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.

 

 

 

“Perfect Weddings” and Jesus

dog eats wedding cakeGoogle “Perfect weddings” and you will get about 100 million hits in all manner of categories: perfect wedding ideas, planners, colors, pictures, gowns, flower arrangements, cakes, settings etc…

Who doesn’t want to think of their wedding as being perfect?  Who goes around saying, “I hope my wedding is a bust or I hope it turns out to be a disaster or I hope I am disappointed, or, worst yet, I hope I get really embarrassed or shamed at my wedding?”  Most of us can tolerate the image of a blunder or funny mishap but not humiliation. Nope, no sane person would wish that for themselves.

Sure, we get carried away with obsessing over goofy details and expectations that should have stayed in childhood fairy tale books. And sure, stressors can mount to the point of bridezilla outbreaks or stupid groom stupors.  But, all in all, there is nothing wrong in longing for “the perfect wedding.”  The wedding is a momentous occasion of promise and commitment rivaled by no other kind of relationship ceremony. Within that ceremonial show of pomp and circumstance there is a public announcement that speaks to a new life anchored in the mystery of “two becoming one.”  And we, the spectators, are judging.  Yes, we are judging, not in a petty superficial way (hope not).  We are asking ourselves, “What is the basis for this wedding?”  If the couple are believers then the answer is straight forward.  The couple is sanctifying their union before God and that comes with promises that include martial faithfulness, and a commitment to support each other for better and for worse and for richer and for poorer.  If there are to be children then they will be raised in the context of faith and safety. This is a big order and is not always fulfilled.  Nonetheless, these are the time-honored promises and we, the guests, are celebrating the couple’s willingness to undertake such a risky and hard commitment.  For the marriage veterans who know the rocky bumps ahead we rightly view the seriousness of this event.  The couple is undertaking an amazingly mature path; one of life’s greatest risk-reward ventures.  We ask ourselves, “Does this couple have what it takes?”  The wedding couple believe they do and so we get behind them and we whoop it up with them as the love and wine flows at the reception.

But for those who are not “religious” or perhaps have lived together for years; why the longing for the “perfect wedding”? I would suspect for basically the same reasons – thinking themselves mature enough to take on this commitment of faithfulness, love and partnership in all matters of life together. Placing their commitment on the time/space continuum of human history. On such and such date at such and such a place a public and legal commitment of fidelity and love will be made and thus the reason for celebration. And we their guests are hoping that the marriage proves their hope correct in spite of grim statistics.  We humans are forever hopeful and love the chance for love.  And so we celebrate.

Weddings for millennium have been the grand community or village event; better than the celebrations surrounding royalty or political governing powers. Why? Because weddings are celebrations among peers.  There is reciprocity.  Weddings are even a transaction, so to speak, between the wedding party and the attendees.  We, the guests, are expected to show up, dress appropriately, celebrate enthusiastically and give gifts.  And our expectations as guests are rather primal. We want something to see, eat and drink.  And that something should not be the banal everyday fare. We want to be honored witnesses. Food and drinks is how it is done.  A wedding is everyone’s party pronouncing family and community legacy and bonds.  Weddings tell us that we are not alone – we belong to the gathering.

The meaning of food and drinks:

The bride may trip and fall into a pool (watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIbegxOwwpI  ), a groom may badly sing his wedding vows, or the wild flowers picked for the reception begin to release hidden unwanted crawly things.  But if the food and drink run out before every guest is served then you have it – a wedding humiliation! A funny story can be made out of the bride falling into the pool – even the bride has a great story to tell (and a viral video) as part of her wedding legacy but running out of food and drink does not bring the chuckles at family reunions when stories are being told and retold to children and grandchildren.  We would rather forget this poor planning. Giving out of food and drink at a wedding is a major embarrassment, and in some cultures a shame to the wedding party and a great offense to the guests.

All this wedding talk leads me to one of my favorite Jesus stories.  Early in John’s gospel Jesus performs his first miracle, or sign as John calls it.  Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding in Cana.  His mother tells him that the wine has run out and Jesus turns water into wine; in fact, really good wine.  This story is rich with gospel imagery and metaphor that foreshadows Christ’s grand cosmic performance-his death and resurrection. Read a few bible commentators to understand how deep this event truly is.  So, don’t make the mistake of reducing this wedding story to one that endorses getting sloshed at parties.  Nor should it be over-spiritualized to the point that it has no real connection to a real wedding and real wedding-goers.  Jesus responds to a potential emotional crisis. He rescues the bridegroom from one of life’s most common and distressing emotions: shame. Think about it. Jesus’ first sign could have been something so spectacular that everyone at the wedding is left slack-jawed; making him the center of attention.  Jesus, albeit reluctantly at first, due to timing factors of revealing His glory and purpose; does not want to stand around and see the bridegroom and his family put to shame. He changes mega stone water jars into a choice merlot and does so with no one knowing but the servants, who follow his instructions, his mother and his disciples.  And that is that. Later Jesus reveals power by healing the sick, facing off demons and controlling natural forces thus becoming the center of attention wherever he goes; but in this first miracle we have an understated Jesus understanding the pitfalls of a shame-based culture. Unwilling for shame to hijack this joyous occasion Jesus insures a “perfect wedding”.

 

 

 

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

Chipmunk Cheeks, redux

Chipmunk Cheeks redux or my most humbling blogging experience

I’ve noticed from viewing my stats on my blog administrator that one of my most viewed posts is “Chipmunk Cheeks”.  I have written over 50-some posts and this one gets the most new hits.

What is so humbling about this? Well, I didn’t write it; someone else did who happened to capture a concept so familiar to many of us that it bore reproducing.  A friend of mine sent me the article after reading a few of my earlier posts that had to do with reactions to my cancer diagnosis. No doubt, she figured from the way I was telling my story that I could use some encouragement. She kindly wanted to share it with me and me in turn with others. Why? Because it was that good.   But those niceties don’t take care of my wounded blogging pride! From now on all my posts will be titled: Chipmunk Cheeks, Part I, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 2, Chipmunk Cheeks, Part 3, etc… You get the picture.  It will trick folks Googling ‘cute chipmunks’ into reading my insightful posts.

chipmunkApart from the fact that chipmunks are so darn adorable with their puffed-out, nut- bloated cheeks there is a message in this post that is emotionally dead-on for us anxious types. In short this is written for the worriers and the “what if”-ers.  We are folks with incredible imaginations – not particularly creative imaginations unless you count Stephen King as our role model. We are so good at thinking of all the ways things can go wrong – really catastrophically, cosmically wrong. If you are a 6 on the enneagram, like me, then you are fond of justifying the “what if-ing” stuff as the makings of a great troubleshooter. “How can I do my troubleshooting job if I am not fantasizing on all the pitfalls that a trip to Bermuda can entail?,” I say to my husband who just offered to take me on a vacation. (Hurricanes, bringing back bed bugs, killed riding mo-peds on the wrong side of the road.)  When I go off on one of my “but what-if?” jags he likes to say, “Dona, do ever reread any of your blog posts?”  (Read: do you practice what you preach?)  So annoying.  I am a blogger now, and a writer not a reader.


Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.


This is funny up to a point.  The hard core truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?” Me, apparently.  And I can’t know the future and that is driving my control freakishness to a frantic frenzy.  I continue to talk to myself; reminding myself of the Chipmunk Cheeks article.  Gathering all the trouble shooting ammo for all the troublesome future scenarios I can imagine will not enlist God’s grace now for an unknown future.  Grace is operative for me in the present, however it presents itself.  So, dear readers, read the Chipmunk Cheeks post for the first time or reread it.  I am because I need to remind myself of important truths – not just once but many times.  Our brains and our souls are trained by repetition. That is why the Psalms have the frequent refrain of remembering – reminding us who we are and who God is. Troubleshooting only works up to a point. After that point, God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.  And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.

 

 

 

 

 

What snow berms taught me about Holy Week

My husband and our Buffalo city pastor were having a conversation yesterday about the berms of snow finally melting. Steve, the pastor, told David that one thing he had to get used to when he moved from California was all the foulness revealed as the white beautiful snow began to melt. This is not the kind of image that the awakening of spring normally brings to mind. Yes, these berms are filthy right now as they melt away: ugly mounds of black, gritty toxic-looking snow mounds of street debris and animal foulness. They once were white, pristine-looking, snow-covered Olympic mountain range miniatures but now…….

west juneau snow berms_cropped

SRX_berm_city__t470Spring is coming but now there is that awkward in-between stage.  What was white and pristine now is revealing the ugly.

The celebration of the resurrection of Christ is coming.  A celebration of the victory not only over death but a victory over all that is debased, decayed and disgraced.  But the resurrection of Christ means nothing without that painfully tragic and awkward crucifixion.  The Passion Week signaled the end of Jesus’ humble presence on earth with his teaching, empathy, miracles and wonders…snow covered glistening mounds of purity and beauty.   There was great judgment, yes indeed.   Pure white mounds of snow burned away to reveal dark toxins that had been transferred from us to Him.  And then after that awkward, tragic, ugly time came spring in all its glory.  The Resurrection.

What is my part in all this?  I have a choice. I can deny the ugly with well-crafted exteriors of looks, clothes, charm, sharp intellect, sardonic wit and nice helpful manners, or….. I can acknowledge the foulness not just in my world but in me. I don’t have to be timid or offended at such an image or accusation. I can own it, admit it, confess it and look to the crucifixion for my forgiveness and its meaning of love and then finally be greatly relieved and forever thankful at so great a salvation as Christ’s resurrection promise. This life is not all there is. Thank God! I mean it!  For this is great news if this life has disappointed with its hurt, loss and misery which is by far most of this world’s experience.  He is risen indeed. And so what does that mean for me? What does this grand biblical narrative have to do with me? If I believe it to be true historically and spiritually then it means freedom – freedom from having to pretend.children laughing in fields

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun forbear to shine

But God, Who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

– Chris Tomlin, Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)W

Jesus, the Crying Judge

15 + 6 = 17_revOn March 15, 2015 the Buffalo News published a story about an arranged Indian wedding that ended with the bride walking away from the wedding festivities before the final pronouncement of marriage. Her reason? The groom could not correctly answer the question: “What is 15 plus 6?” When he replied 17 she called off the marriage.  She judged him as uneducated and there was no convincing her otherwise. The bride’s family came to her defense and accused the groom’s family of misleading them regarding their son’s educational status.  According to the local police, who were called by the groom’s family, the incident caused ‘quite a flutter.’  Matters were finally settled when the respective families returned the gifts and jewelry exchanged prior to the wedding.

Both funny and sad, this story is fascinating with its layers of cultural and societal expectations gone awry.  It is an eastern drama that leave us westerners bemused and confused.  Or does it?  If we distill this story down to one of humanity’s basic concepts we should not be surprised by such an outcome.  There is judgment and there are tests to pass in this world in every time and in every place under the sun. Judgement is part and parcel of our interactions with each other despite our modern protests of “don’t judge me,” “don’t judge me,” and “don’t judge me”.  “You don’t have the right to judge me.”  We know how the refrain goes because each of us have either said it, felt it, or been accused of it.

So, does anyone have a right to judge?  And a related question: If someone has the right to judge does it follow that there will there be a judgement day? I think so and apparently Jesus cried out about it. Text reference can be found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verses 44-50

If you have been a follower of my blog it will come as no surprise that I am impressed with the articulation of faith and culture presented by the pastor and writer, Tim Keller. I credit his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering, “ as instrumental in helping me through an intensive 9-month cancer treatment last year.  Recently, I have been listening to podcasts of Keller’s sermons from his six thousand member church in Manhattan.  One message, given on February 18, 2015, called, “Accepting the Judge,” I found very provocative as he explained the need for judgement.  To tease you into listening I offer the first two of four propositions that he makes.  Here are the first two: 1) Why we need a judgement day; 2) Why we can’t have a judgement day.  If I listed propositions 3 & 4 they would spoil the sermon for you so listen to the podcast here.  (Click podcast on lower left of the page.)

Post script:  After listening to the podcast I would appreciate your comments.  I won’t publish them but would like to work them into future posts.

Confessional post script: I first wrote this post with the following: “The groom could not correctly answer the question, what is 12 plus 5?  He answered 17 and then she walked out of the wedding ceremony.”  I caught my error before I posted.  I’m grateful the only question asked me at my wedding was, “Do you take this man to be your husband?”