Tuesday, August 30, 2011


From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you."  But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  -- Matt. 16:21-23

Over the past few days, I have been surrounded with messages about living authentically, living the life we are meant to live, as God wants us to live, as opposed to how society says we should live.  In a book, in a song, in a movie, on advertising, and in yesterday's gospel reading, I saw the same message just worded differently.  God must be trying to tell me something.

Anthony de Mello wrote in "Awakening," that too many of us would rather be unhappily living an illusion than living in reality.  We are taught to value the transitory things of the world:  house, car, money, career, etc.  And, we are taught to place great stock in what other people think of us.  By these means, our lives are controlled.  We are slaves to our culture, and don't even know it.  Jesus broke through these chains.  Everything he did ran counter to the prevailing culture.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for the future.  He knows that what the disciples think is God's plan and what God's plan actually is, are two different things.  So, he begins to prepare them.  Peter, who loves Jesus and certainly doesn't want Jesus to endanger his life, tries to stop him.  This is not what the Messiah is about.  Peter had been taught that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem as a conquering hero.  God's plan, however, was very different.  Jesus knew this.

After church, I went to see the movie, "The Help."  Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1960, the story is about women breaking free of the chains that bind them.  The culture of this town and time was that black women took care of wealthy white families, while all too often being treated as less than human by those same families.  The black women recognized the injustice of their lives but were too afraid to protest.  They feared ostracism, abuse, and, the real possibility of being killed.  So they lived in silence.  Finally, one courageous black woman is led by God to tell her story, to tell the truth of her life.  Others follow her lead.  Some of the white women also learn to tell their truth.  And as they do this, they are freed from the chains of society that imprisoned them.  For all of them, however, it took a tremendous amount of courage.  They had to be willing to let their old, known, albeit unhappy, lives die first.

Driving home from the movie, I heard one of my favorite songs on the radio:  "Drive," by Incubus.  I haven't heard it in a long time.  The sound is great, but the lyrics are what I love (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slRNXrn_5vE).   The song is about how we let fear take over our lives and drive.  "It seems to be the way everyone else gets around, but when I drive myself, my life is found."  The song was on the radio again today.

I could go on.  There were more, similar, messages.  But you get the point.

I think God is trying to tell me that I let the opinions of others dictate too much what I do and don't do with my life, what I say and don't say.  I know I do this.  I've known it for a while.  But, I am learning.  I have been learning to tell my story for awhile now with God's love and support.   But still, there are times when I am fearful of telling my truth.

I will listen, Dear Lord.  Thank you for the bombardment of messages.  I'm not sure I would have heard you so clearly without them all.  I get it.  Though I may lose my life, I must always live as you have made me to live.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Law or Gospel?

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.  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 2:1-4

When I read these words, I am reminded of many of Jesus' words:  "Do not judge lest you be judged," and "you who is without sin cast the first stone," and "why do you see the speck in your brother's eye but not the log in your own?"

But these words of Paul also fit well with the story I have been reading, "Crossing the Bar," by a Lutheran pastor, James Johnson, who committed adulteryHe was "found out" and removed from his office.  I imagine that his congregation might have read these words in Romans with a sense of justification.  For how can a pastor be such a sinner (even if he is repentant), and still have any credibility?   How can he preach against sin like he's supposed to?

Eventually, this man, James Johnson, becomes the owner of the local bar where he comes into contact with many other people who are church outsiders like himself.  He writes about the barrier between "bar people" and "church people" in his town.  One reason for the barrier is that bar people see church people as "judges, critics who want to tell them how to live ... and want to change them into church people -- so they'll be acceptable to God."  But James Johnson asks the question:  "Where do you think you would find Jesus?"

Jesus ate and drank with sinners.  "He's not the kind of shepherd who focuses on the sheep that are fattened up and handsomely groomed for the county fair.  He is the shepherd who goes looking for the ungroomed lost lamb as well....  Jesus was not your typical "church person." " (pg. 35-37)

If you think about Jesus' flock, even his own disciples, all of them had character flaws; especially Peter, the person Jesus singles out for special significance.  And if you think about the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, most of them are flawed:  Abraham prostitutes his wife; Jacob steals his brother's inheritance; Joseph is arrogant; Moses kills a man; David has a man killed so he can make legal the adultery he has committed with that man's wife; Elijah helps murder hundreds of false prophets; Elisha sends bears to kill a large group of children who mocked his bald head; etc.  Each one of these people, chosen by God for a special purpose, is seriously flawed.  I take great comfort in this fact.  It means that, if God didn't give up on them, God won't give up on me.

I am coming to the conclusion that the gospel message of Jesus is most particularly for those who realize they are flawed, and in need of a savior.  Jesus attracted those who were desperate, the outcasts, the shunned and persecuted.  These were the ones who flocked to Jesus, and these were the ones Jesus healed.  When questioned about this by the Pharisees, Jesus said, "only those who are sick have need of a physician."

For those who think they are without sin, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, the gospel message doesn't mean much or make much sense.  For them, the priority is the law.  Laws must be enforced.  Sin must be preached against to all those sinners out there.  If you don't, if you actually forgive sinners, all hell will break loose, so to speak. 

But how can any of us say we are without sin?

And maybe, just maybe, a pastor isn't supposed to preach the law at all.  Maybe a pastor is supposed to preach the gospel.  That is what heals the sick, and turns their hearts to God with humble gratitude.  And that is what ex-pastor, now bartender, James Johnson is able to do, occasionally.  James Johnson knows how flawed he is.  He also knows that he is one of the few "church people" whom many of his flawed patrons can trust to know the real deal.  If he still knows the love of God, then there is hope for the rest of us.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for putting "Crossing the Bar" in my lap this week.  It was a perfect fit, and just what I needed to think a little more about.  Your care for me overwhelms me.  Love always, Pam

Friday, August 19, 2011

Making Comparisons

But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense.    -- 2 Corinthians 10:12b

This is good advice for me.  I have been studying much about Islam lately.  Our Tuesday morning women's Bible Study is beginning a study of world religions.  Because this religion is so much in the news, and because I am around more Muslims than people of other faiths in my daily life, I am particularly fascinated by Islam and would like to understand it better.  But, I am discovering that it is hard, if not impossible, not to make weighty comparisons.

At the moment, the differences are taking center stage.   And so is the judgment.  When I see a difference, I either think,  "Yes, my  religion is better in this regard," or "Hmmm, that religion is better in this regard."  Neither response promotes a good feeling, or a sense of fellowship.  I am reminded of the words in The Desiderata of Happiness, by Max Ehrmann:  "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself."

Not only that but, when I compare my religion to another, I also lose the following truths:  that even within my own religion, people think differently about God than I do; that all religions attempt to teach essentially the same thing:  the path to finding God; and that people of all faiths succeed in finding God along these different paths -- they must, or these religions would not last so long.

Let me give an example to illustrate my point.  One central difference that I see between Christianity and Islam is the understanding of forgiveness.  Jesus taught people, directly and through parables such as that of the Prodigal Son, that God forgives.  God's forgiveness is freely given; nothing we do or don't do will make God love and forgive us any more than God already does.  Knowing this, believing it to be true, makes me repent of my sinfulness, correct my mistakes, and try to live as God wants me to live.  Mohammed taught, via The Koran, that God may forgive you, but only if you are truly repentant.  If you do not repent, you will be punished in the greatest fire ever imagined.  Knowing this, believing it to be true, a Muslim repents of his sinfulness, corrects his mistakes, and tries to live as God wants him to live.  This is a difference between me and my fellow Muslim.

Now I could say that my way, the Christian way, is better.  But I know that not all Christians think about God the same way I do.  Some Christians would perhaps rather echo the sentiments of this other understanding of God.  Both ways of thinking about God certainly find support in the Bible.  But notice what happens.  Whichever way you approach it, the result is the same:  both lead to repentance, a turning to God, and both create a desire in us to live as God wants us to live.

So, why these different understandings?  God is one.  God cannot be one thing, and its opposite, as well.  Can he?  Can God be both conditionally and unconditionally loving?  Well, perhaps the difference points more to us than to God.  I experience God's steadfast love and guidance even in the midst of making mistakes.  So, to me, God's love is steadfast, and his forgiveness totally undeserved by anything I do or don't do.  Other people must be led to experience God's forgiveness and love by the fear of punishment.  God is one, but he is also the God of all.  Perhaps the differences just show that God is greater than any one understanding.  Both theologies, after all,  lead one to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."  Perhaps that is what truly matters to God. 

Will the result of studying other religions always result in comparative judgments?  I don't think so.  I can understand other people who think differently than I do when I get to know their histories.  It must be possible to learn about other religions in the same way.  Perhaps the key to understanding everyone who is different from me is to understand them on their own terms, and not try to understand them on mine.

Dear God, thank you for guiding me as I ponder the ways other people worship you.  Please help me understand the other without making comparisons to myself, and please help me understand what is truly important to you.  Love always, Pam

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sabbath + Covenant = Relationship

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered."  -- Isaiah  56:6-8

I love this passage in Isaiah.  It is so inclusive:  "all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant" are gathered into God's house, are identified as God's people. 

But, what exactly does "keeping sabbath" mean?  It is defined as:  a day of rest and/or time of worship.  Essentially, it is spending time with God without distractions.  I think of the many different ways that people worship.  All around the world people of different religions regularly gather in groups to hear teachings, pray, and make offerings to God.  All around the world devout people of faith set aside time each day to read Holy Scripture and pray or meditate.

So, what does "keeping God's covenant" mean?  It can mean many specific things, of course -- humans are great at making rules, aren't we?.  But what is its most general meaning?  Looking back at Isaiah, keeping covenant seems to mean that we "maintain justice, and do what is right", "refrain from doing any evil", and "serve the Lord."  In return we will be "delivered", "saved", and "made joyful," among other things.

But what is "a covenant"?  Is it like a contract between two parties in which duties are prescribed for a specific length of time, and which can be broken if one party doesn't comply?  I like the way Miroslav Volv describes covenant:  "A covenant is not simply a relationship of mutual utility [like a contract], but of moral commitment ... with certain duties to one another within the framework of a long-lasting relationship.  Precisely because covenant is lasting, the parties themselves cannot be conceived as individuals whose identities are external to one another and who are related to one another only by virtue of their moral will and moral practice.  Rather, the very identity of each is formed through relationship to others; the alterity of the other enters into the very identity of each." ("Exclusion & Embrace, 154) 

This is true of my husband and me.  Our relationship is this kind of covenant.  Our identities have been formed, and continue to be formed over time, by each other, for each others' greater good.  My identity is also formed, and reformed over time, by my understanding of Jesus and my relationship with God.  The more time I spend with God, and the more I listen to what God has to say to me, especially through the words of Jesus, the more I am changed for the better.  Jesus said, "Abide in me, and I in you... I in them and you in me.  (John 15:4, 17:23)  This abiding, this keeping Sabbath and keeping covenant, changes who I am, and identifies me as a child of God.

But, I am curious, does this kind of relationship change God, as well?   Is the "very identity of each" formed in this way, as Volv states?  Yesterday's Gospel reading in Matt. 15:21-28, about the Canaanite woman changing Jesus' mind, makes me think that this is quite possible.  Other biblical passages repeatedly show God truly like the Father whom Jesus identified with, changing his mind on behalf of the children he loves.  Is our relationship truly reciprocal?

Dear God, thank you for living in relationship with me.  The thankfulness I feel is beyond words.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forgive and Forget

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.  And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.  -- Gen.45:4b-5

I woke up thinking about this story of Joseph, and here it is in today's readings!  I was remembering how our previous pastor's wife appreciated the fact that God had taken something so terrible as Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and had turned it into something so good.  At the time, when she said this, our church was going through a very painful division over the issue of homosexual partnerships.  Lines were being drawn.  Hurtful words were said by people on both sides.  As we moved towards separation, we could only hope that out of our pain God would create something good.

In the story of Joseph, there is separation, relationships are broken, and in the end, there is reconciliation.  Joseph abused his position as the favored son and claimed superiority over his brothers.  His brothers, angry at his self-righteousness, wanted to knock him down a peg or two.  They put him down as far as they could.  Literally:  they left him in a pit in the ground.  Many years later, when they meet again, Joseph is again in a position of superiority.  He has the ability to take his revenge on his brothers, and continue the cycle of oppression.  But he doesn't.  He reaches out to help them.  Perhaps he has recognized his own role in what happened.  He seems to have forgiven them  already.  Though he tests his brothers repeatedly, he also takes great care of them, and in the end, embraces them all. 

I read about Joseph yesterday in Miroslav Volv's "Exclusion & Embrace" (which is probably what made me recall that memory this morning).   In his book, Volv describes a four-step process that must take place in order to move from exclusion to reconciliation.  These steps are:  repentance, forgiveness, openness to the other, and forgetting.  He uses the story of Joseph to illustrate this movement, and in particular what he means by "forgetting".

As Volv points out it is a strange kind of forgetting.  For Joseph, upon first seeing his brothers after so many years, is forced to remember the suffering his brothers caused.  He subtly reminds them of it, too.  Yet Joseph has also chosen to put those painful memories in the background.  We know he has done this because he made a memorial to the past by naming his son Manasseh -- "one who causes to be forgotten".   Manasseh's presence recalls the memories while at the same time uplifting the need to forget them.  Joseph is able to embrace his brothers only because he chooses to forget the pain of the past, to put it behind him.  If the painful memories had been kept in the forefront, there would have been no reconciliation.  (p.131-9)
I am still sorting through my feelings about the past division in our church.  The process towards reconciliation has been slow, much slower than I expected.  I make movements that I recognize as progress, as being generous towards those who left.  But, I wonder, would I be able to embrace the ones who left if we met in person?  I'm not sure if I am there yet.  Perhaps that is because painful memories keep getting in the way.  Not only my own memories, but the memories of others who have stayed with the church.  Our memories are wrapped up together. 

It is important to remember.  We learn and grow from the lessons of the past.  But it is also important to forget.  As Volv writes, "We remember what matters to us and forget what does not;  and only what we remember can matter to us whereas what we forget cannot."  (p.132)  We are always selective about our memories, consciously or unconsciously.  Perhaps forgetting can be a matter of will, in addition to a matter of time.

Dear Lord, you said "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."  For which I am grateful.  Please grant me the ability to do the same, so that I may one day embrace, as brothers and sisters again, all who see things so differently from me.  

Friday, August 5, 2011


But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds.    -- Acts 17:13

As was Paul's custom during the early years of his preaching, he first went into the Jewish synagogue upon entering a village, in order to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to those who were seeking the Messiah.  In this way, some came to believe in Jesus.  But, in Thessalonica, some Jews "became jealous" and incited a mob to seek out and destroy Paul and Silas, and other believers.  These men even went so far as to drive them from the next town over. 

This story in Acts perfectly illustrates what I have been reading about in Miroslav Volv's "Exclusion & Embrace." (1996)  We all have, to greater or lesser degree, at various times, the desire to exclude people who are different from us.  Exclusive behavior can vary from being quite passive to being extremely aggressive, but no exclusive behavior is ever benign.  For example, looking the other way, or ignoring, someone who is different from us, though passive, is nevertheless hurtful to the one being ignored.  In extreme examples of exclusion, we drive out, or murder.

Paul himself, only a few years before, was on the other side, driving out, and imprisoning, Christians.  He even went from one town to the next, like these men.  If we think that becoming a Christian makes one automatically above this kind of behavior, then we need only remember the crusades, reservations, ghettos, concentration camps, Nagasaki and Hiroshima -- the list goes on and on, unfortunately.  Nor are other groups of people, religious or non-religious, immune from this extreme kind of exclusive behavior. Excluding what is other has been happening since the beginning of time. 

We know that this is not right behavior.  So how do we stop it?  Perhaps it might help to know what lies behind the desire to exclude.  Miroslav Volv proposes several reasons, among which are:  we see wrongfulness, or sin, in the other, but do not recognize that we carry this same sin within ourselves, and so we pass judgment in an effort to appear "pure" and "sinless"; we are fearful that boundaries may be blurred or dismantled altogether if we include the other, and worry about where new boundaries, if any, will be placed; and/or, we choose to serve our own interests for land, power, wealth, etc., and must take them away from others in order to gain for ourselves (p.77).  There may be more reasons.  All of these reasons, however, have one thing in common.  They all show a preoccupation with defining our own identity, over and above the identity of the other.

Many of the teachings of Jesus came to mind as I read Miroslav Volv's reasons: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not see the log in your own?; "And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying... God knows that you need them.  Seek first the kingdom of God"; and "You cannot serve God and mammon both".  These are just a few examples, but I think it is safe to say that throughout  his whole ministry, Jesus tried to teach us to live in a different way. 

The question is, Can we learn to do things differently?

Well, there is hope.  If Paul, who describes himself as "being zealous for God" in his persecution of Christians "up to the point of death" (Acts 22:3-4), can undergo such a complete transformation, perhaps we all can.  For, Paul did not simply switch allegiances, and go after Jews.  The way he saw himself and all other people changed as well.  By the time he wrote the Letter to the Romans, he was able to see himself as no different than those who persecuted him.  All were/are sinners.   And so, as he was loved by God in Jesus Christ, he was to love others in return.  This is the greatest commandment:  Love others as I have loved you.

Dear God, thank you for being the light in a world of darkness.  May your light shine on us, and glow within us, so that we may help to illuminate all the corners of the world.  Love always, Pam