Mud and Spit

Life Notes


Mud and Spit

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” Then he went and washed and came back able to see. John 9:6-7 

Two naturally occurring substances that apparently have devolved into manifestations of abject evil in my lifetime are saliva and mud. When I was a child, it was common for my mother to lick her finger or handkerchief to clean something from my face or clothing. To clean his glasses, my dad always put a lens in his open mouth, huffed moist air onto the lens, and then wiped it off with his handkerchief. My friends and I regularly played in the mud, making pies, forts, and balls. When there was not enough mud readily available, we made more with the water hose. It was great, readily available, albeit messy fun. Today, it seems, playing in the mud is only slightly more sanitary than swimming in the sewer.

I have a less-than-pleasant memory of the first (and last) time I tried to clean something off the face of one of my children – in the presence of my wife – by first licking my finger. Carrie, unlike me, was not raised on mom-spit and did not approve of her children being subjected to it. It was not convincing to remind her that saliva is a Biblical remedy. In John 9, Jesus restores a man’s sight with mud made by spitting in the dirt. In Mark 7, Jesus heals a deaf and dumb man by licking his finger and sticking in the man’s ears and on his tongue. Admittedly, there may be a difference in the composition of my spit and that of Jesus…

I suspect my mother used spit as a cleaner because it was always available. If we were near a sink, she would have used a wet rag to wipe the debris from my face. Her use of mom-spit was probably less about hygiene and more about expediency. Even so, I am not ready to concede that there is something inherently harmful about a little parental saliva on otherwise unbroken skin – or mud, for that matter, including mud made with saliva.

Sometimes in life, we need something readily available more than we need something perfectly suited to the job, something with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It is a fundamental reason I am thankful for my faith. When I need to remember who I am, or that I am loved and valued, or when a sin-smudge appears on my cheek, I know God is always available. I do not have to remember a bunch of prayer rules, nor do I need to be in church or kneeling at my bedside. I do not have to worry about the words I use, my enunciation, or being grammatically correct. God knows, sees, and hears my heart and is always ready to attend to me, perhaps even with a wet finger.

Come home to church this Sunday. It’s finger-lickin’ good!

Getting Here

Life Notes


Getting Here

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. Luke 17:20-21

Several decades ago, I read something that recurs to me regularly. I do not remember who wrote it, but my paraphrase of this memorable line is: “If you cannot find happiness where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?” The point is that happiness originates from within. People can wander the earth in search of happiness and never find it, because they carry their discontent with them. Abraham Lincoln said, “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” If we are unhappy where we are at, we always have all the power required to change our level of contentment without ever leaving. There are obvious exceptions – abusive relationships, for one – but the key to success is in figuring out how to get there without having to leave here.

Jesus taught frequently about the kingdom of God, which he also referred to as the kingdom of heaven. A subtle, but important point contained in Jesus’ words about the kingdom is that he speaks of it in the present tense, not as a future state. There is a lot of confusion about the kingdom of God, and understandably so. I want to propose, however, that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, that he was referring to a state of being available to us right now, right here. It may or may not be a place we go to after we die. It is, however, a state of existence available to us at any time.

In the passage from Luke, above, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed.” There are several interesting parables about the kingdom of God/heaven in Matthew 13:10-50. In Luke 9:27, he says, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” He issues a warning in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Finally, in Mark 4:11, he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” These are not descriptions of the traditional “heaven” we were taught as children. These tell of a kingdom that is very near, as well as a kingdom accessible to all who follow Jesus – not someday, but today.

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to contemplate the kingdom of God in the present tense – as a present state of being that is always near and available to us. The challenge then becomes how to get from where we are to here?

Come home to church this Sunday. Where are you?

Cures That Do Not Heal

Life Notes


Cures That Do not Heal

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Matthew 10:8

On the afternoons of my recent mission trip to Honduras, several of us led Vacation Bible School for the kids. It was a blessing to have fun with the children, even though we could not understand most of what they said. For my daughter, Grace, and me, the interactions with the children were among the most enjoyable.

Honduran homesThe picture on the left is of three Honduran homes located beside the church where we worked. On the left, above and below, are two homes, with a third under the tin roof on the right. More homes are in the background. Although the condition of these homes is worse than some we saw, this scene is common. There were two boys in Bible School who lived next door to these houses. Angel and Daniel, aged about 6 and 4, were happy, cute, well-behaved, slightly ornery boys, not unlike typical youngsters in my hometown. They did not appear undernourished or under-loved, and I have no reason to believe they were. They lived in conditions like those pictured, however. I did not see the inside of their home, but it is likely they had little of the “stuff” we consider necessary for a normal upbringing in the U.S. Did they have TVs or Internet access? Could they watch movies or play video games?

Grace and I talked about how easy it would be to “rescue” one or more of these children into our home, where they would have access to our abundance. Wouldn’t their lives be improved? As the week progressed, the answer seemed clear: No, probably not. Different, yes; better, no. One of the many realizations I made in Honduras is that our “first world” lives are largely lived vicariously in the past and the future. We relive the past and dream of the future, often missing the present moment. Many Hondurans do not have that luxury. The realities of their environment force them to live in the moment, focusing on the needs of now – food, water, work, togetherness, etc. – so there is little energy left to regret the past or ponder the future.

We worry about the future of Angel, Daniel, and the other children. Will they become victims of the prevalent gang violence? Will they be sold into sex trafficking? Will they live their entire lives in housing conditions like these? We cannot know. We also rejoice, however, in the pure joy Angel, Daniel, and the other kids found in the moments of Bible School. Singing, coloring, jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball – they savored moments fully. Their depth of being and their joy in fellowship with us and the other children was beautiful and inspiring. I doubt that could be duplicated here.

I am convinced the solution to the dilemmas in Honduras is not to (north) “Americanize” the people. Rather, we must find ways to preserve the uniquely beautiful parts of their lives and culture, while moderating the violence and poverty that so endanger them. Otherwise, the cures we export may be worse than the illnesses we attempt to heal.

Come home to church this Sunday. Join with others to heal our broken world.

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 3

Life Notes


The Desperation of Poverty, Part 3

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. Mark 14:7

I live a fortunate and blessed life. I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I would have a roof over my head. I have always had people in my life who loved and valued me. I confess this so you know I do not write about poverty from first-hand experience. I have observed it from a distance on a few occasions – most recently in Honduras – but I have never lived in poverty, nor do I have a desire to do so. In Life Notes the past few weeks, I have written about the desperation I observed from the poverty in Honduras.

All four Gospels accounts have Jesus saying something to the effect that the poor will always be with us. Some use this to argue that there is nothing effective we can do to address poverty – and they may be right, at least on a global scale. I think, however, they miss the point. Certainly, poverty is a pervasive issue, but it is also an individual faith issue. Whenever we encounter poverty, suffering, or human struggles, we have decisions to make. Can I help this person or situation? If I can, am I willing to help this person or situation?

A third manifestation of the desperation of poverty is personal – it is my desperation to understand how I can best help. Many of us, me included, regularly walk past people asking for money on our streets. There are reasons why we do that, some of which have a measure of validity. If I give money to everyone who asks, how long will it be before I am on the streets begging for money? What if I give them money, and they buy drugs or alcohol with it? I work hard for my money, and they should, too. How do I really know these people are worse off than I am? These are pretentious questions, however, because in most cases we cannot know the answer. Again, we miss the point of being confronted by the poor. The point is how we decide to respond, and how we justify that choice. I am less convinced there is a right answer to the question and more convinced the poor pose a universal conundrum meant to illicit serious soul-searching on our parts – individually and collectively.

We are not called to solve world poverty. Indeed, the poor will always be with us. Jesus made clear by his examples, however, that we are to help. The fact that we cannot do everything does not negate the fact that we can do something. What we do and how we respond is the faith issue facing us. Some will respond with money, others with non-monetary gestures, others will feign ignorance. All of us make choices about our responses, however, and one day we may have to answer for those choices.

Come home to church this Sunday.

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

Life Notes


The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:10

During my recent trip to Honduras, a line from the movie Still Alice lingered in my mind. The movie is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice is asked to share her experience with a group of researchers while she is still lucid enough to do so. She writes out her thoughts over a period of weeks so she can read them on stage. The line in her speech that struck me was this: “I am not suffering; I am struggling.” I thought it was odd, as it seemed to me she was both struggling and suffering – at least that was my interpretation of her condition.

I just named what I believe to be one of the biggest obstacles to helping those we label as in need of assistance – we impose our interpretation of their condition upon them, and then seek to interject our solution. We do this with the most charitable and best of intentions. For me, I contemplated the difference between struggling and suffering in the context of the people I met in Honduras. Certainly, there are conditions they struggle with – clean drinking water, for example, but they also found ways to cope with most issues. They struggle with high crime rates and an inadequate infrastructure, at least by our standards. I saw much of what I considered substandard housing. What I did not see, however, was a lot of suffering. In fact, and in retrospect, I think the cross-section of folks I met in Honduras suffer less than a similar cross-section of folks in the U.S.

Our interpretation of the condition of another is pivotal to how we react to them, as well as how or if we try to help them. For a suffering person, we offer comfort and support. We may feel pity and offer sympathy for their condition, sometimes even empathy. We may try to assure them things will get better, even when we do not know that to be the case. Often, we respond to suffering with acts of mercy to try to ease the distress.

For a struggling person, however, acts of mercy, pity, and sympathy may not be well received or helpful. A person who is struggling is attempting to better his or her own condition, but circumstances beyond their control often work against them. They need assistance, but not interference. Consider beavers. They build dams in streams to form water pools for their nests. Unfortunately, a beaver dam stops the water from flowing as it normally would, causing problems for those downstream. Sometimes, a beaver dam must be removed in order to restore the water flow. I think this image illustrates the plight of many struggling people. One way we can help is by identifying where the “flow” of resources is blocked and assist in getting materials flowing as needs demand.

Two manifestations of the desperation of poverty are suffering and struggling, and if we are to help those in poverty, we need effective tools for both. Everyone deserves the respect to say how or if they receive assistance. Suffering and struggling are two very different conditions, and if we are to help, we must recognize and honor the difference.

Come home to church this Sunday. Bring your poverty to the cross.