The Fingerprint of God

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The Fingerprint of God

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this! In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.  Job 12:7-10

The Old Testament book of Job begins with a conversation between God and the devil. They are observing Job, a prosperous man who, according to God, would remain faithful through any difficulty. The devil claims that if Job were stripped of his family and possessions, his faith would soon leave him. God agrees to put Job to the test. All of Job’s children, his crops and animals, his health, and all of his wealth are taken from him – all with the approval of God. Interestingly, Job’s faith does not waiver, but he does get extremely angry with God. In the passage above, Job claims that all of creation knows who caused his calamity because God’s fingerprints were all over it. Much of the book consists of discourses between a livid, desperate Job and his friends, and between Job and God.

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; these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. 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.

Job’s reactions are interesting to me, as he falls into deep despair. He is in agonizing physical and emotional pain and begs for relief, but he never loses faith. His misfortune occurs over an extended period, with calamity piled upon calamity, each as bad as or worse than the previous one, yet he continues to believe God is in control. I fear I would abandon my faith in God under a fraction of the weight of Job’s condition.

We seem to have evolved a belief that only what we perceive as good is of God. The bad in our lives comes from something or someone else – an evil power, greedy humans, or the presence of sin. It seems to me if God is in control of anything in our lives, God must be in control of everything in our lives. That God sometimes intervenes in the apparent course of our lives is clear to me. How, when, and for what purposes God choses to intervene is a mystery. It seems arrogant on my part to assume God only intervenes in ways I will consider good. Who am I to judge what is good in God’s eyes? For me, at least, every challenging event in my life has led to an unexpected blessing. Even the animals, plants, birds, and fish declare God’s fingerprint on all of creation. Perhaps we are the ones most challenged to see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find God’s fingerprint on your life.

Where are You?

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Where Are You?

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”  Genesis 3:8-9

After eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve were so ashamed they tried to hide from God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had unfettered access to and a direct relationship with God. When they ate the fruit of that tree, which God had prohibited, Adam and Eve committed what today we call the Original Sin. It was the first recorded act of direct defiance of God’s will. They were banished from paradise and became self-conscious beings – conscious of themselves as distinct from others.

Intellectually, we know God is omnipotent – all-knowing – and omnipresent – present everywhere – so there is no logical way for us to hide from God. Even so, in the Genesis story, God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” While Christians disagree about the factual nature of the stories of the Garden of Eden and Original Sin, the recorded experiences are intriguing and enlightening. Today, humankind remains a self-conscious species. We go to great lengths to display our individuality, emphasizing that which sets us apart and deemphasizing that which we share in common.

I believe the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegory, recorded to help us understand our human condition. Our perception is that we are separate beings – independent from each other and independent from God. That perception of separation is an illusion, and that illusion is the source of most, if not all of our suffering. When we understand we are interconnected, we realize we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. We get serious about solving society’s problems once we recognize them as our issues and not someone else’s problem. Intolerable conditions like starvation, homelessness, war, and many preventable illnesses will be eradicated once we take responsibility for the care of our neighbors, as we do for ourselves.

In the Garden, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of separation and deny their communion with God by hiding. Today, we convince ourselves the universe is here to serve us, and we act accordingly. God, desiring our return to fellowship, calls out “Where are you?” Intuitively, we know God has plans for our lives that are inconsistent with our desires. We know God specializes in uncomfortable and insecure paths. Therefore, we hide by pretending not to hear. Obviously, we cannot hide from God, but we do have the free will to ignore God. Either way, we perpetuate the illusion of separation – separation from God and separation from each other. God’s love perpetually calls us back to unity.

Come home to church this Sunday. God is calling, “Where are you?”

Been There, Done That

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Been There, Done That

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  John 17:1b-3

Today is Holy Thursday, the day the church remembers the Last Supper and the betrayal by Judas. Jesus and his disciples gather in a room for the Passover meal. Jesus washes their feet and gives them a new commandment – to love one another. Finally, he establishes a new covenant, one indemnified by his body and blood. Christians know the rest of the gruesome story – the sham trials, beatings, flogging, crown of thorns, carrying his cross, and the crucifixion. There are many lessons of importance here, including these two: (1) Jesus came so we could know God through him; and (2) Jesus suffered so we would know that God understands our pain.

A common illustration of the generation gap occurs when a parent tells a suffering child, “I know what you are going through.” Children do not believe it. They believe the world has changed dramatically since their parents were kids, so parents cannot possibly understand contemporary challenges. Our children do not grasp that although time may put new clothes on life’s challenges, the essence of the experience does not change. Similarly, some may assume God cannot understand our pain because Jesus’ trials were 2000 years ago. Suffering is suffering, however, regardless of age, socio-economic status, geographic location, or any other variable. Pain is an equal opportunity experience. Jesus suffered horribly near the end, both physically and emotionally. No matter what we go through, we have assurance that God has experienced it, because God was there in Jesus. And God is with us today. In order to finish his “work” on earth, God-in-Jesus experienced the worst. Jesus went through death’s door and came back to show that death is not the end. Our suffering will end, but our existence continues. Hope springs eternal.

Jesus drew all people to himself – the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the foreigners, and the unpopular. He knew what we only pretend to know, that higher levels of life and truth must contain and embrace all lower levels. We cannot overcome evil by ostracizing it, nor can we overcome suffering by ignoring its existence. We overcome less-than-desirable parts of our lives by loving them, by living a better way, and by accepting all into our circle of awareness and blessing. Jesus invites us to bring our earthly trials and lay them at the foot of his cross, where he will bear them with us. We are not alone. He has been there and done that. At the Last Supper, Jesus told us to remember – remember he has been there; remember this life is not all there is; remember we are loved beyond imagination. There is light on the other side of the cross.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be there and do that.

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Failing Successfully

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Failing Successfully

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Matthew 19:30

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24

Jesus makes a number of difficult and paradoxical pronouncements throughout his ministry. He tells us the poor in spirit, meek, and persecuted will be blessed. Can you imagine a parent wanting their child to grow up poor and meek? Blessed, yes. Persecuted? No way. Can you imagine a coach encouraging a prospective athlete to come in last, or a business professor teaching the benefits of poverty? By today’s standards of success, the Bible can seem a formula for failure.

The Paschal Mystery is the mystery of the Lamb, the Lamb being Jesus. It refers to the truths of Jesus that are not widely understood, and the New Testament is full of them. Fr. Richard Rohr sums up the Paschal Mystery by saying, “The way up is the way down.” Paradoxical truths are perhaps not as hard to understand as they are to accept. It is risky to pattern a life after them, especially for those to whom earthly success is important. In just about every country and age, except my own, I am a rich man. Therefore, the passage from Matthew 19, about the difficulty for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, seems particularly harsh. After all, I am a good person. I am active in my church. I study the Bible, and I pray daily. I have worked long and hard for my success. Why would the kingdom of God be difficult for me to enter?

The Paschal Mystery is mysterious because spiritual success and material success are often confused, different, and sometimes mutually exclusive. Fear of failure prevents us from stretching ourselves to new heights, both spiritually and materially. In our culture, the poor are considered deprived, perhaps even failures. In Jesus-speak, those who desire material wealth beyond their need are poor and have failed. But think about this: No one appreciates success more than one who has repeatedly failed. Those who have not failed may take their success for granted. No one appreciates the grace of forgiveness more than one who has sinned horribly. No one appreciates health like one who has been ill. The challenge, then, is remaining mindful of the source and scope of our blessings. We find the kingdom of God by entirely relying on God for our life and sustenance, and by being grateful for what we receive. We need not fear failing as we strive to deepen our spirituality. Failure is not a permanent state, but it can become an entrance into a deeper relationship with God. Indeed, the way up, many times, is down.

Come home to church this Sunday. A reliant faith is the key to the kingdom of God.

Rules of Forgiveness

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Rules of Forgiveness

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

There is a popular saying that I do not care for. It goes like this: “It is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” Perhaps the reason I am not fond of this philosophy is that I usually hear it from an employee or child after they have done something I wish they had discussed with me first. I believe forgiveness is appropriate for anyone who is sorry for what has been done. If one continues to do something they know is not right, however, it is difficult to believe they are truly sorry for it. Perhaps they are not sorry for what they did, but only regret they were caught. Of course, there are others times when forgiving someone is in our best interest, even if the other person is not seeking our forgiveness.

The comedian Emo Phillips said, “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” While I agree that God willingly and repeatedly grants forgiveness, I also believe there are expectations attached to forgiveness. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul advises us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. He also says to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient in our dealings with others.

Repentance – literally to turn around – is a common expectation for forgiveness. When we repent of our sin, we acknowledge a need to change something within, and so we seek to turn around. Confession of our sins is another expectation for forgiveness. When we confess, we accept responsibility for our actions. If there are rules of forgiveness, they likely include accepting responsibility for our actions and being willing to change.

Paul, however, sums up forgiveness in a word, love. In typical Paul-style, he uses many words to get to the point, but love is clearly there. Our need to forgive or to be forgiven always occurs in relationship to another – to God, to a family member, to a friend or co-worker. If we love that person, or at least if we value the relationship, we will not intentionally do them harm. When we say or do something harmful, we want to make it right. Thus, we seek forgiveness out of love. Likewise, we are more likely to grant forgiveness when we have been wronged if we love another or value our relationship with them. The rule of forgiveness, then, is actually very simple: love one another.

Come home to church this Sunday. If you must steal a bicycle to go, seek forgiveness.

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Relentless Love

Relentless Love 

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me. Revelation 3:20-21

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Doris.”

“Doris who?”

“Doris locked, that’s why I’m knocking!”

Love is the theme for the 4nd week of Advent. This is no ordinary sort of love, however. It is not an emotional, touch-feely, teenage-crush sort of love. The true love of Christmas has nothing to do with lights and trees, with presents and parties, or with friends and family – wonderful as they are. If these types of things and activities dominate our Christmas preparations and celebration, we will almost certainly miss the very personal and relentless nature of Christmas love.

This baby-in-the-manger, whose birth we celebrate next week, requires more than the obligatory oohs and ahs we typically shower on new babies. This is not a baby we greet briefly at church before heading home for lunch. It is not a grandchild we enjoy for a few days at a time. This baby needs a place to stay. We sing about the misfortune of having no room at the Inn for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We lament that Jesus’ life began in a feeding trough for cattle, donkeys, and sheep. Although we sometimes romanticize the manger scene, there can be no doubt it was a smelly, dark, dungeon of a place. The baby Jesus, however, finds his forever home in us. What sort of home have we prepared?

There is a portrait hanging in many churches of Jesus standing at a door, knocking. The door has no outside handle, so Jesus can only enter if the person behind the door opens it for him. It is a visual portrayal of Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking.” He assures us that if we open the door and let him in, he will abide with us. Jesus will not enter, however, without a willing invitation.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. While we wait, we can prepare for the birth of the child. Is there room in your life for the Christ child this Christmas? Be assured, if we do not make room for the baby this year, Christmas will come and go, as it always does. We, however, will miss the relentless love the child brings.

Come home to church this Sunday. Jesus will be knocking at your door, soon.

Higher Truth and Peace

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Higher Truth and Endless Peace 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Councilor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace…  Isaiah 9:6-7a

The theme for the 2nd week of Advent is Peace, and I have been doing a lot of thinking about peace, lately. I participate in a number of national discussions relating to my profession, and the debates are not always civil. In fact, some of the comments become downright nasty. It is in this context of disagreement that I contemplate peace.

In my opinion, for peace to exist between two or more people (or countries), there must first be a foundation of mutual respect, as well as an acknowledgement that all points of view have value. I do not have to agree with someone to co-exist peacefully with them. I do not even have to like them. I do have to accept their right to believe as they do, however. It is clear to me that our core differences are exposed by what we cannot discuss civilly. Peace cannot be present when one or both sides are defensive. We become defensive when we feel threatened. As long as another person’s point of view on a particular topic threatens me, we will be unable to have a peaceful or productive discussion on the topic. Rather, we will argue about it. When defensiveness enters a conversation, minds slam shut. When minds slam shut, there can be no dialogue, because true dialogue requires giving and receiving. Closed minds cannot receive.

An open mind is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view. Open minds create opportunities to discover higher truths. A higher truth is one that encompasses both original points of view, but goes farther than either goes alone. It does not deny the truth of the individual thoughts, but it includes and then moves beyond them. This higher truth, once reached, is not threatening to either party since it includes what was important to both. Higher truths allow for civil interaction between people and countries. Only by doing the work to discover higher truths will we know peace in our lives or world.

Jesus modeled higher truths throughout his ministry. He accepted his followers as they were and sought to raise them up to his level. Consider the woman caught in the act of adultery, who was about to be stoned to death (John 8). Jesus invited those without sin to cast the first stone – and no stones were thrown. He pointed out the higher truth that all are sinners. Jesus intentionally sought out those that society rejected in order to bring them into his circle of life. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the authority of Jesus hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ birth, describing how his authority would grow continually and bring endless peace. We cannot imagine this type of peace in our deeply divided world. We can, however, follow the example of Jesus and seek higher truths that accept others where they are and lead us all to a higher, more peaceful co-existence.

Come home to church this Sunday. Reaching for higher truths will bring peace.