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Run, Forrest, Run!

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

 Isaiah 40:31

 

The namesake of the movie, Forrest Gump, was bullied as a child. His schoolmates made fun of him, hurling insults and rocks. His only friend, Jenny, encouraged him to flee from his tormentors, saying, “Run, Forrest, run!” And so he ran. Running away from trouble was clearly his best option as a youth because he was always outnumbered. He soon discovered that he could often outrun trouble. Not only was he fast, he could run fast for a very long time. During one of her visits to Forrest as a young adult, Jenny bought him a pair of running shoes. When she left again, leaving Forrest heartbroken, he decided to run. He ended up running across the country, coast to coast, several times before deciding he was finished with running.

 

Many of us run from trouble because running seems to be our best option. In his childhood, Forrest ran from his tormentors. As an adult, he ran from the hurt of losing the love of his life – Jenny – repeatedly. The problem with running away from trouble is that we cannot run forever, and trouble usually catches up to us anyway. Obviously, most of us do not physically run from our problems, as Forrest Gump did. We do, however, let dreaded phone calls roll to voicemail. We commit to beginning the diet our doctor says we need – tomorrow. We avoid confronting and repairing dysfunctional relationships. These are ways to run that are not so hard on the knees, but they are hard on the spirit.

 

At some point, we must face our life challenges head-on. One of the reasons we avoid our problems is fear that we do not have the resolve or the resources to address them. We cannot see how to solve a problem, and so we avoid it for as long as we can, often making the problem worse. In that sense, avoiding our challenges is a faith issue. The author of the book of Isaiah writes that if we “wait for the Lord” our strength will be renewed, and we will “run and not be weary.” In this passage, waiting on the Lord refers to trusting in or relying upon the Lord. To trust in the Lord does not mean that we impulsively act on a problem without first researching and praying about our options. God sometimes provides guidance in obvious ways, but God’s communications are often subtle. For me, at some point, I begin to feel at peace about one option over the others. At that point, I know it is time to act. We prayerfully wait on the Lord for guidance, and then we act. There is no need to continue running away from what we fear.

 

Come home to church this Sunday. Peace does not run, it waits.

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Glorious Joy 

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8

The theme for the 3nd week of Advent is Joy. When I think of joy, I think of my grandma Hildenbrand. Grandma had the most challenging life of anyone I have known – and she was the most joyful. Her mother died when grandma was a teenager, leaving her as the mother figure to her 4 younger siblings. Two of her 5 children preceded her in death. She lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and two world wars. She was a hard-working farm-wife and mother. Every challenge seemingly strengthened her faith, as I never knew it to waiver. She loved her family and made certain they had everything they needed, accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of love and encouragement.

With me, grandma always looked beyond my shortcomings. She never saw me as I was, but as the person I was capable of becoming. One of the strongest motivations in my life has been striving to become the person she gave me credit for being. Her joy in her first grandchild – me – took on extraordinary proportions, and I still feel her influence, 32 years after her passing. The ability for grandma to see and bring out the best in others was a manifestation of her joy in life. And her joy was the unshakable outcome of her faith.

It is easy to confuse joy with happiness. Certainly, being happy is a good and worthy feeling, but happiness is a cheap and transient imitation of joy. A joyful person possesses something deep inside that radiates delight, apart from the circumstances of the moment. A person who treats us poorly can leave us unhappy, but not without joy. Some people make others unhappy for the sake of perpetuating his or her own happiness, but a joyful person spreads his or her joy to others. There are circumstances where only so many people will be pleased with a decision or a situation. Joy, however, multiplies when shared because joy perpetuates in abundance. That is how grandma was able to see the best in me – she always saw the best in life. Her delight in me (and in her other grandchildren) was such a central part of her being that it could not be shaken by my occasional bad decision or unkind word.

The writer of the book of 1 Peter describes an “indescribable and glorious joy” that is the “outcome” of our faith. Indeed, if we have a strong faith in a loving, protecting, and faithful God who will never leave or forsake us, what could possibly steal our joy? Will we have difficult, unhappy days? Certainly so, but we need not lose our joy in life, nor our confidence that all things will work together for good in the end. Even in the hustle and bustle of the pre-Christmas season, joy lies in wait – just beneath the commotion.

Come home to church this Sunday. Develop a faith that produces joy.

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The You God Sees 

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalm 139:13-14a

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them only a little lower than the angels. Hebrews 2:6b-7a

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Genesis 1:26a

One of today’s great tragedies is the lack of an accurate and reliable self-image. The increasing numbers of human beings who are uncertain about their standing as a family member, co-worker, life-partner, friend, and – most heart breaking of all – as a child of God, is troubling. Poor self-esteem, along with a self-image that rises and falls as far and as fast as a roller coaster, is at the root of many of today’s problems. We do violence to others and ourselves when we do not honor and acknowledge our inherent worth.

The problems of poor self-image are most pervasive in women – especially with teenage girls – but both genders and all ages fall prey to unrealistic, societal expectations. In a recent TED Talk (www.ted.com), Meaghan Ramsey discusses why thinking you are ugly is bad for you. She explains that about 10,000 people per month Google the phrase, “Am I ugly?” It is truly heart breaking, and she mentions research indicating that uncertainty about one’s image negatively affects test scores, initiative, and relationships. How have we descended into such an uncertain and inaccurate identity crisis?

The Bible is very clear about our image: fearfully and wonderfully made; a little lower than the angels; made in the image of God. Unfortunately, the voice of Scripture cannot easily drown out the unrelenting images on television, the constant pressures of social media, or the intense scrutiny of a typical schoolyard. The Information Age brings much that is good for society, but it also peppers us with a constant barrage of misinformation about how we should look, act, speak, and perform. We never know who actually sets those unrealistic standards, but we do know – most of us, anyway – that they are unattainable, unsustainable, and unhealthy. Still, we persist in our belief that we must mimic these airbrushed, carefully scripted, heavily edited, and overly sexualized images in order to be successful, to be loved, or to be worthy. Ms. Ramsey tells the story of a teenage girl who recorded and posted a video, asking, “Am I pretty?”  Predictably, she received thousands of replies, many of which were vulgar, hurtful, and blatantly untrue.

How can we stop looking to social media, television, and movies for validation of our self-worth and begin looking to those who love us most, including God? A solid church is a good place to begin. Supportive youth gatherings, covenant fellowship, and support groups help us understand that we are not the only ones who struggle with seeming imperfection. Retaining a healthy outlook about our appearance has everything to do with whose standards we use to judge ourselves. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Who answers that question for you?

Come home to church this Sunday. Celebrate the miracle God created in you!

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Finding Grace in an Imperfect World

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. –Hebrews 4:16

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“We live in an imperfect world. Movies, television shows, and novels inspire high expectations for life, but reality seldom flows like a well-written script. Endings are not always happy. Loose ends are not always tied up. While most people believe in a God, many have difficulty applying that belief.”

These thoughts are from the Introduction of my just-published book, Finding Grace in an Imperfect World. It is a collection of Life Notes and songs I have written and organized into book format. There are 10 chapters that provide fodder for extensive contemplation of Scripture, suffering and healing, love, truth, mortality, faith and doubt, sin, grace, prayer, and irony. Finding Grace contains reflections on my attempts to make sense of Scripture and religious practices in the context of the world in which we live. The task is challenging, and this book will not provide easy answers. It is my belief, however, that we do not need answers so much as we need guidance in how to go about finding God right here and right now, regardless of where we may be – physically, mentally, or spiritually. It is my prayer that this collection of reflections about my journey will help others on their journey and, ultimately, draw us all into a closer relationship with God. There can be no more effective tonic for the ills of our world than for each of us to develop a closer relationship to our God

For those in or around Lawrence, Kansas, the book is available in the downtown office of the First United Methodist Church. Finding Grace in an Imperfect World is also available for order from my website, http://www.ContemplatingGrace.Com, or through Amazon and other popular media outlets. A CD of the songs referenced in the book is also available at the church office, through my website, Amazon, and iTunes.

May you find grace wherever you earnestly seek it!

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Enigmatic Faith 

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. –Matthew 5:11-12a

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes, “The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring.” He follows this comment by saying, “If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.” Palmer makes it sound as if we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

I believe I have seen the truth of Palmer’s words in my life. The person with the strongest faith that I have known was my Grandma Hildenbrand. Her mother died young, leaving my grandmother to raise her 4 younger siblings. Two of her own children died as young adults. She lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, and worked sun up to sundown as a farm girl, and then a farm wife. Grandma had a harder life than anyone I know, and she also had the strongest faith. I never knew her to waiver in her faith, including as her health steadily deteriorated in her final months on earth. She remained optimistic, cheerful, and feeling blessed to the end. When I was a child, there were times when Grandma’s faith seemed to get in the way. We could watch whatever was on television – any of the 3 channels – unless Billy Graham was preaching, in which case we would be watching Billy Graham. Church attendance on Sunday mornings was mandatory, as were prayers of thanksgiving before every meal. Grandma believed God’s plan was perfect and that all things would work together for good – no matter how bad things got.

In his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus proclaims a number of enigmas. Endurance through pain and perseverance through difficulty will be rewarded, if not in this life then in the next. In the context of our live-for-the-moment world, maxims of the faith often seem foolish. Wise sages such as Jesus, Parker Palmer, and Grandma Hildenbrand talk about this life as if there is much that we cannot see or understand, as well as more beyond what we recognize as this life. Their faith is not rooted in what can be seen — indeed, that does not require faith at all. Palmer’s point is that just because we risk experiencing pain when we love deeply is no reason not to love deeply – or to believe strongly, or to hope defiantly. Like Grandma Hildenbrand, when life knocks us down we are to get back up, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward with confident certainty that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

 

Come home to church this Sunday. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great!

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Christian Values: Happiness

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.   Psalms 84:10-12

In Ben MacConnell’s study of Christian values, happiness came in at number five. Of all the instructions contained in Scripture for living a righteous life, references to happiness occur more frequently than all but four other ideals. In his work, MacConnell researched the frequency of use of the 20 characteristics he identified for the study, as well as their related synonyms and antonyms. Important related terms for happiness likely included joy, pleasure, delight, and contentment.

Some may feel happiness, while pleasant to experience, is not an important ideal to strive for as a Christian. One might argue, correctly, that happiness is a fleeting emotion that can result from distinctly non-Christian acts, such as making fun of another. Others would say there are no guarantees Christians will have an easier life than non-Christians will, so how can happiness relate to following Christ? Personally, I believe one needs to consider the context in which happiness occurs in the Bible, along with its synonyms of joy and contentment, in order to understand Godly happiness. Certainly, earthly parents desire happiness for their children, so why would our heavenly Parent desire less for us?

Followers of Jesus find joy in his presence. The Psalmist says, “…a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” Likewise, “No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.” Christian happiness is not a fleeting emotion, but a perpetuating state of mind growing from a strong relationship with the Almighty. In that holy relationship, believers feel secure, loved, and valued. The love of God helps followers transcend the challenges of days, weeks, months, and even years of hardship. When one’s life-foundation is solid, deep, and immovable, the life built on that foundation is better able to withstand whatever storms and hardships come at it. Christian happiness sprouts from that type of a spiritual foundation, one that gives us reason to live with optimism and joy, finding pleasure in simply being a part of God’s creation regardless of the current circumstances. Everyone desires happiness, so being happy is an effective evangelizing tool when others seek the source of our joy.

Come home to church this Sunday. Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth…

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Christian Values

For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young – let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:2-7

What does it mean to be a Christian? What characteristics distinguish a follower of Christ from the rest of the world? The Bible is full of instruction, but what recurring themes are found in Scripture as a whole? Ben MacConnell, of the Direct Action & Research Training Center (www.thedartcenter.org), asked similar questions, which led to a research project on Christian values. He was particularly interested in the prevalence of the principle of justice in Scripture, but his work considered and compared 20 different ideals commonly associated with Christianity. MacConnell chose specific values, along with their relevant synonyms and antonyms, and searched for their frequency of use throughout Scripture. He summarized his findings in this word cloud, where the values found most frequently are in the larger fonts:

Christian ValuesThe top five Christian values, according to this research, are love, justice, service, peace, and happiness. With the vast variety of instruction provided in Scripture, I find this list insightful. Many different authors, from diverse times, cultures, and backgrounds, contributed to writing the texts of the Bible. Attempting to wrap one’s mind around a central message can be challenging.

Values are guides for action. They are perhaps most useful when expressed as questions by which we measure our words, thoughts, and activities. For example, does what I am about to do reflect my love for others? Will my work make life more just for another? Whom will I serve by following through with my intentions – what persons will benefit? Am I increasing peace in the world and within others or destabilizing it? Do my actions increase the happiness of those around me? Assessing our work with value questions helps to assure we are aiding in the ways we intend, and helps keep us from doing harm in ways we may not be aware of otherwise.

Studying the most commonly mentioned character values in Scripture is useful in determining how best to act like a Christian. One who studies Scripture and seeks to emulate its guidance cannot overlook these five characteristics. In future Life Notes, I will focus each of these five, individually, and explore them further. These ideals are a good starting point, developmentally, for anyone seeking recognition as a Christian.

Come home to church this Sunday. Learning Christian values will help us live them.

Greg Hildenbrand, ContemplatingGrace.Com

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