From My Reading

Detachment is often understood as letting loose of what is attractive. But it sometimes also requires letting go of what is repulsive. You can indeed become attached to dark forces such as resentment and hatred. As long as you seek retaliation, you cling to your own past. Sometimes it seems as though you might lose yourself along with your revenge and hate—so you stand there with balled-up fists, closed to the other who wants to heal you” (Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved).

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 “. . . .  Christ is alive and active. He continues to speak and teach. His voice is not hard to hear. His vocabulary is not difficult to understand. He will teach us. Now Jesus is a living Savior and the salvation that is in him includes teaching us how to live and re-forming our very selves. Dallas Willard puts it well: ‘I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.'”

And so, today, God is calling you and me to accept Jesus as our life. We are to trust Him for all things. We are to band together as his disciples, learning from him how to live and being formed by God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, into the kinds of people capable of this transformed life. This is the salvation that is in Jesus Christ” (Richard Foster, quoted in the Renovare Weekly Digest,” August 5-9, 2019).

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“Be importunate, Jesus says—not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door. “Ravish my heart,” John Donne wrote. But God will not usually ravish. He will only court.” (Frederick Buechner Wishful Thinking).

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“Saintliness means living without division between word and action. If I would truly live in my own life the word I am speaking, my spoken words would become actions, and miracles would happen whenever I open my mouth” (Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved).

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“Are [Christians] getting their view of refugees from Christian sources? Or are they getting their view from Fox News, talk radio, and Donald Trump.  I suspect the latter.  And the worship of political idols is ultimately a spiritual problem – a different kind of blasphemy.

These challenges run deeper than politics. Many white evangelicals hold a faith that appeals to the comfortable rather than siding with the afflicted. They have allied themselves with bigots and nativists, risking the reputation of the Gospel itself.  And, in some very public ways they are difficult to recognize as Christians at all” (Michael Gerson quoted in the Holland Sentinel).

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“A problem is a chance for you to do your best” (Duke Ellington).

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Countering Donald J. Trump’s Fantasies and Lies

Even passing attention to the news media will make us realize that life everywhere in 2019 is hard. If you, like me and many of my friends, watch, listen to or read a lot about American politics and international disasters and politics, you may feel overwhelmed and hopeless much of the time. Part of our distress is figuring out if our President is telling lies, living in fantasies, or just not thinking clearly.

Now that the G7 Summit is over, and the President’s lies and stories over the days and nights of that gathering have been counted, the media have begun a concerted effort to point out and respond to some of the most lies and egregious stories the President has woven just last week.

One example is Lawrence O’Donnell, host of the nightly show, The Last Word (MSNBC, 10:00 EST).  Last night, he took one of Trump’s ideas fantastical ideas, “Why don’t we drop an nuclear bomb into a hurricane to disrupt its course?” and invited an expert, Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, to answer his question. Here are Professor Mann’s answers to “Why don’t we just drop a bomb on a hurricane?”:

  • a fully formed hurricane carries 100’s of trillions of watts of power, more than 10 megaton bombs dropped every 20 minutes: ergo, “It wouldn’t work anyway.”
  • regularly dropping nuclear bombs into the ocean would do damage to ocean life from residual radiation as well as noise pollution.
  • prevailing winds track to the the eastern coast of the US (including Maralago), carrying radiation over highly populated areas.
  • on their way to the US, the winds pass over many inhabited islands killing many people in the short term and thousands in the long term.

Professor Mann goes on to say that if Trump really wants to work on the life-threatening issue of intensifying hurricanes and accompanying floods, he should accept the truth that our climate is warming, humans are the cause of it, and it will take a concerted effort with the other major nations in the world to stop the destruction of the planet.

One way we can influence the political atmosphere of our country is to track Trump’s lies and wacky ideas daily along with the readily available explanations of why they are lies or fantasies and share that information with friends and family.  

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Making History

This post was first published on May 5, 2013.

Today on the NPR program Morning Edition, historian Charles Emerson was discussing his new book 1913.  He made a comment that literally stopped me in my tracks to reach for a pen and paper:  “Make the history you want to live in.”

Making the history I want to live in propels me from hand-wringing and complaining to proactive involvement. What kind of legacy do I want to leave? My history is my grand- children’s present. How do I step into the fight against the raping of the planet I live on, the violation of human beings though sex trafficking and slavery, the deaths of millions of young children because of unequal distribution of wealth, the rampant racism and assumptions of white privilege. . . . the list goes on and on.

Making the history I want to live in also is a prod to never give up on difficult relation- ships.  Do I really want to consign a friendship or a partnership or a dysfunctional family to history without doing what I can to make it a healthy relationship?

And finally, what do I want my personal history to look like? Am I willing to take on Dallas Willard’s challenge for transformation: VIM (vision, intention and means)?  Or will I lazily walk through my relationalfuture with no thought about the history it will become?  What is my vision for my relationship with God?  What is my vision for how I will become more like Jesus?  Am I willing to be intentional about my personal transformation and thus my family’s transformation, my church’s transformation, my neighborhood’s transformation, my country’s transformation, the world’s transformation? And what are the means (methods, strategies, plans) I can intentionally choose to make that happen? This is fodder for every committed Christ-follower’s journey

What if each of us took a step every day to make the history we want to live in?

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From My Reading

“As soon as [the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] began to spend more time understanding how people live their lives, we saw that so many of the barriers to advancement – and so many of the causes of isolation – can be traced to the limits put on the lives of women. In societies of deep poverty, women are pushed to the margins. Women are outsiders. That’s not a coincidence. When any community pushes any group out, especially its women, it’s creating a crisis that can only be reversed by bringing the outsiders back in. This is the core remedy for poverty and almost any social ill – including the excluded, going to the margins of society and bringing everybody back in” (Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift, How Empowering Women changes the World).

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“Wholeness does not mean perfection.  It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” (Parker Palmer).

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“If Christians practice brotherhood among Christians, this would be one limited step in the direction of a new order among men. Think of what this would mean. Wherever one Christian met or dealt with another Christian, there would be a socially redemptive encounter. They would be like the Gulf Stream or the Japanese Current tempering and softening the climate in all directions. Indeed the Christian would be a leaven at all levels of the community and in public and private living. Of course, such a situation may lend itself to all kinds of exploitation and betrayals—but the Christian would be one of the bulwarks of integrity in human relations in an immoral society” (Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope).

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“The world is changed by your example, not your opinion” (Paul Coehlo). 

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“Our sociology is predictably derived from, legitimated by, and reflective of our theology. And if we gather around a static god of order who only guards the interests of the “haves,” oppression cannot be far behind. Conversely, if a God is disclosed who is free to come and go, free from and even against the regime, free to hear and even answer slave cries, free from all proper goodness as defined by the empire, then it will bear decisively upon sociology because the freedom of God will surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion. . . ”  (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination).

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Specific Love

This post was first published on December 3, 2018.  I was reminded of it when someone unexpectedly “liked” it last week.  I like it, too. It still speaks to our chaotic world.

How can I be a life-giving presence in a world that is so desperate for love and compassion? How can I even begin to serve the broken people whom I hear and read about? Dallas Willard, spiritual leader and author of many important books on spiritual formation, comments that “it is very important to understand that the command [love your neighbor] is not to love everyone. God does. You can’t even begin to. Love can only be specific, and love cannot exceed our resources.” That reassurance is priceless to devoted Christ-followers who sometimes bear guilt about not loving or doing enough.

So the question is “How can my love become specific?” How do we stop trying to “exceed our resources?” Persian poet and theologian, Rumi* (1207-1273) has some beautiful images to help us here.

Be a lamp or a lifeboat or a ladder.  Help someone’s soul heal.   Walk out of your house like a shepherd” (Rumi)*.

Be a lamp –  Think a minute about the purpose of a lamp or light.  What  does a lamp do?  It turns darkness into light. It helps you find your way.  It can enhance fellowship. It can make a place safer. Some lamps are works of art; they beautify their surroundings. Every day we can look to light someone’s path, share knowledge, give direction, and inspire lives of beauty. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father” (Matt 5:16; NIV).  The light we bring reflects  the love of  God.

Be a lifeboat – the purpose of a life boat is to rescue. As God’s lifeboats we can ensure the liberation of  others. We can also make sure we are inclusive. God’s lifeboats are for all people; we can make room in our lifeboat for anyone who needs relief.  We can help others ride out their stormy seas.

Be a ladder – a ladder helps a person climb. Who do you know who is “climbing” and needs your support? A ladder is used to rescue someone who seems beyond help. Have you given up on someone who could benefit from your love and care? For example, at times it seems as though the three teens I support through Compassion International have so many strikes against them that they are beyond help. But with God in the equation, no one is beyond help. 

Lamps, lifeboats, ladders. All of these are symbols of the ways we can help others heal. Rumi concludes this poetic line by encouraging us to walk out of our houses “as shepherds.” A shepherd is someone who provides for the needs of others.  Someone who can see the way ahead and lead in the right direction. Someone whose rod and staff create safe boundaries. Someone who knows others by name – personally and deeply. Shepherds light the way, rescue from harm, and support those persons or those causes that seem beyond our help. There is no more important role for a Christian to play in a world that becomes more and more angry, vengeful and  hate-filled  every day.  

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*Rumi was a Muslim scholar and poet who took Islam seriously, but the depth of his spiritual vision goes beyond sectarianism. According to Professor Majid M. Naini, “Rumi’s life and transformation provide true testimony and proof that people of all religions and backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony. Rumi’s visions, words, and life teach us how to reach inner peace and happiness so we can finally stop the continual stream of hostility and hatred and achieve true global peace and harmony.”

Shahram Shiva, performance artist and Rumi translator, asserts that “Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal growth and development in a very clear and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone. . . . Today Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene” (Wikipedia).

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No Matter How Life Turns Out

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. It is an orientation of the spirit and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. . . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” 

How many times a day do we need to remember these stunning words by Vaclav Havel?Havel – Czech playwright, poet, and political dissident, who, after the fall of communism, became president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and of the Czech Republic (1993–2003) – certainly had many opportunities to try make sense of something regardless of how it turned out.

We all have experiences that don’t turn out well. Why did my father (and many fathers) not return from World War II (or Korea or Viet Nam or Iraq or Afghanistan), leaving a void that could never be filled?  How do you learn to love life with a mother who grieved for 60 + years?

How do we receive an incurable cancer diagnosis or regroup after a flood takes everything we own or lose our sight from diabetes or a child from a car accident?  Our hope for life is buried in our tragedy.

After the crucifixion, the disciples and followers of Jesus of Nazareth argued over what was to happen to their movement now that Jesus was gone. How could it be that all his  promises would not be kept?  How could they go on without their beloved leader? This was not how it was supposed to turn out! But the disciples didn’t know the end of the story. And even after the resurrection, they still struggled to “make sense” of what had happened to their lives.

We don’t fully know the end of our stories either.  Like the disciples, we have to cling to the hope that life will make sense no matter how it turns out. We have to live in freedom not because everything will end in success, but because we have been assured that life will all make sense in the end. If we live in the light of hope and grace, we may learn that:

  • our biggest mistakes become our greatest blessings
  • our most painful heartaches become our greatest joys
  • and our greatest losses become our greatest gains.
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“First, Sandra Day O’Connor, An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice”

The news has been brimming with tributes to Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who died this week nine months shy of his 100th birthday. The comments did focus on his 35 years of important opinions on landmark Supreme Court Cases. But they also described a man of generosity, courtesy, intellectual curiosity, and willingness up until the day of his death to re-think his opinions and adapt to new ideas.

A week ago, I probably would have let this man’s death float away with the flotsam and jetsam of political news.  However, a few days ago, I finished a remarkable book about  Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor (known as FWOTSC: First Woman on the Supreme Court) by Evan Thomas.  My knowledge about the Supreme Court, our bulwark in an era when President Trump and his administration demolish the norms of  our constitutional democracy on a daily basis, has increased exponentially. 

For example, as I was wiping my eyes during the testimonials of people who had loved and respected Stevens, I flashed back to a story in the book about O’Connor’s first years on the court when she was trying to adapt to the lack of communication between the judges outside of oral arguments and the actual court sessions. The author describes O’Connor’s excitement and pride when Justice Stevens walked down the hall to her office to praise her for an opinion she had written. The walk, the office visit, and the praise were rare oc- currences for her.

When I heard Chris Hayes, the host of the MSNBC  TV show All In, say that he and his wife, a law professor who had clerked for Justice Stevens, recently attended a reunion of former Stevens’ law clerks, I had the background from this book to know and understand the role and importance of law clerks, the cream of the crop of law school graduates. They are not glorified secretaries.They research case law, prepare their Justice for oral arguments, and write drafts of majority and dissenting opinions – often without significant revisions from the Justices.  Evan Thomas, the author of First:  Sandra Day O’Connor,  An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice, conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of the one hundred  plus  O’Connor clerks, many of whom became life long friends. Their personal stories gave me a real “feel” for how the Supreme Court operates, both in the courtroom and in the unseen offices and conference rooms.

Thomas’ book is more than a tale of important court cases.  It is a gracefully written story of a beautiful woman who grew up on an Arizona cattle ranch, developed thick skin under the teaching and criticism of a much-loved father, left her family for nine months of the year to attend a school where her precocious intelligence could flourish, refused a proposal from William Rehnquist (which caused some awkward moments when he became Chief Justice he joined the Supreme Court), and married the love of her life, John O’Connor, who essentially gave up his law career to follow her to Washington to be her life partner – and her dance partner at hundreds of glittering Washington D. C. parties. (Thomas writes that people would stop to watch John and Sandra dance.)

Sandra was extremely athletic; her favorite place to be was on the back of a horse cutting cattle, but she also excelled at tennis (one of her weekly partners was Barbara Bush), golf, hiking, fly-fishing and skiing. The mother of three boys, she was determined to create balance in life between her work and her family. She was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, the first ever female majority leader of a state (Arizona) senate and considered running for governor.  And then came the challenge and constant scrutiny of a quarter of a century as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court.

This is a heavy book in many ways.  The 476-page tome is literally heavy to hold, especially if you are reading in bed! It can be heavy reading – especially as court cases are described. But every time I began struggling in the weeds of constitutional law, the author would again bring in the delightful details of this delightful woman, and I would be back in love with her and her story. It is also heavy because it is so important. The personal, political, and professional story of the first female supreme court judge whose influence before, during and after her quarter century on the Supreme Court is a model for women who want to be taken seriously in what is still a man’s world.

Most importantly, it is a book about the rule of law, the interpretation of the Constitution, the differing visions that justices bring to a case, the compromises and lack of compromises on difficult cases, and – most importantly – the need for justices who are not political partisans, or who are not swayed by constituencies, but are willing to decide each case on its merits and in line with an interpretation of the constitution. Nothing in our chaotic political times is more important than a fair justice system, an independent Justice Department, and judges who live up to their high calling.

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We Are Our Own Worst Enemies

Once again, I pleaded with my husband to stop smoking – not just for my comfort and health but for his health. And once again he conceded that he was spending money on something that would kill him – that, in fact, is already killing him.

The next day a friend sent me an excerpt from one of my favorite Frederick Buechner books, Secrets in the Dark. Buechner describes a cigarette ad featuring beautiful people in a beautiful place smoking cigarettes. At the bottom of the ad is the surgeon general’s admonishment that cigarettes kill. Buechner’s message is that we are our own worst enemies:

“As nations we stockpile new weapons and old hostilities that may well end up by destroying us all; and as individuals we do much the same. As individuals we stockpile weapons for de- fending ourselves against not just the things and people that threaten us but against the very things and people that seek to touch our hearts with healing and make us better and more human than we are. We stockpile weapons for holding each other at arm’s length, for wounding sometimes even the ones who are closest to us.”

In my imagination I pictured Frederick Buechner and Frederick Bables meeting for coffee  and marveling  with disgust and foreboding the truth of a cigarette ad: what we love and protect the most can kill our bodies and/or our spirits.

Think for a moment of the thing and activities we love that can kill us physically or emotionally:

  • collections of favorite things that can become a hoarder’s (and his/her family’s)night- mare.
  • constant activity (resulting from individual responsibilities that may be good for us and beneficial for the world) that leaves us physically and emotionally exhausted and drained.
  • devices that connect us to the world but seem to require constant checking; social media messages that triple hourly; likes and comments that leave us wanting more and more.
  • food or drink which brings pleasure, but creates  a need which must be satisfied.
  • obsessive control of our children which rises from a heart of love but pushes us constantly checking up on them (no matter what age) advising them, preaching to them, or confirming in some way that they still care about us.

You can think of many more good things that can end as bitter pressures. And Buechner goes on to warn us:

“We need no urging to choose what it is that will destroy us because again and again; we choose it without urging. If we don’t choose to smoke cigarettes ourselves, we choose at least to let such ads stand without batting an eye. “Buy this; it can kill you,” the pretty picture said, and nobody on the train, least of all myself, stood up and said, “Look, this is madness!” Because we are more than half in love with our own destruction. All of us are.”

Here are some things to chew on as we attempt to navigate the madness of our world: Am I obsessed with something that will harm me? Is my family headed toward self-destruction because we don’t see the dangers in what we love? Is the western church so consumed with good things such as worship styles, raising funds or ratings, giant, well-appointed auditoriums that we miss the point of a spiritual journey all together? Are political parties so focused on the value of their partisan politics that they accept the narcissism of a president who causes havoc in our nation and the world? 

I recently  read a quote by William Faulkner:  “A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says,’This  is where I was when I moved again.'”  The example and spirit of Jesus will not help us build monuments to the things we love, but it can encourage us to walk away from them before we destroy ourselves.

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