Sunday, May 27, 2012

Living in Christian Community

They turn round and round by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world.  Whether for correction, or for land, or for love, he causes it to happen.   --  Job 57:12-13

As this blog states:  faith is a journey.  My own beliefs have evolved, and continue to evolve.  They have been turned "round and round" by God's guidance.  So I appreciate the analogy that we are all on a journey.  It is possible that we are all at different places along the same journey, or that we are all on slightly different paths.  Either way you look at it, there is no doubt that there is a great diversity of beliefs among Christians.  Even among Lutherans.  Even among the people who attend the same church I do.

Never, in all its 2000+ year history, has there been a unified system of beliefs among all Christians about anything.  The letters of Paul, and the four different Gospels, confirm the great diversity of thought, even about Jesus, that was prevalent from the very beginning.  The creeds were an attempt at consensus, but not everyone could agree on one creed!  Once, I heard someone say that the history of Christianity is more like a long and fascinating argument rather than a continuous system of belief. 

Take, for example, our image of God.  There are some Christians who think of God as an ancient man-like being, sitting on a throne in the clouds above.  There are other Christians who think of God as a spiritual being without physicality of any kind.  And there are other Christians who think of God as the spark of life within every living thing.  I'm sure there are other Christians who think still differently.

Take, for example, our understanding of God's power.  There are some Christians who believe that God controls everything, that God makes the rains come down, and the lightening strike, and the floods kill.  There are some Christians who believe that God controls nothing: God does not intervene in any way in the world; God does not answer prayers.  And there are Christians that hold beliefs of every variety in between these two extremes.

In conjunction with the variety of beliefs about God's power come beliefs about our power as human beings.  There are some Christians who believe that we are powerless:  we can do nothing on our own; we need God's help every step of the way.  At the opposite end of the continuum of this understanding are Christians who believe that we are god-like in our abilities:  we can do anything we set our minds to do. 

Many of these concepts are intertwined; one concept feeds into another.  Christians who believe that we are powerless, also tend to believe in the basic sinfulness, or brokenness, of humanity.  They tend to place less value on works and more on faith, and see great need for the gracious benevolence of God:  witness Martin Luther.  Christians who believe that we are autonomous, masters of our own fate, tend to believe in the basic goodness of humanity.  They tend to place less value on faith and more on works, and see little need for the gracious benevolence of God:  witness Bishop John Shelby Spong.  In between these extremes are Christians who believe that we are a mixture of good and bad, and that we require some mixture of grace and personal responsibility. 

Our understanding of God's character also varies from one extreme to another.  Some believe that God is a god of judgment only.  God shows partiality, favoring one person over another.  The proof is in the life, they say.  If the life is successful, God must be favoring that person; if the life is difficult, God must be punishing that person.  At the other extreme, there are Christians who believe that God is a god of promise only.  All good things in life come from God, all bad things come from the devil.  I recently came across a book titled, "The Positive Bible."  It contained only verses of promise and grace, and none of judgment or correction.

I could go on and on like this.  There is probably a similar kind of continuum for every Christian concept.  The question is, what, if anything, should our response be to this great diversity?  The divisions between Christians seem to be growing stronger.  We are a long, long way from living as Jesus taught his disciples to live.  Jesus taught Jews and Romans, Pharisees and Zealots, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the saints and the sinners, how to love one another as God loved.  They did not all believe the same things, and yet, at the end of his life he prayed aloud to God as follows:  "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:22-23).  And he told them to "Love one another as I have loved you." 

So, what does that mean in terms of our great diversity of beliefs?

Well, we must at the very least not be unloving to people who think differently than we do.  What kind of behavior would constitute being unloving?  Certainly, any kind of physical or verbal abuse. Any kind of anger, too, would be unloving.  Or any kind of disparagement.  In other words, anything that harms, or puts a wall between ourselves and the other person, would be unloving.

We are called to love one another, not just those with whom we agree.  "But what if their beliefs are wrong?!" you might be saying with great conviction, as I have on occasion.  Well, love doesn't preclude disagreement.  Anyone who has ever been in a committed loving relationship knows this.

Start with a commitment to staying together and to loving them as you love yourself.  Ask yourself, "Does their belief harm them in any way?  Or, does their belief harm anyone else?"  If the answer is "no", then what does it matter?  We are all on a journey.  Simply seek to understand each other better, and you will strengthen the bonds of love, and possibly learn something of great value from one another.  If the answer is "yes", then you must learn how to persistently, and lovingly, show them a better way.  Such love, the kind of love that God has for us, takes great commitment.  The greatest commitment of all.

Jesus' words, "so that the world may know that you have sent me," leaves me with little doubt that if Christians want to have any credibility in the world, with non-Christians as well as other Christians, then Christians must figure out how to stay in community with those who think differently from them, in a loving way.

And this begins with me and you.
Dear God, please keep me mindful of your ways.  Keep my heart filled with your love so that I may abide with other people as we each abide in you and you in us.  Love always, Pam

Friday, May 18, 2012


If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  ...  You are my friends...     -- John 15:7, 14a

Those words, "You are my friends," were in last Sunday's lectionary, and I read them as if for the first time.  They have stuck with me all week long, bringing new meaning into my life in different ways.

It's been a challenging few weeks for me.  There have been quite a few struggles, one after another.  In the midst of discovering my own foibles in my children (as I have shared in the last two postings), I have also been struggling to figure out how to get along with the people in my life.

This latest struggle is the result of two currents in my life, one fairly constant and the other entirely new.  The fairly constant stream is the fact that my husband and I often do not see eye to eye.  It sometimes seems like we disagree more often than we agree.  And though I love him and I know that he loves me, our disagreements often create great tension between us.  The other, new stream is that I have recently joined several committees.  One person jokingly said, "For God so loved the world, that he did not send a committee!"  Let's just say, I get the joke.

I read once that friends are those who share the same understanding.  The greater the synchronicity of interests and understanding, the greater the friendship.  And I can see that this is true.  My best friends are those with whom I have the most in common.  But, after reading the words above, and hearing them in last Sunday's worship service, I wondered, "How would things change if I thought of even those people with whom I disagree fundamentally, as my friend?"

How, for example, would things change if I saw my husband as my friend instead of my opponent in the latest debate?  And how would things change if I looked at everyone who comes into my life as my friend?  I think it would change things tremendously.  For one thing, even when I disagree with my friends, I do not want to fight with them, or turn away from them.  I keep loving them, the same as always.  There is a gentleness, an acceptance, and a kindness between us that never changes.  And there is forgiveness.  Our friendship overcomes our differences.

That was the first insight that came from the words above.  But then came another insight.

What, I wondered, would happen if we saw God as our friend?  As Jesus declares above:  we are his friends; he chose us to be his friends.  What if we understood that this was how God relates to us, as well?

I ask this question because I see many people who are distanced from God.  They do not see God as a real presence in their lives.  They believe that God is not "with them."  Their belief comes from the fact that God has not answered their prayers or the prayers of others, as requested.  Also, there is too much evil and cruelty and pain in the world.  God cannot be present and allow all that to occur.  If he does, then he is not any kind of God anyone wants to be associated with.  The words of Jesus above -- "ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" -- ring hallow for them.

I wonder if their understanding would change if they saw God as their best friend.  After all, what does a best friend do when we call on them for help?  He, or she, is there to offer us a listening ear, and a comforting shoulder, and to give us words of wisdom that will help us through the darkness.  A best friend can accept our foibles with love.  And sometimes the very best friend will look us in the eye, with great love, and tell us that we are full of b.s.  This is how I experience God.

And, like my human friends, God does not make everything that is bad disappear.  Just as Jesus did not make everything bad disappear.  Jesus loved all that was bad, and continued to love it until the bad changed to good.  And this is what God does, too.

I also wonder if thinking about God as our best friend would change the way we spend time with God.  For friends to remain friends, they each much treasure the friendship.  They must seek the other out and want to spend time together.   They must abide in spirit with each other even though great physical distance separates them.  There is more give than take, in lasting friendships. 

God loves as Jesus loved.  God loves you and me, and if we reciprocate this love, we learn all that God wants us to learn.  This is his gift to us.  We are taught all that we need to know for a life of great joy.  The key to this life of joy is to turn to God as if to the greatest friend we have ever known.

Dear God, may your friendship become a reality in the lives of all people.  Open our eyes and hearts to the inspiration of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Love always, Pam

Monday, May 7, 2012

Abiding Change

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  -- John 15:1-4

Last week opened my eyes to the mess I and my kids have gotten ourselves into.  Because we all have a tendency to play first and work second, we have done more playing than working.  And now we are seeing the results of that:  poor grades as a result of missing school assignments for my kids; and an already overwhelming, and growing, list of Things to Do for me.  The only difference between my kids and me, is that I don't get a zero for missing work.  Life, however, does get harder, either way, even without the grades.

As an adult, it is up to me to fix the mess I have gotten myself into.  But like my children, oftentimes when I get myself into a mess, I don't know how to get myself out of it.  Fortunately, I have a guide to turn to, one in whom I trust completely.  Since my children rely considerably on me to guide them, I trust God to show me how to do that, as well. 

Last weekend I picked up a book, "Awakening a Child From Within," by Tara Singh.  I had been thinking about my children when I stumbled upon it, and I've learned to accept those things that come into my life which make connections to my thoughts.  I wasn't surprised to find that this book spoke to me quite significantly: "How can a mother correct the child?  She would have to correct herself first in order to correct her own patterns which are within the child.  ...We make things difficult when we don't want correction...  The promised land is just a stone's throw away.  It only becomes difficult when one holds on to one's own conclusions.  Our responsibility in life is to be true to who we are as God created us.  Then we bring the Kingdom of God to earth and the whole planet vibrates differently."  (pg.21 - 23)  These words echoed my conclusions from last week. (See "Plagued by Demons".)

On Wednesday, while waiting to get a doctor's appointment for my middle son, I picked up a copy of USA Today.   I was deeply moved by the story of Pat Summitt and her son Tyler.  ("Mother, Son and Alzheimer's, May 2, 2012, pg.1)  Pat, "the all-time winningest basketball coach, man or woman" developed, at the age of 59, early-onset Alzheimer's.  The article is an inspiring story of one woman's legacy to her players and, most especially, her son.  One of her players said, "She taught us to maximize our time each day, giving everything you can. ...She taught us how to excel and about seeing things through to the end."  Her son said, "My mom always told me to focus on the present.  She says, 'Left foot, right foot, breathe.' "  What an inspiration.

Later that day, I went to the used bookstore to look for a particular National Geographic magazine so that I could finish an article about twins (March 2012), which I had started reading at the doctor's office.  This fascinating article by Peter Miller, intrigued me most when he mentioned that sometimes identical twins have very dissimilar brains when it comes to diseases such as autism and Alzheimer's:  one twin can sometimes be highly functioning and the other very low functioning.  While going to buy the magazine, my eyes lit on another book:  "The Brain That Changes Itself:  Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science," by Norman Doidge, M.D.  Having been intrigued by the information about brain diseases that I had just read, I grabbed this book, too -- making more connections with each step.

In this second book I learned about the ability of the brain to relearn tasks that would appear to be impossible because of brain damage or atrophy of one kind or another.  This idea is called "neuro-plasticity".  Modern scientists no longer believe that the brain is hard-wired in a fixed way forever.  Rather, it has been discovered that we all have the ability to change the wiring in our brains, even though large parts may be severely damaged.  And we can make this change permanent, though it takes great effort, especially as we get older.  A scientist named Merzenich, one of the leading researchers of neuro-plasticity, "discovered that paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change.  In numerous experiments he found that lasting changes occurred only when his monkeys paid close attention.  When animals performed tasks automatically, without paying attention, they changed their brain maps, but the changes did not last.  We often praise 'the ability to mulitask.'  While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn't lead to abiding change in your brain maps." (pg.68) 

"Abiding change."  Lasting change.  Paying attention.  And the readings about "abiding" in yesterday's lectionary, quoted above. Staying connected.  Or, as Pat Summit said, "...give everything you can, focus on the present, 'Left foot, right foot, breathe.' "

I am pretty good at staying connected to God.  And for this I am grateful.  For the rewards of doing so are immediate.  Without this connection, I would certainly be in a worse mess.  Abiding with God not only feeds my soul, it helps me grow into the person God wants me to be.

So now all I have to do is pay attention!

Dear God, as I abide in you and you in me, may I learn to pay close attention to all that is a priority in my own life, and create lasting change for the better.  Love always, Pam