Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In God We Trust

Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him; each asked after the other's welfare, and they went into the tent.  Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done ...  -- Exodus 18:7-8

Yesterday we returned home from our trek across a large portion of the U.S:  from Arizona to New Mexico to Colorado to Kansas, then through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to Pennsylvania, and then to Washington D.C. before returning via the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and down through Tennessee to Alabama, and then across part of Tennessee (again) into Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and finally back to Arizona.  In twenty-four days, my kids and I put approximately 6000 miles on our mini-van, saw so many wonderful new sights as well as an astounding variety of landscapes, visited with friends and family we haven't seen in ages, avoided most of the stormy weather around us, shared much laughter and adventure between the four of us, met so many helpful strangers, and were shown examples of radical hospitality wherever we went.  And yesterday I read the above passage in the daily lectionary describing how Moses reunited with his family near Mt. Sinai after returning from Egypt and then telling them all that he had seen of God.

Moses had quite an adventure to tell his father-in-law.  One full of difficulty and danger and heartache and suffering.  Throughout his experiences, Moses knew that God had been with him and the Israelites, helping them with every need.  At the end of his telling, Jethro praises the Lord and brings burnt offerings, and together with Aaron and all the elders they share a meal "in the presence of God."

Now, while I did not have to deal with anything like Pharaoh or the plagues or going without food, and my children only complained a tiny bit, I too felt blessed by God's presence on our journey.  God seemed to be watching over us, protecting us, especially as we seemed to be avoiding all the bad weather around us.  Even as I thought this, I wondered... Am I being arrogant,  or naive, to feel this way?

The daily Bible readings conveyed in the laws of Moses and the psalms that goodness and righteous living lead to God's blessings and protection.  But in Ecclesiastes, I read that good and bad comes to everyone.   So which is it?  Throughout the Bible there are stories of people having difficulties and it doesn't seem to matter if they are good or not.  As the modern saying goes, "Shit happens."  To everyone.  Weather frequently wreaks havoc on the lives of people around the world every day.  People make mistakes or bad choices which harm themselves and the people around them.   And the people we love die too young.  I am not immune from any of this heartache.  Bad things happen to everyone, even me.  So why do I still feel protected?  Even when things are challenging.

In Washington, D. C., our first evening, we had far too much adventure for anyone's tastes.  We took the metro to the National Mall without too much trouble, but then coming back we got on the wrong line.  After being redirected by a very kind staff person, who wasn't going to make us buy more tickets, we learned that the station we needed to get to had already closed.  At this point, the boys started to grumble about our difficulties and worry that we wouldn't get back to our car before the garage closed (which it was about to do), but I told them that we just needed to go with the flow, stay positive, and not let these roadblocks overwhelm us.  We went to ground level and took a cab to where our car was parked, getting there just as the gates were closing.  Then, all I needed to do was pay for parking and we'd be out of there.  But I could not find my parking ticket anywhere.  And the ticket machine was out of tickets for those who loose theirs.  At this point I also started to get stressed out, but I went back to where the guards were and explained the situation.  Thankfully, one of the guards went above and beyond the call of duty, and helped us get our car out of the parking lot.  When we got back to our hotel, I was keenly aware of two things:  that our difficulties could have been worse, and that we had been blessed by the help of many kind people.   

The next day went much easier, but it too was not without its challenges.  We avoided the confusing metro and parking garages that close early, and drove downtown to a hotel parking garage near the National Mall.  After a day spent exploring the monuments and museums, and trying to stay cool in the blazing heat, we headed back to our car.  But, as we drove out of the garage, my GPS was not functioning.  Somehow, without the GPS or a map, I was able to find our way from downtown D.C., through the tangle of freeways to our hotel in Falls Church, Va. without any trouble at all.  I just drove.  And eventually I recognized some of the roads we had driven along the evening before.  But the thought crossed my mind that we had only managed to get out of the downtown area "on a wing and a prayer." 

The next day, while visiting The National Cathedral, I came across a book by Katherine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, titled, "A Wing and a Prayer: A Message of Faith and Hope."  The title spoke to me, of course, as well as the back cover quote that "Jefferts Schori reminds us to 'fear not' and to live our faith daily in dramatic acts...", and so I bought it.

In one of the first few essays, Jefferts Schori writes about God's blessings.  Looking at the complaining Israelites in the wilderness, as well as the story of the laborers in the field who are all paid the same no matter how long they work, Schori reflects that "the degree of blessing doesn't seem to depend on the desire or earnestness of prayer or length of labor.  Everybody gets the same, and it's enough and plenty. looks as though the only behavior that's necessary to receive blessing is being in need, or maybe just recognizing that you are in need."  (pg. 19)  Her insight rings true to my experiences.  For just like the Israelites, in every instance that I have expressed great need, and often before I have even asked, I have received the help I needed.

But this was not always the case.  There was a time when I was in great difficulties, and knew it, and prayed for God's help, but nothing changed.  It wasn't until I stopped grumbling and wishing things were different, and instead opened my heart and mind to whatever God had to tell me, that I found all the help I needed.  When I put all of my trust in God to guide me in the way I should go, then I received everything I needed.

You would think that with such a gift, readily available, I wouldn't worry about anything.  Why, for example, do I worry so much about tornadoes?   Why do I fear anything?  Well, because I forget.  I get in the way.   I put myself, or my worries and fears, in front of God.  When I do this, I can no longer see God's guidance, I only see what will possibly go wrong.  Then all my advice to "go with the flow" starts to go down the drain.

Eventually we did run into very bad weather, around Memphis.  My phone kept alerting me to flash floods in the area, and visibility was so poor that I could barely see the truck in front of me.  I had to calm my fears then, though it was difficult.  A big part of me wanted to pull over and just wait out the storm, like other people were doing, but it looked like it was going to stay awhile, and we had a hotel waiting for us.  So I just kept going forward, following the truck in front of me, and eventually the clouds parted.

The next day, through clear weather, I was reminded by a radio announcer that this country's motto is "In God We Trust."  On a clear day, it's easy to place our trust in God.  The challenge comes in the midst of a storm.
One thing I have learned on this trip -- perhaps it was what I was meant to learn: that, come what may, whether sunshine or heavy storm, God will be with me, guiding me through it as long as I let him lead.

Thanks be to God.

Dear God, thank you for the light you shine on my path, the hope you fill me with, and the promise of your continual presence on this journey.  Love always, Pam

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

America the Beautiful

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.  Live by the Spirit, I say... if we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit."  -- Galatians 5:13-17, 25

We've been driving across half the United States for the last ten days.  We left Tucson, Arizona on June 29, and are now in Indiana heading to Pennsylvania.  We have three and a half weeks, a rough itinerary, lots of room for flexibility, and hopes of seeing many new things.  Along the way we are visiting with friends and family, many of whom we wouldn't get to see any other way.  It's a way of connecting with the people we know and love, and with this great country. 

On our first morning, waking up in Pinetop, Arizona, we met a couple at breakfast who were also visiting from Tucson.  They had two very cute little dogs, which my boys were all over, and they gave us some ideas of things to do in Pennsylvania where they had also lived.  As we left them, my youngest son said, "They were very nice."  I said, "I bet we meet a lot of nice people on our trip.  Most people are nice."  He said, "But some people are not nice."  Yes.  That's the way it is:  most people are nice, but a few are not.

Unfortunately, we focus so much on those who are not nice.

One of the things that I've noticed about this trip is how almost everyone express concerns about it.   "What?  Just you and your kids?  Driving across the U.S?"  "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"  "You are awfully brave."  "Have you checked-out your car?"  "Make sure you leave an itinerary at home." "Be safe."  Now, most of these concerns are expressed by people who know and care about me.  But even people I don't know say the same thing.  After awhile of this, what has come across the most to me is fear; fear for me and fear of the world around me.  Where does this fear come from?

I think it comes from the fact that we so frequently hear about and dwell on the things that go wrong, instead of the things that go right.  Bad things happening to people, and people committing crimes, overwhelmingly make the news.  The most popular television shows are of people behaving badly to one another.  How often do we hear on the news or read in the paper or watch a show about something that goes well, or when people are kind to one another?  Very rarely.

Not that I was immune to fear either.  The weather was my biggest concern, especially because of the terrible tornadoes in Oklahoma.  Traveling through "Tornado Alley" almost made me not want to make the attempt. 

I wrote last time about how we are so much better at focusing on our weaknesses instead of our strengths.  I'm realizing now that we not only do this as individuals, we also do this as a society.  We focus much more of our time and energy on the things that go wrong, or on people behaving badly, than we do on people behaving well or all the times that nothing goes wrong at all.  And so, we end up with a very skewed sense of the world we live in. Very skewed.  We think the world is a terribly dangerous place, and we miss out on all that is wonderful and beautiful.

I came across an extreme example of what this view of the world looks like on our trip.  While visiting my sister in Topeka, Kansas, my brother-in-law drove us by the Westboro Baptist Church, renowned for picketing funerals as examples of God's punishment.  Across the side of their church a banner read, "God Hates America."  This group seems to view the whole world around them as evil, and therefore, they hate the world.  And project this hatred onto God.  It's hard to imagine such hatred.  Especially from a group that considers itself Christian.  Have they never read the words of Jesus?

In contrast, across the street from this church, thank God, is a house painted in rainbow colors.  Aaron Jackson, co-founder of the charity Planting Peace, bought this house sight-unseen to serve as a counter-message to the WBC.  He said he wanted to show that where there's hatred there is also love.  He purposefully painted it in the colors of the gay pride flag because the WBC especially targets this group of people with their hatred.  As we drove past both houses, I couldn't help but notice the many people around the Rainbow house, some gathering in groups talking, some leaving flowers on the lawn, while there was no one around the walled-off church.

So far on this trip of several thousand miles, we have only met loving, friendly, helpful people.  From the snow-capped Rockies to the wind-blown plains and beyond.   Even in Tornado Alley where people actually live and build houses and cities, and thrive.

Interestingly, the couple of people who have been encouraging to me about this trip are people who have done the same kind of thing themselves.  They have been there and done that, and were mightily enriched by the experience.  It makes me think in a new way of the phrase, "Home of the Free Because of the Brave," which I saw on a t-shirt in a road-side shop in Colorado.  Now I know that this shirt was referring to our military, but since I had been repeatedly called "brave" lately, I couldn't help but think that we are all as free as we are brave.

There are many brave people in America, who live life to the fullest.  I, too, like the freedom and the life I have been given, especially as a child of God.  I plan to make the most of this life I have been given.

At the Topeka Bible Church last Sunday with my sister and brother-in-law, we sang, "America! America! God shed his grace on thee.  And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."  I hope my kids learn the truth of that message on this trip and others.  For I plan to make many more of these cross-country tours.  Maybe we'll head west, north-west, next summer.

Dear God, thank you for filling me with courage and love.  And for wonderful, flexible children!  Yours always, Pam