Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Peace Be With You

"Peace be with you".  Growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I remember this traditional greeting during mass very well.  What I remember most is that it actually did bring me peace, even as I nostalgically look back.  Within a brief moment of time, barriers were broken and the peace that Christ offers all of us was shared and experienced.  I often wonder why other denominations don't adopt something similar during worship services.  For those of you unfamiliar with the liturgy, just before celebrating Communion, the following order is observed:
Priest:  “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.”

All Amen.

Priest:  “The Peace of the Lord be with you always.”

All And also with you.

Deacon or Priest:  “Let us offer each other a sign of peace.”

I’ve always found it interesting that one section of the liturgy is dedicated to “peace”, and often ponder the fact that many evangelical churches have possibly lost a precious aspect of worship.  Over the last month or two, I've been convicted about the lack of peace that surrounds my life.  Maybe you experience the same thing.  We live in a chaotic culture and sometimes it seems that the circumstances that surround us encourage less peace and more division.  It's ironic because I don't think there are any of us that would deny that we long for more peace in our lives.  I firmly believe that peace is an essential aspect of how we were created.  A deep seated aspect of creation that has become especially vulnerable to the effects of a fallen world.

As I pondered peace and how illusive it seems to be, I made an interesting observation: Peace has nothing to do with outside circumstances.  Could it be that it's not so much that peace cannot be found, but we subconsciously refuse to seek it?  Or is it possible that peace is not something that we even should consider seeking, but rather should be seen as something we possess, but refuse to utilize it to its full potential?  Do we keep peace to ourselves and fail to utilize the power of peace because we refuse to initiate it?  Like owning a self-propelled lawn mower and choosing to cut our grass with scissors?  Like a cure for cancer being found and not released to a waiting and dying world?  Could it be that we are peace's worst enemy?  Personally speaking, is peace up to me, and only me?

Just before Jesus was betrayed, arrested and crucified, He spoke to His disciples, communicating the essential truths that would sustain them after He was gone.  As He comforts His friends, assuring them that His power would still flow through their midst, by the Holy Spirit, He says to them, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you." (John 14:27).  Think about those words for a moment.  Jesus doesn't promise that they will have peace.  He doesn't claim that peace will come to them eventually.  He tells them that they have peace.  They possess peace.  He gives it to them, and as followers of Christ, He gives us that same peace.  We have peace.  It lies in our hands.  It's up to us how much peace that we see around us and how much peace flows through our lives and communities.      

Paul says in Romans 12:18, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."  I have to admit that this is very humbling for me.  As far as it depends on me, there is much more I can do to promote peace among my communities.  I don't live at peace with everyone and there are many opportunities that I've missed to create peace rather than division.  For those times, and the people that have been affected, I'm sorry and ask for forgiveness. 

This morning I went on a long walk with my dog.  As I meditated on this topic and prayed about how I can be more of an instrument of God's peace, I began to do something strange.  I began to wave and every single car that passed me on the road I was walking along.  Not much of a big deal on my part.  Waving at strangers is not going to change the world, but what was more important is the reaction that I witnessed from the people I made brief contact with.  Literally every single person that saw me, not only waved back but returned with a smile on their face.  It was obvious and overwhelming.  People that may have been on their way to work, heads down and robotically focused on the road in front of them, broke into a smile, some even seemed to laugh.  It was amazing.  Maybe they just thought I was strange and got a kick out of it.  I don't know.  But there was a viable and apparent reaction and I had a blast!  I found myself smiling more, chuckling and waving more eagerly!  

Years ago, there was an old Asian man that sat on the curb of the busiest road in my neighborhood and just waved at everyone.   Every morning at the same time, he was there.  He became part of my morning commute and a welcome sight as I made my way to work.  I waved back to him every time I saw him and we both shared a smile.  We both connected in an informal greeting.  We both shared peace.  The peace that he had, he offered me, and the peace I possessed, I returned to him.  I don't see this man anymore.  He disappeared a few years ago, but I still think about him when I drive past his corner of greetings.      

Monday, February 20, 2012

Coffee and Cancer

"Everything is meaningless."  I just ran into a friend of mine whose husband is dying of stomach cancer.  It's not pretty.  It's not pleasant to hear about.  It's not easy to talk about.  But she's my friend, she's hurting and her husband is dying.  He's suffering.  He's in pain.  From the look in her eyes, I could feel his pain emanating though her, even though he is currently miles away in a hospital room.  When talking with her, I felt how obvious, real and close their relationship is.  It was almost as if he was just behind her eyes, shaking his head in disbelief and pleading with me to help them both.  It was very real.  This is real.  It's life.  It's death.  It's pain, in a very real, raw and powerful form.

It hit me like a ton of bricks as I helped my friend carry some boxes to her car.  They are having to move from their home because of expenses.  She works at Starbucks and actually seems to enjoy what she is doing.  I think it gets her mind of everything, her life, her pain.  But how can serving coffee to fools like me pay the bills for such heavy expenses?  There was a time when her husband did very well in his career, but today it's different.  There was a time when they didn't worry about paying bills, didn't worry about hospitals, chemo and death.  There was a time when their plans of life did not include getting a nice case of stomach cancer, loosing a career, working at a coffee shop, watching a loved one die an agonizing death or spending their retirement days wondering how to pay the bills.  But it's life.  Their life.  And it brought me to tears just before I wrote this.

She was working just above me, at the counter, pumping coffee flavors into white paper cups.  I was banging away on my laptop, trying to write something, and watching her as well.  She gave me something to write about today.  I wonder if she knows that.  Sonny and Cher were singing "I Got You Babe" over the speakers above us.  She began to sing along.  Not just humming, but singing in a soft, beautiful voice that caused me to stop typing and start listen.  I thought of her and her husband.  I thought of another time when they were young.  I wonder if that song meant something to them years and years ago.  It was the way she sang it.  I could her her singing to him.  Maybe she's sing it to him when she gets to the hospital today.  "Then put your little hand in mine. There 'aint no hill or mountain we can't climb."

I was up early this morning.  My dog casually threw up on my bed as he laid next to me.  That kind of ended my goal of sleeping a little later this morning.  But everything has a reason.  I got to my favorite coffee shop to write and two men were talking about life and their faith.  I'm not sure exactly what their conversation was about, but one man said to the other, "This kind of crap makes no sense at all.  Why do these kinds of things happen to good people?  People that follow God?  People that always try and do the right thing?"   Prophecy for me maybe?  Was this conversation intended for my encounter with my friend?  She's not the one that uttered these words, although I'm sure that she shares that sentiment.   She works at a different coffee shop that is miles away.  I made my way there because my first choice was too crowed and loud.  But I was there.  I heard those words.  And I answer them to myself, even though my friend is not here to respond.

"The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don't." (Ecclesiastes 9:2 - NLT)

And the wheels on the bus go round and round.
"I don't understand what's going on.  I hate my life!  Since either way it ends up the same, I can only conclude that God destroys the good right along with the bad." (Job 9:22 - The Message)

I don't understand either.  And sometimes I hate my life as well.  I don't have the answers.

God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45 - NIV)

Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.  

"Until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried; you started out as dirt, you'll end up dirt." (Genesis 3:19 - The Message)

I don't know.  I guess what I'm getting at is that God never painted a beautiful, blissful picture of what our lives were life.  We live in a culture that recoils at the thought of even the hint of pain and suffering, and we're shocked when it falls on us.  All the while, God gently whispers to our disapproval of life circumstances with a very matter of fact, "I beg your pardon.  I never promised you a rose garden."  Instead, the stark reality is that life sucks.  Plain and simple.  Bumper sticker philosophy.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble." (John 16:33 - NIV)

Translation: "Don't be surprised when the proverbial shit hits the fan.  I told you that it would.  I told you it would make a mess.  I told you that it would stink.  So, just accept it for what it is and move on, OK?" 

But the one thing that remains clear, and it's why I wrote this blog to begin with.  In the exact same verse Jesus say that we are commanded to "love one another".  Proverbs also tells us that "love covers over all wrongs."  And 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. 

There is so much hate in our world today, isn't there?  Don't you just feel like screaming, "Enough!"   So, I come to this very realistic, but sobering conclusion: when we love one another, we are in essence, showing God to one another, in a very real way.  He is manifest in the flesh through us, the Body of Christ, the Church and living as the Church is supposed to live.  And when we show others God, He covers over all the garbage and refuse that we walk around in every day of our lives.  And that is the equalizing factor that makes this life bearable.  That is the one aspect that brings unity among us all and gives purpose and reason to this sometime meaningless existence.  

"Love one another." 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Love One Another: The Cost of Love and the Low Rate of Return

A friend of mine posted the following blog this morning.  As we approach Valentine's Day, I thought the theme of loving one another seemed to fit well.  I love reading other blogs because all of our perspectives are different when looking at the Kingdom of God and what it should look like.  In reading the thoughts of others, we often have that "light bulb" of revelation flash on and wonder to ourselves, "Why didn't I think of that?"  It may be a concept so simple, but because it was generated from another mind, it's revealed a fresh, new and vibrant.  The words of my friend Brother David Hutton represent just such a scenario and what it means to really love one another in the realm of God's Kingdom.    

We all long to see the love of God moving in people's lives through His Spirit.  We all want to see transformation and our efforts produce fruit for the Kingdom of God.  But the problem is, none of us are promised any of this in each and every situation.  As followers of Christ, we're called to be obedient to Him, His call in our life and furthering His Kingdom.  We aren't promised accolades and pats on the back.  We're not guaranteed measurable success in our ministry endeavors.  When we love others, as Christ loves us, we are never promised that others will love us back. (John 13:34-35)  What we can be assured of is that when we take steps of obedience to Christ, He is faithful and will use each word, each prayer, every touch and every dollar spent to advance His Kingdom here on earth.  Not an ounce of humble effort for God will remain ineffective.  Brother David reminds us of this in the following words.  
"Recently I was terminated by an incarcerated gentleman with-whom I had worked the last several months. He sent, I suppose, what could be considered the equivalent of a 'Franciscan Dear John Letter' to me from prison. He made it quite clear he didn't need my friendship or prayerful support, but instead money in his canteen fund.

He let me know honestly that he didn't appreciate anytime spent o
n prayer on his behalf, the sort of support he needed was someone who could give him a place to live and a job once he was released.

I read his letter several times over (which wasn't hateful or mean spirited) and I even jotted some notes in reply, but in the end, I saw he spoke his truth plainly and honestly and threw my reply in the trash.

Had I fumbled? Maybe he thought my prayer was to change him? Instead of asking God to guide him. Had I come across with a little too much 'preferential option for the poor'? Did I lose the Man, while looking for the Soul?

Oh, I won't lie to you. I wanted him to see a loving God. One without all the trappings we some time place on God. You know the one; "God is Love". I wanted him to see the God who created us All in that image. Without exception, but I won't shove that down anyone's throat.

Maybe he knows this God of Love, but for some unsettling reason, I fear he doesn't, and that bothers me a lot. It's tough enough some days when we do know God, let alone when we think he doesn't exist or is the white bearded man casting lightening bolts on people from a golden throne in heaven. 
I don't know the outcome of this particular situation, but I hope just the same." 

None of us know the outcome of this situation, David.  But what we do know is that God does.  He knows each and every aspect of this man's future journey, and will use every amount of effort, every prayer and every loving word that you uttered as a follower of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Is Chrisanity a "Masculine" Relgion?

Author and speaker, Rachel Held Evans, asked men to respond to recent comments by John Piper regarding Christianity as being predominately a “masculine” religion.  These are my comments on a topic that has caused a bit of controversy in some theological circles.

First and foremost, it can be problematic for us to try and classify God in terms of human attributes.  When you get right down to it, God is neither male nor female, but is Spirit, existing outside of time and space and the physical constraints that we experience as human beings.  We cannot attribute a sexual identity to God any more than we can classify the Divine as a particular ethnic race or belong to a religious denomination.  In the same manner, neither sex is superior to the other, as no one race is dominant to another.  It has not been left open for us to delve into the complexities of understanding God’s identity as one would describe someone to another.  In the west we tend to categorize and classify in a distinctly empirical manner.  We strive to describe the unknown with concretely definable attributes, and whether consciously, subconsciously, or subliminally, we attempt to do this with God.  Therein lies the problem.  

However, the Bible gives plenty of insight to at how God chose to be revealed to humanity, and He does in fact describe Himself with male attributes.  Although some will debate that the "Spirit" is more feminine, we can clearly see that God presents Himself as a male figure.  However, it's important to note that just because God identifies Himself to us with male attributes, does not necessarily suggest that God is "male", so to speak.  There could be a number of reasons for this, and I don't feel that it is significant to this blog to go into them in great detail.  The point is, one or the other had to be chosen and God chose to describe Himself as male through His Word.  Does that diminish the female counterpart of creation?  Does this mean that "Christianity", by and of itself, is a "masculine" religion?
First and foremost, it's important to conclude that if God made man in His image (Genesis 1:27), part of the image would represent the female.  This would lead one to conclude that God possess female attributes equally as he does male.  The Bible is replete with imagery that represent God's male attributes, however when seeking illustrations that tend to lean in the feminine direction, the examples are somewhat harder to track down.  For the purposes here, I've chosen to site several passages that represent female attributes, as well as Biblical illustrations that show a more dominate female emphasis in general.     

First of all, God describes the Church as the "Bride of Christ" (Ephesians 5:2  This is the most significant argument against Christianity being classified as exclusively masculine, since this title is attributed to “the Church”.  The Church is also the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) which is His representation until Christ's Second Coming.  The “Bride of Christ”, being classified as female, and the Body of Christ, being obviously male, would lead us to believe that both attributes are being completely represented in this image.  Through this, we see beautiful imagery of bride and groom being joined together as one and the "two become one flesh", leaving the sex as a secondary factor. (Genesis 2:24)  Is it therefore possible that part of the marriage union is for each of God's sexual attribute to better understand the other?  Either way, one cannot escape the overwhelming feminine identification of the Church being a bride.
Another interesting reference comes in Matthew 23:37, in which we find Jesus unashamedly identifying and expressing a motherly instinct to God's children when He says, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. . . ! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. . . !")  God chose to use the comforting, nurturing and compassionate aspects of a mother to illustrate His children being drawn to redemption through His Son Jesus Christ.  We also see illusions of this in Luke 15:8-10, and the Parable of the Lost Coin. Jesus uses the image of a woman, quite possibly a mother, who diligently sweeps her home in hopes of finding a single lost silver coin.  In the same way, God Himself searches the entire creation in search of one sinner that repents and finds the Kingdom of God. 
Looking at the Book of Isaiah, God clearly identifies Himself as a mother.  In vivid illustrations of a woman giving birth to, lovingly caring for and nursing her newborn baby, God reveals Himself in an exclusively female anthropomorphism.  In Isaiah 42:14 God speaks powerfully through Isaiah saying, “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”, and again in Isaiah 46:3 “Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born.”  After childbirth, the mother compassionately cradles her baby and provides vital nourishment as in Isaiah 49:15 - “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”  Could these illustrations reveal comforting and nurturing attributes that only can come from the female character?  I think we all can agree that “As a mother comforts her child,  so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)

Another similar illustration is found in Psalm 131:2 – “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” In this verse, we see the Psalmist finding calm and rest as he takes comfort in God, as a child becomes independent and secure in its mother’s provision.

In Proverbs 4:7, we read that “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” This same “wisdom” that is considered precious and priceless is also identified as a female in the same chapter and perceived as a “protector”, “exalter” and one that will honor us when we cherish her as the supreme gift that she is.  Here the author purposely uses the Hebrew feminine noun חָכְמָה (chokmah) for wisdom.  Wisdom is the woman that calls out to us in Proverbs 8 and 9, urging us to choose her ways, love her and fear God, her creator.  With almost Christological imagery, she reveals to us that she is the first of God’s creation and had an essential part of creating all that came after her and all that we see.  As a mother gives birth to life, this causes one to ponder the idea that wisdom may be looked upon as a mother as well, possibly with connections to the references in Isaiah.  

As stated early, let’s keep at the forefront of our minds that God’s sexual identity is really irrelevant in terms our spirituality and in the Kingdom of God as a whole.  In the essence of the Kingdom, there is no male or female, only citizens.  (Galatians 3:28)  the In Exodus 3:14, when Moses asked the name of God, He simply responded, “I AM WHO I AM.” Granted, the Hebrew הָיָה הָיָה (hayah hayah) translates as  masculine, but I don’t think that was the point that God was trying to make.  Rather it’s if the question was irrelevant in the first place, and if He could be identified in terms of human understanding, the mere name would not shed anymore light than before.  Instead, God revealed Himself to Moses as a burning bush, something with very little human identification.  When God showed Himself to Moses in Exodus 33, it was not as if a giant man passed by the rock in which Moses was hidden, only revealing His backside.  Rather it was a more likely a manifestation that was not at all comprehensive to the human mind.  Moses saw the glory of God:  Man.  Woman. Child.  Adult.  Mother.  Father.  Sister.  Brother.  Baptist. Catholic.  American.  African.  He is who He is. 
“Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity.... Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?
Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable.” 

 C.S. Lewis