Friday, April 30, 2010

Heavenly Thoughts

I recently watched an old movie, well, ok, maybe 1989 is not old to some! Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter start in Always, a film about a firefighter pilot and his love interest. If you don’t want to know the outcome…read no further!

Alas, the character Richard Dreyfuss plays (Pete) ends up unintentionally sacrificing himself to save a buddy flying with an engine on fire. Pete’s not quite ready to leave earth though.

At one point, Pete makes a statement that I’ve been replaying over and over in my head. Whether these are the exact words or not, they’re the words behind all my reflecting, “The only pain you feel in heaven is the pain from the love you held back on earth.”

Hmmm. Is that theologically sound? I took an independent study in seminary and wrote a paper on heave. Pretty presumptuous, I know. It’s not like I’ve been there yet. But I think we get glimpses of heaven here on earth. I’ve had some interesting experiences that make me wonder. The Scottish/Irish in me resonates with the Celtic understanding of “thin places”…places where the veil between the physical and spiritual seems particularly thin. I’ve heard of first-person accounts of out-of-body experiences while undergoing surgery. I’ve heard some interesting stories from folks. Life and death and the transition between life and death are touched by mystery.

I can’t help but think of Revelation 21.1-4, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

“There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” …well, ok, that seems to answer my question, “Is Pete’s statement theologically sound?” Or does it? I don’t want to sound heretical, if I can help it. I admit, I believe things will be different in heaven. But I also believe how we live our life now makes a difference. Not that we “earn” our way to heaven, but I agree with many Christian authors who talk about our lives here on earth as a sort of training for heaven.

Here’s the rub. If you’ve experienced pain in this life, you want to believe that there will be no more pain in heaven. But what if we give up loving to our fullest potential while we wait for the other side of this life and death? Are there consequences? Do we continue to keep growing in heaven? Is that growth affected by how we grow and love in this life?

I guess that’s what intrigues me about Pete’s statement. What do we hold back from God? What love do we hold back from others? What if we intentionally sacrificed our egos (not in an unhealthy, codependent way) and earnestly tried (with help from the Spirit of God) to love more fully than ever before? What if we worked to be as spiritually and emotionally and relationally healthy as we can be…even if it caused us temporary discomfort? What would be the consequences of that?

Just some thoughts…

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I got an email this morning that ticked me off. Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Everyone has the right to their own opinions. But I had previously asked to not be included on the type of emails this particular couple liked to send out to a mass distribution list.

Their email was from an article Pat Buchanan wrote. In the article, Buchanan writes (I won’t repeat the entire article):

“Barack says we need to have a conversation about race in America. Fair enough. But this time, it has to be a two-way conversation. White America needs to be heard from, not just lectured to... This time, the Silent Majority needs to have its convictions, grievances and demands heard. And among them are these:

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks.

Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans.

We hear the grievances (from blacks). Where is the gratitude???

Is white America really responsible for the fact that the crime and incarceration rates for African-Americans are seven times those of white America? Is it really white America's fault that illegitimacy in the African-American community has hit 70 percent and the black dropout rate from high schools in some cities has reached 50 percent? Is that the fault of white America or, first and foremost, a failure of the black community itself?”

Now, I’m not saying that the African American community has no responsibility to set healthy expectations for themselves. They do. We all do. But the tenor of the article, combined with the hateful rhetoric that has been spewing out of the media lately was finally too much. Instead of hitting the delete button as I so often do, I hit the reply all button. This is what I had to say:

Wow, talk about denial and ignorance. People should be grateful for being torn from their families, physically abused, sexually abused, taught they are not human, enslaved for generations, training them to be dogs, teaching them dependency, and creating systems to keep them “in their place”. Yeah, they have a lot to be grateful for. Yeah, right.

But in spite of all this, in spite of the horrific history we have as Americans treating some ethnic people (i.e. Native American, African American) as less than human, there is a lot that is great about America. To forget the past makes us vulnerable to repeating it. I would suggest that people read the book by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

There are a lot of people who are grateful for being an American. The human spirit can overcome anything with God’s help. But we can’t ignore what our country has done to marginalize people here.

Buchanan wants to talk about being Christian? He needs to read his Bible. Take a look at the theme the Prophets repeat over and over. Don’t be oppressive. Have compassion on the marginalized. Jesus started his public ministry with these words, straight from Isaiah,

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

For those of you who don’t know the significance of this passage, let me tell you. The “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Hebrew Jubilee year (every 50th year). You can look it up, but it was a time when the playing field was leveled. Those in debt were given a “pass” card. Their debts were forgiven. It was a means in which every 50 years equality took a huge leap forward. The marginalized were helped. That pleases God.

Do we always like it when it means we, the “majority” who have the most power, have to give up some of what we’ve got? No. But if Buchanan insists on talking about being a Christian, then he better get his facts straight. Being a Christian means you want to follow Jesus, you want to please God. In fact, you want to grow in your relationship with Jesus so much that you want to show that you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength (that means ALL---your body, your time, your money, etc) in ways that please God.

And what does the Lord require of us? There were people who thought of themselves as the true “religious” people in the prophet Isaiah’s day. But their outward appearances --- talking about how religious they were, public displays of fasting, etc. didn’t match with the hardness of their hearts. What does God say to them (and us) through the prophet Isaiah?

6 "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe him,

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness will go before you,

and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;

you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

"If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

11 The LORD will guide you always;

he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land

and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a well-watered garden,

like a spring whose waters never fail.

12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Buchanan better take a hard, long look at what the Bible says pleases God, if he wants to call himself a Christian and wants to make our country even greater. Does he love our country and God so much that he will do what God says?


The saying “walk in my shoes” is important to me. God led me to an experience of this nine years ago. I literally walked (and drove) with a group of Native Americans for 3 ½ months across America. I saw what it was like being a white woman in the midst of a group of Indians. I saw the way they were treated compared to how I was treated when we were out in the public. I heard stories of pain and oppression. And I heard stories of triumph and the beauty of the human spirit. I saw a deep love of this land we call America. I pray that we, as a nation, will repent of the hatred and prejudice that so infects this great nation. I pray that we will do as the prophets of old said…do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. We can’t do that if we don’t really understand oppression…the seeds of it and the systemic institutions that support it. We are all guilty. We are all sinners. But God is full of grace and mercy. Thanks be to God!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Love: A Lasting Legacy

I've attended three memorial services in the last couple of weeks. Two were held at my church, Overlake Park Presbyterian: one for a former pastor of the church and one for a member. One was a Native American ceremony held outside in West Seattle for a woman I called "Aunt Ginnie". The services in Bellevue were very different from the memorial in West Seattle, and yet there were also very important commonalities.

In all cases, family and friends were present to honor and to grieve the loss of a loved one. Stories were told. There was laughter and there were sighs of sorrow. And there was the ever present food. What’s a gathering without food? The food reminds us that we are alive. We eat to live.

But the memorial services remind me that we live to love. That’s our lasting legacy…the love we have shown and experience with others. I thank God, the source of love, that Love is eternal.

Each of these three people knew Jesus, the ultimate revelation of Love. They are whole now. Aunt Ginnie was blind, but now she sees. Several years ago she was facing major heart surgery and in her frail condition, we didn’t know how she would make it. When I visited her several days before surgery, she shared a vision with me. She saw herself walking with Jesus on green hills, covered with white daisies on a beautiful blue sky day. She had a peace about the surgery. Later, words came to me to be sung to the tune of Amazing Grace, one of her favorite songs. I sang this to her the morning of her surgery:

Someday I’ll walk the hills of green

Adorned with daisies white

And underneath the sky of blue

Jesus walks by my side.

All three of these people are with Christ Jesus now living in that Eternal Love. May we all be filled with Christ’s healing love.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wisdom from Qohelet

I’m loving this spring season. As I type up these thoughts of mine this morning, I’m glancing out my window into my backyard. It’s full of trees and ferns…part of what remains of the greenbelt around the perimeter of the residential housing area in which we live. I love the contrast of the bright green leaves and dark brown trunks after a good rain. I have a couple of vines I planted last year that are taking off. One had seemed to die last year (the one on the right), but it’s making a great comeback this spring.

But while I’m loving this spring season, I’m also thinking about another kind of season. Qohelet, the Teacher from the book of Ecclesiastes, (Qohelet literally means “she who calls, she who assembles”) tells us there are many seasons…a time for everything. In chapter three Qohelet says:

1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Springtime reminds me of the time to be born. But then in the same line, I’m reminded there is a time to die. That’s harder to think about. It’s so nice to sit here and gaze outside (or better yet, go outside) and enjoy the beauty and new life. I could just sit and soak in the enjoyment. Not so with the thoughts of aging and dying.

My mother’s health has been declining. She’s in the winter season of her life. That’s not something on which I like to dwell. But it’s part of the natural rhythm of life. Qohelet, in chapter 12, reminds me of this natural aging process:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"- before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim…” The last verse is a picture of aging. Keepers are our arms, the strong men are our legs, grinders are our teeth and those looking through the windows are our eyes.

My mom doesn’t have much money. She lives on social security, which puts her around a thousand dollars over the poverty line. My siblings and I help out, but she still watches her pennies. She lived through the Great Depression and she does know how to be frugal. I love her ways of giving. She and I share a love of suduko puzzles. So she writes me a note about once a month and sends me sudukos she has clipped from newspapers. What has struck me lately is the change in her penmanship. Her writing has always been so good. It’s shaky now. She's becoming the picture Qohelet is describing.

Qohelet reminds us all that no matter what, no matter in which season we find ourselves, there is still joy to be had. Even in the midst of our circumstances, our limitations, our aging, we can be realistic about what we have to endure and still experience life as a gift and rejoice in it. My mom still finds joy, which makes me glad. And I cherish the time I still have with her and the rest of my family.

So as Qohelet would tell us, savor each day. Find joy in the moments of your life. Hug your family.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wisdom from the wild side

Friday night I attended a speaking engagement of Anne Lamott's at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. As a friend of mine described her, "She's a wild woman." That's one way of describing her. She has had a unconventional life.

What I like about her is that she is so refreshingly honest about her faith. She doesn't hide her faults. She's not your typical evangelist (and I don't think she would call herself one at all), yet her self-deprecating, humorous stories draw people to reflect on their views of Christianity and take another look at Jesus. Above all, she believes in the power of the resurrection and it's power to change lives now as well as eternally. That's how she ended her talk friday night. After speaking an hour and a half (which seemed to fly by) she concluded with the thought, "There is just one story...the resurrection story." This is from a woman who is a best selling author and past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She knows stories.

I love her emphases on mercy and grace and paying attention for the Divine at work. As she says, "Carry a pen!" She urged us to write it down...don't think you'll remember those glimpses of grace. I could relate to that. At times she sounded like a Spiritual Director. A woman after my own heart! Be observant. Be expectant. God is at work, even in the darkest times. It's ok to be scared. It doesn't mean that you don't have faith. As Lamott said, "Courage is fear that has said it's prayers."

In these difficult times, it's a wise reminder that we should continue to seek to glimpse God at work and know that Jesus will crawl down into any hole we're in and be with us. Thank God!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lent: Spring Cleaning for the Soul

Just a warning note...this is a long post. Happy Spring Cleaning!

I recently spoke on Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments. It was the Lectionary text for the third week of Lent. We’re over half way through Lent, a season of reflection and repentance.

I have a confession to make. I’m a sinner.

As I look at the Ten Commandments, I wonder, how many of us have never broken one of these commandments? The Ten Commandments are a perfect Scriptural selection for the Lectionary text, because they act as a mirror for us as we engage in that self-examination. Our word for this season – Lent – comes from the Old English word, which can be translated as “spring” or “springtime.

What great imagery. Not only does it remind us of the season before Easter – Spring. But “spring” also functions as a metaphor. When we enter into Lent --- viewing it as an opportunity for some spiritual spring cleaning, our souls can be refreshed --- and we can experience new growth.

Lent is a time to be particularly aware of what is planted within us. How’s your self-examination and reflection going? What is the good seed that needs tending? What are the weeds that will choke the good seed, if left untended? We all have weeds of sin in our lives. The Apostle Paul makes that very plain in his letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.”

When we hear the Ten Commandments, we need to hear them with the understanding Jesus gives us from Matthew 5:21, “You have heard it said to the people long ago, “Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother (or sister) will be subject to judgment.”

And then a few verses later, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Those are hard words.

When we understand the expanded scope of sin --- according to Jesus --- we can see how far our lives fall short --- of Christ-likeness.

I recently spent time with my family in Kansas. I went back home to celebrate my Mother’s 84th birthday. My three sisters and two of my three brothers and my sister-in-laws were there. We were reminiscing about old times and somehow the conversation turned to things we’d done in our youth --- some things our mother didn’t know.

It tweaked a long, forgotten memory in me --- that had been buried for years. When I was a pre-teen, my family had taken a trip to New Orleans as our Christmas present. We tried different ethnic foods and visited a lot of historical places in New Orleans. In fact, we stayed in a historical hotel, The Roosevelt. Back then in the early 60’s, The Roosevelt was known as the “pride of the south”. It was a grand hotel.

For reasons unknown, I took some silverware from the hotel’s dining room. Maybe I wanted a souvenir --- the silverware had the hotel’s name on it. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. There’s no excuse for what I did. I certainly wasn’t respecting someone else’s property. I wasn’t keeping the eighth commandment.

For over forty years, the silverware had been wrapped up and buried in the bottom drawer of my hope chest and forgotten --- until that conversation with my family. Needless to say, when I told my family, they were shocked.

When I returned from my trip I checked the drawer and sure enough, there was the evidence of my sin...wrapped up in a napkin.

That was bad enough --- but it gets worse. You see, after I returned, I told someone the story and as I did I made the comment that it was so out of character for me. I was the sensitive, good kid of the family!

That’s the problem. I was thinking, “I was a good kid.” That’s like saying now, “I’m a good person.” Have you ever heard that? “I’m a good person. I’m kind to people and animals. I give money to charity and do volunteer work.”

I’ve heard that from non-Christians who think they’re fine without God. It’s also something Christians say --- or think --- at times. That’s a problem.

When we start to think, “I’m a good person”, we’re in danger of diminishing the value of God’s Grace in our lives. Our sense of goodness can distort our relationships. We might start to think ‘I’m right’ and our listening to others lessens. Yet, it’s so easy to think, “I’m a good person.”

Scripture says otherwise. The Ten Commandments show me the truth. The Ten Commandments cut through my deception that I’m a good person. They expose my behavior for what it is --- sin. It’s so easy to make excuses for our sin.

We can read in Genesis where Adam blames the woman for his sin. The woman blames the serpent. Turn to Exodus and we can read about Aaron’s excuse. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments and what does he find? Aaron, who has been left in charge, has created an idol - a golden calf. What does Aaron say to Moses? “Don’t be angry with know how prone these people are to evil.”

Isn’t it interesting, how we often want to put the blame on someone else? But Lent can be a correction for that tendency. We’re invited to look at what might be hidden in the bottom drawers of our hearts and lives.

The Ten Commandments are not just rules to follow. Most of all - they are a snapshot of who God is. And they provide a structure for our lives and relationships: to God, others and ourselves.

We don’t know for sure, but it is believed that the second tablet contained the fifth through tenth commandments. These deal with who we are called to be in our relationships with one another.
We are called to live respectfully, because all of us are created in the image of God. We’re not to take or plot to take what is not ours to take: whether a life, another’s possession, another’s spouse, or another’s reputation.

The first tablet contains the first four commandments. They are God-centered. They tell us about this God we are called to follow. Our God is the one who brings freedom. God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. God reaches out to us through Jesus, to bring us freedom from sin and the wages of sin - eternal death.

God is a jealous, possessive God who loves deeply. God judges our desire to be in faithful and respectful relationships. God is also an active God...involved in history --- involved in our lives.
I’m sure you remember what Jesus said when asked about which the Greatest Commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength --- and your neighbor as yourself.”

In that statement, Jesus unites the two tablets.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate example of God’s love and desire to be in relationship with us. Our God, who is beyond time and space, who, in fact, created time and space, entered into that time and space to bring us into communion with the Living Holy God.

God shows his love for us, that we might love God and one another. The Ten Commandments are not about perfection. They are about relationship. That’s why when the rich youn ruler came to Jesus and said, “I’ve kept the commandments. What else should I do?” he missed the point about relationship.

Jesus was telling him willing to give up everything from this world and “follow me - be in relationship with me.”

When I realized I had a problem to deal with, I prayed and asked God what I should do with the silverware. The hotel had been sold shortly after I was there as a child and renamed The Fairmont in 1965. In my prayer time, I had an image of a communion set that was made for me a number of years ago. I saw the plate, cup and pitcher and the silverware along side the communion set. The message I got is that the silverware is a reminder of my sinful nature. But the Good News is greater than my sin. As 1 John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

The plate, cup and pitcher represent the reconciling work of Jesus. I can come to the table in communion with Jesus because my sin is cleansed in the blood of the lamb. No matter what our sin is --- God’s Grace is sufficient. We just need to acknowledge our sins/our sinful nature to God and seek to be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, though, we have reconciling or restoration work to do. Maybe we need to apologize to someone --- or do more than apologize. I’m trying to give back what I took. I’ve left messages and have been shuffled from one person to the next trying to find out whom to resolve this with. The problem is that the new, third owner is in the process of rebuilding the hotel after the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. The hotel isn’t open yet. But what’s interesting is that the new owner is going to bring back the original name --- The Roosevelt.

While I wait for someone to return my calls, I’ve taken a picture of the silverware with my communion set. It’s a reminder that imbedded in our human nature --- is our sinful nature. There is always a need to do our spiritual spring-cleaning – all year long.

We all have sinned. We may have sins that have been buried away and forgotten. Or we may have sins that we secretly struggle with. What is buried in the bottom drawer of your heart and life?

We all need grace. Thanks be to God --- Jesus is our hope! The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is freely given to those who ask. And for those who seek to follow Him, we will sit in communion
at the Great Wedding Banquet of the Lamb --- our hope fulfilled.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Surprising Grace

Have you ever had one of those days when you just didn't seem to be all there? Everyday tasks seem so much harder? That was my day yesterday. I woke still worn out from the day before and feeling like I was on the verge of a cold. It didn't help that it was time to spring forward for daylight savings time. I could have used another hour of sleep.

I had plans to attend a concert with friends in the evening and I seriously considered canceling out. The featured artist was to be Chris Tomlin - one of my favorite singer/songwriters. I have a number of his tunes on my ipod. But I was more inclined to go to bed early and call it a day...not just because I was tired, but because I just wanted to put the day behind me. Tomorrow would be a new day. I could always listen to my ipod.

I chose to push through my malaise and make the 45 minute drive to the arena.

It's been years (many years) since I've been to a concert of this kind. I naively thought I was going to listen to some music. What was I thinking? It was three hours of worship...and a lot of that was standing. They made it so easy for the 6,000 plus folks packed into the ShoWare Center. The lyrics were displayed on the two gigantic screens bracketing the stage.

I admit, it took me a few songs to make the transition. I even turned to one of my friends and said I hoped we weren't going to be standing all night. But my fatigue and malaise seemed to melt away as I sang from my heart.

There's something very special in the experience of lifting your voice in praise with thousands of others. Scripture tells us that God inhabits the praise of God's people. God's loving presence filled the place. After a lackluster day, God surprised me with a wonderful experience of Grace. It would have been so much easier to stay home. I'm glad I chose the discomfort of getting out, so that I could be surprised and renewed by Grace. It was a new day last night...I didn't have to wait for the dawn.