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Naomi’s Bitterness

bitternessOnce again, I am visiting the book of Ruth. I know this story well, having performed a one woman show for several years as the character of Ruth. But now, as I approach the latter part of my own life, I am more drawn to Naomi’s role.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara,because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” [Ruth 1:20-21a, NIV]

I have many besetting sins, as we all do, but one of the most tenacious sins is disappointment. That’s right, I call it a sin. It is my warning bell, for out of it I have seen full blown bitterness grow. Disappointment fans the flames of bitterness.

NaomiNaomi had a good life. She had the security of a husband and two sons who would care for her in her old age. When famine struck their land, the family traveled to a neighboring country to start over. Even though they had lost much in the famine, they were still a family. She could endure as long as they were together. But of course, that was not how it turned out at all. Instead, her husband died. And although she had her boys and their new wives, within ten years, the sons died as well. How could this be? All of her dreams and hopes were crushed. There were not even grandchildren to hold the family together. There was no family at all. She sent the widowed daughters away.

Despite the loyalty of Ruth, who traveled with her, Naomi lost hope. (In fact, I could imagine Naomi considered Ruth, a Moabitess after all–a foreigner, nothing but another stone around her neck.) Naomi’s deep disappointment in the outcomes of her life drove her into sorrow, grief, even despair and from those, she blundered into a growing bitterness and resentment toward God who she believed took everything away.

I can’t say my life ever hit such a deep abyss. Besides, I live in a country and in an era where women can be resilient, self-sufficient even. I am not at the complete mercy of a patriarchal society as Middle Eastern women were of that day (and some still).

And yet I have battled with my God. As a long-time believer, I imagined my life would turn out differently. I thought my aspirations had the power of God behind them. But, as the road branched and turned and twisted, I found myself continually looking back, wondering what would have been if I had chosen the other way, had I not married at eighteen or divorced five years later, if I had graduated from college in Indiana instead of Illinois, if I had not gone to New York, if I had not returned home to Indianapolis with my tail between my legs, if I had not married again and moved to Atlanta, if I had not been barren, and so on and on and on.

Oh foolish woman I know. To bemoan the loss of what could have been and not revel in what is.

disappointmentToday and tomorrow are still a wonder if I allow them to be. I am ashamed of my bouts of disappointment for they are nothing but unproductive. Disappointment prevents growth in a good way. It interferes with gratitude. And worst of all, disappointment presumes I know the better way, that my ideas of who I was to become or what I was meant to do or how my life should have unfolded were mine alone. But I surrendered that right the day I accepted the Christ spirit. In theory at least.

But surrender to the little life I have rather than the bigger life I aspired to is not always easy. Most of those dreams were self-aggrandizing. In those dreams, I was still the center of the universe.

Naomi could only see her crumbling world, she could could not see the bigger picture. We all have a bigger picture which is why it is so important to trust God in every turn of life, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is the believer’s vow to Christ. This mantra can stave off disappointment.

Through Naomi’s daughter-in-law, a child was conceived by Boaz, and the line was preserved. One of the greatest leaders was born as a result, King David, who set in motion the fulfillment of long-time prophecies of a Messiah for the world. That was Naomi’s big picture.

 

Samson’s Secret

Painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927)

Painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927)

Samson had everything he needed to serve and lead. He was called from childhood, from the day he was born. He was a Nazirite: dedicated to God. But these gifts made him prideful. He lost sight of the true source of his strength.

“Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah. The rulers of the Philistines confronted her and said to her, ‘Seduce him and find out what gives him such great strength and what we can do to overpower him.’ . . . “ [CEB, Judges 16:4-7a]

Did Samson make a mistake falling in love with the “wrong” woman? Apparently women were his weakness even more than his hair.

Delilah wasn’t the first time a woman betrayed him. Read Judges 14 where his Philistine wife [unnamed] beguiled him for the answer to a wedding riddle and told her relatives. That treachery ended badly with Samson taking revenge both in killing thirty random Philistine men and later destroying a number of his enemies’ fields and crops. The Philistines feared and hated Samson. And yet for the next twenty years, he continued to win victories with his strength alone.

Then Delilah, yet another Philistine woman, came into the picture. Her village elders offered her great sums of money for the secret of Samson’s strength. And so she double crossed Samson. Why couldn’t he see what she was doing? Why couldn’t he remember how it went the first time? Did he actually trust Delilah? I don’t think so. Pride consumed him. He could not imagine that God would allow him to be defeated. That lesson came hard when he was taken, blinded, and put to labor in prison, reduced to a stock animal grinding grain. He told Delilah the “secret” of his strength. But really, the secret was the hand of God. The hair was a symbol of the covenant.

Do I know the real secret? Or I have I fallen into Samson’s folly?

God has given us all gifts, strengths, and abilities. Certainly, God has given much to me but I take most of it for granted: my comfortable life, my health, my stage presence, my writing, my adopted children, my energy, my passion and enthusiasm, my long-standing marriage, my home, my job, my church; the list goes on and on. I am too comfortable I think. My gifts have become a norm like Samson’s long hair. As a result, I have lost my vision and gratitude for them and their purpose in my life.

Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” [Luke 12:48b]

Art by Cheryl Ward

Art by Cheryl Ward

Forgive me O God, for I have sinned in my plenty, fearful of less, but holding on too tightly to the cornucopia.

I remember, back in the high days of the Toronto Blessing (1994) when people were “catching the fire” and manifesting all kinds of strange behaviors (of course, lives were changed as well – I have no bone to pick with that revival experience), one of the popular phrases/prayers was to say, “more” Lord. They were asking for more of God, I know, but looking back, it also feels a bit narcissistic: give “me” more, touch my life, etc.  I suppose the ideal would be that God would give me more so that I might give others more. But I don’t see myself following through on such an arrangement. At least, not so far. There was a time I longed to be used of God in some miraculous way, as a conduit for healing or prophesying or wisdom . But I’m thinking, for the few who gained great popularity in those arenas, most of them went the way of Samson. With great power comes great temptation.

No, I don’t want that either.

I just want to be true to the Presence of God in me, to hold my hands and heart open, to speak truth, to forgive freely, to look and listen without comparing people to myself or to one another, to accept now with gratitude and pray for tomorrow with confident anticipation because God is sovereign. I don’t need to wait for my hair to grow long or my days to number into the seventies or eighties. Samson didn’t need to wait either. It just took him that long to figure it out.

Let this reveal have legs, Lord, and roots. Nourish my soul with your Breath. Today and always.

 

 

 

 

Lead by Example

lead by exampleIs this cultural or simply part of human DNA? We seem to continually repeat our mistakes over and over again. And unfortunately, I see this both on a national and international level as well as in my own micro-world.

When that whole generation had passed away, another generation came after them who didn’t know the Lord or the things that he had done for Israel. . . . [And] then when the leader died, they would once again act in ways that weren’t as good as their ancestors’, going after other gods, to serve them and to worship them. They wouldn’t drop their bad practices or hardheaded ways. [Judges 2:10, 19, CEB]

The learnings from one generation to another are not happening. Parents are not telling or did not tell their children about the work of God in their lives in an authentic way; instead, they pass this job to Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Weeks. In my mind, not only do we fail to tell the Bible stories, we a) water them down to make them PG and b) we don’t personalize them. Every story has a message for humanity. Every story has a message for me and my family. The Bible is not Disney World.

Miracles require effort and devotion, faith and trust. They require accessibility and openness.

I know some people have disagreed with me about telling our children about my past, particularly the darker side, but I have always felt  it was important for them to know that I am a different person today because of my faith, and that essentially, my lifestyle before Christ would have led very quickly to illness and death.

But I also think about our church and how we depend so heavily on our charismatic pastor and we are not raising up leaders to serve with him so that we don’t follow the footsteps of the Israelites who only succeeded while a particular leader was in place. It is everyone’s responsibility to tell the story, to walk the walk, to lead and train and grow. As the pastor tells his story, we must also tell our own.

authenticityOne of the ways to do this is mentoring (or discipleship). I have generally avoided this practice because it sounds so daunting, to take on a tenderfoot on the journey, to help someone else grow, to embrace him/her as family. I’m already struggling with my own adult children after all, how can I take on another, and what if I fail? But here’s the truth: all I have to do is “bring them along” when I go and do. I can’t pretend to be more than I am (nor should I assume I am less). New believers learn by being around old believers. New leaders step up when they watch old leaders in every day life, every day challenges, every day decisions, every day blunders.

Jesus didn’t turn on the leadership persona or the faith role just when the disciples were around. He lived and breathed what he knew. He healed because he could. He told stories because they meant something to him. He expressed mercy and grace because that was part of his genetic code.

We do not have to be infallible to demonstrate love and grace. In fact, authenticity goes farther. Mistakes confessed give hope to those who believe they are not worthy or that they are “too late” to change or that they can’t change. Our frailty revealed is courage demonstrated.

Generations ahead are depending on us now.

 

 

Promises Fulfilled

promises of GodJust a quick look in Google yields a number of websites people have created to lay out a full list of the promises of Christ, primarily based on things Jesus said, such as John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” [Of course, that verse seems to be a combination verse, a promise and a consequence. Or are they the same?]

Near the end of the book of Joshua, it is written,The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. [Joshua 21:44-45, NIV] Most of these promises dealt with the land and conquering the pagan peoples who lived in those lands. All was fulfilled in that time. But we know how the story goes; not long afterward, the people jettisoned the plan and the covenant once Joshua passed and the last of the generation that saw God’s miracle-working power from Egypt to the promised land.

We are no different.

The words are still out there for us to embrace. The promises are still real and concrete. But we hedge our way, like the story of Eve and serpent, we hear these words instead, “Did God really say . . . ?” [Genesis 3:1b] Really? Did God promise this or that? Did Jesus really mean . . . isn’t it more likely that . . . ” And on and on and on we go, further afield of the simplicity of the gospel, either making it too complicated or too simplistic and in both cases, opening a door for doubt and confusion.

Today, I read on Facebook of a woman who was struggling with someone who questioned the “race” of Jesus. Was he white? Was he black? And so on. Is this a worthwhile discussion? Does it do anything for our faith? Or, is it just a surface issue that bypasses the central truth? Also today, I attended a funeral of a 19 year old daughter of a family friend and my own adult daughter was surprised how the young woman in the coffin did not really resemble the girl she knew. I had to remind Lily, the body is but a shell and it is the Spirit that gives the human body dynamics and life. Hannah was no longer there.

Painting by Jonas Gerard

Painting by Jonas Gerard

So it is with all things of God. The promises of God may appear to be about outer things, land and so on, but in reality, they are about the inner truth, the inner person, the relationship between my “self” and the God who lives in us through Christ. God’s promises are about eternity and living outside and beyond the body, the truly promised land. The enemies we face are the challenges of 3-D life: sin and selfishness, distrust and fear, evil from without determined to destroy the good within.

If only we . . . well, I can’t speak for you . . . if only I could engage fully in the truth of the fulfilled promise. It’s all done, completed from the day of Joshua to the day of Jesus, also a Joshua, who fought for my salvation and won. It is finished.

futurepicThere are many roads we take in life and it’s best to understand from the beginning, those roads cannot be traversed again in reverse. They are one-way streets. Thus saith the Lord.

” . . . because the Lord told you: “You will never go back by that road again.” [Deuteronomy 17:16b]

I hadn’t really thought about this before but it’s meaning jumped from the page. We may think, like the old adage that were are going “two steps back and one step forward” or we might assume, that one could “backslide” and fall into old bad habits or old friends or old situations. But the truth is that time marches only forward in our human world. And no experience can be repeated in the same way because we are already older because of it.

My adopted Russian daughter often bemoans her inability to return to her native land to see the city of her grandmother and the places where she played as a child. But those places are long gone already, trees that embraced climbing children have been cut down and woods replaced with roads and bridges. That world is gone. Nor will her St. Petersburg ghetto look the same, even if the buildings are still there, she would not be able to see them with the same eyes of childhood.

I, too, experienced this throwback when I traveled to Indianapolis last week for a conference. I walked the old streets, once known for danger and poverty, now filled with brightly colored “painted ladies” and signs announcing the charms of living on the “Near Northside.”

lines_hold_the_memories_by_agnes_cecile-d38y67i

Lines Hold the Memories by Agnes Cecile.

All we have is memories and they are capricious at best, unreliable and re-framed by the world that came afterwards. We color our memories because we have to or because we don’t really remember. We forget on purpose then or we pick through the images most vividly repeatedly in the time capsule we assign to reruns.

Like Robert Frost, we pick our roads as best we can, based on what we know in the moment, on that day. We pick and we walk and sometimes we look back, maybe even run back to try another, but the intersection is no longer the same, the circumstances that added up to that choice have changed.

There is no point either, crying over what has been lost, for we’ll never know exactly what that “would” have been or “could” have been. We only have today, or now, and tomorrow.

Evil sometimes tries to re-write the past to serve its purposes for the moment; that being done by both evil regimes, governments or dictatorships as well as personal evil presence and people. Those false memories have only as much power as we choose to give them.

And so it is, for this reason, that I am grateful for a faith rooted in the God of “new creation” [2 Corinthians 5:17], of redemption and forgiveness. The Christ, who brings hope and renewal. Yesterday cannot be relived but the influence and even catastrophic scars can be absorbed and although the past is not rewritten, it’s power can be mitigated and softened. We don’t need the details of back then. We need trust in what will be and can be.

We are given the gift of possibility through the redeeming work of Christ Jesus. This I believe.

cross with notesYesterday at our Ash Wednesday services, the people were invited to write on a post-it note and stick it to the cross on their way up to communion and ashes. They could put whatever they wanted, but in general, the idea was to write something that might be hindering the way to the cross: a sin, a habit, an attitude.

At the end of the evening, we hadn’t really discussed how to handle the slips, but I felt they were important and so I gathered them up as gently as I could and carried them home. I wanted to pray over them, yes, but I confess, my analytical self was curious. What had people written to Christ. What had they asked about. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from these confessions for many mirrored my own: there is nothing new under the sun.

yokeIs not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke? [Isaiah 58:6]

We are all hoping to be set free from the yokes that bind us, the repetitive scripts in our heads, the damaging attitudes that habitually frame our responses.

Naturally, there were notes that rendered their sins of the flesh as getting in the way of their journey to the cross and there were individuals named specifically or by relationship: mother, father, mother-in-law, son, daughter, and so forth. But most of the words that were placed on that cross, that symbolic torture chamber, came from within.

Anger was repeated over and over and over again. Unforgiveness came next.

I can almost hear the cry of the heart saying, how do I find you Jesus when my mind and heart are filled with such rage, when I can only playback the injustice or the betrayal or the damage done to me.

anger-blocks-a-miracleLast week, I was in a workshop in which the facilitator reminded us that there are four primary emotions: Fear, Joy, Sadness and, of course, Anger. And really, I’m guessing that unforgiveness is rooted in anger.

The good news is that no anger is greater than God’s love. That sounds cliche and yet it’s true. People seem to think that their emotions are stronger than anything anyone else can handle. I remember being in a counseling session and telling the therapist that felt as though I would explode, literally. Of course, I didn’t and couldn’t. How often has a person said, “If I start crying, I’ll never stop.” Again, not true. And so it is with anger. It will not win. Love wins.

Lent begins in earnest today. Was I angry today? I was. Did I harbor a grudge or two or pull up an old exasperation about some behavior or another by this or that family member? I did. I see that. Now what?

Confess, accept, move on. Wash me Jesus in the water of grace.

ash-wednesdayTonight our church entered Lent with two Ash Wednesday services. One of the themes was “keys” and how we can use those keys to unlock those places hidden away inside our hearts.

Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heartand not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. [Joel 2:12-13]

We mark the beginning of Lent with this day. It can become a mere ritual of ashes, bread, and wine, or it can be enriched with commitment and desire. Do I want more of God in my life? Do I want to surrender the secret places?

Lent is not just a time of “giving something up.” It’s a time of exchange. I will to exchange one time sucker, one habit, for something new, for devotion, for meditation, for prayer, for reading, for conversation with Spirit. I not taking away. I am adding. I am making a promise. That is the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent for me.

One of the stations we had was a cross where we could affix a simple post-it note with something (or someone) that is hindering our journey to the Cross. This roadblock we gave to Christ. As one of the organizers of the Ash Wednesday service, I feel compelled to treat these requests with respect. And so, as part of my devotion, I will be praying over and with these requests along with those who left them there. I will be their Aaron for these 40 days, as God reveals.

 

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