When the Long Night Ends

There is a Hasidic Tale  of an old Rabbi  who once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.   They thought about the answer and had  many suggestions.   They asked “Could it be  when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”     Or, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”   With each thought, the Rabbi  told them they were wrong.   Completely exasperated with their trying, they asked the Rabbi to give them his answer.    The  Rabbi looked at them  with love in his eyes and and answered,     “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

In this broken, fractured world of ours, we need to be reminded that each of us holds a place in God’s heart.   Each of us is precious in God’s eyes.    A society is best when we honor and respect each other . . . When we live with  integrity and trust that neither you nor I will harm the other in the words we use of the stories we tell.  We are best  when we refuse to harm our neighbors and speak up  when we see our neighbors being harmed.   We are best when we can see in the face of any man or woman,  the face of  our sister or our brother.  And in seeing treat each one with the same kind of love, God loves us with.  Only then will our long night of division and hostility end.

The Psalmist Asks “Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose way of life is blameless, who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart; whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor.” Psalm 15:1-3 NIVUK

When Will we stop shooting our Children?

Another shooting, and I want something other than just thoughts and prayers sent. I want us to stop pretending that guns are not killing our children. I want us to have a healthy conversation around guns that isn’t co-opted by the NRA.     The following is a piece I published July 24, 2015 as “Another Week, Another Shooting”

Another week, another shooting. And we pretend that guns have nothing to do with the violence we see played out week by week. If it isn’t a mass shooting in a church, a theater, a military base or a gang shooting on the streets of our cities, it’s a murder of family members. We glorify violence as a society. Mass killers receive a notoriety they have not had previously in their lives.

Sandy Hook School, Aurora Movie Theater, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Mother Emmanuel AME church . . . the names roll off our tongues. Tonight’s shooting in a Louisiana theater will find it’s place in the long litany of names. It has been said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” The source of this quote is in question, but its truth lives in our newspapers. No matter how many people are killed, no matter how great a percentage of the population wants stricter gun control laws, there is a force more intent on profits than people. We will hear the platitudes again, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” So, week after week, we live with another tragedy.

Stephen Vincent Benet short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is a tale of a man who sold his soul to the devil for material gain. I wonder if we as a people haven’t been selling our souls to keep the status quo. If not selling our souls, we’ve been worshiping the false gods of profit, fear and guns. Our law makers live in fear of the gun lobby and resist any changes and improvements to our laws. The NRA controls the congress while most of us wait for something to change. Laws may not have kept a gun out the hands of today’s shooter, but that isn’t true of others. Stolen guns are used every day to kill and to main. Yet, even the most sensible protection which would only allow the person who purchased the gun to use it, can’t get passed.

I grew up around guns with both a father and brother who hunted. Today’s guns are not like those of my childhood. Today’s reasons for owning guns are not either. The gun culture would tell us we are safer for our guns, but have trouble explaining how an Idaho toddler could find a gun in his mothers purse and kill her during a trip to a store.

I am tired of the clichés. I am tired of the deaths. I am tired of good people being killed by misguided youths, gang initiations, vengeful men and troubled young people . . . all of which are aided by too easy access to guns. I am tired of excuses. I’m tired of our nations lawmakers living in such fear of the gun lobby, they refuse to act. I’m tired of the pretense of sorrow, the false outrage by Washington, when next week, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing, all the while preparing notes for the next heartache. The combination of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for violent movies and our nation’s easy access to guns, makes another tragedy inevitable and soon.

“But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos 5:24

Who in Your Life Needs a Blessing?

I was at the service counter at Trader Joe’s when, out of the blue, one of the staff handed me a bouquet of white roses saying it was a “Pay it forward.” That unexpected gift was a blessing. The giver had no idea how such a simple gift would touch me. I had been missing a dear friend who died months earlier. The gift came as a sign that God, knowing my loss, had found a way to comfort me.

The gift of Blessing another is something that the church I am a part of will be starting next week. Wrapped around a study called, “Surprise the World,” every person will be encouraged to choose three people each week to bless in some way. I suspect there are as many ways to bless as there are people who need a blessing. To the troubled co-worker having a rough day with the boss, a word of encouragement can lift a spirit. Reaching out to an overwhelmed parent of a special needs child with a meal for the family – can give a much needed break. Sending a note of support to a person going through a divorce, to just let that person know that you care, can heal a broken spirit. Taking time to listen to a friend, offers encouragement in the simple act of allowing a person to be heard. Taking a lonely person out for a meal recognizes that person’s value and worth.

Look around your world today – who in your life needs a blessing? And what is it that he or she needs?

 

God’s Care is Forever

My favorite Bible is the Revised English Version which often translates passages of scripture in ways that are somewhat different than more popular Bibles. This morning I was reading from Isaiah 40: 21-31 when the words “Do you not know, have you not heard, were you not told long ago?” popped out at me. I thought of how often I have to be reminded of what I already know about God.

I know that God moves in our lives in both mysterious and somewhat less than mysterious ways. I am confident (most of the time) that God’s love is real. When I look at my life I can point to times and places where I knew that God was not only present, but moving mountains that were in my path. I preach about a day I was going through a divorce, single parenting and choosing between rent money and food, when a person dropped by with a couple of bags of groceries. There are seasons, when I know God interceded on my behalf as I’ve lived  through a rough patch. What I don’t understand is why I forget those moments and times the next time I bump into a challenging situation.

Apparently, I’m not the first person who has a memory lapse when it comes to the goodness, compassion and faithfulness of God. Isaiah reminds a doubting people that God’s care and love is forever.

“Jacob, why do you complain,
and you, Israel, why do you say,
‘My lot is hidden from the Lord,
my cause goes unheeded by my God?’
Do you not know, have you not heard?
The Lord, the eternal God,
creator of earth’s farthest bounds,
does not weary or grow faint;
his understanding cannot be fathomed.
He gives vigor to the weary,
new strength to the exhausted.
Young men may grow weary and faint,
even the fittest may stumble and fall;
but those who look to the Lord will win new strength,
they will soar as on eagles’ wings;
they will run and not feel faint,
march on and not grow weary.” Isaiah 40:27-31 REB

Some days I just need to be reminded of what I already know.

Tears of Confusion

My oldest son was just shy of three years old when I discovered that he was gone. In the distance I saw him riding on his little red tractor. Gathering up my 18-month-old son, I began the chase. The problem was, I was seven months’ pregnant. With the added weight of my second son, I couldn’t run faster than my older son was scooting. The best I was able to do was to keep him in sight.

The race had gone on for about three blocks when I saw my older son heading for the freeway. There wasn’t much else to do, but put my 18-month-old on a corner, tell him to “stay,” and ask the UPS driver parked on the side of the road to watch  him  until I got back. Then, with less weight I went  after his brother. I remember how my younger son started to cry. I’m sure he felt that I was deserting him. What he didn’t know was how much he was in my thoughts, as I pursued his brother. He had no concept of how hard it was for me to leave him there. He didn’t understand that I didn’t want him left by himself, even for a few minutes. Nor, could he know how very worried I was about him. He didn’t know that my heart was aching for him.

“Where is God anyway?” It comes, that question, when life deals us a bitter blow. “Why? Why didn’t God stop the drunk driver who killed my friend. . . .Or the spread of cancer in my child . . . why didn’t God make my marriage work, when I prayed so hard?” “Why did my child get mixed up in drugs?” “We loved each other, why did my spouse die so young?” Would that there were easy answers to these difficult questions. The more I experience of life, the more convinced I am that there are no easy answers to life’s griefs, disappointments, and sorrows. I am equally convinced that God cares, that God is with us in each and every tragedy, that God does not leave us comfortless. Believing that and feeling that are, of course, two entirely different situations.

What we believe in faith is that some day we will understand this life with all of its unfairness. To say that it is God’s will a child dies of cancer, a drunk driver kills someone, a marriage fails or that anyone gets messed up in drugs seems to me blasphemy. It’s equally evident that God doesn’t protect us from life’s hurts. I once heard the theologian Henri Nouwen say, “The good news of the Gospel is not that God has come to take our pain away, but that God has come to be with us in it.” The apostle Paul says it another way, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)

No, I don’t have the answers for “Why.”  But this I believe  – that even as my heart ached for my younger son with his tears of confusion, even so, God’s heart aches for each of us in ours.

Jonah – God’s Petulant Prophet

Jonah is a petulant prophet. He fumes, he expresses his frustration with God by running as fast and far as he can to get away. All of which is why the book of Jonah is one of my favorite Biblical books. One can give credit to Jonah for honesty. He does not mince words with God about  what he thinks and what he wants to do. He runs from God’s call to go to Nineveh because he simply doesn’t like the people. He’d rather they were not warned. What he hopes for is that God rains down fire, brimstone and tons of lava on the city of Nineveh and its people. So he runs from God.

God has a way of searching after us when we run and Jonah’s run from God was no exception. Caught in a storm and with the throw of lots indicating he was the reason for the storm, he just asks to be thrown into the sea. Jonah would rather die than see the Ninevites’ saved. It would be a final escape from the persistent call of God. Even there his plan fails. Instead of certain death, he is rescued by a large fish and eventually spit out on the shore. Once again he encounters the call of God to go to Nineveh. Fresh from his near death experience one would suspect there would be an authenticity about his message as he walks the city. So, Jonah shouts for the people to repent, hoping they won’t.

Yet, he is incredibly successful. Maybe it was the way he described being held in the stomach of a giant fish or being thrown into the stormy waters. For three days he walks the streets of Nineveh, fuming about being there. Having completed his task, he goes to edge of town and waits for  Operation Nineveh Storm to rain from the sky. But it doesn’t. Frustratingly for Jonah, the people believe him and repent. Even the king’s heart changes.

Jonah’s problem is that he doesn’t want God to love other people. He wants that for himself and his people.

Jonah’s strange trip to Nineveh is meant to teach him compassion. The story of Jonah ends with a word from God, after a plant gives Jonah shade for a day, then withers the next. He is distraught. God compares Jonah’s concern for the plant with his lack of concern for the 120,000 people living in the city. We are left wondering if Jonah’s heart was changed. Did the word mean anything to him. Was this reluctant prophet able to open his heart to love the other people God loves. Are we?

 

 

Steadfast Love Transforms all Failure

Though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the LORD holds us by the hand.” (Psalm 37:24) writes the Psalmist. I’m not fond of falling headlong or stumbling along life’s journey. I would much rather be the person who always has it altogether, with no detours along the way. That may have been why it was so difficult for me when my marriage fell apart. Back in those years, I was convinced that a Christian ought to be able to make his or her marriage work. Failing at that, I had serious questions about God’s ongoing love and care . I wondered about God’s willingness to accept me and forgive my failure. I’m not sure quite why the assumption was so embedded in me that divorce was an unforgivable sin. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that.

From the vantage point of years, I suspect that I was projecting my own sense of judgment on God. Failure pulls us up short. Personal failure can be devastating. We don’t like to fail. Failure forces us to admit our human limitations. It causes us to acknowledge that we do not know everything we thought we did. In failure, we find ourselves eating words we once glibly stated and wincing at judgments we freely gave. We find ourselves in a humbling place, without the familiar certainty of yesterday.

Big failures carry with them fear of judgment, loss of confidence, and a disturbing anxiety about our future. I don’t know what failure Dietrich Bonhoeffer was referring to when he wrote these words. I do know that he was in prison in Germany during the World War II charged with treason. He writes, “Time alone distinguishes . . .when the creeping hours of the day first reveal the true outlines of failure. This is the hour of steadfast love, the hour of the mother and the beloved, the hour of the friend and the brother. Steadfast love transforms all failure, and gently cradles it in the soft radiance of heavenly light.”

If today, you are feeling yourself to be a “failure,” be assured that God has not stopped loving or caring for you. God is far more concerned about your personal well-being than about the mistakes you have made. God wants you to know that you are not alone.  You are in fact  surrounded by the steadfast love of God . A love so rich and pure that no words can adequately describe the power of that love. Looking backwards I can name the people God put in my life during that painful, questioning time.   I see how God was using them to reach me –  to remind me that God’s love never fails.

The scripture says, “Being rooted and grounded in love, may you 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, which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17b-19)
The day of failure really will pass. Up ahead will be moments of joy and celebration. But for today, be assured God’s grace and love are surrounding you.  Someday you will see how in this uncertain time, you have truly been “cradled in the soft radiance of heavenly light.”