Monday, December 19, 2016

Green Pastures

Monday 12/19/2016 6:35 AM
I have not watered my front lawn for nearly two years due to the drought in California. My once manicured lawn has died and the ground is hard and barren with a few clumps of brown Bermuda grass trying to cling to life. A few weeks ago we received our first rain of the new season and this past week we received over half an inch, a welcome relief from the dryness. When I went to bring out the trash the other day I noticed the ground has softened, the barren spots are beginning to green up with baby shoots of winter rye grass and the Bermuda clumps are showing signs of life.
My lawn mirrors my spiritual life right now. Over the course of the past few months I have not watered my soul by spending time reading the Bible, contemplating what it is saying to me, and reflecting on how I can best live out my faith as I go about my daily routine. The near death of my nephew last winter, the grave infections my brother-in-law fought in the spring, and the declining health and eventual death of my mom throughout the summer and the fall did a number on me and I could not bring myself to read the Bible, or even to pray. Like my lawn, my soul is hard and barren, with just a few clumps of faith trying to cling on to hope.
This morning I opened my devotional material for the first time in over two weeks. My assigned reading included Psalm 65:9-12, “You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness.” The image of God sending rain to soften the ground and the image of the wilderness becoming an overflowing grassland reminded me of my front lawn being softened and greened up by the recent rains. My assigned reading also included James 5:7-8, “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” This gives me hope that God will shower me with his gentle love to drench my furrowed soul, to level the wall-like ridges I have built, and to soften my hardened heart. That gentle love of God can come through the words of scripture, like it did this morning, or it can be transmitted through the loving words and actions of the people with whom I interact. More often than not it is through people, the loving intimacy of close friends and the kindness of complete strangers.
This dry time in my life has caused me to question the genuineness of my relationship with God. Was the intimacy I have experienced in the past merely a figment of my imagination, a human construct for a feeble mind, as some would suggest? Does the fact that I have no desire to even read the Bible or pray indicate that my faith is useless in times of trial? Does it disappear when I need it most? Thoughts like these have pelted me like hailstones over the past weeks. This morning the writing of Maria Boulding in her book, The Coming of God, brought me hope. She writes, “If you want God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes. If you are at times so weary and involved with the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want [God], yet are still dissatisfied that you don’t, you are already keeping Advent in your life. If you have ever had an obscure intuition that the truth of things is somehow better, greater, more wonderful than you deserve or desire, that the touch of God in your life stills you by its gentleness, that there is a mercy beyond anything you could ever suspect, you are already drawn into the central mystery of salvation.”
This holiday season is one that exudes joy and happiness for many, but that is not the case for me this year. I have a feeling there are many others like me who are struggling with what life has dealt them throughout this year. Their lives may be as hard and barren as mine. Will I be someone who sucks whatever tiny hope of life that remains out of them or will I be the love of God for them, someone who is a gentle rain in their lives, softening the hard ground, drenching their furrowed ground, and causing the barren dryness to become a green pasture that sustains them in the struggle? I pray that, just as people have encouraged me during my struggle, I can be a purveyor of green pastures.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Santa Ana Winds

Saturday 12/3/2016 5:51 AM
We are currently experiencing the Santa Ana winds that occasionally blow in the Los Angeles basin. Yesterday there were numerous reports of downed trees and power lines throughout the area, causing extensive damage to property and generally disrupting people’s normal routines. When the winds occur in the summer months they are accompanied by high temperatures and are the perfect combination for wildfires. But, this morning when I ran, the temperature was 48 and the winds made it seem even colder.
The past few months have been a dark time for me. God seems distant to me and I have withdrawn in many areas of my life. I am doing what needs to be done at school but my heart doesn’t seem to be in it like it usually is. In my position of leadership at church I have also withdrawn, skipping meetings and disengaging during times of worship. Any service I give is done grudgingly and without enthusiasm. I feel distant from Jaci and don’t seem to have any energy to spend in trying to close that gap. Overall I feel a deep sadness that permeates every area of my life. I feel chilled, with the Santa Ana winds of life swirling around me, knocking down the power lines that usually energize me.
I’m pretty sure my feelings of sadness are caused by the difficult circumstances that have beset those I love this past year. My nephew Derek’s near death this past winter, my brother-in-law Stan’s serious health problems with the infection in his hip and pacemaker, and my mom’s deteriorating health and eventual death have all adversely affected me. I have a feeling it is going to be a while before I get back to normal.
My assigned psalm for the week is Psalm 62. Verse 3 is a good description of the way I feel, “How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down – this leaning wall, this tottering fence?” It seems like only a matter of time that my fence will topple because of the winds that are blowing. But my reading also included Isaiah 51:3, “The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.” This gives me hope that even if the circumstances of life assail me and knock me down, God’s love will eventually restore me and bring back the joy and gladness for which I yearn.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Heaven on Earth?

Thursday 10/20/2016 6:07 AM
My mom is dying. She fell again this past weekend and broke her other hip. She is not strong enough to sustain another surgery so she has been placed in hospice care. I hope to visit her this weekend to say my final goodbyes. She is eager to die and be with God.
Often, when I speak with Christians, they speak of being blessed by God. By that they generally mean they have experienced good health throughout their lives and have not had to suffer any major catastrophes or calamities. They have had gainful employment through the years and have accumulated enough wealth to look forward to retirement where they can enjoy a life of ease and comfort. There is a sense in which they feel as if they are experiencing heaven here on earth. I wonder if Christians will be surprised if they find out heaven is not living in a gilded mansion with an ocean view, sitting around eating bonbons all day without the fear of gaining weight.
We are only a couple of weeks away from an election and this election season has been one to remember. Many Christians I know are supporting Donald Trump for President, who wants to “Make America Great Again.” By that he means we have a strong economy where everyone is employed and living the American dream. Everything seems to be tied up in economic security for the people and throwing off the chains of government so the free market of capitalism can prevail. I’m a little surprised there aren’t more Christians concerned about issues of justice for those who are oppressed by the current system or issues of honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior. We live in a world where there is only relative truth, no absolute truth, so I guess those kinds issues cannot be addressed because there is no consensus of what is right or what is wrong.
Today I read an excerpt from “The Second Epistle of Clement.” It says, “No one of the righteous received fruit speedily, but awaiteth it. For if God gave shortly the recompense of the righteous, straightway we would be exercising ourselves in business, not in godliness; for we would seem to be righteous while pursuing not what is godly but what is gainful.” With all the old style English language it is difficult to ascertain the exact meaning of things but what caught my eye is the concept of Christians exercising themselves in business rather than godliness and seeming to be righteous while pursuing what is gainful, not what is godly. Those who wear the cloak of Christianity but have little or no evidence of grace, mercy, or godliness in their lives put off many people who are not Christians. They seem concerned only about themselves and their needs and desires without thinking of the effects of their lifestyle or policies may have on others. If Christians worked as hard to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly as they do to be “successful” in business or politics I think the world would be a different place, and better.

Friday, October 7, 2016

What a Wonderful World!

Friday 10/7/2016 4:15 AM
Tuesday Jaci babysat for Marlowe as she often does. I came home after school and since she had woken from her nap so I took her for a short walk, as is my habit. I carried her down the street and around the block stopping to marvel at everything. We appreciated roses, hibiscus, camellias, bougainvillea, birds of paradise, canna lilies, impatiens, the bark on trees, the leaves of trees, ants crawling up the trees, barking dogs, birds, stop signs, fences, light poles, water meter covers, cars, trucks, storm drains, people going home from work, etc. The things we stopped to notice had different colors, textures, modes of transport, and sounds, each of them unique in their own way. On our way back home we said goodbye to each thing and thanked God for the opportunity to see and to experience it.
My reading today included Psalm 105 and these words, “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. … Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.” Too often I rush through life and fail to see and appreciate the wonderful world that surrounds me. I sometimes will celebrate the beauty and the wonder of the natural world but I seldom truly appreciate the machines and the infrastructure of modern society, all the work of mankind, to whom God gave the ability to imagine and create. And even more troublesome is my failure to appreciate the beauty of people I meet each day, each uniquely created in the image of God.
I also read an excerpt from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, in which he laments the death of his son Eric at the age of twenty-five. He writes, “We took him too much for granted. Perhaps we all take each other too much for granted. The routines of life distract us; our own pursuits make us oblivious; our anxieties and sorrows, unmindful. The beauties of the familiar go unremarked. We do not treasure each other enough.”
I pray that I will have the eyes to see, a heart to appreciate, and a mouth that acknowledges the people and the things around me with whom I make contact each day. Thank God for this beautiful world and for the wonders that can be found within it if I will only stop to observe and appreciate.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Night Praise

Thursday 10/6/2016 5:59 AM
During the first eight or nine months of this year I experienced a feeling of being separated from God. Circumstances in my life and my own poor choices sent me down a dark road where God seemed silent and uncaring. Over the course of the past few weeks things seem to be turning around, my outlook on life is improving, and I am beginning to experience an awareness of God’s presence with me again. This is not the first time in my life I have experienced this but it is the longest.
I’m not sure why this happens to me nor do I know how or why that feeling of separation from God goes away. If I knew its cause I would do everything in my power to avoid it and if I knew how to make it leave I would not wallow in the doldrums for months at a time. Sometimes I can see a purpose in the things I experience, even the unpleasant things, however, this time I can see no purpose at all.
Today I read the following excerpt from Evelyn Underhill’s book, The Fruits of the Spirit. “There is always a night shift and sooner or later we are put on it. The praise does not cease with the fading of the light, but goes on through the spiritual night as well as the spiritual day. And if you are picked for the night shift – well, praise the Lord. Lift up your hands in the dark sanctuary of your soul when you are tempted to wonder what is the good of it all, and praise the Lord! And the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, will bless you from Zion.” God obviously picked me for the night shift. I’m afraid I didn’t lift up my hands in the darkness and praise God as Underhill suggests. I spent most of my time wondering what the good of it all was. I need to learn to praise God in the night of my soul as much, or more, as I do during the day.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Sunday 9/25/2016 5:06 AM
This year has been a difficult one for me. My regular routine of running was thrown off because for some strange reason, after being sick for a couple of days, I was unable to run more than a half mile without stopping to catch my breath or to recover from dizziness. I stopped having my regular devotional time, spending time with God only once per week or so. My nephew nearly died after contracting the H1N1 flu virus. My brother-in-law had a serious infection in his hip and was in critical condition for four months in the spring. This summer my mom’s ability to care for herself has deteriorated to the point where she needed to be placed in a memory care unit. The confluence of these events led me down a dark path where God seemed absent, or distant at best.
The theme for my devotions this week is “When Nothing Goes Our Way,” a fitting theme for a year like mine. My reading today included Isaiah 41:10 and Isaiah 43:1-3, passages that remind me of God’s presence with me through the difficult times of life. These same passages came to mind a few weeks ago when I made a pledge to start having regular devotions again.
The author of my devotional book, Rueben Job, writes these words, “There are times in our lives when nothing seems to go as we planned. Times when day after day we are faced with difficulties and darkness no matter how much we long for lighter loads and light for our pathway. There are other times when we come from a spectacular high moment and suddenly find ourselves hanging on to hope by our fingernails. … One of the best times for us to cultivate the nearness of God emerges when nothing is going our way. Such an experience may sharpen our ability to see God at work in our midst and in our lives. Remember that we are not alone when things are not going our way, as we are not alone when things are going our way. Each situation gives us opportunity to pay attention to God’s presence and call for God’s help.”
As quickly as my ability to run was taken from me last winter, it seems to have returned a few weeks ago and I have resumed my morning routine. My devotions, too, have become more consistent and meaningful. I’m not sure what God wanted me to learn through all the events of the past year but Rueben Job’s reminder that I am not alone in both the good times and the bad times is a good one for me to remember.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Compassion for Others

Thursday 9/22/2016 6:29 AM
The theme of my devotions this week is compassion for others. To check to see how compassionate I am, one of the readings in my devotional material suggested I ask these questions: Do I sense the presence of the suffering Christ in others? Do I share their pain? Am I aware of their vulnerability? Do I know that the need for mercy is often hidden under a mask of self-sufficiency, coldness, and indifference? While my answer to these questions varies with time and with different individuals, overall I would say that my compassion meter has become more sensitive in the last several years. My biggest fault in this regard is a lack of action, not a lack of feeling.
In her book The Cup of Our Life, Joyce Rupp notes some of the common characteristics she has observed in compassionate people. She writes, “They often have significant suffering or painful life events of their own, a generous heart, a non-blaming and non-judging mind, a passionate spirit, a willingness to sacrifice their life, a keen empathy, and a love that embraces the oneness of all creation.” When I consider my life and my way of living I feel as if some of those characteristics have grown in me while others are woefully absent. I long to be a more compassionate person instead of a cynical person. I have a long way to go.
Compassion is a quality that seems to be in short supply in the United States today. Our stress on the rights of the individual as a nation allows for a lot of individual freedom, which we regularly celebrate, but it comes with a steep price, a lack of empathy and compassion for others. Rupp writes, “Compassionate people often inspire others to be compassionate.” I want to be that kind of person.