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”

Standing at the Door

Samuel Shoemaker, in his poem, “I Stand By the Door,” writes:soft-church

“I stay near the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—

It is the door through which people  walk when they find God.

People . . . Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only a wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like the blind,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door
Yet they never find it . . .
People die outside that door as starving beggar’s die,
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter
Die for want of what is within their grasp.”

This haunting poem brings back vivid memories of leaving the Emergency Shelter at Simpson United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, one sub-zero winter day. My family had helped at the shelter that night. On the way to the car, one of my children drew my attention to a man finding refuge in the doorway of the church. He had a single blanket wrapped around himself as he lay huddled for warmth in the bitter cold. Throughout the night he had lain there, outside of the warmth of the shelter within.  He had been “outside the door” while fellowship, warm coffee and hot chocolate, a place to sleep and the security of being in a warm room, lay inside. He had missed out.

There are many people who “miss out,” who “miss the door” and the message of God’s love, acceptance, forgiveness and grace. When I ask people about their faith and what it means to them, I hear words about God being present. They talk about care and other expressions of loving compassion, found in their faith community.

Samuel Shoemaker used to invite people to experiment with Christianity. He invited them to surrender as much of themselves to as much of God as they could accept at that time in their life. He encouraged them to pray and open their hearts in honest dialog with God. I would invite you to do the same. Experiment with the Christian faith. Start a journal. Write your prayers in plain and honest words. Open your heart to God through your honesty. Be willing to go where God leads.   What I know to be true is this – God always hears our prayers and the groaning of our hearts – God wants no one left outside the door.

* Samuel Shoemaker a portion of his work ” I Stand by the Door” (Paraphrased)

The Heaven’s Are Telling – God’s Good Gifts of Creation

img_9190Sometimes, a person just needs to get away, to get a different perspective on the world. I’ve spent a couple of weeks recently doing just that. It is strange how one begins to think different thoughts when you’re away from your normal environment. The beauty of God’s artistic hand leaps out at you when the scenery is not a part of your daily life.
img_8454 I was able to visit the Redwood Forests of Northern California with their extraordinary width and height. I was in awe of these ageless trees which have lived through centuries of change, while only growing taller and stronger.
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The coasts of Oregon reminded me of our connection with the rest of the world. Water that splashes on the Oregon coast, has also circled the globe. From Mount St. Helen in Oregon to Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park, the sheer beauty of God’s creating hand is ever present. Along the way, were the gardens which carved out of old quarries and repurposed as gardens. img_9178
All of this reminded me of the joy God finds in the creation. God acts with extravagance, sprinkling the world with color, variety and incredible places of delight. img_9971
Many people will say that they feel closest to God when they are in a natural setting. I think it is because we know that in some way we are people of the earth and water, the sky and sea. The pulse of a wave crashing on the shoreline, is like the beat of God’s heart in our hearts. We look to the stars and see a divine hand at work, awed by the vastness of space. And yet, we are reminded that God is mindful of us. Our little lives have a place in this vast universe, which we do not understand, but know to be true. The world around stands as a testimony of God’s presence and God’s loving hand in our lives. The psalmist put it this way, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Psalm 19:1img_8697

Why God,  Why?

Why God, Why?

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These past weeks have brought us news of one tragedy after another. Tragedies, however they strike, leave us shattered. We ask the questions of why. We wonder how God can let such terrible things happen to people we love and care about. We wonder at the aftermath of a truck rolling into a crowd in Nice France and the devastation left behind. We worry about the country of Turkey and the consequences for an average person after an attempted coup. Closer to home, our cities are filled with unrest. A long hot summer looms ahead. Police fear for their lives after a second sniper attacks. Our system of law and justice becomes more fragile. In our personal lives heartaches rip the heart in two.

“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.

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 him heading for the freeway. There wasn’t much else to do, but put my 18-month-old son on a corner, tell him to “stay,” and with less baggage go 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.

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 know, God sticks by us, in whatever place we find ourselves in. May that be your strength and your hope.