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Archive for October, 2015

Life Notes

The River, a Sugar Maple, and Jesus

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Revelation 22:2

The image of time as a river is powerful for me. A river, like time, flows in one direction and is always on the move. Sometimes the surface is rough and choppy, other times it is smooth as glass – not unlike the way we experience our days on earth. The river eventually flows to the sea, where the water is reabsorbed into the atmosphere to fall as rain across the land, replenishing the rivers. And on and on it flows.

The season of autumn also reminds me of the passage of time. As leaves that were bright green only days ago turn red, orange, and yellow, and then fall to the ground, I am reminded that everything we know as life goes through its seasons and eventually dies. Certain life forms go out in a blaze of glory, like the leaves of the sugar maple in my backyard. They refuse to pass without creating a scene. Its river of time flows froSugar Maplem the soil to its roots, through its truck, and into its leaves each year. Another river carries the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere through its leaves, converting it to sugars, then down into its roots to be stored as food for next season’s glorious resurrection. And on and on life goes.

The amazing circle of life is always on the move. Jesus modeled this cycle for us. He lived, he died, and he was resurrected. There is nothing to fear in death, he tells us. Look and see; I was dead, and yet I live! It is the same message as the river, as the sugar maple, and of all creation. We live, we die, and we live again. Most of our deaths are not physical, but transitions from one stage of life to another. Eventually, our physical death does come, and we cannot know what lies beyond. We can know, however, that there is more life. That is the message of Jesus, and the river, and the sugar maple.

I wrote a song some years ago called The River of Time. I am pleased to share it with others contemplating the passage of time: https://contemplatinggrace.com/music/the-river-of-time/. Whether we view the passage of time as a river, a tree, or a Savior, life is passing through and from us. And as time passes by, we are transformed – older, wiser, more frail perhaps, but always reborn into a new being. The river flows. The sugar maple grows. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lives again. True then, true now and forever.

Come home to church this Sunday. Celebrate the river, celebrate autumn, celebrate life!

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Life Notes

Image and Likeness

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good. Genesis 1:26a, 31a

In a recent issue of the comic strip, Family Circus, middle brother Jeffy draws a picture of his older brother Billy. Billy says, “Hey, I don’t look like that!” Jeffy replies, “Maybe you don’t know what you really look like.” I believe this cute illustration captures a key issue behind many of our problems: We do not know what we really look like. More accurately, we have forgotten in whose image we were created.

An image is an identical counterpart produced by a reflection. A likeness, on the other hand, is a representation or a semblance of something – not identical, but similar. In the cartoon, Jeffy is creating a likeness, but Billy expects an image.

Each of us shares a common image – that of God – but we manifest differently as God’s likeness. Collectively, we display an infinite variety of God’s hues, shapes, and characteristics. When we look in the mirror, however, we see only an imperfect likeness. Many of us are unhappy with that likeness because we believe we are too short or too fat, our hair is too thin or too grey, our clothes don’t fit quite right, or our shoes don’t match our purse. Something important is always missing, misshapen, or mismatched. And something is always wrong because what we see in the mirror is a reflection of God’s likeness – a representation of one aspect of God – and not the entire image we so desire to reflect. Our divine image becomes hidden beneath our likeness to the point where it is easy to forget the image from which we originated. We are conditioned to only see the likeness and not the image, thus becoming obsessed with our appearance instead of our essence.

Our divine image is always there, however. We see the image of God in another when we look deeply into their eyes, or when we catch them uninhibitedly being their most beautiful and pure self (think child-like). The moments are rare, but they are there for the seeking. Likewise, we display God’s image when we let go of our concerns about how others see us, or what others expect from us – when we know we are good enough as we are, where we are – good enough to be loved and valued by God. When we dance like no one is watching, or sing like no one is listening, we do so from a place of ultimate freedom. In that place of unconditional love, we are free to realign our likeness into something more consistent with our image – something that will touch others at a soul-level. As we better reflect God’s image, we are better able to positively impact our world.

Come home to church this Sunday. Discover what you really look like.

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Life Notes

Poor Decisions

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:26, 28

I first saw the message on a billboard. It read: “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” While the word stupid is harsh, I laughed at the message – until I began thinking more deeply about it. How many times do I attribute the consequences of my behavior to others or to circumstance, instead of accepting responsibility for my own lack of foresight or intellectual lapses? Bad luck? Someone else’s incompetence? Sometimes these may be plausible excuses, but my ego generally does not deal maturely with my shortcomings, and so it seeks a scapegoat – even a self-denigrating scapegoat. Surely, I did not bring this onto myself – I am not that dumb. Yet, I cannot count the times poorly chosen or unfortunate words have escaped from my mouth, or I have acted in ways I later regretted. Yes, everything happens for a reason, and sometimes that reason is my stupidity.

Stupidity and bad decision-making can be used as excuses, however, and reasons for not being fully present to and accountable for an unfortunate situation. Hiding behind these self-deprecating masks can be a defense mechanism – no one will criticize me if I confess to being stupid, will they? People don’t kick a dead horse, do they? Surely, they will seek to lift me up, praise and flatter me by professing how intelligent I am. If I plead nolo contendre by reason of my own ignorance, others will pity me and let me off the hook.

The truth is that we all make poor decisions and suffer lapses in judgement. Just because we act in stupid ways, at times, does not make us stupid – it makes us human. The sin is not in making poor decisions but in how we react to the poor decisions we make. We can easily make situations worse if we do not accept responsibility, apologize as appropriate, and make a sincere effort to atone for our mistakes.

Certainly, we should take care not to confuse stupidity with being unworthy of love and acceptance. Just because we make a bad decision does not disqualify us from receiving the love of God and others. We are children, in God’s eyes, and children make childish mistakes. God’s forgiveness is given more readily than is usually true with others or ourselves. Sometimes the best we can do is to own up to the sometimes unpleasant consequences of our humanity, forgiving ourselves and forgiving others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Good things happen for a reason, too!

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Life Notes

Strength

Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.  1 Peter 4:11

My father received a book from his home church when he joined the military during World War II. The book contains devotions for each day of the year written by the pastors of churches throughout the United States. Harold Cooke Phillips, from the First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote the devotion for September 29, titled The Strong Soldier. In part, Reverend Phillips wrote:

There are two types of strength. There is the strength of the wind that sways the mighty oak, and there is the strength of the oak that withstands the power of the wind. There is the strength of the locomotive that pulls the heavy train across the bridge, and there is the strength of the bridge that holds up the weight of the train. One is active strength, the other is passive strength; one is the power to keep going, the other is the power to keep still; one is the strength by which we overcome, the other is the strength by which we endure.

Different situations in life call for different types of strength. Sometimes, our best option is to suffer through a situation with all the patient endurance we can muster. For time-bound suffering – cancer treatments, broken relationships, and grief – healing requires the passage of time, and no amount of active strength is going to hasten the process. Other times we must supply the power to actively move something out of our lives. Often, both types of strength are required at different stages of a life situation.

There are those who confuse the power of endurance with weakness. They feel the need to always be proactive, to fight fire with fire, to enter the fray with every ounce of force they possess. Certainly, some situations call for that sort of determination. Other times, however, such raw and blind power leaves a path of utter destruction in its wake with little to show for the devastation. A bull in a china closet comes to mind.

The author of the first letter of Peter says, “…whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.” Some days we need to be the train, other days the bridge; one day the wind, the next day the oak. Our challenge is to discern the type of strength required for a given situation and know that God will supply the strength needed.

Come home to church this Sunday. Remain calm and power on.

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Life Notes

Dashboard Jesus

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:8

I was listening to the NPR radio call-in show, Car Talk, when someone asked a question about his dashboard Jesus. “Should my dashboard Jesus be facing out,” he asked, “so it blesses the road in front of my car, or should it face into the car, blessing my passengers and me.” The question was intended to illicit a comical response from the show hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, and they did not disappoint. They concluded that the dashboard Jesus should face into the car, blessing its driver, because attempting to bless the road ahead and everyone on it is simply too much to ask from a single, plastic, dashboard Jesus.

This is not an attempt to make light of the icons some people use as reminders of a divine presence in their lives. Similar to having a Velvet Elvis hanging on your wall, art and spiritual significance are largely individual matters. Whether it is a pocket cross, a patron saint, a necklace, or a dashboard Jesus – anything that reminds us that Jesus journeys with us is fine with me. Behind the comedy of the radio show, however, is an interesting dilemma. Assuming a dashboard Jesus actually does provide blessings, should those blessings go out to others, or should the blessings be directed toward the possessor of the Jesus. Here are my thoughts:

Being an introvert, I would likely point my Jesus inward; not because I am selfish, but because I am not terribly comfortable overtly evangelizing others. I fear I might offend someone by directing my icon in his or her direction, thereby forcing blessings on a potentially unwilling recipient. An extrovert, however, might well direct the blessings outward, less afraid of creating offense, but assuming any blessings obtained from their dashboard Jesus will be even better when shared with others.

I did not find direct scriptural guidance regarding the proper placement for a dashboard Jesus. There are, however, many references to sharing our abundance with others. My suggestion is to put your dashboard Jesus on a swivel. Point it in towards you when you need a blessing, and point it out to others when your cup is full.

Come home to church this Sunday. Your dashboard Jesus will watch over your car.

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