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Archive for January, 2017

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 30: Words are Metaphors

 Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. James 1:21b-22

There are many words that, when spoken to another, create a visual sense of shared meaning, at least in general terms. For example, if I say, “I see a large rock,” you would envision something hard, inanimate, and bigger than a watermelon. The word rock is a metaphor for the broad swath of reality that we call rocks, but the word is not the reality. There is another category of words that point to something less tangible. For example, if I say, “I love her,” or “That is a beautiful tree,” you might be able to imagine the emotion I express but there will be little or no shared visualization of the detail behind the word. The important point here is that words are metaphors, or our names for different things we encounter in our environment. Words are not the things themselves. Much of the Bible falls into the latter category of words – those that point us in a direction, but cannot give us the individualistic experience they describe. We see this manifesting in our relationships, where I use certain words to express something and my partner hears those same words, but envisions something very different.

While many believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, as 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, God did not dictate the Bible to its writers. I believe the writers had a wordless God-encounter that they graciously put into words for our sake. The words recorded were their own, however, not God’s. Verbally, our God is mostly silent; yet God inspires us with regularity. Trying to contain that inspiration in words to share with others is difficult at best. Trying to describe that inspiration in a way that allows others to attain the experience is essentially impossible.

So, if words are only metaphors, dare we believe anything in the Bible? Certainly so! Metaphors are full of meaning and truth, providing important context for facts, which too often leave us feeling alone and confused. Being a metaphor does not mean something is not true – in fact, metaphors may express truth more accurately and on several different levels. Attempting to understand something deep and powerful from a verbal description, as opposed to an actual experience, often leads to a shallow and partial understanding. We may understand the letter of the communication but completely miss its meaning. We must work to understand a metaphor. It invites us to wrestle with it, pondering what it says about God, about life, and about us. Seldom will answers come quickly or easily, and our understandings may change at different stages of our lives. The beauty and purpose of metaphor is that it leads us on a journey of discovery, as opposed to a one-time destination. The goal of spiritual development is not to attain an intellectual understanding of the words, but to experience the divine Living Word to which the words point. Metaphors are much better suited to this latter task. The Living Word is implanted within every being, as the writer of James tells us. We need not understand it so much as allow it to express.

 

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 29: The Road to Nowhere…

 I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. Isaiah 42:16

Several decades ago, a friend and mentor introduced me to Eastern philosophy. Much of it seemed nonsensical at first. It was full of circular, impossible-to-fathom sayings that were intriguing, but seemed not to lead anywhere, at least not that I could see. Being a child of the West, I learned to discern fact from fiction, right from wrong, north from south. There were important distinctions to recognize and lines to be drawn between this and that. The great Eastern teachers’ lessons were mostly vague and noncommittal. What drew me to their words, however, was the way they grabbed something inside of me and held on until I engaged, like a wrestling match with one’s shadow. A paraphrase of one of my favorite sayings (from an unremembered author) is: “If you cannot find happiness where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?” In retrospect, that sounds exactly like the sort of thing Jesus would say. Of course, Jesus was from the Middle East.

Many of us feel we simply must change our physical location, our job, or our significant other in order to find happiness or personal fulfillment. Sometimes, as in cases of professional opportunities or abusive relationships, that may be true. If we have always dreamed of living near an ocean or in the mountains, staying in Kansas may not be a good choice. The point, however, is that happiness, fulfillment, and contentment are primarily internal states that have little to do with our external environment. Often, when we feel we simply must go somewhere else, we are only running from something inside ourselves that will follow us and manifest again, no matter how far away we run. At some point, we are better off to stay put, honestly and openly reflect on our life, and take the road to nowhere.

The road within may not be an actual road; but it is a journey – a journey of self-discovery. Eastern philosophy helped me understand the importance of looking within for the source of love, strife, strength, and life in ways that my Western upbringing seemed to disavow. Virtual roads to happiness extend in every direction from where we stand at any given moment. These roads are internal, and we find them as we face our own demons and learn to be content with what we have, even as we strive for more. Happiness and contentment are not out there, somewhere; they are always in here. Our creator planted them where they lurk closer than our next breath. It may seem bad news that we cannot run from ourselves. The good news is that we take the road to happiness with us wherever we go.

The road to nowhere is the road to everywhere. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 28: Tithing is not Enough

 But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Luke 11:42

Of all the expectations placed on the churchgoers among us, few cause as much discomfort and difference of opinion as the obligation to financially support our houses of worship. Tithes and offerings are spoken of regularly in both Old and New Testaments, although the expectation to tithe is more explicit in the Old. A tithe means a tenth; thus, the common understanding that we are to give a tenth of our income in support of our church. In previous generations, that may have been clear-cut, but not anymore. Are we to tithe on our gross or our net income? Do donations to other worthy causes count as part of our tithe? If we have an unusual expense one year, can the “tenth” be reduced? If we find $20.00 lying in the street, must we tithe on that, too?

Historically, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, the Levites, were designated as the keepers of the Temple. Because their livelihood was the business of the Temple, they could not make a living in other ways. The Levites were dependent on the people of the other 11 tribes for their support. The concept remains in place today, with members of a church providing financial support to pay the salaries of the staff and expenses of the church. Often overlooked is that the Biblical expectation for giving went well beyond the tithe. Separate offerings were also requested at various times, and those offerings could add another ten to twenty percent of income or wealth on top of the tithe. Today, I believe the percent of income given by the average church member is about 2%. Five percent is considered generous, although a tithe is still held out as the standard.

Jesus, however, held a much different measure for giving. He did not request a simple tithe; he wanted followers who willingly and happily gave everything. A rich man (Mark 10:17-22) tells Jesus he has followed every commandment and asks what else he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. The man walks away, disappointed, for he was not willing to give up his many possessions. In a parable found in Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells of a field with treasure such that someone desires to sell everything he or she owns in return for that one field. In the next verse, he tells of a pearl of great value such that one desires to sell everything else in order to obtain. For Jesus, the important matter is not how much we have or give, but of where our heart is – what do we most desire? Do we prefer our “stuff” to the life Jesus offers? The treasure-filled field and the pearl of great value represent the kingdom he encourages us to seek. When our heart is in the right place, nothing else will matter.

Far be it from me to imply churches are the only organizations worthy of financial support. Actually, I think that line of reasoning misses the point. Where is our heart? Where is our desire? Tithing – supporting our houses of worship – is a good start, but it is not enough. The key is to find ways to make every act of every day an offering for God to use for good. Whether we are eating, exercising, playing, getting ready for bed, or working, offer everything to God’s purposes. Whatever we do, our actions and decisions impact others. Making our life an offering is recognizing that God is with us all the time, in every circumstance, whether we want or sense God there or not. God will not be locked in a church. God is an active presence in our lives, no matter how mundane or profane some of our moments may be. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of Luke that we cannot neglect justice or love. Jesus tells us when we willingly dedicate our heart and life to following him, the rest will fall into place. It is not that where our money goes is unimportant, but it is more important to examine the desire of our heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Tithing is not enough. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 27: Growth is not Chronological

 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 2 Peter 3:8

Beginning at birth, our bodies go through a mostly predictable cycle of growth, maturation, decline, and death. We see it in others, and most of us witness it firsthand in ourselves. Through our school years, we steadily advance in our academic achievements as we graduate from grade to grade. As such, it is only natural to expect our growth as spiritual beings to follow a similar, predictable pattern; but it does not. Our experience of time is very different from that of God. In other words, time is not always as it seems. Our human evolution seemingly progresses in a predictable way from past to present to future. God creates, and that creation – including our lives – manifests in ways that we can only experience gradually over time. That is not necessarily the core reality, however.

Because our spiritual growth – our increasing awareness of God with us – occurs outside of earth-time, our spiritual development appears to occur in fits and starts. We go through long periods where it seems nothing is changing. In fact, we go through periods where it seems we are falling back and losing what we once believed we had attained. Then something happens and we hardly recognize the person we were a short time earlier. Our spiritual growth is commonly experienced as three steps forward and two steps back.

Often painfully, the times we move forward in a spiritual way are the times that force us to reevaluate our understanding of the world. The single event that most contributed to my spiritual development was the sudden death of my father when I was a youth. Decades later, that experience continues to realign my understandings and priorities. For others it may be a serious accident or illness, a divorce, or the severe misfortune of someone close to them that drives their former certainties into a state of utter inadequacy. Athletic trainers tell us, “No pain, no gain” in physical development. The same is often true in our spiritual growth. We grow too fond of the status quo when life is too comfortable. God created our world, including us, to evolve. When we are not changing, we are not growing. Sometimes, we need a nudge to move; other times, we need a swift kick in the back side.

We know our experience of chronological time is variable at best. When we are absorbed in a task we enjoy, time flies by. When we are burdened with a dreadful job, however, the clock hardly seems to move. In childhood, time moved at a crawl. As we age, the days in a month and months in a year seem fewer and fewer. Author Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Truly, even time is not the stable foundation we assume.

Our growth as human and spiritual beings does not correspond to our calendar because spiritual and physical times do not always correspond. Why does this matter? It matters because we are often too hard on others and on ourselves based on appearances on any given day. God’s creation, including us, is good. From our perspective, we are always a work in progress. From God’s perspective, we are the image of God; and in God’s present, we are very good! We simply do not have eyes to see it (yet). That knowledge can and will transform our world.

Meaningful growth is not chronological. How did I miss that?

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