Sunday, November 8, 2015

Picking Up Sticks
Sometimes, I just don't know what to do next. 

I mean, the instruction book for life is pretty plain--worship God, repent, pray, hope, help others, look for heaven.

But sometimes, it's not enough.

I worship but God still seems far away. I repent but the list of my sins grows. I hope but it fades in the face of living. I help others but what I do rarely seems to have any lasting effect for either them or me. As for looking for heaven--well, I can barely manage earth.  Sometimes, it's just not working for me.

Then I realize that it doesn't matter.

It doesn't.
My disappointment, after all, is all about my feelings. I get dissatisfied because as much as I pray, as much as I hope, as much as I love God and understand what He's done both for me and the ones I love, there's still a huge gap between God's best and my reality.
A crevasse. A desert. A black hole. And it's not going away.

I can't create the heaven I want on the earth I'm given. And in the end, there's only one thing to do.
Pick up sticks.

That's right. Pick up sticks.
In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance to the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her, "Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink." She left to get it, and he called out after her, "Please bring along a bit of bread." She answered, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now, I was collecting a couple of sticks to go in to prepare something for myself and my son. When we have eaten it, we shall die." 
This woman knows she is dying. The country has lived through years of drought and she has no more food. She has enough left for one more meal for her and her son and along comes Elijah.

Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son." --1Kings 17

What? "Oh, by the way," he says, "You're dying anyway. You might as well give me some of your last meal. It won't make any difference in the end."
Thanks a lot, bud.

I can't imagine she was thrilled with what Elijah, who spoke for God, told her to do, and sometimes, neither am I. Giving him that little she had left was not going to solve anything.
But she does it.
She goes and gathers the sticks, builds the fire, bakes the bread, gives some to Elijah, and then something happens--
She left and did as Elijah had said. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry.--1Kings 17

She has enough. Just like that. Not enough just for that day or that week, but for a year. Enough until the drought ended, until her season of starvation was over.
That's what God does. He provides enough. When we finally come to the place where we have nothing left and know we're going to die without Him, He brings enough.

I wonder what would have happened if she didn't gather the wood, didn't make the fire, didn't bake the bread and share it with Elijah? I don't know for sure, but I suspect we wouldn't be reading about her today. She would likely have died, and her son, too. Starved for the lack of doing the one thing that was left for her to do. Because, when she did that, the only thing she could, God did the rest. God did what she could not.

And that's what I have to do.
What I can.
No matter how things look. No matter how I feel. 
Because that is when God shows up with flour and oil that never run out. 
That is where I find the cup that, in spite of circumstances, overflows.
No matter what else is going on, no matter how hard or sad life gets, no matter how many things there are that I want to change and can't, there is always one thing left that I CAN do. And that is all God asks of me--to do what I can so that He can do what I can't. As long as there is one more thing for me to do, God is waiting for me to do it.

So, excuse me please. I'm needing God and I still have some sticks to pick up.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seeds of the Spirit

Nearly 7AM and it's still dark. Indian summer come and gone. Leaves turned gold and red, then brown, and now coming down in nearly constant showers, swaying as they fall, settling in crinkly heaps where the wind gathers them, dead, in airy eddies. Autumn.

What a time to think of growing things. And yet, and yet... That's what I'm doing.

Instead of the beauty of Fall, I'm thinking of fruit. Bursting, juicy, warm from a high summer sun. Ripe and perfect. Strawberries, peaches, grapes. And flowers--spreading roses and extravagant hydrangeas. Gone now, but remembered well. They are summer, lush and dripping. Already missed.

But they have left something behind. Usually brown, sometimes red or orange, the fruit of summer has left a kernel of itself, a promise. Seeds.
They don't look like much. I know that come next year, they will burst open into flower and then, after the grace of fertilization, will produce an apple, a zinnia, a plum, but now, well, they just sit there looking dead.
For now, they're just seeds.
They need time.

In the growing dark of these days, seeds don't hold a lot of hope. Not yet. Hard and as dim as these predawn hours, they don't change, not for months.
But they are fruit. Fruit in the making.
And that's the point of fruit. It takes time. 

So it is with all kinds of fruit--even fruits of the Spirit.
Fruit is not a gift, something that once unwrapped, is instantly available, full and bursting, ready to eat. Fruit takes preparation, nurturing, time. We have to wait for it, watch it develop day after impatient day,
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.--Galatians 5:23

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Fruit, not gifts.
Pray for them, but don't expect them to come in an instant.
When they come, they come as a seed, a promise, something to be developed slowly over time.
At their start, we get seeds of the Spirit. 
In time, with God's favor and patient grace, we eventually have fruit.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Abraham's Dirty Laundry
Whoever thinks about Abraham anymore? I don't. Not hardly ever.

But I did today.

I had a dream last night...a dream of disarray, of inconclusion, of hoplessness, of incomplete instruction and unclear future.

Well, a dream of dirty laundry, actually. Piles of it everywhere. I couldn't walk without tripping over it, rags and sheets and t-shirts. I kept tripping every time I took a step. I felt tied up. Strangled by it. And I was alone in the house, abandoned with no one to help. No one to tell me what to do. Nowhere firm to step.

Then I woke up and read about Abram.
So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the LORD.--Genesis 13:18

There really is a connection, at least a perceived one. 
Abram had been following God's instruction. He'd been going where God sent him, but nothing good had happened there. God told him to go to Haran and made him a promise there, but nothing changed. God sent him to Canaan, and he got nothing but famine. God sent him to Egypt, and he got in trouble with the Pharaoh. God sent him to Bethel and Lot got the best of the land they found there. 
No fulfillment of the promise God kept making. Just more promises. He didn't even have his final name yet.

And what did he do? He built an altar. A place to worship. A place to remember. Remember what, I want to know? Nothing had happened yet. Nothing good, at least.

It felt like my dream of laundry. Piles all around. Endless work. Enough to trip over. All the promises God makes but no indication of Him keeping them. Roadblocks. Hopelessness. Confusion. 

And Abram built an altar.
Not because of what God had done, but because he needed it. 
He needed a stone that didn't move, that he could kick at or cling to. 
He needed to remind himself who God really is. He needed something concrete, that didn't move like tents, like sheep, like nephews who take the best for themselves. 
The altar was not just a place to worship, it was a place that wouldn't move or change. A place like God Himself. He needed a place to hang on.
Kind of like this:
Abram had plenty of dirty laundry in his own life until God finally brought the fruition of His promises. And so do I. 

I don't like waiting. Not necessarily because I don't trust God, but because I rarely know what to hang onto while I'm waiting. I don't have a place to build the stone altar Abram did. But I have to have one anyway, so I'm going to have to build my own altar in the place Christ taught...

Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong.--Ephesians 3:17

I don't build my altar out of rocks. I carry it with me wherever I go. My Rock. My touchstone. My love. My trust. The only altar God wants anymore. And the only one I need. 

If I can do that, eventually, my laundry will look like this:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Songs in the Dark

Like many of you, I'm going to sit down to a table this Thursday groaning with way too much food and celebrate with my family amid a practical example of the plenty we've been given. And plenty it is--food, drink, shelter, safety, wealth, health--a very long list. But something's been nagging at me, that little voice that says that I'm missing the point, and by a long shot. Is Thanksgiving just for us, I'm wondering? What about people who are lonely, or hungry, or poor, or in constant pain? What are they supposed to be doing on Thanksgiving Day?

The simple answer is that they are, like us, supposed to be giving thanks, too. But for what?

Well, this is my considered answer. Everybody, whether in plenty or in want, is supposed to be giving thanks for the same thing. It has much less to with the people around the table and their prosperity or good fortune than with the understanding of their thanksgiving in the first place.

Habbakuk got it:
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there should be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.--Habakkuk 3:16-17

There is only one thanksgiving to which we are called--thanksgiving to God for Himself. 
Any unbeliever can be thankful to their own deity--karma, fate, circumstance, personal fortitude--for the plenty of their life. It's easy. It is only the person of faith that can give thanks in want.

Think about it.  

Sooner or later, everybody has trouble. Without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, trouble brings misery with it, but with the Spirit, trouble brings focus. While not devoid of sadness and difficulty, Spirit-led troubles include a sense of purpose and direction. They take us someplace. Our circumstances, whatever they are, are a gift from God. Do we give thanks, then, for illness or hunger, or loneliness or poverty?  Yes, for these, too. God, after all, either brings them or allows them. Whatever our condition, it came to us through God.
Rejoice in the Lord always.--Philippians 4:4

Troubles are God's assurance that we are ready for more of Him. If I am ill, God changes me to find His healing, even when He doesn't bring a cure. If I am lonely, He calls me to His side. If I am afraid, He calls me to trust.

So it's Thanksgiving and what are we to be thankful for? Give thanks to God for God.

Thanksgiving is not about plenty, even when we have it. Thanksgiving is about the places in our lives where we are starving for God's riches. It is where God opens His arms to us as only He can. It is about how we find God more in what we still need than in what we already have, about resting in Him when everything else has fallen short.

It is a sweet, poignant "Thank you" sung in the dark.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All the Saints

Today is All Saints Day, one of the sweetest festivals of the church. It is when we remember our place among all those of faith who have come before and those destined to come after. The line is long, the crowd very dense and they are all so, well, so great. They have done so much, suffered so much. Many still do. How can we measure up to that? What kind of place in heaven can we find compared to them?

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1208-1282) expressed it well:

To the extent we desire that God be praised, recognize that we have been given, and properly carry out God's will, we are like the prophets and the holy fathers who through great virtue overcame themselves in God.

To the extent that we learn wisdom and through it change other people and stand true to God in all trials we resemble the holy apostles who went out of themselves even unto death.

To the extent that we are patient in all distress and in the measure that we hold fast to our Christian faith, even in the face of death, we resemble the holy martyrs, who have marked out for us through the shedding of their blood the true path to heaven.

To the extent that we bear resolutely the difficulties of Holy Christianity, both those of the living and those of the dead, we are like the holy confessors, who remained watchful in great toil and heard confessions with sympathy.

To the extent that we remain unconquered in battle and preserve our maidenly honor we are like the holy virgins, who have not lost true victory.

To the extent that we have deep sorrow and to the extent that we perform many kinds of holy penance we are like those holy widows who, after sinning, attained such great honor.

To the extent that we have all the virtues about us we are like God and all His saints, who have followed God with complete devotion.*

We are not asked to be saintly in the context of someone else's life. We are asked to become saints within the life God has given to us. The opportunity for martyrdom that put another man or woman in a den of lions or in front of an assault rifle may never come to us. We may never encounter the victims of a earthquake or a deadly virus or desperate hunger. We may never meet a people unreached by the gospel.

But we can be saints within the circumstances God has marked out for us to the extent that we yearn for righteousness with the same fervor as those who have done these things. We can love with the same compassion. We can work with the same zeal. We can rejoice with them in the same holy God.

All Saints Day. My day. Your day.

*From The Flowing Light of the Godhead

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Let it Bleed

Everybody gets them.
And what is our first reaction? "Quick! Put pressure on it! Get a bandage! Stop the bleeding!"
And, indeed, that reaction is often the appropriate one.
But not always.

Sometimes, when the hurt is shallow, an irritating scrape or narrow cut, wisdom says to leave it open to the air, even to let it bleed awhile and let it close on its own.
That's messy. And it takes time.
But it cleans out the wound and lets a scab form naturally
and, if we don't pick it off (admit do, too), it heals properly. It may leave a scar, but that is all.
But this is not a first aid lesson.
Well, come to think of it, maybe it is.
It's the psalms.
The psalms, with their in-your-face wounding, their constant oozing emotions. The psalms, weak and unapologetic. They are the child hanging on our legs, the weeping widow, the forsaken friend, the disappointed lover. They are tears running unwiped down cheeks. They are unabashed, aching loneliness.
The psalms bleed.

God says, in essence, "Yes, you're hurting. I know it. I've been there. Hurt awhile. You'll be OK."
And I'm starting to understand why.
There is an opportunity in the process of hurting, one that cannot be improved upon by binding up. And we have a name for it.

Compassion is the place where we meet one another in an icky place that we can't fix. Compassion is the hand we hold through pain. It is the ear that listens without interrupting. It is finding a rock willing to accept our beating of it.
It gets messy. Oh, yes.
And this is a hard place to be. No sane person enjoys watching another suffer.
It is our first reaction to rescue someone in trouble. But not always the right one.
And sometimes, we have no choice.
I'm thinking of sickness, or the process of childbirth, or mourning. There is no way out of these except through them to whatever end they bring.

Did you ever see a meat tenderizer?

Nasty thing, isn't it? But oh, the result! Well, that's us. We need tenderizing. We need to experience compassion that feels to us like being beaten along with the person suffering. Compassion allows us to suffer along with someone else. And yes--that is a privilege.

So, in the end, we fix what we can, but look out for the times when we can't, when we are borne along the waves with another, anticipating the comfort waiting for us both at a distance, someplace at the end. It makes us tender. And eventually, it heals.

So, when the occasion calls for it, don't struggle and flail:  Let it bleed.

God is a father who rocks us through our struggles, a mother who carries us beyond our pain...Many people are forgiving. A few are just. But compassionate people are rarer still. The people who simply stand by when we hurt--not trying to talk us out of it, not trying to convince us we're wrong, not demanding that we pretend to be something else--are is compassion that we ourselves must develop if we are ever to be worth anything to anyone at all--besides ourselves.
--Sr. Joan Chittister, the Psalms, Meditations for Every Day of the Year

Saturday, August 16, 2014

But It Looks So Good....
Have been thinking about sin lately. Sin, and how to recognize it.

The Bible has some specific information about that, of course--the Ten Commandments for starters. And later, Jesus expands on those first Hebrew laws in His Sermon on the Mount when He gives us a solid understanding that sin goes way beyond lying, cheating, or adultery. In fact, He is more concerned by then with our desire and ability to love and achieve holiness than to avoid sin.

But we do have to avoid sin, and in doing so, have to be able to see it coming. We have to figure out what sin looks like and I'm finding that I'm not nearly as good at that as I thought, at least not once we get beyond the obvious. I'm learning that I've made a much better Pharisee than a New Testament saint.


The problem appears to be this:
Sin doesn't always look like sin. 
It doesn't. That's why Eve was fooled. That's why the Pharisees were fooled. And that's why we're fooled.

This became obvious today while I was reading the only plain account of Jesus being tempted:
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”--Matthew 4:5-6

Think for a minute that this was Jesus. He knew who He was. Satan knew who He was. He, and what He would do, had been predicted hundreds of years before. If anyone ever knew their 'spiritual gift', Jesus did. He was going to save the world.

On the face of it, all He had to do was exercise His gift. All He needed to do was show up, make sure everybody recognized Him for who He was, do what He had to do, and go home satisfied, brushing the dirt off His hands. There were a million ways He could have saved the world. Think about it. He could have snapped Satan out of existence at any moment.

Satan knew this. When they stood together, looking down at the city, Satan said essentially, "Go ahead. Declare yourself. Do what we both know you came to do. Why not? You were made for this." And Jesus may have considered it for a minute, nosed around that cheese--
The cheese already belonged to Him, after all. He would have it one way or the other. His name was on it. He would be the Savior of the World. "Just reach out," said the old tempter. "It's already yours."

But Jesus didn't, and this is the part that struck me. Instead, He said:
 “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”--Matthew 4:7

Who was He kidding? Wasn't it God who gave Jesus this job in the first place? Didn't He say, 'Go, save the world for me.'? 

And that's when it hit. 
God gives us all jobs. And He gives the gifts to do them.
Just like Jesus, we pretty much all know what we're supposed to do.
One person is a teacher, another is a chef, another a teacher or a writer or musician.
Everybody is good at something and that talent came from God. And He gave it to be used. But, like Jesus, probably not in the most obvious way.
A teacher should teach, but not necessarily in a classroom. A leader should lead, but not necessarily from behind a national podium. A singer should sing, but not necessarily in front of an audience.

What is the temptation? 
Significance, I think.
We see the gift, get confirmation from other people who see it, too, and then say, 'By golly, now I'm going to use it for God's glory.' And immediately, we head up the hill, look out onto the city, and set out to show them the wonder of what God has done. 
That can't be sin, can it?

Think again.
Jesus didn't do that, did He?
Satan dangled His destiny before Him, acknowledged Him for who He was, and waited for Him to take the bait.
And He didn't.
When offered the chance to showcase His gift, His mission, and His glory, Jesus refused, turned around, and headed back down the hill. 
And we all know where His path led. Not where anybody expected, but to the exact place required to complete the job properly.
And that's us, too, I think. 

The place God wants to best use the gifts He gave us is probably not the most obvious one--not obvious to us, and not to the people around us. But, He will lead us to the proper place to use those gifts. He will provide the vision and the way, all at the proper time.

So, like always, we are not to look at the gift, but follow the Giver. 
I suspect that, if we're able to do that, we'll be able not only to eat our own cheese in peace, but have plenty to share.