Saturday, August 24, 2013


"Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children -- 'My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him, for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.' ... Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God, that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled."  --  Hebrews 12:3~17 (in part)

Something must be in the air.  I am seeing, or hearing about, a number of people behaving badly.  I'm not talking about lapses of behavior due to ignorance or just not thinking.  No, I'm talking about significant willful transgressions.  Now, I know that you really don't have to look very far afield to find examples of people willfully behaving badly.  It's just that I don't usually hear or see it in my own small world very often.  Life has been very unusual lately.

First, a friend tells me that her daughter's ex-husband wants to skip out on paying child support because he's planning on becoming a priest.  Seriously??  On what planet do those two things -- a deadbeat dad and a priest -- go together?  Thankfully, the judge had very little patience with this "man of God."

Later that same day, I saw the driver of a Hyundai run into a parked Honda while at a "Safe Driving" event at my son's high school, damaging the back bumper of the Honda and its own front side panel.  Accidents happen, of course, but the thing is, when I went back to my car after the start of the program (it was much too graphic for my younger children, so I needed to take them home and then come back), I noticed the Hyundai parked in a different parking space, away from the damaged Honda.

I was amazed at this obvious attempt to avoid doing the right thing.  I felt the injustice of it.  So I took down the license plate information of both cars, and later gave the details to the principal.  (Unfortunately, I didn't think to leave a note on the Honda!)  At the end of the program, as I listened to the principal speak about the student Code of Conduct, which includes respect and responsibility, and "doing what's right, not what's easy," I hoped that the driver of the Hyundai was listening and would reconsider his/her evasive actions. I did not envy him or her the difficulty of doing the right thing, but I thought the guilt of not doing the right thing, and the lies that would have to be told, would be even more difficult to bear and more corrosive, in the long run.

Then, at our council meeting earlier in the week, our pastor spoke strong words against forwarding council business emails to other people.  I have never seen our usually easy going and humorous pastor so seriously angry.  But the forwarding of private emails had happened more than once and was causing more than a few unnecessary problems.

Then, yesterday, at my youngest son's elementary school, I witnessed a child, possibly five or six years old, throwing a royal temper tantrum, stomping feet, crying, and yelling rudely and very loudly, at a young, petite woman who seemed to be her mother.  The child wanted to be carried.  The mother stood there meekly, quietly trying to calm her furious child down, not arguing with her.  And the child did eventually quiet down.  But then the mother carried the child (who was more than half her size) across the parking lot to the pick-up/drop-off lane, setting her down to wait for a ride.  At that the daughter again began to yell, cry, and stomp her feet, even pulling on the mother's shoulders and trying to jump into her arms.  The mother again stood there quietly as her daughter ranted and raved at the top of her voice.

I prayed that the mother would resist, and stay strong, for clearly she was trying, at long last, to wean her child from being carried.  But the daughter's behavior and rudeness to her mother was more than I could ignore.  I wanted to help this mother.  So I walked over to them and asked the woman if this was her daughter, and she said, "Yes."  Then I asked the daughter, very calmly and politely, "How old are you, honey?"  The daughter didn't answer, but continued to abuse her mother, now hitting her on the arms.  I said, "You know, if you are older than about three, you really shouldn't be carried anymore.  Are you older than three?"  The child barely looked at me before returning to yell at and pummel her mother.  I said, "Please stop hitting your mother.  She loves you."  However, nothing I said was going to stop this child.  I finally gave up and walked away, not envying the mother the difficult road ahead for her, but hoping she would find the strength to discipline her child.

As I wondered if I could have done more to help the driver of the Honda or the woman and child, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I was turning into an interfering old woman.  My husband had looked at me in surprise when I told him about speaking to the mother and child, as if to say, "You did what??"

But then, after writing of my concerns in my journal at the end of the day yesterday, I read the above passage from the daily lectionary.  In the middle of the passage are these words:  "...for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?  If you do not have discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children... Now discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."  So, I believe that God is trying to tell me something.

We all need discipline.  We need self-discipline; we need to listen to God's discipline for us; and, sometimes, we need to help discipline each other.  For truly, if you love someone, you will care enough about them to make sure they stay on the right path -- for them and for those around them.

This is much easier to do when it's your own children.  It becomes increasingly harder with other family members, and friends, and co-workers, and acquaintances.  It can be downright dangerous with strangers.  However, the same truth applies to all.  If you love someone, then you must care enough to offer a word of correction, as gently as possible but as forcefully as necessary.  If you can watch a person willfully harming another person, or animal, or property, and not intervene, then you cannot love them, or the other people or animals involved.

Jesus came to show the world this kind of love.  Through gentle words and not so gentle words, he brought insistent correction.  He was willing to suffer every criticism, and pain, even to the point of shedding his blood, to demonstrate his abiding love for everyone.  We also are called to love our neighbor, even the stranger, as much as ourselves, in this same way.

The last sentence, verse 17, in the passage above is crucial, whatever we do.  Somehow, every correction must be completely wrapped up in mercy.  For we too commit transgressions, and we too need mercy.  That is what distinguished Jesus from those around him.  There was judgment but it was wrapped-up completely in grace.

I was talking to my children about the mother and child today.  My oldest son thinks I have a superman complex -- first the car incident, and now the mother and child.  And I have to admit, I do sort of have a superman complex.  I always have -- although as a child I would have called it a Wonder Woman complex.  In third grade, I remember fighting a bully who was picking on my friend.  Like Wonder Woman, I jabbed and kicked as fast as I could, to teach him a lesson.

I have lost some of that fearlessness, as I've gotten older, but, thankfully, not all of it.

Still, perhaps God is telling me to have even more of this kind of courage.  Believe it or not, I often quiet my desire to correct other people, for fear of hurting their feelings or sparing myself the repercussions.  Perhaps this passage is God's word of discipline for me:  more words of correction plus more mercy equals more love.

Dear God, you challenge me to do your will in all areas of my life.  Please fill me with wisdom and strength, as always, to meet every challenge with love.  Always yours, Pam 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bare Bones Faith

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  -- Hebrews 11:1

This is the beginning of a section in the Letter to the Hebrews in which the phrase, "By faith..." is repeated over and over:  "By faith Abel...  By faith Enoch...  By faith Noah ...  By faith Abraham...."  And so on.  The writer repeats this phrase to emphasize that it was a very simple faith or trust in God which kept the ancient "cloud of witnesses" always walking with God.  There wasn't anything else one needed to have except faith.  The author is smart to repeat this phrase.  For some reason, it's a message that's hard to accept. 

Even within my own mainline Protestant Christian culture, where "faith alone" is almost a mantra, people seem to think that it's got to be harder than that:  it's good works, right beliefs, or social/material/physical success that determines whether you are right with God, not just plain old faith. These ideas are so strong, and spoken with such authority, that I sometimes question my own experience of God.

I was reading "The Parables of Peanuts," by Robert L. Short last week.  Using Charles Shultz's "Peanuts" cartoon strip, Short explores the Gospel message.  Short sees these cartoon strips as modern day parables, which are able to teach us truths about ourselves in a kind of roundabout, or curved, or "parabolic" way; truths that we would refuse to hear if told to us straight.  I found the book informative, insightful, and humorous, until that is, I started to read the third chapter:  "Savior?! Who Needs a Savior?"  Then, I felt like I had been hit upside the head.

Using Shultz's cartoons in a way that does not fit my own interpretation of them, Short explains that we are all born evil, depraved, and in need of a savior, who is Jesus Christ.  He talks about how the children in Shultz's cartoon illustrate "Christ's bedrock teaching of man's basic and innate depravity." (pg. 48).  "Evil is literally 'unadulterated' in children..." (pg. 54).  He quotes Luther, Augustine, Barth, Kierkegaard, plus countless other famous people, as well as various Bible passages to prove the idea of Original Sin.  And, if you don't believe in Original Sin then Christ came for nothing:  No original sin, no need for a redeemer, which is clearly what Jesus was.  Short even says, "...only he who is without sin should throw stones at the Church's venerable teaching of man's basic -- or original -- sinfulness."  (pg. 54)  Well then.

Seriously?  I think of my children, and other people's children, and I don't see moral depravity.  I see fundamentally loving, caring beings who teach me many things about purity of heart and all that's really important in the world.  Sure, they aren't always nice to each other, and sometimes children can be downright mean.  But that's because we're a mixture, adults and children, not completely good, not completely bad.  And I think the characters in the "Peanuts" strip illustrate this mixture, as well as any two-dimensional characters can do in four squares.

Last week, I wrote about everyone being on a different path to God.  Afterwards, I wondered.  Is this really true?  Isn't it possible that some people get on the wrong path, a path away from God?  I can think of a number of people, Christians in particular, like Short, who seem to be straying pretty far from Jesus's message as I see it.  They just have such a totally different viewpoint than I do about what it means to be a Christian.  Can we all really be heading towards the same God?  Doesn't it make a difference what we believe?

A "Non Sequitur" cartoon by Wiley Miller, in the papers recently illustrates the irony perfectly.

Non Sequitur
(August 2, 2013)

The cartoon shows everyone going into Heaven through the "Right Religion Entrance" and no one going into the "Wrong Religion Entrance."  One angel nearby says to another, "The funny thing is, none of them ever get the joke..."  We all think so differently about God, and yet we each think our understanding is the correct understanding. 

I am reminded of Jesus's last words:  "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  And I think... if God can forgive thieves, murderers, adulterers, and those who betrayed him, can't God also forgive wrong-thinking?  After all, isn't ignorance the crux of all our troubles?

Later, I came across another book, a perfect counterpoint to Short's book:  "Original Sinners:  Why Genesis Still Matters," by John R. Coats.  It really does help to remember that all the patriarchs of my faith, from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham to Sarah to Isaac to Jacob and Rebekah, were a mixture, too:  Not all evil, or morally depraved, but containing within them much good, as well as some serious flaws.  Even going beyond the people in Genesis to Moses and to David and beyond, we see the same mixed bag of humanity.  And yet, and here is the really important part:  all of these people were loved, and guided, by God.  David, especially, was beloved of God, and he seems to be the worst of the bunch.  Why is that?  Well, because David had a heart for God.  And though he sometimes put his own desires in front of God, he also always repented and returned to God.   

John R. Coats writes beautifully about Abraham's faith, using insights gained from Karen Armstrong's book, "In The Beginning":   " '[Abraham] was not allowed to approach his new God with any preconceived ideas.  The authors of Genesis do not show Abraham evolving a theology, a set of beliefs. ...[T]hey imagined him responding to events and experiencing the divine in an imperative that broke down old certainties and expectations.'  In other words, ... whatever Abraham may have believed about the nature of divinity was to be assaulted by the experience of this new diety. ... 'In the ancient world,' writes Armstrong, 'faith did not mean theological conviction as it does today, but rather a total reliance on another.  Having launched himself on the quest for the unknown, Abraham was impelled not by a set of strong, orthodox beliefs in one or another particular god, but by a sense of presence that it was impossible to define or categorize.  He is depicted as traveling forward toward the perpetually new, rather than taking his stand on ancestral piety.'"  (pg. 103)  The same could be true of many of the characters in the Bible. 

These words about Abraham echo my own experience of God as a near constant presence guiding my life.  But not too long ago, God was a very distant figure to me, not thought about much at all, except for an hour on Sunday, if then.   What changed?  Well, I began to question what I had been taught about God.  As I stripped away the beliefs I had been taught as a child, and the doctrine that I had been taught as a teenager, then I began to see and hear God more clearly.  I felt like Jacob, discovering for the first time that God is present in this place, here and now.  Now, as I work on stripping away the idols, or little gods, of my culture, God's presence becomes even more clear.  And yet I can't really say that I know much about God, except that God truly is.  It's that steadfast presence that I am learning to trust more and more.

Is it just a coincidence that the more I make God my "all in all," the more clearly I can see and hear God's presence in my life?  I don't think so.  That seems like a no-brainer to me.

Faith truly is a reciprocal process.  The more I give, trusting in God alone, the more I receive.  

Dear God, thank you for not giving up on me.  May I always be as patiently loving and forgiving as you are.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Search for Understanding

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."  -- Luke 11:9-10

This passage was part of the Gospel reading last Sunday.  It's probably one of Jesus's most famous sayings.  It's been one of the most significant passages for me on my journey of faith.  To me, these words honor the search for understanding, the desire to ask questions about faith, about God, about life.  Last Sunday, as I sat in church, hearing these familiar words again, I was struck by the thought that Jesus's words above must apply to everyone, at every moment in time, and not just Christians.  For if God is the creator of the world, then it makes sense that everyone would find the guidance they need from the source that created them, whatever they may choose to call that source.

You see, the day before I had watched a wonderful program on television, produced by the PBS, about the Buddha.  Born Prince Siddhartha Gautama, into wealth and privilege, sheltered from the world outside the palace walls, he one day desires to visit his subjects, and sees first an old man and then an ill man. When he learns that everyone ages and becomes ill, he begins to wonder about the purpose and meaning of life.  So he leaves the palace and begins to follow the spiritual leaders of his day.  Through their severe aesthetic practices, which include extreme fasting and bodily mutilation, he hopes to find the answers to his questions.  For seven years, he searches for meaning in this way, without success.  Finally, almost at the point of death, he questions the whole aesthetic way.  In that instant, he remembers a simple, happy moment in his childhood, and then a village girl walking by gives him some milk and rice pudding.   Guided by these two examples, Siddhartha begins to seek the answers to his questions within himself, tuning into his own inner being and pondering the insight that comes to him.  In this way, he finally reaches enlightenment, finding the answers to his questions, and many other truths besides. 

The similarities between the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of Jesus are striking.  Through stories uniquely fitting their own particular times and cultures, they both taught that wisdom was available to everyone, men and women alike, from every walk of life; that violence always leads to more violence; and that greed, anger, and ignorance must be replaced with generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  Both emphasized the individual search for enlightenment, as well as the importance of community; and both sent disciples out to teach others, stipulating that they not take anything with them.  But there are also significant differences between them.  Buddha's teachings emphasize the suffering of this world and the solution of non-attachment, while Jesus's teachings emphasize the healing power of faith and the joy to be found in communion with God.

So if there is only one ultimate source of wisdom, why do various spiritual seekers sometimes find different answers? 

I recalled the image of a mountain as a metaphor for the spiritual journey.  God is at the peak and there are paths to the top from all different sides.  We come to God from different places -- even within our own particular religious tradition -- because our particular family, our culture, our history, and our unique personalities, lead us to ask different questions.  Siddhartha asked questions about old age and suffering.  I frequently ask questions about unity amongst people of different beliefs.  The answers we get are as unique as the questions we ask.

Thinking again of the metaphor of the mountain, I wondered if our position on the mountain from bottom to top is not a matter of our age or the time we spend on the journey, but instead is a reflection of our ability to see each other on the same mountain..  For the closer to the top of the mountain one is, the more the paths converge, the more we see in common.  For example, among Christians one common understanding is that the grace of God is available to all.  Another is that we are all members of the body of Christ, uniquely gifted to reveal an essential part of the truth of God, without which the body would be incomplete.  The more we focus on those commonalities the less likely we are to see ourselves as separated from each other.  I am sure there are core beliefs shared by all the various sects of the major religions.  The more individual members of these religions focus on those core beliefs the more easily they would see what binds them together.  As would be the case for people of different faiths altogether.

In contrast, the more we focuses on the differences between us and our neighbor, the more separated we are from that neighbor.  People who focus on the differences could potentially be so far apart from each other that they might think there are no other people on the mountain with them, except those few who think like they do!  They might actually think there was only one path to God:  their path. 

But why are some paths so radically different?

Besides asking different questions, perhaps one reason why there are differences is because communication is difficult, even between people who speak the same language and are face to face.  How much harder is it for us to understand the great mysteries of the world, or to hear clearly God's guidance when we cannot even see God or hear God speaking audibly?  Then imagine trying to convey that great understanding you have discovered, or been shown, to someone who wasn't there.  And yet that is what all the great enlightened ones try to do.  They try to convey to others The Way.  How well this gets passed down, especially from generation to generation, is another story.  Coincidentally, both the Buddha and Jesus were frustrated by the slowness of their disciples to understand their message.  So perhaps one reason the great spiritual leaders seem so different is because their disciples didn't get the core of their message, or didn't focus on that alone, but instead were distracted by something else, something non-essential.  As I've written before, I often get in the way of God's guidance.  Now imagine everyone being this human.

I read in "The Teaching of the Compassionate Buddha," compiled and edited by E. A. Burtt, that the Buddha's teachings, called the dharma, conveyed "the way that man should follow in order to fulfill his true nature and carry out his moral and social responsibilities."  And yet the Buddha's disciples kept asking him metaphysical questions about eternity and life after death, questions that he had no interest in answering.  Buddha tried to keep his disciples focused on his message of practical wisdom and compassion, and away from matters which could not be attested by everyone because he did not want his great insight to be sidetracked by futile metaphysical arguments.  He said, "...bear always in mind what it is I have not explained, and what it is I have explained....  And why have I not explained this?  Because it profits not." (pgs 35 -36)  And yet today when one thinks of Buddhism, one thinks more of karma and reincarnation, both metaphysical constructions, than the way of Buddha. 

I think the same thing happened with Jesus.  Like the Buddha, Jesus tried to keep his disciples on his same path when he said, "Call no one father or rabbi.  You have one Father, which is God.  You have one teacher, who is the Messiah."  And yet, instead of following his way, his truth, and his life, many of his disciples focused, and still focus, on the afterlife or the second coming, or who Jesus was, or argue about diverse doctrinal constructions that Jesus never said anything about. 

It is no longer surprising to me that we are all on different paths. It is actually more wondrous that some of us walk together on the same path.  But this can only happen if we choose not to ask our own questions.  I've been there, on that kind of path.  And I can tell you that I knew very little of God, or of  myself.  Which makes me wonder if there is a corollary to the passage above:  if you do not ask, you will not receive; if you do not seek, you will not find; and if you do not knock, the door will never be opened...

Dear God, your light shines from many angles.  May I always be mindful of the unique path you want me to follow.  Love always, Pam