Category Archives: Teaching/Learning Experiences

We See Through the Glass Darkly: We Need One Another

Human beings, even in the same families, are born with unbelievably different ways of being in the world. It seems like God really complicated life on earth by making us this diverse. Yet, the mystics of all the world’s religions insist that the spiritual reality is that we are all one.

And even the Apostle Paul tells Christians, that we, the person next to us in the pew, and presumably the Christians worshiping God across the street and around the corner, are the Body of Christ. Every single one of us is an indispensable part that needs all the other parts to function as Jesus Christ’s visible presence in the world today. When the smallest, least important part is ignored or neglected, the whole body suffers.

Some years ago, when reflecting on this scripture while preparing a sermon for a group of Directors of Christian Education from diverse denominations, a very disturbing image suddenly filled my mind. I saw a person with their arms flailing in different directions, their head twisting side to side, and their out of sync legs struggling to stumble forward even a little with each step.

I felt like I had been hit in the stomach as I grasped the reality that this is the Body of Christ now. I literally cried aloud, “God, what can I do?” And immediately into my mind came the answer, “Admit what you can’t do.”
Well, that took me several decades. 

But I have finally realized that neither I, nor any of us, can discern God’s will unless we recognize with Paul that we see through the glass darkly. No matter what our natural gifts or spiritual ministries are, we need to be humble enough to consider other visions, so we don’t block what the Spirit is saying to the Body of Christ at any particular moment in time. Our vision may be valid, but just not in God’s timing for a particular part of His motley crew of Christians.

And like Paul, I have finally come to see that the most important gift really is love. That no matter how wonderful our own gifts are, unless we do the work of God with hearts open to all, with gentleness, sensitivity, patience and above all, humility, we become a noisy clanging cymbal that cripples the Body of Christ and blocks our broken hurting world from hearing the love of God expressed in Jesus.

The Broken Body

Reflecting on the Body,
you the hand, I the foot,
Christ the head, perhaps the heart,
all at times the hidden part,
I let the Scriptures
flood my mind with images,
with suddenly one image,
a moving picture
so harshly real
I gasp aloud.
A person staggers
stumbles forward,
arms flailing, head jerking
back and forth in spasms,
body parts all pulling
different ways.
This then, reality,
Christ’s earthly body now.

God, forgive us.

The prayer of my heart:
“Jesus, I want so much to use the gifts God gave me and the gifts of your Spirit to bring your love to our broken world and hurting people. Give me both the courage to let God use me and the humility to accept God’s timing. But most of all teach me how to love humbly, so that I do not become a clanging gong or clashing cymbals blocking others from knowing your love.”

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Living Only in the Present Moment: the Downside

A cautionary tale of our religious ancestors:
First we have Esau, an outdoors, physical kind of guy who lives in the present moment. And in this story he is so focused on his physical hunger in the moment that he’s oblivious to the long term consequences of his choice. Seriously, sell your whole future for the quick fix of a bowl of stew? (Jelly doughnuts maybe, but not stew.) Esau might have skipped lunch, but he isn’t starving. And then there is his twin brother, Jacob, a guy who not only thinks about the future, but wants the security of being number one so badly he robs the person closest to him of his birthright while he’s feeling weak. Obviously, there’s nothing new about dysfunctional families.
Like Esau and Jacob, we also have hungers that we justify as needs, because they dull the pain of being imperfect and vulnerable in a scary world.
I don’t know about you, but I’m often a bottomless pit of needs and wants.  Which makes me inclined to addictions, the need to control, and often being judgmental in my heart. And those are just the things I’m willing to tell you about.
But, thanks be, Jesus himself tells us that God’s love for all of us, not just for the goody two shoes, is like the tender love of a mother and father for their own tiny new baby. I’ve experienced that awesome unconditional love of God through Jesus. And though I believe the title ‘chosen’ leads to hubris and the word ‘saved’ can delude us that we are finished, I do know heart, mind, and soul without any doubt, that I (and all of you) are tenderly and totally loved by the God that created us.
Then why is life, even with its beauty, pleasures, love, and joy, so darn hard? Perhaps, the problem is that humanity is still childishly frozen in the terrible twos’ stage, where like Esau, we want what we want when we want it, no matter the consequences.
Whatever Jesus being one with God means, the human Jesus took on our frailty and struggled just as we do. Like us, he often learned the hard way by trial and error. Think of Mary and Joseph- frantic when their twelve year old stays behind in Jerusalem without telling them. Finally, only after his mom makes him realize how unkind that was, Jesus goes home and by obeying them, ‘grows in wisdom and goodness.’ He didn’t come into the world finished. At the wedding in Cana, we see the thirty year old Jesus reluctantly start his public ministry when he is again nagged by his mom to be kind. Later, the now amazing miracle working Jesus, not only gets totally exhausted, but sometimes is so overwhelmed by the huge crowds of needy people, that he tries to escape them. Then we hear him venting his frustration with his followers for always missing the point. And near the end, he gets so upset and angry that he calls his best friend Peter, ‘Satan,’ for tempting him to deny the suffering ahead. NOT kind! He even breaks down and weeps from the heartbreak of failing to reach his own people. This is a Jesus we can identify with. After first resisting what were then heretical challenges, he shocks everyone by allowing women, unbelievers, and even an enemy Roman to convince him to include everyone in his ministry to the ‘people of God’. That’s a BIGGIE.
But his most important example for us is that over and over, he needs one on one time with God. Because God is his number one source of wisdom, power, strength to persevere, and most of all – love. And he knows that the Spirit of God is within, so he goes to the mountain top to get away from the clamor of daily life so he can hear that quiet voice. If he needed that, how much more do we need to take that time to listen.
In the garden when he faces all that he must lose and suffer, in an absolute agony of fear, he sweats blood. He even begs God to spare him, but then his first-hand experience of God’s love frees him to trust God’s will. Still, at the very end, rejected and betrayed by his friends, he cries out in desperation when he feels like even God has abandoned him. But, even in the depths of that terrible loneliness, he chooses to commit his spirit to God.
Jesus living in the limits of humanity is able only because of His always deepening relationship with God to survive the failure of his best efforts, rejection by his own people, betrayal by those closest to him, and even death, all without becoming embittered or unforgiving. From the cross he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Ultimately he shows us, that from a close relationship with God, all loss, even death, can become a doorway, not an ending. To me, without the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, life obviously not only doesn’t have a happy ending, but wouldn’t seem to have any lasting purpose, never-the-less a reason to keep on struggling to learn how to forgive and love unconditionally.

Total Humiliation as Grace: My One Stooge Act at the Altar

About forty years ago, our quite elderly parish priest had been a Scripture Scholar and a consultant for Vatican ll, so he was very up to date on the changes that were being made. I guess I was as close to being a feminist as anyone in our small rural church, so he asked me to carry the large Bible at the front of the procession into the church at the beginning of Mass. (A first for laity and a first for women in our parish) I was to carry it open, held out prominently, bow, go up the two stairs to the altar and then carry it over to the lectern on the left. I would then step down on that side to sit until time for the scriptures to be read. I would then be the first woman in our parish to read the Scripture aloud as part of the Mass. It was a great honor, but very scary, since I am a terribly clumsy person and the potential for disaster was mind boggling. I was terrified. I made it all the way down the aisle without dropping the rather heavy bible, but unknown to me, carpenters had raised each of the two steps up to the altar an inch or so that week. So, I tripped on the first step, staggered drunkenly up the second, and did a juggling act trying to keep the Bible from flying out of my hands. Some how I got it onto the lectern and started shakily down the two stairs to the pew on the side, looking down to make sure I didn’t trip again. I forgot there was a pillar there and ran head on into it, almost knocking myself out. I sort of fell into the pew and by the time my eyes could focus, it was time for me to do the first reading. It suddenly hit me as funny. It seemed like God’s somewhat warped humorous way to remind me to let go and let Him do it. And I was able with His grace to read the scripture with clarity and feeling and understanding. And ever since, when I get nervous about preaching, reading or leading prayer at worship, I remember that beginning and think……well, I’ve already done my total humiliation thing…and with grace survived it and learned from it. Then I am able to chuckle to myself as I visualize that first time and let go and let God do Her thing.

Be Humble or Be Humbled

Since my experience of the total love of God through Jesus when I was thirty after several years of rather hedonistic agnosticism and then several more years spent searching for spiritual meaning and purpose, my heart’s desire has been to somehow communicate that love to others.

God’s love didn’t make me perfect, but it brought meaning and purpose, an acceptance of the reality of my human weakness, and hope for growth and change through grace. Change for the better has been slow and spotty, but is still part of my journey at “almost’ eighty. ( I have a couple of hours left till the eighty.)

My most natural gift is speaking. And a Spiritual gift of seeing the connection between Scriptures and daily life came with my conversion. For a long time I just did whatever needed doing, like teaching, making soup for the sick and poor, smiling at people, organizing my husband and children into a work crew for church and school events, recruiting and getting training for religion teachers, and and at that time a new ministry for laity and particularly women, reading the Scriptures aloud for worship services.

Some of the more obvious experiences of God curtailing my tendency to hubris seem worth sharing, if only to give others a chuckle.

One came to mind this morning as I was checking my old lady chin for whiskers. Forty years ago when teaching a fifth and sixth grade confirmation preparation class in a Catholic School, I was (I thought) waxing eloquent on the opportunity at confirmation to make their own choice of Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord and how wonderful that is. At the end, I asked if anyone had a question. One rather quiet boy raised his hand. My heart filled with joyous expectation as I said, “Yes, Jesse?” To which he replied quite seriously, “Mrs. Norman, Do you have a mustache?”

Some Blocks and Keys to Success

Finding what we love and have the talents for takes longer for some of us than others. We may have a lot of small talents and interests, so we tend to move from one project or job to another.
Often those who naturally have good study or work habits will out-perform those that appear to have more talent or higher IQ’s.
And lack of confidence can cause us to be over sensitive to suggestions for improvement, making us unteachable and leading to discouragement and giving up.
But, when we combine our natural abilities and focus those on what we value most, it makes a huge difference in how well we do.
Then motivation becomes the key to perseverance. And even those of us who hate detail and repetition can manage to do the necessary nitty-gritty to accomplish what we consider important.
PRIORITIZE: What interests and energizes you most that you are reasonably competent to do?
FOCUS: Identify resources of time, money, space, training, materials, and support people needed to accomplish this.
PERSEVERE: Don’t give up if you fail. Learn from your mistakes. Get help when you need it. Constructive criticism is instruction. Be realistic in your goal.

Spring

Spring

Fairy Princess Delusions: Part Three of Law and Pleasure.

Luckily for me of the fairy princess delusions, my first child was incredibly resilient in spite of my complete lack of mothering instincts. I woke up in the middle of the night, late in my pregnancy, in a cold sweat from the sudden realization that a baby was not like a puppy that could be taken back if it didn’t work out well.
My husband was in the army and we were stationed far from family, but my mother-in-law paid for me to have a baby nurse for the first two weeks at home. (Perhaps the scorched white shirts were a clue that I might need some help.)
After sixteen hours of labor, Chris had been delivered by caesarean section, so fortunately both Chris and I were safely surrounded by experts at the hospital for the first week. Then, when we came home, the baby nurse was a large motherly woman with more than a dozen children of her own. Since I was recuperating from surgery, she pretty much did all the nitty-gritty and just brought me a clean sweet smelling baby to cuddle and nurse. I should have been watching and practicing for when we were going to be on our own. Fairy princess delusions die hard.
After the baby nurse left, the first time I bathed Chris, I propped the baby book with the instructions next to the little tub. Reading while holding a wiggling baby and trying to wash tiny body parts quickly had me in tears from a sense of total inadequacy. Never having changed a poopy diaper, I had no warning that I had a strong gag reflex to unpleasant odors or that when cleaning up vomit, I would add to it. I began to wonder if maybe I should have been a History teacher after all.
Eventually this will tie into the theme of Law and Pleasure.

Hoge Poge and My Brother’s Birthday

I promise you I have been off any pain meds except Tylenol for over two weeks. Pain medicine makes my coffee taste terrible for a couple of months after I quit taking it and I am definitely addicted to my coffee.  But, as usual for someone who loves thinking about theories or possibilities instead of paying attention to the actual world around her, peculiarities still happen. I got to a doctors appointment recently and as they were taking my blood pressure, I realized I had my blouse on inside out. Of course, me being me, I didn’t keep quiet and just take the first chance alone to right it. The two nurses swore they hadn’t noticed. Which worried me a bit, because I like my medical people to stay aware of the real world in front of them, particularly when I am it.

Then a few nights ago when I was still wearing my back brace at night, I awoke to make one of my usual trips to check out the plumbing, but couldn’t get up because I was unable to move my arms. Luckily before I panicked, my attempts to free my arms made that noise peculiar to Velcro being tugged loose. It happens that the two wrist braces I wear at night for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome have Velcro similar to that on the back brace. Somehow, I had Velcroed my arms to my body. I woke my husband up with my laughter, but managed to get loose without help.

Strange things also come to memory when I have way too much time on my hands while recuperating from back surgery.
Today is my brother’s birthday. He’s my only sibling and ten years younger than I am. I was trying to remember anything about the day he was born, but couldn’t. I don’t know if I just wasn’t sufficiently impressed with that event or perhaps I was significantly depressed and blotted it out. Because I do remember riding the train with my very pregnant mom back to St. Louis when my Dad got a job there after being in the army. She was very uncomfortable in the old Pullman berth and needed my pillow. I think that was my first clue that this wasn’t going to be like getting a kitten.
I remember living on the seventh floor without air conditioning and only having screens on the windows. And when my brother was about eighteen months old I found him sitting on the window sill in the bedroom with his face pressed against the flimsy screen. I didn’t scream or grab for him, but I did get mom.  Then we had to live with those child gates on all the windows. Kind of like a kiddie prison decor.

He had natural talent in art and music, but as the “late” child never got lessons. Where as, my nun piano teacher after three or four years suggested they try me on the drum instead. Life is not fair, is it? But when he was twelve and I had married and moved to Tennessee, I sent money for him to go to the Fine Arts Museum for Art Lessons. Unfortunately, I think my mother quit driving him to them, when she found out they were doing life painting of nudes. Oh, well, at least I tried.

I have wonderful memories of the many years he came to visit us in our hundred acre, Winnie the Pooh wood.  We two city kids, that had lived seven floors up, thought we’d died and gone to heaven. He enjoyed the country even more than I did, being willing one summer to haul water in buckets up to our garden during a drought. I would have just waved good bye to those tomatoes from the house.  I fell in  love with all the weeds and rocks and spent years making crafts with them. And he would bring an empty suitcase to take back full of rocks and fossils from our creek.  He taught a class in geology in Houston which only had sand and shells.

He and I would talk until sun-up about everything from politics and religion to physics and geology. He had so much passion about everything, I loved every moment. When he was teaching in a huge high school in a very impoverished neighborhood, he was constantly at war with the administration, who seemed only interested in their own survival, not the kids welfare. I know he was a good teacher, because when he retired, the adversarial principal told him grudgingly that no matter what they asked his students, (one of whom had held a knife to my brother’s throat once), they would never “rat” him out!

So, happy birthday to my “BRO” who all my friends think is much funnier than I am. He needs to be the writer in the family, but since retirement, he has opted to fight nature and turn a flood plain into a botanical garden.  Not too different from teaching .

The Poor Are Not Voiceless, just Prefered Unheard

by CRAIG GREENFIELD

Being a “voice for the voiceless” is one of those things that we’ve solidly embraced as Christians. But the phrase no longer sits so well with me.

Sometimes, being a “voice for the voiceless” is another excuse to place ourselves at the centre of the story. It can become a subtle way of being a white savior, pushing ourselves to the forefront and taking the place of honour (Lk 14:8).

And when we do that, we marginalize poor people all over again. By attempting to be their voice, when they already have a voice.

When we speak for people who may prefer to speak for themselves, we reinforce their “voicelessness”.

We confuse not being heard, with having nothing to say.

Did you ever notice how often Jesus encouraged someone to use their voice? He asked beggars and lepers what they wanted him to do, when it must have seemed obvious that the guy was covered in sores or blind and needed healing.

So, I’d like to suggest 3 alternatives that may be more appropriate than being a “voice for the voiceless”:

1. Listen and learn first

Sometimes, I’m so pissed off by a situation of injustice that I’ve just read about on the Book of Face, that I’m tempted to leap to being a “voice for the voiceless” before I’ve even listened properly to those who are being oppressed. With social media, this temptation is racheted right up.

The trick isn’t to NEVER speak or post, but to remember the significance of listening properly to the stories of others first so that you can deepen your understanding of the issue. As Sarah Bessey says, “The problem isn’t their “voicelessness,” it is that we are not listening.”

Jesus himself, who knew everything, asked people questions and listened carefully to the answers, instead of lecturing the poor or talking about them ignorantly. He spent 30 years living among the people, before he ever opened his mouth publically.

2. Amplify their voice

After listening to people in unjust situations, what if instead of speaking for them, we looked for ways to amplify THEIR voices?

One of the practices I personally have tried to use, is bringing a”co-speaker” with me, usually a young Cambodian, when I am invited as a keynote speaker at events and conferences. I usually find, they will be the star of the show and their testimony is deeply impactful.

What if we used our influence to help lift up others and spread the stories of those who are oppressed or overlooked, allowing them to take centre stage, while we serve and encourage?

3. Speak of both the tragedy and the resilience

The way we “speak up and defend the rights of the needy” (Prov 31:9) says a lot about our understanding of justice and transformation.

When we speak only of the tragedy, and nothing of the resilience of the people involved, we paint them as helpless victims. Calling them voiceless when they are not voiceless reinforces the narrative that they are pathetic and can do nothing.

On the flipside, when we speak only of their resilience and nothing of the tragedy, we ignore the reality of their suffering.

We need to learn to do both – speak of the tragedy AND the resilience – as in this post. Arundhati Roy reminds us to “never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.”