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.

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.

 

The Power to Overcome

Interstate State Park Minnesota

The Apostle Paul writes, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed.”   II Corinthians  4:7-9   Paul writes these words having lived through shipwrecks, floggings and imprisonment. There were people who went out of their way to cause him grief and  pain which   created a great deal of anguish in his life. No one who studies the life of Paul comes away thinking that he was unaware of the pain and struggles that we face. Paul well understood the stresses and strains of life.

A job is lost. Our best friend dies. We are treated unfairly. Life can throw us some very painful curves. We have choices to make whenever this happens. We can wallow in self pity. We can dish out grief to our friends and family . . . We can make sure that everyone knows about our pain. We can even isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Or we can move on. We move on by letting go of yesterday’s pain and trust God with it. Sometimes, this will mean a period of counseling to deal with the issue. Traumatic events need to be worked through – heartache and loss need to be grieved, but there comes a time to let go. Only in letting go can we ready ourselves for a tomorrow that is better than today.

If we were to try to do this in our own power, it might well be impossible. The good news is that we are not alone. The power of God lives in us. God made us to be over-comers in the traumatic events that we face. Paul developed a resilience to face the hurts and struggles of his life because he had come to know One who would give him strength to endure. God continues to come to us, offering us a source of power and strength to overcome our personal traumas and confusion.

The scripture reminds us that God wants to be with us to get us through whatever difficulties, crisis, or heartache we face. When Paul wrote the people of Rome that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” he was echoing the words he had written earlier to the people in Corinth. Paul’s witness has  reverberated through the ages as we add our own assurance, that truly, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And in that power – through that power – we find the strength to overcome. Truly, God’s love and power embraces us in all the circumstances of our lives.

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

The question of suffering is deeply troubling. We want the very best for those who are precious to us. When a loved one hurts, we hurt. When they suffer, we suffer. Part of what makes us human is this connection of suffering love. So, we wonder how a good and loving God, can allow the grief and pain we see in our world. We don’t understand why God allows a September 11th or the shooting of little girls in a small Amish school.  Mudslides, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis all come with their own “Why.”

 

Especially, we wonder why God allows painful things to happen to ourselves and people we love.      If nothing else- we at least want to make some sense of our suffering.  A young woman from a congregation, that I had left weeks earlier, was murdered by a man who had just moved into her apartment building. As I searched and prayed for words of comfort and hope for the family, this passage of scripture began to fill my mind, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known..” I Corinthians 13:12

At the deepest level of faith, we trust that God will take our broken hearts, our deepest questions, our gut wrenching grief and weave them into our life in such a way, that some good will shine through. Today, we do not understand the “why” of suffering.  Till then we are comforted by God who chooses to be involved in our world, in our lives.

The apostle Paul’s affirmation in Romans encourages us. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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 8:39

The mystery remains . . . as does God who is with us and from whom, nothing can separate us in Jesus Christ.

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

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”