Monthly Archives: December 2022

Good Guys and Sinners

My husband was a “do right.”  He really was a good guy. But until his last couple of years in life, he didn’t experience the joy of God’s unconditional love. He thought it was because he was a prodigal son. But it seemed  to me that he was the older brother who thought he had to earn the father’s love.  Being a good person to get to heaven or be loved, is not a bad thing.  But it’s not a joyful grace thing either. And it’s much harder to get rid of our ego, when so much is riding on it. Those of us who have trouble being strong and good, when we experience being loved unconditionally, it’s not only joyful, but a source of grace for us in our weak times. We still have to struggle sometimes, but we don’t want to lose that joy. And once we tune in to God actually being active in our lives, we recognize His trying to show us when we are about to do something harmful and seriously stupid. Once we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it’s totally mind blowing how active God is in our lives, because he loves us, idiots that we are. I know where of I speak! What an awesome loving actively involved God we have. (Whether we like it or not!)

I’m Somebody!

When my youngest was about two, I tried to tape him talking to his Grandmother ‘Poppy,’ who lived a long way from us.  As I turned the tape on, he froze. Finally, I prompted him, “Tell ‘Poppy’ your name.”  In anguish, he shouted, “I’m somebody! I’m somebody!”

Reflecting on his cry, I’ve recognized it as the deepest longing of every heart.

Once, as I was going deeper and deeper into a cavern with my geology teacher brother pointing out levels of rock more and more eons old, I felt like I was shrinking into nothing but a pinpoint dot in eternity. But suddenly as in my mind came the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lamb of God,” I realized why Jesus came to earth as a helpless, homeless baby and why ragged, smelly shepherds were the first to see him and know that he was the long-awaited Messiah. It was so even the least of us would know that we matter to God.

Years later, I was alone in the middle of the night on a hilltop in the soft silence of a new fallen snow. I was literally stunned to see more stars than I had ever even imagined. Again, I had that feeling of being infinitesimally small in the scheme of things. But then I realized that I am a part of God’s creation. Without me, there would be an empty space. That without any one of us, God’s kingdom would be incomplete. It would be like a beautiful painting with a tiny unfinished blank space or a jigsaw puzzle missing a piece. Or even more, it would be like a tiny lost lamb to a loving shepherd.

When we bow in our hearts in worship, feeling our spirit kneel before the magnificence of God, listen for His voice saying, “I am your God. The least of you belong to me. Jesus is my Love fleshed out for all. Go tell all others that they are a beloved child of God.”

Denominations, Liberal and Conservative Christians: The Broken Body of Christ.

Do you know what is one of the major things dividing Christians?

METAPHORS!

Way more than fifty percent of humanity does not “get” metaphors. And who are the people who most use metaphors? Theologians and philosophers.

For most people Paul Tillich’s definition of God as “The Ground of our Being” would not make any sense at all.

For some “Home” would be a better definition, but not for those whose home lives were destructive.

My personal definition would be “God is Love.” And I see Jesus is the Love of God for us fleshed out.  And for me that love would be 90% tenderness.

 But tenderness isn’t high on the list for very logical minds who see that Moral Laws are vital for us all to live safely together. And I admit it does appear to take at least a lifetime for humans to become spiritually mature enough to recognize that if everyone does what we each sometimes want to do, humanity and civilization will self-destruct. Law is our incubator, until with grace we grow from need to Love.

So, it would seem that having the Chutzpah to even try to define God says more about ourselves than God.

Jesus, as the model for spiritual growth that everyone can recognize and follow, get’s lost when we put the focus on trying to understand Jesus as God. We lose the awareness of his human pain, his struggle to accept it, his misunderstanding of his own call, his heartbreak over failing to reach his own people, his need for his friends to be there with him when he was overwhelmed, feeling abandoned even by God, and all that goes with being human like us.  But Jesus made the right choices even when sweating blood with fear of the consequences and ultimately was able to trust God because when overwhelmed, he always went to God for grace for the next challenge.

It’s hubris to think we can define God. But we can experience not only the Love of God expressed in Jesus, but see the spiritual journey fleshed out for us to follow and to recognize that the source of grace to grow from need to love is God, the same for us as it was for Jesus.

Let’s Pretend Our Own Christmas Story

  

Let’s pretend Jesus knocked on your door in the Christmas season to join you for his birthday celebration.
Can you picture him standing there when you open the door? Can you feel your dawning recognition and surprise? Can you sense your moment of doubt, then feel it washed away by sheer joy? Do his eyes have laughter lines as he smiles with just a hint of fun at surprising you? Does his simple kindness surround you like a comforter?
Picture you inviting him in, stammering as you start to reach out to shake his hand, only to be embraced in a warm hug that brings tears of happiness and wonder to your eyes.
Let’s imagine how he might like to celebrate his birthday with you. Do you think he’d be happy if you asked him to sit down, then hurried to get the best lotion in the house to gently rub his worn and callused feet?  Would he want to do the same for you?  Would you protest because you feel unworthy?  Or would you let him help you feel so very tenderly loved?
Maybe he’d accept a cup of coffee and then want to tell you the stories his mom used to tell over and over about giving birth in a dirty drafty barn and about the terror of having to flee to a foreign country in the middle of the night with only a few clothes and a little food.
Do you think Jesus might just try to fit in by eating second helpings and then nodding off now and then in front of the TV set like most of us do?  Or would he possibly suggest, “Why don’t we pack up some of this turkey and dressing and yes, definitely some pie, to take to families living in small rooms at some of the local Motels?”  Might he even ask, “Would you drive me up and down the interstate to check under the bridges for homeless who may need food?”
Or perhaps he’d gently make a more discomforting suggestion: that some presents could be returned and the money sent to help refugees fleeing with their children like his parents did.
Maybe he would just look into your eyes all the way to what’s hidden in your heart and quietly say, “If there is someone you have hurt or anyone who has wounded you, will you make me happy by using your phone now to reconcile with them?”
And then you’d remember what he said at that last dinner with his closest friends, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Then you’d feel not guilt, but regret, that you hadn’t thought of celebrating his birthday by doing more for others, even strangers, as he did his whole life.
So, you’d get your coat and gather food, even your favorite fudge pie, to take to others. And you’d see that he was smiling at you as he waved goodbye.
You wouldn’t feel condemnation, only his love and a stronger desire to love others as he loves you. Because now you’d really know that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn us, but to free us by his love.
And as you start out, you’d whisper, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” And you would know he heard.

A Christmas Blessing

                                        

During Advent each year, I pray daily, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Then I wait eagerly for that special moment that helps me recognize His presence.

Many years ago, shortly before Christmas, my almost four-years-old granddaughter spent the night with me. She had been diagnosed as having Autism at two years of age.  I asked God to somehow bless our time together. At that time, most words had no meaning for her. When we spoke to her, she either echoed what we said or resorted to a repetition of dialogue from a Disney video. She could only express simple requests, most often in sign language.

That evening she set up her tea set on our kitchen table and to my surprise said clearly, “Have a tea party.”

So she and I took turns pouring imaginary tea and saying “Thank you” to one another. To break a long silence, I mentioner her little sister being sick. She responded by chattering incomprehensively to her image in the window, but then turned to look at me and said clearly, “Cat’s go meow, dogs go woof-woof, cows go moo and birds go cheep-cheep.”

I was both startled and touched, because she was describing communication of others without language. And this was the longest understandable communication I had ever heard from her.  Then she yawned and a moment later smiled at me and said, “We go nighty-night” and led me to bed.  There for the first time ever, she snuggled close and patted me, saying, “Nighty-night.”

This amount of understandable communication, direct eye contact, and her initiation of a physical show of affection with sustained physical closeness were all completely new.

I thought of the Scripture in Second Corinthians where Paul quotes Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” With silent tears of joy, I recognized the presence of God and His grace within her and my heart overflowed with love for my wonderful little granddaughter.

God in the Galaxies and in Humanity

by Madeleine L’Engle

Best known for her works of fiction, author Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) was a devoted Christian who perceived God’s presence in all things and circumstances. Here she invites readers to join her awe-filled observations:

I look at the stars and wonder. How old is the universe? . . . All we know is that once upon a time or, rather, once before time, Christ called everything into being in a great breath of creativity—waters, land, green growing things, birds and beasts, and finally human creatures—the beginning, the genesis, not in ordinary Earth days; the Bible makes it quite clear that God’s time is different from our time. A thousand years for us is no more than the blink of an eye to God. But in God’s good time the universe came into being, opening up from a tiny flower of nothingness to great clouds of hydrogen gas to swirling galaxies. In God’s good time came solar systems and planets and ultimately this planet on which I stand on this autumn evening as the Earth makes its graceful dance around the sun. It takes one Earth day, one Earth night, to make a full turn, part of the intricate pattern of the universe. And God called it good, very good.

A sky full of God’s children! Each galaxy, each star, each living creature, every particle and sub-atomic particle of creation, we are all children of the Maker. From a sub-atomic particle with a life span of a few seconds, to a galaxy with a life span of billions of years, to us human creatures somewhere in the middle in size and age, we are . . . children of God, made in God’s image.

L’Engle honors the unique role that Jesus as Christ plays in creation:

Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine.

Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be. Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God’s image. Jesus, as Paul reminds us, was the firstborn of many brethren [Romans 8:29].

I stand on the deck of my cottage, looking at a sky full of God’s children, knowing that I am one of many brethren, and sistren, too, and that Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Bathed in this love, I go into the cottage and to bed.

Come, Lord Jesus

(The second of my yearly Advent stories)

Many years ago, I began on the first of the four Advent Sundays to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Then I would watch expectantly for Him to become present in small, but recognizable ways in my life and heart. And most years my heart and mind are attentive enough to recognize His coming.

One Christmas Eve, our children and grandchildren were all at our home surrounded by the friendly reds and greens of Christmas with yummy smells teasing from the kitchen. In one bedroom a baby snuggled into sleep, while in others whispering parents wrapped and ribboned Christmas secrets. Only Grandad was missing, out doing his traditional Christmas Eve shopping. As excited older grandchildren were setting out to explore the woods and creek, I was making a clean-up sweep through the holiday chaos. One preschooler, too young for exploring and too old for a nap, went from room to room knocking on doors, only to be told that he couldn’t come in.  When I found little Jordan sobbing forlornly in the middle of the Christmas glitter, I decided to console him (and me) with an outing to feed the ducks that winter on the lake in town. When we arrived at the lake, the hungry ducks and geese gobbled up our bread crusts so quickly and ferociously, that we began to fear we would soon become part of their Christmas Eve menu. As we took refuge in our car, I heard our parish bells ringing for the special Christmas Eve children’s service, The Mass of the Bells. Since the children get to sing all their favorite carols and even ring bells to celebrate the birth of Christ, it seemed like a Christmas serendipity for Jordan. Looking at our faded jeans and muddy tennis shoes, I hesitated. But remembering the ragged shepherds at the first Christmas, I headed on to church anyway. For lack of having his own bell, Jordan rang my keychain as he sang with off-key gusto. Then, as all the children gathered around the priest on the floor of the Sanctuary to talk about the Christmas story, Jordan somehow managed to squirm all the way to the front of the group. When Father asked them what happened when Mary and Joseph knocked at the door of the Inn, Jordan’s response rang out, “They wouldn’t let them in!” Then with a sudden rush of outraged feeling, he shouted louder, “They wouldn’t open the door!” It seemed like he remembered his feelings about the closed doors at home earlier and identified with the Holy Family. So, when Father asked how they would respond to Jesus knocking at the door of their hearts, Jordan sang out with conviction, “Come in Jesus! Come right on in.” On the way home, Jordan joyfully assured me that even if others sometimes didn’t let people in, he and Jesus always would. At his own level, he had made the connection between his life and the Gospel story, realizing that opening his heart to Jesus, also meant opening his heart to others.

And my heart was filled with the joy of Christmas, of seeing Jesus being born once more in the heart of a child.

A postscript about Jordan. When he was a college junior, he was active in the Baptist Student Organization at Memphis University. He and several other students took cold water and hamburgers downtown in the August heat to share with the homeless.  As they did this, one man asked for them to pray over him. And as they prayed, others began coming forward asking, not for money or even food, but for prayer.

After college, Jordan became a teacher with a non-denominational Christian organization, first in Indonesia where besides teaching, he reached out to homeless street children through organizing and coaching soccer teams. Then, he taught in Afghanistan in a school of two hundred students. It was in a compound, but shortly before Christmas, Afghan student siblings and their parent were killed by the Taliban for being Christians. Then the school was warned there was a plan to bomb it. So, it was closed immediately and the teachers had to scramble for flights home.  His last three years of missionary teaching were in Bolivia.

So, whenever the stores start Christmas music, let it be our cue to start praying the prayer of our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

We Are Growing Spiritually Until Our Last Breath.

An Evolving Faith

Pastor and author Molly Baskette describes how Jesus lived from a place of growth and inclusion instead of certainty and scapegoating, and calls us to do the same:

All claims to the contrary, Jesus did not preach from a place of rigid binaries and judgments but from a place of continual becoming. He befriended outcasts and lived on the margins of society while staying in relationship with wealthy and powerful people, some of whom became patrons and disciples. He lived in a patriarchal society, but let women correct him and expand his understanding of his mission. Innocent of the trumped-up charges, he allowed himself to be murdered by state violence to expose the injustice of that violence. He asked us to love our enemies, and to bless those who curse us [Luke 6:27–28]. He warned that those who lived by the sword would die by it [Matthew 26:52].

The churches I’ve served strive to follow Jesus in this “third way”: neither returning evil for evil nor caving in to it. Our God does not hate all the same people we do, nor does our God particularly want us to be rich or admired. Our faith, frail as it is sometimes, is also flexible. It is self-correcting as we have profound encounters with people who are different from us and are exposed to new experiences and ideas. If we are willing to be humble, we can continuously root out our own biases, the weeds of white supremacy that are deeply seeded into the soil of our culture, religion, and country.

Staying in the liminal place of holy uncertainty is deeply uncomfortable. But certainty in the life of faith doesn’t serve us well. At some point, the idea or theology or God-image we have adopted may become provably false. Then we’ll have to decide to double down on it or abandon it, which may feel like abandoning God or faith altogether, and leave us entirely unmoored. [1]

For Father Richard, evolutionary thinking and faith are inherently linked:

Evolutionary thinking is, for me, the very core concept of faith, where we trust that God alone steers this mysterious universe, where there is clearly much hidden from us and much still before us—and where “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and the human heart has not conceived, what God has prepared for those who love God” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Evolutionary thinking is contemplative thinking. It leaves the full field of the future in God’s hands and agrees to humbly hold the present with what it only tentatively knows for sure. Evolutionary thinking agrees to knowing and not knowing simultaneously. It sends us on a trajectory, where the ride is itself the destination, and the goal is never clearly in sight. To stay on the ride, to trust the trajectory, to know it is moving, and moving somewhere always better, is just another way to describe faith. We are all in evolution all the time, it seems to me.