Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Image and Likeness

Wednesday 8/10/2016 7:08 AM
I have had a beard for most of my adult life. I keep it well trimmed and sometimes have a goatee, but they are always short beards. I am in the process of growing out my beard to honor a friend and former student who recently lost a long battle with cancer. He had cancer in his mouth at one point and his face had been scarred by surgery so he grew a long beard to hide it. I always told him I was envious of his long beard and suggested that someday I was going to grow mine out so I could be like him. I wish the circumstances were different but now is the time.
A few weeks ago I was a guest at a Young Lives camp in Lake City, Michigan. Young Lives is a ministry to teen moms directed by a good friend, who had invited Jaci and I to come. Like every youth camp they have activities for the moms to do during their free time including a zip line, a go cart track, a high ropes course, swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding, and so on. One afternoon we went on the high ropes course with some of the campers and their leaders. We put on the required harness and helmet before we began. My helmet was red. Most of the course entailed walking along a cable suspended twenty feet above the ground and ended with a jump off of a platform while someone below belayed you to the ground. At the bottom those who finished were congratulated by others who had completed the course themselves or were simply observing and providing encouragement to those attempting to complete the course. When I finished I received their congratulations and then someone told me that, when I was on the course, those below were referring to me as the skinny Santa Claus. It seems that in growing my beard longer I am taking on the likeness of Santa Claus.

I thought of Genesis 1:27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The Bible says that all people are made in the image of God. I believe that all people have dignity and worth simply because they carry the image of God. I also recognize that all people do not reflect that image accurately. The God of the Bible is revealed as a God of love but it is obvious that love is not evidenced in all the interactions of people with one another or with their environment.
I recently read an excerpt from the book Climbing the Sycamore Tree, by Ann Hagmann, in which she recounts the story of two men who were rushing to catch a subway on Christmas Eve. As he turned a corner while running across the platform, the first man bumped into a young, disabled man selling newspapers, strewing the newspapers and the boy’s other belongings everywhere. The man cursed at the boy for delaying him and ran on to catch his train. The second man stopped, helped the boy pick up the papers, and bought one. He gave the boy five dollars, told him to keep the change, and wished him a Merry Christmas. As he left to catch his train the boy called after him, asking if he was Jesus Christ. Embarrassed, the second man said, “No, but I try to be like him.” Hagmann writes, “Both men are made in the image of God, but only one man is living in the likeness of Jesus Christ. It is not enough as a Christian to claim being made in our Creator’s image; we are called to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.”

While always having a beard, it is in growing it that I am conforming to the likeness of Santa Claus. How much more important for me, and other Christians, while being made in the image of God, to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Then the people of the world will see the unadulterated image of God, the likeness of Christ.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Blue Spruce

Friday 7/15/2016 5:00 AM
I am sitting on the deck at my daughter’s house in Michigan, enjoying the early morning hours after my run. In the back of their yard are four pine trees. I believe they are blue spruce. When they first moved here ten years ago the trees were so dense one could see nothing through them. Over the years the trees have grown and thinned out so that one can now see squirrels and birds in the inner branches of the tree and blue sky on the other side. I’m not sure if they are suffering from some sort of disease or if the thinning of the foliage is a natural consequence of aging.
My life seems to mirror the lives of those trees. When I was younger I was concerned about what others may think of me or of my actions. I put up a nice façade but gave few people a view of what I was feeling or thinking about things. When I turned thirty-eight I began sharing my thoughts with a small group of men every Friday morning and over the years I shared more and more intimate details of my life. After a few years of that I began sharing more openly with the broader Christian community, sharing my failures and frustrations, my hopes and my disappointments. I found that my life resonated with many others, that we all have a common experience; the only difference is in the details.
Too often in the Christian community we want others to think we have it all together. We spruce up our lives, put on a happy face, and pretend everything is wonderful when inside we are full of broken branches and dead twigs. People in the world need to see real people experiencing real emotions, not little happy robots saying, “Praise God! Hallelujah!” all the time.
Brennan Manning says it well in the book Reflections for Ragamuffins. “What the world longs for from the Christian religion is the witness of men and women daring enough to be different, humble enough to make mistakes, wild enough to be burned in the fire of love, real enough to make others see how unreal they are.” We like to spruce ourselves up, making our lives look as if we have it all together. God wants mature blue spruce trees, with our broken interior lives open for all to see and with room for the light of his healing love to shine through.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Boldness

Monday 7/4/2016 5:41 AM
Last Saturday one of my nieces posted a comment on Facebook noting that Garrison Keillor made his last appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. She noted that, in addition to being an entertainer, “he has also been an instigator and provocateur for the plight of humanity.” In the same post she acknowledged the death of Elie Wiesel, about whom the same could be said. She queried, “Who will stand in those gaps?” and her husband, who is also wise, responded, “You!”
I’m quite certain Garrison Keillor and Elie Wiesel did not sit down one day and say, “I think I will become an instigator and provocateur for the plight of humanity.” They simply saw the injustices that are rampant in our world and responded in a way that was consistent with their own gifts and talents. People were drawn to the truth of their message, the humility with which it was delivered, and the consistency with which they lived their lives.
The theme of my devotions this week is boldness. The scriptures I have read over the past couple of days include the prayers of the disciples after having been arrested by the religious authorities of their day and being told to remain silent about Jesus. After being released from custody they met together to pray for boldness to speak the truth and then went out and spoke. Today people who speak out against racial discrimination, social injustices, corporate greed, and the like are often castigated by the established church community and are labeled as socialists, communists, etc. I wonder how the church has wandered so far from the gospel Jesus preached, which included compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and acceptance for the alien. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised, since it seems the organized religion of Jesus’ day had done the same. It was against that hypocrisy that Jesus was the most vocal.
My reading also included this excerpt from Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership, by E. Glenn Hinson. “The church and the world need saints. They need saints more than they need more canny politicians, more brilliant scientists, more grossly overpaid executives and entrepreneurs, more clever entertainers and talk-show hosts. Are there any on the horizon now that Mother Teresa is no longer with us, either of the extraordinary or of the ordinary kind? I think there are. Maybe I should say that there are saints ‘aborning’ by God’s grace. There are those whose lives have been irradiated by God’s grace, who seek not to be safe but to be faithful, who have learned how to get along in adversity, who are joyful, who are dream filled, and above all, who are prayerful. That is what the church and the world need most. It begins with you.”
I see the injustices that are so evident in our world but I feel overwhelmed and completely inadequate to “stand in the gap.” After all, who would pay attention to a math teacher in an insignificant school buried in metropolitan Los Angeles County? I try to speak the truth and to live consistently, with humility, but my voice gets lost in the cacophony of the LA culture. E. Glenn Hinson suggests that I need to be faithful, learn how to get along in adversity, be joyful, and to be dream filled and prayerful. That is my goal but it seems to have little, if no, effect. I have a feeling my niece feels the same way. She needs to hear the same message I did today, “It begins with you.”

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Seeking Justice for the Oppressed

Saturday 6/18/2016 5:38 AM
When I observe the world in which I live and converse with my students it soon becomes obvious that there are glaring injustices and inequalities in our world today. When I read the Bible it urges me to love God above all and to love my neighbor as I love myself. It suggests that if I love God and neighbor then I will seek justice for the oppressed, I will feed the hungry, and visit those in prison.
While I have donated food for food banks, served dinners for the homeless at my church, led Bible studies in a federal penitentiary, done one-on-one mentoring of a young man incarcerated at a juvenile detention center near my home, make monthly donations for a local social justice cause, for a ministry to young single mothers, and to support the education and material needs for a child in Africa, it seems as if these actions on my part are merely a bit of salve to alleviate a symptom but do virtually nothing to cure the disease. How can I best seek justice for those oppressed?
When I think of the systemic changes that need to happen to address these issues it seems impossible. I have thought about running for political office to see if I could change oppressive policies but I abhor the current political climate in our country and it seems as if those who do enter the political realm soon become entangled in the mire and eventually become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
Today I read an excerpt from A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader, by Reuben P. Job. He describes John Wesley as the most influential social reformer of his day and writes these words: “From the early days at Oxford until a few days before his death, Wesley was about the ministry of caring for the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. And all of this while living a rigorous life of prayer, study, and reflection. This commitment to neighbor and passion to proclaim the gospel story was so great that John and Charles rode in a cart with a condemned prisoner so that they could sing and pray on the way to the hangman’s scaffold. Holy living is a direct result of and inseparable from a holy heart. To experience Christian perfection is to live as Jesus lived. It is to be obedient to the One proclaimed as Savior and Lord. … To know Christ and to be know by Christ means to walk with Christ in the everyday business of life.”
Somehow performing acts of mercy to alleviate this kind of suffering seems like addressing only half of the problem. Riding with a condemned prisoner to a hangman’s scaffold without addressing the reason why the prisoner felt compelled to commit the crime in the first place seems incomplete. That kind of action, while helpful to the person facing death alone, seems like it will only ensure that I will have another prisoner to accompany tomorrow. As a Christian, what is the best way to address the root causes of hunger, oppression, and injustice. What can I do today that will make hunger, oppression, and injustice things of the past?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Healing the World

Sunday 5/29/2016 7:32 AM
I live in a culture obsessed with individualism. Individual rights and freedoms are protected and cherished while any idea suggesting a responsibility to our community that involves the giving up of individual rights for the good of others results in accusations of one being a socialist a communist, or a Marxist. This idea has also crept into the church. One’s faith is considered to be a private affair between oneself and God. It is believed that one can worship God by oneself at home and still be a good Christian. Any suggestion of being responsible to a larger community of faith or that of being subject to the discipline of a church body is met with resistance, the church often being accused of simply wanting to exert their power or of wanting the money of their parishioners.
Jesus summarized the law by saying we are to love God above all and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. James emphasizes the importance of works of mercy accompanying our faith. It is one thing to say we love God but he suggests that a litmus test for our love of God is to see if we are showing love for our neighbor through concrete acts of mercy, of giving of ourselves for the good of others.
Today I read a quote by Kent Groff, from his book, Journeyman. He writes, “Without the discipline of community, solitude degenerates into self-absorption and isolation; without the discipline of solitude, community degenerates into codependency and enmeshment. … The community of faith is where we learn the language of love. And the church uses two kinds of language – the verbal language of liturgy, scripture, and sermon, and the body language of sacraments, gestures, and social outreach. … Being a part of a life-giving faith community is like a healthy foot getting directional signals from the rest of the body. A life-giving church is one where human brokenness is lifted up like bread and wine to be held, and touched, and blessed – to heal the world.”
Sometimes I feel as if the church stresses solitude to the detriment of community. We have become self-absorbed and isolated from the community in which we live. We build both literal and figurative walls around our church to protect ourselves from what we consider to be the evil world around us. We isolate ourselves from the brokenness around us, rationalizing to ourselves that the problems are too big for us to solve alone. We huddle in groups of like-minded people while we drink our coffee after worship while a visitor that is different from us stands alone, observing us.
I believe we need to have more stress on our responsibility to our community, to show the love of God and the richness of his mercy through our actions to those who are not like us. We need to have the courage to reach out to touch the brokenness that is so evident in our world and, as Groff suggests, to lift it up “like bread and wine to be held, and touched, and blessed – to heal the world.”

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Living with Randomness and Chaos

Saturday 5/7/2016 6:49 AM
I often hear people saying that God has a wonderful plan for their lives. Their concept of what that wonderful plan entails usually involves them having what they consider to be the perfect life: a good job, healthy relationships, good health, and so on. They see their life as something like a road that God has traced into a map book, a unique plan just for them. The difficulty with that type of thinking is that when life turns ugly and their wonderful plan isn’t coming to fruition they think they have somehow “backslidden” and do their best to get back onto the road of God’s will.
When I look at the world and people’s lives it seems to be quite haphazard. Success and failure, sickness and health, and safety and tragedy all seem to visit a person randomly rather than causally. A person with little skill or experience may be at the right place at the right time and get their dream job while someone else, with more talent, and experience galore is passed by because they are not rightly connected with those making decisions. One of two people walking next to each other down a sidewalk stops to tie his shoe while the other continues on and is killed by a collapsing crane at a construction site. It is difficult to explain that kind of randomness in the world. Christians often say it was God’s will but that kind of talk rings hollow to those affected by the tragedy or by those who do not believe. After all, what kind of malicious being is that kind of a god who would allow such a thing?
Our universe and the world in which we live seem to be chaotic, driven by randomness and chance. As one who believes in God, how am I to live and cope in such a world and maintain my faith? If my life isn’t mapped out perfectly, but driven by randomness, what path am I too take? Joyce Rupp writes these words in her book The Cup of Our Life. “Guidance is about hearing the inner voice in us that keeps us closely connected with God’s ways, giving us direction for our lives. It’s not that our lives are all mapped out for us by God. The path is rarely a clear, visible, neatly defined one. No, rather Divine Wisdom helps us to discover, each step of the way, how we are to be a loving person in our world with our chipped, flawed condition.” I believe Rupp would argue that I do not have a specific path to follow in order to be in God’s will. If I remain closely connected to God I can choose whatever path I wish, if I walk that path with love for others, knowing that God accompanies me along the way. That kind of perspective is one that provides a great deal of freedom and peace.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Share the Pain

Friday 4/29/2016 4:20 AM
I hear a number of Christians talking about what they call God’s perfect plan for their life. It often includes finding a perfect spouse who satisfies their every need, having a perfect family with cute, obedient children, having a perfect fulfilling job that pays well, and so on. Churches and pastors often feed into this view and suggest that, if you become a Christian and can find God’s perfect will for your life, all your troubles will disappear and your life will be wonderful. There are a lot of churches filled with parishioners that have that view and, at the same time, there are large numbers of people leaving the church when they discover that their troubles don’t all disappear.
Today I read these words by Rueben Job, “Eugene Peterson pinpoints the trouble with praying: We are often asked to respond in ways that we never intended when we first began to pray. It matters little where or in what century we are called to live out our Christian life. The witness of those who have gone before informs my own experience, telling me that we are often taken to places where we receive unwarranted accolades and to other places where we receive unwarranted suffering and pain. A disciple, one who chooses to be student and follower of Jesus, is not a ‘self-made person’ and is not on a personally designed journey. The key word in this theme is taken. Just as Jesus was taken into the wilderness after his baptism, so we are taken into the experiences of discipleship that we do not necessarily choose for our selves. We choose to follow Jesus and then Jesus chooses where we will God. It is that simple. The saving truth here is not that we are taken where we do not want to go; rather the saving truth is that we are not alone. There is One who leads us and goes with us. Jesus arose from baptism and ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness’. But even there the angels (messengers of God) were with him and tended to his needs. While we may not choose the place to God, we can choose to remain with the One who sends us and there find comfort, companionship, grace, peace, and joy.”
In his book Seeking the Face of God, Gary Thomas addresses the same issue. “Those who have gone before us have left a clear witness: We may seek God or we may seek ease, but we cannot seek both. The road we travel is anything but easy. It is true that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, but it is equally true that the plan is often fraught with tension and uncertainty, and with emotional, spiritual, and physical pain.”
I believe that those within the family of faith need to represent the life we experience with God in a more realistic way. We need to share our own struggles, doubts, fears, and pain with others. This will accomplish two things; we will accurately represent the life of a believer as one who struggles with God and we will be able to encourage one another and share the pain and hurt that is such a big part of life. When we put on a happy face and build a façade that suggests that our lives are all wonderful we make people believe they could never be good enough to be a part of the church at large because their lives don’t measure up. In reality, we all struggle with our faith, we all experience pain and disappointment, and we all fail to live the life God calls us to live. What we need to share is the good news of the gospel; that God is loving and compassionate and does not leave us to wallow in the messiness of this world alone. He accompanies us through it all by embodying himself in the lives of other believers. It’s time the church becomes the hands, feet, and arms of love and compassion, seeking out those who are hurting and wrapping them with that love.