Monday, October 31, 2011

Make Your Way Straight Before Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Problem of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 7, 2011

Shepherding the Flock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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