Love Draws the Circle Wide

Westboro Baptist Church planned some picketing in my community today. If you have somehow missed Westboro’s hate-filled speech, consider yourself fortunate. Fred Phelps, who started the church, found fame when he and his people started to picket the funerals of soldiers around the country. They held up signs with hate messages aimed at people who were gay or lesbian, using derogatory terms.   The targeting of soldiers was a warped logic which tied the war against terror to what the Westboro people believe, is the country’s willingness to have gay and lesbian members in the armed services. In their arrogance, they cheered the deaths of those who gave their lives for our nation.    Choosing to intrude on the heartbreak of  parents, spouse and children, they  brought their hateful agenda  and picketed funerals.  Westboro’s goal in Minnesota today, was to protest decisions by the University of Minnesota Hospital as well as a local high school related to transgender youth.

What has always stunned me about the Westboro Baptist church are actions which are antithetical to Christian Love and compassion. As a pastor I find it hard to reconcile the Jesus of the gospels with the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Westboro church.  I found myself  praying that our young people were protected from the hate speech and that the Westboro people had changed hearts. Ironically, at the very end of his life, Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church he founded, because he came to see the world more compassionately than his followers. He pushed for reconciliation with two of his granddaughters who had been shunned by the church. The church he grew became even narrower in their ability to love and accept people than he had been. There was no longer room for Fred Phelps in his own church.

Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”  is a favorite of mine, for its insistence that God loves all of the world’s people and wants us to do the same.

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

God is the one that keeps drawing us into the larger circle. God pulls us from the isolation of judgmentalism, arrogance and self-righteousness into the greater truths of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, gentleness and humility.

I’ve heard no news coverage of Westboro Baptist Church today. The community made a decision not to confront or encourage a counter-protest in the places Westboro chose to picket, so the group would be denied the publicity they wanted. I don’t know if they came and picketed or not. I do know that the community decided to work together and silence their message of hate, by simply ignoring it. It was a teachable moment to remember that the greatest commandment,  after loving God with all our heart, minds’ soul and strength,  is to love our neighbor as ourself.

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.

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”

Getting Ready for Christmas

christmas-angelI’ve never been one to be over prepared, when it comes to Christmas. Usually, you’ll find me late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents for Christmas morning. One year, when my children were small, I was following my usual pace. Everything would get done. It would be finished on time, after all I’d always succeeded. My schedule for Christmas Eve day, was firmly set in my mind on the evening before as I planned out everything that needed to be done. A small banner for the sanctuary at church, packages to wrap and more cookies to bake.

The one item I’d left out of my preparation planning was the fact of being pregnant with a baby due on January 4th. Early Christmas Eve morning I realized that the day would require some significant changes. My son arrived very quickly after that, at home while his siblings were opening their presents. The banner didn’t get made and certain cookies were never baked. Leaving for the hospital, my five year old son announced, “I like all my presents, but I like my baby brother best of all.”

A baby is, after all, what Christmas is about. A baby that doesn’t wait until everything is done or the household is in order. A baby that makes an appearance when ready, not on a predetermined schedule. Bethlehem’s child surprises us with unexpected appearances. In the midst of singing a carol, taking cookies to a neighbor, stuck in traffic listening to the songs of Christmas, or opening a Christmas card from an old friend, Christ touches the heart.

In these days of Advent may you pause in your busyness to remember Jesus and truly rejoice in God’s gift of love, who came not for a few moments in time but for an eternity.

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.

God Moments – Sometimes There is a Hole in the Ceiling

IMG_6908Barry L. Johnson was a junior in college when his short story professor put a title on the black board and instructed the students to write a story to fit it. The title was “Sometimes, There’s a Hole in the Ceiling.” The story was a real challenge for Barry – it took numerous drafts and different ideas before he finally came up with a story that he was satisfied with. He wrote about a ghetto family who was surprised by help from an unexpected source. He closed his story with these words, “Sometimes, There’s a hole in the ceiling; it was made for the hand of God.” Every now and then the story would come back to him. As the words trickled into his mind, it made sense of some mystical moment, when the unexplainable happened. There would be an insight, light or wisdom that plopped into his mind. A series of unexpected events solved a problem he’d been agonizing over. Then, the words would come to him again “Sometimes there’s a hole in the ceiling – it was made for the hand of God.” (Sometimes there’s a hole in the ceiling – 1975 by Barry Lee Johnson)

When I first read that story, I thought of moments, more spiritual than physical. Moments of God’s presence where one is touched in such a way, that there is an assurance that God is near . . . when you just know, not only that God is close, but you are being loved in a special way. I think of ideas that have slipped into my mind when I have been perplexed – struggling to find a solution. Then suddenly, the answer simply is there. They are God moments, because there can be no other way to explain a series of coincidences and decisions made which are exactly right at a given moment in time.

But, I think a person has to be ready to recognize those God moments. One has to see outside the spectrum and vision one usually views the world through. How else does a person describe meeting a friend at a place neither of you could have expected to meet the other, but doing so on a day, you really needed a person to talk to? Or the set of coincidences that puts you where it was crucial for you to be? The thoughts that allow you to think differently of a person – so you see with compassion instead of frustration.

Sometimes, comes a moment clarity. There is a Hole in the ceiling, made for the hand of God. A hand that touches us and in that touch we know we are loved by God.