Saturday, April 27, 2013


"The word of the Lord came to me:  Mortal, take a stick and write on it, "For Judah, and the Israelites associated with it"; then take another stick and write on it, "For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with it"; and join them together into one stick, so that they may become one in your hand. ... I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all.  Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms."  --  Ezekiel 37:15-17, 22

The above passage relates to the separation of Israelite tribes in the north and in the south.  They lived apart from each other, as separate, if not antagonistic, nations.  And yet this separation was truly artificial, a man-made construction only.  For they shared one heritage, one God, one language, one culture. Any differences between them -- like the differences between any two people -- were minimal in comparison.  They ought to have been one.

This week, I found the above history echoed again and again in the most unlikely book.  I picked up "The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time," by Bob Harris, because I'm interested in learning more about micro-loans.  In this book, Bob* travels the globe meeting people whose lives have been significantly improved through the efforts of these small person-to-person loans.  But, along the way, he meets many people who live in countries that have been brutalized by war.  Secondary only to micro-loans, this book is very much about the senselessness of war, especially between fellow countrymen.

For example, Bob meets a group of micro-loan clients in Sarajevo, which in the 1990s was the center of the deadliest European conflict since WWII.  After hundreds of years of peaceful intermingling among Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims, the country of Yugoslavia began to tragically disintegrate along ethnic lines, fueled by those seeking political control.  Approximately one hundred thousand people were killed and two million were forced to flee their homes.  Eventually, the country separated into six nations.  Sarajevo itself is on the edge of one of these divisions, as Bob finds out when he takes a walk into the hills and comes across a sign telling him that he is now in the Republic of Srpska.  "I was standing on the imaginary, invisible line drawn on the ground that convinced people on one side not to kill real, visible people on the other."  He reflects that he has been on many similar lines before -- "between the two Koreas, the Irelands, the Berlins." (pg.132)  All of these lines are man-made, and therefore, temporary.

The separation of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina has created a tenuous peace that is just as likely to blow up as blow over.  But, oddly enough, these micro-lending groups, which bring together Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, are able to overlook the differences that tore them apart.  "Why?" Bob asks.  It's simple, their survival depends upon it.  These loans, funded by different people around the country and the world, are often the only means people have to put food on the table and shelter over their head.  As one person observes, without a hint of irony, "Money has no religion."  (pg 141)

I wonder why they could not see this before they went to war with each other.  If it is possible to overlook differences after the war, why wasn't it possible to do so before the war?  Why do we separate ourselves from people who have the same basic needs and desires that we do?   It only limits our own ability to function and thrive, if not survive.

Later Bob travels to Rwanda and tells an even greater tale of senseless separation.  In the 1990s, Hutu began killing Tutsi in an effort to eradicate them from the country.  But, as Bob describes, the Hutu and Tutsi are "essentially the same people -- speaking the same language, practicing the same religion and traditions, intermarrying, etc. -- throughout known history.  ... Even Rwandans can't tell who's who with real certainty."  The artificial  separation of Rwandans into the two groups was instigated by the Belgians, who "armed with calipers to measure facial features and a veneer of pseudoscience, lined up every Rwandan, decided who was whom," distinguished one "racial" group from the other, and fueled the wind of hatred between them.  This wind began to blow in the 1960s when Belgium abandoned their colony and it grew to cyclone proportions in the 1990s when several hundred thousand people -- men, women, and children, the sick, the elderly, even those seeking sanctuary in churches -- were killed, by their neighbors, their fellow church members, and their own family members. (pgs 190-192)  Now the genocide has stopped.  Primarily because the new government has dictated that "nobody is Hutu or Tutsi anymore.  Everyone is simply 'Rwandan'."  (pg. 201)  It's the only way for the whole country to move forward together in peace.

Separation sounds good, doesn't it?  We will be our own group/nation/church, all alike; we will be able to protect ourselves from The Other.  But these are artificial constructs that truly do more harm than good, in the long run. 

I am reminded of the painful division in my own church.  In 2010, our church split because of the denomination-wide decision to allow individuals to choose how they understood homosexual partnerships.  One-third left to form their own church under a new denomination.  The remaining two-thirds stayed with the ELCA.  Now, after nearly three years, what is the result?  The division caused a lasting bitterness, even hatred, among some people.  Some friendships ended or grew apart for lack of fellowship.  And a few other friendships remain strong, sharing love and fellowship and the ability to do God's work together.  Why?  Because they are able to overlook the differences and see the goodness inside the person.  As we should have done to begin with.  For, inside, we are not different.  

At the end of his visit with a micro-loan client in Rwanda, Bob is eyed by two very curious children.  The sight of a white man in this remote village is extremely rare.   The two boys egg each other on to get closer and closer to the stranger.  Bob smiles and says "hello" and "how are you" in their language.  And, eventually, feeling very bold, one boy comes up to Bob and suddenly hugs his left leg.  His friend does the same thing with Bob's right leg.  "For one beautiful minute," Bob writes, "these two kids are squeezing my legs and laughing and looking up at me like the whole world could be friends.  I did not see this coming."  (pg. 209-10)

Two, or three, shall become one through the power of love.

As Bob reflects, "Money has no religion... Neither does an open heart."  (pg 152)

Dear God, thank you so much for teaching me a little more about your message of peace.  Love always, Pam

* Since Bob would rather call people by their first name, and does so throughout his book, it's hard not to do the same with Bob.  (Bob's book is published by Walker and Company, New York, 2013)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

God is Calling

He said to me:  O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.  And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.  -- Ezekiel 2:1-2

"... get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and to testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.  --  Acts 26:16

Have you ever felt God calling you for a particular purpose?  Have you ever wondered what God was thinking?

I have, on both accounts.  I have felt God asking me on more than one occasion to step up and do something that I felt highly unqualified for.  Perhaps the most significant instance of this is feeling called to be a voice for Christian unity and positive interfaith relations.  Certainly, the most recent calling I have felt is to guide the high school youth of our church.

These are both unlikely callings.   I grew up in a family that never talked about faith (or sex, or politics, or anything else controversial -- these were very private matters and better left that way); a true blue introvert, I would rather write my thoughts, especially about faith, down in my journal that stand up in a crowd and voice them; and, in the face of discord, my first instinct is to flee, not pursue common ground.

However, I also have an abiding passion for inclusion, a deep love for Jesus, his life, and his teachings, I care deeply about education, and I feel that God is with me each day on the journey of faith.  So maybe these callings are not so completely far-fetched after all. 

Besides, the Bible is filled with examples of people being called for a specific purpose. In every case, God calls the least likely, but also the most fitting.

Just think of Moses:  a man who had difficulty speaking is called to be God's spokesperson; Moses was also the only Hebrew who had lived in the Pharaoh's household and therefore the only one able to address the Pharaoh directly.

Or Paul:  a tireless zealot who persecuted "the followers of The Way" is called to be Jesus's apostle to the Gentiles across the entire Mediterranean; Paul was also a highly educated Pharisee who grew up a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus, and therefore able to speak and write persuasively to both Jews and Gentiles.

Or St Francis:  the rich man's spoiled son with a disease phobia, who avoided church whenever possible, felt called to live in poverty, rebuild God's church, and heal lepers with a gentle touch.

Or Gandhi:  the diminutive, high-caste Hindu lawyer, trained in London, is called to resist the might of the British Empire and ease the burdens of those in the lowest rung of the caste system.

I also think of Eben Alexander, whose book "Proof of Heaven" I read recently.  Dr. Alexander was a neurosurgeon with no faith in God.  He had always explained away his patients' near-death experiences as creations of impaired brains, until he had his own near-death experience in which his  brain ceased functioning for six days.  He returned to life on the seventh day, and upon full recovery, he felt singularly compelled to explain from a neurosurgeon's point of view just how miraculous those six days were.

And I think of a friend of mine:  a loving grandmother/caregiver who has always had a fear of being a victim of violence, feels called to actively fight for stricter gun-control laws on behalf of children even though this requires her to face some very angry, threatening men.

I wonder... Does God call people not only because they have a particular passion, but because they need to address certain mental handicaps, certain fears or roadblocks that are preventing them from living the most abundant and love-filled life they can?

I think it's quite possible.  I have certainly grown by leaps and bounds in my efforts to promote Christian unity.  I have had to learn to speak my mind about faith, with friends, family members, strangers, and church leaders.  I've even learned to voice opinions that are quite contrary.  Though difficult at times, this has truly enriched my life.  For, being true to yourself, and honoring who God created you to be, is a blessing.  A blessing that must be shared.

So maybe one way to test whether God is truly calling you is to not only consider what is extremely important to you, but also how keenly motivated you are to face every obstacle, what you fear or what you try to avoid, in order to accomplish it.

Dear God, thank you for the many examples around me and throughout history of those who listened to your call.  May I learn to share with others all that you have given me.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Makes Someone a Christian?

Ah, you ... who do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands!  -- Isaiah 5:1a, 12b

At various times over the years I have wondered what it is that makes me a Christian, what it is that makes anyone a Christian.

When I was re-examining the faith of my childhood as an adult, questioning some of the things I had been taught about God and Jesus, I wondered then:  am I still a Christian if I don't believe certain tenets of the Christian faith?  For example, if I don't believe that God created the world in exactly six days, as is described in Genesis 1, or if I'm not sure whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not, could I still be considered a faithful person and a Christian?  I wasn't even sure that asking such questions was a proper thing for a person of faith to be doing.  I remember feeling very secretive about my questions of faith because I was afraid of being rejected by other Christians or by God.  (That was when I still thought that I could keep something secret from God. )

Shortly after I started to worry about this, the vicar of the church I was attending asked everyone to think about what was essential to their faith.  "What is the foundation of your faith, without which your faith would crumble?"  This I knew.  I had already determined that the one thing I depended upon entirely, through all my other doubts, was that God was a real presence in my life.  I had experienced "the peace which passes understanding" too often to doubt that.  So when the vicar told us that we could consider the creeds if we wanted to, but that it was not necessary, I felt brave enough to share my understanding:  for me, God is The Peace Which Passes Understanding.   And you know what?  The Vicar said something very similar:  for him, the most essential belief was that "God is."  That's all.  When I reflected on this afterward, I was amazed that it answered so beautifully the one thing that had been stressing me out the most.  I no longer had to worry about asking faith questions.  I had a solid foundation.

But this foundation, that God "is," is true for all people of faith.  So, I then wondered, what makes me a Christian as opposed to some other person of faith?

So, I studied the words of Jesus.  For about six months, for as many hours in the day and night as I could find, I immersed myself in the Gospels, trying to understand the essence of Jesus' message.  I ate his words for lunch.  I woke up before dawn with his words on my tongue.  And at the end of it all, I understood that Jesus came to remind everyone that God's love for us was Amazing, Abundant, Joyful, Unfathomable, Unconditional.  It was greater than anyone could imagine.  If we could only accept that, we would no longer try to hide ourselves from God, we would open our hearts fully to his guidance, and live in that love and that truth.  And we would want to love the whole world in the same way that God loved us.  Jesus' message was both radically new and absolutely faithful to the prophets that came before him who said love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

But these two greatest commandments are shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  So I wondered once again, what makes me a Christian as opposed to a Jew or a Muslim?

So, I studied the history of Christianity.  I read books on Christian theology.  I tried to make sense of the basic doctrines of traditional Christianity.  Once again I got bogged down in doctrine.  I studied other Christian denominations trying to find a kernal of similarity among them all.  I remember exclaiming to a friend, frustrated by all the differences I found:  "What is the TRUTH?!!"

Later that same day, I opened up a devotional that had been sitting, collecting dust, on my shelf for years, and read,  

Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was – he only saw the brightness of the Lord. (from “Adam Bede” by George Eliot)

When God shall be “all in all,” is it not implied that harmony and happiness shall take the place of inharmony and unhappiness? Is not the true test Character rather than belief, and Christlikeness rather than dogma? (from “Edward Burton” by Henry Wood)
                         -- from "Looking Onward and Upward Day by Day," June 29

I was amazed.  Once again I felt God guiding me to what is most important, most essential: not doctrine, but "Christlikeness."  It seems so obvious.  After all, the word "Christian" means "like Christ."

But, what puzzled me was that I knew of non-Christians that were or are very Christlike, such as Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.  And I knew of many people who claimed to be Christian, who were or are not very Christlike at all.

So, I wondered, Why do we even make such distinctions?  Why do we label ourselves like this?  Did Christ?

No.  Christ thought of himself as the son of God.  He did not point to himself.  He pointed us to God.  He pointed us to our neighbor.

It's extremely relevant that the earliest disciples of Jesus were called "followers of The Way."  The Way.  Jesus' way of living was to be an example for the whole world of how to live as God wants us to.

So perhaps, I'm asking the wrong question.  Instead of asking, "What makes someone a Christian?"  I should be asking, "How do I follow His way?"

Dear Lord, thank you again for sending Jesus Christ into the world to give us an example of your love.  Always yours, Pam