance

Tuesday 4/28/2015 4:29 AM
My devotional theme this week is creativity. My psalm for the week is Psalm 8, one that depicts the creative work of God in the world. Part of my reading today includes an excerpt from Creativity and Divine Surprise, by Karla M. Kincannon, an artist and writer. She differentiates her work into two categories, that which is inspired by eavesdropping on a conversation between her soul and God and that which is inspired by what she calls her ego self. She writes, “Making ego-centered art feels labor-intensive with no sense of flow about the work. He illuminating moment is absent, the art making becomes like jackhammering through concrete with a nail file. I think I am allowed to have times like these in order to remember from whom the deeper creativity comes.”
Mathematics is much the same. Some proofs of theorems or solutions of equations in mathematics are simply attained by brute force. There is nothing pretty about it. The theorem or equation finally submits after a repeated pounding by a determined solver. The path toward the solution is predictable and uninteresting, albeit, effective. Other solutions or proofs are attained by an unexpected insight by the solver that results in a solution that is obvious and easy to explain to others. When someone who has struggled for hours to come up with a solution is shown the simplicity of the solution they have a tendency to hit their forehead with the palm of their hand and say, “I could have done that.” In mathematics such a proof is called elegant. It is difficult to define such a term but it is easy to know when you experience it.
My insight into God’s will seems to follow a similar path. Sometimes it comes easily and I know exactly the path I am to follow and the speed at which I should travel. At other times it seems as if I am groping in the dark, reaching for anything that will give me a clue. Months pass, even years, without getting any clear direction or indication of what God desires from me or for me. As Kincannon says, the illuminating moment is absent. She is probably right with her comment about being allowed to have times like that in order to remember from whom the insight comes.
I pray that I will be sensitive to the guiding of the Holy Spirit in my life to experience the joy of discovering an “elegant” insight but that I will also have the tenacity and perseverance to jackhammer through the walls that hold me back with a nail file when necessary.

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 one 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.