Monday, December 24, 2012


The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  -- Isaiah 11:3-6

This is a wonderful vision.  A wonderful dream.  But how will it ever come true?

How will the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion with the calf, without devouring it?  How will predatory animals live with prey animals in gentleness and peace?

Only when predators change who they are in their very core.

The wolf, leopard, and lion would have to completely change the way it perceives a lamb, kid, and calf.   No longer would it see an easy target.  No longer would it see something to overpower.  No longer would it even see something that it needs to kill and eat for its own survival.   It would have to depend on something else for its survival. 

This passage is, of course, an allegory for peaceful co-existence among humans.  What is true of the wolf, the leopard, and the lion, is true for us humans -- the greatest predators on earth -- who have turned violence towards others, even our own species, into a science, a technology, a vocation, and a form of entertainment.

So, in order for us to live peacefully with other people, we have to lose all desire to overpower other people.

All other people.  Those we know and those we do not know.  Even those who transgress against us.  Even those who try to overpower us.

How does this happen?   How do we humans change who we are in our very core?

How do we make the above dream a reality?

Well, as Mahatma Gandhi put it... We must be the change we want to see in the world.  It starts with me.  And you.

In the last few weeks, I have been learning how to be more compassionate -- specifically how to be as compassionate towards other people as I am towards my own children.  There is a difference.  When it comes to my own children, I am quite willing to sacrifice my own needs and desires for their sakes, but when it comes to other people, I become more insular.

In my last posting, I wrote that it is my ego that so often gets in the way of my ability to be compassionate towards other people.  I described the ego as that which is within us that rises to our defense, that justifies our thinking and our actions.  Our ego serves to foster our own security and to protect us from all harm.  This is not necessarily a bad thing:  it keeps us alive.   But, if left unchecked, our ego makes us more and more self-centered, more insular.  Someone with an overblown ego looks at other people as beneath him or her, looks at other people as unworthy of consideration unless they can provide some service, and even looks at other people as expendable. 

I wrote that in order to change this self-centeredness, we need to let go of our egos.   We need to release the tight hold we have on ourselves, and on our lives.  We have to be willing to lose our lives in order to find the kind of life God envisions for our future.

But, what does this mean in practice? 

The first step for me, as I learned last week, is recognizing when my ego begins to rise to my defense.

It unfortunately does not take much for this to happen.  Someone could be rude or say something hurtful, or say something that is not true about me.  And I will be off to the races, saying something rude or hurtful right back -- or at least thinking it.  When I think about how much unhappiness my ego creates in my life, and in the lives of those around me, I wonder if our overblown egos in general are not the cause of most of the suffering in the world.  

And it all starts at this very basic level:  the way we communicate with other people.

So, what if I start at this very basic level and learn to change the way I react to the words of other people?  What if I ignored my reaction?  What if I kept the words of other people with the people who made them?  What if I saw their words as revelations of their core -- not mine -- and therefore not needing my ego's self-defense.  Would that make a difference in how I communicate with them?

I think so.  I have seen this a few times already.  Already I am learning to catch my ego rising to my defense at the critical words other people direct at me.   And I have been deliberately choosing to ignore my reaction to them.  Just doing this, just ignoring my reaction, allows me to hear the other person better. 

Words are not isolated entities.  The words of one person are always in response to a perception of something else.  The perception may be accurate or not, but it creates thoughts and more words, which are in turn perceived accurately or not.  Effective communications requires that we accurately hear the other person:  that is, that we hear what they perceive and not necessarily the words they use to communicate their perception.  However, when we allow our ego to quickly respond to words, and how they affect us, we do not even have a chance of understanding what that person perceives.

Accurate perception takes time.  And a silenced ego.

A silenced ego requires complete trust in a benevolent God.

The quotation above, from Isaiah Ch. 11, begins and end with the following words...

The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, ...  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear .. and they will not hurt or destroy on all my mountain.

The more I learn about Jesus, the more I learn just how radically different was his wisdom and understanding from that of the world.

Dear God, thank you for your continued guidance.  Please teach me to communicate with more and more wisdom and understanding in all areas of my life.  Love always, Pam

Friday, December 14, 2012

To Have Compassion

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  -- Matt. 14:13-14

I love this description of Christ:  he had compassion for them.  This phrase is repeated throughout the gospels whenever Jesus sees someone in need.  He has compassion for them, and he helps them.

Somewhere (can't remember where), a long time ago, I read or heard that the word "compassion" shares roots with the word "womb."  Essentially, compassion is visceral.  When we are moved with compassion, something physical within the deepest part of us literally shifts.  You may have experienced for yourself that very uncomfortable sensation in your stomach when you see your children in danger, seriously ill, or hurt.  That is our womb lurching to protect our children.  I wonder if this is what Jesus felt when faced with the plight of so many people.  He felt compassion for them.  

This last Sunday, my pastor, Gayle Bintliff, preached a wonderful Advent sermon about being open to change, to being open to looking at life and our lives in a new way.  She asked, "What are we willing to change or let go of so that we can receive him?  What are we willing to give up so we can truly turn in a new direction?  A life-giving direction? ... Are you carrying an attachment to the way its always been?  Could you let that go so that you could receive all that God is longing to give you?  ... One author...goes on to say -- what God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment and love.  ... Maybe sometimes we just need to STOP, to BE, to LISTEN, TO WAIT... actually make space in our hearts, our lives for the ONE who comes to bring salvation, the healing of the world."  I was struck by how well these words mirrored my thoughts over the last couple of weeks.

For I have been discovering just how strongly my ego dictates my life.  When my sense of who I am, or my desires, or perceived needs, are threatened, I respond by blindly rising to my defense -- whether this is ultimately good for me or not.  If I am being told I am wrong, or that I should do things differently, my first response is usually to deny, or dismiss, this person, without really considering if they are right or not.  Even if this person is a friend or family member.  I am beginning to realize just how much my ego gets in the way of my ability to listen to other people, gets in the way of understanding them.  It even gets in the way of my ability to understand myself.

For example, my husband and I often go round and round, arguing about the same things, mostly because I refuse to change the way I do things that bother him.  His requests are not unreasonable.  Some are actually to my benefit, like eating more healthily.   I just don't like being told to do things differently than I want to do them.  But, the last time he expressed his same-old grievances, something else happened.  I gave up the fight.  Why?  What finally caused me to change?  Well, I wrote about his grievances in my journal, and I wrote down my defenses and self-justifications:  they were, basically, cries of "What about me???  What about what I want???"  And I heard this when I read what I had written.  "Am I really that ego-centric?  That self-centered?" I wondered.  It was an awakening.  And just like that, the way I thought about those things my husband was asking me to do changed.  The tight hold I had on "little old me" was gone.

The same thing happened when I wanted to learn how to help people who are dying, or whose loved ones are dying (see the last posting, "A Wise Heart").  I saw that it was my fear of getting lost in my own emotions that was keeping me from really being open to the intense emotions of other people.   And then again, I felt God telling me to release the tight hold I had on myself, that he would be with me, even in the depths of despair.

Then, last week, as I started reading about Christian meditation in order to prepare for a class I will be facilitating next year, I heard again this same message.  John Main, the great Catholic priest and proponent of Christian meditation, explained it this way:  Meditation "is learning to stand back and to allow God to come into the forefront of your life.  So often in our experience, we find that we are the centre of our world.  So many of us see reality revolving around us.  We think quite naturally of situations and of people primarily in terms of "how is this going to affect me?"  Now that's all right as far as it goes.  But if we really imagine that we are at the centre of the world, then we are never going to see any situation, or any person, or ourselves, as we really are.  Because of course, we are not at the centre of the world.  God is at the centre.  Now meditation is trying to take that step away from self-centredness to God-centredness."  ("the hunger for depth and meaning: Learning to Meditate with John Main," pg. 29)  John Main suggested using the mantra, "maranatha," when we meditate.  It is an Aramaic word meaning "Come, Lord."  It is an invitation for Jesus, and through Jesus, God, to come into our heart, our center, our womb, and move us according to his will.

How important this message must be!  Wherever I turn, I am hearing it again and again.

Yesterday, I asked my pastor for a book about listening, and she lent me Paul Tournier's book, "A Listening Ear:  Reflections on Christian Caring."  I was amazed to read again about meditation, only Tournier meditated through journaling.  I had never before thought of jounaling as a form of meditation.  But Tournier describes our need to "bring our human relationships before God in order to smooth the way.  ...It is only insofar as I can overcome my own reluctance to recognize the truth about myself, that I can help others to overcome their own resistance." (pg. 15)  I must see myself as I am, flaws and all, before I can truly have compassion for someone else.  I can do this through meditation, through deep prayer, through journaling.

All these pieces fit together so tightly.  If I truly want to have compassion  for other people, then I must let go of my ego, that false sense of who I am that protects, defends, and pushes out other people, which I cling to so tightly.  In order to release my ego, I must first see it.   It's as if our ego is a secretive, mischievous, ghost that disappears with a great "poof" if it is ever seen.   The only way to see it is to be quiet for a moment, and truly be open to what our spirit has to tell us.  When all that which is not godly within us is released, then God will have room to fill us and guide us in the way he wants us to go.

Dear God, help me to clear myself out of my center.  Help me to always be open to your word.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Wise Heart

Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.  --  Psalm 90:12

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I started reading "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," by Sogyal Rinpoche, again.  I know it was, on the surface, a strange choice to take with me on our annual, extended-family-and-friends, get-together at Sahuaro Lake Ranch. And I did feel a little odd reading about death and dying during a time of fellowship and thanksgiving, eventhough these ideas are not completely unconnected.

After all, we have all heard how facing our own death can make us appreciate life so much more.  We are often advised to "live like we are dying" by people who have been there, because when we do so, we tune into all that is most important and precious in our lives.  Keeping our death in mind teaches us to live more deeply and gratefully the life we have been given.  I understand the inherent truth in this advice.  Unfortunately, I just can't seem to live this way for long. 

However, I didn't seek out this book for that reason.  I wanted to get back into reading it because I was looking for a more specific understanding about death.  You see, a beloved uncle has an inoperable brain tumor.  And a friend's beloved aunt had just had a heart-attack and was dying.  My friend said to me, in the midst of her heartache, that, "It's a fact of life."  Well, yes, I thought, death is a fact of life.  But it's a fact of life that makes me uncomfortable, unsure of myself, and really, really out of my depth.  I recognize this about myself, and I don't particularly like it.

I should be better at this than I am.  Many of my closest family members have died.  I was with my mother during her last days of life.  Yet, I still don't know what to do for people who are dying, or for people who are grieving the death of a loved one.  My usual response is to ignore the obvious, to change the subject, or if it must be spoken about, assure the person that, "All will be well."  However, I know that while this attitude helps me cope, it doesn't help the other person very much.  I know deep down that it would be better if I could get more in touch with the fears and sadness and pain of the dying person, or the ones who love them.  That, however, scares the heck out of me.

Why is that?  I wonder what I am afraid of.  Do I fear that their sadness or fear or anger will transfer over to me, and I will become overwhelmed with emotion?   That, unfortunately, rings true.  I'd like to be able to help someone who is dying.  Or help a friend whose loved one is dying.  But how do I do this without feeling like I am dying?   

Well, it turns out, I can't.  It is that very part of me the clings to self-protection, to my own well-being, security, and happiness that is the problem.  I have to be willing to let all of that go, to let it die, essentially, if I am going to be able to truly help someone who is in pain, angry, afraid, depressed or grieving.  I cannot keep a protective wall around my heart and at the same time open my heart to the emotions of the other person.  In fact, the more I cling to my self, the less I will be able to help someone else. 

Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  And "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Sogyal Rinpoche writes, "Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite:  that letting go is the path to real freedom." (pg 35-36)

In order to really help someone who is dying, Rinpoche advises us to first think of the person as no different from you, with the same desires, needs, and fears, as you.  Second, imagine that you are the dying person, facing your death, in pain, alone.  He writes, "Then really ask yourself:  What would you most need?  What would you most like?  What would you really wish from the friend in front of you?... what the dying person most wants is what you would most want:  to be really loved and accepted."  (pg. 179)  Unconditional love is what a dying person wants.

Isn't that what everyone wants?  It dawned on me that every person who is suffering, angry, fearful, depressed, etc., could be helped, if we have the courage to put ourselves in the place of that person, to face all the fear, pain, anger, and sadness that that entails, and really try to understand them. 

Rinpoche writes.  "As you grow to confront and accept your own fears, you will become increasingly sensitive to those of the person before you, and you will find you develop the intelligence and insight to help that person to bring his or her fears out into the open, deal with them, and begin skillfully to dispel them. ...To learn really to help those who are dying is to begin to become fearless and responsible about our own dying, and to find in ourselves the beginnings of an unbounded compassion that we may never have suspected....and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings."  (pgs. 184, 191)

That is what I would like to have: a limitless compassion for all beings.  And so, I must learn to release my walls of self-protection, and let go of my heart.

Dear God, thank you for these teachings about the heart of things.  Help me to learn to grow in compassion, as I learn to grow in your love.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Dream

"As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in Thanksgiving."  Colossians 2:6-7

These are great words to live by.  Be rooted in Jesus.  Let Jesus be your guide.  Live as you have been taught by Jesus to live.  To me that means to live peacefully, fearlessly, compassionately, humbly, simply, lovingly, generously, gratefully.

Last week had me thinking about some of the things I would like to change about Christianity.  I wish Christianity was more Christ-like.  I imagined saying as Martin Luther King, Jr., did on the march to Washington to end segregation, "I have a dream..."  Only I would say...

I have a dream...

that one day Christianity will no longer be seen as a religion of beliefs and creeds but as the way of loving our neighbor and ourselves in truth that can be found among all peaceful people;

that the word of God will be known as always available and timeless, guiding people today, and into the future, like it guided people in the past;

that no Christian will use the Bible to prove themselves right and their neighbor wrong, but only to understand themselves and their neighbor better;
that "church" will not be thought of as a set of buildings to maintain, but will be any gathering of people for fellowship, service, and the sharing of God's word;

that each one of us will treasure our unique gifts and value the different opinions of others as necessary for learning and growth, according to God's will, not as cause for distance or separation; 

and, that no one will see themselves as greater or lessor than another, but all as equal beloved children of God.

Am I naive?  Well, as my Pastor's bumper sticker reads, ala John Lennon, "I may be a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Rob Bell writes in "Love Wins" that "God's purpose ... is 'to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.'  Unity.  To all things.  God is putting the world back together and God is doing this through Christ. ...  This is for everyone.  Jew and Gentile.  Everyone.  Not just any one tribe. ... Jesus is bigger than any one religion.  He didn't come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day.  He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called 'Christianity'."  (pgs 148, 150-1)  I loved Bell's book, but especially this part, because it emphasizes the unity of the world that God desires and the universality of Christianity.

This last week I also stumbled upon Langdon Whitsitt's "Open Source Church," and found another way of saying the same thing.  Whitsitt writes that the gospel of Jesus is about freedom.  Guided by Martin Luther's  insight that a Christian is "free, subject to none", and also "a servant, subject to all", Whitsitt writes, "To proclaim Jesus Christ is to proclaim freedom and to proclaim freedom is to proclaim Jesus Christ.  ...God has freely given all people the gospel so that we might all have abundant life. one can claim to speak unequivocally for God or offer the last word on biblical interpretation. ...we will never consider ourselves to be in possession of the original, correct, or sole understanding of Christ's person or work....any expression of faith is not limited by our current understanding but remains open to whatever it is God might reveal to us in the future...the freedom promised in Christ's gospel does not depend upon a particular understanding of that theology.  Freedom is freedom, whether one has their theology 'correct' or not."  (pgs 20-29)  This last thought is important.  We live in a very diverse world.  We can either keep fighting, trying to force other people to think like us, or we can figure out how to embrace our diversity, and learn from it what we need to learn.

Langdon Whitsitt writes powerfully about diversity:  "When it comes right down to it, diversity is not something that we as Christians attend to because it's the nice thing to do.  We don't seek it out because it's politically correct.  We don't -- or shouldn't -- concern ourselves with it because we feel compelled.  We don't do it simply because we think Jesus told us to -- because our reading of the Scriptures begs for diversity in the church.  No, the reason Christians attend to the ideal of diversity is that it is a necessary component in achieving the work that God has created, called, and gathered us together to accomplish.  We do diversity because we will fail in our calling from God if we do not.  When we do not attend to diversity (in as many forms of it as we can conceive), we make vital mistakes in our ministry and mission."  (pg. 92)

To me, unity in the midst of diversity is what Christianity is all about:  how to love your neighbor -- who is so different from you -- as you would be loved; and how your own life must change in order to accomplish that.

Jesus' way, the way of peace, generosity, compassion, is God's way.  It is THE way....wherever this way may be found:   amongst Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, amongst atheists, and agnostics, etc.  This is the way of abundant life, the way life is meant to be lived. 

Dear God, please help me to be fearless and humble both, help me to live more simply and more generously,  in all areas of my life.  Focus my compassion on those in need, and fill me with thanksgiving at every moment of my life.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, November 11, 2012


"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.  Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."   --  Matthew 9:16-17

This passage is rich with meaning.  Every time I read it, I gain some new insight into Jesus' message.

We have been reading the Gospel of Matthew in the Wednesday Evening Adult Bible Study, and these verses are found in a section titled "The Question about Fasting," by the NRSV editors of my Bible.  I did not understand the connection between new patches on old cloaks, new wine in old wineskins, and questions about fasting until someone read a commentary on the passage.  Their commentary explained that the passage illustrates the fact that Jesus came to change things, to bring something new into the picture.

I sometimes think that Jesus did not say anything new because his message echoes all of the great prophets of old. It's all about loving your neighbor as yourself.  But it seems like this message needs to be re-invented every so often.  It needs to be re-taught again and again in fresh new ways every so often.  Why?

Because we repeatedly get bogged down in doing the same things the same way, in traditions and rituals, even when they stop producing fruit, or having any meaning at all.  The disciples of John the Baptist had a really difficult time thinking of Jesus as the Messiah because he didn't do what they expected.  They thought Jesus should fast, as they did.  Why?  Because that is the way things had always been done. They could not believe that one could have a close relationship with God unless one fasted. 

But Jesus came to say that life in God's Kingdom wasn't about doing without, it was about doing for.  He changed, or wanted to change, their focus.  Some could accept this re-focusing, and some could not.  Those who could not, were set in their ways -- they were "old".

Perhaps that is why Jesus repeatedly says that you must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of God.  Children accept new things.  They are open-hearted.  They adapt to change much more easily than adults do.  Generally.  Some adults do stay young at heart, adapting to the changes that life brings with grace and insight.  And some young people refuse to accept change.  Being young at heart has nothing to do with how old you are in years.  But it does have a lot to do with how well you adapt to new circumstances.

This week, changing our ways, has been a topic of conversation wherever I go.  Since the election last Tuesday, there has been a lot of talk about the GOP needing to change if they ever want to survive.  A political party consisting of mostly old white guys, who refuse to compromise, is not going to influence very many people -- certainly not the majority of the people.  And so the GOP  (which ironically enough stands for Grand Old Party) must change, must adapt to the changing times, or die, to put it harshly.  They cannot keep preaching a message that only old white guys want to hear.

For an example of young people refusing to change, I don't have to look very far at all.  Some of the high school youth of our church are adamantly opposed to change.  They want things to be they way they have always been even though we have a new youth director and new cast of volunteer leaders. Every suggested change, even minute ones, are met with, "That's not how we used to do it."  Or, "We want to do things the way [the previous director] did them."  Sigh.  It's been three months, and we are still hearing this.  I wonder if they have ever heard of the Serenity Prayer.   I wonder if they have ever read the book, "Who Moved My Cheese?"  It seems that we will need to address this issue head-on if we are ever going to get past it.

I am reminded of a movie I saw recently.  "Invictus" tells the story of how Nelson Mandela united South Africa upon becoming President after more than half a century of division promoted by the Afrikaner apartheid government.  This is a movie about change, BIG change.  The Afrikaners must get used to thinking of black South Africans as their equals.  The black South Africans must get used to working alongside white South Africans, including those who previously oppressed them.  Even Nelson Mandela has to change the way he has felt about some parts of the old regime.  He (played by Morgan Freeman) says at one point in the movie, "If I cannot change when circumstance demand it, how can I expect others to?"  The kind of change brought about in South Africa required, first of all, immense forgiveness.  It's a powerful movie, and shows how the leadership of one very wise and courageous person can bring about tremendous change.

What would I like to see change?

Well, this week I was reminded again of something that really bothers me about the Christian church.  In our Womens Study, we have been reading Rob Bell's "Love Wins", and this week, we discussed his chapter on the meaning of the cross.  I like the way Rob Bell explains the many ways the cross was interpreted in New Testament times.  I especially like how he explains how the writer of Hebrews interpreted the cross.  The writer of Hebrews was speaking to a people who regularly sacrificed animals.  Bell writes, "You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you'd done...  Entire civilizations for thousands of years enacted sacrificial rituals, because people believed that this was how you maintained a peaceful relationship with the gods, the forces, and the deities who controlled your fate... So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea.  To make that claim in those days?  Stunning.  Unprecedented.  Whole cultures centered around keeping the gods pleased.  ... And now the writer is announcing that those days are over because of Jesus dying on the cross.  Done away with.  Gone.  Irrelevant."  (pgs. 124-5)  Think about the impact that must have had on a culture, on a world, that had always sacrificed to appease the gods.  Talk about changing things.

After reading that section of the book, I had a better understanding of where this idea of Christ's atoning sacrifice, which has always bothered me, came from.  If this theory helped do away with animal sacrifices then it was clearly a step in the right direction.  And maybe if I had lived in those days, it would have made sense to me.  But today?  Why is this interpretation still taught today when we are so far removed from the days of  ritual sacrifice?  The idea that Jesus had to die in order for my sins to be forgiven doesn't fit with my understanding of God or Jesus.  In order for that to be true, God had to want or need Jesus to be sacrificed in order to forgive me.   But this isn't the God I know or read about in the Old Testament or in words of Jesus.  After all, God told Abraham that he did not want him to sacrifice his beloved son.  Why would God then make this a requirement later on?  Jesus forgave the sins of people... when he was alive.  He said, "Repent and your sins will be forgiven."  So simple.  And Jesus said repeatedly, quoting ancient Hebrew Scripture, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."

So, why is this idea of Jesus dying for the forgiveness of sins still  such a prevalent message in the church today, in the liturgy, and in the songs we sing? Is it because this is how it has always been?  What if this idea no longer bears fruit, or has meaning for people today?  What if this idea is actually a stumbling block for many people who cannot understand how God could require such a sacrifice?  What if this idea prevents many people from understanding what Christianity is really all about?  While Jesus' death on the cross has many relevant meanings, a requirement for forgiveness of sins isn't one of them

So, this is one thing I would like to see change.  There are others.

Dear God, may we all grow in wisdom and courage, learning your ways of forgiveness and compassion for all.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Love

Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word.  Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.  --  Psalm 119:17-18

This reading has been in the daily lectionary for most of the last week.  When I first read it, I was feeling very appreciative of God's guidance in my life, which always amazes me.  I often wonder why I feel this guidance so strongly, and other people do not.  "Why is that?  What is the difference?"  For a moment, last week, I actually thought, "It must be because I try to do what God asks."

I'm happy to report that I immediately recognized this thought as being problematic.  It was exactly that kind of problematic thinking that Jesus was trying to get the religious people of his day to see when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the story of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, etc.  I was thinking just like the Pharisee in the parable:  "I am so blessed because I keep God's laws.  I do this and that and the other.  Not like that unfortunate person over there."

Really?!  I keep God's laws perfectly?  Well, I think we all know the answer to that question.  I had temporarily forgotten that I do not always love my neighbor as myself.  I do not always forgive other people as I would like to be forgiven -- that is, immediately.  I sometimes judge other people negatively.  I can make more excuses for pure and simple sloth than anyone I know.  And, among other things, I can be very arrogant sometimes -- as illustrated by that first thought.

This is the danger for religious people, as John Ortberg describes so well in "The Life You've Always Wanted."  We think that we, more that other people, follow God's law.  We forget -- or ignore -- all the times when we fail to follow God's law.  But no one, no one, is perfect.  That is why the gospel is so important.  God loves us despite our flaws. 

So, if it's not what we do that makes the difference in why some people feel God's guidance and others don't, what is it?  Is it simply faith?  Is faith alone, without all the trappings (or traps) of divine favor or judgment, the key?  Is that why I feel God's guidance?

I know that whenever I am feeling particularly challenged by life's circumstances, I remember that God has guided me through troubles before, and I trust that he will guide me through the current one.  Like the Jewish people, my faith rests on past events of God's divine intervention.  Perhaps it is simply faith in God's love and guidance that allows me to see God's love and guidance. 

Later that same day, a woman at my boys' school told me about a friend of hers whose young daughter, four years old, had just died of ovarian cancer.  Sixteen years earlier, this woman had lost another child, at six months, to another kind of cancer.  The grieving woman was, of course, beyond devastated.  She no longer wanted to be around people who had healthy children.  I wondered how someone would help this woman believe in God's love and guidance.
I came across a book later that day which provided more food for thought.  Martin Seligman, Ph.D. writes in "Learned Optimism:  How to Change Your Mind and Your Life" that how we think about circumstances can determine much of our reality.   "The key to this process is hope or hopelessness."  Seligman writes that whether or not we have hope depends upon how we explain misfortune.  "Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope:  temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation.  On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors.  Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair."  (pgs. 49, 76, 89).  For example if I fail a test, I could think that I hadn't studied very much and would do better next time with more studying, or I could think that am stupid and would never get it right.  Seligman writes that we can learn to turn around our pessimistic way of thinking, and learn to find temporary and specific causes for negative events.  We can learn to hope in a more positive future.

I recalled the first time I experienced God's guidance in my life -- before I had any personal history of such things to rely upon.  I went to church, at a loss to help myself, hoping to find some solace from God.  And I heard words in the sermon that spoke so directly to my specific concerns that I could not doubt that God was comforting me.  My hope in God led to an experience of God.

So faith  and hope.  Both essential ingredients in feeling the love and guidance of God.  But what if you have neither?

I imagine that the woman who lost her only children to devastating diseases was in such deep despair that hope was out of reach.  I imagine that after the first loss, she might have been much more pessimistic when her second child was diagnosed with cancer.  Like Naomi in the Book of Ruth after the loss of her husband and two adult sons, she may have felt abandoned by God altogether.  Naomi, too, felt little hope for the future.  She sent her daughters-in-law back to their homes because she had no hope of providing for them.

But Naomi's thinking changed over the course of the story.  What turned Naomi's thinking around?

It was the love of her daughter-in-law, Ruth.  Ruth would not leave Naomi, even though Naomi repeatedly told her to go.  Ruth stayed by her side.  And through Ruth's love, faith, and hope, shared with Naomi, they both were able to survive, and eventually thrive.

Perhaps that is why love is the greatest of the three, as Paul writes.  And why God's law is the law of love.  Perhaps it is through persistent love, the kind of love that is not easily turned away, that faith and hope are best shared with those that do not have such knowledge. And, perhaps, eventually, they might turn around and see it too.

Dear God, help us all to share the love we have been given with all those we find in need.  Love always, Pam

Monday, October 29, 2012


"Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness."  -- Jeremiah 23:11

Yesterday was Reformation Sunday, a day celebrated by Lutherans, and some other denominations, to honor the beginning of the Reformation.  This day is also a reminder that the church and all of us, as Christians, are always in need of reforming.   No one is perfect.  No one is immune from going astray.  Not even our religious leaders, as the quote above attests.

It is significant that Jesus not only came to rescue the lost sheep of Israel, the outcast, the sinner, the marginalized, and bring them back into the fold of God's Kingdom, but he also admonished the very religious people of his day, the priests and scribes, for being oblivious to the true ways of God.  Jesus had to teach both groups of people about God's abounding love.

I do not think that Jesus intended to begin a new religion, just to reform the one he found.  Jesus wanted us to look at our heart and the hearts of other people.  That was what was most important.  Not whether a person washed their hands the right way before eating.  Not what a person tithed.  Not how a person looked.  What came from inside a person counted more than anything that could be seen on the outside of a person.  If people could look in a mirror, and truly see what they needed to change about themselves in order to be more loving, then they would soon find God's Kingdom within their very midst.  Unfortunately, many of the religious authorities of his day were not open to reforming their ways. 
Luther also did not intend to form a new religion, just reform the one he found.  He saw that the church had strayed from many of the teachings of Jesus, and he sought to open their eyes.  His 95 Theses were simply proposed topics for discussion among the very religious people of his day.  Perhaps the reason Luther translated the Bible into everyday German was to prevent future straying from the way of Christ.  Now the average Josef and Jan would be able to know for themselves exactly what Jesus had taught.  He coined the phrase "a priesthood of believers" so that everyone would think of themselves as equals (see Matthew 23:8-10).  Everyone would be able to learn about Jesus for themselves, and experience God for themselves.  And there would be no hierarchy of authority amongst the children of God. 

Unfortunately, that idea kind of backfired.  Once everyone could read and interpret the Bible for themselves, more and more people came to different understandings.  Somehow the great forest of wisdom got lost as people began to focus on the trees.  And instead of loving their neighbor who thought differently, they separated themselves from their neighbor, building walls around their favorite trees.  Belief in the same set of doctrines became the most important thing.  Excluding those who thought differently, even killing those who thought differently, was thought to be the way of God. 

This despite the fact that everything Jesus taught had to do with how to love your neighbor, the one who thought differently from you, as yourself.  As a result, one of the most important commandments, the one upon which all the law and prophets was founded, the one second only to, and just like, the greatest commandment of all -- that is, loving God with all one's being -- was dismissed entirely.

Even today, there are still many Christians who exclude.  There are even some church leaders who teach exclusion to their congregations.  They teach that they are "in" and others are "out."   Only they will go to heaven.  Only they are the elect.  Others will go to hell.  Others are damned.  And they see no problem with this.  This is the way God works.  This is God's justice.

REALLY?  Is this the way of Jesus?  Is this what it means to become a new person in Christ?  That we think of ourselves as better than the rest of humanity?  No wonder so many people are turned off by Christianity.  I, too, sometimes get turned off by Christianity, when it's described like this. 

I came across John Ortberg's "The Life You've Always Wanted" this week, and read his take on what it means to become a new person in Christ.  He makes a distinction between "psuedo-transformation" and authentic transformation.  He writes, authentic transformation is "marked by greater and greater amounts of love and joy."  Psuedo-transformation is when we "look for substitute ways of distinguishing ourselves from those who are not Christians.... the highly visible, relatively superficial practices that allowed people to distinguish who is inside and who is outside the family of God." Ortberg calls these boundary markers.   "[W]hat makes something a boundary marker is its being seized upon by the group as an opportunity to reinforce a false sense of superiority, fed by the intent to exclude others."  (pg. 31-32)  His words reinforced my own understanding.

But still I wonder how to respond to those who exclude.  Do I just ignore them?  Or does Jesus ask me to do something more?

The other day I met a woman who, after a bit of conversation, thanked God that she and her children were saved, and then proceeded to talk about the terrible sinfulness of the youth of today.  I just stayed silent, even though I didn't agree with her conclusions.  Afterward, I wondered if this was the right response.  Was this a loving response -- to leave her enclosed in her boundary wall of judgmentalism?

I wondered how Jesus would have responded to that woman.  I think he would have corrected her in a way that would have struck a chord within her.  I think he would have told her a story to illustrate a more loving way of looking at sin.  Perhaps he would have told the familiar story of the lost sheep.  Or the Prodigal Son.  I think he would have somehow corrected her while showing her all the compassion, and forgiveness, that God shows all of us.   

But, the thing that stops me from following suit is the idea that I have no right to judge.  Who am I to correct someone else -- even if I think they are wrong?  Is this my responsibility?  Am I my brother's keeper?

Well, yes, actually.  If I am a student of Christ, and part of the priesthood of all believers, then it is my duty and my delight to follow the way of Jesus ever more closely, and to find a way to share his love with everyone.   Even if that means pointing someone in a different direction.  Even if that means chipping away at their walls of exclusion.

This month, I've had to look at my own behavior and be open to correction.  I've had to be willing to correct my husband.  I wonder if God is trying to lead me, step by step, to understand that I need to be a little more proactive at bringing about his Kingdom outside of my immediate family, as well.  After all, if I love my family enough to show them a better way, should I not love my neighbor likewise? 

As Ortberg writes, "Every moment is potentially an opportunity to be guided by God into his way of living.  Every moment is a chance to learn from Jesus how to live in the kingdom of God." (pg. 54)

So, dear God, may we, with your guidance, continually re-form ourselves in the light of Jesus.  The world would be a better place, I know.  It would be Your Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.   Love always, Pam

Monday, October 22, 2012


...though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.  --  Psalm 37:24

Last week I wrote about being "Open to Correction" thinking primarily of my husband and myself.  Most of the time we get along relatively well with each other, but every once in a while we have a major blowup.  One of us expresses grievances about the other, and the other one gets defensive.  Our grievances are usually the same ones, again and again.  Either he wants me to work harder, especially around the house and yard, or I want him to talk more politely to the kids and me.

A few years ago, I read "The Five Love Languages," and recognized that my husband feels love through "Acts", and I feel love through "Words".  To my husband, working hard and getting things done is very important; it is an act of love.  Unfortunately, I have a tendency to put housework and yardwork at the bottom of my list of things to do, or forget them altogether, which means stuff doesn't get done, which means that he does it -- feeling very much unloved and unappreciated as he does so.  To me, speaking politely to one another is very important; it is an act of love.  Unfortunately, he has a tendency to yell and be rude when he's unhappy, which makes the kids and I feel very much unloved and unappreciated.  We each need from the other what the other finds the most challenging to give.

Now, I'm writing in hindsight, when things are on the mend, but last week, without going into the petty details, we were in the thick of the storm, and very unhappy with each other.  While I recognized the need once again for improvement on my part, I was also certain that my husband could use some "correction" once again, too.  Figuring out how to do this, without making things worse between us, however, is something I find very difficult.  It is so difficult that I am sometimes tempted to flee from it.  I wonder, "Is this really what God intends for me -- this very difficult marriage?"  I think, "Oh, wouldn't it be so much easier to live separately?"  Then we wouldn't have to try so hard to please each other.  We could just please ourselves. 

Quite perversely, the lectionary readings every day that week were filled with admonitions against divorce.  "Really, God?!"  I kept asking.  "Really?  What about in extreme cases of irreconcilable differences?"  Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be a good enough reason in biblical times.  The only exception for divorce, according to everything Jesus said, was adultery.  Well, that's one thing I have no interest in -- figuring out one man's quirks is challenging enough!  I trust that my husband is too honorable to do that either.

It wasn't just in the Bible that I read words to this effect.  Kierkegaard, who speaks so eloquently about individuality, and being "an individual" before God, wrote:  "In truth, it is not divorce that eternity is aiming at, neither is it divorce, that eternity does away with the difference between man and woman."  ("Purity of Heart," pg. 188).  Yes, the differences between us would still be there even if we were to get divorced.  I know this.  I would still not get the required work done, and he would still not speak politely.   And there would be no one to remind us to be any better.  Divorce is not ultimately to our advantage as human beings.  Our only hope is to teach each other a better way.

Last week, I met a man and a woman who in a moment's conversation taught me many things.  The man was very spiritual, very biblical, a free spirit, living on the streets, traveling from place to place, writing a book, like a modern-day prophet, following the path of Jesus as he saw it.  Much of what he had to say about eternal life lived in the now resonated with me.  But I questioned his belief that only he out of everyone in the world today knew what Jesus was truly about.  "Isn't that a bit arrogant?" I asked.  The woman, his companion, whom he had met on the streets along the way, nodded in agreement with me about the arrogant attitude.  Upon which, he described their relationship as similar to that of Paul and the woman who followed him from place to place.  I thought he must be referring to Thecla, whose story is described in an early Christian, though non-canonical, writing called "The Acts of Paul and Thecla."  This woman in front of me, however, seemed to be somewhat mentally unstable.  And though this man provided for her, he saw her as more a "thorn in his side" than a partner.

These people were very curious to me.  I kept thinking about our conversation.  In one moment of contemplation, I recognized in the man an extreme version of myself.  For, if left to pursue God to my hearts' content, I too might loosen myself from all ties, perhaps occasionally help a person in need, but form no closer bonds, in my pursuit for unity with God.  What would I lose, and what would I miss, if I lived this way?  Perhaps, I too might think I knew better than everyone else what Jesus was about.  I was once again reminded of why the second greatest commandment is tied so strongly to the first.  Unity with God means living in community with our neighbor.

So, I began to wonder if God pairs us up with exactly the people who can teach us about ourselves, if only we are willing to listen.  Sometimes, depending on the people involved, this is a very easy process.  Sometimes, as in the case of my husband and I, it is very challenging.   Perhaps, all of those relationships we have in our lives work the same way.  We come into each others' lives to learn from each other.  Some relationships are easier than others, but just because there is opposition, that does not mean we have nothing to learn.  Perhaps, that is when we have something extremely important to learn.  If only we are willing to listen to that which is in opposition to us.

God, it seems, does not want lone rangers.  God, it seems, wants communities, even if only very small communities, in order to teach us what it is we most need to learn.   For example, my husband and I cannot learn these most important things from anyone else.  Speaking politely is very important to me, and getting things done is very important to my husband.  And deep down, we both realize that they are each important to us as a couple.  And not only to us, but to our children as well.  Our kids need to know that keeping a house and yard requires consistent work, even though they may not enjoy this kind of work.  They need to know that speaking politely to each other is essential, even when they are unhappy.  They also need to know that sometimes they will need to offer a word of correction to another person, and accept correction, in order to help them grow in necessary ways. And they also need to know that forgiveness is paramount, in all of our relationships.  For just as God continually forgives us for our inadequacies, so too must we continually forgive each others' inadequacies.

I read in "Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion," by Abraham Joshua Heschel, picking up where I left off months ago, "The child becomes becoming sensitive to the interests of other selves.  Human is he who is concerned with other selves.  Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out...Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself...To serve does not mean to surrender, but to share." (pgs 138, 141) 

In yesterday's Gospel reading, Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee if they can drink the cup that he must drink.  For me, the cup is unity.  Unity was important to Jesus.  I believe unity is important to God.  So, the question becomes, "Can I drink this cup of unity?"
Only with God's helping hand.

May God bless you in all of your relationships with growth towards maturity and abundant life.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Open to Correction

" not harden your hearts."  -- Hebrews 3:15, echoing Psalm 95:8

When Jesus began his ministry, according to Matthew, he told people to, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."   According to Miriam-Webster, "repent" means, "to dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's feel contrition."  When Jesus asked people to repent, he was asking them to turn to God with an open, pliable heart.  This has always been the first step on the road to God's kingdom.  Why?

The world can only change one person at a time.  In order for the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, to become a reality, we need to be in a deep and lasting relationship with God, as individuals.  For only then can God teach us what we need to learn.  The only way for us to be in a deep and lasting relationship with God is if we open our hearts and minds to God, completely.  We cannot open our hearts and minds to God and hope to keep some things secret, as if God does not already know everything about us.  Thinking that we need only acknowledge the good parts merely delays the kingdom of heaven from becoming a reality to us.  We must acknowledge all the negative stuff, as well.  This is difficult.  For, once we acknowledge the negative stuff, we know we will have to change.  Being open to correction and changing our ways are both  extremely difficult.  So, even though heaven is within reach, we sometimes harden our hearts, instead.

It seems to me that maintaining an open, pliable heart is the key to living in relationship not only with God, but with other people, as well.

We are all called by God to live in community with one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves. But, we often live among people who are very different from us, even complete opposites to us in their thinking.   This is true in our casual relationships, our working relationships, and our most intimate, familial relationships.  Conflict is the natural, and necessary, result.

Now we can turn away from those who think differently than we do.  We can even refuse to communicate with such people.  But this is classic heart-hardening behavior.  And, unfortunately, whenever we harden our hearts, we are in the wrong.  Always. 

God made us all different for a reason.  No one person gets it completely right.  No one person gets it completely wrong.  Within each of us there is some truth.  Those who think differently from us, especially at the opposite end of the spectrum from us, provide a necessary balance to us.  As we provide a necessary balance to them. The problem comes when we refuse to stay in community, when we refuse to listen to that which is so different from us, or when we think that there is no common ground between us.  There is always common ground for our most important disagreements, though finding it may be difficult, and will take time.  That common ground is where the truth is found.  As I once read, I think from Confucius:  If right were truly right, there would be no reason for argument. 

In order to find that most important common ground, the truth, we have to be willing to listen to the person who is so different from ourselves.  And we have to be willing to express our truth to that person as well.  This kind of dialogue can only happen when we respect one another as equals, when we are certain that some common ground exists between us, and when both parties are open to correction.  All too often, however, our response is to walk away, to think that we alone have the truth, to isolate ourselves from that which is in opposition to us.  To do this, or think this way, we harden our hearts.

Jesus, and God, however, always show us the way, the truth, and the life.   The Bible contains stories of both Jesus and God speaking words of correction, and being open to correction.  Just think of the way the Syro-Phoenician woman changed Jesus' thinking.  Just think of the way Moses, and many others, changed God's thinking.  We, too, must also be willing to stay in community with those who think differently from us, always respecting one another as equals before God, and always open to correction and to correcting, .

So, next time you find yourself in a disagreement with another person, patiently stay in community with them.  Keep talking.  Keep listening.  Keep seeking the common ground between you.  Do not be afraid of correction, or of correcting.  Keep your heart pliable.  Do not give up, though it is extremely difficult.   This is the path of love. 

Dear God, keep my heart open and pliable to your word so that I may hear in it the correction I need.  And give me the courage to speak your word, as well, to all those whom you want to hear.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What is The Truth?

"Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.  If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father."  --  1 John 2:24

It is easy to get off-track when it comes to faith.  Especially if we explore our faith to any degree, or explore the faith of other people.  Certainly, figuring out what we believe and what other people believe can be a very positive, life-enriching experience, which I highly recommend.  Yet, there is one very significant drawback that comes when you really begin to think about your faith and compare it to the faith of other people:  you begin to see where you think differently from other people.  Now, this is not such an unfortunate awareness to have -- it is a fact:  we do all think differently from each other.  But this can lead to difficulties if we get bogged down in the differences.  For, the differences will separate us, if we let them. 

I discovered this when I first started to explore my faith.  I was faced with a multitude of varying, even contradictory, beliefs.  So many different Christian denominations claim to have exclusive rights to The Truth -- and yet they are all different from each other.  So many different non-Christian faiths also claim to have exclusive rights to The Truth -- with the same result.  Even within my single Lutheran denomination, there are differences of opinion about very significant matters.  "So, what is The Truth?!!"  I wanted to know.

In an effort to try to sort through all of these differences, I studied the teachings of Jesus.  And what did I learn?  I learned that the most important belief, the most important doctrine, the most important commandment is this:  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." And, what is just like it:  "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"  All of Jesus' other teachings were elaborations on these two commandments.  And everything that aggravated Jesus went against these two commandments. 

I understand how these two commandments are really one and the same.  The more I grow to love God, the more I feel God pointing me to my neighbor.  I could not love God, without loving my neighbor.  I could not truly love my neighbor, if I did not love God with all my being.  This one commandment in two parts, or two commandments, if you prefer, is all that we need to know and all that we need to live by.  All we need ever do is test our understanding against these two commandments, and throw out that which is irrelevant, or contrary to them.  This is The Truth.  Oddly enough, all Jews, all Christians, and all Muslims agree that these are the most important commandments.  Unfortunately, not everyone actually emphasizes them.  Instead, we get bogged down in our differences.

I once tried to tell a pastor this, that differences of opinion do not matter.  This pastor had a different understanding of human sexuality and a different way of interpreting the Bible than me.  I said that I didn't think either difference should be the cause of separation.  For to me, separating oneself from another was the greater problem:  that was not loving your neighbor as yourself.  It was actually  harmful.  I did not understand why our mutual love for God and Christ could not serve to bind us together more than whatever separated us.  However, this pastor could not believe it was as simple as that.  Which is why we divided.  Which is why all churches divide.  And why some denominations or sects claim an exclusive in-road to God.  They cannot love the one who thinks so differently from them as much as they love themselves.  They cannot follow that most basic commandment.

Unfortunately, now, I am running into this problem again.  I thought I had it down pat, but once again, I am getting bogged down in differences of opinion.  Once again I've been trying to figure out what is right when it comes to differing opinions in matters of faith.  Only now, I am in a leadership role.  Now I am a teacher of our high school youth, and a leader of our adult education programs.   It would be very easy for me to think that I have all of the answers -- that my opinion is the right opinion -- that I need to point out the errors in other people's thinking about God, and the Bible, and Jesus, etc. 

But over and over again, God has been cautioning me, and reminding me.  No one has all of the answers.  Each one of us sees through a glass darkly.  If I think otherwise, if I tell other people that their understanding is wrong, I would be the one causing a problem.  Truly, differing opinions on side issues do not matter.  The only thing that matters is that we love God, and we love our neighbor as ourselves.  That means loving the one who thinks differently than I do.  That is what I learned in the beginning.  That is what is most important.  This is what I need to practice and teach.

So, increasingly, I'm wondering what good can come from learning about established church doctrine or theological matters that only seem to highlight our differences from each other.  These kinds of classes only seem to take us further and further away from loving all our neighbors as ourselves.

Instead, I wonder what it would look like if ideas were discussed in a way in which every person's opinion was welcomed and valued equally and humbly.  I wonder what it would look like if no one felt superior or inferior to anyone else.  I wonder what it would look like if we all were open to learning from each other, to asking our questions, and sharing our answers with each other as equals.   Perhaps it would look like a priesthood of believers, or a brotherhood of saints. Perhaps it would feel a little bit like heaven.

Dear God, please keep me mindful of what is most important.  Help me to sort through my difficulties in this matter and find the straight path through to you.  Love always, Pam

Friday, September 28, 2012


"... the wisdom from above is first pure..."   -- James 3:17

The idea of purity has been much in my mind lately.  In the Bible Study I attend on Wednesday evenings, we have been reading The Letter of James.  James writes about many things in his letter, but one theme that comes up repeatedly is this idea of purity, of doing what is right, plain and simple.  At the same time, I have been reading a book by Soren Kierkegaard, "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing."  I did not know until I started reading it that this book is actually somewhat of a commentary on James.  For Kierkegaard defines purity of heart as that which does good, purely for the sake of The Good, without any other motive or double-mindedness, echoing James.  To understand purity of heart, it seems we have to understand what motivates us.

The title of Kierkegaard's book says it all.  If we do good because we are looking for a reward, either from men or from God, then we are not willing one thing, but two things:  the good and the reward.  And if we do good because we fear punishment for not doing good, either from men or from God, then once again, we are willing two things:  the good and the avoidance of punishment.  This double-mindedness is very far from true goodness.  Kierkegaard carries this idea a little further, but essentially, purity of heart is to will the Good with our whole heart, nothing less.
This is pretty easy to understand:  we do what is right and good, that which helps someone else, because it is right and good, and for no other reason. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan helped the man who had been attacked because he needed help, plain and simple.  He went out of his way to see to the needs of this injured man, and to see him through to his complete recovery.  Other men, religious men, passed him by without helping because they were motivated by what they mistakenly thought made them  "pure".  We all know who is the truly good person in this story.

However, while this concept is easy to understand, it is not always easy to do.  How often am I motivated to do what is good purely because it is the right thing to do, and how often am I motivated by what other people think?  Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, I sometimes get waylaid by a false idea of what it means to be "pure", or in my case, "a good Christian."  I know I am not alone in this.

For the past month, this idea keeps coming up.  You see, for the past month, I have been helping to teach our church's high school youth group.  It's a new area of ministry for me.  I feel a little bit out of my comfort zone.  I am a high school math teacher, not a trained youth minister.  (This may be good thing or it may be bad  thing -- the jury's still out.)  For the most part, I have simply been trying to stay open to what is going on with these kids, and listening to what God wants me to tell them.

It's been challenging.  Primarily it's been challenging because of the  messages they have already received about what it means to be a Christian.  Some of them think that being a Christian means not cussing, or wearing a purity ring, or being outwardly "good" so that other people are attracted to Christianity by their fine example.  And so, in response to this, we talked about the meaning of the Gospel.  We talked about how God is continually with us, even when we make mistakes, trying to show us a better way of life simply because he loves us.  On another occasion, they thought that the reason we should help other people, especially if the work is hard, is because we will gain a greater reward in Heaven.  And so we started talking about the unique perspective each one of us has to offer and how much we learn from others when we live in community, even those whom we help, even those who think differently from us.   James and Kierkegaard might say that some of these teenagers have a very "double-minded" way of thinking about goodness.

This week, I have had to face my own double-minded tendencies when we decided to show a movie.  Right away, I recommended "The Art of Getting By."  It has a great message:  it's a coming of age story of a loner teenage boy who learns that life has meaning when he cares enough to put his heart on the line and live authentically.  I watched this movie twice when it came out on DVD several months ago -- the second time with my thirteen year old son because I wanted him to get this message.  However, since it had been awhile and we needed to make sure this PG-13 movie was appropriate, I watched it again, this time with the eyes of a church youth group leader.   And I became hyper-aware of all the negative, "un-Christian", behavior, that is portrayed in this movie:  teenage smoking and drinking, cutting class, cussing, and pre-marital sex.  O my!  Even though none of this negative behavior is exactly lauded, it is simply the norm for our American culture, I got worried about what the kids and their parents would think.  Would they think we were promoting these negative behaviors?  Would we get complaints from parents for showing this movie?  I was doubtful whether the positive message would even shine through it all.  So, I looked for a more "Christian" movie.

All I could find were movies for younger children or movies these kids had already seen.  All of the movies that I would want to recommend were a little too "non-religious" for Christian movie night at the church.  One movie I could recommend, "Rory O'Shea Was Here," is a profound  movie about two young men with cerebral palsy who just want to live as normal a life as possible, but it's rated R for language.  Another movie, "Henry Poole is Here," although rated PG, is a movie that shows life from both an atheist's point of view and a devout Catholic's point of view, with each side respected equally.  A third movie, a documentary called "Happy," shows how different people around the world have learned to be happy.  Sounds pretty innocuous, right?  Well, living in community and helping each other are high on the list, but having a relationship with God is not -- in fact, the judgmentalism that comes with many religions is seen as preventing happiness more often than not.  This was getting a little ridiculous, I thought.  All of these movies are great.  They have an important message.  They are just not very "Christian."

So, what did I do?  Well, as I mulled over James and Kierkegaard, I realized how much I was being influenced by the appearance of being Christian instead of what it actually means to be Christian.  And I slowly became aware that "The Art of Getting By" is about finding and valuing your authentic self, a message we have been trying to teach these teenagers for a month.  If I really believed what I had taught them, that it doesn't matter what mistakes we make, that what matters is what we learned from them, then I needed to show this movie above all others.  I needed to "have a little faith" that the kids would get it too, as my teaching partner told me.

I'm realizing once again that God truly desires a heart that is pure, not merely one that appears to be pure in the eyes of other people.  Sometimes that means that we have to be willing to risk appearing "un-Christian" in order to live openly and honestly the way God has taught us to do.  The way of Jesus is the way of truth, after all.

Dear God, thank you for patiently leading me to understand my hidden faults.  There is only one reason to do what is right, and that is because it is right.  As the psalmist wrote, "the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple, the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart."  Love always, Pam

Friday, September 21, 2012


My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.  If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you.  But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind....  -- James 1:2-6

Last week had me saying to myself, "What is going on!?" My usual crazy life seemed to have just gotten exponentially crazier.  For the second time in two weeks, a copper pipe burst in our house, this time under the foundation of our house, causing more water damage in the same area that was repaired before, and more upheaval of furniture to make room for the plumber's jackhammer and the blowers.  Then a few days later, a good friend got very angry with me about things she mistakenly thought I was doing, and said some hurtful things via email.  Then, my kids got lice.  Then, when I needed to wash their towels and bed linens, my washing machine stopped working.  So, as I headed to Bible study last Wednesday evening, I asked aloud in complete exasperation, "What is going on!?" 

Well, I managed to make it to Bible study in one piece, and we began to read the Letter of James.  The above passage resonated with me, though I questioned the word "joy."  I wasn't feeling anywhere close to "joy."   But as I went home that evening to finish the lice treatment on my two older boys, and remake their beds, I thought of the other words in the passage above.  "Yes," I thought.  "I know God will help me through this.  I have no doubt of that.  I just need to wait for his guidance." 

And I felt God's guidance through the most crucial of these problems:  the upset with my friend.  For in my head, initially, I could only think of angry replies -- replies that would only make the situation worse.  However, the advice of James against speaking in anger echoed in my head.  I thought of my anger, but I also thought of my friend's anger.  Then I read the daily lectionary, and found in Judges 15:9 - 20, an example of what happens when we do to others what they have done to us -- just more of the same.  So the next day, I was able to respond to my friend calmly but directly, not shying away from the problems between us, but trying not to inflame them either.  Thank God.

I also read "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, which helped me understand my friend and myself a little better.  "Blink" describes through many fascinating examples how we unconsciously make snap decisions in the "blink" of an eye.  Sometimes these unconscious and instinctual responses are spot on, and we need to trust them more than our methodical conscious processing.  But sometimes we are led astray by our fast unconscious responses, and need to proceed more carefully and thoughtfully.  Gladwell writes that our unconscious instincts "go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood."(pg.15)   He describes how we all have unique patterns of behavior.  Even our unconscious has a "signature", and we can learn to recognize when these patterns serve us well and when they do not.  Very often the same specific emotions, sentiments, and/or prejudices cause us to make errors in judgment over and over again. 

I wrote last week that I often make the same mistakes.  Like Paul, I know what is right but I don't always do it.  This is true for many of us.  Our unconscious often dictates our actions.  Malcolm Gladwell writes at one point that because of this we don't really have free will.  I disagree.  I believe that it is possible to learn from our mistakes and to consciously make better choices.  I believe as Gladwell writes in another place, "It is possible to learn when to listen to that powerful onboard computer [our unconscious] and when to be wary of it." (pg.15)  We just need to develop a greater awareness of our emotions and prejudices.  In addition, I would say, we need a moral compass.

For example, my first instinct towards my friend was to retaliate in anger.  But I also realized that this would do more harm than good, so I stopped myself from doing so.  I chose to listen to other thoughts, to words telling me to be silent, to not speak in anger, and to wait for God to guide me.  This was my free will working in full force.  My instincts and unconscious patterns do not have to dictate what I say or do.  I have the freedom to take a different path.  In this instance, I chose to ignore the path of anger and follow the path of love.  I wish I could say I always make such a choice.

I had another choice to make later on.  After the breach was healed, with apologies and forgiveness given back and forth, my friend expressed a desire to go back to the way things were before.  I wondered to myself, "Would that be wise?  What if the same thing happened again?  Wouldn't I be just as vulnerable as I had been this time?  Wouldn't it be better to put some distance between us?"  But God showed me a different way to view the situation.

The next morning, I read in one of my devotionals the following story:  "The Roman annals say such discord existed between two brothers that one of them maliciously laid waste the lands of the other.  The emperor Julius, having heard of this, determined to punish the offender capitally.  The latter, therefore, understanding what was meditated, went to the brother whom he had injured and besought forgiveness, at the same time requesting that he would screen him from the emperor's vengeance.  But they who were present at the interview rebuked him and declared that he deserved punishment, not pardon.  To which he made the following reply, "That prince is not worthy who in war assumes the gentleness of a lamb, but in peace puts on the ferocity of a lion.  Although my brother should not incline toward me, yet I will endeavor to conciliate him.  For the injury I did him is sufficiently avenged in my repentance and bitterness of heart."  This view of the case appeased the emperor and restored peace between himself and his brother." ("Classical Christian Tales," from The Soul's Almanac:  a year of interfaith stories, prayers, and wisdom," Sept. 18, ed. by Aaron Zerah)

I know the pain and "bitterness of heart" that comes when we understand how much we have hurt another person.  Didn't I just write about this very thing in my last posting?  Did I not ask God to keep me mindful of such pain?  So now, I knew that I could and would treat my friend, who was experiencing this same painful regret, with all the love and compassion I had always felt for her. Thank God for that, as well.

This past week was a time of significant learning for me.  But, thankfully, one in which I did not have to make a series of mistakes first.  I know that this only happened because I was willing to let God take the lead, however.  I wonder how well my life and relationships would be if I always let God take the lead?

Dear God, wonderful guide that you are for me, thank you for the many blessings of this week.  I know now that there can be great joy even in the most difficult trials.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lessons Learned

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  -- Hebrews 12:11

It seems to me that I have to make every mistake possible.  I know that's not literally true.  I don't think I will make the mistake of having an affair, or stealing something, or killing someone.  But still, I make way more mistakes than I would like.  I'm not talking about mistakes in balancing my budget, or mistakes in following traffic rules.  I'm talking about mistakes that are caused by arrogance, judgmentalism, laziness, selfishness, or fear.  I'm talking about all of the harmful things I say and do whenever I fall into these bad habits. The more time I spend thinking about faith and life, the more aware I become of how much I still have to learn.

In this Journey of Faith, I have written about some of my mistakes and the lessons I have learned from them. It dawned on me the other day that nearly every lesson I have learned came about as the result of some serious mistake on my part.  And as I continue to write about them, I realize that I still make some of these same mistakes. Will I ever learn?   

I wish life were easier.  For it is quite painful to make these kinds of mistakes.  They always hurt people.  The shame and regret I feel in my spirit is directly proportional to the pain I cause other people.  And making the same mistakes, doubles the pain I feel -- because then the pain and regret is mixed with keen disappointment in myself that I am such a slow learner. 

Does the pain have to become excruciating before I learn not to keep making the same mistakes?  Maybe.  I wish I were smarter than this.  But maybe this is true for other people as well.  I know I'm not the only person who makes mistakes, or who makes the same mistakes.  Some people learn from their mistakes, eventually, and some people never learn.  Perhaps painful consequences make all the difference. 

Everywhere I turn this week, learning from our mistakes seems to be the topic of conversation.

A friend was telling me about how wonderful she thought Bill Clinton's speech was at the Democratic Convention the other day.  I don't like to watch the conventions -- they are usually more hype than substance in my opinion.  And, I said that I could not trust anything Bill Clinton said since he was able to lie to the American people about his affair with Monica Lewinski.  (You see how judgmental I can be?)  Well, the next day I picked up a used copy of The New York Times at Starbuck's.  On the front page was an article about Bill Clinton's work in Africa.  The writer stated that, "From the Rwandan genocide and the AIDS epidemic to famine and war in Somalia, Africa stands out as a source of conflict and regret for Mr. Clinton."  And that Clinton was in Africa to try to "right some of the wrongs of his presidency."  (Amy Chozick, Sept 7).  I was so encouraged by his efforts to help people of Africa that I got online and listened to his speech!  It was impressively substantial.

Then, a few days later, another friend told me about Kofi Annan's interview on CBS Sunday Morning.  I read Clarissa Ward's interview online, and learned about how much Mr. Annan regrets his failures as head of the United Nations.  No matter how many good things he accomplished in health epidemics and disaster relief, he feels deep responsibility for failing to prevent genocide and bloodshed in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Syria.  Ward commented, "When you look back at all the lessons that were learned from Rwanda, from Bosnia in the mid-90s, and yet here we are in 2012 in Syria, and it feels like we're back to square one."  And Annan responded, "Yeah, says something about us human beings, doesn't it?  Do we ever learn?  Is it in our DNA to keep fighting each other?" (

Do we ever learn from our mistakes?   Clearly some lessons are harder to learn than others.  I may someday learn to stop being so judgmental, but I doubt whether all people will ever learn to stop killing one another.

What is it that makes us learn from our mistakes?  Is a deep sense of regret the key?   I wonder if it matters whether the regret comes from self-awareness of the harm caused or whether the regret comes from the unpleasant external consequences that result.  For example, does Bill Clinton regret his mistakes because of the negativity he received from the public, or from his own sense of shame?

This question resonates with me as a parent.  Someday, I hope that my kids develop an internal understanding of right and wrong on a whole host of issues.  For now, however, we sometimes have to impose negative consequences in order to develop this understanding.  I wish it were different, but positive reinforcements of desirable behavior are not enough motivation.  My kids will sometimes continue to make the same mistakes until they "get into trouble." 

This truth again became apparent this week when their progress reports came out.   My kids are intelligent.  But they do not seem to understand that doing little or no homework, or failing to turn in their work, is a mistake.  This is not the first time this has happened.  So, in addition to some serious scolding, we took away even more of their computer time (nearly all of it), and severely limited their participation in after school clubs.  They were not happy about these consequences.  All three went to bed in tears.  But, you know what?  They needed to be unhappy about this.  I really hope they get the message --  soon.  And I hope that someday they will regret when they fail to do their best, and not merely when they get into trouble for it. 

Pain and unhappiness can be beneficial sometimes -- if we learn something good from them.

Dear God, this week has been full of lessons learned, from many quarters.  Help me and my children, and everyone else, remember the pain that comes from making specific mistakes, so that we don't continue to make the same ones over and over again.  Love always, Pam

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Gospel Message

"But they and our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that your performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt.  But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them."   --  Nehemiah 9:16-17

The Gospel message can be found in many places.  This is one of them.

In another place, I find the Gospel message again:

"But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ...For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God -- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  -- Ephesians 2:4-5,8-10

So, what is the Gospel message?  What do these two passages have in common?

The Gospel message is this:  that God loves us despite the fact that we have done nothing to deserve that love.

That is the Gospel.  And that has always been true.  From the beginning of creation.  God loves us, and continually redeems us, wanting us only to learn by his example how to love one another as we are loved.

It is a simple message.  But we have great difficulty believing it.

Despite the saving and redeeming wonders that God has performed in our lives, and in the lives of other people, we still think that God's love is qualified, that God's love depends on something we must do. 

We build up structures of rules to follow, sometimes very precise rules because we cannot believe that God's love is so freely given.  We make rules about what we must wear, what we must look like, what we must eat and drink, about how we must keep our bodies and houses spotless, about who is allowed to learn, who is allowed to teach, about who is "in" and who is "out," etc., etc., etc.  We find these rules everywhere we look, even in the Bible.  It must be in our human nature to make these kinds of rules and to think this way.  We cannot help enslaving ourselves to that which is not important to God, to that which has nothing to do with God's commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And so, God must continually redeem us from such slavery.  He continually redeemed the Israelites from such slavery.  He even sent his Beloved Son to show everyone a better way, to show the way of redeeming love. Jesus never enslaved himself, or anyone around him, to such rules.  He lived only the way God wants us to live.

As John's Gospel states:  For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3:16-17)   

God will do whatever it takes to get his message of love across to us.  Even using flawed humans like you and me.

For we are all like Zacchaeus:  God comes to us, makes himself at home with us, and, despite our transgressions, loves us.  In the process, God shows us the way of love.  That is God's way.

How do we respond to this love?  Like Zacchaeus, we try to reciprocate it.

But, sometimes we forget.

How can we always remember?  Is it possible for us to love one another perfectly, as God loves us?

No.  We are never going to be perfect.  We are never going to love one another perfectly.  We cannot escape this fact.

All we can do is bow our heads and humbly accept that God loves us despite our imperfections.  And move forward, never forgetting this fact either:  that  God's love for us is steadfast and redeeming.

Dear God, thank you for coming to live in my heart, and for making your home within me, though I am unworthy.  Please help me to be as gracious and kind to others as you are to me.  Love always, Pam

Monday, August 27, 2012

This Teaching is Difficult

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"  ...And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. "  --  John 6:60,65

I find this last sentence curious.  Many people interpret it to mean that only some people are chosen by God.  Only some people, specifically those people who believe what Jesus is saying, are "insiders."  The rest are "outsiders," predestined to be rejected by God.  And yet woven in between these words, and immediately afterward, Jesus makes a point of saying that among the chosen twelve, among the innermost "insiders", is one who will betray him.  Jesus says that the one who will betray him was chosen also, just as the others were.  In light of this fact, that last sentence seems to be saying, simply, that there will be different factions, outside of the group and within the group.  All put in place by God.

This understanding certainly reflects the state of things, then, as well as now.  Certainly outside of Jesus' followers, there were different factions.  There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes (not to mention all of the non-Jewish sects), and probably many shades of greater or lesser extreme, within each of these parties.  Even within Jesus' followers there were different factions. Probably each disciple had a different understanding of what Jesus' message and purpose was.  That would explain why each of the Gospels, and each of the communities founded by different disciples, emphasized different aspects of Jesus' life and ministry.  Today there are many, many more factions of people who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (not to mention those who don't).  And even more factions of Christians, all emphasizing different aspects of Jesus' life and ministry.

Could this actually be God's intention?  That we form factions?  If so, to what purpose?

Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, "Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine."  (11:19)

So what makes us genuine?

Throughout the four Gospels in the Bible, Jesus says, in many different ways, that those who do the will of the Father are true worshipers.  Paul, James, and Peter, too, all emphasized doing the will of the Father.  It is not just a matter of saying, "Lord, Lord."  It is not just a matter of resting on our Abrahamic lineage.  We have to actually do what God asks us to do.

And what does God ask all of us to do?  Love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is what God asks us to do.  Love our neighbor.  Not just those who agree with us.  Not just our brothers and sisters.  Not just those who are self-sufficient.  Everyone.

It is a very difficult teaching.  It is so difficult that many people will turn away from it, and teach something else.  Some of us will actually teach the opposite.  Some of us Christians will actually betray Jesus' message.  We betray Jesus whenever we ignore or oppress the poor, the hungry, the sick, the weak, the downtrodden.  And we betray Jesus whenever we hate, harm or neglect those who think differently than we do.  Instead of teaching, as Jesus did, Love your enemies, and pray for them,  we teach:  hate your enemies; distance yourself from them; make war on them.  Instead of caring for the poor, some of us say, "Well Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you."  -- as if that meant that we should make no effort to relieve their suffering.  They do not wonder why "the poor will always be with us."  It is the same reason why there will always be factions:  " it will become clear who among you are genuine."  That is... who will follow the will of God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

God made all of us.  And God chose all of us to be different:  some Jews, some Muslims, some Christians, some Buddhists, some Hindus, some atheists.  And even within each of these groups, more factions.  And even within these factions, everyone different.  The world is structured the way it is for a reason.

It would not make sense for the world to be made up of people who are all the same, who all think the same, who all behave the same way.  The only way for us to learn about anything is for there to be variety in the world around us.  Differences are a necessity of life.  Conflict is actually a requirement.  What we need to understand is that if we love our neighbors as ourselves -- despite the conflict, despite our differences -- we might actually resolve the conflict, and get to a better understanding of one another.

The world is the way it is so that we learn the true meaning of Love.  It is not easy to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, but that is the will of God.

Dear God, please help me to understand your will anew each day of my life.  Love always, Pam