Friday, April 29, 2011

Sounds of Silence

"Many people say, ‘Who will show us better times?’ Let the smile on your face shine on us, Lord." – Psalm 4

There is an old saying, “Give peace a chance.” To that I say, Amen!

Every now and again I like to get out and about for some peace and quiet. I am not a noise hound. While driving, I don’t listen to radio; while walking I don’t have my music player streaming audio through a headset; while working around the house, I don’t have the telly going in the background. I just like things to be still.

Maybe there is a better word to use than “silence,” because while I do like to be free to think without the constant blather of talking heads, shrill shrieks of advertisers’ promises, and the nerve-jangling assortment of all that passes for music these days, it isn’t exactly silence for which I yearn, but peace.

For instance, there’s a peace in the woods near where we live; it’s a “living” sort of silence. The wind rustles through the trees; the birds sing and squawk their merry melodies; the staccato tapping of local peckers echo all around; rabbits shuffle in and out of the brambles, their sentinel ears twitching and turning to sounds unknown and unheard by this presbycutic* visitor. The woods are alive with nature’s unique, unlimited, and unending symphony.

I don’t know if we appreciate what silence can bring to the party we call life. We are so used to having our space invaded by ring-tones, seasonal music piped over-head as we shop the malls or ride the elevators. Increasingly, we shut out those intrusive sounds with our own world of personalized noise, but at what cost?

For myself, I yearn for time and space in which all is still. Just in the time I’ve tapped out these few paragraphs, my computer and cell-phone have simultaneously alerted me to a half dozen e-mails received; neighbor dogs have barked their warnings to passers-by; an ambulance has made an emergency run with siren blaring; cars and trucks have been rushing to and fro; and military transports and other planes have rumbled overhead on a variety of missions.

I’m not complaining, mind you. That’s simply the world we live in. There’s not much we can do about it – at least not casually – but there are things we can do to improve the environment in which we live.

The first thing we can do is to carve out space in each day where we get away from the many distractions that assault us. While we are accustomed to carrying our cell phones with us wherever we go, there are times we are required to silence them – in court, for instance, or in meetings, or at church. If you want to spend time alone with God, doesn’t it make sense to silence your phone (or turn it off completely)? That is one noisemaker over which you have complete control. Be bold; silence the phone, for your time is sacred.

Secondly, find a place where your connection with God makes the most sense to you. You can spend time with God in the park, library, or church. You can enjoy his presence at the local coffee shop or in the garden. If you look for God, chances are that God will find you! So find your “sacred space” and use it faithfully.

Thirdly, trust the silence that you hear. So often, we fill our world with sound so that we won’t have to face the world of our thoughts. Sad memories; the grief we have suffered; and the grief we have visited on others; all these conspire to separate us from the love of God and neighbor, but more especially they separate us from love and acceptance of who we are – with strengths and failings alike.

These memories return to us time and again because we have not made peace with them. We push them down, hoping against hope that they will go away, but they won’t. They must be uncovered and turned over to God – completely and with no strings attached. We have no secrets from God, only regrets; so give yourself to God, who makes you pure to receive his peace – his face truly smiling upon you in this, our world.

*Presbycusis = loss of hearing due to aging

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Mandate

Picture copied from

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another" – Jesus of Nazareth

It seems that “love” ought to be automatically understood and practiced by everyone.

Is there anyone who doesn’t want to love or to be loved? Is there anyone who would rather be hurt than healed, or who would rather be abandoned than embraced?

Why do we need a rule or commandment that says, “Thou shalt love”? It seems that such a command should be unnecessary and unneeded; that we should be geared to love, care, and empathize with one another; and yet so often such is not the case.

We are a competitive species. We want to keep what is ours and we crave what others have. Even in the midst of the mundane, we throttle up to stay ahead of those who share the road – our road – with us.

At the grocer’s, we hold our carts in mid-aisle so we can shop both sides for our own convenience. Why? Because, “I’ll just be a moment.”

We rationalize our actions because it is far easier to explain away what we are doing than to admit we are being stupid, lazy, or selfish; or perhaps we’re ashamed that we’re not number one, that we never have been and never will be.

Shame invites us to pitch our tents in the Campgrounds of insanity, where we can drop hook-less lines into the pond of Despond and despair of ever catching anything of substance.

If you are caught in this cycle of insanity, is there anything you can do to stop it? Is there any way to get off this crazy merry-go-round; to find peace, happiness, and just enough joy in life in which to be truly free?

God must think so; otherwise he would be insane to issue commands – especially this command to “LOVE.”

But command love he does. If you want to learn to love, you must do as God does. It is not enough to have the idea of love in mind; it must be converted into action – just like faith. “Be not hearers of the word only, but doers of the word as well,” says the Bible.

So, what do we do? We do as Jesus did; strive for genuine humility.

The hazard, of course, is that in not being number one we may well become someone else’s door mat. It doesn’t feel good when someone walks all over you.

It feels equally terrible being humiliated, being forced to beg for help while those with the capacity to assist stand idly by, ignoring those pleas.

But I understand where they are coming from; the first step for true humility is to stand in the shoes of the other person – to see the world from inside their skin.

Sometime back my wife and I were returning to the car following one of our daily walks through the local wetlands. I got into the car and detected a horrible stench, having apparently stepped in something gooey and unpleasant.

When we got home, I hosed off my shoes as best I could and tossed them into the washer, using the hottest water we had, but to no avail. See, I had tromped on a slug, and slug-slime (apparently) just doesn’t come off. I didn’t want to throw the shoes out, for they were quite nice, but I was at a loss for what more to do.

While I pondered my options, our daughter Jennifer took the offending shoe and grabbed an old work-knife and assorted tools, and began scraping out the gastropod bit by bit. She did for me what I was not wanting (or willing) to do for myself.

I like to think I have done many nice things for people in my life (including Jen), but I also know myself well enough to admit I would more likely than not have said, “You stepped in it, you deal with it.”

That’s law, but what Jennifer did was pure grace.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” is a command to practice grace in life. Yes, we’ve all “stepped in it,” but God has dealt with it; therefore, be kind to one another in this, our valley. We really don’t have to slug it out any more; just love one another – and watch where you step.

Happy Easter, folks!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Beginnings

"Though no-one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start now and make a brand-new beginning." – Unknown

I doubt if there is anyone who would examine his or her life and figure it has turned out perfectly well. No one can go through life without picking up an occasional regret here and there for things said or unsaid; done or undone.

We all make our choices on the fly, and in reviewing many of those decisions, it would be easy to second-guess ourselves, grieving over mistakes, chastising ourselves for things that, ultimately, do little more than confirm what we ought to know instinctively: that we are human.

Yes, sometimes we are dunderheads, but that’s not a bad thing. We do not have infinite wisdom, knowledge, or grace. Those are things we have to learn. It takes time; it takes patience; it takes reflection; and it takes the love of a community.

Strangers do not care whether or not you and I learn anything in life. They do not care whether we live or die. They do not care whether or not we have jobs, homes, food, friends, family, or the basic necessities of life.

Strangers do not care if one is hungry, lonely, in pain, or in desperate straits. Strangers care only for what is on their hearts and minds at any given moment.

But communities care; true communities care.

God did not make us for estrangement, but for community. The human heart yearns for a home.

From the moment she is born, a child yearns to be held, embraced, fed, and cared for. Children who are emotionally strong are those who have known the loving embrace of parents – the most basic community – parents who have said in word and deed: You belong.

Too few of us know that kind of love. Too many people go through life having to prove themselves over and over again. One’s value in our Free-market society, is evaluated almost exclusively on one’s ability to meet someone else’s need, or to advance the other person’s agenda. As soon as your stock drops a point, you are at risk of becoming persona non grata – an unwelcomed liability and, ultimately, an apple bobbing alone and out of season in the washtub of life.

Sadly, that is the world we live in. Doubly sad is the fact that so many of us buy into that nonsense. We judge as we have been judged. Out of a fear of being rejected or tossed out with the bathwater, we devote our lives to the construction of barriers, content to live behind a fa├žade of civility; and why not? Who wants to be hurt over and over again?

Spiritual growth demands that we take risks, however. As narcissistic as our world is, we must learn to break free of toxic isolation and build fellowships that are genuine in their design to be whole and healthy. We must learn to overcome the shame that binds us and blinds us, and to embrace the One whose love is boundless, and who loves each and every one of us without reservation.

How do we do that? First, we must come to accept that God loves us unconditionally. God does not love us for what we bring to the table; God loves us for being his children. God loves us for being AT the table, not for what we bring TO it.

Secondly, we must come to love ourselves – not with an ego-centric, self-centered love, but a love that acknowledges our human capacity to be stupid, selfish, and unforgiving at times, but equally, our ability to rise above such “stinkin’ thinkin’” for the sake of the greater good.

We must be able to look back at life to see where we’ve been, but more importantly we must be able to look forward and see the world as it can be; for nothing is impossible with God. It just takes time, patience, and a willingness to exchange your reality with God’s reality.

Looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t start sooner, but I can’t wallow in the regrets.

Though no-one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start now and make a brand-new beginning.

We simply need to accept ourselves the way God knows we can be in this, our world.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Elements in Evil

A reader writes, asking: Can you tell me if the devil is real; and is it true that if you believe in God the Father, you have to believe in the other one?

If I were a politician, I would provide a very vague response. To paraphrase the judge (Miracle on 34th Street), Opinions vary, and arguments either way can be made, and so I will keep an open mind on this matter.

I don’t need to pussy-foot, however. I will offer my perspective on the place of evil in the world: it exists.

I believe there’s evil in the world because I see evidence of it in history, in current events, and in our own families and neighborhoods. Bad things happen, such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

The ancient Greeks gave Poseidon credit for the destruction and wondered what they did to deserve it. People often make irrational connections between random acts of nature and things they’ve done. They look for ways to appease the gods, making sacrifices; or going on witch-hunts, looking for people to blame and kill for their troubles.

Scientists describe what happens in terms of seismic shifts, plate tectonics, and the forces of nature; but poets and theologians describe the same events using very different language – utilizing words that evoke powerful feelings and emotions; words that allow us to enter into the pain and sorrow of those who have suffered (and are suffering) great loss.

We say “evil has befallen Japan,” not because nature is evil, but because bad things have happened. Nature isn’t evil; it’s neutral. The Bible reminds us, “Rain falls alike on the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous.”

In theology, the study of things pertaining to God, we use a kind of language we call “metaphor.” The name Satan, for instance, means “adversary.”

When Simon confessed Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus named him Peter – the Rock; the Solid one. Jesus didn’t turn him into stone; he simply gave him a new name, a nickname, a term of endearment: Rocky!

Moments later Peter told Jesus NOT to go to Jerusalem to die (a reasonable suggestion, if you ask me). Jesus responded, “Get behind me Satan, for you’re looking at it all wrong, and not the way God sees it.” Jesus didn’t mean that some fellow with red tights, pointy tail and horns had invaded Peter’s body or soul. He was simply saying, “Back off; you’ve gone from Ally to Adversary.”

The question for me isn’t whether or not there is a personal devil or anti-god named Satan (or Lucifer) running around the cosmos making trouble for God or the world. The critical point is: There is evil in the world; bad things happen in nature; people do bad things to one another; and I sometimes do things I shouldn’t (and fail to do things I should); so what can I do about it? What is my job, when it comes to evil?

What I know is that if I put the blame for bad things on someone else, I risk not taking responsibility for making things better. I am very good at fixing blame, but I think God would have me work at fixing problems and finding solutions.

World starvation is a terrible thing, and I certainly can’t feed the world – not on my income. But I can support organizations that feed the hungry; that build wells and develop farms; that teach people how to organize and work together for the common good.

The devastation of natural disasters is a terrible thing, and I certainly can’t fly over to Japan and remove all the debris – not with my bad back and all. But I can certainly contribute to organizations that provide emergency aid and pastoral care.

Maybe there is a devil and maybe there isn’t; does it really matter? What matters most is what I am doing (and what we are doing) to comfort the afflicted. What matters most is facing evil when we see it and asking what we are doing to change it, fix it, or improve things so that those bad things don’t continue to haunt us or bedevil us.

Our task is to be good and to do good. The devil’s in the details – lets tend to those in this, our valley, and let God tend to Satan.

Friday, April 1, 2011

God Knocks, Reflects, Reveals

"Growth is the only evidence of life." – John Henry Newman

Growth; what an ironic topic. I looked at myself in the mirror this morning and, indeed, I found signs of life. Ugh!

It is ironic because my goal these past few years has been to do anything BUT grow. I have been striving to reduce, and while I was successful for a while, I hit a wall I’ve not been able to break through – yet.

The key word, for me, is “yet.”

Being an impatient sort of person, I prefer life in the here and now. I don’t want to wait; I don’t want to be patient; I (especially) don’t want to work particularly hard to achieve my goals and objectives. I definitely want progress, but I want it to be painless.

However, if there is one thing life teaches us, it is that there is no short-cut to success. Oh sure, one may be able to cut corners here and there for a while and get away with it, but at some point the law of averages catches up and the corners we cut will cost us dearly.

During this season of Lent, I’ve returned to the Bible’s book of Revelation. At the risk of oversimplifying a text that has baffled the brightest and best for centuries, I think it’s safe to say there are at least four things worth pointing out, followed by a warning:

First, God is sovereign and ever-present. Consider for a moment what that means. In our world, power is defined by remoteness. People in power separate themselves from those “below” them. The more people you have to go through to gain an audience, the more powerful the potentate.

But God’s power is different: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” God doesn’t simply sit on a throne directing the affairs of the universe; God comes a-calling. God is so big he chooses to spend time with YOU. Wow!

The second thing I see in the Book of Revelation is that God is the source of all hope. We may feel helpless and hopeless in the face of the many challenges and circumstances that befall us in life, but God does not dither about what to do or abandon us. Whether we see God at work or not is immaterial; God is at work, building his kingdom and restoring his universe. We are “shovel-ready” projects already bought, paid for, and under construction.

The third thing John points out is that the choices we make have consequences. Those who choose wickedness will be found out and dealt with. Those who make good and honorable choices will be vindicated. God knows his saints and embraces them.
Fourthly, justice belongs to God. We are called to be just; we are called to confess our sins and offenses and to make reparations for the evil we do (and being creatures of this mortal world, we definitely do bad things at times); we are called to amend our lives, to love God, neighbor, and self as fully as humanly possible; and we are called to challenge injustices whenever and wherever we see or experience them.

But that leads me to a fifth and final point: a warning. God is God and we are not. We run a grave risk when we read the Book of Revelation and presume ourselves solely to be among the saints – innocent souls surrounding God in glory. That IS us, to be sure.

But the story is incomplete and incomprehensible unless we also take time to stand in the shoes and sandals of the other characters – and tremble.

Maybe you don’t really consider yourself an oppressor, or think yourself filled with malice or violence, but unless you at least ask the question, you cannot truly know yourself.

Revelation is a mirror reflecting the human condition in all its Ugh-liness.

In that reality, though, a gift is revealed: God does not reject us for the imperfections we strive to hide, but embraces us for the beauty of who we are IN him. It is God who cleanses, beautifies, and heals.

There’s a knock at the door; what say we open it and have a look-see.

We may well discover that God’s desire is to reveal himself to us and us to him in this, our world. What power; Wow!