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Posts Tagged ‘rebirth’

The Fiery Face of God

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Exodus 3:2

Fire is an amazing phenomenon, almost like something outside of the rest of creation. Its sustenance requires three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Combining these three elements is not sufficient for a fire to actually manifest, however. There must also be an ignition source – a spark to initiate or invite the fire to begin. Fire, like electricity, is neither good nor bad; rather, fire can produce either good or bad results. Fire can heat a home, cook a meal, and provide soothing light; fire can also reduce a home to ashes or burn a person beyond recognition.

God manifests as fire in numerous places in the Bible. In Exodus, God appears to Moses as a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. God leads the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:22). Psalm 29:7 proclaims, “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.” The New Testament author of Hebrews writes, “…for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). You get the picture: one of the faces of God is fire.

The ancient science of Alchemy used fire to purify metals like gold and silver. The art of the practice was to apply the right amount of heat to a substance in order to burn away the impurities without consuming the precious metal. Considering alchemy in an allegorical sense, God is the divine alchemist applying fire to us in order to burn away that which is unhelpful in us. The difficult, challenging, and painful times of our lives can be seen as a divine torch, burning away our narcissism, humbling us, and sometimes driving us to our knees in a cry for mercy. While I do not believe God rains hard times down upon us – we do that to ourselves – I do believe God takes what remains and stands ready to remake us anew. In the sense that one of the faces of God is fire, that fire is a resurrecting fire. Unfortunately, some measure of destruction is necessary for resurrection to occur, so the initial phases of the rebirthing process often feel more like a punishing fire from hell.

A legendary bird, the Phoenix, was said to live until reaching a certain stage of decline when it would simply burst into flame, reducing itself to ashes, only to rise again as a new creation from those very ashes. It is a mythical example of the pervasive cycle of life: birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. A more down to earth example occurs annually in the Flint Hills of Kansas, which are burned to black stubble every spring, only to be reborn to an iridescent green a short time later. The centuries-old practice of prairie burning purges the old growth, replenishes the nutrients in the ground, and clears the way for the rebirth of the prairie.

The analogy of God manifesting as fire assures us that our God is not an emotionless bystander. Fire is symbolic of passion and action. God’s love for us is fierce and tenacious. We do not consciously experience the fiery love of God because we are seldom in a state of sufficient awareness to recognize it. Regardless, God’s love burns brightly for each of us. The creator in God recycles all the elements of the earth in a never-ending dance of recreation, molding new combinations and rebirthing the old. Nothing is wasted, ever – no experience, no element, no being. When necessary, God manifests as a consuming fire, forcing the old to release the elements of its construction in order to allow a new creation to enter.

One face of God is fire – feel the burn…

Note: this is the tenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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A Sorry God

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. Genesis 6:5-6

Some people believe the story of Noah’s Ark to be historically accurate, meaning that the events happened as described in Genesis. Others believe the story is mythical, meaning it is not factually correct, but rather was written to teach the reader something about God and God’s relationship to man. While I respect both views, I am most interested in the Noah’s Ark account for what it teaches about God, more so than what it may teach about history.

As the story goes, God looks over his early creation and sees corruption and wickedness. Humankind is behaving in a way that makes God sorry for creating them. God decides to destroy all living things, except for Noah and his family. From them, the human race will then be regenerated. Noah is to gather pairs of every other living thing, build a huge ark to preserve this cross-section of creation, and prepare for a flood of enormous proportion.

To consider that God might be sorry for something God created is inconsistent with the way I was taught to understand God. According to the story of Noah’s Ark, the depravity displayed by human beings toward each other and toward the rest of creation seemed to catch God by surprise. While the Bible does not explicitly say that God made a mistake, the story certainly makes it sound like that is the way God saw the earlier creation. For me, the fact that humanity’s corruption and wickedness made God sorrowful is an indication of how intimately God is involved in and cares about this creation. If that were not the case, why would God be sorry?

God did not introduce corruption and violence into our world – we did. Yet, because God experiences creation through us, corruption and violence break God’s heart along with ours. Wickedness is a creation of the human mind, not God’s, and yet God is victimized by it every bit as much as we are. The pinnacle of human depravity in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus, where humanity applies its cruelest techniques of torture to maim, humiliate, and kill the One who came to display and model divine love in human form for us.

I think there are at least three lessons we can take from the story of Noah’s Ark. First, God suffers with us in our suffering, and God is involved with us in relieving that suffering. Second, just as God saw something worth saving in Noah’s family, so God sees something of value in each of us, something worth salvaging, and something that can be used to further God’s work on earth. No matter how far we have fallen, how corrupted we feel, or how badly we have messed up our lives or the lives of others, God can and will redeem us. Finally, perhaps God is not all-knowing in the way we usually assume. Perhaps even God cannot predict the depths to which our free will can sink us. What we do know about God, based on Romans 8:28, is that God can and will make all things work together for good for those who believe. God needs on our help and cooperation, however, to build the Ark that will lead us out of whatever swamp we find ourselves in.

Note: this is the sixth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 7: Resurrection is a Reoccurring Reality

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

I do not know how I missed it, but resurrection is all around us, all of the time. To be sure, it is called by different names – the changing seasons, graduations, marriages, childbirth, death, sunrise, sunset – but the changing from one stage of life to another is constant. The cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth is forever present in us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As a Christian, I associate resurrection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What I missed, however, was that the same pattern is repeated in all of life as a natural, ongoing process, albeit not always in as dramatic a fashion. The resurrection of Jesus is the core belief of Christianity, and the resurrection – having its central figure return to life from death – is the distinguishing feature separating it from other enduring religions.

Among Christians, we debate about how much of the biblical record we believe literally, but we tend to overlook how much of the lives recorded therein serve as a metaphor for our lives and the life around us. Science confirms that rebirth is an ongoing process. Every cell in our bodies is replaced at least every 7 years, so we are entirely remade many times over the course of our lives. Jesus talks about wheat in the passage from John 12. He says unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and “dies,” it will forever remain only a single grain of wheat. Once the seed dies, however, it grows into a plant that forms a seed head with hundreds of grains of wheat. When those grains fall to the earth and die, thousands of grains of wheat result. Knowing that, did the initial grain of wheat die, or did it transform its existence? Clearly, it was transformed, and so are we whenever a part of us dies. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was not the same person in the same body. He was transformed. Even his own disciples did not recognize him until he spoke.

The moral of resurrection is that change is good and necessary. New life cannot begin until an old life passes away. This is rebirth, and death is its prerequisite. It is what provides second chances and new starts. Much as we may feel safe and secure in our current life, nothing remains the same for long. We are designed for change, and we are led into numerous transformations over the course of a lifetime. We can change willingly, or we can go kicking and screaming. Either way, we will die to our old self and be reborn to a new one.

Resurrection is a reoccurring reality. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Beginning Again

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”  Revelation 21:1, 5a

As an employer, I make certain my employees receive at least one performance evaluation each year. The process rewards a person for things done well, provides coaching in areas that need improvement, and encourages goal setting for the coming year. It is a time for reflection, as well as an opportunity to begin again.

It is common to mark New Year’s Day with resolutions for change. Some people want to lose weight; others decide to exercise more frequently, save more money, spend more time in prayer, mend broken relationships – you name the issue and someone wants to resolve it. For numerous reasons, few New Year’s resolutions actually succeed. First, resolutions are often made with little thought or research into what is required for success. Second, our sights are often set too high too quickly. Finally, having too many resolutions is a sure recipe for failure. Here are a few suggestions:

Research the desired change. Goal setting is a worthwhile endeavor, but goals need to be broken down into pieces that can be accomplished and measured in weekly, even daily or hourly units. For example, if I desire to lose 25 pounds in 2015, I need to research the types and quantities of foods I will and will not eat, the types and frequency of exercise that will be needed, and a reasonable expectation for how much weight I can successfully lose each week. Losing 25 pounds is a lofty goal. Losing 1 pound per week over 6-months sounds much more attainable. Prayerful research and planning is required for serious goals.

Set realistic goals and timelines. Everyone wants positive change, and everyone wants it now. Unfortunately, strategic changes that last seldom occur quickly. Rather, new habits must be consciously practiced over lengthy periods to become ingrained. There is no magic that happens on New Year’s Day that allows change to occur more quickly. 

Focus. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. There are only so many hours in a day and success in creating positive change requires focused attention over time. The more we dilute our attention among numerous change projects, the less likely we will be to accomplish any of them. One project at a time is a good rule of thumb.

The writer of Revelation, referring to a new heaven and a new earth, writes, “See, I am making all things new.” I believe God will remake us anew; we can be born again and grow into better versions of ourselves. That sort of change, however, requires strategic planning and thoughtful participation on our part. It is easy to forget that God is our all-powerful partner in the change we desire. If we align our desired changes with God’s will and draw on that unfailing source of power, we will succeed.

Come home to church this Sunday. Make it a Happy New Year, not just a day.

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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

Saints-in-Waiting

To the church that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:2-3

Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, says its members are “called to be saints.” The church today refers to members who have passed from this life as saints. The Catholic Church has a formal process by which persons may be awarded “sainthood” after their death. Regardless of the methodology, I have a recent experience with a mostly regular guy receiving sainthood – my brother.

Regular readers of Life Notes know that I lost my brother, Wade, about a month ago. By most accounts, Wade was a pretty regular guy. He had a typical mix of good and annoying qualities. He had close friends. He worked for a living, loved his children and grandchildren, and he valued his family – including his extended family – above all. Still, most people would have considered Wade a “good old boy,” not a saint. Had I called my brother a saint, he would have scoffed, much preferring the “good old boy” title.

Those speaking at his memorial service, however, showered Wade with praise, and appropriately so. He was a close friend and confidant to many; he cared about the marginalized of society; he was generous to a fault. With a unique sense of humor, he was quick to put those around him at ease. Listening to the many who spoke about my brother, one might think he walked on water, which he decidedly did not do. Wade was very human, with all the accompanying disappointments and frailties. Still, I have seen this magical transformation – from sinner to saint – occur repeatedly. Apparently, all a person must do to attain sainthood is to die.

Why is it that we remember people more positively when we are no longer in close, physical proximity to them? Once loved ones are gone, an outsider might believe we worshipped the ground they walked on – something far from the truth in most cases. Numerous artists died penniless, only to have their works worth millions after their death. Coincidence? I doubt it. Sins are quickly forgiven, once we know they cannot be repeated. In addition, we are quick to value that which is no longer readily available to us. Ultimately, I think we are all saints-in-waiting. Our good and true selves cannot always shine through our earthly failings, at least not until the earth falls off of us. It is not easy to live up to the expectations of ourselves, let alone those of others. The good in each of us is so much more apparent when there is no less-than-good competing with it. This is not to diminish sainthood in any way. It is deserved – for my brother and the other saints. An oft- forgotten requirement for saints, however, is to first be human.

Come home to church this Sunday. Let your inner saint shine through!

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Broken Hearts, Open Minds 

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is open wide to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also. –2 Corinthians 6:11-13

When I was in my early teens, I was enamored with a girl who lived down the street. We started “dating,” which meant I was allowed to come over and sit with her on her front porch once or twice a week. We could also walk a short distance down the street, as long as we remained in view of her mother’s front window. I was devastated when she broke up with me. She gave me my first broken heart.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer considers broken hearts. He writes, “There are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into a new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”

Palmer’s latter definition is reminiscent of the Christian concept of being born again. The initial birth process is difficult. There is no reason to believe being born again will be easy, either. Letting go of beliefs we have long held to, once we discover them to be no longer helpful, is not easy. We must let go of what is known as we reach for something unknown – unknown, yes, but full of possibilities.

Brokenness is a central theme in Christianity. Sometimes our old ways of thinking need to be broken open in order to allow new concepts and ideas to reshape us into more useful vessels for the Spirit. We can be broken voluntarily, meaning we willingly offer ourselves to be broken. More often, at least for me, we are broken by unforeseen circumstances, often of our own making. Our lives are sailing along smoothly, and we feel like we are in control and then, BAM! Something happens that rocks our world and breaks us in such a way that we cannot reassemble our life back the way it was. We find ourselves in a forced career change, a loved one leaves us, or a medical condition inspires a reevaluation of our priorities. Rebirth is not easy and is not without pain, but is ultimately necessary and good. Palmer refers to “the tragic gap between reality and possibility.” If we are to move beyond today’s reality and approach tomorrow’s possibility, we must be willing to let go of yesterday. We should not always be in such a rush to reassemble our broken hearts. And perhaps our hearts should be reassembled with something less adhesive than super glue, leaving them more easily rebroken. A closed heart leads to a closed mind, and a closed mind leads to a small and closed life.

Come home to church this Sunday. Come and be broken with others.

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