Saturday, December 17, 2011


I heard a popular Christmas song on my way home from work today. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” If the title is not questionable enough, there is a line in the song that says, “it’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

I wonder if a more appropriate line wouldn’t be ‘it’s the lon-lonliest season of all.”

The people who know about such things say this is true. Depression and suicide rates go up during the holidays.

I don’t know the reason for this, but perhaps it is because what can be pushed aside or ignored the rest of the year, shoves itself in one’s face during the holidays: everyone else is happily enjoying family, friends, etc., and you are alone.

Maybe not actually alone. But alone.

All around us, all the time, are lonely people.

At Christmas parties.

At work.

At the mall.

At school.

And even at home with their families.

Its interesting that the church today pushes the idea that Jesus is your friend. He is there for you. He is always with you. You are never alone. But of course what we tend to forget is that despite the presence of Jesus in our lives, we cannot hold him, or touch him. When we talk to him, he rarely responds. He may understand us better than anyone else, but this is hard to get your mind around when there is no tangible evidence.

So if the church wants to be credible in this skeptical age, we can’t just promise the comfort of Jesus, we have to show it. We have to be willing to step out and build relationships with those who we come into contact with. Genuine, time-consuming, listening, understanding relationships.

That might be with the bus driver or the rather grungy woman who rides with us every day. Or perhaps with the surely young person who, in trying not to be noticed, is really screaming, “notice me!” 

Only insofar as the church practices hospitality – not the superficial kind but real, I am here for you, hospitality – will the claim that Jesus is with us make any sense. What better way during the advent season to show Immanuel, God with us, than by opening yourself up to the folks around you. Who knows, you may meet an angel in disguise.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Coming Undone

There is a song by a popular country artist that has this line in it: “You’re tied together with a smile but you’re coming undone.” The song is, at least in part, about what it feels like to be a teenage girl with all the growing pains that entails.

But when I heard it today I couldn’t help but wonder whether that line wouldn’t describe most of the people in our churches as well. Maybe even you.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t have perfect lives. But who would know? We show up at church every week, put on a smile, and pretend we have it all together. I’m sure that some of us are closer than others, but I’m equally sure that none of us have it all together.

Which makes me wonder…

What if church was a place we could be real with each other, without fear of judgment. What  if we could share our deepest sorrows, frailties, and even sin and know that this is a community that would enfold us, love us, help restore us to what God intended.
What I mean is what if we could come to church and tell them that we are struggling with alcohol or greed or lust and we are failing. And what if, rather than sideways glances and judgmental stares, we were met with understanding and prayer, and promises of help and accountability.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that church should become a place where failure and sin are accepted; that we can come as we are and stay that way. That sort of community is not church, not  the ‘called out ones.’ God calls us as we are, but expects us to put on the new clothes of Christ every day. We live our baptisms throughout our lives, dying to our old sinful selves and rising to new life in Christ. And the church is where we should be helping each other live into that new life. But that’s pretty hard to do if we can’t acknowledge that our old life is still appealing, and still tempting us.

Perhaps what we need is to be reminded that we are a not a community of perfect people, despite the smiles on our faces on Sunday morning. Perhaps we need to hear that we are all coming undone, we are all working to unravel the old and live into the new.  And most importantly, perhaps we need to be reminded that we can’t do it alone.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Waiting for Immanuel

Just about a week ago was the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church year. The Sundays of Advent are marked by both remembering and anticipation. The church remembers God humbling himself by taking on human flesh. We remember a teenage girl submitting herself to be used by God for this purpose. And we recognize that all of this was for our sake.

But we also look forward. After all, Christ told his disciples that he would return to finish what was begun with Advent and Easter. Thus, the church waits expectantly for Christ’s promised return.

Some churches get so caught up in the Christmas season that no mention is made of the anticipatory aspect of Advent. But whether your church pays attention to the church year or not, whether they speak of Advent as waiting and not just for the celebration of Christ’s first return, but for promised second coming, all one need do is look around to realize that Christ’s return is everything we long for.

Within the past two weeks, I have cried with friends and family who are dealing with injuries, cancer, depression, divorce, and near-suicide. Each piece of news hit me like a brick in the pit of my stomach. And each piece reminded me of how broken our world is, of how we continue to suffer and groan with creation as a result of sin.

So it seems to me that the best we can wish for is the thing we wait for during Advent—Christ’s return. What better gift could we ask for than the final restoration of all things?

I can’t think of a thing. So I will pray, as I do every year, “Lord Jesus come quickly.”

Friday, November 11, 2011

In Life and in Death

I have mentioned before that I pass St. Paul’s Catholic Church on my ride in every morning. I have also mentioned they have a sign out front that often has meaningful quotes, sayings from Scripture, or a quote from the liturgy on it. The past two weeks the sign has read, “Both in life and in death, we are the Lord’s.”

At first I thought about how much the statement reminded me of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 16th century document that is one of the statements of faith of the denomination to which I belong. Then I thought about how it briefly reflects the sentiment of the last verses of Romans 8. And then I thought about my Dad.

You see, last week my Dad fell while he was on a walk and broke several bones and was pretty beat up. He was in the hospital for the better part of a week and then discharged to a rehab unit. The complicating factor in all of this is that my Dad also has dementia. The result of his dementia is that he does not remember falling, does not know why he must wear a collar on his neck and a cast on his hand, and does not know why we leave him behind every night. On more than one night, he has felt abandoned. It has broken my heart.

But that sign reminded me, in life and in death, Dad is the Lord’s. Or, to be more specific, when Dad was lying on the sidewalk, he was the Lord’s. At the hospital, he was the Lord’s. At the rehab facility, he is the Lord’s.

I can’t be with my Dad all the time. In fact, I can’t be with him most of the time. But God is with him all the time, even when he feels abandoned.

I was talking to my Dad the other night about ministry (he is a retired pastor). We were talking about telling people hard truths, truths like they are dying of cancer, a loved one has passed away, a child has a debilitating disorder. But most of all we were talking about the theological truth that in all of those events – disease, death, natural disasters – God is in control. God’s permission is an active permission, not a passive allowing.

That can be a hard pill to swallow. We like to think of God giving us good things. But we aren’t real keen on thinking about God giving us the bad stuff of life.

Dad told me that when he did ministry, he would never tell people that God “allowed” the bad stuff. But what he would say is that God permitted it and that the person/people involved were “in God’s hands.”

Yes indeed!

When my sister died and no one was with her, nevertheless, she was in God’s hands. When my friend’s twin sons died just days before their expected birth, they were in God’s hands. God was right there in that moment. And he is right there, in that moment of confusion and disorientation and feeling of abandonment with my Dad. What comfort!

And the best part is, even in his confusion and disorientation, my Dad knows that truth with all of his heart.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


For many people, referring to God as “father” carries connotations that are difficult, if not impossible to overlook. Perhaps “father” was someone who was constantly critical, someone for whom your work was never good enough. You would never measure up no matter how hard you tried.

Maybe “father” was the person who disciplined when you did something wrong. And maybe that discipline was harsh or even abusive. Maybe “father” was someone you had to hide from so you wouldn’t have to hide the bruises he gave you from your friends.

It might be that “father” was drunk, loud, and mean. You didn’t dare bring your friends home because you never knew what sort of mood he would be in. He might be overly friendly to your female friends, or overly aggressive with you male friends. Either way, when your friends left you would feel ashamed.

Maybe “father” was a step-father who made it clear he didn’t want you around. You came as a package deal with the woman he married but you were only barely tolerable. Maybe you even suffered sexual abuse at his hands.

These are not minor issues. They not only leave permanent scars but they hamper identifying with the God who comes to his people as Father.

Perhaps one way to begin to retrieve a proper notion of God as Father is via the Aramaic word “abba.” This little word carries with it the idea of deep intimacy and love. I was reminded of this in a sermon a week ago. The pastor said that “abba” is usually left untranslated because no English word really captures the full meaning of this richly significant concept. While sometimes it is considered the equivalent of “daddy,” the word a young child might use, that does not sum up the full meaning.

The pastor told this story. He told of a young couple whose son was born prematurely. He was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit at a nearby hospital and carefully tended to by the staff. But the father and grandfather also stopped by frequently, bending over the isolet, touching his little hands, stroking his little body as if to encourage him to continue to live and to flourish. The pastor telling this story later revealed that he was the grandfather of this little one who was now a teenager.

I could relate to this story. Our second child, a son, was also born prematurely. My husband also regularly went to the neonatal intensive care unit, bent over the isolet, talked to our son, rubbing his back and holding his tiny hand, encouraging him to continue to live and flourish. When I was able, I went too. I know the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with wishing you could give your very own life and breath to that little baby; the feeling of willing him to live.

The pastor said that God is a father like that. He bends down to us, tenderly watches over us, willing us to live, offering us life through his own Son, the sort of life we were intended to have. A life of flourishing in his presence. Perhaps a picture like this can offer those whose human fathers have fallen far short of God’s intention, a glimpse of who God is, our ultimate Abba.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Psalm 92:12 “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree.”

My daughter is a student at Hope College, a Christian liberal arts college not too far from where we live. She is the baby of our family so every time we experience something with her we are keenly aware that this is our last time not just with this child, but with all of our children. I think that makes us pay somewhat more attention. I know that is true for me.

Two years ago when she started at Hope, we did what every good parent does. We brought her to school, helped her move in, helped her arrange her room and her stuff, and then went to all the parent orientation activities. We didn’t expect anything new. We had already been through this at two different colleges with our two sons. What do parents really need to know about all this after all?

But surprisingly, I did hear something new. In chapel.

The chaplain at Hope, Trygve Johnson, preached a sermon on Psalm 1, a psalm whose theme reverberates throughout the Psalter and is reflected in the quote from Psalm 92 above.

He told us about the “soil of Hope.” Soil that is rich in its Christian heritage. He talked about Hope College as a place where our children could sink their roots deep and soak up the nutrients necessary to nourish their faith. He said that every day he prays with Psalm 1, “Lord, make me like a tree.”

Funny prayer, isn’t it?

Make me like a tree.

But Psalm 1 says that the righteous person is “like a tree, planted by a river, that bears its fruit in season” whose “leaves do not wither.” The tree in Psalm 1 is a picture of the flourishing God intends for his people.

And then Dr. Trygve Johnson told this place full of many first-time Hope College parents that he not only prays that prayer for himself, he prays it for the students of Hope College.

That was my “ah-hah” moment. That would be my prayer for my precious daughter. “Lord, make her like a tree.” Shape her into that righteous person who flourishes like a tree. Make her like that tree. And I decided to pray that prayer for myself as well.

She just began her junior year. We are half-way done with this journey of college. Her freshman year I wondered if she would ever flourish. Last year, I saw glimmers of hope. This year, I am beginning to see fruit. But I won’t stop praying – ever.

Lord, make her (and me, and my boys, and my husband, and all these students….) like a tree.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Receiving Grace

I recently read Marilyn Robinson’s  novel, Home. A central character is a man who, after a rebellious and troubled childhood, left home. After twenty years of questionable living he returns to the family home in Gilead, Iowa. His father and sister offer the prodigal grace and do their best to make him feel at ease. But no matter how hard they try, Jack still feels like he does not belong in his own home, like he does not deserve to be there. Likewise, he feels like he does not belong in their faith. He is portrayed as incapable of receiving grace, as a man who desperately wants to find a home, but cannot.

I know people like Jack. They are not hostile to Christianity. Some of them even wish they could embrace the Christian faith. But they feel they are not good enough, will never measure up to the perceived standards. At the end of the day, they cannot accept grace.

Sometimes even Christians feel this way. Despite our talk of salvation by grace, we really don’t believe it. We think that if we don’t say yes to teaching Sunday School, sit on at least 5 committees, walk in the Right to Life walk, and feed the homeless once a week, we really don’t deserve a place at the table.

So what is the answer to all of this?

Jack and people like Jack are partially right. Apart from Christ, we do not deserve to be in a relationship with God. We deserve the alienation that we caused by our sin.

But that is not the end of the story.

In Christ, we do deserve a place at the table with the Triune God. All we need do is accept the gift God has given to us in Christ. In other words, the feeling that we really don’t measure up is right. We don’t. Recognizing that about ourselves is good.

But we shouldn’t wallow in that feeling. We need to move on to the recognition that we have been invited to the table by God himself. All we need do is accept the invitation with gratitude.

Extended focus on our unworthiness will throw a roadblock of despair on the highway of grace,
impeding any forward progress in our relationship with God, and maybe blocking that relationship altogether. The good news is that in Christ we are worthy. The response to that news, is a life of gratitude. In other words, we live not in order to receive grace, but out of gratitude for the grace already received.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bus Story

I ride the bus to and from work most every day. I find it relaxing, and one way to lesson my carbon footprint. Because I generally take the bus at the same time each day, my regular bus drivers recognize me and will, on occasion, strike up a conversation. In addition, I ride to the end of the line on my way home so the bus is often empty or nearly empty for the last few miles of the trip. That offers a prime opportunity for the driver to chat.

Today I had nodded off for a few minutes but as the bus stopped to let a passenger out, I woke up. The driver noticed and wanted to know if he could ask me a question. I said, “sure.” He knew from an earlier conversation that I was a professor. So he asked me what I teach. I told him “theology.” He said that was good because that was exactly the sort of question he had in mind.

He proceeded to tell me that a few days earlier, his 5 year old neighbor girl had died. He told me that he is not a big fan of death in general but he found the death of such a young child baffling. Why would God allow such a thing?

I told him that I really didn’t know; that if we knew everything there was to know about God, he wouldn’t be God but that it was tragic.

He said he agreed. He didn’t really know what to think about God in general, but he did think that if there was such a thing as God, we certainly wouldn’t be able to figure him out.

Then he told me this. He doesn’t go to church and neither does the family whose child had died. But anticipating a large crowd at the funeral, a nearby church offered to let the funeral home use the church for the funeral for no charge. The bus driver thought that was pretty nice. But that was not all. Apparently, someone in the church heard about the funeral and knew that the family could ill afford the expenses associated with it. This person anonymously donated the funds necessary to cover the funeral expenses – everything.

The driver finished the story by saying that he didn’t know much, but it sure seemed to him that Someone was behind that person’s donation.

I told him that although sometimes the church doesn’t behave very well, this was a great example of the church doing the work of God in the world. I explained that being part of the church is being part of a community that strives to serve God at least in part, by showing the love of God to those around them.

He agreed as we arrived at the end of the line. Never underestimate how closely the world it watching us and the power our actions have to bring someone into contact with the living God.

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 1 Peter 2:12

Sunday, September 11, 2011


For people about my age, two events are of the sort that prompt memories of where we were and what we were doing at the time we heard about the particular disaster. One of these events is the crash of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. The other is 9/11/01.

Today is the 10 year anniversary of the latter of these two events. I do remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. I remember being horrified and frightened. I remember calling my sister in Colorado and crying together on the phone as we watched the news and wondered exactly what was happening. The United States of America was under attack. Unthinkable! Yet there it was, right in front of us on the television.

I remember how eerie it was to have a clear blue sky yet no planes flying overhead. I remember my children coming home early from school, and the seminary I attended canceling classes – almost unheard of.

As I think about that day and the intervening ten years, it occurs to me that in many ways, not much has changed. Life does indeed go on. People have gotten married and had children. Others have lived out their years to a good old age and have died. Young people who were in elementary school have grown up, graduated from high school, and gone to college. Many have jobs and children of their own by now. We continue to get up every morning, go to school or work, cook dinner, and sleep at night.

And yet in other ways much has changed.  Air travel has become a chore of sorts, enduring long screening lines and full body scans. Folks who look as though they are from the Middle East endure suspicion, rude remarks, and worse. Muslims are regularly assumed to be terrorists. Troops were sent overseas in a so-called war on terrorism, a war that has impacted thousands more lives than the attacks on New York and Washington D.C.

Violence and revenge run deep in the human race. The earliest chapters of Genesis already record violent acts, even brother against brother. By the time we arrive at Genesis 6 the Bible tells us humans are doing only evil all the time. Violence seems to be part of who we are post-fall.

We are not left there, however. In Christ and through the power of his Spirit, we are able to overcome these tendencies. We are capable of doing the impossible. We are empowered to rise above returning evil for evil. We are enabled to overcome evil by doing good, even to our enemies.

I have no idea what that might look like on a national level. Frankly, I am frequently not all that good at it on a personal level. But in the wake of 9/11, it is worth pausing for just a few minutes to consider what it might mean to be an agent of peace, even if only in my own small sphere of influence. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More on Waiting

More on Waiting

In my last post I asked for responses to what might be good about waiting, having offered a few thoughts of my own. A day or two later my older (and wiser) brother wrote me an email with his thoughts. Some of them were quite personal, so I have edited them a bit. But I hope that what I am sharing with you here is a close approximation of what he wrote.

His overarching suggestion was that perhaps the ability to wait is a side-effect of a life of contentment. He wrote that he was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul, who incidentally is writing “in chains,” says that he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” I will have to look up that text in the original language sometime, just to satisfy my own curiosity. For now however, a quick look at dictionary.com tells me that content means “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.”

Ok so I’m a failure at contentment, at least in certain areas. Maybe that’s why I hate waiting. And of course our culture feeds lack of contentment with the constant barrage of advertising encouraging us to be better, stronger, faster, prettier, etc. – now.

My brother used my father as his example of contentment. He is right. My dad rarely complains about anything. He takes what comes to him with gratitude and contentment like his own father did. Our grandfather was, according to my brother, the most contented man he had ever met. My brother remembered a time when he visited my grandfather in his retirement home. Home might be an exaggeration. It was (and now I am quoting my brother) a room with a bed, a chair, and a few personal belongings.  When asked how he was, grandpa said, with noticeable honesty and sincerity, that everything was good. He had a good chair and everything he needed.

I remember my grandfather’s contentment as well, although not that particular instance. And my brother’s recollection put my own lack of contentment in bold print.

So I think I might practice waiting—being a more patient driver; being more laid back about people who are habitually late; being more willing to say to the person in line “no you go first.” (I want you to know that my immediate family is wondering right now why they have the sudden urge to fall out of their chairs laughing.) I’m not sure what other sorts of waiting I might have to do but I have some guesses and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to like it. But it seems a fair way to start moving toward the contentment that Paul talks about. And as my brother pointed out, contentment leads to the peace that passes all understanding, not just about salvation, but peace with God in all areas of my life, no matter the circumstances. That is a worthwhile goal to strive after. Thanks Carl!

Saturday, August 27, 2011


For the past several months I have been trying to read through the psalms about every 4-6 weeks. I enjoy it and am surprised at how often I come across unfamiliar psalms, as well as familiar psalms that speak to me in entirely new ways.

Today as I was reading, Psalm 27:14 hit me between the eyes. It reads, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” I meditated on the verse for several minutes to let it sink in. You see, I’m a lousy waiter. I hate waiting in line. I hate waiting at traffic lights. I get wildely impatient when meetings don’t start on time. I am crabby when someone says they will meet me at a particular time and then shows up 15 minutes late. I could go on with my confession but I think you get the picture.

And although these examples of waiting might not be your pet peeves, it strikes me that 21st century Americans are not very good at waiting in general. We are instant gratification people, aren’t we? Fast food, fast cars, fast internet connections, fast phones….the faster the better. Waiting for an internet page to load in 13 seconds rather than 2 drives some people crazy.

Isn’t the psalmist’s command in some ways completely at odds with how we live? Wait.

And of course this is not the only such command in Scripture. It actually appears a number of times in the psalms, as well as in God’s commands to his people in various stories. One text even says it is good to wait for the salvation of the LORD(Lam. 3:26).

Good to wait??? What’s so good about waiting? I’m not really sure, but here are a few thoughts. Maybe waiting reminds us that we are not in control, we only think we are. Obviously, if I could be at the front of the line I would. But I am not in control so I have to wait. And the same is true with my relationship with God. Sometimes God’s answer to my prayer is not yes or no, but wait. I’m not always so keen on that, but hindsight being what it is, that answer has often been the case in my experience.

Furthermore, maybe waiting reminds me that I am not the center of the universe. There are other people whose schedule is just as important as mine. My need to get home or to a meeting or whatever is not inherently more important than the need of the person ahead of me. Thus, when the next line over opens at the grocery store, running over without regard to the person just in front of me who has also been waiting is not demonstrating love for neighbor.

I feel  a bit like I’m grasping at straws, however. I don’t like to wait and coming up with reasons why waiting is good really doesn’t help much. But in the rush of every day life, there seems to be something deeply important about learning to slow down, and even to wait. And given that waiting is frequently commanded by God only enhances this feeling. So what do you think? What is good about waiting?

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Plains

For those of you who read regularly, I’m sorry for the lack of posts lately. We were on vacation. I did some reflecting, but no posting. In fact, I actively avoided technology in general. But that is another story. I will be posting some of my musing from our trip over the next few weeks. Thanks for your patience.

We drove 16 hours today. Much of it was across the plains states. And yes, we chose to do this during the day.

When I talk about driving across Iowa or Nebraska, something we have done numerous times, any number of people have said to me something along the lines of “oooh, those states are soooooo boring!” I usually offer some objection to their assessments, but to no avail. I thought about those comments again today and wondered whether those people have ever paid attention to the landscape they are hurrying through. Or better yet, whether they had ever bothered to get off Interstate 80 for a slower and closer perspective.

Take Iowa. The rolling farmland, deep valleys, the miles of crops that feed our families and so many more…..it is beautiful. I never tire of driving up and down those hills, seeing the silos grouped together like monuments marking out the family farms.

 I remember the nights spent on the farms of my uncles and aunts, some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet. It was so dark at night that I could hardly see my hand in front of my face as I lay in bed. And I was scared. But my aunt would bring me a nightlight if my sister was not with me, so I wouldn’t be afraid. And my older cousins would help me catch fireflies while our parents chatted and sipped sweet iced tea in the warm, humid summer evenings. Wonderful people. Wonderful land.

And of course, I can’t imagine a bigger sky than Nebraska. The horizon stretches out endlessly. The sun begins to color the summer sky pink at 9:30 and there are still traces of pink and yellow and orange an hour and a half later. And once it finally gets dark, there are more stars than you knew existed…so close you feel like you can touch them. Its almost impossible to go to bed because it is so beautiful.

While mountains and oceans tend to get more press, it turns out that the Iowa cornfields and the Nebraska sky, not to mention the sandhills, grasses, lakes, rivers, etc., of the plains all proclaim the glory of God as much as those parts of God’s world that are often considered more spectacular….if only people will take time to notice.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Who Is Like God?

Who is like God? Interesting question, isn’t it?

The writer of Psalm 113 asks the question. The name Michael is the Hebrew form of the question. So what do we do with this question?

At one level, the obvious answer is no one. No one is like God. Scripture seems to emphasize that over and over again. God says to Job, “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?” The psalms praise the God who stretches out the heavens, wraps himself in light, and redeems his people, all  things we cannot do. And God says to Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

And yet, at another level, every human person is like God in some way. Genesis 1 tells us that human persons are made in the image of God. Part of the irony of the snake’s temptation in Genesis 3 is that he tells the woman that if she eats of the fruit she will be like God. The first couple doesn’t seem to realize that they, unlike any other creature, are already like God, made a little lower than the heavenly beings.

A substantial part of the human predicament since the original rebellion against God has been remembering our place – remembering who we are and who God is. Humans have a tendency to either think too little of themselves, or too much of themselves.

We are not, as some would have us believe, mere creatures, on par with every other creature on earth. But nor are we little gods, knowing what is best for us and those around us. We are not the sculptors of our own destiny nor can we begin to fathom the mind of God.

When circumstances are not going the way we had hoped or we are faced with huge disappointments, we might be tempted to say, I can’t believe God would do _______ (you fill in the blank). That thought, however, should always be tempered with the question, “who is like God?” As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than ours.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rodent Rage

I like to garden. I especially like my vegetable garden because I get a tangible payoff – lettuce, beans, tomatoes, etc.

I had given up gardening for a few years in part, because it takes a fair amount of time and time was something I lacked; in part, because we had a groundhog family that seemed intent on eating everything that I planted down to the ground. No matter how beautiful the garden looked and how healthy the plants were, just about the time I could imagine the first beans coming on, that nasty rodent and his extended family would eat my carefully tended plants down to their stems.

But a couple years ago I decided to give it a try again. After all, I hadn’t seen a groundhog in a long time – at least not in my yard – and I really love gardening. Last summer was one of the best gardens I have had in a long time. And this year looked even more promising. Until today.

I walked out to my garden after work to check on my beans, hoping there might be enough there for my husband and I to enjoy with our dinner. But to my horror, three of my six rows of beans were visibly munched on by some ravenous rodent. And those that were not munched on were flattened.

Visions of shotguns danced in my head. I considered dousing myself in mosquito spray and standing vigil near my garden all night, gun in hand, ready to eliminate any furry intruder. Of course I knew I was as likely to shoot myself in the foot as kill the invading varmint, but that seemed a small price to pay.

Once my husband got home and calmed me down he assured me he would find a way to foil the fiend. And I realized that all my ranting, as usual, had done me no good at all.

And that made me realize that gardening is a life lesson of sorts. It takes patience, work, and care but in the end, the results are largely out of my control. How often hasn’t my life been like that? And how often haven’t I ranted, furious that things hadn’t turned out my way?

So what if instead of ranting, I tried to figure out what God would like me to learn from the experience? That would probably be a good place to start. Currently, I’m thinking that maybe God wants me to learn to improve my aim…….

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

God and My Children

One of the hardest parts of parenting is learning to let go. If you happen to be someone who prides herself on taking good care of the people she loves, maybe even to the point of micromanaging at times, this is even more difficult. The older my children got, the more I realized I was not in control. And I was not always keen on that.

Oh don’t get me wrong. When things were going well—when their friends were nice, they made the team, they were doing well in school, etc.—I didn’t really have a problem. But when things went wrong, when life was not turning out the way they had hoped, planned, and worked for, then I didn’t do so well. I wanted to help. I wanted to fix things.

Last year one of my children had an especially bad experience. This experience left my child emotionally crushed. Some of the behavior that followed worried me. Some of what the child said worried me. And there was nothing I could do other than be there for her.....and worry. But at one point, when I was feeling very low and very anxious, a dear friend of mine said to me, “God loves your children even more than you do.”

God loves your children even more then you do.  I had to let that sink in a bit.

God loves my children even more than I do.

Well of course he does, I thought. But what does that mean?

It means he knows them better than me. He knows what is best for them. It means I need to trust him. If I couldn’t trust the one who had created this child, the one who had formed this child in my womb, the one who had given this child to our family, who could I trust?

So now, as I continue to let go, as I continue to try to figure out how to be a good mom as my children leave, as I worry about what might lie ahead, I hear my friend reassure me:

“God loves your children even more than you do.”

Ps. 139:14-18

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I read a peculiar thing a short time ago. An author wrote that he and his wife are raising their children in such a way that their children have as little as possible to “unlearn” later in life. As someone who has raised three children, that seemed like a very peculiar statement.

In some ways, it is arrogant. If you raise your children such that they have little to unlearn, I guess you think you are getting it all right the first time. That’s quite a thing to say.

In other ways, its rather ridiculous. Learning, after all, is a constant process of unlearning, integrating, and re-learning. In part, it is putting away old ideas, and assimilating new ideas. It is actually quite a natural part of development, I am told.

But I also know that unlearning is natural from experience—my own and that of my children. Learning is part of what I do for a living. And learning is not just piling more ideas onto already solidified ideas. It is reevaluating previously learned ideas in light of new evidence or experience or information. Sometimes that reevaluation leads to rejecting or changing an old idea. Sometimes it leads to rejecting the new idea. But adaptation, whether to new physical circumstances or to new ideas, nearly always involves a certain amount of “unlearning.”

So unlike this popular author, I raised my kids with plenty of new situations and ideas to evaluate. I guided their thinking about what sorts of ideas were foundational, and what sorts of ideas were negotiable. I talked to them when they had questions—any questions—and helped them sort through their options pointing out potential strengths and weaknesses.

I let them know that while there are a lot of things we don’t know, there are plenty of things we do know. Some of those things might need adaptation or unlearning at some point down the road. But some things won’t.

I let them know they should not be afraid to “unlearn” things if the “unlearning” brings them closer to the truth of the matter. Admitting you have been wrong is an ingrained part of being a Christian, after all. And I can’t tell you how many times I had to admit I was wrong in my parenting career. I had to model unlearning, much to my chagrin at times.

Perhaps the most important model of unlearning is sanctification. I constantly must unlearn old habits and learn new ways to live if I want to conform more and more to the image of Christ. The old me must die daily. The new me—the united with Christ me—must come to life more and more each day.

So unlearning is part of the rhythm of the Christian life. And therefore one of the best habits you can teach your children.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blessed Are Those Who Receive

“Is is better to give than to receive.” I remember my mom telling me this from the time I was very young. The message she was trying to get across to me was that I should not be as concerned in any given circumstance about what I was getting, as what I was contributing. Giving—of yourself, your time, your talents, your energy—this was the most important thing you could do. Nothing wrong with that I suppose.

But I wonder if we are missing something when we talk only about giving and never about receiving. What does it mean to be a gracious receiver?

Think about the last time someone complimented you. Did you reply with a simple thank-you? Or did you stammer, as I often do, wondering how to accept the compliment and not sound arrogant?

And what about gifts? I just had a birthday and a common question in our family is, “what do you want?” Now I know that they are just trying to prevent the awkward ‘I didn’t really need another white shirt’ moment. But it seems to me that much of our gift giving and receiving these days is driven not by the grace of the giver, but by the desires of the receiver.

Think about it for a minute. Fifty or so years ago people brought gifts to weddings that were thoughtful, creative, and often had some meaning attached that reflected the well-wishes of the giver. Now we go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, look at a list, choose something not already purchased that fits our budget, wrap it up, and its all set. Its not that I don’t think about it or care. Its just that there is something so mechanical about it all. I understand that now there are baby registries too. Are Christmas registries next?

Worse yet, this general mindset continues to permeate deeper into the fabric of our lives. People go to fertility or adoption clinics with particular characteristics of their future child in mind. But children are a gift that God gives us – a gift we should receive gratefully regardless of characteristics like gender, health, etc.

And then there is worship. Instead of going to gratefully receive whatever God has planned for the day, we go with our demands, evaluating the service to see if our desires have been met. I love the way our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters demonstrate receiving gifts in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). They don’t grab the bread and wine out of a tray. They receive the elements with open hands from the priest. God offers us himself and we receive the grace offered with gratitude. Indeed.

Of course the position of recipient is one of humility and lack of control – not exactly prevalent dispositions in American culture. But these are the dispositions of those who wish to receive the gift of salvation in Christ Jesus. We don’t receive salvation on our terms. We receive salvation on God’s terms.

So maybe learning about grace has something to do with learning about being a good receiver, as much as being a good giver.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Am With You Always

Every day, the bus I take to work goes down a fairly busy street past St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church. St. Paul’s has a sign in front of the building. Its one of those electronic signs that has a message that is lit by tiny bulbs of some sort.

Of course there is nothing novel about such signs. Lots of institutions have them, including many churches. What is unique, at least in my experience, is the message on the sign. Sometimes, the message is simply informational, like what time mass is or that they are currently enrolling children for their school. Nothing all that unique about that.

But sometimes, as has been true so far this week, they have a short phrase, either from Scripture or the liturgy (which is usually also Scriptural citation of some sort). Each day, when I know we are getting close to the church, I put down my book and watch for the sign. And when the sign is from Scripture, I find it a most fitting beginning to my day.

I mention this because most churches that have these sorts of signs seem to think that cute, inspirational phrases are the way to go. Perhaps they think that these little statements will make them appear fun and hip and attractive. Most of the time they are goofy at best, heretical at worst. I’m not sure what they make people think the church is, but likely no one encounters God through the sign.

Not so with St. Paul’s. Whenever the sign is not informational, it is an encounter with God’s word and therefore, with God. This week, in the wake of Ascension last week, the sign has read “I am with you always.” Every day, as I have ridden to work, I have been reminded that indeed, God is with me and will be with me throughout my day. What a wonderful reminder! What a beautiful message!

So I remind you, as I have been reminded: “I am with you always.” 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Do Over

Do you ever look at some event in your life and wish you could do it over? Maybe it was because it was so seemingly perfect that you wish you could experience it one more time. Sometimes, people even go back to places where particular events happened in an attempt to re-live the moment. But of course that never works. The place has changed. The people have changed.

Sometimes, however, you wish you could do something over because maybe this time you could make it right. I call this the game of ‘what if’. The problem is, in the game of ‘what if’ you always come out the loser. Mostly, that’s because it is impossible to know how the outcome would have changed with a different set of choices. We like to imagine it would change for the better. But it is equally possible that it could have changed in a negative direction.

I’m at that place in parenting where I often reflect back on decisions I made regarding my children. Its pretty easy to wander into the land of ‘what if.’ I see the choices my children have made and overall, I am just so proud of them. But every now and again I wonder…..

What if I had said no on that particular night, or yes on some particular day? What if I had forbid that harmful relationship? What if I had encouraged that particular activity rather than letting them quit because they thought they hated it and constantly complained? The list could go on and on.

And there are some things I know I simply did badly.

But you can’t do life over. You get one shot. That’s it. Nothing put that more in focus for me than the day I got a call from my father that my sister had died the night before. I wished for more time, for opportunities to do some things over.

Eventually I realized that there is no way to do everything right, to be perfect in my relationships with the people I loved the most. But I also realized that God can not only forgive my inadequacies and sins against others, but also can take my efforts and make more out of them than I ever imagined.

So when I start to play the ‘what if’ game, whether its with my parenting or my teaching or anything else, I try to listen to God telling me, often in the quietness of my heart, “Quit worrying. I’m always here. When you feel successful, and when you feel like an abysmal failure. Do your best. I’m with you. I’ve got it covered.” I hope you hear that voice too.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

God Created Markets???

Some months ago my husband and I attended a lecture on what it means to be a Christian in the business world. My husband is a businessman and we have had many discussions about how Christians can be competitive in a sometimes ethically questionable marketplace. The person delivering the lecture has a Ph.D., had worked in the business world, and teaches at a Christian college. Given the shallow nature of previous thinking we had been exposed to, we were eager to hear what this person had to say.

Working from the biblical perspective that God had created a world that was good, this individual proceeded to tell us that “God created business,” and “God created markets.” This was his self-stated “theology of business.” Hmmm.

I decided to talk to the speaker after his lecture to determine where, biblically, he had determined that God was the creator of business and markets. Turns out he had none. He responded that since God had created a world with an uneven distribution of resources, God had created business and markets. He went on to assert that God had created music and art as well. When I suggested that there is a difference between creating the potential for certain cultural artifacts and creating the artifacts themselves, he seemed offended and disbelieving.

As is almost always the case, theological assertions not only impact the theological topic in question, but also other related theological topics. It is also the case that what we teach has the potential to impact how we act, our ethics. So if I granted his premise, how might that impact our ethical understanding of business?  How should we think about and respond to the presenter’s suggestions that God created business and markets? I have a few initial thoughts.

First, it would seem that if God created business and markets (in a capitalistic sense which is what I believe he was asserting), why are business and markets not a universal phenomenon? The fact of the matter is that in any number of primitive societies, the distribution of resources operates more like a family than a market. What I mean is, that goods are shared between clans rather than bartered for or traded. This is, in fact, the model the early church seemed to operate on. (Acts 2:42-47) So if God created markets, why doesn’t every society, or even the early church appear to operate with a market driven model?

Second, and more importantly, if God indeed created cultural artifacts like markets and business, than markets and business, like all of creation, are in their essence good, although fallen. But that begs the question of whether all cultural artifacts are in their essence good. The reality is, that humanity was created with the potential to use the various resources of creation to produce art, music, and social structures including business and markets. But humanity is fallen so the structures and artifacts we produce are the result of a fallen intellect and understanding. What “good” looks like with regard to any of these artifacts and, in fact, whether these artifacts are even something that should be considered the proper use of human potential is open to question and is part of what Christians are called to discern.  

Many economists admit that greed is a driving force (perhaps even the driving force) in a market economy. But greed, in the Christian tradition, is one of the seven deadly vices. So if greed is foundational to the capitalistic marketplace, is the marketplace really something good?

Maybe more to the point, is the question of how a market economy reflects love for God and neighbor, the summary of the law. I’m not saying that it cannot; only that questions about how one operates in this environment, how one promotes the flourishing of one’s neighbor in this system are difficult. If what matters most is the bottom line, what happens when the bottom line and the good of my neighbor come into conflict?

To simply state that God created markets and therefore they are good, not only misunderstands the doctrine of creation, but has the potential to whitewash real ethical difficulties that are part and parcel of operating in a market economy. We should encourage hearty discussion of these matters, not simplistic justification for our own preferences.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Generous God

A Generous God

In a recent article in Christian Century, pastor Peter Marty argues in favor of what he calls a “generous God,” favorably citing Pastor Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Marty claims that “charging Bell with being a universalist doesn’t work” in part, because “the idea never appears in the book.”

Really? What the broad Christian tradition has understood as universalism* never appears in the book? Not only are many of Bell’s ideas lifted straight out of the 19th century universalistic tradition, but Marty also goes on to describe Bell’s project—correctly or incorrectly—as being based on “the firm conviction that Jesus is bigger than any one religion.” Marty continues, “He is the cosmic Christ who will not be co-opted or owned by any one culture.” A few lines later, once again representing Bell, Marty writes, “Christianity does not save. Islam and Judaism do not save. God saves.”

Let me offer two further examples. Because Jesus opens many of his parables with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Marty claims that Jesus speaks in the language of promise, not threat. Of course he fails to mention that many of these parables end with the threat of exclusion from this kingdom. In fact, the threat of eternal judgment comes from the mouth of Jesus more than anyone else in the New Testament.

Marty also quotes John 3:16, “God so loved the world…” emphasis on “world.”  According to Marty, “Had John been interested in shrinking the gospel or lessening the scope of the cross, he might have proposed that “God so loved only Christians.””

Hmmm. Did Marty not read the rest of the verse, let alone the following verses (or the preceding verse for that matter)? The Bible I have says “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say “that whoever believes in whatever god they have access to or feel good about.” It says, whoever believes in him, Jesus Christ.

The point of the text in its context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is that God loved people so much he was willing to “be lifted up,” that is, to die for them in order to reconcile them to God. All that is required, is belief in this truth. In fact, as verse 18 points out, those who believe will not be condemned but those who do not are “condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  Oh yes, those words come out of the mouth of Jesus.

What is curious to me is why Marty and others are so repulsed by the accusation of universalism*. If someone were to sit in my classes, they would come away with the clear idea that I am a Calvinist, not because I necessarily state that up front, but because anyone vaguely familiar with Calvin’s teachings would recognize that I am quite comfortable with much of what Calvin affirmed with regard to Christian doctrine. Calvinism may make me unpopular with some, but that is not ultimately my problem.

Likewise, the teachings that Marty affirms are clearly universalistic*. Yet, he wants to eschew the idea that he (or Bell) are universalists. My question is why. If you believe that the teachings you espouse are the correct way to understand Christian doctrine, and if those teachings fall clearly inside the boundaries of what the Christian tradition as a whole has identified as some form of universalism, why not just admit to being a universalist* and defend your position?

Even more curious to me is the tone of folks like Marty. For example, Marty is critical of believers who assert that Scripture teaches some (those who reject Christ) will suffer eternal separation from God. He suggests that making such a convicted claim amounts to spiritual immodesty. The only “modest” position is agnosticism on this matter. Yet Marty seems to know with at least as much conviction that Scripture teaches no such thing. So how does his conviction amount to spiritual modesty while the conviction of his opponents is not?

Beyond that, Marty is also convinced that those who walk through the door of his church who have been spiritually injured by these spiritually immodest “devout believers” will not be wounded by either him or those who populate his pews. Aside from the rather thinly veiled arrogance in such a portrayal, if he is wrong in his convictions it would seem that these folks will walk away just as spiritually injured by his teachings as they would walking away from those more devout folks he is quick to criticize.

All that is to say, that when you put together texts like the very ones Marty mentions with the general dealings of God with his people in the Old Testament, one gets a pretty clear picture of what God requires from those who are to be considered part of his kingdom. That being said, taking a further step down the path of “who’s in, who’s out” is unwarranted. Ultimately, the eternal destination of each human person is God’s decision and God’s alone. It is not up to us to speculate on the destiny of either Ghandi or Osama bin Laden.

But it is also irresponsible for Christians to suggest that what you believe and who you worship does not matter. In Scripture, God clearly tells us how to have abundant life in his presence now and in the age to come. To allow folks to think that we really don’t know anything at all about the way of reconciliation that God has offered is, as far as I can tell, the ultimate spiritual injury.

* While philosophers of religion have made distinctions between  “religious pluralism” and  “inclusivism” (positions that do not deny that some persons might be finally condemned to hell), and full “universalism” (a position that says no one will be in hell), most run-of-the-mill evangelicals, as well as a significant number of older systematic theologies, consider these two distinctions to be types of universalism. If Marty and others don’t like the label “universalist,” why not self-identify as “inclusivist” or “pluralist”?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Love and Rejection

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone about universalism, the idea that sooner or later, all people, even those who have rejected God, will be welcomed into God’s presence. So I started thinking, salvation in Christ is a gift from God. And its not just a gift from one person to another, a gift between beings of equal status or position. It is a gift to humans from the creator of the universe, the being that gives all humans life, breath, and everything else.

So imagine the president of the United States coming to the house of an illegal alien, let’s call her Joanne. The president knocks on the door and offers Joanne the gift of citizenship in the United States. He holds out the papers that confer this status on her.

What if Joanne chooses to slam the door in his face? What if she invites him in, then grabs the paper, throws it in the fireplace, and beats him up? Or maybe, as he holds out the gift, she shoves it back in his face shouting an expletive as she does so?

Now maybe the president thinks that this gift is so valuable, has the potential to make Joanne’s life so much better, that he chooses to stay and keep the offer open. How long should he wait? How long should he keep offering? Forever? Would he be unjust or unloving if he tells Joanne that she has 5 days to decide whether she wants to accept this gift or not? And what if while he is waiting, Joanne’s hostility toward him increases? What if she opens the door throughout those 5 days and cusses at him, and throws everything from garbage to rocks at him? Should he extend his offer? Is it possible that the longer he holds out the offer, the more hardened she becomes against his offer? Don’t we even know of people like this?

It is beyond my finite mind to comprehend what infinite love and infinite justice and infinite holiness really look like, let alone adequately describe them. But the biblical text suggests that there is a limit to God’s offer of fellowship with him, whether that is depicted in God’s relationship with his people in the Old Testament, or the warnings that Jesus himself gives to those who reject him in the New Testament. Love and justice are not mutually exclusive and they come together in some mysterious way in God’s embrace of those who accept his offer, and his exclusion of those who do not. And every biblical indication points to the notion that the optimum time to accept God’s offer is now; and the Bible also indicates that the ability to change one’s mind about that acceptance ends at death.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Crazy Faith

1 Kings 17:7-16 Elijah and the widow at Zarephath

This text was the lectionary reading for June 8, 2010. My notes from that day indicate that I was struck, as I read the story, by the widow’s faith. I have usually heard this story preached in terms of God’s provision or faithfulness. In fact, the theme of the responsorial psalm in the lectionary is God’s faithfulness to his people. While that may be a legitimate theme in the text, the widow was the focus of my attention.

Perhaps she stood out to me because she was a mother. Elijah finds her gathering sticks to make a fire for the last meal she will make for herself and her son. “I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it – and die” (v. 12). I have never been in those sorts of dire straits. I cannot even imagine the sort of poverty that knows that death by starvation is a reality. I can picture the images I have seen from war-torn countries, particularly in Africa; pictures of women holding dying children with bloated stomachs. Perhaps this is what it was like for the widow during the drought in Israel and the surrounding areas.

But then comes the most amazing part of the text. Elijah commands her to go ahead and make this last meal for herself and her son from the little bit of flour and oil she has left. But first, he says, “make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me.” After she has fed Elijah, she may make something for herself and her son. Elijah then promises her that if she does this, God has told him that “the jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD sends rain on the land” (v. 14). The crazy thing is, she goes and does what he says!!

Why would I think this is crazy? Call me a terminal skeptic, but I can envision myself, walking back to my hut thinking, ‘ok, so he says the flour and oil won’t run out, but how can I know that? If I make him the bread, even a little loaf, and he is wrong, I will not have enough left to make another loaf and my son will starve. And if I feed my son today, I may be able to beg for food, or find something somewhere for tomorrow. But if I feed this old man, I can’t even get through today. And who is this god of the Israelites? If he’s so powerful, why do we not have rain?’

Of course that is not what the widow does. She does exactly what Elijah commanded her to do, and the outcome is exactly what Elijah said it would be. Amazing! Which makes me wonder about my own faith, or the lack of faith. I wonder how often I hear God’s voice telling me to trust him, and I make my circumstances worse by trying to figure something out in what seems to me to be a more pragmatic way. I wonder how often I don’t even listen for his voice, but just soldier on, working out everything on my own, forgetting that the Creator of heaven and earth would love to help me out. If anything sounds crazy, that does.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


It’s interesting to me that in most Protestant circles, Mary the mother of Jesus gets very little attention. She may get mentioned around Christmas time, but the rest of the year she fades into the background.

During Holy Week, I am always drawn to Mary. Perhaps it is because I, like her, am a mother. All four gospel writers mention that women were present at the crucifixion. Three of the four mention that Mary was one of those women. Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that the women were some distance away. But John indicates that Mary was right there at the foot of the cross and that some of Jesus’ final words expressed love for his mother.

I can hardly even imagine what it must have been like for Mary that final week of his life. Did she see his interrogation before Pilate? Did she hear the whip as it cut into his back? Did she try to run to him as he groaned in agony when they hoisted the cross and dropped it into the hole with a sickening thud? When he said he was thirsty, did she long to give him a drink? As the soldier pierced the side of this child that she had raised and nurtured, did she remember the words of the old prophet when Jesus was just eight days old – “a sword will pierce your own soul too”?

Most likely, Mary saw him stumble as he carried the cross. Perhaps she covered her ears or even got physically ill as the soldiers pounded the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet.  She certainly heard the jeers of the crowd at Calvary, a crowd that only a week before had hailed him as the one who would save Israel. Maybe she even wondered if Jesus would, in fact, work another miracle, and come down from that cross.

I can also imagine that as Jesus murmured that familiar Jewish bedtime prayer, “into your hands I commit my spirit,” a prayer Mary undoubtedly taught Jesus when he was just a little boy, she completely fell apart. Flooded with memories of the little boy who laughed and played and hugged her and kissed her good-night, she could probably hardly believe this horror was happening. Perhaps like many of us who have suffered loss, she woke up the next morning hoping it was a dream, only to crash back into the wall of reality. She would never have Sabbath with her son again.

I think we tend to forget that although we know the end of the story, Mary did not. Unlike some of the disciples, Mary did not run away. She did what any good mother would do. She stayed with her son, suffering her own hellish agony while he suffered the curse of hell for her – and all of us. 

From the young girl who selflessly submitted her will to that of God, risking her reputation and her betrothal, to the mother wondering about the sanity of her son, to the agony of losing her son in a torturous death, Mary is an example of faith and obedience to God’s will. Protestants would do well to remember and reflect on that often neglected reality, and to consider what the cost of Mary’s life-long obedience might have to say to us today.