Getting a Character Do-Over

Recently, I’ve been reading up on “Twelve step” programs. The brilliance of Bill W and Alcoholic’s Anonymous was to create small support groups, where on a weekly basis, people would come together in community. There they shared their common struggle to let go of their dependency on alcohol. Today there are groups for many different issues, but all have the same common core, of coming together and working through life issues, one step at a time.

I preached on the Sixth and Seventh Steps a few weeks back. They are odd steps because after listing all the defects in one’s character in Step Four and naming them to another person in Step Five, in Step Six you just ask God to make you ready to let go of them. In Step Seven, instead of intentionally working on some area of your life you know needs working on, you ask God to remove those negative character traits from your life. One author pointed out,  that when we try to figure out what part of our character we think we should be working on, we almost inevitably get it wrong. After turning areas in our life we know need to change over to God, we simply trust that God will work in our hearts the changes that need to be made. The problem is, that when you ask God to work changes in your heart, God does. God lets you know where and how you’ve slipped and how that may have affected another person.

I find myself echoing the old African-American spiritual, “Lord I want to be more loving in-a my heart, in-a my Heart. Lord, I want to be more loving in-a my heart.” * The combination of readings, a study I’m leading and an elderly friend’s funeral called to mind those moments I am less than proud of. I think of times when my patience was thin and words that could have been said to sooth a heart were withheld. I remember moments when it was easier to makes assumptions about a person than to really reach out in love and compassion. I regret times and ways I didn’t express God’s love to a person who needed to know that God cared.

The good news is that God does give innumerable opportunities to get this right. Other people come into our lives who need comfort or a word of affirmation and encouragement. We are given more chances to show compassion and love. Where we may have failed before, God offers us a new moment, to listen, to care and to reach out. Meanwhile, in God grace, God continues to work in our hearts transforming our failures into wisdom, our regrets into loving care. God keeps moving and restoring our hearts in ways that allow us to live fully, the life God envisions for each of us. All we need to do, is let God walk beside us on our journey and accept  God’s love for us.

*Words are from the African American Spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian.” Verses include the prayer to be;”A Christian”, “more loving”, “more Holy” and “like Jesus” in my heart.

Stumbling into God’s Arms

It is comforting to recognize that all of Jesus’ disciples, followers and friends slip. We flounder just after we’ve received the fresh insight, just when we think we’ve figured it out. We falter just at the time when we think we’ve come to terms with life and with God. Even those first disciples of Jesus swung between great insights and a certainty that Jesus was the Christ to the other side, of thinking that he had come to reclaim the power of a king in Jerusalem, replacing Herod. They had it together some days and others – not so much. One day they were faithful followers, the next doubting Jesus altogether. John Procotor, says of them “Enviable though their place in time may be, these disciples still flounder between insight and failure . . . their journey involves both progress and stumbling.”*

As do our journey’s. The grace-filled thing about this is that when we stumble, we stumble into God’s arms. We stumble between insight and failure. I think we feel this more, the greater our love for God is. We may see failure. God sees an opportunity for us to learn and grow. We get another opportunity to learn about kindness and grace. We are reminded of forgiveness and mercy. Humbling moments carry their own lesson on true humility.

There are times when we look to the giants of the faith, comparing ourselves to them. Yet, even they were not perfect. Mother Theresa had her moments of doubt. Others had issues with anger, relationships or grudges. Each of us carries a set of vulnerabilities. Some days we fail miserably and other we know we’ve done our best. We are frail human beings who need friendship, compassion, affirmation, love, encouragement and companionship. We need to know that we are both loved and loveable. God reminds us that no matter how high or how low our status, God loves each of us. God loves us in our fragility, woundedness, dysfunctional behavior and everything else. God loves us when we are at our worst and at our very best. God’s love never fails. But whenever we stumble, God gently and quietly draws us forward, pulling us back to places of healing and rest. For this I give thanks.

*John Procotor, “Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Volume I” Reflection on Matthew 13:10-17

God is on the Side of the Poor

I try to stay out of politics when I’m writing. When I do write about politics I try to be objective and balance the different sides of an issue. It’s difficult when what you really want to do is to scream at politicians who, either have no comprehension of the policies they are creating and how their decisions will impact the working poor, or simply don’t care. I try to believe that it is  ignorance and not open hostility toward people who are living on the edge. This week Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) a member of the House Judiciary Committee was talking about the roll out of the new Health Care bill and made a comment that the poor will have to choose between the new IPhone and health care. Wow . . . all I could think of was a low-cost plan I have been looking at that would give me a reconditioned older model IPhone as part of the package. At twenty-five dollars a month, I would have my own, new to me, IPhone.

It is so easy to judge the needy. Why, we ask are they making that decision? Isn’t that a foolish use of scarce resources? Hey, I’m making due with an old flip phone ( And I am) . . . Why should they have something better? Of course, I’m also making due with a tablet, PC, Laptop and high speed internet connection. I don’t need a smart phone to read email, fill in a job application, search for jobs or get updates from my kid’s school. I can do all I really need with the connections I already have. In our digitally interconnected world, lacking Internet access is more than an inconvenience, it is a handicap. Schools, doctors, social service agencies along with employers, all use email or web pages to communicate.

Aside from the obvious, the new health care plan will take us backwards in health care. Only 3 percent of people searching for health care were impacted by steep premium hikes. Instead of working on a solution for that subset, we seem to be heading down a path of total destruction for a much larger group of people. The promise of a health care package that would be “Wonderful” reassured a lot of voters. What is clear is that this replacement will not cover the most vulnerable people in the country. It won’t cover some people in my life who are really important to me. There is nothing “Wonderful” about it unless you already have plenty and aren’t looking for genuine help. It would make health care unaffordable for the working poor who don’t have coverage through their employer.

So I wonder how anyone who has made those promises can face the people in their districts? And when will they realize that not everyone who shows up at a town hall fearing this heath care law voted for their opponent.   When will they  accept that when they take on the role of representing a district or a state, it includes everyone within the boundaries?  The problem with too many politicians is that as long as one can deny the hardships they are inflicting through their policies, they can pretend that they aren’t hurting anyone.

Yet, God is not mocked. We end up reaping what we sow. Because God is always but always on the side of the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the poor.

Shaped and Formed in the Wilderness

IMG_7697Whether it is the Redwood Forest, Atlantic Coast, the mountains of Colorado or the forests of Lake Superior, I love to spend time close to nature. But just because I love these places doesn’t mean I want to get stranded in most of them. There is the wilderness I visit, and the other wilderness moments which come unbidden and unwanted. Biblical images of wilderness are that of a harsh and inhospitable place. There is little joy in a wilderness adventure you haven’t chosen. Our wilderness journey can be frightening leaving us disoriented and uncertain. Kathy Beach-Verhey writes, “The wilderness is unfamiliar. It is uncomfortable. It generates fear . . . yet it is often in the wilderness that God does something transformative, renewing, or inspiring. God often uses the wilderness times of life . . . to remake God’s people.”*

Getting shaped and formed in the wilderness may be an enriching experience eventually, but hard to recognize as such in the moment. Our time in the wilderness forces us to rethink who we are and who we are becoming. It is there we hammer out what is important and vital. At times, we are forced to learn more about ourselves than we want to know. Tears water the land. Yet shed tears bring healing to our spirits. God takes our brokenness and works to renew and restore our lives.

One Sunday, after a particularly hard week, when I was feeling both inept and discouraged, the words of a hymn broke into my discouragement. Words came as a healing balm encouraging me with a message that God was working even then to nourish my life and restore my spirit. Rather than inept, God was fitting me for the work in front of me. What I was experiencing was more difference of opinion than lack of giftedness. I heard the promise of a God who comes with the speed of a mother reaching out to her wounded, broken child.**

I’ve learned in the wilderness that God is always there. God comes to us in the quiet whisper touching our hearts. God draws us through gentle leading and in comforting assurances of love. God reminds us that in spite of all that may have happened to us or the mistakes we have made, we are never outside the realm of God’s love. In God’s care the “how we got into the wilderness” is not nearly as important as “getting us through it.” For just like a mother races to her hurting child, so God races to us with arms of compassion and love.

*Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 1, pg 64

**“Praise to the Lord, who doth nourish thy life and restore thee;
Fitting thee well for the tasks that are ever before thee.
Then to Thy need God as a mother doth speed,
Spreading the wings of grace o’er thee.”
Rupert E. Davies in 1983 added verse  to the hymn “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”