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Archive for December, 2016

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 26: Hope Springs Eternal

 Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. 1 Peter 3:15b-16a

Hope is much different from wishful hopethinking. Hope is grounded in knowledge and experience, not uninformed optimism. At Christmas we may wish for a new video gaming system, nice jewelry, or a family board game, but we hope for love in our families, rebirth in ourselves, and peace on earth. There is an essential difference between hope and a wish. Most of what we wish for is temporal, where our hopes look to the long-term.

The leaders we most willingly choose to follow are full of hope. No one is inspired by a pessimist – entertained, maybe, but not inspired. Most pessimists prefer to be called realists, meaning their view of life is based on what they consider reality. Unfortunately for themselves and others, their view of reality tends to be a small, fatalistic one. Pessimists and realists believe that for every good thing that happens to us, something bad must occur in order to balance things out. When life is good we need to be cautious because there will be hell to pay later. Theirs is a philosophy of limitation, not a recognition of the abundance from which we were created.

Certainly, we need to be aware that with life comes death, with joy comes sorrow, and with light comes dark. They are parts of the same reality. It is not that we must pay for our joy with sorrow, but in order to fully experience joy we must also embrace the sorrow that is sometimes a part of it. It is when we refuse to fully experience life that it hurts, that it leaves us sad, or that we feel we cannot go on. Joy does not bring sorrow any more than day brings night. They are manifestations of the same reality. They go together. One cannot exist without the other, so trying to separate them or experience one without the other is impossible. Hope does not tell us to be wary of life because death always follows. Hope assures us that with life comes death and both are good when experienced to the fullest.

Looking to the future with a confident hope frees us to live fully in the present. We know the future will bring its blessings, challenges, and solutions, so we need not allow tomorrow’s possible calamities or yesterday’s injustices to prevent us from fully experiencing today. From God’s perspective, the future is now, and it is good. Because we exist in time and space, we co-create the details and experience them as they unfold.

When the day comes that our physical body gives out, we hope for a new life that retains everything good from our days on earth and places it in a new life beyond. For those who know the Gospel, this is not wishful thinking; rather, it is the hope that is in us, rooted in our knowledge of and experience with God. Like a spring continually fed by an unseen source of pure water, life springs eternal; and life is good. That is the source of our hope.

There is always reason for hope, because hope springs eternal. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

The Morning of Christmas

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23

Christmas Star

‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas find its home in your heart today – Merry Christmas!

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 25: Prayer is a Way of Life

 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.         Romans 8:26

prayerFor most of my life, prayer occurred at a specified time or event, or it was something I carved out a special time for from the rest of my day. It was how I was taught. We prayed before meals – head bowed, hands folded – at bedtime – kneeling at the edge of my bed – and during church. Most prayers were recited by rote, saying the same words each time. It seemed more like a redundant formality than an expression of sincere need or gratitude.

As I got older, my prayers became more conversational. Particularly in my bachelor days when I spent large swaths of time alone, I found myself in conversations with God. Most of the time it was a one-way conversation – I talked and assumed God was listening. There were times, however, I believe God answered. God’s answers did not come as spoken responses, however, nor did they arrive according to my preferred timeline. Rather, they came at unpredictable times as an inspiration or an intuition that helped me see an issue in a new way. Answers came with expansions of my awareness, making me believe the reason I could not hear God earlier was because I prejudged the answer. In other words, if God did not seem to answer, the problem was not because God did not answer, but because God answered in a way I was not ready or capable to accept. Like most stumbling blocks in my life, the problem within myself must first be identified and resolved.

Paul’s exhortation in his first letter to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” seemed ridiculous. How could anyone devote his or her entire life to praying? As long as prayer is an interruption to one’s day, there can be no simultaneous living and praying. A clue to the resolution of this dilemma is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought.” The challenge is not that we must take more time out of our day to pray; rather, we must find ways to live our days in a more prayerful manner.

For most of my life, I used prayer judiciously. After all, I did not want to draw too much divine attention to some of what I did. When I was in trouble, when I was sad, when I was lost or broken, I would turn to God in prayer. I think it is a safe bet that God does not want to only be our God in our times of difficulty. I believe God experiences creation through us. Assuming that is the case, why would God only want to experience the difficult times? If our good times consist of actions we feel God would not want to experience with us, we need either rethink our actions or rethink our understanding of the nature of God.

As I mentioned some weeks ago, sin is that which separates us from God and others. If God wants to experience life with and through us, our sin keeps that from happening. It is not that sin prevents God from experiencing with and through us, but our sin prevents us from experiencing God experiencing with and through us. In other words, we suffer twice – first from the separation caused by our sin, and second by not being consciously aware of our communion with the accepting, encouraging presence of God. Emmanuel, God with us, is not something that happens when we become holier. Emmanuel has been with us since our birth. Prayer is communion with God. In order to experience God in a conscious way, we must keep ourselves in the ever-flowing rhythm of the divine and, thus, aware of God’s constant presence. In the process, our entire life becomes one unceasing prayer.

Prayer is a way of life. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 24: Truth is Paradoxical

 Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. John 11:25c-26a

yin-yang2A paradox is something that seems contradictory to popular opinion or common sense. The good news is that paradoxical reasoning does not trouble most of us too often. The bad news is that it should. The Bible is full of paradoxical bits of wisdom – nonsensical statements that seemingly contradict themselves. Jesus was a king of paradox. Here is a sampling:

But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31)

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33

Jesus taught with stories, or parables, few of which gave clear answers and many defied common sense. What Jesus understood about truth is that it is inherently paradoxical, and that is a constant obstacle for many of us. Much of what we hold to be true is actually only partially true, or at least not entirely true. We separate light and dark for our own understanding when they are actually manifestations of the same reality. We cannot know darkness without first knowing light, and darkness is simply the absence of light. Other examples of single realities include bliss and sorrow, life and death, right and wrong, good and evil, happy and sad. Each is defined by the other, and neither can be known except in relation to the other. They are two ends of a single continuum, but we treat them as distinct realities. We try our best to be good and are disappointed when we act in not-so-good ways. What we thought to be right turns out to be wrong in another circumstance. What we assumed to be virtuous turns out to be evil from another vantage point. When our sports team wins a game we are excited; but our thrill comes at the expense of fans of the other team who may be devastated. The game is a single reality experienced from two different points of view – one positive and one negative. In his book, Yes, And,…, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “You and I are living paradoxes, which everybody can see except us.” (p. 391)

Our entire existence is held together by a tension of opposites that characterizes every aspect of our lives. It is nearly impossible for us to reconcile these opposites in a meaningful, understandable way. And therein lies the key to dealing with mysterious realities – we cannot reconcile the paradox. Our challenge is not to solve the mystery but to transcend the seeming enigma and transform our experience and understanding of it.

Chief among the paradoxes we must transcend is our understanding of life and death. Death is an inextricable part of life. Death does not mean the end of life but a new beginning. In his cryptic way, when Jesus tells us we must die in order to live, he is not referring to our physical death. Jesus is speaking of a transformation of our life into one consistent with his. We are not asked to give up our life, physically, but to enter into a new version of that life which transforms our former priorities to new ones. We cannot understand Jesus’ teachings about new life with our traditional understanding of life and death. It is a paradox – an irreconcilable enigma – when seen through our old eyes. Life is more than we can see, hear, feel, and touch with our earthly senses. As we learn to engage our spiritual senses, the formerly paradoxical becomes perfectly understandable.

Truth is paradoxical. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 23: Faith is a Good Start

 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  Matthew 25:34-36,40

Religious circles emphasize the importance of faith. Faith is the belief in something beyond what we can see or fully understand. It provides a broader vision than our eyes can see and a more sensitive hearing than is possible from our ears alone. Faith acknowledges that for all we know and for all the information we have available to us, there is much that is and will always remain a mystery. Religious faith acknowledges a higher, benevolent power that assures all things work together for good. Christians name that power God.

I believe developing a faith in something larger than ourselves and in purposes larger than our circle of attention is important for our individual and collective development, regardless of whether that faith is a religious faith, and regardless of whether we express that faith in a church. Developing faith is a practical way to live. Jesus, in Matthew 17, says that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. The implication is that a small amount of faith can increase whatever power is available in order to overcome tremendous challenges.

Faith is a multiplier. We can accomplish more with faith in something beyond ourselves than we can accomplish alone. I want to emphasize the word accomplish. One purpose for the gift of faith is to accomplish something. Not that faith, alone, is not worthwhile. The apostle Paul says we are “justified” by faith, or made right with God. That we establish a faith connection with a higher, benevolent power is one thing. We might even worship that power on Sunday mornings, but are we using the power of that faith to improve the lives around us? God’s power unites with ours, through faith, in order to co-create – God with us – a better world. I believe faith should inspire us to work for justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers, to house the homeless. Jesus modeled a life-giving faith and dedicated himself to meeting the needs of a broken world. He valued his time with his Father, going away from the crowds frequently to pray, but he used that connection to renew his ability to serve. The faith of Jesus is an active, achieving faith, and that type of faith leaves a mark.

The writer of James proclaims that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The Bible is full of stories of ordinary people who responded in faith and accomplished extraordinary things. Why would we believe anything less is in store for us? Our faith is a wonderful thing, but our faith calls us to greater things. True faith inspires and empowers us to make good things happen in our world.

Faith, by itself, is only the beginning. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 22: Unity ≠ Uniformity

 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:22-23

unityAs a young adult, I was fascinated with Eastern philosophy. A common theme was unity, or oneness. Writers spoke frequently of becoming one with God, or with one’s environment, or with others. In marriage, scripture tells us two lives become one flesh. In my western mind, I thought the whole concept of oneness was repulsive. Why would a single drop of water intentionally fall in the ocean and lose its uniqueness? I remember reading once, about marriage, that the ultimate result of two people becoming one was two half-people. Cynical, yes; but it is a reflection of the western emphasis on individuality, making one’s own way, and expressing one’s distinctiveness.

Interestingly, the point in my life when I was ready to enter into marriage was the point when I had grown tired of my individual expression. I did not like what I had and had not achieved in life, I felt stagnant and stale, and I was more than ready to give up the life I had worked to build for a chance of reaching for something better. Marriage changed my life in wonderful ways too numerous to count, but it hardly stole my uniqueness. Rather, unity in marriage provided a larger context of support where I could develop and express my individual gifts more completely. And that is the point about unity that is often overlooked: unity does not imply uniformity. Unity is about fitting one’s uniqueness into place along with the distinct qualities of others to create something greater. Think of the pieces of a puzzle – each piece has a unique coloration, shape, and place, but when the pieces are fit together as one, the result is far beyond what any one piece was capable of producing.

Striving for unity requires a leap of faith. A person must be willing to risk the self they have identified with in order to attain a larger purpose or goal. The math of unity is 1+1+1=111. There is very little logic to it, but we know two or more people working in unison toward a common purpose can accomplish more than can be accomplished individually. The power of relationship is the immeasurable wildcard. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) It is an early definition of fellowship, and it implies that a supernatural force develops from oneness.

Every trait that made me unique in my single days I retain today, so I lost nothing. Instead, I found a greater context within which to express that uniqueness.

Unity does not equal uniformity. How did I miss that?

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