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