Sunday, January 27, 2013

God's Glory

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, ...They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" -- Luke 4:16, 22

The beginning of Jesus's ministry fascinates me.  Jesus is blessed by the Holy Spirit after he is baptized by John.  He hears God tell him how much he is loved and favored.  He goes into a wilderness and is tempted with power and glory -- the highest of the high.  Then he returns to his hometown to begin his ministry, and those who have known him all his life reject his new-found insights into God's Kingdom and his newly discovered purpose in it.  They think he's gone off the deep end, and are quite willing to give him the last push.  Isn't this so true to life?

I was listening to a CD lecture on perception this week as I drove around town.  In it, Professor Dalton Kehoe of York University, said that how we perceive the world around us depends upon three things.  Our conscious mind first selects what we see, then organizes that into patterns, then interprets those patterns to give them meaning.  Consistency is the driving force at each step.  The first part, what we see, depends to a large degree on what is most familiar to us.  We then organize this incoming information by comparing it to what we already know.  We often ignore altogether, or put into a stereotypical pigeon-hole, that which is different.  What we choose to pay attention to is then interpreted by using the schema, or subconscious patterns of thought, that we have built from a lifetime of experience.  ("Effective Communication Skills," Lecture 5, The Great Courses)  We want things, and people, to fit our molds, to be consistent with the picture we have of them.  If someone we have known all our lives does something "out of character," we have difficulty meshing the new with the old.  Difficulties like this really bother us, and we have to try to explain them.  We are not satisfied until we have developed a new schema about that person that resolves the difficulty.  Which is why Jesus's neighbors (and even his own family, according to Mark) thought he must be possessed by the devil. 

Just yesterday,  I was thinking about my own developing faith.   I grew up in a family that viewed faith as a very private, personal thing.  Although my mother and I went to church every Sunday, outside of that you would not know we believed in God.  We never talked about God.  We never said grace before meals.  We never even prayed aloud.  We were never overtly religious in any way.  This pattern followed me into adulthood.  In the early years of our marriage, though my husband and I went to church together, we almost never talked to each other about God, we never said grace, we never prayed together.  So after twenty years of marriage, when I began to discover God's Holy Spirit working in my life, and wanted to talk about it, to friends and family, my husband got a little worried.  Who was this new person?  What was going on?  He remembered a similar thing happening to a friend of his in high school:  the mother found God, and divorced her husband the unbeliever, leaving seven children and the husband spinning.  My husband seriously worried that this was about to happen to us.

Part of the reason for his concern was that learning about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit was utterly intoxicating to me.  Feeling the Spirit of the Lord upon you for the first time can be like that.   It took over my life.  In my own "wilderness experience," I was tempted to forget about everything else in my life.  I neglected everything -- I even forgot to eat sometimes!  Luckily, my family and I survived.  I came out of the experience a better and stronger person, but a changed one.  The key was actually listening to God's word for me and applying it to my life:  Love your neighbor as yourself begins with your own family. 

Finding the right balance is still a problem:  valuing God's Holy Spirit enough, but not too much; believing it's real, that God's Spirit does guide me personally, but not thinking that I am the next-best-thing-to-Jesus.  I am important to God, but I am not the only one.  Keeping tuned into God's word, wherever that is found, helps keep me straight.  God corrects me when I get too full of myself, and lifts me up when I get too discouraged.  I just have to stay tuned.

I came across a metaphor once that helps keep things in perspective.  Each one of us is a uniquely colored thread woven into a gigantic tapestry.  Each thread is necessary to make the whole image.  If we all value our unique God-given gifts, our "threads," and use them according to his will, the tapestry would soon be complete, and God's glory would be revealed.

Dear God, help me to use the gifts you have given me, to be the part of the whole that I am meant to be.  Help us all use the gifts we have been given, and be all that we are meant to be, to your great glory.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Valuing our Gifts

But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind."  -- 1 Corinthians 7:7

Last week, my sister and her husband, my older brother and his girlfriend, and my other brother, gathered at my house for a mini-family reunion.  Because we had not yet met my brother's girlfriend, it was a time for us all to get to know one another better.

It didn't take long to see that my brother's girlfriend, Lory, was very friendly and was a good talker.  My youngest son, of a similar disposition, found a kindred spirit.  He is also quite a talker.  Sometimes he can be exhausting, but Lory joined right in with his conversation, asking him thoughtful questions and making him laugh.  At the end of the day, my son drew her a picture showing a tall woman with long blond hair standing on a hill being hugged by a smaller person.  In between them, and floating up into the sky, were many tiny hearts.  When he gave it to her, Lory was surprised and very touched.  I said, also touched by his drawing, but not surprised, "He is such a lover."  And he is.  That is one of his special gifts.  After a couple of days in her company, it was clear that Lory has a special gift of connecting with people -- of all ages.

At one point during the week, I overhead my sister say, "Pam is a good teacher, but I don't know what my talent is."  I was surprised.  My sister is a wonderful baker, can do any kind of needlecraft, is always kind, and has a gift for finding amazing bargains.  But she didn't see this.  These home-maker gifts did not seem special to her.   Why? I wondered.  

Last Sunday, I too had similar feelings of inadequacy.  Over the past few months, our high school youth group has dwindled to almost nothing.  Thinking that what they needed was just consistent leadership, I made myself more available for them.  But, "a good teacher" is not what these teens want.  They want camaraderie.  Last Sunday, I teamed up with one of our other adult leaders for the first time.  And as we went through the lesson, I thought, "He is cool.  The kids respond to him.  He gets to the heart of the matter, in a way that I do not."   I let him know how important he was to these kids and asked if he would be able to help more often.  He's thinking about it.  I hope he can.  His is probably the only person who can turn this group around. 

As I thought about my failures in this area of ministry, I felt a bit depressed.  I really thought God was asking me to be more involved in these kids lives, that my consistent presence would make a difference.  Was I wrong about this?  I wondered.

I read the Scriptures for the day, and was struck by their appropriateness:  "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another the gift of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.  (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)  Paul follows these words with the metaphor of the body.  All our various gifts are needed to make the body of Christ complete. 

I thought about these words of Paul.  What is my gift, I wondered?  There are some things that I am good at.  I can help the youth group in other ways:  organizing schedules, keeping in touch via emails and texts, writing articles about their activities.  But a gift of the Spirit is different, special.

I thought, If I have any gift of the Spirit, it has to be experiencing God's guidance, seeing and hearing his word speak directly to my concerns, daily.  This truly feels like a gift.  It is not something that comes from within me, or that I have any control over.  Because I find it so remarkable, I feel it is a blessing that must be shared.  I just wish I was better at sharing it.

I am beginning to learn that in order to more effectively share God's guidance, I must make time to listen and to reflect, to think about what God is trying to tell me.  I don't do this enough -- especially lately.  In the last few months I have piled on more and more other things to do. Some necessary, some not so necessary.   Some days go by with no time for quiet reflection at all.

Why don't I value this singular gift enough?  Perhaps because reading, thinking, and writing about God doesn't feel like real work -- not to me (it's too enjoyable), not to my family (I'm sitting down), and, not to my culture at large (not unless I'm a theologian or a pastor).  So, I fill my days with activity and busy-ness, with things that feel important, more like real work.  And I miss out on bearing much real fruit.

How do I value this gift as it should be valued?

Dear God, you know the answers.  Please show me the way to do what I long to do, while still being a mother, wife, sister, friend, teacher, and active member of my church.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Christ Crucified

  "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's wisdom is stronger that human strength.... 
   "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."  1 Corinthians 1:18,22-25, 2:1-2

I am beginning to understand these words of Paul.  The emphasis on Jesus' crucifixion in much of Paul's letters has frequently been a stumbling block for me.  "Why emphasize Jesus' death," I want to shout at Paul and others like him, "when his life was filled with so much love and truth?!"  I love Jesus' life, not his death.  But, I am beginning to understand that the way Jesus died is just as important as the way Jesus lived.

When the world is not as it should be -- when there is oppression, hunger, sickness, and violence -- putting it back to rights requires facing those who either contribute to these problems or who turn a blind eye to them.  Either way, back then and always, the result is a cross.  It may no longer literally be crucifixion, but it will not be a walk in the park, either.  Sometimes, as Jesus learned, those who oppose you may be those who are closest to you.  They may oppose you with the best intention and be motivated to protect you and keep you safe, as Peter demonstrated when he admonished Jesus to not even think of being killed.

This is what I am now discovering in my own life.  As I wrote last week, our church youth group has been invited to join another church in town to learn about the Arizona-Mexico border and put a human face on the immigration problem.  I want to participate.  I want to learn more about the border.  I want to meet the people involved.  I want to get involved somehow in helping wherever God calls me to help.  And I feel a strong pull towards the border.

But I am also feeling a strong pull away from the border by family members who think it is dangerous. Several people who care deeply about me have tried to show me how unsafe Nogales, Sonora is:  through stories, internet travel advisories and newspaper clippings.  The stories are a couple of years old, the travel advisory only warns about travel from Nogales, Sonora into the interior of Mexico, and the newspaper clipping describes the murder of an American drug smuggler in a bar at midnight.  So... how do these warnings apply to this trip or to me?  We will be walking 500 yards into Nogales, Sonora, in a group, in the middle of the day, to visit a soup kitchen and women's shelter, for a few hours, and we will be led by those who run the kitchen and shelter and who lead such groups all the time.  

Don't get me wrong, I am not taking this trip lightly.  I know there is risk, and many people depend on me to be alive and well.  So, I am also researching and listening.  But I am finding information that is less fearful, that balances the scale a little.  Am I absolutely guaranteed to be safe in Nogales, Sonora?  No.  But then, I'm not guaranteed to be safe in my own upper-middle-class neighborhood.  With the way things are going in America, I could be shot and killed just going to the grocery store to say "Hi" to a favorite politician, or going to a movie, or teaching at a school.

The world needs to change.  There is still oppression, hunger, sickness, and violence.  And it takes individuals to make a difference.  One person can make a difference.  For better, or for worse.

I turned on the television earlier in the week and came across a BBC program called "The Fatal Attraction of Hitler."  It showed how easy it was for Hitler to convince the German people to accept living in a police state:  because he was able to raise their standard of living, which had been pretty dire under the previous regime, the German people were willing to be led down any path by him.  The program also showed footage of Hitler riding into Vienna, Austria, surrounded by thousands of people cheering and welcoming him.  I was surprised by this.  "Wasn't there any resistance?" I wondered. 

The next morning, I picked up a copy of the New York Times, and read an article in the Obituaries section about a German historian, Klemens von Klemperer.  Klemperer, who Jewish grandfather had converted to Protestantism, was a student at the University of Vienna when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.  I read that he "took part in student street protests.  But by November, with his family's property seized, he had fled to the United States.  Eventually, members of his family were killed at Auschwitz."  Klemperer became an historian, best known for his writings about the German resistance against Hitler.  So, yes, there had been resistance in Vienna.

That afternoon, wandering in a bookstore, looking for Thomas a'Kempis' "The Imitation of Christ," (which the bookstore didn't have) I came across a book called, "Kisses From Katie." Its vibrantly-colored cover shows a young woman holding hands and laughing with a dozen or so African children.  This autobiography, written by Katie Davis, describes the journey of a privileged and popular high school student, who fell in love with Jesus, and went to Uganda to help in an orphanage over one Christmas break.  It was hard enough to persuade her parents to support her on this mission, but when she graduated and wanted to return to work there for a year, she faced greater opposition, especially from her father.  She convinced her father to escort her there and stay for a week in order to see what it was really like.  And though her father tried everyday to convince her to leave, appalled by the living conditions of the people, he returned home alone.  Katie ends up staying permanently in Uganda, adopting 14 orphaned children (!), and helping to run a school for hundreds more.  It is an astounding story of one woman trying to follow God's will.  She writes, "This is the place where I am supposed to follow Jesus, obey Him, and make my best effort, with His gracious help, to treat people with dignity and care for them unconditionally.  to say yes to each and every thing He asks of me, to each person He places in front of me."  (pg. 12)  The thought crossed my mind that maybe this is the kind of "imitation of Christ" God really wants me to learn about.

And then, last night, again flipping through channels on the television, I came across a PBS series titled "The Abolitionists."  I learned for the first time of Angelina Grimke.  She was a young woman from a well-to-do, influential, and slave-owning, southern family, who became an outspoken opponent of slavery.  When she faced repeated threats to her life by fellow Southerners, she moved to the North.  But even in the North, even amongst fellow abolitionists, she faced opposition:  as a woman speaking to both men and women.  She saw immediately that the plight of women was not that far from the plight of the slave:  both had very little freedom.  After the Civil War, she took up the fight for women's rights.  She was the first woman ever to speak before a legislative body in the United States.  I was impressed by how brave, and how modern, she was.

So what do these various programs and readings mean?  I think it means that God is trying to give me some guidance, as always.  Every step of the way.  And I am, as always, amazed and deeply humbled by God's care of me.

Truly, God doesn't love us so that we will live lives of complacency, blind to the problems around us.  God loves us so that we will know how to love and serve others.  And, in every possible way, God shows us, as he did Jesus, what we need to know and do.  It will not be easy.  It never is.  But God will be with us. Always.

Dear God, thank you for the wonderful blessing of your guidance.  Please help me ease the worry of my family.  Love always, Pam

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Trusting God

Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself...  -- Philippians 2:4-7a

In the last week or so, I have been thinking a lot about the Arizona-Mexico border.  Primarily this is because our church youth group is planning a weekend retreat in a couple of months which will focus on this issue.  We plan to join with the youth of another church in town and learn about the border -- in particular, the issue of illegal immigration.  We will travel to Nogales, Arizona to meet with folks from the Kino Border Initiative who provide food and shelter for those who have been deported back to Mexico, or who are not allowed to return to the States.  And we will cross the border into Nogales, Sonora to help at the KBI soup kitchen and women's shelter.  It is an opportunity for us to put a human face to the border problem.  

What is the border problem?  Well, many people in Mexico do not have enough resources (work, money, food) to support themselves and their families, so they try to find these things in the United States.  Legal immigration from Mexico to the States can take years.  So, in desperation, they cross the border illegally, hoping to find work and send money back to their family in Mexico.  Why do we not just let them come?  Because we are worried that our nation (in particular, our State) cannot support them.  These illegal immigrants would take our jobs, our income, our resources, and there wouldn't be enough to go around for all those who are supposed to be here.  After all, why do we have borders in the first place?  Borders mark the boundaries between nations.  And the primary purpose of a nation is to protect and care for its own people, not those outside its domain.

In my readings this week, I came across a book written shortly after World War II, which shed some additional light on this issue.  Emery Reeves in "The Anatomy of Peace" argues that much of the suffering in the world (war, oppression, genocide, etc.) is the result of the inevitable development of nation-states.  Nation-states, such as England, France, and Germany, seeing themselves as single units in close proximity to other sovereign units, built protective walls around themselves and distrusted most those nation-states who were their nearest neighbors.  Because of this underlying feeling of distrust between separate nation-states, it was impossible to create lasting peace.  Thus, the two world wars. Reeves argues that for lasting peace to occur, nation-states have to look beyond themselves, see all people as equal before God, and establish international laws to ensure peace.  His book had a significant impact on the political scene of that era.  

As I read his book, I was reminded of our own Declaration of Independence, which states:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

When our founding fathers affirmed these statements, they affirmed them for all people under God, not just for themselves, or for the people living in the thirteen colonies.  All men are equal in the eyes of God and have the right to live, in freedom, and pursue their own happiness.  The people of Mexico have these rights just as much as the people of the United States.  But, true freedom has one caveat:  the rights of one man or woman cannot infringe upon the rights of another.   One person's search for that which will sustain his life or the lives of his loved ones cannot be allowed to prevent someone else from pursuing the same thing for himself or his loved ones.  Which is why we have such a dilemma.  Whose rights in this situation carry more weight?

Some people would say that the law is inviolate, and since the law is being broken, there really is nothing to discuss.  Others would argue that it is really a humanitarian issue:  people are starving, in desperate need of work and immediate sustenance.  It is the classic question that goes back to the times of Jesus (if not before).  Then it was phrased by those in authority, Is it right to heal on the Sabbath?   We know how Jesus answered that question.

In my last few postings, I have been learning about my ego and its ability to get in the way of helping others and following God's will.  My instincts for self-aggrandizement, self-centredness, and self-protection are very strong.  But recognizing when I am putting myself first, helps me evaluate how appropriate this actually is.  Sometimes -- I would even say most of the time -- it is better if I do not put myself first, but instead put someone else, someone whose needs are greater than mine, in that position.  Now, as I think about the border problem, I see that the thing that causes suffering on a small scale in my own life -- my ego -- is the same thing that causes suffering on a large scale.  Many of the causes of suffering around the world, as Reeves states, though somewhat differently, are caused by one group of people having an overpowering collective ego.  Just as I say, "What about me and my needs and desires?" these groups say, "What about us and our desires and needs?"

And just as the solution to my problem is to let go of my ego, to die to that way of self-centered and self-protective thinking, so too the solution to large scale problems of human suffering is the same.  The group must let go of its collective ego -- die, in effect, or be willing to lose something -- in order to gain something even more precious:  to ability to help those in greater need.  As I've written before, learning to let go our self-protective egos is not an easy thing.  It requires that we put our complete trust in God to know what is best for us.  As Jesus did.

In order for a nation like The United States to let go of its collective, self-protective, ego, we too must do the same.  "In God We Trust" might then become a true statement.

Dear God, I value the trust you place in me.  May I never forsake that trust.  Love always, Pam