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Archive for the ‘Ordinary Time’ Category

head in the sandHow often do we blame someone else for our situation? In the extreme, it’s a victim mentality, but in small doses, it’s a type of laziness. If it’s not my fault, I don’t have to do anything about it. I also call it a “head in the sand” approach to life.

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?”
Elijah answered, “I haven’t troubled Israel; you and your father’s house have! You did as much when you deserted the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals. [I Kings 18: 17-18, CEB]

A young friend of mine demonstrated the extent to which blame can be stretched. Apparently, he had checked out a video game from the library and lost it or misplaced it or loaned it to someone else (I don’t really know the details). Since I work at the library, I know how these things work: a series of emails or texts or phone calls go out to the patron alerting them to a potential fine. At some point, the item is coded as lost and the patron’s cost jumps from a fine to a full replacement cost of the item (this takes several we reached my friend for his lost video game. He was livid at the cost: $75! And the next statement? It’s all that librarian’s fault for making me get a library card. His anger justified because it wasn’t his fault. He’s not the first library user to blame staff for fines and fees.

A more egregious example happened to my own daughter, who we adopted at fifteen and assumed she was an orphan since we had death certificates on both of her parents. Instead, it turned out the birth mother had hit the skids and lost all of her identity papers and did not surface again until some two years after our teen was adopted. And of all things, it was on Russian Facebook that they found one another. But instead of joy of discovery, the mother blamed our daughter for her losses and literally said, “If you hadn’t left, none of this would have happened.”

blameThese stories sound outrageous but are we any better? Am I? How many times have I kicked a chair after I ran into it or cursed a tree limb that connected with my head or bad talked the bank when my check bounced? And of course, while driving, it’s always the other guy!

The first step in changing the rules of the blame game is to identify the moment. If I can catch myself (that means close my mouth before the words come out), I might even be able to stem off the worst of it. And only then do I have even a hair’s breath of chance to figure out why I am passing the buck. Am I afraid of how I will be perceived by others? Do I feel that taking responsibility will diminish me? Does it make me feel better to shift the blame to another person?

In and of itself, the word “blame” has a negative connotation. It carries accusation and condemnation. Just the word alone feels like a burden. And I’m thinking that’s the problem. Instead of shifting the blame, it may be that the paradoxical Christian thing would be to simply accept responsibility (when true) and give God a chance to work with the truth.

Taking responsibility when we err is no fun, but its merits outweigh the negatives in the long run. It’s part of the learning curve and character building. I am not encouraging anyone to become a scapegoat or to become a martyr, taking the weight of guilt when it’s not ours to take. But when our own mistakes and choices bring consequences, then we must confess that truth to ourselves first and thereby invoke the power of the Holy Spirit to bear it and eventually change.

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Photo by Irm Brown

Photo by Irm Brown

So simple really, how else would the weak find traction? God is the great equalizer.

Then Asa cried out to the Lord his God, “Lord, only you can help the weak against the powerful.Help us, Lord our God, because we rely on you. . . [2 Chronicles 14:11a]

Unfortunately, the strong forget their own need for God. They rely on themselves. And eventually, the mighty fall. Sometimes, in their pride, the strong give assistance to the weak, but it is always measured, to keep the weak in their place. Or worse, the gifts are not particularly useful or what is actually needed.

When I was in Africa on a mission trip, we visited one of the poorest villages that was created on a portion of land owned by a wealthy landowner for the families of the men who worked his land. They were reminiscent of slave quarters, but African style with dirt floors and huts and water a football field away that had to be carried daily by the women and children. They were fortunate to have a place to live but nothing more. From the landowner’s perspective, he had been generous, but it was a measured generosity. That was bad enough but while there, among the partially clothed children was a little girl who wore a torn and tattered party dress, clearly, a gift from a well-meaning westerner who had sent used clothing to the poor. The girl probably loved that dress, but what was the donor thinking? Again, a misplaced generosity.

If the strong want to help the weak, they must enter the life of the weak. So did our Jesus serve humanity. So did Mother Teresa in India  and Jackie Pullinger in China.

 

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adviceIf you ask for advice, you still have to decide whose advice you will take. And if the advice is contrary, you are no better off than you were in the first place. Choose our counselors wisely.

[Israelites spoke to Rehoboam, Solomon's son] Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” . . . Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon  . . . They replied, “If you will be kind to these people and please them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”  But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. [I Chronicles 10:4, 6a, 7-8]

I can be terrible about making decisions, particularly decisions that affect others and not just me. I ask lots and lots of questions of people I know, supervisors and neighbors and friends and family, and often, every answer is different. I end up with information overload. And yet, Proverbs 15:22 states, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” So, it’s not the amount of advice that is the problem, but the counselors themselves.

Who do I trust and why? My tendency might be to get frustrated and cast off all the advice and all the counselors and simply go my own way. Or, perhaps I’m kidding myself and I know which way I want to go and I’m simply asking enough people to get the one advice that matches my own private decision.

But there are some hints in the story of Rehoboam and his advisers. First of all, the first advisers were older and had already spent many years advising King Solomon. He was, overall, a very successful king. And secondly, the key to their advice was that responding their way would create loyalty and good will. Rehoboam was too young to realize how powerful loyalty can be. He wanted to appear strong and believed in the power of fear over the power of love and grace.

Leadership by fear is probably the worst kind.

So, the best advice in the face of a difficult decision? The paradoxical – what is best for the people the decision is affecting. That is the key. And of course, seek God’s counsel first. But I know too well, how hard it is to “hear God’s voice.” But if we pray before we ask a human counselor, we may discover the wisdom of God is speaking.

And I have to smile, just this week, my pastor said, “Two patients don’t equal a doctor.” Be sure that the advisor you seek has some counseling cred (experience).

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Art by Laurie Justus Pace

Art by Laurie Justus Pace

And this is the point, whether one believes or does not believe: God knows our hearts. God knows my heart. There is no sin I can craft in my head that is unknown, there is no good deed seed not watered. God is sovereign over the heart — the soul of humankind.

Forgive and act; deal with everyone according to all they do, since you know their hearts (for you alone know every human heart) . . . [I Kings 8:39b, NIV]

For this reason, when life circumstances challenge my way, there is only One who can truly help me or actually altar the course of my steps, transform the crushing press of deadlines and drama and duty, rally the troops of heaven on my behalf and, ultimately, on behalf of my loved ones.

Forgive me Spirit Father, Adonai. Forgive my stealthy forays into the world. Forgive my selfish ambition. Forgive my judgments of others. Forgive my callous eye. Relieve my fears. Strengthen my trust and resolve in You. Sustain my mindfulness that I might pray without ceasing.

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trustThe truth about trust is tricky. I mean, I have struggled with trust all my life. Sure, betrayal is a stumbling block to trust. But personal strength and intelligence can get in the way too. My mother taught me all the ways to combat trust: self-sufficiency, stick-to-it-tiveness, if you want it done right do it yourself, and so on. Trust requires a perpetual surrender.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence.” [Proverbs 3:5, CEB]

On Sunday, Pastor Jess Bousa, taught the message this way: to recognize the sovereignty of God, we must acknowledge God’s control of situations when things are “bad” and not just when things are going swell. After all, it’s easy to trust God when life is moving along sweetly and securely. It’s the tough times that call on the truth of our trust and faith in this One God.

One of his examples was II Kings 6:15 – 17, when Elisha’s servant feared the encampment of the vast army of the Arameans out to destroy the prophet. But Elisha could see what his servant could not, God’s army that encircled them all: the “second circle” that is God’s domain. This is the circle where trust is engaged. This is the circle where God operates, the bigger arena where our human strengths are worthless, where our intelligence can no longer figure things out, where our manipulations no longer have impact. Trust happens there.

Elisha prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to see that second circle.

I pray the same. For me.

And yet, I must remember this, unless I go through the chaos and clatter of life’s challenges, I will never get to see God’s power in my life. It’s a paradox of faith. I surrender this day. I must. I will to do it.

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Art by Lilis Boyer

Art by Lilis Boyer

The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) found its place in the Jewish canon by its sheer beauty and poetry. It is not really a complete piece at all, no matter how artfully publishers identify the man speaking or the woman speaking, it’s still just a series of fragments. We will never know the whole of it. And so it is about a fragment that I will respond.

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
        divine flame!
[Song of Songs 8:6, CEB]

And another, repeated twice in the book:
Make a solemn pledge,
        daughters of Jerusalem,
        never to rouse, never to arouse love
        until it desires. [Song of Solomon 2:7; 8:4, CEB]

Love is powerful force that has gotten washed out by dime store romances and flimsy chick flicks. It’s been downgraded by pornography and trivialized by teen angst. Even Valentine’s Day has played a part in corrupting its message. Purveyors of cheap love are laughing all the way to the bank.

When love is roused at the wrong time or at the wrong place, the power of it and the joy are sucked out of it. It is sex without love, masking the truth of it, manufacturing a feeling but it is not transformative love. But when the moment is right, when there is a mutual selflessness, when it is about the giving away of it moreso than the absorption of it, then the power of God can be unleashed. This I believe.

I know, there are different words for love in Greek, but in the Hebrew, both verses use the same feminine noun, ‘ahabah אַהֲבָה which can be translated as love: human love for a human object (man to man, man to himself, man to woman, sexual desire, and incidentally, God to man too).

And so I ask myself and all of us, is my love toward others with the same intent as God’s love?

God shows love to people over and over again whether its through grace or miracles or the sacrifice of the One Son, Jesus. God’s love is pours out without measure. Jesus taught, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” [Luke 6:38, NIV]

But no, not me. I confess, I am hungry to be loved more than to love. Lonely. Overwhelmed. Shaken by circumstances. Distanced by disappointment still. Hardened by losses, speaking into the wind.

I am no stronger than the one beside me. My years in Christ clear my vision and for this reason, I understand why the saints and desert fathers of old cried out, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Art by Cyra R. Cancel

Art by Cyra R. Cancel

Or why St. Francis wrote:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Let me know and give love as strong as death.

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stillbornI just finished reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken at the same time I read David and Bathsheba’s story of their own first child, who only lived seven days before dying as foretold by the prophet Nathan for David’s illicit with relationship with Bathsheba and ordering the death of her husband in battle. Both stories capture a view of grief we rarely see.

He [David] answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’  [II Samuel 12:22, NIV]

For McCracken, the newborn infant, nicknamed Pudding, was their first and neither she nor her husband broke any laws or treated Pudding with anything but ultra care: the right foods, the right rest, the right attitude. It was a pregnancy made in heaven. But then, near the end of her last trimester, Pudding stopped moving, at least it seemed so to her. Many thought she might be overreacting (they were living in France at the time), and she was sent home. However, by the next day, her own concern pressed the issue and she sidestepped her midwife and went to the doctor’s office where it was discovered that the child was, indeed, dead but McCracken would still have to bear this lifeless child into the world. The depth of her pain and anguish are laced throughout this slim volume.

Back in the day, when I was still performing my one woman show, Pente, one of the women in that quintet was Bathsheba because her story is minimized in scripture; her grief and loss are summarized in the single line, “Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and made love to her . . . ” [vs 24a] but I believe McCracken’s tale captures a more realistic picture of a mother’s heart and the depth of her pain.

But getting back to my selected scripture, it is intriguing to me that David, who knew that he had sinned and who knew that Nathan was a formidable prophet whose words always came true, pressed into the 7-day period of prayer and fasting and, undoubtedly, deep confession. As long as the child lived, David did not give up even the slightest sliver of hope. David could not change what he had done but he could surrender his helplessness to God, who could still change the outcome. God’s outcome is never fixed in time. And yet . . .

The child died.

And David could do nothing more than surrender again.

We have choices beforehand, before the inevitable happens. But once tragedy strikes, whether deserved or undeserved, we only have our response to God. The pain is still there but can be muted if we wrap it into the embrace of God. Grace lives.

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