Saturday, July 30, 2011

Children of the Promise

It is not as though the word of God had failed.  For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants; but "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you."  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.  ...something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac.  Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, "The elder shall serve the younger."      --  Romans 9:16-13

Chapters 9 through 11 of Paul's letter to the Romans have often been used by Christians to exclude Jews from God's kingdom.  But Paul is not making a distinction between Jews and Christians, he is making a distinction between those who believe in God's promise and those who do not. Both Jews and Gentiles could be children of the promise.  This distinction did not depend on their DNA, their parentage, their flesh.  It all depended on whether they believed in God's promise: that nothing could separate them from the love of God.  (See Romans 8:38-39).

Paul uses the example of Jacob and Esau to illustrate his point.  Both Jacob and Esau were born of Rebecca and Isaac.  Twins, no less.  But Esau did not value his birthright, while Jacob did.

Why does God separate his children into factions?  We are told that God hardens the heart of some people.  So, they don't seem to have a choice in the matter.  They are simply unable to believe that God is doing something new.  Why?

Perhaps, God is testing those who do believe.  What have those who believe in God's promise learned about God?   How, for example, do we (assuming we are chosen) respond to those who are hardhearted, who cannot accept that God's love and forgiveness is for everyone?  Do we love them?

Do we appreciate God's saving grace to us, know that it is undeserved, and so treat everyone as gracefully as God treats us?  Or, do we become proud of ourselves, our "election", and judgmental towards others?  Do we think we are better, more righteous, than the ones who stumble?  Do we become hardhearted ourselves?

Paul says (I paraphrase), Note then God's kindness towards you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you will be cut off too.  (9:22)  Paul seems to be saying that we have a choice to be kind to everyone, or be cut off.  Our choices matter.  God loves all of us, though only some choose to accept this.    We can be hardhearted, or, we can choose to be kindhearted (even to the hardhearted!), mirroring God's love.

I am reminded of Keisha Thomas, a young black girl who was amongst a group of protesters at a KKK rally in Michigan in 1996.  When her fellow protesters saw a man at the rally wearing a Confederate flag on his shirt, and started to physically attack him, Keisha stepped in front of her friends, and shielded the man with her body.  Her response when asked why she had done this was, "Beating someone won't change their mind."   (,,20141729,00.html)   Only kindness will change, soften, people's hearts -- the kindness that Christ lived, and died trying to share.  The leader of the KKK rally later said "We bless her." That's pretty amazing, isn't it?

Getting back to Jacob and Esau....  How did Jacob respond to Esau when he saw him again after twenty years?  Had Jacob learned anything during his separation from his family?  Did he still want to take from his brother what belonged to him?  No.  Jacob was a completely changed man.  He instead tried to give everything he had gained to his brother in order to soften his brother's heart.

Dear God, I know that nothing will separate me from your love.  Please help me to keep in mind that this has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with you.  Please keep my heart soft towards all people.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Harvest of Righteousness

...the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.     -- James 3:17-18

I just finished watching "Of Gods and Men."  It is a movie about the seven Trappist monks, living in a remote monastery in Algeria, who were killed in 1996 by Muslim extremists.  Despite its horrific ending, the story beautifully captures all the faith, love, and hope of the message of Jesus.  The Father Abbot of the monastery, Christian de Cherge, felt called to live in community with the Muslims in a nearby village:  working side by side, trading the goods made in the monastery, offering medical care, taking part in their festivals and prayers.  Love, and shared faith, bound these brothers to the Muslim people around them.  That, and their vow of stability, a vow to stay where they were called to be, kept them at the monastery even though their lives were in constant threat by Muslim extremists. 

When these monks became priests, they gave up their lives for Christ, and like Christ, their lives became a sacrifice for love.  Fascinated by this story, I did a little more research and discovered that Christian de Cherge's calling to live in community with Muslims came about when, as a young man accosted by Muslim soldiers, a Muslim friend had guarded him with his life.  For his action, the friend was murdered the following day.  As a result of this man's sacrifice, Christian learned the true meaning of the Eucharist.  It is not a matter of receiving the body of Christ in order to give of oneself, but it is giving of oneself in order to receive:  those who would save their lives will lose it, and those who will lose their lives will gain eternity.

I am reminded also of another Catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his own life in the place of a Jewish man in Auschwitz in 1941.  As reprisal for an escape the night before, the German commandant of the concentration camp selected ten Jewish men to die of starvation.  When one man pleaded mercy on behalf of his wife and children, Maximiliam Kolbe, known among the prisoners as the little priest who shared his ration of bread, stepped forward and asked to take his place.  Shaken by this, the deputy commandant yet has the priest taken away with the other men.  Kolbe's action, and subsequent fortitude during his last days, haunted many of the guards and moved the prisoners to recognize their own human dignity in the midst of the evil around them.  The priest's choice showed them how selfless love can overcome the abuse of power. (from "Embodying Forgiveness," by L. Gregory Jones, 91-98)

These men were both Catholic priests, both victims of extremists, of terrorists.  And both showed solidarity with brothers of other faiths.  Christians are not alone in this understanding.  Awhile ago I heard of Muslims who had formed a protective barrier for Coptic Christians celebrating mass after their church had been bombed by Muslim extremists.  Egyptian Muslims from all walks of life, housewives and celebrities, stood in solidarity with their Egyptian Christian neighbors, even taking part in the Christmas worship service, in order to "stand up for the religious freedom of [their] neighbor, Jew or Gentile, Copt or Muslim." (see the link at,

We need to hear more examples of these acts of peaceful resistance and brotherly protection, especially in this day and age.  These examples should inspire us to live as Christ lived.  Truly, the peace of the Lord passes all understanding.

Dear Lord, please help me to step in wherever and whenever help is needed, protection is required, and compassion is in short supply.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Sign of Jonah

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, 'Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.'  But he answered them, 'An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.     -- Matt. 12:38-40

Just before turning to Matthew to read the selection above, the thought crossed my mind that I still need to describe to a friend of mine the Bible Study on Jonah that was given by the pastor at the Grand Canyon Synod Assembly.  I know I cannot do justice to that man's storytelling ability and humor, so I have put it off.  But now, with this coincidence of Jonah in my mind and today's readings, I will think a little more about Jonah.  I know that I cannot recreate that Pastor's insight -- and perhaps I am not meant to.

For I have recently been in the belly of a "sea monster" myself.  For the last week and a half, I have been on a cruise ship sailing from Seattle to ports along the Inland Passage of Alaska, and back.  And I was forced into an isolation of sorts.  I took my laptop, thinking I would keep up with my blogging, but soon found out that a Wi-fi connection would cost me $.69 per minute.  Hmmmm.  As much as I thought about it, I could not bring myself to pay that amount.  Nor did spending a few hours writing at a local hotspot in Juneau or Skagway, instead of spending the time sightseeing with family, seem like a good option.

I was cut off, disconnected.  And like Jonah, I underwent something of a transformation.

I left town full of questions more than answers, not sure what to write, unless it was to say that I was full of questions (and not sure if that was a good idea), afraid I would write something I would regret, but feeling pressured to write something.  My usual every-two-to-three-days entry had already stretched to a week!  Forced to silence my reflections -- though disjointed they might be -- for even longer, was difficult.  Wasn't I supposed to be sharing my thoughts?  Isn't that what God wanted me to do?  Perhaps also people were wondering why I wasn't writing. 

It took a while to stop struggling against my disconnection, to stop looking for another way, and accept the silencing of my voice.  But once I did (three days before the end of the cruise no less!), a remarkable thing happened.  At sea for two days before our last port of call, and with the rest of the family happily entertained, I read what came to me unexpectedly, and I rested.  And I found the answers to the questions that had been whirling and twirling in my mind! 

I see now that I had been too busy to stop and wait for God's answers, too pressed for time to listen.  I had been asking questions, expressing concerns, but not waiting for the answers.  For Jonah, being in the belly of the sea monster was a time to return to God with thankfulness, the belly provided a rest from the troubles that crashed over him.  (I invite you to read Jonah, chapter 2).  So too, I, resting in the cabin of one gigantic cruise ship, was also given time to refocus, re-center.  I was given the chance to listen, instead of taking the time to talk.

Perhaps I need to recognize this in the future.  Whenever I feel pulled in different directions, at a loss as to what to say but thinking I must say something, or wondering if God is there -- asking questions but not hearing any answers -- then is the time to stop and gather myself in, stop talking, and just listen; to "remember the Lord," as Jonah says.

Dear God, thank you for patiently leading me to where you want me to be.  I am truly grateful.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet."  Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."  Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!"  Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.  And you are clean, though not all of you are clean."    -- John 13:8-11

I am still thinking about repentance and confession and forgiveness, and these words of Jesus give me some new insights.  This living parable is clearly more than just a tale of Jesus performing a service for his disciples.  There is just too much puzzling language about cleanliness and belonging.  The specific act of service is important here.  Jesus is making a connection between the act of cleansing and forgiveness.

In these few sentences, a distinction is made between those who are entirely clean, and those who are not.  Peter is described by Jesus as "clean", while John makes it clear that the one whom Jesus is referring to as not "clean" is Judas.  We know that Judas is about to betray Jesus by turning him over to the authorities, but Peter, too, will betray Jesus by denying him.  So it is not necessarily the act itself that makes the person unclean.

We know also that Peter is bound to Jesus, heart and soul, though he is sometimes wrong-headed and weak-minded.  Peter's intentions and love for Jesus are pure.  This is what makes him clean.  Judas, on the other hand, plots to find a way to destroy Jesus.  His intentions are impure and his heart is filled with hatred.  This is what makes Judas unclean.   Yet, Jesus bathes all of the disciples' feet.  If we think of this act of cleansing as a metaphor for forgiveness of the particular sins they are about to commit, then we see that Jesus forgives both men -- just as he will forgive those who crucify him.

It is interesting to imagine what is going through the minds of the disciples as he does this.  We know that, at first, Peter balks.  He cannot imagine his master performing such a humbling act for him.  The role of master and servant has been reversed, and Peter knows he is not Jesus' master.  But, Peter must accept.  Though Peter does not understand what Jesus is teaching him about the future, he hears Jesus say, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."  Peter does not want to be separated from Jesus.
Jesus knows Peter will betray him.  And he is letting him know that he is clean and forgiven, in advance.  After the betrayal, Peter must return to God and accept Jesus' forgiveness in order be fully reconciled to him, and complete the tasks that Jesus has planned for him.  If Peter cannot accept forgiveness, he will be lost.  Just as Judas will be lost.

As when John the Baptist is asked to baptize Jesus, Jesus is teaching his disciples what they must also do for each other.  They must not only seek forgiveness, the most spiritually humbling act one person can ever face, but they must also forgive one another.  For one is not above another.  If Jesus, who is God's chosen one, can humble himself to forgive those who will trespass against him, so should we forgive each other, no matter how humbling this is.  We must forgive, and we must accept forgiveness.  Both acts require a fair measure of humility.

I say "a fair measure" because too much pride, as well as too much humility, can get in the way.  Too much pride is clearly as deterrent to asking for forgiveness, as well as accepting forgiveness.  But too much humility can also be a deterrent.  Jesus loved Judas, just as much as he loved Peter.  At the beginning of the passage in Chapter 11, John writes, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end."  Jesus also forgave Judas, just as he forgave Peter.  Perhaps Judas did not understand this, or could not accept Jesus' forgiveness.  I wonder if he felt too unworthy.

Forgiving and accepting forgiveness is what binds people together in community, and what reconciles broken relationships.  Without it, we would not be able to hold on to those we love.

Dear God, please keep my heart open and soft, ever ready to forgive and be forgiven.  Love always, Pam

Monday, July 4, 2011

Skipping Repentence

The Gospel reading from The Common Lectionary for yesterday is Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.  The verses in the middle which are skipped begin as follows:

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.  "Woe to you, Chorazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida!  For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you....  -- Matt: 11:20-22  (verses 23 and 24 are more of the same kind of warning, so for brevity's sake I will not copy all of them.)

Why, I wonder, are these verses on repentance skipped?  The Common Lectionary selections are determined by a group of Christian leaders from all the mainline churches that use them, which includes Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others.  These readings are not skipped in the daily lectionary, which I think are put together by the same group of people; they were assigned a few days ago.  Perhaps that is why they are skipped over now.  But most people who attend these mainline churches only hear the readings on a Sunday morning.  So, for a large percentage of Christians, these verses about repentance are not heard.

However, by skipping them, we lose a great deal of meaning behind the words of Jesus that follow, which were read on Sunday.  Jesus says, Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (Matt 11:28-30)

When we remove the call of repentance form the words of comfort, the meaning of what remains is more superficial, and more confusing, if not lost altogether.  When I read only the words of comfort, Jesus seems to be telling me to hand over to him all my worldly cares, all the things that I have to do in the day that cause me stress.  Just hand them over to Jesus and he will take care of them for me, so that I can rest.  Jesus isn't asking for much; we have it easy.  It almost sounds as if Jesus is saying, Here is my peace, given freely, go and be free of all cares.

But when you include verses 20-24, you see that Jesus is actually saying, "Repent and I will give you rest."  True rest comes with a unburdened heart, a forgiven heart, one which has been opened, examined, and judged truthfully.  Jesus calls people to do this, repeatedly, for themselves, throughout his ministry:  Look at you life honestly, repent of your transgressions against others, and I will take your burdens, I will forgive your transgressions.  Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  Repentance alone leads to true reconciliation with our neighbor and with God, and brings us peace.

So why do we skip this crucial connection?  Do we no longer need to repent?  Are we all good enough as it is?  Or are we simply afraid of the language of repentance?

One of my favorite novels is "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte.  I watched the latest movie version of it last night, and was struck anew by the themes of repentance and forgiveness in the story.  Clearly, the language of repentance of the past went too far in the other direction, preaching hellfire and damnation to every soul that lived, even the innocent.  But that was not Jesus' message, either.  

Coincidentally, I have been reading for the last week or so, a book titled, "Embodying Forgiveness," by L. Gregory Jones.  Mr. Jones argues that the church has, over the centuries, slowly lost its emphasis on practices of repentance, confession, and forgiveness.  Skipping over Matt. 11:20-24, seems like a perfect example of this.  Mr. Jones believes one reason is that the language of therapy has replaced the language of the gospel.  Clergy, for example, who sin, are sent to counseling, not to confession.  Mr. Jones, also believes a climate of hopelessness prevails in the midst of the overwhelming wickedness we see around the world.  Where do we begin to confess all our transgressions?  Better to just try to forget about it, maybe it will all go away.

Whatever the reason, I wonder what has been lost as a result of this de-emphasis on repentance?  Mr. Jones argues that, since people no longer hear the call for heartfelt, self-examination from the pulpit, the church [and, I would add, God] is seen to offer very little to people who are in serious darkness.  God's forgiveness is not sought.  The soul is never truly unburdened.  And so, darkness continues unabated, and in some souls, overwhelms.  Could a return to honest, humble, heartfelt self-examination and repentance be the cure?

Dear God, may all who live in darkness turn to you with open hearts and open minds, laying all before you. You who wait with open arms for all who are soul-burdened, grant us your peace.  Love always, Pam