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