Thursday, April 28, 2011


Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows....   -- Ps. 16:4

Reading this Psalm again today, I was reminded of the words from Merton that had meant so much to me yesterday:  "We receive as much of the charity of Christ as we are willing to deny ourselves of any other love."  (pg. 182, No Man is An Island)  As I wrote yesterday (in "If Left to My Own Devices...), sometimes, my inclination is to love myself more than others.  If I do so, however, I make myself a god.

On NPR this afternoon, Diane Rehm was interviewing Eric Felten, the author of a new book titled, "Loyalty:  The Vexing Virtue."  Mr. Felten and Ms. Rehm had a fascinating discussion on both the necessity and the pitfalls of loyalty.  Loyalty is essential in loving relationships.  I think of the traditional marriage vows, which are a beautiful expression of loyalty:  to love through thick or thin, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer....  This kind of loyalty is the basis of all kinds of lasting relationships, be that between friends, children, spouses, parents, etc..

But Felten and Rehm also talked about misplaced loyalties.  Many people put complete trust in Bernie Madoff.  Many people put complete trust in Hitler.  I think when you put absolute trust in anyone, even a loved one, such that you would accept whatever they do or want you to do without question, you are making that person your god.  As the psalm said, this leads to sorrow.  

My husband, who is agnostic, sometimes expresses his concern that I love God more than I love him.  He worries because he knows the phrase, "If you would be my disciples, you must leave your mother, your father, your wife, ... and follow me."  Well, he is right, but he need not worry.  My love for God is greater than my love for any other person, even my husband.  But, God points me back to my husband and to my children and to everyone else with greater and greater love.  Because I love God best, I am learning to love others better. 

I am committed to my husband.  I am committed to my children.  I am committed to my friends.  I am committed to working through all the difficulties that may come up between us.  But I know that I can only put my complete trust and loyalty, such that I obey without question, in God.

Now, how can I be sure that I am obeying the one, true God, and not some other god?  By keeping in mind that God is Love.  God requires me to love others sacrificially, in which I do not fear my own death in my efforts to love them as God wants me to love them.

In the news today was the story of a father and daughter who were camping in Alabama when the terrible tornado hit.  A tree fell on their tent, killing the father, who had used his body to protect his daughter.  The daughter survived.  That is sacrificial love.

Also in the news was a report on doctors at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center who treated detainees for their injuries acquired from "enhanced interrogation techniques" (ie. torture).  These doctors never questioned the cause of the injuries, nor did they report the abuse to a higher authority.  Where did these doctors' place their greatest loyalty?  I doubt that they placed it in God.

I think of times when evil was known or at least suspected.  Some people see evil and distance themselves from it.  Clearly their loyalties are misplaced.  Others put themselves in harm's way, willingly sacrifice everything, to show their love.  As Jesus did.

Dear God, thank you for the many people who sacrifice themselves for love.  They are the holy ones.   May I learn to place your will always before my own.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If Left to My Own Devices...

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.  I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.  As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight....  The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. ... I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.  I keep the Lord always before me.... You show me the path of life.  In your presence there is fullness of joy.      --  from Psalm 16

This morning, I was looking ahead to Sunday's lectionary readings, preparing for a Bible Study tonight, and read the words above.  The phrase, "I have no good apart from you" matched my thoughts perfectly.  Sometimes it is very clear to me that if left to my own devices, I would be a heap full of vices.  

Two days ago, I had the idea that I should correct another person's misunderstanding about me.  The truth  was at stake.  But, before I followed my inclination, I asked for the prayerful advice of friends.  My intentions on the surface seemed justifiable, but, I have come to realize that my true intentions are sometime concealed, even from me.  And, I searched for answers in a book.  I'm currently reading Thomas Merton's, No Man is An Island.  Unfortunately, I was having a hard time reconciling what I was reading with what I wanted to find.

I was looking for approval, for a sanctioning of my intentions, but I was reading about "self-denial"  and "the common good."  How did this speak to my concerns, I wondered?  I particularly couldn't make sense of these words:  "...perhaps they carry their sincerity to the point of injustice -- being too frank about others and themselves, using the truth to fight the truth, and turning it into an instrument of ridicule in order to make others less loved.  The "truth" that makes another man cheap hides another truth that we should never forget, and which would make him remain always worthy of honor in our sight.  To destroy truth with truth under the pretext of being sincere is a very insincere way of telling a lie."  (pg. 189)  I was too blinded by my sense of "honesty," to understand.

Luckily, one of my friends said, "What good would it do?"  What good would my telling the truth do?  Aah.  This was what I needed to hear:  a clear and simple question.  "What good would it do?"  My answer was immediate:  clarifying this person's misconception about me would have done no good, and possibly a lot of damage.  Not that I would have been hurt, but someone else could have been sidelined.  But, but... What about being honest?

Tired of wrestling with myself, I went to bed for the night.  And woke up early.  (Why do I seem to hear God best in the middle of the night?)  I settled myself in for a long morning, and began reading the lectionary for today.  The Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), reminded me of Merton's words on baptism, which I read again.  Baptism comes, for Merton, at that point at which we "yield our souls to the action of God's love".   Merton writes that "once we have the Spirit dwelling in our hearts, the measure of the giving of Christ corresponds to our own desire.  For in teaching us of the indwelling of His Spirit of charity, Jesus always reminds us to ask, in order that we may receive."  (pg178-9)   This I understood.   

For, when I began searching for God's truth, believing in God's compassion, I came to know Jesus and then became aware of the Holy Spirit working in my life.  Believing and knowing, however, must be followed by obedience.  I read, "The more we obey the Spirit, the more we are moved and live as sons of God, and the greater our capacity for being enlightened and strengthened by His inspirations. ...This brings us to another element that determines the measure of our love for God:  self-denial.  We receive as much of the charity of Christ as we are willing to deny ourselves of any other love."  (pg. 180-2)  

And so I understood that I must deny my inclinations.  I could see that my "good" intention to be honest about myself was actually hiding a selfish desire to make myself look good at the expense of another person.  I was in danger of putting self-love above love of neighbor.  Merton's words from yesterday, which I could not decipher before, now made perfect, though regrettable, sense. 

Thank you, Dear God, for protecting me from my worst self.  Thank you for your holy ones:  those who bless me with your wisdom.  I am grateful that I do not have anything worse to regret.  And I am feeling joyfully blessed by your persistent care of me.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Log in My Eye

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom....        -- Colossians 3:12-16a

The word "forgiveness" has been in everything I have read in the last couple of days.  I have written about the importance of forgiveness before.  I know how important it is to forgive people.  But Merton writes even more strongly about it: 
     "God has left sin in the world in order that there may be forgiveness:  not only the secret forgiveness by which He Himself cleanses our souls, but the manifest forgiveness by which we have mercy on one another and so give expression to the fact that He is living, by His mercy, in our own hearts."  (No Man is An Island, pg. 208) 

Sin is in the world so that we learn that God forgives us, and so that we can practice this same forgiveness.  Really?  In my mind I hear the words, "With the forgiveness you forgive, so shall you be forgiven."  Did Jesus say those words?  Or did he say, "With the judgment you judge, so shall you be judged"?  The two sentiments are certainly tied together.

Yesterday I opened the book, "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff," by Richard Carlson, PhD., and read, "See the Innocence" (pg.93):  "For many people, one of the most frustrating aspects of life is not being able to understand other people's behavior.  We see them as 'guilty' instead of 'innocent.'"  Carlson writes that we should take a step back and try to understand the situation from that person's point of view, or put ourselves in the same position.  Often we will see their innocence, and feel compassion towards them, instead of feeling judgmental.

I am reminded of the story in the Bible where Jesus is visiting Simon the Pharisee, and a woman comes to wash Jesus' feet with her tears and dry his feet with her hair.  Simon looks down on the woman because he sees her guilt -- she has committed many sins.  Jesus looks at the woman with compassion, because he sees her innocence, the love behind her sins.  He says, "She who has loved much is forgiven much."  (Luke 7:44-47)

And yet, the passage from Colossians above also says to "admonish one another in all wisdom."  How do you admonish another adult?  I have yet to figure out how to do this effectively.  Usually, when I am vocally judgmental, I end up in a turmoil of regret.  Looking back at these different times, I see in each of these situations that I was looking down at that person from my high horse.  I was thinking that I am in the right, and they are in the wrong, that I am better, they are worse.  Each time I do this, I am quickly knocked right off my horse by the recognition of my own sinful behavior.  Jesus said, "Why do you notice the speck in your neighbor's eye, but miss the log in your own?"  Never were more truer words spoken in my case.

Perhaps, recognizing our own behavior ahead of time in the flaws we see in others is the key.  Perhaps that is what is meant by "wisdom":  knowing that you are just as guilty as the one you want to correct.  I think knowing this, understanding my perfect equality with my flawed neighbor, would help me approach the task of "admonishing" with all the charity and love I could muster, for I would also be correcting myself.

Merton writes, "Some people never reveal any of the good that is hidden in them until we give them some of the good, that is to say, some of the charity, that is in ourselves.  We are so much the children of God that by loving others we can make them good and lovable, in spite of themselves."  (pg. 170) 

Just as God does for us.

Dear God, thank you for loving me with a love that knows no bounds.  May I learn to love others with the same unconditional love.  Love always, Pam

Monday, April 25, 2011

In Times of Trouble

I was pushed hard so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.      --  Ps. 118:13

How does the Lord help me?  To put it simply, with a word.

When I am struggling, angry, worried, or wondering what direction I should take, I have learned to ask for help in the quietness of my soul.  I have learned to lay it all before the Lord, examining as many angles of the problem as I can -- both my good intentions and my not so good intentions.  Then, I have learned to leave it in God's hands.  I move on, trusting in the Lord.  And, almost as soon as I have left the problem behind me, I hear, or see, the words that are meant for me.  These can be from a book (the Bible, or some other book), from a song, from another person, or from nowhere in particular.  The words I need never fail to come.

"Perfect hope is achieved on the brink of despair when, instead of falling over the edge, we find ourselves walking on air."  (Merton, No Man is An Island, pg. 206)

I must, however, reach the point where I know that only God can help me.  (This comes more easily with practice.) 

"When a man suffers, he is most alone," Merton writes.  (No Man is An Island, pg. 81).  I think there must come a point when we all realize this alone-ness.  No one really understands us.  No one's advice seems to help, not our family, not our teachers, not our friends, not even our pastor or therapist.  Though they may love and care for us, and want to help us, if they do not turn to God for help, they too may not be able to tell us what we need to hear.

Once you reach the point where you know that you, or anyone else you know, cannot solve your problem, you have a choice.  You can either give up the hope that there will ever be an end to your struggle, or your can place your hope in God.

Today's Old Testament reading, from Exodus (14:10-16), illustrates this well.  The Israelites approaching the Red Sea, look back and see the Egyptians chasing them in order to kill them.  They complain to Moses, "Why did you bring us into the wilderness to die?  Weren't there enough graves in Egypt?"  Moses tries to encourage them, but he gives them bad advice.  He tells them, "Stand firm... keep still."  But, then the word of the Lord comes to Moses, "Tell the Israelites to go forward.  You, Moses, lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand...."  Luckily, Moses listens to God, and the Israelites listen to God, and they are delivered from death.

I recall some of the history of God's Word.  From Genesis:  "God said... and there was...."  From the Gospel of John:  "In the beginning was the word...." and,  "Jesus is the word made flesh."  From the lives of the saints: St. Augustine struggling to solve the dilemma of life, hearing a child's voice say, "Take the book, and read," he opens the Bible, and the first words he reads, speak to him so directly that he can not doubt that God is speaking to him, and he listens; St. Anthony of the Desert, running into church late, hears "If you would be perfect, sell all you possess and give to the poor," and he listens; Mother Teresa hearing God telling her to help the poorest of the poor while riding on a train, and she listens.  There are countless examples in the lives of other people that attest to the power of God's word.  There are certainly countless examples in my life.

Dear God, please keep me always turned to you with open ears and open eyes, trusting in your mercy and steadfast love.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Endings and New Beginnings

For this I was born, and for this I came into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth.   -- John 18:36

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention... so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.  ...therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.  Above all maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  ...serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.   -- from 1 Peter 4:1 - 11

Yesterday, none of the lectionary readings jumped out at me.  Instead, I journaled about work/vocation, about my concerns with trying to fulfill God's will for me.   Writing is my way of connecting most deeply and sincerely with God.  It is prayer for me.  I knew at the end of last year that I had to find some way of sharing this connection with others.  In March, I started this blog because I was convinced I needed to do something immediately, not wait to write out my journals into a book.

Over the last six weeks, this sense of purpose that God has given me has only gotten stronger.   Any interest I had in my University job, and future prospects to teach mathematics again, has decreased as this sense of purpose has increased.  This change of attitude has made it much easier for me to leave my current work, and to set aside more time for writing.  But it is a little disconcerting to think about changing directions so completely at this point in my life.  I don't think I'm having a mid-life crisis, but I could be wrong.

A week ago, I started to see a connection between what I am going through and the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I wrote in my first blog that the beginning of Lent was a perfect time to start following God's particular purpose for one's life.  Well, the end of Lent is turning out to be for me a time of dying to my old life.  It is finished.  I know this. 

I also know that I will face challenges, or temptations, in this new life.  One is maintaining a balance between writing and family.  I got lost in writing and studying scripture before; I don't want that to happen again -- my family is too important.  The second challenge is, ironically, the opposite of the first:  not devoting enough time to writing.  I have a habit of jumping in to help wherever I can help, and then going crazy because I am too busy!  A third challenge has come up recently with this blog. 

I wanted as many people to read this blog as possible.  So I started posting new titles on Twitter, and Facebook.  But then I started caring too much about the results.  I found myself thinking about my writing with the eyes of other people, continually editing the words, and monitoring the stats that tell me how many people have looked at it in a given day.  I was looking at the blog, at myself, as if I were a spectator.  I could feel myself becoming anxious about the blog, and I knew that all this fussing was taking away from the purity of my connection to God.  So, I made myself stop looking at the stats.  And I will stop trying to perfect the words. I will trust that God's message will shine even through my imperfect words.

I read a lot yesterday.  Nothing jumped out at me in the lectionary readings, but I found Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis" surprising helpful.  Near the middle of this book, he writes about experiencing some of the pitfalls in trying to fulfill God's purpose for him, pitfalls that I was beginning to experience.  And Thomas Merton's book, "No Man is an Island" again met me where I was with heaps of insight into fulfilling God's purpose for one's life.  Merton wrote about the passage in John above.  I find it amazing that I read that passage in Merton yesterday, that passage which speaks clearly to Jesus' vocation, to God's purpose for him, that passage which I completely missed when I read it in the lectionary.  It's as if God knew I had missed it, and wanted me to see it again.

Dear and Glorious Lord, you amaze me with your care of me.  Where would I be without you?  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart always be pleasing in your sight.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Making Choices

If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.      --  John 13:17

Jesus has just washed the feet of his disciples, in order to show them how to serve each other with love and humility.  But it is this last sentence that fascinates me today.  Jesus does not say, If you know these things you are blessed.  He says, You are blessed if you do them.  Knowing what is right and good is not enough.  Doing is more important.

This passage first made me think about my youngest son.  He has gotten into a lot of trouble lately in his Kindergarten class.  My sweet-natured little boy has suddenly become a hoodlum:  stealing school supplies, lying about it, deliberately ignoring his teachers' requests.  He has gotten into so much trouble in the last two weeks, that he is having to earn his privileges on a daily basis -- something my other two boys never had to do.  He knows what is right, but he is choosing to do what is wrong.  My husband and I hope he will soon learn that making good choices leads to a happier life.

Then this message was repeated as I drove to and from work today.  I was listening to a commentary on St. Augustine's Confessions.  Augustine's journey of faith encourages me.  Written 1500 years ago, it still offers many insights into the world today.  I am especially appreciative of Augustine's struggle to follow God's will.  I too am struggling to follow God's will.  I'm pretty sure of what God wants me to do, but I am waffling about doing it.

Today the lecturer described how Augustine first had to have a conversion of intellect.  He had to understand the validity of Christianity.  Then, he needed to have a conversion of will:  to choose God's way over the world's way.  (The Teaching Company, 2004, Prof. Cook and Prof. Herzman, Lecture 14)

Augustine comes to God late in life.  His journey of faith begins when he reads a book by Cicero, a pagan philosopher.  Cicero so highly praises the study of philosophy as the key to happiness that Augustine starts to seek wisdom.  He tries to read the Bible, but finds it hard to understand.  The Manichean sect, however, proclaims to have all the answers.  Their certainty is very appealing to Augustine, until he sees that some of their answers don't quite fit.  The Platonists (or Neo-Platonists) offer better answers.  From them he finds gems of understanding, but still, something is missing.  God is missing.  The Platonist are limited to what is visible only.  They are like the scientists of today.
After about 10 years of searching, Augustine again tries to read the Bible.  This time, he gets it.  God is there in all his mystery.  Paul's description of charity and love inspires him.  He sees the truth of the teachings of Jesus.  He becomes convinced of the validity of Christianity.  But, his conversion is of the intellect only.  Although, he knows the way of Jesus is right, he cannot will himself to do it.  He feels pulled in the opposite direction all the time -- even though this direction doesn't satisfy him.  Only when he chooses to follow God's will for him, does he finally find lasting happiness.

Knowing what is right is not enough.  Jesus preached the same message as the Hebrew prophets.  What we needed was an example, someone to show us how.  Jesus showed us how, and asked us to do the same.

Dear and Glorious Lord, I hear you.  I am getting closer.  And, thank you for Jesus, whose example continues to teach me what I need to do.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Written on Our Hearts

...the first tent... is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.  But when Christ came... he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption....  For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ ... purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!  For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant...           -- from Hebrews 9:8-15

I spent most of yesterday struggling to understand these passages in Hebrews.  I find them challenging, because I don't understand why Jesus had to die in order for our sins to be forgiven.  God was forgiving the sins of the Jews for millenia before Jesus was born!   In fact, that was an integral part of the old covenant.  God's old covenant consisted of laws, ordinances, and statutes that had to be obeyed by the Israelites or God would punish them.  The way to redeem the transgressors of the old covenant was through rituals of food and drink and "baptisms" of blood.  The old system of blood sacrifices was meant to purify the flesh of sins, and following temple rituals became the determining factor in whether you were "in" or whether you were "out." 

The problem with the old covenant was that it could not "perfect the conscience of the worshiper."  All the rituals of sacrifice did not touch the heart of the person God loved.   God wanted mercy, not sacrifice.  So God made a New Covenant:

...this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.                          Jeremiah 31:31-34

God's freely given forgiveness turns our hearts to him.  Forgiveness, especially undeserved forgiveness, allows us to turn to God with love, not fear; and, for love, not gain. 

So how does the death of Jesus redeem us?  I wonder if this has something to do with suffering.  On Sunday, I came across a little gem of a book, called "Drops Like Stars," by Rob Bell. (Zondervan, 2009)   Bell writes about the redemptive qualities of suffering.  Suffering can redeem us -- it just depends on how we react to the suffering.  "Does it make us better, or bitter?"  Rob Bell writes that suffering can unite us.  When we suffer, we often become more empathetic, more compassionate towards other people who suffer similarly.  We become connected to them:  our heart to their heart.

I know that suffering can also teach us right from wrong.  For we know something is wrong, say stealing for example, when it hurts us.  As St. Augustine understood, not even thieves like to be stolen from.  Now, we are all guilty of sin, continually.  But only when we understand suffering, do we understand how our sin makes others suffer.  If sin is lack of love towards another person, or ourselves, or God, suffering can reconnect us:  heart to heart.  Suffering deepens compassion, and love.  I wonder if there would be true love if no one ever suffered.

Thinking of suffering and forgiveness, reminds me of a prayer that was found on a piece of paper on the body of a dead child in Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945:
          "O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will.  But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us, remember the fruits we bought thanks to this suffering, our comradship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.  And when they come to judgment let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.  Amen.  Amen.  Amen."

This prayer unites suffering and forgiveness.  Although found on the body of a Jewish child, it helps me, a Christian, understand God's forgiveness, and our redemption.  Forgiveness connects us to God -- visualize a vertical stem planted in the ground, connecting us to God.  God points us to others.  Suffering connects us, heart-to-heart, with other people -- visualize an horizontal stem, stretched wide, connecting us to everyone else on the planet.  Together these stems make a cross.  Jesus, suffering as we do, forgiving as we ought to forgive, points us to God. 

Dear and Wonderful Saving God, thank you for this day of insight into passages that have troubled me in the past.  Thank you for tying so many of these loose ends together with the help of the insights from many other people.  Love always, Pam.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Hidden Net

You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name's sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.         -- Ps. 31:3-4

Raising three boys is the hardest thing I have ever done -- or will ever do, I'm convinced.   There are times when I wish we could live in an isolated commune where everyone was kind to everyone else.  This thought is, however, usually followed by the other thought of all that we would miss if we were isolated from the world.  There are many wonderful things in the world.

So, how do you live in the world, and teach your children how to live as God wants us to live?  How do you teach your children to treat other people as they would like to be treated, when they are not always treated very well, by either grown-ups or other kids?

For example, I want my kids to speak kindly and respectfully to other people.  I correct them when they don't.  I take away privileges when they repeatedly don't.  Yet, when other people speak unkindly or disrespectfully to them, nothing happens.  The other person isn't corrected; privileges aren't taken away.  My kids don't understand. 

I want their teachers to be kind, their classmates to be kind, other family members to be kind.  Always.  I want to take them away from everyone who hurts them.  But, and this is the kicker, that would include me, as well.

For I am not always kind.  I get impatient.  I yell.  I give advice about how to behave which I don't always follow.  It seems as if I'm teaching my kids that they need to be more perfect than everyone else!

Perhaps, emphasizing perfect behavior in my kids is the problem.  Perhaps, I need to emphasize forgiveness.  Thinking about this, I feel like I am on to something, something that seems to be the crux of my, and my kids', concerns:  not trying to find a more perfect world, but teaching my kids to forgive the imperfect people in this one.  And, for me, forgiving my kids' imperfections, too.  For no one on this great and wonderful earth is ever going to be perfect. 

I find it significant that the only part of The Lord's Prayer that gives us direction has to do with forgiveness:   Our Father... Forgive us, as we forgive othersThis is the only phrase in the whole prayer in which we are promising to do something.  I wonder if teaching forgiveness is not actually more important than teaching The Golden Rule.

Dear Lord, I feel your light shining on me.  Thank you for being patient with me over the last few days as I've tried to hear your guidance around a very hectic schedule.  I wish I had understood this a long time ago.  I guess I need to forgive myself for this, too.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day by Day....

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.                -- 1 Sam. 10:13

This passage in Samuel, where David is anointed and is blessed by the Holy Spirit, made me think about my growing connection with God's Holy Spirit.  My connection has been much more gradual than David's.

When I was baptized as a teenager, I was making a choice.  I was claiming to be a Christian, and I was choosing to belong to the Lutheran Church.  I don't remember being aware of the Holy Spirit until many years later.  As an adult, going to church, hearing God's word spoken in worship, sometimes so personally directed to my concerns, brought such comfort that I could not doubt God's existence.  I began to think of God as That Peace Which Passes Understanding.

About nine years ago, married and living for a short period in England, I began attending church in the local Anglican parish.  (There are not many Lutheran churches in England.)  I felt there the same peace I had felt in the Lutheran church.  One day, wanting to teach my then three-year-old son about God, I sought advice in a book, titled Talking to Your Child About God. (Bantam Books, 1987)  The author, David Heller, wrote that before you can teach your child about God, you have to know what you believe about God.  I put the book down.  Well, what did I know for sure about God?  God to me was that Peace Which Passes Understanding.

Starting there, I began to rethink everything else I had been taught.  At first, I felt very secretive about this.  I didn't want anyone to know that I was questioning my faith.  Then I started attending a couple of Bible studies led by the vicar of the parish, and I was astonished at the variety of beliefs expressed by other people at these meetings.  Not only did I see that there were different expressions of belief, but all of these various opinions were accepted.  Being accepted, and being asked thought-provoking questions by the vicar himself gave me a wonderful sense of freedom and all the necessary encouragement I needed to explore my faith more deeply.

Then, one summer a few years ago, I started studying the teachings of Jesus.  I wanted to know what Jesus had taught about how we should live rightly with one another.  So, for six months, waking up early, taking a good part of each day, and burning hours well into the night, I studied the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, trying to make sense of them all.  I felt like I was discovering Jesus for the first time.  I became a bit obsessed with reading and thinking and writing about Jesus' message.  It was a wonderful obsession, but a very narrow, very inward, one.  Too often I was not mentally or physically present in my life.  Everything was a bit neglected:  the house, my jobs, even my family.    Finally, around Christmas, I was able to reach a sense of completion, and focus again on all the blessings in my life.

However, studying the teachings of Jesus changed me.  Jesus became my hero.  And, I began to feel the active presence of God's Holy Spirit working in my life. More and more, I feel God's Holy Spirit surrounding me, not just to bring me peace, but to guide my every step.  For me, this has been a very gradual process, a daily learning experience.  I know I still have a long way to go.

Dear God, thank you for opening my ears and my eyes to your continual presence each day.  May the peace which passes understanding continue to bless and keep us all.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

We Are All Invited to God's Party

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us....       -- from Ephesians 2:1-9

My youngest son, who is in kindergarten, is getting reading to celebrate his birthday soon.  He would like to invite everyone in his class to his party, except one child.  This child, whom I will call Tommy, is mean-spirited, and a bit of a bully.  I was tempted to let my child not invite Tommy to the party.  After all, Tommy has threatened to harm my child.  He and my son are sort of enemies.

However, I woke up very early this morning (3 a.m!) thinking of a devotional I had read the night before.  I had read, "When you stop and consider all the ways there are for people to go wrong, it's a wonder any of them go right.  Yet what young people seek is no different than what any of us seeks.  They want to know that they belong, that they matter to someone, that they are loved.... What they need to know is that they are children of God.  They do belong.  They do matter.  They are loved.... Lord, help us see the young people with your eyes and love them with your heart. Amen."  (God Pause, for March 11, by Joel Wudel, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary).

I had just written a post yesterday, too, that reflected a bit on loving one's enemies. In it, I wrote that the kind of people I find most difficult are those who exclude others from the Kingdom of God.  Yet, what was I about to teach my child?  That it's okay to exclude people, especially if they are mean.  Thank you, God, for the wake-up call!

Why did Jesus say, "Love your enemies"?  I think it is because only love breaks down hate.  Love alone has the power to make enemies into friends.  

God loves us despite the fact that we sometimes do bad things, and that we sometimes act against him.  I know I often go wrong.  My own behavior is not always so good.  Yet God continues to love me.  God offers me love continuously.  He does not withhold his love until I say I am sorry.  He forgives me already.  He gives his love freely, so that he may be glorified and worshiped.  And, "so that none may boast."

God doesn't exclude anyone from this love.  We alone keep ourselves from God.  We distance ourselves from God when we doubt his loving presence in our lives, when we let our fears of the unknown sway us, when we think only of our own desires, or when we think we don't need God.  Nothing physical keeps us from God's grace.  The only barriers to God's grace are in our minds.

God gives us the freedom to deny him or to choose him.  He gives us the freedom to deny love or to choose love.  And he longs for us to make the right choice.  God is steadfast in his love, even when we are not.  He waits patiently with love and longing because he wants us to know what true love is all about.  He wants us to know the "immeasurable riches of his grace."

Dear God, thank you for these insights into your grace -- I am humbled.  And thank you for waking me up early enough so that I would have time to think things through before the children wake up, and for arranging a way for me to take a nice long nap in the middle of the day!   Love always, Pam.

Monday, April 11, 2011

If I Am Really a Christian...

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.  Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.                 -- from Psalm 143

Last week, in a Bible study, we were asked to:  Think about your current community.  Are there people you find difficult to love because of their lifestyle, their values, and/or their customs?  Who are they?  What does the Bible say about your relationship with them?  (from "Unity in the Midst of Diversity," published by The Women of the ELCA, March, pg. 29).

I answered, "I have the hardest time with people who exclude other people based upon their theology.  But I realize that this puts me in a bind.  For, if I don't think we should exclude people, then I cannot exclude the excluders.  I need to look past their beliefs to see the goodness in them and to see the love of God behind their theology."

Now, as I begin to put myself "out there" in order to get the message of God's love to as many people as possible, I see that I am going to encounter more of the people whom I find so difficult.  God has a very ironical sense of humor.  The very thing that I say I find difficult, or can't do, he puts in front of me, and says, "Oh yeah?"  Clearly, I have something to learn here.  Perhaps, it is:  Practice what you preach.

Jesus said, "Love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you....  For if you love only those who agree with you, what more do you do than others?"  (Matt. 5:46-47).  So, how do I love the people who exclude others from God's Kingdom?

What exactly does love entail?  Do I ignore them, let them go their way and me go mine?  Is that loving?  Do I initiate a debate over theology?  That never works to bring people together -- rather, just the opposite happens.  Jesus came across many people who excluded others from God's kingdom.  How did he respond to them?

Well, he either told a parable or he asked a question.  In either case, he wanted them to think about what God's kingdom is really like. The Parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind (Luke 15:11-32).  And so does a question.

The question that comes to mind was not asked by Jesus, but by a child.  Kate Braestrup tells of a conversation she had with her 12-year-old son, Zach, in "Here if You Need Me" (published by Little, Brown, 2007).   Kate began talking to Zach about Jesus’ radical, sacrificial, life-changing love.  After a while, her son says, “So, Mom… Let’s say I decide to become a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. … If I die, and because I am Christian, I get to go to heaven instead of going to hell…. If I really take Jesus seriously, if I really am willing to give up everything I am and everything I have in the service of love, if I am really a Christian … it seems to me I would have to give my place in heaven to someone else, someone who otherwise wouldn’t get to go.  I’ll have to go to hell, so this other person could be in heaven.  Right, Mom?” (pg.206)   As Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God was made for such as these."

Dear God, Compassionate Lord, may the spirit of Christ come upon me, so that I may look with compassion upon everyone.  Grant me a right spirit towards all those who see things differently than I do.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Only God is Good

When the righteous turn from their righteousness, and commit iniquity, they shall die of it.  And when the wicked turn from their wickedness, and do what is lawful and right, they shall live by it.   -- Ezekiel 33:18-19

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, 
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, 
so that you may be revered
                              -- Psalm 130:3-4

I've been surprised to discover in my readings that baptism was at one time thought of as the one and only way to receive God's forgiveness.  Once you were baptized, all your past sins would be forgiven, but if you then committed another sin, you would be beyond all hope of redemption.  As a result of this belief, most people would wait until they were near death before being baptized.  Both Constantine the Great, who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire during the 4th century, and St. Augustine who lived from the mid-4th to the mid-5th century, thought this way.  They felt they could commit the worst sins up until the time they were baptized, but then after that they had to be absolutely good. 
The passage from Ezekiel emphasizes this idea.  And there are probably many passages throughout the Bible which convey this same message.  But then there are other passages, like the one from Psalm 130, which seems to contradict it.  Many examples of God forgiving people repeatedly are found throughout the Bible:  Abraham, Jacob, David, Peter, and Paul, just to name a few.

One the other hand, in Jesus' day, there was the thinking that if you were a Jew who followed the rules of temple sacrifice, your sins were automatically forgiven . 

Promoting the idea of God not being able to forgive a person because his or her transgressions are too great, or, of God automatically forgiving someone because he or she is a Jew, or a Christian, seems to bind, and manipulate, God's grace. 

God knows our heart.  He knows when our intentions are good.  He knows when we are ignorant.  He knows when we have been weak.  He knows when we are sorry.  He also knows when our intention is less than honorable.  And, he knows when we intend to wound.  We don't even have to say or do anything.  God knows us to our core.  Because of this, there is no way to manipulate God by pretending to be better than we are. 

Sometimes the way we read a passage in the Bible depends on our personal experiences.  I can see a way of reading the passage from Ezekiel that does fit my experience, somewhat.  For me, Ezekiel describes a cyclical process.  I try to be a good person, but all too easily I fall into sinful behavior:  when I think I am Good (with a capitol G!), I become arrogant and judgmental.  When I recognize my sin, it feels like death:  the death of my better self.  At this low point, I could easily give up on myself, if not hate myself.  Only when I remember that God loves me and is waiting for me to turn to him for help, do I begin to live again.  And, try again to be a good person.

What I am slowly learning, much too slowly I have to say, from repeated cycles of this, is humility.  I know am no better than any other person, any other sinner.  When I can keep this in mind, I have a much better chance of actually being the person God wants me to be.  (God has a way of teaching us what we most need to learn!)

"Only God is Good," Jesus said.  We humans will always fall short of perfect goodness.  God knows this about us, and still he loves us and forgives us.

Dear and Loving God, thank you for repeatedly forgiving me.  Your steadfast love, and patience, are almost too wonderful to comprehend.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, April 7, 2011

God's Food Tastes Like Joy

But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; your mouth and eat what I give you.  I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it.  ... He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.  ...Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.     (Ezek. 2:8 - 3:3)

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something."  But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about."  So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?"  Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me...."   (John 4:31-34a)

Thoughts have been swirling around in my head for the last two weeks (since the Lectionary reading with the verse from John's Gospel above), and I wondered if my chance to write them down in the blog had passed.  Today's reading from Ezekiel, however, speaks to these thoughts again.  So I think I will write them down.

I believe that God loves everyone -- even those who do not believe in him.  The biggest difference that I can see between someone who believes in God and someone who does not, is in how that person's life is experienced. 

When you turn to God with all your heart, all your mind, all your body, and all your soul, you find that God is waiting with open arms, to wipe away your tears, to lift you up, to rejoice with you, and to guide you.  Experiencing this connection with God is a high that cannot be compared to anything else.  It is a connection to the greatest unconditional love that has ever been known. 

When we experience God's great love for us, we become more aware of how God wants us to live.  We desire to do the will of God because we love him.  God's will is for us to share that love with others.  And he will teach us again and again, ever patiently, how we are to do this.  He will plant seeds of thought in our head, put words in front of us, send messengers, and give us countless examples to emulate.  God gives us this bread and water because he loves us.

When we eat this bread and drink this water most readily -- that is, when we follow his guidance easily, without any other thought -- we  find something amazing, and totally unexpected:  we are filled with Joy.  I'm not talking about that feeling of self-satisfaction we have in a job well done; this has nothing to do with us.  I'm talking about pure and simple, life-sustaining, and overflowing Joy.  A feeling that can only come from God.  After breaking several cultural barriers to speak to a Samaritan woman about God, Jesus is so filled with God's love that he does not need, or even want, food.

THIS feeling, Jesus knew better than anyone.  THIS is the joy which Jesus came to tell us about:   "So that we might have Abundant Life."   For Ezekiel it was "as sweet as honey"; for Jesus it was the very "bread of life" itself.  And, remarkably, everyone has access to this joyous food.   You need only to seek God with all your heart, all your mind, all your body, and all your soul.

In a book by Mother Teresa, The Simple Path, this joy is described throughout.  But, in a chapter titled, The Fruit of Love is Service, which describes the many acts of love the Sisters and Brothers of Charity perform on a daily basis, as well as their personal reflections about the work they do, the word most frequently used to describe their experience is Joy. 

This pure and simple Joy in life begins, and is sustained, and ends, with God alone.

Dear God, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Praying Unceasingly

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you....     (Colossians 1:9)

This is the beginning of a very beautiful prayer.  It is the kind of prayer I would love someone to pray for me.  But, after re-reading it, I am struck by this idea of praying unceasingly for someone.  Some form of this idea is embedded in the introduction of most of Paul's letters.  And I think this idea is promoted elsewhere in the Bible as well.  I've wondered about this before.  How can someone pray unceasingly?  How is that even possible?

Perhaps this phrase jumped out at me as I read the Lectionary this morning because the thought has crossed my mind a couple of times in the last couple of days that I need to pray more often for other people.  I'm embarrassed to admit it, but most of my prayer life consists of supplication or gratitude over my own concerns.   How can this be when so many friends and family members are in poor health or worried about other people in their lives, not to mention the suffering of people around the world?  I may not be able to heal them or solve their problems, but I can pray for them.

Usually, however, I only think to do this at church on Sunday morning, or when someone's needs have been brought to my immediate attention.  Lately, I've been thinking that I should pray for others daily.  Now, I'm wondering if I should try to keep other people in my mind throughout the day.  But, how does one do this in the midst of all the comings and goings of life?

I like the idea of carrying something with me as a sort of memory aide.  Catholics use a rosary to help them remember to pray specific prayers.   Googling "rosary beads," I learned that a rosary consists of as few as ten beads, or as many as fifty.  After every ten beads (and ten Hail Mary's), a different bead, or a cross, signals a new prayer, and another cycle.  Primarily, rosaries are used to pray to Mary while remembering the life of Jesus, but rosaries are sometimes used to pray the Psalms (50 beads three times around equals the 150 Psalms).  I was fascinated to also read that Mary is called the "Undoer of Knots."  That is, the undoer of  the many, many difficulties that worry us.

I thought about buying a set of rosary beads, although I'm not Catholic.  But, not wanting to spend the money, I searched through my jewelry box for something else I might use, and found a pretty necklace of 25 flat, round, vibrantly-colored beads that feel very smooth to the touch.  I tied one of my crosses to the big round pendant bead with a piece of embroidery thread, knotting it over and over again.  Then, I clasped the necklace together so that it won't come apart. 

I like my prayer beads.  I can hold the beads, or I can keep them in my pocket.  I can simply remember other people when I feel the beads as a whole.  Or, I can pray for people bead by bead:  with each bead I will think of a particular person and pray for them; when I come to the spiral clasp I will pray for people around the world; and when I come to the pendant bead with the cross knotted to it, signifying the greatest Undoers of Knots, I will center myself with the Lord's Prayer. Hopefully, these will help me remember to think of other people more often, at least, more often than I have done.

Ironically, I have been so concerned about my children not thinking outside of themselves very often.  Like the pot calling the kettle black, I see that I too need to work on this.

Dear God, thank you for showing me what I need to learn, and for helping me find a way to stay connected to the many other people who also need your healing presence throughout the day.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Forgiveness and Love

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.      (Ephesians 4:29-32)

Paul is writing this letter to the church in Ephesus, but these words could have easily been taken out of many of his letters written to specific churches.  For Paul spends a significant portion in all his letters encouraging church members to see beyond their disagreements and to see that what they share in the body and blood of Christ is much more important.   

Why is it especially difficult to stay in community with one another when the greatest tie that binds you together is your understanding of God?   One would think that this would make things so much easier.  You each love God with all your being.  What could be easier than that?

But this is exactly what may cause the greatest tension.  For one may believe that God's will is A, while another may believe that God's will is B.  (A and B being simply two sides of any issue over which a church disagrees).  Because our understanding of God is at stake, and because we desire to honor God with all our being, we feel strongly compelled to stand our ground, even if it means separating ourselves from one another.  So, we fight each other for God's sake.  I wonder of this sense of self-righteousness might just be the cause of many bitter divisions between people of faith.

I recently struggled with my own sense of self-righteousness, which created in me a lingering bitterness very hard to remove.   I wondered, Do I fight for my understanding of God?  Or, do I put aside my feelings for the sake of the body of Christ?  All my understanding of the teachings of Jesus tells me not to judge my neighbor, and to love even though we do not agree.  And yet, what if I believe God's will is being disobeyed?  Surely that should take precedence.  How can I not stand up for what I believe is God's will?!

For solace, I turned to a book: Thomas Merton's, "No Man is An Island," which I had stopped reading a while ago.  I continued where I had left off, at his chapter on Suffering.  Words that I could not relate to before suddenly resonated with me.  "Sometimes it is absolutely necessary to face suffering, which is a lesser evil, in order to avoid having to overcome the greatest evil, sin....  Our destiny is to love all things that He loves, just as He loves them."  (pg.83,84)   I thought that choosing love over this bitterness I was feeling, choosing to love even when it is hard, rather than acting on my self-righteous anger, is to choose suffering over sin.  Sometimes it is hard to love one another, but to do otherwise is to commit a sin.

I thought of the Passion of Jesus.  Jesus surrendered to the greatest suffering known to man.  He blessed those who wanted to kill him at the worst moment of his suffering.  He took all of their sinfulness and returned only love.  I thought I understood before what it meant to be united in the body and blood of Christ.  But, experiencing this difficulty has taken me closer to understanding the Cross, and to understanding the love that is freely given.  This better understanding feels like such a blessing!

"Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."  Knowing God's will is difficult.  Always following God's will, even if you are sure what that is, is even harder.  God knows this about us, about me.   God forgives us all.  And God loves us all.  Leading us with the greatest love ever known, he shows us how to turn sin away.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.     (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Thank you, Dear God, for leading me in the only way possible to understand your greatest desire.  Thank you for loving me enough, and for trusting me with this most difficult test.  I hope I passed.  Love always, Pam