The Race you have been trained to run

passing the batonHebrews 12:1-3

I heard a sermon by Earl Palmer,the former senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle years ago. I have since used parts of this sermon in several presentations, including a presentation to a group of young Christian Palestinians, Messianic believers and Norwegian Christians agreeing to meet and socialize together in order to better understand each other.

I will begin todays post by a question: if you call yourself a follower of Jesus do you realize you have been called to a race? And it is not just any kind of race.  You have been invited to participate in a relay race.

Several aspects of a relay race are helpful to our understanding of who we are.

start blocks in relay racePalmer points out that in a relay race the time and place are established and set by someone else. The starting blocks and the times of the race are determined by someone other than the runners.  And so it begins that way with each of us. None of us had a say as to when or where or to whom we would be born to. Feeling guilty that I was born in the West during the 20th century and not in some desperately poor country is a useless waste of emotional energy as is feeling resentful for the circumstances outside my  control that I wish were different.

So what happens when someone realizes that God determines the place and time of their existence?  If there is trust in the goodness of God and His love, a lot can happen that is healing and purposeful. Something spiritually powerful can begin to take root that belies historical distrusts and hurts.  The Holy Spirit shows up and begins to speak forgiveness and hope into the most recalcitrant personal or culturally loaded grievance.  As a follower of Christ understanding takes root that someone of holy splendor, power and love is ruler of you, me and of everything.  And He is at work which includes determining our time and place of existence to do a foreordained job. So, what is that job? The relay race metaphor can help with this.   It is not just the time and place of the race that has been given to us but also the baton.  No one brings their own baton to a relay race.  But if there is no baton then there is no relay race to run.

The baton? Well, it is the gospel of Christ. It did not originate with us but was handed to us to do what with? Well, to pass it on, of course.  Would it not be a ridiculous race if one of the athletes after having the baton passed to her, ran off the course, yelling, “I got it, I got it- I win!”  We in the crowd would be perplexed and distressed that the race had been corrupted, ruined or at least misunderstood and pointless. The gospel is good news to who? You, certainly but not only to you or me. To everyone it is good news whether it’s accepted and appropriated or not. But just like in a relay race, the baton doesn’t just float along like some low flying UFO. It is person handled –held on to with care, seriousness and determination to make sure it reaches its next destination-the next runner who grabs it to begin her part of the race – This is God’s race of bringing His rule to fruition.

Now, what do we bring to the race? What is it that is not assigned to a runner? The running shoes are unique to each of the runners in much the same way that each of us bring our unique gifts, talents and experiences to the race of God’s time sensitive growing rule of truth, love and justice. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) that Jesus told his audience made it crystal clear that God has expectations of us being invested in His kingdom growth investment plan.  we are to do something with our uniqueness and that something presupposes that God’s purposes are good and worth whatever the cost. “Thy will be done on earth as it in heaven”. Are we all equally gifted to perform in the same way? Not from the way I read the Jesus parable. Maybe some of us will come to the race with designer athletic shoes, others’ with off brand knock-offs and others might come to the race with worn down, worn out thrift shop specials. The question in the parable is not how snazzy your shoes are but whether you believe the race is well worth the demands. So, how can we all do this race thing with winning success?

“Running the race with perseverance keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 13:1-3) is our cheer, our call and our finish line. Is it really that hard if it doesn’t depend on the level of our abilities? Yes, it is! It’s really very hard. After all, it comes with training, sacrifice, pushing against all kinds of resistance and even occasional booing from watchers of the race.  But is it worth it to participate in the race? To quote the disciple, Peter, after Jesus asked him whether he was going to leave him like other disciples had left him, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Look around! Is there or has there ever been anyone else like Jesus? Are there any heroes out there like Jesus Christ?   Don’t even try to look for a hero within the Christian faith. There is none but Christ and that is why he is the only goal and prize well worth the call and cost of the race.

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Looking for purpose…

Pre-script:  Dear readers, many of my posts reflect what kind of person I want to be or how I want to feel and think, not who I really am.  It fact one of the reasons I write is to help me define who I should be, not, unfortunately, who I am.  So, it this particular post comes across to you a bit lofty and high-minded then take what I just wrote into consideration.  At my best I’m only what Paul said, “not that I have taken hold of it yet…but,…I strain forward toward what is ahead.”  (Philippians 3:13)

I just moved from Alaska to urban Buffalo, NY.  I loved Alaska with its beauty, natural diversity.  I particularly loved the people of Juneau, my friends, my church.  As sad as it was to move it was still the right move.  I’m grateful.  Urban Buffalo has its own beauty.  I want to write about that in my next post.

However, leaving Juneau meant leaving my practice as a professional mental health counselor.  I boxed up my files and closed the office.  I said goodbye to an identity, a life-purpose that I had pursued for 17 years.  In the run up to the move I felt diminished.  I selfishly and myopically felt I had lost my purpose.

I’m looking for a re-purposed driven life (to misuse the title of the Rick Warren mega-seller).

I’m going to pray; or I’m going to try to pray.

I don’t mean “pray” to find purpose, I mean pray as a way of performing purpose. Some doing may ensue- maybe even a lot doing but I am hoping I learn a lesson: don’t make the doing my purpose.

Praying seems too passive for the able and active. A “purpose-driven life” must be filled with “acts of service” that make a tangible difference in the world; acts to bring about peace, justice, and the gospel to the world……bettering the lives of the people we are in relationship with, or bettering the lives of the under- resourced or broken heart-ed or the enslaved. Such would bring great meaning to a life. Would it not?


Praying is many times an activity that decorates what we really want to be about rather what we are to be about.

We all recognize the merits of the above as worthy of being purposeful.  But just praying? Hmmm… Praying is many times an activity that decorates what we really want to be about.  Praying as an end to itself is usually assigned to the elderly or disabled who can’t do anything else or to the helpless and distraught that feel tangible options are off the table or to orders of nuns or monks who have been called to a community of prayer.

Imagine someone asking you what your purpose in life was and “praying” was your answer. Imagine asking yourself what the meaning of your life was and you answer, “To pray.” I don’t know about you but that answer would sound, dare I say it, boring or presumptuous or as often has been said, “too heavenly minded to be any earthy good.” Yes, I want to pray and I want to do even more of it than I am doing but making that the purpose of my life? At the risk of repeating myself, it just sounds too mundane and maybe not even spiritual enough or maybe too spiritual and maybe even a little lonely and risky. Now, why would I say that?   Self-examination seems to indicate that I use more actions and less trust to carry me through the daily tasks at hand. How do I know that? Well, for starters I am aware of how little I invite Jesus into my comings and goings. I am aware of how little I engage him with my self-talk. I am a trouble shooter on a good day- a worrier on a bad day and in neither days is Jesus invited into the situation. It comes down to this:   Does praying really have efficacy?   Prayer as my purpose, no doubt, would be a dead end if I doubted the power behind it. Prayer would be a dead end if I brought to prayer my will of how things should go and Not God’s. Prayer would be a dead end if I listened too hard and long to the doers of this world and not the be-ers. Prayer would be a dead end if I believed myself unworthy or my concerns too insignificant to count.

I am comforted that in the gospel of Mark a distraught father asked Jesus to heal his demon possessed son.  Jesus told him to believe. And in sincere desperation the father cried out, “I believe, help me in my unbelief!”  Mark did not have to record that interaction. I am glad he did. It frees me up to be real with Jesus. “Praying as purpose” requires extraordinary faith, or does it? The father in this Jesus interaction certainly didn’t come to prayer with great faith but he came – to Jesus. Coming to Jesus is coming to prayer with little faith or with great faith. It’s coming with certainty or coming completely befuddled about God or about myself – maybe, especially about myself. So, I am allowed to be perplexed about a lot of things like the trinity or how free will and predestination work or why God doesn’t just put an end to this violent world and usher in his new earth and heaven. And I get to be perplexed about how praying actually can be so purposeful and powerful that it can be a person’s main purpose in life causing told and untold transformations in human institutions and in individuals.

I have become increasing aware of the myriad of internal dialogues which often lead to a disruption of faith and trust.  I am embarking on a new goal:  Inviting Jesus into the dialogues- literally- “Jesus, I am now inviting you into this desire, worry, concern, distress or happiness”.  I’m not sure but this may be part of the meaning of the apostle’s Paul’s words to, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

If prayer as purpose sounds too basic, mundane, weak, boring, then l suggest a word search of prayer in the New Testament.  Be astounded with the numerous references, circumstances, purposes and outcomes. But always remember it is the object of praying that holds the power and purpose. It’s Jesus, it’s always about Jesus –“the author and finisher of our faith”. He prayed, his followers prayed, and so should we. It’s a great purpose. It tells us who we are no matter what.

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

Reality TV featuring, “The Lifestyle of My Better-Off Neighbors

Reality TV when it features the rich and famous can be great fun.  My scientific neighborhood study reveals why:  two people interviewed (myself and my husband) said that they were amused for the following reasons: they felt superior and smug for not needing all that fluff for contentment. And two, looking at yachts, sprawling spa mansions, haute couture fashion and cosmetic surgical work was easy on the eyes especially when being judgmental at the same time. Being Judgmental while viewing fluff neutralizes slothful use of time.

I realize that reality TV is routinely made fun of or thoroughly enjoyed by many. I wouldn’t know for I typically don’t watch TV because I am ‘a reader’. I don’t count Netflix streaming or DVDs, because I am too smart to bother with commercials. It’s true that once in a while I catch an episode of the rich and famous but hardly ever without being judgmental.

Recently, however, I thought of a reality TV show that might actually keep me glued to my seat while at the same time wishing I could get up and do almost anything else- Like offer to take Gus (my sister-in-law’s dog) for a walk and dispose of fresh dog poop so as to be neighborly.

So, speaking of neighbors this is my idea of a reality TV show.  Instead of viewing the acquisitions of the rich and famous my show would take the camera into the homes and lives of neighbors and peers. Reality TV would allow people of a particular economic class to voyeuristically view and compare the homes, possessions, body sizes, landscaping, vacation plans, hobbies, parties, friends, spouses, food choices, financial portfolios and children’s achievements of their neighbors who are roughly in their same economic class.

The first episode of my Reality TV show called “The Lifestyle of my better-off neighbors” would go something like this:

Producer Devin Jones, “Today we are in the home of the Kolwaspy’s. (The cameras move into the newly remodeled kitchen from the newly remodeled arctic entry.  We hear the couple talking about how they had received an unexpected inheritance from Lester’s great aunt twice removed who was from a fishing village in Iceland that Lester could not pronounce or spell.)

Cameron Kolwaspy: “We are so thrilled to have received this money. We were able to get some things done to the house that we have always wanted like this kitchen island, Swedish cabinets and stone counter tops.  I couldn’t be happier”.

Lester Kolwaspy, “Yeah, we were doing ok , saving money for the kids college but having to put some of the nicer things on hold;  but now, Whoopee, we are able to get  things we have always wanted. Yep, life couldn’t get much better.”

(At this point in the show, producer Devin invites the Kolwaspy’s into the studio to view an earlier shooting of neighbors who live further down the street whom they don’t know well.)

We are in real time, now, with the Kolwaspys who are viewing the earlier shooting of the Moore’s home.

Producer Devin: “The Moore’s home was designed by Lisa’s brother who maximized features of their one acre lot to create a facsimile of a Frank Lloyd Wright home that buts up against a national park. Stunning views from floor to ceiling windows span the back of this house.”

Lisa, “no one would know unless they came into this home how beautifully the house blends into the natural environment of the national park behind us”.  We are often asked by photo journalists of modern home magazines if they can photograph our home”.

Maury Moore, “Yep, a home assessor told us that this house is worth twice as much as any home in this neighborhood. It’s great that Lisa has such a talented and helpful brother.”

At this point, the cameras focus on the crest fallen Kolwaspy couple. Although subtle, the attentive viewer will notice that Cameron who previously had been stroking Les’s back has inched herself away from her husband as she begins to think of a national forest as a back yard.

Les is looking at Cameron as he says, “all that sunlight is still going to fade their furniture, and I don’t care how much that home is worth”.

Cameron turns away from Les and confides to the camera, “Les is a hardworking man and good provider, but sometimes I do wish he would think more long-term.  Five years ago he should have foreseen that the best lots in this development would be the ones adjoining the National Forest.”

The first episode concludes with Les advocating, at times with great intensity, the pros of taking out a second mortgage in order to build an air-conditioned bar-be-que pavilion.  Cameron thinks a better idea is to sell their house and ‘get back to nature.’ (I.e. build on a lot adjacent to the national forest.)

Music and lyrics of the show play softly in the background

Producer Devon: “Join us for the next episode of “Lifestyles of Our Better Off Neighbors” when the Moore’s and their son, Cane, go to their friends’ home, the Bragstons,  for a party celebrating their son,  Abe’s full scholarship to Princeton University.  Cane, himself is no slacker as he has just been accepted to the regional college.  So, see you next week at the Bragston’s home for Abe’s celebratory party.

Theological reflections:

The Ten Commandments meant for human flourishing are still relevant after 3,500 years. In case you have forgotten the 10th one.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:1-17.

According to Webster, ‘covet’ implies strong envious desire.

It does not take a psychologist to imagine the negative emotions and behaviors that arise if coveting is not recognized and reined in.

Envying what your neighbor has starts with comparing yourself to your neighbor.   A recent study by a research team from UNC Chapel Hill demonstrated that if persons perceived themselves to be economically better off than their neighbors they expressed more fiscally conservative views. In other words, they were against adjusting tax schedules that moved towards greater economic equality. If someone perceived themselves to having less than their neighbors then their views reflected more fiscally liberal views that attempted to advance more economic equality. It is not my intent to promote more or less taxes.  I’m interested in what the study reveals about human nature.  The telling thing about this study was that the actual income of the participants was not a variable.  The perceived “better off” (“hmm… I am better off than my neighbors”) neighbor could actually be living below the poverty line and still be a fiscal conservative (i.e. against higher taxes to bring more economic equality).  The perceived less well-off neighbor (“hmm… I am worse off than my neighbors”) could none-the-less be in a very comfortable income bracket but curiously pro-tax for economic equality.  The individuals’ views were simply based on their perception of being better or worse off than their neighbors. http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/11/26/perception-of-wealth-influences-political-stance/77824.html

Is it possible that a selfish, envious bias is inherent in human nature?  We try to feel better about ourselves by comparing ourselves to others and this is the root of coveting and pride.

C.S Lewis expresses this aptly in Mere Christianity, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”

Comparing ourselves to others is not benign.  Apparently God was on top of these sinful human traits.  Ten ancient commandments still seem quite relevant.

Look at the video to see how Facebook has become our culture’s newest coveting trap. It will take only a few minutes to be entertained and uncomfortable at the same time. http://media.preachingtoday.com/mini-movies/52441/the-facebook-trap

Ok, so what are we to do about this. A few observations from my own life have helped from time to time. I wish I could say that this is an issue long ago dealt with but that would be breaking the 9th Commandment (don’t lie). The following have helped.

Remember the poor

Jesus in the gospels says a lot about our relationship to the poor and the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:10 tells us to remember the poor. This may seem obvious and simplistic. But is it? The verb ‘to remember’ in this context is not some appeal to passive reflecting and memory testing. The “remembering” spoken of here is active and intentional for the betterment of the under-resourced. Most of us are so well sheltered from the poor with the busy-ness and priorities of our middle class lives that remembering the poor is anything BUT simple. We have to be intentional in remembering the under-resourced. I mean really intentional with what we choose to read, hear and think about – enough to eventually spend some of our hard earned money, creative energy and time. But it’s not as sacrificial as you might think. There is an emotional and spiritual pay off. When we remember the poor we grow in empathy and we grow in gratitude.  And when those two things happen we become more content people with less frowny faces.  And when we have less frowny faces we have less wrinkles and when we have less wrinkles we can feel superior to our more aged looking friends. See, what I mean? Comparisons are lurking around every corner of our life. Seriously, remembering the poor translates into more contentment and gratitude. And who doesn’t need more of that?

Believe in the Jesus revealed in the Bible – not some Jesus of your own making. If you put your trust in Christ you also get the Holy Spirit. Open yourself to listening to the Spirit. He is promised to us as our guide, teacher and counselor. It takes supernatural help to break our natural bent to selfish desires, self-interest and wanting to be better than others.  It is in our human DNA so we need interventions outside ourselves to break these strangleholds and that is the role of God, the Holy Spirit. When we are choosing to listen to that still small voice of the Spirit we are drowning out the dissonant loud voices of comparison dissatisfaction and perceived deprivation.

coveting cartoon

So dear readers my advice to you and to me is enjoy reality TV – no harm done, its TV! But let’s watch out for our own reality show.  Comparing  ourselves to others is not benign.  From time to time we may need a social media break and spiritual inventory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The View

I am about to sell my home of 19 years in Juneau, Alaska.  I will no longer own the spectacular view that has been my website’s cover picture ever since I started blogging in March 2014. The Gastineau channel, Mt. Roberts, city of Juneau and the cruise ships that grace the harbor 5 months of the year are not my possessions but the picture window, showcasing a breathtaking scene of  beauty, has been mine. But I sense an encroaching disquiet coming from a desire to own something of beauty that is threatening to steal my gratitude and perspective.

I am moving back to my 600 square ft. cozy rented apartment in Buffalo, NY and happy to do so.  But I’m wistful as I sit in my living room writing this post. As my eyes shift from the computer screen to the scene outside my window the realization that I will no longer have the privilege of feasting my eyes on this particular changing scene of beauty feels surreal.

Years ago I  occasionally dreamed I was washing dishes in another home looking outside its window above the sink. In the dream I was continually asking myself, “How did it happen that I am here and not in Juneau, looking out my picture window? How did I give up such beauty?” Waking up was always a happy relief. “Yay, it is all still MINE.”

Anyone feeling sorry for me yet? I hope not.  In fact, I may have annoyed some of you. “Spoiled Brat” would not be too far off the mark.  Who in this world gets to live in a modest 1964 home with its accompanied price tag and enjoy a multi-million dollar view? Not many middle class folk. Oh yeah, there are many, many desperately under-resourced people of the world who have exquisite views from their ramshackle homes but they are also at risk of devastation brought on by tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes,  earthquakes, floods, malnutrition, disease, exploitation and violence.

A view from a middle class home cannot be separated from social economics. Being economically comfortable allows me the luxury to gush over the view I own.

Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong in being middle class, owning things or lucking out with a fabulous view. Far from it! I want to be genuinely grateful for this undeserved gift of beauty for 19 years and be grateful for my cozy little rented buffalo apartment that I will be moving back to. I should be emotionally on top of this.  I have been schooled as a follower of Jesus for several decades so I believe it when the gospels have Jesus saying something to this effect, “Stop worrying about what you are going to own and what ‘views’ you will enjoy because your life is worth so much more than that stuff and your Heavenly Father knows what you need and how to get you through the good stuff without greed, pride, selfishness, entitlement and hoarding  and the bad stuff without despair and abandonment.” (Matthew 5:19-34 paraphrased by me).

My pseagulesoint of self-criticism is that there is an emotional dysfunction revealed in the words, “mine” and “I need to own it.”  It is not the the-in-your-face greed of those seagulls in ‘Finding Nemo’ who perched on the piling keep calling out, “mine, mine, mine, mine.”  There is something more seductively deceiving and greedy going on here. Something that can bring on a case of “perspective amnesia” in no time.   When I was in the midst of 9 months of treatment for stage 3 breast cancer, my little attic apartment was a sanctuary of peace and hope. View,” shmiew” who cared? Certainly not me. I was not longing for my Juneau home view. I was glad to be getting treatment for a life threatening disease from a major cancer institute only two miles from my apartment while being near my children, grandchildren and a small group of believers who prayed for me and cheered me on, as were the dear friends from Juneau and elsewhere. And less I forget, my husband was with me and I mean, really with me!  I was enjoying a view on love and some heavenly treasures. Matthew 6:19-21 bears quoting: “Do not store for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Six months later and two good post cancer treatment checkups are “ clouding “the view on love and “clearing”  the view from my Juneau home with more magnificence and enticement  than I have ever remembered and even more so now that I am selling it.  The soon “not to be my view” is taunting me with regret, sadness and loss. “Who am I if I don’t own this?”  “What will make me feel special?” “How will out of town guests be drawn to visit if the vacation package does not include this place?” This is stupid thinking.  As I write these thoughts down they get stupider by the second.  (Here is a therapy tip:   When you write down disquieting thoughts their significance is opened up to a debate. The false reasoning is exposed.  You, then make sure you win the debate with more reasonable thoughts).

Here is a useful verse to reflect on: Psalm 39:4 “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”  Happy verse? Probably not. Liberating one? Most definitely. Life being fleeting doesn’t conjure up a fleet of possessions meeting me at my glorious eternal home. So, meanwhile, it will be best to keep a view of love in perspective.  And with a detached gratefulness say goodbye to a view from a home I owned and enjoyed for 19 fleeting years.

 

 

 

Nepal Earthquake: Thoughtful Eyewitness

The following was passed along by my friend, Justine, who worked many years ago in Nepal serving the medical needs of the under-resourced . It is a ‘must-read’……  Continue on and see why.

“The below is  from our friend, and former co-worker, Mark and his wife Deirdra. Mark is a physician in Nepal and at this time works with an organization to train physicians and health workers. They live on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley. Mark and Deirdra  been in Nepal for about 30 years. Deirdra is from Ireland and is a nutritionist.

Please pray for Nepal, that this catastrophe would open peoples’ hearts to the ONE who heals and that all the aid pouring in can help the right people in a timely fashion.”

Justine

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Kathmandu,

30 April 2015.

Dear friends,

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” Is.54.10

It was a cooler-than-usual morning for April in Kathmandu, more like spring in Ireland with heavy clouds threatening rain and a gusty breeze bringing a nip to the air. As Mark opened his sermon at our local Nepali church, he made mention of how several friends in the congregation had donned jackets and windbreakers again that morning, after several weeks of warm temperatures. The congregation of 120 or so, seated in rows on the carpeted floor, chuckled. I was sitting back towards the door into the main room of the church, having arrived a little late for the service. My mind, a bit tired after a busy week, wandered over various tasks that needed organising: a youth club meeting the next afternoon, a field trip for nutrition training the following weekend, birthday celebrations for both our boys in the month of May.


I suddenly felt a ripple beneath me, as if a snake was sliding through the concrete floor. Instant realization gripped me…


Mark was giving an illustration in his sermon that involved an escalator, and was struggling to explain these moving stairs to a congregation that had rarely encountered them. I suddenly felt a ripple beneath me, as if a snake was sliding through the concrete floor. Instant realization gripped me and, as the congregation collectively gasped, I pressed myself and Zachary down onto the floor, urging him desperately to cover his head with his hands. Standing on the dias, Mark took a couple of seconds longer to understand, wondering why someone had yelled out “earthquake” in response to his question about the Nepali word for “escalator”. He leapt down, joining a huddle of men, as the voices of the panicked congregation rose in prayer and pleas for God’s mercy. For over a minute, the entire room on the second floor of a four-storey building bucked and heaved as if we were in a dinghy on a stormy sea. I can still feel the concrete slab floor rising up and down as the pillars swayed all around, and the terrible acute sense of waiting for the ceiling to start falling in chunks on our heads has my heart thumping again as I write this.

Finally, the heaving slowed and then stopped. Our heads still swimming, we slowly looked around as prayers continued to fall from many lips. A couple of single girls began to whimper, and I felt myself close to tears. I quickly looked for Benjamin who had been sitting further away with a friend; he seemed a little dazed, but nodded that he was okay. Stunned at the severity of the earthquake, and equally by the fact that we all seemed to be okay, it took a few moments to decide to leave the building and with amazing control the congregation moved down the stairs, collected theirs shoes and regrouped out on the street. There we joined crowds of people, all evacuated out of their homes, all in shock at what they had just experienced. We stood in groups, at a distance from any wall and well-clear of overhanging electric lines. Individuals watched wires and hanging bells for any sign of further swaying. Amazingly, mobile phone networks remained functional and news quickly filtered in as people connected with loved ones. Clustered around a smart phone, we saw the first photos of an iconic nine-storey tower in the city centre that was now reduced to huge pieces of rubble. News that many houses had collapsed in an older part of town shook those who had travelled from there to church, and the crowd seemed to become more dazed as the enormity of what had happened sank in further. Then a rumble, and suddenly a strong aftershock sent us all crouching down into the dust of the road again. A short while later, our congregation tried to muster more prayer and a hymn, but it was difficult for folks to move beyond their acute shock and anxiety.

It was ninety minutes later before we felt safe enough to leave our church friends and attempt the cycle back to our home, 30 minutes away. Roads were empty of traffic, but lined with groups of people waiting, not sure what would happen next. In many places boundary walls had keeled over, spilling bricks and creeping vegetation out in front of immaculate middle-class homes, but we were amazed at how the buildings themselves were still standing remarkably unmarked. Arriving at our own lane, neighbours were sitting out in family groups in the street and our landlord’s extended family greeted us from garden chairs they’d gathered in the courtyard. Leaving the boys outside, we cautiously entered our apartment, wondering what awaited us. More amazement: no structural damage, most of our possessions intact and in place, a minor mess in the kitchen from a few broken bottles and some spilled water.

During the next 36 hours, frequent aftershocks kept us outside for much of the time. Some started as a low rumble before physically shaking; others occurred without warning as a loud bang and sudden, sharp jolt. As tiredness and tension built, it became difficult to differentiate true aftershocks from the swimming of our heads. Our boys constantly asked when and how bad the next aftershock would be and became quite agitated whenever Mark or I went indoors to collect anything. The vast majority of the city’s population set up camp under tarpaulins and plastic sheeting in the streets outside their homes and, 3 days later, remain there, too afraid to sleep indoors. However it is now clear that, after years of dire predictions, this city of 2 million perched on the edge of the tectonic plates that form the Himalayas has experienced a devastating earthquake…and in large part survived. Old crumbly housing in inner city areas was severely damaged with many deaths, and many historical buildings collapsed…but despite irregular and corrupt planning implementation, the vast majority of modern buildings remain standing. Total deaths in the city are only 1% of the previous predictions of 100,000 deaths. We await restoration of our electricity, water and internet services, numerous buildings need surveying for safety, and much of the city’s population remains very shaken. Nevertheless, we are profoundly grateful for how much we have been spared.

The earthquake that drove through the central hills of Nepal on Saturday April 25th, at 11.56 am, measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. It was followed by a separate earthquake measuring 6.9 just 24 hours later. The day and the time of the initial quake were significant. Schools and offices were closed. People had been up and out of their beds for some hours. Families were together.  Significant numbers were outside doing chores or for leisure. Nevertheless, unlike in Kathmandu, the outcome in the surrounding rural districts was catastrophic.

2 days later, Mark made a reconnaissance trip to the district of Sindupalchowk at the suggestion of the Ministry of Health. Just 3 hours northwest of Kathmandu, 30 miles by a damaged but open road, it is probably the worst affected district. Perhaps just 10% of buildings here are constructed with concrete and pillars. The remaining 80-90% of traditional stone and mortar homes are devastated: walls caved in, upper floors collapsed, gable ends blown out. Livestock, food grains, family members are buried under great piles of rock; grocery stores, workshops, livelihoods all destroyed. Mass cremations are taking place where bodies have been recovered; in other places the stench of death emanates from collapsed houses. Families and community groups are gathered in open fields with little in the way of food or shelter. The weather is colder than normal with frequent heavy rain.

The emergency response is enormous and chaotic as huge amounts of aid and personnel arrive into the country. Our windows continue to tremble night and day, only now with the roar of foreign military transport planes arriving. Predictably, a government which struggles under the best of circumstances is now overwhelmed with both the need and the response, and much of the aid is log-jammed in Kathmandu. In Sindupalchowk, Mark observed local health care workers responding tremendously to deal with the many injured, with severe cases being ferried efficiently to Kathmandu for advanced treatment. Yet little in the way of any aid has reached the tens of thousands of people huddled around their devastated homes and villages. Much wisdom and prayer is needed for the coming days, weeks and months as communities start to rebuild, that assistance will effectively and efficiently reach those most in need.

We thank you all for your many, many prayers and messages of concern and support. We again emphasise with appreciative hearts how little we have personally suffered in this terrible disaster. We ask you of course to continue to remember the people of the central hilly districts around us who have experienced so much loss and will need extensive support in the months ahead to recover.

Sincerely,

Deirdre, Mark, Zachary and Benjamin.

5 books that helped me grow up

keep_quiet_and_read_dostoyevsky_tee_shirts-r2f9201f1bfd84e30b672c88f7c7a6b73_8nhdv_324
the_brothers_karamazov_read_it_loved_it_tshirt-r33373f99351b4e7d8b09b8edbc4be85a_8natl_324 t-shirts by zazzle. Wow! I did not realize how hip Dostoevsky was. No t-shirts for me back in 1984

The Brothers Karamazov by Theodore Dostoevsky

In my early 30’s I read a dialogue between  two brothers of Theodore Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov that exposed my secret, buried doubts with such brutal clarity that I had to admit them and face them if my young Christian faith was to be preserved in a meaningful way.

Dostoevsky, a devout Christian after years of what he called “the hell fire of doubt,” wrote a dialogue in “The Brothers Karamazov”  between the brilliant atheistic  brother, Ivan, and his faith-filled, gentle brother, Alyosha.  I would learn later that this parable, called “the Grand Inquisitor,” had and has often been showcased as one of the great literary and theological challenges to faith in God.  Ivan’s hard hitting argument left me angry and crying, “Why God did you make us when you knew we would be so atrocious to each other and especially to children?”  The question haunted me. Ivan had gotten to me.

Being a first time mother of a two-year old daughter made me particularly vulnerable to Ivan’s argument. In the parable,” the Grand Inquisitor”, Ivan builds a case against God by including a story of a young child who was abandoned and left to die. Ivan admits that this argument does not come out of love for others (he admits to not having love) but rather out of a logic and defiance towards Jesus whose humility and sacrifice had apparently made no difference to humankind. Interestingly, Alyosha, the brother who loves God humbly and loves people purely does not counter the argument but rather patiently listens to his brother’s angry rant. He recognizes Ivan’s negative freedom as rebellion towards God and offers sorrow for Ivan while remaining unshakably committed to the goodness of God.

Alyosha’s reaction, or non-reaction, towards this cynical  brother was not satisfying to me at this time in my life.  I wanted hard hitting, iron-clad defenses and apologetics in response to Ivan’s challenge.  Dostoevsky does not offer any, at least not in this passage.  At this point in my faith journey I was left disappointed and emotionally off kilter.  The passage literally brought me to my knees and later to a self-arranged appointment with my pastor to discuss the faith turmoil I was experiencing. I was still a novice in understanding the mystery of love and grace found in Christ. I was growing up in my faith and suffering growing pains. Good! There would be more in life to come that would require a more robust faith than I had then.

For me and millions of others, the brilliance of Dostoevsky was his ability to pull back a corner of the curtain of faith through a grand narrative of humankind’s loveliness and awfulness within the context of the Gospel’s hope of redemption .  I would need to read the entire book in my 30’s and reread it in my 50’s as I continued to give up simplistic views of faith and life and grow up into life’s complexities and God’s immutable ways.  As it turns out gentle Alyosha’s words and more importantly his actions in the novel turn out a beautiful picture of grace that belies iron clad arguments while strongly  “truthifying” truth.  Sweet Alyosha   continues to teach me something about the beauty and  mystery of grace -” how sweet the sound.”

I not only recommend “The Brothers Karamazov” but also “The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Books” (introduced by J.I. Packer, Malcolm Muggeridge, & Ernest Gordon).

Next blog: second on my list

Power and Tears-Part 1

Have you ever wondered why Jesus cried?

tears 2

The account of Jesus crying can be found in the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John and worth your time to read.   I will summarize: Jesus had some dear friends named Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They were adult siblings who were very close to each other and to Jesus. (Yes, Jesus loves everyone but the gospel story makes it clear that these siblings had a special closeness and attachment to Jesus and he to them.)  As it turns out Lazarus had been ill.  Jesus had been petitioned by his friends to come to Lazarus quickly and possibly heal him. But Jesus did not come quickly. In fact, he seemed to take a leisurely pace to their home in Bethany.  By the time Jesus reached Bethany, Lazarus had been dead 4 days. As Jesus neared the home he was accosted by the overwhelming grief and disappointment of Lazarus’ sisters.

Next comes the shortest sentence in the English translated Bible: “Jesus cried.”  We don’t know for how long. The biblical text does not say.  But stop and imagine that Jesus cried for ten minutes or longer. Stay with that image (Jesus crying) for a while before you move on to the climax of the story and take notice of your feelings and thoughts.

The Biblical writer was understandably excited to move on to the real action, the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus’ display of sadness gave way to an unearthly power that shook the grip of sin and death right out of the grave of immutable realities.  A shouted command by Jesus was all it took for Lazarus to be resurrected from the dead.  Lazarus was made alive. Stunned joy and amazement was not the reaction of all the bystanders, however. The narrative explains that some would believe in Jesus by this supernatural miracle but others in power would feel threatened. (The powerful can feel threatened by the more powerful.  Our human history exposes us humans as naturally being guarded and fearful, predisposed to self-defense and self-interest.  Embedded in empathy is vulnerability – the capacity and willingness to be hurt; a risk that the powerful generally don’t take.)  Jesus’ display of power provoked by love would be costly to him.  He would pay for it with his life as seeds of sedition began to take root around him as some would begin a plot to have him killed.  The next chapters of this story would reveal a Jesus who would consciously constrain his power in favor of the ultimate sacrificial display of love, empathy and vulnerability.

But why did Jesus cry?

Read next week’s blog post.

5 shades of Grey

Disclosure: I am an American so in protest I won’t be spelling the color gray, “grey” even though I lived two wonderful years in the UK having my accent and vocab critiqued dozens of times, albeit deserving.

Confession: I have not read the book (you know the one I’m writing about) or seen the movie of the same name but I have read a bunch of reviews so I’m somewhat an authority.  Well, not the kind of authority you are thinking about.  I’m an authority on opinions.

Disclaimer: If you came to this site because you were hoping for a titillating take or review on the most important news of the century (based on the media and social network frenzy) then you are going to be big time disappointed.

Plot spoiler: I will be commenting on my hair which is coming in after chemo in 5 different shades of gray!!! Yes, can you believe it?   So, as it turns out, my blog topic is less superficial than the “buzz” about 50 Shades of Grey SHoG because studies have shown that women think about hair every 18 seconds or am I confusing that statistic with something to do with men.

I am Christian Grey. No, wait a minute, I got a little confused (chemo brain). I am a gray Christian. I didn’t used to be either one.  I went from natural brown to fake brown without anyone noticing – not even me; that shows how committed I was to the bottle. Clairol was my favorite brand and the cheapest. I never got help – I didn’t want to pay for it. So, I handled the pain of aging hair the only way I knew how – coloring it myself and it showed. I would characterize my Christian conversion differently, thankfully.

I knew the day would come when I would turn 90 or 100 and not look normal with dark brown hair but I chose not to think about it.  I just could not see how I could make the transition without looking like a skunk.

Chemo came into my life and the hair color dilemma was solved.   So, here I am – 3 and half months post-cancer treatment and sporting 5 shades of very short gray hair.

This is all well and good; but I must note that I get lots of comments that would be considered within the gray area of good manners.  Here are the top five:

  1. “You now look so much like your husband.” David has gray hair but he also has a gray mustache and goatee! Do you know how hard I am working so that doesn’t happen to me?!!
  2. “You look so much better with gray hair”. Gray or Brown – who cares?  Apparently lots of people based on the comments I am getting.  Less occasionally I get, “Hmm…you look fine now but you looked better with brown hair”.   Social tip:  whatever the color bring on the compliments without the comparisons.
  3. “You look so distinguished.” Read, “You are doing the best job you can at your age.”
  4. “Why do women talk about their hair so much?” Comments like this come from men like my husband. I see right through this one. Men are thinking about hair as much as women. They just aren’t talking about it and if they did it would not be about the shade but whether they are losing it.  Maybe women talk more about their hair because they generally have more of it than men at this age to actually talk about.poodle
  5. Patting my head, while saying “It’s so cute and fluffy.” I feel like a poodle. My husband is the main perpetrator.

Over all I am happy with my 5 shades of Gray. I don’t need 50.  I am liking Gray . He, I mean, It makes me feel mature, wise and honored as I visibly wear my wealth of experience with life and love.

One Journey, Two People: Part 4

David’s story continues:

“I have reached a point in my life where what I know about God and my Christian world view is not adequately addressing a growing discontent and sense of unease.  I’m coming up short.  This is not to say that I am ready to jettison my core beliefs; far from it.  Who wants to live in a house built on shifting sand?  And it is not that I don’t see Christ working in this world and even in myself.  But I’m beginning to see that a relationship with God based exclusively on facts and reason is contributing to a sense of isolation.  When I was young, ambitious and things were going well I thought myself as living a reasonably authentic life based on rational beliefs. I may have been naive. I am both an emotional and rational being.  Reason and belief alone might not be enough to ‘finish well.’  I suppose it was inevitable that God would see to it that I reached this point.” And, finally, I’ll need to get past my reluctance to navel-gaze.  As Socrates was reported to say, ‘The un-examined life is not worth living.’

brain and heart cARTOON

So, David and I – a very willing co-traveler – are carefully working through a second book.  The first, ‘Walking with God through Pain and Suffering’ by Tim Keller, was read through my 9 months of cancer therapy.  The second book, ‘Anatomy of the Soul’ by the Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson takes a different but equally well-grounded approach in addressing suffering, longing and discontent.  I suspect that Thompson’s approach will move David significantly outside his comfort zone.

Anatomy of the Soul provides some interesting information about our neuro-biology and spiritual practices, including our interaction with scripture and connections with other people. The book also provides practical exercises to assist in our movement to a better integration of soul and mind as we venture into the territory of being known- “one of God’s passions for us”.brain 2

“Transformation requires a collaborative interaction, with one person emphatically listening and responding to the other so that the speaker has the experience, perhaps for the first time, of “feeling felt” by another. The interpersonal interaction exposes these functions of the mind and facilitates the integration of various layers of neural structures and brain systems, which in turn creates new neural networks.” Curt Thompson.

Thompson explains that God is at work here. He created our brains and wants our story to intersect with His. When we allow this to happen we move into deeper security, joy and confidence in knowing we are loved by God. From this place of really knowing we are loved by God we are more inclined to bring about the changes in our world that reflect ‘God’s Kingdom here on earth as it in heaven’.

(However,) “God never connects with us simply to make us feel safe or loved.  His transformation always includes a command (a word against which our tendency is to rail) to follow him to the remaining places within ourselves and the world where darkness, cruelty, injustice, and rebellion persist.  He invites us to go into deeper places within ourselves and within the world, both ventures requiring a greater degree of faith, hope and love.” Curt Thompson

It is here that I think David is going to be helped most. My cancer may not have started his angst but it certainly added to it.   His feeling of inadequacy in always being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff. The kind of stuff that our brains are designed to shield us from or expose in us, depending on what is at stake. Our brains, amazing organs of human and divine connection, were created by a God who delights in being known by us as well as delighting in knowing us.  Telling the stories of our lives connects the different parts of our brain to assist in creating new neural circuitry of peace and understanding.  In addition, telling our stories to trusted individuals not only transforms our minds but also transforms the brains of our listeners.

Aside:  As a mental health therapist I have experienced this listener transformation many times with various clients.  It wasn’t until I read Anatomy of the Soul that I came to appreciate this as a good thing.  Most in the mental health profession caution practitioners to stay objective and secure in their emotional boundaries. This makes sense up to a point but it leaves out something profound and inherent to our shared humanness.

Deborah, eventually started telling her story of neglect and loneliness as a child and teenager. Together we were trying to make sense of the anxiety attacks that were making her life miserable. She humored me as I asked her to tell the story of a very fragile childhood.  She was not sure that it had anything to do with what she was currently dealing with because as she put it, “that was a long time ago and I can’t see the connections to what I am enduring now.  After all, I am a 45 year old woman who has a good marriage, 2 great kids and a strong relationship with the Lord. I just don’t get why I am dealing with this”.  An unexpected emotional collision of unresolved childhood hurt and abandonment with her first child leaving home for college would be the catalyst that brought her to me.  She would later come to see that there was a connection between her insecure childhood and her anxiety attacks The point of this story is not to delve into her issues (Deborah is not her name and I have changed some of the circumstances of her story) but to mention something that happened in the telling of her story that was pivotal in healing.  As she described the abandonment of her mother and the remembered feelings of loneliness, sadness and fear; a picture of my grandson who was the age that this woman was at the time of her story came uninvited to my mind.  My grandson experiences safety, love and support from parents who are deeply devoted to him. Deborah, as a small lonely frightened child, came to my mind immediately following my grandson’s image and without intention my eyes welled up for her. Deborah took notice and as she did, her story became more emotionally experienced.  She was “feeling felt”( a term Thompson uses taken from Dr. Dan Siegel).

and thereby more deeply connected to me.   I, too, was feeling more connected to her and also sensing a more compassionate- me emerging from her story; a compassion that would reach beyond the four walls of my office.

COMPASSION-mindful-happiness

We share a common image bearing status with others, whether they are clients or not.  Made in God’s image we are also invited to know Him and be known (a kind of human and divine (small t) trinity).  Our brains, intricately mysterious organs made by God are somehow structurally altered by our human connections.  There are benefits not only for us but for the world as this knowing frees us to be unencumbered agents of justice and change.

How will David experience “being known by God?” How will I? Knowing things about God won’t necessarily get us there.  Objective truths are important. Language, definitions, classifications, labels and propositions are soaked up by our human brains like sponges.  We are designed for it. But the experience of being known by God and by others does not necessarily come by these ways.  We aren’t just homo-sapiens becaworship God nature sceneuse of pre- frontal cortex superior development. We are also human beings with brains designed to love and be loved.  God our creator is love. Why would he not create our brains with such a grand  design in mind?