Needing a Certificate of Martyrdom?

A magazine advertisement I once read offered a Frameable Certificate of Instant Martyrdom printed with these words: “The suffering you have had to endure at the hands of life has been almost more than any person can bear. Rarely has such a noble soul been forced to put up with such undeserved agony. In recognition of your extraordinary plight, the Church of World Peace hereby awards this ‘Certificate of Martyrdom.’ ” To receive this certificate” the ad read, “all you need to do is list in your letter three horrible events in your life, enclose $10, and you will have in hand something “to console your misery.”

The writer of Hebrews had a better solution for those times when we feel overwhelmed with the trials in our life. Its author suggests: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.” (Hebrews 12:1) In our moments of discouragement, it is tempting to give up . . . Tempting to think of ourselves as the only one who has ever endured the loss, hardship or loneliness that we encounter.

The writer of the book of Hebrews points us instead, to the lives of our ancestors in faith who have walked in painful, difficult places before us. In spite of their trials, they continued to trust in God. Something in me soars whenever I read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. . . “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . By faith Abraham (and Sarah) obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going . . .all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”

Within its long list of faithful are people who remained steadfast, continued in hope and believed that the final victory was God’s. “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I generally gain some perspective about the time I reach these verses. Life can be difficult. Heartaches come. Our lives can get really messed up. Bad things happen to some very good people. Our hearts bleed when grief strikes and when grief strikes people we love. What gives me strength, and I believe gave our ancestors in faith strength, is  the assurance that even when life is hard, God is at work.  Troubles come.  But, in the midst of our trials God is with us to walk with us through them.

In your times of despair and doubt, when the race seems hard and you are weary  – Remember that there are those who have run before you on this journey of faith. Those so running would testify to God’s faithfulness and the wisdom of continuing the race. For they know in the deepest part of their being that the final victory is God’s.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

Building Hope

           Imagine a world where nobody helped anyone else. Or, where those who did help, only helped family and friends. Wouldn’t our world be less? One disaster follows another and we find ourselves stretching to do what we believe is right. There is never a shortage of places to give from local concerns to those which come to us by way of You tube videos. Imagine what it must be like to receive a gift of food when you’ve been displaced by an earthquake and all is lost, except the most elemental pieces of your life. Imagine what it is like to live  open to the elements after a hurricane has ravaged your land and receive the gift of shelter. Imagine wondering where to turn and how to cope, then someone you do not know, offers you the necessities of life.

On September 11, 2001 the city of New York faced its worst crisis. Attacks carried out on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center left the city crushed and broken. Throughout the  nation people responded to the need. Many sent money, while others came to search the ruble and heal the injured. The steady stream of donations profoundly touched Jeff Parness. A couple of years later he created a Foundation called, “New York Says Thank You.”

Each year, near September 11, the Foundation reaches out to an area of the country which has been hit by a disaster. They spend time rebuilding homes, churches, camps or whatever that city’s greatest need is. He says, it is not as much about the building itself, as it is about building hope. Hope came to him, in the darkness of the September 11 attacks, through the outpouring of kindness across the country. Today, Jeff tries to pay it forward, touching other lives even as his was touched by an earlier generosity.

The recent disasters have left us many places to offer our gifts and our service.    But, one doesn’t have to look far from home to offer help.   There is someone in your life who needs some extra love, extra care, extra time.   The happiest people I know are the ones who have found ways of reaching out to others, sharing their resources, their time and themselves with people who need someone to care.  Today, may you find joy in the giving of your self.

Civility is Basic to Christian Life

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

This passage from Phillipians 2, written by the apostle Paul,  has been the focus of my devotional life in the past week. I’ve been reminded that humility is one of the gifts of the Spirit and that when we stop assuming we are better than everyone else, we begin to see what we can learn from people who think differently. Every day, as I have read through the passage, I have been struck by the discord in our country and how people of faith have gotten caught up in those divisions. Sometimes we have contributed to them and acted in ways that were not constructive.

Today my local paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, headlined an editorial, “Six steps to make America more civil again.” The piece was by Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, a semiretired marketing executive and researcher. He names simple things we can do to create a healthier emotional environment . . .  from showing simple consideration for the people around us when we are shopping to doing a good deed each day. (I suspect doing a good deed for a person you don’t know well and happen to disagree with might help even more.) He named: Giving other people the benefit of the doubt; Helping in practical and tangible ways; Leaving our surroundings better than we find them.

We have been engaged in ripping apart the soul of our country. Our collective conversation has been bitter and divisive. We find it difficult to agree on much and even when we do, there is someone able to punch a hole in that unity. So, this past week, I found myself chastened often when I read the words, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

We are tempted to only look out for “me and mine,” but God asks us to stretch our minds and open our hearts. God asks us to see others as God’s children, who are loved and cherished by God even as we are loved. Scripture tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 2:3-4)   What a difference we could make in our communities if we started with respect for all of God’s children.

Empty Your Pockets

I write this on a warm September day in Minnesota.   So much of our life in this section of the country revolves around the seasons. We glory in the changing colors of fall. We treasure days, with their crisp sense of urgency, when we  can  enjoy and  celebrate the world around us. Our steps are lighter on days like this.       Yet, I wonder if we sometimes get it wrong, because every day – whatever the outside condition – is a gift God has given us.  It comes to us on trust. Our job is to take that day and to use it in the best way we can.

Erma Bombeck was known for her humorous journalism.  Yet,  she frequently seasoned her humor with pinches of wisdom. At the end of a newspaper column on March 10, 1987, Erma wrote these words:    “I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will go like this: “So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams that were unfulfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?”

“And I will answer, ‘I’ve nothing to return. I spent every-thing you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.”(Detroit Free Press)

Erma had a sense of how best to spend a life. What about you? Have you got any dreams to work on? Unused talent to put to work? Some unsaid compliments that need to be spoken? And is there any love that you need to spread around?  May your day be blessed with wisdom and the joy of using this day as the gift God created it to be.

The apostle Paul prayed that followers of Jesus would discover the gifts available to each of us.   He wrote,  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  Ephesians 3:16-19

Health Care Bill Debates and Anxieties

When my youngest daughter was born prematurely in 1977, it was a very frightening time. Her early months were one roller coaster after another of wondering if she would survive. There was more than one Code Blue called on her. In the midst of that difficult time though, one of the gifts was to have health insurance which covered almost everything. Her three-month initial stint in the hospital, and several others that occurred in the year following, could have wiped us out financially. The $70,000 plus dollars of that time in medical inflation dollars today would be around *$570,000. But fortunately we had good coverage. Our out of pocket costs were hard to meet, but something we could manage.

With the Senate set to vote on yet another of the most unpopular bills ever to hit their building, I’m left mystified by the way the entire health care debate of 2017 has been held. I know way too many people, among the working poor, who would be negatively affected if the current bill passes. Creating a health care bill without input from people who work in the field confuses me. Why would anyone create a bill without knowing the consequences of their actions? Especially, given the impact passage of that bill will have on millions of lives.

When the framers of the constitution met to determine what form of government we would have, I’m pretty sure they thought we would send our best people to Washington to represent us. They were expecting we would send the wise to do the work of the people. Knowing human nature well, they sent up a process where one house would be elected every two years and the other six. They felt that those who would be in office for six years would not feel pressured to act foolishly in the moment, but would use the wisdom they had acquired to judge and evaluate bills wisely. Our founders could never have envisioned the world of today, when news spreads in an instant and groups put pressure immediately, to vote a certain way. They would not have known how much influence donations to elected officials would have, or how that money would undermine working for the common good. They couldn’t have known that today’s Senators and Congressmen and women would be constantly running for office. Always fearful that they not upset a big donor.

These last months have seen us going through one cycle of votes after another trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a well-thought-out replacement. Meanwhile, I find myself growing anxious with every new bill that undoes the good for people who live on the edge. What I have hoped for from the beginning was for congress to fix the broken parts of the law, just as they did when Medicare became the law of the land. Instead we have had this long  battle which has done none of us any good.

I keep asking God to work in the hearts of God’s people in Washington to make wise and good decisions about health care. I pray that they will let God lead them beyond their political party and into the truth God wants them to know. Imagine, how much good they could do together, if they really did put God above their respective political party and paid more attention to the one who told us that “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40 NRSV

What Kind of World are We Leaving Our Children?

We take the earth and its cycles for granted, until something out of the ordinary occurs. The heavy hand of two Category four hurricanes  hitting the United States in the space of three weeks,   and now the devastation of Hurricane Maria adding to the woes of those in the Caribbean,  is  cause to stop and think about our changing climate . . . our rising and warming oceans.      Only a few years ago the idea of global warming was just a debatable question in academic circles. All too rapidly, our climate is changing. Signs of that change are most apparent in the arctic where the permafrost is thawing, glaciers rapidly shrinking and entire villages being consumed by the sea. Polar bears are losing their habitat. Meanwhile, in Florida the city of Miami experiences flooding monthly when the moon pulls strongest on the tides. Many scientists believe that we are quickly coming to a place of where the course will be set irreversibly.

The issue is one that goes beyond political and national boundaries. All of us are in this together. Anwar Fazal expresses this so well in his poem.

“We all drink from one water
We all breathe from one air
We rise from one ocean
And we live under one sky
Remember
We are one
The new born baby cries the same
The laughter of children is universal
Everyone’s blood is red
And our hearts beat the same song
Remember
We are one
We are all bothers and sisters
Only one family, only one earth
Together we live
And together we die
Remember – We are one
Remember – We are one
Peace be on you
Brothers and Sisters
Peace be on you.”
Anwar Fazal, From Prayers for a Thousand Years Blessings and Expressions of Hope for the New Millennium By Elizabeth Roberts, Elias Amidon

The scripture tells us that we are caretakers of the earth. We have a responsibility to care for this world that God has entrusted to our keeping. We are reminded that “The earth is the Lords” and not ours to abuse or misuse. Our Christian faith teaches us that whatever we do to the least of the worlds citizens for good or ill, we also do to Christ. And for those of us who have received much, much is required. If we fail in this, future generations won’t ask about our political loyalties but wonder how we could have so denied the evidence and the prophetic words from the worlds scientists. They will wonder how we could have allowed an environmental catastrophe to happen. Our actions or inactions will have consequences which will outlast our lives. Future generations, including our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live out the repercussions of our decisions. What kind of world do we want our distant relatives to inhabit? What might God be asking of each of us to make that a reality? In our prayerful searching, may God guide our thoughts and direct our actions.

God Never Stops Searching For Us

Maybe, its just being in Minnesota, where spring has a habit of appearing in mid-May. Most of our year is spent waiting for summer to come and the rest of it regretting that summer is gone. Since I retired, I’ve taken to  vacationing in September as a way of stretching summer, just a little bit longer.  The few days away that I had planned for last week are already over.  I woke up this morning to a brisk and unexpected fall day.   Those moments we have waited for and anticipated may pass quickly, yet they leave us with lasting joy.  Moments of celebration, rest, vacation and reunion are part of the ebb and flow of life. They stand as markers of time passing, a movement through the different periods of our lives.  They speak of the significance and meaning we place on various aspects of our life.

Yet, the greatest meaning comes to us in our relationship with God. Augustine, an early Christian theologian and philosopher writes of God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Our hearts know there is “something more” in life. The nagging sense that we are missing out sneaks into our minds and spirits. The search for the something more can take us on a convoluted journey when we don’t realize who or what is missing. We may wander aimlessly, follow the false gods of materialism or find ourselves in dark and dangerous places. The good news is that God never stops searching for us.  God never stops  chasing after us in our wanderings.    We may stumble along the way.   We may falter in our faith journey.   We may lose our way, thinking we are on the way.   We may get confused and totally mess up.   Still God searches for us in all the places we try to hide ourselves in.   God searches for us the way a mom or a dad agonizes over a troubled child, or goes  searching for a missing one.   God does this because God loves us.  God wants us to be part of the great family of God and to know we have a place where we belong.  A place where we are wanted.   A place where  we will always be welcome.  A place to call home.