Good Friday

Good Friday

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fear, Racism, and EIT's

This has been a disheartening couple of months to be an American. In some ways, that is not all bad since many of us have a tendency to idealize our country to the point of idolatry. Nonetheless, there is a lingering sadness in my heart over recent events.

I chose not to weigh in with all the other bloggers on the events of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the problem of justice for people of color. My blog silence was not tacit approval. It simply reflected the fact that most of what needed to be said had been said and I really had nothing more to add. To any observant person, it has been quite clear for some time that our justice system is broken. I didn’t need Ferguson to remind me of that. All I need to do is observe the racial imbalance in conviction rates and prison populations. If any good comes out of Ferguson, it will be the re-opening of these sorts of conversations.

But then came the news from the Senate Intelligence Committee that after 911, the CIA was using “Enhanced Intelligence Techniques” in an effort to obtain intelligence on terrorism. Of course EIT, as those who have read the report affirm, is simply a euphemism for torture. Like John McCain, I would like to believe that America is above this. Clearly not. The fact that the question about whether the information gained was useful or not is irrelevant as far as I am concerned, although many have indicated that intelligence gained from torture is nearly always deeply flawed.

From a Christian perspective, I have been even more disturbed. Although with the racism issue I have seen movement and heard at least some voices, with the torture issue the church has stood silent.

We seem to be willing to speak up when a victim is a friend or acquaintance, or could have been. But when the victim is the frightening “other,” we seem to have much less to say. And here is the crux of the matter.

Fear.

With both racism and torture, we fear those who we perceive as a threat, whether the person is a threat or not. And fear breeds violence and hatred. The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love is, of course, the love of God, a love that should be reflected in all of those who are united to Christ in faith.


In a fallen world, a certain amount of caution is necessary. But to be pro-life, as I think all Christians should be, is to not fear those who, like us, are made in the image of God. Rather, it is to advocate for those whose inherent dignity and worth as human persons is threatened regardless of who those persons are.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Mall and Academic Conferences

A funny thing happened today. I went to the mall.
Now you may be wondering why that is funny or strange. My family would likely tell you that just my being at the mall is unusual. You see, shopping is not on my top ten list of things to do in my free time. I see it as more of a necessary evil than a recreational activity.

No the reason being at the mall today was strange is because for the past five days I have been at an academic conference for folks like me who are involved in studying theology and the Bible.

As I headed into Macy’s today, the juxtaposition of these two events gave me pause.

In the first place, the mall just seemed much more down to earth. It is full of the trappings of Christmas and all of the mundane things that try, as one old hymn puts it, to charm us most. It doesn’t take much thought to walk into the mall, or even to buy something. A few simple questions will do: Does it fit? Do I like it? Do I need it? Do I want it anyway? Is the price-point within my budget?

That about does it. My feet may get tired but my brain does not.

The academic conference, by contrast, takes quite a bit of thought. It’s hardly mundane although at times the questions being asked are fairly ridiculous, at least at first glance. And the answers, well, suffice it to say that several of the theses being proposed needed to be read several times to get at the core of what they were asserting.

But lest I leave you thinking that these two events are entirely unrelated, I should point out some similarities.

Both the mall and the conference feed on folks who are trying to be noticed, albeit for different reasons. People go to the mall to keep up with the latest trends and buy the latest products, be that shoes, some popular brand-name coat, or some other item vying for attention. Ultimately, this is about making sure that you – or your kids – are not wearing WalMart while everyone else is wearing North Face, unless of course WalMart is the in thing. It’s about pride and identity.


Likewise the conference is about keeping up with the latest trends in research and scholarship (clearly not fashion). It’s about vying for the attention of publishers and institutions in order to make sure that your ideas get noticed and therefore, you get noticed. It’s about pride and identity.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that both of these activities are more complex than these brief descriptions suggest. In fact, in some sense, both activities are about identifying with some particular community that one values. And the problem with both is that sometimes in the midst of the mundane or the not so mundane, our identity with our Ultimate Love gets lost.

One of the best parts of the conference was the Sunday worship service. It was a mid-course correction of sorts, reminding the Christians who participated that the danger of pride is always at our doorstep in the academe, that we are called not to be academic stars, but to serve.


I’m not sure what the mall equivalent might be – maybe a flash mob singing the Hallelujah Chorus?? – but somehow, somewhere, maybe on a Sunday morning, I hope we are all reminded that our identities do not lie in  the brand names we plaster on, but in how we use our resources to serve those around us, regardless of what those resources are.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Modern Eugenics

This past Sunday my husband and I were watching the show, 60 Minutes. The story that caught my attention was that of a young couple who had chosen in vitro fertilization not because they have fertility problems, but because they wanted to be able to select an embryo that did not have a particular gene.

It turns out that the woman being interviewed carries a breast cancer gene that can cause a particular aggressive form of breast cancer, a cancer she herself had been diagnosed with at age 27. Although she has recovered, she did not want her children to be faced with that prospect. “Breast cancer will stop with me,” she said.

While her concern is understandable, this practice raises, or should raise, numerous red flags.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am not particularly morally comfortable with in vitro fertilization in any case. But the use of this technology to select for or against particular deficiencies is even more fraught with moral and ethical questions than the general practice itself.

The report suggests that couples – only wealthy couples however, given the cost of the procedure – have the capacity to choose in vitro fertilization in order to design a child that might be more to their liking than whatever the normal means might yield. Are you an older mother who might be worried about Down’s Syndrome? Use in vitro and select only the embryo with a “healthy” genome. Family history of Tay Sach’s, Muscular Dystrophy, or Cystic Fibrosis? No problem.

The report noted that at some point in time, couples could use this technology to select for intelligence, hair color, eye color, physique, or any other characteristic. In fact, one researcher suggested that he predicts the best way forward is to completely disconnect human reproduction from the sex act to ensure the best outcome.

I am wondering how all of this is not simply modern eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

But I am also asking the rather obvious question about what this sort of selection says about persons who have these diseases. If an embryo is deemed disposable because of some genetic condition, what might that say about the relative worth and dignity of persons in our communities who have that condition?

From a Christian perspective, is it even true that this sort of selection actually improves humanity? What about the Christian claim of power made perfect in weakness, and the weak in our midst shaming the strong? What do we learn from weakness?

All of this generates a certain level of sadness in me.


But perhaps the greatest sadness I feel has even more to do with the sense that children are more and more becoming commodities to be selected and purchased, rather than gifts to be received with gratitude from the Giver of life, who does not make mistakes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Missional Prayer

Do you ever have one of those moments where you are reading along in a familiar text and suddenly you think, ‘hmmm, I’m not sure I thought much about this before’?

Well, I had one of those moments as I was reading 1 Kings 18 a few days ago. This text is the well-known story of the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. It’s a classic underdog story and one of my favorites. Elijah, the lone prophet of YHWH, is up against 400 prophets of Baal who just happen to be backed by King Ahab and his foreign queen and Baal high-priestess, Jezebel. It’s pretty clear that if Elijah loses this battle, he is in big trouble.

But it is Elijah, at the direction of YHWH, who initiated this. In essence, he challenged the Baal-followers to a duel. If they win, Baal will be acknowledged as God. But if Elijah wins, YHWH will be the God of Israel – which he is anyway, a fact Israel seems to have forgotten.

The bulls are brought. The prophets of Baal sacrifice their bull, place it on the altar. They proceed to pray, dance, shout, cut themselves with knives, and in general, make so much noise that the only way Baal couldn’t hear them is if he was otherwise occupied. Elijah says as much, even suggesting that perhaps Baal is in the bathroom.

Pretty gutsy.

After most of the day has passed and Baal, the god of lighting, has not yet lit the sacrifice with fire, Elijah calls the people of Israel to his side of the mountain. He quietly repairs the altar of YHWH, digs a trench around the altar, sacrifices the bull, lays it on the altar, and has the people pour enough water over the altar to soak the bull, the wood, and fill the trench.

Then Elijah stepped forward and prayed. No screaming.  No shouting. Just a simple prayer. And “the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.”

Now that is a consuming fire!

But the fire is not what caught my attention. It was Elijah’s prayer. In an age where we seemed focused on comfort, on what we want or think we need, all of which might be very good, Elijah’s prayer is quite different.

Elijah doesn’t pray, “O YHWH, save me from this situation.” I think we would all agree that a prayer like that would have been reasonable, given his circumstances. He also doesn’t pray “Please send fire and burn up this bull.” Also a reasonable thing to ask. He also doesn’t pray “Please strike down these false prophets who are leading Israel astray.” I think that might have been reasonable as well.

No, Elijah prays that God will make himself known. “Let it be known today,” Elijah prays, “that you are God in Israel.” Furthermore, the reason Elijah asks God to make himself known is “so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God.”


I wonder how often we think about the answers to our requests as missional. How often do we even pray with that in mind? I know that my own answer to that is ‘not often enough.’ And I wonder how God might work in us if our prayers were focused less on a particular situation, and more on God making himself known as we humbly submit to his will.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Self-Construction

In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson observes that Christian conservatives are finding themselves under increasing cultural stress. This stress is not only coming from outside, but also from inside, primarily from the millennials in their midst.

“Whatever else traditional religious views may entail,” he writes, “they involve a belief that existence comes pre-defined. Purpose is discovered, not exerted. And scripture and institutions – a community of believers extended back in time – are essential to that discovery.” He notes, correctly I think, that this is NOT the spirit of our age.

I might add that this is especially not the spirit of our age in North America. The prevalent North American conception of the self has more in common with Invictus – I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul – than the Christian notion that I am the purposeful creation of a loving God. The consequences of radical self-construction range from a self-promoting me-first attitude that undercuts any notion of community, to abject despair that one’s life is worth anything at all.

Unlike Gerson, I do not think that this mindset affects only the millennials. I think it affects all but perhaps the oldest members of our churches. In fact, I have a hunch that this attitude was caught by the millennials not so much from society, but from their parents, as Christian Smith suggests.

When I think about what it means to be the church in the 21st century, to be a missional church, I wonder whether part of our mission is to help people, maybe especially young people, realize that this pernicious cultural value of self-construction runs counter to everything the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches. In other words, your worth does not come from striving for success, changing styles or attitudes to fit the next cultural expectation of “cool,” or any other form of self-constructed meaning. These will eventually leave you empty and exhausted.

The Gospel teaches grace.

Your worth comes from the fact that God chose to make you, die for you, and save you from every impulse to self-construct. In fact, there is nothing you actually do to make yourself more acceptable to God, to construct yourself in a way that would render you worthy of his love. Rather than a promise of temporal goods that only add to your exhaustion, grace promises rest.


The only thing grace requires is open hands to receive this most precious of gifts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rural Opportunity

Our congregation is situated in downtown Grand Rapids. The theme for us this year is really a question: What does it mean to be a downtown church? I think it’s a great question and a great theme because it begs us to look beyond our walls to our context and consider how to engage and serve well in that particular context.

Part of that context includes the numerous homeless people, soup kitchens, and shelters that are within blocks of our church. These places are not an unusual feature of the downtown landscape. Most people
realize that urban areas must reckon with poverty and the issues that go along with it. Social justice movements frequently focus on urban areas and these sorts of issues. Likewise, young people and churches interested in social justice also tend to zero in on urban areas or, alternatively, third world countries.

Recently, National Geographic magazine ran an article on hunger in America. One of the “faces of hunger” the article mentions is the working and rural poor. The article notes that this group of people is not the “face” most people tend to think of.  It points out, “as the face of hunger has changed, so has its address.” About ten years ago, the government even replaced the word “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe these sorts of households.

Rural and suburban poverty are both similar to and different from urban poverty. Questions about access to health care, food, and transportation, for example, are often more easily addressed in an urban context.

So what does all this have to do with the church?

Everything.

Like many governmental agencies, many denominational agencies focus primarily on urban areas and offer help based on an urban model that it not well suited to the particular needs of rural America. My own denomination has many churches that are situated in suburban and rural areas where these problems tend to be overlooked because they are less visible.

So maybe the question my own church is asking is a question all of our churches should be asking. What does it mean to be a rural/suburban church? How might our rural/suburban church be particularly well situated to serve this newer face of hunger in America? What services can we provide to reach out in Christ’s love to those in need, a demographic that might be harder to identify in rural areas than in urban areas?


Its worth thinking about.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Significance

As I mentioned in my last blog, my husband and I recently returned from a vacation I have dreamed about taking for many years.

You see, I love the wilderness and the unspoiled beauty of God’s world that can be experienced in the wilderness and my husband has grown to love it as well.

So this year, we went back to the place I was born – Northern British Columbia. In fact, we went as far as the southern tip of Alaska.

We are accustomed to hiking in places where we may not see another human being for ½ hour or sometimes even more. But we are not used to driving in places as remote as this area of the North American continent. There were a number of days where we could drive for 20 minutes or even more
never having encountered another car, truck, or other sign of human life.

One of the things I was struck by as we drove and hiked and walked in this remote area, was the vastness of God’s creation. I’m pretty sure the bears outnumbered us. In this northern wilderness, my husband and I were not even dots on a map. Its easy to feel pretty insignificant in a place like that.

And then at night – I wish a picture could capture those nights – the sky filled with stars so bright and close and numerous, I could not help but proclaim in a way similar to the psalmist, ‘who am I that you are mindful of me?’

That sentiment is the central theme of Psalm 8.

Here is what the psalmist writes in verses 3-4:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
The son of man that you care for him?

In the parallel set of phrases of verse 4 the psalmist ponders why God cares for us.

Another way to translate the first reference to “man” is “weak creatures.” So we might just as well say, ‘Who are these “weak creatures,” these sons and daughters of Adam – that original, fallen human?’ Why should God single humans out from this vast creation which includes the angels in heaven? Why should he care for us? 

As John Calvin writes in his commentary on this Psalm, “God was under no necessity of choosing men who are but dust and clay.”

Curiously, the psalmist does not answer this question. He simply affirms that God is, in fact, mindful of us and cares for us. Or, slightly more literally, God remembers us and takes account of us.

Out of the whole creation, God remembers us. God remembers you.

You don’t have to be in the wilderness to feel insignificant. Sometimes we feel the most insignificant in a crowded room, or maybe even at church.

At those times, we should read Ps. 8 and remind ourselves that we are remembered. The God who formed the oceans, who pushed up the mountains, and made the vast array of plants, animals, and the stars in the sky has chosen to be mindful of us, of you and of me.

Calvin says we should be astonished, deeply affected and grateful at this miracle.

Indeed!

LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8)

Adapted from a chapel talk given at Calvin Theological Seminary, Aug. 19, 2014.


Monday, August 11, 2014

The Family of God



My husband and I just returned from what for me was the vacation of a lifetime. It was the vacation I had always hoped to take someday and someday finally came. I still feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and its not because of jet lag. This will likely not be the only post associated with this trip.

You see, we went to my birthplace, a little town in northern British Columbia called Houston and along the way, we spent some time in a number of Canadian national parks, and took a side trip to Alaska. My husband said I took him to the middle of nowhere and then went north. That's a fairly accurate description of the location of this little community. It is surrounded by pristine, unspoiled wilderness full of wildlife the likes of which we rarely see, even in U.S. national parks.

I have not been there since I was a child, and yet it was a home-going of sorts. The border agent told me I am Canadian despite my American passport. Fair enough. I was born in Canada.

My parents had asked me to call some friends of theirs in Houston, just to say hello. I did not call all of the people they asked me to but I did call one couple whose four year old son had been my father's first funeral as a young, inexperienced pastor. They invited us for dinner and welcomed us as if we were family telling us to send their love to my parents. She even sent us home with two jars of Huckleberry Apple Jelly!

We walked along the Bulkley River, just down the street from where my first home had been some fifty-plus years ago. I saw the home of our neighbor, whose children were good friends of my older brother and sister. I remembered on a trip back to the area with my parents, my brother and his friend Daniel built a raft out of big inner-tubes and plywood and went floating down the river. It was an adventure Huck Fin could have envied. And I wondered as we walked around if my sister loved the mountains so much because this place was where she lived and ran and played before she lost her sight.

We visited with a friend of mine who I met through a creation care committee we both served on. She and her husband took us on a tour of the backcountry better than anything we could have paid for in the various tourist destinations we stopped in later on our trip. And again, we were welcomed with open arms, as if we were family. They took the time to introduce us to their kids, and one of their siblings who happened to stop by. All seemed glad to have us in their home despite the fact that they had just gotten home from vacation themselves.

So maybe this really was a home-going. For my parents, who often felt called to serve in places that were far from family, the church became family. That was true for us as children as well. We rarely had grandparents or aunts or uncles close by, but we had our church. These people were, and I now realize still are, my family, brothers and sisters in Christ, the family of God. And isn't that at least in part what union with Christ is all about?






Tuesday, July 22, 2014

50 is the new......50

I seem to rather frequently read phrases like the following: x (some particular age) is the new y (some particular age that is at least 10 years younger than x). These statements never fail to humor me. In some cases – 40 is the new 20 – they seem to be thinly veiled rationalizations for continuing to behave like an adolescent long after one should have left that sort of behavior behind. In other cases – 50 is the new 30 – they seem to be simply delusional. In every case, it is not at all clear what might be meant.

Since I am in the 50-something category, I feel free to weigh in on the latter statement. At 30, I was in the midst of bearing children. I had two children already and, unbeknownst to me, would have one more before that part of life was over.

At 50, I would frankly be horrified if God approached me as he did Sarah of old and told me I was going to give birth to a child. While those years were wonderful and I look nostalgically and with a certain amount of envy at those who are at that stage, I would not be keen on trying to bear and raise a child at my age, with the relentless demands and sleepless nights that entails. One week with my 4 month old grandson back in April was enough to clue me in to the fact that I am not what I was at 30.

Yard work and house work are another area of dissonance with the statement. Last fall, my husband and I helped our son and his wife weed, rake, and generally clean up their yard. They are relatively new to owning a home and we thought it would be fun. It was fun! We spent a beautiful fall Saturday with them, talking and laughing and getting the job done.

Then came Sunday morning. We are both in good physical shape. Both of us work out regularly, are not overweight, and enjoy physical labor. But getting out of bed was a considerable challenge. I had no idea that sitting up would be like trying to fold a two-by-four in half. I felt like someone had starched my body and nothing short of a hoist attached to the ceiling would be able to get me upright. The activity that may have given me a sore muscle or two at 30, had left me needing to stretch for 15 minutes just to get moving at 50-something. I am not 30 any more.

And then there is my body. Don’t worry. I won’t go into too many details. But the sad truth is, that no matter how much I exercise and take care of myself, this body ain’t what it used to be. It has sags where there were none and dimples on areas where they don’t belong. I used to pluck the occasional stray eyebrow but now I occasionally find one of these on my chin! And then there are those annoying personal summers, you know, those times when it feels like someone turned the thermostat up to 120 but only you are the victim? If this is the new 30, I’ll take the old 30 thank you very much.

All of this light-hearted reflection is simply to reinforce the point that I am not some new version of 30. I am 50-something. Denying that reality by claiming that this is the “new 30” does nothing to change the facts. Despite all the changes and losses, however, two things have not changed. I am still me – Mary – and I am still a beloved child of God who is called to reflect his glory to the world every minute of every day of every year of life that he chooses to give me.


The road forward will be one of increasing decline in physical strength and ability, and perhaps also in mental ability. That is a fact of aging. But I know that God, “who created my inmost being,” will continue to be with me on this journey to old age, giving me the strength for each new day.  “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you.” Isaiah 46:4

Monday, June 23, 2014

Home





“Where are you from?”

For some of us, that is a loaded question. Quite often, I answer with the town I currently live in and then the next question comes: “Is that where you grew up?”

Nope.

The fact is, as a preacher’s kid, I grew up in several places. Most have good memories associated with them. One, perhaps because of the age I happened to be when we moved, not such pleasant memories. None are exactly what I would call home. Home has tended to be wherever my family was. I lack the sort of rootedness that my husband and my own children grew up with.

The funny thing is, there is one place that I never lived yet seems to feel the most like home to me. That place is south-central Iowa. This is the area where my parents grew up and where most of my extended family still lives. It is the place my parents always referred to as “home” on our many trips back there.

It is a place where I have always felt welcome. Always.

From the time I was a very small girl until just last week when I was in Pella, I have always felt like these people – my grandmas and grandpas, my aunts, uncles,  and cousins – are my people. They have known me my whole life. Not many others have. They are happy to see me and my family when we are able to drop by. In fact, they go out of their way to spend time with us, eat together, and talk together.

South-central Iowa is the place where I feel a connection beyond my immediate family. My people inhabit the various small towns around this area, teach in the schools, work in the factories and on the farms, and even rest in the graveyards, one of which offers a beautiful view of my grandfather’s farm. These connections becomes clear through the various casual conversations I had while I was in town.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Well, I never lived here but my family is from here…..’ And so the connections begin.

My roots are deep in rich Iowa farmland and I can feel that depth when I am here. And I love it.


Its funny, but I feel the same way when I walk into a Christian church. Maybe it is because church was the closest thing to an extended family that I had nearby while growing up. Or perhaps it is because the bloodline of Christ that connects us as Christians is richer and deeper than any physical connection, even the beautiful connection of a richly textured extended family in south central Iowa.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Remembering Those Who Served





A couple of weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend my husband and I spent a few days at our daughter's home in Virginia. She and her husband live in an area that has a population that is about 70% military or formerly military. In short, this is an interesting area to visit on a day that the U.S. remembers those who have served our country in this way.

One of the things we did that weekend was to take a boat tour of the Elizabeth River harbor. This is a giant harbor with numerous shipping yards and docks. We were fascinated learning about the industry and watching tugboats maneuver huge container ships in and out of the loading areas. The most fascinating area of the harbor however, is Naval Station Norfolk.

Naval Station Norfolk is the largest U.S. naval base in the world. It is home to more than 100,000 people. Our tour took us past numerous ships that were in port including four submarines that we likely would not have noticed had the guide not pointed them out. But my favorite ships by far were the two Nimitz Class aircraft carriers that were docked that weekend.

These ships are the size of small towns. They are propelled by two nuclear reactors, carry up to 6,000 crew members, and (if I am remembering correctly) ascend more than 12 stories out of the water. In fact, as we drive to our daughter's apartment we must cross the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. On our first visit to the area, we came through at night and thought what we saw were the lights of buildings but they were the lights of the ships. Our guide described these amazing ships as "97,000 tons of floating diplomacy." Indeed.

Of course even as I write what the guide said I know that some people will be offended for any number of reasons. Some might even think that a statement like that is anti-Christian noting that Christ's power was demonstrated in the weakness of the cross.

Fair enough.

But last Friday was the 70th anniversary of D-day, the beginning of the end of Hitler's reign of terror in Europe. My uncle, who passed away some years ago, was one of the men on the beach of Normandy 70 years ago.

As I read the stories of the few remaining survivors of that day, I was struck by their self-sacrifice. These people put their lives on the line to free the occupied countries of Europe, an action that also brought an end to the brutal imprisonment and slaughter of men, women, and children whom Hitler had deemed not worthy to live. And of course, in the stories of the survivors I also heard the stories of those who did not survive that day.

I have lived in a time of relative peace. I am apt to forget the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in Europe, and the hardships of those who remained home to support them. What I do know is that while someday we will beat our swords into plowshares, that day is not yet here and will not be until Christ comes again. So until that day, I am thankful for the 97,000 tons of floating diplomacy, and all those who have served and are serving in our armed forces so that freedom can continue to ring in the country I call home.






















Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Sister

Today is my sister’s birthday. She was born 59 years ago. She died 20 years ago. I have missed her.

As I reflect on her life and contemporary discussions about disabilities, so many questions come to my mind. You see, she was blind – not from birth, but from about age seven on. She had a brain abscess that nearly killed her and ultimately took most of her sight from her. She was completely blind in her right eye and had less than 10% of normal vision in her left eye.

Today even the word “disability” has come under scrutiny. Some of this is for good reason. Often those who are disabled have been sidelined by society for any number of reasons. Society (including the church) has, in fact, made judgments about what disabled people can or cannot do. The same was true for my sister.

She earned her bachelor’s degree and then went on to the University of Michigan and earned her M.S.W. But when she would apply for jobs, she often was passed over because “you really can’t do this work with your handicap.” In other words, she wasn’t even given a chance. That really ticked her off.

Nonetheless, she would never have suggested that her blindness was not a handicap of sorts, any more than my chronic asthma is not a disability of sorts; only that it should not be the first or only thing she should be judged by. In her day, she fought for equal access for those with disabilities, be that access to “talking books,” or ramps and elevators for buildings, or whatever. She wanted disabled people like herself to have as many opportunities as were possible to live into their vocation as independently possible.

The language has changed. Today, a word like handicap or disability must be used with caution. In sociological and theological circles there are those who suggest that they will have their disability in the new heavens and earth. This is puzzling to me and I think it would be puzzling to my sister.

Not only does this sort of thinking raise serious questions about the healing miracles of Jesus, it also raises questions about texts like Is. 35:5-6, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened.” We read this text at Judy’s funeral because we knew that she longed to see. Especially color. She could see deep blue a little. And she loved that color. I expect that she would have found little comfort knowing that someday, in the new heavens and earth, she would still not be able to see things like birds, colors, and mountains, but that the societal barriers to being blind would no longer be in place, one of the more prevalent arguments for continued disability that affirms a healing of sorts. I think she thought that there was more to ultimate healing than that, given the way she talked about it.


And I think she was right. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A New Experience of Easter

            


Easter Sunday is perhaps the most important day of the Christian year. While Easter could not happen apart from the incarnation, the work of Christ is not complete apart from Easter. As Paul wrote, “If Christ is not risen our faith is in vain.” No Easter, no church.

Personally, Easter is also my favorite day of the Christian year. Advent, Christmas,  Epiphany, and Lent – the other “big” seasons and days – are important of course. But these seasons tend to lead me to more contemplative practices and quiet reflection. In addition, Christmas has become so commercialized, that I find is difficult to focus on Christ with all the parties, presents, and other preparations of that season.

By contrast, Easter is pure joy. Our family has never allowed this most joyful of days to become infected with bunnies, baskets, and the like. The focus has always been Christ. That not only means less work for me, but also the blessing of triumphant celebration for the miracle of the resurrection. At Easter, the road of suffering has given way to jubilant victory over death. All the ways that sin has marred this world, as John Calvin says, have been defeated. The new creation has begun.

This Easter was different, in a good way. It was more joyful, more rich than any I have celebrated before. This year I saw Easter through the eyes of age. You see on January 5 my husband and I became grandparents. And this past Sunday, Easter Sunday, our first grandchild was baptized. This baptism also happened to be the birthday of our son, his father.

As our son and daughter-in-law presented their son for baptism the pastor asked them for his name. They stated his name and the pastor asked them a series of questions. “On behalf of the whole Church, do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” Each time they answered, as expected, “We do.”

And then the final question, “Will you nurture this child in Christ’s holy Church, that by your teaching and example he may be guided to accept God’s grace for himself, to profess his faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?” Once again, “We do.”

Suddenly it occurred to me, in a way that it had not before, that the promises of God made to our son at his baptism twenty-nine years ago were being affirmed in a rich new way before my very eyes. Our son had accepted God’s promises some years earlier through his profession of faith. But now another layer was being added. The covenant promises were being extended to the next generation. On this Easter Sunday we were witnessing the promise of new life in Christ being offered to our son’s child. This was resurrection multiplied.

I felt just a little like Simeon. I had witnessed God’s salvation. I have lived to see my children’s children. But more than that, I was witnessing God’s ongoing covenant faithfulness to his people, from generation, to generation…..

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Denial

“Peter followed at a distance.” Luke 22:54

This little line comes after the last supper, the betrayal by Judas, praying on the Mt. of Olives, the tussle in the garden with the soldiers, and finally the arrest. “Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance.”

Its not hard for me to imagine being Peter. I can be impulsive, like him. I can be stubborn, like him. I can be passionate, like him. And its not hard for me to imagine myself following….at a distance.

He’s not ready to give up yet. But he has no idea what is going on. He has invested three years of his life following this man. He loves Jesus. He really does. He was ready to fight for him. But Jesus said no. Swords are not the weapons of this kingdom. Perhaps Peter is waiting for Jesus to unleash the power of God on these people. But instead he sees Jesus mocked, beaten, and humiliated. So Peter does what he has been doing. He follows. But now at a distance.

We talk about doubting Thomas. Maybe here we have doubting Peter.

Maybe he thought he had been wrong.

Maybe he wondered if he had merely been caught up in the excitement of a new movement with a charismatic leader.

Maybe this worried that this whole thing had been a costly mistake.

I can almost feel Peter’s sense of loss. ‘How could I have been so dumb – again! I got caught up in this whole thing just like…..(some other time). When am I going to learn?
Confusion. Denial….denial! Jesus said I would deny him! Grief. Loss. Loss of my friend. Loss of the dream of a new kingdom. Loss of everything.’

Maybe part of Holy Week is remembering and confessing our own denials, our own doubts in the midst of our own losses. But unlike Peter that dark night so long ago, we can do this with the empty tomb in the background.

Even as we grieve our own doubts and denials that seem to come with great loss, we can remember what Peter did not yet know. Out of death – and only out of death – comes resurrection life.



Friday, March 21, 2014

Against All Hope

Romans 4:18 “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall you offspring be.””

Somehow, this is what it is all about.

When Abraham was 100 years old and his wife, Sarah, was well past menopause and no longer fertile, against all hope Abraham believed God would give them a son. And God did what he said he would do.

A week ago this morning we learned about the death of a young man, a friend of our son-in-law and daughter. He was 22 years old. He was a wonderful son and brother, a loyal friend to those who knew and loved him. He was too young to die.

Standing in front of the casket on Monday evening, seeing his lifeless body, my faith faltered, as it sometimes does. I wondered to myself whether everything I profess is true. After all, how incredible is it too believe not only that Justin still lives, but that this lifeless body will one day rise as well? It seems crazy to think this is true.

But it must have seemed equally crazy to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son. And their faith was not perfect. They faltered and wondered how this could be even to the extent of recruiting Hagar the maidservant to bear a son for them. But ultimately, Abraham did believe and it was credited to him as righteousness. And God fulfilled his promise and gave them a son, Isaac.

Part of the package of Christianity is believing that God’s promised future will come to pass. And since God has fulfilled his promises of unbelievable things in the past, including raising Jesus from the dead, he can be trusted to bring about the future he has promised.

“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

I look forward to that day in faith and hope.

In memory of Justin Zimmerman.


 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Weariness

Have you ever read a text that you have read a thousand times and suddenly heard it like it was brand new? That was my experience today. Isaiah 40 is both familiar to many people and one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. In particular, the end of that chapter where God reminds his people that even though they might grow weary, “He will not grow tired or weary.” (v. 28)

Lately, I have found myself weary. It’s not that I am tired, although I am. I feel weary – that internal heaviness that weighs one down like trying to walk with 50 pound weights strapped to both feet. I think most people feel weary at some point or other but I do wonder if those who serve the church in one way or another are prone to a particular sort of weariness.

For me, at least, that weariness is a combination of feeling like I just can’t do one more thing and guilt for not wanting to do whatever that one more thing is. It is a catch 22 of sorts. If I do it, I will likely not bring to the task an attitude that blesses those who are working with me. If I don’t do it, I will feel like I have let all sorts of people down, and maybe God too. And I feel like a whiner – to God, to those around me, etc. – and I don’t like whiners, they make me even more tired and I don’t want to be one.

It struck me that it is very easy to predicate of God what is true of me. I assume he gets tired of my complaints, maybe especially my complaints about his people and the work he has called me to do. It’s not a stretch for me to think that God gets annoyed with me and my whining just as I can get annoyed with other people and their whining.

Enter Isaiah.

God does not grow tired or weary with his people. His patience with my weakness  and weariness is infinite. His love for me will not grow thin. I grow tired but he does not. But the story is even better than that.

Not only does the “Creator of the ends of the earth” not grow tired or weary caring for his people, but he gives them strength! He gives strength to me when I can’t find any more strength. He gives the strength to soar.

And when I can’t soar, he gives me the strength to run.

And when he knows that I can’t even run any more, he gives me what I need to keep doing his work, even if it is only at the pace of walking.


Maybe my problem, is that I tend to forget where my strength is found.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Faith

Classically defined, faith includes both assent to some set of propositions and trust. While at times I have struggled with both aspects of faith, I think I have consistently struggled more with trust. But as I thought about it this morning, it seems that at the heart of distrust is pride or arrogance.

For example, when I don’t trust someone to do something I asked her to do, I stand around, looking over her shoulder, making sure she does it exactly the way I wanted her to do whatever the task is. In other words, I micromanage the situation not believing that she can accomplish the task just fine and not trusting that her way to accomplish this task might not only be just as good as mine, but better.

I have a friend who is generally convinced that if she is not involved in some project, be that coaching her kid’s sports team, sitting on some committee or other, or any number of other activities that touch her world, the task will be done poorly (‘poorly’ = ‘not the way she would do it’). And she wonders why she is so busy.

I think that lack of trust in God runs pretty much the same way. Ultimately, we think we are better at running our lives than God is. After all, if we ran our lives we would have prevented the various hurtful and difficult situations we have faced. In short, we can’t trust that God’s plan is the best plan. We want things our way. Submission to God’s plan means letting go of our own.

But ultimately, that is what we must do. The more we choose our own plan and resist God’s plan, the further we will be from the true joy we experience in communion with God. To be like Christ, our ultimate good, includes not only sharing in his glory, but sharing in his suffering, as Paul makes clear (e.g., Phil. 3:10; Rom. 8:17). The more we insist on our own way, the less like Christ we will be.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Passing the Peace

In the many traditions, passing the peace is an established element of worship. Despite my congregation’s attention to liturgy, this particular part of the liturgy is not yet something that has been included in our worship services.

I don’t know the actual background for this practice, but today’s gospel reading was from Matthew 5:21-24. Here Jesus is giving instruction about murder. It is one of the “antithesis” statements of Jesus. You know, those statements where Jesus says “you have heard it said…..but I say…” Generally, Jesus broadens the law he is dealing with in ways that can make nearly anyone uncomfortable.

In this particular antithesis, Jesus broadens the prohibition against murder to include anger against another person. Anger against a brother or sister leaves one “subject to judgment.”

Note that Jesus does not say “anger against a brother or sister for no good reason but if you have a good reason – e.g., that person has wronged you in some way – go ahead and be angry.” Nope. Jesus simply says anger against your brother or sister.

Just after explaining this prohibition Jesus says, “Therefore…” – which is always a word we should pay attention to – “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”

Part of worship is offering our gifts (praise, offerings, etc.) in response to God’s gift of salvation. It seems like Jesus is saying, if you are not reconciled to your brother or sister, get that taken care of first or your gift doesn’t mean much. Or another way to put it might be ‘don’t bring your gifts to me until you have taken the gift of reconciliation that I have offered to you, and offered that gift to your brother or sister.’

So what does passing the peace have to do with this? When we offer those around us the peace of Christ, we are giving them the gift Christ has given us – peace. And that is probably a good enough reason to do it.

But let me tell a story. Some years ago, I happened to be sitting near someone who had done a great wrong to a close family member who I loved very much. This wrong was fresh, only a week or so old. When asked to pass the peace, I turned around only to see this person. I didn’t want to offer him Christ’s peace. I wanted to slap him. What I found, however, was that as I looked him in the eye and reached out my hand to him and said, “the peace of Christ be with you,” something inside me started to melt.

I realized that whatever wrong he had done, he was no less deserving of Christ’s peace than I was. He was God’s child the same as me. And that little tiny gesture, allowed healing to begin in my heart.


When we offer someone the peace of Christ, we are offering them life. And isn’t that exactly the right thing to do in every worship service?