Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Happy Place

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.  She is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her.  She is the tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.   --  Proverbs 3:13-15,18

Yesterday, I heard the radio DJ telling someone to "go to your happy place."  I laughed.  You know you aren't having fun if you need to go to your happy place.  I had in fact tried to do that very thing recently while at the dentist getting my teeth cleaned.  I tried to distract myself by imagining that I was walking along my favorite footpath to the river, near our old house in England.

The footpath begins as a narrow country road closely bordered on both sides by rough gray stone walls, which are held together mostly by the sheer weight of the stones themselves, but also chinked more firmly here and there with smaller rocks.  Ivy, lichen, and blackberry brambles cover the stones -- in some places so heavily that the walls have begun to crumble under their burden.  A trickle of water almost continually runs down the center of the lane.

It's a beautiful path, with many different wildflowers blooming along the edges and in the nooks and crannies of the walls.  Here and there lovely shade trees provide welcome shelter from the sun or rain.  About two-thirds of the way along, there is, unfortunately, a smelly sewage treatment plant.  Then there is a gate that opens onto a single path, much narrower, steeper, and rockier than the one before.  And then, very quickly, you are at the river, which is wide and deep and very peaceful.  Here there are no walls, only meadows of soft green grass, occasional swaths of wildflowers, and a few big old trees along the banks.  One ancient tree is perfect for leaning against as you take in the pleasant surroundings.

That is my happy place.  And for the moments in which I could actually picture being there, I forgot about the noisy, pokey tools in my mouth.  Unfortunately, those moments were very fleeting.  Maybe if I practice going to my happy place more often I could hold onto that vision longer, even in the midst of noise and discomfort.

My journey of faith has been very much like this walk to the river.  The Old and New Testaments, supported and sometimes burdened by doctrine, ritual, and tradition, have been like walls keeping me on the path.  There is much beauty along this path, especially in the people I have discovered.  Their lives and wisdom are like the flowers and fruit, most of which is very sweet -- there are only a very few sour or damaged ones.  The shade trees are like the wonderful communities of faith which have sheltered me from the elements.  Even the sewage treatment plant represents a part of my journey:  when our church split apart.  That was truly unpleasant, but I learned to walk more independently after that.  Walking this narrower path means I have to watch where I place my feet; there is more risk of stumbling along here.  But, luckily, this path has also brought me closer to my destination: to God, the water of life.

I am much better at tuning into this "place."  For this is not a place that is fixed in time and space, fading from memory.  This is where God is found -- which can be anywhere, at any time.  It just takes a little practice.  For me, it means tuning into my thoughts, reading Scripture, and paying attention to what comes into my life each day.  Taking this time has given me a much deeper understanding and abiding happiness than I ever thought possible.  Just like leaning against that ancient tree on the edge of the River Nidd, sitting quietly for a time tuning in to my life and listening for God's guidance is food for my soul, providing sustenance for whatever journey I take, even the most difficult.

I never used to understand Jesus's parables about the kingdom of heaven being like a priceless object (a treasure or a pearl) which caused someone to sell everything to buy that object.  It just didn't make sense.  "How would that possibly help him live, or make him happier?"  But I was thinking much too literally, and so the meaning was hidden.  Now, I understand that God's guidance in my life is that priceless object.  That is a treasure beyond reckoning, and one that will sustain me throughout my life.

Dear God, you are my happiest place.  Love always, Pam

Friday, May 17, 2013

Christian Unity

"... that they may all be one.  ... that they may become completely one ..."  -- John 17:20, 22

These words are part of Jesus's final prayer to his disciples.  They were in last Sunday's Gospel reading, so I have been mulling over these words all week.  They are my favorite words about unity.

The more I think about unity, the more I see that the world is already very much interconnected.  We are connected to the people in our extended families, our community, our country, and beyond.  Each one of these people is uniquely connected to their extended families, their community, their country, and beyond.  So, even if we don't know someone personally, our lives can be influenced and impacted by them.  And we in turn influence and impact the lives of more people than we can imagine.

This is becoming more and more true as communication technologies advance.  Perhaps it has always been true, it just happens a whole lot faster these days.  Jesus's life took centuries to impact the world.  Last year the life of a young Muslim girl in Pakistan fighting for an education impacted countless people around the world in seconds.

People around the world are interconnected, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not.  Now, this connection can be positive and life-affirming, or it can be negative and life-damaging.  The choice is made by us.  The choices we make always impact more people than just ourselves.  And while we cannot always choose how others will impact our lives, we can at least choose how we will respond and how we will impact the lives of others.  Even doing nothing is a choice we make that has an impact.

The idea of our interconnectedness is worth considering more often. 

I remember a turning point in my marriage when I did just that.  A few years ago, my husband and I just weren't getting along.  We were continually pushing against each other like two opposing magnets.  We were both unhappy, but stuck in a pattern.  Every time we fought, I would think of divorce.  Some things, I thought, would just be so much easier if I could go my own way.  The turning point came when I realized that one very important thing would not be easier if we got divorced.  That was parenting.  As much as we disagreed about how to raise our children, they would always be our children.  We would still have to figure out, for their sakes, how to work together.  The longer this took us, the more negatively it was going to impact the lives of our children.  And figuring out how to work together would be much harder, if not impossible, if we divorced. 

God had made us one.  However far apart we pushed or pulled ourselves, we would always be connected.  We were all bound together, for better or worse, so we might as well figure out how to make it better. 

Ironically, at that same time period in my life, I was wondering why Christians and Jews and Muslims couldn't just get along.  We all believed in the same God, why couldn't we just focus on what we held in common?  But then again, why couldn't my husband and I just focus on what we held in common?

In order to answer those questions, I went on a journey.  First I had to recognize that not even all Christians get along, and they have even more in common.  And then I had to learn that not even all Lutherans get along, and they are even more alike in their thinking.  And finally, I discovered that not even the people in my own Lutheran denomination always agreed with each other.  From this journey, I can only conclude that if agreement is the criteria for getting along, then we will all have to go our separate ways.  For it's just not possible for any two people, let alone more than two people, to agree with each other all the time.  God didn't make us that way.

And for good reason.  Christian unity, the kind of unity that Jesus was talking about, is not about thinking alike.  It is, however, about getting along despite our differences. 

Through my marriage, God has helped me to understand that how Christians, Jews, and Muslims get along, is the same way a husband and wife get along, or anyone gets along.  We do so by being compassionate, by trying to understand the other, by forgiving, by being honest, and by being generous -- all those things that Jesus talked so much about.

Notice that these are all personal attributes.  In order for me to stay united with my husband, I had to look within myself, and recognize where I was not doing these things.  I had to stop pointing at the speck in my husband's eye, and look at the log in my own eye.  The same is true for everyone.

It's a slow and sometimes painful process.  But I'm learning a lot.  About unity.  And about love.

As Jesus said, the kingdom of God is within you.  I know this to be true.

Dear God, thank you for showing me how interconnected I am, and for continually teaching me how to love as you love.  Yours always, Pam

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind."  Luke 10:27

This week, on long drives across town, I listened to the next lecture in a series titled, "Philosophy and Religion in the West," from The Teaching Company's Great Courses.  In lecture 25, Professor Phillip Cary talks about Kierkegaard.  In the 19th century, logic and reason were viewed as the ultimate authority for truth.  Some religious scholars thought that even God could be proven, logically, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Kierkegaard viewed this as hogwash.  He believed that there is a great chasm between reason and faith.  Faith in God cannot be learned in the lecture hall from the words of a great scholar, or even from a pastor in a church.  Those who doubted God were better off than those who accepted God based upon someone else's understanding.  For such was not real faith.  Real faith requires a "leap" that only the individual can make for him- or herself.  This leap of faith can only come about from within, from an inward searching for God.

These words resonated with me.  They eased one of my deepest concerns -- about my son -- and led me to think about the past in a new way.

When my oldest son was four years old, I had this great desire to teach him about God.  I wanted him to have a deep and lasting faith in God, and I was beginning to worry that he wouldn't unless I took a active role in his religious education.  I knew that faith in God was not automatic, but I was just beginning to learn that even people who grow up in a church, don't necessarily truly believe in God.  My husband had grown up in the church, had been an altar boy, went through catechism, and came from a very devout family.  Yet, as an adult, he discovered that he no longer believed in God.  He had only believed in God because the people he most admired believed in God.  I was worried that the same thing would happen to my son.

I knew that my own faith had sustained me many times, and I wanted this kind of faith for my son.   I believed that I could teach him this; that somehow, I could say the words that would convince him to believe in God as I did.  However, though I believed this, I didn't know how to accomplish it.  So I searched for help in a book (a not uncommon thing for me to do), and I found "Talking to Your Child About God," by David Heller.  I thought this author would tell me what to say to my child.  But, David Heller believed that before you can teach your child about God, you need to know what you believe about God.  He even provided some questions to get the reader started.  Questions like "What image do you have of God? ... "Does life have meaning?  ...  Do you believe in the afterlife?" (pg.26) I was, at first, very resistant to his questions.  I had no easy answers for any of them.  But, eventually, I began to think again about what I had been taught as a child and to wonder, What did I believe?

It was here, with these first questions, that my journey of faith began.  And I actually learned to highly value these kinds of questions.  For though my questions have not always led to immediate answers, they have always led me to a deeper truth, to a deeper love for God and for Jesus, and to a deeper understanding of God's love for me.

However, my growing understanding has not been transmitted to my son.  As much as I have tried to teach him about God, formally (like a teacher) by sharing what I have learned, and informally as things come up, he doubts the very existence of God.  As a result, I have increasingly felt like a failure.  My whole journey of faith was motivated by a desire to teach my son to love God as I do, and I have been the only one to benefit from it.  I have wondered a lot lately, How can I begin to teach other people about God, when I can't even teach my own son?  This question was beginning to handicap me, preventing me from following through with what I felt God asking me to do.

And then I listened to that lecture on Kierkegaard, and was amazed at how deeply it spoke to my concerns, my fears.  Thank God for Kierkegaard!

I recalled the last thing I told my son:  "You do not have to believe what I believe.  But I would like you to keep asking questions, keep thinking, and be open to the possibility of God."  

Be open to the possibility.  Those words echoed in my mind this week, too.  As I drove through town, I saw on the side of the Canyon Ranch shuttle:  "The Power of Possibility."

The power of possibility.  Not impossibility. 

Maybe it's not my abilities I need to worry about.  Maybe I too need to be more open to the possibility of  God, the possibilities of God.  Maybe I need to put my absolute faith in God's abilities, instead of my own.  After all, many things have happened to me on this journey of faith that I would have thought were absolutely impossible.

Dear God, thank you for your wonderful, amazing guidance in my life.  Love always, Pam