Tuesday, February 9, 2016

He Speaks the Drooping Heart to Cheer

a few days ago, a friend's ninety-four-year-old mother fell and broke her hip.  that same night at our church potluck dinner, we prayed for my friend's mother, a member of our congregation who is having surgery to remove a malignant tumor, and another member who had just had back surgery.  the leader prayed for healing for all these who were suffering, and i found myself uncomfortable with his prayer.  another member of our congregation passed away a couple of weeks ago after a protracted battle with cancer.  many among us had prayed that he would be cured, but i wasn't one of the many--not that i didn't want him to get well, but i don't believe that's how life works.

when we pray for healing for a specific person, what are we asking for?  are we saying that we believe that person won't recover unless we pray for his or her recovery?  what do we believe about the source of the injury or disease?  did "God" will it?  if so, why?  if God is all-knowing, doesn't God already know about the problem, and, if so, why would God need us to pray for intervention?  does God intervene in a person's life to affect a cure for a disease or injury that an all-powerful personal God could have prevented in the first place?

i simply can't believe in this sort of God anymore.  life just happens, and it has nothing to do with God.  God is not willing people to hurt so that God can teach them or their loved ones some lesson or to demonstrate God's power through a miraculous healing.  God doesn't cause people to die because God wants them to come home to heaven.  elderly folks fall and break bones.  people are afflicted with terrible diseases.  none of this is caused by the will of God.

so, what is God's role in our suffering?  my belief is that God is there suffering along with us.  deep in our core, we can know that we are not alone.  still, it's our job to deal with the suffering, to accept life on its own terms, to find solutions if there are solutions, and to admit that life is what it is with all its difficulties and pleasures.  it is wrong to ask a God who could have prevented the suffering in the first place to now fix what God allowed or, in the view of some, caused to happen.  what sort of a God is that?  the only answer is that such a god is cruel and vindictive, a god who pulls our strings like puppets in some divine play.

may we not ask God to solve our problems.  may we draw strength from knowing we are not alone, while using the resources we've been given to deal with whatever life throws at us and being grateful that we have those resources.  may we support one another as we muddle through.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I Planned Each Charted Course

a few days ago, one of our co-pastors announced his intention to resign as our minister.  his announcement came as a surprise, though in retrospect i can see he has been moving in this direction for awhile now.  about a year ago, he asked to have his work load with the church reduced so he could work part-time for a time management company with which he had become involved as a consumer of its products, and the church consented.  now the same company has offered him a full-time job that he is excited to accept.  his wife, our other co-pastor, will continue as our full-time minister if the church approves the arrangement; as co-pastors, their employment paid each a three-quarter's salary.

i will be sad to see the male member of the team leave his position with our church, though the savings in salary and benefits will help us financially, and he will continue to be active in the church as a layman.  he and i have our differences, but i love him as a person who is a child at heart in many ways.  he has managed to carry the joy of discovery and play into his adult life as few have, and he has a zest for life that is energizing.  now that both of their college-age children are no longer living at home, it will be easier for the wife to be our full-time pastor.  it will be a challenge for her to do what is essentially the job of one-and-a-half people, taking on her husband's duties while continuing with her own.  i suspect she will enjoy her work more and the church will function with greater efficiency because there won't be the constant negotiation of who is in charge of what, though the two of them worked together quite well.

i'm suspicious of the concept of "time management," and have never been one to keep a day planner.  i wonder if this whole idea of managing time is not a ploy to sell products--fancy calendars, self-help books, consulting services, and the like.  maybe for some, this approach is helpful, if one is overwhelmed by the responsibilities of life and unable to prioritize the tasks one faces and organize one's time to enable that which is most essential to get done.  that's never been a problem for me, so i don't understand how it is a problem for others.  our soon-to-be former co-pastor believes that he has discovered a method that has improved his life and feels that his new job will allow him to help others in the same way.  i wish him well in his new pursuit, but i won't be using his company's services.

may we all find adventure in living, realizing that each moment is precious and fleeting, never to return again.  may we make wise decisions along the path, seeking new ways of serving others and having the courage to follow our dreams.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Land of the Free?

in our house, we don't watch network television very much and are thereby spared most of the political advertising that appears there.  we watch a little local news and wheel of fortune in the late afternoon/early evening some and that's about it.  recently there was a governor's election in a neighboring state from which all of our local channels are broadcast and even in the brief network tv we watched, we were inundated with political advertisements and had to steel ourselves for them each time we turned on the television.

so far, we haven't seen any political ads for the upcoming presidential primaries, and we've refused to watch any of the debates.  maybe we are wrong to have already made up our minds about our candidate of choice without listening to what the other candidates have to say beyond what we hear and read in news reports, but i'm not sure we learn much from listening to them speak for themselves.  often we hear them say what they think we want to hear, making promises they believe will get them elected.

some of them are downright scary, using those who have come to our country to escape crushing poverty and oppression to elicit hateful responses from those who see anyone whose skin color or language is different as some "other" who is to be feared or making impossible commitments to strong-arm the country to a rebirth into a fascist state on the order of mussolini's italy.  those who follow these fearmongers have chafed during president obama's eight years in office, wanting nothing more than to see him fail or to remove him from office.  the embodiment of their fears in several of the current contenders for the republican nomination has emboldened them to say out loud what they've thought for many years, and we are seeing the dark underside of our body politic.

this is possibly the most important election of my lifetime.  the new president will have the opportunity to change the supreme court, either continuing its division between conservatives and liberals or creating a court where the extreme right holds sway.  we've already seen the damage that has been done by the citizen's united decision as big money has been allowed to move us toward an oligarchy, allowing elections to be bought by those who contribute the most to political campaigns.  we've seen the voting rights act decimated by the court, and every year we wonder if the court will do away with any semblance of protecting the voting power of minorities or will further erode the roe versus wade ruling.

if both houses of congress are controlled by republicans with a republican president, the country will move far to the right.  much of the social safety net will be undone, radical changes in health care and social security will be enacted, and we will live in a very different country that the one in which we now live.  immigrants, the poor, women, and people of color will have their lives made much more difficult.  the wealthiest among us will enrich themselves further at the expense of the rest of us.  it is a possibility that makes me shudder.

may we in the usa chose a future that allows everyone to prosper and to live in a country that honors and promotes diversity.  may we vote for those who will govern with compassion.  may we exercise our right to vote rather than allowing bigots and extremists to prevail.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sweet Hour of Prayer

these days, i find myself thinking along the same lines as this post and this one about the efficacy of intercessory prayer and God's action in the world.  it's interesting that these topics seem to be on the my mind and that of several writers i enjoy at the same time.  when one considers human responsibility versus divine intervention, i find it difficult to believe that God is busily ordering events in our lives, creating little reminders to remind us of God's love and care for us.  we often attribute good things that happen to us as signals of God's presence.  for instance in one of the blog posts i linked above, a couple who lost their home in a fire finds a bible that survived the fire with the bible open to the page that contains john 3:16.  they interpret this to be a "sign" from God of God's love, believing that God placed that bible there for them to find.  they don't ask why God didn't extinguish the fire before it had caused so much suffering for them, if God can leave a bible for them open to a certain page in the middle of the remains of a destructive fire.  when this sort of question is raised, most who believe in this sort of god would say that we cannot understand the workings of the mind of God or that God sends suffering for a good reason or some such silliness.

i often hear other christians talk about God answering their prayers when something good happens in their lives.  "last week i couldn't find my wedding ring.  i turned the house upside down looking for it to no avail.  finally i turned to God in prayer, asking God to show me where i left my ring.  fifteen minutes later, there it was right on the kitchen counter where i left it.  God is so good!"  this is the sort of thing which makes me want to scream that God could care less about where you left your ring; it's your responsibility to keep up with your stuff, and, if you found it after asking for God's help, it's because the idea that God would help you triggered a subconscious memory that led you to the ring or it was simply a coincidence that the ring turned up after you prayed about it.

God gave us minds and the abundance of creation, all that we need to find our way through this brief life.  isn't it enough to be grateful for these gifts and to use them to solve the problems which confront us?  we don't need God to solve our problems, because we already have the resources to do that.  i can't believe that God is busily creating circumstances to prove to us that God exists or to prove that God cares for us.  I can't believe that an all-knowing God waits for our prayers asking for God's favors before responding.  if God cures the disease that afflicts us or a loved one after we pray for such a cure, why did we or that person have the disease in the first place or, if God is all-knowing and involved in every circumstance of every life, why didn't God cure the disease before we asked?  why would our personal intercession be necessary to move God to act to alleviate suffering?

life happens, large and small "miracles" occur, not because God causes them, but because that's the way life is.  sometimes things work out the way we want, sometimes they don't.  we rejoice in the good and do the best we can to solve the problems life hands us, and God rejoices and suffers along with us.  we aren't alone, but God is no santa in the sky giving us all we ask if only we have the right kind of faith.  if God is the creator of all that is, God doesn't need to leave open bibles laying around to remind us of God's greatness.

may we take responsibility for our own lives, neither giving credit to nor cursing God for what happens.  may we use the resources we have to deal with what life hands us.  may we live in gratitude for the gifts of our minds and the universe, honoring the interconnectedness of all things.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Which Is More Important: the Question or the Answer?

a few days ago, i answered our front doorbell to find three young women there.  the one who appeared the oldest of the three carried a white three-ring binder.  she told me they were from a local church and were doing a survey in our neighborhood.  she asked if she could ask me five questions.  i was wary of her, not wanting to get involved in a long discussion about religion with someone who might want to convince me of the "truth" of her beliefs and the falsity of my own, but i agreed when she assured me the survey would take just a few moments.

her five questions were: (1) do you think of yourself as a spiritual person?, (2) do you identify yourself as a member of a certain religion?, (3) who do you think jesus was?, (4) do you believe in heaven and/or hell?, and (5) do you believe in the bible?  i gave five short answers which she recorded in her binder: (1) yes, (2) as a christian, (3) a great teacher, (4) no, neither one, and (5) yes.  following my answer to question four, she asked, "then, what do you happens after you die?" to which i responded, "i don't know."  i didn't point out that she had exceeded her promised number of questions by asking a follow-up to question four.  after thanking me for answering her questions, she left with a puzzled expression on her face, the two younger women trailing behind her.  i wonder now if i'll get a visit from someone else from her church to follow up on my answers.

what troubles me most about the experience was the lack of opportunity to elaborate on my answers, even though i didn't want to have a religious debate at my front door right just then.  maybe her church was simply taking a survey to gauge the beliefs of people in our town, but i doubt it.  i was relieved that i wasn't asked about my own church affiliation, because i wouldn't want any assumptions about others based on my own answers.

the two responses that i wished i could have said more about were my beliefs about jesus and about the bible.  i wanted to say, "i don't believe in jesus as the savior of the world, as God made flesh, as an atoning sacrifice for my or anyone's sins, and i don't quite know what to make of him except that his teachings compel me to follow him," and "i believe in the bible as a book that records beliefs about God and humankind over many years, not as divine truth dictated by God to scribes who wrote down what they were told to write; i believe in the bible as a book full of contradictions that can't be reconciled, a book that has value but that is not the revealed truth about or from God."

i'm making assumptions about the motives of the women who came to my door that i don't have enough evidence to make.  maybe they are not evangelicals who have reduced the answers to complex questions about humankind and the existence of a deity to a few simple statements of belief that they hold to be absolute truth.  maybe they wanted to elicit brief, unambiguous answers as a courtesy to those being surveyed.  maybe i should have tried to engage them in conversation at some length in order to clarify my responses so they would have a fuller picture of my beliefs.  i hope i don't find out more about them or their reasons for stopping by my house, and i hope they found me to be a courteous, if puzzling, person.

may we never succumb to easy answers.  may we never stop asking questions, even if we don't have answers.  may we make kindness our religion and allow all else to flow from that.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jesus Loves the LIttle Children, All the Children

many of those who read my blog are not residents of the usa, and i want to write about a topic that has been much in the news, as much to clarify my point-of-view as to discuss an unfortunate aspect of life in this country for those who may not have spent any or much time here.  we read about the controversy about the "black lives matter" movement with some insisting that a better approach would be "all lives matter."  the most obvious problem with "all lives matter" is that it diminishes the significance of the repeated killing of black people in our country.

there is a more deep-seated problem that that, though.  no white person in the usa can fully understand what it is to live as a black person in this society.  we know that blacks are more likely to be stopped and questioned by law enforcement, black students are more likely to be disciplined in school, blacks are more likely to be imprisoned.  this is not because of any deficiency in black culture.  rather, it is because of an underlying deficiency in american culture.

two things are going on.  first, the dominant white culture is suspicious of, and fearful of, black americans.  most whites know few blacks except in the most superficial ways and have spent little to no time interacting with black americans.  second, many white americans are reacting to the change in demographics in the usa.  very soon, non-whites will be the majority.  with that shift, white america is likely to lose its grip on the power structure.  that is a scary thing for many.  this is one reason donald trump and his ilk have attracted such a large following and we hear things from the evangelical right about president obama:  "obama is a dictator that has little regard for the constitution" or "obama is a secret muslim" or "obama is recruiting a private army to take over the country" or "soon train cars filled with christians will be shipped off to concentration camps."  this list could go on and on.  it is disturbing that too many americans are certain that the usa is doomed because we've elected a black president, and this fear-mongering is a symptom of the deep-seated racism in our culture.

think of how disturbing it would be if you had to send your child to a school where most of the teachers and administrators have little understanding of the culture in which your child developed.  in those schools, there are policemen who can arrest your child over a misunderstanding between that child and a white child or a white teacher, a misunderstanding that grows from differences in culture.  your child could be sent to jail because of cultural ignorance.  this is the fear that most black parents must deal with every day.

think of how disturbing it would be if you had to look over your shoulder every time you walk the streets of many american towns and cities or fear being pulled over by law enforcement as you drive your car since you may be stopped simply because the color of your skin causes a white policeman to suspect you.  maybe you're in the "wrong" neighborhood, (a "white-only" neighborhood), maybe you run when you see a policeman approach (because you've had bad outcomes when confronted with the police before), maybe your driving was not what the policeman wanted to see (you flashed your lights because the oncoming police car had its high beams on or you changed lanes without signaling because you thought the fast-approaching police car needed to get around you quickly).  these are the daily fears that african-americans live with in the usa.

the day is not long past when black americans were routinely beaten or worse for not showing the proper deference to a white person, when black men were viewed as potential rapists or thieves, when black women were thought only to be qualified to do menial work in a white person's home.  when a black middle class began to develop in this country after the civil war, the fearful white majority enacted laws that "kept blacks in their place," forcing them to ride in the back of the bus, drink from separate water fountains, live in restricted areas, attend inferior separate schools.  against this history, it is little wonder that the black-lives-matter movement has arisen, that african americans are saying that no person should live in fear in what purports to be "the land of the free."

it is time to end this oppression of people of color in our country, to admit that the rule of the usa by white america needs to end.  we must respect african-american culture and admit that it is a culture that we've chosen to ignore and demean.  it is time that black children should not have to be afraid of being misunderstood when they go to school, that black adults should not be afraid of being harassed or worse in encounters with police or white vigilantes.  it is time for all americans to live up to the ideals we talk about, to confess that there is no "liberty and justice for all" until each one of us is seen with color blind eyes.

may no person have to live in fear.  may we see that under our skin we are all the same.  may compassion triumph over prejudice and fear.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

There Is Room in My Heart for Thee

a few days ago, i read a post by james ford on his blog, monkey mind, that contrasts the "christmas jesus" with the "easter jesus."  i, too, have been troubled by these two images of jesus and wrote about them around easter of last year.  each christmas i am caught up in the magic of the season--the lights, the greenery, the benevolent and jolly elf who brings gifts to all the world's children, the constant reminders of our longing for peace and good will.  while we decry the commercialism of christmas, that doesn't bother me, because i love nothing more than looking for presents for those i hold dear.  i look forward to giving my end-of-year gifts to charities i find doing good works that are beyond my capacity to perform--enabling those with little to improve their lots, providing clean water where none would be available otherwise, broadcasting news that is fair and impartial and music that is lovely, promoting peace in far places, enabling youngsters in impoverished areas to get an education.

in short, i love christmas in a way i can never love easter.  christmas is about those things that are important.  it is not about triumph.  it's strains are not martial anthems full of words like "victory" or "conquer," but rather about humble people in humble places, in mangers and fields.  even when we sing "we three kings of orient are," the sense of the text is about the mystery of following a star to a lowly manger, not about the pomp of the "kings" themselves.  the only christmas image i find disturbing is that of ascribing kingship to the baby whose birth christmas celebrates.  i suppose that is why one of my favorite christmas hymns is "thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown," even though its last stanza speaks of "[jesus] coming to victory."  the refrain is what endears the song to me ("o come to my heart, lord jesus, there is room in my heart for thee) as it links the inability of mary and joseph to find sanctuary in bethlehem with making a space for what jesus represents in our hearts.

the christian winter celebration with all its non-christian overtones, is a uniting of all the longings of humankind through the ages, sharing so much with many ancient traditions that have nothing to do with the birth of a baby in bethlehem.  it is a symbol of our belief that light will overcome darkness, that the earth will be renewed, that kindness and generosity are better than selfishness and greed, that the meek will inherit the earth.

may this season bring you joy.  may each of us find peace and comfort in doing good for one another.  shalom.