Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Unexpectated and Uncertain

"... he shall startle many nations... for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate."   -- Isaiah 52:15

This verse from Isaiah speaks to me of Jesus's resurrection.  How startling and unexpected was that?!  Even though Jesus told some of his disciples that "on the third day he would be raised", what did that even mean to them?!  It had to have been a mystery.  And his resurrection the greatest surprise of their lives.  After all, much of what Jesus said to them was a mystery, a surprise.  Even we, who have the advantage of studying his words in print, are still contemplating their meaning thousands of years later.

Martin Buber's words about mystery come to mind.  He writes in "I and Thou":  "...if the recommended path were utterly devoid of mystery, it would cease to fascinate men.  ...There would be nothing left to discuss and interpret, to lecture and write about, to admire and merely think about.  ... The Book of Proverbs is boring compared to the Sermon on the Mount.  The good way must be clearly good but not wholly clear.  If it is quite clear, it is too easy to reject."  (pg. 10)  Does clarity breed contempt?

I don't know.  There are many times when I wish I understood things better, and knew why God was asking me to get involved in a particular ministry, especially ones I feel so ill-equipped for.

But, what would it be like, I wonder, if I knew how my whole life was going to pan out?   If I knew exactly what choices I was supposed to make?  If I knew where my choices would lead?   And I knew ahead of time God's purpose behind it all? 

Personally, the thought of this makes me cringe, as if I'd chewed a bitter pill.  As much as I like knowing what's what, and being certain of my choices, I can't imagine my life without questions, without surprises.  One of the things I value most in my life is how surprising it is.  I am continually amazed by the way things come together.  These surprises feed my soul, and my mind, and I think, keep me alive.  If I knew everything that was going to happen, and why (even if it was all good),  I think I would walk away from my life, if that were possible, and say, "No thank you.  I prefer not knowing."  Even though I find uncertainty very uncomfortable at times, I think the alternative would be worse.

Susan Cain writes in "Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" about the differences between extroverts and introverts.  One difference between extroverts and introverts is how they respond to uncertainty.   For extroverts, fear, uncertainty, and doubt (or FUD, as its known), is "an unholy trinity" that must be vanquished, if not ignored. (pg. 164)  If something takes too long to figure out, an extrovert is more likely to give up on it, than an introvert.   Introverts are challenged by uncertainty, and will spend much longer trying to solve a problem, or contemplating a question, than an extrovert.  Albert Einstein, a consummate introvert said, "It's not that I'm so smart.  It's that I stay with problems longer."  (pg. 169)  I am an introvert.  I also think slowly.  It takes me much longer to work through a problem than many other people I know.  I'm also less willing to give up on a problem that is, to my mind, still unresolved.  

I love mathematics because I can solve problems with it.  The thing I love best about math is that there is always a right answer.  There may be many ways to get to that answer, but if you follow logical rules correctly, step by step, the answer always comes out the same.  You know you are right.  You can prove it.  This is not the case with God.  We cannot prove our answers about God.  God is not logical.  The unexpected happens all the time.  Miracles happen and yet cannot be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt.  With God, we must be willing to accept uncertainty.  We must be able to trust feelings more than reason, sensations more than common sense, and experiences more than experiments.   Dreaming is more important than debate.  With God, trusting replaces knowing.  And the surprise that comes from that trusting is life-giving, life-changing.  Perhaps that is why I find God imminently more fascinating than mathematics, and also why I find it much more challenging to teach about God than  mathematics.

I know very little about God, for sure.  But one thing I do know ... God knows much better than I do how things are supposed to turn out.  I don't have to understand it all.  It doesn't have to make sense.  I just have to trust in that and keep listening. 

Perhaps Jesus knew something about his future ahead of time, but I like to think that he walked along his journey of faith like we all do, one step at a time.  His questioning faith, extravagant love for God and humanity, and his unending hope make me think so.

Thank you, dear Lord, for sticking to me like glue as I wrestle through every uncertainty.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us."  --  2 Corinthians 5:16-19

Reconciliation.  That is the operative word.  According to various dictionaries, it means to restore friendly relations, to resolve conflict, to make compatible two opposing viewpoints.  To me, this seems to be the most important task in the world today.  We don't have to look very far to find conflict and opposition.  We see it everyday, in our own lives and in the lives of people who live far away.   We see all too often the tendency to build walls of separation, if not hatred, between individuals and groups.  Our own country, especially, seems determined to divide itself into different ideological camps.  And yet, we know deep down in our hearts that this can't be right.  This can't be what God wants.   God, who wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When we think of our closest relationships, of our relationship with our spouse or our children, we begin to understand the requirements of love.  The ties that bind us to those we love the most cannot be easily broken, no matter what comes between us, no matter what transgressions or sins we commit.  Why is that?  How are these relationships maintained, and others are not?

I read recently in "A Voluptuous God," by Robert V. Thompson, that the word sin is "etymologically linked to the work sunder, which means 'to break apart.'  Rather than thinking of sin as a single event like the breaking of a rule, such as a traffic violation, it is more useful to see sin as a condition or state of being in which we see ourselves as literally separated from ourselves, others, and the Divine."  (pg. 103)  Sin is the opposite of reconciliation.  Perhaps that is why the Roman Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation is penance.

Thompson writes about Julian of Norwich, who in 1373 had a revelation of God, during which she asks God about sin.  "She was told that we fall into sin not because we are wicked or corrupt, but because we are naive.  There is no stain on the soul, we are merely ignorant.  We sin, that is, we are estranged from others, because we don't know any better. ... Most importantly, Julian was shown that sin is not something for which we are handed out punishment.  The sense of separation and the feelings of alienation are themselves the consequences.  We enter into these conditions ourselves.  We suffer from within. ...Every failure in relationship to God, every failure in relationship among and between us, is a result of being ignorant to the ways of love."  (pg 103)

Thompson gets even more specific:  "When we don't know how to live together it is because we don't know how to love each other, or ourselves.  ...Every dastardly deed, every abusive action, every greedy, self-absorbed thought, word, and deed is a result of our ignorance.   Whether it is a terrorist hijacking or a mundane insensitive oversight, it stems from the same thing:  our ignorance as to how to love fully and utterly.  There is not a list of Top Twenty sins that God doles out appropriate punishments for.  There is only the failure to love." (pg 103-4)  Sin is what results when we don't know how to love one another as we should. 

So how do we learn to love one another better? 

Well, the opposite of separation is unity.  So, maybe, instead of seeing ourselves separate from each other, as different from each other, we need to see each other as the same.  What is it that we have in common?  What do I see in you that I also see in me?  Do we have a shared love of God?  Do we have a shared love of children?  Do we have a shared love for justice?  For freedom? 

Thompson writes, "Sin is spiritual blindness -- the inability to see you in me, and me in you.  This is what Jesus meant when he said the greatest commandment is to love God and everyone -- God in me, God in you, you in me, me in you, God in all of us.  Empathy, the seeing you in me and me in you, is the heart of compassion.... compassion heals separation, compassion lessons everyone's suffering."  (pg. 105)

We do this, we find paths of understanding, of empathy, with those we are the closest to:  our spouses and our children.  What would the world look like if we made the effort to find paths of understanding with everyone we met?

Let's try it and find out.

Dear God, thank you for your patience with me, despite my ignorance.  It is all too easy to build a wall between me and those who think so differently from me.  Help me to see you in them and me in them, and love them as you love me.  Love always, Pam

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fruit Trees & People

"No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its fruit."  --  Luke 6:43

This passage puzzles me.  As an analogy for people, it is too black and white.  I don't know anyone who is totally good, always bearing good fruit, or anyone who is totally bad, always bearing bad fruit.  Everyone I know personally is mostly good, each one creating a lot of good things around them, and only occasionally doing something not so good, creating problems.  I include myself in this set.

However, as I continued thinking about this passage, I remembered our house in Albuquerque, the  first house my husband and I owned.  It had lots of mature fruit trees in the backyard:  two apple trees, a peach tree, a plum tree, and a pear tree.  But only the peach tree produced good fruit.  Back then, I was too busy going to school to wonder why, or to do anything about it, except enjoy the pretty blossoms in the spring, savor the peaches, and grumble about the mess of the abundant fruitfall.  But now, I began to wonder why the other trees didn't produce good fruit.  So I did some research. 

To produce good fruit, trees need to be healthy (not weak or diseased), be planted in a suitable environment (the right climate, mostly), and be properly cared for (which is, oddly-enough, called "cultural practices").  Cultural practices consist of planting young trees in full sunlight; giving them adequate space to develop their roots; planting them in well-drained fertile soil; understanding their fruiting habits; and pruning them when young (but not excessively).  And finally, fruit trees need adequate pollination.  According to the website I found, "One unfavorable condition may reduce yields or prevent the bearing of any fruit."  (  As an analogy for people, I again had much food for thought.

We all know how important our health is to our happiness and to our ability to work.  We even prefer certain environments over others:  some people love the hot, dry summers of Tucson, I prefer something cooler and rainier -- the snow we had a couple weeks ago felt wonderful.  Weather conditions are known to effect our happiness and therefore our lives. Reflecting on the cultural practices recommended for raising fruit trees, I first thought about children.  Kids need our full-on, unconditional, love; the freedom to explore, with room for growing independence; good food for their bodies, and a good education for their minds.  We also need to keep in our minds their unique personalities, and apply appropriate discipline (though nothing too harsh) when they get too wild.  All of these are good cultural practices for every parent, or anyone who cares for children. They are also good cultural practices for us as adults.  We too need unconditional love, freedom to explore and make choices, healthy food to eat, and something new to learn everyday, if possible.  We also need to honor our unique gifts, and be disciplined, at times.   

However, if one of these conditions is not met in our lives, unlike in the lives of fruit trees, we don't necessarily fail to produce good fruit.  Unlike fruit trees, people are born with an indomitable spirit to survive.  Sure, sometimes people don't survive "unfavorable conditions."  Sometimes, people are sunk by the conditions of their lives.  But plenty of other people are not sunk.  We all know people who are physically or mentally handicapped, or chronically ill, or have a life-long disease; or who live in harsh, restricted environments; or who have experienced neglect and even abuse.  And yet these same people, both children and adults, overcome all of these unfavorable conditions and produce amazingly wonderful fruit.

I learned of one profound example of this yesterday.   Our high school youth group watched the movie "Inocente." This short documentary, which recently won an Academy Award, is about a young girl who was severely abused by her father as a very young child, is an undocumented immigrant (along with her mother and brothers) and so must live secretively and avoid the authorities.  She and her family are homeless, having lived for at most three months in one place in the past nine years, and she is still sometimes abused by her mother.  And yet, despite all of these unfavorable conditions, she has an undaunted, unconquerable spirit.  And from within the deepest part of her comes beautiful art.  Instead of painting dark images of her dark life, she paints colorful, happy, quirky, poignant images. 

What makes the difference? Why do some people sink, and some people swim, in the face of such harsh living conditions?

The answer is:  one other person.  It just takes one other person in someone's life who helps them in ways that no one else does.  For Inocente, it was the people of A.R.T.S.  A Reason To Survive is a non-profit organization in San Diego that gives children, especially suffering children, a place to heal and enrich their lives through art.  It was here that Inocente met people who understood her, and fed her unquenchable spirit.

And that gets us back to the one remaining condition that makes a difference in whether a tree produces good fruit or not:  adequate pollination.   Most fruit trees are "self-unfruitful."  That is they require pollen from another variety of their species in order to produce fruit. And for all fruit trees, a pollinator will increase the yield and quality of the fruit.   Experts recommend planting at least two different varieties nearby each other.  Perhaps this is why the fruit trees in our backyard in Albuquerque did not produce good fruit:  there was only one of each variety.  Why did the peach tree turn out differently?  My guess is that a neighbor had a different kind of peach tree.

What is true of fruit trees in this case, is especially true of people.  We need other varieties of people around us to help us thrive.  The one thing that makes a difference in whether an abused child will grow up to be abusive or commit a violent crime is whether or not there was one person in his or her life who provided a counterpoint, one person to change the way they saw the world around them, one person to love them unconditionally.

This is true for everyone.  We are not meant to be alone, isolated from other people.  Along the same lines, we are better off if we surround ourselves with as much variety as possible.  We are just as much in danger of becoming stunted by only living amongst people who think exactly like we do, as we are in living completely by ourselves.   We need people who think differently than we do.  We need to not only be challenged by that diversity but we need to value it and be valued because of it.  Only then can we produce the best quality and greatest quantity of good fruit.

I believe God brings people like this into our lives, to help us grow:  people who love us and comfort us when we need it, and people who think differently or challenge us when we need it.  We can either accept them, to our benefit, or reject them, to our detriment.  We have been given that freedom.

"A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, 'See here!  For three years I have come looking for fruit on this tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?'  He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"  --  Luke 13:6-9

Dear God, thank you so much for keeping my eyes open to the many lessons you have to teach me.  I am profoundly grateful to have such a loving guide.  Love always, Pam