Monday, December 26, 2011

Rejoice in God's Judgment? -- Yes!

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice!  Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!  Let the fields and their crops burst forth with joy!  Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise before the Lord!  For the Lord is coming!  He is coming to judge the earth.  He will judge the world with righteousness and all the nations with truth.    -- Psalm 96:11-13

Praise and rejoicing in the face of coming judgment?  It seems odd.  We usually think of judgment as going hand-in-hand with punishment.  God's judgment, as it is frequently portrayed, is when we get what we deserve for all the bad things we have done, or said, or thought.  By this thinking, even if we have done well in some areas, these are weighed against all our bad choices, in the scales of justice.  Whichever way the scales tip determines whether we receive the ultimate reward or ultimate punishment.

This is one of those cases where it helps to remember that Jesus showed us what God was truly like.  So, we ask ourselves:  How did Jesus judge people?

Well, with those people who were considered sinners, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes, he taught of God's unfailing love and forgiveness.  He told stories of God searching out the one lost sheep, to bring it back to the fold. And Jesus lived this out.  He invited himself over to Zacchaeus' house, changing that man's life forever.  And when he was challenged to judge the adulteress, he forgave her.  He sat and ate with sinners and prostitutes, teaching them all about God's love in the process, I am sure.

The ones whom Jesus got the most angry with were the self-righteous religious leaders and those who worshiped money.  With these, he tried everything he could think of to get them to see the error of their ways.  He told them parables:  of the servants in the field, of the prodigal son, of the rich man and Lazarus, etc.  He came to their houses, too, teaching them all about God's generous love, I am sure.  And he sometimes got angry.  He compared them to empty tombs.  He even got angry enough to turn over tables and admonish those who were dishonoring God.

Jesus did all these things for love.  He showed no partiality.  He wanted everyone to understand what God was truly like.  Those who believed him, they were changed, for the better.  And this is what God wants more than anything else:  for those of us who have strayed to return to him.  God wants us ALL to abide in him as he abides in us. 

I have been reading "The Shack", by Wm. Paul Young.  I just finished the chapter, "Here Comes Da Judge", which is why the passage above jumped out at me.  In this chapter, Wisdom, personified as an Hispanic woman named Sophia, puts the main character, Mack, in The Judgment Seat.  She does this because Mack wants to judge other people, even God -- like many of us do.  She asks him to decide amongst his five children which two will go to heaven and which three will go to hell.  Mack can't choose.  He loves all his children, even though some of them have tried his patience more than others; he understands them.  Wisdom insists.  He refuses.  He can't do it.  Wisdom says that he has no other choice.  Then Mack begs Wisdom to take him instead, to send him to hell, if all of his children can go to heaven.  This reminds everyone, Wisdom, and the reader, of Jesus.

THAT is the love God has for us.  Only we are all God's children.  God knows each and every one of us to our core, and he shows no partiality.  He will continue to seek out all of his children, inviting us to share in his glorious love, to the end of days.

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for all you have done, for me, and for the world.  And thank you for putting this story in my lap.  As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, it has been a wonderful story to read.  Love always, Pam

Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Temple for God?

This is what the Lord says:  Are you the one to build me a temple to live in?  I have never lived in a temple, from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until now.  My home has always been a tent, moving from one place to another.  And I have never once complained to Israel's leaders, the shepherds of my people Israel.  I have never asked them, "Why haven't you built me a beautiful cedar temple?"    --  2 Samuel 7:5-7

David wanted to make God a permanent temple, but God said he has never been fixed in one spot.  God never asked to be confined to one place.  In fact, he reminded David, he has always come and gone as he chose.  Even when Solomon built a temple for God, it was not intended to confine God to a single space.  For a long time, people were able to worship God in multiple places.  However, after the fall of Solomon's Temple, and after the return of the exiles, even more pressure was put upon the people to look at the Second Temple as God's sole habitation.  With the greatest intentions possible, these returning exiles thought this was what God wanted.  It wasn't until the Second Temple was completely destroyed that the Jewish people had to discover all over again that God could be found in multiple places.

Christians knew that God could be found anywhere, for Jesus had shown them this truth in many different ways.  The Kingdom of God is near, it is within, and it is available to all.  However, somewhere along the way, certainly within the last few hundred years, Christians began to think that God was confined to Scripture.  Just as the ancient Jews viewed the Second Temple, many Christians began to view the Bible as the only place to find God.

What happened?  Did God ask to be confined to one book?  I don't think so.  For Jesus himself said that he could not possibly tell us all we needed to know about God.  In fact, he told us that the Holy Spirit would continue to guide us into all future truth (John 16:16-17), which certainly conveys the understanding that God will remain active in the world.  

In the beginning of the Christian era, when influential Christian writings began to be collected, this canon of books was never thought to confine God any more than Solomon's Temple did.  However, in the last few hundred years, scholars have been probing deeply into the history of the writings of the books of the Bible.  Among other things, they have discovered multiple "hands" involved in the Books of Moses, and they have pointed out differences between versions of the same story.    Instead of embracing this expansion of our understanding of Scripture, or ignoring these insights as not making a wit of difference to our personal experience of God, some more conservative Christians viewed these efforts as attacks on God himself.  In response, they raised the authority of the Bible to an higher plane than it was originally intended.  The Bible has now come to be viewed by many as the inerrant word of God, in which every "tittle and jot" is God-breathed.  To question anything in the Bible is to question God.  To be truly faithful, they say, you must believe that all of it comes directly from God.  Well, to many, the result is a falling away from God.
What I wonder, is whether all these efforts to humanize the Bible have actually been inspired by God.  Just as I wonder if the destruction of the Second Temple was actually necessary in order for the Jews to understand that God was not, and had never been, confined to the Temple.  For the way we look at the Bible mirrors the way the ancient Israelites looked at the Temple.  The historical pattern is the same.  The more we make "the thing" equivalent to God, the more it comes under attack; and the more it comes under attack, the more we cling to it as if it is our God.  Unfortunately, for the Temple, the cycle only ended when the "thing" was completely destroyed. 

God wants to be God, alone.  He wants us to make nothing into an idol of worship.  And yet anything, God-created or man-made, becomes an idol when we think it contains God.

As Thomas Merton, wrote: "God speaks to us in three places:  in Scripture, in our deepest selves, and in the voice of the stranger."  ("World Religions", Huston Smith, pg. 390).  In my experience, this is certainly true -- although I would perhaps change "stranger" to "neighbor", because I believe God uses whomever he wants to use to convey his messages to us.  The writers of the books of the Bible certainly found God in many places.  For many of them, God was an active presence in their lives. Just as God is an active presence in our lives today, whether we realize this or not.   He is not confined to a single book anymore than he was confined to a single place. 

The Bible is good, very good, but it is not God.

Dear Heavenly Father, please keep me in you and you in me, always, but especially during this time of many comings and goings.  Help me to take the time to thank you for all you have done for the world.  Love always, Pam

Friday, December 16, 2011

God's Truth

Stand your ground, putting on the sturdy belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness.   -- Ephesians 6:14

Last Tuesday, while driving my children to school, a commercial for a local non-denominational church came on the radio.  The spokesperson for the church said, "We stand for God's truth; we don't bow to the world."  My twelve year old son asked what that meant, especially the "bow to the world" part.

So I explained that the way God wants us to live and the way the "world" wants us to live are sometimes two totally different things.  Sometimes the rules are the same:  for example, don't murder, don't steal, and don't lie.  Most people around the world agree that these are good rules, and whoever breaks them has not only broken God's law, but also the laws of the world. 

Other times, the world's message is contrary to God's message.  For example, God tells people repeatedly throughout the Bible to help those in need, to think about other people as much as you think about yourself; but the world advises us to think about our own needs first, to look out for "numero uno".   God says repeatedly throughout the Bible to remain faithful to him above all others; but the world promotes worshiping other things, like money, people, fame, etc.  Probably this is what the commercial was talking about.

As I continued to ponder the meaning of that commercial, I shared my thoughts with my son:  

The problem with thinking that you know "God's Truth" is that no one can know God's truth entirely.  We can know many things about God, but we cannot know everything.  God is bigger than our understanding of him. 

Some people say that to find God's truth all you have to do is read the Bible.  Well, there are two problems with this viewpoint.  One is that the Bible shows progression over time; God's will, or man's understanding of that will, sometimes changes.  Jesus himself leaves open the possibility that God's truth, or our understanding of it, will continue to expand when he tells his disciples that he will give us a Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will continue to guide us and lead us to all truth. (John 16:12-13)

The second reason why it is difficult to simply read the Bible to find God's truth is that different writers emphasized different aspects of their understanding of God's will.  And sometimes they contradict themselves, or each other.  And so in these instances it is difficult to know what is most important to God. 

The Pharisees, for example, who were leaders of the faith during the time of Jesus believed that God wanted people to be pure and holy above all else.  Then Jesus came along and said (the following is my paraphrase), "Yes, but... God is also merciful and compassionate.  So don't let your rules get in the way of loving your neighbor as yourself."  So, while the Pharisees believed that God would not want anyone to do any work on the Sabbath, not even lighting a fire, Jesus said, "Yes, but...if someone's well-being depends upon your helping them immediately, then help them."  In this way, Jesus broke many "laws".  The Pharisees, and other Jewish leaders, could not accept this new way of understanding God's will.  And so, thinking that they were following God's truth, they had him killed.

This has been the case throughout history.  People have taken stands over their understanding of God's will using Scripture as their primary source of argument.  Issues over celibacy, who Jesus was, the meaning of the Eucharist, the meaning of Baptism, etc., etc., etc., have divided the faithful from each other.  People have even killed each other because of their differences in understanding!  Now that cannot be God's will. 

So, can we ever know God's truth for sure?  Well, yes.  Some things never change.  Thankfully, throughout the Bible, you will also find consistent messages:  always be faithful, don't kill, don't commit adultery, love your neighbor as yourself, take care of those in need, feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc.; and God is just, merciful, and steadfast.  These messages never change.  All of God's messengers agree on these "truths".  Follow them and you will be like someone building their house on solid rock, as Jesus said.  

But for the rest, for the issues that are more uncertain, the debates in which there is some measure of doubt on each side, we take the risk of falling into error if we call those "God's Truth", as well.  For we may be in danger of substituting Our Truth for God's Truth.

The best advice I can give is to test your opinion against the teachings and example of Jesus, for he knew God best of everyone.  If you are in line with Jesus, then you are probably safe. 

My son's comment at the end of my explanation?  "Wow, all that from one little question."  I had to laugh.  Sorry, honey, but that's what you get for having me as your mother.  It seemed like a perfect "teachable moment".  And I, too, wanted to stand up for "God's Truth".  

Dear God, please keep shining your light on us.  May we never forget that you are much bigger that any of us can ever know for sure.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Truth

We must be sure to obey the truth we have learned already.    -- Philippians 3:16

Sometimes I feel quite strange.  I'm sure everyone feels this way at some point, or at many points, in their life.  But the reason I feel this way at this point is because I believe God is directly guiding my life.  Since I have not always believed this, and since I know that other people do not believe this to even be possible, every once in a while, I mentally take a step back and wonder, "Is this really happening?  Or am I completely delusional?"

Such was the case last Friday when I read the words of Paul above.  I was feeling like an oddball.  I was feeling quite different from other people, but resigned.  I wrote in my journal, "Many people may not understand me, but I am on a different path, and I must follow the guide in front of me, or I will be lost."

Primarily my feeling of oddness rests on the fact that there is such a coincidence between what I am thinking and what then comes up in my readings, or in the day's experiences.  It's as if someone is listening to my thoughts, my questions, my concerns, and helping me sort them out, or giving me answers, or providing much needed support.  When this first started happening, I both wanted and didn't want to talk about it.  It was so different from anything I had experienced before, or ever heard of, that I thought everyone would think I was insane.  I remember thinking that if I was insane, it was an insanity that I didn't want to lose. 

Saturday morning, wanting to understand something about the different ways people experience God, I remembered a book I had read in college:  William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience."  I still had a copy of it on my shelves, so I pulled it down and started reading.  It is an extraordinary book.  Written in 1902, many of James' insights still ring true today.   Unfortunately, I read that James believed that very religious people are neurotic, even psychopathic.  Uh oh, that is not good.  He goes on, however, to qualify that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Combined with superior intelligence, religious fervor can create "religious geniuses", the kind of people who make a change in the world for the better.  Now that is more hopeful.

I read James' wonderful description of religion:  " consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." (pg. 57)  Regarding this unseen order, James writes, "It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there,' more deep and more general than" any of our senses can reveal.   "So far as religious conceptions were able to touch this reality-feeling, they would be believed in in spite of criticism, even though they might be so vague and remote as to be almost unimaginable...." (pg. 61).  And then I read anecdote after anecdote describing ways specific people experienced God.

What a comfort these real-life experiences were to read, especially in light of my own sense of 'unreality.'  To the degree these readings mirrored my own experience was the degree to which I felt God comforting me.  One person explained:  "God is more real to me than any thought or thing or person.  I feel his presence positively, and the more as I live in closer harmony with his laws as written in my body and mind. ...He answers me again and again, often in words so clearly spoken that it seems my outer ear must have carried the tone, but generally in strong mental impressions.  Usually a text of Scripture, unfolding some new view of him and his love for me, and instances, in school matters, social problems, financial difficulties, etc.  That he is mine and I am his never leaves me, it is an abiding joy.  Without it life would be bleak, a desert, a shoreless, trackless waste."  (pg. 72).  What can I say?

Thank you, dear God.  I am so grateful that you have given me such examples of other ordinary people who experienced you working in their lives.  I needed this.  As you well knew.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I no longer count my own goodness or my ability to obey God's law, but I trust Christ to save me.  For God's way of making us right with himself depends on faith.  ... I don't mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection!  But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be.  No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing:  forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.    -- Philippians 3:9b,12-14 (NLT)

Paul has just told the community of Philippi that as regards the law, he has never been at fault.  So why does he say that he is still not all that he should be? 

I think the reason is that Christ Jesus calls us to a higher law:  the law of love.  I get what Paul is writing about here.  Personally, I have no problem not murdering someone, or committing adultery against my husband, or stealing someone's property.  These are no-brainers for me.  They are clear transgressions.  What I do still have trouble with, however, are all the little ways in which I transgress against my neighbor. 

At the moment, I am dealing with my propensity to complain about my neighbor to other people. 

Jesus said that when you have a grievance against a brother or sister, go and talk directly to them about it.  He didn't say, Vent about it to someone else! 

Unfortunately, that is what I tend to do -- way too often.  And now, this time, I think I have hurt a  neighbor because I chose not to curb my tongue.  Was it worth it?  Of course not.  I hurt someone.  And, I broke the trust this person placed in me.  This person may not only not trust me again, but he may be less willing to trust other people in the future.

So, what do I do about it?  Well, the world's advice might be:  don't worry about it; this too will pass; pretend like it didn't even happen.  Or, just sever ties completely; count this friend as a loss, and move on.  But, what does God require me to do? 

Apologize.  Try to stay connected to the one you have hurt.

Really?  Can't I just tell you, God, how sorry I am, and leave it at that? 

No.  I must tell this person what I have done, and tell them how sorry I am. 

But what if this person wants nothing to do with me?

That is between him and God; this is between me and God.

Man!  God's refining fire is tough.  Almost physically painful.  Certainly, mentally painful.  But a measure of comfort comes in the form of another reading.  Today, I read in "Jean Gerson's Early Works," (part of the series "The Classics of Western Spirituality") about other people who have experienced what I am experiencing.  Gerson writes in "The Mountain of Contemplation" about what he calls, "humble penitence":

          "... how hard it is to get rid of [worldly faults] is much better understood by those who try than by those who do not care and make no effort.  So it is with the bird who does not realize it is trapped until it tries to get away.
                 This comparison helps explain the complaints of those who have recently found the desire to love God, for they feel more pain and suffering than they did before....  Thus it is necessary that the true God of love, our Savior Jesus Christ, attracts to himself the soul he wants to teach the art of good love."  (pg. 84)
                "And although one desires that tribulation should cease, the pain that one now feels, as the Apostle says (2 Cor. 4:17), nevertheless brings forth an undeniable fruit."  (pg. 87)

And so I learn that the result of this pain may be that I will learn to love my neighbor better.  That is a very good thing.  For that, I am grateful.  And, I hope, dear Lord, that this is true, for everyone's sake.

Thank you, God, for bringing me to a place of awareness, painful though this is sometimes.  Awareness of you, I know, also brings great joy and peace.  I hope I can learn your way of greater love, and "be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be."  Love always, Pam.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Let me hear the words of the Lord:  are they not words of peace, peace to his people and his loyal servants and to all who turn and trust in him?  Deliverance is near to those who worship him, so that glory may dwell in our land.     -- Psalm 85:8-9 (New English Bible)

And so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism in token of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.  ...After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God:  'The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel.'      --  Mark 1:4,14-15

And here is one point, my friends, which you must not lose sight of:  with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.  It is not that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise, as some suppose, but that he is very patient with you, because it is not his will for any to be lost, but for all to come to repentance.     -- 2 Peter 3:8-9

Repentance means to turn our hearts to God.  And if there is one consistent message throughout the Bible, it is that God wants our hearts turned to him.

Story after story illustrates God's desire that we listen to him above all others:  above the voices of this world, above ourselves, even above religious leaders.  The story of Adam and Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden is the story of listening to the world's desire for knowledge and power above God's desire for simple obedience.  The story of Cain's temptation to murder his brother, and the story of Joseph lording it over his brothers, show what happens when we put ourselves first.  The stories of the disciples and friends who kept wanting Jesus to be different again illustrate how difficult it can be to ignore the world and follow God completely.  The stories of the temple priests, scribes and Pharisees who led the people astray during Jesus' lifetime show the dangers of putting all our faith in religious leaders.   And these are just a few of the stories throughout the Bible which describe someone putting someone else, or something else, above God.

Throughout the Bible, as well, are God's responses to the waywardness of his children.   God tried punishment on a grand scale.  He tried teaching his children about laws and ordinances and statutes.  God tried selecting spokesmen, choosing the most unknown, and unlikely, people to be his voice so that none could boast in their own skills, but that he alone would be seen and glorified.   God was even willing to put his most Beloved in harm's way, to sacrifice him for the love of all. 

Why does God want our hearts turned to him so badly?

I believe it's because he made us in his likeness.  We are part and parcel of each other.  Unless we are truly connected to each other, neither one can be truly content.  So God waits.  He waits for us to turn to him, to seek him out, to ask for his help, to recognize his blessings.  And as soon as we do, he is there, revealing his great care for us, and sharing his peace.

We don't have to be perfect.  God knows us through and through.  He knows our temptations.  He knows our tendency to make idols of the most mundane things.   And yet he never gives up on us.  All God desires is that we turn our hearts to him, let him re-connect with the deepest part of our being, and let his love conquer all.  Then we will truly understand the glory of God.

Dear God, your patient and steadfast love is amazing.  Keep us in your embrace as we strive to grow closer to you.  And keep the example of Jesus, your Beloved Son, ever before us.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, December 1, 2011


The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.   -- Mark 1:1-4 (NRSV)

Here begins the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.  In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God said, "Look, I am sending my messenger before you, and he will prepare your way.  He is a voice shouting in the wilderness: 'Prepare a pathway for the Lord's coming!  Make a straight road for him!'"  This messenger was John the Baptist.  He lived in the wilderness and was preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had turned from their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.  -- Mark 1:1-4 (NLT)

The other day I was asked what translation of the Bible I use.  I said, "The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)."  I like that translation's poetic language, but I especially like my Bible.  It is called "The NRSV Notetaker's Bible".  It has lined margins that are two inches wide, which are perfect for jotting down my own notes.  Before I came across it, I was complaining to myself that there was very little room to make any notes in my Bible -- the margins were miniscule, much narrower than in most other books.  Soon after my grumbling, I found this Bible.  It answered my prayers.  Though I didn't realize they were prayers, someone was listening!  I've never seen another one like it, anywhere, since.   (I read once that Martin Luther made a Bible for himself with wide margins for notes!  I felt a certain kinship with Martin Luther when I read that.)

I asked my friend, in return, what Bible translation he used.  He said, "The NLT, New Living Translation."  He said he used the NLT Study Bible and the NLT Life Applications Bible both.  He likes the translation, but he especially likes the commentary and notes provided by the scholars.

That is one thing my Bible lacks.  Because so much space is taken up by the wide margins, there is no room for commentary of any kind.  Sometimes I miss that.  I see other people's Bibles, with beautiful pages highlighting historical, cultural, and devotional insights, and I think, "Oooh, I want that."  So I go to the bookstore to look at the different Bibles.  (This can be overwhelming -- especially if I go to a Christian bookstore!)  I sit down, and start looking at all the extra stuff inside them.

I love the historical and cultural tidbits I find, but, inevitably, I put the books back on the shelf. Why?  Because I always come across an interpretation that I disagree with!  Am I really that contrary?  I must be.  But, I have found that the commentaries always come with one particular point of view -- the point of view of the writer, of course.  And, at some point or another, I find that we don't see "eye to eye".  I just can't bring myself to buy an expensive book that I know I will want to throw across the room some day.

So, while I have resource books that give me some of the historical and cultural background that I crave,  I shy away from study Bibles, especially ones directed to specific groups of people, such as mothers, or women, or -- the latest one I saw -- American Patriots.  I long to find a study Bible whose interpretation I can agree with wholeheartedly.  But, I am beginning to realize, that that is going to be as impossible as finding a person with whom I agree wholeheartedly. 

My Notetaker's Bible has spoiled me -- or not, depending on how you look at it.  I've had to ponder the daily passages on my own.  I've had to take time to think about what it means to me.  If I'm really at a loss, I can look at other translations, or at my resource books for some background and context.  But, mostly, I'm on my own.

Well, that is not really true.  For I do believe that God is with me every step of the way.  As I struggle to make sense of the Bible passages I read each day, and how they correspond to my thoughts and experiences of the moment, I know God is listening in and leading me to the answers I need to find.  That has certainly been the case so far.  I trust that that will always be the case.

I am, however, contemplating making a change to a different translation.  The beginning of the church year seems like a good time to change things up a bit.  Maybe I'll start reading the NLT.  I like its easier flow of language, but I will miss my wide margins.  Too bad I can't find a "NLT Notetaker's Bible".

Dear Lord, thank you for your word.  Though the Bible has been re-written in multiple languages and multiple styles of language, the same message shines through, no matter what.  And though I may disagree with other interpretations of your word, I believe the Good News of Jesus Christ is evident for all to see.   Thank you, God, for that.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Eternal Life

"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.  I do not accept glory from human beings.  But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.  I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him.  How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?  Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope."     -- John 5:39-46

There have been many attempts over the millenia to determine what it is we must do in order to win God's favor and gain eternal life.  Here we see Jesus admonishing the people of his day, who searched the Scriptures in this way.  They wanted to nail down all the rules of Moses, thinking that if they just followed all of them, every last tittle and jot, then they would be doing what God wanted them to do. Scribes and Pharisees are not the only ones who do this.  Christians do this too, just as fervently.  They may consider all the laws of Moses, adding to them from the Gospels or Epistles, or they may create a separate list.

"What is wrong with that?" you might ask.  Reading the Scriptures in order to understand God's will is a good thing.  Yes, it is.  But, searching for rules, and tabulating a list, and thinking that following this list will guarantee you God's favor, is another thing -- not a good thing.  For what happens in actuality, when we do this?

We replace God's Living Word with letters, with a contract.  And we replace our seeking, loving heart with a blind or hard one.  Think about it.

On the one hand, we have someone who is open to hearing God's word for him or her, on a continual basis; who turns to God, via Scripture and prayer, who seeks to understand what God wants, and who listens to what God's will is for him or her.  That person is connected to the one true living God.  And as Jesus said, "This is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." (John 17:3)   This is eternal life, lived eternally.

And, on the other hand, we have a person trying to follow a list of rules, compiled by him- or herself, or someone else, whose goal is to gain something, some future reward:  eternal life.  Complete the list and you are set.  You can even judge how well you, and your neighbor, are doing.  And you can be sure that, in the afterlife, you will meet God.  And yet you may have just missed having a completely different Life.  For, where was God's influence in your life on a daily basis?  Where was your heart, mind, body, and soul?

Contracts like these rarely worked for the ancient Jews.  Why?  Because the rules were detached from the Living Word.  A living God was no longer a factor.  It was the Letter that mattered.  Not the heart.  Not the soul.  Not the mind.  Not the body.  Compassion had no place in the Letter.  Mercy had no place.  If the Letter said: "An adulteress must be stoned."  Then an adulteress must be stoned.  End of story.

But what did Jesus do?  He placed compassion, mercy, and love, above the rules.  The rules are meaningless if our connection to one another is denied.  Our continual connection to God, through our body, mind, heart, and soul, and our continual connection to one another are our primary responsibility.  The ties that ought to bind us to God, and to our neighbor, are ties of love -- pure and simple -- not ties of law.  When we are tied to God and our neighbor with love, everything else that is good, and necessary, will follow.

Dear God, may we always be turned to you, daily, allowing you to guide and mold us into the people you want us to be.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Must I Do?

"... for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."  Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"  And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."    -- Matt. 25:35-40

This parable tells us that we can find Jesus in the poorest of the poor:  in the hungry and homeless, in the stranger, in the sick and lonely, in those imprisoned, in "the least of these who are members of my family."  And yet, those who are the least, can also find Jesus in the ones who share their plenty, who care for the sick, who provide for the hungry, who free the oppressed.  Mother Teresa said that when she cared for the poorest of the poor in India, she saw Jesus in them. When we saw her caring for the poorest of the poor, we saw Jesus in her.

We are ALL members of God's family.  We are all created by God, and connected to each other by God.

This connection makes me think of the etymology of the word "compassion." It comes from the same root as the word "womb."  Like a mother whose womb viscerally shifts when her child is hurt, we are meant to feel such a connection to those in need.  That is the meaning of compassion:  to be moved, viscerally, by the plight of someone else, and help them, automatically.

Unfortunately, we don't often feel connected to our fellow human beings in this way.  We more often see ourselves as separate entities.

I am reminded of recent readings about Buddhism, in Huston Smith's "World Religions."  Buddha believed that life, as normally lived, is full of suffering.  It doesn't have to be, but it is, because we separate ourselves from each other.  Smith explains Buddha's insight:  "Our duty to our fellows is to understand them as extensions, other aspects, of ourselves -- fellow facets of the same Reality. This is some distance from the way people normally understand their neighbors.  The customary human outlook lies a good halfway toward Ibsen's description of a lunatic asylum in which 'each shuts himself in a cask of self, the cask stopped with a bung of self and seasoned in a well of self.'  ...Where is the man who is as concerned that no one go hungry as that his own children be fed?  ...Here, said the Buddha, is where the trouble lies; this is why we suffer.  Instead of linking our faith and love and destiny to the whole, we persist in strapping these to the puny burros of our separate selves." (pg. 103)  When we separate ourselves from others, in any way, we create suffering in the world.

Now, this parable is NOT meant to teach us that life is about what line we are standing in at the end of days.  That too separates us from our neighbor.  The righteous ones in the story had no  memory of what they had done. They didn't try to earn their place in line.  They simply loved their neighbor as themselves.  They helped where help was needed.  They had compassion.

Yet, so often, we read passages like these in the Bible, and we sidestep their intent.  We codify them:  "What must I do to have eternal life?"  Well, I must feed the hungry, take water to the thirsty, take clothes to the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned.  THAT will get me into heaven.  Or, I must tithe -- no not tithe, I must "sell everything and give to the poor.  THAT will get me into heaven.  Or, I must have faith (the right faith, no less); repent, confess, and be baptized by immersion.  THAT will get me into heaven.   Our lives then become all about our individual selves.

What about simply staying connected?  Whatever happened to simply loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbor as ourselves?  Oh, that's much too hard -- let's think of something else we can do.

Dear Lord, in our great desire to seek you, we all look for THE way.  I am no different.  I too have made this same mistake.  But our guiding light is Jesus, who loved you with his whole being and had compassion for everyone.   May we too grow and blossom in that divine love.  Your truly, Pam

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Whatever the Lord Says to Me, I Will Speak

The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, 'Look, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king; let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.'  But Micaiah said, 'As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, I will speak.'    -- 1 Kings 22:13-14

As I have written in the past in this blog, there are times when I feel God asking me to give someone a message.  And, more often than not, the message is critical.  I wish things were different in that respect, but that is the way it is.  (Please read, "The Word of God Came to Me," November 11, for the background story to what I am writing today.)

Now, today, it is clear to me that God is giving me another task.  Really, it is the same task he gave me before, only now I have a new opponent:  a fellow blogger whose primary purpose seems to be excluding people from the Kingdom of God (see,  When I was first invited to follow this blogger, I said, "No, thanks.  Why would I follow someone who thinks so differently than I do?"  But then I felt that God wanted me to stay connected to this blogger for some reason.  I thought it was so that I would learn how to "love my enemy".  But now I think that I have just been slow to see God's real purpose in wanting me to follow this blogger.

For, Christian exclusion was the catalyst that pushed me forward along this particular journey.  God has filled me with passionate anger at those who exclude others from His Kingdom.  God gave me a voice, and the courage to "say what I need to say", even when it meant opposing friends, fellow church members, and even my previous pastor.   No one gets to exclude anyone from God's Kingdom.  That is God's job.  We don't get to say who is going to heaven or hell, and we don't get to say who is not going to heaven or hell.   

Now I have always felt that it is much more important to step in and put a stop to someone's actions when he or she is harming someone else, or neglecting someone else, than it is to step in and try to correct someone's beliefs.  I have always felt that there were more important things to worry about, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, teaching the children, etc.  Which is one reason why it was so hard for me to learn to speak up in the first place.  Who am I to tell someone they are wrong in their thinking?

At the same time, Christian unity, which ties the whole diverse body of Christ together with our common love for Jesus, is of paramount importance.  So, I am not about to tell someone that their understanding of the meaning of Christ's Eucharist is wrong because it is different from mine.  Or anything like that.

However, I see something else going on when people start proclaiming that they know who gets into God's Kingdom and who does not.  I can no longer turn away, and merely shake my head at those who exclude.  Nor am I meant to.  I believe to the core of my being that I am called upon by God to actively oppose those who try to push people out of the Kingdom of God.

I know I am fighting against a very strong current here.  I seriously doubt that my efforts will make any difference.  However, to do nothing is not an option for me.  Doing nothing to oppose evil only makes it louder and stronger.  And, if I do not admonish those whom I am called to admonish, then I am a party to their crime.  I become an accomplice to it.

My greatest worry is that I, too, will "lose the plot" and stop loving my "enemy" -- that I will return evil for evil.  Perhaps that is why I spent so much time, after I was invited to follow this person's blog, struggling to know how to respond to him.  Somehow, I have to respond with love.  I have to keep the teachings of Jesus in my thoughts, words, and deeds.

A few days ago, a friend, who is a messenger of encouragement to me and many others, gave me a scripture passage -- just because she thought of me when she read it.  It was Paul's words of advice to Timothy:  "Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.  ... focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers and teaching others.  ... Give your complete attention to these matters. ... Keep a close watch on how you live and on your teaching.  Stay true to what is right for the sake of your own salvation and on the salvation of those who hear you."  (from Timothy 4:12-16)  Thank you, my friend.  For, I hear in these words not only much needed comfort, but also words of caution.  I must not, in my effort to correct, go too far and be un-Christian.  I must always approach people with the love of Christ.

I will try, dear Lord.  And I will keep the 'eyes of my heart' and 'the ears of my heart' focused on your message.  Love always, Pam

Monday, November 14, 2011


You say, 'We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with the truth.'  Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience?  Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  -- Romans 2:2-4

I know I should not judge other people, but I am finding myself struggling once again with feelings of anger toward one particular person.  I think I have forgiven him, I think I've moved past the "terrible, awful" (as one friend puts it) events of the past, but then something happens to trigger all the negative feelings again.   Sometimes I get so angry, I want to track him down and scream at him.  But I know that would be wrong, and not at all helpful.

I have to keep telling myself that it's not my place to judge.  As I wrote in yesterday's blog posting, there is good and bad in everyone.  Like Peter, this person has great goodness, mixed in with the bad.  Like me.  I'm not perfect, either.  No one is. 

We want people to be all good, or all bad:  to be perfectly good, or perfectly evil.  That would make things so much easier.  Then the people who are all good would be so easy to love; and the people who are all bad would be so easy to hate.  But God made us imperfect, filled with both good and bad, mixed together.  And he told us to love each other.

I have to learn to love people despite their flaws, their issues, their transgressions.  Just as God loves me despite my flaws, issues, and transgressions.  So that I do not become a hypocrite, I must not judge this person.  I must leave that up to God.

It helps me to remember the good in this person.  I learned a lot of good things from him, and I admired some parts of his character.  I also understand his history, which helps me to understand why he is the way he is.  But even if I did not know of any tangible good in a person who oppresses me, I would still have to trust that there is some goodness there, somewhere.

For God does not make junk.

Dear God, thank you for turning my heart back to you.  Whenever I write out my thoughts, you always help me see the light.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, November 13, 2011

How Are We Doing?

      "When a defiling evil spirit is expelled from someone, it drifts along through the desert looking for an oasis, some unsuspecting soul it can bedevil.  When it doesn't find anyone, it says, 'I'll go back to my old haunt.'  On return it finds the person spotlessly clean, but vacant.  It then runs out and rounds up seven other spirits more evil than itself and they all move in, whooping it up.  That person ends up far worse off than if he'd never gotten cleaned up in the first place.
      "That's what this generation is like.  You may think you have cleaned out the junk from your lives and gotten ready for God, but you weren't hospitable to my kingdom message, and now all the devils are moving back in."     -- Matt. 12:43-45

So many of the daily readings lately have been messages of warning or of God's punishment:  from Amos, Joel, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, and from John's Revelation.  Perhaps this is because the church year is winding down.  As the season of Pentacost, which celebrates the development of the Church, comes to a close, perhaps now is the perfect time to examine how well we are following Christ's "kingdom message." 

So, how are we doing?  Do we cling to our money like the rich young man, or do we give it away freely?  Do we forgive those who trespass against us as Jesus did, or do we hold a bitter grudge?  Do we judge who's in and who's out of the kingdom of God like the Pharisees did, or do we leave that to God?  Do we bury our talent in the dirt, and hide our light under a bushel, or do we use them fearlessly according to God's desire?  Do we have compassion upon all those in need, even people of other cultures and other faiths like the Good Samaritan, or do we turn away?

I don't know about you, but I have failed in all of these, and other, areas over the last year.  Oh, I've made some progress, learned a few things about myself and God, but I still need to work on distancing myself from my worst inklings. 

It's really up to each one of us to keep ourselves "hospitable" to Jesus' message.  Complacency, or resting on our laurels, is not an option.  Neither for ourselves, nor for the church which represents Christ to the world.  No one is immune from "losing the plot", so to speak.  You don't have to look very far, even in the Gospels, to see this is the case. 

All of the disciples who followed Jesus had a hard time understanding his kingdom message.  The ones that we know the best are the ones who mess up the most:  Peter, the "rock" and, all too often, the "stumbling block"; Judas, who thought too much about the money; Thomas, who had to touch and feel before he believed; and even Paul, the reformed Pharisee, who not only wrote the greatest homilies on grace, but also wrote the most rules for who was, or was not, saved. 

There is within each of us, like the disciples of history, the possibility of great miracles of goodness, and great feats of wickedness.   We must be aware of this.  And address our shortcomings.  Our greatest worth, St. Francis believed, was in striving to "transform into virtue the impudence, dishonor, unfaithfulness, and malice within."  How do we do this? 

First, we should look to the words and example of Jesus.  As Christians, Jesus, above all, is our guide.  Second, we must look at ourselves with complete honesty, and recognize where we fall short.  And third, we must seek God's help in getting us to where He wants us to be.

Dear God, please keep my heart and mind open to Your Word.  And please grant me the courage to follow your ways.  Love always, Pam

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Word of God Came to Me

Then the Word of God came to me:  'Son of man, now turn and face the mountains of Israel and preach against them....         --  Ezekiel 6:1

A friend asked me a couple of days ago if I had ever felt God giving me a message to give to someone else.  She gave me examples of when she felt God wanted her to pass along messages of encouragement.  This friend's exuberant love for people is one of the things I love about her; she is unlike anyone I have ever met in this regard.

Unfortunately, I could only think of examples in which I felt God telling me to be critical of someone or some group of people.  And I worry about this.  No one likes to be criticized.  I don't like to be criticized.  It rarely ends up well.  Besides, who am I to judge?  I'm not perfect.  Jesus preached against judgmentalism.  And yet, I cannot doubt that God has asked me to be, at times, a voice of caution, a voice of judgment.  I actually believe God prepared me for this role.

Four years ago, I was filled with an anger that seemed to come from nowhere.  Out of the blue, I felt my blood begin to boil over the exclusiveness of so many Christians:  they welcome people in, but then push them back out because of differences in beliefs or lifestyle.  Day after day, this anger plagued me, and I couldn't figure out why.  Nothing had happened that I could think of.  In an effort to get rid of these thoughts, I decided to look in the Bible and see what God had to say about it.  I started reading the Gospel of Matthew, and read until I came to verse 5:47, "if you only salute your brother, what more are you doing than others?"  I felt as if God had given me an answer to my concern.  Yes, I thought, God does not want us to only love those who think like we do.  This is a mistake on our part.

Perhaps all this angst was part of the reason I had not sought out a church since we had moved to town a year earlier.  But soon after this, I began to miss hearing the words of God on a regular basis.  So, at the beginning of 2008, I became a member of the nearest Lutheran church.

Then I was filled with the desire to study all the teachings of Jesus.  Staying up late at night, waking up early in the morning, squeezing as many hours in the day as I could, I immersed myself in the Gospels, trying to make sense of Jesus' message.  I ate the words of Jesus.  I woke up in the middle of the night with the words of Jesus on my lips.  I was obsessed.  Everything else in my life took a back-burner:  my house, my jobs, and even my family.  Finally, after about six months, around Christmas, I was able to reach a sense of completion, and be present in my life again.  But I was a changed person.  I was filled with all of Jesus' teachings.  And I began to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, leading me.

I felt that I was being led to do something.  But what?  My understanding of Jesus' message was so different than that of some other Christians I met.  I found myself wanting to argue.  But I had been taught that there are three things you never talk about, let alone argue about.  Those three things were:  politics, sex, and religion.  So I kept my thoughts to myself, though at times they were shouting at me.  I wanted to speak up, but at the same time, I didn't want to be disagreeable.

Our church began offering healing services.  I went.  I prayed for understanding and courage:  for the understanding to know what God wanted me to say, and for the courage to say it.  When I got in my car to go home, John Mayer's "Say What You Need to Say" was playing on the radio.  It's a very repetitive song.  I disliked the song because of that, but I became grateful for the repetition:  it took a while for the words to sink in.  When they did, I had to laugh.  By the time I got home, I remember saying to myself, "Okay, God, I'll speak up, but I'm certainly going to become a thorn in someone's side."  Never were truer words spoken.  That was in February 2009.

Immediately, God began presenting me with one person after another, teaching me to find my voice, teaching me how to disagree, teaching me what was worth arguing about, and what was not. I learned to first disagree with my friends.  Then family.  Then acquaintances at church.  Then, in August 2009, when our congregation began to argue and divide over the issue of accepting same-sex couples in committed, monogamous relationships, I felt compelled to speak up, both privately to my pastor, and publicly to the entire congregation, about Christian unity.  Staying silent was not an option.  I felt like that was exactly what God had been preparing me for all along.

And now what?  Well, now things are much quieter.  Thank God.  Only occasionally do I still feel compelled to voice my concerns to fellow Christians.  Lucky you.

Dear Lord, is this what you had in mind when you formed me in my mother's womb?  You certainly gave me a heart for justice.  I hope I have not let you down too much.  Love always, Pam

Monday, October 31, 2011

Make Your Way Straight Before Me

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.  ...Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness... make your way straight before me.       -- from Psalm 5:4-8

Last week I was struggling with an ethical dilemma.  The particulars are not at all important, but lest anyone think my idea was worse (or better) that it was, I will explain:  I wanted to make a little extra money so that I would have a little more wiggle room in my budget, for extra things the kids and I would like, or to save for a rainy day.  I thought I would try to sell some of my journals at a craft fair, or local bookstore.  The dilemma came about because I had so far only been making these journals for members of my church as a fund-raising project for feeding the hungry.  Could I, should I, try to sell them other places, as well, and keep the proceeds for myself?  Most of my friends at church have said, at one time or another, that I should.

And I was finally in agreement.  This fit with my desires.  I was ready to proceed.  Until I read a passage in my daily readings that spoke so specifically to me that I could not help but believe God was trying to tell me something.  I read 1 Samuel 2:27-29.  This passage is about a person whom God has blessed in many ways, but who looks greedily at the offerings and sacrifices that God commanded to be made, and who desires them for himself and his sons. (!)  How was I any different from Eli?  Let me tell you that I took this message very much to heart.  And I decided to stick with my original plan, which was to give all proceeds from the sale of the journals to help feed the hungry.

Again, yesterday, I was thinking about this correction I received.  What, I wondered, motivates me to listen to that voice?  Do I fear punishment if I don't listen?  Is there some fear, after all, in my relationship with God?  I don't think so.  But there is certainly an unwillingness to go against what I believe God wants me to do.  God's ways are better than my ways.  They are always more just.

What do I think will happen if I don't listen, but go and do my own thing?  Well, I think life will get harder for me, for one.  Not because I think God is punishing me, but because there are natural negative consequences for making bad choices.  God, I think, would rather I avoid these negative consequences.   If I don't listen, I know I would feel terrible, guilty, full of regret, sooner or later, at the very least.  Besides, how would I be able to maintain an honest, open, relationship with God, if I persisted in deliberately doing what I know to be against his will for me?  I would not only be fighting against God (and put an unnecessary distance between us), I would also be fighting against my self.  A greater number of problems would result from that than I care to think about.

These thoughts reminded me of the readings from a few weeks ago, which were all about living "The Two Ways":  the way of righteousness vs. the way of wickedness.  I had some difficulty with those readings because they were so black and white.  Either your path was righteous, and you received God's blessings, or your path was wicked, and you received God's curses.  To my understanding, these two ways are not so fixed and permanent; nor do I believe that God curses us for our transgressions.  Rather, instead of two separate paths, I see one path, one straight path to God, which is difficult for us to stay on.  We are often tempted, like John Bunyan's Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress, to veer off the path, to take the way that promises to be easier, a shortcut which will give us our desire.  But always, the way off the one true path only makes things harder, scarier, and instead of giving us our desire, we end up trapped and miserable.

As Jesus said in the Gospel reading yesterday, "everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household, the son has a place there forever... as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father."  (John 8:34-38)  Coincidentally, in other readings today, I find Clement of Alexandria writing pretty much the same thing:  "There is an inheritance for those who serve the Lord... This is the inheritance with which the eternal covenant of God invests us, conveying the everlasting gift of grace; and thus our loving Father -- the true Father -- ceases not to exhort, admonish, train, love us.  ... It is the height of wretchedness to be deprived of the help which comes from God.... Who that may become a son [or daughter] of God, prefers to be in bondage?"  (pgs 263-270, "Exhortation to the Heathen," The Early Church Fathers - Ante-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, with my addition). 

Do I fear losing God's love if I don't listen to him?  No.  I know that God will always love me.  What I fear are the natural negative consequences from making the wrong choice, consequences that God would have me avoid if I would but listen.

Dear God, thank you for your guidance in my life.  I don't know where I would be without your love for me.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Spite of Great Opposition: Shepherding the Flock, part 2

...we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.... we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children....    -- 1 Thessalonians 2:2b, 7b

Last Sunday evening, I decided I would teach my children a little more about God.  (see "Shepherding the Flock," Sept. 30, for earlier musings about this topic.)  Although I was tired after a full day of activities, I was determined to make a habit of having a "Sunday Talk" with each of my kids before their bedtime.  So I started with the youngest, who goes to bed first, and ended with the oldest.

My youngest, who is six years old, is the easiest one to talk to about God.  I read to him the Parable of the Sower, as it is described in his children's Bible (The Spark Story Bible, "The Sower", pg.292-3).  And I explained how the seeds represent our faith in God, and that the story tells us that sometimes mistakes in our understanding and/or difficult times in our lives make us doubt God, and that also the desire for money and toys distracts us from remembering God.  But that if we trust God and keep listening to him, our faith will just grow and grow.  "Like the big flower there," he said, pointing to the flower in the book.  Yep, that's right.

Then he wanted to read me a story.  As he was having a hard time deciding which one to read, I suggested that sometimes it's fun to just open the Bible at any old place and read what you find.  So he opened the book to "Love is...", which is a child's version of Paul's ode to love found in 1 Corinthians 13.  We talked about how we know we love each other, then I tucked him into bed.  Success!

When my middle son, who is nine, was ready for bed, I told him I wanted to have our "Sunday Talk" again.  The previous Sunday's "talk" hadn't gone very well, but I wanted to keep trying.  He doubts that God is real, because, "God hasn't answered any of my prayers."  I tried to explain that God doesn't always answer prayers in the way we expect, or that we don't always see how God does try to help us.  And sometimes we ask for things that maybe God doesn't want us to have.  He just didn't believe me.  So I told him I would think about what he said, and decide what to do next. 

This time, I tried to give him some examples of how God has answered my prayers.  He didn't want to listen.  The more I tried to persuade him to believe in prayer, the more upset he got.  He even covered his head with a pillow.  He said, through his tears, "You are trying to force me to believe what you believe, Mom.  You are trying to force me."

I paused, trying to find a way to reach him, and said, "I'm not trying to force you to believe, Honey.  I just want you to understand how prayer works, because I think mistakes in your understanding are what's causing you to doubt God."  (I had been thinking a lot about the Parable of the Sower in relation to my children!)  But I had to stop and reconsider things.  Was I was forcing him to think like me?  I had to admit the possibility.  So then I tried to read him the Parable of the Sower.  He was too upset; he didn't even want to listen to that.  I finally gave up, said a sad "Goodnight, Honey," and let him fall asleep in tears. 

After my oldest son, who is twelve, complained as well, I too went to bed in tears, feeling like a complete failure. My heart hurt.  I had failed my children and failed God.

I woke up still depressed, at a loss as to how to reach them, how to teach them.  Whether to even try.

I remembered the Dalai Lama's words:  "The most important thing you can do is teach your kids to love."  And I remembered the words I had read to my six-year old from his Bible, Paul's words about love:  "If I use words that everyone understands, but don't have love, I'm just a clanging bell or a booming drum making noise....  Love is patient, love is kind, love doesn't give up.  It never fails....  Love always protects, trusts, hopes." (Pg. 546-8)  I guess love is what I need to work on.  God will follow, if love is learned.  Instead of teaching them how to love God, I need to learn how to love my children as God loves me.  Why is that so difficult??? 

Why did I think that a forced, artificial, "talk" about God would work?  Would I ever do this to someone else?  Another adult?  No.  But these were my children.  If I didn't try to teach them about God, who would?  What if they learned to fear God; what if someone taught them that they would go to hell if they didn't believe?  Does it matter what they believe, as long as they believe?  Yes.  It matters to me.  I would rather they had no faith, than a faith based in fear.  More importantly, I would much rather they believe in God's love.

Reading Paul's words to the Thessalonians above encouraged me to not give up.  I just need to approach things differently.  I need to try to find a compromise between what my two older children want (no guidance) and what I want (complete guidance).  I need to ask and listen more.  And, I need to teach without telling them what to believe.

So that is what I did.  I asked my nine-year-old to make a compromise with me.  I asked him if he would be willing to let me read him a story of my choosing.  He said, "Yes."  I asked him if he would be willing to let me read him some stories from the Bible.  He said, "Yes."  (!)  I said, "I know you don't want me to talk about prayer, but would you be willing to let me talk about God?"  He said, "Yes."  Who was this kid???  The difference was astounding.  Why?

Was it because we were both rested, and not so tired after a busy day?  Maybe.  Was it just the result of having given him a choice?  Quite possibly.  Was it the answer to a prayer?  Most definitely.

Dear Lord, thank you for keeping me going, for giving me the encouragement I needed.  And thank you for helping me to remember to listen not only to those of great faith, but also to those of little faith.  Love always, Pam

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Problem of Evil

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.  Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.      --  3 John 11

This passage captures my thoughts for the day perfectly.  All good things come from God.  Not one bad thing comes from God.  The bad things that happen in our lives are either the result of our own bad choices, the bad choices someone else makes, or simply, chance.

I know, however, that not everyone sees this the same way I do.  There are many people who look at the events that impact our lives, both positive and negative, as individuals and whole groups, and say that they are ALL the result of divine intervention.  Take Isaiah, for example.  Isaiah believed that God used King Nebuchadnezzar to punish Israel for their sins.  The king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, brutally killed men, women, and children, and exiled the leaders of Israel -- and this was seen as an act of God, by Isaiah.  Isaiah also believed that God used King Cyrus of Persia to punish the Babylonians and rescue Israel, sending them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their nation.  As we will read in this Sundays lectionary:  "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe;  I the Lord do all these things." (45:7)

What is the end result of this way of thinking about God?  Well, we can see in the Bible that for the ancient Jews who thought like Isaiah, it meant trying to be perfect, restricting themselves to many hundreds of laws, in an effort to earn God's continual blessing.  Only by never committing a single sin, they believed, would they be able to count on God's protection from evil.  Unfortunately, this didn't always ring true.  Over and over again, bad things kept happening -- even when the people did everything they were supposed to.  Even when they led wholly holy lives, completely devoted to God, bad things still happened.

Now, if this way of interpreting evil doesn't turn you into a self-righteous jerk, it may cause you to lose hope in God altogether.  In "Invitation to Presence," Wendy Miller, describes how Jesus used the Parable of the Sower to teach us about all the things that "[rob] us of faith, hope, and a sense of God's loving presence," one of which is hardship -- Jesus' "rocky ground" (Matt. 13:5, 20).  Ms. Miller writes, "In our anxiety and panic, we may well forget to pray, or we may see God as unfair, allowing bad things to happen to good people.  And who wants to trust in a God like that?"  (pg. 32)  Exactly!

It is also true that seeing evil events as acts of God may make you blind to evil altogether -- your own, or that of others.  If it is an act of God, it must not be bad after all, or so the logic runs.  Such has been the "logic" behind far too many evil deeds.  One story, unfamiliar to me until recently, is the story of Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield in 1881, because he felt that God had chosen him especially for this task (heard this week on NPR, The Diane Rehms Show:  "The Destiny of the Republic," by Candice Mallard).  President Garfield was a wonderful, remarkable human being.  And shock and dismay over his death united the country for a time.  Now you can say that uniting the country by killing the president was God's original plan, or you can say that bringing the country together after the horrible death of the president was God's backup plan.

I prefer the latter interpretation.  I don't believe God brings wrath upon people for their sins.  Nor does God use people to commit evil deeds.  Sometimes bad things just happen:  you are the innocent victim of a crime; a child gets cancer; a hurricane strikes your town, etc.  And sometimes, people make bad choices that naturally have negative consequences:  sin wreaks its own natural havoc in our lives; God does not need to add his wrath on top of it.    That is not to say that God plays no part in the trials of our life.   I believe God is there, always, waiting to comfort and teach us.  David's interpretation is better in my opinion:  "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me." (Ps.23:4)  When hardship falls upon us, God is there to comfort us; when we bring hardship upon ourselves, God is there to teach us.  If we let him.

God doesn't hurt people.  People hurt people.  Believing that God hurts people by design, is one way we hurt people. 

Dear God, please help me to remember this, for there are far too many temptations to think otherwise, all of which put us into sin's territory.  Love always, Pam

Friday, October 7, 2011

Shepherding the Flock

I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you do it -- not for sordid gain but eagerly.  Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.... And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.    --  1 Peter 1b-5

Yesterday was a day of thinking hard about my children's faith.  Throughout the day, one message after another removed the fog that has been surrounding me lately.   

I have been struggling with how to teach my children (ages 6, 9, and 12) more about God.  My husband is agnostic.  And, rightly or wrongly, only time will tell, we have allowed our children to choose whether to go to church or not.  They do sometimes, though not as often as I would like.  And they enjoy Vacation Bible School during the summer.  But they don't get very much formal Christian education on a regular basis.  I have, at various times, attempted to teach them about God (to varying degrees of success), but I know I need to do this more often.

Figuring out exactly how to do this for three very different boys has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to do! My oldest son is more of a doubter, a questioner.  He wants proof, but at the same time he is inspired by the little miracles that have happened to other people.  His faith, however, will only ever blossom, if he is allowed to doubt.  The more I push, the more he resists.  My youngest son has the faith that Jesus tells us we all should have.  He prays easily, loves to read different children's Bibles, and tries to put into practice the teachings he has learned.  My middle son more often now expresses the doubts of his older brother, though I also see in him a desire to simply know what it is all about.  With each son, I must have a different approach.

So, I have been sorting out in my mind, over the last few weeks, once again, what it is that is essential for them to learn and how best to get that across.  I have been very slow at doing this.  I know this is supremely important, and I hear God telling me this needs to be done.  Yet, I am hesitant, and continue to stall and make excuses.  In part, this is because, at least with the two older boys, I fear their resistance.  I want them to embrace what I tell them, but I fear that they won't.

When I read the passage above, I was puzzled by the phrase "exercising the oversight."  So I found a website,, that has many different translations of the Bible.  The Aramaic Bible in Plain English provides the following translation:  "Shepherd the flock of God that follows you and give care spiritually, not by compulsion, but with pleasure, not by defiled profit, but with all your heart."  This translation helped, offering much needed guidance, as well as conviction.

But even before these readings, my day had started rather unusually.  Around 9:30, a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door.  They wanted to talk to me about raising children.  They asked me about my experiences and shared a little of theirs.  As we talked, they expressed their surprise and pleasure at finding someone else with a strong faith in God.  They gave me a pamphlet about raising children, and showed me one of the pages which illustrated three families:  one in which the children were carbon copies of the parents, one in which the children were rebellious, and one in which everyone was encouraged to be themselves.  They said, "We must give our children the freedom to be themselves, just as God gives us the freedom to be ourselves."  I found this very comforting.  Their visit felt like a blessing, that God had sent them to me with this message of encouragement.

Later in the afternoon, looking for something to do on an unusually cold day, I took my kids to see the only family movie they hadn't yet seen:  a documentary called, "Happy," by Roko Belic.  The movie explores what makes different people around the world happy.  My 12-year-old thought there ought to be a law against being forced to go to a movie he didn't want to see, my 9-year-old thought it was interesting, and the 6-year-old found it very tiring.  Though the venture was not the all-around success I had hope it would be, maybe some of its insights will stick with them.  Not surprisingly, love, compassion, friendship, helping others -- these intrinsic things make people happy.  A special insight for me came from the Dalai Lama, who said, "The most important thing you can teach your children is to love."

Watching this movie reminded me of why I wanted to teach my children about God in the first place.  I want them to be happy.  I want them to know that God loves them.  And I want them to love God in return.  I want them to have a strong personal relationship with God.  I know what a difference this has made in my life.

So, now I know that I need to keep this purpose in mind:  their happiness.  Perhaps then I will be able to shepherd this flock that God gave me, "not by compulsion, but with pleasure."

Dear God, thank you for the blessings of this day.  Love always, Pam

Friday, September 30, 2011

Surpassing Value

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  -- Philippians 3:7-8

Paul is sharing a powerful insight that comes with knowing Jesus.  All the things that are valued by society -- in Paul's case, lineage, education, righteousness in the law, even zeal for the faith -- count as nothing compared to the value of knowing Christ.  Since Paul is writing this letter from prison, he has lost even more than his past prestige.  He has lost his freedom.  But what he does have surpasses the loss of all these things.  He knows Jesus Christ.  And so, instead of conveying any sense of loss, the predominant feeling that overflows throughout the pages of his letter is one of joy.

This insight from Tuesday morning's reading mirrors what I am reading in Huston Smith's "World Religions" about Hinduism.  Although the paths may be different, the insights that Hindus and Christians have discovered about life are the same.  For Hindus, too, have discovered the inherent emptiness in many of the things that people think they want.

According to Huston Smith, Hindus believe there are four tiers along the quest of fulfillment.  At the first tier, people want pleasure, good times, fun.  This way of life soon falls flat, leaving one feeling unfulfilled, empty.  At the second tier, people seek power, prestige, success in work, wealth, etc.  This way can offer more substance, but eventually, this also leaves one feeling empty, wondering if there is more to life.  At the third tier, people begin to seek more meaning in their lives.  They begin to look outward, to think of their community, and help people in need.  (pg. 13-16)

This is where Huston Smith says religion begins:  "with the quest for meaning and value beyond self-centredness."  On this third tier, one "transforms the will-to-get into the will-to-give, the will-to-own into the will-to-serve" (pg. 19).  What I found surprising is that helping others has also been discovered to leave one empty.  The Hindus have learned that service to your neighbor is not enough.  Something more is necessary in order for one to feel completely fulfilled.

As I struggled to understand why this was so, I thought of Jesus.  Jesus taught us to give and serve as an act of love.  Without love, given or received, any sort of altruism would feel very hollow, especially if it is difficult.  Jesus told us to "love one another as I have loved you."  When service comes from love, it has meaning.  Otherwise, as Paul observes elsewhere, "without love, I have nothing." (1 Corinthians 13)  I thought that this must be the missing piece to the third tier of the quest of fulfillment. 

But then I learned in Smith's book that Hindu's believe complete fulfillment lies in the quest for ultimate being, ultimate knowledge, and ultimate joy.  These words took me back to the passage above.  I believe Paul achieved all three with Jesus Christ.  Paul found the meaning of life in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, and in his trust that this would be an eternal relationship.  The joy that came from this relationship was palpable.  Everything else life had to offer paled in comparison.

I am reminded of Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life...."  I see a connection between these words of Jesus and Hinduism's final goal.  Ultimate being is the life; ultimate knowledge is the truth; and, ultimate joy is the way.  Jesus embodies all three goals.  He said, "I came that you may have life and have it abundantly... and that your joy may be full" -- irrespective of our circumstances.  Perhaps a Hindu might not see it that way, but I think its worth noting.  We have in and with and through Jesus Christ the possibility of finding ultimate being, ultimate truth, and ultimate joy.

Dear God, thank you for bringing these two readings together for me.  May the similarities between us bring enriched fellowship and understanding.  Love always, Pam

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nothing Special

Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.     -- Psalm 25:8

These words from the Hebrew Scripture make me think of Jesus.  Jesus was often criticized for sitting and talking and eating with sinners.  "Why does he eat with tax collector's and sinners?" the Pharisees asked.  And Jesus, who heard them, answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."  (Mark 2:15-17)

I wonder what messages he would have shared with the tax-collector's and prostitutes and such.  I imagine him sharing messages of God's steadfast love and forgiveness.  Perhaps he shared examples from the past.  There are plenty to choose from in Scripture. 

The story of Jacob comes to mind, as it too was in the readings for this week.  Jacob connived to get his brother's birthright, and lied to his father in order to steal his brother's blessing.  He had to flee his home, and everything he loved, to escape Esau's wrath.  Used to living in tents, and having little work to do, he must have felt very much the hardship of being alone in the desert with only the clothes on his back and a stone for a pillow.   But God comes to him in a dream, and tells him, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land."  With this revelation, Jacob begins to change his ways.  God's love can transform a sinner's life.

This was something the Pharisees didn't seem to understand.  They believed that only the righteous, like themselves, were loved by God.  Only those who obeyed the laws of Moses, like themselves, were acceptable to God, and the community.  Like Jonah, they wanted sinners to be punished, not forgiven.

Which is why Jesus not only taught sinners such as the tax-collectors and prostitutes, he also taught the self-righteous Pharisees.  So many of his parables are directed to those who thought they didn't need teaching.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows the "heretical" Samaritan being a better neighbor than the priest or Levite.  The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard illustrates that God's grace is not dependent on how hard you've worked.  All receive the same grace.  All are loved equally.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches both sinners and saints.  It offers guidance to the young profligate son and caution to the elder obedient one.  The younger brother takes his inheritance, wastes it all, and ends up living in a pigsty.  The elder brother thinks he has earned his father's love, that only he deserves his father's rewards.  Anything else is just not fair.  Both are thinking only of themselves.  Both need a change of heart.  The younger brother needs to trust that he is not worthless in his father's eyes; and the older brother needs to see that he is not the only one who is worthy in his father's eyes.  Both need to learn how to receive and return love.  

This reminds me of something a friend shared about Alcoholics Anonymous the other day.  She said AA teaches you that You are not Special.  Neither your success in life, nor your failures, are the result of your "specialness."  You are not invincible.  Nor are you a victim.  You're not the best, and you're not the worst.  You are just like every other human being, making bad choices.  In this way, the self-destructive learn to raise their heads, and the high-and-mighty learn to lower theirs. 

Isn't this just what Jesus was all about?  A constant refrain in the readings of late has been, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last."  And as my pastor said, "Then maybe we will be able to join our hands in a circle."  Yes, for then we will know that God loves us all.

Dear God, may we learn that we are all, each and every one of us, in many different ways, both broken and blessed.  May the love you give us so generously be shared generously with others.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, September 17, 2011

To Each His Own?

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God.    -- Romans 14:22

Paul is writing this advice to the Romans.  In this letter, his last, he expresses the culmination in his understanding after years of preaching the gospel message.  He is not settling disputes between members like he has done in so many of his previous letters.  He is not answering specific questions about women, offices in the church, or life after death.  His message is much simpler:  God justifies those who put their trust in him.  Simply place your trust in God, believe, and God will lead you along the way you need to go.

In these words above, Paul tells us to focus on our personal relationship with God.  We don't need to judge anyone's beliefs but our own; nor do we need to be convicted by anyone's judgment but our own as we live in relationship with God.  For, ultimately, essentially, our relationship with God is a personal one.   Through the study of scripture, through prayer, through living in community, and listening to God's Holy Spirit as it speaks to us, we grow and learn what it means to be a child of God.

Luther, who highly valued Paul's letter to the Romans, first coined the phrase "the priesthood of all believers" to highlight this insight, and to differentiate it from the prevailing attitude of the priesthood of a chosen few.  Luther trusted that people of average intelligence would be able to read the Bible and interpret it for themselves.   People did not need to be told what to believe by the Church, or anyone else.

The result of  such individualism, of course, is that we will come to different conclusions, about God, about Jesus, about a whole multitude of things, than our neighbor.  For, not only is the Bible, our foundational source of information about our God, full of contradictions, but our experiences of God vary from our neighbors' experiences.  And there is the rub.

For how do we love our neighbor who does not see God the same way we do?

Historically, our answer has been to judge the other wrong and separate ourselves from them, if not worse.  Luther's stance may not have started the divisions (there were divisions before Luther), but it did give Christians even greater impetus to separate over differing beliefs. And so churches, Protestant churches especially, have continually divided over differing beliefs, especially over differing interpretations of the Bible. At last count there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations.  Is the inevitable result of this attitude to someday have millions of churches of one member only?

How and why did this become the appropriate response to different understandings?

Somehow, somewhere along the way, faith became confused with belief.  Our individual beliefs about God, Jesus, and a multitude of other things, came to represent our faith in God.  Trust in God's righteousness was replaced with our righteousness before God.  Even after Luther.  This righteousness was not dependent on works so much, anymore, but it became dependent upon our beliefs -- not our faith.

But this isn't the example Jesus gave us.  Rich and poor, learned and unlearned, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, Pharisees and tax collectors, women and men -- you name it -- all followed Jesus.  Did all these people think the same way about anything?  They certainly didn't think the same way about God.  But they all had one thing in common.  They all believed in, or came to believe in, God.  As Jesus continually told them:  their faith made them well.  They just needed to trust in a loving, forgiving God.  Jesus cut threw all the arguments and sectarianism to what was really important:  love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Period.

Dear God, thank you for your wonderful message.  And thank you for the example of Jesus.  In the words of St. Anthony:  "Please grow us slowly, persistently, and deeply, Lord, to be people who watch without distraction, listen without interruption, and stay put without inclination to flee."  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

All Authority

If any judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another -- any such matters of dispute in your towns -- then you shall immediately go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose, where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case.  Carry out exactly the decision in the case....  -- Deut. 17:8-10

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed....    -- Romans 13:1-2

These readings for yesterday are both about obedience to human authority, either governmental or priestly.  Both of these passages bother me.  For one, priests -- or in my case, pastors -- disagree with each other at times about questions on faith/religion, even pastors in my Lutheran denomination.  And for another, any human authority can be wrong, if not wickedly wrong and corrupt.  The only authority that I feel I can absolutely trust is God's authority.

But where do I learn God's will?  As a Christian, I rely on the example and teachings of Jesus to show me the way I need to go, and I rely on the real presence of God's Holy Spirit in my life.  Whenever I read, hear, or see something, even something in other parts of Scripture, that runs contrary to Jesus' life and teachings then I think that way is wrong.  Whenever I read, hear or see something that mirrors the teachings of Jesus, then I am confident that way is right.

Which is why these passages about human authority bother me.  As far as governmental authority goes, Jesus says:  Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. (Matt. 22:21).  And as far as priestly authority goes, Jesus says:  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.  Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. (Matt. 23:8-10).  These words tell me that my possessions (man-made and money-bought) belong to the world; they are transitory things that will pass on to someone else, or fade away.  My heart, my mind, my body, and my soul, however, belong to God.  Jesus teaches me to give my all to God, and to let no earthly authority lead me astray -- not government, not priest or pastor, not even family. 

Coincidentally, driving to school yesterday afternoon to pick up my children, and listening to a CD on "The History of the Catholic Church" (The Teaching Company), I heard examples of this very thing.  The next lecture on tap in this 33-lecture set, happened to be about the developments in Christianity in the 4th century.  During this century, Christianity changed from being a state-persecuted religion whose leaders were mostly martyred, to being a state-sponsored religion whose leaders mostly shared the power and wealth of the state.

This was the time period when the things of Caesar and the things of God were rendered together and all power resided in a few human hands.  This was the time when Christianity became militarized, called upon for success in battle by Constantine, though Jesus said, "love your enemies" and "whoever shall live by the sword shall die by the sword."  This is the time when great cathedrals were beginning to be built (St. Peter's, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), as well as palaces for clergy, from the offerings of the faithful, despite the fact that Jesus lived very simply and said, "you cannot serve God and wealth."  And this is the time period when creeds were made and doctrine developed in an attempt to unify the great diversity of understanding among far flung Christians, but which serve more to distract Christians from the simple commandment of Jesus:  love one another as I have loved you.

The coincidence of listening to this particular information on this particular day is not lost on me, which is why I have learned to trust in God's Holy Spirit.  Human authority, both priestly and governmental, and especially when these are combined into one, has often led us pretty far astray from the life and teachings of Jesus, and has disqualified the working of the Holy Spirit.  So, despite these passages in the Old and New Testament, I will continue to trust Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, whom I believe were, and are, sent by God to show us the way to him.

Dear and Wonderful God, thank you for guiding me in the steps you want me to go, for leading me to exactly what I needed and giving me the strength to carry on.  Love always, Pam