Everyone’s Family Story – Setting the Stage

“Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Then Jesus told this parable . . .  .

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them” Luke 15: 1-3 and 12 -20).

The story of “the man with two sons” is the essence of the Christian gospel.  It is a simple story, really, replayed throughout history and replicated every day in urban centers, small towns, and rural areas. A father is raising two sons. The elder son is responsible, obedient, and hardworking. The younger son longs long to leave home and explore the freedom in the world “out there.” The father loves both sons, even though they both sorely try his patience.

This story is often called the story of the “prodigal” son, but as Tim Keller has famously shown us in the book The Prodigal God, it is really the story of the “Prodigal father – a man whose love is big enough to encompass the failings of both sons.

The story Jesus tells in Luke 15 is a family story set in the Middle East, with all the cultural realities of the time.  Doug Greenwold of Preserving Bible Times, points out that issues of “family shame and family honor” are up front and center in this story. No “good son” would ever do anything to shame the family and dishonor its name.  “That would be the ‘unforgivable cultural sin,” says Greenwold. So not only is this story about a family, it is a story about a family being observed by many families. It has something to say to every culture and time.

Jesus packs this story full of surprising and shameful scenes. Those who first heard it must have been horrified by the rules this story breaks

The elder son has the birthright which entitles him to two-thirds of the father’s estate after the father’s death. Because the younger son demands his share of the estate NOW, he is essentially saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.”  Why would a son say something so shameful to his father, knowing that it would reflect badly on him and his father to the closely knit village community?  Why did he want to leave home that badly?

♦ As part of his birthright responsibilities, the older son is required to intercede in disputes between his siblings and his father. He is silent. His refusal to step in to mediate the situation is scandalous in its own right.  Why does he shirk his responsibility?

♦ Why did the father give the younger son an inheritance to which he was not yet entitled? Why did he let the young man leave the family and his responsibilities?  What did he say to the elder brother to make it seem all right?  How did he explain this shameful situation to his neighbors?

This Biblical parable could be the plot of a 2017 TV movie:  a selfish son is tempted by  a lifestyle repudiated by his family; an angry brother seethes about the unfairness of his father’s decisions; a father is torn between his two sons; a neighborhood is titillated with gossip about the family’s distress. 

The plot of the Biblical passage focuses on the scene that brings everything to a head:  the son comes home in misery. He has no where else to turn, His inheritance has been spent, he has wallowed in unspeakable sin.  His pride is destroyed, his heart is sick, his very posture reflects his guilt. 

What can he say to  redeem himself to his father?  How will his father respond?  What will the older brother think?  How will the neighbors react? What does this parable have to say about our relationship to God  Stay tuned!  This series of  five posts will continue on Wednesdays.

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Check out more information on  Margaret Adams Parker’s Sculpture Reconciliation (photo above) which is located on the campus of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

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What if We were Put to the Test?

Recently, I watched Silence, Martin Scorsese’s latest movie about two Jesuit priests who travel to 17th century Japan looking for a missing fellow priest. They are befriended by a covert group of Japanese Christians who suffer extreme persecution by the Japanese government which wants to rid the country of Christianity. When several of these faithful converts are killed for refusing to denounce their faith, the priests experience a crisis of conscience and make choices that affect their lives (and the faith they hold dear) until they die. As I watched  this film (and for weeks afterwards), I wondered how I would respond if put to the test of denying Christ or dying.

Persecuted Christians world-wide face that test every day. The sad truth is that  215 million Christians (about 1 in 12) experience some form of persecution in 2017. In many countries the persecution is labeled “extreme.”  The organization Open Doors USA lists eight main “engines” of persecution, saying that they often work in tandem:

  • Islamic extremism – attempts to bring the country or the world under the House of Islam through violent
  • Religious nationalism – attempts to united citizens under a single religious identity.
  • Ethnic antagonism – attempts to force the continuing influence of age-old norms and values shaped in tribal contexts
  • Secular intolerance– attempts to eradicate religion from both the public and private domains, imposing an atheistic form of secularism as the governing theology
  • Communist and post-communist oppression – attempts to maintain Communism as a prescriptive ideology or control the church through a system of registration and oversight inherited from Communism
  • Denominational Protectionism – Attempts to preserve one’s Christian denomination as the dominant or only legitimate expression of Christianity
  • Organized corruption and crime – attempts to create a climate of impunity, anarchy, and corruption as  a means of self-enrichment
  • Dictatorial paranoia – attempts to maintain power by any means necessary, usually without a particular vision in mind.  

Open Doors USA  annually publishes a world watch list, a ranking of the top 50 countries where Christians face severe persecution. The worst place on earth for Christians is North Korea which ranks at the top of the Open Door list for “extreme persecution.” * Christians number 300,000 out of a total population of 25,450,000. They are forced to hide their faith completely – even from other family members. Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated for all citizens. Those who don’t comply (including Christians) are arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed. Entire Christian families are imprisoned in hard labor camps, where unknown numbers die each year from torture, beatings, overexertion and starvation. Gathering in groups for worship or fellowship is nearly impossible.

Again, I think:  “How would I fare as a Christian in North Korea?”  Here’s a challenging subject for private introspection and/or discussion in small groups of Christians. How would you react if you lived in Syria, a country where disclosure of your faith could put you at risk of death? What if you lived in Laos where refusing to participate in Buddhist practices results in physical or verbal abuse of you and your family? How would you cope if you lived in Tunisia where growing extremism supports violent persecution of Christians, including forced marriages, physical assaults, and vandalism of Christian properties?

What if one or more of the eight “engines” of persecution listed above took over in the United States? What if the persecution of Christians became so extreme that our jobs were threatened or our personal safety was at risk? What if church services or Bible study groups were banned in my town or yours?  Would my faith remain strong? Would yours? Would we stand together and stand up for our faith? Would it be okay to hide our faith publicly while practicing it privately? These may be harder questions than we think! Mulling them over should bring us to our knees in prayer for our persecuted brothers and sisters. (To learn more about persecution of Christians and find prayer requests check out the Open Doors USA website. )

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*The next four most dangerous places for Christians are Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan.  

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From My Reading

“For Christians, questions of truth and falsehood are spiritual matters.  The ninth commandment states, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness thy neighbor.’ This forbids speaking falsely, lying, equivocating, or designing to deceive our neighbor. It also prohibits speaking unjustly against our neighbor. The focus on care for one’s neighbor recognizes that truthfulness is essential for sustaining community.

Moreover, lying, falsehood, and deceit are understood biblically as essential tools of evil. Jesus calls the devil “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Truth is not merely a preferred practice, it’s foundational to a just social order. Therefore, for objective truth to be in dispute – and falsehoods named as ‘alternative facts’ – is not just a political danger, it strikes at the core of a trustworthy society” (Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in Sojourner, April, 2917).

 ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

“Sometimes staying open to the Holy is just the sheer tenacity of hope, a steady desire not to lose the thread of connection. Thank God we are created with an innate thirst for this relationship and cannot finally be satisfied without it. A contemplative writer once noted that God is on the inside of our longing. God resides within our hope and desire, prompting our growth toward the Light. It seems to be the great task of the Spirit to draw us back to our soul’s magnetic North” (from “On Keeping and Open Heart,” Weavings: A Journey of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. XXXII, No. 1 (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 2017), 21-22.\

 ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

“Loss and renewal is the perennial, eternal, transformative pattern.  It’s like a secret spiral: each time you allow surrender, each time you can trust the dying, you will experience a new quality of life within you” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for April 24, 2017).

 ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit.  It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. ‘Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,’ says Jesus (Mark 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children.  They are little signs of tenderness, affection, and compassion. . . . Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love” (Pope Francis, in the Closing Mass of the Eighth World Meeting of Families,  September 27, 2015, quoted in Mark K. Shriver’s book Pilgrimage, My Search for the Real Pope Francis).

 

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Digging for Truth

This blog now contains over 630 posts.  Here, slightly revised, is a post that was first published on June 10, 2015 – and is even more important today.

Is the Pope a communist?”  This opening line of a Heart and Soul broadcast on BBC radio grabbed my attention.

The first voice on the program, Rush Limbaugh, proclaimed that, yes indeed, Pope Francis is a communist! Then many voices from the Catholic church weighed in, explaining the influences on the Pope’s politics and theology:

◊   Growing up in the poverty-stricken country of  Argentina

◊   Peronism (the nationalist revival begun  in Argentina by Juan Peron which was       associated closely with the  working class and trade unions)

◊   The Jesuit presence in Argentina and the missions by the priests to the                     indigenous Indians

◊   The Jesuit concept that “the real is more important than ideas”

◊   The version of  liberation theology (the gospels always put the poor first, and           the church should too) that is particular to Argentina and is anti-Marxist.

The conclusion reached by the host of the show is that Pope Francis has a different understanding of the role of the Catholic Church in society than other popes have had, but he is not a communist.

This blog is not about Pope Francis. It is about the complexity of closed mindthought required to reach even a minimal understanding of a subject. It is about whether we have interest in and patience to hear all sides before we take an immovable stance. Life in general and politics and religion in particular are much more nuanced than most of us are willing to admit. It’s much easier to say, as one politician recently said during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, “Who would vote for that face?” than to learn about and discuss particular policy issues with the woman behind the face. It’s easier to say “deport them all” than to sit down with those who are affected and hear their stories.

And, unfortunately,  it is much easier for each of us to support bold stroke statements than to deal with the complicated background of most issues. We owe it to ourselves and our world to research the issues facing us, to fact check, and to consider options before we choose our position.  

NOTE:  If you are interested in the remarkable life of Pope Francis check out my book recommendation of Pilgrimage, My Search for the Real Pope Francis by Mark K. Shriver.

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The Baffled Mind

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.” Wendell Berry

“The mind that is not baffled is not employed.” Talk about encouraging words for those of us who always ask “why,” who are motivated to look deeper, who are enriched by the journey of finding out what to do and which way to go! I have had an adventurous mind all of my life. I am usually not challenged by questions or new possibilities. This trait has gotten me in trouble since the days when I was learning to talk, read, and write.

I am in good company. Albert Einstein frustrated his parents and seemingly every one of his teachers because he refused to let go of his questions. At points in his life, professors ordered him out of their classrooms because he “disrupted” the orderly lectures with his disorderly questions. Once Albert understood something (which happened easily, it seems), he saw new possibilities that baffled him. He could not understand why his professors were not interested in the questions he was raising, but rather were perfectly willing to teach the same information they had taught for years.  Evidently they were not comfortable with “baffled minds.” And evidently his baffled mind was on the track to greatness.

To me a baffled mind is one that does not attempt to control information; instead, it rejoices in the questions. It is not committed to supporting the status quo; it is committed to investigating truth. It is not fearful of the unknown; it is delighted by the quest for what lies beyond. As Berry notes, it is when we no longer know how to explain or how to proceed that our real journey begins.

Having the instinct to look deeper or wider or longer into the unfathomable is the creative urge that reveals the touch of the Creator. It is what enables us to swim through “the impeded stream.” Living with a baffled mind might just be the definition of faith – something we desperately need in 2017

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One Step on Air – Guest Blog by Joy Zomer

My Once-in-a-Lifetimejoys-blog-log Life” is a series of occasional blogs written by Joy Zomer who spent several years in Europe as a Christian missionary. Now a single mom of three children, Joy is the director of a high school alternative education program.  This post celebrates her journey from fear to courage.

Stepping off the platform, there was a second or two where it felt like I was floating on air.  There was nothing but air below me,  no supports to grip with my hands –  just a reach into nothingness. Then with a jolt, the cable supports clicked in,  I sat down into the harness,  and I was sailing.  My first zip-line ride had begun.  

It’d been a long time since I had taken a risk like this.  After two car accidents resulting in trauma, physical injuries, and a good number of “can’t change this” decisions, I appreciated the ability to plan my steps, deliberate on the next decision, and simply,know where my feet were going to land next. The idea of floating on air wasn’t particularly appealing as I thought of all the things that could go wrong:  my weight could be too much for the supports; the harness could fail; the impact of the landing could hurt my back or my weak knee; I could get sick or need to use the restroom.  Or the cable could break and I could plunge to my death. These images and more raced through my mind for many hours before I even suggested the activity to my 13 – year-old daughter.  Was I going to be able to handle the psychological risk of injury?  Was I brave enough anymore to give this a try?  Could I physically handle the strain of doing it?

In the end, the decision really came down to a determination not to be defined by the past.  If I couldn’t give zip-lining a try,  my logic was that all those challenging moments in my past had taken over will and grit and made me fearful.  We all know that healthy fear can be good, yes. But, in my experience, fear has a tendency to stop me from doing things that represent a risk.  Life’s adventures have reminded me that there is a good deal I can’t plan for. When I can plan, I like to make sure it is something I actually want to do. 

So, there I was.  On the platform with a group of people.  In a twist of bad luck,  I was the last person down the line. I watched as each person took the step, most squealing or screaming,  all, expressing some type of shock as they stepped off into air.  I almost backed out. But, after my daughter zipped on with her own exclamation,  I walked slowly up to the guide, Nick.  He looked at me and said, “This is a tough one?”

 I nodded and simply responded grim-faced, “I don’t like not knowing where I’m going.”

With a smile,  he looked me in the eye and said, “You just need to lean back and trust the gear.”

My daughter was so thrilled with the experience that she actually joined up on two zip-lining tours;  her second tour took her on the 2nd highest line in all of the U.S. at 475 feet off the ground.  By the end of the day,  she was euphoric about zip-lining in general, and continues to talk about it as a life highlight.  I must say her reaction put the experience in perspective for me as well. It wasn’t just about the risks involved and the symbolic decisions to push away fear.  I remember the experience now with some fondness simply as a chance to exist without my feet on the ground. Not knowing exactly how I would land offered a reminder of a life set free to sail.  And, as with so many things in life,  the key is to lean back and put all my trust in the gear.

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Jesus’ Guidelines for Success

This blog now hosts more than 600 posts.  I’m re-posting this one  from November  6, 2015 because “success” is being touted ad nauseam by politicians, CEO’s, and popular (and not so popular) writers. But what is success?

Richard Rohr makes an educated but bold claim when he says, “I believe Jesus and the Twelve Steps of A.A. are saying the same things but with different vocabulary” (Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps). He then shares the mantra that makes this claim true:

We suffer to get well.
We surrender to win.
We die to live.
We give it away to keep it.

I encourage people in my classes on The Twelve Steps and spiritual formation to memorize these four simple but profound lines. If we can follow this steps, we can live the life of an Apprentice of Jesus. These four lines are paradoxical but still true – a communication technique that Jesus often used.  In order to get at that truth of these four lines, we need to turn them around and ask, “How do we get well by suffering? How do we win by surrendering? How do we live by dying? And how do we keep something by giving it away? Many Christians understand these paradoxes intuitively, but it may be helpful to give them words.

Suffering to get well: How do we see suffering as a path to wellness? To understand this phrase we need to understand the concept of living in the Kingdom of God.  That kingdom is now – and still coming. We will suffer here on earth, but we are always safe (well) if we live in the Kingdom. Even in this life our suffering and pain will be redeemed; God will turn our mourning into morning. If we honor our pain, we will understand more about joy.

Surrendering to win: How do we win by surrendering? The concepts of giving up, submitting, and letting go are best illustrated by Jesus’ last days on earth.  Knowing that the end was coming, he prayed in the garden, “Thy will be done,” a phrase he had taught his disciples before when they asked how to pray.  Nailed to the cross, he said,”Father, into your hands I commit [give, handover, consign] my spirit and breathed his last breath. He WON! When we give up control of our life to the Father, we WIN – the ultimate victory over sin, a life of joy and freedom, a meaningful life of service.

Dying to live:  How is it possible to die so that we can live? All of creation helps us understand this statement. Marigolds have to die in order to live. So do green beans. Stars die so that new suns and planets can be created; it is all part of the life process of the star.  Doors shut and dreams die, but new dreams rise from the ashes. Jesus died so he could be resurrected. We die in order to be ushered into the eternal kingdom.

Keeping by Giving:  How do we keep something by giving it away?  Jesus said that the last will be first  (Matt. 20:16) and whoever wants to be great must serve (Matt 20: 28). If we give our lives away, we keep and honor the presence of Jesus in us. If we forgive, we understand God’s forgiveness more completely. If we offer grace, grace will flow back to us.

If a poll were taken in America today on how to live a successful life, it is unlikely that the concepts of suffering, surrendering, dying, and giving would gain a very high approval rating. But these steps are exactly what Jesus taught his disciples about successful living; we should take them seriously.

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Going Deeper with God – Rooted and Growing (Ephesians 3: 16 -19)

In Eat this Book, Eugene El Shaddi bannersPeterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and put it to use in practical ways. Our Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this passage, we are encouraged to dip freely into God’s promise of transformation so that we can transform our world. 

EPHESIANS 3:16 – 19 – ROOTED AND GROWING

Out of God’s infinite love may we be given power through the Spirit for our hidden selves to grow strong. Rooted and growing in God’s love, we will have the strength to live that love so deeply that our world will be transformed by the utter fullness of God within us” (a paraphrase from Ministry of the Arts).

CHEWING

The soul is the part of a person that is not physical. It is the center of our will, our intentions, our emotions, our thought process, and our motives. These features can be hidden from others, even from ourselves, but not, as we sometimes hoodwink ourselves, from God. The soul is our “hidden self” in this powerful passage about transformation. Our hidden self is the source of all of our problems. When it is weak, we fall easily into the attitudes and actions that our moral compass knows we want to avoid: anger, jealousy, fear, lies, theft, bitterness, control, etc.

These actions are not only harmful to others but also are barriers to the flow of God in and through us. As Richard Rohr points out, “sin is whatever stops the flow of [God’s] love.” He goes on to say this flow is like a dance; the love moving  in and out, receiving and handing on. Think of the tides so dependably flowing in and then back out – and affecting the entire world.

This why the proclamation of Ephesians 3 is so important. When we are “rooted and growing in God’s love,” the Spirit will unveil our” hidden self” and transform us. Then, we can, in turn, transform the world – not by our own power or skill or cleverness, but by the “fullness of God within us.” God has made this “with-God” life possible. We need only to stand in the river of his love and “go with the flow.”

DIGESTING

♥  These verses speak of the “fullness of God”  The Amplified Bible suggests this explanation of that term: that you “may have the richest experience of the divine Presence, in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself!” How do you experience the “fullness of God?” In music, in service, in silence, in friendship, in art, in nature? Spend sometime being open to being “flooded with God himself.”

♥  The Spiritual Formation Bible comments on the fact that the arc of the Bible’s narrative reflects God’s intent for human life as being in every way a dwelling place of God. “This dynamic, pulsating, with-God life is on nearly every page of the Bible. To the point of redundancy we hear that God is with his people.”  Look up some of the following passages. How do they help you understand living a “with-God life?”  Gen. 17: 1-2; II Chronicles 20: 15-22, 29-30; Ezekiel 37: 27-28; Luke 27: 21; John 15: 1-5; Ephesians 3: 20, I Thessalonians 1: 5).

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“We are not simply filled “with” God’s fullness as something to make us feel satisfied and content, but we are filled for the goal of God’s fullness in and for the world. In this way, we come to know the love which surpasses knowing (Ephesians 3: 19a). To know what is beyond knowing — what a wonderful phrase! This . . . . is that love which is the very life of the Triune God. Being filled with such love is what landed Paul in prison . . . .This is not the fullness promised by a “prosperity gospel,” but the fullness of a life given in love for the world. Indeed, that path of suffering love may be “beyond what we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20) precisely because we are unwilling to do so” (Brian Peterson, Working Preacher website, July 26, 2015).

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