Saturday, October 29, 2011

All Hallows' Eve

As morning dawns and evening fades / You inspire songs of praise / That rise from earth to touch Your heart / And glorify Your name … Paul Baloche

As we approach Halloween on Monday, it seems to be a good time to stop and think about the saints in our lives.

I know … the focus of Halloween seems to be on the tricks and treats, stories of witches and goblins, ghosties, beasties, and things that go bump in the night; that’s a shame.

It IS an opportunity for those who need a reason to party a night to party; it DOES give vandals a night to vandalize; it CAN give people of all persuasions a night to dress funny and find ways to act silly.

It is also, quite often, a delightful night for people who take time to approach it with a bit of care and kindliness. It’s a bonding time for parents as they walk the streets hand-in-hand with their children, getting acquainted with and greeting neighbors they may or may not even really know.

Halloween, as such, can be a bit magical.

Certainly, it brings back fond memories of my childhood; of Mom’s creative and handcrafted costumes for my brother, sisters, and me.

It brings back memories of our daughter always wanting to dress up as a pumpkin on Halloween, or our son as a mean biker – and the cries of neighborhood angels and demons alike screaming, “Trick or Treat” followed by the less exuberant “Thank yous” parents made them say.

Yes, I do have fond memories of Halloweens past – that is true. But I find myself drawn more to the forgotten day; the day that follows: the Feast of All Saints.

There was a day and a time when folks would close up shop and flock to church on the Feast of All Hallows – or All Hallows’ Eve – and offer thanks to God for the lives of those who had “gone before.”

They would celebrate the lives of the major saints, of course: “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.”

They would remember the martyrs – those put to death – for speaking out and daring to confront evil powers they saw corrupting and destroying the creatures of God; they would celebrate the lives of those who had founded churches for worship, hospitals for healing, and schools for learning.

But as glorious as those saints are – those Capital “S” saints (like Sts. Mary and Joseph, Sts. Peter and Paul, Sts. Dorothy and Toto) – more important are the little “s” saints who have impacted our lives. Those are the ones I think about on All Hallows Eve and on All Hallows Day.

Parenthetically, there is a St. Dorothy, but I don’t think Toto ever made the grade (although word has it he was quite good as a dogmatist).

Anyway, if Halloween has any power, I think it is the capacity to poke fun at the devil. It doesn’t underscore the strength of Satan, but warns against the foolishness of those who would dare try to steal or abuse the souls of those who belong to God.

Halloween is a day pointing to those who helped us become more like the people God wants us to be; those who helped us make wise decisions, or who brought us comfort when we were ill, or who stood beside us, even when we behaved stupidly. Those are the saints I think about.

The good news is that saints don’t have to be dead to be remembered. On the contrary, the beauty of living saints is that one can take a moment to call, write, or visit and let them know how they’ve touched his or her life.

The irony of this Age is that most saints don’t know they’re saints. They’re just schlubs like us, doing what they can to do what’s right, making their corner of the world just a little brighter, and praying that Jesus will remember them when he comes into his kingdom.

I want you all to know: the Lord does!

All we’ve got to do is dress up, show up, and BE the saints we are. We’re God’s treats for this, our valley; that’s God’s best trick yet!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

God our Refuge

Original Image found at:

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. – Psalm 90

I have been thinking about God as “our refuge” lately. More particularly, I have been thinking about our human need for refuge, and how “needing refuge” would make us “refugees” by definition.

What is it like to be a refugee?

The first image that comes to mind is that of women and children trudging along a hot dusty road with meager possessions tucked under their arms or strapped to their backs. They are usually not going anywhere good, but simply fleeing from that which is intolerably bad: war, famine, disease, and death.

Having that image in mind, I don’t feel much like a refugee. I’m not facing hunger; I’m not facing anything worse than minor age-related aches and pains (and an occasional sniffle); there are no gangs of armed thugs roaming through the neighborhood seeking whom to pillage, plunder, and violate; so why should I seek refuge? Why should I look to God for help? Life’s good!

The Bible tells us that we humans have a problem. Looking, we do not see; and listening, we do not hear.

In our local communities, we are often unaware of needs surrounding us; oblivious to the predicaments friends and family may be facing; ignorant of just how desperate many may truly be.

I am not referring to the state of the economy (although that is none too good); I am not referencing the state of our political processes (although they do cause one rightly to pause); nor am I reflecting on climate change, a crumbling infrastructure, or environmental matters too vast to explore in this modest place and space.

No, I am thinking about how God sees us, and just how weary God must be at times. Consider the prayer of Moses, “You sweep people away like dreams that disappear … we wither beneath your anger; we are overwhelmed by your fury … You spread out our sins … and you see them all …”

In this day and age of self-help books by the ton, this age of Zig Ziglar styled “we can do anything we put our minds to” mentality, for what do we need God? Why should we care?

We say that God is love – and so God is – and yet how do we repay that love?

We use and abuse creation, sneering at those who ask us to conserve for future generations; we use and abuse one another, spreading lies about those we hate, and ignoring those for whom caring would cost or inconvenience us; and we use and abuse our very own selves, hoarding trinkets and treasures and anything else that may keep us from looking in the mirror to see who we truly are, or what we’ve really made of our lives.

We say that God is light – and so God is – and yet what do we do in the face of God’s light?

We skitter toward the shadows and hide in our closets. Why?

For the same reason Adam and Eve hid themselves – shame. We don’t want God to know how far we’ve fallen or how low we’ve gone; we don’t want him to realize that we’ve not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; nor our neighbor as ourselves (as if God could be fooled by the fig leaves we wear).

So we are refugees. We flee from our enemies (war, famine, pestilence, and death); we flee from our thoughts and ideas, and from things done and left undone; we flee, most of all, from God.

Does God seek to destroy us? Do we deserve to be in the ark with Noah more than to be treading water with his neighbors? I don’t know. Ego says I belong with Noah, but shame would have me flee from the wrath to come.

So what shall we do? Perhaps God has not built a wall, an electric fence posted “This will kill you,” but a gate through which we may enter by the grace of God’s love – refugees all in this, God’s world.

Coming into this world with nothing, we stand before God with nothing; from age to age, God’s our refuge, and that’s enough.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Be not afraid, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41

Last week we started talking about anxiety.

I was going to say “we live in anxious times,” but I don’t believe there’s ever been an age where anxiety wasn’t present in one form or another. In the time of the hunter-gatherer, one had to follow the herds and continue moving to keep up with a shifting food supply. As people settled down and began farming, they had to deal with marauding bands of thieves and thugs, as well as alternating periods of weal and woe, or feast and famine.

It seems the only certain thing in life is life’s uncertainty. It is no wonder we need to learn techniques for calming down, relaxing, and decompressing on occasion. Our responsive reflexes, designed for survival, are working overtime as we fret over paying bills, finding jobs, and keeping homes.

One fellow I spoke with the other day said he struggles to make ends meet, even though he has a million dollar home. His clothing suggested he might be stretching the truth, but he wasn’t. The bridge beneath which he lived cost at least a million dollars to build!

It was no laughing matter, of course, as it really wasn’t his home – at least not his alone. He shared that space with his two young children and has finally gotten into subsidized housing – thank God!

He had been involved in a traffic accident several years back and suffered brain injuries that left him unemployable; his wife abandoned the family and life quickly ate up what little he had been able to save before the accident; but he is happy, because now he has an apartment, an address, a home, and school for his children.

He says he is happy because he now has a home, and having a place to live for one’s children has GOT to be a major source of relief, and yet I think he misses an important element in his happiness. It isn’t the home or even the kids, but having a resolution to the problem that has given him some relief.

He has a sense of hope, and I think it is that hope that has given him strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible challenges that still lie before him.

It is generally helpful to deal with nervousness and anxiety by shifting one’s focus from one’s problems and looking at solutions instead.

It is like driving. When one is driving and attending to text messages, one is more likely to have an accident. Studies show that distracted driving is as bad as drunk driving. People who believe they can multi-task effectively are delusional.

Likewise, when a driver turns his or her head to look at something on the side of the road, the vehicle will begin to turn into the direction they’re looking. It isn’t a conscious thing but sub-conscious. The body wants to go where the eyes are looking.

So it is with anxiety; what one wants to do is identify the source of the anxiety (such as the loss of a job) and begin identifying solutions and options. Do some brain storming. Write down all the options that occur to you – sane and insane ideas as well.

Stress limits our vision, but writing down thoughts and ideas (without debating their merits or challenging them) allows one to have a level of freedom that produces chemicals (endorphins) that promote a sense of well-being. It is having a sense of well-being that helps a person relax and start finding solutions to those matters that are troubling them.

God created us; in the image of God, we are creative. We need to find better and healthier ways to explore our creative side, for that will continue the flow of energy that strengthens and empowers us. Helping others is another way to identify constructive ideas, and develop positive plans and a brighter future for not only ourselves, but for others.

It is what enables us to join God in overcoming fear and reducing those things which may dismay and overwhelm us. Hope’s a great stress reliever, and it’s worth the effort in this, our world.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Relief is a Brief Breath Away

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest. – John Michael Talbot

When Moses was delayed in coming down off the mountain (he was spending time with God, don’t you know), the people down in the valley got bored. At first they were restless (waiting is always hard to do – are we there yet?); and then they were a bit concerned for his safety (Moses was in his eighties at this time, and climbing around that rugged peak had to be a bit of a challenge for him); and finally they gave up on his returning to them at all.

When we’re bored, bad things happen. I’m not talking about stuff happening around us. Life goes on and takes place whether we’re here or not. No, what I’m talking about are the things we start thinking about and doing in our boredom.

The children of Israel were restless. They were anxious, and when one is anxious, one’s imagination has a capacity to run wild. Moses was gone, the people had no idea what had become of him, and so they figured they would take matters in their own hand – uh oh.

They had plundered Egypt; they had taken off with lots of gold and silver knick-knacks and jewelry – so they figured they would convert their gold into gods (for: In Gold we Trust; and Gold Saves, they reasoned).

Their answer was to charge and barge; but God’s response was simply: Idol hands are the devil’s workshop (pun intended).

What do you do when you are anxious? People look for ways to reduce their anxiety. Nerves are heightened, so they scratch imaginary itches; sounds are magnified and transformed into lurking monsters; or they scurry from window to window looking to see what’s out there.

Instead of making a golden calf as asked by the people, Aaron would have been better off taking a moment to gather his thoughts – rather than stepping forward to gather their gold and do their bidding. He might have found a solution for the restless souls around him – a solution that would have been more appropriate.

When nerves are frayed and on edge, I have found that there are several things one can do to help bring relief to the moment.

The first step is to recognize that feelings are temporary and transitory.

When I stopped smoking, I did it slowly over time. I figured I picked up the habit one cigarette at a time, and the best way to quit was the same way. When I had an urge to smoke, I would wait five minutes. If the urge remained, I would have one, and then put it out sooner than was my custom. I discovered the urge would often pass if given five minutes, and so I was able to go longer and longer between cigarettes.

When feeling anxious, one can use the same techniques to overcome discomfort that smokers and addicts use to overcome their urges.

So the first step is to stop.

Realize that it takes the body time to adjust the chemicals the mind produces (anxiety is a by-product of chemical processes taking place between mind and body), so stop.

Take a five minute time-out; find a place where you can close your eyes and do nothing more than breathe quietly, calmly, and intentionally. Count slowly to three while you inhale, and again to three as you exhale.

Counting diverts your attention from what’s bothering you; the pace promotes a reduction in heart-rate; and being intentional returns a sense of control to self, building confidence and reducing stress. Note: Don’t do this while driving; pull over first!

It is amazing that breathing is amongst the most natural things we do as human beings, and is one of the first things we are all taught to do when stressed out, and yet it is the hardest thing to remember to do when facing a crisis of the body, mind, or spirit; but, as the bible tells us, we humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139), so breathe!

Because we live in a world where there is so much to stress and fret about, next week we’ll look at some other techniques God has provided to bring us peace, joy, and happiness in this, our world – No gold required!