From My Reading

“The great temptation is to keep blaming those who were closest to us for our present condition saying: “You made me who I am now, and I hate who I am.” The great challenge is to acknowledge our hurts and claim our true selves as being more than the result of what other people do to us. Only when we can claim our God-made selves as the true source of our being will we be free to forgive those who have wounded us” (Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey).

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“Let  me ask a spiritual direction question: What is the temptation to become irritated really about . . . . Irritation can serve as a kind of red flag for us, a way for God to get our attention.  Irritation should ring a temptation alarm bell in our ears. My irritation points to an attachment, a disordered love. If I were not attached to this particular thing or outcome, I could just notice (let’s say the critical comment) without my emotional blood pressure going through the roof.  God, instead, invites us to practice letting go (in advance of any particular outcome to practice detachment” (Robert Moore-Jumonville, in an essay for the Renovare book club study of The Screwtape Letters).

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“It may be helpful, from time to time, to picture yourself as a child learning to walk. No one scolds a little one when they stumble, and we shouldn’t scold ourselves either. Falling down is part of growing up. God doesn’t expect us to be flawless, He expects us to flourish. We’re going to make mistakes. If we respond to them in the right way, we deepen in humility and He renovates the image of God inside of us. ‘Accepting the reality of our sinfulness,’ wrote Brennan Manning ‘means accepting our authentic self. Judas could not face his shadow; Peter could'” (Jon Bailey in jonathanrbailey.com).

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“If a Christian is to learn how to pray and grow in prayer, certain character virtues and dispositions are essential. ‘The disposition we need to cultivate, even when care weighs heaviest, is that of remembering that God exists and loves us; that we are not alone, lost, ridiculous in the presence of nothingness or horror; that there is Another, whom we may approach in union with Christ, in him, in the depths of our being’” (Chris Hall, quoting Abba Isaac, in the Renovare Weekly Digest for April 6, 2018).

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“As we who follow Jesus try to balance our own call to work for God’s reign with our need to rest and renew, we can learn much who have so beautifully integrated the demands and gifts of their own faith. We can live discipleship as Matthew describes it: a balance of fully committed action in the world centered by the time to renew and rest in our fundamental identity as God’s beloved” (Michaela Bruzzese in Sojourner for May, 2018).

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Collaborating with God

We were discussing the difficult concept of the will of God. My friend told me about a college student who felt called to be a missionary, but was troubled because she didn’t know if she should serve in India or China. After much internal debate, she chose not to go to either country; she didn’t want to make a mistake and go against the will of God. I was horrified! This precious child of God missed her opportunity to serve God by being afraid she would miss the specific will of God.

I remember a life-time of being flummoxed by the whole concept of determining and then following the will of God. Obeying God’s will seemed like an impossible, even frightening, yet absolutely necessary task. I was released from my fearsome burden when I read a short quote from Thomas Merton:

“The will of God is not a ‘fate’ to which we must submit, but a creative act in our life that produces something absolutely new.  . . . . Our cooperation consists not solely in conforming to external laws, but in opening our wills to this mutually creative act” (Journals of Thomas Merton).    

Read the first thirteen words of this quote a few times: “The will of God is not a fate to which we must submit.” How would your willingness to surrender to God increase if you understood that God’s will was not “a fate” but a “creative act?” How would your excitement about finding your “calling” or your “mission in life” multiply if you understood that every moment of your life is a mutually creative act – God and you working collaboratively on getting something done in the world that God wants done. 

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to come out of the blue and yet perfectly fits your passion and gifts? I remember decades ago when I taught teaching reading in adult high school program. The levels of reading ran the gamut from first grade to college level.  The college-level people could easily make it through on their own, but I couldn’t make it work for anyone under that level without bringing in several volunteers each night to work individually or in small groups.  It was exhausting for all of us.  And then one day I had an idea. We should have a learning center for new adult readers who could be given private tutors. As soon as I had the idea, I was terrified. How could I possibly make this happen?  I couldn’t, but God and I could! And we did! The Family Literacy Center has been in business for more than 30 years.

Over the years, I began to recognize the feeling of having an extraordinary idea that I knew God was calling me to.  At the age of 64, I stared at a  post card I held in my hand. It was a picture of Richard Foster! I blinked and looked again! It really was Richard Foster. And in large print were the words Get a degree in Soul. It was an ad for a new on-line master’s level program in spiritual formation at Spring Arbor University. I knew instantly that this was the answer to 18 months of yearning. I knew it couldn’t happen physically, emotionally, or financially without God’s collaboration. I applied, was accepted, and miraculously the $11,000 tuition for the first year was provided. It was another “creative act” that changed the entire course of my life and led to a late-life career in spiritual formation.

A few years later, I learned of a Renovare conference that offered a two-day training in a new concept of teaching discipleship: the Apprentice of Jesus program. I instantly recognized the feeling I had about this:  God again wanted to collaborate with me again – this time to provide a way for people in my church to join in a creative active of  becoming like Jesus. I was volunteering 20 hours in the adult discipleship program, so I told the pastor about the training. We agreed that the description of the program was exactly what we were looking for. And so I was off to San Antonio and on the spiritual formation adventure of a lifetime – for me and for people in my church yearning for a deeper relationship with God and with others.

Richard Rohr comments on the Thomas Merton quote at the beginning of this post in his book  Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps):

“It is such divine synergy, people’s willingness to creatively work with the hand that life and sin and circumstances have dealt them that is our deepest life of prayer and devotion. This is ‘doing the will of God'”    

Divine synergy.  Working creatively and collaboratively with God.  Making the most of the “hand that life and sin and circumstances” has given us.  Doing the will of God!     

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Going Deeper -Holy Spirit, “Harmonizer” (Proverbs 8)

In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this passage from Proverbs, we learn about the role of the Holy Spirit as the Harmonizer who, says Peterson, “takes our hands and we become a lifetime apprentice in the life of faith so that gradually our lives become a symphony” (in As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Holy Spirit, Harmonizer; Proverbs 8, selected verses (NIV)

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;  I possess knowledge and discretion.
1Counsel and sound judgment are mine;  I have insight, I have power.
1I love those who love me,  and those who seek me find me.
20 I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice,
21 bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me and making their treasuries full. . . .

22 “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old;
23 I was formed long ages ago,  at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
30 Then I was constantly[e] at his side. I was filled with delight day after day,
    rejoicing always in his presence, 31 rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in                    mankind. . . .

32 “Now then, my children, listen to me;  blessed are those who keep my ways.
33 Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not disregard it.
34 Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway.
35 For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord.”

CHEWING

I don’t think I have ever read this passage from Proverbs. I came upon it in a sermon written by Eugene Peterson (As Kingfishers Catch Fire) who focuses on the word Wisdom in the first line of the passage. “Wisdom,” he says “is the term that specializes in living well. Wisdom is the skilled living of truth in everyday living.. . . Wisdom expands our imagination to realize that at the basis of it all is that we become skilled persons on the way to becoming artists of everyday life.” Peterson goes on to say that Wisdom is a personification of the Holy Spirit.  That is, the way we can become artists of everyday life is through the influence and fashioning of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit knows me (and each of you) and is personally present to us.

This passage brings out the character and attributes of Wisdom (the Holy Spirit): know- ledge, discretion, sound judgment, insight, and power. The Holy Spirit loves us and is available to those who seek her. The Spirit walks in righteousness and in the paths of justice. Who wouldn’t want a mentor or adviser or life coach with those qualifications like that! We are to listen to the Spirit and not disregard her teachings. The reward for our open ears and our willing hearts will be true life and the favor of the Lord

DIGESTING

♥  In Rev. 3:20-22, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
Proverbs 8: 34 has a similar image about the Holy Spirit. We are to be “watching daily at my doorway, waiting at my doorway.” Picture yourself standing in an open doorway, watching and waiting for the person who has invited you over to come and speak to you. Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts, but the Spirit wants us to knock on hers. Imagine how can you do that.

♥  What does it mean to you to be an “artist of everyday life?” To me it means creating something beautiful and meaningful of every moment of the day. When we awake in the morning, we can ask our “harmonizer” to help us make our life “harmonious” –  so that our lives can become like a symphony in tune with the way Jesus showed us how to live.

♥ We can collaborate with the Holy Spirit if we pay attention to what the Spirit is saying to us. We need times of silence and solitude to be “inspired” (breathed into) and to hear  from the Spirit about  the vision God has for our lives. We also need to check in with the Spirit often each day (at least as often as we check Facebook or Instagram) to stay focused on living like Jesus.

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“The Holy Spirit is involved in everything we are at the present time. Not just the good things about us but the unfortunate things also. Not only our potential for goodness but our inclination toward evil. Not only our achievements but our mistakes and failures. God accepts us where we are and he works in and with us to make a whole life.  . . . ”

Using the metaphor of pianists with different skills, Eugene Peterson goes on to say: “The Holy Spirit is the Harmonizer. The Harmonizer takes the notes we are playing so clumsily and ignorantly, takes our hands, and we become lifetime apprentices in the life of faith so that gradually our lives become more like a symphony than a two-fingered rendition of Three Blind Mice.  (Eugene Peterson in As Kingfishers Catch Fire).  

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Do You Care?

This blog is home to more than 700 posts.  Once in a while, I re-blog a post from the past for newer followers. This post, originally published on April 17, 2015, before the founding of Black Lives Matter, reminds us that unless Christians become informed, speak out and act in love nothing really changes. 

A few nights ago my husband (he is black; I am white) received a call from his sister reporting that a young male cousin had been murdered.  The next morning I pondered the deaths in this generation of young black males in his extended family:  two nephews murdered, one nephew dead of an overdose, his son dead in prison of unknown causes. This list is far from unusual in black families.

Certainly all of these young men were involved in things that brought on trouble in their lives. However, the incarceration and the demise of young black males around America involves more than their criminal activities. We could discuss for hours the factors that are disregarded by white society (poverty, unemployment, bad schools, racial profiling, etc.) that influence those criminal activities. However, the young black males in our family (and thousands of others) also died because few people in the white Paul Farmermajority care  whether they live or die.

The root problem of this attitude seems very simple:  we care more about ourselves and ours than others. We gaze from afar at the wasted potential in young black males with a haughty “that’s their problem” attitude.

We have  precedent for that attitude. In the first few chapters of Genesis we read about blame games between Adam and Eve and about jealousy between brothers (Cain and Abel.) Throughout history in every mountain village, every valley, every city, every river bank, every farm community on our planet, people work hard to find someone who is not as good as they are.

This is happening blatantly today in Brazil, Mexico, India, China, Russia, Spain, Greece, everywhere in the Middle East, and, of course, in the United States. It is nearly impossible to find a place where one group doesn’t look down their superior noses at another group. If war or negotiation changes the balance of power, the system just puts different groups in different slots, and the game is played by the same rules, guided by the same philosophy with the same ferocity.  Only the winners and losers are reversed.

It happens in our churches as well. I recently heard about a conversation between two women. One was complaining about the pastor of her church.  “He’s always talking about serving people in the neighborhood and ministering to needy people outside the church. But what about us?” she complained. This modern elder son look-alikelove your neighbor reminds us that we all draw lines between people. We withhold love and attention and justice and  support from people on the other side of those lines, while demanding it for ourselves.

To me this truth about mankind means that in order to ameliorate or solve the racial problem in American cities and neighborhoods, white society has to first dig through the gunk in our hearts and family histories and believe that “black people matter.”

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“From Denial to Ecstatic Acceptance”

I have a new hero. His name is Dr. Jeffrey Piehler. Dr. Piehler, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon, is one of nine people who shares his perspectives on death in a PBS special, Into the Night. Dr. Piehler lived for 12 years with prostate cancer that metastasized into nearly every bone in his body. He died in 2014 at the age of 71, three months after his last interview for the PBS special.

The theme of the PBS program is the quote from the poet Dylan Thomas, who famously  advised:

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Some of the guests interviewed for the show agreed with this view of dying; we should  fight as long and hard as we can against the “dying of the light.” A calm and reflective presence, Dr. Piehler disagrees.  He says, “Acknowledging my mortality is absolutely the path that has taken me to where I am. It has rewritten my capacity to love and be loved.” He goes on to describe “the fundamental restructuring of your thinking when you realize that your days are numbered. . . . . All my thoughts are going to important places and everything else is gone, just vaporized. . . I have been on a voyage through storms, whirlpools, moments of near blissful sun and moments of sheer terror and indescribable peace. I have moved from denial to ecstatic acceptance.”

Piehler defines the process of dying as a “letting go” and says that each letting go “rewards you.” But, he quickly adds, “Letting go is not a linear process.”  He describes having to give up his surgical practice when his hands became numb from the chemo therapy – a letting go he regretted. But he points out, “There are a lot of things that I gave up that I don’t mind giving up.  I gave up material things and things like envy and jealousy, and I’ve given up a lot of regrets. . . . But the problem is that just when I think I’ve got the thing [letting go] down, something will happen – just a small thing – like my daughter coming down the stairs in the morning, and saying, ‘Good morning, Dad.  How did you sleep last?’ And then I realize that I’ll never know anything more about that and I’m back to stage 1.”

In December 2015, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. The median survival rate after diagnosis for this cancer is 44 months, although many patients live much longer. I am currently taking a break from chemo, but I know that eventually, probably sooner than later, the cancer will surge back. I have been learning and practicing detachment, “letting go,” for many years. I have discovered, as did Dr. Pieler, a fellow Christ-follower, that every little surrender makes a coming death, especially one that is imminent and certain (not just an acknowledgement that everything that lives eventually dies) easier to accept. I am so grateful for Jeffrey Pieler’s luminous testimony that our human denial of the inevitable end of our lives can be changed to “ecstatic acceptance” if we release our lives into God’s hands.

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Praying Big

To my great surprise, I burst into tears while telling my husband about the appointment of “hawkish”John Bolton as the new National Security Adviser. “What are we going to do now!!! How will we survive this?” Used to my complaints about the state of politics in America, my husband was taken aback by my emotion and tried to reassure me. Later that week as I read an article in Christianity Today about travailing prayer, I understood my reaction. I was not just venting; I was actually praying – desperately praying from the depths of my soul. 

The adjective travailing describes work or emotion that is painful, difficult, arduous.  Travail comes to us from the Latin word: trepalium, meaning an instrument of torture. Dictionary.com says that “the closest English word is probably toil, though travail means that you’re not just exerting monumental effort but suffering as you do so. If your life has been hard-knock enough to be the stuff of old blues songs or Shakespearean tragedies, you’ve had your share of travails.”

As I search my memory of travailing prayers in Scripture, I think of Hannah begging for a child, Abraham bargaining for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses at the altar praying for rain, David pleading for safety from his enemies, Jesus in the Garden questioning the need for his death, Paul urging the church in Galatia not to return to their old ways. These prayers were agonizing, the result of desperation.

In the early days of the American experiment, Thomas Paine wrote several anonymous pamphlets meant to encourage the colonists to stand up against the British, gathered together under the title Common Sense. These were the first words in the first pamphlet:  “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Our souls are also being tried by the times we live in. What we need are honest and bold travailing prayers. David Thomas says, “Travailing prayer, [a] kind of burdened focused pressing [prayer] . . . seem closer [than casual spoken prayers] to the heart of prayer in Scripture  . . . . When confronted with insurmountable difficulties of a broken world, the lessons of travail have challenged me to pray big.”  He goes on to say:

“An honest assessment of our times moves me to seek God for a share in his holy love for the world, voiced first not in a pulpit, blog, magazine article,or tweet, but in a closet.  That’s my choice to take as my own the most ancient and desperate prayer of the church, “Come Holy Spirit.”

We, too, need to pray big! We need to pray passionately, pray vigorously, pray apolitically, and pray desperately. “Come Holy Spirit!”

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From My Reading

“How do we remain alert for the signs of God’s entrance into our lives and the life of our time?  What can keep us awake in the drowsy atmosphere of habit that cozily blankets our days? According to Paul, the answer is gratitude. To the Colossians he writes, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2). Paul is here pointing to the profound relation between spiritual alertness and the act of offering thanks. Gratitude gathers us into that double helix of grace descending and praise ascending that forms the basic design of life with God. Gratitude is the gesture of a heart opened to receive God, a heart acquainted with the shape of things to come, a heart alert to the tremors of a new creation in the birthing” (by John S. Mogabgab in “Editor’s Introduction,” Weavings (November/December 1992). 

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“Fifty years after [Martin Luther King’s assassination, with so much unchanged, Donald Trump has ripped off the scab of the nation’s racial politics, emboldening a kind of overt racism that many convinced themselves had been banished. Hate crimes are rising.  Supporters of white supremacists have found jobs in the highest level of government. . . . For white America to confront the reality of what is happening in the shadows and segregated spaces of this country requires a kind of maturity and honesty that would shatter the national myth that equality has been a shared goal” (Eddie S. Glaude Jr. in Time, April 9, 2018).

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” We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time” (Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey).

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‘The New Testament,” writes Emilie Griffin, ‘is full of [the need to keep the crucifixion and resurrection in balance]: the self that must be unmade before the real life can take hold, the death that must be died, in faith, before resurrection can begin.” This is what Jesus offers us, a way of living that doesn’t do everything it can to avoid pain or run from death. No, His way reclaims them, transcends them, and finally transforms them. We must learn to live in this dying and rising rhythm. Crucifixion is only half the story. “It is in dying,” wrote Francis of Assisi “that we are born to eternal life'” (Jon Bailey in jonathanrbailey.com).

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“We all are bruised reeds, whether our bruises are visible or not. The compassionate life is the life in which we believe that strength is hidden in weakness and that true community is a fellowship of the weak” (Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey).

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Going Deeper: – “To Those who are Panicking” (Isaiah 35 – selected verses)

In Eat this Book, Eugene El Shaddi bannersPeterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah offers stirring words of comfort and prom-ise to the Israelites who have been in dispersed and in exile in Babylon. Notice how these words apply to us today.

Isaiah 35 (selected verses, CEB); “To Those who are Panicking”

Say to those who are panicking:  “Be strong! Don’t fear!  Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert,  and streams in the wilderness. 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way 10The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.

CHEWING

Isaiah 35 is a powerful poetic word of comfort for a mourning people who had lost their temple, land, and sovereignty. Isaiah confronts their fear with promise: “Here is your God . . . .He will come with vengeance . . .  .He will come and save you.”  God is here. God will come. Isaiah asserts that God will act to reverse the oppression and deliver his people. He does not describe specific conditions of oppression, but instead seems to speak in general terms as He promises salvation to his people. Therefore we can know that these verses are for us and for our time as well as for God-followers in past generations. 

Pay attention to the words Isaiah uses:  fear will turn to happiness and joy; debilitating problems will be removed; a dry existence will be refreshed;  the Way will be shown; the ransomed will be free. Grief and groaning will be gone. 

Is this music to your ears?  It is to mine! I am struggling to stay afloat in a world of chaos, conflict, and constantly worsening news. Perhaps you are, too. Like the Israelites stranded in Babylon, let us listen to Isaiah and travel on the “holy highway.” Let us the walk the “Way” that Jesus showed us. Let us watch for all the ways that God is showing up. Let us  have faith that God is at work – even in these dark times. People are still being transformed. Disciples are still making a difference. Watch and see!  Let us stop panicking and watch for and participate in the ransom of the world.

DIGESTING

♥  It seems more  and more important to stay connected with the political,  economic, and foreign policy news each day. However, hearing daily about scandals and incompe- tence and threats of war can be draining.  Perhaps if we repeat the words “God is here and God will save us” before we  read, watch or listen to the news, we can keep the reality of being safe in the Kingdom of God at the top of our minds.

♥  We are to be a light in darkness. What gift can  you offer to a dark world: kindness, patience, forgiveness, mercy, justice, peace, joy, wisdom, etc?  How can you serve someone and brighten their world. What can you teach through your words and actions about God’s care for his people?  How can you bring calm to those who are panicking?

♥ Isaiah 33: 1-2 speaks about the refreshing of the world through nature. 

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;  it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. . . . Waters will spring up in the desert,  and streams in the wilderness.”

♥ Refresh your spirit:  walk on a nature trail, take a moment for the sunrise and chirping of birds, sit by a pond or lake, buy a beautiful flowering plant. Gloom and fear can be driven away by the beauty of God’s creation. 

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“Amid rumors of war and desolation, Isaiah 35 surprises us. A voice speaks without addressing anyone by name, without the particularity of time.”Amid rumors of war and desolation, Isaiah 35 surprises us. Amid rumors of war and desolation, Isaiah 35 surprises us. A voice speaks without addressing anyone by name, without the particularity of time.

. . . .  . Some say this hopeful promise belongs to Second Isaiah. Others argue that it comes even later — sixth century BCE or later still — surely after the exile. This poem comes too early. Who moved it? Some things even our best scholarship cannot explain. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: “Put it here,” breathed the Spirit, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.” So, here it is: a word that couldn’t wait until it might make more sense. It couldn’t wait until it might make more sense” (Barbara Lundblatt in the Working Preacher website, December 15, 2013).

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