Monday, December 26, 2011

Rejoice in God's Judgment? -- Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Temple for God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

God's Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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