Monday, April 30, 2012

Plagued By Demons

...he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.   -- Mark 16:9b

I felt as if I had a demon in me last week.  A demon of anger, which made me want to scream and throttle someone. 

My children had not done all the things they were supposed to do before leaving for school, and yet they had gotten "plugged in" and so when it was time to go, they were scrambling to get their stuff together.  And then, before we had gone very far, we had to turn around and go back home because one of them had forgotten an assignment.  I had a tight schedule to keep that morning:  the dog to take to the groomers after taking the kids to school, and a service person coming to my house shortly after that.  I hate being late, and so I lectured them all the way to school about being responsible, and doing what they are supposed to do before they do what they want to do.  "You guys pay too much attention to playing video games.  You don't do your chores.  You don't do your schoolwork.  You don't care about anything that has to be done."  When we got to school, I realized that I had forgotten the dog at home!

When I got back home, I started to tackle the housework.  I attempted to make some headway into my youngest son's room, only to be overwhelmed with one mess after another.  When I found that he had wet his bed again, and hadn't told me, and this less than 24 hours after cleaning his sheets for the same reason, I was so frustrated I moved on to my middle son's room.  That morning, he had told me that he had no clean school shirts to wear.  So I went to gather up all of his dirty clothes.  Under a few dirty clothes on the closet floor, I found a pile of clean and folded clothes.  This was not the first time I have found clean and folded clothes mixed in with the dirty clothes.  I screamed in frustration, and left his room.

I sat down in my favorite chair in a dark cloud of anger and frustration.  Aaargh!  I groaned, with my head in my hands and literally pulled on my hair.  Dear God, how can I teach my kids to do what they are supposed to do?  

What a bad day -- and it wasn't even 10 am!  By this time, I was wondering why the service person hadn't come yet.  When I called him, he said I had gotten the date wrong -- he was coming tomorrow. I greeted this news with resignation.  It was merely one more thing to go wrong.  I thought about escaping to some more pleasant place, some place where I could have a cup of tea, and read my book.  This was very appealing.   But I still had work to do.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was doing just what I had lectured my kids against doing.  My kids escape from their school work and chores by playing video games.  I escape by going to a cafe and reading a good book.  And so the house gets messier and messier, and my list of Things to Do gets longer and longer.  And I forget things.  Not much different when you think about it. 

Last week I wrote in my blog, Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not see the log in your own?  "Never were truer words spoken." I wrote.   Spoken to me, anyway.  How could I yell at my children for "thinking only about what they want to do and not what they have to do"?  I too do this way too much.  Hadn't I been reading a devotional that morning, instead of getting the dog on the leash, and making sure they were ready?  On the way to school, I had been lecturing them for getting C's in their classes.  I would get a few C's, if not D's, if I was graded on my work. 

I was deep in remorse, recalling my angry words to my children, seeing all around me my own faults.  What a mess I was in, both within and without.  I heard my advice to my children:  Get your work done first, then you can have fun.   We all needed to buckle down and get our work done first, or life would get really messy.

So, I vacuumed and dusted, and started another load of laundry.  As I worked, I thought about my frustration with the kids, and the dark hole I had just been in.  Even though it wasn't a pretty sight, I was glad that I saw myself in my frustration with the kids.   Maybe I could speak to my children better having this new understanding.  I didn't like yelling at my children.  Nobody likes being yelled at.  I don't think it's very effective either.  I never have responded very positively to those who yell at me.  Besides, I knew all too well what it was like to have many things to do while wanting to do so many other things.  It is hard to find the right balance between work and play.  It's not easy for anyone.  I felt I understood my children better, and understood what they needed better.  And I was grateful for that insight.  When I spoke to them after school about the things they needed to do, I spoke with love and empathy.  Thanks be to God.

I was reading this morning in "Revelations of Divine Love", written in the 14th century by Julian of Norwich.  In the Thirteenth Revelation, Julian asks about sin.  "I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted:  for then, methought, all should have been well."  She hears Jesus respond, "It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved.  Then were it a great unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my sin, since He blameth not me for sin." (55, 57)  And she learned that sin is necessary and must be known so that we learn what God needs us to learn:  and that is so that we accept his love and return his love.  She writes that sin has no material substance except in the pain it causes, "...for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and ask mercy."  If we can face that pain that comes from our sin, then we may change our heart, and become more loving.  And in that we find our reward.  Truly.

Also in the readings this last week, was the familiar Psalm 23, whose middle verse spoke volumes to me:  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me.  (Psalm 23:4)

And then, as I ran errands around town,  I listened to the next lecture on "Philosophy and Religion," which happened to be about the medieval concept of grace.  St. Augustine formulated the theology of grace as that which heals us from our corrupted nature.  "Grace does this inwardly.  God acts as an inner teacher by revealing himself. ... Grace helps us along by giving us the ability to love with our whole heart." (Lecture 14, Professor Phillip Cary, The Teaching Company)  I had never thought of grace in this way.  I guess I always thought of grace as God's forgiveness, not as his instruction.  But I can see now that this is one and the same.  He instructs us because he loves us and already forgives us.

Dear God,  thank you for this lesson.  So many of my demons come from within me.  Please help me to recognize that when I am angry, I need to first look in the mirror for answers.  Love always, Pam

Monday, April 23, 2012


" ... repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."  -- Luke 24:47

I have been thinking lately about what it takes to live in community with one another, and these words struck me as holding the clue to this sometimes very difficult puzzle.

I made a vow a couple of years ago to do all that is within my power to promote unity.  It is something I feel called to do.  The division that is rampant between people is the cause and effect of much darkness in the world.  Yes, both cause and effect, as it quite easily becomes a never-ending circle of unhappiness.  One of the most significant turning points in my journey of faith came when I understood that I too could be excluded from a faith community.  (Read My Lenten Talk for more background about this.) This gave me more empathy, let me tell you, for all people who are excluded, especially from faith communities.

But like most things that really bother me, especially things that really bother me about other people, I often need only look in the mirror.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but not the log in your own?  Never were truer words spoken.  You see, I often find myself struggling between wanting to promote unity despite the difficulty of doing so, and wanting to separate myself from difficult people -- or wanting to separate myself from better people when I have been difficult.  It is like a tug-of-war within me:  pull away, come together, pull away, come together.

My first instinct when I meet people who are unpleasant in one way or another is to pull away.  But I know that Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our neighbor, not our friend.  And who was the neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan?  It was the enemy:  the Samaritan was the enemy of the Jew.  So we really are to love our enemy, and pray for those who persecute us.  Besides, who am I to throw stones?  I have made my share of mistakes, and persecuted enough people in one way or another.   

When I read the words above, I thought, That is it, in a nutshell.  Repentance and forgiveness are the keys to staying in community.  Repentance requires recognizing one's disconnection from other people.  That which requires repentance is rooted in our anger, dishonesty, disrespect, etc. Repentance means that we see the breach we have caused, and we desire to return to community.  Forgiveness repairs the division or separation.  When we forgive, we have reached out to the other and healed the breach; we have brought that person back into the fold of our community. 

But doesn't forgiveness require repentance?  Mustn't we wait for the transgressor to apologize before we forgive?  No.  Jesus said, Turn the other cheek.  He did not say, "after they apologize."  We are to forgive those who transgress against us without requiring their repentance.  "How many times should I forgive?" Peter asked.  "As many as seventy-times seven." Jesus replied.  (And if anyone is counting then you have missed the point.)  We are to forgive, as we have been forgiven.

Do we believe that God has forgiven us?  Even before we have repented, God forgives us.  Repentence is primarily for the benefit of the person who repents.  Just as forgiveness is primarily for the person who forgives.  When we repent, we are cleansed from our unrighteousness, we are given clean hearts.  And when we forgive, we are blessed, as peacemakers and children of God.

Jesus told his disciples that they had the power to bind or loosen, and this is true.  We do have that choice.  The story of Adam and Eve illustrates the desire, perhaps inherent, in all of us to judge between good and evil.  But the question is, How do we exercise this desire, this power?  Jesus said, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."  Since, none of us is without sin, it is clear to me that I am to forgive those who transgress against me.  Period.

But what about the person who causes harm?  Do we just let them continue to cause harm?  No, of course not.  "If a brother sins, rebuke him."  We must speak the truth, to ourselves and to other people, but we must do so with love.  These words, too, were in the readings recently:  "Whoever says, 'I am in the light,' while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.  Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling."  (1 John 2:9-10)  Any kind of disunion between me and another person creates darkness, either in my heart or theirs, or both.  So I must continually try to replace that darkness with the light of truth and God's love.

In Martin Buber's "I and Thou," I find more directions of a similar vein.  Buber writes that true community comes into being "on two accounts:  all of them have to stand in a loving center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another.  The second event has its source in the first.... A community is built upon a living, reciprocal relationship, but the builder is the living, active center." (pg. 94)  Our loving, active center is God, who shines upon us in the life and teachings of his beloved son Jesus Christ, and who guides us with his Holy Spirit.  When I keep God in the center, I have a better chance of staying in community.

But Buber realizes that this is no pie-in-the-sky endeavor for us.  He writes, "He knows well that he cannot simply confront the people with whom he has to deal as so many carriers of the You [ie.God], without undoing his own work.  Nevertheless he ventures to do this, not simply but up to the limit suggested to him by the spirit; and the spirit does suggest a limit to him, and the venture that would have exploded a severed structure succeeds where the presence of You floats above." (pg.99)

If I am to be a witness of the life of Christ in me, of God's Holy Spirit at work in me, to the world, then I must test my limitations against the limitations of the Holy Spirit each day.  But is there a limit to God's love?  Not according to Jesus.  And so I must continue to seek unity in truth and love.  Though it may be beyond my capabilities, it is not beyond God's capabilities or God's requirements. 

Dear God, thank you for this lesson.  It is the most important lesson, and one I need to hear over and over again.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.   -- 1 John 2:24

This passage always takes me back to when I first began to know Jesus.  And that is always a much needed reminder to me of what is really important.

In the summer of 2008 -- not very long ago -- I began studying the Gospels in an effort to try to understand what Jesus had taught his disciples about right living.  As I immersed myself in his teachings, I began to see that  Jesus' teachings fall into two basic categories.  In one set are the ethical precepts for living in community with one another.  They could all be gathered together under the title, How To Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.  In the other set are all the directions Jesus gave for forming a connection to God.  These teachings could be titled, How to Love God With All Your Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul.  For Jesus, these two commandments fulfilled all the teachings in the Law and the Prophets.  Both commandments are equally important and essential for people of faith.  Jesus not only taught people what these commandments entailed, he lived them.  They were his main message for good reasons.

When Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people were seriously divided amongst themselves.  Samaritans, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, tax-collectors, and the rest who didn't belong to any of these groups, separated themselves from one another, to greater or lesser degree.  And what did Jesus teach them?  Judge not lest you be judged.  Turn the other cheek.  Go the extra mile.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  For if you salute your brother only, what more do you do than others?  Do not even your enemies do the same?  Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye but do not notice the log in your own?  Instead, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.  And if a brother offends you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  Not forgetting to forgive as you have been forgiven, and be merciful as God is merciful.    All these teachings and more were designed to bring people together in loving community.  If one could follow this way, unity in the midst of diversity would be the result. 

Also, when Jesus began his ministry, nearly all Jews looked for a Messiah who would conquer the Romans and return the Jews (well, at least the righteous ones) to power so that the kingdom of David would reign forever more.  But Jesus taught:  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.  God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.  Do not practice your piety before men in order to be seen by them.  But, let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God.  God is spirit and truth, and must be worshiped in spirit and truth.  The truth will set you free.  What comes from the heart is what defiles a man.  Give for alms those things which are within.  Repent.  Eternal life is knowing the one true God.  Seek God's Kingdom and everything else will be added unto you.  He who believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me.  You will find rest for your souls.  Abide in me and in the Father.  All these teachings and more were given to us in order that we would share in his joy, and rest in his peace, abiding with him in God and God in us.

During his short ministry, he gathered a diverse group of people together.  And after Pentacost, a growing number of disciples lived and worshiped together in community.  I read in "The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity" that, "The earliest Christian communities were marked by their allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth.  They believed that in his teachings and life, God had 'visited his people' and sent a prophet and more than a prophet, an example and teacher of the way of truth and righteousness surpassing John the Baptist; the 'Messiah' or anointed leader of ancient expectation."  (pg. 21, Henry Chadwick, "The Early Christian Community")  Jesus brought this diverse group of people together into a community dedicated to one another and to God.  And they were called Followers of The Way.

However, as the number of disciples grew, there was felt the need for more organization, for more rules, for more authority, and for compromise.  All of which deviated from the simplicity of Jesus' message.  And so within the first century, there were many more Christian sects than there had been Jewish sects.  A trend that has only grown exponentially over the millenia, until now there are over 40,000 different Christian sects or denominations! 

We are fortunate.  We have the Gospels to teach us about Jesus.  Four Gospels from four different perspectives, yet each one illustrating a consistent core of teachings.  I wonder what would happen, if we all tried to live the way Jesus taught, if each one of us tried individually to stay in community with one another and with God, despite the difficulties of doing so.  Is it possible?

Perhaps a better question is:  How much are we willing to try?

Dear God, thank you for never giving up on me, and for continually reminding me to rest in you.  Love always, Pam

Friday, April 13, 2012


   But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, "We  have seen the Lord."  But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finder in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
   A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  Then he said to Thomas, "Put you finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe."  Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"  Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."    --  John 20:24-29

I was thinking about my faith journey earlier in the week -- the result of trying to write a book about it! -- and realized that I am not that much different from Thomas.  Or the other disciples, for that matter.  They all needed some kind of proof that Jesus was truly alive again.  Mark, at the end of his gospel, writes that the disciples did not believe Mary Magdalene when she told them she had seen Jesus.  Nor did they believe the two who said they had met Jesus on the road out of town.  They could not believe the testimony of other people.  Each one needed to see, hear, and touch Jesus for themselves.  They needed empirical evidence, before they would believe.  I am not much different, because my faith also needs to rest on convincing evidence.  I do not need to see, hear, or touch God, to know that God is real; I do not require empirical evidence.  But I am convinced that God exists because of my own personal experiences of divine intervention.

This became apparent to me when I began to question my faith eight years ago (for some background about my journey of faith, please read My Lenten Talk ).  At that time, I went through a bit of a crisis.  Much of what I had grown up believing began to fall away, and I worried that my entire faith would fall away, that I would stop believing in God altogether.  One thing kept that from happening.  There were times when I had felt God speaking directly to my specific concerns in the words of a sermon during church.  The coincidence between my very specific concerns and the words spoken to me was too great, and too unexplainable, for me to think anything else.  And so, I began to think of God as The Peace Which Passes Understanding.  That sense of peace became the foundation of my faith, and further experiences of God's guiding presence have continued to provide support.  However, without that foundation, I wonder what would have happened to my faith, and my life.

Richard Elliot Friedman writes about the progress of belief in God in "The Hidden Face of God."  Initially, the world of the Bible "is a world of upheavals of nature, of immediate proofs of divine presence.  It is not a world of belief in God but knowledge of God.  Indeed there is no word for "to believe" in biblical Hebrew.  The word that is frequently translated as "to believe" means, in the original, something more like "to trust"; that is, it means that one can rely on this God to do what He has said He will do.  It does not mean "to believe" in the sense of belief that God exists.  God's existence is understood in these texts to be a matter of empirical knowledge, demonstrated by divine appearances and miraculous demonstrations." (pg. 14)

However, despite all this evidence of God's existence, the people did not listen to God.  In fact, Friedman points out, the more actively engaged God was in the lives of his people, the more they behaved like disobedient children.  Think of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, who had God present with them in a cloud of smoke by day and a cloud of fire by night, with their every wish fulfilled.  They whined and complained, and continually did what God told them not to do. 

Friedman notes that in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Moses to Esther, God becomes more and more hidden from his people.  And, in conjunction, God's people become more and more responsible for themselves.   One interpretation of this is that God was encouraging his children to grow up.  In order for this to happen, they had to become independent of God, they had to fend more for themselves and learn from their mistakes.  The only way for this to happen was for God to remove himself from the picture.

But, the risk in this hiddenness is that people will think they can do without God altogether, that humans can be God, or that something else will take the place of God (such as the Temple, the Torah, the Church, or the Bible), or believe that "God is dead," as Nietzsche put it, or that God simply never existed at all, as we more frequently hear today.  And the frequent result of this perception of God is that people again lose their moral compass.  With greater autonomy comes the potential for greater corruption.

So there is a problem with God being too much involved in the lives of his people.  And there is a problem with God not being enough involved in the lives of his people.  In both cases, humanity flounders.  Witness the Holocaust, which came about because a group of men thought they had complete autonomy over the lives of the people within their borders, but was allowed to continue by others who thought that they had no autonomy at all over the lives of the people within their borders.  

The only solution to this problem is for God to be present in such a way that he cannot be proven without a doubt to be present, nor can he be proven without a doubt not to be present.  And that is what we have.  People of faith and people without faith live with a certain measure of uncertainty, though they may not be aware of this.  God cannot be dis-proven nor proven.  Belief must rest on something else. 

Though I believe God is present in my life, I cannot prove this.  Though I can describe experiences of God's intervention, they will not convince everyone that God is real. But for me, this sense of God's Holy Spirit guiding my life is enough to push me to do more than I think I can.  And it is enough to limit any feelings of grandeur I may have about myself.

Dear God, may we learn to see your presence sufficiently in this uncertain world so that we are perfectly guided to follow your will.  Love always, Pam

Friday, April 6, 2012


Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.   -- John 13:1b

There are two opposite themes that run through both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  One is that suffering can and ought to be avoided, and the other is that suffering cannot and should not be avoided.  Actually, suffering is a key theme in many religions.  Perhaps because it is so much a fact of life.

We see the first theme often expressed in the idea that God rewards those who follow his commandments and punishes those who do not.  We have all heard this.  We find it expressed by various writers in the Bible from the Books of Moses to the Revelation of John.  It is often expressed as the Two Ways:  this way leads to justified happiness, this way leads to justified destruction.  The more successful we are, the more we believe God favors us; the more downtrodden and miserable we are, the more we believe God is punishing us.  The main motivation for following God's will here is to avoid suffering. 

And yet, there have always been problems with this understanding.  People who attest to the classic black and white, Two-Way thinking must have blinders on, because life is, and has always been, a mixed bag.  There are moments of great ecstasy, and moments of great despair, and much in between, in everyone's life.  No one's life is free from trouble, nor is anyone's life a complete disaster.

And so we find the second theme expressed in Scripture, too.  We see this in the idea that God shows no partiality, that God makes the sun shine and the rain pour on both the good and the bad.  We find this theme in the life of Moses, the lives of the Prophets, the Book of Job, in Ecclesiastes, in the Psalms, in the life of Paul, and in the life of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, we find instances of people who followed God's way, and who still suffered. Some suffered because they were following God's will; they suffered for God's sake.

Earlier in the week, I was reading a section of "I Thirst," by Stephen Cottrell, and I came across some very thought-provoking insights into suffering.  Cottrell, while working with African Christians as partners in the mission field, was struck by the fact that the African Christians saw only one way to interpret Jesus teachings.  They, as disciples of and witnesses for Christ, understood that they would be the hungry ones, the thirsty ones, the one's needing to be shown compassion; they would be imprisoned, they would be naked, and they would be strangers in strange lands.(pg 150)

Cottrell writes, "This was both their experience of the Christian life and their expectation.  And, of course, this was the experience of the first Christian communities.  Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul says that 'To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands' (1 Corinthians 4:11-12a)" (ibid).

Why?  Why suffer for God's sake?

Well, I see two motivations.  One goes back to the idea of reward and punishment mentioned above.  It is a new take on the avoidance of suffering.  A little suffering now leads to eternal happiness later.  Given that choice, which would you prefer?  Eternal damnation?  I see this in the earliest writings of Paul:  "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1st, 15:19).   Paul at this point in his life counted on being rewarded in the next life.  He saw no relief in this one.  

But there is another motivation behind why people suffer for God's sake.  And that is the motivation of love.  I see this in Paul, too, later in his life.  While in prison no less, he wrote, "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer." (Philippians 1:21-22).  Here, he does not know what is better!  It must be possible to find sustenance even within suffering.  The key is our motivation.  We find peace and joy when we love our neighbor as God loves us, even though this may also require us to make sacrifices.

When we look to Jesus, we cannot help but understand this truth.  He was willing to take on any task, even the lowest task imaginable, to travel any distance, and to do without much comfort, in order to love the world as he found it, and to teach the world to love one another as God loved.  He did everything for love:  for love of God and for love of the world. 

And that is what he asked his disciples to do, as well.  After the passage in John quoted above, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, the most menial task of all.  And he says, "Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord -- and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are no greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." (John 13:12-17)

If you know this, you are blessed if you do this.  There is peace and joy to be found in helping where help is needed, in loving one another as God loves us.  And it doesn't even take going to another country.  There is much in our everyday lives that requires our help:  the homeless person who is hungry, the home-bound person who is lonely, the person who is being bullied (whether child or adult), the dog who is lost, the person who needs financial help, the garden that needs tending, etc.  The list is endless.  Our love is required all around us.  We must help where we see that help is needed, even though it means giving up our own lives, as we know them, in order to do this.

Dear God, thank you, thank you, thank you, for Jesus, and for sending to us one who loved you and us enough to continue loving us to the end.  Love always, Pam