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.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Obfuscating the Obvious

Saturday 9/3/2016 5:57 AM
This past summer was a big disappointment for me. During the spring I was having difficulty maintaining a regular discipline of running and spending quiet time meditating each morning. I seemed to have some sort of difficulty with my breathing that kept me from running more than a half mile or so without stopping and I simply stopped my habit of reading the Bible, meditating on what it said, and writing in my journal. I would do it maybe twice a week but not the regular routine that it has been for me for the last twenty or so years of my life. When I did run, I struggled, and when I had my devotions, they were dry and, for the most part, meaningless.
As the summer began I pledged to run more frequently and return to my regular habit of a morning quiet time. My renewed resolve lasted approximately one week before I fell back into my newly acquired habit of no running or quiet time. It seems I choose to check my Facebook page, play online Scrabble with friends, do the online Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle, and read online news articles rather than exercising my body and spirit.
I began my running routine on Labor Day weekend in 1978. I began slowly and worked my way up to running four miles each day. Since it is Labor Day weekend I decided to start fresh this morning, hoping to tap into the same reservoir of resolve I had 38 years ago. I ran a full two miles this morning without having to stop for breath and I had my devotions. One day complete for a different future.
Part of my devotional reading today included an excerpt from Reformed Spirituality, by Howard Rice. He writes, “The biblical promise that if we truly seek, we shall find God is the basis for the journey of the spiritual life. In spite of the difficulties along the way, the times of dryness when nothing seems to be happening, the discouragement and distraction that come to us all, and the times of falling back and wondering if we have made any progress at all, the journey is one from which we cannot turn back. The testimony of the saints of all the ages is that the journey is worth it; that God really is love; and that the love God offers is the most important reality that can be known by any of us. Such knowledge enables a person to have tremendous power to take what happens, to surmount great difficulties, and to grow in the face of tragedy and deep disappointment. The fruit of the spiritual life is not easily attained. The process of growing in grace is sometimes difficult. It requires persistence which never comes easily for any of us.”
I can attest to the difficulties of maintaining a spiritual discipline. The main difficulty for me seems to be that I lack the necessary persistence. I find that the discipline necessary is more difficult to exercise the older I get. Somehow I always believed that, as I aged, my walk with God would become easier because of my experience. The biggest problem I have is the things that always seemed to be black and white when I was younger now seemed tinged by varying shades of gray. Things I was sure about as a young man I now question, including the way that God would have me interact with those with whom I have contact on a regular basis.
I once had a professor who criticized a proof I had written by saying that I was obfuscating the obvious. Sometimes I feel like my insight into scripture and how God would have me live in the world are being similarly obfuscated. What once seemed clear is now obscure. I guess I should trust God to lead me through this time of discouragement and distraction just like I trusted him to lead me when things seemed clearer. I need to remain persistent.

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.