Saturday, March 29, 2014

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

Father. Our Father. Father God.
It rolls off the tongue. So easy. So natural. So....well, true.
God is our Father. He made us. He nurtures us. He loves us.
But not for everyone.

I got a real eye-opener recently when I heard the story told by Scott Hahn* regarding the discussion/debate he had with a muslim cleric about God. Actually, Hahn didn't want to engage in the debate--he was convinced by his sister and brother-in-law because he was the only person they knew who was theologically educated well enough to even try and, well, the cleric wanted to. After all, it wasn't an opportunity that presented itself every day.

And, actually, it started out pretty well. They agreed about a lot of the attributes of God--His perfection, His majesty, His sovereignty, His might. They agreed about many of His works--His creation and sustenance of the world, His destruction of mankind through flood and their preservation through Noah,  His liberation of the Israelites through Abraham, and more. But the trouble started when Hahn first referred to God as 'Father'.

The first time Hahn called God Father, the cleric slammed his fist down on the table, shouting that he would not tolerate any more blasphemy. Blasphemy? wondered Hahn. For calling God 'Father'? Apparently. For a muslim, it is blasphemy to ascribe any human characteristic to God. God, to him, is not Father, nor is He a Son. He does not love with a Father's heart, and He does for forgive with it, either. 

Then what, Hahn asked, is God if not Father?
"Master," declared the cleric. "God is Master."

Master--as in slave master. Master--with complete authority but no obligation to affection. Master--owner and source of all sustenance, but with no need of mercy. Master--user, ruler, absolute commander. Worshiped and followed without question, unforgiving of failure, not hesitating to deservedly punish. God.

And that was the problem. God the Father loves. God the Master rules.

If this sounds unduly harsh, maybe we shouldn't be too surprised. We were warned of this. Sarah, Abraham's wife, made it obvious:
Get rid of the slavewoman and her son, for that slavewoman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.--Genesis 21:10

Ishmael and Isaac, both Abraham's sons, would not share the same inheritance. Ishmael would forever be a slave, but Isaac would inherit all of Abraham's riches--his herds, his wealth, the best of what Abraham had to give. Ishmael would never again know his father's love. And neither did the cleric, the spiritual descendant of Ishmael. God was not his father.
He never heard this--
So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.--Galatians 4:7

As Christians, we will never fully understand the yoke under which some people have to labor. God is, after all, our kind Father, who, when we stray, waits at the gate for us with open arms. He forgives. He has storehouses of blessings He is saving to shower down on us. He guards and protects and nurtures. He quite literally holds us in the palms of His hands. Not so for everyone, however.

The cleric eventually stormed out of the restaurant where he sat with Hahn, having warned Hahn for the third time that he was not to use terms like Father or Son in relation to God. He'd had enough. God was not, and would never be, his Father.

I admire the cleric for his clear understanding of God's exaltedness, but I have never had to associate God with harshness or with a supremacy that exercises itself without mercy. What terror would God bring without love? How would He use His infinite power? It scares me even to think about it. In the end, though, I am so glad for this perspective. It uncovers the real depth and privilege of the prayer that Christ, the Son of God Himself, gave us. It illustrates vividly the boldness and the favor with which we say,
Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name...

*Allah or Abba, Lighthouse Catholic Media

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Called to Dinner with Joseph

Fame. It's confusing no matter where it shows up. History. The evening news. Even the Bible. Everywhere we look, we keep hearing about people who did amazing things--statesmen who liberated a nation, firemen who save lives, soldiers who give their life for someone else's freedom, saints who heal the sick or were martyred for their faith, composers who wrote a symphony 500 years ago that we still love today, artists who bring visual life to the greatest events known to man.  We read about them and admire them. We want to be like them, to do something amazing. We're told constantly to aim high, that the opportunity is there and we should grab it.

But, for most people, it doesn't happen.

That's when I think of Joseph. Unsung, largely unknown Joseph. Oh, we hear his name all right, but hardly ever for anything he did himself. He had an average job in an average town. The only reason we know him at all is because he had a famous wife--Mary--and an even more famous son--Jesus. That's it. We don't even know what happened to him after the incident in the temple when Jesus was 12. He just disappeared.

And now the same thing is happening to me. I've gotten old enough now to know that I will probably never be famous. I am in the process of becoming, like Joseph, an afterthought.

Still, I have been called by God. I have. I know this because He has been gracious enough to hear my answer.

But called to what? Former Duke University professor and author Reynolds Price once said that "Few are called to anything grander than dinner." and I used to laugh at that thought. I'm not laughing anymore.

I used to look at famous people, the ones who are remembered not for sports or entertainment achievements, but things that really matter, and knew that if they could accomplish so much, so could I. But it didn't happen. I didn't end up doing anything great. I never even got my 15 minutes. What am I supposed to think about this?

I think I'm supposed to remember Joseph. I think I'm supposed to put God's teaching into perspective. I think that, when we pray "thy will be done", we need to mean it no matter what. There is no promise that our obedience will be noticed. When Christ said that:
The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve" --Matthew 20:28
He did not say we would get any praise for our service. In fact, He warned us of exactly the opposite.
If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first...John 15:18
In other words, don't expect any recognition, at least not the pleasant kind.

Most of us will serve in anonymity, with little reward, and no one will notice.

But this is how it should be.
My first job, after all, is to love God and glorify Him, not to see myself glorified. And, if He calls me to nothing grander than dinner, well then, dinner it is.
Those He predestined, He also called and these He called, He also justifed, and those He justified, He also glorified.--Romans 8:30
Did you notice that God does all this? God does it, not history, not the world, not even the church. God. We show up, we obey, and He does all the rest. Him. Only Him.

So, what does that leave me?
To believe, to love, to follow. In the end, I have no idea what legacy I will leave, but only whether God will say:
Well done, good and faithful servant.--Matthew 25:23
Servant. And one who has done well not because everybody knows my name, but because He has written it in the palm of His hand.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Who Do You Love?

I really find it helpful when God boils things down into simple principles I can easily remember. Like His principles for loving:
Love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.--Matthew 22: 37-39

Love God. Love my neighbor. I get that.
Of course, there's the little matter of who is my neighbor.
Now, I've read the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) and pretty much get it. Love everybody, even people you don't like.
But have you ever thought about how easy it is to love people and how hard it is to love just one person--particularly if it's that one CERTAIN person? Did you ever notice that Jesus never said to love people, like bunches of them? He said to love them one at a time. One at a time.

I think about how easy it is to love a group--
Like old folks, as long as the one I'm with for a whole afternoon doesn't want me to listen to the same story for the 46th time.
Like addicts or alcoholics, as long as the one I'm with doesn't throw up on me or lie to me again and again.
Like babies, as long as the one I'm with doesn't cry all night for a week.
Like the homeless, as long as one of them doesn't move in with me.
Like the hungry, as long as their need doesn't interfere with my Monday morning latte or my Saturday night prime rib.
Like prostitutes, as long as the one I tried to help doesn't just give up and go back to the life after all.

This is why groups are easier--unfortunate and disenfranchised groups keep their distance. We don't get our hands too dirty with their lives and business or, if we do, it doesn't last too long. We can wash up afterward. We can go home and hug our clean kids. We can still enjoy warmth and security.
I don't think that's was Jesus intended.
He didn't say to love a group. He said to love a person.

A teenager who says she hates me.
A husband who is habitually inconsiderate.
A friend who betrayed me.
A cousin who thinks I'm a religious nut.
A neighbor whose dog poops on my lawn.
A parent who beat me.
The people we're stuck with. The people God, with intention, gave us to love. One at a time.

We aren't to get too proud of ourselves, I think, for the good deeds we do. The church work. The soup kitchens. The counseling. The donating.
In the end, those are all pretty easy and we get to go home from them.
Jesus said to love people one at a time, wherever we are, whomever He gives us to love. And we don't have to go looking for these, as a rule. That hard-to-like person is already in our life, maybe even in our house. They are the one--not the ones--we are to love.

And in one short phrase, Jesus gave us both the way and the reason to do it:
Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.--Matthew 25:40

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Saying Yes--The Only Job We Have

OK, it's Lent, and I'm thinking a lot about sin and salvation. Not everybody's favorite subject, but sin is kind of like an untended infection--ignore it and it could kill you.
So, I'm thinking today--what is sin exactly and how does it fit into God's plan?

Sin was part of God's plan, after all. It had to be. Nothing happens without God's will or permission, right? So the same goes for sin.
But that doesn't mean that sin is a good thing. Quite the contrary, of course. When it comes to sin, God allowed, with intent, something not good. Of course, He knows how to bend it to good, and that's what I want to talk about today.  I have to understand sin to understand its danger. And it is dangerous. Like the infection, it could kill me.

So why do I sin? Hmmm. I like it. I do. For instance:
I gossip because it gives me a feeling of superiority.
I eat or drink or spend too much because it satisfies me and I don't have to ask God for whatever I've given myself.
I am selfish because keeping my stuff enhances my feeling of strength and independence.
I lie because it appears to make circumstances easier. It smoothes the rough edges.
I do not honor a holy rest because what I have to do is just too important.

In every instance, I commit these sins because I am trying not to need God. I am doing the one thing He forbids me--choosing myself over Him.

And that is all I have to do. Choose Him. Say Yes, Lord. Period.

God's already done everything else. 
Jesus wasn't saying anything new when He declared "It is finished" from the cross. It was always finished.
I am God; there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning...My counsel shall stand and I will do all My pleasure...I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.--Isaiah 46:9-11
Surely as I have planned, so it will be, and as I have purposed, so it will stand.--Isaiah 14:24

When God made us, sin came with the package. So did Christ and His redemption.
I know that sounds a little weird, but for us, all this happens in time. For Him, it was always there. And we can't change any of it. It's already done. Jesus already declared completion following the sixth day of Creation. We, and the world we live in, and every circumstance we encounter has always been finished.

There is only one thing I can do--admit it or not.

If I do admit it, I also admit God's sovereignty, His pefection, His love, and my own sin before Him. I acknowledge that He is God and I owe Him everything. In the process, I change little by little to become like Him. I worship Him for His perfection and His patience and His sharing even a little of Himself with me.. I dedicate myself to Him. I become holy.

Or I don't.

I can't have just a little holiness. I get it all or none.
Oh, I will still sin, but if I am admitting who God is, if I am saying 'Yes' to Him, I will get back on track. God planned for sin, remember. He allows us to be forgiven as long as we are loving Him the way He intended.

The one thing He does not tolerate, however, is for me to say 'No.'  
I can't say, 'No, thanks, God. I'll take whatever good you might toss my way, but I don't really need You. I can protect myself. I can make my own way.'
My 'No' is not only sin. My 'No' is the blasphemy of denial when it becomes my way of life. If I am to have a life with Christ, every sin (all of which tell God that He does not, after all, have authority over my life) has to be repented. If I do not repent of sin, it takes me only one place--down the wide road of death. Without repentance, we do not let God save us.

It's all one thing.
Either I say 'Yes and Amen--You are God. I sin. I owe You everything. I love You. I trust You. I serve You.' Or I give Him nothing. 'I don't need You. I'm sufficient to myself. You might as well not exist for all the difference You make.'

A heart for God can lapse into sin and be restored to Him--David proved that.
But a heart that doesn't need Him is all on its own in a very dark world.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hi there--I'm a Sinner

Sackcloth and ashes. That's how the ancients did it.
When they were convicted of their sin, they tore their clothes, put on hard, scratchy garments,  poured ashes on themselves, then sat in a public place so everyone could see. We don't do that.

So, what can we do? After all, making a public declaration of sin cements our understanding of our situation before God in a way no private confession would ever do. So what, in the context of our own culture, could we do?

How about this:
As a rule, we're really good at introducing ourselves to people. What about if, the next time we shook hands with someone in greeting, we just said, "Hi, I'm JoAnne, and I'm a sinner."?

They do it at AA meetings all the time, don't they? It's part of their renewal, their repentance, if you will. They declare that they are alcoholics and so, begin their journey back from that pit. It should work for us, too, shouldn't it?

Say we did that.
What would a statement like that say, to ourselves and the people we meet?

First, God is real, and He has authority over my life, authority above both my own reluctance to admit it and any human's opinion of me.
If we say we have not sin, we deceive ourselves--1John 1:8
Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight...Psalm 51:4

Second, this same God created me because He loves me. If God is real, and instituted the conditions under which we are to live with Him--the same ones I have broken--He did so because they are a natural outflow of Himself. Whatever God commands me to be, He already is.
Be ye holy because I am holy.--Leviticus 20:7

Third, I am not perfectly holy, but God can save me. If I admit freely my sin, and acknowledge a God both all-powerful and loving, He has to have made a way for me. He is not content to leave me in the desolation to which admission of sin inevitably leads.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.--1John 1:9

In the end, there is no gospel without sin. We wouldn't need it. God, already full and glorious in our sight, would be good news enough. As it is, though, things didn't work out like that. And what we live, or have the opportunity to live, is not Plan B. God only makes and keeps Plan A. He gets to do that, you know. Perfectly, like He does everything else.

He made us, and when He did, He knew we weren't God, like Himself. We never could be. Sin, and all its anguish, has to be part of God's plan. It's how we know His holiness, how we know how much all this cost Him, how much He loves us. We know instinctively that we cannot understand good in the absence of evil, happiness without unhappiness. Well, then, how could we know everything we know about God without seeing even a glimpse of life without Him? I don't think I could.

So, yes. I'm a sinner. And while I'm not proud of it, I understand the role my sin plays in God's plan. I need it. I need its anguish, its shame, its desolation. Then I know how much I need my God.

Hi. I'm JoAnne.....and I'm a sinner.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Trapped by Mammon

What exactly is mammon, I'm wondering? Whatever it is, it's important enough for God to talk about it:
No one can serve two masters. He will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.--Matthew 6:24

Well, whatever mammon is, it's opposed to God. That's probably important.
The Greek for mammon, strictly speaking, is money. So I can't love both God and money. OK. I get that. But look at the context....the verse cited above falls in a section that discusses far more than only monetary wealth.

Do not worry about your life--what you eat or what you drink or for your body, what you put on...Which of you by worrying can add one moment to His life? ...Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.--Matthew 6: 25, 27, 33

So it's about more than money. It's about everything around me, all the props of my life.
Seek first the kingdom of God, He says. Not anything or anybody else.
OK. I get that, too. But how hard can it be? I know God is more important than anything else, don't I? I can get by without a lot of money, or a closet full of clothes or even a long life. No problem.

Not, at least, until I think about the one thing I can't get by without.
I am why I want all that stuff in the first place. 
I am taking care of me. I am finding security. Security outside of God.

And that's the problem.
It never was the stuff. It's me.
If I have that stuff, I don't need to depend on God. I get to depend on me.
All the stuff of life, all the money and everything else, make good servants of God, but poor masters. And the same principle applies to my own body, my own desires.
If I give them up, I'll shortly become hungry or cold or bored, but if I'm honest, it's not the hunger or boredom I mind so much. It's the weakness. It's the vulnerability. It's the loneliness. 
I mind that a lot.

Why do I do this? Why do I spend so much effort taking care of myself, using the stuff around me to build a big wall of protection?
I know this--if I'm protecting myself with my stuff, that means that I am not trusting God to do it.
There's no other answer that makes sense.

I have to learn to trust Him. Him alone. Without the stuff.
He challenges me to this:
Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see whether I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be enough room to store it.--Malachi 3:10
And there's only one way to learn this.
To stop protecting myself. That's what the stuff was doing in the first place. It was shielding me from hurt or want or disappointment or failure, but that's the problem. It is in only those places that God can show me His power. In depending on everything else, I'm preventing God from doing the one thing I want Him most to do.

But without my stuff, I panic.
I have spent all my effort in building my own reputation, paying my own way, bearing up with my own shoulders.

St Francis taught us a prayer that can help strip away our layers of protection:
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

In the end, this is what God wants me to say:
The Lord has become my protector.--Psalm 18:19
But He hasn't become my protector, has He? I have been my only trusted protector. Otherwise I wouldn't care about stuff so much.
Me. My stuff. My own. I have to, somehow, come to the end of it. And when I do, if I have no more strength, maybe I can, finally find God's.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

God Never Says "Oops"

Whenever something bad happens to me, my first reaction is to think that I don't belong in my situation. Surely, there's been some kind of mistake.
My son shouldn't be sick. I shouldn't have constant conflict with my boss. I'm not supposed to have broken my mother's prized china. My husband wasn't supposed to be downsized out of a job. Our car shouldn't have broken down. I wasn't supposed to lose my wallet. I wasn't intended to burn the turkey.
Wherever I am, I belong there.

No, no, you might say. The bad things that happen are the result of evil in the world. God doesn't want bad things to happen to you. He loves you. He wants you to be happy.

Is God really God, then?
Is He all powerful, all knowing? Does anything take Him by surprise? Is He unable to stop evil?
Um. I don't think so.

Regardless of what I want to believe about my situation, I am in it for one of only two reasons:
Either God has willed it, or He has allowed it.
If I do not admit this, then God becomes subservient to my will, to the devil, to chance, or to something else. And He can't. If He does, He is not God.
Whatever I or someone else has done to cause my present circumstances, God did not stop them. They happened. They may not look good, but my loving, perfect God has permitted them.
And this is where I get stuck.
Either God is perfect or He's not.
Either He can do anything, or He can't.

God is not selectively perfect. He is not selectively knowing. He is not selectively loving.
God is these things all the time.
He does not make me do stuff, but He does work all things together for good. He can turn my bad decisions, eventually, into good. He can turn evil inside out. He does it all the time.
He can do this because He does not live in moments of time. We do.
I see only this moment--this nasty tangle, this unfair circumstance.
God, however, sees the end of all things. He knows how a given set of circumstances works out not only for me, but for everybody everywhere. He has a plan and I can't, no matter how I mess stuff up, change it.

In fact, I am part of it:
From one man He made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth, and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him, and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, for He is not far from each one of us.--Acts 17:26-27

That's His plan.
For us to seek Him and find Him.
And, if I have to lose my wallet in the meantime, it's not God saying "Oops", it's Him working His plan.
I can live with that.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Not Giving Up for Lent


The temple in Jerusalem.
Have you ever imagined it?
The gold, the tapestries and furs. Candlelight diffused into partial darkness, a table spread every day with new bread, and all the time the haunting knowledge that, just in the next room, GOD IS.

Right there.
The Presence between the cherubim.

Now, switch gears for a minute and think of yourself.
Your very own body.
God's new temple.

Now, stop it.
Stop shuffling and bowing your head and saying, "Aw, shucks. I'm not so much..."
You are. God said so.

On that day, you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in Me and I am in you.--John 14:20
Those who obey His commands live in Him and He in them.--1John 3:24

 You are the new temple. Me, too.
As beautiful as the old one--silver, gold, and fine linen.

But the old temple didn't last. Enemies of God destroyed it.
Defiled, the sanctuary stripped, the precious metals stolen, the decorations destroyed.
Well, destruction comes to our temple, too. It, too, is stripped and desecrated.
And we all know what does it. We all know what causes our own ruin.
We do. Me. Us. Our sin. Mine and yours.
When we sin, our temple looks just as miserable as the Hebrews'.
And today, on Ash Wednesday, I remind myself that I am dust as a result.
Dust. Just like the destroyed temple.

But the Jewish temple didn't stay that way and I don't have to, either.
In 167 BC, Judas Maccabeus amassed an army determined to take back the temple and, after seven years of battle, they did it.
But, here's the point:  He didn't do it by giving anything up or sitting idly by, waiting for the Lord to do something.
He took back his temple by fighting for it.
He didn't only deny himself stuff or fast for it or just pray for it. He picked up his sword and fought for what belonged to both God and His people.

That is what Lent is for.
Lent is our time to take back our temple.
And just giving up stuff will not help. Denying myself Oreos or NCIS will not do it unless it was cookies or television that defiled me in the first place. Eating fish will not help unless prime rib was the agent of sin. We will have to fight for the restoration of our temple, just like the Maccabees did. We will have to use offensive weapons, not defensive ones.
We have to use Lent to kick out the invaders in our own bodies that have caused us to sin.

Let us restore the decayed state of our people and let us fight for our people and the sanctuary.--1Maccabees 3:43

Lent is when we retake our own sanctuary and restore it to its Owner.
Lent is when we restore ourselves for God.

God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.--Colossians 1:27

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Obedience Training? Really?

Did you ever try to train a dog to walk properly?
It takes work.
And a strong leash.
But a loving owner has to do it, as unpleasant as it can sometimes be.
The dog will pull and drag and jump and try to run away, even though he likes going out and being with you. He's so excited. He has tons to do and a very definite agenda. He's glad you're along for the ride but, well, it's his ride.
He has no clue.

That's what obedience training is for.
It's the owner's job to hold on tight until the dog learns what is best for him and ultimately, for everybody. And, even after he's learned, he still needs a firm hand because without it, you know exactly what will happen.

Woo hoo! I'm outa here!

And sometimes, the dog never does learn. That's when he lives in a kennel or stays tied up in the back yard.

So who restrains me? Who keeps me from getting in trouble?
That, my friends, is the job of the Holy Spirit. 
And He does it not only for me, but for everybody else. And that's what I'm thinking about today.

The mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains it will do so until He is taken out of the way.--2Thessalonians 2:7

The Holy Spirit holds our leash. As a believer, He holds mine to the extent my free will allows Him, but he also holds back the effects of general evil among the unbelieving world, a world that benefits from a restraint they don't understand and don't recognize.

Do you remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And now you know what is restraining that He may be revealed in His own time.--2Thessalonians 2:5

I can't imagine a world in which evil is not restrained.
It's bad enough the way things are.
Megalomaniacs. Serial Killers. Genocide. They are rare. Truly. That's why we notice them and are outraged. What would the world be like if atrocities were our daily fare? I can't. I don't think anybody really can. The world could be overrun by evil, but it isn't.
The Holy Spirit is holding the leash of evil. 
And waiting.

Someday, He will let go of His leash, but until then, I can use this time if I understand what it is for. It is within the bounds of His restraint that I can use what He teaches me to form a healthy conscience. I can learn to follow His laws. I can learn to enjoy and share His love. I can learn holiness. Holiness. Communion with a holy God. If I really were a dog, it might look like this: