Saturday, February 11, 2017

Spiritual Apathy

Saturday 2/11/2017 6:54 AM
I would describe my spiritual life over the course of the past year as one of spiritual apathy. I have had isolated moments of spiritual insight or direction but, overall, I feel like I have been meandering through life with little desire, or energy, to spend time praying, reading my Bible, or contemplating God’s will for my life.
The theme from my devotional materials this week is Choose Life, a fitting challenge given my current demeanor, to simply survive life. Jesus said that he came so that we may have life to the full. I feel more like I’m living my life while running on empty, hoping to make it to the next refueling station without running out of gas.
Part of my reading today included an excerpt from A Cry for Mercy, by Henri Nouwen, in which he describes an experience he had of hearing God’s voice while worshiping with other believers. He writes, “And you also said, ‘Pray even when you do not feel attracted to it.’ Yes, Lord, I will try to pray, even when I am afraid to face you and myself, even when I keep falling asleep or feel as though I am going around in circles, even when it seems that nothing is happening. Yes, Lord, I will pray – not only with others, not only supported by the rhythms of the choir, but also alone with you. I will try not to be afraid. Lord, give me courage and strength. Let me see myself in the light of your mercy and choose you.” The challenge to pray even when I don’t feel attracted to it is convicting. The description he gives of falling asleep, feeling as though he is going in circles, and the belief that nothing is happening also resonates strongly with me. The need for courage and strength is also mine today.

Part of me feels like I simply need to ride out this storm of doubt with the knowledge that God is riding it with me. Another part of me feels like I have a choice to make, to be content with my spiritual apathy or to pray and seek after God even when I do not feel attracted to it. I’m not sure I have the strength to choose to seek God. The good news is when I am weak, God is strong, and he has promised to never leave nor forsake me. He will be with me either way.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Moving on Down

Sunday 2/5/2017 5:22 AM
This past Friday I tendered my official resignation from the council at Bethany. Immediately I sensed a calmness come over me, and a lighter spirit. My assigned scripture included Psalm 32:6-8, “Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.” Over the course of the past year I have struggled with a lot of things, the sum of which overwhelmed me. I felt very much like the waters of life were rising around me, and my ability to tread water was quickly deteriorating. God used the counsel of Jaci, of good friends, and of a professional counselor to help me see the necessity of removing that stressor from my life. I am grateful for the way he used these people to deliver me from my difficult situation.
Much of my frustration at church is because I feel that we, as a church body, are too focused on ourselves, and our needs and desires, rather than the needs of others in the community around us. James C. Fenhagen gives voice to my vision of what God calls us to be as a church community in his book Mutual Ministry. He writes,
The changes being demanded of us are almost beyond comprehension. For vast numbers of people living in the West – the world of the ‘haves’ – it will mean a total reorientation of life-styles. It will mean learning how to resist the urge to buy and the urge to eat, where submitting to those urges is our custom. It will mean discovering the simplicity which comes from an intentional life lived from inside out rather than from outside in. In the riches of the Christian tradition there are patterns for this kind of pursuit, easily adapted to present needs. To adopt them, however, will require not only assistance, but ongoing support. …
Ministries of caring, ministries on behalf of justice and reconciliation, ministries of witness, ministries of dialogue, ministries that bring Christian values to bear on the decision-making process of politics and business, ministries of support – all potentially stem from the local congregation, and when carried out with wisdom and compassion are signs of life. The congregation is mission. The congregation is also evangelistic. Both are essential to its very nature. In looking for signs of life I find myself immediately looking for how this sense of mission is being expressed, and by whom. Mission, be it explicit or implicit, is the primary task of the laity. It is a task that requires training and support, a task that is essential as we confront the chaos of a world faced with cataclysmic change. …
The point is that ministry is more than simply doing good. Ministry is an act performed in [God’s] name. Therefore, it is not something we do solely on our own, but something Christ does in us, through us, and with us. Ministry has been given to us. Our task is to uncover what is already present so that the ministry of the church might be carried out in all of its fullness. The ministry of the church is exercised by every man, woman, and child who bears the mark of baptism.
In my church I see more of a desire to maintain our lifestyle and, what we perceive to be, a position of superiority rather than reorienting our lifestyle and position to benefit others, especially if it requires any kind of self-sacrifice or giving up our position. We resist any suggestion to simplify our lives for the benefit of others. Instead, we suggest that others work as hard as we did so they can attain what we believe is a higher level without recognizing the advantage we had of being born into the predominant culture to families that encouraged us, taught us our values, and provided us with opportunities that led to our “success”. We view our pastors as people we hire to do the ministry rather than viewing ourselves as those tasked for ministry. We need to see our pastors as those who train us, who challenge us, and who provide opportunities for us to do ministry, not to do the ministry for us.

Given the current climate in our congregation this vision of self-sacrifice, of moving down so others can move up, seems like a pipedream that will not be realized any time soon without divine intervention. I will pray for that divine intervention and do what I can to effect change.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Dumbo

Sunday 1/29/2017 5:17 AM
Today my scripture reading seemed dominated by the theme of peace, something that has been absent from my life and mind over the course of the past year or so. I long for the absence of strife in the world and, more importantly, within the body of Christ, so we can model the kingdom values of Christ to our broken world.
Much of the angst I feel personally is driven by strife within my church. We are attempting to be a church that reaches out to our community but there is resistance to that idea by some who want to keep things the way they have always been. It is more comfortable to deal with the familiar than to move into unchartered territory. Today I read an excerpt from Opening the Bible, by Thomas Merton. He writes, “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible – until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable for ourselves. But then we are perhaps too used to it and too at home in it. Let us not be too sure we know the Bible … just because we have learned not to have problems with it. Have we perhaps learned … not to really pay attention to it? Have we ceased to question the book and be questioned by it?”
I wonder how many within our church see the Bible as being uncomfortable. We like to quote verses about the peace and joy we can experience in the presence of God but we also like to ignore the calls to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, to seek after justice while walking in humility before God or, heaven forbid that we should give up our own rights for the good of others or to love our enemies by doing good to them. As a whole, we prefer the bubble of familiarity with like-minded people compared to the uncertainty of confronting or interacting with those who think, and live, differently from us.
I believe God wants us to experience life fully and to do that we must live with abandon. If life were Disneyland, I believe God would want us to enjoy the heart-stopping thrill of California Screamin’, a rollercoaster that goes upside-down and in corkscrews, rather than the safety of Dumbo the Flying Elephant, that travels slowly, and in circles. There are times I feel like we are on Dumbo.

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.